Slouching Towards Not Slouching
Millions of American office workers experience bad posture and back pain. Can gadgets help remind us to stand up straight?
"A straight back may be said to be an element of beauty," wrote D. F. Lincoln, a physician in Philadelphia, in 1896. "Round shoulders and a twisted spine are an element of the opposite quality, beyond a doubt."
Lincoln was writing to sound the alarm that the posture of America's youth was becoming increasingly "deformed" thanks to a trend that had recently swept the nation: universal public school.
If only he could see us now, literally leaning in within our cubicles by day and slumping over our Netflix-streaming laptops by night. Many of today's workers could use a Knickerbocker shoulder brace more than the Victorian dandies it was designed for.
I myself am the picture of the modern, white-collar slouch. It started in high school and got worse when I became a journalist and had a laptop grafted to my wrists. The many emotional benefits my profession confers come at a physical cost: carpal tunnel, eye strain, and sort of a permanent, dull ache in my trapezius. In grad school I nearly solidified into a gargoyle by sitting at the little tables at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and editing audio files for hours.
It got so bad at one point that I had to see a physical therapist, who would dutifully spine-shame me.
"You really ought to spend less time on the computer," she would mutter, jabbing her thumb into an walnut-sized knot on my shoulder blade.
"Easy for you to say," I would think. "Your job is to stand here all day and give people really expensive back massages."
I would let out an assenting groan, but we both knew it wasn't going to happen.
Over the years I've had various workplace ergonomics experts come look at my typing position, gasp, and recommend a bunch of changes—which I would promptly forget as soon as they left.
I didn't really do anything about my curved stature until several months ago, when I saw a Kickstarter campaign for Lumo Lift, a new type of activity tracker that not only measures steps and calories, but also vibrates whenever its wearer slouches.
Over soaring piano music, the Lumo promo video asks the viewer to imagine life with the carriage of a self-assured ballerina: "What would you do if you were not afraid? Would you stand a little taller? Would you run a little faster? … Would you live in the moment?"
Yes! The only thing standing between me and my dreams is a posture straight out of Downton Abbey. I ordered one for myself and one for my boyfriend, who is a computer programmer, and thus, similarly hunched.
The Lumo Lift is worn on a tight-fitting shirt or bra—the device itself sits near the skin, and it's held in place on the other side by a magnet. You tap it each morning to "calibrate" it to a certain posture—this is the carriage you're telling Lumo you want to hold all day. It then passively tracks your posture, calories, and steps all day through an iPhone app, but you can also enter "coaching sessions" in which the Lumo will buzz you whenever you deviate from the neutral spine.
The Lumo recommends doing several of these coaching sessions daily for 15 minutes to an hour at a time. Any longer than that, and—as I would soon discover—you'll lose your marbles.
The first big problem I encountered is that when you have bad posture, you don’t really know what good posture looks like. I would start all of my coaching sessions by arching into the position I'd seen on supermodels and student-council presidents—my back ramrod straight, the underside of my chin almost parallel to the floor. If you've done yoga, it was basically tadasana pose without the arms. But that's not what people with actual good posture do. And it's certainly not sustainable if, in your former life, you walked around like an elderly Cro-Magnon.
The spine is actually designed to curve slightly away from the body’s midline, says Zack Vaughn, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Stanford University. But most people tend to lean forward during the day, causing the upper part of the backbone to droop toward the floor. Most posture interventions are designed to correct this by pulling the shoulders back and and holding the ribcage in a vertical position.
With Lumo Lift, the entire "coaching" experience is that of having a tiny, overbearing mother always on your person. During the coaching sessions, I was buzzed every second while sitting at a table and typing on a laptop. The only way to go buzz-free was to stare directly forward, as if catching a glimpse of something interesting in the distance—not something any Web writer can do for long. If I tried to ignore the buzzes, the app would turn red and display a variety of passive-aggressive admonishments: "Good posture makes you look and feel great! Let's do it!" and "Fight the buzz with good posture! You'll thank me later." When I told fellow Atlantic writer Kathy Gilsinan about my increasingly strained relationship with the Lumo, she suggested that the device could really ratchet up the guilt with, "You'd be so pretty if you only sat up straight."
After I started a coaching session at 11:37 a.m. one day, I found myself moving through my physical environment in unnatural ways, dropping into a deep plié to put a bottle of seltzer back in the fridge and walking stiffly through my apartment like a broken robot.
At 11:48, it felt like the session had been going for an eternity. Nothing I did seemed good enough for Lift. It finally stopped buzzing when I got up from my chair to water the plants, but it started again when I tipped the watering can over my cilantro.
The session ended mercifully at 11:53, but even after all the sitting up straight and holding my head up high, the app only gave me a posture score of "good." Just like mom, it's never satisfied.
Your mother's right, you know. Good posture really does make us feel more confident and powerful. A study of 74 people in New Zealand found that participants who sat up straight felt “more enthusiastic, excited, and strong, while the slumped participants reported feeling more fearful, hostile, nervous, quiet, still, passive, dull, sleepy, and sluggish.” Researchers Dana Carney and Andy Yap from Columbia University and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University have found that when study participants got into open, expansive postures, where the limbs are spread out and the body takes up more space, they felt more powerful and risk-seeking. They also saw increases in their levels of testosterone, the aggression hormone, and decreases in cortisol, the stress hormone. In her viral TED talk, Cuddy recommends practicing such “power poses” for a few minutes before meetings and other high-pressures situations in order to improve performance.
But the biggest benefit of good posture, Vaughn says, is just a life free from pain. Twenty-eight percent of Americans complain of chronic lower back pain, according to a 2012 CDC survey, and 14 percent say their neck and shoulders frequently hurt. Limit the survey to a typical cubicle farm, and you’d probably hear an even greater percentage of people complaining of cricks. “I get referred a ton of people who have these complaints,” Vaughn said. “Our bodies are not designed to sit in front of computers all day.”
The Lumo app itself worked well and tracked my calories with reasonable accuracy. Most of the time it reported my posture as "slouchy," but there were a handful of times it deemed it "remarkable"—mostly when I was exercising, laying flat on the couch, or walking somewhere.
There seemed to be some critical design flaws with the hardware, though. The device comes with a special clip so women can wear it on their bra straps, but the magnet on the clip is glued in place. Physics being what it is, a strong magnet is no match for rubber cement. On the second day, the magnet came unglued, and the Lumo went tumbling down my dress by the hot bar in Whole Foods. I took the bra clip from my boyfriend's Lumo box—which, is the company just assuming that most customers will be female?—and the same thing happened the following day.
There were other problems. My purse would hit the Lumo when I walked. The brushed silver magnet that you wear outside your shirt isn’t too obtrusive, but it looks a little like a 1970s CIA bug. Occasionally I started skipping days of wearing it. Sometimes I would wear it but forget to do the coaching sessions, so at night it would tell me my posture had been "slouchy" all day. I realized there’s really no way to remind yourself to do the coaching sessions. Who coaches the posture coach?
Vaughn told me that compliance is the hardest part when it comes to posture-improvement gadgets: People buy special harnesses and don’t use them. Bad posture is evidence that the back muscles have been straining the wrong way for years. Sitting correctly for just 10 minutes can leave you feeling tired, like a long, low-intensity workout.
“The idea of whatever [posture-correcting] brace or contraption it might be, it’s to try to not let us falter ourselves,” Vaughn said. “By human nature, we're not going to be able to maintain it ourselves all the time.”
In my case, it was hard to maintain it even with the Lumo. The reason I don't have good posture, I realized, isn't because of my computer or my job—it's because I don't care very much about having good posture. Or at least not enough to really do something about it. And that's just as true with the Lumo as without it.
Ultimately, posture is just that—it's posturing. The word comes from the Latin ponere, which means "to put or place." It's a conscious process. The Lumo can remind you to put yourself in a straight-backed, attack-the-world stance. But the impulse to do it all day, every day, has to come from within. And, sadly, not from a buzzing within your bra.