A word about Posture
People usually raise the issue of posture when they are in pain. They ask, is my pain due to poor posture? If I improved my posture would I feel better? Should I keep my chest out and shoulders back, or is it a problem with my hips?
These are all thorny questions, and this is because of the fact that what we know about posture changes day to day. It used to be thought that people needed to sit ramrod straight to achieve Ideal Posture – an alignment of the body where the stress and strain on bones and muscles is minimised. Nowadays, the understanding is that the human body works best within ranges of tolerance, and that maintaining a posture for long periods of time is not ideal. However, due to the nature of the activities we need to participate in as part of life, we need to assume different postures. We assume different postures for standing, sleeping, eating, working, driving, and any other activities that need to be done.
What is good posture depends on the activity you’re doing. A desk job has a different resting posture to a job in which someone needs to drive. A carpenter putting screws into a wall needs to take on a different posture to a dentist, who needs to maintain a posture throughout the day and for long periods of time. There is no ideal posture that addresses all these problems. There is only a range of positions that people can assume that allow them to tolerate the externally imposed stresses of their jobs for as long as possible before they need to take breaks.
What this means is that “good posture” just means that you get yourself set up in such a way as to minimise the deleterious effects of life on your anatomy. Everyone is built differently and so everyone is going to experience individualised postural demands from a world that is as standardised as possible. What is good posture exists within a series of overlapping bell-curves whose axes contain the interplay of different activities of life. What could be understood as bad posture just represents a deviation away from that functional sweet spot.
Does this mean that posture doesn’t contribute to problems? No. Posture can absolutely contribute to problems, but it’s more appropriate to look at the way in which our lives impose demands on us that result in us assuming those postures. People who work at desks can present with forward-rotated shoulders, a forward head posture, and a forward slouch. This is because they spend eight hours a day looking at a screen, working on a keyboard, and manipulating things in front of them. Eight hours a day is forty hours a week, a thousand hours a month give or take, and just over ten thousand hours a year in that setting. And that’s assuming you take your lunch break sitting down too. In this case, poor posture results from the fact that the ideal position to address the demands of work is not a position that lends itself to health. We maintain that position for extended periods of time, and our bodies accommodate themselves to that consistent and sustained demand, because our bodies are adaptable and will change themselves to best address the demands of the world in which we live.
How do we get around that? We change the environment by raising and lowering screens, working surfaces and office chairs. However, this doesn't change the fact that firstly, the posture required for this kind of work is ergonomically awkward at best, and secondly that sustaining this posture for extended periods of time isn't a good idea either.
Do I believe that the manner in which the world around us is organised in terms of ergonomics, access and demand is making us as a species more unhealthy? Yes.
Do I believe that this is going to change any time soon? No.
So what are you, as a star-shaped peg in a square-shaped hole, going to do?
Simply put, it’s a problem of balance. If you need to do eight hours of sitting desk work a day, you need to spend time stretching and moving around after or during working hours to address the amount of time you’ve spent in an awkward posture. If you drive a truck, you need to stretch your legs and your hips. If you’re a labourer, you need to stretch your back. If you use your hands, you need to relax them.
Doesn’t this basically mean that in order to do your job, you need to spend time at home making sure you can address the ongoing and varied demands of that job? Yes.
Is this a problem? Also yes.
Good posture exists within a spectrum and is different for every person because every person is different. There’s no such thing as an ideal posture that works in every circumstance because the physical demands of every circumstance are different and the postural requirements are different as well. Because of this, you can only ever get close to good posture; you’ll never be perfectly aligned and that’s okay.
So is your posture causing your pain? No. The demands of your job on your body are.
If you fix your posture will you be better? Not forever. You exist under continuous strain and demand as a result of the world you live in.
Is there an ideal posture that a person can have? Yes, but that depends on what they're doing.
Luckily there’s a solution to this that doesn’t cost money, only time and energy. Just like you need to eat and sleep, you need to do some basic movements to make sure that your job doesn’t start dictating the extent of your health.
By doing simple, compound movements when you’re standing up and sitting down, you can stretch tired muscles and undo some of the strain that the world imposes on you. They are not complex.
Sit on a chair and bend forward.
Turn your head and shoulders.
Tilt your shoulders from side to side.
Reach a hand to the heel of your opposite foot. Repeat on the other side.
It's that simple.