Forget Sitting Versus Standing. The Real Question Is Should You Squat More?

 Anna Medaris Miller

Eric Schwarz's house is decorated with low tables so he can squat while eating or typing on his laptop. When he goes to the beach, he packs sand under his hips "to create the perfect amount of support for a savory squat." He recommends squatting – even just for five minutes – while sipping coffee in the morning, working at a desk during the day, watching TV at night or, better yet, all three. "You could say I'm having a squatting moment," says Schwarz, an American yoga teacher and life coach currently living in Perth, Australia.

Schwarz is not talking about the squats you do in the gym to sculpt your behind or prepare for a CrossFit competition. He's talking about a natural squat – a resting posture in which your rear end sinks below your hips, your legs and feet turn outward and your heels remain on the floor until you're comfortably perched either as-is or on some support like a block.

"For most of human history, [the natural squat] has been our preferred modality of resting," Schwarz says. But thanks to the invention of chairs, most of us in developed countries, at least, have forgotten how to assume it. "[Properly squatting] isn't easy for most of us, not because it's anatomically unnatural, but because we have been raised in a 'chair-phillic' culture and, by the principle of, 'if you don't use it, you lose it,' squatting feels unfamiliar," Schwarz says. "But in actuality, squatting is one of the most natural things in the world."

Is Squatting the Next Standing?

In recent years, the chair has become public enemy No. 1, with health advocates claiming "sitting is the new smoking." They're not off-base: Research has found that people who sat the most were twice as likely to die over a four-year period as folks who remained more active. One research review also linked prolonged sitting with a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and early death – even among regular exercisers.

But the popular solution has been to get up and stand – not to get low and squat. Should both be key parts of health recommendations? While there's little to no research specifically comparing a resting squat with sitting or standing, in the "Blue Zones," or the parts of the world where people live the longest, squatting seems to be a common denominator, Schwarz says. In Okinawa, Japan, where the average life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, for example, residents may squat to harvest seaweed. In a community in Sardinia, Italy, where twice as many people live to 100 compared to Italy as a whole, they may squat to milk cows.

Why might squatting be linked to such benefits? Perhaps in part because the ability to do it is indicative of other health measures. For example, if you squat easily, it means the three critical joints of your legs – the ankle, knee and hip – are functioning in harmony with each other and your brain, says Sonja Johansson, a New York City-based Feldenkrais practitioner, a type of movement educator who uses small motions and directed attention to improve people's functioning and quality of life.

Ease of squatting, Johansson adds, is also linked to a reduced likelihood of falls – something key for martial artists who want to improve in their discipline and older adults who want to lengthen their lives alike. "If you can get down and up from the floor 100 or more ways, you've effectively made yourself fall-proof," says Johansson, who's also certified in personal training, Pilates and teaching several other health and fitness classes. Indeed, one 2014 study of 2,002 51- to 80-year-olds found that the better they were at getting up from the floor (excellent "stander-uppers," for instance, could do so without using their hands or knees as support), the less likely they were to die over about the next six years.

What's more, Schwarz says, "regular squatting means healthy hips, and healthy hips mean a healthy spine, and ultimately, you're only as young as your spine is mobile." He points out that mobility is an important indicator of health because it involves being both flexible and strong. As Johansson puts it, like a tree enduring a wind gust, you can better bear the elements if you're limber, not stiff.

Not that squatting should take the place of other activities. The important thing, says Dr. Michael Roizen, a preventive medicine physician and the chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, isn't whether you squat or stand, it's that you move – ideally, by walking. The activity, which has been shown to ward off insulin resistance and subsequent metabolic syndrome, is by far the most important physical activity for health maintenance, he says. Resistance training (including squatting, if you'd like), cardiovascular exercise and jumping all tie for second place. "What we really want to do is move joints and move your entire body," Roizen says.

But a the very least, he says, squatting instead of sitting means engaging more muscles the same way sitting on a ball might. "The theory would be that if you're squatting, that requires more use of core muscles," he says.

Safe Squatting

Ready to squat more? Just like a weighted squat in the gym, proper alignment is critical in order to reap the benefits and avoid injury. Schwarz recommends moving your hips back (rather than moving your knees forward), making sure your knees remain over your toes rather than caving inward and aiming to maintain a long spine and flat feet. Novice squatters should lower onto a block or pillow to avoid straining the knees and other leg joints. "Too much eagerness will cause you to overdo it and will regress your progress," Schwarz says.

If you have knee concerns, injuries or "cranky joints," start even simpler, Johansson suggests. One exercise she works clients through, for example, involves sitting on the edge of a chair and sliding one foot at a time forward and back without lifting the heel. The idea is to notice how the ankle, knee, hip and spine all coordinate to make the motion possible. "Aim for a smooth, consistent and proportionally distributed movement," she says.

In terms of when to squat, Schwarz suggests breaking up sitting spells by squatting for just 30 seconds or less every half hour. (Depending on your work environment, adjust this advice appropriately, of course.) You can also squat while watching TV or eating a snack in the privacy of your home. "When you want to incorporate a health behavior into your life, it's more likely to stick if it becomes integrated into everything you do," Schwarz says.

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