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Ergonomic illiteracy in American classrooms

Healthy sitting intelligence is non-existent in the modern education system. Pre-pandemic, American schools forced kids to sit all day in cheap plastic chairs. In the lockdown era, ‘school-from-home’ injuries have surged as kids ‘study’ on the bed or floor. This article explains why ergonomic education begins at home. If you don’t teach healthy sitting habits to your kids, nobody will.

Poor posture in the education system
Healthy sitting awareness has been non-existent in the education system for decades.

American school systems place a low priority on the physical needs of their students. Many leading scholars have tried to foster change, like Harvard ergonomist Jack Dennerlein. He noted that most schools force students to sit all day in cheap non-ergonomic chairs.

Negative effects of cheap school furniture
The science is clear: poor sitting equipment can cause discomfort, distraction and diminished cognitive performance.

“These chairs cause long-term problems for students.” Common problems include “neck and back damage, headaches and an eventual lack of focus.”

Posture affects cognitive performance

Square wheel study sessions
Teaching slouching kids is like pushing a cart with square wheels.

Ergonomic ignorance in a classroom is nonsensical, given the clear link between posture and cognitive performance. “We’ve seen in adults that if you put them in the right chair, their performance increases,” Dennerlein also said. “Is the same true for children? I can’t see why not.”

Sitting standards for schoolchildren
Sitting equipment for schoolchildren has barely evolved in over a century.

Teaching a kid with poor posture is like driving a car with square wheels. Dr. Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for Brain Research in 1981. He made this famous quote:

“90% of the energy output of the brain is used in relating the physical body to gravity. The more distorted a person is, the less energy is available for thinking…”

Slouching overworks muscles, burning insane amounts of energy. It also clogs circulation and diminishes oxygen intake. Combined, this reduces the flow of synaptic connections in the brain. These are responsible for memory, concentration, and transmission of information in your brain.

Child slouching at a school desk over time
Non-ergonomic furniture overworks muscles, slows down cognitive processing, and disengages students.

In fact, many studies show a connection between posture and cognitive performance. Those who sit with good posture tend to be more alert and engaged. In contrast, sitting with poor posture increases the risk of weight gain, depression, and anxiety.

Posture evolution in American schools

Ergonomics is the study of people in their working environment. Ergonomic scientists strive to optimize workspaces to fit the user. The point is to reduce discomfort and boost productivity. This approach places the well-being of the user as the highest priority.

Cheap student seating in schools
Schools ignore ergonomics by forcing students into unisize workspaces.

Most schools ignore ergonomics and use a one-size-fits-all approach to furnish classrooms. Because school seating hasn’t changed in so long, most students have normalized living with stiff joints, lethargy, and lower back pain.

Evolution of posture habits in American education
Posture went from a priority to an afterthought in in U.S. education system.

This section outlines the history of ergonomic intelligence in America. This timeline comes from The Rise and Fall of American Posture (see credits in the conclusion).

1635-1850: optional schooling, crude seating

America’s first public school opened in 1635. Instead of academics, the earliest schools taught about family, religion, and community.

Classroom ergonomics in 1892
Schoolchildren studying geography with brutal ergonomics in 1892 (click to enlarge). source

Academic subjects entered the picture around 1850. Around this time, common schools emerged. Those educated students of all ages in one room. Parents paid tuition or commodities to support the teacher.

School life in the 1800s

Most schools had summer and winter sessions. Girls and youngsters usually attended the summer session while boys worked the fields.

Young boys working the fields in 1910
Boys spent their summer in the fields, and their winters in school. (1910, source)

In winter, boys would go to school, while girls would stay home to help out with chores. Conditions inside these single-room schools paid no mind to student wellness.

Poor conditions in a school in the 1850s
Click to enlarge. (Images: CuriousHistorian.com)

Kids were stacked into wooden benches for hours at a time. Those who acted up would literally get beaten into submission.

1850-1898: mandatory schooling, strict posture

Compulsory school attendance laws first passed in Massachusetts in 1852. By 1900, thirty-two states had passed compulsory education laws. By 1930, all states had done so.

Advocates of this change argued it would help to close the wealth gap. Opponents saw it as an infringement of rights over how to raise their kids.

Posture correction devices in in 1855
Posture correction devices in 1855.

They also argued that the nature of the classroom was unnatural. It forced kids to distort their bodies by sitting at desks for 6 hours every day.

Indeed, there were early signs of trouble. In 1890, a leading pediatric journal claimed that over 50% of American kids had deformed spines.

1898-1943: obsession with straight postures

In response to widespread spinal issues, sitting straight became a high priority. Poor posture, flat feet, and curved spines became synonymous with weakness.

In 1898, the American Physical Education Review launched. One of its missions was to spread awareness about good posture habits. Early articles noted medical concerns about posture in schools. Sample passage:

“With his introduction to school life, the child’s physical troubles begin. He is made to sit still from 3 to 6 hours, with but momentary rests at long intervals, the play instinct (expressed by recurrent attacks of the ‘fidgets’) has to be sternly suppressed by the teacher…”

American Posture League wall chart
American Posture League wall chart.

In 1914, the American Posture League was formed by educator Jessie Bancroft. Per The Rise and Fall of American Posture, it aimed to merge business with science. Based on posture research, the League gave ideas to manufacturers for new furniture and footwear.

Posture training added to school curricula

A year earlier, Bancroft had published The Posture of Schoolchildren. The League became the vehicle to push posture correction tips featured in the book.

Perfect posture competition in America
“Miss Correct Posture” competition in Chicago. (source).

Educators adopted the book’s teachings en masse. Schools around the country began assessing posture and training students in need of correction. Teachers went on the warpath, making lives miserable for slumping kids until they ‘straightened up’.

Thus, posture became associated with good manners. Poor posture became a sign of poor personal values. Doctors began to ‘diagnose’ students by photographing them naked.

Ivy League nude posture photo scandal
From the 1920s-1960s, Ivy League schools took nude posture photos of all applying students.

Soon after, elite colleges also started photographing student applicants nude to assess their posture.

The posture craze also influenced home life. By the 1930s, government pamphlet dispersal pressured parents to become involved. As a result, kids began to adopt good posture habits at home as well as in school.

1940-1960: posture obsession relaxes

In the early 1940s, new disputes about the priority of posture emerged. Instead of locking into rigid postures at all times, people began to relax more. Family gatherings around the radio became opportunities to be flexible with the body.

Posture became part of a larger complexity in the choices that were now essential in the presentation of the self. Retreat occurred on almost every front:

  • >1943: American Posture League closed.
  • 1950: most posture clinics had closed.
  • 1955: Rebel Without a Cause made James Dean’s exaggerated lounging a symbol of youthful defiance.
  • 1960s: Ivy League schools started ending their nude posture photo programs.

1960s: good posture is for squares

By the 1960s, Ivy League schools stopped taking nude posture pictures. This era favored consumerism, sexuality, and suppleness. Standing up straight was for nerds and “squares”.

James Dean slouching
James Dean taught a generation that slouching was the way of the rebel.

Moving forward, posture was no longer a measure of character or social worth. During the posture craze, doctors’ influence depended on social support more than research.

Breakfast Club poor posture
Slouching has become synonymous with the high school experience.

With posture no longer a measure of social worth, posture doctors began to lose their clout.

1970s-1990s: postural indifference

This era saw the rise of computers, and “repetitive stress” injuries like “tired neck syndrome.” But with posture studies out of fashion, research focused on developing artificial back supports.

Classroom ergonomic standards in the past and present
Modern classroom ergonomics have reverted back to 19th-century standards.

This was largely pushback against a previously overblown paradigm. As a result, many modern doctors are unaware of the rich (but flawed) body of posture literature of the past. This brings us full circle back to the seating standards of the pioneer era.

Rise and Fall of American Posture conclusion: posture’s deep association with stiffness underpinned its demise. In its place, consumer, athletic, and sexual standards trended towards suppleness and a more open bodily demeanor. So, after a noteworthy run in American personal life, a key form of self-restraint eased. Posture bent to the times.

2021: school-from-home injuries

When the pandemic hit, millions of American students were thrust into online classes. As a result, health care providers began reporting a surge of reported injuries.

Working and studying on the couch health problems
Long periods of work or study on a couch can cause crippling lower back pain.

Several chiropractors suggested to the Advisory Board the same root cause. Millions were suddenly spending long periods working on kitchen counters, beds, and sofas.

According to the NY Times, the pandemic forced a common pattern. When first required to work or study from home, most assumed it would be temporary. Thus, hunching over a laptop in kitchens or on beds became acceptable.

When short-term morphed into long-term, mild discomfort turned into serious pains. As a result, reported injuries surged.

Ideal desk size for kids
Most children sit naturally in a neutral posture before learning how to slouch.

Ergonomist Nikki Weiner gave the Advisory Board a technical reason for mounting health woes. When working on a sofa, bed, or stool, people are unable to hold a “neutral position”.

Neutral posture 101

With over a century of development, ergonomic standards in academia are still at pioneer-era levels. This is despite healthy sitting standards being well-documented for quite some time.

Seeking the Optimal Posture of the Seated Spine was published in 2001. It compiled leading studies in the field and came to the clear conclusion that the healthiest way to sit is in fluid, neutral postures.

Neutral postures for kids
Neutral postures for kids look the same as they do for adults.

Today, all ergonomic chairs come with ergonomic components designed to support fluid, neutral postures. That means sitting with planted feet and a straight upper back.

Neutral sitting posture examples
Neutral sitting postures look the same in all types of ergonomic chairs. (click to enlarge)

In broader terms, neutral sitting defines as:

  1. Arms at the sides, with forearms parallel to the floor.
  2. Feet planted firmly on the floor.
  3. Hips angled slightly above the knees.
  4. Straight upper back and neck.

‘Fluidity’ means not sitting in any fixed position for too long. Any longer than five minutes in any rigidly fixed position will strain muscles.

Constant movement while sitting

The simplest way to move in any type of chair is to shift your position every few minutes. The big advantage of ergonomic chairs is that they give you more opportunities to move.

Ergonomic chairs support neutral postures

To qualify as ‘ergonomic’, a chair needs three adjustable components. Adjustable lumbar, adjustable armrests and a reclining backrest are essential. Check this article for a breakdown of each component’s physiological benefits.

Standard ergonomic features on a gaming chair
All ergonomic chairs use three key features to provide customizable posture support.

The Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics is the reference for ergonomic researchers. It corroborates the neutral sitting concept with some specific tips. These tips clarify the role of the essential ergonomic components:

  1. Seat height: adjust your chair’s seat so that the feet rest flat on the floor. If too short, add a footrest.
  2. Seat depth: the user should sit far enough back to use the backrest. Then, there should be a gap between the back of the knees and the chair’s lip.
  3. Ergonomic chair seat depth standards
    Keep a small gap between the back of your knees and the lip of the seat.

  4. Lumbar support: slight pressure in the lumbar area keeps the back straight. A chair’s lumbar support should be adjustable to around 6-10 inches (15-25 cm) above the seat height.
  5. Backrest angle: switching through a range of angles reduces fatigue. An ergonomic backrest should recline to at least 115 degrees.

Healthy movement while sitting
Move through a range of dynamic neutral postures to keep your seated body in optimal condition.

For a deep plunge into the scientific studies behind healthy sitting tactics, check this feature:

Summary of peer-reviewed ergonomic guidelines

Ergonomic blueprint for K-12 and beyond

Today, ergonomic ignorance is a convenience for educators. Most schools are severely underfunded. Ignoring student welfare meets budgetary bottom lines.

Cheap classroom furniture through the ages
Moderns schools can only afford to furnish classrooms with 1935-era furniture. (click to expand)

For example, the Toronto school board budgets $148.50 per secondary school student. That covers all general needs including furniture, textbooks, field trips, and athletic fees.

In New Jersey, the total ‘equipment cost’ per student was $33 per student in 2016. That covers furniture plus computers, tools, trucks, cars, and buses.

This is why schools buy furniture that’s cheap and durable. The problems with this approach are ignored. From a University of Manitoba study:

  • 83% of elementary school kids use desk-chair combinations not suitable for their height.
  • Elementary school students spend around nine hours sitting in school per day.
  • Most school furniture completely ignores orthopedic-physiological realities.

No solutions to this problem exist. However, a few existing chair models can serve as blueprints for new solutions. Here’s a summary:

Pre-school

Before a baby can sit, it must learn how to crawl. That develops limb strength. By around eight months old, a child is strong enough to start sitting upright.

By age three, a child’s body will double in height and quadruple in weight. Between 3-4 years old, a child should be able to sit and keep focus for around 10 minutes.

Kids stacking chairs
Cheap stacking chairs should be sufficient for preschoolers.

For short periods of sitting, basic furniture does the job. As an example, the Lifetime Kids’Stacking Chair comes in a 4-pack on Amazon for $88.82. But notice the kid on the right, in the green chair. It’s easy to see his feet dangling off the floor.

Bad vs good sitting posture for kids
A basic understanding of neutral sitting can help educators to better support their students.

With a basic understanding of neutral sitting fundamentals, any educator should spot that. They would also understand that dangling feet means a kid needs a footrest.

4-12: ergonomic kids’ chair

The best ergonomic chairs for kids share a similar design concept. All promote neutral postures with an emphasis on ‘feet planted flat’. These chairs have height-adjustable footrests to keep the feet planted.

Best ergonomic chairs for kids
Specialty ergo chairs suit children from age 4-12.

For use in schools, the Sidiz Ringo chair is our suggested prototype. On Amazon, the Ringo chair costs $204.00.

That’s too expensive for most schools. Even so, a stripped-down version of the Sidiz chair would work perfectly. Whoever designs one for schools could make a killing.

Sidiz Ringo features

The Ringo is rated to support kids aged 6-13 (grades 1-7). The footrest has four adjustment levels. Step 1 (smallest) supports users from 3’6″ to 4’1″ (106-124 cm). The largest Step 4 supports sizes from 4’9″ to 5’2″ (144-157 cm).

Sidiz Ringo small gaming chair features
The Ringo comes with advanced ergonomic features to support perfect posture.

  • Functionality: depth-adjustable sliding seat; height & depth adjustable backrest; 4 seat & backrest sync levels; optional footrest.
  • Comfort: padded seat and backrest.
  • Extras: adjustable footrest is included.
  • Warranty:  30-day money back guarantee; 3-year warranty.

The Ringo also has a lockable 360°. Unlock to let the chair swivel. Lock into place when it’s time for students to focus. Check out comparable models in this review:

Best ergo chairs for kids 4-12

The Sidiz Ringo is available on Amazon for $204.00.

12-19: ergo chair gaming chair combo

Ergonomically, gaming chairs would work well in the classroom. They’re durable, easy to use, and good for your back. However, they allow more casual postures.

School chairs vs gaming chairs
Gaming chairs promote too much individualism to be practical in classrooms.

They also have flashy designs, while educators push students towards conformity. Thus, the ideal model for schools should have a traditional education-style design.

Blueprint for schools: Steelcase Node

The Steelcase Node is the best chair we’ve seen (in a weak field) for academic use. The chair comes with a hard plastic seat shell and a height-adjustable seat. It comes with a traditional 5-star base or tripod base. There’s also a work surface addon. Adjustments:

  • Seat height: 15.625″ to 20.75″
  • Worksurface size: 22.25″ (W) x 12″ (D) size; 28.5″ height from floor.
  • Worksurface depth adjustment: 7.25-15″
  • Warranty: lifetime

These features are decent but not amazing. Seat height adjustability allows a range of sizes to effectively use these chairs. The optional work surface is fixed at 28.5″ from the floor, but not height-adjustable.

Steelcase Node school chairs
Node chairs come with a 5-star or tripod base. The work surface is an addon.

Beyond basic adjustability, these units are ultra-durable and guaranteed for life, but pricey.

On SmartFurniture.com, the Node chair with a 5-star base costs $277. The tripod base version costs $307. The 5-star base version with work surface addon costs $460. The tripod version with work surface also costs $460.

Node tripod chairs with a work surface is also available on Amazon for $476.00. Clearly, these models are far too expensive for public schools. Someone making a cheaper version could do well in the education sector.

Home study gaming chair

According to this study, the average American student spends 4.5 hours per day sitting at school. Outside of school, kids 8-18 also spend seven hours per day sitting in front of a screen.

For sizes from 4’9″ to 5’9″ (144-175 cm), there are two solid home options: small-sized gaming chairs or cheap ergonomic office chairs.

Best small ergonomic gaming chairs of 2021
Small gaming chairs are ideal for study-from-home purposes.

Both support neutral postures for long periods. However, ergo office chairs force users to sit upright at all times. In comparison, gaming chairs cater to more casual postures with deep recline functionality.

Secretlb Omega, of the the best fabric gaming chairs
Set your kid up with a good gaming chair for a lifetime of postural success.

As we saw in the 1940s, forcing kids into strict postures at home yields pushback. Aesthetically, ergonomic office chairs can remind kids of a grim future toiling in cubicles.

In comparison, a good gaming chair can delight as well as support. When gaming, watching movies or doing homework, these chairs support healthy postures. They’re also status symbols that kids will be happy to use and show off.

For the perfect student gaming chair, check this feature:

Best gaming and ergo chairs for students

Over 19: high-end gaming or task chair

A child given proper ergonomic support should have rock-solid posture habits by their teens. For their college years, there are two solid ergonomic options: gaming and ergonomic office chairs. One of the big differences between the two options is ‘formality’.

Gaming chairs versus ergonomic office chairs
Gaming chairs provide ergonomic essentials in a more casual package better-suited for relaxing.

Both types support neutral sitting postures via three core ergonomic components. An adjustable lumbar keeps the back straight. Armrests relieve the spine by supporting the arms. A reclining backrest helps the seated body move.

Essential ergonomic components for a chair
A good ergonomic chair needs three adjustable features to support neutral sitting postures.

The best high-end ergonomic task chairs cost between $600-$1600. Beyond ergonomic essentials, they provide complex, luxurious extras. For example, most chairs over $1000 come with a feature called synchro-tilt. That tilts the seat in proportion with the backrest as a user moves.

Herman Miller Aeron synchro-tilt
The Herman Miller Aeron has the most robust synchro-tilt range in the entire seating industry.

These chairs are durable and extremely comfortable. But there are downsides. Beyond high prices, these chairs also lock users into upright positions at all times.

Task chair neutral posture examples
Neutral sitting in: Aeron; Embody; Sidiz T80; click to enlarge. (Embody credit: Mike Wat)

That’s a good concept in an office. By forcing employees into crisp posture at all times, productivity should improve.

Gaming chairs are better for relaxing at home

Ergonomic office chairs promote good sitting postures with very little flexibility. Gaming chairs offer less precise ergonomics, but more flexibility. As we saw in the 1940s, home life is for relaxing — not for sitting like an on-shift office worker. If kids are forced to do so, they will likely rebel.

Cheap ergonomic chair advantage
Both gaming and office style ergonomic chairs are a big upgrade over non-ergonomic chairs.

For that reason, we recommend gaming chairs as the best study-from-home option for teens. They support healthy upright sitting postures, but also relaxed ones as well. Instead of just an office chair, a gaming variant can serve as a teen’s sofa, lounger, and all-day ‘hang out’ chair.

Work-from-home chairs for executives
The best work-from-home ergonomic chairs include both task and gaming chair options.

To cover all bases, our top picks in this range include both task and gaming chairs. If you want strict posture support, choose the former. If you want more casual support, choose a gaming chair.

Best work-from-home executive ergo chairs

Long-term effects of poor posture

Q: If slouching is so bad for health, how have schools gotten away with it for so long?
A: Physical issues caused by slouching usually manifest later in life.

According to Wolff’s Law, bones develop based on the loads the body places on them. Poor sitting habits early in life can alter bone development. Later in life, these manifest as issues like arthritis or osteoporosis.

Anterior pelvic tilt
75% of American adults suffer from anterior pelvic tilt. (source)

Many children suffer problems without even knowing. For example, this study tested the back health of 154 ten-year-old kids. Nine percent were found to be suffering from spinal disc degeneration. None had a history of back pain. All were asymptomatic.

Life with spinal disc degeneration

The effects of spinal disc degeneration only begin to show from the late teens to early 30s.

Office worker with bad sitting habits
Spinal disc degeneration drains energy and cripple users with chronic pain.

Non-stop lower back pain and chronic fatigue are the primary symptoms. Common symptoms:

  • Pain increases after sitting for long periods. With (non-seated) rest, it goes away.
  • Running, walking, or changing positions reduces pain.
  • Pain gets worse when twisting, being, or picking up heavy objects.
  • As the pain gets worse, it radiates to other areas of the body.

This effectively means a child can slouch for twenty years before chronic pain kicks in. That opens the floodgates for a host of other issues.

Degrading posture warning
Sloppy sitting can render you child into a deformed adult.

Here are common ailments that chronic poor posture causes in adults:

  • Chronic fatigue: imbalanced posture overworks body parts not meant to bear weight. To compensate, muscles overwork to the point of fatigue. Extended muscular fatigue wears down joints and ligaments, leading to even greater imbalances. With greater imbalances comes greater energy demands and perpetual exhaustion.
  • Slower digestion: poor posture compresses lower intestines. That moves food slower through the system, causing bloating and constipation. Poor posture can also cause incontinence and heartburn triggered by acid reflux.
  • Depression: many studies suggest a link between poor posture and negative emotions. For example, those who sit straight tend to be more alert, positive and energetic. Those who slouch tend towards apathy and negative thinking.
  • Chronic headaches: slouching forces a forward head posture that stresses neck muscles. With extended stress, pain flares up in the neck, then radiates up towards the head. The more you slouch, the worse the migraines.

Conclusion

Special thanks to The Rise and Fall of American Posture (by David Yosifon and Peter N. Stearns). This 39-page journal article first appeared in the American Historical Review (Vol. 103, No. 4 (Oct., 1998), pp. 1057-1095). The article makes clear:

The American education system has no idea about healthy student seating.

If your child is bloated, listless, depressed, or constipated, their sitting habits might be the problem. The education system is not equipped to help.

Gaming chairs for studying
If your child is underperforming, their seating might be the problem.

Recently, ChairsFX spoke with TechLead (former tech lead at Google and Facebook). He warned that in the corporate world, no one is equipped to help with ergonomics either:

“Programmers need to actively take care of themselves because the company won’t be looking out for you… It’s up to you to identify whether you need a more ergonomic chair, desk, leg rest, wrist pad, etc.”

Small gaming chair posture support
Get your own ergonomic furniture, or watch your health bend in tune with your spine.

Given the rise in study-from-home injuries, the future is now. In simple terms, non-ergonomic chairs are bad for your back. In comparison, gaming chairs (and other types of ergo chairs) are (potentially) good for your back.

Neutral posture visualizations for success

Tap the potential of any ergonomic chair by sticking with a neutral sitting style. No matter your age or chair type, it’s a clear, simple, easy-to-visualize objective.

Neutral sitting position for health
Neutral sitting looks the same among all ages and chair types.

Teachers can use ‘neutral sitting visualization’ to diagnose student problems. For example, if a kid’s feet aren’t planted, give him some books to use as a footrest. Adults can visualize it to keep their own healthy sitting habits in check.

Neutral sitting posture examples
Visualize neutral postures to keep your sitting habits in check. (click to enlarge)

For a video walkthrough of neutral sitting in a gaming chair, check out this feature:

5-minute video: healthy sitting in a gaming chair

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