Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

For Want of a Chair

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Chair Killing You

This isn’t about interviewing.

I am ripping off this old proverb, but anybody who spends a lot of time sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, might see the connection I’m about to draw. This “For Want of a Nail” proverb has been around for centuries and tells how ignoring something small can eventually cause something big. Wikipedia says “The rhyme is a good illustration of the “butterfly effect”, and ideas presented in chaos theory. At a more literal level, these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever thought that an unshod horse could cause a kingdom to fall.”

I bought one of those fancy, schmancy Aeron-like chairs about three years ago. I found it in a thrift store with a damaged piston. So I took it to a furniture repair place and they fixed it and I was thrilled. I researched the chair and found it was a brand that Office Depot sold for about two years for 60% less than the almost identical Herman Miller Aeron Chair. Everybody was clamoring for these chairs at a former workplace, so I thought I had scored a coup in getting one for myself at home.

Little did I know that when Herman Miller hired engineers to update their iconic 60’s ergonomic masterpiece, that they were more concerned with making it 21st Century cool. Surprisingly, the emphasis wasn’t reducing lower back pain. At work, I was reading more and more about how sitting the way we all were sitting was not good and I talked with the supply office about a standing desk. But I didn’t make the connection that sitting badly at home was no better. I was so in Iove with my chair that I refused to believe it was hurting me.

Two years later, with excruciating back pain, I decided that the chair was the problem. My beautiful, Aeron knock off was really trying to kill me. I’ve always taken particular care of my back. And even though I’ve put it through a workout in this past year, I knew I didn’t do anything that would’ve caused the pinched nerves I was feeling from my heel to my neck.

Finally, a NYTimes article sealed it for me and I started looking at proper ways to sit. What I learned is that the normally S-shaped spine bends backwards at the sacrum, the very bottom. When we sit too low, we force the spine to compress like an accordion, but we also push the tip of the spine forward rather than its natural position, which is pointed backwards. This makes discs compress where they shouldn’t compress and causes pinching.

Look at how people ride horses and that’s how we should be sitting. But look also at how their legs are positioned. Thighs are at a 45 rather than a 90 degree angle. This reduces the tilt of the pelvis and bends the sacrum a lot less. People learning to ride horses complain that their ass hurts, but they rarely say their back hurts. And if it does, it’s because their muscles aren’t used to erect sitting, not because nerves are pinched.

I’ve learned that we should sit at desks that are 1/2 our height, and sit in chairs 1/3 our height. And when we get too sore but have to keep working, we should stand for a little while. This goes completely against what we’ve learned, and seen and been told for the last 100 years, but it’s true. Sitting low, with thighs parallel to the floor while leaning forward over a keyboard will destroy your back.

So now, I have a simple barstool that I can raise and lower. And I found a standing desk. And the back pain has gone away. After months of that lousy kind of tingling you recognize from pinched nerves, all I have now is a sore back from training muscles to learn to sit upright. It’s still kinda early to be sure, but things are looking good.

That chair has punk’d me for three years. I always thought, “I’m a relatively young man in good health. I shouldn’t have to care about stuff like this. This is for old people.” But what I’ve learned is that you can start crippling yourself at any age. That chair is outta here.

P.S. This is the best explanation I’ve found about why bad sitting hurts.
And this looks at the ergonomics of standing desks.

Written by Interviewer

July 6, 2013 at 04:28

Posted in Scratchpad

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