My brother shared this comic with me a while back. I think it captures something—something about CrossFit, but also about how people react to anyone who’s “really into” anything.I’m not a crossfitter, but my expanding interests in fitness and movement have produced similarly horrified reactions to the prospect of having to engage with me on the topic—less frantic only because people are not literally trapped in an elevator with me.
I bring this up because the recent book Lift, by Daniel Kunitz, can be read as a love song to CrossFit (although he has done a pretty good job of discreetly tucking away most of the CrossFit stuff near the end of the book).
The book is more than just one thing, and even more than a love song to CrossFit it’s a fascinating cultural history of fitness.
Kunitz uses the term New Frontier Fitness to refer to the whole emerging cluster of practices centered around the idea of “functional” fitness: CrossFit, MovNat, Parkour, AcroYoga, obstacle course racing, and any number of gymnastic and calisthenic exercise practices. Kunitz doesn’t mention Katy Bowman’s work, but it obviously fits in as well.
A key thesis of the book is that the motivating genius of New Frontier Fitness is not without precedent: It springs directly from ancient Greek ideals of fitness, and he references both ancient Greek representations of a fit body (such as the Doryphoros sculpture) and statements by ancient Greeks not unlike Georges Hébert’s admonition “Be strong to be useful.”
This cluster of ideas—in particular that fitness was a moral and social obligation, but also that functional fitness produces a beautiful body as a side-effect (rather than as a goal)—largely disappeared after the Greeks, except in tiny subcultures such as the military. It has only reemerged in the past few years as the various things that Kunitz refers to as New Frontier Fitness.
In between—and the 2000-year history of this makes up of the center of Kunitz’s book—there were many things that were not this particular tradition of functional fitness, but instead were aimed at producing a particular type of body (body-building, aerobics, etc.)
A third book that I read recently but haven’t written about is Spark, by John J. Ratey, which overlaps in the sense that all talk about intensity as a key aspect of exercise to produce functional fitness. (If all you’re interested in is appearance and body composition, you can get most of the way there with a diligent application of low-intensity exercise, but some amount of intensity is highly beneficial for functionality and brain health.)
By then, Julie Angel had already finished a PhD and created a large body of photos and videos on parkour.
I came across her work fairly early, and immediately appreciated its strength, so I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, and spent last week reading it.
I’d read some about the early history of parkour, so I knew about David Belle as an individual and the Yamakasi as a group, but this was largely my first exposure to the other early practitioners as individuals—and a bunch of interesting individuals they are.
Early in the book Angel takes a stab at tweezing out the many threads that went into making parkour something that appeared in this place at this time: The urban planning that produced the built infrastructure in Lisses and that also drew in the immigrant population that lived there. The life- and family- histories of the handful of young men who became the Yamakasi. The kinds of men they were. Angel never really pins down exactly why these young men produced parkour when no one else had done so, but it’s a credible effort at answering a question that’s probably unanswerable.
Because on the one hand, many other groups of young men could have created parkour. Most of the key traits of these young men—a certain facility with movement; a willingness to train very, very hard; a tendency to push one another to ever greater efforts (and to let themselves be pushed)—are not that rare. Although many young men are clumsy or lazy, you need only look among the national-level competitors in any boys or junior individual sport, or even at any good high school sports team, to find both movement skill and the capacity for hard training.
More important than those things—which are, as I say, fairly common among young men—was an ethos that leaned against that willingness to push and be pushed. It’s an ethos exemplified in some of their sayings—things like “Start together, finish together,” and “Be strong to be useful.” Everyone was pushed outside their comfort zone, but no one was pushed to attempt anything that he didn’t know he could succeed at. It is surely the reason that early parkour practitioners had such an incredibly low rate of training injuries whether from accidents or from overtraining. (Would that runners were as durable.)
New to me—and a perfect example of that ethos—is the picture Julie Angel gradually paints of Williams Belle. Younger than the others, he was someone I hadn’t even been aware of until I read the book. Williams is portrayed as having all the movement skill and all the willingness to train very, very hard as any of the other pioneers, but lacking the ego of David Belle, and possessing teaching methods that seem uniquely gentle.
She has Stéphane Vigroux saying this about Williams:
On the surface it was the same training school, but somehow the energy and feel when observing Williams was different. . . . From the first jump . . . Williams had known that the discipline should be about helping and sharing with others.
It makes Williams sound like someone I’d like to get to know.
Angel includes a good look at the prehistory of parkour—Georges Hébert and others—and a look at contemporaries who created things that overlap—people like Erwan Le Corre—but it’s not really about them. Most of the book is about the early practitioners. But only most of the book. A little bit—maybe ten or fifteen percent—is kind of a memoir of Julie Angel’s own experiences beginning with parkour. Her stories of her struggles to break her own jumps, learn to balance on a rail, or simply to attend her first class are very effective at illuminating the journey of the founders.
Maybe she used every such story she had—at least, that’s the only good reason I can think of for including so few, because frankly, those bits are some of the best bits in the book. If she wrote a longer memoir of her own journey learning parkour, I’d buy it.
If you’re interested in the history of parkour, and especially if you’re interested in understanding what it meant to those early folks—what it meant to work together, to train very hard, to confront their fears and overcome them together—this is an outstanding book
I no longer remember the precise path through which I came to Katy Bowman’s work, but it must have gone something like this: Parkour to Georges Hébert to Erwan Le Corre to Katy Bowman.
Once I found her Katy Says blog, I stuck around for a while—binge-reading the trove of posts I found there, watching the related videos, and listening to back episodes of her podcast. That material, together with what I found in her then-newest book Move Your DNA, went into a piece I wrote for Wise Bread that suggested natural movement as a way to get fit that was doubly frugal—no cost for the gym, plus you get to do some of your exercise while you’re working.
Unbeknownst to me, Katy was on the verge of publishing a book on just that topic and when I shared my article with her, she offered to send me a review copy of Don’t Just Sit There.
Katy’s thesis in brief is that your body responds to the forces applied to it by adapting itself: moving toward the most optimal form for dealing with those forces. The forces it experiences are wildly diverse—gravity, the continually changing pressures caused by clothing and by breathing, the stretching and compressing of all parts of your body as you move them, the activity of your intestinal biome, etc. Your body as it is now includes a lifetime of accumulated adaptations.
If you had spent your life moving as humans moved during the period in which the human form evolved, your body would have adapted itself most excellently. But you probably haven’t. You’ve probably spent your life sitting in chairs, wearing shoes, riding in cars, and doing a hundred other things that no one had ever done until just the last few hundred years—things that have produced a relatively novel set of forces, resulting in a set of adaptations that are probably not ideal.
Among those adaptations are many things that are considered diseases—osteoarthritis and osteoporosis being two of the ones most obviously related to the history of forces applied to your body. But most “lifestyle” diseases like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, type-2 diabetes, allergies, and asthma also have their roots in adaptations to the lifetime history of forces applied your body.
It is these adaptations—and the resulting disease processes—that explain why sitting all day is an independent risk factor for all-cause mortality, even for people who exercise regularly.
And that is the starting point Katy has chosen for this book. Sitting all day is clearly bad for you, but what should one do instead? Using the model that Katy provides, it is easy to understand that simply replacing sitting all day with standing all day is not an improvement. The problem is not any particular posture; it is maintaining a static posture for hours each day. Specifically, it’s the forces produced by maintaining a static posture for hours each day.
What’s good about this insight—that many disease processes are deeply related to your body’s response to the forces applied to it—is that it is very easy to apply different forces, and thereby produce different adaptations: Adaptations that make your body stronger, more functional, and more healthy. These different forces can be produced by engaging in natural movement.
It is, of course, no easy thing to overcome the results of a lifetime’s movement history. You probably can’t even think of many of the things that all humans did daily for millennia, and without a lifetime of practice, you wouldn’t be able to do them well. If you tried, you’d surely hurt yourself—your adaptations have produced a body that can no longer do certain things.
Happily, Katy’s book provides exactly what you need: a program for safely achieving the capability of filling your day with natural movement—without hurting yourself, and without hurting your productivity. (I was going to say “and without losing your job,” but it’s more than that. Katy is endlessly productive, and clearly cares deeply about your ability to be productive as well, whether you have a job or are simply doing work you think is important.)
This provides the core of the book. There’s a chapter on how to stand (because your lifetime movement history has probably produced habits—and a body—that don’t make it automatic to stand in proper alignment). There’s a chapter on how to sit (for the same reason, plus you probably have a chair that encourages poor posture). There’s a chapter on the small movements that don’t even need to interrupt your work. There’s a chapter on the larger movements that probably do interrupt your work, but only for a minute or two.
All that is preceded by a chapter on building a workspace that doesn’t lock you into one or a few static postures, and then followed by a short group of chapters that use all the preceding information to build a specific program with exercises that build toward filling your workday with natural movement.
What I like best about the book is that it constructs a model for how to think about all these issues. Instead of finishing the book wishing that you could ask the author the right way to deal with this or that particular workplace situation, you can figure it out on your own by applying the principles presented.
If the book has a flaw, it is only that some of its recommendations are based on specific research, while others are simply Katy’s well-informed gut-instinct about what would be better—and the distinction is not always well-marked. For example, there’s an excellent reference to research on the health effects of light pollution to justify suggestions for dealing with lighting and screen time. The related suggestions for engaging in “distance eye-gazing”—that one take “a quick glance every five minutes, and more extended gazes every 30 minutes”—don’t include a reference. I suspect this is because there has not yet been any research to quantify whether those specific time periods are frequent enough and long enough to significantly improve outcomes, but the book doesn’t say.
If you do work—whether for a living, or simply because you’re trying to accomplish something—this is a great book. It’s filled with actionable tips for adapting your workspace to allow you to fill your time with natural movement, and it provides a program for doing so. Most important, it constructs a model for understanding the underlying problem, meaning that you can adapt the program to your own situation.
The paper book is the text portion of a multi-media program with audio and video as well as an ebook. I haven’t seen it, but having heard and seen audio and video created by Katy, I don’t doubt that it is also excellent.