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Sitting Is Deadly. Could Banning Chairs Help?

We know sitting all day is bad for us. This design studio thinks radically rethinking our indoor environments is the way to break the habit.

By now the health deficits of sitting all day are so widely studied and well-documented that they’re impossible to ignore. Studies show that sitting increases lower back pain, slows our metabolisms, and shortens our life-spans, among a host of other things. Not even daily exercise is enough to offset the damage. What’s a health-conscious person to do?

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Breaking Habits

One answer: Eliminate chairs altogether. At the interdisciplinary Dutch studio RAAAF (Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances), brothers and cofounders Ronald and Erik Rietveld have been studying how radically redesigning the workplace and home might affect how sedentary we are. Their installations The End of Sitting, which debuted in 2014, and Breaking Habits, opening at the Mondriaan Fund for Visual Arts in Amsterdam February 16, present chair-free environments that encourage people to get up and move. As Erik puts it, “As long as there are chairs present, people will sit in them habitually.”

Though grounded in scientific research, the Rietveld’s installations are mostly conceptual; they’re about researching how we can manipulate an environment’s design to impact sedentary behavior. But they bring up an interesting idea: What if we did banish chairs altogether? Is that even possible? And would that solve our societal sitting problem, or just open up the door to new problems?

A Space That Nudges You To Move

The design of the structures in the Rietveld’s project are the result of years of research and a series of experiments. Ronald is a practicing architect, and Erik is a philosopher, whose research project “The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind,” funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), forms the basis for the design work. The pair’s research revolves around the scientific concept of affordances—put simply, the idea that human behavior is learned by picking up the information that is relevant to survival, and ignoring the rest. Throughout history, trees have afforded climbing on, for example, and holes have afforded hiding in. And for centuries in Western society, chairs have afforded sitting in.

Working together, Erik and Ronald have taken the idea of affordances and applied it to the prospect of a chair-less and table-less future. “The easiest ways to change human behavior is to radically change our surrounding environment,” says Erik. Three years ago, the studio reimagined the office as a labyrinth of concrete and plywood—without traditional desks or chairs—for The End of Sitting. In Breaking Habits, they expanded the scope to include the home, with a futuristic and surreal “domestic landscape.”

The cut-away office space in The End Of Sitting structure was rigid and confining. Based on feedback from participants in a study they conducted in the installation, the Rietvelds determined that softer material would make the act of not sitting more comfortable. As a result, the new installation is made from large swaths of carpet-like material—a proprietary mix of light pile carpet and dark felt—that are draped over stainless-steel rollers suspended from the ceiling.

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In Breaking Habits, the spareness of the environment eliminates more than just chairs: There are no desks on which to put a laptop, thereby discouraging sitting and working at home. There are no hard surfaces for a TV to watch Netflix from bed. Visitors to the installation are invited to use the space–to interact with it, and to lean, stand, or lie against the soft surfaces. In turn, the Rietvelds will observe those interactions in an informal manner. They also invite behavioral scientists to bring study groups to the installation, and use it as a place for more formal scientific study on how people might use and adapt to this type of new environment. (Though no scientific studies are scheduled at the moment, the Rietvelds say the Mondriaan Fund appears open to letting scientists use the space in that way.)

Breaking Habits

Comfort Is The Enemy

RAAAF’s futuristic landscapes aren’t necessarily homey and comfortable, but they aren’t supposed to be. They are meant to explore new possibilities for our spaces, not represent the exact blueprint of our house.

One of the most important aspects of RAAAF’s experimental environments is that they encourage the user to shift positions frequently. In Breaking Habits, for instance, some pieces of fabric are configured into pyramids or perpendicular walls on which to lean; others are suspended like a hammock for lying down on when your legs muscles inevitably get tired. The goal was “temporary comfort, not permanent comfort,” says Ronald.

This idea addresses one of the main health risks of sitting: the slow-down of our metabolism. When we sit for a prolonged amount of time, our skeletal muscles remain inactive and the metabolic pathways linked to these muscles that regulate how we store fats and break down sugars become less efficient. Moving around, stretching, oscillating between standing up and sitting back down again—these are things that scientists recommend to help combat the onset of metabolic-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease. The rungs hanging from the ceiling and the more flexible landscape in Breaking Habits were built to aid and allow for stretching, the brothers say, and since leaning against fabric is only comfortable for so long, moving around is also a necessity.

According to Avi Biswas, PhD candidate at the Institute of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation at the University of Toronto (who was not involved in the RAAAF project), the way environments are designed can make a significant difference in offsetting the metabolism slow-down. Biswas, whose post-doctoral work (he defends his dissertation at the end of the month) will focus on the influence of the workplace environment on sedentary behavior of workers, says that any place that encourages you to get up, take a walk, and move around is helpful in slowing down the health risks of sitting.

However, he also notes that not all movement is created equal: Tasks that require exerting more energy will burn more calories, and will have the greatest effect on your metabolism. In that regard, merely shifting positions is not as helpful as, say, taking a lap around the office. It’s the same way that having a standing desk is beneficial, but not quite as much so as walking on a treadmill while working. Ultimately, we need to both exercise and move more to remove the risks of sedentary behavior—and while RAAAF’s installations do encourage movement, they don’t necessarily guide people in exerting the kind of energy that would be most helpful in counteracting slowing metabolisms.

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The End of Sitting [Photo: Jan Kempenaers via RAAAF]

The Limits Of Chair-Free Living

So eliminating chairs won’t automatically get us to exercise, but will it encourage us to invent other resting positions out of necessity? And if so, will those positions be better than sitting?

From a behavioral perspective, people interact with the environment that we are exposed to, says Lucas Carr, an assistant professor and director of the Behavioral Medicine Lab at the University of Iowa (who is also uninvolved with RAAAF’s project). But even without chairs, “humans are still going to rest for long periods of time,” says Carr. “It’s how we were designed.”

So eliminating all chairs without replacing them with better resting options simply wouldn’t work. Just like sitting all day is bad for your health, standing for too long is unhealthy, too. It causes fatigue and blood begins to pool in the legs, among other things. And leaning against something isn’t necessarily much better.

As Carr points out, prior to being conditioned to sit still in chairs for long periods of time, young children instinctively sit in more natural resting positions that include sitting on their heels, sitting cross-legged, and sitting in a squatting position. The latter is an effective middle ground between standing and sitting, and it’s actually a position that Carr would still recommend today—though he acknowledges it’s not a position most people want to take in public. (As a sidenote, Carr says he doesn’t know of any products or environments that would normalize or support that position, but suggests it’s an area that might be helpful if designers explored.)

Meanwhile, Breaking Habits gives designers something to mull over between now and 2025, the year that RAAAF set for its futuristic home. Our living rooms may never look like the installation, but it wouldn’t hurt to drape a few carpets and get serious about chair alternatives just in case—the best way to kick a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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