You probably don’t know how to squat. In fact, you are probably not capable of squatting for any period of time, even though it is one of the basic human positions, like standing and lying. Why does it matter? Because, as I recently discovered, squatting is the optimal position for all sorts of things — eating, working, defecating, exercising, and especially giving birth. Learning to squat can even prevent cancer!
The full, resting squat position
I first learned about squatting through “Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way.” Squatting is one of the exercises the book recommends to build muscles for birth as well as an alternative birthing position. What most people knows as “squatting” is the partial squat — where only the ball of the foot touches the ground. This position cannot be held for long because it requires continual muscle tension. For the full “resting” squat, you must plant your feet flat on the ground with your buttocks resting on the backs of the calves. Try it. You feel off-balance, right? That’s because a life of sitting on chairs and wearing shoes with heels (including most men’s shoes) has shortened your Achilles tendons and left many muscles underdeveloped.
While “civilized” people who have office jobs and read blogs rarely squat, it is still very common in the developing world. In China (where I live), you will often see people squatting while working or eating. The majority of people across the world also squat on the toilet. Is that because they don’t have money to pay for western-style toilets and chairs?
Squatting for health:
Actually, it turns out squatting offers numerous health advantages for all kinds of activities. First, you must realize that human beings did not evolve to sit on chairs and toilets. This matters because the unnatural position we use while eating and defecating sitting down causes various health problems including:
- Bladder Incontinence
- Colitis and Crohn’s Disease
- Colon Cancer
- Contamination of the Small Intestine
- Gynecological Disorders
- Pelvic Organ Prolapse
- Uterine Fibroids
- Heart Attacks
- Hiatus Hernia and GERD
- Pregnancy and Childbirth Issues
- Prostate Disorders
- Sexual Dysfunction
Squatting for birth:
Squatting also happens to be the ideal position for birth. Lying down to give birth is a very recent “innovation” due to the replacement of midwives with doctors in the last century. Lying flat for birth reduces blood flow to baby and placenta, increasing the risk of fetal distress, whereas squatting maximizes the spaces between the pelvic bones and puts pressure on the cervix. Unfortunately, after a life time of sitting and wearing heels, most women cannot maintain a squat without extensive exercise.
Squatting for back pain:
A few years ago, I went to a social event that required me to stand while talking to people for several hours. Although no exercise was involved, the effort of just standing for an extended time caused such a strain in my back that I was in pain for weeks. Most adults have experiences some sort of back pain and assume that this one of the costs for the privilege of walking upright. In fact, the reason back pain is so common in the West is because we spend most of our time sitting or reclining rather than walking and squatting.
Farewell to the chair?
So we need to change our ideas about birthing position and toilet design, but what about chairs? Chairs for common use (rather than as thrones for public display) only became common with the European Renaissance.
I’m not an expert in ergonomics, but I suppose that sitting in a chair certainly has practical benefits. It allows for a better view of the surroundings, better access to operate machinery, and probably requires less calories. Are these benefits relevant to the modern office worker plugged into on a computer terminal all day? I don’t know. The important thing is not to rely exclusively on the chair (or couch or bed) to support one’s body. Ultra-comfortable ergonomic designs work against us when they allow the muscles that support the back and neck to atrophy. Every now and then, you must let your muscles and tendons do the job they were designed for.