You already know that your mind can impact your body. There are piles of studies showing how “mind over matter” breaks through seemingly impossible physical limitations.
The placebo effect is well-documented in medical studies, and athletes use the power of visualization to optimize their sports performance.
But does it work in reverse, too? Can the state of your body influence your thoughts and emotions?
You’d better believe it.
Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of just how much our posture and movement influence our brains. It turns out that your body is in constant, two-way communication with your brain, transmitting all kinds of data about safety, connection, even social hierarchy through your nervous system.
Your posture even has the power to influence physiological processes like body chemistry. So if you thought better posture was just about alleviating that ache in your neck, you might be surprised to learn just how crucial standing up straight can be for things like energy, focus, and confidence.
Here are five ways that better posture improves brain health.
No. 1 Sitting up straighter improves problem solving skills.
Have you ever experienced the sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat that accompany test anxiety? That’s no fun, but you’re in luck. A minor tweak to your posture can vanquish your stage fright altogether.
Sitting up straighter was shown improve focus for fifty-six percent of students who participated in a study at San Francisco State University. The study asked the students to rate their test anxiety and the difficulty of solving math problems. Those who sat up straight reported less anxiety overall and had less difficulty solving the math problems than their slumped counterparts.
“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” said Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.”
So, the next time you’re facing a difficult exam or have to give a career-making presentation, check your posture. Take a moment to relax your shoulders, lift your chest and elongate your neck for a quick cognitive boost.
No. 2 Sitting up straighter trains your brain to be happy.
Do you struggle with negativity and pessimism? This is a natural tendency. Our brains are wired to assess our immediate surroundings for threats and then dispatch the danger as quickly as possible.
From a survival standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. The saber tooth tiger that’s about to eat you for dinner will have a bigger impact on your life expectancy than plotting out a farm that will feed your family for generations. We’re immediate gratification machines.
But, it’s also really easy to get stuck focusing on all the bad stuff that could happen. Psychologists call this catastrophizing.
If you’re trapped in this loop, you could benefit from a simple postural shift. Sitting up straighter helps you to recall more positive memories, or even just think more positive thoughts in general.
The next time you find yourself trapped in the downward spiral of positive thinking, do a little check in with your body position. Are you hunched and crunched or sitting up straight? For an added happiness boost, combine upright posture with a practice that steers your mind toward positivity, like keeping a gratitude journal.
No. 3 Power poses make you feel more confident.
If you missed the wave of “power posing” a few years ago, then you might be wondering why people are standing around in bathrooms before job interviews with their arms overhead in a victory-V.
Well, the science is in, and adopting expansive postures — think Wonder Woman or Superman — doesn’t just make you look confident. It actually affects your brain’s neurochemistry to not only trick you into feeling courageous, but also having the hormonal profile of a more self-assured person.
Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy showed that Wonder Woman-like “power poses” actually change the neurochemistry inside your brain to produce hormones that make you look and feel more confident.
Participants in Cuddy’s study who adopted more expansive postures tested higher for testosterone, a hormone related to confidence and security, while those who assumed slouched, crunched, or diminished postures showed elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Interestingly, yoga poses traditionally thought to ease anxiety are also all about taking up space. This is another example of science confirming hundreds-of-years-old practices (happens all the time, and I love it).
Making your body expansive signals to your brain that you are safe, you don’t need to curl up and protect your vital organs, and you can relax. It also opens your breathing and removes physical stress from your digestive system, which is great if you suffer from any kind of impaired gut health.
No. 4 Upright posture makes you feel more rested even if you got crap for sleep.
When researchers study the brain, they put people into a reclined position before sliding them into an MRI machine. Some clever scientists realized that body position might be influencing brain function, so they did a study to find out if that was true.
And, in fact, it was! People who sat up straighter had consistently better reaction times when performing memory tests regardless of sleep quality, while those who reclined showed diminished brain function after a poor night’s sleep.
It turns out that your body position influences your autonomic nervous system. That’s the part of your nervous system that regulates physiological functions which are beneath your voluntary control, like heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
So, if you’ve been tossing and turning all night but you still have to be “on” all day, skip the coffee and pay attention to your posture. Sitting up straight will assist your brain in staying online so you can focus even when you’re tired.
No. 5 Good posture gives your brain an energy boost.
Your brain runs on oxygen, which helps it convert glucose — basically, sugar — into fuel. Without oxygen, it can’t metabolize its primary source of energy, and brain function flags.
Despite only measuring at about 2% of your total body weight, your brain uses about 20% of your total oxygen intake.
You can survive for weeks without food, days without water, but oxygen? You’d die in a few minutes if you were completely deprived. While severe oxygen deprivation would result in brain damage or death, mild depletion impairs cognitive function.
And poor posture decreases oxygen intake. Slouching or rounding your back effectively crunches your rib cage, making it difficult for your lungs to expand. That means you’ll breathe more shallowly.
In fact, hunched shoulders and forward head posture can decrease lung capacity by as much as 30% — ouch! That has a serious impact on your energy and focus.
And there you have it! Five surprising ways that better posture actually boosts brain health. If that doesn’t have you sitting up a tiny bit taller, I don’t know what will.
Of course, there’s a sneaky secret about posture that most folks don’t know — and that is that usually when people try to get better posture they go about it all wrong. Typical advice revolves around straightening your spine and pulling your shoulders back, but this just makes you tense, uptight and ultimately exhausted.
Truly good posture — the kind that gives you unshakeable self-confidence — is all about ease. I go way in-depth on this in my ebook, Perfect Posture for Life. If you want a guide to getting good posture that not only lasts but also feels damn good, check out the ebook here >>