Chairs, are they killing us?

Even American cats sit in chairs.

The knee injuries I’ve accumulated running, hiking and fencing have a lot to do with basic flexibility problems. Mrs. Root Simple likens my inflexibility to that of a ginger bread man. So should I plant my stiff derriere on the nearest yoga mat? Or should I throw out all our furniture? I’m thinking the latter. Let me explain.

Photo from Max in Kabul

I’m willing to bet that traditional societies that don’t use chairs have fewer flexibility problems later in life. I’m reminded of a dinner I attended at an Afghan co-worker’s house in San Diego many years ago. We spent a few minutes in a typical suburban living room. The rest of the evening, however, took place in a room of the house that had only an Afghan rug and some pillows–no chairs or tables–where we sat for several hours listening to a concert of classical Afghan music. It was a lot like the picture above. Everyone, young and old, sat on the floor, cross-legged for the entirety of the concert. Imagine a group of Americans sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner like this. And we wonder why Americans injure themselves doing yoga?

I have to ask what exactly do chairs do for us? Are they just about status, a kind of throne envy? I’m willing to bet that elderly people in chair-less traditional societies fall down less and have fewer joint problems.

Arakawa + Gins, Bioscleave House (Lifespan Extending Villa),2004, photo: Léopold Lambert

Maverick architects Madeline Gins and her partner, the late Arakawa (he only used his last name) had the idea that our houses should not be comfortable in the western sense of having lots of couches, chairs and ease of access. Rather, they designed off-kilter floors, awkward doorways and dangerous staircases with the idea that being forced to be more active would give us longer, healthier lives.

Gins and Arakawa were being deliberately provocative to make a point. I don’t think we have to be as extreme. But will I have the courage to turn the Root Simple headquarters into something more like a traditional Afghan abode? Will I ditch the chairs? Will I lower the desk I’m writing this blog post at? Let’s hope so.

If you do the Pinterest thing, I’ve started an idea board of chair free living spaces

Leave a comment


  1. But why should the house have dangerous staircases, awkward doorways to keep us more active?
    We can go outside, in a park or in a garden.
    Let the house be safe and couchy…

  2. This is empirically true for me, Eric, thanks for a great post. As an artist, I worked making pottery for the first 10 years of my career but wanted to stop due to the fatigue that came from the work. Now I’ve transitioned into working as an illustrator for video and I love it. But my body is suffering again! I’ve found I have to stand instead of sit for at least half the day so my hips atrophy. Even though I work out and do yoga, it’s the sitting that’s the worst! Stand up for a day and my body tends to feel better. I hadn’t thought about sitting cross legged on the floor while I work, I’ll have to try that!

    • There’s a lot of people who have desks you can stand at. I think Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing has blogged about this. Probably the best solution would be some kind of adjustable desk–where you could be sometimes cross-legged, sometimes standing.

  3. I don’t think chairs are inherently bad, but I do think that chairs have been designed in recent history in a way that is bad for posture. The solution, in my opinion, is not to throw out all chairs, but learn how to sit/stand/walk properly (and avoid those chairs that force you to sit in an uncomfortable way).

    Check out the book 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back. It’s all about how the author studied traditional societies that participated in hours of what we would see as “back-breaking” work, yet complained of no back pain. She observed the ways that they held their bodies and have been teaching people in order to help with back, knee, hip, etc. pain. I love such simple solutions like this!

    She also has a short TED talk here:

    • How I love the links you folks send! I’ve been thinking a lot about form too. Funny how in a sport like fencing, tennis, baseball etc. you spend years working on form. When it comes to our daily activities, like walking, running, sitting we don’t seem to care.

  4. A few years in Japan taught me to flex. And yes, the older people there still sit on the floor, and are quite a bit more mobile than the ones I know in the US

  5. I’ve heard good things about standing desks. Another blogger I follow, Ran Prieur, just put a coffee table on top of his existing desk.

    Just for fun:

    This brings up the topic of yoga balls: I know a teacher who gives one to every student who can’t sit still in a chair. This quiets things right down, she says. She had planned to use one-legged milking stools, but those are in relatively short supply.

  6. In college, my student union had an area that looked similar (well, kind of) and also had lots of chairs and tables. I found myself gravitating towards the carpeted built-ins because they were more comfortable than sitting at a table. I didn’t think about that until just now.

    What I do know is the more time I spend sitting or prone, the more my scoliosis back barks at me!

  7. Taking away chairs? You are treading on dangerous ground! I recall seeing elderly people in primitive societies being carried because they could no longer stand or walk. Maybe most of the older people just die when they are disabled. We can keep people alive and repair injuries.

    I really don’t think all back pain can be laid to sitting. A few years ago, I exercised by running up two stories of stairs, eventually taking two at a time. I was fit. Some people just don’t have problems with joints or injuries or flexibility.

    After an injury walking on pavement,I slowed down and gradually gained weight that further slowed me down. Maybe some pain can be attributed to chairs. At this point, I cannot sit upright without pain. At home, I have to scrunch down. I cannot sit on the floor either.

    In my case I believe my injuries and pain are due to strain put on a young healthy body by standing on concrete. Over the years, pain from concrete slabs increased pain. For the last 35 years, my house I live in now is not on a slab. Walking on sidewalks and in stores with concrete slabs has caused me extreme pain. I was never able to even sit in a chair with my feet on concrete covered with pad and carpet without feeling pain.

    Maybe you are correct about chairs. I lay the blame for our ills on concrete under our feet and shoes we wear. When the doctor found my last vertebrae was sitting on bone, he asked if I had worked in a factory. ??? Actually, no, not anywhere near that.

    Shoes keep us out of touch with the ground, our main source of balance being the bare feet “reading” the surface on which we walk. horrid sentence! With shoes on, we have no idea where we are in relation to the ground and lose our sense of balance.

    I am tall, but my feet have never touched the floor in most chairs, so the style of chair matters for me. However, my perfect chair is probably not perfect for anyone else. I blame concrete.

    Every doctor is surprised at my flexibility, so maybe I am an anomaly with all my injuries. I contribute flexibility to a stretching session before I get up. I don’t mean a program of stretching, just catlike stretches on waking while still lying down.

    Yes, provocative. I don’t need tricky architecture.

    • I would add that our shoes are also an interesting problem. I had knee problems although I’ve done yoga forever (mom is a teacher), bicycle daily, and played basketball into college. My husband and I recently decided to start running (you know, just for fun) and he has always had knee pain since he ran cross country in high school. We both bought those ridiculous looking “barefoot” shoes and we’re both fine – no knee pain. Husband also had hip pain, also not a problem anymore. Closing in on 10k.

    • Woods–funny you should mention shoes. In the first draft of this post I talked about my barefoot running experience–pretty much the same as you two–most of my problems went away. Shoes and chairs are part of the same problem. I think chairs and shoes cause our muscles to atrophy, leading to problems down the line.

  8. Whenever I use my desk chair, I end up sitting cross legged on it anyway. I’m experimenting with pulling an exercise ball up to my desk instead. So far, pretty comfy!

    • I believe sitting in a chair with legs crossed may also contribute to back problems, after all the base of your spine is slightly twisted when your legs are crossed, particularly if you spend long hours sitting and tend to prefer either left over right or vice versa.

  9. DUDE POST!!!! You just don’t want to stretch.Talk about excuses! I think a little self acceptance might just save you from all the back aches hauling out all your furniture will cause you. Trickster gods will trip you on your stair and play havoc with your back until you see the joke. Just go and stretch. It will be good for you. All this blame the chair business is beside the point.

    • I’m guessing you may be biased after hearing about your recent antiques road show/thrift store chair jackpot today. Maybe the profits from the sale can go towards my hot yoga lessons.

    • I forgot to add all the little smiley faces in my post to make sure its clear I am teasing you (but on the square.) We over here at the Urbane Homestead really like chairs that can double as sculptures. I can rarely sit any of them since they are berths occupied by our fleet of cats. I have an old magazine you should check out about children’s playground design from the 70’s via the art world. good stuff.always interesting to look back at futuristic visions- I call it nostalgic futurisms.

  10. The idea behind the challenging house reminds me of the philosophy behind the playgrounds we’ve seen in, for example, Germany. They want kids to be challenged physically, so there are things to play on that would cause lawsuits if allowed in the US. Same in Switzerland, and other countries, I’m sure. We are so safe that we’re destroying ourselves.

  11. I did away with my chair at work. I turned my cubical into a standing cube, (my company was very supportive) and now I can stand and do 90% of my work for the 47 hour work week. I love every minute of it.
    Although, I’m also in Yoga. At the ripe old age of 29, I haven’t really lost much of my high school flexibility, but after 2 babies I knew I needed to be proactive about it and start now.

    Good luck on finding the solution that works for you!

  12. Pingback: Walking in a winter wonderland | Detroit Area Rambling Network

Comments are closed.