30 July, 2018

Adaptations to the Modern World: Sitting

Humans have adapted away from the lives they evolved to live. Adaptations to the Modern World is a series comparing how we lived in prehistoric times with how we live today. How have we changed to fit a world filled with cars, phones, fast food, and everything else we now call normal?

It considers how we’ve diverged from the time-tested practices of our ancestors; pondering how these changes have affected us both mentally and physically.

Like every species on earth, we evolved to make the most of our environment. In our case, that meant we slowly changed over hundreds-of-thousands of years to survive in nature as hunter-gatherers. We lived in this way for by far the longest period of our existence.

Gathering Food

Roughly 12,000 years ago, the vast majority of humans drastically changed how they lived when they began farming. From then changes came thick and fast. We had more time and freedom to develop new ways to survive, and we allowed ourselves more opportunities to establish other systems and ideas.

Fast forward 12,000 years and we now live in a world that’d be alien to hunter-gathers. The problem is, we didn’t have enough time to evolve to suit the world we created.

Our bodies and minds aren’t much different than they were 12,000 years ago. Nevertheless, we’ve forced them to adapt to a foreign lifestyle.

This is a series of articles, delving into these human adaptations, made to suit a modern world. Have they benefited us? Harmed us? Are we ok to keep going the way we are? Or if we want to become a healthier species, more physically and mentally prepared for today’s world. Do we need to take a step back to our roots?

First, I take a look at an activity we all love to do, sitting.

Sitting

There is nothing wrong with sitting. We have always been able to, and have sat on our bottoms from time to time.

The fact that we sit is not a problem. The problem is that we now sit for lengthy periods of time, often in unnatural positions. Let’s compare some of the reasons for sitting in prehistoric and modern lifestyles.

Prehistoric Humans: Why They Sat

  • To relax
  • To relieve fatigue
  • To participate in a group event
  • To prepare a meal
  • To eat
  • To watch something

Modern Humans: Why We Sit

  • All the same reasons
  • To watch TV
  • To use a device (phone, game console)
  • To work (desk job)
  • To drive
  • To go to the toilet
  • To fly
  • To move around with a disability

Our reasons for sitting have dramatically increased haven’t they? It’s only natural to assume that with this increase, we now sit a hell of a lot more than we sat pre-Netflix.

Next, consider how we sat then and how we sit now.

Typical Office Meeting

Prehistoric Humans: How We Sat

It’s safe to assume Prehistoric humans didn’t have access to chairs, at least as we know them today. The earliest record of a chair I could find is from 3100 BC, not that long ago at all. Before that it’s likely our options were a little bit more limited:

  • On the ground — crossed legs, on knees, leaning on our side or lying down. We don’t know exactly, but we likely did it all.
  • On a rock or branch that raised them off the ground (most like today).
  • On a prehistoric chair — They might have crafted with their modest tools something chair like. For example a stack of rocks against a tree, they may even have draped an animal hide over it for comfort, we’ll never know.
  • In a squat position — In ancient times we often squatted down whenever we wanted to rest. This practice still happens today in places like Asia. It seems that westerners have forgotten this skill. Forgotten it to the extent where we’re unable to it in a squat for any length of time.

The Sitting Squat

Modern Humans: How We Sit

If I was to ask you to visualise sitting, what would you think of? I’m guessing you see an object which lifts your rear-end off the ground and supports your back. A chair. There are many other forms of chairs, but this is the normal form. How we sit in them also varies and depends on the activity we’re doing (if any).

Some of us place our lower back in the support of the chair and sit up straight, others slouch away from it We might then put our feet up or recline backwards. Frequently we add another object in front of it to lean over, like a table.

Prehistoric Humans: How Long They Sat

Much like today, we likely sat for as long as life allowed us to. But it’s doubtful the world let us settle for very long, or that we were as comfortable in one fixed position over time.

You had to eat, so you had to hunt or gather to survive, that meant lots of movement. We migrated to where the food was when our local resources ran out. We undoubtable did a lot of sitting around too. But what if it started to rain? Or a neighbouring tribe attacked?

To conclude, back then we moved around much more.

Modern Humans: How Long We Sit

How long we sit today varies from human to human, and place to place. But our modern world has developed in a way that sitting for a protracted length of time is often required, or fun to do.

Thanks to attention absorbing tech, we can stay fixed and stimulated for hours on end. We can even jump between attention-grabbing mediums without needing to get up. When it’s time to work, most of us are employed to sit in offices. Our work environments are seats and desks waiting for us to occupy them for 8 hours every day. To get to these jobs, well you guessed it we sit more. Whether we’re commuting by car, bus, train or plane, more often than not we sit to get to work.

Modern life is a never-ending journey from seat to seat.

Public Transport

Why Does It Matter How Modern Humans Sit?

Yes the human body did evolve to be capable of sitting, but it also evolved the capability to crawl, stretch, run, walk, climb, swim and lie down. Yet many of us today are paying the price for staying more sedentary than we move.

By sitting a lot, and in particular for an extended period of time, our bodies are adapting in unnatural ways. A typical seated position today, puts enormous strain on your neck, spine and back muscles. Especially if you sit with poor posture. This often leads to muscles weakening, becoming tight from limited use, which can cause severe and permanent physical issues.

Research has shown over-sitting contributes to weight gain, anxiety and shortens lives. And it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, leg clots, varicose veins and cancer. Our sitting habits inflate our chances of becoming deformed, unhealthy and dying prematurely.

We need to rethink our approach towards sitting. Today. This issue might be well known, but there is a severe lack of change happening to try and fix it.

Typical Classroom

What Needs To Happen?

  • Schools must teach the importance of moving (preferably not while sitting so much). We do learn about the importance of exercise. But exercise alone doesn’t solve the damage of frequent prolonged sitting sessions. Education should make this understood.
  • Offices must provide ways for employees to work that get them away from seats.
  • Work breaks should be more frequent, and getting out and moving encouraged.
  • Governments should establish new regulations around this, and incentivise businesses to make changes.

These are just a few ideas. Whatever happens awareness of the harm we’re causing to ourselves must improve. So we can correct our damaging sitting adaptations before it’s too late.

We no longer need to move to survive the same lifestyle as our ancestors. But we do need to move to fulfil the biological needs of our physical form.

If we can bring awareness to this sitting epidemic and correct our adaptations, we will become healthier, live longer and be better equipped to adapt to whatever the future holds for us.

This article is based on research, with assumptions made. I am not a doctor, scientist or historian. Simply someone hoping to help people become more self-aware and willing to question why things are the way there are.

Further Reading:

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
  2. Can you do the Asian Squat?
  3. The best way to sit at your desk at work
  4. Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise

Who is Steven Hylands?

Steven is a designer by trade but has spent most of the last decade wearing many hats as a co-founder of tech startups like Yomo, PiggyPot, Rumble Labs, Nuu and Onotate. Currently, he’s trying to help prevent earth's climate from breaking down with Impact Makers. Working with startups has helped Steven gain a breadth of knowledge across design, product strategy, growth marketing, and front-end development.