The hunters and gatherers of the prehistoric world could never have imagined that one day, many people would spend most of their lives sitting. Yet in today’s modern world, many people do just that, spending countless hours each day seated in cars, at work and at home. The need to move has driven the evolution of the human body, and it is ill-equipped to handle a sedentary lifestyle. Medical researchers are responding with new studies on “inactivity physiology,” while modern furniture designers are taking a new look at ergonomics. Interior design professionals, for their part, are busy theorizing new approaches to work place design.
Health Consequences of Prolonged Sitting
When a body sits for too long, the circulation slows. Enzymes that normally break down the fat in the body react to long periods of sitting by going dormant. In his book, Move a Little, Lose a Lot, Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota states that after a full day of sitting, the effect of the body’s fat burners is reduced by 50 percent.
Prolonged periods of sitting also increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It even reduces the number of hormones reaching the brain, which can result in depression. Staying seated too long plays havoc on the body’s posture, as well; the muscles that support the spine weaken and become stiff. Hip and leg muscles shorten and tighten.
An Australian study published in the European Heart Journal found that sitting for long periods of time is harmful for otherwise active people as well, increasing bad cholesterol, decreasing good cholesterol and broadening the waist line. The one hopeful note in the study was the finding that the more breaks that the participants in the study took, the healthier their results were. Of the 17,000 participants in the study, those that took frequent breaks had smaller waist lines, lower body mass indexes and healthier blood sugar levels.
The human body instinctively moves when uncomfortable. Some argue that ergonomically designed chairs, intended to be kinder to the human body, have merely allowed people to sit for longer periods of time. Yet there is no arguing that the field of ergonomics has helped develop chairs that are more comfortable and that comfortable workers do a better job. Recently, however, ergonomic experts have been taking another look at posture, including a closer examination of what it means to be comfortable. Rather than assuming that comfort means total relaxation of the muscles, experts are now openly wondering whether or not complimentary muscle groups, working in balance, may be more comfortable for long-term sitting.
For generations, Western culture has assumed that keeping the back at a right angle to the thighs while seated is the best posture, yet that angle puts a lot of strain on the lower back. Another posture is being promoted, by NASA no less, as healthier. The “neutral body posture” is a position somewhere between sitting and standing. Also known as the “perch” position, it better balances the muscles in both the front and back of the body.
Contemporary furniture makers have taken note, designing chairs with side cutouts on the seat so that those who sit on them can easily assume the perch position. Hydraulic tables are available that, with the push of a button, can raise the surface to the correct height for the perch position. Even the venerable lounge chair is being re-imagined as a work chair, as the typical lounge chair automatically places the body in NASA’s neutral body position. A computer monitor on a movable arm makes working in this position possible.
Rethinking Interior Design
Using lounge chairs, recliners and adjustable beds at home may ease the health consequences of sitting for too long of a period. But in the end, sitting in any position for a long time is unhealthy. Modern furniture that allows the body to engage in a variety of postures throughout the day may be the answer. At home, innovative interior design schemes may focus on creating living room conversation areas with seating at different levels or with varying depths, widths and back heights.
Work space interior designs present other challenges, requiring the acceptance and approval of management. Standing desks are being used by a relatively small number of companies, and while they are one viable alternative to sitting all day, they present their own health hazards since prolonged standing isn’t good for the body either. Treadmill desks are too cumbersome for many work settings, and no one expects workers to use them for an entire work day. Even keyboards, for their part, are being reinvented with ergonomic designs in mind, and these are certainly easier to work with than treadmill desks!
Redesigning jobs so that workers are able to change postures during the day is the healthiest solution, yet corporations are notoriously slow to accept change. Until that day comes, the healthiest alternative for today’s modern worker is to avoid sitting for extended periods as much as possible and, when seated, to ensure that the chair is designed with the natural contours of the body in mind. All this will be good news to the skilled designers of modern furniture, being that the modern school of design has long held that “form follows function.”