02/23/2014 10:17 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2014

Stand Up Straight: It's Good for Your Health

"Sometimes I slouch so much after a day of staring at my computer screen, my chin nearly reaches the dining room table." A friend who had been a physical therapist in her early career was berating herself for her inattention to good posture. The rest of us sitting around a restaurant table automatically straightened up. Another chimed in with, "I take all these classes that work on my core, which makes me think I am an apple, but once the class is over, I go back to walking like a banana." Her fruit analogies left us a bit puzzled, but we got the idea. Somewhere in those decades between learning to walk and needing a walker, we had lost that wonderful erect posture of a child and slowly took on the slouch of the no-longer-young.

"Why doesn't anyone talk about posture?" wondered another. After a few minutes giggling over our memories of the posture pictures that were taken of freshman in some women's colleges (and were eagerly sought after by neighboring men's colleges), we wondered whether posture was still emphasized among the young and not so young. When was the last time any of us had read an article emphasizing the need to stand up straight, to adjust the laptop computer so it did not require sinking the neck practically into the belly button to be seen, and walking without the head down as if counting the cracks in the sidewalk? Indeed, the current trend to wearing shoes whose heels resembles stilts (perhaps a trend finally slowing down) rarely even discusses the possibility of breaking one's neck while negotiating slippery steps or brick sidewalks, let alone standing up straight.

But posture is critically important and not just to make us look taller without wearing 5-inch heels. Good posture can reduce uneven pressure on a knee, hip or back and thus is protective against injuries and pain. Even a small misalignment of the spine can cause nagging back pain, as I learned when I had to wear an orthopedic boot while recovering for a torn Achilles tendon. If I did not compensate for the slight difference in elevation between the foot wearing the boot and the other, my back ached miserably after only a few minutes. Inattention to how we are standing, sitting, walking or bending may cause chronic pain. Who needs that?

There are so many upsides to good posture. Better balance is one consequence of better posture; but does anyone pay attention to this basic aspect of movement unless one is learning to skate, paddle board or ride a bike? Balance is something we take for granted until we no longer can rely on it as happens with, for example, a mild case of vertigo or an icy sidewalk. As we age, we may gradually find balance unreliable while walking on an uneven sidewalk or maneuvering around a small space. All children can walk or even run on narrow elevated curbs. How many grandparents can run after them without falling off?

Not sure how good your balance is? Try standing on one bare foot, with your eyes closed. It is hard to do it for a minute or longer without needing to put your foot on the ground. Indeed, having done this in health clubs, I find it somewhat embarrassing to stand on one foot, with my eyes closed, hoping I won't hit my head on a nearby machine.

But despite the ubiquity of balance impairment, improving balance, like its first cousin, posture, is pretty much ignored as a fitness goal. To be sure, some yoga positions work on balance and the large rubber balls bouncing around health clubs and half sphere rubber "balance boards" promote better balance while exercising specific muscle groups. However, machines designed specifically to improve balance are by and large non-existent. I suspect that a reason for lack of attention given to posture and balance is that they seem so old-fashioned, hardly cutting edge, exciting workout concepts. Visions of one's great grandmother walking around with a book on her head come to mind when talking about posture, and lack of balance seems to be something physical therapists work on with movement-limited clients. Presumably people who walk tight- ropes or surf megawaves don't need too much help in improving their balance, and models with stellar posture would not be strutting down runways during Fashion Week if they shuffled like a bear. But if women's magazines and upscale health clubs emphasized these two aspects of movement for the rest of us, we would all benefit.

Good posture and balance also have health significance far beyond looking taller without heels or being able to look like a tree in yoga class. These two traits are critically important in preventing falls, one of the major causes of death among the older population. As such, it is important to improve both before they are needed.

Strengthening core muscles, aka your abdominals, and the other muscles that allow you to carry out the movements of ordinary life, have an immediate impact on balance and posture. Ballerinas, gymnasts and tightrope walkers stand and walk straight; their muscular strength won't allow them to do otherwise. For the rest of us, who do not spend our days in pointe shoes, classes like Pilates and yoga are effective ways to improve our posture and balance-related muscles. Simple exercises to strengthen the thigh muscles can markedly improve difficulty in getting up from a chair without losing balance or keeping a stumble from turning into a fall. The laptop computer slouch can be reversed with back, neck and arm exercises in a yoga class or gently using weights or machines in a health club. The Internet has some clever animated programs on improving balance but it is advisable to read through them beforehand, as some exercises require you to close your eyes. Do something simple, like asking people with whom you work or live, to remind you to stand up straighter or to notice whether your laptop is positioned so you won' t have to bend your neck to see the screen. Go walking with friends and check out each other's posture. A reminder to stop stooping while you are moving is much more effective than thinking about it while sitting in a chair.

It may take several months for your balance and posture to improve but they will. And when it happens, be prepared for someone to ask, "Were you a dancer when you were young?"