Introduction to Posture & Strain
Posture is a commonly discussed, yet frequently misunderstood topic. Healthcare practitioners often attribute a number of common, chronic body ailments—many of which are related to static positions, such as sitting or standing—to what they consider “bad posture.” But there’s more to posture than your side-profile at your computer desk.
This post will delve into the key elements of posture and how they apply to your overall health and wellbeing.
Your posture makes an emotional and physical difference in your daily life.
On one hand, posture is a lasting part of the non-verbal communication that we inherited from our primate ancestors: It can play a significant role in how others perceive you and can serve as a visual cue that mirrors your emotional state (e.g., an upright
stance can exude confidence, while a slumped posture can display fear or sadness).
On the other hand—and perhaps most relevant for our discussion here—your posture plays an integral part in the ways you move your body and has a lasting effect on your wellbeing over time.
This diagram demonstrates what most experts consider “perfect” posture. The plumb line is used to determine whether certain body segments (ear/shoulder/hip/knee) are in proper alignment. When segments aren’t aligned, “bad posture” is the likely conclusion
Defining “good” vs. “bad” posture
In the realm of musculoskeletal medicine, posture is a topic that’s incessantly discussed with patients and debated by healthcare practitioners. The rationale for this is related to the fact that many common physical conditions are said to be caused by pre-established ideas of what’s considered to be “good” vs. “bad” posture.
The problem is that the argument of “good” vs. “bad” is almost exclusively linked to static activities (especially those related to one’s work and lifestyle, like sitting or standing). Further, it’s most often described in terms of the structural alignment of the body, with “perfect posture”—a well-established benchmark—and all other types of posture being measured against this point.
And so, if you have “good posture,” you tend to display this version of alignment when you sit or stand. In contrast, people who habitually have body segments out of such alignment are labelled as having “bad posture.”
In the realm of healthcare, people are often warned against deviating from what’s considered “perfect” posture; and if they do, then they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up in pain!
3 problems built into the concept of “perfect posture”:
- Such a stringent standard of posture that links back to an ideal of what all alignment should be is often unrealistic. All humans are structurally unique, and with such wide variation of different body structures, shapes, sizes, etc., it’s very unlikely that any one notion of “perfect” posture can really exist. For some, sitting or standing in “perfect” alignment would be hard work and would feel unnatural, or even strained.
- It’s unrealistic—and maybe even impossible—to maintain one form of “perfect” alignment for long stretches of time without feeling uncomfortable. Why? Because basic tissue mechanics dictate that even the most “perfect” posture can lead to discomfort with time. That’s why recent studies have suggested that changing up one’s posture (i.e., moving from one position to another and maybe even taking postures that are considered “bad” for brief periods of time) can lead to less discomfort and injury. Ultimately, when it comes to static activities such as sitting or standing, our postures should be dynamic and variable, not completely static. (see NEXT POST)
- The typical postural modification strategies given as advice to correct “bad posture” and strive towards “perfect posture” may not be the best advice. Suggestions such as tucking the chin, squeezing shoulder blades back, and maintaining an adequate curvature in the lower back can lead to over-correction and in some cases, subsequent harm in the form of muscle fatigue/tightness or potential irritation of the joints in the spine.
Why you should care about posture
The argument of “perfect” vs. “good” vs. “bad” notwithstanding, it’s still important to keep your posture in mind. The reason: Because some postures are indeed less harsh on your body than others.
The crucial issue here is with the “one size fits all” mentality; it’s unrealistic to suggest that everyone should display a specific form of posture while standing or sitting and refrain from deviating from it. But that’s not to say we can’t have a generalized framework for what “ideal” posture may look like.
- Decreases discomfort/injury
- Is capable of being maintained for a longer duration
Defining “ideal” posture
“Ideal” posture is one that, relative to other postures, allows the body to manage the stresses of a given task in a more favourable way, reducing discomfort and risk of injury. In the case of prolonged static activities such as sitting at a desk or standing, an “ideal” posture may be held easily—that is, without discomfort or injury—for a prolonged period of time.
Due to the fact that the risk of tissue strain is significantly lower in this kind of posture, individuals should revert to this posture most frequently.
An alternative approach to “Perfect” Posture
Common postural advice (see “3 problems built into perfect posture,” above) often recommends a posture that takes a lot of effort to maintain and may lead to strain.
In my experience, a less stringent approach to “ideal” posture is more appropriate for most people.
Instead of focusing on upright sitting or standing, focus on lengthening of the spine, which will minimize the lumbar (lower back), thoracic (mid-back) and cervical (neck) spine curvatures.
Think of it this way: “Sit/stand tall, as if someone is pulling on your spine from both ends, stretching and lengthening it from both directions.”
The benefits of this approach
When you take the “tall” approach, you’re assuming an active stance, relying on deeper and more intrinsic muscles to provide the stability needed to hold the posture. These muscles tend to be more fatigue resistant compared to the larger and more superficial muscles that are recruited when you’re slouching or sitting with an accentuated spinal curvature, squeezed shoulders and a tucked chin.
Further, the lengthened spine/torso approach often automatically repositions the individual’s shoulder blades into a more “ideal” position. (In contrast, the “less ideal” position, where the shoulders are rounded and tilted forward, creates more strain on the neck and leads to tightness in the shoulder, which can further affect your posture and movement over the longer term.)
If needed, additional focus can be directed to keeping the shoulder blades relaxed and down on the rib cage (vs. elevated, like you’re shrugging your shoulders up towards your ears).
Finally, this variation to upright posture generally takes less effort, which results in less discomfort, and is therefore more realistic to maintain with less strain over time.
Minimizing strain: The ultimate reason why posture is so important to maintaining your health and wellbeing
An “ideal” posture may decrease the risk of discomfort and injury relative to other postures, but is it truly as infallible as it seems?
Any physical stress on the body can result in strain if the stressors pull, push or stretch a tissue to the point of subjective discomfort or damage. A posture that’s “ideal” for any given situation is the one that imposes the least amount of strain on any particular tissue. So, sit in a less-than-ideal posture for any length of time, and you’re more likely to strain tissues. And strain can cause pain!
Key considerations around strain
First off, keep in mind that individual musculoskeletal differences play a big role here. Since every body is different, there’s some variation in what “ideal” posture looks and feels in different people. Additionally, some people are more sensitive to strain and therefore perceive it more, or earlier.
While a number of individual factors can influence strain or our perception of it, there are two common variables that affect strain in everyone:
- The magnitude of the stress (or “load) and
- The length of time that a tissue is being stressed.
The larger the MAGNITUDE of the stress, the less TIME it takes to feel it.
What’s important to appreciate is that even a small stress can be perceived as a strain after a long enough duration.
Here’s another way to look at it: There’s a direct relationship between the applied load (i.e., stress) and the tolerance one has for it. The greater the applied load is, the less we can tolerate it over time. However, even a small load will decrease one’s tolerance for it if that load is applied over a prolonged period of time.
At the point in time demarcated by “1”, the individual’s tolerance for the applied load has diminished, but not to the point of strain. But if the applied load continues to stress the body further, the individual will succumb to strain (“2”).
Realistically, there’s no such thing as a strain-free posture.
Even the smallest stresses on our bodies can eventually accumulate and cause strain over time.
Imagine yourself sitting on a stool; you spine is lengthened, in a relatively “ideal” position. Sitting this way can take some stress off of joints and ligaments, but as you can certainly appreciate, it does take some muscular effort. And while it may seem negligible, over time your postural muscles will fatigue, which can lead to strain.
Now: Imagine yourself forgoing “ideal alignment” and instead, resorting to a more relaxed and collapsed posture (i.e., slouching). While slouching can increase muscle strain in some areas, such as the neck and shoulders, it can actually turn down the effort of some postural muscles in the back and lead to a subjective feeling of ease (which is likely the reason people resort to slouching in the first place). The caveat is that more of the strain gets transferred to passive elements of the back, such as the discs and ligaments, and with sufficient time, these tissues can become strained and pay the price. In fact, this form of posture is frequently blamed for lower back pain.
Conclusion: Moving closer to ideal posture to manage strain and pain
There’s truly no way to escape it: As dynamic, active animals, we’re constantly assaulted by forces that put stress on our bodies. These stresses may result in strain if delivered at the right magnitude and/or for long enough periods of time. This is particularly true of static postures, like sitting or standing in one place. So how do we avoid succumbing to such unstoppable forces?
While there’s no way to completely avoid it, there are effective ways to mitigate postural strain.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Mitigating Postural Strain (Part 1): Managing Strain to Minimize Pain” which will discuss strategies that directly manage strain as well as increase our resiliency to it.