In much of the developed world, resting is synonymous with sitting. We sit in desk chairs, eat from dining chairs, commute seated in cars or on trains, and then come home to watch Netflix from comfy couches. With brief respites for walking from one chair to another, or short intervals for frenzied exercise, we spend our days mostly sitting.
Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor.
Squatting isn’t just an artifact of our evolutionary history. A large swath of the planet’s population still does it on a daily basis, whether to rest, to pray, to cook, to share a meal, or to use the toilet. (Squat-style toilets are the norm in Asia, and pit latrines in rural areas all over the world require squatting.) As they learn to walk, toddlers from New Jersey to Papua New Guinea squat—and stand up from a squat—with grace and ease. In countries where hospitals are not widespread, squatting is also a position associated with that most fundamental part of life: birth.
But in Western countries, entire populations—rich and poor—have abandoned the posture. On the whole, squatting is seen as an undignified and uncomfortable posture—one we avoid entirely. This ignores the fact that deep squatting as a form of active rest is built in to both our evolutionary and developmental past: It’s not that you can’t comfortably sit in a deep squat, it’s just that you’ve forgotten how.
So why is squatting so good for us?
Every joint in our body has synovial fluid in it. This is the oil in our body that provides nutrition to the cartilage. Two things are required to produce that fluid: movement and compression. So if a joint doesn’t go through its full range—if the hips and knees never go past 90 degrees—the body says ‘I’m not being used’ and starts to degenerate and stops the production of synovial fluid.
A healthy musculoskeletal system doesn’t just make us feel lithe and juicy, it also has implications for our wider health. A the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that test subjects who showed difficulty getting up off the floor without support of hands, or an elbow, or leg (what’s called the “sitting-rising test”) resulted in a three-year-shorter life expectancy than subjects who got up with ease.
The reason squatting is so uncomfortable because we don’t do it.Wellness movements are starting to acknowledge that “floor life” is key. In a sense, squatting is where humans—every single one of us—came from, so it behooves us to revisit it as often as we can.