How do you sit while watching TV? What body position do you take when you are at your computer, reading a book on the sofa, in a café with friends, while driving? There is a chance that you are slouching in all these situations. Your back is rounded in the most comfortable position, your shoulders are hunched and your head is held forward of the neck. I am the same, except I am trying to do it less and less, the more I learn about the negative long-term effects of slouching for my back.
Slouching has become the norm in many situations, acceptable in social settings and a must if you want to be cool as a teenager. Teenagers definitely don’t want to be caught sitting bolt upright while chatting to friends or in the classroom! Sitting straight in our times has negative connotations, such as uptightness and not being part of the group. Alarmingly, 18-24 year olds have even higher rates of back pain than their parents. Bad posture in front of screens and hand-held devices are to blame, as well as soft sofas, car seats, and the cultural acceptance of slouching.
What happens to our spine when we slouch
Slouching is sitting with the pelvis tucked under and the weight on the sacrum, the lowest part of the back. Instead of stacking on top of each other, the vertebrae are held in a rounded C shape with most pressure on the front of the intervertebral discs. When our body is in this position often, the muscles along the spine are likely to weaken and become easily fatigued and strained, the chest muscles tighten and shoulders are pulled forward. A more serious result of the unequal pressure on the intervertebral discs may be the excruciatingly painful condition of a herniated or prolapsed disc. As to the misaligned head and neck, it is mainly the weight of the head that creates the problem: habitually holding the head forward of the shoulders requires massive overwork by neck and shoulder muscles. So yes, slouching is comfortable, but do we really want a weakened and painful body?
When thinking about slouching, it is difficult to ignore the cultural baggage that comes with posture. In the 19th century, an erect posture was deemed morally superior, more dignified and physically attractive. This idea on posture conveyed rigid cultural beliefs. In the 20th century, informality and a greater tolerance became more appealing. Educators waged a war on “undignified” postures but that battle seems quite lost now.
Perhaps you also remember being corrected when you were a child: parents and teachers would tell you to pull shoulders back and stick your chest forward. This correction is unfortunate because it leads to rigidity and tightness in the back. Try it right now: pull your shoulders back and push your chest forward… ouch!!
Maybe because of this faulty correction but more likely because of different cultural views, slouching became more accepted, giving an air of casualness. On top of that came a sedentary lifestyle and our handheld devices…
There are psychological effects of how we sit or stand. This is proved by the fact that still, in our age of informality, we do not slouch e.g. during a job interview. In this stressful situation, slouching would signal a lack of care or confidence. In her interesting TED talk “your body language shapes who you are” (http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are#t-41600) Amy Cuddy argues that posture affects our brain chemistry. Her research shows that an open, expansive posture does not only make us look confident but it also makes us feel more powerful, take more risks and have greater success! In fact, she advises everyone to go to a private place before a job interview and take a wide stance with legs and arms. While this would prepare you for success in a few minutes, hunching over your phone while waiting for the nerve-racking moment gives the opposite result.
How to sit
A good sitting posture involves the whole spine, and starts by balancing the weight on the centre of the sitting bones. This means that the pelvis is evenly balanced and the spine can be well aligned on top. Next, imagine surrendering the weight of your pelvis to gravity. Once you sense that, feel that the crown of your head is being pulled upward and the shoulders relax down. There is no great muscle force involved in this. Admittedly, the back muscles may have to strengthen to make it easier to sit for a longer time, but the weight is pulled straight down by gravity so muscles don’t have to strain. It is more about undoing tension, relaxing the hips and the shoulders down and feeling a subtle pull upwards through the crown of your head. If you are reading a book, phone, iPad etc., hold it up to your face rather than hanging your head down.
So all this is fine, I hear you say, but what’s wrong about curling up on a sofa in the evening? That’s ok of course, provided there is no back pain yet and that hunching is not a constant habit that extends to work, car, dinner table etc. I like to think that it is time to go beyond the cultural view of sitting straight as either uptight or properly cool. Instead, it is just about looking after our body in the best possible way.
A restorative rest position that may counter the effects of slouching:
This rest position helps to gently correct tightness in the chest muscles and rounding of the upper spine.
As in the two pictures above, you can use a smaller or bigger cylindrical support. It is best to start with the smaller support, such as a rolled blanket:
-Sit on one end and lie back so that the rolled blanket ends just below the shoulder blades.
-Rest the shoulders on the floor and use a cushion for the head and maybe even for the shoulders if that feels better.
-Bend your legs to create more ease in the lower back and place your arms slightly away from the body with the palms up.
-Only stay in this position if it is comfortable. If it is, work up to 5 or 10 minutes.
-Keep your mind centred on the sensations in the body and the breath so this relaxation becomes restful for the mind as well.
-Before coming up, roll over to one side, stay for a few moments and then push yourself up with your arm.