After it’s been a day, our beds and sofas can look pretty inviting — so much so that we often sprawl stomach down on them to chill.
While relaxing, we might also whip out our phones or other screens to get our social media fix or catch up on a show.
But the tummy position can bring on trouble — especially if we stay there for hours watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram.
Lying on your stomach for extensive amounts of time can harm your:
- posture (shoulders, neck, and back)
- gut health
- overall well-being
“Lying on your stomach causes a reversal of the normal curves of the spine,” says Dr. Sherry McAllister, a chiropractor. And this repeated stress can cause issues that go beyond just aches and pains.
Who exactly lies on their stomach for that long?
A 2016 survey of college students found that more than 15 percent used their laptops while lying on their stomachs during leisure time.
Another 2017 report found that nearly half of Americans (48 percent) use a smartphone, tablet, or laptop in bed at least once a week before trying to nod off for the night.
But it’s not an age thing — people in their 40s and 70s also do this — it’s a habit we may have developed over the years.
Even if lying on your gut doesn’t cause you immediate soreness, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. “By the time pain and symptoms appear, the problem may have been present for months, even years,” McAllister adds.
So how can resting on our stomachs come back to haunt us?
When we’re on our tummies, we tend to:
- extend our necks
- hike our shoulders to our ears
- place our wrists and elbows in awkward positions
- jar the pelvis
This torques key joints — especially while using tech, which extends our time on our tummy. (This is also a really bad sleep position, by the way.)
A 2012 study of people using their laptops away from a desk showed that time spent doing tasks in the prone position brought on more pain in the neck and back than seated postures did.
In the end, the study recommended keeping any belly time brief.
“The spine protects your nervous system, which controls and coordinates all the different functions of your body,” McAllister says. “Any disruption in nerve communication to your organs and body tissues will result in abnormal function.”
Is your gut in check?
When we put our weight on our pelvis, we put pressure on our low back, which could fan the flames of any existing issues we have there, like sciatica.
How’s your breathing?
If you’re lying on your belly, you’re likely lying on your core breathing muscle, the diaphragm, which prevents you from taking full breaths. The diaphragm is located between your chest and your abdomen, and it can play a role in keeping you calm.
Studies have linked diaphragmatic breathing to both physical and mental relaxation. It’s a technique often used in yoga and meditation. (Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking slow, deep inhales that contract the diaphragm and expand the belly, each followed by a long exhale.)
Research from 2014 has shown that posture plays a part in how well we’re able to use our breathing muscle. Shallow inhales could worsen anxiety or stress.
Combine ragged breathing with fielding emails late at night, and you can see how lying on your belly might get you more riled up than normal.
Sitting at a desk isn’t always feasible, possible, or comfortable when we’re using our devices. Part of the beauty of having them is that they’re mobile.
But to preserve our health, it helps to have a few rules in place for using them in bed or when cuddled up on the couch next to the cat. Parents, you may want to keep an eye on little ones to prevent them from developing this bad habit.
We’ve adapted these recommendations resulting from a 2018 study on “iPad neck,” conducted by physical therapist Szu-Ping Lee and colleagues at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
Avoid lying on your belly by…
- Using back support. Sit at a chair, or if in bed, prop your back up sufficiently with pillows against a headboard or wall. The key here is to avoid “crunching down” over your device.
- Setting a reminder. A posture wearable can train you to avoid slouching. Or set a timer to check in on your posture every 10 to 20 minutes. If you frequently switch positions, this can be your prompt to change it up. (If you must lie on your belly, keep the timeframe super short.)
- Raising your devices up. For tablets, use a stand so the device is upright, rather than flat, and attach a keyboard, instead of using just the touchscreen. Use a lap desk, too. These options raise your tablet or computer so that you’re not hunching.
- Strengthening and stretching the neck, shoulders, and back. Toning and lengthening muscles in these areas can help improve posture and stave off tightness or tension.
One last interesting tidbit on the topic: More gals than guys reported pain in regards to tablet use, says the UNLV study, and the ladies are also more likely to use their tech while on the floor.
Regardless of gender, if you’re spending time down there with your devices, invest in a cushy chair or some supportive bed pillows for the benefit of your bod.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.