How many times has your mum told you to sit up straighter? Or stand with your shoulders back? We all know we should ‘have good posture’ but how can we actually change it? When it comes down to it, posture is a habit, like any other. It’s something we’ve essentially practiced over and over again, until it gets to a point where we don’t have to think about it any more. This also applies to how you walk, run, squat, as well as how you think about yourself, or certain situations.
Psychologist William James described habit formations well in the 19th century:
“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself, so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.”
When we’re thinking about movement patterns and posture, a lot of people use the term ‘muscle memory’ for how your body perpetuates the habits, and why you no longer ‘think’ about these things. In reality it is more accurately described as a ‘neural memory’.
When we repeat a task or activity over and over we use the same sequence of nerves, or neural pathway within the central nervous system. Your body recognises this and starts supporting that pathway, it adds some fatty insulation, called myelin, around the nerves that are being used more, and this allows the signals to travel through that nerve more easily. An easy way to imagine it is that that nerve set has been upgraded from being a B-road, to an A-road, or even a motorway. The traffic can move far more quickly, and with less roadblocks along the way. This neural pathway becomes so supported that eventually you no longer have to think about what you are doing, freeing up capacity for you to think about something else whilst you perform the task. Some research suggests that 40% of the time we are not thinking at all about we are doing!
So how do we change these ‘motorway’ pathways? In essence we need to stop using them, and instigate a new pathway. For example, when your physio gives you some exercises and asks you to perform at least 4 sets of 15 a day. It seems like a lot right? But if we don’t repeat these new patterns over and over, there is no way our body is going to start recognising this change and start to support the new pathway.
You need to downgrade that Motorway back to a B-road, and the B-road up to a motorway. The great thing being that our brains are capable of this at any time, and at any age. The human brain and nervous system are designed for learning, designed to change, and to adapt to new environments and stimuli. So there’s no excuses!
So how do we make this easier? Here are my keys tips for forming new habits:
Set an appointment with yourself. We all get so busy that spending time on ourselves becomes ‘oh I’ll get it done at some point today’ becomes ‘I haven’t practiced this all week’ VERY easily. So set a time each day and honor it.
Give yourself a reward. Habits are initially formed in part due to the ‘reward loop’ in our brains. When trying to change a particularly difficult habit, rewarding yourself when you spend time working on it can further enhance the emotional part of changing habits.
Use an app! My favorite one for re-training posture, or taking breaks at work is Desk Yogi Reminder. It’s a free chrome extension that will pop up messages on your screen at regular intervals to remind you to think about your posture, or to get up out of your chair. Reminders on your phone or computer diary are also very useful tools.
Give yourself a break, if you forget one day, just get back on the wagon the next.
Persistence! There is no set time-frame for changing habits or movement patterns, so don’t try and set yourself a time limit, just keep going and it WILL become natural over time.
I’m going to end on one of my favorite quotes of all time from Calvin Coolridge:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
And fingers crossed it might improve your posture too.
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