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The Ergonomic Sofa

The Ergonomic Sofa

By Kate Murphy

Featured in the New York Times, May 22, 2015

You’ve found a home that suits you in terms of price, location and design, and you’ve decorated it in a style that reflects your personal aesthetic. All should be good, right? Well, not if your furniture is a pain in the neck, back, hips or shoulders.

When Jennifer and Roland Palmer bought a second home in Hilton Head, S.C., they wanted to furnish it stylishly, but they were even more concerned with comfort: Mr. Palmer, who is 70, had a few aches and pains and, at six feet, is taller than his wife by a foot.

So Ms. Palmer, 44, ordered seating in custom sizes — his and hers — from Ekornes, a Norwegian company that specializes in ergonomic design. Now, she said, she can’t bear to sit in the furniture back home in Michigan.

“Up there, I have to sit with my legs tucked underneath me, because the chairs and sofa are so big,” she said. “I end up getting sore in certain positions. But in the new furniture, the way your body is supported, you don’t have your muscles being pulled.”

Unlike office furnishings, which tend to adhere to basic ergonomic or body-friendly principles, home décor can be surprisingly bad for your musculoskeletal health. The result is various strains, aches and pains that no amount of yoga and Pilates can undo.

“When people decorate their homes, it’s all about what looks good, fits in the space, matching colors, with no thought to how it will impact their body,” said Margo Fraser, a kinesiologist and ergonomics consultant in Calgary, Alberta. “And then they mistakenly attribute their pain and discomfort to getting older or an exercise injury, when it’s really their furniture.”

Buying furniture — specifically sofas and chairs, with which you are going to have extended bodily contact — should be like buying shoes. You can have your showpieces that are collectible, sculptural or fashionable, just like that pair of Manolo Blahniks. But to truly relax, what you need is seating that fits you as well as a pair of running shoes, with the right amount of support and cushion.

Finding what is best for your body, however, can be a challenge, given the way home furnishings are made and marketed today. As a culture, we have come to equate comfort with a big, squishy seating experience in which you are swaddled, if not swallowed, in plush.

“I call it the sit-and-sink style, which over time is going to cause you real problems,” said Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Regardless of your age, health or flexibility, he said, sinking into a cushy sofa or chair pulls down on your spine and pelvis, causing strain. And this is exacerbated by the effort required to get in and out of the pillowy abyss. While you may not feel it immediately, day-in and day-out, it can prove injurious.

Apart from the Scandinavian companies Ekornes and Fjords, few manufacturers make truly ergonomic, supportive home seating. If you’re not into the no-nonsense Nordic look, though, there are other options. You can find spine-friendly furniture in a range of styles, if you keep a few fundamental rules in mind.

First, you want firm. “Not hard like a wooden bench,” said John Dunnigan, the head of the department of furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. “But firm cushioning that will support you over a range of compression,” because your body will have various contact points that exert more or less downward pressure.

Mr. Dunnigan recommended looking for furniture with a foam-density rating (a measurement indicating the amount of weight the foam can support over a cubic foot) of at least 2.4, or hand-tied coil springs, which can be found in some antiques and higher-end furniture. Examples include seating from the Federal or midcentury periods, when styles were more tailored, slim and firm. You can find similarly supportive contemporary looks from manufacturers like Natuzzi, R. Jones and Poltrona Frau.

In addition to firm, you want furniture that holds you in an upright position, vertically aligning your ears over your shoulders over your hips, said Dr. David Rempel, a professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley.

“Resting your back against the back support, you should be able to rest your feet flat on the floor,” he said, with your knees at a 90- to 110-degree angle to your hips. Moreover, there should be some space between the edge of the seat and the back of your knee, so you don’t have pressure on the veins and arteries there.

Of course, the right height and depth vary from person to person, because we are all different statures and girths, so you need to try furniture in the showroom (sit for at least 20 minutes, experts suggest) or else be prepared to pay the charges to send it back if you choose to order online.

“A lot of chairs and sofas I see put you in the same terrible position you are in fancy sports cars, where you’re cocked back, sitting low to the ground, with your legs out in front of you,” said Laurie Johnson, a physical therapist in Houston who frequently finds that her patients’ furniture causes or aggravates their musculoskeletal issues. “That pulls on your hamstring and sciatic nerve, and transfers all that tension to your back.”

Design Within Reach, Room and Board and certainly sell some furniture that will put you in that awkward pose, but they are also among the few retailers that have some options that won’t. They offer custom-made pieces, too. You might also have good luck shopping at stores that sell office furniture. Often, couches and lounge chairs made for corporate environments by manufacturers like Knoll and Herman Miller are both attractive and ergonomically sound.

Another piece of advice from ergonomic and physiology experts: Choose and arrange your furniture according to what you will be using it for most often.

If you like to binge-watch television, a supportive chair that reclines to take pressure off your back and neck or a firm sofa that allows full extension of your body in a reclining position might be the ticket, provided you put the television where you don’t have to turn or crane your neck up or down to see it.

Avid readers would do well to choose upright chairs that support the lower back, as well as some surface — even just a large pillow — on which to rest their books. Otherwise, you will stress your arms and put strain on your neck and shoulders looking down at the page. Knitters, on the other hand, might want a firm chair with armrests that support their elbows so they don’t have to slouch or shrug their shoulders while knitting.

If your living space will be where friends gather for lively or intimate conversation, then consider chairs that pivot or arrange the furniture in a circle so guests don’t have to twist around to face each other.

“The spine is a series of bones stacked up on each other like a column of blocks,” said Dr. Hedge of Cornell. “So if you twist, what you’re doing is twisting position of bone relative to other bone and asking for back pain and disc problems.”

Twisting and craning also happen when people use mobile devices, torquing the spine to use a laptop beside them on the couch or curving the neck downward while texting on a mobile phone. “When you focus your eyes on your device, your body is going to follow, often into an unhealthy position,” said Mark Goetz, a furniture designer in Brooklyn who designed the supportive Goetz sofa for Herman Miller. “Think of your head as a heavy bowling ball. If it gets out of alignment looking at your cellphone, it’s going to cause tremendous tension and strain.”

So make sure you sit without undue slouching or bodily torque, he said. And use armrests, pillows or other props to raise your devices to eye level. Furniture is like any other kind of equipment: It’s most effective when you use it properly — and when you don’t overuse it.

“Our bodies are not meant to watch television four hours straight,” said Ms. Johnson, the physical therapist. “Get up and move every once in a while

The Pain-Free Furniture Checklist

Many sofas and chairs can be surprisingly bad for your musculoskeletal health. But if you follow a few simple guidelines, you can find furniture that gives you the right amount of support and cushioning, just like a good pair of running shoes.

• Choose firm. Look for sofas and chairs with a foam-density rating of at least 2.4, or those with hand-tied coil springs. If you sink into a pillowy abyss when you sit down, keep shopping.

• Make sure your seating holds you in an upright position, vertically aligning your ears over your shoulders over your hips.

• When you rest against the back support, your feet should be flat on the floor, with your knees at a 90- to 110-degree angle to your hips.

• There should be some space between the edge of the seat and the backs of your bent knees when you’re sitting, so there’s no pressure on the veins and arteries there.

• Try before you buy. Sit in a chair or sofa for at least 20 minutes, so you can see how it feels.

• Be sure to take into account what you’ll be using the seating for most often. Activities like reading, watching television, knitting, playing video games and talking have different ergonomic requirements.

• Watch your posture. The right piece of furniture can do only so much; you still need to avoid slouching and craning your neck while using mobile devices.

• Don’t overuse your seating. Get up every once in a while.

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