“Your next position is your best position”

Most people don’t give much thought to sitting for prolonged periods of their day, whether that’s sitting in front of their computer screen at work, focused intently on their job, or relaxing at home watching their favorite TV programs, or staring and scrolling on their smartphone. Often we’ll sit for hours in the same position that feels most comfortable, captivated by our screens. This can be problematic, not because sitting or resting is bad, but because we sit so inactively for prolonged periods of time.

The Hadza, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania, are just as sedentary as most Americans; however, they don’t get chronic diseases and pains like we do. One reason is how actively they rest. The Hadza living environment doesn’t have labor-saving modern conveniences and comfy chairs to lounge in that most Americans are accustomed to. Instead, they actively rest while sitting, kneeling or in a deep squat position close to the ground. When you kneel, squat, and sit on the ground, it engages all the muscles in your lower body and trunk while taking your major joints to their end ranges of motion. Back pain is rare among the Hadza because of how actively they rest and use their postural muscles.

Your posture and gait are reflexive, unconscious events that your body adapts to over your lifetime in the environment and clothing you live in. For example, every hour you’re sitting slouched in cushy chairs, and every step you take in heeled shoes, reinforces your posture and your walking gait. Over your lifetime, your joints will eventually adapt to the positions you spend the most time in. When we sit inactive for prolonged periods in front of our computers or slouched on cushy furniture, never taking our joints to their end ranges of motion, there’s a consequence to our sedentary behavior, especially as we age.

Couple sitting on a sofa watching TV

It’s not a coincidence that non-specific low-back pain is the leading cause of disability and healthcare costs in the US. Many physiologists would argue the main cause is our sedentary lifestyle that promotes weight gain and a lack of muscle tone and postural stability. People with chronic low-back pain are also twice as likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, psychosis, and sleep deprivation. As a person ages, curvature of the upper spine, called kyphosis, increases noticeably, largely due to years of inactive, sedentary behavior.

Another consequence of our sedentary behavior is the prevalence of hip and knee replacements. In the US, hip and knee osteoarthritis has more than doubled since the mid-twentieth century. Obesity and sedentary behavior are the main causes for the increase. (Wallace et al., 2017[26]). Ironically, patients undergoing hip and knee replacement will show significant reduction in pain and other symptoms, yet studies show that improvements do not lead to increased daily physical activity levels in patients. In fact, “the percentage of patients who were sedentary for more than 11 hours per day increased from 25% preoperatively to 31% at 1 year and 41% at 2 years postoperatively”.

In order to improve our health and make changes to our bodies as we age, we need to understand how gravitational forces of physical activity affect our posture and joint health. Mechanotransduction is a fancy word that means “our tissues need physical and mechanical input from gravity in order to organize correctly at a cellular level”. In other words, if we want strong feet, we need to stand and walk barefoot or with minimal footwear to load them appropriately. If we want robust spinal discs, and healthy knees and hips, we need to load them by walking more or spending more time on the ground.

When you kneel, squat, and sit on the ground, it engages all the muscles in your lower body and trunk. Each transition of squatting down to the ground and back up to standing loads your hip, knee, and ankle joints and expresses synovial fluid which is essential for cartilage health. Any physical activity can stimulate lubrication in your joints, but some types of movement such as a deep squat may be most beneficial, because of how your joints are loaded and compressed to their full range of motion. Furthermore, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia actually only get stronger if you load them!

Group of tribe members sitting around a fire

Cultures that rest in a deep squat or sit on the ground experience healthier joints, less back pain, and greater ease of movement and walking, which also makes them less susceptible to falling. Today, in many parts of the world such as in India and other countries in Asia, people make it a daily ritual to squat down to the floor with ease to pray, eat, socialize, and sleep. This is evidence that our bodies are well adapted to these positions and have been for a very long time.

We evolved to be mildly active at rest, yet cushy chairs, couches, and beds compromise this light activity, weakening our bodies and hurting our health. Understanding how sedentary behavior is affecting our health, while integrating basic ancestral habits into our daily lives, can become a real game changer to improving health and longevity. The basics don’t cost you any money and are simple to understand, but difficult to practice consistently, mainly because of how our bodies and minds have adapted to the comfort and convenience of our modern environment. It’s why so many people choose to buy supplements or pain meds, or have their hips and knees replaced, but so few go months or even years practicing a functional squat or getting down to the floor.