The ancient exercise rituals of these hunter-gatherers from Tanzania could save your life

Squat, don’t sit. Okay, taking a knee works just as well. Those are the findings of a recent study conducted at the University of Southern California that investigated the best ways for humans to rest while mitigating health risks.

Now, obviously squatting while watching a movie or reading a book doesn’t exactly sound pleasant, but these findings just go to show how important it is to get up and get our muscles moving every couple hours or so. 

In between Netflix binges, it may make all the difference to squat down for a few minutes in between couch sessions.

It’s been well established that sitting all day isn’t exactly healthy. Increased risk of obesity and heart problems are a few issues that immediately come to mind. However, that doesn’t really stop most of us from doing it anyway. Sitting for hours on end is essentially unavoidable in modern life. Besides the fact that millions literally have to sit at their desks while on the job, a nice comfy couch is the quintessential ingredient of living rooms the world over. 

The problem with sitting is the fact that it essentially requires no muscle activity at all. Additionally, sitting for hours on end promotes a slower muscle metabolism to boot. 

The inherent dangers of sitting are ironic, though, from an evolutionary perspective. Early man had to be quick on his (or her) feet in order to evade predators, and that requires a decent amount of energy on hand just in case that fight-or-flight reflex kicks in.

To that end, is there any better way to build up some energy than sitting down for a few hours? So, according to the study’s authors, the way in which our bodies have evolved to be adverse to long periods of sitting represents a conundrum.

“We tend to think human physiology is adapted to the conditions in which we evolved,” says David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, in a press release. “So, we assumed that if inactivity is harmful, our evolutionary history would not have included much time spent sitting the way we do today.”

With all this in mind, the next natural conclusion is that early humans rested without actually sitting. Working off of this hypothesis, researchers set out to examine a group of people who still live in a way very similar to a time before couches, chairs, and benches: a group of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers called the Hadza.

The Hadza live a primitive lifestyle, at least by modern society’s standards, and many still hunt as their primary source of sustenance. Suffice to say, there isn’t a La-Z-Boy in sight among the Hadza. 

What was discovered regarding the Hadza’s resting methods and subsequent health patterns were rather extraordinary. Surprisingly, even these modern-day hunter-gatherers spend quite a lot of time relaxing, about 9-10 hours each day, which is comparable to the average modern working American. Looks like we’re not so different after all. The difference is that the Hadza don’t show the same common signs of chronic disease that are linked to prolonged periods of sitting in modern cultures.

This is likely because the Hadza don’t typically sit down while resting, instead opting to squat or kneel. 

To come to these conclusions, a group of Hadza volunteers was fitted with a device that kept track of both their activity and time spent resting. Predictably, the average Hadza is quite a bit more active than the average westerner. Participants were routinely active a full three times as much as the recommended 22 minutes per day suggested by US federal health guidelines.

The real story, as mentioned before, was how inactive the Hadza were while simultaneously avoiding the chronic conditions that plague so many westerners. 

“Even though there were long periods of inactivity, one of the key differences we noticed is that the Hadza are often resting in postures that require their muscles to maintain light levels of activity — either in a squat or kneeling,” Raichlen comments.

Specialized equipment was also used to measure Hadza participants’ muscle activity within their lower limbs during various resting poses (squatting, kneeling). The act of squatting provoked far more muscle activity than sitting.

The research team believes that the Hadza’s combination of lots of exercise along with long periods of time spent squatting or kneeling has culminated in more robust muscle activity in general, reducing the health risks linked to their resting periods.

“Being a couch potato — or even sitting in an office chair — requires less muscle activity than squatting or kneeling,” Raichlen explains. “Since light levels of muscle activity require fuel, which generally means burning fats, then squatting and kneeling postures may not be as harmful as sitting in chairs.”

Even the study’s leaders themselves admit that it just isn’t realistic to expect people to start squatting all day, but they still believe that “more active rest postures” may be the key to healthier lazy days.

The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.