A productive day today: We walked around Meadowbrook Park, loaded up our old bicycles and took them (and other bike-related tools and stuff) to donate to the Campus Bike Project, and I planted some lettuce in containers on our patio.
Richard Florida says Champaign-Urbana is the #3 metro for car-free living, beating out San Francisco, Boston, and New York: https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/09/where-live-no-car-america-public-transit-transportation/598606/ Via @AnthonySkaggs11
Years ago my mom gave me and my brother each one of these Missouri State Protozoa sweatshirts—which we wore together on a century bicycle ride, calling ourselves “Team Giardia.” I still have mine!
Recover the ability to move well
Recovering the ability to move well after decades spent sitting still is hard. I’ve spent years working on it, making fitful progress—walking more, running (when I managed not to injure myself), riding my bicycle, lifting weights, doing taiji, etc. I feel better than I have since I was much younger, and I move with more flexibility, mobility, power, and control. I am very pleased with my progress, especially these past three years since I went down the rabbit hole of natural movement, but it was a hard trip.
The internet is a help—there are many, many videos of movement gurus demonstrating how to move well, and many pages with advice, corrections, and exercises for getting from here to there. One good place to start is with Katy Bowman, whose eight books and thousands of blog posts provide step-by-step instructions on recovering the ability to move well (and much else besides). But as I say, it’s hard to do without local support, and until the last few weeks my efforts had just one source of local support—my taiji instructor and community of fellow students (now my students).
So I am delighted that we now have one of Katy Bowman’s students teaching here in Champaign-Urbana: Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. I’ve taken several of her classes and can assure you that she knows her stuff and knows how to teach it.
(She also knows how to geek out about it, which is a marvelous delight for someone like me. I learned so much about shank rotation! Learning to get my humeri into neutral position made a world of difference for my rhomboid pushups.)
I gather that her special interests are things like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction (and pelvic function in general), which are potentially issues for everyone, but especially pregnant and postpartum women, but she also teaches the full range: foot function (did you know that your foot contains 26 bones and 33 joints?), squatting, neutral posture, core function, shoulder mobility, etc.
Getting this sort of local support earlier would have helped me a lot. Although most of the work of recovering the ability to move better comes in the form of time spent moving, it’s easy to exacerbate problems rather than improve things when you start to move more. I’ve certainly limited my own progress many times by trying to up the intensity when I should have been becoming more grounded in the basics, or simply by practicing moving incorrectly.
Taiji is an excellent movement practice, being as it is about having an intention to move in a particular way, and then paying attention to whether or not you are executing your intention. But its roots in martial arts give it a particular focus, and it does not serve all areas of movement equally well.
The first time I tweeted something about Katy Bowman, one of her senior students tweeted back, welcoming me to the fold. I said something like, “I’m just working my way through the archives of her old posts,” to which Petra Fisher responded, “That’s how it starts.” I have to admit that she was right.
If you want to learn to move better, and you’re local to the Champaign-Urbana area, I recommend Ashley Price highly.
Humans evolved to see high-viz yellow
For years I was sure that blaze orange would be the most visible color—so sure that I bought all my shirts for bicycling in some approximation of that color. I simply couldn’t imagine that a greenish-yellow color would be more visible, especially against green backgrounds like corn and soybean fields.
Then one day while out riding in one of my orange shirts, I was passed by a pair of cyclists, one wearing just about the same color of blaze orange as I was, and the other wearing high-viz yellow.
They were riding quite a bit faster than I was, so over the course of the next few minutes they dwindled down to two small dots far ahead of me. And then they dwindled into one small dot: the high-viz yellow one. And that high-viz yellow shirt remained visible for a really long time after the orange-shirted guy riding right next to him had vanished in the distance.
After I thought about it, it made sense. Humans evolved as forest-edge creatures. Of course high-viz yellow stands out, even against a hundred different shades of leafy green. Picking critical detail out of dappled shade—where basically everything is a shade of yellow-green—is exactly what the human eye evolved to do.
All my new safety gear is high-viz yellow.
Movement in 2015
This was the year that Jackie and I finally managed our long-planned day-hike of the Kal-Haven Trail: 33.4 miles from Kalamazoo to South Haven. It took three years to make the fitness piece and the schedule piece come together close enough to the summer solstice that we could complete the hike in daylight.
That project dominated my movement practice for the year, especially because I was being so careful not to injure myself, out of fear that an otherwise-minor stubbed toe or turned ankle or bruised heel might make the hike impossible, meaning a delay of yet another year.
Another thing that happened is that my taiji teacher asked me to take over teaching his classes. I was already teaching some last year, and since September, I’ve been teaching all of them.
Now at the end of the year, I’ve had another little project: trying to get in 90 minutes of movement every day in December. That started off great: in the first three weeks I only missed 2 days. It rather tapered off in the week of Christmas itself (missed 5 days), but I got back with it this last week to finish the year strong.
I haven’t previously written annual review posts of my movement practice, and it would be pointless to try to create them retroactively. But I did want to trace the key turning points that brought me here. If you’d asked me 8 years ago if I’d be a taiji instructor I’d have dismissed the notion out of hand, and when I’ve tried in the past to remember how I got here, I had trouble remembering. However, I have written plenty of posts on those topics. I’ve used those posts to try to reconstruct my journey from trying to get fit through exercise to simply trying to get plenty of diverse movement.
I’m a bit unsure where to start. I always tried to “get enough exercise,” even before I started thinking through what “enough” would be (and long before I came to think that “exercise” wasn’t the best way to think about it). A few datapoints:
- I have a running log from 1991, a year in which I lost a good bit of weight and ran enough to be able to complete a 5.5-mile trail race. I hurt my Achilles tendon, and by the time it healed (many months later) I was completely out of shape.
- I have notes in my Clarion Journal about running in the summer of 2001, and I ran enough in 2003 that some of that fitness carried forward—in 2004 I came into the spring with enough fitness that I was able to complete a 7.1-mile trail race in June.
- In that same period, I was bicycling a lot—it was something I could do with Jackie, who doesn’t care to run. I found that bicycling to work let me replace my 20-minute commute with a 25-minute bike ride, meaning that I got 50 minutes of aerobic exercise with just an extra 10 minutes per day. Bicycling home was also a great way to decompress at the end of a day at work. In the summer of 2005, Jackie and I spent a couple of months training for, and then rode together, a century ride.
At each of those peaks, I averaged about 100 minutes of exercise per day, which was what I could fit into a week when I had a regular job. (During most of that period, I didn’t tend to count walking as exercise unless I went out for a long hike on trails, an error that I gradually corrected over the next few years.)
I have a rather sad post from April of 2008 in which I lament my failure to take advantage of the extra time I should have had, once I quit working a regular job, because I was spending so much time writing. (I was writing about 5 posts a week for Wise Bread in that period, and also working on a novel.) I resolved to “make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.”
In drafting this post, I wrote a long history of my movement practice as documented in my blog here, but I can’t imagine it’s of any interest to anyone but me, so I stuck it off in a text file. Instead, here are the key turning points:
- September, 2009: I start practicing taiji.
- October, 2010: How much exercise is enough?
- January, 2012: I declare victory in my quest for an exercise regimen.
- August, 2012: I get my first pair of minimalist running shoes
- May, 2013: I sketch out a plan to hike the Kal-Haven Trail.
- June, 2013: I start teaching taiji.
- May, 2014: I start experimenting with parkour.
And that brings us up to 2015.
In March I had a practice session with the parkour club at the University. I intended to go back (and still mean to), but haven’t made it yet. This was also around when I first heard about MovNat and natural movement as a thing.
In May I wrote the post that I guess I’ve been groping towards here: Human movement capabilities, talking about my journey from “getting enough exercise” to moving like a wild human.
I expect next year will be a lot like this year. We won’t have a 33.5 mile hike, but I’m sure we’ll have several in the 15–20 mile range. I’ll run. We’ll probably get our bikes out again. I’d like to get back to train with the parkour club again.
Over the winter, I’m planning to work on a few basics.
For the lower body, I want to get to the point where I can comfortably squat—where I can hang out in a squat and do stuff. I want to develop some extra toe flexibility, so I can do the quadrupedal movement thing barefoot.
For the upper body, besides the quadrupedal movement (which turns out to be a really excellent whole-body exercise, as well as being useful), I want to do more hanging. I have no idea how long it will take to get from hanging to pullups, but I’m planning to get it done.
It was interesting to see that my exercise regimen from 2012—the one that prompted me to declare victory—is not actually too different from what I do now. I do five hours of taiji each week, rather than just three. I try to walk 90 minutes every day, rather than 60 minutes just four days a week. I’ve shifted to body-weight exercises instead of weights or machines. (I’ve also gotten a bit lazy about the weights. This winter I’ll step that up.)
Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement
I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.
Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.
I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).
All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.
Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)
Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.
However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.
I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.
Still not new news.
Human movement capabilities
I’ve started thinking of my fitness practice more as movement practice. This post is about that shift in my thinking, and if that’s not going to be interesting to you, you’ll probably want to just skip this one.
I have always wanted to be fit, for what I think are mostly ordinary reasons: to be healthy, to look good, to be capable of doing the things that need to be done. For most of my life, my fitness practice fell short of what I thought it ought to be, again for mostly ordinary reasons: I was busy, the weather was bad, I found exercise boring or unpleasant.
I would get my aerobic exercise running and cycling in the summer, and walking year round. When the weather cooperated with a mild spring, I could get in pretty good shape by mid-summer. A couple of years, I even preserved some level of running capability over the winter; one of those years, I ran the Lake Mingo Trail Race, which at 7.1 miles was usually beyond my capability in mid-June when it takes place. But, given the realities of working a regular job (with hours when I needed to be sitting at a computer, rather than out for a run), winter (when I just about don’t cycle or run) and injuries (as my brother likes to say “Running is great exercise, between injuries”), my fitness practice never made me fit for the long term, just fit for a while.
This changed a few years ago, for a couple of reasons.
The less important reason was that my employer closed the site down, and I decided I could get by without a regular job. It means our financial circumstances are a bit straitened, but my hours are my own.
More important, I started practicing taiji.
Taiji gave me balance and control, but much more important, it taught me mindfulness—to be present in my body during my exercise. (I was prompted to write this post at this time because I’ve been reading a blog by Johnathan Mead called Move Heroically, that nicely hits the sweet spot in my evolving interest in fitness. The latest post in particular is on exactly this topic: Embodiment is a Performance Enhancing Drug.)
I like to think of my exercise as building capabilities. I go for long walks because I want to be able to go for long walks. I run because I want to be able to run.
That’s an oversimplification in at least two ways.
For one thing, honesty requires me to admit that I engage in endurance exercise because I like it (perhaps because of the endocannabinoids it generates). A long run at a brisk pace makes me feel good.
More important it’s an oversimplification because specificity of training means that my exercise practice was only building a very narrow slice of the capabilities I imagined. Yes, if I go for a long run every week or two, I do create and maintain the capability to run a long way, but that capability is only barely transferable to other activities. When Jackie and I wanted to go on a century ride, we spent many weeks building up our stamina for long rides. Given how long it’s been since my last long ride, I would not want to stake my life on my capability to bicycle 100 miles without a good bit of training. Maybe fewer weeks because we’re fitter now, but I’d still want weeks of training before attempting another century ride.
It was this realization, in conjunction with my taiji practice teaching me to move more mindfully, that brought me initially to parkour, and more recently to natural movement generally.
Running wasn’t just for fun (although it was fun), and it wasn’t just to be more healthy (although I expect I am). I was explicitly building the capability to run if I needed too. I used that capability sometimes—to catch a bus, to get to an appointment on time—and I imagined that I could use it under other circumstances as well: running away from some danger, running toward someone who needed my help.
But I came to realize that, because of exercise specificity, my capability was a very narrow one indeed. I could run, but I could only barely jump or climb. If I came to a place where I needed to step down I was fine, as long as the drop was only a step or two. But if I needed to jump down by, let’s say, three steps, things got much more problematic. I could climb up a steep path, but am quite daunted if I need to climb up a tree, or cliff, or a wall, or a rope.
That was what brought me to parkour.
Even before I made much progress in the skills of parkour, however, I happened upon natural movement. It shares the roots of parkour, but is less about the specific skills of parkour (vaults and such), and more about basic human movement. Yes, walking and running. Also climbing and jumping and crawling. Balancing. Throwing and catching. Lifting and carrying. Swimming and diving.
So, this is where I’ve come to. I’m very pleased with my walking, and adequately pleased with my running. My climbing skills need considerable broadening. Thanks to taiji, my static balance is okay, but I’m still a beginner when it comes to more dynamic balance. My throwing and catching were never great, and have declined enormously due to a lack of practice since I was a boy. My lifting and carrying skills are deficient, due to too many years lifting weights primarily with machines. If you dropped me in water over my head I could avoid drowning for a while, but unless shallow water or rescue were reasonably close, I would be hard pressed to reach it.
There is a great deal I want to learn (and re-learn) this summer, and I have started in small ways.
This weir crosses a ditch that runs behind Winfield Village. It’s concrete, a good 12 inches wide, but curved on top, making it a pretty good imitation of a log put across a river to serve as a bridge. I’ve been including it as part of my running route, initially with some difficulty (needing to use the concrete blocks as additional stepping stones), but now crossing on just the weir, and beginning to pick up the pace.
I’m being very careful—Jackie would be quite peeved with me if I injured myself right before our Kal-Haven Trail walk—so I’m not doing much with jumps or vaults yet. But my concept of fitness has broadened greatly, and I’m no longer satisfied with merely a strong heart and strong muscles. I want the full range of human movement capabilities.
Rick Bell talk on Active Design
Jackie and I rode the yellow bus into campus yesterday evening and attended a reception for and talk by Rick Bell about Active Design—using architecture to encourage people to move more, to eat better, etc.
We enjoyed it, and found the ideas very interesting, even though the talk itself was only fair—a long series of slides with pictures of places that exemplified one or another aspect of what he’s talking about, arranged geographically rather than according to the principles he’s suggesting. (The talk would have been more interesting for me if it had been organized by idea, rather than by place.)
One focus throughout the talk was on staircases. Of course any multilevel public space needs to have elevators (to make the space available to people who can’t climb stairs) and perhaps other things as well—ramps, escalators, and so on. But stairs are required too (for fire safety, if nothing else) and Bell points out that staircases can be done well or badly. In a bare concrete box closed in behind fire doors, they’re pretty uninviting. Brought out front and center, they can be wonderful. They can be beautiful design elements—glass stairs can float in the space, mirrored risers can reflect the space, etc. Staircases—if they’re broad enough—can also be places where people gather in small groups to stand or sit together. He had a photo of what I guess is a famous red staircase being used that way. (The talk was for architecture students, and was full of references to famous architecture and architects that mostly meant very little to me.)
He also had some photos of places where these things had been done badly, such as a second-floor fitness center with escalators to the entrance, and no sign of where the stairs might be, even if you wanted to use them.
There’s a lot to Active Design besides staircases—walkable spaces, bicycling infrastructure, creating (often re-creating) multimodal transportation infrastructure (like having bike paths and foot paths lead to and from the bus station, and having the bus station co-located with the train station and a bicycle rental place), seasonally appropriate spaces (like skating rinks), bringing food production into the city center, etc.
I’m glad we went. I’m glad we went by bus, rather than driving.
It happened this way: I suggested to Jackie that we might hike the full length of the Kal-Haven trail. She’s a long-distance walker from way back, so she said yes.
The Kal-Haven Trail is a rail trail. It runs from Kalamazoo to South Haven. It’s been around for a while. Steven and I bicycled it back when he was a grad student.
The trail has since been expanded into downtown Kalamazoo, but the part I’m thinking of has its eastern terminus just west of US 131 and runs 33.5 miles west to South Haven.
I thought about taking two days to hike the full length of the trail, but that seemed inconvenient. We do a mile in about 20 minutes, so the full length ought to a bit over 11 hours of walking (plus a couple of hours for lunch and breaks). We could probably find a bed and breakfast somewhere around the midpoint, but then what? Hike 6 hours the first day, check into the B&B, and then hang out for the rest of the day? Even if we had a very restful evening, we’d still be a bit tired and sore the next day, when we’d have to hike another 6 hours. Much better to just hike through in one go.
With that thought in mind, we’ve been doing some long walks to get into shape.
We do walks of 3, 4, 5 miles pretty routinely, so I came up with a plan that leaves those ordinary walks alone, but now includes a long walk each week. We started with a 3 hour walk a couple of weeks ago. The plan calls for adding 30 minutes each week. Today’s hike was supposed to be 4 hours and cover around 12 miles.
I find it easier to motivate myself to go for a long hike if there’s a meal near the midpoint, so we came up with a route that gave us a bit more than 2 hours of walking and ended at a favorite restaurant located where we could walk home in a bit less than 2 hours. And our result matched our plan pretty well:
We walked to downtown Champaign and through West Side Park (and stopped for coffee at Pekara Bakery), then meandered through north Champaign to Douglass Park (and visited the Douglass branch of the Champaign Library), then we made our way to Busey Woods and hiked a bit of the trail there (and paused in the Anita Purves Nature Center), after which we turned south and hiked to Crane Alley where we stopped for lunch and beer. From there we pretty much headed straight home, although we did visit Art Mart in Lincoln Square and pause at the Champaign branch of the Champaign library (where we got coffee again, this time at Latte Da) along the way. (Map and workout info from Endomondo. The datapoint with an altitude of 0 is a glitch of some sort from a point where we lost GPS coverage.)
The total distance was 12.1 miles, right on target. It took us just over 6 hours, including a leisurely lunch plus two coffee breaks, so total time walking was probably right about 4 hours, exactly as planned. Our first miles were done at just under a 20-minute pace while our last miles were done at just over a 20-minute pace, so I figure I’ve got the timing about right.
My plan has us adding 30 minutes to our long walk each week for another 8 weeks, after which our long walk will be 8 hours (and cover about 24 miles). I figure once we do that with some degree of ease, we’ll be in adequate shape to push on and cover the whole 33.5 miles. It’s a low-key sort of plan, though. I only want to hike the trail if it’s going to be fun. If the 6 or 7 hour walks start seeming burdensome rather than fun, or if one of us gets injured, we’ll abandon the plan.
This hike, though, was great fun. A companionable way to spend the day with my wife. And it’s good to know that we’re up for walking over 12 miles if we need to (or even if we just want to).