Is your office chair out to kill you?

Is your office chair out to kill you?

I’m an Alexander Technique teacher and one of the items I use in my lessons is a harmless wooden chair from IKEA. [Photo 1.] While we do consider how to sit (down) and stand (up) in Alexander Technique, that’s not what we’re teaching. AT allows one to meet challenges without undue physical tension; I use the chair because most people in the Western world go in and out of one several times each day without realising how the action of sitting encapsulates many of the challenges we face on a daily basis. My pupils learn how to move with ease, elegance, and efficiency by discarding unhelpful movement patterns and habits.

Now, it’s an unfortunate and inescapable fact that many a stylish chair is difficult to use well, and therein lies my dilemma. I encourage my pupils to move, to squat, and to sit on simple chairs. Yet I love beautiful and unusual chairs, the very ones that can be bad for your health. (I’ll explain why presently.)

Why do we need chairs anyway? After all, we could perfectly well sit on a tree stump. (Except they’re rather heavy to move …)  Chairs evolved to give the occupant power and status. 

Ornate wooden bench.jpg

Even if you are small and weedy you can look a whole lot bigger by sitting in a wide, decorated chair, especially if everyone else is left standing or has to kneel on the floor or squat on low stools. Even today, some offices provide ‘better’ chairs to employees who have moved up in the hierarchy.

Chairs may also accompany a job, such as a monarch on their throne or a professor at a university where nowadays the actual chair does not exist but the job is still described as, for example, ‘chair of English literature’.

A few hundred years ago, the purchase of a carved chair by a master craftsman was an excellent way to show that you had some money to spare. And of course the style of chair and decoration displayed your good taste and knowledge and may even have been modelled on something you had seen while travelling, giving you a further opportunity to show off.

Nowadays we love anything unusual and we still buy chairs for many reasons unconnected to comfort: colour; style that fits in with other furniture; evidence of our good taste; a wish to show that we are ahead of the pack when it comes to interior design; because they are cheap; or because they are expensive!

In the past, and still today, chairs were often designed to exploit new materials (such as plywood), enabling designers to try them out on a relatively small project. When Richard Brennan (an Alexander Technique teacher and author of several books including ‘Change your Posture, Change your Life’) asked students of furniture design at the University of Middlesex what was the first thing they thought of when designing a chair, most of them said ‘colour’! That’s disappointing. I’d have thought shape would be more interesting than colour, and of course I’d like to see healthy support be uppermost in a designer’s thoughts.

So-called ergonomic chairs may try to follow the contours of the body, but they can’t possibly suit everyone, as we come in different shapes and sizes. (The following article explains why a simple chair may be more suitable: Many chairs give you no choice but to slouch into them. If the chair back slopes backwards but does not support your head, then you end up poking your head forward to communicate with others. This shape of chair usually has a seat that goes up at the front, because otherwise you tend to slide out. The front of the seat then presses too hard into the flesh of the thighs and impedes circulation.

Much more comfortable is a reclining chair that supports your head AND your legs, such as the Gravity Balans chair ( The angle at your hips is more than 90 degrees, reducing stress on the lower back, and the knees are bent for the same reason. Your internal organs also have more space. This is the position the body finds in zero gravity and in a more vertical variation is a comfortable position to adopt when working. In Alexander Technique it is known as ‘monkey’ or ‘the position of mechanical advantage’.

We are often told it is bad to sit all day, but neither is it healthy to stand for too long. Movement is what our bodies need. When I was at school I hated PE and sport, mainly because I couldn’t hit or catch a ball. I remember as a sixth former sitting in class with the feeling that fat was settling all around my hips and thighs. It used to make me panic and I’d go and jump up and down or dance frantically for a minute or so (not in front of other people, obviously).

Then I went to university, joined the rowing club, and my life changed! I discovered jogging and circuit training, meaning that even out of term time I could get my daily exercise then sit and study for the rest of the day without feeling lazy. I became a sporty person. By the time I started work, ‘aerobics’ had been invented (writing this makes me feel old) and I enjoyed exercising more than ever. Eventually I qualified as an exercise to music teacher and ensured I did at least an hour of ‘exercise’ every day.

Katie Vandyck