Posture and the Brain
Belle Beth Cooper
It’s amazing to think that if you stand in a power pose, you will feel more powerful. Try it in front of a mirror before your next big meeting and see how it effects your performance. ~ Mary
I’ll confess up front: I have terrible posture. It’s been bad since I was in high school at least, and probably for even longer than that. It’s one of those things I keep in the back of my mind as something I know I should do, but never get around to, like eating more vegetables and sending more postcards.
The way we stand, sit, and walk, actually has more longer reaching implications on our mood and happiness than we thought. The latest studies reveal it:
Shaking Your Head Will Affect Your Opinion
Body language is closely related to posture—the way we move our bodies affects how others see us as well as our own moods and habits. In terms of scientific research, the two overlap quite a bit. This isn’t too surprising, but how our posture and body language affect our thoughts is.
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For instance, a study at Ohio State University in 2003 found that our opinions can be subsconsciously influenced by our physical behavior. Here are two fascinating examples:
- When participants in the study nodded in agreements or shook their heads to signal disagreement, these actions affected their opinions without them realizing.
- The same study also showed that when participants hugged themselves, they were sometimes able to reduce their physical pain.
Dutch behavioral scientist Erik Peper has done extensive research into this area, as well. He regularly makes participants in his classes stand up and stretch, for similar reasons why exercise has been linked to happiness, like here:
Here are three fascinating things that happened once our posture changes:
- For example, when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or think of something positive in general, according to this experiment.
- Another insight was that if we skip during breaks, we can significantly increase our energy levels. A slow, slumped walk on the other hand, can do the exact opposite and drain us of our energy.
- The study also found that those who were most affected by depression before the study found their energy drained more than others.
So Erik Peper is convinced (and I am, too) that we should keep a careful eye on our posture and body language—lest it bring us down without us realizing.
Posture Changes Our Hormones
When we talk more broadly of body language, as opposed to good posture, we can actually see the affects it has on relationships right throughout the animal kingdom. In particular, body language is used to express power, through expansive postures (i.e. spreading out your limbs and opening up your body) and large body size (or the simple perception of large body size).
You might know about Amy Cuddy’s famous Ted Talk and her incredible insights on how posture changes our hormone levels. Well, some even more recent studies took this even further. A study by researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities showed that body language symbolizing power can actually affect our decision-making, subconsciously. The researchers measured the appetite for risk of participants in either expansive, powerful poses, or contricted poses (occupying minimal space, keeping limbs close to the body). Those in the powerful poses not only felt more powerful and in control, but were 45% more likely to take a risky bet.
Plus, the study used saliva samples to prove that expansive postures actually altered the participants’ hormone levels—decreasing cortisol (C) and increasing testosterone (T):
This neuroendocrine profile of High T and Low C has been consistently linked to such outcomes as disease resistance and leadership abilities.
So clearly, our posture has more to do with our minds we might have thought. And in fact, it seems like our bodies come first—when we alter our posture and body language, it subconsciously influences our thinking and decision-making.
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There’s No “One Best” Posture
So if you want to take advantage of these proven benefits to live a healthier and happier life, where should you start? We know that there is a large amount of different areas that can be painful when we have bad posture. Here’s just a short list of them:
Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of research into how exactly to adopt good posture—a lot of what we know tends to come from being told to “sit up straight” as children. A study in 1999, however, found that sitting at an angle of 110-130 degrees is optimal for spine comfort, and another in 2007showed that leaning back at 135 degrees is ideal for preventing back strain.
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Not only is a position like this difficult to measure and maintain (do you know precisely what angle you’re sitting at right now?), not everyone agrees. The team at LUMOback have created a posture sensor that you can wear around your waist during the day to help you develop better posture. The device watches for slouching and shifting to the side, and vibrates to remind you to sit up straight.
The team, which includes a doctor and a data scientist (as well as a medical advisor), doesn’t advise the leaning-back position for your workday. Instead, they maintain firstly that “the best posture is always the next posture,” or in other words, always keep moving:
We know that many of us have jobs that do require us to spend time working at desks, so knowing how to sit and stand with good posture is certainly important and beneficial to one’s health and well-being. That said, the human body was built to move, not spend 8 hours at a computer.
While many of the apps and devices designed to track our daily activity focus on workouts and regular exercise routines, LUMOback is more focused on small, regular bursts of movement:
Walking around helps your body to reset itself into healthy posture, so make a point to get up from your desk at least twice an hour.
When it actually comes to posture, the LUMOback team recommends a neutral pelvic postion—i.e. sitting up straight. They promote this posture particularly for times when we’re sedentary for long periods, like sitting at our desks all day:
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When you maintain a neutral pelvic position with a straight and upright back, the vertebrae in your back are nicely aligned. This takes a lot of pressure off of your spine and back muscles, which can reduce back pain.
As the LUMOback team points out, while this is beneficial for your lower back (if you manage to keep it straight), your upper back and neck will suffer if you try to maintain this position while working.
In an office setting, you’re likely to have to crane your neck to see your computer screen and strain your upper back and shoulders to reach a keyboard. Thus, any potential lower back benefits of a reclined position are outweighed by the negative impacts on your upper back and neck.
For now, I’m going to give sitting up straight a go. If nothing else, at least I know it will probably put me in a good mood!