David France Chiropractor
Sitting is the new smoking. We've all heard the phrase, though what does it really mean and how should we be sitting to avoid back and neck pain, and the raft of health issues that are caused by sitting for long periods?
For over 20 years i've treated patients with back, neck and other health issues cause by sitting the wrong way. I have learnt that the way we're taught to sit from a very young age is simply wrong. Our bodies weren't designed for it.
So let's see why our bodies aren't meant to sit the way we do and what you can do about it.
Although we're taught to sit up straight and watch our posture, when we sit in a regular chair with our legs parallel to the floor, and a 90 degree angle at our waist we will slump by default. We are taught the above position is the ideal sitting posture but unfortunately it is impossible to maintain this so called "correct" position for more than a few minutes.
Our body simply isn’t bio-mechanically designed for our spine and muscles to maintain this position. As a result we slump. As you see in the diagram below this brings about many poor outcomes for our body.
Why is this NOT the ideal sitting position we've been taught to assume?
Unfortunately, this is still the “go to” position from many professionals recommending workplace seating options. It is simply wrong.
It is impossible for your body to maintain this posture for more than a few minutes when sitting on a regular flat based chair such as the one shown. This is because you maintain this position purely through contracting your muscles, and they tire quickly causing you to slump.
Sitting higher and changing our body's angle
To properly understand this you need to understand some basic biomechanics - that is, how the body functions.
When we bend at the waist we first bend at our hips. Bending at our hips only allows so much of this bend after which the muscles and tissues at the back of the hips tighten then lock. To keep bending the pelvis rotates backwards. Since our spine sits on top of the pelvis that means our backs position dramatically changes.
This principle applies if you are no matter what we are doing ie bending down, squatting, exercising and certainly when we sit.
Look at the graphic below which shows this.
The image on the right demonstrates what we do when we sit in a regular chair. In order to bend at the waist at 90 degrees our pelvis must rotate backwards taking the spine with it. The only way we can possibly sit up and not slouch from this position is with significant core muscle contraction. We quickly get tired and fall into an inevitable slump.
We have been conditioned to sit like this from an early age. From school furniture, to home and office furniture people have been telling us we need to sit with a waist angle of 90 degrees, knees bent at 90 degrees and with the feet flat on the floor. I am here to tell you this is wrong and if we care about our health and looking after our spine it needs to change.
The answer is to sit higher and increase the angle at our waist by having the thighs slope down toward the floor. This places our spine in it's natural position as shown on the diagram below, and places far less strain on our muscles.
The skeleton below may show this a little clearer. As we bend at the waist the hips bend at the pelvis. But once we bend beyond a point the muscles at the back of the hips tighten and cause the pelvis to roll backwards. We can feel this every time we relax into a regular 90 degree chair.
Regular chair When sitting higher
When we sit at work, our body will simply find ways to increase this waist angle on its own. You might notice yourself doing these things particularly if we are sitting in meetings, lectures or at our desk for long periods.
You will also notice that kids do the same things at the dinner table or in the classroom.
We slide our bottom forward We slide forward and drop knees
We lean back in our chair We rock back on our chair
Kids also naturally find ways to open this waist angle when sitting.
This is our body’s effort to increase the angle of waist flexion to prevent the pelvis from rotating backwards. While doing this is not ideal it is simply the body’s effort to get itself comfortable and into it's naturally designed position.
A better way to sit
The solution is to provide the body with an option to comfortably maintain this open waist angle that it wants to naturally assume while being comfortable and able to do our work or whatever activity we are sitting for.
There are several options to improve your body's posture in your chair:
Tilt your seat base forward
This will prevent the pelvis rotating backwards. Any amount of forward tilt is beneficial. It is limited by the tendency to slide forward on the chair so a fabric upholstery is preferable.
Place rolled towel at the back of the chair. This will resist the pelvis rolling backwards.
By placing a support on the chair we are able to lift the body higher so the thighs can slope down without slipping off the chair. Special products are available.
Kneeling chairs allow you to take up the ideal body posture. Because the lower leg is bent backwards as shown the desk height can remain the same. Unfortunately, you are locked into the chair so it’s not mobile and it can put pressure on the knees. Still it’s much better than a regular chair.
Large sit balls
Can be a good option again allowing the spine to take up the correct position as long as the legs slope down (it must be large enough). They do lack some stability and can be a little unsightly in the office but definitely an improvement on a regular chair.
Sit stand chairs
These are classically used In conjunction with a standing desk. They are a good option as they maintain a good body position but again lack stability and don’t require any activity from the core or abdominal muscles.
Saddle chairs stabilise the pelvis in its ideal position so the rest of the spine sets itself up correctly. Arm rests take the strain from shoulder muscles and ideally a rotating backrest which enables two quite different sitting positions thus allowing us to rest muscle groups.
Saddle chair with rotating back and arm rest
All of the options outlined are designed to allow the body to maintain a position where the pelvis isn’t forced to rotate backwards and it encourages an open waist angle. This allows the spine to maintain its favoured well balanced position. Each is a significant improvement on a regular 90 degree chair which you are probably sitting on right now and I encourage you to explore a better way to sit.
Like anything new, changing the way you sit will take your body a little time to adjust as new muscles start to work and weight is carried in different places. But remember, this new way of sitting is how the body has been designed to carry our weight naturally. You will adapt and any aches and pains you might experience is just a very healthy process of adaptation. In the long run your body will thank you by allowing you to stay healthy and active and do the things you love to do!
Good luck exploring a new way of sitting. If you have any queries or want any advice on making changes to your work environment, please reach out. As a Chiropractor I feel if I can make changes to the way people sit, I can have a real impact on the scourge of back pain in our community.
David France Chiropractor
Workhorse Saddle Chair Founder