Resting postures, such as squatting or kneeling, may be healthier because they require more muscle activity than sitting on a chair.
The findings are based on data gathered from a hunter-gatherer population in Tanzania who wore devices that measured physical activity as well as periods of rest.
Anthropologists from the US found despite being sedentary almost 10 hours a day, equivalent to clocking a shift in the office at the desk, the Hadza people appeared to lack the markers of chronic diseases associated with long periods of sitting.
They believe this is down to the “active rest postures” used by the tribe.
“Even though there were long periods of inactivity, one of the key differences we noticed is that the Hadza are often resting in postures that require their muscles to maintain light levels of activity – either in a squat or kneeling,” said University of Southern California’s Dr David Raichlen.
Prolonged sitting has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death but according to the researchers, this contradicts the evolutionary aspect that favours strategies that conserve energy.
Brian Wood, an anthropologist at the University of California, and one of the study authors says preferences or behaviours that conserve energy have been key to our species’ evolutionary success.
“But when environments change rapidly, these same preferences can lead to less optimal outcomes,” Dr Wood said.
“Prolonged sitting is one example.”
To find out more, the researchers looked at the data from 28 Hadza adults who wore devices, known as accelerometers, for eight days and compared it with the information gathered from previous studies that measured inactivity in modern working populations.
They found their test subjects had high levels of physical activity for just over an hour a day alongside several hours of inactivity, between nine and 10 hours a day.
But despite remaining in resting postures for long periods of time, the Hadza people did not show any signs of the health conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
The researchers said this is because the Hadza squatting and kneeling uses more muscle movement than sitting on a chair.
They believe these active rest postures may help “protect people from the harmful effects of inactivity”.
“Being a couch potato – or even sitting in an office chair – requires less muscle activity than squatting or kneeling,” Dr Raichlen said.
“Since light levels of muscle activity require fuel, which generally means burning fats, then squatting and kneeling postures may not be as harmful as sitting in chairs.”