How Good Posture May Help with Depression Symptoms

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People with symptoms of depression may see temporary improvements to their mood by following the age-old advice to sit up straight, a new study from New Zealand suggests.

However, the researchers cautioned that the findings are preliminary; it's not yet known whether an upright posture could actually aid in treating depression, or if the effects last over the long term, they said.

"Changing posture is a simple, highly acceptable and low-risk intervention that could be applied either by itself or alongside other treatments," the researchers, from The University of Auckland, wrote in their paper, which will be published in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. "However, more research is required to corroborate these findings, especially in clinical settings" outside of a laboratory, they said.

Previous studies have found that stooped posture is a feature of depression, the researchers said. In addition, other studies have shown that adopting an upright posture improves mood and self-esteem in people without depression, but few studies have looked at how changes to posture affect people with depression. [Posture Pointers: 7 Tips for Breaking Bad Habits]

The study involved 61 people whose scores on a survey indicated that they had mild to moderate symptoms of depression. (These participants were not necessarily diagnosed with depression by a doctor.) The researchers excluded people who were already being treated for depression and those who had symptoms of severe depression.

About half of the participants received instructions on how to adopt a good posture (sitting up straight), and the researchers also applied sports tape to the participants' backs in a manner that's been shown to improve posture. The other half of the participants were not given any instructions about posture, and had a few pieces of tape applied to their backs in a random manner that was not thought to help with posture.

All of the participants were told that the aim of the study was to examine the effects of sports tape on their thinking abilities. The researchers told the participants this fake premise to reduce the chances that the participants would experience a placebo effect, or a result of people's expectation that a treatment would work, rather than an effect of the treatment itself.

At the start of the study, overall, the participants tended to have a more stooped posture, compared with a separate sample of people without symptoms of depression who participated in an earlier study.

After the researchers applied the sports tape, they were asked to fill out a survey intended to measure their mood. The researchers found that the people in the upright-posture group reported feeling more enthusiastic, more excited and stronger than the people in the regular-posture group. The people in the upright-posture group also reported feeling less fatigued than the people in the regular-posture group.

Next, the researchers wanted to see whether adopting an upright posture might help people's mood in stressful situations. So they had the participants undergo a stress test, which involved giving a speech in front of a panel of examiners. The participants were given just 3 minutes to prepare their speech. Afterward, the examiners asked the participants to perform a complicated mental arithmetic task. [7 Ways Depression Differs in Men and Women]

The researchers did not find a meaningful difference in mood between the upright-posture group and the regular-posture group after the participants completed the stress test. The researchers speculated that this might have been because the task was too stressful for all of the participants.

However, the study did find that the people in the upright-posture group spoke more words during their speech, and used the word "I" fewer times, compared with the people in the regular-posture group. Previous studies have found that people with depression use the word "I" more often, which may reflect increased self-focus, and also have shorter utterances and more pauses in speech, compared with people without depression, the researchers said.

The new findings suggest that upright posture may lessen self-focus in people with depression, as well as reduce pauses in speech and short utterances, they said.

The reason for the link between upright posture and mood and speech is not clear, the researchers noted. But it's possible that sitting up straight results in some physiological changes, such as increased brain activity, that might affect mood, the researchers said. It's also possible that posture relates to people's mood in an indirect way; for example, people may perceive their mood differently based on their posture, the researchers said.

Because the study participants had not been diagnosed with depression, more studies are needed to see whether the results apply to people diagnosed with depression or those who have more severe depression symptoms, the researchers said. In addition, future work is needed to investigate the long-term effects of posture changes on mood, they said.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.