Our bodies have two primary structural bends, one at the hips and the other at the knees. The basic design of a chair (a seat with four legs and an upright back) naturally accommodates those two flexion points. So, it’s little wonder that the chair has been around for at least 5,000 years.
Considering the quirks of human anatomy, it’s surprising the chair wasn’t invented even earlier. Sitting on a chair takes a load off our legs and feet, and we seem to naturally feel more relaxed when our backs have vertical support.
But chair use has not always been democratic. In ancient Egypt, the privilege of sitting in a chair was considered to be so exalted that chair use was reserved for the elite classes.
Given how natural sitting on a chair seems to be, it’s somewhat surprising that the practice of sitting has been coming under a substantial amount of criticism in recent years.
The Washington Post wrote: “The Health Hazards of Sitting”
The article poses the theory that sitting too much exposes us to heart disease, an over-productive pancreas, poor circulation, and osteoporosis. The evils of “Mushy abs, tight hips, and limp glutes” are all blamed on too much sitting.
As proof, the article cited the results of an 8-year study that said sedentary people who watched seven or more hours of TV per day “had a 61% greater risk of dying than those who watched less than one hour per day.” Note to self, since we all have a 100% risk of dying we assume the author meant dying prematurely.
How much sitting is too much?
There is little doubt that prolonged sitting presents some health hazards. My patients will say, “My back hurts when I sit for a long time” and ask, “How much sitting is too much?” Since each patient has a unique body, with individual and unique conditioning, that is hard to answer. Some folks, for example, exercise more than others. Also, different health conditions can impact posture, strength and endurance.
What are archetypal postures?
Concerns about pain from sitting are behind a recent movement promoting the practice of “archetypal rest postures”. Yep, that is what it is called.
These postures are called “archetypal” because their use has been consistently observed for centuries in cultures around the globe. Each of these postures vastly predates the use of chairs, so it’s probably logical to conclude they come more naturally to humans than sitting on a chair.
Archetypal postures include:
The squat appears to be a fundamental building block of human movement. It simultaneously flexes the ankles, knees, and hips. The ideal squat is performed with your feet flat on the ground, your buttocks on your ankles, and your elbows on your knees.
It looks difficult and, for most of us, it’s harder than it looks. As with all these postures, it’s a really good idea to ease in, gradually expanding your flexibility. Use props, like pillows and mats, whenever it might help.
Kneeling presents a wide variety of optional positions. It can be low (buttocks resting on heels) or tall (no bend at the hips). Your toes can be tucked under or pointed behind you.
In this posture you’re sitting on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you.
Just like it sounds, sitting on the floor with your legs crossed in front of you. The toes of your right foot will be under your left knee, and vice versa. This isn’t exactly the Lotus position, but it’s heading in that direction.
You’ll start with your buttocks on the floor with your right leg in front of you, bent at the knee, and your left calf and foot behind you. The sole of your right foot will be close to your left knee so that your legs look like a pinwheel around your torso. The reverse side-sitting posture has your left knee facing forward, and your right calf and foot stretched out behind you with the knee bent.
In each of these archetypal positions, some muscles, tendons and ligaments in our torso and limbs are lengthened while others are compressed. This is helpful because there are physiological benefits to stretching and compressing your body.
These include promoting healthy circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid, exerting positive stress on skeletal muscles that improve bone density, encouraging healthy function of the body’s major organs, and stimulating the production of synovial fluid (the body’s natural lubricating oil for the joints). Indeed, this may well be the reason why these archetypal postures have endured for millennia.
Now, it’s true that some folks might have a hard time being convinced that sitting on the floor can provide all the wondrous benefits claimed by its proponents. But it certainly comes naturally to humans. Just ask any 2-year-old or, better yet, just observe them.
The solution? Do stretches after sitting for a long time. Or even a short time!
It is critically important to stretch as much as possible, but especially when you spend long periods of time sitting at work.
The Canyon Ranch, which is a seriously wonderful healthy living and luxury spa vacation destination that has promoted healthy lifestyles for over 40 years, has a very good article on why motion is the key to longevity.
Whether it’s stretching at your desk or taking time out during your day to stand while doing chores, do yoga, Pilates or be a Pokeman GO walking fan, please get your butt up and move. Your back and body will thank you.