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The problem with sitting

“Have a seat,” the receptionist says, thinking she’s being polite by offering you a place to sit while you wait for your appointment. What neither of you probably realize is that she’s asking you to take years off your life, weaken your body in general, and stress your back in particular. We look at chairs in terms of style and color and maybe even comfort, but we never think about the impact of this piece of furniture on our health.

In January 2011 Canadian physiologist Travis Saunders reported damning research in Scientific American about the changes in blood chemistry that occur when we are sedentary; sitting is associated with increased risk of mortality no matter if a person is young or old, fat or slim, a smoker or not. This means chair sitting trumps age, obesity, and smoking as a cause of death! The chemical changes that sitting produce leave us open to heart attacks, cancers, and other fatalities. "We'd better think twice about sitting down."

Why don’t we sit in healthier, more rational ways like perching halfway between sitting and standing, lounging, or even squatting? Blame it on the kings and pharaohs. They were elevated on chairs while commoners sat on the floor. Even Neolithic peoples saved chairs for women of special status. Chairs are associated with high status, and that early influence on their development has survived to this day. When you walk into an office for a job interview you know which chair is yours, definitely not the big one with a high back! The dining room chair with arms is not reserved for the frailest person in your family but rather for the head of the household. Office chairs, too, are ranked by status; upper management, mid-management, and clerks have different chair sizes. Status may be what has kept us from seeing the problems caused by chair sitting. It felt so great to have what the kings and bosses had!

We can save ourselves by moving a lot more than we do. This means redesigning not only our stuff, but also our way of life. Even a lounge chair is sedentary, which is a problem for we hunter-gatherers, who were designed for movement. Further, every posture other than lying down involves some kind of effort, so distributing that effort through the entire system over time is better than holding it in one place. But living with movement means rethinking what we tell our kids about learning to sit still. Since movement enhances learning, we might want to rethink how teaching and learning in our classrooms. Perhaps sitting still does not have to be the only way to show respect for authority at school or on the job. What if we had circuits for pacing, like walking a labyrinth, in lecture halls and classrooms? What if bosses allowed employees to lie down or stand up or pace while talking on the phone? What if public places had 3 or 4 different sizes of seats and accommodated 6 or 7 different postures --standing, leaning, lounging, lying, sitting cross-legged, kneeling, or squatting?

Now that we know about the problems that have come with a sedentary life, and chairs especially, we need to rethink the ways that our bodies meet the environment.

Galen Cranz is the author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (WWNorton, paperback 2000).

Galen is the visiting teacher for the School's 2014 Residential Course.

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