Squatting in the 21 Century

We force kids to abandon squatting so as adults, the position is nearly impossible and uncomfortable. Try this… drop a pencil on the floor and pick it up. Notice – did you bend over at the waist, or actually bend your knees and squat? 

So what’s the problem with less squatting? As you’ll read, research shows that squatting actually equates to a “posture that elicits low-level muscular activity.”

Squatting: a posture that small children naturally assume gracefully, without thought or effort. Picture a toddler briefly rebalancing as she learns to walk, or older kids squatting to play a game of cards on the floor. 

While squatting is natural and graceful for children, it is pretty much unavailable to most adults. No, wait: make that unavailable to most American adults. 

We all started out able to squat, but for most Americans a comfortable squatting posture is a distant, perhaps even forgotten, memory. So, what happened? And does it matter?

What happened to squatting? 

As Hypocrites observed “That which is used develops, and that which is not used wastes away.”  Our modern, Western-chair centric lives discourages instinctive squatting, starting at an early age. We require kids to abandon squatting, forcing them to sit on highchairs, car seats, booster seats, the toilet, and finally the coup de grace… first grade with its enforced chair sitting, hour upon hour, day after day. After rigorously excluding squatting from our early experience it’s scarcely surprising that to retrieve a dropped pencil, most adults find themselves mostly bending, rather than squatting. 

When did this happen?  

Amazingly, we know approximately when humans switched from squatting to sitting. It turns out that habitual squatting leaves an imprint on the tibia (lower leg bone), and these imprints have been carefully catalogued by Eve-Line Boulle in European skeletal remains dating between the 1st and 20th centuries (Am Journal of Phys Anth, 2001). As a result, we know that squatting was common until the end of the Middle Ages but progressively decreased thereafter. This timetable had face validity because it corresponds to the adoption of chairs and chair sitting among Europeans. And this timeline is important, because it underscores just how recently our species began sitting; so recently that evolution hasn’t had time to adapt our physiology to long periods of minimal levels of activity.

Which yes, does matter.  

It turns out that squatting does matter, and it matters a lot. Humans are unique among our primate cousins in that we require exercise for health. For the many times a day when a resting posture was required- times when we modern humans opt to sit- our hunter gatherer forbears would squat. 

We know this from observations of the few contemporary hunter gatherer tribes left in the world, such as the Hadza tribe of Tanzania. A recent paper published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, outlines the observations of David Raichien and his team. Raichien has thought deeply about the paradox of human’s need to be continuously active, but also requiring a resting posture. They found that surprisingly, the Hadza spend their days much as we do: their total daily “non-ambulatory” time is about the same as the time we spent sitting, about 9 hours a day on average. But crucially, the Hadza spend their “non-ambulatory” time squatting, not sitting, because well, they have no chairs. Yes, the Hadza sometimes sit on the ground or a rock, but rarely. Mostly they squat. 

Here’s the thing: when Raichien’s team measured muscular activity (EMG of vastus lateralis, soleus and tibialis anterior) they found that squatting was really an “active rest posture”. They conclude this fascinating paper: “While squatting is not a likely alternative, spending more time in postures that elicit low-level muscle activity could lead to beneficial health outcomes [for Westerners]”.

What does Raichien mean by “postures that elicit low-level muscular activity”? Well, it isn’t clear, but Raichien suggests that “Replacing chair sitting with… more sustained active rest postures may represent a behavioral paradigm that should be explored in future experimental work.” And Raichien isn’t alone in this call for alternatives to sitting. The National Institutes of Health has asked researchers to submit proposals for introducing more activity into our daily lives.

So, there’s agreement that we need a more active alternative to ward off the harms done by passive sitting, and research is ongoing as to what the most effective alternatives might be. But research takes time, and passive sitting is an immense public health problem right now for most of the Western chair-centric world. 

So, what can be done right now?  

Well, there are treadmill desks that guarantee muscular activity, but the noise, expense, inaccurate typing and just plain weirdness, have limited their popularity. Standing desks have also been proposed as a way to avoid sitting, but the actual increase in muscular activity when standing is surprisingly slight, and epidemiologists warn of increased heart disease associated with standing compared to sitting (Smith et al. Am J Epi. 2018). 

Perhaps the most promising solution is active sitting, that is, sitting on chairs that require constant, low level, muscular effort to rebalance posture. Little research is available on active sitting, but the logic is compelling. Active sitting provides just what Raichlen’s research calls for: a “behavioral paradigm … providing a posture that elicits low-level muscle activity”. 

Regardless of how we ultimately reintroduce activity into our modern, chair-centric existence, other behavioral tricks are available to all of us right now; habits that can introduce more activity into your life with no cost or preparation. 1. Get up from your chair every hour (or half hour), stretch, walk around a bit, and return to your task refreshed. 2. If you can, walk around whenever you’re on a phone call. 3. Park as far from your destination as practical and walk the rest of the way. 

There’s a pattern here: more walking. We’ve actually understood this for quite a while.  Hippocrates observed over 2,000 years ago, “Walking is man’s best medicine”. Human evolution is a very slow process, so good advice remains good advice.

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