Why is it so hard to maintain good posture? This question was asked on the website Quora, and this was my answer there, now reproduced for your convenience. It’s a technical version of my explanation, but it’s worth reading and understanding.
If you want a less technical answer you might want to read my explanation of what I’m seeking as a chiropractor, when it comes to look at the posture.
Why is good posture so hard to maintain?
Stability. And proprioceptive distortion (more on what that means below). That’s the answer you’re seeking.
The unspoken factor that makes it so hard to maintain good posture is unconscious nervous system programming that’s concerned about stability more than it is concerned about how “good” something looks.
Good posture is a subjective evaluation from a human observer. Stability is the orientation of the nervous system.
In an ideal world we will achieve stability in a posture that looks good. But many of us have experienced physical trauma that makes achieving stability and ideal posture difficult without specific intervention.
Let me explain.
Why working our voluntary control system takes work, and is hard to do
The posture mechanism is more than just our voluntary control of where we place our head, shoulders, and hips.
Yes, we can take voluntary control of these major structures with feedback from an observer (therapist or looking at ourselves in the mirror), but we often find that placing these structures in a place that “looks good” often doesn’t feel good, and takes quite a bit of work.
All kinds of therapeutic and exercise protocols have been developed to engage certain portions of the postural muscle system, and shut down other portions of the system, to make this voluntary shift easier.
Alexander Technique, Pilates, and various schools of Yoga are common ways that many people attempt to make a shift toward better posture, either directly, or indirectly as an outgrowth of the new muscle control they gain by practicing these disciplines.
Others simply notice better posture when engaging in resistance exercise, often because of engagement of the “posterior chain” muscles that pull us out of flexion.
However, it can be years of work to be to be able to consciously engage and maintain the muscle system for ideal posture, especially in light of lifestyle demands that tend to undo this voluntary training.
People who do so are often rewarded with a posture that legitimately looks better and leaves a more positive impression.
Yet, for every one person who succeeds in posture improvement with exercise, there are many others who can never get past the discomfort that’s created when they attempt to “hold” their posture in an ideal position, mostly because they are simultaneously violating their unconscious programming for stability and sway control.
Stability and sway control is unconscious, and often influences our posture more than our awareness
What do I mean by stability and sway control?
Well, in the effort to keep this simple for the both of us, let’s talk briefly about some theories of balance, and why the upright body seems to want to find a point of balance and equilibrium.
Stability while minimizing energy?
According to one theory of balance, we adopt positions (that look less or more ideal) because it provides stability against gravity at rest, and allows for a balance while minimizing energy expenditure.
Torque in response to perturbation?
According to another theory of balance, we adopt positions (that look more or less ideal) because our brains are constantly calculating risks of falling or physical threats. In response we automatically adopt the placement of our major structures that will allow resistance to sudden movement, or ability to shift away from threats, without causing the body to fall.
(Torque in response to perturbation for the science nerds.)
If you’re thinking: that kind of sounds like the same theory explained in two different ways, I hear you.
Whatever is motivating the posture mechanism, two things are certain:
- The core musculature around the spine has a great deal of influence on how this posture mechanism functions
- The firing pattern of the core musculature relies on information from the body’s proprioceptive system in order to respond to the needs of the body’s posture as it seeks stability
This means that disturbances to the body’s sensory system (proprioception, or joint-position sense) will lead to alterations in posture responses.
And this is why it is ultimately very hard for some people to have good posture…because they require an intervention that shifts their sensory system (proprioception) in such a way that the brain responds with a shift in the posture mechanism.
What is proprioception and how does it affect posture?
One theory of proprioception distortion is that an involuntary lock or shift of the joints in the spine or extremities reduce the motion and movement pattern of the joint, which alters the feedback going back into the brain.
In other words, our brain has a GPS that gets location information from our joints, and when those joints lose mobility, the GPS doesn’t receive accurate information, and that distorts the muscle response, altering movement and execution of balance/stability.
Put a different way: posture changes are often brain changes.
This is why a proprioceptive change (a shift in the spinal tone around vertebrae for example) through an intervention (a chiropractic adjustment) can provide an immediate shift in posture in a way that an exercise regimen cannot, simply by gently unlocking an area that had been previously locked.
Looking at an example from my practice
Please refer to the image above provided in this answer. (You can also look at ten different cases from my practice, all of which include posture photos.)
This person didn’t experience a posture shift over months of care and traction and exercise.
This change happened after two releases/adjustments over a period of two days…In the neck! (The neck is very important to the posture mechanism.)
In other words, we can’t say anything changed about this man other than the feedback his brain was receiving from his neck and that was enough to change how he related to his own body in the field of gravity.
In the image on the left his body is seeking and finding stability in a position that looks further away from a postural ideal.
In the image on the right is body is seeking and finding stability in a position that is closer to a postural ideal, without attempting to purposely change anything about his posture.
In other words this wasn’t an intentional change, mediated through activation of the muscle system. This was an involuntary neurological change.
Not only does his posture look better, we can see how everything about him may move better and balance with better efficiency in the second image.
If he had attempted to do this without addressing the proprioceptive system, this posture shift would have felt uncomfortable and hard to maintain, and like many people, he probably would have given up.
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