When you grew up, your parents or teachers probably told you to sit and stand straight, instead of slouching your back and shoulders. They themselves may not have exactly known why that was important, it just seemed that way. But more recent science has found that they were actually right in many more ways than they imagined. As it turns out, good posture enhances physical fitness, helps reduce stress, and contributes to healthy aging.
That good posture plays a role in health and fitness should come as no surprise. Only when the body is properly aligned, the supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles can function at their best. Sitting or standing hunched over for hours — as many of us do at work and other activities — can lead to chronic pain and permanently debilitating damage. By contrast, good posture can help prevent such wear and tear and maintain greater flexibility and strength.
Research suggests that good posture can also foster people’s psychological well-being. One study from the University of Auckland found that the way people conducted themselves physically did indeed influence their self-esteem and how they were able to cope with stress and problem solving. As tests showed, sitting or standing upright helped participants feel more powerful and competent when facing a number of challenging tasks they were assigned to. In other words, bodily experiences can significantly affect cognitive and emotional states as well, the researchers concluded.
The issue becomes ever more pressing with age. A study from Japan discovered connections between good posture and the risk of future disability. Participants who sat, stood and walked even only slightly bent forward in their mid-life years developed greater physical limitations than their counterparts who generally maintained an upright posture. The differences became ever more pronounced as they got older, and were eventually quite significant in terms of their overall health status.
There is also a social dimension to the way we present ourselves physically, especially in our later years. As surveys have shown, old age is commonly associated with physical deterioration and visa versa. Many seniors feel left behind and isolated from society, in part because of actual physical (and perhaps mental) shortcomings, but also based on false assumptions that they no longer can keep up. However, while some slowing down may be an inevitable part of nature, there is no need to accept premature degeneration and decline.
And there is much that can be done to counteract those processes. For example, stretching, yoga and other exercises that promote flexibility can do wonders for an aging body. So can brisk walking, keeping a good stride, moving with ease and confidence — all of which are signs of good health and vitality. A positive attitude and outlook on life can also do some good, particularly when it shows on the outside.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.