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

You Might Want to Sit Down for This

Or maybe you don’t. It turns out that sitting in a chair – that time honored tradition we commonly associate with rest, relaxation, and recuperation (don’t forget mind-numbing work, too!) – is actually bad for us. At least, the way we approach sitting is health harmful. The occasional dalliance with a straight-backed office chair probably isn’t a problem, but when we spend most of our waking life sitting (or, even worse, slumping over) in a chair, we invite disaster. Such sedentarism is a real problem, and a recent one. Grok certainly wasn’t bound to a desk. He may have had more off time than we do (if modern hunter-gatherers are any indication), but he didn’t spend it subjecting his body to extended bouts of unnatural contortions. And there’s the other big difference: the way we sit is completely unnatural. Instead of sprawling out, hands behind our heads, legs outstretched, we moderns “relax” in a chair – a piece of furniture with which we have relatively new relations.

From “You Don’t Know Squat” we already know that the modern toilet has only been in widespread use for a couple centuries, and that squatting to eliminate is probably healthier than the sit/strain method, but did you know that chairs with backs enjoy a similar history? Until the 16th century, chairs were reserved primarily for the gilded classes. Kings, noblemen, and statesmen used them to conduct business and hold court, while your average serf or peon was relegated to sitting on (backless) stools, chests, or even the ground. Early chairs were ornate, exquisite things made from expensive materials like ivory, ebony, bronze, and acacia wood, and festooned with beautiful carvings and designs; there weren’t any latter-day Ikea-equivalents pumping out mock kings’ thrones made of particle board. Handcrafted works of art versus utilitarian products mass-produced in China. It almost sounds like chairs are the refined grains of the furniture world.

Or, perhaps more fittingly, chairs are like shoes. They are modern “conveniences” that force our anatomy into unnatural positions while purporting to correct flaws intrinsic to our bodies. It’s not enough to say that we’re merely imperfect (because we are); we also possess a fatal flaw that only manmade artifice can fix. But what chairs actually do is make sitting in a harmful, slumped-over position for a dangerously long period of time possible. We bypass our built-in feedback system (you know – pain, fatigue, a sore back) that would usually direct us to correct our posture (or even, maybe, stand up and move around) and we’re able to sit relatively pain-free for hours on end – but the damage is being done. We’re getting progressively weaker and more reliant on the backing of the chair, and when we’re in a sitting situation without added back support, we can’t handle it. Instead of sitting erect, shoulders back, back strong and straight, head held high, we just slump over and use the curvature of our spine to support our bodies. If you don’t believe me, start watching for it. Look around at your colleagues, family, and friends, and see how they sit. Most people slump. Can you imagine the average modern twelve year old, weaned on couches and cheap school seating, slumping over in the saddle as he tries to ride down game on his first hunting trip with the warriors of the tribe? It simply wouldn’t work.

A weak back, one might argue, can be mitigated by proper exercises. Deadlifts and squats (performed correctly and with great form, of course) will strengthen your “core” and could even make up for all the sitting (personally, I wouldn’t risk it – and it seems kinda counterproductive, like eating a bunch of fish oil just so you can “safely” consume tons of Omega 6s), but are there any other health disadvantages to leading a sedentary, chair-ridden lifestyle? Of course there are.

There’s the obesity that accompanies sloth. Time spent sitting is invariably time spent not moving. While there is the occasional IT guy who bikes to work, hits the gym on his lunch break, and gets plenty of exercise when he’s not sitting in front of a computer, one Australian study (PDF) concluded that office workers “who spend high amounts of time sitting at work tend to spend high amounts of time sitting on non work days.” In other words, it may be that sedentary employees really do take their work home with them. That same study also found that those same workers had a flawed perception of their own activity levels. The most sedentary ones thought they were getting way more exercise than they actually were. As many of you probably know, a false sense of progress can be highly detrimental to one’s actual progress.

How do you feel about blood clots in your legs? A New Zealand (boy, they’re really on top of things in that part of the world, huh?) study found that workers who spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at their desks were at a higher risk of developing deep vein thombrosis (DVT). Workers who used computers while sitting were at an even high risk.

Metabolic syndrome, our favorite catchall for most of what ails the average insulin-resistant, obese, and near-diabetic, may also be exacerbated by “too little exercise and too much sitting.” Epidemiological data suggesting that “excessive sitting” is a health hazard prompted researchers to suggest amending current health guidelines, while one scientist even compared the deleterious impact of sitting to smoking regularly. When doctors compare anything to smoking, you know they mean business (of course, that same doctor’d probably include saturated fat among the condemned, but no one’s perfect).

If all that isn’t enough to convince you, perhaps a healthy dose of all cause mortality will. The study, conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine, examined whether time spent sitting was an independent indicator of all cause mortality. They factored in leisure time, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and even physical activity (the lack thereof which is a common explanation of the poor health ramifications of too much sitting), but sitting time emerged as a factor – “independent of leisure time physical activity.” Physical activity certainly helps reduce mortality rates, but it might not be enough, and the downsides of sitting can’t completely be explained away by a reduction in exercise.

So, what can we do about it? In a world of cheap and plentiful chairs, where social protocol and workplace decorum usually demand we plop down for hours at a time, how can the dedicated Primal Blueprinter maintain postural health and strength and avoid the pitfalls of too much sitting?

Ideally, we would avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time – or at all. That’s not very realistic, of course, for obvious reasons. We aren’t all Ernest Hemingway, who famously said, “writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” (Hemingway’s method of standing to type is actually really nice if you can manage it; my editor, Aaron, has been doing so the past few weeks after injuring his back, and he may never go back to chairs if he can help it.) If your boss is the type to let you nap and wear Vibrams to work, you might be able to work the “no-chair” angle, but I wouldn’t count on it.

If standing isn’t an option, trying using a stool to sit. Humans used stools (also chests, or anything backless) for centuries before chairs became common, so we can definitely manage without the support. The advantage of the stool is that you aren’t tempted to use the backing; in fact, you’re almost forced to maintain a straight, strong back by virtue of the backing’s absence. Sit up straight and tall. You’ll probably have to consciously maintain the arch in your back (like you’re deadlifting) at first, but in time your muscles will strengthen and you’ll grow accustomed to the position. Oh, if you don’t mind looking ridiculous, I suppose you could use a big yoga/balance ball as a seat.

Constantly punctuating your day with bouts of activity is a decent way to reduce the damage. Eight hours of sitting broken up into digestible chunks and interspersed with random walks and stretches every fifteen minutes is always going to be better than eight hours of uninterrupted sitting. You could take a walk for your lunch break, or even find time to hit the gym. Just get up, get moving, and get your blood flowing, and do it as often as you can (while still getting your work done, of course).

This may belong strictly in the “flights of fancy” category, but a treadmill desk would certainly help you avoid sitting. Plus, you could switch it off and simply stand and work if you ever got tired of walking.

If you absolutely can’t leave your chair for the entire day, you’ll need to put more emphasis on getting regular exercise outside of work. Eating Primally should be helping you avoid sugar crashes and carb comas, so mustering enough energy for a session shouldn’t be a problem. The reason we formally “workout” is because our lives are so structured; Grok didn’t decide to exercise. His life just naturally required it. In a way, both you and Grok need to exercise to survive – only for slightly different reasons.

To sum things up, staying on your feet or lounging instead of sitting in a chair are the most desirable ways to deal with the chair problem. Modern conveniences, though, have basically become modern requirements, and we’re going to have to deal with sitting in chairs from time to time. When you are forced into sitting, maintain a strong torso. Keep your shoulders back, your chest up, and your lower back tight and slightly arched. Get up every fifteen minutes or so for a brisk walk. Explore alternative seating arrangements, like yoga balls or backless stools that force you to exercise proper postural positioning. Think of the chair as a crutch – use when needed, but don’t rely on it too much or you’ll never be able to graduate.

Above all, don’t get hung up on the fact that you sit in a chair everyday. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s not going to kill you as long as you take the necessary steps to minimize the negative impact of sitting.

And now for some questions: How many hours a day do you spend sitting in a chair? What type of chair do you use? How would you rate your posture? Has anyone successfully negotiated a standing working environment at their office job? If so, share your experience. Let me know your thoughts in the comment board. Thanks, everyone!

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 post Mark! It’s so true how something so simple,even as simple as sitting can cause such a complet low back problem.

    Vic Magary - GymJunkies wrote on October 7th, 2009
  2. Great post! I’m really considering bringing in my yoga ball (which I never use now that I joined a crossfit gym) and sitting on it at work. I’m sure people will comment, and I can keep the chair around for when clients come in, but I really like this idea. With my mind on the office environment, I was wondering if you could do a post about high heeled shoes. Though I doubt you have any PERSONAL experience…they’re obviously not very grok-friendly, and yet I still find myself turning back to wearing them at work, even when they make my feet hurt or my calves cramp up. I need a brain reset when it comes to heels.

    Chelsea wrote on October 7th, 2009
  3. Couldn’t you accomplish good posture in a chair by treating it as if it where a stool? In other words, sit upright and don’t use the back, just pretend it’s not there. That’s what I’m doing now my posture feels pretty good.

    Adam wrote on October 7th, 2009
    • That’s essentially what I do now whenever I sit.

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 7th, 2009
  4. Oh jeez, since my car is my office, looks like I’m going to have to swap the car for a Segueway…

    Mikeythehealthycaveman wrote on October 7th, 2009
  5. I remember going to Haiti back in 1985 for a medical mission trip. All of the people there sat squat style. They could also carry lots of stuff on their head. I learned to do both while there. Carrying a load of stuff on your head forces you to have really good posture while doing it!

    Dave, RN wrote on October 7th, 2009
  6. I’m stuck with chairs, but I hardly ever sit like a normal person. I find it much more comfortable to sort of lounge-squat at an angle. I’m not sure that it’s actually better for me, though. It’s easier to do for longer periods of time, so I’m less inclined to leave.

    I do get up and walk frequently – in fact, I have a very hard time sitting still (OCPD? ADD? Something like that), so I don’t have to worry about clots.

    GeriMorgan wrote on October 7th, 2009
  7. I spend eight hours a day in the office, mostly at my PC; but I get up often – to fetch a printout, go talk to someone, get a cup of coffee, and so on. I never use the back of my chair and would be quite happy to sit on a stool instead, so long as I could adjust the height.

    I have found the Alexander Technique extremely helpful in developing awareness and control of my posture. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to find out what is the proper use of one’s body, whether or not they already suffer from back problems or other symptoms of poor use.

    Valda Redfern wrote on October 7th, 2009
  8. Every time I have had a ‘desk job’ I develop horrible pain in my hip flexors and even get muscle spasms in my buttocks. Has anyone else ever heard of this happening? The pain and limping are such that I am considering changing careers – to one where I can stand all day again!

    Darcy wrote on October 8th, 2009
  9. If sitting in a chair is generally bad how about just lying in a bed? You can still use your laptop but naturally your upper back area is going to be bent. Still the position feels much more relaxed. Which is worse, this or sitting?

    damnregistering wrote on October 10th, 2009
  10. Lying down flat on your back ultimately will be worse that sitting in the chair all day.

    The point is to get the body engaged in some sort of exercise.

    Sylvia wrote on October 11th, 2009
  11. Actually, lying flat would decrease the pressure off your back then sitting or standing all day. Although, this is not functional at all. No matter whether you stand or sit all day at the desk, it is always good to move around and give your body a break and stretch.

    Neck Exercises wrote on October 12th, 2009
    • There are actually “balans” kneeling chairs designed to place your spine in the same position it is in while you are standing. This provides an open hip angle and help with better breathing, blood flow and overall wellness. The company to oringally make these chairs was called Stokke and is now called Varier. Their products have a large range of needs, I suggest Wing balans, Variable balns or Multi balans (Multi can be adjusted for use at the most “extreme” setting – an excellent solutions for those with severe back problems or those who have just had back surgery!) I bought my variable balans at – these Varier Furniture chairs are built for movement and mine has helped me tremendously.

      Leanne wrote on November 30th, 2009
  12. My desk made!!

    I put a plug to your site in the comments Mark :)

    tbohen wrote on October 12th, 2009
  13. I am only 21! And I sit at a desk for work 8 hours a day and I had to be hospitalized for 2 weeks due to blood clot in my leg. I am way too young for this.

    lina wrote on October 13th, 2009
  14. A stability ball is the way to go. It makes it much easier to sit up straight and it allows you to move your body all day. Nevertheless, I still stand up quite often. The best part is that it’s fun: you can bounce, you can balance, you can move around. Perfect!

    unclebubba wrote on October 14th, 2009
  15. I’ve been sitting on a yoga ball at work for about two years. I love it.

    Sean Carley wrote on October 20th, 2009
  16. Kneeling chairs are the way to go. The original design comes from Varier (formerly Stokke). They encourage you to sit “naturally” while retaining the curves in your spine that you have while standing. They also encourage good posture, better breathing and therefore improved concentration. They are a wonderful and safe alternative to a traditional chair, much safer than a stability ball. Check them out

    Luanne wrote on November 30th, 2009
  17. Americans are doomed. We are forced to sit at desks for 8-12 hours a day and there aren’t really any labor protection laws. So if it makes a sick its also our own problem. I guess I just have to sit around at work hoping I can stay employed and have health unsurance to cover the ailments being caused by the standard workday. Its really a drag being an american wage slave (BTY: sure, this is better than being in some third world nation with no economy, but it also isn’t as good as some Europeans have ut).

    boohoo wrote on December 23rd, 2009
  18. Also the whole bike/walk to work thing needs to stop. Some people have to wear suits to work, possibly don’t have a place to shower at work, need to be on call to drive to a clients office or just plain work in a conservative enviroment where being seen riding a bike to work will get you on the sh*t list. Contrary to belief, americans do not have choices in the way they wish to conduct thier lives at work if thier boss/company disapproves in any way.

    boohoo wrote on December 23rd, 2009
  19. Mark, your article seems to imply/recommend that standing is a better alternative to sitting. I would argue that both standing and sitting for extended periods of time is unnatural. Grok was either moving around or resting on the ground (like you said, sprawled out, with legs extended). Research has correlated both standing and sitting (but especially standing) at work with varicose veins, presumably because of increased pressure on veins: “ambulatory venous pressure while sitting is about 60-80 mm of water, as opposed to 20 mm while walking, and the number is only slightly higher (about 100) while standing”. True, only a correlation has been found, and not a causal relationship, but my point is that immobility is the real problem, not whether you’re standing or sitting. So getting a standing desk doesn’t really solve anything if you’re still spending hours glued in the same position. The better recommendation is to take breaks to walk around. And maybe, this also implies that when relaxing (reading a book, watching a movie), a more natural position is to spawl out on the couch, legs up on an ottoman.

    Side note: Mark, you should set up a way to link in the comments box, so people could site sources (like research articles).

    Jibby wrote on January 8th, 2010
  20. I work on an ambulance which requires me to sit a lot. I also teach medical classes/certs which has me driving all over the place, usually 1-3 hrs away. I hate sitting! I just wished they made cars/vehicles that allowed u to assume the kneeling or standing position. Imagine if u could sit on a stability ball while driving :p lol

    Kelsey wrote on March 27th, 2010
  21. I have worked for years in my home office on a horrible desk. Lately my neck has been killing me, plus my fingers have been tingling far too much.

    A month ago I bought a Workrite Sierra electric sit and stand workstation from a company called Ergoprise. It’s been amazing and the desk cost less then $1,495.00. It seems expensive but was the best 1500.00 I’ve ever spent. is their site

    Joe Birlin wrote on June 6th, 2010
  22. Changed jobs from teaching position where I was frequently on my feet and moving to one where I am immobilized to a desk. My back pain is back that I hadn’t had in years (from my last desk job). I don’t know what to do, but I’m trying to stand up periodically, take the stairs for exercise during lunch, and some at home exercise. I agree with the poster who said American labor laws are archaic and inhumane. It’s time people started trying to change this stuff and support workers.

    Chandra wrote on July 22nd, 2010
  23. I used a medicine ball and kneeling chair for a while at a desk but found myself with both getting other kinds of RSI pains. Standing sounds like something to try! I’ve also wondered about the crazy idea of having a desk in a pool of water!?

    Andrew wrote on October 13th, 2010
  24. I just finished building my standing/tread desk. Thanks for the idea.

    Edward wrote on December 15th, 2010
  25. I recently purchased a sit-stand desk from Jaymil and it’s been great… I don’t think I could be as productive if I was standing all day long, but definitely having to option to quickly go from sitting to standing has been beneficial. Got the entire desk, including shipping, for $844… highly recommend it:

    Natalie wrote on January 31st, 2011
  26. You know, I hear those exercise ball chairs are really something else. One thing to be cautious of though is they are a bit pricey

    Chris- Exercise Ball Chair wrote on March 20th, 2011
  27. Dr Joseph Weisberg & Heidi Shink’s book “3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life” calls the chair “the seat of all evil” and advocate no longer than 45 minutes in a chair without getting up and moving. It’s a very informative, helpful and practical book for those ‘everyday’ aches and pains that we seem to accept as part of getting older.

    Isabella wrote on April 21st, 2011
  28. I laughed at this post – I DO use a balance ball as a chair, and it doesn’t make me feel ridiculous at all. Sitting on it is a workout all on its own, because it forces you to stay in a proper posture – slouching on the ball guarantees a sore back. It also has the other, more well known perk – as a tool for challenging workouts. So for those that have a hard time remembering to keep proper posture in mind – the balance ball will assist. Not completely sure that a boss would allow an office worker to bring a ball in, but it’s honestly worth trying!

    Best of luck, Anti-Sitters!!

    Jen wrote on May 17th, 2011
  29. 8 hours a day in a chair at work. Work at a Police call centre so leaving my station is not an option, we have no real choice on chairs and WPH&S banned balls because too many people fall off them. I try to stand as much as I can but the phone rings or the radio calls, I sit down and start typing.

    At home – yep a lot of sitting too. But that, I can fix.

    Leroy wrote on May 19th, 2011

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