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What can sport science teach us about workplace design?

Commercial furniture makers, Wilkhahn, understand the inherent problems of modern office culture by studying the mechanics of the active human body.



BY

August 4th, 2015


You would be hard pressed to find a commercial furniture designer today that isn’t talking about “dangerous postures” and “moving more”. Seemingly, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, claiming this or that without really knowing the fundamentals of how the human body is wired – or what the problem itself is.

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Sure, there have been a handful of companies that have commissioned intensive studies into posture and ergonomics, but the problem here is that posture and ergonomics are only a very small part of the battle. The issue is not that people in commercial environments are sitting incorrectly – well, not the largest problem anyway – the problem is that that people have stopped moving regularly.

While some are only beginning to cotton on to the role design can play in improving the human condition within commercial settings, global commercial powerhouse Wilkhahn, has devoted not years, but decades to making people less desk-bound and continue to invest a great amount of time and research into this area as early as the 1970s.

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“Back in the seventies, designer Nick Roericht – who was a student and later a teacher at the legendary Ulm University of Design – carried out a major study for Wilkhahn entitled ‘From a posture-driven to a movement-driven seat’,” says Wilkhahn’s international communication director, Burkhard Remmers. “His radical concept of a leaning aid instead of a chair later became part of the Wilkhahn range (Stitz 2). But the results also led to the groundbreaking FS-Line office chair and allowed the principle of dynamic sitting to gain widespread acceptance.”

Further recognising the critical importance of scientific R&D, Wilkhahn partnered with The Center of Health in 2005 at the German University of Sports in Cologne to continue investigating the fundamental, biologic needs of the human body beyond posture and ergonomics.

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Instead of following this traditional approach to ergonomic research, Wilkhahn collaborated with the modern sport and health sciences, and the results confirmed their core idea of dynamic sitting. However, they also showed that two-dimensional movements are not enough to motivate and engage the intricacies of our body.

Remmers recalls: “In 2005, we gave a critical rethink to the development of chair ergonomics using original research from medical sports and science. The results confirmed that two-dimensional movements are not sufficient to stimulate the complex interrelations of our body. The challenge became ‘to teach sitting to walk’.

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The study produced some frightening result not only for the overall health of employees, but for the impact this stationary culture has on businesses. “Considering the decreasing number of working environments requiring hard physical labor and the rise of the office sector, you would normally expect a drop in backache,” notes Remmers. “But since 2005 sick days due to musculoskeletal issues have been on the increase again, costing business hundreds thousands of dollars in sick leave. The research further estimates that 80 per cent of new symptoms of back pain are caused by physical inactivity. If not stimulated, the muscles are no longer properly fed, they atrophy and in the end, posture, joints and vertebrae degenerates and are permanently harmed.”

Nowadays health sciences even see the lack of physical activity as one of the key reasons for all complaints caused by metabolic disorders. Cardiac and circulatory problems, headaches, problems with the digestive system, diabetes, obesity and even cancer and depressive illnesses are linked to our sedentary method of working and lifestyle.

In fact, a recent recent interview by Kai-Uwe Scholz for designreport (Special issue 1 I 15), health researcher and professor Ingo Froböse from the German Sport University in Cologne, commented that: “Human beings are made for ten to twelve hours of physical activity a day. But we don’t get anything like that much exercise. But not even an after-work fitness programme can compensate for long phases of physical inactivity during the day. Just two hours of sitting motionless at the computer are enough to ensure that basically only the brain is well supplied with blood, whereas numerous other bodily functions are shut down to such an extent that the rest is inadequately supplied – it’s not just the heart and circulatory system that suffer long-term damage, the muscles and cartilage do too. Being overweight is a symptom of this way of life and this work posture – but it’s only one symptom.”

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In response the findings of their intensive R&D, and after five years’ in development, Wilkhahn, launched the ON chair in 2009. This was the first chair with patented Trimension, a new kinematical principle stimulating natural three-dimensional movements. It stimulates and activates the body without tiring or overtaxing it.

In a more recent move to contribute to getting people to move more, Wilkhahn recently unveiled their latest innovation, the IN chair. Also developed off the back of the University of Sports R+D, as well as the still relevant ‘From a posture-driven to a movement-driven seat’ study from the 70s, the IN chair continues teaching sitting to walk.

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“After years of exhaustive research and development,” says Remmers, “we came up with a patented world first called Trimension®. This is a new international standard that was used for the first time in our ON® office chair. Now our engineers have succeeded in adapting this pioneering kinematics for an office chair in the mid-range price segment. The launch of IN 3D chair heralds an office chair that ensures previously unparalleled sitting dynamics, follows the body in perfect synchronisation and keeps its centre of gravity whatever the posture. This doesn‘t just benefit our health, but also increases powers of concentration and our ability to relax.”

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It is a dangerous – and quite misleading– message to send users that a chair driven by research into posture and ergonomics alone will solve all the inherent problems of the human body in a commercial setting. Wilkhahn’s clever emphasis on sport science has produced products such as IN and ON, which truly challenge and shift the culture of convenience we are currently facing. Here’s hoping their 45-odd years of scientific enquiry continues to do so.

Contact Wilkhahn Australia here or call (61 2) 9310 3355


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