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Can a Magnetic Wearable Give You Perfect Posture?

Photo courtesy of Lumo
Photo courtesy of Lumo

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Growing up, movies and television gave me the impression that one day I would master posture by balancing a book on my head. My favorite example of the learning-to-be-a-lady-through-posture genre comes from the 1992 classic A League of Their Own. The lady baseball players are sent to charm school, where they, yes, walk with books on their heads, as well as practice other supposedly girlish virtues. One player—tomboyish, gawky Marla Hooch—can't cut it, and is declared by the school's instructor to be hopeless, completely lacking in feminine wiles. My fear, posture-wise, is that I'm Marla Hooch.

It turns out that like death by quicksand and threats to your permanent record, book balancing lessons are one of those things that just doesn't happen in real life. There is no montage of me clumsily letting thick volumes crash over and over but always pluckily trying again, eventually becoming a proper society lady and/or princess of Genovia. Instead, my slouchy ways went unabated—until I heard about Lumo Lift.

A wearable device that acts as both a posture coach and activity tracker, Lumo Lift works by using sensors to take readings of your body. But it doesn't just passively gather data: When you start to slouch, it can be set to buzz to remind you to straighten up. You may want to work on your posture (desperately even!), but moment to moment, there's no one there needling you to sit up straight. For just under a hundred bucks, Lumo Lift will do the needling for you.

"The idea of giving people reminders is important because, during the day, you're focused on other things and it's hard to hold two thoughts in one mind," explains Alison West, co-director of New York's Yoga Union Center for Backcare and Scoliosis. She has not used the device, but with bad posture at near-epidemic levels, thinks it can only help.

Poor posture can hide in plain sight. Or rather, you can think you're hiding it, and yourself, but everyone can see what you're doing. It becomes one of those subtle awkwardnesses that feels too intimate to comment on.

Tall and well-endowed women are thought to develop bad posture during adolescence as a way to disappear themselves, West says; I'm not notably either of those things, but I strongly suspect my slouchiness stems, or more accurately, slumps, from a similar place of self-consciousness. West explains that depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem can all factor in to bad posture: "You might try to make yourself smaller and less obvious. Women, on the whole, try to take up a little less room, or be cute by making themselves small and vulnerable."

Photo courtesy of Lumo

Unlike, say, tanning and its relationship to health, with posture, what looks best—standing up straight—is mercifully also what's best for you. Though you don't often see a male character in a movie balancing books on his head, men and women alike are seeking out ways to improve their posture as a way to improve their overall appearance.

According to Lumo Lift co-founder and CEO Monisha Perkash, people are interested in the device for plenty of reasons: general health and wellness concerns, a way to alleviate back pain, and just wanting to feel better about how they look. "We do hear from women a lot, but also from men, that they're very concerned about the image side," she says. "They'll catch a reflection of themselves in a window and realize, 'Oh my god, that's whay I look like?'"

Though she doesn't see a difference among men and women in terms of what motivates them, women are using the product at a higher rate than they do other gadgets: "Our customers are fairly evenly split across men and women, which we see as an awesome sign. Typically early adopter products like this one, ones that haven't been on the market that long, tend to have 20 to 30 percent women."

For reasons both rampant in our culture (looking down too much at smartphones, sitting at computers all day) and specific to me, I've been worrying about my posture for years. To have bad posture is to habitually cut off your (apparently regenerating) nose to spite your face. Lumo Lift is currently only compatible with Apple iOS, and I stubbornly do not use an iPhone or iPad; I mention this because it does not seem wholly unrelated to my propensity for self-spiting. (Desktop and Android apps are planned for later this year.)

To try out the device as the company recommends, I had to find someone with an iPhone to agree to be the keeper of my data. I imagined myself as a remote-control robot, completely subject to the whims of someone else. What fun feuding siblings on some imaginary sitcom could have with this technology, like a safer version of electroshock therapy! But because the Lift device and the phone or tablet that the app is on have to be close enough to be synced via Bluetooth, I could not be terrorized in this way. I would just have to inconveniently live without access to my data most of the time.

This was just one of the ways my Lumo experience was less than optimal. Each time you put it on (you attach it to your shirt, near your collar, like a magnetic brooch of sorts), you're supposed to "snapshot" your optimal posture. Then, during coaching sessions, you're buzzed when you deviate from said snapshot. Sessions start at a length of five minutes, and with the app, can be extended to be hours long. I often found myself accidentally in coaching mode, though, and soon became adept at ignoring the vibration.

Photo courtesy of Lumo

It sounds easy enough to stop doing this, to heed the device's buzzes and gradually improve my posture, but resisting what I know is good for me is how I got into this mess in the first place. I think, irrationally, that this product designed to irritate users into better posture is just not annoying enough for me, that my posture is so far gone that I need a sentient being, probably someone really mean, to follow me around and heckle me.

Unsure how I might go about finding such a person, my thoughts turn to solutions like yoga and pilates; like rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, perhaps I would have better luck improving my posture if I did some pre-game muscle building beforehand. When you can't stop slouching, "the problem is that there's probably a lot of weak musculature involved in the areas that control your posture," confirms Melissa Lam, a physical therapist at Cynergy in New York City.

There's definitely value in human attention, and I questioned whether the "ideal" snapshot I was measuring my posture against was of any value to begin with. When I visited Lam and gave her my very best power pose, she assessed me coolly and had me tuck in my butt and adjust my shoulders in a way that felt unnatural, but struck her expert eye as more correct.

As others have noted, the magnet system that attaches the Lift to your clothing is imperfect. One option is to use a magnetic clip to attach the Lift to an undershirt or bra strap, but the magnet inside the clip isn't glued well enough and easily becomes detached. Call me a Juggalo, but I don't completely trust magnets to do a safety pin's job, and indeed, with the magnet-outside-my-shirt method, I had a few close calls where I could have lost the sensor since the magnets mysteriously ended up on some nearby metal surface, like my bed frame.

I thought a long bus ride would be the perfect time to hunker down and practice good posture, because I literally wouldn't have anything else to do but sit up straight. But lugging around my backpack and duffle bag straps caused the Lift to start buzzing me like crazy; I probably turned on a coaching session by accident. I also got nervous about losing it at a rest stop or somewhere similarly remote, so I put it away.

Later, I wondered if my Lift had inadvertently tracked any data while it was sitting in my bag. I texted the friend whose phone I had borrowed to see if I could come over and sync. Alas, he was busy, so I couldn't find out. As I long suspected, perfect posture might just not be for me after all.