Sitting is a thing we all do, a lot. These days, we are starting to see sitting as a problem as we discover the detriment of spending so much time being sedentary. However, many of us have no option but to sit while we work. Additionally, all of us find ourselves sitting for all kinds of reasons, even if we’ve also set intentions to move our bodies more.
Not moving enough has been linked to many diseases, and I’m sure that you have noticed for yourself some of the negative outcomes after spending an entire day sitting at your computer or in an airplane. We often talk about “getting in shape,” but we already are “in shape”—in the shape of that which we do most frequently. If we spend most of our time not moving, and especially sitting in the same position over and over, our bodies will adapt to that. For many of us, we adapt our bodies to the shape of the chair.
The problem with this can be simplified to say that most of us want to do more than sit in chairs. We want to stand up and walk out of those chairs, at least once in a while. Sometimes we may want to get all the way down below chair-territory, such as to pick something up off the ground. Unfortunately for chair-shaped people, however, the parts of our bodies that we need for movements like walking or squatting have been lost. In some cases, our hips don’t extend anymore because they’ve settled into a flexed, chair-sitting position. Often, our calves can no longer lengthen enough for us to lower our bodies into a squat. When you are most “in shape” for chair-sitting, you carry those chair-shaped parts with you into every other thing you do.
As a biologist, I am always looking for clues to understand today’s problems by pondering what our species was designed to do. For millions of years, humans lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle, which shaped our bodies (our very bones, muscles, and organs) into how they are today. Chairs didn’t exist, but ancient people did do a fair amount of sitting. We can use what we know about how our ancestors sat to understand how our sitting habits affect us today.
As the title implies, hunter-gatherers spent a lot of time very actively tracking and running after prey, foraging and digging for food, carrying water, children, and all their belongings for miles. However, people living in the wild also spent several hours a day sitting. From food prep, clothes making, basket weaving, pottery, breastfeeding, and just hanging around the fireside chatting—there are all kinds of traditional pastimes that involve sitting. And while these seated activities inherently are much more dynamic than say, working on a computer, there is one other main difference between people who live a more traditional lifestyle and those in more modern habitats: the chair. Hunter-gatherers sat on the ground. Without the specific geometry of the chair to always confine themselves to, people sit in a great variety of positions upon the ground, or possibly rocks and other natural things that are never one shape or size. Furthermore, with cushioned chairs to do all the supporting work for us, you and I tend to stay still for longer without noticing the consequences.
In the same way that humans are hard-wired to seek out sugar and fat, we seek comfort and energy-saving as if our lives depend on it—because they did once. So I want to tell you, it’s normal to crave the couch more than a wooden bench, more than a patch of cold, hard earth. It’s just not normal to have the couch as an option, let alone the ability to stay there so long. I also want to say that, while it is hard to change shape once you have adapted to the chair, you can do it. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Change what you are sitting on.
Choose seats that force you to provide the lumbar support. In our culture, there can be a lot of hype around core-workouts, but the main work of the core is primarily to hold you up against gravity. Start here. Just as with any workout done safely and with a slow, building progression, sitting without a backrest can become easier and more natural with practice, and lead to a stronger group of “core” muscles.
Choose seats that make you use more of your body parts. Most chairs are high enough that we hardly have to lower ourselves that much before we plop down into them. Look for a seat that is slightly lower than you are used to, so that each and every time you get up and down, you’re working your butt and leg muscles that much more. You can also start at the floor and bolster yourself up from there—with pillows, blankets, anything you want—until you find a seat as low as you can currently tolerate. You’ll also be moving your hips, knees, and ankles more—increasing the circulation of tissue-healing substances to and from these parts throughout the day.
Take a look at all the seats you currently visit each day—where you eat meals, how you transport yourself to work or school, where you spend work breaks, how you gather socially, the places you relax at home---how much variation is there? Are they all of similar height, do they all have backrests, do they all have cushioning? Once you start adding variation into the kinds of seats you use, make those seats the most convenient ones to sit in. Have them set up in the place you most likely will actually spend time, like at your dining table or in front of your TV or computer. If it feels like an exercise to sit differently, how often are you likely to do it? Rather, incorporate it into your life and it will become a daily practice with little effort.
Change how you are sitting.
The advantage of sitting on the floor is that so many more positions are available for your hips, knees, and ankles. Each time your change how you are sitting, you are engaging different muscles, increasing blood and nutrient flow to different parts of your body, and helping decrease excess inflammation. Although it’s super tempting to recline on a cushioned chair, harder surfaces will naturally let you know when it’s time to switch it up. No need for a notification on your smartphone to get you to move! Just start listening to the natural cues of discomfort from your body.
One thing that can help a lot is to create a slight downward slope to sit on. Whether on the floor or up on a chair, you can put a rolled towel, blanket, or small cushion under your pelvis so your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) are underneath you and it doesn’t feel like you are tucking your tail. This can make it easier to keep a more upright posture with less tension in your back.
Change how often you sit.
Our ancestors did sit a lot, but when they weren’t sitting, they were very active. They walked several miles a day, frequently carried heavy loads, climbed trees and dug for tubers. While many of us have no choice but to sit at work, we can choose to do more non-sitting activities outside of work time. They don’t have to be intense to make a big difference. Additionally, there a lot of ways we can replace time we spend seated with time on the move, such as walking with friends instead of sitting while we chat. Remember, our most frequent activities shape us the most. What kinds of things do you want to be in shape to do?