In places like Turkey and Ghana, people may consider the practice offensive. But in the United States, sitting with the legs crossed is fairly common. And while some people worry the position could cause health issues like high blood pressure, poor circulation, and varicose veins, it might not be necessary to cross this habit off the list just yet.
Getting a Leg up — Why It Matters
In some situations, sitting with the legs crossed is a sign of modesty— although it’s slightly more scandalous for ladies in short skirts. Some people may also find the position comfortable, since it decreases pressure in the elevated foot and leg (obviously what Barack was thinking here).
And while former fans of “Blind Date” might think crossed legs means she’s just not that into him, health experts are still researching the position’s exact physical effects Why leg crossing? The influence of common postures on abdominal muscle activity. Snijders, C.J., Slagter, A.H., van Strik, R., et al. Department of Biomedical Physics and Technology, Faculty of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 1995 Sep 15;20(18):1989-93. . Blood pressure can sometimes increase while the legs are crossed, especially in people with hypertension The effect of crossing legs on blood pressure. Adiyaman, A., Tosun, N., Elving, L.D., et al. Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Blood Press Monitor, 2007 Jun;12(3):189-93. . So medical professionals may advise patients to keep their legs uncrossed when measuring blood pressure to ensure an accurate reading The effect of crossing legs on blood pressure: a randomized single-blind cross-over study. Peters, G.L., Binder, S.K., Campbell, N.R. Divisions of General Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Nephrology, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Blood Press Monitor, 1999 Apr;4(2):97-101. . People have also blamed leg crossing for everything from decreased circulation to back pain to varicose veins.
Crisscrossed — The Answer/Debate
It’s hard to say whether leg crossing is the bad guy. Research suggests crossing the legs can increase blood pressure temporarily, but it’s unclear whether the position causes blood pressure to rise in the long term The effect of crossing legs on blood pressure. Adiyaman, A., Tosun, N., Elving, L.D., et al. Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Blood Press Monitor, 2007 Jun;12(3):189-93. .
And so far, research on varicose veins has let the legs off the hook. Instead, the problem seems to depend largely on genetics (who doesn’t want Great-Aunt Gertie’s legs?) and how well the valves inside the veins function. On the other hand, doctors may warn patients at risk for blood clots to keep their legs uncrossed when sitting for long periods of time.
As for everyone else, it turns out there may be some health benefits to sitting with the legs crossed. One study suggests leg-crossing might even contribute to pelvic joint stability Functional aspects of cross-legged sitting with special attention to piriformis muscles and sacroiliac joints. Snijders CJ, Hermans PF, Kleinrensink GJ. Department of Biomedical Physics and Technology, Erasmus MC, University Medical Center Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Clinical biomechanics 2006;21(2):116-21. . If nothing else, at least the position can help when there’s no bathroom in sight.
- Leg cross[ing] can raise venous return to the heart and thus increase blood pressure. Actually, in healthy active people with a tendency to benign faints (vaso-vagal episodes), this kind of BP-raising effect might be helpful.
- The effects of leg crossing— a modest rise in blood pressure— would seem hard to correlate with hard outcomes, like stroke heart attack, leg clots, etc. For instance, chronic leg crossers probably have sedentary desk jobs. How would researchers sort this out? Is it the leg crossing that's causing their venous insufficiency or lack of exercise? Was it leg crossing that lead to a stroke, or their overworked, overstressed lives?
- There isn't any evidence that blood pressure will remain elevated after the legs are uncrossed, or that frequently crossing the legs will increase the risk of CVD.
- Crossing the legs can place disproportionate tension on the muscles of the lower back. It's conceivable that habitually sitting with one particular leg crossed might increase susceptibility to lumbar pain or discomfort, and possibly injury over time.
Photo by Caitlin Covington