Avoiding A Slump An unusual office chair and a new exercise routine can improve your posture--and maybe your career.
By Gretchen Reynolds

(Business 2.0) – A regular dose of sit-ups, the standard thinking goes, is as valuable as the old apple a day. You break a sweat, strengthen your midsection, and look respectable come that annual escape to Maui. ¶ But before doing another crunch, you should know that your torso regimen is misguided. Nowadays medical experts believe we should aspire less to ripped abs and more to better posture. Developing the muscles specific to striking that classic, healthy pose--feet hip-width apart, shoulders squared, stomach in--not only helps you look good in front of clients but ensures that you'll be able to make the meeting at all. Bad posture contributes to back pain, which in turn is responsible for much of the $50 billion lost annually to work-related injuries.

Just how did we enter such a collective slump? Good posture is tough to maintain, and slouching is undeniably comfortable in the short term. Even those with the best intentions, however, could be hurting themselves at the office.

Last year doctors and occupational therapists at Emory University in Atlanta published a sobering study on computer-use injuries. The findings revealed that we're sitting all wrong. Instead of staring straight into the middle of the monitor and orienting keyboards so that our arms bend 90 degrees, the Emory study recommends that we look down slightly and reach a bit farther for the keys. "The current guidelines are based on typing, but that's not what we do most," says Jack Dennerlein, an assistant professor of ergonomics at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We're reading and interacting with a mouse."

As for your Aeron, its generous support invites lazy posture, and some experts think chronic slouchers are better off on another perch. Specifically, they say to plant yourself on a physio ball like those found in health clubs. The ball requires you to sit upright, which can relieve back pain, and make constant adjustments to your balance, which works the postural muscles.

Who in their right mind would sit on a big red ball? More people than you might think. Fitter International, a leading maker of balance products, says that while most of its demand comes from gyms, as much as 10 percent of its sales are now to corporate customers. At a power company in Alberta, 700 employees sit on balls at least part-time (you can overwork postural muscles). Dozens more have recently signed up at a Honeywell facility in South Bend, Ind. "They've caught on like wildfire," says Tamara Gaby, an ergonomics expert at the Honeywell office. "Now if you don't use a ball, people say, 'What's wrong with you?'"

You'll need the ball for your workouts too, so you can add new exercises to stretch and strengthen your postural muscles (see "A Regimen That Lifts You"). Your co-workers and clients will undoubtedly sense a change. Improved posture makes you look taller, and the effect sends a positive psychological message. "A person who's upright is seen as in charge," says Peter Urs Bender, a Toronto-based executive consultant. "Then the image reinforces itself, because as other people react to you, you hold yourself even straighter."

In other words, you won't need to lie on a Hawaiian beach to get noticed. --GRETCHEN REYNOLDS