In 1990, a group of researchers in England won the prestigious Volvo Award in Biomechanics and Clinical Science for their work on the relationship of back pain to occupation. They examined the spines of 86 cadavers. Having extensive histories of these individuals' work life prior to their deaths, the researchers came to a startling conclusion. They discovered that people who sat for the majority of their work life had degenerated and bulging disks in their lower back. People who were free to sit, stand, and walk had healthy spines. There was considerable evidence that long-term chair sitting was actually harmful!
This exciting study helped document that sitting causes the lower back to degenerate. When you sit, the weight of your entire upper body compresses your lower lumbar disks, and because most people slouch when they sit, there are additional stressful forces that make the problem worse. According to this and other studies, standing and walking do not cause the harmful effects that sitting does. There has been a significant increase in back problems over the last century that appears to correlate with the number of hours spent sitting. Although we may believe that sitting is comfortable, it may actually be causing spinal degeneration.
Homo sapiens, 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, were primarily wanderers. They would forage and hunt for food, and only used the most primitive tools and containers. There is no history of chairs being used during this period. Anthropological studies of many 19th- and 20th-century tribes have shown similar results--primitive people primarily stood or lay down. Occasionally, they would squat or kneel as a break from long hours of standing and walking. However, because they were naked or often scantily clad, they had little desire to sit. After all, the ground was dusty, muddy or crawling with insects. Thus, the healthy lower backs that were discovered in anthropological research of these people may have been due to their lifestyle, since standing and lying down are the ideal positions to prevent spinal degeneration.
During the New Stone Age, around 5,000 to 10,000 B.C.E., primitive man began to use chairs. Archeological evidence from this era shows benches and ledges designed for sleeping and sitting. In ancient Egypt and Greece, sculptures commonly depict kings and pharaohs as sitting upright on elegant thrones. However, at this time chairs were uncommon among the lower classes--they occasionally used simple stools.
Medieval households rarely used furniture. Small, crude stools and simple benches provided an occasional break from standing and squatting. But by the 1600s and 1700s, padded and more ornate chairs became more common. Because the upper classes had time to socialize, they began to use chairs in place of benches and stools. By the 1800s, simple handmade chairs were quite popular. It was not until the Industrial Revolution, during the 19th century, when factories began to churn out, on long assembly lines, chairs for office workers.
The Ideal Chair
There are only two natural positions for the human body: standing and lying down. Any posture must be an outgrowth of one of these two positions. The problem with sitting is that when you elevate your knees to a 90-degree angle to your hips, you round your lower back, causing you to slump. Therefore, the ideal chair will position your knees lower than your pelvis, much like the balance or Balans chair. There are only a few solutions to this dilemma:
Sit on a stool
Stools are ideal sitting surfaces around the breakfast nook in the kitchen, at a bar, or even in front of your computer workstation. You can raise your computer workstation to standing height, then sit on a stool as a break. Or purchase an adjustable desk so that you may stand for most of the day, and then lower the desk and sit on your chair to give your legs a well-deserved rest.
Buy an ergonomic chair
The best ergonomic chairs will let you tilt the seat back to mimic a recliner. By tilting the seat back into a reclined position, with your neck supported, you dramatically reduce the stress on your entire spine. Then, when you desire to change positions, you can tilt your seat forward, with your knees below your pelvis, to put your weight on the sit bones and your feet. Both of these positions avoid the pressure on the spine from the typical slumped position caused by the average office chair.
Set up a fail-safe standing arrangement
By organizing your workstation so that about half your work must be done standing is another strategy. Place your telephone, fax machine, rolodex, or printer away from your desk. With these frequently used items out of reach, you will be forced to stand up repeatedly throughout the day.
Buy a recliner
Recliners are the ideal sitting posture for the spine because they support the entire back and neck without the compressive force of the typical chair. Once you have used a recliner, you may want to sit in nothing else.
Practice lying down
Any chance you get, lie down. Practice being a couch potato at home by stretching out on the couch and reading, rather than sitting in your favorite chair. Practice reclining while watching television, do more work in bed, and avoid overstuffed chairs and couches.