The Cost of Comfort

I've recently realised that a number of habits I've been developing in the past year or two follow a common thread: a move away from comfort and toward more primitive interactions with the world. First, I started avoiding chairs, then shoes, now beds. What follows is a retrospective reconstruction of the reasoning behind my rejection of these objects. 

The Chair

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I started avoiding chairs around two years ago. After sitting through twelve years of schooling, my body had become completely accustomed to being seated. It was so used to sitting that it tried to follow that same pattern during other activities. My pelvis was rotated anteriorly (think excessively arching lower back) and I had incredibly tight hip flexors and hamstrings. I've always played a lot of sport, so I racked up plenty of reps moving in this deformed position, which eventually produced a pair of stress fractures in my lower back (L5). When I made sharp movements, I would experience stabbing pains in my lower right back, probably due in part to imbalances caused by right-handedness (writing every day with my upper body twisted down and to the left, playing guitar in the same position, etc.). After X-rays showed I had fractured vertebrae, I started a core-strengthening program and began dabbling in flexibility, following my physiotherapist's suggestions. At that time, my lower back and hamstrings were so tight that I couldn't reach past my knees - touching my toes with straight legs was out of the question.

I more or less recovered from the stress fractures and felt alright for a year or so, perhaps because I had graduated from high school and spent much less time sitting down. In 2012, I started a university degree and went back to sitting for the majority of each day. I also took up cycling as my primary mode of transport. My hip flexors tightened and chronic pain slowly developed in my right hip and lower right back. I went back to the physio and was again advised to improve my strength and flexibility. I was a rugby player at the time and, after picking up yoga in early 2012 to target the shortness of my hamstrings and hip flexors (the various warrior poses helped a lot there), I was pretty strong and flexible, particularly compared to my pain-free teammates. Doing yoga for half an hour every morning and working out six times a week couldn't compete with 8+ hours daily hours of sitting down. The human body is an incredibly adaptable organism; stretching guru Kit Laughlin describes it as "the ultimate adaptation machine" (Move Smart Podcast, Ep 8). Well, at that time, I was incredibly well-adapted to sitting. I couldn't negate the overwhelming tightness caused by hours of sitting in chairs every day with 30 minutes of stretching each morning; it was just a game of numbers that I was losing. Whatever your body does, it gets good at, and I got good at sitting.

Perhaps the back and hip pain wouldn't have arisen if I weren't an athlete. Doing exercise seemed to awaken the imbalances in my body and my nervous system sent my brain pain signals encouraging me to stop because my body wasn't suited to moving; it was suited to sitting. I was fighting a losing battle by trying to use yoga, the gym and sports to undo the physical damage caused by my largely sedentary lifestyle. So in September 2013, I asked my friend, Andrew Carvolth (andrewcarvolth.com), to build me a basic standing desk set-up. The original idea was just to stand still instead of sitting. But that would have been sedentary too. I found, though, that given I was standing when studying and working, I would move around a lot more through the day. I would pace whilst reading and shift my position much more often - leaning, resting on one leg, propping a leg up on the desk, and so on. But I would get tired from standing for so long each day. 

Then I came across the squat. My brother, Ben, introduced me to Ido Portal in early 2014 with his 30/30 Squat Challenge. The idea was to accumulate thirty minutes in the resting squat position (ass to grass) each day for thirty consecutive days. To begin with, I couldn't squat for more than ten seconds at a time without falling over backwards. I started waiting for buses, eating, even reading in a squat, and my mobility slowly improved. I've now moved my standing desk apparatus off the desk and down to the floor, such that I squat, kneel, sit cross-legged or in a straddle when I study. These are now all comfortable resting positions for me. I get uncomfortable in a position after a little while, but that's natural and it means I'm not stiff from remaining in the same position for long periods of time; I'm constantly shifting from one position to another. In fact, that's the whole point of this post.

I've come to view sitting in a chair as an artificially and dangerously comfortable position. Our culture is very big on comfort; if it's comfortable, it's good. The comfort of a chair allows us to sit in the same position, completely stagnant, doing the same thing, for hours on end. When we get up, we feel like sitting back down. And we've forgotten how to be comfortable in other positions (like the squat), such that when there's no chair around, we're in trouble.

A friend of mine often reminds me that anything in excess is always too much, which is true (by definition). The idea isn't to stop sitting and start standing all day, or squatting all day, or doing anything all day. The idea is to regularly shift between positions.

To begin with, my move away from chairs was a radical decision; I was excited and I found myself constantly discussing my new habit with others and advocating that they do the same thing. For a while there, I was passionate about not sitting in chairs. (Yeah, that's an obscure passion). Now, though, it's just a habit that's completely normal for me and, as with many of the habits I've developed, I try to avoid being prescriptive about it in my interactions with others. Self-righteousness is annoying.

I've developed such an aversion to sitting that I now tense up when I sit down in chairs. That's something I'm working on overcoming, because nobody wants to be around the type of person that refuses to sit in a chair, or wear shoes, or lay in a bed, even for a little while. Sometimes chairs are unavoidable and, given they're the exception and not the rule, I don't mind sitting in them from time to time.

The Shoe

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Like reclining leather chairs, shoes with a thick, cushioned heel can be incredibly comfortable. That's because our feet don't have to do any work in them. And after extended periods of time wearing such shoes day in, day out, our feet lose their ability to do any work. A closed-in foot can become a very ugly, impotent, swollen mess. 

Doctors and physiotherapists always told me I had flat feet and that I would forever be prone to knee, ankle and hip problems as a consequence. Glute activation seemed to be a problem rooted in the flatness of my feet and resulting in an uneven distribution of work when running; I had over-active quads, which pulled my pelvis down at the front, causing hamstring injuries and pain through my hips and lower back. So I decided to stop walking with flat feet. In early 2014, I started doing much more barefoot walking and paid close attention to my movement patterns. I realised that maintaining a good arch in my foot meant external rotation of the knee and activation of the glute. Any one of those three would entail the other two. I started thinking of my lower body as a three-piece chain which could be brought into better alignment by using any of those three cues: establish a strong arch in the foot, externally rotate the knee (most strength coaches use this cue), or activate the glute. When I did this, I felt the strain go off my joints and onto my muscles.

Often, though, it's not necessary to focus so much on how I'm walking when I'm barefoot; my body does the job naturally. For instance, if I heel-strike when I'm barefoot, it hurts, so I naturally start walking more on the balls of my feet. Walking barefoot on uneven, rocky surface helps accentuate flaws and encourage natural solutions.

I always feel better walking barefoot and avoid wearing shoes whenever I can. I sometimes wear a pair of minimalist shoes that I bought for social situations in which being barefoot isn't deemed appropriate (although wearing 'toe shoes' like my Vibram FiveFingers isn't much of an improvement if you're trying to fit in). My toes are slowly re-learning how to move independently, deal with uneven and sharp surfaces, grip, and so on. My feet feel and look stronger and I now move in what seems to be a much more natural and powerful way.

The Bed

For me, tonight will be the first of many spent sleeping on the floor. I've decided to avoid beds. I've thought much less about this than chairs and shoes, but I'll embrace it for now and see where it leads. I think it will be a valuable skill to be able to sleep well on the ground, particularly given I like travelling and I don't like spending money. I suspect that the comfort of the bed will be misleading and potentially harmful like that of the chair and the shoe. I expect sleeping on the ground to help me encounter restful positions that are natural for my body, just like avoiding chairs and shoes forced me to adopt more natural positions and movement patterns. I often awake in bed feeling stiff in my neck, shoulders, back and hips. 

My floor set-up, next to the bed. Sheepskin rug, blanket, pillow .  Might ditch the pillow.

My floor set-up, next to the bed. Sheepskin rug, blanket, pillow. Might ditch the pillow.

There are two directions one can take when trying to solve certain problems, particularly those involving pain: more comfort or less. The first option is a slippery slope. The 'more comfort' solution mirrors the type of advice I've often received from physiotherapists: restrict range of motion to avoid vulnerability and pain. But then the range of motion is lost and often never regained for fear of further injury.  The same applies here: we start overusing chairs, shoes and beds, and, having done so, eventually lose our ability to rest in other positions (squat, cross-legged sit, kneel), walk barefoot, sleep on the ground without a pillow, and so on. 

Interestingly, the use of all of these 'comfort objects' is so normal and basic to Western culture that avoiding them is stigmatised. Squatting, walking barefoot, and sleeping on the ground are all seen as 'dirty' behaviours. On the other hand, these practices are quite common in Eastern cultures. I think of the chair, for instance, as being very much bound up in the notion of the throne. We tend to think of ourselves as sitting above nature and other species. Only dirty, inferior animals roam naked, in direct contact with the ground. Apparently, we're better than that, beyond it even. I think there's value, though, in questioning those sorts of assumptions and reaching our own conclusions about how we should live; about what is actually normal. My response has been to reduce the degrees of separation between the ground and me in search of a more real, direct and natural interaction with my environment.

Physical comfort is overrated; it often means it's time to move on.

 

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