For those of us who spend a considerable proportion of our daily lives sitting down as we work, the marathon effort involved in being seated is apparently unavoidable. Computer work and meetings are characteristic occupations for office workers and provide everybody with a chance to strike a better balance with regard to their physical and mental health by developing a more dynamic relationship between their backside and their chair. In this interview, Dr Dieter Breithecker, the head of the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für Haltungs- und Bewegungsförderung e. V (German Federal Association for Posture and Mobility) explains why a greater degree of movement is so important and why end employees alike should take more responsibility for dynamic sitting.
The idea that we need to move more to counteract the sedentary nature of our lives is increasingly acknowledged. Sports clubs and gyms are enjoying a surge in popularity and activities such as walking are more popular than ever. But is it enough for us to look after our bodies solely by exercising in our free time?
The demand for greater mobility is evident by the growth in media coverage of the issue. The very idea of movement is traditionally associated with sports and physical fitness. But movement is about more than sport, performance, competition or calories. Movement is primarily an evolved but fundamental need in the same way as eating, drinking, sleeping as part of our day to day existence and contributes directly to our physical and spiritual wellbeing. To ensure that this fundamental need is met spontaneously and intuitively certain specific conditions are always essential. That means spontaneity and intuition, as opposed to intentional movement, for example like while we are playing sport. In our everyday lives it is an essential prerequisite for balanced physical, mental and psychological functioning. We only have to look at our evolutionary past. If we want to find solutions, we should look backwards, into the depths of mankind’s history. If people had spent their time sitting around in the past, they would never have survived. Sitting for long periods causes many types of illnesses. Our genetic heritage remains what it was even in a time of multimedia and rigid postures and so we remain dependent on regular and spontaneous movements.
Those who work throughout the day on a computer are generally fixed in position at their workstation. Although we are aware that more movement is essential, what can we do as individuals?
The lack of exercise that goes hand in hand with a sedentary lifestyle and a onedimensional form of sensory input (for example, an overloading of the eyes and ears) are as at odds with our inherent predispositions and genetics as are repetitive muscular actions. Pains in our necks, shoulders, arms and problems with our eyes are the direct consequences of doing things we aren’t designed to do. Metabolic disorders, obesity, depression and even some cancers are indirectly attributable. An inadequate stimulation of our core senses (muscle and movement and balance) can lead to a drop in mental acuity. The only solution is to get out of the chair. The free prescription for our health and productivity is simply attitude change and specifically to move more. That doesn’t take a lot of effort but it does take a bit of organisation. Even the pupils of Aristotle, the Peripatetics, held their classes while walking around. Similarly, it is now perfectly possible to hold meetings and make phone calls while walking around in the office. This is especially helpful while thinking about things. Certain other tasks can be performed while standing and every stair you climb is a free personal trainer. The day should be organised so that as many of these opportunities as possible present themselves. The walk on the way to lunch is the perfect preparation for an afternoon of vigorous mental exercise.
Does it matter on what you sit when not walking?
I’d like to answer that question with an example. If you are an avid hiker, and spend five hours walking at a time, for the 15 minutes you spend sitting to rest it doesn’t matter whether you are sitting on the floor or a hard wooden bench. However if you sit for five hours and walk for fifteen, then that’s an entirely different matter. Basically, the less time you spend sitting and the more you spend moving around, whether as a child, adolescent or adult, the better for your health and wellbeing. But in spite of all of the efforts to introduce solutions such as sit-stand workstations, the demands of the modern workplace mean that some people need to spend as much as ten hours a day sitting down. So that should be done in chairs that meet the individual needs of a person and not just their body measurements or some orthopaedic or biomechanical theories about their circumstances. Seating should allow for and accommodate the complex range of behaviours associated with a living mindbody-psyche-individual.
A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
So should somebody move in their chair even when it doesn’t feel completely right?
You shouldn’t have to move at all, but if you do, you should move intuitively and that means changing postures. This takes place partly at a micro level. It’s impossible to sit still for an extended period of time without feeling some pain. On the whole, we remain unaware when this happens but when we observe children, we can see it happening very clearly. They wriggle in all directions on fixed chairs. And have you ever just tried to bend in an office swivel chair? The human quest for spiritual and physical wellbeing follows a pattern shaped by our biological evolution. Until a few thousand years ago, man alternated between crouching on the floor, kneeling, lying down and standing, covering each day something like 20km. He never sat for any significant length of time. Such behaviour was unheard of until recently. However, it is possible to support related movements by specifying a chair with a seat and backrest that supports those postures while seated.
The promise of a supportive solution for ‘dynamic sitting’ has been a standard part of the marketing message of office seating manufacturers for many years. But you don’t think this is enough which is why you speak of the subject in terms of ‘live sitting’?
There are slogans that are self-evident. ‘Dynamic sitting’ is a perfect example. But exercise is not the same as movement. When you analyse things more closely, you discover that in most cases ‘dynamic’ movement only takes place in the hip joints. Live sitting goes beyond the recommendations for dynamic sitting, as it is promoted by things like the synchronous mechanism in certain chairs, with regard to changing position in a proscribed way on a regular basis. ‘Live sitting’ on the other hand cannot be regulated or taught, it should develop spontaneously and in a sophisticated way based on the physical, mental and psychological needs of the individual and so can manifest itself in a number of ways. The tilt and swivel are detached from the synchronous mechanism to create a seat that moves in three dimensions. When activated, this creates a complex interplay of the various parts of the body including the back, legs, spine, shoulders and head. The result is more comfort and greater mental clarity. The user develops a relationship with their chair. They interact spontaneously with each other in a self-organising way. What this means in practice is that seat mechanism and the seat cushion autonomously support the user in the best way possible for any particular activity. So when working in a focussed way on a task at a desk, there is a tendency to sit forward in the seat with the weight pushed forward. In this case the mechanism, regardless of the position of the legs, the seat should tilt forward flexibly to support the working posture of the user.
So what triggers people to shift their posture, even if only subliminally?
The human body is a complex system as we’ve already discussed, the equilibrium of which is constantly affected in one way or another by various parts of the metabolism. This allows the organism to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and conditions. The human system is able to respond to discomfort and react in an appropriate way without ever feeling overwhelmed. We owe this particularly welcome characteristic of our bodies to the process of evolution and the older parts of the brain that regulates our most base but vital bodily processes. The functional controls bypass the neocortex, a biologically young part of the brain that is responsible for some of our higher thought processes such as structured problem solving. Posture is invariably the end result of a refined sensory-neurological-muscular interaction. A physiological posture control is always guaranteed whenever we find ourselves in a position of equilibrium regardless of whether we are standing or walking, and without us even being conscious of it. In and of itself, any specific posture would be damaging to our health over time. A constantly changing body shape represents the optimum physiological posture.
All life is movement.
Leonardo da Vinci
How can employers meet their obligations and offer suggestions to employees who are glued to their screens, tethered to their chairs and possibly lethargic in the way of encouraging them to move around more or at least sit in a different way?
Every employee in an organisation represents an important resource. So improving the physical and mental wellbeing of each employee during their working hours should be a key part of the corporate philosophy. For that reason, it is very helpful for every organisation to discuss the form of working areas, so that they can become dynamic rather than static, relaxed rather than stressful, calm rather than bustling. The places people work are their habitats, a place that can foster health and spiritual wellbeing, personal development, social interactions and add value to the business for at least 8 hours a day. Everything depends on the interactions between people and the places they happen. Because we understand that spaces can have a healing effect on the people in them, can help them to find some peace, but can also make people sick. In real terms this means that it’s not only employees who have to exhibit a degree of flexibility during the working day. It is equally applicable to the working environment. In order to sync with the needs of employees, and thereby promote their wellbeing, the working environment should offer a range of zones in which to work, thereby encouraging movement. So, for example, open or enclosed spaces for team, group and private work should all be available. There should also be a retreat in which people can relax and possibly share information and ideas. There should also be space that encourages physical activity. Even games rooms needn’t be unthinkable. These defined areas reassure each employee that their every need – even for nap – is acceptable. At the same time, this places a demand on the employee. They must be accountable for what they do and make a decision to adopt a more positive lifestyle, even in their free time. This new approach even demands a consequent change from management as well as employees. Managers must engage with the idea of providing healthy workspaces and shape the daily lives of people to support them and foster selfaccountability.
So does the perfect chair and the perfect posture exist? Or are they determined by powerful cultural influences about what is seen as the best?
The ‘ideal chair’ and the ‘ideal posture’, based on our former beliefs and paradigms, do not exist for a healthy individual any more than the ideas of ‘ideal standing’ or ‘ideal breathing’. The healthy organism possesses so much genetically inherited, hardwired physiological awareness of itself and its limits and abilities, that it is able to intelligently automate its own natural functions in the most appropriate ways. It’s the same with the notion of the ideal posture.
In life, we first learn how to walk and talk. Then when we are older we learn to sit still and hold our tongues.
„Move your body and your mind will follow. Movement – and not just in the form of exercise–stimulates both body and soul and so improves your physical and mental vitality. The scientific community agrees; movement is about more than your physical health. It is also an essential pre-requisite for greater mental acuity and productivity, fights depressive tendencies and improves your overall wellbeingto help you meet your potential.“