Comfortable Chairs and the Purpose of Sitting

recline chair desk

No one wants to be uncomfortable, and especially not for long periods of time. So it’s hardly surprising that when it comes to sitting, the activity that consumes most of our waking hours, the question of “comfort” comes up immediately and just won’t go away.

But “comfort” when sitting is likely a more complicated concept than simply the absence of pain; indeed, comfort is probably more than just one thing.

One idea of comfort seems to be the absence of any muscular effort, a concept that leads to a new sort of “chair”, one that resembles what most of us would recognize as a bed.

Such sitting options are now for sale, but, for most of us, this won’t be a helpful solution: too expensive, too intrusive, and, well, just a little too weird.

While the “chair as bed” may be a non-starter, it can serve as a valuable thought experiment. Is it really true that the purpose of a chair is to extinguish all muscular effort? If so, well, chairs with foot rests, arm rests, back rests, head rests, etc. seem like the obvious solution: the more rests, the more restful.

But is rest really what chairs are for? Heck, isn’t that what beds are for? Yes, there’s a crossover category, the recliner, which seems like just the thing when relaxing in front of the television or listening to music, but the recliner makes more interactive activities difficult or impossible, so it’s often not the best choice, and certainly not the best choice if there’s work to be done.

As an alternative to “complete physical relaxation” as the definition of comfort, perhaps a better definition of comfort would be “sitting in the best posture for the task at hand”. In this view the most important function of a chair is to help one find and sustain such a posture. Note that this posture can change minute to minute or even moment to moment, which makes this a big ask of one’s chair.

Unless one has an active chair, that is, a chair that adapts in real time to postural changes.

Yes, active sitting necessarily involves some muscular activity, but this small investment can pay big dividends in terms of both comfort and productivity. And it turns out that even a little muscular activity (AKA exercise) provides a range of important metabolic benefits, benefits that may actually extend one’s life span.

Productivity? Metabolic benefits? Longer lifespan? Come on, really?

Yes, but these are topics for other blogs.

-Dr. Turner Osler


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