Sitting, squatting, and health

Sitting, squatting, and kneeling for better health

There was a neat study published March 9, 2020, titled Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity.

Researchers studied members of a hunter-gatherer group in Africa called the Hadza.

It’s a small tribe in Tanzania where many of them still live a life of foraging. There is no government between them, and it’s a life of negotiation and self-dependence.

Researchers studied 28 of them of varying ages. They taped an accelerometer to their thigh, called the ActivPal. For eight days, they tracked their movement, and also took their blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

Unsurprisingly, they were pretty active during the day. (Unlike us Westerners.)

But what was neat was how they spent a similar amount of time as us being lazy and “sedentary.”

On average, they spent between 9–10 hours each day just lazing around.

But they aren’t getting the insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease we see over here.

Now, if you’re asking me, a bonafide layman, I’d say a huge part of that improved health is sunshine. There’s a number of studies showing that the sun dilates blood vessels, causes nitric oxide to release, and orients our circadian rhythm, which controls our hormones (like insulin), etc.

But there may be another factor at play. They didn’t sit in chairs.

They squatted, kneeled, and sat on the ground. In an interview with the researchers:

“Squatting or kneeling requires light levels of muscle activity,” said study author David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California.”

They squatted 18% (nearly two hours a day), kneeled 12.5% (about an hour), and sat the rest of the time on the ground.

Then researchers found that these sitting positions were actually quite “active.” They were still firing the soleus and tibialis anterior muscles quite a lot (found in the calf area of the leg).

“That light level of muscle activity may help keep blood pumping through the blood vessels and heart. It also might help burn excess blood sugar, keeps the metabolic system humming, and appears to decrease insulin resistance. And, Raichlen said, the constant muscle activity might also help lower the bad type of cholesterol.”

The way they were sitting reminded me of a curious video I saw on Youtube. It was a husband and wife showing their minimalist home, and they had cut the legs of two Ikea tables to be the perfect height to squat while working. They regularly squatted, kneeled, and sat cross-legged while working—no more office chair.

Screengrab from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfRbTQrqY5M

Could this “active” sitting be useful for fixing a lot of venous problems in the legs that comes from standing or sitting too much? (Varicose veins for women and varicoceles for men?)

Back to the research, funnily enough, in the interview, they wrote:

“However, [the head researcher] wasn’t sure how anyone could integrate these findings into their lives, because it’s unlikely that people who haven’t grown up spending a lot of time squatting or kneeling would start doing it as adults.”

Unlikely? Maybe.

But if you’re the type who likes to challenge themselves, take control over their life, and experiment—why not?

The first step would be getting comfortable in the squat position.

I’ve worked at my in-laws like this—squatting and kneeling at their coffee table since I preferred it over the typical office chair/desk most people have in their homes.

After reading this study, I think I may try and optimize my office by squatting and kneeling as I work. I am trying to optimize my bloodflow, especially to my lower body as I spend a long time at the desk each day.

What if you work in an office where cutting your desk might get you a stern talking-to from the boss? There are always other solutions to break up the downsides of sitting. In True Gains, our program about getting stronger and leaner at the same time, we covered how taking a 90-second walk every 30 minutes cut blood sugars in half without using insulin. (Reducing inflammation, fat gain, and improving long-term health.)

As for me, I might start browsing Ikea for a table to cut…

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