the exercise that everyone should be doing

Members of the Hazda Tribe squat rather than sit - C David A. Raichlen/University of Southern California/ PA
Members of the Hazda Tribe squat rather than sit – C David A. Raichlen/University of Southern California/ PA

By now, we know that spending too much time sitting down could take years off our life. Several studies have shown that increased periods of time spent sitting down could put us at greater risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. You only need to look Online Gambling’s models of future Netflix addicts – red-eyes, washed out pale skin and morbidly overweight bodies – to be put off ever touching base with your sofa again. 

But not so fast. The key to good health could lie in the way we choose to sit, rather than how much time we spend in sedentary positions. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the habits of the Hadza tribe who live in Tanzania, East Africa; a hunter gatherer community who do not use any furniture. It revealed that although the Hadzas spend the same nine to ten hours a day resting as those in the UK typically do, they are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases than those in “industrialised” societies.

Professor David Raichlen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Southern California and the study’s lead author, attributed the Hazda tribe’s good health to the fact that they squat or kneel, rather than sit. This is because when we sit, the muscles in the legs and buttocks switch off. However, squatting keeps those muscles working.

While you may not be ready to ditch that expensive desk chair just yet, squats can be easily incorporated into our daily exercise routines.

“Squatting is a natural movement for us, we are evolved to be comfortable in a squat position, it is a range of motion and comfort we should work hard to maintain or regain if we have lost it,” said Scott Laidler, a film industry personal trainer from London.

This is an idea echoed by Joe Mitton, a personal trainer and founder of MitFitt. He says that he uses squats with “99 per cent of his clients.”

“They’re beneficial because they hit so many muscle groups,” he says. “When you squat, you’re engaging your glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and ankles. If you’re doing weighted squats, then you’re using your upper body to stabilise the movement, making it a full body workout,” he said.

Indeed, the unexpected health benefits of squatting might just make it the perfect exercise. A 2015 study, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s conference in San Diego, found that simply breaking up sitting every half an hour with squats and calf raises – standing on a flat surface and lifting your heels to flex your calf muscles until standing on tiptoes – improved blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.

And don’t just think that they’re reserved for the young and the very fit; two of the strongest predictors of long life are strength and muscle mass in the lower body. A trial, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in 2014, revealed that people, aged 51 to 80, who could get up from a squat-like position without using their hands, were less likely to die within the next six years than those who couldn’t pull themselves up.

Mitton says that squats can be particularly beneficial for clients with muscle pain. “When I see clients with back pain, the first thing I work on is the glutes,” he said. This is because having tight glutes anteriorly tilts the pelvis, causing back pain. “By mobilising the glutes, and keeping our hips active – which is what squats do – people will have reduced back pain, easier movement and better posture,” he added.

The best thing about squats is that they require no equipment and can be done virtually anywhere. However, for first-timers, Mitton maintains it’s crucial to start slow and build up, ideally by using a chair. That way, if you lose your balance you have something to fall back on. Despite being a relatively simple exercise, Mitton says the biggest mistake he sees people make is “focusing solely on trying to get as low as possible.”

“Different age groups have different levels of stability. I like my clients to make sure they’re sitting into it, feet flat on the floor and hip length apart. Sometimes people can put too much force through their lower backs. Instead, the spine should be neutral and the core embraced; that way, you can really sit into the position,” he said.

How to squat properly

Whether you’re a seasoned squatter or a lockdown newbie, we can all benefit from some professional guidance. “For the perfect squat you should seek first to perfect bodyweight squat and then explore squats that incorporate resistance equipment, like weights or bands,” said Scott Laidler. 

Scott’s top squat tips:

  • Start by standing with your feet slightly wider than your hips with feet rotated out approximately 20 degrees.

  • Look straight out in front of you focusing on a spot to fixate on through your movement, this keeps your spine neutral and aligned.

  • Put your arms out in front of you and keep them parallel to the ground. 

  • Ensure that the weight is distributed through the heels and balls of your feet (not your toes) 

  • Brace your body throughout the moment staying tight (as if preparing to be punched in the stomach) 

  • As you descent keep your knees in line with your feet. Do not let them rotate inward. 

  • When your hip joint is slightly lower than your knees, this is called being ‘parallel’.

  • From this point stand back up staying tight breathing deeply and continuing to push your knees outward. Engage your glutes. 

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