You've probably heard about "tech neck"-the head-drooped, shoulders-forward pose many of us strike while crouched at a computer or peering into our phones. The more time a person spends in this position, the more the body's muscles and ligaments embrace it as normal. The result is poor posture, which may have repercussions far beyond appearances.
"We live in a world now where slouching is highly promoted because we're sitting in chairs and our body is in a collapsed position," says Erik Peper, a professor in the department of health education at San Francisco State University. "If you have any history of exhaustion or negative thoughts, I would say that this body position amplifies them."
It's true: Peper has conducted a series of studies on posture and how it can influence a person's mood, energy levels and cognitive performance. Some of his research has found that slouching promotes low mood and decreased energy levels. One of his forthcoming studies shows that slouching can even impair student performance on a math test.
Human emotion and cognition are closely linked to body posture, Peper says, and this link operates like a two-way street. Feeling depressed or frightened can cause a person's head to drop or his posture to become tight and closed, but assuming these poses also seems to promote feelings of depression or fear.
"We've looked at brain activity using EEG, and we found the brain had to work harder to invoke positive or optimistic memories while [a person was] slouching compared to sitting up," he says. "Every thought and emotion has a corresponding body activity, and every body activity has a corresponding psychological experience." People prone to depressed mood, negative thoughts or low energy may be exacerbating those mental and physical states with poor posture, he says.
Peper's not alone in this field. Just last year, a study from New Zealand linked upright posture with improved mood and energy levels among people with symptoms of depression. Another recent study found that the bent-over posture associated with smartphone use could hamper breathing and impair respiratory function.
Long story short, good posture matters. So how can you improve yours? Any posture overhaul has to include major changes to your daily routines. If you can switch up your desk setup in ways that promote proper posture, that's a great start, experts say.
There are also a number of exercises that will help correct your poor posture. "If you have a rounded posture where your shoulders are migrating forward, you'll want to do exercises that strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades," says William Smith, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-author of Exercises for Perfect Posture.
These back muscles help hold your shoulders and shoulder blades in the proper position. Any type of pulling exercise will strengthen them, but upright or bent-over rows are ideal, he says. Both of these involve pulling weight toward your chest.
Another good exercise-one you could do easily at home-is to hold a resistance band at shoulder level and pull the band apart, while taking care to keep your shoulders back and down. Make sure you return to your starting position slowly. "This helps strengthen the muscles behind and around the shoulder girdle," Smith says.
Planks, push-ups, dead lifts and any other exercises that make you hold your body in a rigid position are also great because they emphasize stability. "If you're controlling your body and activating your core and all those small stabilizer muscles, that's going to help with posture," he says.
Finally, strong and flexible hips promote stable movement and good body position. "It's really important to stretch your hips out," Smith says. To do that, he recommends glute bridges, which involve lying on your back with your feet on the floor and lifting your hips into the air. Any exercises or stretches that target your butt will also be helpful, he says.
Meanwhile, try to limit "flexion" exercises that involve curling your spine into a C-shape. These can encourage-rather than counteract-the body positions you're trying to correct, he says.
While all these exercises can help, Smith says they won't do you much good if you spend the bulk of your week sitting idly with poor posture. "If you're sitting around 60 hours a week, to think you'll have ideal posture from exercising a few hours is naïve," he says. "You need to move."
Break up long bouts of sitting with short walks-a few minutes of strolling once every hour, for instance-to "reset" your back and hips, Smith says. As you walk, pull back your shoulders, hold your head high and concentrate on how good it feels to move with proper posture. Your mood, thinking and health will all benefit.