Sitting, squatting, and the evolutionary biology of human inactivity
Inactivity is a growing public health risk in industrialized societies, leading some to suggest that our bodies did not evolve to be sedentary. Here, we show that, in a group of hunter-gatherers, time spent sedentary is similar to that found in industrialized populations. However, sedentary time in hunter-gatherers is often spent in postures like squatting that lead to higher levels of muscle activity than chair sitting. Thus, we suggest human physiology likely evolved in a context that included substantial inactivity, but increased muscle activity during sedentary time, suggesting an inactivity mismatch with the more common chair-sitting postures found in contemporary urban populations.Recent work suggests human physiology is not well adapted to prolonged periods of inactivity, with time spent sitting increasing cardiovascular disease and mortality risk. Health risks from sitting are generally linked with reduced levels of muscle contractions in chair-sitting postures and associated reductions in muscle metabolism. These inactivity-associated health risks are somewhat paradoxical, since evolutionary pressures tend to favor energy-minimizing strategies, including rest. Here, we examined inactivity in a hunter-gatherer population (the Hadza of Tanzania) to understand how sedentary behaviors occur in a nonindustrial economic context more typical of humans’ evolutionary history. We tested the hypothesis that nonambulatory rest in hunter-gatherers involves increased muscle activity that is different from chair-sitting sedentary postures used in industrialized populations. Using a combination of objectively measured inactivity from thigh-worn accelerometers, observational data, and electromygraphic data, we show that hunter-gatherers have high levels of total nonambulatory time (mean ± SD = 9.90 ± 2.36 h/d), similar to those found in industrialized populations. However, nonambulatory time in Hadza adults often occurs in postures like squatting, and we show that these “active rest” postures require higher levels of lower limb muscle activity than chair sitting. Based on our results, we introduce the Inactivity Mismatch Hypothesis and propose that human physiology is likely adapted to more consistently active muscles derived from both physical activity and from nonambulatory postures with higher levels of muscle contraction. Interventions built on this model may help reduce the negative health impacts of inactivity in industrialized populations.