The “Perfect” Posture: Position vs. Posture

Written by Dr. Thomas Little, PT, DPT

This post will provide you with the tools and strategies for improving strength/mobility and decreasing pain all while at work! These principles apply to both working at home and in the office (standing desk or sitting).

Setting the Stage

Improved function (strength, mobility, etc.) is not something that occurs solely from a 1-hour workout.

Rather, it is the product of our daily routines.

What is the “Perfect” Posture?

In short, no posture is “perfect” (Spoiler!). The idea that you should constantly maintain a “perfect” posture ignores that the human body craves movement and is consistently interacting with our external environments (e.g., computer). The reinforcement of optimal postures should occur, but “perfect” posture education alone is often ineffective due to poor long-term adherence. “Perfect” posture assessments typically occur via checklists you are most likely familiar with (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Furthermore, most traditional ergonomic programs are reliant on fancy tools and equipment (e.g., standing desk, document holder). Although these do help facilitate a more optimal work environment, they do not mean you are “ergonomic”. Your ergonomics are based on how you personally interact with your external environment. For instance, if your external environment is set up optimally (e.g., perfect chair, keyboard) but you are not positioned well, your workplace set up is no longer “ergonomic” (Figure 2).
Figure 2

Even maintaining the “perfect” posture for prolonged periods is not optimal!

Redefining Posture

The use of the term position should be encouraged instead of posture. This is because posture is traditionally viewed as static state held for a long duration, whereas position is viewed as a temporary state that is constantly changing. Position is strongly linked to the medical term proprioception, which is your nervous system telling you WHERE your body is in space. Furthermore, proprioception implies that understanding your body’s position is a prerequisite for effective and quality movement, given you must recognize WHERE your body is in space before you can decide HOW to move. Position can be broken down by individual joints in the body, and if there is not optimal positioning in one body area, another region will compensate to make up the difference.

PROPRIOCEPTION

The internal sense of the relative position of the body’s musculoskeletal units with each other and the effort needed to move them.¹

For example, if there isn’t appropriate shoulder positioning (no internal rotation [bringing your hand towards your belly]) while attempting to drink from a water bottle, your other body regions (elbow, hand/wrist, neck) must compensate to ensure the water gets to your mouth (Figure 3). This reinforces the interconnectedness between body regions and the idea that the “problematic” region may not be the cause (e.g., the best way to help reduce neck pain may be by changing the position of the lower back).

Figure 3

How Do You Reinforce Optimal Positions?

Ergonomics education alone, such as the checklist from the beginning of this post (Figure 1), has suspect effectiveness for reducing incidence of pain, however when combined with movement-based interventions there are significant reductions in new episodes of pain.² Meaning ergonomics should be addressed from a movement perspective (dynamic). Rather than maintaining the “perfect” posture throughout the day, we can instead subconsciously reinforce ideal positioning through muscle activation and movements.

The most effective approach to improving your position is through the concept of “Tiny Habits” popularized by Dr. BJ Fogg.³

Tiny Habits

  1. Identify your routines
  2. Identify small movements
  3. Combine your routines with small movements.

Daily Routine

Example: (fill up water bottle)

+ Small Movement

Example: (2 air squats)

= Activity

“Perfect” posture is frequently changing positions!

Identify Your Routines

This can include any frequent activities be throughout your workday such as:

 

  • Drinking from your water bottle/coffee cup
  • Starting a meeting
  • Printing a document
  • Using the restroom

Identify Small Movements

Do anything you are physically capable of doing (if you are unable to do a burpee, then find something else that you can do). Make the movement appropriate for the environment you are working in. Keep the number of repetitions you do small (don’t increase over time) to ensure that you keep doing them to establish a habit.

Some small movement examples are:

  • Push-ups
  • Air-squats
  • Shoulder squeezes
  • Neck stretches

Combine Routine + Small Movement

Every time you perform your routine you also perform a small movement.

An example would be for every email sent, you contract (“squeeze”) your shoulders and glutes together which ultimately bolsters awareness of your bodily position time.

Movement-based ergonomics reinforce the optimal positions we are always attempting to achieve through muscle activation.

The Takeaway
Using the Tiny Habits concept, you transform your function via small, simple accumulated activities that surmount to something significant. Continue this habit, and you’ve integrated activity into your day that it is no longer “traditional” gym exercise. It is as if you save $1 a day, which doesn’t seem like much initially, but over time you end up saving a significant amount of money!

References

1. proprioception. (n.d.). In: Segen’s Medical Dictionary. ; 2011. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/proprioception. Accessed April 12, 2020.

2. de Campos TF, Maher CG, Steffens D, Fuller JT, Hancock MJ. Exercise programs may be effective in preventing a new episode of neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Physiother. 2018;64(3):159-165. doi:10.1016/j.jphys.2018.05.003

3. B.J. Fogg. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything; 2020.