by Dennis Zacharkow, PT
Although fidgeting is considered by many health professionals to be a healthy component of sitting posture, it is actually an indication of postural instability, impaired respiration, and overall discomfort.
Grandjean et al. (1960) recorded the body movements of individuals while sitting in different chairs. They found among subjects tested that positive answers on questions related to seat comfort corresponded to fewer body movements on the chair, whereas negative answers corresponded to frequent body movements.
Bhatnager et al. (1984, 1985) observed the postural changes of four seated individuals over a three hour period, as they inspected slides of printed circuit boards from three different screen heights. They found that the frequency of postural change or fidgeting increased by more than 50 percent over the three hours of observation. The total frequency of posture changing was found to be a sensitive indicator of postural stress and discomfort.
In a study involving fourteen subjects, Pustinger et al. (1985) reported fewer episodes of motion and fewer health complaints at an adjustable computer workstation compared to a fixed computer workstation. Increased movement was always found to have an adverse effect on productivity.
When sitting in a slumped posture, there is a relaxation of the deep lower abdominals, and a lowered position of the diaphragm at the start of inspiration. This sitting posture not only restricts diaphragmatic breathing, it also facilitates unhealthy upper chest breathing.
When upper chest breathing predominates, the scalene muscles are overworked, resulting in fatigue and an increase in fidgeting. It is the belief of this author that much of the discomfort, fatigue, and fidgeting when sitting is due to the imbalance in the use of the scalene and diaphragm muscles.
Kellogg (1896) described the individual breathing in a slumped sitting posture as being "constantly in a state of air-starvation, a fact which is evidenced by the disposition to straighten up and draw a long, deep breath every now and then, which is constantly noticed in persons who habitually sit at study or work in a stooped attitude."
Rathbone and Hunt (1965) also implicated the impaired breathing of a slumped posture as one reason for an increase in fidgeting when sitting.
Branton (1966) correlated postural change with the need for stability. If the seat fails to stabilize the sitter, he will spontaneously take up such postures that will satisfy the need for body stability. As fatigue from muscle exertion sets in, another posture will be adopted as the individual seeks to minimize fatigue and stabilize his body segments.
According to Branton's (1966) instability hypothesis, "The greater the instability, the less likely is muscular relaxation and hence the greater is discomfort." The postures held longest were found by Branton (1966) to be the most stable.
In their study on train seat postures, Branton and Grayson (1967) found that the sitting postures where the train seat provided the greatest stabilization were held five to ten times as long as the least supported postures.
Mosher (1899) and Stewart and McQuilton (1987) considered a major cause of fidgeting to be the unbalancing of the body caused by the design of chair backrests. When leaning against the typical chair backrest, the center of gravity of the trunk is displaced behind the pelvis. (In other words, the shoulders project behind the hip line.) This distorts the proper upright relationship of the head, neck, rib cage, and pelvis, and it leads to fatigue and fidgeting.
Activating the elongation reflex of the trunk with sacral support and lower thoracic support will stabilize the two key areas of instability when sitting: the pelvis and the rib cage. Sacral and lower thoracic support will also promote optimal diaphragmatic breathing, along with the proper upright relationship of the head, neck, rib cage, and pelvis.
Stabilizing the trunk in such an elongated posture, along with the proper seat height and depth to the chair "would result in greater comfort and a minimum of fidgeting, as the spinal muscles would not fatigue readily, and the respiration and circulation would not be hindered" (Rathbone and Hunt, 1965).
(Over the twenty years since introducing the ZACKBACK Posture Chair and the YogaBack, I have frequently received comments from individuals describing themselves as constantly fidgeting when sitting. These individuals notice an immediate and dramatic decrease in their fidgeting when sitting with the stabilization from sacral and lower thoracic support.)
As sitting involves a spontaneous attempt to stabilize the body segments (Branton, 1966; Zacharkow, 1988), I am perplexed by the many health professionals advocating chairs that destabilize the sitter by promoting continuous movement. These chairs reflect a total misunderstanding of the functioning of the human body. Continuous movement on a chair while sitting in the typical slumped posture is simply promoting the postural breakdown of the body while moving.
Health professionals advocating continuous movement when sitting always refer to the beneficial effect this movement will have on the discs of the spine. However, a greater health benefit to the spinal discs occurs by walking during breaks from sitting, and also by walking as a daily aerobic exercise (Holm and Nachemson, 1983; Helander and Quance, 1990).
The seated individual is seeking to minimize his fatigue and stabilize his body segments -- not destabilize his posture and increase his fatigue by continuously fidgeting!
Fidgeting is a sensitive indicator of postural stress, respiratory stress, and discomfort.
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