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How To Sit: Simple Principles for Better Posture

Most people spend a majority of their waking hours sitting down, but suffer from bad habits and poor posture. As the co-founder of an office furniture company, I wanted to pass down my simple best practices on how to sit the right way.
How To Sit: Simple Principles for Better Posture
 
If you’re reading this article in an office, take a moment to look up from your screen and observe your colleagues. How are they sitting?
 
When I run through this mental exercise in many of the offices I visit, a variation of the Anna Karenina principle comes to mind: all happy backs are alike, and each unhappy back is unhappy in its own way.

I suspect many of your colleagues are hunched over their laptops, spines curved into the shape of a C—a posture that loads the neck and cervical vertebrae with 10 additional pounds of weight for every inch the head is held forward. Others might be perched on the edge of their chairs, feet arched, compressing nerves in their lumbar region and legs by unevenly distributing their weight. The rare upright back might be paired with bunched shoulders and arms cramped over a small keyboard, placing pressure on tight neck muscles and fragile wrists in flexion.

You Can’t Avoid Sitting—So Here’s How To Sit The Right Way

Most people reading this post spend the majority of their waking hours sitting down. Even those of you fortunate enough to work a more active job or at a standing desk will sit in meetings, or during your commute, or in a coffee shop on the weekends. The harm caused to bodies evolved for constant motion by “sitting disease” is well documented, but we can’t avoid sitting entirely.
 
So how do you sit the right way? We don’t think of sitting as a skill, likely because the feedback loop is so slow: poor posture rarely causes immediate harm. But like failing to floss, the damage accumulates over time, with dire consequences for individuals and the organizations that employ them.  
 
Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) from sitting can cause permanent damage and loss of functionality and sensation in your neck, back, arms and legs. Ergonomic disorders are the fastest growing category of workplace illness, accounting for over 56% of reported illnesses at a cost of $20 billion in annual lost productivity.

Five Practical Principles To Improve Seated Ergonomics

As the co-founder of an office furniture company, I’ve furnished dozens of offices with ergonomic furniture and met top ergonomists and furniture designers who shared fantastic advice on how to sit right. But I’ve had a tough time implementing their many tips to the letter. For my own benefit as much as yours, I wanted to distill the ergonomic fundamentals they shared into five principles that will improve your seated posture:
 
Awareness
 
You probably straightened your back as soon as you began reading this article. None of the interventions proposed below matter without committing to the idea that better posture is valuable.
 
My favorite solution is sticking a post-it note to the bottom of my monitor or desktop with a reminder. In the beginning, you can remind yourself of the three recommendations (we’ll cover these below) that you struggle with most: “alignment,” “take a break,” “breathe.” As ergonomic postures begin to come more naturally, you can rely on a more holistic reminder like “sit tall” or “sit right.”
 
Relaxation
 
I’ll be the first to admit this is easier said than done. But the impact of poor seated posture is exacerbated by our physical response to mental stress, which tightens muscles in the back, shoulders, neck and torso that are most affected by poor seated posture.
 
It’s out of the scope of this article to provide detailed advice on lowering your general stress levels—though techniques like meditation, exercise and visualization have been effective for me—but breathing exercises are one of the easiest ways to start. Make a habit of taking a few moments to notice your breath whenever you sit down. If you have a wearable like an Apple Watch, set a reminder for yourself to breathe as you sit down and stand up. A few intentional breaths go a long way.
 
Alignment
 

Good posture is fundamentally about alignment. Think of the outline of your body as a set of five perpendicular lines, representing your torso, upper and lower legs, and upper and lower arms. If the lines intersect at right angles, that’s good, and for the most part (except in the “S-curve” your lower back) curves are bad.

Always sit with your hips, knees and ankles at right angles. Keep your head aligned with the midline of your torso, stacked on top of your shoulders. Your lower arms should be perpendicular to your torso on your armrests, and your feet should be flat on the floor.
 
If you have an ergonomic chair, you can rely on the chair to do the work; adjust the height and depth of your seat pan, then push your torso back until it makes firm contact with the chair back.
 
There are endless minutiae to good alignment, and everyone’s body is different. But ensuring the planes of your body are aligned, perpendicular and relaxed gets you most of the way there.
 
Movement
 
No seated position is healthy if inhabited for too long. You need to get up and move; the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute suggests taking a “movement break” for every thirty minutes that you sit. Here’s a great list of ergonomic stretches to try, but the choice of exercise isn’t as important as getting up and moving.
 
Set an alarm to remind yourself to take a break every so often, or simply find ways to integrate standing and moving around into your routine; I often take calls standing, walk to get my meals, and fill my water bottle halfway so I have to get up and refill more often.
 
Environment
 
Though they aren’t required by any means, the right furniture and accessories can assist you in developing strong ergonomic habits.
 
In the workstation, an ergonomic chair with points of adjustment for armrests, height, and lumbar is designed to adjust your body into alignment. If you or your team have a larger budget, a standing desk makes it easy to get standing and moving as you work.

With regards to accessories, a laptop or monitor stand helps you avoid bending your neck to comfortably view your screen, while an ergonomic keyboard ensures your wrists and arms are perpendicular and aligned. Carla Jaspers of Workup Ergonomics has a fantastic resource page with recommended accessories that met the bar.

Sitting Right Is The Foundation For Healthy Work

Make no mistake: perfecting your seated posture is a challenge as significant as improving your diet or exercising more. In the long term, sitting well is equally as impactful on your health and quality of life. But there’s no need to be daunted; just like eating right and working out, following the core principles above gets you 80% of the benefit.
 
Having the right chair, desk and setup will help, but you don’t need those things to sit healthier. You can put this advice into practice right now—stand up, take a break, and act with awareness once you take a seat again. And tell those colleagues with arched backs to give it a try too.
 

Sib Mahapatra | February 07, 2020