YOUR TEACHER WAS WRONG

2013-05-02

Tags:

Ergonomics

"Don't rock your chair!" "Sit still!" "Have you got ants in your pants?!" Your infant school teacher's exhortations still reverberate in the back of your mind. If you want to concentrate and work properly, you have to sit still, don't you? When we are children, we accept the ape in us and make sure we are in continuous movement. By shifting our body's centre of gravity, we train our sense of balance, which in turn helps us to focus our attention, whether we are doing our homework or working in an office.

Children understand this instinctively, but as adults we need research reports and ergonomic studies to get the message. One of the leading authorities in this area is Dr. Dieter Breithecker, head of the German
Federal Association for the Development of Posture and Exercise (Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für Haltungs- und Bewegungsförderung e.V., BAG), an organisation whose task is to promote physical, cognitive, emotional and social development through a focus on activity-friendly furniture and environments.

"The human body is not developed for sitting still," writes Breithecker. "Studies of pupils show a direct positive correlation between the opportunity to vary the way you sit - for example, being able to rock backwards and forwards and swivel in your chair - and test results. Our capacity for concentrating and learning increases when we have the opportunity to move."

Stretch your back before you read on.

Even the youngest child, then, can understand that sitting still has an inhibiting effect on our ability to learn and perform. But the fact that it can also actually have a detrimental effect on our health is something which has only more recently begun to be taken seriously. Apart from the obvious risk of obesity, studies have shown that sitting increases the risk of various chronic illnesses, such as heart and vascular diseases.

Previously, it was believed that we could compensate for a whole day sitting at a desk with half an hour's jogging or indoor cycling. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Physical activity is one thing and sitting still, or muscular inactivity, is something quite different. Studies in Australia have shown that someone who spends less than four hours a day sitting enjoys equally good health as someone who exercises five hours a week but spends the rest of their time vegetating on the sofa. This doesn't mean that we should stop exercising.

Lean backwards and wiggle your toes.

So what can we do about the problem? After all, many of us sit motionless at our desks for the greater part of an eight-hour working day. The ideal solution, of course, is to create a working environment which encourages activity - one in which we are forced, or rather invited, to move around. This is entirely consistent with the ideas behind what is usually called the activity-based office, where workplace and work posture vary continuously during a working day, depending on the activity being engaged in. But creating the ultimate activity-based office is not something that can be done overnight.
A good start is an ergonomically correct task chair which allows maximum movement, or, to quote Breithecker again:

"When you sit, you have a constant physical relationship with your chair, so it must allow for a great variation of natural body movements, rather than limiting them. The seat must adapt to all your movements, conscious and unconscious, and also stimulate your body to change its seating position. It's a question of active sitting which encourages a better posture and sharpens your senses."

Now it's time to stand up.

Another thing you can do - quite an obvious one, actually - is simply to stand up, to switch between sitting and standing while you work, with the help of a vertically adjustable table. Standing up is physically much more demanding than sitting down.
You have to tense your leg muscles, use the muscles in your back and shoulders, and frequently shift your centre of gravity from one leg to the other. All this burns calories. You can also take regular breaks; have a stretch, empty the waste paper basket or fetch a cup of coffee. If you have trouble with self-discipline, there are (of course) apps that will remind you to take breaks at regular intervals. You just have to download them.

Or why not make a habit of going to talk to your office colleagues from time to time instead of sending emails? As well as increasing your chances of a long and healthy life, it's also much more enjoyable. And if anyone wonders why you're wandering and loafing around the office, you can always refer them to Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, and tell them you're just practising the noble art of 'management by walking around'.