Perfect posture is a myth, so don't even try

When I got my first job out of college, I was primed with a nasty little device called the Lumo Lift. The posture corrector, which was attached to my shirt via a magnet, vibrated ever so slightly every time I leaned forward, reminding me to sit up straight. It helped me maintain what I thought was “perfect posture.” With my spine pointing skyward, there was no way my desk job could harm it.

The device lasted a month before annoyingly ending up in the back of a drawer. But to my surprise, the physical consequences of my being stuck at work never materialized — and there’s a scientific reason for that.

As workers and movers, we are constantly being told what the shape and curve and position of our backs should be, “to sit up straight” and to study the ergonomics of our office chairs closely. But when you nudge them, these and other posture-related beliefs prove as unfounded as they are ubiquitous. Some might even hurt us.

“There’s this narrative like, ‘Oh my god, if I lay down I’m going to tear my disc,’ or ‘I’m going to pull my disc out.’ And I’ll be the Hunchback of Notre Dame when I’m 70,” he says Kevin Wernli, Ph.D., a physical therapist in Perth, Australia. “It perpetuates and encourages this narrative that our bodies are fragile and vulnerable. And they are not.”

Wernli, whose work has long focused on the relationship between posture and back pain, is part of a growing group of researchers trying to identify the true roots of back pain and debunk the notion that objectively “bad posture” exists. Take, for example, a 2019 study that examined call center employee. Researchers found that time spent sitting still correlated with back pain, while sitting position did not. other research, including Wernlis, has suggested that a tense and deliberate (and therefore unnatural) “protective” style of movement, which pain sufferers tend to engage in, may actually aggravate pain. In contrast, it can be helpful to relax into positions that feel more natural.

To understand why, imagine clenching your fist tightly, just as you would sit up straight and attentive with “correct posture,” says Wernli. “If you do this eight hours a day while sitting at a desk, you’re going to come and tell me you have a really sore wrist.” The same goes for your spine when you’re trying to maintain good posture.

The existence of a “perfect posture” and what exactly it might be is still hotly debated among physical therapists. A Study 2012 of almost 300 physiotherapists across Europe found that they could not agree on the ideal sitting position, with 85% split between two options. Responses also varied from country to country, suggesting that both cultural histories and educational systems that differ across borders are likely to influence expert recommendations.

Many of these disagreements stem from a lack of conclusive scientific literature across the field, Wernli says. Although the belief in correct posture has its roots in everything from gender roles to classicism—those with more money and power are more likely to have the privilege of sitting at a desk with their backs straight all day—the medical belief that a incorrect posture can directly lead to pain stems primarily from a line of research that dates back to the 1960s. A Article from 1964 by doing Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery was the first to associate different body positions with different pressures on the lumbar spine that support the lower part of the spine. The researchers concluded that since increased pressure could increase the risk of disc injury, it must also increase the risk of low back pain.

This assumption was rarely challenged in the ensuing 50 years of scholarly literature, even in articles that did not replicated the results of this old study. It’s guided medical recommendations for decades, says Wernli, but deserves to be questioned, especially as early work has begun to uncover its shortcomings.

What does this mean for people dealing with back pain? The answer is that there is no answer. “If you’re worried about back pain, you should be worried your Back pain and the situation in which this back pain occurs and don’t try to find a global solution,” he says Sander Gilman, Ph.D., JD,Medical historian at Emory University and author of Stand Up Straight!: A History of Posture. Gilman agrees with Wernli that back pain prevention and solutions should focus on more than just the back itself — that experiences, including mood and temperament, probably contribute to pain in more ways than we know.

“Posture isn’t just about muscle,” says Gilman. “It’s not just neurological. It’s the way we function in the world, the jobs we hold, where we stand in our life span and where we stand culturally.” Through tools like military formations, classroom etiquette and of course the corset has posture portrayed in much of history as a commitment to one’s place in the world. For Gilman, the biggest missing link in our understanding of pain and posture is a “disjunction between the very good, very extensive cultural study of posture and the physiology of posture.”

Reversing longstanding assumptions about posture means unlearning what we think we know about curling and arching our backs. “We are human beings; we are not machines,” says Wernli. Everyday activities put all kinds of physical pressures on our bodies, but “in the right environment, with rest and recovery, we don’t break down with more pressure—we actually get stronger with more pressure.”

Both experts agree that if you have persistent back pain, you should first see a doctor to rule out any real injuries or illnesses. At the same time, it can be rewarding to let go of the stress involved in everyday movements like working off the couch or picking up the kids. “My number one goal for someone with back pain is,” says Wernli, “that they forget they have a back.”

So unleash your inner Lumo Lift and let yourself drift a little more. As Wernli’s favorite slogan goes: “Your best pose is your next pose.”

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