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  • Nikhil Dhawan

A Brief History Of Sitting

Have you ever wondered why we sit for so many hours in a day? If all of human history were converted into a 24 hour day, then we started sitting for extended periods at 11:58 pm, or 0.1% of human history (200 years out of 200,000). 

That's how new sitting is and how little we know about it. Let's take a quick dive into the history of sitting. 

The earliest signs of seats are from 5000 years ago, but even back then, the origin was considered accidental, and people didn't sit for long stretches. Initially, it was for practical purposes. Leaders would sit on a tree trunk so that the community could hear them more easily. Not long after that, there was respect and dignity associated with an elevated seat. 

Eventually, people began to devote craftsmanship and artistic work to designing sitting apparatuses. As you continue to move forward through human history, Pharaohs were given thrones with a high back and 90-degree angles to showcase their divinity. In ancient Greece, the chair was retained because sitting on the ground meant losing face while philosophers walked around, discussing life. 

Fast forward to around the 1880s in Germany when chairs started to become mass-produced and used for schools. That's also immediately after the Industrial Revolution began to change economics and daily life. The mass-production, technology, and the revolution shifted how sitting was perceived in the West; it was no longer just for the elite.

The historical journey of sitting started with practical purposes. It later shifted to respect, dignity, and royalty, then finally made its way to being commonplace several centuries later.

It's hard for anyone alive today to imagine a world without chairs, couches, and other seats. Since sitting has become standard practice in modern-day living, it hasn't occurred to us that it could be harmful. 

Not to be dramatic, but let's take smoking cigarettes as an example. Before 1900 there were no real harms associated with smoking tobacco; it was commonplace. In the early 1900s, cigarettes started to become mass-produced and glamorized. Even soldiers were given cigarettes for free during World War I and World War II. It wasn't until lung cancer proved time and again how harmful cigarette smoking can be. Scientists finally convinced health officials to mandate warning labels on cigarette packaging in 1965. 

Science is mostly responsible for two things: (1) trying to understand something before it happens by proactively taking action, and (2) analyzing things after they've happened, which is reactionary. In the case of cigarette smoking, scientists officially proved its adverse effects after the fact. 

As for sitting, over the past few years, more research has surfaced that sitting for extended periods can lead to a higher mortality rate and other musculoskeletal issues; this is based on analyzing things after they've happened, or reactionary. But science is still catching up. 

Remember, we've only been sitting in chairs regularly for a couple of hundred years, and now the average American sits for 10 hours a day. The science will take some time to evaluate the long term effects of sitting for extended periods. But, with what we know now, we can take action. We already know that it's proven to cause heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. But what about how it impacts our skeletal makeup?

To understand our skeletal makeup, think of it like this - our skeleton is built in a particular way, known as our structure, and how we move is up to us, known as our function. Structure and function should ideally operate in harmony, like a well-oiled machine. However, if we round our lower backs as we sit (function), over time, it will change our lumbar spine and sacrum (structure). 

The spine anatomically connects to our back ribs, which then connect to our front ribs. Our rib cage, of course, protects our organs. As we age, these bones can deteriorate, causing avoidable health issues. But if we proactively strengthen them, we can avoid what we see as "inevitable old age health problems." 

I recently studied anatomy during my yoga teacher training, and I learned how the body moves. Humans created pulleys, levers, joints, hinges, and other types of machinery using our bodies as an example. We're built to move, just like the machines we've created. If you don't open a door for extended periods, it begins to creak. Think about your back, knees, and hips as you get older. Why do you think our elderly population deals with so many physical ailments?

If you look at older people, most have physical health issues. As people age, their health deteriorates. Some of it is natural, but a lot of it is also a result of how we treat our bodies. Prevention and self-infliction live on opposite sides of the spectrum. If we're not preventing, then we're self-inflicting; this is where my argument lies.

I'm confident that more of it is in our hands than we realize. I think we can control it, I think we can prevent it, and I believe we are not prioritizing the right things. If we're sitting for 10 hours a day, that too, mindlessly, then it's definitely impacting our skeletal structure; this can have a snowball effect on other parts of our health.

Another key point is that we're living longer than ever before. Today, no country in the world has a lower life expectancy (LE) than the highest LE in 1800. In 2019, the country with the lowest LE was the Central African Republic, with 53 years, and the highest was Japan with 83 years. We're living longer but not necessarily healthier. When LE was in the 40s and 50s, were people walking around with hunchbacks and bad hips? Or did they die of other natural causes before their skeletal structures broke down? 

The main thing I'm trying to communicate is that we've seemingly lazied out of taking any control or any accountability for our actions. As we get older, we say, "Oh well, I'm old now, and my body hurts, and that's just how it goes." I don't buy that, and I think there is more we can do proactively. 

The truth is, we're not going to stop sitting, and that's okay. But we can try to be more anatomically appropriate and aware of our bodies when we sit. 

Think about all the places we sit: the car, work, gym, couch, dinner table, park, friend's house, and so on. I created this article and video in hopes that these small, nuanced, and easy tweaks can help shape our bodies for years to come. 

The most important takeaways from the video:

  • Feet flat on the floor

  • Back of the knees line up with the edge of the seat

  • Keep your knees at a 90-degree angle (use pillow or cushion to boost, if necessary)

  • FIND your sit bones

  • Press your weight evenly into both sides of your sit bones (especially if you cross your legs)

  • Elongate your spine, lengthening out of the crown (top) of your head

  • Put a pillow behind your back for support; it will mold your spine's natural curve, unlike the seat back

  • Take the first 15-30 SECONDS to focus on your posture when you sit down

  • Be good to your future self; it only takes a few seconds, EVERY time you sit

Over time, your body will build muscle memory, and your posture will slowly improve. Our functional movements will reflect our structural makeup, and they'll work in harmony. 

The purpose is to get 1% better every day. The same way we compound bad habits that lead to poor physical health is the same way we can compound better practices to prevent and reverse the damage we've done, ultimately improving our overall well-being. 

The goal is to create small habits of change that ultimately lead to a positive compound effect.


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