Last Thursday Jackie and I (along with several other Urbana Parks Department volunteers) spent a couple of hours clearing invasive bush honeysuckle at the Perkins Road natural area. (The photo is from a year ago. Sadly, we did not have a fire this time. We just piled the honeysuckle up in great huge brush piles.)
Like last time the work consisted of cutting and then carrying or dragging honeysuckle trunks and branches across a forest floor made rough by many tangled roots and littered with small stumps where honeysuckle had been cleared in past.
The next day Jackie commented that her feet were tired, and suggested that the stewardship work was more to the point than the various foot exercises suggested by movement teachers such as Katy Bowman and our new local Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. (Exercises such as rolling your foot on a ball or standing in boot trays filled with river rocks.)
To which I said, “Yes! Exactly!”
Movement trumps exercise.
That’s not to say that exercises don’t have their place. Especially for people whose lifetime movement history has left them unready to safely perform certain movements, but also just for people whose schedule makes it hard to fit in as much movement as they’d like, exercises can be an excellent way to make yourself ready or keep yourself ready.
But to actually use your whole body capabilities to perform real work? To engage in bending, squatting, dragging, lifting, carrying—and do so while in nature, as part of a community effort, making the land better? So much better.
<whispering in Katy Bowman voice>Hashtag #VitaminN Hashtag #VitaminCommunity Hashtag #VitaminTexture</whispering> (This last will make no sense if you don’t listen to the Katy Says podcast.)
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.
The book grabbed me right from the start. The forward by Wim Hof is delightful. The preface sets the stage for the climactic event. In the introduction the author suggests that his spirit animal is a jellyfish—a comforting thought for someone like me whose totemic animal is the sloth.
Because the first few pages were so interesting, I suggested that my brother use Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read them, but he was unwilling to do so—pretending to be daunted by the fact that the “look inside” feature depends on scripts he had turned off in his web browser. He also declared the book to be “pseudoscientific drivel.” (A comment that must have been—since he wouldn’t read even a few pages—based entirely on the subtitle: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.)
Of course it’s not a scientific book, but rather a journalistic one, and my urging was because I thought he would appreciate how well the story was set up—and the jellyfish spirit animal. After all, my brother’s totemic animal is the slug.
The book does talk a good bit about new scientific research into how the body responds to cold and other stresses. Part of the background that is being reported on is emerging evidence that humans have some degree of control over all sorts of autonomic responses, and that one path to gaining that control is by exposing yourself to stresses that trigger those responses, so as to gain an opportunity to practice exerting control.
One area that’s still disputable is how much of that control is real, and how much of of the observable changes are really a matter of “getting your mind right” about the stressor—maybe all of the changes being measured, such as increased mitochondria turning white fat into beige fat (or turning muscle that preferentially burns carbs into muscle that preferentially burns fat), are merely incidental, and the real difference is just deciding that being a little bit cold isn’t so bad.
Since that was, after all, why I was reading the book, that would not be so bad either.
Last winter, when I got off to a better start than I had this year, much of the change in attitude had been prompted by Katy Bowman’s comments pointing out that the actions your body takes in response to cold (vasoconstriction, shivering, activation of the arrector pili muscles) are all movements—movements that, like squatting and crawling, are done all too rarely these days by most people.
The arrector pili muscles in particular intrigue me. Always described as a left-over muscle that helps animals keep warm by making their hairs stand up for extra insulation, it seems like an awfully complex mechanism to have been so well conserved in humans if that’s all it was for. I suspect they have additional uses. Perhaps the calories burned pulling on hair follicles provides a bit of local thermogenesis that can stave off frostbite without the risk to core body temperature that would result if the area were warmed by blood-flow.
Carny talks a bit about vasoconstriction, suggesting that the pain associated with it is due to the fact that it’s such an uncommon movement in most people. If you train yourself for it, he says, it becomes much less uncomfortable.
Carny also has interesting things to say about non-shivering thermogenesis, which is produced by specialized mitochondria that live in brown fat and beige fat (but also apparently in muscle). In particular, he says that the process of converting white fat to beige fat starts with temperature sensing nerves in the skin! I would have assumed that difficulty maintaining core body temperature would have been the initiator, but apparently not: All you need to do is get your skin cold. This means that going for cold-weather runs will do the trick, which has to be the easiest possible way to do it, because your body produces enough heat while running to scarcely feel cold at all.
Thinking about this sort of thing makes it easier for me to get my mind right with winter.
Also helpful is that we’re getting a few days of less-cold weather. It’s still cold enough to provide the necessary circumstances to induce some cold adaptation, but not so cold that I immediately turn up the thermostat and pull out my warmest parka whenever I need to go outside. In fact, I’ve been making a point of dressing slightly less warmly—choosing a jacket one notch down—than I would if comfort were my only criterion.
I expect that by the time full-blown winter weather arrives, I’ll have gotten my mind right.
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.
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.