Don't sit up straight. Sit like you have a tail.

me sitting up straight before and after
© Jason Wahto

Sitting up straight isn't about the shoulders.

I was a slouchy kid (I'm now a slouchy grownup). All my life people would tell me to puff out my chest and push back my shoulders. But sitting up straight never made sense to me. Humans are animals. We've evolved to sit the way we do. Why would some animals evolve to sit wrong and need constant reminders to hold their muscles in uncomfortable positions? Are humans really supposed to sit up straight? And if so, how do they get their bodies to do so naturally?

Years later, I learned about ergonomic chairs — slanted chairs supposedly designed better for human bodies. The idea was that regular chairs are full of right angles that don't actually fit human bodies. I liked this new idea. It made an intrinsic kind of sense: humans don't sit wrong naturally. We just design chairs that make us sit wrong.

But this theory too had a problem I couldn't shake off. It's not like hunter-gatherers were all sitting in thousand-dollar ergonomic chairs. If it doesn't make sense that we'd evolve to sit wrong, it REALLY doesn't make sense we evolved to need technology we wouldn't invent for thousands (millions?) of years.

ergonomic chair© Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock

Perhaps, I thought, humans just aren't designed to sit much, period. Sitting is inherently unhealthy, and if we were all spending more time running from tigers and lugging water jugs around, we'd be fine. After all, a lot of research suggests that people who sit more are unhealthy.

But anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer groups are sticking a wrench in the "sitting is bad" theory. For instance, David Raichlen, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, studied a hunter-gatherer group in Africa called the Hadza. He found that Hazda people exercised more than Americans, but when it came to sitting ...

"The Hadza are in resting postures about as much as we Americans are," Raichlen told NPR. "It's about 10 hours a day." Americans sit around nine to 13 hours a day. I once spent time with hunter-gatherers in the Amazon and saw the same thing — just about everyone sat on logs or lounged in hammocks most of the day. They did hunt wild boars, make baskets, fish and gather fruit, but that stuff didn't take all day.

And here's the thing — Raichlen says hunter-gatherers don't get the kinds of back issues Americans do, even when they get older.

"There hasn't been a ton of studies looking into muscle and joint pain in the Hadza groups, but people are highly active across the life span," Raichlen explained. "There are some declines in activity with age but nowhere near what you get in the U.S."

Humans are simply made to sit around a lot. Which makes sense, considering that seems to be true of basically every other mammal I've ever seen. When's the last time you saw a cat run around all day? Conserving energy is a pretty good way to avoid starving to death.

So when it came to sitting, I assumed I'd never find a real answer ... Until a few weeks ago, when my mom heard an NPR episode claiming Americans have bad posture because they sit wrong. I assumed I was about to hear the old "sit up staight" routine, but NPR surprised me. The problem isn't that Americans don't push back their shoulders, they said. The problem is that they don't stick out their butts enough.

According to Nomi Khan, an orthopedic surgeon, Americans push their hips forward when they sit. This makes their backs curve, damaging the back's shock absorbers.

"Most people tend to round out their backs when they sit," Khan told NPR. "Their spine is in an improper position, and they will tend to have more back problems."

No amount of pushing back their shoulders gets to the root of the problem.

"Even just hearing the word 'spine' makes people lift their chest because they want to have 'proper posture'," explained Jenn Sherer, a teacher who runs workshops on spine health in California. "But when I see it, I'm like, 'No! That's what causes back pain. Lifting your chest is going to make your back pain worse'."

Instead, people should push out their butts like they have tails. Then their vertebrae align, and their backs don't get pulled out of shape.

dog sitting and looking back© Sari ONeal/Shutterstock

"The most important thing to change to reduce back pain is your pelvis position," Sherer explained. "It's like a stack of toy blocks. If the blocks at the bottom aren't sturdy, then the top has no chance."

Apparently, children and people in other countries do this all the time. Sherer talked about a man in Rajasthan, India.

"The man sits at the loom weaving, for hours and hours every day, just like we do at a computer," Sherer said. "And yet his spine is still elongated."

I couldn't think of any holes in this theory, but I was skeptical. This did not matter since my mom was convinced.

"Just try it!" she urged me.

"Eh," I said.

"Like this!" she demonstrated.

Feeling a little silly, I sat down, pushing back my butt like I had a tail. It felt like sitting on a cushy pillow. My body settled in, and all of a sudden, I was actually sitting up straight, no shoulder-intervention necessary. You know, like ...

me sitting up straight before and after© Jason Wahto

I'd never had terrible back pain, but I could always feel that my back was not psyched whenever I was sitting. That totally changed when I sat this way. My body felt at rest.

For the next few weeks, every time I sat down, I tried to sit right. The hardest part was remembering, since actually sitting that was way surprisingly easy. No expensive chairs or uncomfortable positions necessary. I'm gonna call it: mystery solved.

Though I still have one question: why did people start sitting wrong? Let me know your theories below.

Don't sit up straight. Sit like you have a tail.
You're sitting wrong. Here's the right way to sit.

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