A man sits at a desk and slouches over to stare at an iPad.
You might need a professional’s sharp eye to help you correct poor posture. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You don’t have to carry water buckets on your head to perk up your posture, but when it comes to good spinal alignment, you may have a lot to learn from indigenous folks.

A recent NPR story revealed that many indigenous people never experience back pain, even though they typically perform hard manual labor every day.

The theory is that they have better posture—a J-shaped spine instead of the typical American S-shaped spine.

They more naturally keep their backs straight, heads up and butts out.

Right and wrong

Joy Powell, a Spectrum Health Outpatient Rehabilitation physical therapist certified in mechanical diagnosis and therapy of the spine, said there’s a right way and a wrong way to sit, stand and lie down.

“I think when people hear the word posture, they most readily identify with a sitting position,” Powell said. “In its definition, not once does the word ‘sitting’ come up. Posture has to do with body alignment and carriage.”

Powell asks patients to slouch down, then pull their body into proper posture.

“A lot of times people will pull into an exaggerated curve and raise their chest up,” she said. “That’s what I call reverse slouching. Slouching (and reverse slouching) rests on the ligaments. It doesn’t use bone or muscle support.”

If you want perfect posture, pretend there’s a puppet string on top of your head and someone is pulling it upward.

“It should take effort to hold that position,” Powell said. “You should be turning muscles on to support yourself. It helps to have a trained eye looking at you to show you where the alignment should line up.”

In her line of work, Powell said no matter what body part she is working on, posture always plays into the equation.

She said she agrees with the NPR article’s findings.

“In our culture, we sit down a lot,” Powell said. “When we sit a lot and no muscles turn on, that leads to poor posture. That’s not to say people who stand all day have good posture. If you’re not activating those muscles to hold alignment, it causes friction in the joints. Friction causes wear and tear.”

Powell said our body is much like a car or machine. It needs to be finely tuned. If we’re not aligned, it can cause damage, which can manifest itself in pain.

No slouching

The good news? Pain is often reversible.

“Children five or younger have exceptional posture,” Powell said. “When you think about a baby, they sit with trunk upright and shoulders back. They’re not slouched because if they do, they’ll fall over.”

There’s another natural move kids make when they pick up an object.

“You never see them bend over,” she said. “You always seen them squat down to pick something up. Then they start school and they’re told to sit in a chair for hours and hours a day. That’s where we start to see a decline in posture—early elementary school age.”

Powell noted that indigenous cultures don’t have modern furniture. They stand and walk while carrying heavy things.

“They have to have things line up right over their body,” she said. “If they’re carrying something on their head and they slouch down, the system is not going to support the extra weight.”

But there are things we can do to improve our posture, short of carrying baskets of food on our heads.

Powell suggests keeping these tips in mind:

  • If you sit while you’re working, every hour actively draw up tall through your spine (as if by a puppet string), with your feet flat on the floor. Hold this position for a few seconds. “This trains your muscles,” she said.
  • Stand with your body against a wall to help train your alignment muscles.
  • Line up your ankle bone (the knob on the outside of your ankle) with your hip bone, shoulder and ear. Use a mirror or have someone take pictures so you can see what proper alignment looks like.
  • Avoid dropping your weight to one leg while you’re standing. “That’s horrible,” Powell said. “Don’t do it. It really distorts the alignment of your pelvis and spine. It’s like the body has to zig and zag to make corrections. The pelvis tilts and the femur rotates, which can contribute to problems in the spine, hip and knee.”
  • Stand with one foot slightly in front of the other.
  • If it’s too easy, you’re probably not standing or sitting properly.
  • Find a class or consult with a physical therapist. “Really the only way to strengthen postural muscles is to learn to use them for what they’re designed for, which is stabilizing posture,” Powell said.
  • Sleep strategically. “Put a pillow between your knees, take a small towel, semi-folded and place it at your waist to provide structural support there,” she said. “This can be a huge improvement for back, knee and hip pain. The majority of individuals that make those changes start to respond within the first week.”
  • Get moving. Even exercising regularly can help, since postural muscles have to engage to support the body’s movement. Remember that the key to good posture is engaging muscles. If you are exercising regularly, the muscles are being used more regularly.