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Thinking Outside The Chair

By Katy Bowman, MS

Our physical environment is constant, meaning there are forces constantly at play—shaping our bodies into a structure we will call on in the future. Unfortunately, the set of forces modern people tend to create result in a structure not well-suited for basic biological functions like digestion, respiration, procreation, etc. Issues with our structure tend to arise in our 30s and 40s, perpetuating the idea that the ailments we have are a sort of “wearing out” of parts, but actually the ailments we experience as adults begin much earlier. For example, osteoporosis—a disease where bones become less dense and more prone to fractures and breaks— is now known as an issue stemming from peak bone mass not being achieved in childhood.

Millions experience these ailments of affluence— illnesses that arise in cultures with abundant, poorquality food and poor movement habits—yet extensive research showing (yet again) that we need to move more is rarely integrated into real life, where large bouts of inactivity occur.

Many think, “Hey, I walk a mile every day,” or “I ride my bike to work!” and that’s fantastic. But in these cases we are attempting to achieve with a bout of exercise the effect that all-day movement has on the body. In the same way eating one meal’s worth of calories (700) doesn’t fuel us for the day in the same way a full 2,500 calories does, our approach to exercise—an hour a day— is the equivalent to movement starvation.

Even with competitive athletes, the latest research shows that people can be both active and sedentary.

Do the math. Even if you exercise an hour a day, seven days a week, your total movement time equals a whopping 420 minutes out of 10,080 minutes in a week, or about 4 percent of all time spent. The rest of the time, in the other 96 percent of your weekly minutes, exercisers and non-exercisers alike sit in their chairs, at their desks, and behind their books and computers.

Like you, I think a lot about my physical positioning throughout the day. Or perhaps you don’t consider your own posture all day long, but you think about the positioning of your students or about the alignment of children in general. The positioning of the human body is critical; it is the position of parts and how these positions are utilized throughout the day that create the forces that end up shaping the body. However, most of the parameters for “good” positioning stem from ergonomic science, which does not necessarily mean what is best for you and your body. The trouble with using ergonomic science when selecting optimal posture is that ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body—it’s the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be best positioned for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next, until retirement age.

It’s about one position for eight or more hours at a time. Finding an optimal working position, then, is not about your long-term health as much as it’s about your production value over a short period of employable time. It is critical that we read the fine print on the ergonomic prescription label: warning. being still is detrimental to your body. Or, said another way: There really isn’t a “best” way to sit—there is only a way to sit that loads the parts damaged by chronic sitting in a lessdamaging way. To focus our energy on optimal stillness is like researching for the most nutritious 600-calorie diet instead of solving the problem of being underfed.

Defining, more clearly, the terms posture and alignment can be helpful to remind us why it’s not a position that we are after, but a set of forces under which the body responds well.

Posture: The way in which your body is positioned when you are sitting or standing. To explain a bit further, posture is the orientation of parts. You quantify posture by measuring how parts are positioned relative to each other and the ground. Maybe it’s easier to think of the body on a grid where you can plot the parts on a graph.

Alignment: The proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts (as of a mechanical or electronic device) in relation to each other. Both posture and alignment have to do with positioning, but they differ in that alignment’s definition includes the word “proper.” It’s this idea that sets the two apart. Proper doesn’t imply better in a condescending kind of way, but is defined as “of the required type; suitable or appropriate.” Just as there is a proper diet for the human (or horse or snake or tiger), there is a proper alignment.

A proper diet is made up of a vast array of nutritional components. Proper alignment is made up of nutritional loads—varying, unique deformations (think: microdeformations) to the physical structure that result in a particular genetic expression that deems your structure.

If you drive a car you’ve probably had to have your wheel alignment adjusted at some point. In this case your mechanic is not finding the most attractive position for a wheel. Wheel alignment is not about static positioning at all, but how, once moving, the interaction of a system—the road, the wheels, the tire, suspension components, and other stuff that I know nothing about—doesn’t inflict excessive damage on any other part making up the system.

To find optimal wheel alignment the mechanic must consider the material fatigue points, the forces created by the speed, terrain (does your vehicle go off-road?), tire pressure, etc. In short, alignment includes the consideration of forces. Or said another way, posture is the visible orientation of parts, while alignment encompasses the invisible forces created by particular movements. This is all a long way of stating that good alignment requires movement. Without movement the forces your body needs cannot be created.

This isn’t to say that we can’t create a better load profile while being still. We can and should still work to maintain good sitting posture, but there is a larger issue at hand when it comes to children’s health—both now and in the future—that can only be solved through movement. There is no static position that optimizes human development.

It is a waste of money and time to research the epidemic of poor health in children if we fail to acknowledge the role parents and educators play in cultivating their stillness. We must challenge the deep-seated belief that kids have to be still in order to accomplish our educational goals.

This brings me to the classroom. We don’t tend to think of it this way, but if one were to quantify skills practiced in the classroom from age 5 to age 18, the winner of “Most Time Spent” would not be reading, writing, science, mathematics, music, physical education, critical thinking or art. The winner would be sitting.

I’m not trying to be funny here, but totally clear. Learning shapes both the mind and body of a child, and the most frequent input in our modern world is mechanical— in this case the loads created by the modern chair. Our structural adaptation to sitting comes in handy, I suppose, as most adults will call on these cellular adaptations created in childhood to support their most-frequented position as an adult—also sitting.

At this point I’d like to propose that, for the rest of the time you spend reading this article, you sit on the floor. I do so because I’d like you to experience (perhaps) the internal resistance we all have, quite naturally, to change. To sit on the floor is to demand your body expend energy: increasing muscle mass and tissue length, shuttling more blood and taking in more oxygen. All because of how and where you sit. I’d like you to experience your own personal resistance to a chair-free experience because it is you, reading this article, that will end up shaping a child’s mind and body via your own personal relationship with the idea. This is how memes work.

A meme is an element of a culture or system of behavior that is passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially by imitation. The adult preference for a chair shapes a body, which then shapes the culture (bucket seats in everything!), which then shapes the children who start sitting in them, and at younger and younger ages. It is a vicious cycle of behavior.

I propose that a simple, inexpensive—as in “free”— solution is to get chairs out of the classroom. To utilize many postures to get work done, with the cycling between them creating necessary forces. To move more throughout the day and to build lessons around movement— and not make movement something separate from life or learning.

Anthropologist Gordon Hewes spent time cataloging the postural habits of the world, noting that the way we hold our body is a sort of nonverbal communication, displaying what the individual is “saying.” Adapted from his research, the illustration above is a re-creation of how the rest of the world takes their rest time.

I would like to amend Dr. Hewes’s work by saying that our bodies are not only communicating on our behalf, but on behalf of our culture. Woven into the shapes we assume when we’re happy, sad, proud and ashamed are the shapes we have been bequeathed by those before us, through a subconscious, non-genetic hand-me-down process. We are wearing the physical hand-me-downs of thoughts and emotions of those before us.

The time has come to acknowledge that what we are passing down is not beneficial, or maybe no longer beneficial. As for me, I would like to collectively inform our children that their movement is not only OK, but good, healthy and fundamental. I believe removing chairs from classrooms would be the simplest step we could take as parents and educators to produce the largest change in trajectory of health in our culture. It’s the simplest way to allow our children—and their bodies— to “speak” for themselves, now and in the future.