It's one thing to notice your body when you're sweating through a yoga class or running that last mile. But once you're out of "fitness" mode, heightened physical awareness tends to fade -- especially once you sit down. With your body parked in a chair (read: ignored), your mind takes center stage as it goes about executing tasks. Stuck in this daily torpor, the body weakens and loses flexibility, paving the way for dysfunctional breathing, diminished energy, and chronic pain. "If your work requires prolonged sitting, you have as much need for physical training as any athlete," says Mary Bond, author of the just-released "The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World." "You're doing an extraordinary thing: holding still."
Our bodies evolved to thrive with movement, so sitting in the classic C-curve slouch without interruption causes significant strain on muscles and joints. But charm-school posture isn't ideal either, as it erases natural spinal curves that minimize wear and tear throughout the body. "Most people think of posture as a static position from the waist up," says Bond. "But at its core, healthy posture is dynamic and holistic." Good posture, she says, involves a gentle S curve in the spine with the feet flat on the floor, legs bent at right angles, knees slightly below the hip sockets, and a sense of weight through the feet and pelvis. In this position, your lungs expand easily, and your muscles support your body against gravity with minimal strain.
To adopt a more active sitting posture and spare your body undue stress (and its consequences), weave a few key movements into your daily routine. According to Bond, who suggests the exercises here, moving periodically through non-ordinary positions -- opening your chest, curving your back, extending your arms -- helps increase awareness of your spine and "reset" healthy posture. What's more, you mentally reclaim your space, a crucial consideration when it comes to poor sitting habits. "The problem of sitting in an office," Bond explains, "is first and foremost a matter of perception." Sensing tight quarters or a need to contain emotions (as in a professional environment), we unconsciously compress our bodies. Taking mini-vacations from this mindset helps you draw out of the collapsed posture of daily life. "When you sit with a lift to your heart and freedom to your breath," says Bond, "your perspective becomes more holistic."
Healthy sitting engages muscles throughout the body. With practice, it becomes easy-and more comfortable than slouching. Balance your ears directly over your shoulders and hips to allow deep breaths and a relaxed neck. Sit forward with an S curve in your spine and a slight pelvic tilt to broaden your base of support, helping to prevent back strain. Use your legs, pelvis, and feet (flat on floor) for support to tone muscles and reduce reliance on backrests.
Long + Tall
Once you have an image of healthy sitting, it's tempting to shove your body into a rigid position. But lasting change requires a gentler approach. "When you force a lineup of ear, shoulder, and hip," says Bond, "it feels unnatural." Instead, she suggests treating your spine like a strand of gently curving jewels -- connected but not stiff. Imagine stringing together 24 gems in all, one for each movable vertebra. The result, says Bond, is healthy alignment that also feels authentic. "You can maintain good posture," she says, "and still feel like you."
Curling + Arching (Seated Cat + Cow)
WHAT IT DOES:
We often let our chairs do the work when we sit and feel "relaxed" in a slouch. But our strength, energy, and mobility pay the price for this deceptive position. To activate better sitting habits, awaken your postural support muscles and spine several times a day with this yoga-inspired exercise.
HOW TO DO IT:
1. Starting with neutral posture, exhale as you slowly roll back on your pelvis. In five slow breaths, allow this movement to travel upward until your spine forms a long C curve.
2. Exhaling, begin to reverse the curve. Slowly roll your pelvis and spine forward. In five slow breaths, continue the curve through your waist, middle back, and upper spine. Keep your feet planted as you unfold your neck, letting your vision expand into the far distance. Return to neutral.
WHAT IT DOES:
Nonlinear motion breaks your usual mouse-keyboard-phone movement pattern, opening joints and bringing more ease to your everyday activities. Bond recommends trying this exercise several times a day, or whenever you feel tightness in your upper body.
HOW TO DO IT:
1. Sitting with correct posture, engage your abdominal muscles and extend your arms to the side. On inhalation, sweep your right arm over your head and your left arm across your body, lengthening your right side. As you exhale, retrace your path, and then sweep your left arm over your head and your right arm across. Repeat several times, alternating arms.
2. Still expanding across your collar bones and upper back, begin to explore space closer to your center. Bring your hands in front of your heart and circle your wrists 5 to 10 times in each direction.