Watching your back


shutterstock_93649423Half a lifetime bent over peering into people’s mouths had left Martha Podleschak with spine problems.

One of the job requirements for a dentist is a constant, slightly sideways forward tilt. According to her x-ray technician, Podleschak’s particular leftward lean had compressed the discs between her vertebrae, causing a pattern of extreme wear on the left. By the time she was 40, the pain was constant and unbearable and forced her into early retirement. Desperate for relief, Podleschak tried several avenues. After yoga proved unsuccessful, she went to a chiropractor. He broke her neck.

She spent the next 18 months in a neck cast. When it came off, she was partially paralyzed and the pain was far worse. There was no position she could lie, sit or stand in that was not excruciating. The only way she could sleep was by injecting narcotics. The wheelchair that she’d probably be committed to for the rest of her life was on its way.

That was 50 years ago. Last week I went to see her at her home in Austria. She lives in a sweet little cuckoo clock-looking apartment complex five minutes from downtown Strobl, a fairytale village perched on the north end of the Wolfgangsee. This lake is famous for its blue-green colour, which it gets from the limestone in the cliffs that jut over water so pure you can reach right in and drink it. Along paths all around the lake, hale and hearty Austrians in sturdy shoes walk in groups of two and three, brimming with purpose and forward motion, spearing at the earth with their shiny carbon fibre walking sticks.

In September, some of these people will show up at Podleschak’s yearly seminar, where she will teach them how to sit, stand and breathe. She’s got a busy summer of preparation, she explained to me as she stepped lightly down the stairs to greet me in the lobby.

Apart from a slight bend in her neck from where her vertebra was broken nearly 50 years ago, you’d never guess she has back problems. You certainly wouldn’t suspect her of having chronic pain. In fact, you’d probably put her closer to 75 than 90. She loves to wink at you as she dispenses words of wisdom like “no one ever got rich off a healthy person.”

Her secret? Sit uncomfortably. She says she got her life back thanks to something called Ismakogie, a school of thought invented in the 1950s by an Austrian woman named Anne Seidel, who advised proper postures for sitting, standing and walking. The most important tenet of Ismakogie was: sit like a slob, and you’ll pay for it. Get up as often as you can, Ismakogie exhorts. If you must sit, do it like someone shoved a stick up your ass, at a perfect 90 degree angle, perched at the edge of the most uncomfortable chair you can find. People didn’t evolve to slouch at desks for 10 hours a day, Podleschak says. Stop doing it.

At this point, I expect that your BS alarms are ringing. You’ve heard this before: the paleo-diet, those barefoot shoes, the Masai shoes with the unbalanced half-moon soles. All make similar claims about what we did and did not evolve to do. All promise to return us to some original, pure state of living that has been lost or corrupted in modern society. And all insist that their way is just “common sense.”

Actually the better word might be “truthy.” Stephen Colbert’s formulation is still the best way to describe something that sounds too plausible to disagree with.

However, it’s worth noting that all the aforementioned “common sense” solutions have suffered greatly under the skeptical eye of science.

Recently however, science might have thrown Podleschak, and her Ismakogie, a bone. In this week’s New Scientist Richard A. Lovett reports on the growing evidence for the hazards of sitting (the feature articles in the magazine are now only accessible to subscribers but here’s the link anyway).

Here’s the upshot: a growing number of epidemiological studies are beginning to show unequivocally that sitting is really, really bad for us. How bad? Watching TV 6 hours a day will take 5 years off your life. It’s nothing specifically about TV; your desk job will do nicely. And the main problem isn’t those 5 missing years; it’s the bad back and neck pain and slipped discs that plague you long before your 5-years-too-soon demise. To add to the bad news marathon, a few hours a week of exercise won’t make up for the effects.

podleschak_mit_buch_525x394Podleschak says her 50-year boycott of sitting comfortably has restored her to good health. She has no pain, she says, and from watching the fluid, effortless way she moves, I completely believe that Ismakogie worked for her. But I’m also sure the paleo diet works for some people, and maybe even those ugly barefoot shoes. The point is, the only way to verify that such claims don’t just represent the wishful thinking of one person is with science.

Because for every sweet, disarming posture guru, there’s someone whose truthy ways will kill you in a sweat lodge. There is a vast mountain of bullshit out there, and a vast horde of snake oil salesmen who know they can make a quick buck on the back of our laziness or gullibility or just plain hope.

So who’s who? Only science can tell you.

Some who practice alternative medicine accuse Western medicine of having a closed mind. And sure, science doesn’t know everything — 50 years ago if you had asked your primary care physician about the benefits of a standing desk, he would have laughed you out of the room.

Now it turns out that maybe Ismakogie was right about one specific aspect, which is to say the dangers of sitting comfortably. Interestingly, the epidemiologists leading the studies have been so convinced by their own research that several of them have given up their desk chairs for treadmills.

I’m not proud: at the risk of being credulous, I’ve decided to take on the sitting thing myself, using some of the things Podleschak told me. In the absence of a treadmill under my desk, her most important recommendation is to sit uncomfortably.

I’ve only been doing this for a week which relegates anything I say after this to a meaningless anecdotes. But here goes anyway. I have noticed a slight decrease in lower back pain. Is that because I’m following the 90-degree rules? Or is it because my sore behind motivates me to get up more often? In any case, one thing did surprise me — unhappy bottom aside, sitting with perfect 90 degree posture ends up being way more comfortable over the course of 8 hours than my various slumps and slouches. I don’t feel that squashed bloat in my stomach from being doubled over, and my neck doesn’t cramp.


Best of all, I might be staving off the gradual forward creep of the neck that seems to  be a factor in the beauty scourge cosmetic surgeons have termed “smartphone face“. Nobody wants jowls.


Photo credits

Slouch and bad-posture-skeletons from Shutterstock.

Martha Podleschak courtesy of M. Podleschack













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