Our bodies adapt to the postures we spend the most time in

If a typical day includes hunching over a desk or laptop for 8 to 12 hours a day and then couch-surfing for an hour or two in the evenings to watch “The Office,” you’re not alone. Americans are sitting an average of 13 hours a day, according to a survey conducted in 2013. Add those hours up, and it’s no wonder our natural posture has become increasingly curved, slumped, and sore. And if just hearing the phrase “poor posture” conjures up memories of mom telling you to “Sit up straight!” then keep in mind that, in this case, mother does know best.

“When we spend time in suboptimal positions, certain muscles in our body — such as shoulders, back, core, and neck — actually shorten,” explains Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault. Simply put, our bodies adapt to the postures we spend the most time in, and, over time, those shortened muscles can cause more health problems.

Poor posture does much more than just affect your body’s physical structure. Gabrielle Morbitzer, a yoga and mobility instructor for ICE NYC, says it impacts a wide range of things from “how our body produces hormones and how our blood is circulating, to how we feel in our bodies and how we’ll be able to move as we age.” We may not immediately recognize the damage our posture is doing — but our body does.

For example, Wickham says, the body can associate closed, or slumped-over posture with stress, which results in the release of cortisol. On the other hand, open or high-power positions — which may release endorphins and even testosterone, the dominance hormone — ward off stress and create feelings of confidence.

So not only does your posture affect your height and health, it can affect your mental health and how you feel about yourself. With that as an incentive, try these seven poses in the morning to get your blood flowing, loosen up tight muscles, and increase body awareness so you can stand straight and tall as you stroll out the front door.

Active Child’s Pose

Level: Beginner

Muscles worked: Shoulders, core, lower back

childs pose

How to do it:

  1. Start on your hands and knees.
  2. Widen your knees as far as shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keeping the bottoms of your feet facing the ceiling, touch your big toes to each other.
  4. Crawl your hands forward, and either extend your arms straight out toward the front of the mat, or drape your arms on the floor alongside your body.
  5. Slowly start to drop your hips back to rest on your heels.
  6. Rest your forehead on the floor.
  7. Breathe here for 5 to 10 deep breathes.

Why it works: Child’s Pose helps you explore the range of motion in your shoulders by stretching your arms above your head. It also helps lengthen and stretch the spine, which is used to being slouched after years of bad posture.

Standing Forward Fold

Level: Beginner

Muscles worked: Neck, shoulders, hamstrings

How to do it:

  1. Start with feet hip-width apart.
  2. With a generous bend in your knees to support and balance your body’s shape, exhale as you bend forward at your hips, lengthening the front of your torso.
  3. Bend your elbows. Hold on to each elbow with the opposite hand. Let the crown of your head hang down. Press your heels into the floor as you lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling.
  4. Pull your shoulders away from your ears. Drop your head and neck.
  5. Lengthen your legs until you feel a stretch in the hamstring muscle. Work on engaging your quadriceps muscle to help hamstring muscles release.
  6. If you can keep the front of your torso long and your knees straight, place your palms or fingertips on the floor beside your feet.
  7. Release deeper into the pose with each exhalation. Let your head hang as you feel the tension roll out of your shoulders and neck.
  8. Hold the pose for 30 seconds.

Why it works: This fold deeply stretches the hamstrings, opens the hips, and can help release any tension in the neck and shoulders, explains Morbitzer. This can be an intense stretch for the hamstrings, so be careful not to take it too far. Instead, allow the tension in your shoulders to roll out.


Level: Beginner

Muscles worked: Back, chest, abdominals

How to do it:

  1. Start on all fours. Your wrists should be stacked under your elbows, which are stacked under your shoulders. Keep your fingers spread against the ground for increased stability. Keep your knees stacked under your hips, toes untucked, with the top of your feet pressed into the ground.
  2. Lengthen from your tailbone down to your head, so that your neck is neutral and you’re looking down a few inches from your finger. This is your starting position.
  3. Begin the Cat phase. As you exhale, tuck your tailbone under, using your abdominal muscles to push your spine toward the ceiling, making the shape of a Halloween cat. Lengthen your neck. Allow your head to reach toward your chest so that your ears come down by your biceps.
  4. On an exhale breath, “swoop and scoop” the pelvis into Cow position so that your belly is dropped toward the floor. Lift your chin and chest and gaze up toward the ceiling. Broaden your shoulder blades. Draw your shoulders away from your ears.
  5. Cycle through Cat-Cow a few times. Be careful to avoid putting stress and pressure on your head and neck.

Why it works: This movement sequence will help increase spinal awareness, which is a large part of less-than-perfect posture. According to Morbitzer, “The Cat-Cow movement should be done through the core and the pelvis so that as you inhale, you are creating an anterior tilt to the pelvis so that your tailbone is facing the ceiling, and as you exhale you create a posterior tilt so that your tailbone is facing towards the ground.”

Standing Cat-Cow

Level: Intermediate

Muscles worked: Back, chest, abdominals, legs

How to do it:

  1. With your legs hip-width apart and knees bent, place hands either out in front of you or on your thighs for added balance.
  2. Keep your legs static. Begin the Cat (upward) phase: As you exhale, tuck your tailbone under using your abdominal muscles to push your spine toward the ceiling, making the shape of a Halloween cat. Lengthen your neck. Allow your head to reach toward your chest, maintaining alignment with the spine.
  3. On an exhale breath, “swoop and scoop” the pelvis into Cow position so that your belly is dropped toward the floor. Lift your chin and chest and gaze up toward the ceiling. Broaden your shoulder blades and draw your shoulders away from your ears.
  4. Cycle through Standing Cat-Cow a few times.

Why it works: This stretch activates different back muscles. It can help increase your awareness of your back in relation to the rest of your body. If your job requires you to be in the same position every day, take a break and cycle through Standing Cat-Cow a few times to help counteract the effects of sitting all day.

High plank

Level: Intermediate

Muscles worked: Abdominals, abductors, obliques, glutes, shoulders

How to do it:

  1. Start on all fours with your fingers spread slightly.
  2. Step one foot back, and then the other.
  3. Keep your core engaged and active, and your pelvis neutral. Point your tailbone down toward your heels. Keep your legs active so that you’re pulling up on your kneecaps with your quads. Press back through your heels so that your calves are active, too.
  4. With elbows underneath your shoulders, create space between the shoulders and ears so that there’s a slight stretch. To make sure that the chest isn’t sinking, puff up the space between your middle and lower back so that your shoulder blades are almost moving away from each other.
  5. Do 3 to 5 rounds of 10 breaths.

Why it works: “If you notice that your stomach or hips are sinking, tilt your pelvis slightly forward,” suggests Morbitzer. “But if that is too intense, bring your knees down to the ground while keeping the core tight and pelvis neutral.” This position requires awareness of the spinal position as well as engagement of the abdominal muscles. This core strength is vital for encouraging posture corrections.

Downward-Facing Dog

Level: Intermediate

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, hips, calves,

How to do it:

  1. Begin on all fours.
  2. Tuck your toes and lift your hips high, lifting your sitting bones toward the ceiling.
  3. Reach your heels back toward the mat without allowing them to plank on the ground.
  4. Drop your head and lengthen your neck.
  5. As you stay here, make sure that your wrist creases stay parallel to the front edge of the mat. To alleviate the pressure on your wrists, press into the knuckles of your forefinger and thumbs.
  6. Breathe here for at least 3 deep breaths.

Why it works: “It is useful for opening the anterior chest wall and shoulders that are so often rounded with excessive desk work,” explains Morbitzer. Practice often, and you might be able to relieve neck and back pain associated with poor posture. You might even find yourself sitting up a little straighter, too.

Remember to actively draw your shoulder blades back and create a space in your neck. If you find yourself scrunching your shoulder up to your ears, it may mean you don’t have enough upper body strength. If your shoulder blades begin to tense up, bend your knees and go into Child’s Pose, and rest until you’re ready to hold the position again.

Thoracic spine rotation

Level: Intermediate

Muscles worked: Back, chest, abdominals

How to do it:

  1. Start on all fours, with your fingers spread slightly.
  2. Place your left hand behind your head, but keep your right hand outstretched on the ground in front of you with fingers spread.
  3. Rotate your left elbow to the sky while exhaling, stretching the front of your torso, and hold for a deep breath, in and out.
  4. Return to the starting position. Repeat for 5 to 10 breaths.
  5. Switch arms and repeat.

Why it works: This exercise stretches and improves mobility in your torso, specifically your thoracic spine (the middle and upper back). It also reduces stiffness in the mid to lower back. Thoracic spine mobility is extremely important for loosening tightness in the back muscles. “The point of this exercise is to take the [muscles] around the spine through its full range of motion,” Wickham explains.

What science says about stretching and posture

Right now, there’s no direct evidence linking stretching to better posture, but science, as always, is at work to find one. An early 2010 study suggests that stretching could improve posture, and some researchers at the University of Sao Paulo believe it could help enough that they’re currently recruiting participants for a clinical trial studying the link between stretching, better posture, and reduced back pain from sitting.

But what about now? Where does all this stretching lead? Well, both Wickham and Morbitzer believe active yoga poses that incorporate breath and muscle contractions can help people gradually realign their bodies and improve posture. Stretching also gets your blood flowing and can help increase body awareness, so that even when you’re not trying, your body, through an ache or slump, will remind you to “Sit up straight!”

And you’ll adjust, just the way your mom wanted you to.

Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.