If you’re in pursuit of improving your postural habits, you’ll find that it requires constant effort and attention. Closely monitoring your seated and standing positions is a great starting point, but there are other small changes you can implement into your daily routine that will make a huge impact. Many companies are now offering perks like sit-to-stand desks and other ergonomic options to help their employees reduce tension throughout the body. Aside from improving your sitting posture at your desk, there are a few common lifestyle habits that can hinder your progress that you might not have previously considered. Factors ranging from your hairstyle to your footwear choices could be negating your efforts to improve your bodily alignment.
This is a big one for me. As someone with long hair, I realize that sometimes it’s necessary to wear your hair up to keep it out of your face. That being said, frequently wearing your hair in ponytails and buns can push your head in front of your center of mass, thus placing excess strain on your neck and shoulders.
Wearing your hair in a bun or a ponytail may also cause tension headaches (referred to in the medical literature as a “ponytail headache”). One study found that women wearing their hair in a ponytail reported pain in their temples, in their foreheads, and in their necks (Blau et.al. 2004).
Choosing to wear your bun or ponytail higher on your scalp can reduce your inclination to push your head and neck forward. Leave your hair down when you’re relaxing around the house and give your neck a break.
Backpacks, Briefcases, Wallets, and Purses
Backpacks act similarly to ponytails and can also promote forward head posture. A study on backpack position in children showed that a lower backpack position caused the smallest changes in spinal curvature, whereas higher backpacks tended to result in poor spinal position and rounded shoulders. Wearing your backpack with the straps a bit looser can ensure that you’re in a better position, as it will encourage your shoulders to come back and down as your neck relaxes (Brackley et.al. 2009).
Additionally, research suggests that carrying heavier loads in your purse or backpack (greater than 20% of your bodyweight) can cause significant changes to your gait and posture, so try to travel lightly (Chow et.al. 2006).
With purses or briefcases, make sure that you regularly switch the side on which you carry it. Many people tend to favor one side or the other, which can result in musculoskeletal imbalances over time. Imagine if you were only doing bicep curls on one arm several times per week for years on end: your dominant arm would get larger, and the rest of your body would have to adjust to compensate. Wearing a purse or a backpack over one shoulder everyday is no different.
Finally, individuals who leave their wallets in their back pockets should be mindful of how this affects their seated posture. Keeping a wallet in one pocket will force you to posteriorly rotate (round) your lower back while also shifting your weight towards that side. Researchers have noted increased gluteal discomfort while seated in individuals with thicker wallets (Martins et.al. 2017). Notorious B.I.G. said it first: “mo’ money, mo’ problems,” right? If you’re out to eat, leave your wallet on the table or in your jacket pocket.
You should seek to leave your purse or backpack at home whenever you can to avoid excess strain on your muscles. One option that can help limit the number of things you need to carry is to choose a cell phone case that holds your money and your cards.
You should seek to wear shoes with a minimal drop (a thin insole) rather than clunky sneakers. Heeled footwear can massively impact the rest of the kinetic chain for the worse. High heels, thick insoles, and flip flops should all be avoided (or at least worn as infrequently as possible) to mitigate changes to your gait. Most notably, improper footwear shortens stride length, inhibits the movement of the toes (especially that of the big toe), increases walking speed, and increases heel strike (Zhang et.al. 2014).
Elevated heels tend to push the lower back into a hyperextended position which also push the head forward. These effects can be found in high heels, but also in sneakers with thick insoles. Numerous studies have shown the impacts of high heels on gait and posture (Cronin 2014). Individuals who experience chronic hip, knee, or ankle pain should try to wear high-heeled footwear whenever possible. If you’d like to wear high heels, choose a smaller heel.
Flip flops cause the wearer to use their toes to “grip” the shoe, and thus they’re unable to properly extend their toes as they walk. This can result in cramping of the toes and feet, or even chronic plantar fascia pain (Shroyer & Weimar 2010).
Tight, narrow footwear will also squish your toes together and may cause bunions and other gait alterations over time. Many high heeled shoes in particular have a pointy toe box which can push the feet into uncomfortable positions.
A study on minimal footwear found that participants with osteoarthritis of the knee reported a significant decrease in pain (Trombini-Souza et.al. 2015). Another study on runners found that the load rates on runners wearing minimal footwear were dramatically lower than the load rates in runners wearing traditional running sneakers (Rice et.al. 2016).
Purchasing “minimal” footwear and spending more time barefoot will help improve your mechanics significantly and decrease the mechanical load placed on the knees.
Take a Load Off
Of course doing any of these things on occasion will not completely derail your progress, but if you’re wearing high heels to work 5 days per week, that could definitely wreak havoc on your muscles in the long term. These three simple changes to your lifestyle can massively affect your seated posture and your gait. If you want to move better and reduce tension throughout your body, limit the up-dos, keep your backpacks loose, and take your shoes off!
- Al-Khabbaz, Y. S., Shimada, T., & Hasegawa, M. (2008). The effect of backpack heaviness on trunk-lower extremity muscle activities and trunk posture. Gait & posture, 28(2), 297-302.
- Blau, J. N. (2004). Ponytail headache: a pure extracranial headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 44(5), 411-413.
- Brackley, H. M., Stevenson, J. M., & Selinger, J. C. (2009). Effect of backpack load placement on posture and spinal curvature in prepubescent children. Work, 32(3), 351-360.
- Chow, D. H., Kwok, M. L., Cheng, J. C., Lao, M. L., Holmes, A. D., Au-Yang, A., … & Wong, M. S. (2006). The effect of backpack weight on the standing posture and balance of schoolgirls with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis and normal controls. Gait & posture, 24(2), 173-181.
- Cronin, N. J. (2014). The effects of high heeled shoes on female gait: a review. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 24(2), 258-263.
- Giaconi, R. M., Questad, K., Ko, M., & Lehmann, J. F. (1991). Footwear and posture. Compensatory strategies for heel height. american Journal of physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 70(5), 246-254.
- Grimmer, K. A., Williams, M. T., & Gill, T. K. (1999). The associations between adolescent head-on-neck posture, backpack weight, and anthropometric features. Spine, 24(21), 2262.
- Hong, Y., & Cheung, C. K. (2003). Gait and posture responses to backpack load during level walking in children. Gait & posture, 17(1), 28-33.
- Martins, L., Marques, I., Almeida, R., Costa, J., Quaresma, C., & Vieira, P. (2017, February). The influence of wearing a wallet in your sitting posture—A quantitative study using an intelligent chair. In 2017 IEEE 5th Portuguese Meeting on Bioengineering (ENBENG) (pp. 1-4). IEEE.
- Rice, H. M., Jamison, S. T., & Davis, I. S. (2016). Footwear matters: influence of footwear and foot strike on load rates during running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(12), 2462-2468.
- Shroyer, J. F., & Weimar, W. H. (2010). Comparative analysis of human gait while wearing thong-style flip-flops versus sneakers. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 100(4), 251-257.
- Silva, A. M., de Siqueira, G. R., & Da Silva, G. A. (2013). Implications of high-heeled shoes on body posture of adolescents. Rev Paul Pediatr, 31(2), 265-71.
- Trombini-Souza, F., Matias, A. B., Yokota, M., Butugan, M. K., Goldenstein-Schainberg, C., Fuller, R., & Sacco, I. C. (2015). Long-term use of minimal footwear on pain, self-reported function, analgesic intake, and joint loading in elderly women with knee osteoarthritis: A randomized controlled trial. Clinical Biomechanics, 30(10), 1194-1201.
- Zhang, X., Paquette, M. R., & Zhang, S. (2013). A comparison of gait biomechanics of flip-flops, sandals, barefoot and shoes. Journal of foot and ankle research, 6(1), 45.