In yoga class not long ago, I was positioning myself for Sunrise Salutation — feet together, hands in prayer, gaze forward—when I caught my reflection in the mirror. How could I look so deeply uncomfortable in this simple pose? Granted, this was my first yoga class in two years, but I looked like it was my first class ever. My shoulders were in my ears and my back felt crazy tight. Nothing, it seemed, was lining up correctly.
A few days later, I downloaded an app that analyzes posture (PostureScreen Mobile, 10 dollars; iTunes) just to reassure myself that the yoga gods weren't exacting revenge on my spine for that two-year hiatus. After uploading a couple of photos, I waited for the results, purposely standing tall as if that would help skew them in my favor. The verdict: My right shoulder is higher than my left, my head juts forward, and I hunch a bit.
I have to be honest: This freaks me out. As a teenager I busted a vertebra and spent nearly a year in a body cast (not hot at the prom). Genetics aren't exactly in my corner, either. My grandmother has arthritis and bone loss in her back that's severe enough to limit mobility and require steroid and experimental bone-growing injections. This sure isn't where I want to be in 40 years.
An easy fix
Turns out, I don't have to be. "Most of us have posture that's compromised in some way, but it doesn't take a lot of work to correct it," says Ezriel Kornel, MD, a spinal surgeon and professor at the Cornell University School of Medicine. "Your body simply needs to be taught to experience proper posture so that that becomes the place it naturally wants to be."
There are plenty of reasons to take posture seriously. First, there's the obvious body bonus: When you stand tall, you look long and lean. Dr. Kornel estimates that you can add 1/16th- to 1/8th-inch of space between each disk in your lower back when you're perfectly upright — that's a full extra inch of height.
Then there are the health consequences of succumbing to slumping. When your body is out of alignment for long periods of time, your spine is subjected to uneven — and excess — pressure on joints and disks. This causes an overgrowth of cartilage lining the joints (the very thing that plagues my grandmother) and can lead to compressed nerves, resulting in pain and numbness in your arms and legs — and, of course, herniated disks and other serious problems.
Beyond that, hunched posture can cause headaches due to upper-body muscle tension and constipation because the intestinal tract is physically constricted. It can also decrease respiratory capacity by up to 30 percent, making you more susceptible to infections because the lungs can't clear bacteria properly.
Back on track
Good posture, on the other hand, gives you more than just a health boost. It can actually make you more confident and successful. A recent study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that "posture expansiveness" — essentially, standing tall with shoulders back and chest open — creates a sense of power in yourself and in how others perceive you. This may be, in part, a result of changes in biochemistry. A recent study by Amy J.C. Cuddy, PhD, a social psychologist and associate professor at the Harvard Business School, found that standing tall increases testosterone and decreases cortisol, which makes you feel more dominant.
Pilates is a good way to right your posture. Thankfully for me, yoga is, too, according to Dr. Kornel. All of your instructors' cues — to square your hips and lower your shoulders — stick with you in everyday life. Yoga also enhances flexibility to eliminate muscle imbalances (which can cause issues like my crooked shoulders) and strengthen the deep abdominal and back muscles that support proper alignment, explains New York City yoga instructor and Health Contributing Fitness Editor Kristin McGee.
The 4 biggest posture killers
Your job. Sitting at a desk every day, you tend to stoop over with your head forward and shoulders slumped. Doing this for hours at a time can knock you out of alignment and place excess pressure on your spine, says Dr. Kornel. Take a break every half hour, and walk around for several minutes. When you sit back down, you're more likely to do so without hunching.
An overstuffed handbag. More than six pounds adds pressure on your back, says Jason Datta, MD, an orthopedic spinal surgeon at Sonoran Spine Center in Phoenix. Toss yours on the scale and see if it needs downsizing. Or, switch to a cross-body bag that sits at your waist, Dr. Datta says. This way the weight is distributed more evenly.
Housework. Cleaning floors is the most tiring and, therefore, potentially hazardous household task: Fatigue leads to poor posture, which raises your risk of injury, suggests a study at Cornell University. At the first sign of fatigue, note your posture. If you're hunching, take a break. Lie faceup on the floor and hug your knees to your chest. Hold for 30 seconds, then rock back and forth to relax your back muscles.
Shyness. Next time you walk into a party, note your body language. Are you stooped? Looking down? "When you're feeling insecure, you want to become less visible and that affects posture in detrimental ways," Dr. Kornel says. For a healthier—and more attractive—stance, mindfully take up as much space as possible.