Today’s guest post is offered up by Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of the bestselling Move Your DNA. Her recent book, Rethink Your Position examines how in our overwhelmingly sedentary culture, we don’t just need to “move more.” We need to move—and sit, and lie, and work, and rest—better, in positions that give us the varied and targeted motions our bodies need to thrive. I’m happy to welcome a good friend back to Mark’s Daily Apple to share on this topic.
Take a quick look around and you’ll see bodies everywhere—in most venues, across all ages—staring fixedly at a smartphone (to notice this, you might need to stop looking at your own phone for a minute). Not only are people’s eyes fixed on the screen, it’s like their entire body is being bent and pulled down towards these tiny black holes we call our “phones” (but which are more often used as multimedia entertainment devices).
When it comes to our device-shape, what’s mostly at play here is mindlessness plus gravity. We’ve got these new devices with an endless stream of captivating content, and when we dive online (which is often), we’re not only logging on with our eyeballs, we’re also logging on with our bodies.
Discussions around phone posture focus primarily on forward head/tech neck, but being on your phone is a whole-body sport with whole-body effects… from your eyeballs to your feet.
Your Phone Is Moving Your Head and Neck
Remember back in the olden days (fifteen years ago) when if you wanted to talk on the phone “hands-free,” you had to crane your head to one side and hold the phone between your shoulder and ear? Phones have always been a pain in the neck.
Today’s smartphone movements look different, but they still often involve the head and neck moving in extreme positions for long periods of time. Fortunately, our devices don’t require that we get into specific “device-shape” for them to work; we’re just not thinking about positioning ourselves in a sustainable way. We have options when it comes to our position—yes, even when using the smartphone.
Instead of letting your head dangle forward when you’ve logged on, put some strength in your swipe and use a little muscle in your upper back to hold your head and spine up.
Keeping your eyes on the horizon, and without lifting the chin or chest, lift and slide your head back toward the wall behind you and up to the ceiling above at the same time. This easy adjustment immediately decompresses the vertebrae in your neck, stretches the small muscles in the head, neck, and upper back, and makes you taller. You can look down at your phone with your eyes—you don’t have to look down with your entire spine.
I’m also a fan of modifying your environment to make moving well more reflexive. Adding a head ramp decal to your phones or tablets or a “WHERE’S YOUR HEAD AT?” post-it on the corner of your computer screen can be a fixed reminder to adjust your position.
Your Phone Is Moving Your Eyes
There’s a ring of muscles in each of your eyeballs called your ciliary muscles. When you focus on something close to your face, like a smartphone or a book, this muscular ring shortens and constricts. You need to focus on something far away—at least a quarter mile—to allow these muscles to lengthen and loosen their ring.
We can keep our eye muscles healthy, just like the muscles in our hips and shoulders, by taking them through their full range of motion many times a day. Instead, though, our copious amounts of screen and indoor time means we use our eye muscles (also like those of the hips and shoulders) over a very small and repetitive range of motion.
Back your face away from that screen
You’ve already learned the head ramp exercise above. Turns out it’s not only great for the curves of the middle and upper spine, it’s also a great way to change the distance between your eyeballs and their point of focus.
Set a timer on your device that reminds you to regularly move your eyeballs off the screen to the world that’s literally screen-adjacent. If you’re inside, get to a window and focus on something off in the distance for a minute or two. Back away from your devices a bit (or entirely) in the whole-body sense. Swap watching one of YouTube’s cool animal videos for watching the actual birds, bugs, and nature that surrounds you no matter where you live.
Look for more non-online solutions or ways to connect. If you can’t break away from your device just yet, look for ways to listen via your phone versus just looking. Just because we can video call doesn’t mean we have to. Voice-only chats free up our eyes and body to do other things.
Your Phone Is Moving Your Lungs
To be precise, prolonged periods of sitting and using the phone with your upper back rounded forward can prevent your lungs from moving well. This isn’t really the phones’ fault; it’s more about how we use them. Lots of stillness (which already keeps the lungs pretty sedentary) plus lots of kyphosis (the forward curve of the upper spine) affects the way the lungs move. Sitting up straighter (see “Head ramping”), swapping scrolling time for movement time, and doing exercises that decrease excessive upper back curvature and shoulder tension can all help.
Start with this move:
Stretch your shoulders and upper back
Place your hands on a counter, desk, or wall at counter height. Then, walk your feet back to bring your hips away from your hands, and lower your chest toward the ground to stretch out that phone-hunch.
Your Phone Is Moving Your Hands
Raise your hand if you’re on your phone more than ever before. Is your raised hand gripping a phone? Then these stretches are for you.
Here are three moves that will get your hands moving more and moving differently from the phone death-grip, index-finger swipe your upper body has grown accustomed to. Bonus: you have to put your phone down to do them. Find more stretches like this in Rethink Your Position (Propriometrics Press, May 2023).
Stretch your thumbs
Whether it’s the curl of one thumb to hold your phone or the rapid-fire pecking of two contracted, texting thumbs, these digits are integral to smartphone use. To keep them from clawing forever, try this stretch: Make a loose fist with your right hand with the thumb pointing up. Grasp the thumb as low as you can with your left hand and move it like it’s an old-fashioned Atari joystick, slowly moving it toward you and side to side at varying angles (“PEW PEW” noises not required).
Stretch your wrists
Keeping your shoulders down and relaxed, touch the backs of your hands together including the thumbs, then bring them down to waist level. Hold there or move them slowly up and down, or right to left, in front of your torso. Keep those thumbs touching!
Stretch your nerves
That’s right, nerves need to move through their ranges of motion too! Reach your hands out sideways from your shoulders, making a T with your arms and a “STOP” motion with your hands. Spreading your fingers away from each other, slowly work your fingertips toward your head. Keep your middle fingers pointing up, thumbs forward, and elbows slightly bent toward the ground. Think of reaching the upper arm bones away from you as you work your fingers back toward your body’s midline.
Your Phone Is Messing with Your Walk
Why have so many people ditched shoes with stiff soles and narrow toe-boxes for minimal footwear? Because conventional shoes keep parts of the feet from moving well. Certain features can even mess with elements of gait, like stride length, speed of walking, and which muscles are being used. Well, guess what? Smartphones can similarly mess with your gait when you’re on them while you walk.
As more people struggle to put their phones down, more people are also using their phones even when they’re on the move. Simply talking on or listening to the phone while you’re walking takes up some of the attention you’d normally use to process visual information, but it’s texting or scrolling while walking that really messes with you. When walking becomes a task secondary to “being on the phone,” it slows you down, shortens your step length, and impacts with your walking cadence. Walking becomes less stable, and you’re much more likely to miss important visual information around you.
There’s no body exercise that remedies the way scrolling affects your walk—just a little exercise in self control, especially if you’re on the street. Swap the video for audio when possible, and stop walking when you need to scroll, especially if you’re already at an increased risk of falling.
Use Your Phone to Be an Influencer
Part of belonging to a culture means we’re all influencing each other. While it might be hard to imagine going anywhere or getting anything done without your smartphone, these devices are actually a brand new technology that’s barely been with us for a decade. We have very little understanding of how our bodies and minds will respond to such ubiquitous use in the long term.
Until we do, create your own good-use practices and keep your body mobility and strength (and other smartphone-affected) skill sets up—and pass this intention on to your friends and family, too. Share some steps you’re taking to use your smartphone more mindfully. Be an influencer! Not by selling something via smartphone technology, but by modeling more sustainable phone-using positions and an ability to extract the best from this new technology without the large dose of adverse consequences.
Bestselling author, speaker, and a leader of the Movement movement, biomechanist Katy Bowman is changing the way we move and think about our need for movement. Bowman teaches movement globally and has written 9 previous books on the importance of a diverse movement diet, including Move Your DNA, Dynamic Aging, and Grow Wild. Her latest book, Rethink Your Position, is a much-needed guide to how our bodies move, why we need to move more, and the intentional steps anyone can take to feel, move, and even think better—one part at a time. Find her at NutritiousMovement.com, @nutritiousmovement, and on the Move Your DNA Podcast.