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Sit Up Straight: Tips for Improving Your Terrible Posture

July 18, 2014

As a freelance writer, I do most of my work wearing cotton Old Navy pants, slumped down in a squishy arm chair with a computer on my lap. I also spend a small fortune on massages trying to work the increasingly annoying kinks out of my shoulders and upper back. Coincidence? Nope. The more time we spend sitting in front of our computers, the worse our posture gets. Modern technology is turning us into literally twisted creatures.

In addition to being detrimental to how your body functions, bad posture isn’t cute. It causes you to jut your hips forward, slump your shoulders, and even breathe inefficiently, according to Pat Davidson, a trainer with a PhD in Exercise Physiology who is the Director of Training Methodology and Continuing Education Coordinator at Peak Performance in NYC. I went to see him for a painstakingly objective and honest assessment of my posture.

Davidson explained that bad posture compromises your diaphragm, the big muscle right below the ribs that helps you take deep breaths. So instead, you start using other muscles, like your shoulders, to help you breathe. I found out that I’m guilty of shoulder breathing, which is likely contributing to some of my upper back fatigue and discomfort. I also learned that I “walk with my lower back.” Turns out, people with lousy posture don’t walk correctly, and they count on their lower back muscles to help propel themselves forward. (An adulthood devoted to high heels probably hasn’t helped my walking problem either.)

Aubin Sullivan, a physical therapist and the Clinical Director of Cynergy Physical Therapy in New York City, sees a lot of women like me in her practice. Here are a few quick fixes she recommends for correcting your slump:

• If you sit at a desk all day, don’t perch on the edge of your seat at work trying to sit up straight. The best thing you can do is scoot your hips and butt against the back of the chair, and use it for support—that’s what it’s there for. “You have to support your spine. Your muscles are going to get tired, they will fatigue and you’ll slowly start slumping down,” Sullivan says. 

• Get up frequently and walk around. (I wear a Jawbone fitness tracker that vibrates when it senses that I haven’t moved in a long time. I also sometimes set my phone alarm to go off every 30 minutes, and I do jumping jacks. Sometimes.)

• If you carry a heavy shoulder bag, make sure to carry it on both your right and left shoulder, switching off as each gets tired. Even better: wear a cross-body bag so that the weight’s more evenly distributed.

• Work out your core. Never mind a six-pack—you need to concentrate on the transverse abdominus, the deep abdominal muscle that acts as a “corset” around the lumbar spine, according to Sullivan. To do this: lay on your back with your knees bent, put your hands on your hips, breathe normally, and pull your belly button straight down to your spine. You don’t want your pelvis to tilt or lift, which is why you have your hands on your pelvis. Hold it for 5 seconds and repeat. “Once you get it, you can do it all the time, just sitting at work and it becomes a habit,” Sullivan says. 

• You can work on your posture in a more hard-core way at the gym, too. Davidson told me to try backwards jump-roping. “If the rope hits you, you have the wrong posture,” he says. He also recommends hula hooping. (Fun!)

• Sullivan recommends focusing on the upper back and shoulder muscles. One of her favorite exercises is having clients stand up against a wall, with their hips touching the wall. Put a tennis ball between your shoulder blades and try to squeeze the ball. Rows are also excellent for improving posture, since it causes you to pull your shoulders up and back.

Now stop reading this article and go for a walk.