Book review: Movement Matters

I’ve just finished Movement Matters by Katy Bowman, and I want to write a review for several reasons. The first is because I think it’s full of ideas worth sharing, the second is that I’d like to sort some of my ideas about the book and connect them to parts of my life (some of which will be peculiarly mine, and others probably a little bit universal).

Movement Matters is a series of essays, adapted blog posts and answers to her reader’s questions. Not surprisingly the book takes movement as its theme, and I found it almost annoyingly predictable.  But it’s not the predictability of the the conclusions that I want to focus on, rather the diversity of starting points and perspectives that she brings to the subject which I consider well worthwhile. Also many authors base their writing about a single idea or principle that they feel called to share, and I admire Katy’s persistence.

Katy is a biomechanist, and a theme in the book she outlines her journey from an education in a reductionist approach with an emphasis on the mechanical to how life moves to greater interest in the biology of movement, and from there to the ecology of movement, the whys as well as the hows, the interconnected effects and the adaptations which drive further changes in systems.

Her previous book Move your DNA goes into more detail on the biology of how the physical forces an individual cell experiences affect gene expression, and how this in turn can affect tissues, organs and the overall health of a body (I didn’t like the title as it reads like new age bullshit, but I did like the book).

The two most important ideas of the book which Katy connects to movement are outsourcing and stacking. She continues with the theme of movement as nutrition from her previous book, with the idea that a varied movement diet is healthy, and movement nutritional deficiencies have effects on health.

Katy suggests outsourcing of movement as the origin of many modern problems. Movement used to be coupled to life’s essentials. To eat you needed to move,  and there was often a direct correlation between movement, calorie intake and nutrition. Today I can sit all day, and tell Siri to order a ready made meal delivered to my door. All the movement needed to get the food is outsourced, even the chewing if I order a smoothie. The result is it’s easy for me to get obese, weak, lethargic, uncoordinated, isolated, depressed etc

Meanwhile take away disposable packaging piles up, fossil fuels to grow, process and transport get burned, and children become forced labour for cheap cocoa.

So the outsourcing of movement is linked to developed world ill health, environmental fuckery and some shifty social consequences.

Happily Katy does not get on a moral soapbox about this (or any of the subjects she goes into). She points out that movement outsourcing has been going on since the beginning of agriculture, and that it allows things we appreciate. She just points out the unwanted consequences, some of which have sneaked up on our culture. She suggests ways to identify the consequences, a perspective to see them and best of all a solution.

You’ve probably guessed the solution she offers already. Yes, it’s move more.

Move more, not necessarily exercise more. Exercise is movement intended to create physiological adaptation as its primary purpose. Movement is any and all movement, from vegetable chopping to tooth brushing to berry picking, to house cleaning to key turning, eye focusing to different distances, breast suckling, or guitar strumming. I think you get the picture.

What I like about Katy’s approach is that she does not claim that moving more will suddenly solve all your individual and all our collective problems, however it is a tiny first step that has the power of putting people in a position to take further steps. Movement generates momentum after all.

Katy also suggests how to fit all this extra movement into a busy modern life. The solution is to stack your activities.

To explain I’ll offer an un stacked activity – one of my least favourite – treadmill running.  Treadmills are expensive electricity using devices that have one function to improve ‘cardio’ by simulating running. In some places the time on the treadmill is preceded by time spent driving to the treadmill. Time spent on a treadmill is probably not time used for other important life functions like maintaining social connections or contributing to your community, learning, childcare, being exposed to daylight.

In contrast going out to forage with kids and friends could fulfill all of the above and more.  I live in Paris and foraging is not a big thing here (apart from after street markets) but stacking is essentially combining as many functions as possible in a single activity. Shop and cook with (or for) friends or neighbours rather than order takeaway.  

Part of the stacking idea in exercise reminds me of a recent Facebook conversation about the health effects of internal movement going on in a group I visit occasionally.

There is the idea that internal movement is intrinsically beneficial to health. Interestingly the group has a quite reductionist approach to IMA focused primarily on biomechanics.

I see Chinese martial arts in their original context as having a whole range of stacked benefits. First they are  Chinese martial arts are social with strong bonds being formed between classmates teachers and students over years. There is physical contact between practitioners, and touch is a biological need for social primates. Chinese martial arts are often practised outdoors year round providing daylight and forcing adaptation to weather conditions. They also carry cultural information aspects of philosophy and folklore in mime and posture names. It’s tricky to say it promotes longevity because of a particular ‘way of moving’ but ignore (or throw out) the rest of the factors that I’ve mentioned.

So I’ve presented the main ideas of the book, reclaiming outsourced movement and stacking your activities as a way to have a healthier life in a healthier community. I did not have time to delve into the many examples and analogies drawn from the flight of geese, the life of trees and forests, myopia, the movement of rivers, science and the nature of proof, community and more. As I said it is these that bring the book to life.

The book is well referenced as you’d expect from someone with a scientific background, it has a good index and it has some practical appendices related to education, breastfeeding and education.

I’ve just sent a copy to my extremely astute sister who may move less than me, but has life that is probably better stacked in many ways. I’m curious to know what she will make of it. Also if you take the time to read it I’m curious how how you will use it too.

You can move your fingers if you want to look up and buy the book (or your whole body if you want to buy it in a physical shop) but here’s a link to Katy’s blog.

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