The Unexpected Advantages of Living Without Furniture
Sometime around 2009 I heard a rhetorical question that started me down a new path in life. Slowly at first but much more dramatically later. When I heard it, I knew it was going to be impactful but it took time. Over the course of years, like planting a single tree that bears many fruit, it led to more thoughts, ideas and questions. The question, “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you?” I began to realize that owning stuff, even if the stuff is paid for, is not free. Sometimes there are significant costs. If you own stuff you have to store it, clean it, upgrade it, fix it, insure it, move it, safeguard it, replace it, upgrade it and much more. So I began to take a look at my stuff. Fortunately I had an easy strategy initially. I have been in the Navy for nearly 21 years and have lived in 10 different homes due to frequent duty station transfers. My first rule was anything that was still packed in a box from the last move needs to go. This line of thinking led to a critical assessment of everything I owned. To borrow some terminology from Dan John’s Intervention, my point “A” was a three bedroom house with a large basement, 3300 square feet of space, fully furnished with lots of excess stuff (for only two people!). My eventual point “B” today (and this took years) is owning no furniture, with all of my possessions capable of fitting in my car. I consider point “B” to be a much better place because every bit of stuff that I got rid of not only put money back in my pocket (thank you Craigslist), but it also resulted in a small, incremental increase in freedom. I am using that freedom, both financial and time, to good effect. There have also been a number of physical benefits.
One of the side effects of living without furniture is improved physical hardiness, or durability. The enemy of durability is prolonged static postures. When you have no furniture, you simply cannot sustain a static posture for long because you have no supporting structure (i.e., a Lazyboy recliner) to take the static posture load. Everybody is familiar with the office chair “slouch” position or the “I-phone hunch,” both of which can physically change your body’s structure, resulting in semi-permanent changes in postural alignment. When I finally got rid of my furniture, literally over a period of 2 weeks (again, thank you Craigslist), I was at a loss as to what to do. Do I sit, stand, lie on the floor? Remembering that the Japanese have a long standing tradition of sitting on the floor to take meals, I researched their seating positions. It turns out that there are two. The first is similar to the Lotus position that is used for meditation. It is simply sitting in a cross legged position with a long spine and good posture. The second, which is generally a “female” sitting position, is with your feet tucked under you and knees bent. So that is what I did. Now I sit in one position until I feel like shifting, then I shift to the other. What I noticed is that the feet tucked under position is really nice on the spine, and results in a well aligned spine. It is also a great stretch for my inflexible ankles. The Lotus position turns out to be a great stretch for my hips, and also the erector spinae, especially on my left side, which is tight from an old back injury over 20 years ago. However, unlike plopping in a Lazyboy recliner with a remote and a snack, neither position is going to be doable for 4 hours. What I find is that I shift from one position to another, then I stand, kneel, stretch, move. I am never in the same position for more than 5 minutes at a time. While this may sound uncomfortable, you quickly acclimatize to it and it seems very natural; more natural than sitting for hours at a time. As a result, I get up and down off the floor countless times during the day and with countless different techniques. If all movement is training, I am training constantly. Think about how this simple approach can improve your ability to get up off of the floor as you age. Many of you have heard about the study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology that found a nearly seven fold increased risk of death in the next six years for 51-80 year old adults who had to use both hands to get up off the floor. Not only can I get up off the floor with no hands, but I can do it with a cup in one hand and a full plate of food in the other! I expect to preserve that ability, through practice, for a long time.
Another benefit is NEAT. By “NEAT” I don’t mean “cool” or “groovy.” NEAT stands for non exercise activity thermogenesis; basically fidgeting. It turns out that research has shown that NEAT can account for enough calorie burn to account for a significant part of the weight gain associated with obese individuals or weight gain with age. In individuals who tend to be lean, overfeeding causes a spontaneous increase in NEAT. They fidget more, so they burn more calories spontaneously. The typical weight gain pattern in the United States is a “ratchet effect” of consuming approximately an extra 100 Calories over weight maintenance requirements. This runs contrary to the assumption that obesity is due to huge binges. The reality is that it is the day to day, very small excess in calories that adds up over time. Can NEAT offset these effects? The small magnitude of the calories involved suggests that it may be part of the solution. I can tell you from experience that living without furniture certainly increases NEAT.
What I thought was going to be the hardest part of the transition turned out to be the easiest by far. Before I sold my bed, I ordered a firm foam pad to sleep on. It just did not seem possible to be comfortable on the floor without a pad. I slept on the foam pad for a couple of weeks and it was fine. Then I decided to try an experiment. Instead of committing to sleeping all night on the floor, I tried a Saturday afternoon nap. Surprisingly it was fine. So I threw caution to the wind and folded up my foam pad and put it in the closet and tried the floor that evening. I had a few aches and tussled a bit that evening but got a pretty good night’s sleep anyway. By the fourth night on the floor it was completely natural and felt as comfortable as any bed I have ever owned. I have not slept in a bed since then. I rarely feel stiff on waking and I have tons of room! In an article published in the British Medical Journal Michael Tetley argues that sleeping on the ground (rather than on a mattress or pad) provides a unique benefit, “Nature’s automatic manipulator during sleep is the kickback against the vertebrae by the ribs when the chest is prevented from movement by the forest floor.” He argues that this is similar to a chiropractic adjustment and that the same effect occurs with other joints. In his observation of the sleeping postures of many native peoples who sleep on the ground, he noted that there are a few common sleeping postures. His basic argument is that these “natural” sleeping postures are more suited to how our bodies evolved than a big mushy bed with lots of pillows. It is hard to argue with his logic. Whatever the reason, I can tell you that my back has never felt better.
Brito LB1, Ricardo DR2, Araújo DS3, Ramos PS2, Myers J4, Araújo CG5. Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2014 Jul;21(7):892-8. doi: 10.1177/2047487312471759. Epub 2012 Dec 13.
Levine JA , Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702.
Hill, J. O., Peters, J. C., & Wyatt, H. R. (2009). Using the Energy Gap to Address Obesity: A Commentary. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(11), 1848–1853. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.08.007
Tetley, M. (2000). Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 321(7276), 1616–1618.