Interview: Mary Bond on Healthy Sitting

If you are like me and spend several hours per day in front of a computer screen, you are going to enjoy this interview. I discovered Mary’s work as I was doing research on postural training. Her book “The New Rules of Posture” gave me great insights on how to pay attention to our posture. Until today I apply what I learned through her book, and I share her advises and exercises with most of my patients.

For this interview I asked Mary to share with us the basics of healthy sitting to avoid the all too common pain and tension in the back and neck.

M. Hammour: Nowadays, people spend hours seating in front of the computer for work or for leisure. Many of them complain about neck and shoulder tightness, and sometime lower back pain. Does the way we seat affect our back and neck?

Mary Bond: Yes, absolutely.  But it’s not just the sitting position that creates the tension and pain.  It’s also the narrowing of attention and tight focus.  This is bad enough with computers, but even worse with hand held devices.  The constrained visual field makes us thrust our necks forward.  Without a good foundation in the pelvis to keep the trunk erect, neck and back strain are exacerbated.

M.H.: What are the most essential steps to take to improve our sitting position?

M.B.: I like to distinguish between active sitting and passive, recreational sitting, because I think it’s unreasonable to expect people to sit with optimally supported posture when they’re lounging by the pool.  For active sitting, in which you’re engaged in mental work, the first thing is to adjust the chair seat so your hips are higher than your knees.  There should be a slight downward angle to your thighs. Many people will then need to raise the desk surface and the computer screen, so the screen is eye-level.  Shorter people may need a footrest so their feet can be grounded.

The chair adjustment should allow the pelvis to roll forward so that your weight is distributed into the flesh of the upper thighs rather than back on the buttocks.  When you sit on the buttocks, your pelvis rolls back, your lower spine flexes, your chest drops—and, your neck juts forward in compensation for the trunk being behind your center of gravity.  When weight is on the thighs, the pelvis inclines into a neutral position, the lower back gains a very slight forward curve, and this supports the uplift of the trunk and the neck.

M.H.: Why does the slouched position feel so comfortable, at least at first?

M.B.: The essence of relaxation is to surrender the weight of the body to the ground. When people slouch, initially they feel relaxed, but over time the imbalanced positioning takes a toll. Habitual slouching tightens and shortens many body structures, such as the iliopsoas and hamstring muscles. Many times a course of body work or yoga or other somatic discipline is necessary to re-condition the muscles and fascia so that supported sitting can feel comfortable.  If the biomechanics are optimal, it’s possible to achieve that same sense of relaxation while having an uplifted posture.

M.H.: Some people slump into the chair or the couch and end up by feeling ‘stuck.’ They would say, “I know I should straighten up, but I can’t get myself to do it.” Why is that? Does the way we seat affect our breathing? Does it affect the way we feel?

M.B.: Really, that’s cultural, isn’t it? During the last 100 years we gradually stopped valuing elegant posture.  Women unstrapped their corsets and shortened skirts; men took off ties and hats, and the whole presentation became increasingly casual. Today there’s even a negative value on erect posture, as if having it means you’re uptight or snobbish. It could be easier for people to straighten up if they assigned positive value to healthy posture, the way they are starting to value healthy eating and fitness.

Breathing is affected because when we slouch, the ribcage is compressed down into the abdomen, limiting the movement of the diaphragm muscle and forcing the movements of breathing into the upper chest.  Upper chest breathing is linked to our stress responses:  we take shorter faster breaths, which elevates blood pressure, makes us more anxious, etc.  Chapter 4 of The New Rules of Posture has an good explanation of this. Since sitting posture affects our breathing, it also affects how we feel, because oxygen exchange is less efficient:  less oxygen to our brains affects how we think.

M.H.: How often should we take a break from our sitting position?

M.B.: Try setting a timer, so you get up at least once an hour.  Stretch, move your arms, your neck, your hips.  Take a walk, and relax your one-pointed attention on whatever has become so important on the computer screen.  All those acts of release help you refresh your body’s operating system.

It’s often the hardest to let go of the attention because we’re afraid we’ll lose control over the thing we’re trying to master.  In fact, there’s a good chance that we’ll have more creative juices flowing and can actually get the job done in a better way.   Making the decision to take breaks means that you value your body as much as you value your success.  That’s not an easy concept for people because current cultures don’t support our thinking that way.

Bio: Mary Bond has a Master’s degree in dance from UCLA and trained with Dr. Ida P. Rolf as a Structural Integration practitioner. She is a movement instructor at the Rolf Institute and teaches movement workshops nationally. The author of Balancing Your Body, she has also published articles in numerous health and fitness magazines. She lives in California.

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