And what to do about it
There are three things I’ve hardly seen in my travels to Japan: Chairs, walking sticks, and wheelchairs.
There is a reason why.
Japan has the oldest population in the world, life expectancy is 84. Not only they live longer, they live better.
They keep physically and mentally active until the end and they engage in all sorts of voluntary activities and that requires fitness.
On my first visit to this amazing country I noticed many peculiarities about their culture. Most restaurants, hotels, or homes can do without one the most common pieces of furniture: the chair.
Park benches are also rarely seen, people prefer to do the Asian squat when they have a break, even the very elderly.
First I went there, I was in my late 20’s and quite fit, however, I could not keep up with the constant sitting on the floor, squatting and trying to maintain a good posture throughout. Some elderly gentlemen even make fun of me for my stiffness (I’ve never been very flexible)
All that made me wonder: Is there something we are not doing right in the west?
The way we sit down
The chair is a western thing, it was invented by the Egyptians 3000 years ago and soon became very popular in Europe. Sit down is synonymous with a chair. No one sits down on the floor in the west.
At first, the chair seems like the perfect solution: Simple, easy to make, removes you from the floor, makes sitting, and getting up easier, but it comes with its own problems.
Like anything in life it brings second-order effects:
Consequences of our love affair with the chair
1. Bad posture
The human body is not designed to sit in a chair, not for long anyway. After a short while sitting you become restless, you slouch, you keep changing your posture and crossing your legs. It’s like your body is telling you to get up.
There something unsettling about having your knees bent at a 90 angle. Legs are made to be straight or fully bent, intermediate positions are not good.
People prefer to stand up rather than being trapped in a middle seat on a long flight. That’s also the reason why nobody uses a chair while watching TV, it’s just not comfortable.
3. Weak legs
Our legs become weak if we don’t lift our bodies frequently. For that the squat position is ideal.
When you have chairs around, you lose the ability to squat. In the west we just don’t squat, ever.
The chair has a perverse effect on our ability to perform certain movements.
Use or lose it
4. Loss of flexibility
Even if you have strong legs, the use and abuse of chairs prevent you from having flexible legs and strong knees. Squatting, sitting on the floor, getting up and down improves your flexibility without having to do stretching exercises
Running and cycling are particularly bad for flexibility and that could be compensated by squatting.
The chair promotes such an unnatural posture that not only you end up with weak knees and inflexible legs but also with a curved spine and other posture problems like lower back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and tight hips.
Back pain alone is a massive problem for millions and one of the main causes is spending many hours a day on desk jobs.
Also there is a trend that is very worrying. In the US, I see more and more people moving about in an electric wheelchair, and young people too! But In Japan, I’ve never seen a wheelchair despite the high number of elderly population.
Also the elderly in Japan don’t use a walking stick. I bet it’s related to their fitness and flexibility.
We are not made to sit, not for long anyway. Being forced to sit at a desk for 8–10 hours a day causes repetitive strain injury.
7. Mind-body connection
Have you noticed how your best ideas come to you when you are doing something other than sitting?
The mind gets feedback from the body and your posture influences your concentration, creativity, and mood. Being stuck in a chair doesn’t invite your mind to flourish.
I remember the torture endured at school sitting for hours on end. Children learn better in a more interactive environment in which they are allowed to move freely. This is one of the reasons kids hate school
There is a reason why walking meetings are fashionable; it’s easier to think and to communicate when you are on your feet. Body language is a big part of communication and when you are free to move it’s easier to express yourself.
At a party or in a bar it feels more natural to mingle, to start conversations with people rather than when you are sitting at the table.
Musicians, stand up comedians, and ted talkers never sit down to perform. Again free movement encourages creativity
It’s not a coincidence that most meditative practices are done in the lotus or seiza positions.
Having your knees fully bent allows your back to be straight naturally and the whole posture promotes calm and concentration. Try to meditate in a chair, it just doesn’t work.
In Japan and most Asian countries, the traditional toilet the Asian toilet.
Most westerners are horrified to see this and refuse to use it but, that a big mistake for two reasons:
First is more hygienic. You don’t touch anything
Second, squatting is the natural position to do number two. It opens the rectum and facilitates the procedure.
If you suffer from constipation try squatting, it might well be the solution.
12. Dirty floors
When you sit on the floor, you make sure the floor is clean. That’s why in many cultures shoes are not allowed indoors. In Japan, removing your shoes is compulsory in most restaurants, hotels, temples, public places, and homes.
So what are the alternatives?
- The kneeling chair. The more you bend your knees, the easier it is to maintain a good posture. The kneeling chair facilitates this even for the flexibility challenged.
- The footrest. Same principle, by elevating the knees, posture improves
- Standing desks. Very fashionable. Ideal for jobs that require mobility.
- Sitting on the floor. This the hardest and yet the best. The perfect position is the lotus, failing that there are semi lotus and seiza. Budha sat in the lotus position for 7 years. It’s ideal for peace and focus.
- Legless chair. It’s an intermediate solution for sitting; you still sit on the floor but with back support. I love it.
- Squat. Do like the old Japanese guys, every time you want to rest your legs just squat. It’ll keep you nimble until very old age.
We are lazy, we love our comfort zone.
We drive when we could have walked
We take the escalators instead of the stairs
We sit on a chair when we should stand up, squat or sit on the floor
We used the western toilet instead of squatting
And then we go to the gym, lift weights, do cardio, stretching, etc. All because we are unfit since we avoided all the exercises that came naturally to us.
We are made to stand up, to squat, to sit on the floor, to walk, but we don’t do it and one of the biggest culprits in the chair.
If we keep using the chair too much we will need a wheelchair instead.
The chair is a death sentence. Get rid of it.