As a country, we are far too sedentary—for many reasons. The emergence of new technology like smartphones and streaming video services has meant we’re spending more time on the couch seeking entertainment instead of engaging in physical activity. A lot of us have been working from our makeshift home desks too, spending eight hours (or more) sitting in front of a computer each day.
Despite improved guidelines for movement and more awareness in the past decade, a JAMA study published in 2019 showed that Americans are not getting more active. Sedentary behavior is actually on the rise. But could a slight adjustment to how we “rest” actually help our overall health? That’s what researchers set out to discover.
David Raichlen, PhD, a professor of Human and Evolutionary Biology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California, recently led a study on the sedentary behaviors in a hunting-gathering society to compare to that of industrialized nations. His team worked with Hadza, who are hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. “They agreed to wear accelerometers that measured posture and helped us measure time spent sedentary,” he tells Fitbit. “We also observed their resting postures and measured muscle activity in different postures using electromyography.”
Interestingly, Raichlen’s team discovered that the Hadza were sedentary roughly the same amount of hours per day as Americans—with one distinct difference. “They spent their sedentary time in postures that elicited light levels of muscle activity, like squatting and kneeling,” says Raichlen.
The goal was to examine the roots of the “evolution of human inactivity,” which carry tons of negative health consequences. Sedentary behaviors carry an increased risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, and death from all causes. By contrast, the Hadza are relatively healthy and do not carry the same level of chronic conditions we see here in the United States, even though they are inactive quite a lot.
It might have to do with the squatting and kneeling, says Raichlen, who suggests that while “humans were likely sedentary for long periods of time” in our evolutionary past as hunter-gatherers, “our bodies did not evolve in the context of complete muscle inactivity” like sitting in chairs and lounging on couches. “Instead, we suggest that sedentary behaviors during much of human evolution occurred with light levels of muscle activity. It is the lack of muscle activity during chair sitting that may carry negative health effects, so chair sitting may represent an inactivity mismatch with our current behaviors.”
According to Raichlen, “squatting and kneeling lead to higher levels of muscle activity than chair sitting,” which in turn “increases muscle metabolism, helping reduce biomarkers of cardiovascular disease.” Overall, keeping those muscles a little bit active during your day might be beneficial.
When it comes to movement, you absolutely don’t have to go for an intense run, a long bike ride, or an hour swim to derive benefits. Even two to four miles of walking per day, roughly 4,000 to 8,000 steps, can be beneficial for overall health, reducing your risk of obesity, heart disease, and cholesterol, while improving immune function and joint aches. Just 30 minutes, or 10 minutes of walking three times a day, and you can be well on your way to better health.
So, the next time you sit down at your computer to go to work, or queue up Netflix, remember to break up your downtime with a little light movement. Try kneeling or squatting, if you want, but that might not be realistic for everyone. It’s okay to try just walking around your living room or using a taller countertop as a standing desk. Raichlen thinks that’s the biggest takeaway from his study; simple movements can lead to big gains. “Our bodies are not well-suited for long periods of muscle inactivity,” he says. “It is best to find ways to have more active muscles during the day, which may include breaking up periods of chair sitting with standing or walking.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.