Six Steps to Improving Posture

An expert with NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine shares simple ways to achieve good posture and keep your spine healthy.

Side by side photos of someone looking at their phone with bad posture and someone improving posture

Kids hear the advice all the time: Don’t slouch. But having good posture is just as important for adults, especially for those who spend their days sitting at their desks.

“A lot of people are in front of their screens for many hours of the day. As we sit and use screens, we have a tendency to develop a slouched-forward posture,” explains Dr. Michelle Chi, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine and an assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “This type of posture puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the discs in both your neck and back, which can lead to pain. The best thing we can do for our back and spine health is to have good posture.”

Dr. Chi, who is also an attending physician with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, shared with Health Matters six steps that will help you sit and stand taller. “It’s never too late to improve posture,” she says.

Headshot of Dr. Michelle Chi

Dr. Michelle Chi

1. Raise the Screen to Eye Level

Certain ways of using your computer or looking at your phone can cause you to hunch and increase pressure on the discs in the spine. “And ultimately, later on in life, that can lead to increased risk or progression of degenerate disc disease,” says Dr. Chi.

When texting or scrolling on your phone, the natural tendency is to look down, but try to “elevate your arm or raise the phone so that it’s at least at eye level,” recommends Dr. Chi. This way you’ll keep your neck straight, which is good for your spine and upper back muscles.

When working on a computer, use a stack of books to raise the screen to eye level. “Your eye should be at the upper one-third of the screen,” she explains.

2. When Sitting, Lean on the Seatback of Your Chair

Select a chair with a sturdy backrest and make sure to lean on it when sitting so that you are more relaxed. “I encourage patients to use their seatback rather than trying to sit up and over-arch,” says Dr. Chi. “People may think they are maintaining good posture and strengthening their muscles by not using the back of the chair, but we naturally tire out, and we end up being in a hunched position again without even realizing it.” For extra support, fill the gap in the small of your back with a small pillow or a rolled-up towel.

Being aware of how you sit is important to achieving good posture long term. “When we’re sitting, we oftentimes have muscles that become tighter because they are in a certain position and other muscles that are not engaged become weaker,” explains Dr. Chi. “When stronger muscles fight against weaker muscles, it leads to an imbalance that puts increased pressure on the spine. That’s why having a good sitting posture is really important.”

3. Don’t Sit Cross-legged

A seated position where your legs are crossed underneath you puts tension on some of the tendons in your legs. “It’s OK for a short period of time, but never a great long-term thing to do,” says Dr. Chi. Good posture supports the curves of the spine and helps to decrease pressure and load across the body’s joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which is important in preventing progression of wear and tear over time.

4. Be Mindful of Posture Even When You’re Relaxing

Don’t forget that support also matters when you’re watching TV or reading on the couch. “Couches are typically not the best for your back, because they’re very soft and your back has a tendency to curve and sink into it,” says Dr. Chi. “Supportive cushions are key. Make sure to add some pillows behind your back for support, which will help your posture on a soft surface.”

5. When Standing, Evenly Distribute Weight and Use Your Core

Engaging in good posture when standing is just as important. Do your best to refrain from leaning on one leg for too long. And use your core muscles to your advantage. “Try to evenly distribute your weight on both legs, keep a neutral upright spine, and engage your core muscles,” says Dr. Chi.

6. Get Up and Move

One of the most helpful things we can do to improve spine health is to move as much as possible throughout the day, says Dr. Chi. It’s really important for your neck and your back to move often so that the muscles don’t get locked into one position. If you have a desk job, take frequent breaks. Set a reminder on your phone every half hour to get up and stretch.

“Getting up promotes circulation, and it relaxes and stretches some of those muscles that have been in one position for so long. It also gives your spine a break from the load of sitting, because long periods of sitting can increase pressure on those discs in your spine,” says Dr. Chi.

The most important thing to know is that it’s never too late to improve posture, says Dr. Chi. “If you experience regular aches and pains in your back or neck, it might be time to evaluate what’s causing this pain. Could you use a more ergonomic desk chair — one that offers plenty of support? Are you spending a lot of time looking down at your phone? Hours on the couch in a slumped position? Making some simple changes should bring some relief within a few days.”

Michelle Chi, M.D., is an attending physician with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine, and an assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. She specializes in treating a variety of pain conditions related to spinal disorders, including neck and back pain, as well as neurologic and musculoskeletal conditions, such as headaches, joint pain, and tendinopathies. When treating patients, she places a strong emphasis on applying a multidisciplinary approach with a focus on maximizing function, independence, and quality of life. Her clinical interests include combining her skills in interventional procedures, regenerative medicine, and neuromodulation for treating both acute and chronic pain conditions.