When’s the last time someone told you that sitting around can be beneficial to your health? Probably never. By now, we all know that excessive sitting is associated with a shorter lifespan, not to mention all kinds of aches and pains. So it may surprise you to know that there is one type of sitting that, when engaged in for 15 to 30 minutes a day, can help you move in ways that will make you feel alive—and even help you live longer. Turns out that those kindergarten teachers who made us sit crisscross applesauce were onto something.
Sitting on the floor with your legs crossed is one of the ten healthy habits we advocate for in our new book Built to Move. This type of activity is critical to mobility—the harmonious convergence of all the elements in your body that allow you to move freely and effortlessly. Pay attention to mobility and you’ll be able to fend off the limitations of aging, as well as deflect the sore backs, hunched shoulders, and creaky necks that come from long hours in front of computer screens, interminable commutes, and other detrimental facets of modern life. And this is true for everyone. We give the same advice to the military elites and Olympic athletes we work with as we give to people who haven’t run a lap since middle school.
Why is sitting on the floor so important? For one thing, it undoes some of the less effective (and sometimes pain-inducing) compensatory positions the body adopts after sitting in a chair (or on a couch or in a car; pick your body-always-at-a-right-angle poison) for hours at a time, day after day. Our bodies are built to sit in ground-based positions—perhaps why about one-third of the world’s population still makes a habit of eschewing seats and instead do things like squatting to wait for the bus, kneeling to eat, sitting cross-legged on the ground to write a letter.
When you sit on a chair in the traditional right-angle fashion—and do so for the freakish amount of time that many of our lives demand—the relationship between your upper thigh bones, pelvis, and hip joints suffers, making it harder for you to keep your torso stable. So your body solves the problem another way, usually by enlisting the long muscles in the back and in the legs to keep your upper body from moving in various directions. The efforts of those muscles take a toll, tugging on your spine and creating discomfort. How many times has your back felt all rigor mortis and achy when you get up from a long bout of sitting in a chair? By spending some time sitting on your nice parquet floor or plush rug each day, you’ll help “rewild” all those lower-body elements, letting them do their job as nature intended.
There’s another reason everyone should spend some time down on the floor each day: It helps you become more proficient at getting up again, and that’s critical. In a well-known 2014 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, researchers gave 2,002 men and women, ages fifty-one to eighty a Sit-and-Rise Test to assess their ability to get up from the floor. Could they do it without using any support (i.e., a hand on the floor, grabbing onto a chair) and, if not, how much support did they need?
Six years later, after checking back in to see how the sit-and-risers were doing, the researchers determined that an inability to get up and down off the floor without assistance is associated with a greater risk of death. Conversely, the higher a subject scored on the test, the greater the improvement in their statistical likelihood of survival.
The upshot: Being able to rise with ease is a sign that you will be a) less likely to have a debilitating fall, and b) in better all-around health. You may not be worrying about falling (though, truthfully, anyone can fall at any age, so don’t discount the value of being able to get up), but the ability to easily sit and rise reflects your well-being. If you can move in all the ways that allow you to get up and down with little or no support, then your body is stable, supple, and efficient. That is, it has qualities that will help you avoid pain, feel more vibrant, and participate in all the activities you love to do. That is something people of all ages can aspire to.
With that in mind, we recommend two things. One is that you self-administer the Sit-and-Rise Test to see where you stand now. The other is that you make sitting on the floor a habit. That will not only help you improve your ability to get up without any support, it will also allow you to build stability and agility, feel looser, and experience less pain.
The Sit-and-Rise Test
In an area free of debris, stand with one foot crossed in front of the other. Without holding on to anything (unless you feel very unsteady), bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor until you’re sitting in a cross-legged position. Now, from the same cross-legged position, lean forward with your hands outstretched in front of you for balance, and rise off the floor—if possible, without placing your hands or knees on the floor or using anything else for support.
You get a gold star if you can both sit down and rise straight up from the cross-legged position without using any kind of assist. That shows you have basic, baseline hip flexibility. But it’s also okay to use an assist. Place a hand (or two) on the ground, roll forward onto your knees to brace yourself, even grab on to the back of your couch. Just being able to get up is valuable. There’s no disgrace in not doing well or even failing this test. Getting up off the floor is probably not something you do every day, so why should you expect to be good at it? But once you start floor sitting regularly (which means you’ll have to practice getting up, too), you will be.
Your ultimate goal should be to work up to sitting on the floor at least thirty cumulative minutes a day, every day. But start where you’re at. If five minutes feels like all you can do, there’s your starting point. Work up to thirty minutes as you’re able. Once you’re there, you can spend all thirty minutes sitting on the floor doing one thing (like reading the newspaper) or break it up. Spend ten minutes sitting on the floor while you work on your laptop (there are plenty of adjustable standing desks, floor desks, and low tables on the market that will allow you to work on the floor), another ten as you talk on the phone, a final ten while you sip a cup of tea. We like to sit on the floor for a half hour while we binge the latest must-see show. We make our kids do it, too.
Finally, don’t feel you have to constrain yourself to crisscross applesauce. While the cross-legged position does a fine job of rotating your hips in ways that sitting in a chair does not, other positions also benefit range of motion and thus mobility. Sitting in a 90/90 position (one leg bent at a 90-degree angle on the floor in front of you, the other leg behind you, also at a 90-degree angle), rotates the hip in two different ways. Sitting with your legs straight in front of you or with one leg straight out in front, the other bent with the foot flat on the floor near your butt, fires up the hamstring, glutes, and calves—muscles that are the movement engines of the body.
Somewhere along the way, people got the notion that you need a sophisticated protocol to feel better in your body and stay vibrant as you age. In fact, it’s quite literally kid stuff—sitting on the floor, just like you did in kindergarten.