Are you sitting comfortably? Think again!

Are you sitting comfortably? Think again!

Emmanuelle Tulle, Glasgow Caledonian University


Sitting in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, catching up on reading and writing, I suddenly realised I was doing something dangerous: I was sitting. Apparently, sitting is a perilous occupation.

Much critical attention has been given to sport and exercise, leisure, physical cultures, and general busy-ness, in what we could term a concern for the mobile. By and large, however, we sociologists have not yet developed a programme of research on doing nothing.  Perhaps we should. I will show that medical concerns about sitting, whilst not particularly new, in its contemporary form is giving rise to interesting opportunities for moral opprobrium and regulation which mirror wider inequalities – of age, gender, ethnicity and class.

Back in the late 18th century, Samuel-Auguste Tissot, a French speaking Swiss physician, stated that ‘exercise of the mind prejudices the body’ (p 14) because the excitation caused by serious study and reflection leads to an imbalance and a languor in the body, which in turn can impede efficient functioning, and thus the maintenance of good health.  Sitting, motionless, in deep intellectual contemplation, could lead, it was said, to listlessness, poor digestion, seizures and vertigo, apoplexy, memory impairment, flatulence (itself health-sapping), a range of nervous disorders and even madness. That the exercise of reason should lead to unreason seems barely reasonable!

It would be easy to dismiss Tissot’s reflections and advice as archaic and somewhat amusing, the meanderings of a physician still steeped in Galenic medicine.  Even the objects of his anxieties – largely men of the educated elite who could abstain from physical exertion in order to stay alive – do not invoke much sympathy for the 21st century reader.

Just over 100 years later, another physician, Nathaniel Edward Yorke-Davies, also showed some concern for the ‘sedentary’.  He wrote: ‘The sedentary man seldom enjoys life or robust health in the way the man of active habits does; he does not wear out, he rusts out’. (1894:9). He recommends exercise to keep the organism well toned up and to get the blood flowing, as, he continues: ‘it is a rare thing to find a sedentary man who does not suffer from [indigestion and constipation]’ (p 104). Oh dear! Worse, extreme sedentariness could lead to ‘utter collapse, mental and physical, from this cause, among men of sedentary occupation, where as a result a three-months’ complete rest in the Riviera has been necessary to restore to health the functional derangement of the heart and prostration of the nervous system that have ensued’ (p 105).

Thank goodness for the Riviera. I must remember to suggest this remedy to my GP next time I experience total nervous collapse.

Yorke-Davies was a physician trained in the emergent clinical medicine of the time, albeit with residuals of humoural medicine. Indeed, how he attributes cause and effect in the sedentary/ill-health nexus is physiologically approximate. My own purpose is not to give the reader a lecture on the physiology of sitting – I am ill-equipped for this purpose and would refer the reader instead to Owen et al (2010). I am more interested in how the anxiety about inactivity or rather the lack of physical motion, expressed in Tissot’s essay and Yorke-Davies’ book, has been revisited in modern science, finding its contemporary expression in the invention of sedentary behaviour as the pathology of our times.  Whilst there are apparent overlaps, there are also clear differences between previous and contemporary understandings of the perils of sitting. What unites Tissot and Yorke-Davies is the (near) absence of moral judgement on the sedentary.  We should not be too surprised: they are mostly well to do and some might even say highly intelligent, or victims of their middle class occupations. The object of attention in the 21st Century is altogether different and open to moral opprobrium.

An analysis of the contemporary sport science and sport medicine literature reveals three broad techniques to enjoin us to sit less and move more:

First is scare tactics: these relate to the deployment of the demographic argument to sensitise the reader to the contribution of sitting to the burden of disease. Sitting is presented as an epidemic, in its seriousness akin to smoking and a worrying by-product of contemporary living and lifestyle. An appeal to simpler times when people sat less and were engaged in healthful mobility is made. Ultimately this part of the argument problematizes the present as dangerous and the turn to sedentariness as catastrophic, at which the kitchen sink of intervention should be thrown. Hyperbole is not a strong enough weapon to raise awareness.

Second is the pathologisation and moralisation of sitting: Inactivity is reframed as sedentary behaviour. This is not the obverse of being physically active as one could fulfil physical activity recommendations, but sit too much in between bouts of activity: the Active Couch Potato is born. Sedentary behaviour is associated with obesity and therefore should be addressed in conjunction with advice on healthy eating.  Crucially sedentary behaviour is defined as TV and screen viewing, measured in time spent engaging in this immobile activity. Reading is never mentioned as part of a sedentary ‘lifestyle’. By the same token, no value is given to reading, quiet contemplation or sociable events as pleasant, enlightening or joyful ways of spending time.

Third is the colonisation of everyday life: an epidemic requires intervention. As part of an unhealthy lifestyle, the focus of intervention is the individual’s whole life, his/her motivation and lack of awareness that what s/he is doing is dangerous. The actual aim is the transformation of agency, from sitting to moving. Anything goes: advice, diary keeping, accelerometers, alarms and psychological retraining. A visit to a physio or a doctor should always elicit a discussion of sitting behaviour. Now no one is exempt, not even the old.

The aim is not just to control the body but to work towards the attainment of the correct body, a body in perpetual motion willed by a compliant mind.  Unfortunately a referral to a villa on the Riviera or Yorke-Davies’ wine merchant for the safe consumption of a nice bottle of Moselle is not part of the treatment arsenal of contemporary health-care professionals.  Indeed, the sedentary of today are no longer the educated or moneyed elite of the 18th and 19th centuries, but the old, the poor, visible minorities and the young.

By turning its attention to immobility, medical science reinforces what Rose (2007:3) called a vital politics, that is ‘a growing capacity to control, manage, engineer, reshape and modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living creatures’. Indeed biology is no longer destiny as the fundamental workings of our bodies are now open to re-engineering. What might save us from the interference into our lives required to alter our biology might be doctors neglecting the interrogation of patients in the consulting room and our own refusal to subject our entire lives to scrutiny while reclaiming the right to sit down.


Owen N, Healy GN, Matthews CE and Dunstan DW (2010) Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behaviour. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 38(3): 105-116.

Rose, N. (2006) The Poloitics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tissot S (1772 [1768]) An Essay on Diseases Incidental to Literary and Sedentary Persons with Proper Rules for Preventing their Fatal Consequences and Instructions for their Cure. Dublin: Printed for James Williams, at No. 5 Skinner Row.

Yorke-Davies NE (1894) Health and Conditions in the Active and Sedentary. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.


Emmanuelle Tulle is Reader in Sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University. She undertakes research on ageing bodies, especially in relation to scientific discourse and on older people, and physical activity, in which context she has studied ageing elite athletes