The Ethical Components of Fitness – Part 2: The Squat Challenge and Persistence Hunt

“It was on the playing fields that I learned my only lessons in ethics.” – Albert Camus1

Part 1: Lifting Your Body Weight

Part 2: The Squat Challenge and Persistence Hunt

I argued in Part 1 that, as creatures with physical bodies in addition to reasoning minds, human beings must be capable of physical action. For any movement, three questions arise: 1) how much force must the agent apply to complete the movement?, 2) over what distance must the agent apply a force?, and 3) how fast must the agent apply a force? Consequently, the answers to these questions stand as ethical components of fitness and human movement. In other words, they define standards for how humans should be capable of moving. In Part 1, I addressed the first question with the claim that a human being should be capable of lifting his or her body weight off the ground. Now in Part 2, I answer the latter two questions of movement ethics by appeal to a squat challenge and persistence hunting.

2. Over what distance must the agent apply a force?2

There are places in the world where chairs and toilets are not readily found. How do people living in these areas enjoy a meal, defecate or simply take a load off? In short, they squat. According to anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes:

“A quarter of mankind habitually squats in a fashion very similar to the squatting position of the chimpanzee, and the rest of us might squat this way too if we were not trained to use other postures beyond infancy.”3

A child demonstrating the position of the ten-minute squat challenge
We all could squat like this at one time in our lives (

So children everywhere are capable of squatting in this position, with parallel feet, heels on the ground and hips below the knees. Furthermore, there are physiological benefits to practicing this posture.

Humans living in rural, under-developed regions where chairs and Westernized toilets are less prevalent report fewer instances of low back pain (LBP) than do affluent populations and residents of urban areas.4 However, reported instances of LBP among Africans have risen in the last 20 to 30 years. Moreover, as the third world continues to develop, LBP has increased across the globe.Given that LBP is less common in rural, underdeveloped areas where people regularly squat, and more common in urban, developed areas where people regularly sit, then sitting is correlated with higher incidences of LBP than squatting. But this relationship should come as no surprise to a student of anatomy. While prolonged sitting keeps the hips, knees and ankles flexed at 90° angles and can lead to shortened hip flexor, hamstring and calf muscles, deep squats decompress the spine and promote full hip and ankle range of motion.

Furthermore, according to studies by Israeli scientist Dr. Berko Sikirov, squatting allows for more complete and unstrained elimination during defecation compared with sitting by promoting a greater opening of the junction between the rectum and anal canal. In addition to reducing constipation, Sikirov also demonstrated that squatting helped relieve hemorrhoids, a malady rarely seen in the third world.6, 7 

In addition to these health benefits, imagine you are traveling in a part of the world where chairs are scarce. The local people regularly squat when eating meals or using the toilet. Should they be required to provide you with a chair and sit-upon toilet? Or should you adopt their practices instead? In weighing the merit of the customs of other cultures, one should ask two questions. Firstly, whether a custom violates any universal ethical norms. And secondly, whether refusing to follow that custom unfairly burdens or insults its adherents.

To opponents of any judgment of another culture’s ethics, female genital mutilation serves as an appropriate counterexample. Mary Midgley also offers the ancient Japanese samurai custom of tsujigiri as a second counter.In this practice, a samurai would test the sharpness of a new sword by slicing a passing traveler from one shoulder through the opposite hip. If we can’t judge random murder, it seems we also can’t make any judgments about ethics.

However, given the many benefits of squatting, little reason exists to prefer sitting to squatting from a purely objective standpoint. Furthermore, to demand your hosts provide you with a chair because you are not accustomed to squatting is similar to demanding they feed you the foods you grew up eating instead of their local fare. A traveler must expect to adapt herself to local customs when such customs are not above normal human ability and are no less ethical than the traveler’s own practices. Consequently, the example of squatting leads to a second ethical precept of human movement.

Precept 2:
A human being should be able to enjoy a meal or use the toilet while squatting instead of sitting.
Corollary: A human being should be able to maintain a comfortable resting squat position for at least ten minutes.9

3. How fast must an agent apply a force?

Human beings lack many physical advantages held by other animals. We are not particularly big or strong or fast. We do not have especially sharp claws or teeth or hard shells. Instead, we do possess thick, springy Achilles tendons, relatively strong gluteal and hamstring muscles, the ability to sweat and an upright posture that minimizes our bodies’ exposure to direct sunlight. These attributes allow humans to travel long distances with minimal rest. Our ancestors employed these traits in persistence hunting, the practice of literally running an animal to death. Certain human populations still persistence hunt today.

In a persistence hunt, a group of human hunters tracks their prey on foot. Whenever the animal attempts to rest or rejoin its herd, one hunter breaks away from the group to chase it. Mammals do not sweat as much as humans. Many must stop to pant in order to cool themselves off. As the prey begins to overheat and fatigue, the hunters’ superior thermoregulation systems kick in until they eventually overtake their prey.

Healthy adult humans are capable of covering approximately 20 miles in five hours in temperatures near 100° F.

Modern persistence hunts observed by anthropologist Louis Liebenberg ranged in duration from three hours fifty minutes to four hours fifty-seven minutes with the hunters averaging a speed of 3.9 to 4.1 miles per hour. To optimize the advantages of the human hunters’ homeostasis, the hunts occurred during the heat of the day, with temperatures ranging from 32° to 42° C (90° to 108° F).10 

To those of us not accustomed to completing a marathon in advance of each meal, this task is more than daunting. However, no healthy member of a persistence hunting tribe could reasonably expect to reap the rewards of a hunt without ever participating in the chase himself. Healthy adult humans are capable of covering approximately 20 miles in five hours in temperatures near 100° F. At one time, a human who refused to make herself capable of such an effort warranted the scorn and disapproval of her peers, and even risked starvation.

For comparison’s sake, a pace of 3.9 to 4.1 miles per hour over a modern marathon race distance of 26.2 miles equates to a time of approximately six and a half hours, at an average pace of 14:53 per mile. The optimal temperature for human endurance running is about 55° F. For every 10° increase above 55°, the average marathon finishing time increases by 1.5% to 3%.11 So in optimal running conditions, a human should be able to cover 26.2 miles in between 5 hours 44 minutes (13:07 per mile) and 6 hours 5 minutes (13:57 per mile).

Again, in the modern world, few humans have a need to cover such distances, and most have no desire to complete a marathon for recreational purposes. But consider that the average American lives about three miles from the nearest hospital.12 This is a distance one might actually have to cover in an emergency. The men’s and women’s marathon world record times are 2:03:38 and 2:15:25, respectively. The men’s and women’s 5,000 meter (3.11 miles) world record times are 12:37 and 14:11, or about 10% of the respective marathon times. These numbers are consistent with what one would find in consulting several online pace calculators. So if a human should be able to cover 26.2 miles in six hours, she should also be able to travel on foot to the nearest hospital in 36 minutes.

Precept 3: A human being should (in theory) be capable of persistence hunting on foot for over 20 miles at 4 miles per hour in temperatures around 100° F. In addition, a human being should (in actuality) be capable of traveling on foot to the nearest hospital in 30-40 minutes in optimal weather.
Corollary: A human being should (in theory) be able to complete a marathon in optimal weather in six hours. In addition, a human being should (in actuality) be able to travel 5000 meters (3.11 miles) in 36 minutes.

While other standards covering the many complexities of force production, range of motion and speed undoubtedly exist, I consider these three precepts fundamental to the ethics of human movement, or the extent to which a healthy adult human should be capable of moving. Hence, they provide minimum standards for human movement as measured in these three realms. I claimed in Part 1 that being an ethical human requires physical action. And I have attempted to show through examples and argument that a fully ethical human must be capable of these three physical abilities, the ethical precepts of human movement.


  1. Camus, Albert. Basic Writings of Existentialism, Ed. Gordon Marino, New York: Modern Library, 2004, p. 437.
  2. In this section, I address the appropriate range of motion for the human body. Answers to questions of how far an agent should move a physical object or her own body from one geographical location to another are implied in the first and third sections.
  3. Hewes, Gordon W. “World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 57, Iss. 2 (April 1955), p. 231-244. 28 Oct. 2009. Online. 12 July 2013.
  4. Volinn, Ernest. “The Epidemiology of Low Back Pain in the Rest of the World: A Review of Surveys in Low- and Middle- Income Countries.” Epidemiology, Vol. 22, Iss. 15 (August 1997), p. 1747-1754. Online. 15 July 2013. of_Low_Back_Pain_in_the_Rest_of.13.aspx.
  5. Quinette A. Louw, Linzette D. Morris and Karen Grimmer-Somers. “The Prevalence of Low Back Pain in Africa: A Systematic Review.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, Vol. 8, No. 105 (2007). Online 12 July 2013.
  6. Sikirov, Berko A. “Primary Constipation: An Underlying Mechanism.” Medical Hypotheses. Vol. 28, Iss. 2 (Feb. 1989), p. 71-73. 2013. Online. 16 July 2013. pii/0306987789900169.
  7. Sikirov, Berko A. “Management of Hemmerhoids: A New Approach.” Israel Journal of Medical Science, 1987, p. 284-286.
  8. Midgley, Mary. “Trying Out One’s New Sword.” Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 58.
  9. I am indebted to Dr. Kelly Starrett, DPT, for the concept of the ten-minute squat challenge.
  10. Liebenberg, Louis. “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter Gatherers.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, No. 6 (Dec. 2006). Online. 12 July 2013.
  11. Barry, Kristin. “Training in the Heat.” Running Times. 19 July 2011. Online. 14 Aug. 2014.
  12. National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. “Distance to Nearest Hospital.” National Center for Health Statistics Research Data Center. Online. 18 July 2013.