If Your Chair Hurts Your Back, Blame Technology, Then Try These Hacks : Shots - Health News Chair design shifted dramatically about a hundred years ago, and it hasn't been good for our backs. Our daily lives are filled with chairs that make our posture worse. Luckily, we've got hacks.
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Can't Get Comfortable In Your Chair? Here's What You Can Do

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Can't Get Comfortable In Your Chair? Here's What You Can Do

Can't Get Comfortable In Your Chair? Here's What You Can Do

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We're going to spend the next several minutes talking about an object that you spend a lot of time with - your chair. Why are so many chairs so bad for people's backs? NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff investigated, and she's written us to say that this story will have you on the edge of your seat.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: For thousands of years, most chairs were made of wood. When upholstery came along, it was mainly for rich people, but most people sat on wooden stools, benches and simple chairs. And in general, they were firm and flat. Then about 70 years ago, everything started changing. Designers had access to new materials like steel, plastic and foam rubber. Galen Cranz studies chair design at the University of California, Berkeley.

GALEN CRANZ: The whole 20th century is all about experimenting with a new technology.

DOUCLEFF: Designers realized they could make chairs in any shape they wanted, and their creativity exploded.


DOUCLEFF: Take for example the Barcelona chair.


DANIELLA OHAD: Considered one of the best designed chairs of all times.

DOUCLEFF: That's design historian Daniella Ohad in her video devoted to the chair. It was made by the German designers Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich in 1929 for the king and queen of Spain to sit in. It hit the mass market in the '50s.


OHAD: It became the most popular chair in Americans' lobbies, reception rooms and office spaces.

DOUCLEFF: You've probably seen it in furniture stores. It looks like two giant chocolate bars set at right angles and floating atop steel poles. It's lovely.


OHAD: The chair embodies the Mies principle that anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

DOUCLEFF: But Cranz says there's just one problem with the Barcelona chair and many famous midcentury modern chairs. They are really bad for your back. They can make your posture worse.

CRANZ: Yeah. They make it much worse.

DOUCLEFF: But those are, like, in museums and, like...


DOUCLEFF: ...Honored as these great designs.

CRANZ: Yes. All these chairs are in the Museum of Modern Art, and every chair collection has them. They're at the lobbies of our most prominent corporations on Sixth Avenue or in New York City. But they're not good for us.

DOUCLEFF: Cranz says many chair designers have forgotten about the human body and what it needs to sit in a healthy way. As a result, we've ended up with living rooms, offices and restaurants filled with chairs that hurt our backs.

CRANZ: It's shocking to realize that they're poorly designed for our bodies. I mean, I didn't believe myself for a while. It was like, how can this be? Well, it is.

DOUCLEFF: Almost all chairs have one of two problems. Some of them have both. First off, they're too deep. The backrest is too far away from the edge of the seat, so your legs stick out straight like a little kid. Second, they're too soft - way too soft.

STU MCGILL: Comfort does not come from sitting in a soft and very plush kind of couch or chair. It's actually the opposite - very firm seat pan with a good amount of lumbar support.

DOUCLEFF: That's Stu McGill, who has studied spine mechanics for 30 years at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He says the problem with soft chairs and ones that are too deep is they cause people to slouch or slump. And when you slouch, you do something bad to your spine. You bend it into C shape.

MCGILL: That puts more stress on the spinal discs.

DOUCLEFF: Those little rings of collagen that help hold your spine together. McGill says they're a bit sensitive to bending.

MCGILL: That's not an issue over the short term. But if you prolonged expose it to bending, it will become pain-sensitive in most people.

DOUCLEFF: You also run the risk of damaging the discs, which can be excruciatingly painful. So what can you do? It's probably not feasible to throw out all your soft and deep chairs and start over. And Jean Couch says it's actually not necessary.

JEAN COUCH: We have techniques or, you know, props we can use that will help us.

DOUCLEFF: Couch has been teaching people how to sit with a healthy posture in Palo Alto for about 25 years, and she says there are two tricks you can use for basically any chair. Number one - sit on the edge.

COUCH: I find the frame and sit on the hard part of the chair.

DOUCLEFF: In the front part.

COUCH: Yeah. And now I'm so much more comfortable.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, forget about the backrest and use the wooden frame of the chairs as a firm support. That makes it easier to keep your back straight and not slump. And Couch says, be very careful about how you position your legs, especially your knees.

COUCH: The big trick is the knee is below the hip socket.

DOUCLEFF: When you're sitting, take a look at your knees and where they are in relationship to your hips. You'll be a lot more comfortable and less likely to slump if your knees are below your hips.

Actually, this is what happens to your legs when you're floating in space. NASA calls it the neutral body posture because it's when the muscles are the most relaxed. And there's another way to help get this posture when you're sitting. Couch says build a perch.

COUCH: So I'm perched right now.

DOUCLEFF: Couch has taken a firm pillow and placed it in the center of the chair, and then she sat down on the front of the pillow so she's kind of elevated above the chair. She says you can really use anything to build a perch - a wool blanket, a jacket.

COUCH: I've sat on my wallet. I've sat on a shoe.

DOUCLEFF: (Laughter).

COUCH: But my favorite is - I'm always like with my husband - I'm like, Michael (ph), could I borrow your sweater?

DOUCLEFF: It's so resourceful.

COUCH: You get resourceful.

DOUCLEFF: But Couch does have a favorite pillow that she thinks works the best - a wedge.

COUCH: So it's a wedge-shaped pillow. And it's pretty dense foam. So you want it as dense as you can get it.

DOUCLEFF: You can find these pillows online, and Couch says they're great for using in the car where the seats can be really, really hard on your back.

COUCH: And any little thing will help better than nothing.

DOUCLEFF: Because even if you're not having problems now, chances are you might in the future. Eighty percent of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.


INSKEEP: If you want a tutorial, see these sitting tips in action and also learn how to deal with painful seats in cars and planes, go to our health blog Shots at npr.org, and you will find the videos.


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