Sitting Is Killing You Slowly
You'll probably be surprised at how much evidence there is out there that sitting is terrible for our bodies, and not just for our lower backs. Studies have shown over and over that sitting long periods of the day (as we almost all do) has disastrous effects our cellular and metabolic health. Here's a quick list of how researchers have shown sitting affects the body: Almost immediately after sitting down, (1) metabolic activity and caloric consumption slow dramatically (70% less than even just walking). (2) Sitting several hours every day increases insulin resistance (leads to type-II diabetes) and (3) increases LDL (aka "bad cholesterol"). These effects in turn lead to lower energy levels, increased weight gain and even lower life expectancy and greater risk of colon and breast cancer.
Our Bodies Were Not Designed To Sit
The image below on the left shows proper spine curvature. The muscles around our spine are designed to support and work in relation to this natural curvature. With the spine in this alignment, the muscles of the low-back engage and relax naturally.
The image on the right illustrates how the curvature of our spine changes when we are sitting. The forward curvature of the lumbar section is gone. As a result, muscles are forced to engage to stabilize this un-natural curvature. This isn't necessarily a problem in itself, except that when we sit, we tend to sit for long periods of time. The muscles of our low-back barely move and end up tensing around this un-natural curvature of the spine. If we sit long/often enough, the tensing will persist even when we stand again (enter sore/tense low-backs). The more you sit without stretching the muscles, the worse the problem gets.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that while your spine is in this un-natural curvature, it's also under compression (by the weight of your upper body). This means that for long periods of time, the discs and muscles of your low-back are being compressed while in an unnatural, static position. Again, not good.
Proper spine curvature Impact of sitting on the lumbar spine
Move It Or Lose It
For the average person who alternates between walking (legs at 180° relative to the spine) and sitting (legs at 90° relative to spine) in the course of a day, the legs rarely ever move beyond the 90° point (i.e. closer to the rib cage). This means that a huge portion of our potential hip and lower back mobility is never used. Our joints and muscles operate on a "move it or lose it" basis, meaning that they will slowly tighten and restrict range-of-motion over time when full joint range-of-motion isn't used regularly. Do you have trouble getting into a full squat (i.e. heels on the floor)? It's because you never do it.
So why should you care if you lose mobility in some of your joints? Simple - our bodies feel better when they're able to move naturally. Tight hips and low-back changes the way you walk and move in-general. Beyond that, loss of joint mobility is a slow and continual process. Even if your lack of mobility doesn't bother you now, it most certainly will down the road when the problem compounds after years of neglect. If preventative maintenance is what will motivate you to start fully using your joints today, great. But I promise you, you'll be impressed with how much better your body can feel in the short term with improved range-of-motion.
The Solution: Squatting
In most traditional cultures around the world, lower back pain is almost non-existent, despite the fact that people living in these societies perform a lot more physical labor. The reason for this is pretty clear cut. Most people in traditional societies rarely, if ever, sit in chairs for long periods of time. If they need to rest, they squat. Put simply, it's what our bodies are designed to do.
When we squat, our lumbar spine extends, stretching the muscles in our low-back. There is little-to-no compression in the spine and stabilization is distributed between the muscles of the legs, hips and core. It's a perfect posture.
Aside from being a perfect resting posture, squatting has the added benefit of working to fix the damage you've done to your hips and lumbar spine from sitting in chairs your whole life. When the muscles in your low-back stretch, the chronic holding patters begin to release. Your hips move into that under-explored territory beyond the 90° point, and hip mobility will gradually return over time.
Learning To Squat Again
Go ahead and try to squat. Have your heels at about hip distance width and your toes pointed slightly outward. How close do your heels come to the ground? How comfortable it this in your knees, hips and low back? If this is comfortable and your heels are on the ground - congratulations, you are in the tiny minority. For everyone else - if squatting is uncomfortable and your heels are off the ground, it's because a lifetime of sitting in chairs has robbed you of your natural ability to squat. All small children can squat perfectly, and you could too at one point.
Want to reclaim your natural squatting ability? Here's how:
- Support Your Heels - Lack of achilles/ankle flexibility is often the main limiter for being able to squat comfortably. Relieving the strain on your achilles will not only make ankles more comfortable, but will in-turn relieve strain on your knees and hips as well. A rolled up towel or yoga mat makes a convenient bolster. As your flexibility increases, you can make the bolsters smaller until you no longer need them.
- Build Your Squatting Flexibility - There is a fair amount of flexibility required from the ankles, hips and low back in proper squatting posture, particularly of you want to hold the posture for a while. Again, your body naturally had this flexibility at one point, and would still have it if you hadn't spent decades sitting in chairs. Doing specific exercises to improve the flexibility of these joints can speed up the process of re-training your body to squat. Below is a video of squat-mobility exercises from natural-movement guru Ido Portal.
- Squat Daily - The only way you're going to build the joint mobility needed to squat comfortably is by squatting every day. It's not like you don't have time. Just slowly start to replace your sitting time with squatting time. If you're having trouble holding a squat for more than a few minutes, any posture that moves your femur (upper leg bone) past 90° closer to your rib cage and alleviates compression on the low spine is better than sitting. This video offers a good list of intermediate postures that will work you towards a full squat.
Squatting: Practical Applications
In a world designed for sitting on objects (i.e. chairs), it can be tough to fully replace sitting with squatting. Squatting while driving is effectively not an option (I've tried). Squatting while working has its own challenges. A lot of office chairs have arms, which make squatting on top of them less than ideal. Tables, of course, are manufactured at a height appropriate for people sitting in chairs. Squatting on the ground brings you to somewhere around eye-level with the table - not ideal working conditions.
So what's the solution? Mix it up. As long as you're not sitting static in a chair for hours on end, you're a world better off than you were previously. During a work day (meaning in front of a computer), I'm constantly alternating between standing, squatting on the floor, squatting on my chair and sitting. If I'm just reading, I'll often use that time to squat on the floor and tilt the screen down towards me. When I need to be typing continuously, I'll alternate between sitting and crouching on my chair. Make a habit of moving every 10 minutes or so and you'll find your flow. I've found without question that my focus, energy and productivity go up significantly when I'm alternating between postures compared to sitting statically.
If you're lucky, your desk might adjust low enough to accommodate your squatting. You can also borrow the strategy I'm about to implement. I've ordered a pair of 11-Inch folding stools which, if all goes to plan, should allow me to squat at the perfect height above my normal desk.
A word also needs to be said about pants here. You'll learn quickly, jeans (and most pants) are not squatting-compatible clothing. If you're like me and your fashion sensibilities prevent you from wearing sweat pants or yoga pants every day, you'll need a better solution. Fortunately for us, my good friend, Dustin Klein, designed some amazing pants for his clothing company, Cadence Collection. They're stylish, well-crafted trousers, but they're made with 3% lycra fabric, meaning they stretch like yoga pants. It is not an exaggeration to say these pants have changed my life. Check them out here.
Finally, I leave you with this strange bit of squatting fanatacism:
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A contractor designed the Squatty Potty to help his mother get closer to the squatting position on the john. Courtesy of Squatty Potty hide caption
We at Shots don't shy away from talking about poop, as Michaeleen Doucleff demonstrated last month with her post on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's investment in fake feces.
Poop talk may strike some as juvenile, but many people in the world don't have a safe way to do their business. And by age 50, about half of American adults have experienced hemorrhoid symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Which brings us to a discussion that's been simmering since at least the 1960s. Is the modern toilet at least partly to blame for problems like hemorrhoids and constipation?
Some architects and doctors have posited that squatting may be the more natural position for us to do our business. That's spawned a sort of squatting counterculture and a budding industry to go with it.
As neuroscientist Daniel Lametti wrote in Slate in 2010, squatting allows the, er, anorectal angle to straighten, so that less effort is required for evacuation. And today there are lots of squatting evangelists on the Internet who marshal scientific evidence, limited as it may be, and ample cultural evidence of the practice enduring in many parts of the world to make their case that squatting is superior.
But not everyone who might want to experiment with squatting can actually squat safely or comfortably, especially elderly folks with bowel movement issues. Enter Squatty Potty, a product launched by Robert Edwards, a 37-year-old contractor and designer in St. George, Utah. The story really starts with his mother, who was suffering hemorrhoids and constipation and had resorted to raising her feet with a step stool while on the john, for some relief.
The bulky step stool took up too much space, so Edwards offered to make her one that would fit snugly around the base of the toilet when not in use.
The family experimented with different prototypes and soon realized there was a market for such a product. In the last year, Edwards says without any advertising he has sold 10,000 Squatty Pottys (they start at $34.95) — a testament to the revival of squatting in the U.S. And he says he has become more convinced that the modern toilet is the cause of many people's bowel issues.
"The modern toilet has been sold to us as civilized, but the straining that sitting causes is not healthy," Edwards tells Shots. Squatting, on the other hand, or getting closer to squatting with the help of the Squatty Potty, can end hemorrhoids, prevent colon disease, improve pelvic floor issues, and offer numerous other benefits, he asserts.
We wondered what doctors had to say about all this, so we called up Rebekah Kim, a colorectal surgeon at theCenter for Pelvic Floor Disorders at Virginia Hospital Center. Kim sees a lot of older women like Roberts' mother who've developed conditions that make defecation difficult.
Kim says one of the first things she tells patients who struggle on the john is get a stack of telephone books or a stool to rest their feet on – an option not unlike the Squatty Potty. But she says many of the claims Squatty Potty makes haven't been well tested.
"Squatting on a stool can reduce the amount of straining on the toilet, which may mean less hemorrhoids, but there are no clinical studies proving that," she says.
So does this mean everyone should consider abandoning the more comfortable position of sitting for the potentially preventative position of squatting? No, says Kim.
"For most people, the modern toilet doesn't cause any problems," she says. But if you're to believe Slate's Lametti, squatting on top of the toilet could be a time-saver — he managed to drop his 10-minute routine down to a minute.