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Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com blogger, Published November 20 2013

Positively Beautiful: Standing tall has powerful health benefits

It’s likely that you’ve been told since an early age to stand up straight and have good posture. My mom’s words of “encouragement” ring in my ears whenever I find myself slouching.

I have to consciously think about it, especially since I spend many hours hunched over a microscope doing surgery or at the computer doing patient charts or writing articles. I’m going to have to keep reminding myself, because new research shows that posture and body language have a powerful effect on how you feel, think and how you are perceived.

The way we stand, sit and walk actually has more important implications on our mood and our success than we ever imagined. Research by behavioral scientist Erik Peper showed that we are happier, have better access to positive memories and have more energy when we have good posture. Conversely, slouching drains us of energy and brings down our mood.

Business school researchers Ann Cuddy of Harvard and Dana Carney of UC-Berkeley have studied the effects of body positions on behavior and outcomes.

Slouching, shoulders hunched and chin tucked down, is an example of a low-power position. Many of us find ourselves in this position as we are engrossed in our smartphones.

Crossing our arms and legs in a close-bodied posture expresses powerlessness, whereas folding arms in front of our chest suggests defensiveness. Touching the neck, face or hand is a symptom of stress, suggesting anxiety or a lack of control.

High-power positions such as standing tall with shoulders pulled back, widening your stance, spreading your arms to expand into space, impacts your body chemistry by raising testosterone (the hormone linked to power and self-confidence) and lowering levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Interestingly, these hormone changes are linked to disease resistance and leadership capability. This hormonal effect is reversed when you contract yourself physically and assume a low-power posture that makes you look less confident.

Power posing can be used as a warm-up to an important meeting or test. Dr. Cuddy found that participants who struck power poses in private for several minutes before beginning a mock job interview interacted more positively, got better reviews and were more likely to be chosen for hire – even though the evaluators had never seen them in the poses.

Dr. Carney found that power-posing before a test improved scores. In another study, it helped participants deliver better, more confident speeches. Other research showed power-posing made people more confident in taking calculated risks.

Executive coaches often help speakers and managers connect with their audiences and team members by analyzing body language. Subtle shifts in position can have a big impact on results.

A petite female executive learned to convey her message more confidently by standing up from the conference table when speaking, whereas a former military man connected to his team more effectively when he leaned in to engage with them.

So after a few long hours of surgery or seeing patients in clinic, when I find myself feeling a bit wilted, shoulders at half-mast, don’t be surprised if you spy me around the corner doing a power-pose pick-me-up. I’ll take a deep breath, stand tall, shoulders back, arms wide and channel Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic. In a few minutes, I’ll be ready to fly through the rest of my day.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.