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 – 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.
Here’s an example of a kneeling or backless chair, where you have to use your own spinal muscles to hold yourself upright.
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).
Both these ladies are sitting actively. Perhaps they could have their knees pointing down more and have their bottoms further to the front of the chair, but it is still a move in the right direction.
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.
But when we sit passively, in a proper way, we rest our back against the back of the chair. This is the default way most of us now use chairs in an office setting and, of course, how car seats work.
This is passive sitting. Note these children have their upper backs resting against the back of the bench – this is important.
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 worsen it. Best to sort out your problem with an osteopath and make sure the spine itself is working as well as it can.
If you do have an ‘old’ problem with your back that never quite goes away, just recognise that it is even more important for you to manage your sitting as well as possible.
Summary / Advice
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. This is a bit cumbersome, but possible in a home office.
Ideally get a combination chair like the RockBack, which allows you to seamlessly move from one type of sitting to the other – see the two pics below to get an idea how I use this particular chair.
Using the RockBack in an active way – note that my spine is NOT resting against the back of the chair and my muscles are working.
Using the RockBack passively – my spine is resting against the back of the chair and my spinal muscles are relaxed.
If you can only use a traditional chair, consciously alternate between proper active and proper passive sitting on a regular basis.
It won’t be as easy or seamless as the RockBack, but it is possible.
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.
The chap in the middle isn’t sitting in an ideal way, but this way of sitting does help if you have a disc injury.