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  • Chris

Sitting is NOT the New Smoking

In actual fact, most people don't sit down enough. But as always the devil is in the details.

On this site, and in previous blogs, I have had some criticism for sitting down too much. This position is over simplified, though. For sure, the technological revolution has meant sitting down all day has become the norm, but in a particular way and it is the way we sit that is the problem rather than the act of sitting itself.

Sitting while stressed is the real problem, as it is the stress that encourages the body to adapt - biomechanically and mentally - and in the case of the typical seated position (in front of a computer for example) this is a maladaptation for a healthy functioning human body. In my experience it is the people who sit at desks all day in highly stressful jobs that have the most severe biomechanical dysfunctions, in general.

The degree to which sitting at home when relaxed has a deleterious effect on your biomechanics is debatable, as is your sleeping position. In my opinion sitting and sleeping positions while relaxed are probably not the source of problems, but they may help reinforce problems. Most of you will have a favoured side or position when sleeping or sitting, and this is likely caused by biomechanical dysfunction. I know myself that sleeping on one side of my body feels quite different to sleeping on the other.

The only way in which too much sitting in a relaxed position may affect your biomechanics seriously is if it is done in excess. I.e. it means that you aren't moving around as much. I think this is certainly the case as people in general are much less active than they used to be.

Correcting biomechanical issues in your body starts with finding the ideal static positions, but fundamentally it is movement that the body needs and craves. The only thing worse than moving badly is not moving at all. This is why almost any form of exercise is better than none and why static poses and exercises in Pilates and Yoga, for example, are never going to be enough to prevent movement dysfunctions (even though static positions in Pilates can be beneficial in improving core engagement) because simply, you ain't moving!

Our ancestors, and hunter-gatherer tribal groups that exist today, are interesting examples to follow. Our bodies have evolved for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; they are maladapted for agriculture, industry, and technology. If you look at a typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it involves quite a bit of activity (hunting and/or gathering), followed by a significant amount of time sitting down preparing food or simply resting. In a world of scarcity of food, it doesn't make too much sense to waste energy, so sitting-down is commonplace in tribal cultures in the present day and would have been in the world of all of our ancestors. You see the same patterns in other animals like lions, monkeys, gorillas, and chimps. Almost every land mammal sits an awful lot. Indeed if you've ever wondered why you feel such an inclination to sit around and be lazy, well it is a good survival strategy once your basic needs have been met.

What is interesting is that sitting doesn't appear to have a negative effect on the biomechanics of these people. Why?

Firstly, hunter-gatherer societies typically do not spend much time sitting on chairs. I have travelled extensively around Australia, and although genuine hunter-gather tribes are thin on the ground here, aboriginals still carry with them the same habits. It is remarkable how often you see aboriginal people sitting on the ground in groups under trees. In the world of today, this is no longer an important way of living, indeed it has become dysfunctional, especially as the typical aboriginal diet these days consists of lots of sugar and alcohol, it is sad to say. Plus, simply sitting around for much of the day is frowned upon in a modern day 21st century global culture and is not exactly a recipe for success in it.

Anyone living in Australia with any knowledge of aboriginal people will know that it is a sad state of affairs; certainly the history of colonialism will have had an impact, but perhaps the biggest issue is that the Western world thrust modernity on an ancient people who were adapted to survival in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Aboriginal culture has survival at the centre; thriving, which requires forward planning and diligence were never rational qualities in Australia before the Europeans came. The land was simply not bountiful enough to be able to plan for the future, the only time was the present or people died. Forage, hunt, then rest and energy conservation was key. Well, what happens to a culture when you take away two essentials of their being overnight? I don't think the aboriginal community in Australia have ever recovered from that. Modernity struck them like a freight train. In contrast, Europeans and much of the rest of the world had thousands of years to adapt.

Still, particularly the few functional aboriginal communities that remain are a window into what environment our bodies have evolved to survive in. Lots of activity and lots of rest, in a nutshell, and lots of time outside.

Spending time outdoors

There is a marked difference between sitting in a chair in front of a computer and spending time sitting outdoors on the ground. Biomechanically, you use far more core musculature when sitting on the ground without support. Add to this the beneficial and relaxing effects of spending time outside in the sun, and it probably shouldn't even be considered the same activity.

Personally, spending time relaxing outside is something I have forced myself into doing lately and it has now become a habit. I try to spend at least 30 minutes outside every day just sitting on the ground, either on the grass in the park or on the sand or rocks at the beach. I always do it without my smartphone with me, so that it is just me and my thoughts and the nature around me. I am lucky to live in a part of the world where doing this kind of thing is easy. My wife thinks I am turning into some kind of hippy, but I now swear by this practice.

In the past, I would only ever really spend time outside to exercise. I've flogged myself doing hiking, ultramarathons, and months-long bicycle touring expeditions, but rarely spent time just sitting down and relaxing with nature around me. Now this has become a habit, I can really feel the benefits.

Perhaps you are beginning to agree with my wife at this point, but the science is in on spending time in nature, and that it is essential for good physical and mental health. We are an animal that for most of it's evolutionary history spent the majority of it's time outside, so it makes sense that this would be the case.

So if you see an article claiming that sitting is the new smoking, I guess there is some truth if all your time sitting is spend in front of a computer or a TV inside 4 walls, but as I hope regular readers of my content might realise by now, the human body and the world we live in - especially with current technology - is extremely complex and the truth is always more nuanced than a click-baity headline. Thinking about our evolutionary history and the kind of world we are adapted to living in vs the world we actually are living in can lead us to a much healthier and happier lifestyle. Such a thing has never seemed more important than it does now.

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