Why Is Sitting Upright So Uncomfortable?

Many of us think that we need to sit upright in order to avoid the myriad of complaints from neck to hips that can result from poor posture. 

However, slumping often feels like the easiest and most comfortable posture to hold. So what gives?

While slumping can certainly be bad for you, research is now uncovering the fact that sitting upright at a ninety-degree angle is also unhealthy, and could cause discomfort through increased pressure upon spinal discs and muscles that are tired from trying to straighten out the natural curvature of your back.

It seems then that we put too much stress on the importance of posture and its relation to back pain,

In this article we’ll attempt to answer why you shouldn’t be too worried about sitting up straight by covering:

  • why it’s hard to sit up straight?
  • whether it matters if you sit up straight
  • what is good posture when it comes to sitting?
  • how you can reduce your risk of back pain by moving around regularly and properly organizing your desk

You might also be interested in the findings from another of our investigations relating to the search for good posture. On that occasion we weighed up  stools vs chairs to answer which of the two you should add into your office setup. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Why is it hard to sit up straight?

There are a few explanations for why it can be difficult to sit up straight for long hours. 

One is that our muscles like to be at rest, rather than exerting energy. 

Using muscles burns valuable resources and we always seek to conserve these resources where we can – meaning that your muscles naturally seek to relax.

A relaxed position leads to a slumped form in most cases. You start out sitting upright but as soon as you are distracted, your shoulders start to relax, move forward, and you end up hunched over your desk.

This can be exacerbated by poor positioning of your computer (or whatever else you are working on at a desk). If the item isn’t at the right level, you’ll find that you automatically try to put your head closer to it, and this can lead to issues where you are scrunched up.

Repositioning your computer is one way to deal with the problem of hunching over, because you will automatically sit up a bit straighter if you need to do so in order to see the screen properly. Many people recommend having the top of your screen level with your eyebrows, and the keyboard level with your elbows. You may find that this works well for you.

Another reason that it is often difficult to sit up straight is that we subconsciously get into habits relating to where and how we sit. 

If you always cross your ankles while working, you may find it really difficult to stop doing this, even if you realize it’s causing a problem. Likewise, the posture you assume at your desk will be a force of habit to a degree.

Unfortunately, this habitual position-finding is more likely to be responsible for injury or back problems, because it involves repeating a position over and over again. Doing so can result in repetitive strain injury or undue wear on certain pairs of your body.

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Does it really matter if you sit up straight?

Some researchers are starting to question the idea that we need to sit up straight in order to have a healthy back and avoid back issues. 

Indeed, it seems that there is minimal connection between poor sitting posture and back issues developing, although once you have developed back issues, sitting for long periods of time can exacerbate the problem.

In recent years, it has been shown that sitting at a ninety-degree angle is in fact potentially dangerous. 

You don’t want to place weight-bearing strain on your spinal disks, because this can cause movement and eventually lead to misalignment should the disk be put under too much pressure.

At least one study found that the movement of the spinal disk was most significant when the participant sat at a ninety-degree angle. This put more strain on the participant’s back and made an injury more likely.

So, does sitting up straight work? 

So far, there isn’t much research to suggest that sitting straight can actually help to reduce back pain or the risk of developing back problems. Indeed, it may make them worse.

What is good posture when it comes to sitting?

There also seems to be significant division when it comes to what “good posture” is. 

The spine is naturally curved, and how much sitting straight corrects this curve comes down to individual interpretation. If you are a particularly curvy individual, how much do you need to straighten your spine?

It is often said that alignment is more important than position. 

If your neck is positioned above your shoulders and you are not slumped forward or backward from your hips, you may find the position more comfortable.

Trying too hard to correct your posture could also lead to more problems than it solves. 

How much you hollow out the curve at the base of your back, where you put your shoulders, and how you position your neck will all alter how “good” the posture is, but this is extremely difficult to establish without input from an expert.

Overall, it seems that the best posture involves trying to make sure no parts of your body are significantly out of line with other parts. 

For example, if your shoulders are roughly positioned above your hips, a bit of curve in your back is probably not going to hurt you.

You may find this much more comfortable as it allows your spine’s natural curve to remain, as opposed to sitting up straight, which attempts to straighten this curve.

There is no consensus about the overall best posture, so try different things and determine which feels the most comfortable to you, while reducing any stiffness you experience.

How can you reduce your risk of back pain?

You might be wanting a simple answer about how best to reduce your risk of back pain. 

Given that there’s no fixed answer on the best posture, you should opt instead for moving regularly. Shifting positions reduces the strain that even a good posture can cause, and encourages your muscles to strengthen in different places.

Sitting still for extended periods of time, no matter how good your upright posture is, will put strain on particular parts of the body. If you do this again and again, the strain will gradually start to wear on those parts, and will leave you aching and vulnerable to problems.

Instead, try to get up from your desk and move around regularly. 

Swing your arms, gently rotate your back, stretch your spine, and turn your head from side to side to exercise your neck. Stretching and lengthening the muscles will make them more resistant to strain.

This is annoying when you want to focus on your work, but it’s one of the best ways to reduce your risk of back pain that will eventually become a distraction in itself.

Another involves setting up your desk to maximize the comfort of your sitting position

Elevating your computer monitor using a monitor arm encourages yourself to lengthen your spine rather than hunch over, and placing your keyboard level with your elbows so your forearms can rest naturally on the desk while you type. This should keep your shoulders up, but not raised, setting them in a comfortable position and supporting your upper body.

Round up

Sitting upright is uncomfortable because it requires our muscles to work, rather than relax, and because it often tries to straighten out the natural curves in the back, which is hard to maintain and may not actually be very helpful.

If you are starting to notice back pain as a result of long hours spent sitting, try to move around more often. Standing up and stretching every half an hour need not take up much of your workday, and could save you a lot of pain and trouble in the long run, keeping the muscles strong and ensuring none get overworked.

Change your posture in the chair from time to time, and make sure that your computer or other work components are at a height that discourages you from slumping down to see what you are doing.

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