COLCHESTER, Vt. — Turner Osler’s war against sitting began shortly after he was forced, for the first time in his long career as a trauma surgeon, to spend most of his day doing so.
Osler had received a grant to do a study, which meant that after three decades running around the University of Vermont Medical Center, he transitioned to what was essentially a desk job. And that desk job came with a desk chair, which he immediately hated.
“So I bought every ergonomic chair on the market and they all stunk,” Osler said. “I said ‘How hard can this really be?’ I had this hubris you develop as a trauma surgeon, this confidence to walk into a room and no matter what’s wrong you can fix it.”
And so it was that Osler set out to fix the chair. It took a few years and several prototypes, but Osler, who has since retired from the operating room, believes he has cracked the code. He did this, he says, by changing the idea of what a chair should be.
Instead of something you sit in, Osler believes a chair should be something that you, essentially, walk in.
“I claim this is walking,” Osler said recently as he rocked on the chair he calls the Ariel, a stool with an unstable seat that forces the occupant to make constant gentle adjustments to maintain balance. “No reasonable person will accept this idea, but as far as your hips and pelvis and femurs are concerned, I’m not sitting, I’m walking.”
The sins of sitting have been painfully well-documented, and begin and end with the fact that homo sapiens is an animal that was not designed to spend much of the day on its rear end in a chair. “Hunter-gatherers were meant to walk,” Osler says.
The boorishly bad effects of all that sitting – on the back and the waistline and the mood and you name it – are a “biochemical postural catastrophe,” as Osler describes it. But chairs are not going anywhere. The world is designed around them. It’s a modern problem in need of a modern solution.
The answer is not standing, as many people think,” Osler said. “Standing all day is just as catastrophic as sitting. Standing is the linguistic opposite of sitting, but moving is the actual opposite of sitting.”
Osler’s house, on Lake Champlain just north of Burlington, is filled with his various attempts to find a way to mimic walking while sitting, all of them explorations of a concept known as “active sitting” which promotes the idea of allowing or even encouraging the occupant of a seat to remain moving. It’s an idea as old as the rocking chair, but Osler’s goal was specific – to provide a platform for the pelvis to move as it would while walking.
“If you look at people who have no legs, they walk around on their ischial tuberosity, the sit bones, the little kickstands on the bottom of each side of the pelvis.”
To replicate that movement, Osler developed and patented a geometric shape that allows omnidirectional rocking. When mounted under the seat of a chair, the “eccentric bi-cylinder” forces the sit bones to move continually in search of equilibrium.
“Have I cracked the code?” Osler asked. “I think I have.”
Now, what began as a search for a decent chair has become a mission to cure the “sitting disease” that he says plagues the modern world.
“I’m 70. I’m never going to have another idea this good,” he declared with the fervor of someone in a rush to let everyone in on a secret. “Now the goal is to make active sitting so cheap that anybody can afford it.”
The Ariel, which starts at $350, is being sold by QOR360, a startup he created with his son, Alexis, after he says he failed to interest “Big Chair” in his ideas.
That is a lot of money for a stool. Which is why he created a much simpler design, one that anyone can make with about eight bucks worth of plywood and a tennis ball.
It’s called the ButtOn Chair, and it’s aimed at classrooms, to keep fidgety children fidgeting. It looks like a basic wooden stool, but its button-shaped seat is resting on a tennis ball centered below.
For the past year, students in an eighth-grade STEM class at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington have been testing the chairs, and about two-thirds say they prefer them to the standard classroom chair. On buttonchairs.org, Osler has been giving away the design file to cut the chairs using a CNC machine, and he is set to release a free printable pattern that anyone with basic tools can make.
“We have to sit. It’s required by the 21st century,” Osler says. “This is about making active sitting so cheap anybody can afford it. The goal is to get kids moving and introduce them to the fact that they don’t have to sit slumped all day. I’m not trying to make a better chair. I’m trying to change the idea of what a chair is.”
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.