It’s a commonly held view that going to the gym compensates for all those hours sitting in the office.
Actually, it doesn’t. The science is clear about this. Prolonged sitting increases the risk of heart disease and an early demise regardless of how much exercise people engage in.
Yet human evolution favors energy conservation. Resting for long periods shouldn’t be harmful. So why is it?
It seems some ways of resting are superior to others. And sitting is not one of them, unless you consider this…
A review of 47 studies linked extended periods of sitting to a greater incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and death from any cause “regardless of physical activity.”
But evolutionary biologists from the University of California thought this was strange. Evolutionary pressures favor strategies that minimize the use of energy, so it made no sense for our health to suffer in this way.
Secrets of Healthy Resting from the Hadza of Tanzania
To seek some answers to this paradox, they garnered the help of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle similar to how humans lived in the past.
Previous research with the group showed they were physically active for several hours of the day hunting game and digging up tubers. The Hadza also had excellent heart health with good blood pressure readings and healthy cholesterol levels.
But this still left many hours of the day unaccounted for. Scientists theorized the Hadza are free of the kinds of chronic disease seen in industrialized countries because of the way they rest.
They tested their theory by studying not only their activity levels, but also the way they spent their downtime.
The Benefits of Squatting and Kneeling
To do this, the researchers obtained the agreement of 28 tribesmen and women aged between 18 and 61 to wear physical and electrical activity-checking devices around their thighs as a way to observe them for eight days.
The scientists found, confirming previous research, that the Hadza participants’ activity levels were high, more than three times higher than the 150 minutes a week some experts advise for Americans. But the Hadza also spend as much leisure time as we do in the developed world, at around nine to ten hours a day.
Lead author David Raichlen is a professor of Human and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California. He explains why, in spite of more or less remaining still for so long, the Hadza remain healthy.
“…one of the key differences we noticed is that the Hadza are often resting in postures that require their muscles to maintain light levels of activity — either in a squat or kneeling.
“Being a couch potato — or even sitting in an office chair — requires less muscle activity than squatting or kneeling. Since light levels of muscle activity require fuel, which generally means burning fats, then squatting and kneeling postures may not be as harmful as sitting in chairs.
“Squatting is not a likely alternative,” Prof. Raichlen admitted, “but spending more time in postures that at least require some low-level muscle activity could be good for our health.”
Fidget for Health
Prolonged sitting reduces muscular activity in the lower extremities, which decreases blood flow to the legs and thereby damages blood vessels. Squatting or kneeling are not, as Professor Raichlen acknowledges, practical solutions for the office or the home.
But sports scientists published a paper in 2016 describing how these problems could be prevented by fidgeting.
According to them, “This study provides the first evidence that the detrimental vascular effects of sitting are preventable with small amounts of leg movement while seated for an extended period.
“Accordingly, people should be encouraged to consciously engage in leg movement when sitting for prolonged periods of time either at work or at home.”
Fidgeting Can Also Help You Lose Weight
The benefits of fidgeting were proven by another research study in 2019. These scientists found that compared to those that fidget the least, those who fidget the most sport a lower body mass index and smaller waist circumference, and enjoy considerably less risk of heart and blood vessel disease.
The simplest way to fidget while sitting is to tap your heels. Sounds odd, but that’s what they say.
Another is to move the feet forward until only the heels touch the ground, then continually pivot the feet up and down with either very fast tiny movements or larger, slower movements. Rest and move the legs to the left and right.
In a standard chair, an alternative is to bring the feet back until the heels lift up, then move the heels up and down before moving the legs as before.
So, the next time you’re sitting in your office chair, maybe while stuck in a long Zoom meeting, do these movements at regular intervals and they’ll help you stay as heart healthy as the Hadza.