Just because conventional wisdom seems to get almost everything wrong when it comes to effective fitness, proper human nutrition, and preventing degenerative diseases, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all official recommendations and prescriptions are faulty. Cigarettes are bad for your health, for example, and drinking and driving actually do not mix.
Those are two obvious examples of conventional wisdom getting it right, and there are definitely a few others, but today, I’m mostly interested in the popular concept of good posture.
What is posture? Is “good posture,” as defined by chiropractors, teachers, office ergonomic consultants, drill sergeants, and Grandma (“straighten up, sonny!”), actually good for us? Or have the experts gotten it wrong, once again?
Looking around me, if people are listening to the professional advice, it’s bad advice. Slumping, slouching – I see it everywhere, every day, and not just when people are sitting.
Our concept of “good posture” has changed over the years
First, let’s look at how posture has changed over the years in a developed nation like the United States.
Before the turn of the 20th century, austere, rigid posture was very much in vogue – or, at least, it was heavily promoted by teachers and authority figures as the right way to sit and stand (corporal punishment, anyone?). Think Victorian. Think stiff and crusty.
In the 1920s, though, an entirely new cultural phenomenon emerged. Jazz exploded and “The Great Gatsby” was written.
The flappers – independent women who flouted convention, listened to jazz, wore short hair, and drank liquor – became the model for young American women to emulate. The hair, the fashion, and the dancing were all fair game, and rightly so, but so was the signature flapper slouch. Instead of standing prim and proper, the corset-less flapper thrust out her pelvis and slouched backwards, hands on her hips.
It looked effortlessly cool enough, but it turns out it wasn’t good for back health.
Sounds familiar? That’s the same pose you see at red carpet events in Hollywood, where every starlet seems to employ that bizarre half-turn followed by a tuck of the pelvis forward when faced with a camera. It’s “slimming,” or something.
Anyway, focusing on chronic postural deficiencies in a subculture may seem odd, but the long-term reverberations can be felt for decades, if not centuries. Besides, it’s a simple fact that society is influenced by culture, especially youth culture.
Cultural adoption of slouching certainly isn’t the sole reason our posture is so messed up, but it’s probably a contributing factor.
Too much sitting it bad for our backs
Another factor is the rise of sedentarism – all that sitting is hell on our backs. Most work takes place from the (dis)comfort of an unnatural office chair, whereas in earlier times we’d actually have to move around for our livelihoods.
Even those formerly active jobs, in the manufacturing or farming sectors, have been largely automated. Physically demanding tasks demand correct posture, because they’re easier and more sustainable that way. They’re kind of self-policing in that respect.
But it goes the other way, too; the easier you make the job, the easier it is to get by with poor posture. If all the “heavy lifting” is done by machines, the worker is free to slump and slouch.
Not getting enough exercise is a real pain
Oh, and the fact that sedentarism leads to muscle atrophy and inadequate exercise doesn’t help, either. And when they do get to the gym, it’s usually to do bicep curls and tricep extensions for an hour. Very few engage their core in any meaningful way. Functional fitness is enjoying a resurgence, but the “biceps, chest, and tris” split-style training still dwarfs it in popularity.
If everyone did deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts with perfect form on a regular basis, our backs would be a lot stronger and our posture would be a lot better.
So, we’ve got influential youth sub-cultures, sedentarism, and inadequate fitness to (at least partly) blame for our posture problems, but how do we fix it? And is posture really that important? We seem to be getting by okay, all things considered.
That’s what they say about the Standard American Diet: “Oh, but look at our life expectancy. We live longer than ever!” How’s that really working out for us?
Poor posture is incredibly damaging, both to the individual and to society at large.
The very obvious downside to poor posture is the debilitating physical pain that accompanies it. If you spend your days sitting, standing, and walking with a fundamentally flawed posture, you are going to be hurting. It may not hit you right away, but it will catch up with you, and if you want to live a long, active life a healthy back is pretty much required.
Remember, too, that the spinal cord is essentially a high-bandwidth system for the transfer of information between nerves, organs, and other parts of our anatomy. If your posture is poor and your spine is impacted, some experts even suggest your ability to process information and relay data will be compromised.
It’ll hit you especially hard in the wallet, too. One study showed that for patients who complained of lower back pain – which was over a quarter of those polled – average medical expenditures were 73 percent higher than those without lower back pain. Those expenses don’t just disappear into the ether, either; they result in higher premiums across the board for all enrollees, so even if you have perfect posture, you’re paying for those who don’t. We’re all paying for it.
So what’s the answer? What IS good posture?
Esther Gokhale has a pretty good handle on posture. She is a “back whisperer.”
She grew up in India, earned a biochem degree from Princeton, and suffered with debilitating back pain for half of her life. When back surgery didn’t work (protip: it rarely works), she decided to get to the root of the problem and figure out what does work for back pain.
She didn’t try every new-fangled treatment, though. Instead, Gokhale (unwittingly) channeled Weston Price and traveled to those cultures where back pain is virtually unknown despite men and women working long hours of backbreaking labor. She went to isolated African, Brazilian, and Indian villages to mimic the gait, the stance, and the posture of the inhabitants.
These guys have been doing it right for centuries, and we all share the same genes and the same basic skeletal system, so it makes sense that what worked for them will work for the average Westerner (sounds pretty Primal, huh?).
The key to avoiding back pain is in the pelvis
The key to avoiding back pain (and, it turns out, achieving healthy posture) lies in the pelvis. Or, rather, the key lies in the positioning of the pelvis.
Popular posture advice tells us to tuck the pelvis, to bring it forward. Tucking the pelvis is conducive to achieving that arched, S-curve back that the experts say is healthy and natural, but it’s actually counterproductive to sustainable, healthy posture. Gokhale blames medical professionals for that one, suggesting that the constancy of seeing patients with poor posture (which is almost everyone in developed nations) has conditioned doctors to consider the average S-curved back as normal and actually ideal.
It’s not, though. The ideal posture should be mostly straight (or J-shaped, with the bottom curve of the “J” representing the curve of the anteverted pelvis), and it should be effortless and natural.
Instead of tucking the pelvis, think about “ducking” it, as in Daffy Duck. Look at his posture: pelvis back, butt slightly out, torso leaning forward. It’s exaggerated, but we want to keep that posture in mind.
The technical term is anteverting the pelvis. Think about moving your pelvis back, as if you were a fat guy trying to look down at his toes. Allow your heels to bear your body’s weight as you move your torso slightly forward. Moving your torso forward may feel like excessive leaning, but that’s okay; this is a bit like going barefoot after a lifetime of wearing shoes, so it’s going to feel unnatural. Relax your abdominals.
Now, check yourself out in a mirror. You may feel different (I did), but your back should be straight and you should actually look completely normal. It’s rather sad, but it feels strange because we’re just not used to standing with correct, natural posture.
I’ve rarely mentioned posture in the past, and I regret that. Going forward, I think we’ll be revisiting this subject with more frequency. I’m also going to give Gokhale’s ideas a trial run, but I’m pretty confident she’s on the money. After all, there’s always been a soft spot in my heart for research that uses anthropological evidence.
He is the founder of Primal Nutrition and the author of Mark's Daily Apple.