Stand up straight and be counted
The two-second trick that boosts your health, happiness, career and body
Standing up straight could help improve your job prospects. 'People who slump look like they’re ashamed to take up space,' says presentation and posture coach Michele Paradise, who works with professional models to help improve their posture. 'However, if you stand tall and straight and look confident, people will respond positively, making you feel better about yourself and in turn increase the likelihood that you will get a positive response.' Her advice is backed up by research: a US study found that powerful posture makes people think and act more powerfully. So even if you’re not the boss, stand like you are and you'll command respect.
If you're finding it difficult to focus, your posture could be to blame. That's because although it only accounts for two per cent of your bodyweight, your brain uses 20 per cent of your oxygen to do its job properly. Since poor posture can make it difficult to breathe deeply, it restricts your oxygen intake and interferes with your ability to think. So make sure your brain gets what it needs by keeping your back straight, which lifts your heart, lungs and diaphragm, improving your breathing and boosting your oxygen levels.
Research has found that maintaining an unnatural position (ie, slumping) actually uses 60 to 70 per cent more energy than keeping your body in proper alignment. 'All this extra effort makes you tired and increases the likelihood of depression and illness,' explains Ian Horseman, a chiropractor and postural specialist. This may be due to the link between the body’s position and what consultant psychologist Ingrid Collins terms our 'psychological posture'. She says: 'If we arrange ourselves in a positive manner, with our shoulders back, chest open and spine straight, our brains send out endorphins that circulate in the blood, triggering happy feelings.' And standing tall won’t just put a smile on your face. Researchers have found that adopting a 'power posture' – body and limbs stretched out – decreases the stress hormone cortisol, helping you feel calmer.
Poor posture is an obvious cause of lower back problems and shoulder and neck pain but it might also be at the root of sluggish digestion and severe headaches. According to a study published in the journal Headache, people whose posture made their heads jut forward had more frequent, longer and severe headaches than people with a correct posture. This finding doesn't surprise Charles Hunt of the British School of Osteopathy, who says that, 'because your body's usually fighting on lots of different fronts, work, stress, environment, if it's working harder to maintain a poor posture, you could start to feel symptoms.'
'The most ageing thing in a person is bad posture,' says Michele Paradise. 'It projects a wordless message about a person's age and health.' There's proof, too. When researchers at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, US, asked people to rate the appearance of two women in a series of pictures, in the pictures of them standing up straight, they were consistently judged to be younger and more attractive than in those of them slumping. Turn back the clock by following our guide to better posture.
When you stand up straight, you look taller, thinner and more confident. By lengthening your back and neck, you automatically draw your stomach muscles in, creating a longer, leaner body line. The result? You can look 5lb thinner, according to Deborah Mullen, a strength and conditioning specialist. In the same Louisville study, when subjects looked only at the women’s bodies, researchers found that the woman who weighed 20lb more than the others was perceived as thinner and more attractive simply because she was standing up straighter than the lighter woman.
How to… improve your posture
Now you know why you should, here’s how to do it...
'Be mindful about how you sit when you eat, drive and work at a computer,' says Alexander Technique teacher Angela East (www.stat.org.uk). 'If you're guilty of contorting your body to get nearer your plate, sit up straight and hinge from the hips instead of curving your spine and use your fork to bring food to your mouth.' In the car, try not to grip the steering wheel; instead, Angela recommends holding it lightly with your elbows by your side and remembering to rest your arms in your lap when you stop at traffic lights to help your muscles relax. 'In the office, seats should be parallel to the ground at knee height, your feet flat on the floor and your arms dropping downwards,' she says. 'Whatever you’re doing, you need to be sat directly on your sitting bones, which are the knobbly bits you feel if you sit on the palms of your hands.'
Roll your shoulders
'Stand with your feet slightly apart and rotate your shoulders backwards three to four times by bringing them up to your ears then back and down and finally around to the front while bending your elbows to relax your muscles and release any tension,' says Michele. On the final rotation, take a broom handle or stick and slide it through your elbows behind your back, letting it sit in the crook of your elbows for a few minutes. 'This will instantly correct your posture, engage your core muscles and take pressure off your lower back', she explains. Practise this daily for 15 to 30 minutes, after checking with your GP, to create a new muscle memory and a better default posture.
'Most of us spend too much time looking down and, if your eyes are focused on the ground, your head tends to tilt forward, your chest collapses and your spine will begin bending,' warns Lyn Breakwell, Bodywork therapist, (www.osteopathicpractice.com). She suggests keeping your gaze level and straight in front of you, lifting your chest from your breastbone and checking that your head is balanced on the top of your neck to lengthen your body and boost your energy.'
Pretend you’re a puppet
Instead of trying to stand bolt upright like a grenadier guard, Charles recommends thinking of yourself as a Thunderbirds puppet. 'Lift up through your head and allow everything else to hang off it.' But aim for smooth rather than stiff, jerky movements. 'Good posture is about making your body work as well as it can while using the least amount of energy,' he explains.
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