Working from home can ravage your spine, but good posture can help fix it

You’re quarantining to stay healthy—don’t let your posture sabotage that.
A woman working from home on the floor.

Posture can suffer while we work from home. Pexels

While working from home, we tend to throw all sense of workplace decorum out the window. It’s easy to let yourself get into a slump—literally and figuratively. But even in quarantine (especially in quarantine), it’s super important to take care of your body, and posture plays a big role in physical health. So why is it so hard to sit up straight and so easy to slouch?

To explain that, we’ll have to understand what posture is in the first place. Posture generally refers to how you hold your body. Good posture, sometimes called “neutral spine,” is thought to be the optimal position that puts the least amount of stress on your body as you stand, sit, or sleep.

To achieve neutral spine, your head, shoulders, and hips should all be in line vertically when viewed from the side. Your spine should have three natural curves: a slight inward curvature of the neck, the upper back curved gently out, and the lower back curved gently in.

All of your skeletal muscles are involved with posture, but the most important ones are the core stabilizing muscles around your abdomen, pelvis and back. When those muscles are nice and strong, good posture is much easier to maintain. But periods of slouching can weaken those muscles, and wrongly strengthen others, making it much harder to stand tall. Then, when it comes to correcting your posture, it feels like a workout because you’re trying to re-strengthen those muscles you’ve neglected.

“Your body and your muscles are like clay: whatever position you hold them in, they will mold into,” says Rudy Gehrman, a chiropractor and the CEO of Physio Logic, a New York City-based physical wellness center. “If you keep pressing on a little sapling tree in a certain direction, then it’s going to grow in that direction.” So as we lean over our laptops, our muscles morph to fit that shape. And this bad posture is more than a bad habit—it has real physical consequences.

If you recall your high school biology lessons, you’ll remember that your spinal cord is part of your central nervous system. It’s the highway of neurons that connects your body to your brain. Bad posture contorts the spine and adds undue pressure, creating an accumulation of micro-injuries that can affect a person’s health and mood. For example, research has long associated bad posture with sports injuries like ankle injuries or pulled muscles and hamstrings, and also with slower recovery time from those injuries. However, even if you’re just sitting on your couch at home, bad posture can injure you. A 2013 study showed that bad, forward-leaning head posture worsened pre-existing pain, and correlated with more visits to the doctor.

Psychology studies show that people with slumped posture had more negative thoughts, remembered worse memories, and had a harder time recovering from bad moods. There is clear evidence that while people are working from home they’re spending more time online than in pre-pandemic days, but your screen time shouldn’t be a detriment to your health and mood.

Taking steps to correct posture can offer some tantalizing health benefits including reduced chronic pain and an easier time breathing. Plus, good posture can also benefit your mood and mental health. Studies have shown that good posture can boost self-esteem, mitigate and build resilience to stress, and even help alleviate depressive symptoms.

So how do you reap the benefits of good posture? Understanding what good posture is and then consciously correcting yourself on a regular basis is key to returning your spine to its optimal shape.

There’s growing evidence that the autonomic part of our nervous system, which is responsible for handling breathing and heart rate, is also largely responsible for how we hold our bodies. That means posture is likely regulated subconsciously—“except when your mom walks in and tells you, ‘sit up straight,’ then it becomes conscious,” says Gehrman.

Gehrman says one of the worst habits for posture is bringing our bodies to technology rather than bringing technology to us. Most of the products we use were never designed to work for our anatomical health, like how laptops make us lean in and how we hunch over to look at our phones.

Creating a workspace that works for your body and your posture is key to a healthy spine. Arrange your tools in such a way so your body forms right angles when seated—your back is perpendicular to your thighs, but parallel to your shins. Then, lift your head up and don’t lean forward into your screen.

Fixing bad posture will be slow, but worth it. “It takes one to two months of being hyperconscious of posture to change your subconscious posture,” Gehrman says. To reach that two month mark of vigilant posture correction, get your friends and family involved and ask them to monitor your posture, or put little reminders on your phone.

Ultimately, good posture shows confidence and health. Those are good things to feel, especially in quarantine.