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Our Sedentary Lifestyle: From the School Desk to Retirement

Muscle tightness? It’s all a matter of the right balance. Correct posture through the Feldenkrais Method

“It’s better to lie down and walk than sit and stand” goes an old saying for good posture. Unfortunately, this time-honoured proverb does not appear to have made its way into modern office spaces, as companies in which people walk and lie down instead of sitting and standing are generally not taken seriously. Despite this, anyone who has worked a standard office job for a few years is well aware of encroaching back problems. Tightness in the neck and shoulders, lower back pain, tired legs and even numb fingers after hours are well-known symptoms. Long-term consequences are also well known, at least by word of mouth: slipped discs, varicose veins and even thrombosis.

The Sedentary Lifestyle: From the School Desk to Retirement

The big German insurance companies have long recognised prolonged sitting as a problem and offer courses on back problems, posture and exercises in the workplace to prevent a back pain epidemic (and probably also to save on insurance claims for associated treatment). After all, the “computerisation” of many jobs entails that more and more people sit at work. And of course, this sedentary behaviour does not only begin at work. From the first year of school, a chair is deemed essential to doing work. After up to six forty-five minute lessons of sitting at school, the afternoon brings homework and tutoring. And since the education system heralds up to 13 years at school, not to mention the increasing pressure to complete both a bachelor and master degree at university, students often spend more than 17 years in a sedentary environment before even having started work. The consequences of this trend are easily recognisable.

Indeed, symptoms are a precursor to a demand for treatment and relief. The sports faculties of most large universities now offer back exercise programs as well as back strengthening and fitness activities, through which students can help to keep their back in good shape. The variety of office chairs on the market also hints at the fact that sitting has become a focus issue. Of course, a good office chair can aid in mitigating the risk of back problems, but is it possible to do any more?

Risk Management for Back Problems

Awareness of the following four points is already a great help. First, breaks are not only the most pleasant part of work but also the healthiest. Concentration is not the only thing to suffer from constant strain at work. Muscles also suffer under sedentary work, making it critical to take a short break every 30 to (at most) 60 minutes. Movement is essential during this break, and a short walk through the office, for example, is sufficient to get the system going and to activate muscles. Secondly, movement is also important after hours. People who have spent the whole day sitting should definitely strive for some form of balance in their daily routine and play sport. Any type of sport is suitable as long as the entire body is in movement. As such, swimming is more suitable than chess and badminton more so than billiard.

Thirdly, targeted strength training can often help to protect the spinal discs. However, enthusiastically lifting too much weight can harm the body more than it helps, so consult your doctor or personal trainer for advice. And your office chair, of course, has to be optimally adjusted so that the hip joint is one to two finger widths higher than the knees. The knees should be positioned above the ankles and 90° to the thighs, according to the expert. Michael Luschmann has had his practice in Weilheim (in Bavaria, Germany) since 1985 and treats his patients through the “Feldenkrais Method”.

The Feldenkrais Method

Named after its founder, the physicist and natural scientist Dr Moshé Feldenkreis (1904-1984), the Feldenkrais Method is perhaps less physical therapy than a learning method, positioning the learner in an active role. Inspired by a knee injury in the 1950s, Moshé Feldenkrais began to research the relationship between human movement and the way in which we behave and think. His aim was to expand human fields of movement with the credo: “If you are aware of what you are doing, then you can do what you like.” With this rationale in mind, the Feldenkrais Method realises that the human bio-machine is capable of a lot more than we like to think. Feldenkrais, for example, explained this process through the many ways of looking left and right. A trivial matter, one might be inclined to think. The first step in Feldenkrais is to activate the eye muscles when looking in either direction, to use the head or neck muscles in tandem with the shoulders and finally, to turn the hips for a desired field of vision. These individual movements are sequential; one leads to the next. Indeed, the basis of Feldenkrais is to do that which costs the least effort. By contrast to yoga and Pilates, Feldenkrais is free of a spiritual component.

Feldenkrais is an alternative approach, and it affords an unaccustomed perspective of the issue of “back problems”, as shown by our interview with Michael Luschmann. When Luschmann talks about his work, he avoids the term “patient” altogether. He does not only occupy himself with the pathology of disease, and prefers to concentrate on interrelationships within the body – and he begins at the foundations. Sitting, according to Michael Luschmann, must first be subject to definition. One can sit on the floor or on a chair. “But there is a difference”, Luschmann explains. “On a chair, you have at least two points of support: the floor, the seat and possibly a backrest.” Without one of these support surfaces, sitting would not be possible. “In accordance with the rules of physics, the skeleton requires a counterforce in locomotion just as with lifting, lying down or sitting. Try to lift a weight while swimming” he adds mischievously. The body is a complex system that moves dynamically and is thus dependent on a passive surface. Those are the physiological basics of Feldenkrais, and they give the seating surface a lot more significance than it was originally credited. This makes for an interesting starting point for our interview with the 1959-born Feldenkrais expert.

Our Interview with Michael Luschmann

What are some common postural mistakes?

The appropriate seat height is important, so is the ideal position of the knee joints in relation to the hips and ankle joints. All these factors must be accounted for in order to sit optimally on the “Sitting bones” (ischia). These are part of the pelvis and look a little bit like skids on a sled. As the name already indicates, the “sitting bones” are designed for sitting. Not following this physiological prompt can be a mistake. However, lazing around on your chair from time to time is as acceptable as sitting upright. The ideal seating posture is a position from which you can move effortlessly in any direction. And this is what makes sitting on your sitting bones so important. The sitting bones are covered in a small low-friction layer, making a change of position effortless. For example, reaching for the phone, getting paper out of a drawer or sorting documents on your desk should come naturally and in an unforced fashion. If you were to lounge about in your chair, you would increase the body’s contact area and therefore use more energy. This is much more taxing for the body.

Does anybody know how to sit correctly?

Everyone once knew how to, at least. Babies develop their skeletal form through movement under gravity. The joint sockets, for example, or the arrangement of the ribs are all influenced by attempts at balanced movement. A baby does practically nothing other than to find out economical means of movement. This capacity for conscious movement is then unlearnt over the course of one’s life, at least in industrialised society. Nobody sits on the floor anymore, where it was necessary to move the hips in a variety of positions. Nowadays, we use furniture, which leads to a loss of flexibility as well as the perception and presence of balance.

What are the consequences?

These could play out as follows:

  • Muscle tightness
  • Reduction and atrophy of musculature
  • Aches and pains
  • Immobilisation of the hip joints
  • Osteoarthritis ...

Really, muscle atrophy?

Of course. The ideal resting position for a muscle is a neutral one. In a neutral position, the muscle is able to expand and contract. Muscle that is contracted for eight hours at a time loses the ability to expand and vice-versa. Thus, muscle atrophies – if you don’t use it, you lose it.

How many people come to your practice to prevent such problems?

In fact, most people come when they already have a problem. As opposed to classic physical therapy, however, the Feldenkrais Method has a more preventative character. Where emphasis is otherwise placed on symptomatic treatment, our approach focuses on the interrelationships within the body. Rather than the classic medical-therapeutic approach, whereby the practitioner seeks to decrease or remove pain, the Feldenkrais Method has a more pedagogic background. The aim is to improve quality of life. And to live better, you have to move better, to learn to be conscious of your own movement patterns and to move as efficiently and ergonomically as possible. We therefore start where there is no pain and recalibrate movement processes. This also creates a big change in awareness, because attention is directed away from the pain or problem.

So you teach the correct way to move?

In my opinion, that sadly does not exist. There is, however, something I like to call the individual “handwriting” of movement. That is why we begin treatment by observing an individual at daily run-of-the-mill tasks. We would, for example, ask a librarian to take a book out of a shelf and would then demonstrate alternative ways of performing that action. By introducing new, ergonomically correct movement, we aim to bypass the motion that caused the problem. Everybody has a unique way of moving, and treatment must be carried out according to individual needs. Thus, we cannot develop a generic spectrum of optimal movement patterns but can show an individual the best way for them to move. We also note that this process leads the original symptoms to disappear. Almost as a “side effect” (laughs).

In that case, the healing process is rather indirect?

Exactly! Our whole philosophy is fundamentally different. When most people go for treatment, they want to return to the condition they were in before they had the problem. This is definitely questionable, because the original state led to the problem in the first place. As such, something has to change in order to ensure that the problem disappears – and that it does not arise again.

Is there such thing as the ideal office chair?

A certain level of mobility is definitely a good thing: a height-adjustable seat, for example. An individually adjustable backrest is also of benefit. One must be aware, however, that the human skeleton is more flexible than any office chair on the market. Thus, it is better that the skeleton adapts to the chair than the other way around A baby can sleep anywhere: on its mother’s arm, on the floor etc. because its skeleton is soft and ergonomically shaped. So it does no harm to sit on a simple wooden stool for a change. Through comfortable chairs, we lose flexibility and movement.

Is there a national epidemic of “sitting disease” – or, in other worlds, was everything better in the past, when less jobs involved deskwork?

Every job requires optimal movement patterns, regardless of whether it is carried out sitting, standing or driving. Of course, some jobs demand a greater level of caution than others: for a professional climber, for example, balance is significantly more important than for someone who is working in a chair and can’t really fall out. In my experience, carpenters have almost optimal movement patterns until they are very old, as they spend a lot of their working lives balancing on roof beams. There is also a lot that has improved since the “good old days”: construction materials are lighter, resulting in less health problems for tradesmen, and workplace health and safety has improved.

Do you have a Feldenkrais exercise for everyone who spends most of the workday sitting at work? Would this help to teach optimal posture?

Of course. Our first aim is to ensure improved comfort at work. Commensurate of this aim, it is first necessary to be aware of your own body. How do you sit in your chair? Are you conscious of your hips? Which side of your pelvis has more contact with the seat, and which side do you put more weight on? Are your feet resting flat on the floor? Which part of your back is resting against the backrest? Is it your upper back or your lower back? It is also important to be aware of your breathing. Is your breathing shallow or deep? Do you feel it in your throat, in your belly? After answering these questions, you will have a better idea of how you actually sit.

Indeed. And now?

I would now ask that you sit further forward, towards the edge of the seat. Now ask yourself the same questions, but also ask yourself how you have had to change your posture? How long could you maintain this position? Minutes? Hours? And are you comfortable? Now reach under your left hip and find your left “sitting bone” (ischium). This small, skid-like protrusion of your pelvis is easy to find. Now do the same thing with your right hand.

Alright, so those are the “sitting bones”…!

(grins) Exactly! You will now notice them consciously and this awareness will be of use. For example, you could carefully transfer your weight to the right “sitting bone”, then over to the left one. Subsequently, combine the transition of weight with a circular motion. This can all be done at the comfort of your desk and you can hold telephone conversations, text and read emails at the same time. And if you notice positive changes through this exercise, you will come to understand the sitting bones as “feet” and will begin to “walk” on them, moving from side to side over the edges of your seat. As a result, your spinal discs will be in motion, which is essential in ensuring comfort at work. Through such exercises, you will learn a lot about human movement patterns. And in fact, understanding human movement is the only means to optimal posture.

About the interviewee

Michael Luschmann, born 1959, has worked in physical therapeutics since 1980. He opened his practice in Weilheim, Germany, in 1985, and has worked together with his wife, Doris Luschmann, since 1993. He completed his qualification as “Feldenkrais Teacher” in Switzerland from 1990-1993. Since 2000, he has taught supervisory groups for Feldenkrais teachers in Germany, England and Italy, and since 2010, has done so as a “Feldenkrais International Assistant Trainer”.

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