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Monday, November 28, 2011

I spent many evenings sitting there, until.....

By Dick Hirsch

My only excuse is that I never knew of the dangers that lurked there. Thus, as a person who has utilized it with regularity over the years, I have been shocked at the sudden torrent of warnings being issued about the risks of sitting on the couch.

In simpler times the couch always had a positive image; it was a basic item of furniture, usually found in the living room. Because of its size, it could accommodate several people at the same time. That positive status has changed dramatically in recent years. I have found people who are fearful and striving to limit the time they spend sitting on a couch. It has been portrayed as a hazardous environment and become restricted territory, on the verge being listed as VERBOTEN in many homes.

That is quite a change of rank from just a few years ago. It was the focal point of the living room in the house where I grew up. It usually was regarded as the key element in the decor of the room and, as such, was treated with great respect. Owners resorted to lengthy research before making a purchase. Once delivered and in place, the couches were cherished and often shielded with protective coverlets, ranging from professionally tailored slipcovers to castoff bedspreads. The idea was to safeguard the upholstery; the result was the only time the family saw the actual couch fabric was on special occasions when there were visitors.

The couch is a primary victim in the comprehensive campaign to alert everyone to the perils of inactivity. The sedentary lifestyle is the real target but the couch has gotten most of the attention since the late ‘70s when a cartoonist named Robert Armstrong coined the term “couch potato.” He created a memorable word picture and the public seized upon the term and it came into popular usage and ended up in dictionaries.

What if he had originally called it “sofa potato?” Would that term have become as acceptable? I doubt it. That extra syllable---so-fa---doesn’t resonate well with potato. I believe sofa is a more widely accepted title for that piece of furniture. In my formative years, it was always ”couch,” at my house. But my father-in-law was a furniture man, and he always said “sofa.” The ads usually say sofa, too.

There are other titles that are also synonymous for places to sit sociably with others. How about davenport, love seat, divan or settee? I’ve parked myself on all of them at one time or another, but those terms are all disappearing, slipping quietly into obsolescence, a journey that is probably being hastened by the negative findings related to couches.

However, it really isn’t the couch that is the problem, it is the act of sitting. The story is that too many people are doing too much sitting. They may be at a desk or computer workstation at the office all day and in front of the TV or home computer in the evening. The result: not enough movement and exercise, which can lead to a lengthy list of unwanted physical problems, including death.

The American College of Cardiology recently published findings indicating that long hours spent sitting are so potentially harmful that even regular physical activity cannot counteract that damage. I believe the true villain is neither the couch nor the act of sitting. It is the lure of the screen, glowing 24/7 and attracting viewers like moths around a candle.

As sometimes happens, those who study and critique behavior patterns are quick to point out the negatives but not so likely to articulate other viable options. What is the alternative to sitting? It must be either standing or laying down. I’ve occasionally tried standing around in certain social settings and it can be an awkward posture.

“Have a chair,” people often say, or, more directly, “Take a load off.” They are issuing an invitation to adopt a more sociable position, to sit and join the fun. I don’t think it would be appropriate to tell them I’m not sitting because it isn’t healthy. They probably never considered sitting as a terminal ailment.

Oh, well, there must be a compromise. I recently was in the office of a company president with an impressive new desk, one end of which held his computer. When he pushed a button that portion of the desk would rise to chest level, permitting him to use the computer while standing. He was typing earnestly and looking very fit.


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