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Okay, okay. By now you’d have to be living in a bubble if you haven’t heard about the ill-effects of prolonged sitting. So when I wrote about this for the GoRVing blog, I didn’t want to preach about it. I could already hear y’all…we know, Stef, sheesh! We get it! Chairs – BAD!
So instead of The Preach, I want to introduce you to some healthier alternatives to sitting and the technique of “popcorning.” And I’m not talking about popcorn the food, although we’ve already established how awesome THAT is in the RV. “Popcorning” is a term that refers to switching your position frequently. With all the research floating around about how sitting is killing us, popcorning is a healthy strategy that helps us avoid chairs, or at least use them a little less.
Chairs are tricky little things. They make sitting for dangerously long periods possible because they divert our natural feedback system (aches, pains, etc) which normally makes us move or fidget to find a better position. So we can sit virtually pain-free for hours…but that’s the problem! Our bodies aren’t designed to sit in chairs, and all this sitting is actually harming us and changing our biomechanics. Weakened lower backs, poor joint range of motion, stiff hips…these are just a few of the problems. In fact, did you know that there’s research on some indigenous societies that shows back pain is basically non-existent in their cultures? One of the theories behind why has to do with chairs. Well, the LACK of chairs, actually. You see, these people are natural “popcorners”.
We RVers and camping enthusiasts love our lawn chairs. Go into any Camping World store and the first thing you see is a line of about a billion different chair options. It’s evolved into a huge industry over the past few decades. But it wasn’t always like this.
Lawn chairs are, in the grand history of modern American society, a very recent invention….dating only back to the 1930’s, the use of which only became more prevalent thanks to the GI bill as post-WW2 suburbia (in other words, more families with lawns) overtook the nation. They started out as those rigid metal contraptions you sometimes still see today rusting away in someone’s charming folk-artsy garden, the kind that makes you say, “How quaint!” Lawn chairs have evolved since then, and thank goodness for it, because I’m not sure how we’d get those big metal rust-buckets to fit inside Lance.
“Popcorning” and Alternative Ways to “Sit” Around the Campfire:
- The Full Squat with Heels Down:
If just looking at this picture of James all squatted down low makes you wince, I’m not surprised. The heels-down full squat is a difficult position for most people. It’s because you never do it.
Chairs have led to a slow and continual loss of joint mobility over the course of our lives. The full squat places our ankles, hips, and knees through their full range of motion, so it takes a good amount of flexibility to pull off, which you had at one point. Just look at any little kid, and how they like to interact with whatever bug or string catches their eye on the ground. They’re squatting pros.
To do this squat, make sure your knees are turned out, and your heels are down. Your arms will be inside your knees and try to get your hips low to the ground. Probably the biggest limiter in being able to squat comfortably will be your ankles. Another challenge will be the stretch you’ll feel through your lower back. You can relieve both the ankle and low back strain by trying the next squat option instead.
- The Full Squat with Heels Up:
While this one will probably feel more comfortable for squatting newbies, you’ll immediately notice a new challenge. Keeping your balance.
To do this squat, you do everything the same as the heels down squat, except now you lift your heels and keep your weight on the balls of your feet. This is my squat pose of choice, I’ll admit, even though it is more work to keep balanced. It feels great through my back, and I love that I’m doing something good for my body, improving my joint range of motion with every squat. Another great reason to squat instead of sit is that you’ll burn around 70% more calories, according to research.
- Half Kneel:
Once you get tired from the full squats, or if full squats are too difficult to perform, try this easier version performed by my little camping grandprincess, Punky:
Place one foot flat on the ground in front of you. Place the other knee on the ground (a pillow makes it much more pleasant) with your heel up, and sit back on that heel. This pose allows you to shift from side to side, because the leg with the planted foot is always getting a rest.
- Heel Sit:
Sitting on your heels is another healthy sitting alternative. Just try slumping in this position, it’s pretty difficult. Here’s my sweet daughter-in-law Anna demonstrating it:
Again, this pose calls for full range of motion in the knees, which can be tricky for some. And yeah, a pillow under the knees is probably a better option, but Anna’s a tough cookie and didn’t seem to notice. Plus, see how she has her toes tucked under? Another option would be to put your shoelaces down, so that your ankles are in plantarflexion. You can modify this pose even further by sticking a big pillow or bolster between your heels and your glutes. That makes it easier on the knees.
Here’s an easy alternative your back will love.
Just make sure you have a pillow or a soft surface for your knees and you’ll be set. This position keeps your entire core activated as well as your leg muscles. Unlike sitting in a chair, kneeling causes no dangerous pressure on your spine. It also stretches out your hip flexor muscles, which get short and tight from too much sitting.
So… Why should you care about getting out of the lawn chair and trying these alternatives? Simple – because our bodies feel much better when we’ve got strong healthy backs, good flexibility, and joints that bend like they were made to bend. Besides, anything that makes life (and RVing) more awesome is worth a try!
James is actually doing a version of garland pose (yoga). After reading this post, I don’t feel like quite as much of a nerd for sitting in half lotus yesterday as I was cutting angle iron and flat bar steel pieces for the Valterra stacker holder that I’m installing beneath our Class B chassis (those little suckers are essential for boondocking where parking spots are never flat, but they take up a lot of space and they needed to get evicted from our interior!).
My husband and I are DIYers who have done a large number of Class B mods, but we don’t have an unlimited budget for either our van or our workshop. Very often, we position our tools on the floor of our garage and work much in the same style as if we were third-world weavers huddled over a loom. Such is the case with our chop saw and miter saw. We don’t have a dedicated place for either, and so we’re constantly popcorning around that fact. So you see, it’s not just the campfire where this technique can be applied (grins).
Awesome article Stef! 🙂 Sooo important. Be safe out there.
Howdy, Al! Yeah, important but easily overlooked. Hope you’re having an awesome summer!!! xoxoxo
Love the popcorning idea, makes sense.
Thanks Stef and James.
Used to do the heels down full squat all the time, but new artificial knees prevent to get to that range of flexion. I’ll take the loss of flexion over arthritic knees any day, starting to use some of the other methods in the article. And I have never had back problems for the past 60 years.
I had a serious disk rupture 4 or 5 years ago. Serious enough that 3 doctors recommended back surgery (which I didn’t get). I was virtually bed ridden for a couple months, and on drugs and painkillers for another three. Without sounding too melodramatic, I was seriously contemplating ways to end my life, as I was unwilling to live the rest of it in the pain I was in. An Acupuncturist, and slow, methodical, determined walking got me out of bed, back on my feet, and to a point now where I am hiking and biking a bit (though not in the crazy extremes you-all do) 😉 .
As I type this note in front of my computer (withOUT a chair) I’m noticing I’ve done four of the five “popcorning” positions you’ve mentioned. (My body was obviously not designed for #1, as without forcefully breaking some of my own bones, it is impossible for me to do ;-).
Kudos to you guys for promoting, doing, and -teaching others to do-, these things BEFORE they are needed, rather than later, when you are in pain. It’s hard to find motivation for many to exercise when you “feel OK”. Here’s hoping that your recommendations are followed through, and people are paying attention..
Thanks for sharing your story, Scott. It’s easy to take our bodies for granted, until something serious happens (like your disc rupture), for us to finally open our eyes and make big changes. I’m so glad you’ve already adopted the habit of popcorning, good for you. And don’t say #1 is impossible, I don’t believe that!! With work, going slowly and smartly, and with many modifications until you actually get there (holding on to a rail, not squatting so low, stretches for back of ankles and low back, etc.), it could be possible for you. The body is amazingly adaptable! Our biggest limitation is that voice in our head, not our body. 🙂
Yup love these reminders and you are so right about watching the little ones – especially the toddlers! I often will do some kneeling at my desk actually when my back bothers me – people think I’m nuts so I’m sending them here! LOL
Not nuts at all, Sherry! Kneeling is actually very therapeutic on the back, and I’m glad to hear you’ve already discovered it! Keep doing it AND make sure you “popcorn” (switch positions) frequently when working at your desk!