We've heard the grim news countless times: Sitting is the new smoking. It's a troubling statement to see repeated in the headlines, especially since the average office worker sits for about 10 hours each day (and Netflix, we love you, but you're not helping).
Not only has excessive sitting been associated with everything from strained muscles to spinal damage, but research has shown prolonged sedentary time is associated with harmful health outcomes regardless of physical activity. And while we all put our faith into standing desks as the obvious antidote, it turns out that strategy might be doing more harm than good. There might be a simpler solution that doesn't involve a fancy office accessory or swollen ankles: squatting.
"When it comes to the human body, spending too much time in any single position has a cost," says New York-based naturopathic doctor, nurse practitioner and founder of Seven Senses Integrative Medicine and Holistic Coaching, Erica Matluck. "In the West today, we sit a lot, so it would do us good to squat a bit more."
Sherman Oaks, California-based certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor, Jessica Gilbert agrees. "We should most definitely be squatting more in our everyday lives for many reasons," she says. "The first and most important is that most people struggle from inactive gluteal muscles — 'glutes' — and that can cause low back pain, knee pain, throw off your posture and affect your everyday workouts." She says squatting for about 30 seconds a few times a day can actually strengthen these inactive muscle groups.
You might first want to ask why not squatting? While you may not typically see people in the United States crouching with bent knees, butts hovering above their heels, you'll see that pose on the regular in other countries — particularly in places where squat toilets (where the pan or bowl is at floor level) are common, like throughout Asia, India and Africa. But people in other parts of the world aren't just popping a squat to potty (though that's an important reason we'll get to in a minute). They commonly eschew chairs to crouch when eating, talking and just generally hanging out.
And while the super low squat you'll see abroad may look much different than the standard-issue gym move common in the States, Gilbert says they both have their rightful place and booty-building perks. "A typical gym squat and squats in other countries are all fairly the same, but the depth, range of motion and uses are different," she says. "There are benefits to both because if you are squatting in a gym setting with added weight, you will see a change in your strength and if you are doing it in daily life you are less likely to be engaging those muscles needed to feel the 'burn.'"
Where Did All the Squatters Go?
"It used to be a lot more common to give birth and use the toilet in a squatted position," Matluck says. "The less we squat, the weaker the muscles that make squatting possible become. A lot of fitness routines and yogic practices include squatting exercises for good reason. Squatting increases leg strength and stability, gets the blood flowing, warms up the body, and improves muscle tone without putting excessive pressure on the joints."
And while no one really likes to talk about it, that toilet thing is important (hence the success of the Squatty Potty). "We definitely should all be squatting to have a bowel movement," says New York-based nurse practitioner and health coach, Victoria Albina, FNP-c, MPH. "When we're in a fully squatted position, it's a more natural position for our colon. When the Victorians came up with the concept of a throne toilet, it was a big step backward for bowel health."
But beyond the bathroom, squatting has a ton of benefits that non-practitioners are missing out on. "I also think when we're squatting all the time to do all sorts of things, we're engaging our core and our back and engaging a series of muscles that the average American is no longer engaging," Albina says. "We're having more back pain than ever before — I don't think it's a one-to-one correlation, but we're definitely sitting more and commuting more, and it's one part of the picture."
How to Squat Safely and Effectively
While it's a good idea to get your squat on more often, it's also important to remember not all squats are created equal. "Rapid, careless squatting can easily lead to back injuries, so it's important to engage the core muscles and keep the back straight," Matluck says. "When adding squats to your daily routine, start with slow movements for one to three minutes, and work up to a faster pace and longer duration."
Whether you're squeezing more squats in for overall health and mobility or you're really looking to build some muscle, Gilbert has a few takeaway tips: "Always keep the weight of your squats in your heels, keep your chest up, and shoulder blades back," she says. "When you're doing a squat and coming up to the standing position, always squeeze your butt. If you're leaning forward or backward in your squats, you're more likely to injure yourself, so if you are new to working out or just want to improve your squatting technique, I recommend finding a bench and practice the sitting and standing technique."
Stuck at the office all day? That's not an excuse. Gilbert says to try 15 to 20 reps at your desk chair by taking a seat and standing up — it's almost the same idea as the gym technique.