A Physiotherapist pal of mine told me years ago that the beginning of our modern low back pain woes can be blamed on a man named John Crapper, inventor of the modern toilet. In developing countries that have yet to embrace “the Crapper” there is very little incidence of back pain and some of these cultures do not even have a vocabulary for back pain. Hmmm.
Squatting to eliminate is not only one of the best ways to maintain and improve spine, hip and knee health, it is the best way to avoid constipation and piles (hemorrhoids) and maintain an easy and regular transit. Wow.
My Physio pal went on to say that when her patients have “trouble”, she pops them on the loo, pulls up a stool for them to put their feet on and – bingo – success. Raising the knees flexes the spine, creating the optimal position for comfortable elimination without the, erm…strain.
In 2013 I had the pleasure of travelling around Burma (Myanmar) – a beautiful, unspoiled country with a population of happy, smiling and remarkably flexible people. Even the rice farmers who spent entire days bent over their paddies had good posture and were seemingly pain-free with none of the telltale signs of postural pain and deviations e.g. hump at the base of the neck, forward head position, flexed forward at the hip, etc.
A lifetime of squatting or sitting cross-legged to perform every daily task from cooking and crafting, to eating and eliminating, has kept their spines and joints much healthier than ours in the west. What appeared at times to be backbreaking work was actually keeping them healthy until much later in life. In addition, with no distracting ‘smart’ gadgets, computers or mobile phones, the elders spent their days alongside the youngsters, which had the added advantage of keeping the elders active, engaged and socially included. In Burma, people in their 80s sit comfortably on the floor, one knee tucked under the chin, the other leg folded underneath their bottoms, weaving silk, painting lacquer ware, and preparing food. During my entire visit, I cannot recall seeing anyone sitting in a chair except in the airport where they had little other choice. They do not even have chairs in their homes.
Nerd Alert* In terms of its spinal benefits, squatting separates the spinal segments, creating pressure changes through the intervertebral lumbar discs that stimulate metabolic activity. Squatting is a quick, simple way to decompress the spine throughout the day to undo the compressive forces of sitting and standing. If you can’t squat without support, hold on to a stable base (desk, heavy secure chair or rail) and “hang” into the squat. After awhile it will become easier as your knees and hips get used to it (they will eventually reward you) and you may even be able to do it without support and with your heels on the floor. As you progress to a hands-free squat, it may be useful to put a book under your heels until your Achilles tendon and calf muscles become accustomed to the stretch and begin to ‘give.’ You can place the hands on the floor in front of you to offload any strain in the upper back and neck. As you breathe, visualize the low back expanding on inhaling and as you exhale, allow yourself sink a little more into the squat. This is not a gym-type squat that brings you into squatting and standing repeatedly. This is a relaxed, releasing, somewhat static pose.
Although theoretically brilliant, I do concede that squatting to toilet in London or anywhere else in the Western world (apart from some parts of France and Turkey) is a big and potentially messy ‘ask,’ so use the stool trick (no pun intended) mentioned above.
If you’re someone who likes things “just so” you may like The Squatty Potty designed for purpose. You can check it out on amazon.co.uk
Other than that, try to squat every day. It’s imperative that we do not lose this ability as we age. While I teach the importance of squatting to all of my clients as an exercise, I incorporate it into my functional life while shampooing my hair. I just squat in the tub or shower, bend my head forward and kill two birds with one stone!
I am not a medical professional. The advice above has been obtained in good faith from trusted professional sources. I am in no way affiliated with Squatty Potty.
Always follow your doctor’s advice and consult your GP or other healthcare provider before embarking on a course of exercise. Exercise caution if you are pregnant or have any condition that may affect your ability to exercise safely.
¹ “The ideal posture for defecation is the squatting position. In this way the capacity of the abdominal cavity is greatly diminished and the intra-abdominal pressure increased thus encouraging expulsion.” William S Haubrich MD Bockus Gastroenterology
² Sarah Key Keep Your Joints Young, (London, Vermillion, 2009), 53.