“You don’t really need exercise to stay healthy, you need movement to stay healthy”.Katy Bowman, Biomechanist and Author of Move your DNA
Many of us think of exercise and movement as the same thing, but it’s helpful to distinguish between the two.
Exercise is a modern invention. For most of human history we didn’t exercise. In a nutshell exercise is stress (good stress if done correctly) on the body and comprises the activities we do for the purpose of getting fit. We stress our body with the purpose of adapting to the stress to get fitter and stronger than before. This includes going for a run or lifting weights at the gym.
Movement is ancient. Movement was here way before exercise. Movement includes all the other activities we do, such as walking, carrying things, cooking dinner and squatting down to tie our shoelaces. A walk could be exercise or movement; the difference is the intensity behind it for the human performing it. Generally, if you walk uphill as fast as you can and get out of breath, that’s exercise. If you walk at a moderate pace on a level pavement to the post office to mail a letter, that’s movement.
All or nothing approach
The abnormal but socially ‘normalised’ routine is to be sedentary for well over 10 hours a day and either become a couch potato or do 30-60 minutes of ‘exercise’ to try and offset this.
Physical activity levels in the UK have significantly reduced in the last few decades, which is now statistically a causal factor in 1 in 6 deaths.
The solution from the fitness industry promotes high intensity classes and running marathons. We are subliminally programmed with the ‘belief’ that if you don’t exercise hard, any movement doesn’t count. Either go hard or go home. Exercise is pain. A punishment for feeling guilty about eating that extra piece of cake whilst nobody was looking…
High intensity exercise can be great, IF it is aligned with your personal goals and you have the movement skill and conditioning to do it.
But if we have been inactive for prolonged periods, it is likely we are deconditioned and maybe even in pain. If you jump straight into running or a high intensity class, you are likely to get injured and/or be in even more pain! And this can lead to thinking that moving our body is just not for us. Exercise is just not for me. And so we avoid moving altogether!
But the danger with movement avoidance is that it makes your pain and deconditioning even worse…
These two extremes of ‘all or nothing’ neglects what we humans actually need the most: natural human movement.
We are biologically made to move
Extremes of inactivity followed by sudden intense activity is not natural.
If you don’t think we have a biological need for natural movement, just look at a child. They instinctively squat, crawl, climb, jump in puddles and are playfully curious about moving in the world. They don’t need to be told how to move. They don’t need to go to the gym to learn how to move. It is hardwired in them to know how to move. That is, until the education system and the working world programmes their brains to sit down, stare at screens and obey. Hence, the deconditioning cycle shown above begins.
The technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries have seen that our world has been designed in such ways that minimise our movement. Why walk to the shops when we can drive? Why move at all when everything can be delivered to our door? Our whole society is set up for comfort, convenience and safety.
But the irony is that these perceived benefits don’t come without consequences. Neglecting our bodies and our biological need for movement comes at a cost. We only notice it when ‘something goes wrong’ with our bodies, often in the form of chronic pain and/or immobility and/or disease. Sedentary lifestyles contribute to the cause of inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and cancer.
The body also contributes far more to our lives than just movement. It plays a major role in our emotions, how we feel and our thought processes and decision making. Our mind and body are one and the same, the body is the brain! From our endocrine system to the brain in our gut.
We evolved to move naturally. Without movement in this modern world, we humans might be able to just about survive, but we will certainly not thrive.
Benefits of movement
Research has found that people who expend more energy by moving around, even just by walking to the restroom or fidgeting, are thinner and healthier regardless of whether they also exercise. Moreover, in a European breast cancer study, of all the activities and exercise in which women partook, household activity – including housework, home repair, gardening, and stair climbing – was the only activity shown to significantly reduce breast cancer risk, not exercise. Another study found that people who fidget a lot do not suffer the same morbidity risks from sitting as people who rarely fidget. These studies suggest that an increase in non-exercise movement can benefit overall health.
Breaking sitting with movement improves our cardio-metabolic markers (such as glucose levels, insulin sensitivity) more than structured exercise does. What it means in reality is that by taking a 2 minute break every hour to walk around your office, going up and down the stairs, taking a work phone call while standing gives you as positive effects as regular exercise does!
What’s more, movement increases the production of mitochondria (tiny organelles that provide our cells with energy), thus, the more you move the more energy you have.
Exercise can still be great. I do exercise and it has many benefits from improving our strength to our cardiovascular fitness.
But would you build a house without the foundations?
If you can’t move well and don’t build movement into your routine, should you be running or performing high intensity classes?
By moving well, I mean things like how easy is it for you to get into and hold a deep squat position? How well can you balance and stay in control of your body? How balanced and efficient is your gait? How well can you take your joints like hips and shoulders through a full range of motion? How well can you move through different planes of motion i.e. moving sideways, backwards and rotating? Can you get up from the floor without using your hands?
Exercise is optional, but movement is essential
Your body will naturally adapt to whatever you do or don’t do. If you don’t move, the body will become better at making sure you don’t move. If you move, your body will become better at moving.
Natural movement is your body’s foundation. Unless you build your mobility and movement quality up first, especially if you have pain or are immobile, you will likely get injured if you exercise.
Also, short bursts of exercise can’t undo the damage of prolonged periods of being sedentary.
So movement is essential. More than that, movement is medicine.
But our hectic working lives and society make it seem hard to get enough natural movement.
So what is the solution?
Build the habit of movement snacks
Having worked in a desk job for years, I know how hard it is to fit in movement during the day. It is more socially acceptable and expected of you to stay sat down for hours than to take breaks to move around.
But it is possible, and you don’t need to make big changes. The key to changing your habits is to start small.
This is where movement snacking comes into play. Movement snacking simply means doing small bouts of movement whenever an opportunity presents itself in your day. No gyms, no special clothes or gear required.
Here are a few tips.
I would recommend picking ONE of the below and focusing on that. Read through the list and pick out one that you feel confident you can start doing.
It can help to use specific triggers to get into the habit of regular movement snacking. For example:
- Set a reminder on your device or put up post-it notes on the bathroom or kitchen
- Waiting for the kettle to boil – do 10 squats or lunges
- Waiting for your toast to pop-up – get on all fours and bear crawl
- Brushing your teeth – stand on one leg or do some calf raises
- Walk at least part of the way to work or the supermarket
- Drink loads (preferably filtered water) – this will make you get up to go to the toilet more
- Standing in a queue – squeeze your glutes as hard as you can. Imagine you are stopping your credit card from falling out. A surefire way to make sure you squeeze hard!
- Fidget – fidget like a stroppy five year old if the situation allows
- On the phone? Walk whilst talking
- Cooking dinner? Dance to some music
- Sit on the floor – sitting on the floor encourages you to change positions and fidget more. It’s probably no coincidence that in cultures where people sit on the floor regularly, they tend to stay mobile well into old age.
If you are tired of being a zoo human and would like a bit of guidance on how to implement this into your life, please send me a message at email@example.com and I would be happy to help you.