This story has been updated. It was originally published on June 18, 2018.
There’s no such thing as perfect posture.
That’s according to Eric Robertson, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. He says that posture is a popular boogeyman—the presumed culprit for everything from back pain, to headaches, to the constriction of blood vessels, to fatigue. But in reality, he says, “People, in general, over-assign posture as the source of their medical conditions.” When it comes to posture and pain, “The research just hasn’t borne that out that there’s a strong correlation,” he says.
Of course, that doesn’t mean posture isn’t something to be conscious of or proactive about. It can cause health issues, although this happens much less frequently than people suppose. More often, bad posture is a symptom of an underlying problem, which your healthcare provider can often help you remedy.
Most people walk around with a vision of perfect posture in their head. Perhaps you picture Audrey Hepburn’s ballerina-like stance or the Brawny paper towel guy’s confident, even-shouldered pose. We form these ideas at a young age, as parents and teachers remind kids to stop slouching and stand up straight.
But, Robertson says, “perfect” posture isn’t possible. “Don’t just assume what you think is good posture is the position you should actually take,” he says. “Good posture for one person is not [good] posture for another person.” (In other words, Audrey Hepburn probably slouched, too.)
That doesn’t mean you can’t get help for your pain or perceived postural problems. It’s just that the solutions will probably be different than you imagined. When people come to Robertson for advice on improving their posture, he starts by making some simple observations. “I might look at someone and see their shoulders are rounded forward, or they have a forward-head posture,” he says. But no matter what he finds, he says, “I don’t just assume, ‘Oh their mother didn’t teach them right.’” Instead, he treats posture as a symptom and begins to search for an underlying cause.
Often, bad posture stems from muscular weakness, tightness, or spasms. If you don’t have the requisite strength in your shoulder girdle muscles, for example, it’s no wonder your shoulders tend to hunch forward. Being told to pull them back won’t work for long, as your muscles simply won’t be able to support the new position. Instead of criticizing, a physical therapist will use this information to create a regimen of exercises that strengthen the relevant muscles.
In some cases, Robertson says, problematic postural habits may contribute to future illness. While research suggests posture likely isn’t the source of your current pain, constantly straining your neck toward a computer screen, for example, can elongate the muscles in your neck over time. In some people, this might not cause any aches at all. But in others, it may eventually lead to more weakness, spasms, and discomfort.
“In general, the best approach to posture is to maintain strength, or improve strength where you’re weak,” Robertson says. Depending on your individual needs, your healthcare provider may suggest everything from running and weight training to special physical therapy exercises with a foam roller or resistance bands.
For people whose pain is severe, it might be time to reach out to a doctor. Your general practitioner can connect you with a physical therapist, or you can find one through the American Physical Therapy Association’s nationwide Find a PT database.
For people who are simply posture-conscious, or looking to make smaller improvements in their daily habits, Robertson says the key is enhancing your kinesthetic awareness—the understanding of where your body is in space. Exercise of any kind can help with this. And so can some common tools, like a lumbar support roll, which pushes your lower back slightly forward in your chair. While such devices are far from a cure-all, at the very least they remind you to think about how you’re sitting and the physical sensations your behavior is causing.
Most important, you’ll have to move. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with sitting at a desk, but the length of time you sit at a desk is perhaps problematic,” Robertson says. “The answer is to change your posture as often as you can.” Try setting a recurring computer reminder to stretch in your chair, take a lap around the office, or just breathe deeply for a moment. “Our bodies inherently like motion,” he says. “Any single posture—whether it’s perfect posture or not—won’t be good for you if you do it all day.”
Ultimately, pain is a sign that something is wrong in the body. If you experience it regularly, it might be time to reach out to a professional. But many of us falsely blame posture. Fortunately, we have the power to fix it. “Your body is strong and resilient,” Robertson says. “It just likes to move around.”