Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 Mar

Floor Living: Do You Spend Enough Time on the Ground?

Floor LivingSeveral weeks ago, I asked readers how much floor living they did and linked to an interesting blog post from Chris Highcock discussing the “archetypal postures” of ground-based sitting, squatting, and kneeling. My interest persisted, and I thought a full-on post about the potential benefits and logistics of spending more time on the floor would be fun and helpful.

I’ve found that there aren’t very many studies examining the effects of floor sitting/kneeling/squatting on health, posture, or pain. You’ve got the “stability ball literature” (long story short: sitting on a stability ball tends to “increase the level of discomfort”), but sitting on an inflated unstable sphere is more physiologically novel than a regular chair. I’m not sure there’s much benefit and it looks pretty silly. (But if it works for you…) There’s also a brief study that showed sitting in a backless chair improved levels of consciousness in patients with prolonged consciousness disturbance. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty barren landscape of research.

I think that’s okay. I’m not entirely convinced we always need research to confirm what we already (should) implicitly know.

Sometimes hard data isn’t really needed, especially when you consider two unassailable facts about our relationship with the floor. First, individually, we all start out on the floor. As babies, we lie there, essentially kicking things off as eating, pooping sacks of wiggling, basically immobile flesh. Then, we graduate to flipping over onto our stomachs, lolling our heads around (once we develop sufficient neck strength), crawling toward vacant electrical sockets, hesitantly standing, and finally walking. It’s on the floor that we learn to move. We may not be doing terribly complex or impressive stuff down there, but that first year or two is incredibly formative for the rest of our movement lives. We’re building a foundation made primarily of contralateral crawling and “tummy time.” Graduating beyond the floor to full on bipedalism doesn’t mean we should totally ignore where we came from.

Second, chairs are a recent invention. Folks as early as the ancient Egyptians had them, but they were a luxury item reserved for the upper classes. Your average Neolithic human sat on chests or benches until chairs became a mass-produced staple that everyone could afford. Earlier than that, for most of human history, formal-sitting furniture simply didn’t exist. Paleolithic posteriors surely rested upon rocks and logs and stumps when the opportunity arose, but those aren’t the same as having permanent fixtures that allow you to take a load off whenever you want. Human bodies were not designed with chairs in mind. We did do a lot of lounging around – I’m not arguing we never stopped moving or anything – but we did so on the ground, rather than on a bunch of folding chairs.

Sitting down in a chair does funny things to our bodies. It stretches out our glutes, making them inactive, loose, and weak. People by and large no longer know how to activate their butt muscles due to excessive amounts of chair sitting. Sitting in a chair also keeps the hip flexors in a short, tight, contracted position for extended amounts of time, which can inhibit full hip extension and lead to that hunched over position you often see older folks shuffling around with. And that’s not even mentioning the extensive (and growing) literature showing how sitting for too long increases mortality and degenerative disease, which I’ve covered in plenty of posts and Weekend Link Loves. This post isn’t really about that, anyway.

What might be most important, though, is what sitting in a chair doesn’t do. It doesn’t allow us to rest in the full squat position, an ability we’re born with but quickly forget how to do. It doesn’t let us do much of anything. Sitting becomes a totally passive act, where we’re slumped over, shoulders rounded, feet twisted up and resting on the chair legs, totally dependent on the structure of the chair to support our weight – rather than using our musculature and arranging our skeletal system in such a way that we support ourselves. Doesn’t it seem inconceivable that an animal – any animal – would evolve to require furniture in order to rest comfortably without incurring a disability?

That’s partly why it makes some sense to hang out on the floor more. We need the “stress” of supporting our own body weight and making sure our structures are in alignment. Here are a few positions to try out:

The squat – The default resting position of humans. Kids can do this easily, but once they start going to school and sitting in a chair for six hours a day, they lose it. The goal here is to get your heels on the ground. Resting on the balls of your feet is easier, but it’s harder on your knees and thighs. The heels-down squat, which requires more flexibility but distributes the pressure across your hips, is far more sustainable. Check out the ease with which these Hadza Bushmen are able to rest in the full squat, as well as their ability to move in every direction from that position. If you’re having trouble, here are some nice tips from Todd Hargrove.

Seiza – The formal way to sit in Japan, resting on the lower legs, butt on heels. Placing a small pillow or rolled up towel under your knees can make the transition easier, especially if you have a bad knee or two.

Half kneel – Like seiza, except one of your feet is on the ground, heel down, in front of you in a squat position. Like these guys.

Crossed legs – For many people, this is the most comfortable, natural way to sit on the floor. You can place your feet flat against each other, cross at the ankles, or place your calves against each other. You can even go full lotus. There are many variations, but here’s the most basic way.

Crossed leg variation – This is one my favorite ways to sit. From the basic crossed leg position, place one hand flat on the floor and lean on it. Bring the opposite leg up and place the foot flat on the floor. Your opposite leg will be in a squat position. Switch hands and legs if it gets uncomfortable. It looks like this (except without the creepy eyes) or this. Or this (even better).

Make up your own – Human limbs are funny, bendy things. We can contort ourselves into lots of positions, and as long as you’re on the floor, supporting your own weight and feel comfortable doing it, it’s difficult to hurt yourself. Our bodies are good at giving feedback before things go really wrong. If your arm starts to go numb or your toes get tingly, switch it up! Try coming up with some of your own variations for sitting on the ground and report back.

CrawlContralateral crawling is one of the most fundamental ways to move. It’s a strong developer of shoulder and hip mobility and strength, and it’s simply a fun way to see and experience the world.

Now that you have some idea of what to do when you’re on the ground, I’d like you to spend the next week doing as much floor living as possible. I don’t expect you to ditch the office chair and roll around the ground while at work, but I do expect you to get in some quality floor time when you’re at home.

Watch TV on the floor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with TV. Sure, it can be taken to the extreme and crowd out active living, but it’s arguably a golden age of television as far as quality goes. The couch sitting, though, is what gets you.

Eat dinner on the floor. This isn’t something I created out of thin air; plenty of cultures eat dinner on the ground.

Try different positions. You’ll probably find that floor living is a constantly shifting existence, where instead of remaining in the same position for hours at a time, you’re moving around all the time without even trying. You’re switching from the right arm to the left arm to the right elbow to the full lotus position to the half kneel to the full kneel to the full squat just in the first two hours.

Practice moving between positions. Go from standing to a half kneel to a kneel to a seiza to a kneel to a half kneel to standing.

Practice standing up. We can’t live on the floor all the time. Sometimes, we need to stand up and get on with our lives. A smooth transition between floor living and standing is key to health and mobility. For an example transition, check out one of my buddy Erwan’s (of MovNat) methods.

Spend at least an hour a day sitting on the ground and another fifteen minutes practicing different ways to move between positions and another fifteen practicing how to stand up and sit back down. Shoot for ten minutes of crawling, too. You can do most of these things while doing other things, like watching TV or reading or talking, so it’s not like you’re wasting time. My guess is that you’ll take to this like a fish to water.

Why is this so important? The way we sit, and where we do it, changes the function of our bodies. It even alters the length of musculature. In countries where squatting and other forms of floor living are seamlessly weaved into everyday life, people still retain the mobility to do all that stuff into old age. I’ve got a buddy from Thailand who moved over to Hollywood as a teenager in the late sixties and still retains the ability to sit in a full squat, painlessly and effortlessly. This guy is an avid user of chairs and everything Western; not a gymgoer at all, and he’s never even heard of a foam roller or Mobility WOD, but because he got the right floor living experience during the formative years, he can still squat and move around on the floor. Unfortunately, for many of us in Western countries who stopped floor living right around age four or five, we may never quite get there – but we can certainly do a lot better than we are now.

Let’s hear from you guys. How do you handle yourselves on the floor? What’s your favorite go-to position?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great article! We spend a great deal of time on the floor with our 5-year old son.. kneeling, laying, squatting, crouching down into our fort to hide from impending doom…

    mars wrote on March 5th, 2013
  2. My husband background is Indian and although he lived in Australia all his life he was a natural squatter. Often we will be having a snack/conversation in the kitchen and while I stand he squats on the floor. I have been telling him off about it..Looks so third world to me (sorry to say) but now I think about it, all my sitting all day at work has given me the shortest tightest hamstring muscles in the world..going to take a leaf out of hubbys book I think :)

    Brianna wrote on March 5th, 2013
  3. Just recently I realized that being on the floor can be more comfortable than being in a chair for my lower back injury. I sit like a girl in a skirt has to sit, both legs off to one side, and then change sides as I have to. Sometimes I sit seiza style or the toes down version. I spend way too much time sitting in chairs though.

    Willow wrote on March 5th, 2013
  4. I found this article very interesting because I spend most of my time on the floor! We no longer own a couch, although we do have some fold out chairs for guests and putting our laundry on. Since I started sleeping on the floor and watching TV, eating, spending time with my significant other on the floor I feel I have gotten stronger. It is no longer a pain to get up from the floor, it’s easy :)

    Pandora wrote on March 5th, 2013
  5. I am printing this and waving it in front of my mum. Her and my extended family have made fun of me all my life for always sitting on the floor. HA! I loved this post.

    Ana wrote on March 5th, 2013
  6. YES! I’m a big advocate of floor living as a yoga teacher AND someone who spent a year living in East Asia…getting on the ground not only has preserved my body (I move like an eight year old although I’m in my late 20’s), but I also feel like living this way, sans chairs, for a year made my body more sensitive to it’s “primal” intuition..

    Elisa Lipton wrote on March 5th, 2013
  7. This is very interesting and totally makes sense! Only problem I have is that we have wood floors. I feel like the circulation gets cut off when I try to sit with my legs underneath me or in a squatting position. Must be that my body’s just not conditioned to do that!

    Joanna wrote on March 5th, 2013
  8. This is a very interesting article, I definitely spend very little time on the floor other then doing yoga a couple times a week. I will be trying this the next couple days and see how it is!

    Jennifer wrote on March 5th, 2013
  9. I started making a conscious effort to sit on the floor more often as a result of your last article on the subject. I didn’t realize the (positive) consequences at the time, but this has enabled me to spend more quality time with my 14-month old son. Normally from the couch I’m constantly trying to keep him from climbing up with me (because what goes up must come down, generally on the head/face area). On the floor he just quietly sits in my lap or plays “Climb Mommy Mountain”.

    Emily wrote on March 5th, 2013
  10. I’ve been sleeping on the floor and in a large closet in between deployments. The near-total darkness and hard floor keep me in what feels like a more natural sleeping posture. I wake up on my back, but for the life of me I still haven’t figured out how to fall asleep that way. I’ve got to start out on my stomach but always end up in a mummyish position on my back. I’m 28 and CrossFit frequently, I didn’t have any back issues but figured what the hell, why not give it a shot. Between that and sleeping in my cave with the dog it feels pretty primal! I did notice though that in total darkness I rarely got up during the night which was great. I do dig floor living, it certainly helps out during hunting season too as spot-and-stalk is easier/more natural…less knees popping and legs falling asleep!

    David wrote on March 5th, 2013
  11. Floor living isn’t feasible at my office, but I sure as heck have a makeshift standing desk! It is composed of boxes of catalogs with my laptop sitting and top…and my coworkers smiling at my craziness all day long :)

    Shamra wrote on March 5th, 2013
  12. My grandfather has always talked about this. In his age Indian toilets were just holes in the ground, you had to do a full squat to stay in the right position. My grandfather has always cited not being able to squat as one of the reasons that there are so many back/joint problems in the U.S. I see what he means. Personally I sleep on the floor during summers on top of a sleeping bag (during winter its too cold). I also prefer web browsing with the computer in my lap

    Sheel Kundu wrote on March 5th, 2013
  13. I’m currently sitting in the squat position on the floor after reading this article and am surprise that even at 25 this is so hard! I’m going to have to keep up this floor sitting instead of at the table! We don’t have any living room furniture yet simply because we won’t be living here long. I’d be totally up for not ever buying a couch – but am wondering if there is any good lounging floor furniture that is good for posture. Would I simply get a few zabutons? What are my options for living area, kitchen, and bedroom?

    Sarah wrote on March 5th, 2013
    • We made some floor pillows: thin (1/2″) 2′ square pillows that we move around as wanted. We have a set for the kitchen, around the coffee table, and a set for the family room. You really don’t need anything else. Give yourself permission to change positions often (every 10-20 minutes at first) and 3+ months to shift completely (hips loosen, core strengthen, etc) and you’ll be amazed that you really don’t need the pillows unless you have a cold crawl space under wood floors. Enjoy!

      Deacon Patrick wrote on March 6th, 2013
      • Thanks for the advice! Now I just have to convince my husband (not hard to do since he’s too frugal to buy a couch anyway). Looking forward to more floor time!

        Sarah wrote on March 6th, 2013
      Floor lounge chair that makes alternative to couch. Idea came from the Plains Indians Tipi willow reed backrest. Paleo all the way!

      patrick wrote on March 6th, 2013
  14. As a muslim, I find it an amazing coincidence that our prayer (salah) postures encourage movement, stretching and activity. If you count, we’re encouraged to do 18 reps of squat and back stretch every day (minimum). Wonder what your thoughts are Mark.

    Musaed wrote on March 5th, 2013
    • Yes I find it amazing too, yet not too science is slowly catching up with our Deen :) I’m also a childbirth educator and the ruku’ and sujud positions are all important positions for pregnant women to assume and great positions that help ease labour and birth! Alhamdulillah.

      Birth junkie wrote on August 25th, 2013
  15. How about bean bags? Was thinking of getting a few for my place instead of normal furniture, sloping walls so need low seating

    brett wrote on March 6th, 2013
    • Beanbags create slouching and pressure points cutting off circulation in spine. . Not too Paleo. The EcoBackrest™ allows straight back while lounging.
      Ecobackrest is actually totally paleo: the Native Americans used them in their tipis. They were “willow reed backrests” back then and they used them to sleep as well when laid flat at night.

      patrick wrote on March 6th, 2013
    • I say skip the furniture entirely. Especially the beanbags. I use a kneeler on the floor as my desk chair. It’s the only things besides a cushion I sit on.

      Deacon Patrick wrote on March 6th, 2013
  16. Incidentally squatting (the correct type) is my favourite sitting position when I’m at the table. And yes, I squat on a chair. When I was a child my mom told me to stop it because I’m not a hen on a roost. Seems i got that one right :)

    Magda wrote on March 6th, 2013
  17. Hey Mark,

    My name’s Josh Krouse and I am a
    Huge fan, and your site turned me on to Paleo in Thanksgiving of 2011. So I owe a lot to you and your dedication to the hunt!

    I have a brief question, what do you know of steak protein isolate, and do you plan on using it soon instead of whey? I would much rather buy it from you, than the Carnivor brand. Although the results have been amazing.

    Thanks for your work and dedication to paleo!

    – J Krouse

    Josh Krouse wrote on March 6th, 2013
  18. “Eat dinner on the floor. This isn’t something I created out of thin air; plenty of cultures eat dinner on the ground.”

    It’s interesting that you mention this here. My background is from Iran and a major part of our culture is (was) to sit on the ground and eat. The family would all gather around a table cloth on the floor with food covering the table cloth and the family would all sit around it, sitting cross-legged, squatting, kneeling (whatever way they wanted) and often shifting between these. We would all eat together and share the food. I was very young when we left Iran but my parents continued this way of eating, even though we didn’t have the large dinner gatherings that we did back in Iran, we would all still sit together and eat the same way.

    Eventually my parents started sitting at the table to eat but would still leave us kids to sit on the floor and eat, I did this well into my teens but then it was all about becoming westernised and sitting at tables and on chairs to eat your food. Even now back in Iran most people have now taken to sitting at tables to eat, and the old custom of eating together on the floor has almost diminished.

    Squatting toilets were also the norm there and now most houses are fitted with what they call “Western toilets” and the squatting toilets are being removed from houses.

    Naz wrote on March 6th, 2013
  19. In Kindergarden we everything on the floor, learned, napped, watched movies. Might as well do it now too!

    George wrote on March 6th, 2013
  20. I Have to say, since i moved out from my parent’s and I Have to deal with a lack of diningtable, i Have started to sit on the floor too. It began with eating there, sitting on thefloor when friends come around and theres no more place on the couch, …
    Recently I was at a friends house and we talked and naturaly Sat on her couch. Then, amazed, i realised how uncomfotable I was sitting there. The whole time I had the urge to sit down on the floor. Thats also when I realized that I am barely using my own couch anymore. I havebecome flooradapted and its comfortable there 😉

    emina wrote on March 6th, 2013
  21. We have 2 toddlers at home so being on the floor, crawling, etc, is something I do every day. And since we became primal, we donated our sofa. We have a big carpet with tons of pillows and squatting or being crossed-legs in general is very natural for me (my wife is more stiff for some reason).
    At work, I work standing thanks to my adjustable desk. The only time I sit on a chair are when I have to drive a car or eat out.

    DO wrote on March 6th, 2013
  22. Practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I get to live on the floor for hours every week. Barefoot, on the ground, rolling around forwards and backwards and sideways for fun and sparring on the floor. I love it.

    Kate wrote on March 6th, 2013
  23. Great article. Primal living is a life style, not just another diet. Thumbs up!

    Hanne wrote on March 6th, 2013
  24. I’m a police detective who recently.talked my supervisor into letting me use a standup desk. It’s been 10 weeks or so and I love it. Another detective also followed suit. But not an hour goes by where some cop walks by my cubicle and can’t help himself. It is so incredibly funny to cops that I stand at my desk . I can’t wait to hear the comments when I start eating my lunch on the floor!

    ian wrote on March 6th, 2013
  25. Your mentioning of chests, benches, and backless chairs interests me. I wonder if it is less the sitting in a chair, but the using of its back.

    I know that in the past (don’t remember the centuries, so wont try to list them) at least in Europe, it was considered going against etiquette to use the back of the chairs. Only low-class did that. The back was there for decoration, structure, etc but not for the person using the chair.

    This has me wondering about the physiological and anatomical differences between sitting in a chair and not using the back but sitting up straight, using a fallen tree or backless bench and sitting up straight, sitting crosslegged or squatted and sitting up straight, and sitting crosslegged or squatted and using a wall, tree truck, etc as back support….

    Brandon wrote on March 6th, 2013
  26. Deacon Pat,
    Try a pair of Five Fingers.
    I find my carpeting very slippery, so I wear my Five’s to do Yoga,great anti-skid. Not to mention they are extremely comfortable for ALL activities.
    Also, with the Five Fingers I am allowed in the supermarket.(No bare feet)

    Fred Timm wrote on March 7th, 2013
  27. So last night I ate my dinner on the floor, by an assemblage of candles, with all the lights off in my apartment.

    It was super pleasant, and felt very engaging. Sure I was a bit clumsy with my food, but the good news is when you are on the floor, it doesn’t fall off your dish very far! I’ll be doing this more often.

    Kevin wrote on March 7th, 2013
  28. I have always sat cross-legged (I know it as Indian style) all the time. I can’t sit with back straight and feet flat on floor (I’m short so it’s usually impossible to get my feet on the floor). I like the booths at restaurants because I sit like this. I’m still trying to make my man understand this. He sits/sleeps in a recliner and wonders why he always has some type of back pain. The mattress was bought because of his back injury (years ago) and he can’t use it because it makes his back worse. I love sleeping on the floor. Keeps me from hitting the snooze button

    Heather wrote on March 8th, 2013
  29. You don’t have to be an African bushman to do the “heels down squat.” Anyone with an cantonese grandma has been yelled at to “mau dai!” and help pick the chives from the garden.

    Heda wrote on March 9th, 2013
  30. Would sitting cross-legged in a chair (for example, while I am in school class) make a difference? I noticed that i tend to sit cross-legged in chairs without even thinking about it, and I don’t think it would be any different than being on the floor, since I’m not using the back of the chair for “support.”

    Z.E.S.T. wrote on March 10th, 2013
  31. Me and my husband have been sleeping on the floor for over 15 years now. Our two children (8 & 2) sleep on the floor too! We sit around on the floor to do our daily chores & entertainment like chopping veggies, watching movies and folding laundry!

    Ashita wrote on March 11th, 2013
  32. We spend most of our time on the floor! We only remember it’s strange when guests come over. It started, in part, due to the cooler temps on the floor level since we spent so many years living in South Louisiana trying not to use our a.c. Now it’s just our most naturally comfortable state.

    Hannah wrote on March 11th, 2013
  33. For those who have trouble sitting crosslegged, I suggest sitting on a slight elevation (phonebook or more). In Iyengar yoga, no matter how advanced you are in other areas, if your knees are higher than your ilium, you sit on something.

    We use blocks for hero pose as well (kneeling)if necessary.

    Usually, the more often you do this, the less elevation you need.

    Fauxpilgrim wrote on March 18th, 2013
  34. We looked after our 14 month old nice last weekend, and as a result spent a lot of time living on the floor.
    We played, sat, crawled, did yoga, knelled, layed down, got up, got back down, repeat. We played “see saw” with her too: I lay down, place her on my belly, alternate lifting legs & upper torso. Fun for her, and a work out for us :)

    Will have to do this consciously more often, even if our niece isn’t around.

    Beth wrote on March 20th, 2013

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