I've Had Bad Posture My Entire Life. Here's What Finally Helped Me Stand Up Straight
In an early act of defiance, every time my mom told me to sit up straight, I did the exact opposite. I slumped farther down in the car and at the dinner table, rolling my eyes and proudly accepting my role as a slouchy kid who had more important things to care about than poor posture.
"You know, when you stand up straight, it makes you look confident," my mom would suggest in my insecure teen years, to which she received the biggest eye roll of all. I had the confidence thing down, thank you very much. But when I picked up a roll of film from a disposable camera a week after my senior prom, I sat in the CVS parking lot in a pool of 18-year-old devastation: Despite the careful thought with which I had picked out my perfect fuchsia dress, I didn't like any of these pictures. And it was all because my posture was bad.
This sent me on a decade-long mission to learn how to stand up straight, and it wasn't just because I wanted to look better. As technology evolved, so did opportunities to slump—computers and smartphones made it so that my neck was never not craned toward an illuminated screen. This led to neck pain (and headaches), shoulder pain, and constant knots in my back.
The funny thing is, for years I thought standing up straight came down to the simple act of having the willpower to stand and sit in a more erect position, no matter how painful it was to hold. But nothing worked, and when the time came for me to get married, I decided enough was enough—I would not recreate those slouchy senior prom photos on my wedding day.
And so began an intensive research project on posture, and I'm happy to report that by my wedding day, I was pretty proud of how straight I could stand up, not to mention how much better my back, shoulders, and neck felt. Here's what I learned.
Core is everything.
No, good posture doesn't start in your shoulders—it starts in your core. I figured that out when I started working with trainer Karen Nuccio, who explained to me that when most people feel tense, they hold that tension in their shoulders and neck. "You should really send that tension straight to your core," she explained. "Your core supports your entire back, making it easier for you to bring your shoulders down and back."
So whether I was having a difficult moment in a workout class (a recipe for my shoulders to head straight for my ears!) or simply feeling worried, when my body tensed up, I started focusing on sending that tension to my core. And you know what? My core got a lot stronger.
I'm a big believer that yoga helps with everything, but posture is high on this list. As someone who goes to yoga about four times a week, I can't say enough good things about those poses that open up your upper back. Bow pose, bridge pose, and even full wheel (when I was feeling particularly open!) have all been crucial to my posture improvement journey. Plus, yoga classes actually involve more core work than most people think, so that was another helpful factor in my yoga practice.
I also started utilizing props more often in yoga classes, and I found that sitting on blankets and blocks helped my posture in class, which translated to helping my posture in real life.
Massages help even more.
One thing I hadn't spent enough time thinking about was how much the persistent knots in my neck and shoulders were holding me back from good posture. But when my colleague Lindsay (who has excellent posture, I might add) pointed out that massage could be worth a try, I started getting regular massages from the in-home massage service Zeel and wracked every massage therapist's brain for tips on opening up my back and shoulders.
"Massage helps bring increased circulation to the muscles that support the spine and assists to relax and lengthen muscles," explained Jenn Grigg, community manager for massage therapists at Zeel. "Relaxed muscles can also reduce pressure on sensitive nerves caused by misalignment, thus alleviating tension and pain caused by structural imbalances. Regular massage encourages balance in your body and helps create the space to move in a more natural, healthy, and free-flowing way."
I found that massages seemed to make everything just a little easier: My backbends in yoga class were suddenly happening more easily, and I found it much easier to stand up and sit up straight in everyday life. In fact, just a month into regular massages, I found I was standing up straight without putting any thought into it at all. That was a first for me!
Out of all the things I did for my posture, getting regular massages from people who really knew what they were doing was by far the most transformative—but I'm the first to admit that it can get expensive. One thing I highly recommend is buying a lacrosse ball and using it to roll out back and shoulder knots. It works wonders!
Open up those pecs!
Here's one thing I didn't see coming: One massage therapist explained to me that I would never have great posture until I opened up my pectoral muscles, which I'd never thought of, since they're chest muscles. But once I started spending just two minutes per day working on opening those muscles up, I started to see a huge difference. I used Lo Roxburgh's class for guidance, and I can't recommend it enough.
While I'm glad I was able to stand up straight on my wedding day (I haven't gotten the pictures back yet, but the majority of the amateur photos I've gotten back indicate that I won't be reliving my prom experience), my posture project has all but eliminated my back and neck pain, and standing up straight is no longer even a little bit hard for me. That's the real accomplishment.
Want ideas for how to get a massage without breaking the bank? Here's how to make that happen.
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Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist and former Senior Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen where she analyzed new research on human behavior, looked at the intersection of wellness and women's empowerment, and took deep dives into the latest sex and relationship trends. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis. She has written for HuffPost, Glamour, and NBC News, among others, and is a certified yoga instructor.