Your mother might have nagged you to stand up straight throughout your adolescence—but she was right to do so. Good posture and correct body alignment prevent excess strain on your joints, muscles, and spine, reducing pain and the chance of injury, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most people don’t sport ideal posture, says Mt. Sinai, NY-based Kristine McCarren, PT, DPT. And it can cause a world of hurt in the long-term
Here are six ways poor posture can affect your body—plus tips for how to improve your stance.
Poor posture strains the muscles at the back of your head, neck, upper back and jaw.
“The human head weighs about 10 pounds,” McCarren says. “Your cervical spine is designed to support this weight with its structure, alignment and surrounding musculature and soft tissue.”
When your muscles are pulled in directions other than their normal tension, this puts pressure on nearby nerves, triggering tension-type headaches, explains Alex Cadwallader, DPT, who practices at Linwood, NJ-based Coron Physical Therapy.
2. Jaw pain
Have you ever noticed that when you’re sitting at your desk, you roll your shoulders forward and your head slouches? Now your rear neck and shoulder muscles are sitting in a constant lengthened position, while your anterior neck and shoulder muscles are chronically shortened, McCarren says.
“Then, the muscles attached to your jaw’s bony structures become misaligned at rest and with movement, such as chewing, causing pain,” McCarren says.
When you open or close your mouth, you might also experience popping in your jaw’s temporomandibular joint (TMJ). “In addition to a dental evaluation, patients with TMJ disease can benefit from postural education and regular exercise to optimize muscle and soft tissue function,” McCarren says.
3. Back and neck pain
Poor posture commonly contributes to chronic back and neck pain, tightness or stiffness—and can reduce your quality of life.
In addition, belly fat increases pressure on your spine’s intervertebral discs and other bony regions. “Any time there’s altered mechanics in one section of the spine, the other regions must compensate,” Cadwallader says.
4. Knee, hip, and foot pain
Muscle weakness or tightness, limited flexibility, and poor alignment from your hips down might keep your kneecap from sliding neatly over your femur, according to the Mayo Clinic. What can result is a condition called patellofemoral pain, causing knee pain.
Poor foot and ankle alignment can also trigger plantar fasciitis, where the tissue connecting your heel to the ball of your foot gets inflamed and causes heel pain.
5. Shoulder pain and impingement
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons connecting your upper arm to your shoulder. Muscle tightness or weakness from poor posture can irritate these tendons, causing discomfort, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Your shoulder is made up of four joints, connected by 17 muscles,” McCarren says. “Many of these muscles become weak or tight with prolonged poor posture.” Ultimately, your rotator cuff tissue could tear. This can cause major pain and weakness, really impacting your daily activities.
6. Fatigue and breathing problems
Poor posture can restrict your rib cage, compressing your diaphragm. This reduces your lung capacity, leading to shallow or labored breathing, exhaustion, and lack of energy, which affects your overall productivity.
“Bad posture affects the intercostal muscles between each rib,” Cadwallader says. “Plus, rolled shoulders cause your shortened muscle fibers, which keeps your rib cage from fully expanding and affects your breathing.”
How to Improve Your Posture—Today
You can introduce smart posture habits right now, but unlearning years of bad habits may take work. “Because posture is usually a lifelong development, it’s very difficult to completely eradicate deficits,” Cadwallader says. “Hard work and dedication are the only true ways to improve posture.”
Keep these five tips in mind each day:
1. Walk Tall.
Take a breath in, rolling your shoulders up and back. Then, exhale, rolling your shoulders down.
2. Do posture checks throughout the day, especially at work.
At first, set a reminder on your phone for a quick check every 15 minutes, McCarren suggests. “Work from your head down: chin tucked back, shoulder blades down and back, abdominals drawn in, pelvis tilted into a neutral position, hips and knees at a 90 degree angle, and feet flat on the floor,” McCarren says.
3. Try seated pelvic tilts.
Sit on the edge of a chair, your hands on your thighs and feet on the floor. As you inhale, rock your pelvis and ribs forward as you expand your chest and look up. Then, exhale as rock your pelvis and spine back and forth, looking at the floor.
4. Try chin tucks.
These help with headaches, jaw pain, and upper back pain, says Cadwaller. “Give yourself a double chin by driving your cervical region toward your back and holding for the position for three to five seconds 20 to 25 times.
5. Do a wake-up or bedtime bridge pose.
Lie on your back in bed with your knees bent and your feet resting on the mattress. Inhale, then slowly exhale and curl your tailbone to lift your buttocks and spine, one vertebrae at a time, until your shoulder blades bear your weight. Pause and inhale, then slowly exhale as you roll your spine back down.
Assessing your posture
To really maintain good posture, according to the American Chiropractic Association, you need to have sufficient muscle flexibility and strength, postural muscles that are in balance on either side of your spine, and normal joint motion throughout your body.
The “wall test” is an easy way to assess your postural alignment at home, explains Pamela J. Bigelow, PT, MSPT, MTC, a physical therapist at New Jersey at Rehab Excellence Centers and Advanced Physical Therapy.
To do it, try this: Stand so that the back of your head, shoulder blades, and buttocks touch the wall. Your heels should be less than six inches from the wall. Put a flat hand behind the small of your back. “If your low-back curve posture is correct, the back of your head, shoulder blades, and buttocks should touch the wall,” Bigelow says. “There should be less than two inches of space between the back of your neck and small of your back, and the wall.”