Good Posture: Why Your Mom Was Right, and How Behavioral Science Can Help

By Dallan Packard, DC, and Richard Gray

 

Almost all of us have heard it at some point in our lives: “Don’t slouch, or you’ll hurt your back!” Of course, as adolescents, we automatically classified as passé anything our parents implored us to do, and many of us are now as adults suffering the consequences of wiring the habit of bad posture into our brains. The problem has been compounded by increasingly sedentary work, even among office workers. Long hours filing and typing on typewriters may have taxed backs in the 20th century (not to mention long hours in construction or manufacturing), but long hours sitting at a computer moving little more than the fingers is arguably even worse. The human body was designed for an environment of constant movement, and our present lack of movement poses a serious threat to our wellbeing. For healthcare practitioners, the problems of sedentary life, especially when compounded by poor posture, are on display everyday. The challenge for these practitioners is that an adjustment, a stretch, or an exercise only lasts a few minutes, and as research shows, can’t compete with hours of sitting or even standing in poor posture.

Today’s office workers are clearly aware of the problem. There are high quality standing desks on the market that sell for hundreds of dollars, and health and wellness benefits have become common alongside health insurance. While workers with standing desks may be reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease and possibly other problems, simply standing or even moving more won’t help promote good posture on their own. Just like sitting too much, poor posture is partly physiological and partly behavioral, and solving the behavioral aspects of posture for a nation of slouching screen-gazers at work, at home, and at school seems to have largely eluded us. Whether sitting or standing, working at a treadmill desk, or wherever, there’s something about looking at a screen for many hours that makes our shoulders roll forward, our backs arch, and our chins drop.

Part of the problem seems to be that for the habitually poor-postured, maintaining good posture takes practice. And unlike solving the problem of sitting, solving the posture problem requires maintaining constant awareness of bodily position, which can easily drift out of mind as we do our work, or become absorbed in Netflix or other on-screen activities.

The problem is, how does one ask someone to do something which they may view as vaguely uncomfortable (many mistakenly believe that good posture requires physical exertion), and easy to forget about for hours at a time? The answer may lie in new approaches to training that eat away at big problems with a bite-sized approach.

 

Good posture, a minute at a time

Since maintaining a constant awareness of bodily position and good posture throughout the day is nearly impossible, successfully changing this habit requires a different approach. To find a strategy that works, we may want to look to success that’s been had in the related field of eLearning.

Over the last few years, there’s been a shift in eLearning (particularly in corporate settings) from longer training sessions to “bite-sized” ones that last only a few minutes, and are spread throughout the day. According to Shiftlearning, these intermittent reminders stimulate better engagement are more suited to the natural drift of our focus. eLearning Industry Magazine reports that these bite-sized lessons are “perfectly ‘tailored’ to our brains, which are more effective in comprehending morsels of information compared to mountains of data.”

The idea is not to oblige 24/7 good posture from the start, but rather encourage good posture for a few minutes a day, gradually retraining our brains and our bodies into better posture throughout the day. This process should feel a lot more natural than trying to force oneself to stand and sit up straight all the time, and should make it more difficult to give up on the effort out of boredom, discomfort, or simply forgetting about it.

 

The high-tech approach

These simple behavioral approaches may also be augmented by technologies like AI, which can detect through machine vision when a person is not sitting or standing correctly, and send reminders when they’re not. Even augmented reality may play a role, giving visual cues to guide a person back into good posture. A recent experimental study showed that a similar high-tech intervention using a biofeedback device had positive results for musculoskeletal symptoms and fatigue in control room workers.

These high-tech approaches in combination with a bite-sized, e-learning-style approach may offer new ways to keep us on the straight and narrow of good posture–and possibly may even be more effective over the long-term than age-old parental reminders.

 

Richard Gray is co-founder and CEO of Brightday, a company that produces software that trains and corrects posture. Dallan Packard is a chiropractor that has started clinics in New Zealand, Washington and Salt Lake City, and currently runs Packard Chiropractic, a Family Wellness Clinic, in Northern California. 

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