Here’s a surprising fact: Although ancestral humans often died young as a result of childbirth, trauma, or infection, those who lived to 70 showed little if any evidence of modern chronic ailments ranging from obesity and diabetes to calcified arteries and heart disease. As a physician over 60, learning about these unexpectedly healthy elders inspired the question, “What can we adopt from the ancestral lifestyle that might reduce our burden of chronic illness in the modern world?”
Physicians with the same question gather from all corners of the globe once a year for new answers at the annual Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS), held last summer in Boulder, Colorado. Impossible to ignore were the sessions that asked a different question, namely, “What have modern humans universally adopted that has added to our burden of chronic illness?” Two simple answers to think about are the shoe and the chair.
Dr. Mark Cucuzella, a professor of Family Medicine, reminded us that our incredibly complex feet serve us well as a platform on which to stage a healthy life, but only if we allow them to sense and respond to the world we move across. The demands of style cram our naturally splayed toes into squares or points—and, worst of all, can put a teetering skeleton atop an elevated heel. Stiletto or otherwise, we are not meant to walk falling forward, seeking a cushion for our pounding forefeet. Even with the arthritis in my knees, I was able to join the class to take my properly positioned bare feet on a run around the courtyard: my first comfortable run in five years!
I was definitely ready for more when Tony Federico, a paleo-oriented personal trainer, turned the spotlight on our backsides. He pointed out that chairs “emerged in prehistoric times as a way for high-status individuals to designate their social standing, and their use was almost exclusively the domain of the affluent class until the Industrial Revolution made affordable, mass-produced seating possible.” Keep in mind that in ancient times, obesity was a symbol of belonging to the 1 percent. The rich were fat and sat in chairs. Today, of course, that symbol has reversed. The wealthy are more active and are much less likely to be among the 68 percent of Americans who are overweight.
Federico went on to explain that the average American now sits more than 10 hours a day. When we’re supported by a chair, our muscles go to sleep but the fascia keeps remodeling, knitting soft tissues into a permanently bent position: a kinked paper clip that can’t instantly unbend and go out for a vigorous hike. Sitting more than four hours a day, compared to less than two, is associated with an 80 percent increase in cardiovascular mortality. I knew that already, and you probably did too. But this time it sank in for me.
Why? Because there was also a talk called “As Essential as Brushing Your Teeth: The Deep Squat,” by a strength coach and chiropractor named George Dagher. He spoke of the squat as a “fundamental pattern,” and of course it is—or at least it was. Dr. Dagher’s emphasis was exercise and weight training and the extraordinary benefits of this full body movement. But the deep squat, we’re also rediscovering, is the natural and healthiest way to poop. It’s also the natural and healthiest way to give birth. More than that, it’s what people did for much of the day out on the savannah in the time before chairs. For children and many indigenous peoples, the deep squat is not part of a difficult exercise but the natural way to rest—in a way that it is very different from sitting in a chair. Squatting is weight bearing, it involves core strength, and it requires a full body movement and a lot of strength to get up and down. Humans of all ages used to do this with regularity—and now so many of us can’t do it at all.
No, I haven’t thrown out my shoes and my chairs and I’m not planning to install one of those squatty potties. But I am spreading my barefoot toes more intentionally when I stand and walk, and have piled up some boxes to create a new workstation and am writing this while standing up. When I do sit, I take a break every 20 minutes by hanging on to the knob of a closed door and squatting deeply. And I now view even my favorite chairs a bit more gravely.
What We Used to Do With Regularity
The deep squat can be challenging if you’re not used to it. If you want to try it, position yourself with something sturdy to hold onto. Lower your bottom gradually, keeping your knees pushing out to the side (not falling toward each other), and keep your knees over or behind your toes. Lower yourself as far as you can go, and stay as long as is comfortable. Rely on as much arm power as you need to pull yourself up without feeling strain in your knees. Magic, you are a deep squatter!