Archetypal Resting Positions: How Sitting Like Your Ancestors Could Save Your Health

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Tennis elbow, Achilles tendinitis, osteoarthritis, and other connective tissue injuries are on the rise. Athletes have always gotten them, but it’s only in the past few decades that regular folks are getting them too. For some connective tissue injuries, non-athletes outnumber athletes. That shouldn’t happen if the conventional wisdom—injuries to tendons, ligaments, and cartilage occur only because of overuse or overloading during intense physical activity—were true.

Now, of course the way we train affects the health and function of our connective tissue. Acute injuries absolutely occur. Overuse injuries absolutely develop. But that’s to be expected. Athletes put their bodies through a lot, and there is going to be fallout from that. Where those injuries shouldn’t be happening is in regular, everyday folks who don’t train for a living or engage in intense physical competition on a regular basis. And yet that’s exactly how it’s going down in the world today. In one recent study, the majority of patients with Achilles tendon injuries couldn’t attribute their condition to working out or playing sports. In other words, they just got it.

Part of the problem is our nutrition. We eat too many of the inflammatory foods which contribute to connective tissue degradation and deconditioning, like grains and refined seed oils and sugar, and too few of the nutritive building blocks our bodies use to buttress and repair damaged connective tissue, like collagen. For over a decade, I’ve sought to address these deficiencies in the modern diet by laying out the Primal eating plan and creating non-inflammatory versions of existing products (like mayo and salad dressings) and products that replace some of the foods we’ve been missing. This is why I started selling collagen powder—because it’s the greatest source of gelatin, provides the necessary building blocks for collagen construction and repair, and provides the glycine that balances out the methionine in our meat-heavy diets and makes them less inflammatory.

This is all standard stuff at this point. It’s no surprise to most of you. Eat healthy, exercise, sleep, and most other things fall into place, including the health of your connective tissues. But it can’t explain everything. There’s more to it.

I’ve been suspicious of stretching in the past, especially static stretching. You don’t see Hadza tribes people doing the downward dog, hitting the couch stretch, or doing toe touches every morning. They simply move around a lot and avoid sitting in chairs for ten hours a day, and it’s enough. Right?

But over the past few months, I’ve become acquainted with Matt Wallden, the Global Head of Education for the Chek Institute. Like me, he’s obsessed with taking lessons from human evolution and applying them to humans living today to help them thrive. We really hit it off, so much that we collaborated on a pair of papers that appear in the April edition of the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies that discuss the power of “Archetypal resting positions” (several positions depicted in the article) and the crisis (and solution) of “Modern disintegration and primal connectivity.”

In the papers, we posit that it’s not just our tendency to sit in chairs way too much that’s destroying our health, movement quality, and tissue quality. We’re also failing to utilize the archetypal resting positions that humans have been using for hundreds of thousands of years. Sitting in chairs isn’t ideal, but far worse is our neglect of the dozen or so permutations of ancestral floor positions.

  • The full squat, with heels down.
  • The high kneel.
  • The low kneel.
  • The side sit.
  • The long sit.
  • The cross-legged sit.
  • In each of these positions, some tissues are lengthened (stretched) while others are compressed.
  • The squat stretches the back, glutes, quads, and calves.
  • The high kneel stretches the quads, Achilles’ tendon, and foot fascia.
  • The low kneel stretches the feet and quads.
  • The long sit stretches the hamstrings and wrist flexors.
  • The cross-legged sit stretches the hip adductors and rotators.
  • The side sit stretches the external and internal rotators of the hip.

If you alternate between all the positions, every limb will receive the stretch/compression treatment that has been shown to improve tissue healing and maintain tissue viability and function.

Many of these positions also restrict blood flow to specific areas of the body, a practice that has been shown to enhance connective tissue healing. You restrict the blood flow and then restore it, and the tissue gets a “rebound” effect.

Now imagine doing this all the time, whenever you’re at rest. Imagine not having any chairs at all. Imagine how you’d feel—and move, and perform, and recover—if instead of spending 10 hours a day hunched over in a chair you spent 2 hours a day exposing your body to these archetypal stretch/compression positions.

Not only that, but sitting in these archetypal resting positions may even improve glucose tolerance.

We cite research showing that a gentle passive stretching program (10 different stretching positions, 4 30-second “reps” each for a total of 20 minutes) lowers blood sugar in diabetics. That’s a possibility, but I’ve always found dedicated stretching or mobility routines to be the hardest to maintain. And I’m not alone—pretty much everyone hates stretching. A more evolutionarily-congruent method would be to integrate these resting positions into your daily life.

Hanging around at home or at the park or beach? Sure, getting down into these positions on the floor is cinch. You could easily make that work. But what about at work? What if you work in front of a computer? I’m picturing a floor-based workstation that enables the archetypal resting position as you work, sort of a low-lying modular “desk” that can be manipulated into various shapes to adhere to your particular resting position. That would be very cool and very interesting. We haven’t done the research on the cognitive effects of chair sitting vs archetypal resting positioning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered some performance-enhancing effects for knowledge workers.

In the next couple weeks, Matt and I will be releasing a podcast discussing the archetypal resting positions and other topics in full.

For now, why don’t you make it a point to spend the next month doing at least one hour of archetypal floor sitting every day? See if you notice any improvements to your tissue function, and report back. I’d love to hear your results.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

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References:

De jonge S, Van den berg C, De vos RJ, et al. Incidence of midportion Achilles tendinopathy in the general population. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(13):1026-8.

Wallden M, Sisson M. Modern disintegration and primal connectivity. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):359-365.

Wallden M, Sisson M. Biomechanical attractors – A paleolithic prescription for tendinopathy & glycemic control. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):366-371.

Taheri N, Mohammadi HK, Ardakani GJ, Heshmatipour M. The effects of passive stretching on the blood glucose levels of patients with type 2 diabetes. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):394-398.

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