I’ve become too familiar with talk about poo –Talk of consistency, frequency, buoyancy, colour and laxatives has become the norm. Being the father of two young children and the son of two aging, but thankfully healthy parents, the subject of poo, bottoms and constipation is voluntarily and far too frequently discussed over dinner. I’d be about to raise a steamed green bean to my mouth, only to hear how someone’s piles had popped just that morning. The toilet is where I do my best thinking, a space for a quiet seated contemplation. But sitting is the wrong way to do it! Apparently we do it more efficiently if we squat. This is because the closure mechanism of the gut is not designed to “open the hatch completely” when we’re sitting: it’s like a kinked garden hose. Squatting is far more natural and puts less pressure on our bottoms. 1.2 billion People around the world that squat whilst toileting have almost no incidence of diverticulitis and fewer problems with piles. The use of the squat toilet is a more comfortable and efficient method of bowel evacuation than the sitting toilet (Rad, 2002). But, we in the west, on the other hand, squeeze our gut tissue until it comes out of our bottoms……. Lovely.
Man, like all primates, has always used the squat as a position of rest, work and for performing bodily functions. Infants impulsively squat to relieve themselves. Although it may seem strange, this is the way the human body was designed to function. This is the way we performed our bodily functions until the middle of the 19th century. Before that time, chair-like toilets had only been used by the British royalty. But with the introduction of indoor plumbing in the 1800’s, the throne-like water closet was invented to give ordinary people the same “dignity” previously reserved for kings and queens. The plumber and cabinet maker who designed it had no knowledge of human physiology – and sincerely believed that they were improving people’s lives. The rest of Western Europe, as well as Australia and North America, did not want to appear less civilized than Great Britain, so, within a few decades, most of the industrialized world had adopted the seated toilet. This new device symbolized the progress of western civilization. It showed that Man could improve on Nature and rise above primitive cultural practices. But in reality it didn’t, and many now blame the modern toilet for the high incidence of a number of serious ailments. Westernized countries have much higher rates of colon and pelvic disease (Walker & Segal, 1979)
But this is not the only primal trait we have disregarded to our detriment. We in the modern world have forgotten how to use our bodies, and we suffer aches and pain and dysfunction because of that. We need to look to our ancestors, and non industrialised cultures – what you see in these groups in the way they move is that there is a “sameness” … a similarity in the way they move, this would suggest there is a natural way to move and walk. There is an elegant effortlessness in the way they move, and this is our natural heritage. But they do not only graceful they are far more functional – the distances and the speed with which they move, how much they can carry is amazing. They do this all effortlessly, infact in East Africa it is not uncommon to see women of the Luo tribe carrying loads equivalent to 70% of their body mass balanced on the top of their heads. Women of the Kikuyu tribe carry equally large loads supported by a strap across their foreheads. Both the Luo and Kikuyu women could carry loads of up to 20% of their body weight without any increase in their rate of energy consumption. In contrast, soldiers carrying similar loads in backpacks have been extensively studied, and it has been shown that this load can double a soldier’s metabolic rate. Unlike the African women, the soldiers are unable to carry any load for ‘free’. This decrease in work by the African women is a result of a greater conservation of mechanical energy resulting from an improved pendulum-like transfer of energy during each step, in other words they move better! (Maloiy et al., 1986; Heglund et al., 1995)
So if becoming more elegant and more efficient is not enough reason to motivate us to mimic the way these groups of people move, maybe we should consider adopting these primal movement patterns because it may help us avoid what most people in our western culture will encounter at some stage of their life – back pain. Our incidence for lower back pain is 85%. It’s a rare person that is not going to have back pain which requires them to attend their GP for help. We have lost the knowledge of how to use our bodies in order to avoid this type of pain. The incidence of back pain in primal populations, which are becoming increasingly difficult to find, is almost nil (Volinn, 1997; Sjolie, 1998). So there is convincing support that over the past 100 years the populations of industrialized countries have drifted away from the heritage of our ancestors. We have adopted postural habits which are dramatically different from those used historically and still found in non-industrialized populations today.
But the good news is we can heal most of the neck pain, back pain, plantar fasciitis and the repetitive strain injuries that we suffer, and we can do it simply by restoring our primal postures and the natural ways of bending, walking, lifting and sitting. The answer might just be in the very first movements as a child. In the early years of life we investigate our surroundings with movement. We move towards things, we squat down to scrutinize them further, and we learn how to control our bodies. Then we go to school and ruin it all. From the moment they enter school to learn, children’s bodies are doing the physical equivalent of watching television. Lacking in movement skills prevents the development of athleticism and without being athletic we will never be great runners and athletes. But more importantly the absence of good movement results in injury. The very first of our movements supports everything else that we add on top of them. Crawling is the most basic of movements; it’s our first mode of transport. The crawl is a cross body pattern – the opposite hand and foot move at the same time. If a crawling person is rotated ninety degrees and put into a standing position it becomes clear that walking and running are the same movement – just performed at different speeds. So if you can’t crawl well, why try to run, if we can’t crawl without hips slumping uncontrollably from side to side, or with knees coming straight up instead of having to go out to the side, why would all these problems disappear when running?
The reality is most of us have lost the ability to do even the most simple of movements. Because of cultural “progress” we are moulding and modelling ourselves to have very poor composition and that comes at a high cost of pain and dysfunction. In order to move with more skill and less pain we may just need to journey back to our primal primitive postures for a pain free functional life.
Heglund NC, Willems PA, Penta M & Cavagna GA. (1995). Energy-saving gait mechanics with head-supported loads. Nature 375, 52-54.
Maloiy GM, Heglund NC, Prager LM, Cavagna GA & Taylor CR. (1986). Energetic cost of carrying loads: have African women discovered an economic way? Nature 319, 668-669.
Rad S. (2002). Impact of ethnic habits on defecographic measurements. Archives of Iranian Medicine 5, 115.
Sjolie AN. (1998). The epidemiology of low back pain in the rest of the world. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 23, 960-961.
Volinn E. (1997). The epidemiology of low back pain in the rest of the world. A review of surveys in low- and middle-income countries. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 22, 1747-1754.
Walker AR & Segal I. (1979). Epidemiology of noninfective intestinal diseases in various ethnic groups in South Africa. Isr J Med Sci 15, 309-313.