The Trouble with Chairs

The science of being sedentary and how much it does (or doesn’t) affect your health and back pain.

Life in chairs is at least a little bit hazardous to your general health, above and beyond just a lack of physical fitness. We suspect this today thanks to some good science, from sources like British Journal of Sports Medicine (more on this below). During my decade working as a massage therapist, I learned of the more musculoskeletal dangers of chairs from watching my clients suffer through their desk jobs. It seemed obvious that lots of time in chairs was likely to cause back pain at least.

I was wrong, though, and it became the ultimate example of destroying an “obvious” fact with actual science. This article explores the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle more objectively than I did in my career as a massage therapists, starting with the debunking one of the big myths in musculoskeletal medicine…

Sitting a lot is not — repeat, not — a risk factor for low back pain

This section, new in early 2017, corrects a major error, reversing an opinion I promoted for well over a decade. A lot of time spent in chairs may be unhealthy in some ways — much more on this below — but they are not the back torture device I once thought. There’s not much wiggle room on this point: many studies have shown that people who sit a lot simply do not get more back pain than more active people. There is no link. It’s just not a thing.

This was already established as early as 2000 when Hartvigsen et al. looked at thirty-five different relevant experiments,1 14 of them about sitting at work, 21 with otherwise physically “lazy” jobs, and 8 that had “a representative sample, a clear definition of LBP and a clear statistical analysis”:

Regardless of quality, all but one of the studies failed to find a positive association between sitting-while-working and LBP. High quality studies found a marginally negative association for sitting compared to diverse workplace exposures, e.g. standing, driving, lifting bending, and compared to diverse occupations. One low quality study associated sitting in a poor posture with LBP. The extensive recent epidemiological literature does not support the popular opinion that sitting-while-at-work is associated with LBP.

That was published at about the same time that I was still forming my own “professional” opinion that sitting a lot probably causes low back pain.

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