Built for discomfort (interesting article on the always fascinating CHAIR from the Irish Medical News)

Designer chairs really get my back up.

Spinoza said: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” From this I infer that the Amsterdam philosopher lived long before the advent of designer chairs. Not only do I fail to understand the actions of the humans who designed them – they don’t make me laugh − I almost hate them, especially when the effort of sitting on their chairs makes me weep.

Back in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, Spinoza could have careered sideways into an over-stuffed, oak armchair, while clutching the complete works of Shakespeare and large-print copies of The Talmud, The Torah, and the Holy Bible, secure in the knowledge that the furniture wouldn’t budge an inch. Such chairs were comfortable and made to last.

These days, slivers of shiny curved plywood balanced on needle-thin shards of steel issue silent challenges to prospective sitters. The unspoken dare is to sit on an over-priced piece of tat for more than a minute without sliding off or without your muscles cramping up with the effort of remaining upright. And if you weigh over six stone, don’t even try sitting down without courting the risk of the whole thing disintegrating.

It’s time for designer chairs to be outlawed, banned and restricted solely to the foyers of art-house cinemas, where emaciated sophisticates can discuss Fellini at full volume, while hovering safely above the furniture on the swirling zephyrs of hot air that circulate in these venues. Typical of this milieu is what Volker Albus, writing in Icons of Design: The 20th Century (Prestel, 2000) says about Phillipe Starck’s Costes chair: “The chair embodies the myth of Paris, the quintessential metropolis.” Volker, I don’t want to perch on a myth or a metropolis (quintessential or not); I want a chair that doesn’t put my back out.

Starck’s unwarranted reputation as a talented designer is such that people who find his chairs uncomfortable believe that it points to a flaw in themselves.

So where is the voice of reason to champion proper chairs that don’t deform one’s spine? In Galway. The websitewww.alexander.ie/children (accessed 25 August 2013) reveals that Richard Brennan is campaigning against the use of backward sloping chairs in classrooms. Despite the UK-based National Back Pain Association having identified backward-sloping school chairs as a cause of back problems in later life – height-adjustable five to 10 degree forward-sloping or rounded chairs are recommended – almost all Irish schools favour backward-sloping chairs and desks of fixed height, causing, according to Brennan, “untold suffering”.

The correct inference from the above website address is that Richard Brennan is an advocate of the Alexander Technique, one definition of which is “a practical self-help method of learning to reduce stress and release harmful patterns of muscle tension, which helps to prevent pain and restore the body to its natural state of ease and freedom of movement”.

There may be a temptation for some people to consign the Alexander Technique to the category marked “alternative medicine”, populated by homeopaths, crystal-energy therapists, and bare-knuckle Astral Plane surfers. But the evidence shows that it would be mistaken to yield to such a temptation.

For example, in the medical newspaper Pulse (17 December 2008), a report entitled “Alexander technique is ‘cost-effective’” cited aBritish Medical Journal report which concluded “… there was an 85 per cent chance that a short course of the Alexander technique would prove cost-effective, using a quality-adjusted life year threshold of £20,000”.

And when Stallibrass et al reported on a “Randomised controlled trial of the Alexander Technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease”, their article, published in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation (2002, 16:695−708), concluded: “There is evidence that lessons in the Alexander technique are likely to lead to sustained benefit for people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Further evidence is provided by Yardley et al in a paper published in Family Practice (2010, 27: 198−204). They investigated “Patients’ views of receiving lessons in the Alexander Technique and an exercise prescription for managing back pain in the ATEAM trial”, and found that the Alexander Technique was found effective by most of the 183 patients who were assigned to a course of lessons.

Although lacking the rigour of a randomised controlled trial, personal experience of the Alexander Technique, acquired over five lessons (so far) from a qualified teacher, tells me that the concave chest and premature stoop I was beginning to develop after years parked  in front of a computer screen are beginning to assume something consistent with a near-normal posture. Not only that, my improved running times over the same period, combined with reading and applying tips gleaned from The Art of Running with the Alexander Technique (2000) by Balk and Shields, convince me that the Alexander Technique deserves not only to be taken seriously by the medical profession, but that Richard Brennan’s campaign deserves support in Ireland and beyond.

It’s often said that former smokers and drinkers are the most zealous opponents of tobacco and the grape, and perhaps there’s something in it. Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that many of us put up with sitting on rubbish furniture simply because it looks smart and costs a packet. At a time of meagre health resources and of calls for individuals to assume more responsibility for their own health, it is appropriate that the current generation of school pupils should expect to leave school without misshapen spines acquired by spending years on bad chairs … designer or otherwise.

Friday, 13 September 2013 14:33 George Winter

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