I am part of a species that evolved in intelligence over several millennia to not only take over the entire planet but also figure out how to leave it.
My body was designed from 4 billion years of trial and error to emerge from the oceans, walk upright and even talk. So why is it that I need to go to yoga and pilates classes to maintain good posture when no other animal has to?!
And how come so many people can attend these classes for years with little to no success? Could evolution have screwed up?
Are there simply lots of people who are disadvantaged genetically?
Or could it be that there is more to posture than the way we move? Let’s take a look at how our bodies got to this position in the first place.
For as long as it has existed, life has been about survival.
At one point, life consisted only of single celled organisms, feeding off sunlight. When sunlight is your fuel, there is usually very little need to move.
These cells reproduced and grew larger again and again, eventually reaching a point where the water they inhabit is surrounded by organisms of various sizes.
At some point, it became advantageous for one organism to feed off another one. Some organisms developed ways of ingesting others, and turning it into its fuel source. This allowed the organism to become bigger still, giving it a greater chance of survival, as it becomes less likely to be fully consumed.
Fast forward a couple of billion years and we have developed into a whole array of organisms of different shapes, sizes and abilities.
The variation depends on a number of things, including reproduction rate, environment and availability of a fuel source.
When conditions are good, organisms grow to be much bigger and complex, but more complexity also requires more fuel consumption. This means that the organisms most likely to survive are the ones capable of using fuel most efficiently.
So where does posture come into this?
It all comes down to movement. Movement requires a tremendous amount of fuel delivered to both the brain and body in an organism as complex as humans, so the brain has some techniques to become more efficient.
One of the best techniques it has is to use a very tough tissue under the skin called fascia, to tension the body into an optimal ‘ready position,’ or posture as we like to call it.
The strength of the fascia allows the body to hold itself in this position unconsciously and with very little work from the muscles, thus minimising the energy expended whilst we are at rest.
There are a number of different factors that determine how the body selects this ready position, but not all of them are weighted equally in their effectiveness at changing our posture.
Here is a look at some of the components we have developed from the most recently evolved to the most ancient.
Humans are social animals, and one way to ensure survival in a group is to copy what everybody else is doing.
To interpret the movements of others, the brain uses mirror neurons to replicate the actions of others in our own heads, as if we were performing them ourselves.
It is for this reason that we get on best and learn best from people who can move in ways similar to us.
This also has an effect on our posture, which will slightly mimic the postures of the people we spend the most time with.
To improve your posture then, it may be advantageous to spend more time in athletic environments, as you may benefit not just from the fitness aspect but from the mirroring as well.
The mirroring effect is much weaker than the other factors however, as being social came much later on in our evolutionary journey.
Habit Jumping back another step, this is the aspect that we are most familiar with and have been taught is the main factor in posture change.
This is the idea that our bodies will take on the form of the positions we most often find ourselves in.
This makes sense, as our bodies evolved to be as efficient as possible in terms of energy use, so adopting a rest position close to the positions we need most is definitely a good idea.
For smaller organisms with short life spans, this posture is already programmed at birth.
Once an organism lives long enough to experience changes in the environment however (such as changing seasons or different climates from migration), it becomes more important to adapt as you go, and this is why our posture can change quite drastically over time.
Most of us are familiar with the idea that we can combat bad posture by standing taller and sitting straighter, and there is certainly some truth in this.
It is worth noting though, that forcing our bodies out of our current rest position will cause our muscles to tire out quicker, and if we keep it up for too long in one go our brain is likely to send signals of pain and fatigue to force us to stop.
A smarter way could be to incorporate more exercise into our lives, as a wider range of movements will cause less fatigue to one specific area.
Remember that the body pays more attention to the oldest systems in the body, so any exercises that mobilise the spine are a great idea too.
Finally we move onto the most interesting facet of posture.
This is the relationship between our posture and the sensory systems of the body.
Our senses are the means by which our brains gather information about our environment, and so are crucial to our survival.
Because of this, our brain will put much more importance on making our sensory system work than on our movements and actions, and will adjust our posture to suit these systems as well as possible.
Our vision, hearing and balance are the most important senses for movement, and if these senses function well, our body will allow us to stand taller, giving us a confident appearance. Deficiencies on the other hand, leave us more susceptible to danger, and so we adopt a posture heading toward the fetal position, to protect our organs in the event of an accident.
Our senses of smell and taste also have a less obvious connection with our posture. Our tongue and jaw were some of the earliest body parts evolved to search for and break down food, and have very close connections with our spines.
Pressing our tongue into the roof of our mouth along with good jaw mobility can greatly improve core stability.
And while our nose cannot move at all, our sense of smell is closely linked with our memory and emotional systems, which can also help our brains feel less under threat when working well.
So what are the takeaways from this?
Firstly, it is important to realise that if we want our posture to change, good vision and balance is essential.
Any attempts to change our bodies through movement alone will be futile if the body's sensory systems require something different to feel safe.
If we want to gain maximum benefit from our training programs, choosing exercises that challenge our senses, keeps our spine mobile and involves other people could be the best way to go.
Finally, it is important to listen to our body in instances of pain and fatigue, as the more threat our body perceives itself to be in, the more we will shift from a confident resting position to a protective one.
Want some exercises to try? Check out these videos below:
Posture via sensory integration