When I started my first job after college, I came prepared with a nasty little device called a Lumo Lift. Attached to my shirt via a magnet, the posture corrector would vibrate ever so slightly every time I slouched over, reminding me to sit up straight. It helped me maintain what I believed to be “perfect posture.” With my spine pointed at the heavens, my desk job couldn’t possibly hurt it.
The device lasted a month before annoying its way into the back of a drawer. But to my surprise, the physical consequences of my workplace slouching never arrived – and there’s a scientific reason why.
As workers and movers, we’re constantly told what the shape and curve and position of our backs should be, to “sit up straight,” and closely study the ergonomics of our office chairs. But when prodded, these and other beliefs surrounding posture turn out to be as baseless as they are ubiquitous. Some might even be hurting us.
“There’s this narrative of, like, ‘Oh, my God, if I slouch,’ I’m going to rupture my disk, ‘or’ I’m going to pull my disk. ‘ And I’m going to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame when I’m 70, ”says Kevin Wernli, Ph.D., a physiotherapist in Perth, Australia. “It perpetuates and promotes this narrative that our bodies are fragile and vulnerable. And they’re not. ”
Wernli, whose work has long focused on the relationship between posture and back pain, is part of a growing group of researchers seeking to identify the true roots of back pain and debunk the idea that an objectively “poor posture” exists. Take, for instance, a 2019 study that looked at call-center employees. The researchers found that time spent sitting still correlated with back pain, whereas sitting position did not. Other research, including Wernli’s, has suggested that a tense and overthought (and therefore unnatural) “protective” style of movement, which those experiencing pain tend to use, can actually worsen pain. In contrast, relaxing into more natural-feeling positions can help.
To understand why, imagine clenching your fist tight, the way you would sit upright and alert with “proper posture,” Wernli says. “If you did that for eight hours a day while you’re sitting at the office desk, you’re going to come and tell me that you’ve got a really sore wrist.” The same applies to your spine when you’re trying to maintain good posture.
The existence of a “perfect posture,” and what exactly it might be, is still hotly debated among physiotherapists. A 2012 study of nearly 300 physiotherapists across Europe found that they were unable to form a consensus about the ideal sitting posture, with 85% split between two options. Answers also varied by country, indicating that both cultural history and training systems that differ across borders likely affect expert recommendations.
A lot of these disagreements stem from a lack of clear-cut scientific literature across the field, Wernli says. Although beliefs about correct posture have their roots in everything from gender roles to classism – those with more money and power are more likely to have the privilege to sit at a desk with a straight back all day – the medical belief that incorrect posture could directly cause pain comes primarily from a line of research stretching back to the 1960s. A 1964 article in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery became the first to link different body positions to different amounts of pressure on the lumbar disks supporting the lower portion of the spine. The researchers concluded that because increased pressure could up the risk of an injured disc, it must also increase the risk of lumbar pain.
This assumption was rarely challenged in the following 50 years of scientific literature, even in articles that replicated that old study’s findings. It has guided medical recommendations for decades, Wernli says, but deserves to be challenged, especially as early work has begun to reveal its flaws.
So what does this mean for people dealing with back pain? The answer is that there is no one answer. “If you’re worried about back pain, you should worry about your back pain, and the situation in which that back pain exists, and not attempt to get some global solution, ”says Sander Gilman, Ph.D., JD,a medical historian at Emory University and author of Stand Up Straight !: A History of Posture. Gilman agrees with Wernli that prevention and solutions to back pain should focus on more than just the back itself – that experiences including mood and temperament are likely to play into pain in more ways than we know.
“Posture is not just muscles,” Gilman says. “It’s not just neurological. It’s the way we function in the world, the jobs we do, where we are in our lifespan, and where we are culturally. ” Via tools including military formations, classroom etiquette, and, of course, the corset, posture has in much of history represented a commitment to one’s place in the world. To Gilman, the biggest missing link in our understanding of pain and posture is a “disjuncture between the very good, very extensive cultural study of posture and the physiology of posture.”
Overturning long-standing assumptions about posture means unlearning what we think we know about curling and hunching our backs. “We are humans; we’re not machines, ”Wernli says. Everyday activities exert all sorts of physical pressures on our bodies, but “in the right environment, with rest and recovery, we do not break down with more pressure – we actually get stronger with more pressure.”
Both experts agree that if you’re feeling persistent back pain, the first thing you should do is seek medical help to rule out true injuries and illnesses. At the same time, it may be worth letting go of your stress about everyday movements such as working from the couch or picking up your kids. “My ultimate goal for someone with back pain,” Wernli says, “is for them to forget they have a back.”
So unclip your inner Lumo Lift and go with the flow a bit more. As Wernli’s favorite tagline goes, “your best posture is your next posture.”