The study, by researchers at San Francisco State University, recruited 125 college students and tested them on how well they performed simple math while either slumped over or sitting up straight with good posture, shoulders back and relaxed.
Before the test, the students were asked to fill out an anonymous questionnaire asking them to rate their anxiety levels while taking exams and performing math. They were also asked to describe any physical symptoms of stress they experienced during the test.
For the test, half the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat in a slouched position. They were then asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds before switching positions and repeating the math subtraction task, beginning at 834.
The researchers found that the math test was rated by the students as being significantly more difficult while sitting slouched. 56% of the students reported that they found it easier to do the math in an upright position.
Students who did not report anxiety about math did not report as great a benefit from a better posture, but they did find that doing math while slumped over was somewhat more difficult.
“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” said Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.”
Co-author Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey added that slumping over is a defensive posture, which can trigger old negative memories in the body and brain.
The authors believe the results could help people prepare for other types of performances and tests, saying better posture could also help athletes, musicians and public speakers.
“You have a choice,” said Peper. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”