Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why is this chair in my living room?

...because it's too nice and awesome to be out on the back deck!

Frequently, clients ask me what are some things that they can do during the course of their busy day to alleviate neck, shoulder, low back, and hip pain in between massage therapy sessions.  Many of these clients are workers whose jobs require them to spend long hours sitting at a desk performing various tasks at a computer.  And as you may have guessed, sitting long hours in hip flexion can produce chronic muscle tension and pain all over the body.  As Dr. Natalie Thomas, DPT of In Motion O.C. in Irvine California states,

"Prolonged sitting shortens the hip flexors, the muscles in the front of the hips. When you stand, these shortened muscles change the position of the pelvis… so the spine, which connects to the pelvis, becomes compromised… the chain of imbalances continues up the spine to the neck… and the head juts forward as the body tries to balance itself.  The body was not meant to be in that position, so back pain is inevitable."

Most chairs as they are typically designed have flat, perpendicular, and upright backs with flat seats.  I've always found this interesting, since nowhere in the human body will you find a completely flat surface.  Of course, it isn't economical to mass produce furniture for the workplace that respects the laws of ergonomics.  Case in point, the chair on the right in the picture below is manufactured by a Finnish company that retails for around $800.

Now wouldn't it be fantastic if everyone's work station could look like this?  The benefits of a saddle-seat configuration (as in the Salli chair above) come from a seat surface that allows the hips to drop, thereby allowing the spine to maintain its natural position in space.  As you can see, the lumbar spine's curve is preserved, which in turn causes the head, neck, and shoulders to maintain their alignment over the pelvis. This position, in turn, reduces work of the erector spinae muscles (your back muscles) from constantly firing and trying tirelessly in vain to hold your trunk upright all day painlessly while at work.

So what if you do have a plain old regular chair that your workplace requires you to sit on for 8-ish hours a day?  Well, you can at least change the way you do work at home or relax better once you're away from the job.  And you don't need a fancy $3000 recliner to do it, either!

So let's get back to the picture at the beginning of this post: the zero-gravity chair (sometimes called the anti-gravity chair).  This summer, as I was on a random shopping trip at REI, there was one such chair out on display next to all the camping tents. And I've read and heard about these chairs before, but never actually tried one out.  So after flopping into the floor model, I leaned back in the chair and reclined to its maximum level.  A moment of clarity overcame me, and I finally realized what's wrong with furniture these days.  Couches are a soft and cushy version of your workspace and they are really no better than that upright office chair that's supposed to be good for your back.  So since that moment, I've been hooked and a believer.  But I'm here to tell you, this style of chair and the concepts behind its benefits are rooted in science of the NASA kind.  I don't know about you, but I happen to enjoy discovering products whose origins arose from the ingenuity of space geeks.

In the early 1980's, NASA conducted a series of experiments to determine the exact position the human body assumes when suspended in zero-gravity conditions.  They found that this position is the body's natural resting position, and it affords exceptional relief from lower back stress due to the decreased amount of force and pressure inflicted upon the spinal discs.  An added side benefit from having your weight evenly distributed and your feet elevated is less work on your heart and better circulation.  

This is from the BackSaver.com website:

The Zero-Gravity technology is credited to the scientists and doctors at NASA and was utilized in the space program to reduce the amount of compressional forces exerted on the spine by the extreme speed at which the astronauts blast into space. During take-off, astronauts recline with their feet higher than their hearts with a torso-to-leg angle of 128 degrees +/- 7 degrees, the "Zero-Gravity" position (also referred to as the body’s “neutral” position and the “90/90” position).
The reason Zero Gravity is a preferred posture for astronauts is any slight amount of disc compression will be exemplified by the speed and force of take off. Normal sitting postures can load 150 pounds of compression into the lower back, while standing can load 100 pounds of compression, and lying in a horizontal position can load 25 pounds of compression. Even a minor back or spinal disc problem can be exacerbated with 25 pounds of compression.

Zer-gravity chairs then mimick the postures of the astronauts.  These recliners can reduce or eliminate the pressure that will cause spinal disc compression while sitting. This chair positions a person into a no-compression or Zero-Gravity posture by assuming the ideal angles of the torso to the leg the same way NASA positions the astronauts.

The recliners are designed to relieve the body of the pressures that cannot be relieved in a standing, seated or laying position or with other recliners that position the torso parallel to the horizon. The spine is allowed to unload the compressional forces with a ZGR by raising the lower legs above the heart which has the following benefits:

  • Less pressure on the spine

  • Reduced muscle tension

  • Less pressure on the heart and expanded lung capacity

  • Increased circulation and increased blood oxygen levels

And it makes sense too; when astronauts are about to blast off into space, many precautions need to be taken in order to prevent injury, since their bodies are exposed to sudden and intense changes in the force of gravity and G- forces.  This is why they are strapped into their space capsule seats in such a similar fashion.

When you think about it a different way, each hour you find yourself slumped over your desk and you add that up in months and years, you are essentially subjecting your neck and back muscles to a cumulative, slow-motion space liftoff that most certainly has the propensity to cause injury.  Gravity never takes a vacation from traveling down your spine as long as you are relatively upright.  So I kind of figured sitting in a position known as "anti-gravity" would provide your muscles with the relief they so desperately need, since a stationary floor stretch known as "static back" more or less mimics this position. Static back, a popular and effective posture "exercise" (I call it that in quotations, because it is doing a whole lot by not really doing a lot, if that makes any sense) that causes back muscles to release while allowing the upper back to fall into extension (the opposite of contraction).  It takes some torque out of your hips while letting your body fully relax into a more symmetrical balanced position.  

For an interesting and related article that has an accompanying short demo that helpfully explains a little more about this concept and takes it a little further, click here.

Is this you?  Your plush, leather, and probably expensive designer couch may look like a nice addition to your living room, but there are smarter ways to maximize your relaxation time.  Not to mention, less painful.  When you come home from work and are dog-tired and want to do nothing but slouch on the couch, think about what you are doing to your muscles and bones; isn't eight hours of bad posture enough for one day?  Give your back the break it is crying for and even do some computer work without further exacerbating the strain by substituting your favorite Lazy Boy with a zero-gravity chair.  Here are a few examples of some styles out there:

The bottom one looks pretty kick-ass, doesn't it?  In fact, I would design all workplaces to look like this if I was in charge.  What is so wrong with having workers comfortable and pain-free?  Imagine how much production levels would increase if strain was eliminated and out of the picture.  The price, unfortunately, for a few of these models might rival that of a small automobile. But I know that you can get the same effect with the basic steel-framed and nylon-upholstered outdoor version for less than $100.  In fact, since this version of the chair is considered a seasonal item, you can take advantage of end-of-summer clearance sales like I did and maybe even score one for under 50 bucks!

So why is this chair in my living room?  Here's why:  I'm not super rich, and I put my zero-gravity chair (which looks pretty close to this one)

up to a field test at the beach.  Several times.  Not once did I feel the need to get up and stretch, feel sore, complain, whine, or experience discomfort like that when one is slouched on the couch during an entire 4-hour stretch of serious book reading.  In fact, I could have laid in this chair all day.  Nothing began to ache, and I never felt the sensation that I needed to incessantly crack something.  My back kept wondering why it was so fortunate to catch such a nice break for such a long period of time.  Gravity is taken out of the picture in a vertical sense here, so it really is a matter of physics.  And I love physics!  So before you run out and get yourself a new furniture set (essentially, a good-looking bad idea, kind of like high-heeled shoes), especially if it's not in your budget, you can run out to Kohl's or even the dollar store and score yourself what gets my endorsement (posture-wise) as the greatest chair ever.  And if anyone comes over and laughs in skeptical disbelief, tell 'em to see--or should I say--lay, for themselves.