How to mimic our Paleolithic ancestors’ squatting… | The Paleo Diet®
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How to mimic our Paleolithic ancestors’ squatting habits to improve health

By Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer
September 20, 2020
Luisa Puccini/Shutterstock.com Luisa Puccini/Shutterstock.com

There is a plethora of research demonstrating that a sedentary lifestyle is detrimental to one’s health and longevity.

A cross-sectional study examining the effects of sitting time and physical activity in over 900 male workers demonstrated that the most sedentary individuals had a higher body mass index, a greater waist circumference, and higher systolic blood pressure. [1] They also had worse lipid profiles with higher C-reactive protein levels (a marker for inflammation,) higher insulin resistance, and higher insulin concentrations.

Interestingly, these increased biomarkers of inflammation and insulin resistance remained after adjusting for the physical activity of the workers—thus, the occasional 20-minute run in someone who otherwise lived a sedentary lifestyle didn’t appear to fix the problem.

However, this is not a universal conclusion. Other research has found that when the physical activity is moderate to vigorous, and in doses equivalent to meeting the current recommendations, physical activity does attenuate or effectively eliminate all-cause and CVD mortality risk caused by too much sitting, among the least physically active adults. [2]

What is clear is that chair-sitting postures lead to a decrease in muscular contractions, which, in turn, leads to a decrease in muscle metabolism. It is this metabolic decrease that is associated with the health risks of too much sitting.

Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity

Just as The Paleo Diet® is built on the premise that the healthiest diet comprises foods that closely mimic those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it follows that a healthy activity profile should resemble that of our Paleolithic ancestors.

A 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the hypothesis that non-ambulatory postures (positions in which people stay in place) in a hunter-gatherer population—in this case, the Hadza of Tanzania—involves a higher level of muscle activity than the typical chair-sitting rest used in industrialized populations. [3]

A combination of objectively measured inactivity (thigh-worn accelerometers, observational data, and electromyographic data) showed that hunter-gatherers have similar levels of non-ambulatory postures (9.82 ± 2.38 h/d - mean ± SD) during waking hours to those found in industrialized populations.

However, the Hadza adults spend much of their non-ambulatory time in postures like squatting; these “resting” postures require higher levels of muscle activity than chair sitting. The findings suggest that human physiology likely evolved with significant inactivity, but with increased muscular contraction during these periods of rest.

The implication is that the decreased muscular activity associated with chair-sitting postures is incongruent with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Consequently, building interventions that allow for more muscle activation even while seated or at rest may help reduce the negative health impacts of inactivity in industrialized populations.

How to build more active postures into your “resting” time

The obvious difficulty with increasing muscle activation during inactivity—for example, in a squat position (as illustrated by the male Hadza in the photo above)—is actually “resting” during that time.

It turns out, however, that aside from being a simple human movement that can make many physical tasks easier to accomplish, the squat position is the basis for many postural and performance-oriented tasks. For example, research conducted by the Titleist Performance Institute has shown that the ability to maintain one’s posture throughout a golf swing is highly correlated with the ability to squat.

Children easily maintain a squat position while playing with toys on the ground. But very few people maintain the ability to squat as they age. Frequently, adults are unable to move their thighs even parallel to the ground when attempting to squat.

Does this indicate a mobility issue or a stability issue?

During a physical assessment, a client may be asked to lie down on their back and, while holding their shins, pull their knees to their chest. If they can accomplish this, they can translate this position into one where they’re on their feet. The point is to highlight that they have the mobility in their hips and knees to accomplish the squat, and so there is something else that is preventing them from getting into a deep squat.

Ankles are another potential culprit to mobility issues. In the photo above of the Hadza man squatting next to the fire, notice that his knees are ahead of his toes. This represents good ankle dorsi-flexion, which is a necessary ability to attain a full deep squat.

You can test if you have enough dorsi-flexion with a simple measurement. If you go into a half kneeling position (as in this video) with your front foot staying flat on the ground, you should be able to press your knee forward of your toes—without your heel coming off the ground—by about a fist width, or a few inches. Check this for both ankles. If you can successfully do that, you do not have an ankle mobility issue that would prevent you from completing a deep squat. If you cannot accomplish this, then you will most likely need to improve your ankle dorsi-flexion, which you can do with this calf stretch.

If you do not see improvement after doing this exercise for some time, you may need to see a manual therapist who can work on the soft tissue of your ankles.

If there are no mobility issues, the inability to complete a deep squat is a stability issue, a result of poor muscle firing patterns. The brain recognizes this disconnect and stops the movement pattern to avoid injury.

Many people display a lack of stability in their movements, but with effort they can retrain the brain by replacing some of the missing stability needed to complete the movement. To assist the deep squat, try what is called a dumbbell-assisted deep squat. It is very effective in teaching the body how to activate its core muscles that may not be firing correctly when trying to squat. If the exercise is too difficult, and particularly if you have some dorsi-flexion restriction, try raising your heels slightly with a thick mat or a two-by-four piece of wood.

When stability is the issue, even seniors can improve to the point that they are able to complete a full deep squat within a 10- to 20-minute instructional session. Obviously, they are not improving their strength in that time frame. They are, however, re-wiring their brain circuitry to create the needed stability.

If you commit to working on your squat movement mechanics, you will gain benefits beyond just being able to increase muscle metabolism when in a resting position. However, if for whatever reason this recommendation isn’t for you, don’t give up on countering the negative consequences of too much sitting. Get up frequently throughout the day and move around.

And if you really want to see some incredible benefits, with very little time commitment (3.5 minutes per week to be precise), try this supra-maximal interval training workout.

References

1. Vallance JK, Gardiner PA, Lynch BM, et al. Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking? Am J Public Health. 2018 Nov; 108 (11): 1478-1482.

2. León-Latre M, Moreno-Franco B, Andrés-Esteban EM, et al. Sedentary Lifestyle and Its Relation to Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Insulin Resistance and Inflammatory Profile. Rev Esp Cardiol (Engl Ed). 2014 Jun; 67(6): 449-55.

3. Stamatakis E, Gale J, Bauman A, et al. Sitting Time, Physical Activity, and Risk of Mortality in Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Apr 30; 73(16): 2062-2072.

4. Raichlen DA, Pontzer H, Zderic TW, et al. Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2020 Mar 31; 117(13): 7115-7121.

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