Movement is not exercise, but rather something we do every moment of the waking day. Despite being a critical aspect of our lives, we’re typically unaware of our movements and pay little attention to them. Even though we know that the current form of the human body is a result of hunting, gathering and adapting to various environments over time, we still don’t seem to fully grasp that our daily movement patterns have the ability to impact our physiology.
We live in a sedentary society where long commute times and hours spent on the couch or sitting in front of a screen have become the norm. With as little as four per cent of our time spent ‘exercising’, you’ve likely heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ or seen various health experts sound the alarm on many chronic diseases worsened by lack of physical activity. Reduced movement is affecting our physiology in a big way and it’s becoming apparent that even ‘exercise’ can’t fix this phenomenon.
Our current mindset is that if we live a sedentary lifestyle, exercising strenuously for an hour is enough to offset negative effects and keep us healthy. Health experts are in agreement though that this is not the case – we can’t be sedentary for most of the day and then expect that our body won’t adapt to being in a constant sedentary state. Sitting for long periods of time only ensures that sitting is what the body becomes good at.
Given we have a 17 month old daughter who is CONSTANTLY on the move, I’ve been thinking about movement a lot lately. When I watch her throughout the day, I’m amazed by the variety and range of her movements – one minute she’s doing a yoga pose, the next she’s running around and two minutes later she’s transitioned from crawling to climbing. She isn’t exercising in the traditional sense, she’s just moving. She had specific movements that preceded crawling and others that preceded walking, but what’s especially fascinating is watching how movement patterns vary between two kids of the same age, doing the exact same activity. Some kids work their way up to crawling by scooting on their bum, others by pushing or pulling themselves along. Kids do whatever is instinctive to them and those movements in turn are important for lubricating joints, overall mobility, in addition to the development of the nervous system and other systems in the body.
Aside from watching my daughter’s movements, I’ve experienced first hand the downside of living in a society that doesn’t value true movement. A few months ago I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a grappling art based on using technique and leverage to overtake and submit your opponent. As someone who has worked out for years, I thought I was in pretty good shape from my kettlebell and body weight training. After going to a few classes though, I quickly discovered that I am truly a fish out of water. Movements that were most likely second nature at one point in my life, now seem incredibly unnatural. I recently had the opportunity to spar with a black belt and was surprised by how little strength my opponent seemed to apply when facing me. More important than his strength, was the complete awareness he had of not only his body, but mine as well. It was this awareness that gave him the ability to easily manipulate and control my movements to the point of being able to submit me without injuring me.
A growing area of research is being directed to epigenetics, the field which evaluates how our environment and lifestyles affect which genes are expressed in our lifetime. This means that how much we move and how we move has a direct influence on which genes are expressed and can determine our liklihood for developing cancer and other disease. Just as we focus on what we put in our bodies and emphasize nutrition through proper diet, we also need to focus on how much variable movement our bodies get throughout the day. Mechanotransduction is a relatively new field in science and a fancy word for describing the processes by which our cells sense and respond to mechanical signals. It is also responsible for a number of senses and physiological processes in the body. Our bodies are always under load, which is essentially the way in which gravity is constantly working against our bodies. When we sit in chairs for long periods of time, our bodies gets robbed of frequent and varied movement.
In my quest to learn more about movement, I stumbled upon the work of Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author of the book Move Your DNA. Her book is a fascinating read and really changed my perspective on how we’re meant to move. Katy says, “when you eat food, the nutrients in that food communicate with your cells and cause them to behave in a particular way. Movement is similar. The bending and squishing of your cells that occurs when you’re walking is an input just like dietary nutrients. Cells respond directly to mechanical input through a process called mechanotransduction. Your cells are just as affected by the movements you do and do not feed them, as by the foods you do and do not feed them. And if you are like most people in our culture, you are by virtue of life spent barely moving and with cells that never get the input they need. Basically starving yourself. We’re not just missing movement, we’re missing nutritious movement; movement that includes all of the right bends and squishes at the right amount required for all your parts to work optimally.”
We’re not just missing movement, but nutritious movement. What a profound statement. There are an infinite number of movements that would not be considered exercise and are very important for our bodies. One specific example from Katy’s book that I found fascinating is the process in which breastfeeding contributes to a baby’s jaw and facial formation – a baby feeding from the breast requires use of muscles not required when obtaining food from a bottle. It’s pretty remarkable that something as simple as the way in which the mouth muscles move to acquire food as a baby has direct implications on facial formation.
Movements that provide essential ‘nutrition’ for our bodies and cells include squatting and getting up and down off the floor without using the hands. These are essential and basic movements that are missing from our daily habits. For men, squatting has even been shown to raise the anti-aging hormone, Testosterone. An activity as simple as walking is like taking your cells out to eat. We like to think that human movement is a simple act, but something as basic as walking is an extremely complex movement that can simultaneously work all your muscles at once.
So…what can we do to incorporate more movement into our day?
- Take breaks throughout the day to move. Schedule time in your calendar on an hourly basis to get up and move after each hour of sitting.
- Go for a walk once a day.
- Sit on the floor and don’t use your hands to get up and down.
- Squat more.
- Play on the ground.
- Purchase a standing desk or host standing meetings at work.
- Take phone calls standing or walking.
- Be conscious about your movement throughout the day. Think about what your body would have to go through to acquire the food in your fridge. It sure as hell wasn’t driving to the supermarket.
When it comes to material things, many of us want the nice clothes made out of the best materials and the latest car with the best performance engineering, but when it comes to our bodies we are totally fine with fuelling up on cheap, processed foods and crappy movement patterns. We endure aches and pains on a daily basis and many of us even accept that we eventually lose our ability to be flexible, mobile creatures and adapt to being sedentary, chair-shaped hominids. As the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates once said, “no citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training… what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
Have I convinced you yet, are you moving? 😉