Furniture free living and the case for active sitting?

rocksI’ve been thinking lots about furniture since I moved to a standing desk. I’m interested in how furniture shapes and contains the way we live our lives. It’s the sort of thing that seems neutral but isn’t. Assumptions about the ideal body, about ability, and about relationships shape our furniture choices.  But I confess it’s not just the standing desk that got me thinking in this direction.

When these stone pillows came through my newsfeed from the aptly named page “this is why I’m broke,” I confess to making that “squee” noise. Want!

I’m attracted to multi-purpose rooms,  buying less stuff that’s inevitably landfill bound, flexible housing arrangements, active sitting, and seeing how families around the world live and what their dwellings look like.

Our furniture is so specialized. There are desks for working, kitchen tables for casual meals, dining room tables (that get their own rarely used room) for formal meals, and large beds that say “this is the room in which you sleep” in a way that a rollable mat or futon does not). We’re not very flexible about it all. Heaven forbid you try to work at the dining room table or sit with your laptop in bed. Each activity has its own place, its own thing, and so we buy more stuff and cram it into ever larger homes.

If we’re friends on Facebook you know I have a bit of a soft spot for tiny houses. Mostly that’s because I live in a crowded, messy house full of teenagers and their stuff. Minimalism is a bit of fantasy. I also have a love of co-housing, intentional communities, shared cars, a communal library and living room, shared sporting stuff, and a roster for cooking meals.

It’s clear that most people don’t see things my way. Single family homes are just getting bigger and bigger and they’re filled with more and more individually owned, non-shared stuff.

In the United States, there are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times), the average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR) and  still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine). For more on this theme, see here.

What’s with all this stuff? I confess that when I first saw special pillows for different sex positions I thought “wow, that’s cool” but even sex positive me is still frugal me and I thought couldn’t you just scrunch up a regular pillow? Again does each activity have to have its own thing? (Okay, the sex pillows are cool. But still. Landfill? Pass them on to the grandchildren?)

But I’m way off track now. Back to chairs. Or at least back to furniture. Returning to the fitness angle.

I started thinking about furniture first when we were a young family, with small kids. And we were being marketed cribs, and toddler beds, and child size beds (all for people who we knew would be 6 ft or more in 16 years). I confess that as a parent of young children I had tastes and parenting preferences that ran against the grain. We didn’t buy swings, high chairs, and cribs. I had visions of them all ending in landfill and mostly our children were happiest co-sitting, co-sleeping etc with us. We had slings rather than automatic swings and our active squirmy children wouldn’t stay in high chairs or cribs anyway. They usually, when young, slept with us. When slightly older, slept on futons or mattresses on our floor, graduating to their own rooms at a slightly more advanced age than the typical North American child.

I might have been a bit preachy about it all and for that, I’m sorry. There are lots of different ways to be a good parent. Breast feeding and co-sleeping suited us. Luckily I didn’t blog then so there’s no self-righteous me coming back to haunt this blog. Phew.

And while we were definitely minimalist when it came to kid furniture, we still bought bookshelves, tables, sofas and chairs. We never took the big step of going furniture free. It never even occurred to me back then in the days before electronic book and music storage. It was the era of giant, wide TV screens that definitely required furniture.

Here’s this piece on parenting without furniture, which I loved, even if they went to extremes with it.

Why did this family choose to go furniture free?

Here’s the dad speaking:

As a biomechanist, I understand the relationship between musculoskeletal function and the immune system, bone robusticity (density and shape), and functions like digestion and breathing. Having furniture isn’t an option for us, in the same way a cupboard full of junk food isn’t an option for many others. Furniture creates a development-crippling environment in that the stuff literally shapes our body, both in the now and in the future. – See more at: http://slowmama.com/parenting-children/parenting-against-the-grain-going-furniture-free/#sthash.HYxNuezQ.dpuf

Here’s one room in their house:

Love it!

My point is that I’ve thinking about the politics of the family (see written work on this here) and about furniture for awhile. Lately it’s been my sore back that’s got me thinking about furniture design. And that’s been nudged along by all the health worries about sitting.

We all know the mantra, “Move more. Sit less.” See Chairs are evil (once again).

Yes, well, easier said than done. Even for me whose back hurts if I sit for very long at all.

We sit at desks all day, drive home in cars, and then sit at the dinner table and then sit on sofas at night. Hard not to sit though I’ve been bucking the trend and eating standing up if it’s just me alone. See It’s okay to eat while standing.

But that’s not comfy for Netflix watching. Or reading.

And surely all chairs aren’t evil. They’ve been around for awhile right? People all over the world use them don’t they?

(Turns out the answers to these questions are “no” and no.”)

See The chair conspiracy!

According to Colin McSwiggen, recent studies and reporting about sitting describe the problem in ways that mislead. He writes, “They make it look like the problem is just that we sit too much. The real problem is that sitting, in our society, usually means putting your body in a raised seat with back support — a chair. Sitting wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t sit on things that are bad for us.”

But you might wonder, what’s new about this? Weren’t there always chairs? How are we just learning now that they’re bad?

First, chairs aren’t universal. In lots of places people engage in what erognomics types call “active sitting.” Squatting, sitting cross legged, leaning….all of these postures are a bit like sitting but they aren’t bad for you the way chair sitting is. Indeed, if McSwiggen is right we should swap slogans. It’s not sitting that’s the new smoking. Rather, it’s chairs that are the new evil. New? Yes.

Second, according to McSwiggen’s fascinating history of the chair,Against Chairs, they’re also a relatively new thing. he dates the mass adoption of chairs to the Industrial Revolution.

“Suddenly chairs were being made cheaply in factories and more people could afford to sit like the rich. At the same time, labor was being sedentarized: as workers moved en masse from agriculture to factories and offices, laborers spent more and more time sitting in those newly mass-producible chairs. As usual, class aspirations determined what people bought: body-conscious innovations like patent chairs, which were adjustable, and rocking chairs, which encouraged movement, sadly received only marginal acceptance from the wealthy and saw limited use.

And so it was that from the turn of the twentieth century on, chairs had society in their clutches.”

Third, you might be tempted to think the answer lies in a better chair. But it’s not clear what a good chair would even be. You’ve all seen the many variations: the kneeling chair, the stability ball as chair, the wobbly stool as chair..to list just some examples.

Here’s McSwiggen again on the range of chairs out there:

“No one even knows what a “good” chair would have to do, hypothetically, let alone how to make one. Some ergonomists have argued that the spine should be allowed to round forward and down in a C-shaped position to prevent muscular strain, but this pressurizes the internal organs and can cause spinal discs to rupture over time. Others advocate for lumbar support, but the forced convexity that this creates is not much better in the short run and can be worse in the long: it weakens the musculature of the lumbar region, increasing the likelihood of the very injuries it’s meant to prevent. There are similar debates over seat height, angle and depth; head, foot and arm support; and padding.

Galen Cranz, a sociologist of architecture and perhaps the world’s preeminent chair scholar, has called ergonomics “confused and even silly.” For designers without a scientific background, it’s a clusterfuck.”

Children know how to sit comfortably without chairs. They squat and do it very well.

In traditional societies, without so many chairs, adults can do this too. (And don’t get me started on toilets. Right Shannon?)

Or you sit cross legged or kneel.

My point is that we have choices. It’s not just sitting too much. It’s how we sit. Active sitting, with lots of movement, is better for us. I’m not quite buying the whole “chair conspiracy” but I do think, for a whole host of reasons, we’d be better off with less furniture.

Could you sleep in a bed like this?

Would you like modular floor pillows as a sofa?

How about having dinner like this?

How about you? Could you live without furniture? Give up all the chairs and sofas?

Most bodies are built to move!

If you’re like me you’re probably ready to scream if you see another “sitting is bad for you” article.

I think that even though I know my frustration doesn’t make the news any less true. I think that even though I’m currently drafting a chapter of our book on everyday exercise which talks a lot about the dangers of sedentary living. Study after study after study shows that sitting is bad for most people no matter how much we exercise. See Sit yourself down? : The latest news about sitting.  My most recent post on this theme The Chair Conspiracy  talks about the possibility of active sitting–like cross legged sitting or squatting–and shifts the focus from sitting to the ways in which we sit.

I also think that we need to think about movement in as diverse a way as possible, recognizing that standing and walking aren’t options for everyone. See my recent post on crawling and mainstream discomfort with alternative ways of moving.

I like this TED talk though. I like it better than this video, the damage sitting does to your body explained in 60 seconds.

Along with the usual suspects of weight gain and back pain, the animation explains how, as soon as you sit down, the enzymes that break down fat drop by 90 percent, and your insulin effectiveness and good cholesterol levels drops. Sitting also makes blood clots more likely to form in your brain, and people with desk jobs are twice as likely to suffer from heart disease than those with active jobs.

We could go on, but the take-home message here is pretty simple – maybe it’s time to stand up, watch the video and then get outside and go for a walk. Seriously.

What’s the difference? Why is the TED talk better? It explains how most human bodies function best with almost constant movement.  Although there’s range of what bodies can and can’t do, the typical human body is not built to keep still.

The chair conspiracy!

Chairs are evil, I  tell people. I often fantasize about a house with minimalist furniture. I’ll blog about the furniture free tiny house of my dreams sometime. But that’s for another day.

image

We all know the dangers of sitting. But according to Colin McSwiggen, recent studies and reporting about sitting describe the problem in ways that mislead. He writes, “They make it look like the problem is just that we sit too much. The real problem is that sitting, in our society, usually means putting your body in a raised seat with back support — a chair. Sitting wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t sit on things that are bad for us.”

But you might wonder, what’s new about this? Weren’t there always chairs? How are we just learning now that they’re bad?

First, chairs aren’t universal. In lots of places people engage in what erognomics types call “active sitting.” Squatting, sitting cross legged, leaning….all of these postures are a bit like sitting but they aren’t bad for you the way chair sitting is. Indeed, if McSwiggen is right we should swap slogans. It’s not sitting that’s the new smoking. Rather, it’s chairs that are the new evil. New? Yes.

Second, according to McSwiggen’s fascinating history of the chair, Against Chairs, they’re also a relatively new thing. he dates the mass adoption of chairs to the Industrial Revolution.

“Suddenly chairs were being made cheaply in factories and more people could afford to sit like the rich. At the same time, labor was being sedentarized: as workers moved en masse from agriculture to factories and offices, laborers spent more and more time sitting in those newly mass-producible chairs. As usual, class aspirations determined what people bought: body-conscious innovations like patent chairs, which were adjustable, and rocking chairs, which encouraged movement, sadly received only marginal acceptance from the wealthy and saw limited use.

And so it was that from the turn of the twentieth century on, chairs had society in their clutches.”

Third, you might be tempted to think the answer lies in a better chair. But it’s not clear what a good chair would even be. You’ve all seen the many variations: the kneeling chair, the stability ball as chair, the wobbly stool as chair..to list just some examples. My favourite which I’d buy if I could get one in Canada is the Hokki stool. I’d like a red one.

Here’s McSwiggen again on the range of chairs out there:

“No one even knows what a “good” chair would have to do, hypothetically, let alone how to make one. Some ergonomists have argued that the spine should be allowed to round forward and down in a C-shaped position to prevent muscular strain, but this pressurizes the internal organs and can cause spinal discs to rupture over time. Others advocate for lumbar support, but the forced convexity that this creates is not much better in the short run and can be worse in the long: it weakens the musculature of the lumbar region, increasing the likelihood of the very injuries it’s meant to prevent. There are similar debates over seat height, angle and depth; head, foot and arm support; and padding.

Galen Cranz, a sociologist of architecture and perhaps the world’s preeminent chair scholar, has called ergonomics “confused and even silly.” For designers without a scientific background, it’s a clusterfuck.”

It’s clear we aren’t getting rid of chairs anytime soon. I work at a standing desk and love it. I eat some meals standing up. I try to watch shows on Netflix while engaged in more active sitting (and foam rolling) but even with all these efforts it’s tough.

Again McSwiggen: “I’d love to end this essay with a cry for a cultural shift away from chairs and toward more active sitting, on the floor or squatting or whatever, but really, we’re stuck with this shit for a while. The best we can hope for from chairs right now is a lesson on the dangers of fashion and a historical counterexample to the myth that the public acts in its own collective interest. If you want to sit healthily, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands; the best habit to develop is not to stay seated for more than ten minutes at a time.”

Ergo Challenge Giveaway!

Have you ever had an ergonomic assessment?  I have, and it was a great way to get my workstations (home and office) set up for me after a neck injury following a car accident five years ago. I still suffer from upper back, shoulder and neck fatigue and am always looking for ways to improve my set-up.

So when Kate from Goldtouch approached me to see if I was interested in taking part in their 30-day Ergonomic Challenge, I agreed to participate. I liked Kate. I liked the idea of checking out an ergo keyboard (even though its main purpose isn’t to relieve upper back, shoulder, and neck strain), and I really liked the idea of giving a blog reader a chance at getting a keyboard of their own.

The deal was that I would look over their products and choose something. And then Kate would send me one for myself and one for a blog reader.

I chose the Go!2 Wireless Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard. It works with both a PC and Mac (though this version doesn’t have the special keys on a mac keyboard). I’m still working with, and I like lots of things about it, like the way it folds up and the way you can make both horizontal and vertical adjustments to it.  Here’s mine:

IMG_2342And here’s a youtube video of its features:

If you’d like a chance to win your own, here’s what you do:

1. Follow us on twitter @FitFeminists  (if you don’t already)

AND

2. Retweet our #giveaway #Ergo30 tweet OR send your own tweet that mentions @FitFeminists and our #giveaway and the #Ergo30 challenge.

Deadline: January 31st at noon Eastern Time.

We will pick one winner and contact them via twitter.

I can only ship to Canada or the US, so I apologize in advance if you’re not based in North America. We will try another giveaway at some point in the future and we hope to be able to open it up to the whole wide world.

Meanwhile, you don’t need a Goldtouch Keyboard to incorporate ergonomic fixes as part of your overall approach to health. Here’s a nice set of suggestions from Goldtouch:

 

To go barefoot or to wear “foot coffins”? Searching for a middle ground…

Someone commenting on the blog recently referred to traditional running shoes as “marshmallow foot coffins.” Love that expression. I’m not sure where exactly it originated but “Shoe Coffins” is the title of a blog post here.

From the blog post:

“The shoe arguably got in the way of evolution,” said Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker and chief executive of the shoemaker Terra Plana, based in London. “They’re like little foot coffins that stopped the foot from working the way it’s supposed to work.”

(Foot coffins! Too perfect!) Last year, I was hobbled by unbearable and untreatable foot pain whenever I attempted even moderate running and hiking — until I went barefoot. While barefoot is surely not for everyone, I say: foot coffin dogma be damned!”

They were responding to a blog post I wrote about lawsuits against wobbly unstable running shoes which were marketed as toning devices. Turns out they didn’t tone but some people did fall and twist their ankles.

But “marshmallow foot coffins” refers more broadly to the ever expanding range of protective running shoes designed to get everyone out there, whatever their gait, whatever their foot problems. Buying a running shoe is now like buying a medicial appliance. You need to know if over pronate or under pronate, if you need a hard structured shoe or a soft padded one.

I’m part of the problem. I wear serious running foot wear with orthotics after a bout of plantar fasciitis and two stress fractures. (Not caused by bone density. They tested. I have rock star bone density.)

But last year after reading lots about barefoot running, I decided to give it a try. I ran barefoot in the playing fields near my sabbatical rental house in Canberra, Australia. I felt like a kid again. I didn’t keep it up though.

Aside from feeling great my toenails also loved it. No more black or missing toenails. Bonus. But I didn’t keep it up once I returned to the land of pavement.

I’m not a complete convert to going barefoot for physical activities. But I do see the benefits. I love doing martial arts in bare feet. My feet seem stronger as a result. For CrossFit I’ve switched to minimalist athletic footwear and I like that too.

My daughter brought the barefoot habit home from New Zealand. There stores had signs, “no shirt, no shoes, no worries.” And lots of young people went barefoot everywhere. It’s not so well accepted here and she’s taken to carrying duct tape flip flops in her back pocket in case she’s somewhere people insist she wear shoes.

I’m not there yet though I’ve been going barefoot days when I ride my road bike into work and forget to carry shoes. How about you? Bare feet? Do you like it? Have you tried it? Tell us your story…

Some resources:

Throw out your orthotics and shoes that will last a million miles (CrossFit London on strengthening exercises for feet)

The Benefits of Going Barefoot

The Once and Future Way to Run (New York Times)

“We were once the greatest endurance runners on earth. We didn’t have fangs, claws, strength or speed, but the springiness of our legs and our unrivaled ability to cool our bodies by sweating rather than panting enabled humans to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion. Some speculate that collaboration on such hunts led to language, then shared technology. Running arguably made us the masters of the world.

So how did one of our greatest strengths become such a liability? “The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University. “What’s more, those figures have been consistent since the 1970s.” Messier is currently 11 months into a study for the U.S. Army and estimates that 40 percent of his 200 subjects will be hurt within a year. “It’s become a serious public health crisis.”

Nothing seems able to check it: not cross-training, not stretching, not $400 custom-molded orthotics, not even softer surfaces. And those special running shoes everyone thinks he needs? In 40 years, no study has ever shown that they do anything to reduce injuries. On the contrary, the U.S. Army’s Public Health Command concluded in a report in 2010, drawing on three large-scale studies of thousands of military personnel, that using shoes tailored to individual foot shapes had “little influence on injuries.””

From Why Things Hurt: Shoes: good support or coffins for your feet?

Bare Feet

Ergonomics and Fitness

Three years ago I had a winter driving accident that left me with lasting neck, shoulder and upper back issues on one side of my body. The treatment plan at the time included one of the best things I’ve ever done: an ergonomic assessment of my desk set-up (at home and at the office). What a gift!

The occupational therapist came to my office and then my home. In both places, I couldn’t have had it more wrong. And not just for managing the injury, but in general. My keyboard was way too low.  My monitor placement put undue strain on my neck. My chair height wasn’t high enough and the back of my chair wasn’t low enough to give me lumbar support. I needed a footrest and a document stand for reading. The OT warned against using a lap top as my regular computer — a lesson I had learned some years before when my home desktop choked.

For the past ten days I’ve been away from home on a writing retreat. I’m writing a LOT (averaging just over 5000 words a day). But my desk set-up is not ergonomically sound. I’m using a laptop. If I set it on the desk or table, the keyboard is too high and my monitor too low.  If I set it on my lap, the keyboard is too low and the monitor is WAY too low.  I’m doing battle with my chair. The back of it is seized into place, so I can’t adjust it properly for lumbar support. I can adjust the seat, but not quite to the right height. When I get as close as I can to optimal seat height, my feet don’t touch the ground.

The set-up is taking its toll even on my reasonably fit body.

Today I woke up with my upper back and neck all seized up in a knot, as unyielding as that chair back. I am fortunate that the facility I’m at has a team of Registered Massage Therapists.  This morning I went for a deep tissue massage. The sweet (oh so wonderful!) relief it delivered lasted as long as I was there.

But my muscles still feel strained. The three-year old injury has flared up the past few days like never before. The RMT, noticing my distress and feeling the knots in my upper back as she worked on me this morning, showed me some neck stretching exercises to do.

Throughout my stay, I have gotten up from my desk regularly. Every day I do something — go to the gym for weight training or do some form of activity every day (yoga or swimming or weight training or running or the elliptical trainer) or both. Samantha is a big proponent of the standing desk. But right now that’s just not available to me.

I miss the sound ergonomics of my familiar set-up.  Sitting is just the half of it. No amount of fitness can make up for hours a day at a computer work station that forces your body into a difficult posture.

[image is from about.com Guide to Setting Up and Ergonomic Computer Station, by Chris Adams]