Sitting is fundamental to who we are, both physically and culturally. We learn to sit before we learn to walk or talk, and then we continue to spend a large part of our lives on our posteriors. Sitting has come to imply that you’ve made it in life: e.g., title-bearers on thrones, princesses on palanquins, chairpersons on chairs. Offering someone a seat is a sign of civilized behavior.
So when I heard that sitting can be bad for you, I nearly fell out of my Mies van der Rohe replica. Dr. Alpa V. Patel of the American Cancer Society recently published a paper that studied thousands of initially healthy men and women over a period of 14 years, and found, regardless of exercise, a strong correlation between the length of time spent sitting and mortality. Now this does not mean that you can expect to peacefully pass away while comfortably ensconced in your Eames lounge chair, happily watching the full, second season DVD set of “Frasier” or reading the unabridged collected works of Sherlock Holmes. Beyond the obvious, obesity, sitting is associated with a string of dastardly diseases such as cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes, and cancer.
Patel’s study is only the latest in a string of other such findings. With the entire scientific world seemingly colluding against us couch potatoes, it seems we must make some dramatic changes to life, as we have known it so far.
First, we need to make some structural changes for all age groups. In schools, teachers should join their class for a one-minute march around the room every 15 minutes. Offices, too, should have mandatory periodic stand-and-stretch sessions. Some firms have installed “walk-and-work desks,” where employees can walk slowly on a treadmill while using their computer or talking on the phone. And volunteers in senior citizens centers and other care facilities shouldn’t just play bridge and chess with the patients, but take them for frequent strolls along the corridors.
On long-haul flights, airlines should intersperse their on-flight entertainment with guided stand-and-stretch sessions every half an hour. And those on long car drives should pause frequently for Chinese Fire Drills. In fact, the connotation of Chinese Fire Drill as a useless activity will change, now that we realize it’s actually a life-saving event.
Perhaps most important will be the required cultural, linguistic, and attitudinal changes. To start with, we should remodel Rodin’s memorable statue “The Thinker”: ponder and philosophize all you want, but do so standing up. We should realize that the concept of being in the rat race is not all bad: at least it keeps us moving and, therefore, alive. However, no one is saying you shouldn’t stop to smell the roses—just don’t sit down to do so.
Telling someone they’re fidgety would be a compliment. When the teacher asks little Jaishri in exasperation, “Can’t you sit still?” she can answer back boldly “No!” and know she has science and good health on her side. In music, principal performers in an orchestra could be termed, not first chairs, but first stands. In business, we could rename chairpersons tablepersons, and simultaneously raise the height of tables so they are best used while standing. This would be healthier and reduce the time of meetings. In academia, professors may find that an academic stand will command as much respect and funding as an academic chair.
We adults should be wary of long sit-down dinners, romantic or otherwise, preferring instead help-yourself buffets. And the next time your husband asks you to pass the salt, you’d be doing him a favor by telling him to go and get it himself. You may even go so far as to refuse to offer an elderly person your seat on the bus, explaining that you’re only doing it for their own good.
And when we simply must sit, we need to think carefully about where and how and for how long. Delhi orthopedic surgeon Abhijit Dey offers practical advice: Sit with your back well supported and your feet raised on a small stool about eight inches off the floor because this keeps the back straight and yet relaxed, resulting in the ideal spinal curvature that minimizes stresses and strains to various parts of the body. For fancier and more ergonomically-complex suggestions, you may wish to peruse Berkeley architecture professor Galen Cranz tome “The Chair” or Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik book, Rethinking Sitting.
But just to be on the safe side, I hope you’re reading this article standing up.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and a business/academic editor.