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February 22, 2019

Is your sitting around hurting you more than you realise?

It takes about six months before a baby figures out how to sit up. Like every skill that we master it takes time, with many making a tentative attempt at about four months practicing with press ups and progressively becoming stronger as time goes by. If you observe a baby learning how to sit up it reminds you that even something that looks simple for an adult is not that easy. The critical first step is to have strong enough neck muscles because the head is quite big and heavy relative to the rest of the body.

Thereafter the trunk muscles both abdominal and back need to re-orientate to be able to maintain an upright position. And a baby does this while the thigh muscles are still relatively weak. So what advantage does the baby get from all this effort? There are several some immediate, others long term. The immediate one is related to the basic need of nutrition. From birth to six months it is recommended that babies should exclusively breast feed.

From that point onwards complementary feeds are introduced. Breast feeding is most comfortable from a semi-reclining position with the baby cradled in the arms of the mother. But to begin to eat semi-solid foods rather than liquid milk requires that the baby is able to maintain a more vertical position, so the ability to sit up goes together with a change in nutrition practice. Secondly as the baby grows socially aware beyond the immediate environment of baby and mother, being upright allows her to observe and interact with the wider environment a little bit more. Probably a little later in life the baby notices what Ogden Nash, an American poet observed, “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.”

This observation is generally true as most manual workers operate standing up while people in offices especially in middle and senior positions spend their time in ‘meetings’. The more senior you are, the more likely that on inquiry someone will answer on your behalf that ‘He is in a meeting’. If you want to differentiate between true leaders and those who have been put in positions they do not really deserve, wait for the last part; if they say, “He will call you back” and does then that is a true leader, if on the other hand they say “Call back later”, then that is a person overwhelmed with life and is mean to boot, always with the thought ‘if you are looking for me you find me at your expense, I am busy’!

That there is more money to be made sitting down than standing up is probably why schools from a very early age make sitting down in an orderly fashion a key feature of school life. And the transition over time makes for interesting observation. At kindergarten stage kids tend to be placed in small groups around a triangular or square table so that 15 or 20 children might be placed around five or six tables. As they progress through primary to secondary, rows of individual or shared desks is more the norm. Once at university the large lecture hall appears where hundreds sit in row upon row, then at postgraduate level the small groups appear again.

It seems that at kindergarten level all kids are considered equal in terms of potential contribution, something then disappears until people choose to do higher level degrees. There are of course exceptions to the rule and one that stands out is what happens every weekend, where politicians stand in front of people seated in rows explaining to them what is going on in their own country. Only leaders are provided with seats, the rest a bit of grass will do or they stand.

At home people take some care to choose furniture and work out the sitting arrangement. In a traditional home there will be a chair for the father and the visitor. Even in a less formal social structure family members will have a favourite piece of furniture. In the office too, especially where negotiations takes place care is taken to arrange the chairs in such a way that the guests ‘get’ certain positions. What almost never happens is that some people sit, while others are told to stand, unless the power difference is so much. Public health is a multi-disciplinary area ranging from sociology to medicine. A baby learns that sitting up is of great advantage, a child in school learns that sitting still is a great discipline, while the young adult learns that those who get to sit are those who are most important. But in middle age, Kenya over 50, we learn that always being the only one seated is not necessarily good for one’s health individually and for the development of our society.

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