Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 Mar

Floor Living: Do You Spend Enough Time on the Ground?

Floor LivingSeveral weeks ago, I asked readers how much floor living they did and linked to an interesting blog post from Chris Highcock discussing the “archetypal postures” of ground-based sitting, squatting, and kneeling. My interest persisted, and I thought a full-on post about the potential benefits and logistics of spending more time on the floor would be fun and helpful.

I’ve found that there aren’t very many studies examining the effects of floor sitting/kneeling/squatting on health, posture, or pain. You’ve got the “stability ball literature” (long story short: sitting on a stability ball tends to “increase the level of discomfort”), but sitting on an inflated unstable sphere is more physiologically novel than a regular chair. I’m not sure there’s much benefit and it looks pretty silly. (But if it works for you…) There’s also a brief study that showed sitting in a backless chair improved levels of consciousness in patients with prolonged consciousness disturbance. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty barren landscape of research.

I think that’s okay. I’m not entirely convinced we always need research to confirm what we already (should) implicitly know.

Sometimes hard data isn’t really needed, especially when you consider two unassailable facts about our relationship with the floor. First, individually, we all start out on the floor. As babies, we lie there, essentially kicking things off as eating, pooping sacks of wiggling, basically immobile flesh. Then, we graduate to flipping over onto our stomachs, lolling our heads around (once we develop sufficient neck strength), crawling toward vacant electrical sockets, hesitantly standing, and finally walking. It’s on the floor that we learn to move. We may not be doing terribly complex or impressive stuff down there, but that first year or two is incredibly formative for the rest of our movement lives. We’re building a foundation made primarily of contralateral crawling and “tummy time.” Graduating beyond the floor to full on bipedalism doesn’t mean we should totally ignore where we came from.

Second, chairs are a recent invention. Folks as early as the ancient Egyptians had them, but they were a luxury item reserved for the upper classes. Your average Neolithic human sat on chests or benches until chairs became a mass-produced staple that everyone could afford. Earlier than that, for most of human history, formal-sitting furniture simply didn’t exist. Paleolithic posteriors surely rested upon rocks and logs and stumps when the opportunity arose, but those aren’t the same as having permanent fixtures that allow you to take a load off whenever you want. Human bodies were not designed with chairs in mind. We did do a lot of lounging around – I’m not arguing we never stopped moving or anything – but we did so on the ground, rather than on a bunch of folding chairs.

Sitting down in a chair does funny things to our bodies. It stretches out our glutes, making them inactive, loose, and weak. People by and large no longer know how to activate their butt muscles due to excessive amounts of chair sitting. Sitting in a chair also keeps the hip flexors in a short, tight, contracted position for extended amounts of time, which can inhibit full hip extension and lead to that hunched over position you often see older folks shuffling around with. And that’s not even mentioning the extensive (and growing) literature showing how sitting for too long increases mortality and degenerative disease, which I’ve covered in plenty of posts and Weekend Link Loves. This post isn’t really about that, anyway.

What might be most important, though, is what sitting in a chair doesn’t do. It doesn’t allow us to rest in the full squat position, an ability we’re born with but quickly forget how to do. It doesn’t let us do much of anything. Sitting becomes a totally passive act, where we’re slumped over, shoulders rounded, feet twisted up and resting on the chair legs, totally dependent on the structure of the chair to support our weight – rather than using our musculature and arranging our skeletal system in such a way that we support ourselves. Doesn’t it seem inconceivable that an animal – any animal – would evolve to require furniture in order to rest comfortably without incurring a disability?

That’s partly why it makes some sense to hang out on the floor more. We need the “stress” of supporting our own body weight and making sure our structures are in alignment. Here are a few positions to try out:

The squat – The default resting position of humans. Kids can do this easily, but once they start going to school and sitting in a chair for six hours a day, they lose it. The goal here is to get your heels on the ground. Resting on the balls of your feet is easier, but it’s harder on your knees and thighs. The heels-down squat, which requires more flexibility but distributes the pressure across your hips, is far more sustainable. Check out the ease with which these Hadza Bushmen are able to rest in the full squat, as well as their ability to move in every direction from that position. If you’re having trouble, here are some nice tips from Todd Hargrove.

Seiza – The formal way to sit in Japan, resting on the lower legs, butt on heels. Placing a small pillow or rolled up towel under your knees can make the transition easier, especially if you have a bad knee or two.

Half kneel – Like seiza, except one of your feet is on the ground, heel down, in front of you in a squat position. Like these guys.

Crossed legs – For many people, this is the most comfortable, natural way to sit on the floor. You can place your feet flat against each other, cross at the ankles, or place your calves against each other. You can even go full lotus. There are many variations, but here’s the most basic way.

Crossed leg variation – This is one my favorite ways to sit. From the basic crossed leg position, place one hand flat on the floor and lean on it. Bring the opposite leg up and place the foot flat on the floor. Your opposite leg will be in a squat position. Switch hands and legs if it gets uncomfortable. It looks like this (except without the creepy eyes) or this. Or this (even better).

Make up your own – Human limbs are funny, bendy things. We can contort ourselves into lots of positions, and as long as you’re on the floor, supporting your own weight and feel comfortable doing it, it’s difficult to hurt yourself. Our bodies are good at giving feedback before things go really wrong. If your arm starts to go numb or your toes get tingly, switch it up! Try coming up with some of your own variations for sitting on the ground and report back.

CrawlContralateral crawling is one of the most fundamental ways to move. It’s a strong developer of shoulder and hip mobility and strength, and it’s simply a fun way to see and experience the world.

Now that you have some idea of what to do when you’re on the ground, I’d like you to spend the next week doing as much floor living as possible. I don’t expect you to ditch the office chair and roll around the ground while at work, but I do expect you to get in some quality floor time when you’re at home.

Watch TV on the floor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with TV. Sure, it can be taken to the extreme and crowd out active living, but it’s arguably a golden age of television as far as quality goes. The couch sitting, though, is what gets you.

Eat dinner on the floor. This isn’t something I created out of thin air; plenty of cultures eat dinner on the ground.

Try different positions. You’ll probably find that floor living is a constantly shifting existence, where instead of remaining in the same position for hours at a time, you’re moving around all the time without even trying. You’re switching from the right arm to the left arm to the right elbow to the full lotus position to the half kneel to the full kneel to the full squat just in the first two hours.

Practice moving between positions. Go from standing to a half kneel to a kneel to a seiza to a kneel to a half kneel to standing.

Practice standing up. We can’t live on the floor all the time. Sometimes, we need to stand up and get on with our lives. A smooth transition between floor living and standing is key to health and mobility. For an example transition, check out one of my buddy Erwan’s (of MovNat) methods.

Spend at least an hour a day sitting on the ground and another fifteen minutes practicing different ways to move between positions and another fifteen practicing how to stand up and sit back down. Shoot for ten minutes of crawling, too. You can do most of these things while doing other things, like watching TV or reading or talking, so it’s not like you’re wasting time. My guess is that you’ll take to this like a fish to water.

Why is this so important? The way we sit, and where we do it, changes the function of our bodies. It even alters the length of musculature. In countries where squatting and other forms of floor living are seamlessly weaved into everyday life, people still retain the mobility to do all that stuff into old age. I’ve got a buddy from Thailand who moved over to Hollywood as a teenager in the late sixties and still retains the ability to sit in a full squat, painlessly and effortlessly. This guy is an avid user of chairs and everything Western; not a gymgoer at all, and he’s never even heard of a foam roller or Mobility WOD, but because he got the right floor living experience during the formative years, he can still squat and move around on the floor. Unfortunately, for many of us in Western countries who stopped floor living right around age four or five, we may never quite get there – but we can certainly do a lot better than we are now.

Let’s hear from you guys. How do you handle yourselves on the floor? What’s your favorite go-to position?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great Article,
    After spending 4 yrs sitting on a low stool and a coffee table to study, I have now finished my degree and gone back to sitting on a sofa and chair… After just one month, my posture is terrible, I slouch and my back aches all the time…

    I realise that floor or low stool sitting tilts my pelvis forward, maintaining a better all round posture (for me at least), Ive gone back to floor sitting and I feel much better..

    I wont lie, I do struggle with the social implications and friends thinking im weird and I do at times find it a bit hard to get up off the floor, but the negatives still better than curved back on the sofa posture!

    London

    Ana wrote on March 21st, 2013
  2. i’d add:

    gardening,

    cheers,

    pam wrote on March 31st, 2013
  3. i just recently started sitting on the floor again when i watch tv! of course for me my problem is that my muscles have tightened so much that i realized it was actually probably the cause of my back pain–i’m ony 23–so i’ve taken to sitting on the ground and stretching my hamstrings while i do it. to make the transition easier i sit against my wall to help control my slouch–it’s really noticeable to slouch away from a wall! you realize how badly you’re slouching

    jess wrote on April 24th, 2013
  4. I love this post! So informative! I recently built my own floor desk because of the length of time I spend doing web work. I MUCH prefer floor-sitting to chair-sitting. I googled “health benefits of floor sitting” as part of my research for an upcoming blog post where I’ll share the tutorial on how to build your own floor desk. I will definitely be linking back to this article!! Thanks for this!

    Tiffany

    Tiffany | offbeat + inspired wrote on May 23rd, 2013
  5. I found this article when I decided to watch some videos on Coursera in my room and I remembered I didn’t have a table, and so went looking online for comfortable ways to sit on the floor. I must say that I rather enjoy sitting on the ground, although it’s kind of difficult to get around the pain on my ankles from the pressure against the hardwood floor.

    I don’t have any furniture in my room anymore, because I got myself an old wall bed which takes up all my room when it is down. Looking into this has renewed my interest in getting a tatami mat for sitting, but for now, I am using a small and thin camping pillow to protect my hips from the ground and an acoustic guitar case for as my desk. It’s not formal furniture, but I’m really enjoying this lifestyle change.

    I am a student of Chinese language and culture, and, having slept in a Chinese hotel room, I can say that whatever type of mattress common in use there is more comfortable than anything I’ve found in America; the mattresses tend to be very firm—like my camping pillow. I’d personally recommend it. (But, I’m still trying to figure out how to eliminate ankle and knee discomfort. Oh, well.)

    Randy wrote on July 31st, 2013
  6. Thank you, great article! I am Malaysian and am very comfortable in a full-squat and other floor-living postures. I’m also a childbirth educator and I can’t stress the benefits of squatting, kneeling, the fetal position, etc.. on the floor to my pregnant mothers. It makes ALL the difference in childbirth – because mothers are so much more flexible and IN TOUCH with their bodies – which is important in labour and birth :)

    Birth junkie wrote on August 25th, 2013
  7. I enjoy sitting on the floor – it feels more natural. My legs ache sitting in conventional chairs and I fidget a lot! I meditate and use a Kindseat which is a cool piece of furniture to have and use even if you don’t meditate, as it can be adjusted in so many ways to help you sit or kneel comfortably while meditating or chatting or whatever. It’s such a great design it can stay out in the room and not be put away. It’s also light to carry. I wonder if this is perhaps the future for sitting in a room – it can also be more sociable. (www.kindseat.com)

    Sue wrote on September 18th, 2013
  8. I work from home and after reading your post, I may just try floor-living.^^

    Rogn wrote on October 1st, 2013
  9. I can’t see the image no.4 Crossed leg variation picture can you fix it or can you send to me thks

    tian wrote on October 19th, 2014
  10. I’ve been a floor liver for about 5 years. I squat instead of bending and sit this way at the pc several tmes a day. When pins n needles i swap position, normally both knees in front of me lol, or I stretch one out, to the side or behind. I sit on a mat or a low cushion. I haven’t used a bed for a number of years, and swapped from mattress on the ground to covered cardboard on a rug and more recently a swag. I rarely use chairs, have only one in the house for visitors or when I need to stand on something. Three stools I use when visitors are over. Even at friends places I choose the floor where possible as I find chairs and couches uncomfortable, unless wide enough to treat like a sunbed.
    Definitely more flexible than most, and people comment on my posture a lot. I feel grounded and enjoy being close to Earth.

    Char Psych Stats Tutor wrote on February 6th, 2015
  11. Before I read this, I had just read another post about floor sitting, from someone from India, wherein they mentioned a study that linked ability to sit and rise from the floor, unaided, with mortality rate. I think it was a Brazilian study. It was very interesting, but, I only read it, quickly, and, the once, so far, so that’s as much as I remember.

    I bookmarked it and yours, to read again, later. Thank you for the information.

    Arletta wrote on May 15th, 2015
  12. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with TV…”

    That’s incredibly arguable! :-)

    Shahin wrote on June 30th, 2015
  13. My thought:

    Humans have been sitting on floors for the last ~2.2 or ~13 (Pierolapithecus Catalaunicus). So we have evolved to sit, squad, lay on the hard ground.

    The chair is, I believe, a modern invention. Or, maybe in past times a luxury of the rich. Western culture has assimilated to using chairs as the status quo. I will make the assumption that our bodies have not evolved to use the chair effectively.

    I find it funny that we are creating so many “ergonomic” tools to help our back. Maybe it is as simple as learn to sit “indian” style, kneel, cross-legged, squatted….etc on the ground.

    My two-cents.

    Regards,
    Mike R.

    Mike wrote on August 14th, 2015
  14. I am sitting cross legged on the ground right now as I type this! Thanks for sharing!

    Nancy wrote on August 14th, 2015
  15. I sit on the floor for my job. I’m a well child nurse and work in a very high needs community. My decision to sit on the floor when visiting clients was not a health-based decision, but to remove some of the inequality between health professionals and clients that is sometimes such a barrier to effective health care. I work with lots of different cultures and I have had a lot of feedback that they find my sitting on the floor “very respectful”. I am researching the issue now, however, because I want better health and feel that “blobbing on the couch” when I get home is not healthy. p.s. I’m “paleo” with my diet so why not the rest of my lifestyle?

    Cathy wrote on October 12th, 2015
  16. I’ve moved my home office to the floor and have succesfully worked about four hours straight without any pain. After a few months, though, my lower back hurts.. So I am going to do some strengthening exercises and try different ways of sitting or squatting. Any tips for sciatic nerve pain from incorrect sitting would be greatly appreciated!

    Stephanie wrote on November 3rd, 2015
    • You may find the standing workstation more appropriate, as it lengthens your spine taking pressure of the hip area. Your sciatic nerve leaves your lower spine and runs the back of your legs. Sitting cross-legged will likely aggravate.

      Stretching your legs out one or both (as in a v) would help to release pressure.

      I have two slight curves in my spine, and I swapped from floor to standing station (I work long hours on the pc mind), and this has definitely helped in terms much less frequent pain in upper back.

      Also, I am able to do leg and core strengthening exercises whilst working.
      Here is a link to another of Mark’s posts, which gives tips for creating a standing workstation http://www.marksdailyapple.com/standing-at-work/

      Char Paul wrote on November 3rd, 2015
  17. i have a large floor chair and i mostly passed time with my laptop while i work on my room. its really help me to relax and do spend some time for freelance work. i really enjoyed this time.

    Alex Marphoi wrote on January 16th, 2016
  18. i have a large floor chair and i mostly passed time with my laptop while i work on my room. its really help me to relax and do spend some time for freelance work. i really enjoyed this time.

    James Cisar wrote on January 17th, 2016
  19. I work at my laptop on a small table, sitting on the ground at present – this is because my usual room and desk are getting cleared out and I’m in a different bedroom without a proper desk. Unfortunately, the need to lean forward for everything (reading books,sewing, using the computer) has lead to severe back pain and stiffness and my hip has gotten very sore, despite sitting in a relaxed cross-legged half-lotus position that we all used in primary school to no issue. Anything people can recommend to help with joint and muscle pains from this transition?

    Helen wrote on January 31st, 2016
  20. heck out one of my buddy Erwan’s (of MovNat) methods.

    Read more: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/floor-living-do-you-spend-enough-time-on-the-ground/#ixzz47b6S3tbq

    Mary wrote on May 3rd, 2016
  21. I don’t really eat Paleo, but, floor sitting / sleeping for life! And if that’s not an option (on the bus, etc) I try to use the chair-back less, so my abs can still feel useful.

    Mema wrote on June 9th, 2016

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!