We do too much sitting. Even done ‘properly’ there are downsides (weaker muscles, vascular pooling, stretched ligaments, poorer digestion). It’s even worse when we don’t sit correctly. But, leaving aside the obvious point that we need to minimise the total time we spend sitting and take regular ‘walk-arounds’, what else should we bear in mind?
It’s possible to sit correctly in two different ways. These are active and passive sitting.
When we sit actively, we use our spinal muscles to hold ourselves upright. We don’t use the back of the chair to support our spine. See the example of the kneeling chair below.
You can replicate some of the beneficial effects of a kneeling chair while using a conventional chair by sliding your bottom towards the front, having your feet behind you, resting on your toes, and your knees pointing down at an angle (this stops slumping). See the picture below for an example of this.
Advantages? Our back muscles don’t get lazy, and we can sway back and forward in the chair, keeping things moving.
Disadvantages? Prolonged sitting like this can get tiring, precisely because we are using our muscles. Also, kneeling chairs will gradually compress the knees, so you’ll need a break after a while from that.
When we sit passively, in a proper way, we rest our back against the back of the chair. See this picture below.
Advantages? We are relaxed – it isn’t tiring in that sense. A well-designed chair allows us to do this correctly, but we must still use it in the right way – especially we must have our bottom right back against the chair, and we mustn’t lean forward with our upper back.
Disadvantages? Our spinal muscles get lazy and weak and we are very static and still compared to active sitting.
The worst sitting position?
Simple. The one where you are doing neither correctly! Avoid this like the plague, especially if you have a disc problem. See the picture below. There are no advantages to sitting like this, and real problems can occur.
Effects of a sub-optimal desk/ chair / computer set-up?
A bad ‘ergonomic’ set-up can hamper us from sitting in the right way, whether actively or passively. A bit of lateral thinking, advice and sometimes new equipment can often sort these problems out. Bad ergonomics that encourage you to slump, like the lady above, must be sorted out.
Effects of a poorly working or too-weak back?
If you already have a latent back problem that likes activity, then sitting can bring it out. Best to sort out your problem with an osteopath and make sure the spine itself is working OK.
Summary / Advice
Ideally? If you have to sit a lot, get both types of chairs (a conventional chair and a kneeling chair) and mix and match between the two, using them as discussed above. If you can only use a traditional chair, consciously alternate between proper active and proper passive sitting on a regular basis. Obvious point – if at the end of a long day sitting, you feel achy and sore in the spine – do something about it.
Remember! The longer you have been sitting, the more carefully and consciously you should get up and start moving. That first two seconds of movement is a high-risk time for your low back, so the longer you’ve sat, the more smoothly you need to start moving.
If you do have a current disc problem, then I am a fan of the kind of reclined sitting shown below. It’s not ideal in many ways, but it can take the strain off the injured disc.