As a lifelong student, you have extensive experience sitting. Here at Cal, whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably elevated your sitting expertise to new heights. Your rear end has graced cramped lecture halls, rocks and benches, coffee shops and libraries, couches, your bed, your roommate’s bed, buses, toilet seats far and wide, football stadiums and dozens of Yoga to the People yoga mats.
Most of life is spent sitting– whether in class, in the car, at work, in a waiting room, at meals, studying. There’s no other option offered. An eccentric friend of mine once resolved to spend his life standing, but it hardly lasted a week. Although he got some odd looks, his failure to stay standing was largely because of how much his life as a student demanded sitting.
It’s difficult to avoid sitting, because you’ve been practicing it since before you learned to walk. You might even feel uncomfortable when you’re out of the seated posture for too long; you might get lower back pain or begin to feel tired. To sit is to feel like you’ve arrived, like you can rest. It might even be synonymous with really buckling down and focusing intellectually.
There is something to sitting. Sitting or lying down facilitates activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation, digestion of food and clarity of thought. Stressed people are told to “just sit down” for a reason.
But it seems fair to say that since the advent of industrialism, humanity as a whole has gradually become an increasingly sedentary, buttocks-based species. The food that once had to be chased for miles or laboriously uprooted from the earth is now available for minimal standing effort. At restaurants and drive-throughs, we needn’t leave our seats. Entertainment happens on the couch, and transportation in cars and airplanes. Exercise is no longer endogenous to human activity; it’s a separate block of time that the more health-conscious set aside and check off every day.
It’s a surprise to hear, then, that the seated postures you live much of your life in might actually be damaging your health.
Researchers from Canada, Australia and the National Institutes of Health have published papers suggesting serious health problems are associated with too much sitting. Their studies posit a correlation between prolonged sitting, often independent of exercise habits, and detrimental effects on metabolism, increased incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure and earlier death, among other afflictions. The studies are, of course, not entirely conclusive or all-encompassing, but they help to shed some critical light on our seat-based culture.
Whether the studies are true or not, when I find myself surrounded by students nervously twitching and tapping their feet in class, I can’t help but feel that there must be something wrong in the long stretches of time during which we are all but forced to stay seated.
Here at Cal, most of student life is spent sitting, especially around exam time. Sitting is mandatory during class, when studying at the library or a coffee shop, or when you’re sitting on the bus. When you finally arrive home for the evening, you might unwind by watching a movie or reading a book. Probably while you sit.
In my own life, some of the most influential intellectual conversations and learning experiences have happened moving. Sometimes, when working on an essay or a problem, a walk is exactly what I need to drive myself to that epiphany of understanding. Sit for too long, and you can become bogged down.
My advice, then, is to try walking or standing more often. Besides my crazy friend, there are some very influential people who often worked standing up. This includes Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and, allegedly, Leonardo da Vinci. Our modern lives necessitate a great deal of sitting, and as a result, we can tend to sink into the habit of sitting even when we don’t need to.
Release the idea that work can only be done while sitting; you might not be able to record it immediately, but a great deal of mental progress can be made on a walk. Next time you find yourself headed to the library after a grueling day of class, give it a try. It might be good for your health.