In the previous articles I gave an overview of ways simple ways to leave a swamp of inactivity and poor diet, I have ranted about the ‘fitness’ and ‘beauty’ industries, talked a little more about how to eat and why not to diet. It is time to get into the juicy subject of movement and exercise, how the two are different, some shapes/moves to incorporate, I’ll talk about listening to your body and discuss a few of the exercise movement groups and communities that I think can do some good, and how they can fit together.
In doing so I’ll also introduce you to some people I am grateful to for their research into movement. I will cover a lot of ideas in a short time, many of the simple sentences below have vast implications. To do them justice you will need to read further, think, experiment and research.
Movement and exercise
All exercise is movement, not all movement is considered exercise. All movement involves changes in the forces that act on your body. Your body is being shaped by those forces all day long.
These include the forces of the seat you are on as you read, the forces in your muscles and tendons as you move, the forces of the clothes that cover or restrict you, the forces of your bed and pillows.
These forces determine the thickness and shape of bones, the strength of tendons and ligaments. The movements you make determine the movements you can make, your range of motion, and your ability to even feel parts of your body with any clarity.
Our bodies evolved in a context of movement, moving to find and prepare food, to build shelter, to carry children across uneven terrain many hours a day. Our bodies evolved to live without furniture, without much by way of clothes – certainly without cushioned shoes.
Movement requires and stimulates the brain, it does more than stimulate musculo-skeletal development, it is also an integral part of circulation and digestion.
This means that if you sit 8 or more hours per day, if you constantly adopt the same shapes with your body, that is what your body has adapted to. It is a long, long way from the conditions that the body evolved for. If you have some health issues, if you have joint pain, back pain no wonder.
Culture shapes us as well as furniture. Just as we pick up accents from our local environment, so we pick up nuances of posture – military stiffness or teenage slouch and a host of others.
Our bodies also evolved in an environment where nutrition was not always available. This makes our bodies innately conservative, they will do their best to get away with the least expenditure to develop tissues, synapses or anything that could be expensive in a nutrition uncertain world. Your body will adapt very well to inactivity, it will stiffen up the joints that are not used, thin the bones that do not require density, along with the ligaments and cartilage, and the synapses that control unused movements will slowly fade away.
This is one reason why re-patterning, requires effort. It takes mental energy and physical fuel to reshape the body, to change movement patterns. New patterns feel awkward, sometimes wrong, not because they are necessarily worse, but because they are different. It does not simply require effort, it requires sustained effort. It has taken a lifetime of forces to shape your body the way it is now, it will not transform overnight, or in a week, or a month. But it will begin to transform as soon as you change the input forces.
As a culture we have tried to apply exercise to remedy this immobility. It helps. Still consider what do you think will have the greatest effect shaping your body, the 1 hour a day you spend exercising, or all the hours sitting, lying, slouching?
It’s also one reason why people often hurt themselves when they start exercise – the patterns that they use are the atrophied ones that do not serve the purpose of the what they are trying to achieve. Poor pattern + more effort + weak links in body = painful result.
I do not want to discourage exercise. I want to encourage movement, and exercise is a small subset of movement. You cannot not move. Breathing is movement, my fingers typing this is movement. What I really want to encourage is variety and nutrition of movement. Exercise is just those movements engaged in with prime intention of improving the condition of the body. Movement is exercise AND everything else.
One quality of (not for exercise) movements is that they perform functions. Cleaning a house is movement, the function is self explanatory. Carry shopping, use your legs for transport including stairs, make things with your hands, do some gardening all these count.
Consider the movements that our ancestors engaged in that are missing from our lives. Variable quantities of walking, typically five miles a day. Climbing used to be pretty common, as did balancing when the ground was uneven and fallen trees were the best bridges.
So even before you start to add more exercise into your life, add more movement. Begin to get your body to adapt to activity (rather than inactivity) as a prelude and context for the more intense, targeted activity of exercise. It does not have to be ‘big’ movement, just not staying stuck in the same position all the time.
In many ways our culture makes this tricky. From an early age we have been told to sit still and listen or work or both. You are probably paying for that now. It is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to begin to change it for yourself.
Start by making the small, subtle movement of lifting your middle finger to all the factors that want to keep you stuck in the sedentary swamp, then get imaginative in keeping yourself moving. Need to use a chair and desk – how many ways can you sit, how many times can you ‘drop’ a pen and pick it up (hint drop it a long way away then make a game of getting it back)?
I suspect that in the not too distant future in litigious countries employees will start to sue their employers for health damage as a result of enforced movement reduction. I dislike litigation culture, I’d rather you just moved.
Here is someone I really want to introduce you too – a living example of movement!
Cut away the constraints
There are a variety of constraints that we can get in the way of our movement. I’ve mentioned the cultural ones – the pressure to be seen as an industrious person by sitting.
One set of constraints is the clothes we wear. The less you lose a range of motion the faster you will lose it. If you want the range of motion of a coat hanger, the suppleness of a plastic mannequin then put looks of clothes before fit and cut. Sales assistants look funnily at me because I check what I can do in trousers before I buy them “But these aren’t sports clothes sir”. That’s the ‘exercise’ mentality talking.
Make the times when you clothes constrain you the exception, not the rule. Doesn’t mean you need to live in sweatpants – I have a suit I can do a split in (and another one with a ripped seat).
Same goes for you shoes. Your feet are precious – not spoiled brat wrap in cotton wool precious. They are precious because you get two per life. Feet are amazingly complex and are meant to be nearly as smart as your hands in natural conditions. Your feet evolved to feel the ground, to absorb shocks, to pick flowers. If you cannot move your toes freely in a pair of shoes, they do not fit. If you cannot spread your toes at will you have probably been wearing shoes that do not fit for a long time. Look into barefoot shoes, look into going barefoot. Had your feet cushioned your whole life? Then you have some learning and tissue adaptation ahead of you. Don’t hurry, and don’t wait.
Space is often considered a movement constraint. Only if you need to pole vault or something. If you can move a little you are moving. There is always outside. People make weather excuses. It may be nicer to go for a walk on a bright spring day, but weather is rarely dangerous.
Learn to use umbrellas, or enjoy rain in your face, or heat. Most of us can be more weather tolerant. Our bodies evolved for variation, and that includes variation in temperature. Central heating and air-con are there to make life more pleasant, not to be a prison of comfort.
If you want to go further into these ideas, with research, biology and progressions to add movement I recommend Katy Bowman’s Move your DNA. Don’t want to get the book – there are plenty of podcasts and articles that can get you started.
Some shapes and movements to look into
If we use food as a metaphor for movement, some movements are more nutritious than others, and some movements verge on junk, while others are toxic. A lot depends on the dosage.
So once you have started to move more I’ll take a little leap into suggesting some shapes and movements that I consider nutritious and most probably missing from your life. There are plenty of others, but these are a pretty good start.
The resting squat
What did people do before furniture? How and where did they prefer food and gossip? Much human life took place in the squat position. Modern children all squat, but if they are exposed to chairs they lose the ability.
When we lose the resting squat we lose vital stimulation for our knees, our digestion suffers, our spines suffer, our ankles and hips change shape. The resting squat is an important position I suggest you reintegrate into your life.
For many a resting squat is a challenge, it is not a rest. You will need to find your way down gently. This will help
Start the 30/30 squat challenge – the idea here is to squat for 30 minutes everyday for 30 days, by which time it will probably have become far more comfortable and habitual. Your 30 minutes are best split up into a few minutes at a time through the day.
and once you can squat this will help you get even more comfortable down there
The gentleman in the videos above is Ido Portal, a movement teacher I have had the pleasure to study with and a man who has developed some amazing abilities and great tools through years of research. He has made movement the centre of his life and sacrificed a great deal to do so. We can learn and benefit from him without the same level of dedication (but we won’t get the same results either).
I have mentioned already that human beings are primates, and our shoulders have a very similar structure to those of orang utans, and chimps who move by brachiation much of the time, hanging and swinging. Hanging from hands is great for shoulder health, and also spine health.
Kids love to hang, and play on the monkey bars (or as Frank Forencich pointed out, ape bars) but these are sadly getting rarer, and as kids grow the ratio of weight to hand strength makes this less and less easy. Time to rejuvenate yourself!!
The hanging challenge is similar to the squat challenge – 30 days, but this time hanging just 7 minutes through the day. If you do not yet have the strength you can start with partial hangs, where you keep some weight in your feet.
Ido has put together a great resource of hanging exercises here, with videos, clear instructions, progressions and what to expect.
At some point you will begin to develop genuine human hands with calluses and rough skin. It’s important to keep some of your calluses, but they also need to be kept under control or they can tear. Use a pumice stone is one way to keep your hands smooth.
There is a saying from architecture – we shape our environments, then they shape us. We may have little say about what goes on outside our homes, but inside is different. you do not need much for either of these challenges, but if they are not easily available it makes doing them much harder.
For squatting all you really need is a bit of floor, hanging requires a place to hold on to. the ideal thing is to have a bar, or rings somewhere you can use it without fuss on the way to the toilet or kitchen. The really ideal would be to get hanging points up in a place of work – regular bouts of hanging to counter desk droop.
Trees are the original hanging points – they take more skill and ingenuity a lot of the time, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Do some gardening and plant a tree to hang from, then for your kids and and grand kids to play in.
How long will this all take?
The honest answer is the…. rest of your life. Which means you don’t need to be in a hurry, or at least keep a certain perspective and patience.
On the other hand you may want to know how long it will take for you to go from barely being able to hang, to your first pull up or something like that. That is pretty tricky for me to say from here. I do not know where you are starting from, or how many useful changes you will make.
Here is what I observe from working with people.
People progress far faster when they eat well, their body shape changes, their strength increases, their endurance increases, their ratio of weight to strength increases
People progress far faster when they put more hours in. Once you are generally mobile you can begin to work on specific attributes, give your self strength or movement goals. With proper programming and 2-3 hours per week you should be able to go from a dead hang to a full pull up in a couple of months.
When you start it’s not hard to increase your strength by 2-3% a week. Obviously this will plateau. Compound interest applies to money, not strength!
To go from a pull up to a one arm pull up is more likely to be a couple of years of dedicated research, with good programming paying attention to keeping your upper body strength balanced. But this is a very unusual degree of strength – go for it if you want, but it’s not necessary for health and general activity.
And as for that obsession with weight, a decrease in weight of 1kg a week is fine to start with, again that will taper off as you remove the ‘low hanging fruit’. At some point you won’t care too much what you weigh
Returning to the metaphor of the swamp, sunny hillside and mountain heights, most people can get to that hillside within a year if they want to, just using the simple heuristics I’ve outlined here. Once you’re on the hillside there is plenty of exploration and building to be done, you can stay there and continue to develop.
To get higher up, to acclimatise to the mountains (for example the one arm chin) is another matter. It will take a more hours per week, and more weeks, and more education. The simple heuristics will not get you there.
Listening to your body
I cannot write about how long it will take to progress without talking about one of the vital skills to progress. It is easy to take backwards steps as well as forwards steps along the way. A backwards step can come from overdoing it and losing enthusiasm, or from injuring yourself.
You cannot eliminate risk from this process. You can reduce it and learn to expand the areas where you can manage or accept risk. The alternative is the inevitability of reduced movement, balance and the risks that entails not to mention the reduction in organ function and so on.
The phrase ‘listen to your body’ is thrown about without much thought or reflection. People say it, they do not explain either what it means, or how to do it. If you’re goal is to get out of the swamp, chances are you have some learning (or relearning) to do here.
Listening to your body is related to attention, and distinction. The more of yourself you can bring to the attention and distinctions, the better.
The most obvious, but not always the easiest task is to reduce distractions. When you explore or practise a movement turn off the radio, don’t look at a screen and be wary of mirrors. Pay attention to where your body is in space, the sensations in your body, the degree of tension and relaxation. Feel your body globally, notice your breathing, focus deeply on individual areas.
You can analyze with your mind, but first pay attention on a more sensory basis. our mind may leap to premature interpretations. Feed your curiosity rather than your familiar thoughts.
In normal life listening is a pretty important part of something more complex, which is conversation. The same is true in the context of listening to your body. It is a very important component of the conversation you have with your body in which you make requests and ideally the body responds.
As in any conversation you better learn the language. It takes time and attention to develop your vocabulary, to understand the nuances that can completely change the meaning of a communication.
A classic way to begin to tune into bodily sensation and physical intelligence is to pay attention to the sensation of breathing in the lower abdomen. Allow the breath to swell your belly on the inhale, feel how it can touch all parts of the belly sides, pelvic floor and lower back. Relax on the exhale. Keep bringing the attention to sensation, and away from cognition.
The distinctions you need to make in the moment, and afterwards are between ‘good’ pain and ‘bad’ pain. In this case good and bad are not really to do with comfort, they are related to whether the movement is going to create a response that will allow more movement in future (through strength, flexibility, toughness) or whether it will inhibit future movement due to injury or inflammation.
Burning in a muscle that is contracting, probably good. Sharp pain in a joint, probably bad. This is really basic vocabulary.
My experience with people who are chronically inactive is that they often stop as soon as there is any discomfort, and comfort is just what you are used to. You need to do things outside of what you are used to, to change. You may sweat, you may breathe heavily, you may ache, your heart will beat faster. It is just sensation.
If it is all too disturbing, too bizarre and alien then find someone who knows the territory, who can judge reasonably what you are capable of, and who can tell you to keep going when you mistakenly think you are dying!
Having human models for movement skills is a really good idea. As I said, it is easier if you do not do this on your own. Find the best models that you can, and the best teachers. Their influence will rub off on you. A good teacher is both rare and invaluable.
As you move more you will learn better what you can do or not.
When you feel ‘bad’ pain, stop as soon as practicable. Work on different co-ordinations for the same task, decrease the degree of effort.
It is almost inevitable that you will go a little too far one day. That is also part of the learning. Afterwards you can consider what warning signs there were, if any and what you can do differently next time.
You are the person ultimately responsible for the choices you make with your body, though as I said it helps to have others who have similar attitudes to suing movement for health (or just for it’s own sake). This can include not just friends, or movement teachers, but therapists of various kinds. The ones that offer drugs and surgery for every issue – not so good. The ones that observe and analyse your movement from an outside perspective (then give the responsibility to act on the knowledge back to you) are probably better. These are best researched through your local movement communities.
Listen to your food!
The same quality of attention can be applied to diet. Pay attention to what you eat, while you are eating it, the taste, smell and texture, the feeling as you digest and assimilate – not to mention whether you are genuinely hungry or not.
A key distinction is between ‘emotional’ hunger and the body needs to rebuild itself hunger. The longer you have been eating without this distinction, the more blurred the two will be.
Setting a new reference by getting genuinely, physically hungry is a good idea. There is nothing like the sense of hunger that comes from a long swim in cold water for example. A serious strength training session will ignite this feeling too. There are lots of ways.
Movement groups and communities
There are lots and lots and lots of different movement groups, classes, practices and communities. How do you choose your teachers and playmates?
Well the first thing to do is turn on your bullshit meter, because there is a lot out there. One important thing to remember, NO school/system of movement is complete. It doesn’t matter if they have glossy literature, it does not matter if a nice person tells you that their teacher is awesome, or that school dates back five thousand years (actually if someone tells you that it’s a big red flag).
Before I make some suggestions I want to offer a distinction that I find helpful. This is between what I call hard and soft exercise. In soft exercise the emphasis is on quieting down, developing sensitivity and physical awareness – this can include many kinds of Yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, and Alexander technique. Hard exercise is the stuff that makes your muscles burn, your heart race and is the opposite of relaxing – pretty much any sport can do this, some better than others.
The proponents of hard often consider soft a waste of time. When you are revved up it’s actually tricky to slow down and notice what is going on in the soft stuff. Equally the proponents of soft often consider hard extreme, crude, or brutalizing.
Remember no system is complete. The softies are often weak, they are good on their Yoga mats and studios, but not so good outside. The hardies often lack mobility, coordination, work through pain when they shouldn’t. The interesting thing is to be able to change between soft and hard. One interest of mine is physical intelligence – the ability to adapt to novel movements, tasks and environments. This requires all kinds of strength, balance, mobility, trust, coordination, awareness… Don’t set your goals too low or narrow even if you have to start from somewhere simple.
Here is a little overview of a few skills and groups that I like. No time to go into depth on any of them.
Crossfit is getting increasingly popular here in Paris. It draws a lot of attention and criticism. Some of it warranted, some less so. Crossfit boxes tend to have great community spirit (sometimes described from the outside as cult like), relatively open minds to different approaches, a good blend of support from other Crossfitters with a need for personal responsibility. Crossfit is hard – you can get hurt doing it, and it’s up to each person to learn their limits (while the coaches need to teach good technique).
Most of the hater articles about Crossfit are written because controversy attracts attention, and the writers want attention.
One of the key ingredients of Crossfit is it’s greatest weakness. Friendly competition drives Crossfit, it makes people work harder than they would on their own and thus progress faster. When people first walk into a box they often think ‘I’ll ever be able to do that’ and the results that they get help them to keep going. It is the intensity that creates the community – respect comes not from what you lift or how fast, but the dedication you have to keeping going. Friendship comes from the shared experience.
However the competition can lead to a narrowed focus of movements (the ones needed for competition), the intensity and atmosphere can lead to levels of fatigue/fighting through that lead to poor form and injury. Fortunately you can say that this also provides another level of practice – the practice of not being swayed by the group or your own ego when it comes to getting in those extra repetitions/kilos…
I like Crossfit. If you decide to look into it, visit a few places – the quality is not always the same. Find a place where you can take your time being introduced to the techniques.
Crossfit is really built out of Olympic lifting and Gymnastics. Both of these are worth looking into individually.
Hébert’s children – Movnat and Parkour
Georges Hébert (1875-1957) has deeply influenced the world of movement and fitness. His story started with a volcanic eruption in Martinique in 1902 when he was serving officer in the French Navy. While coordinating rescue efforts he observed that many colonials died simply because they were unable to walk, run, climb, swim balance (or carry their children) out of danger. He noticed that the indigenous population did not have the same problem.
His military service put him in contact with indigenous peoples across the world who consistently impressed him with their physical abilities – despite having no ‘modern’ physical training. He developed a system he called the ‘Natural Method’ which involved working in nature (or special facilities) and involved a mixture of walking, running, lifting, jumping, throwing, climbing, crawling, swimming, defending and balancing. In doing so he essentially created the modern assault course (parcours de combattant in French).
His motto was ‘être fort pour être utile’ be strong to be useful and he placed a great emphasis on the idea that it was not just the body that was being trained, but the mind and will through learning to deal with risk.
While it is still possible to find schools of the Natural Method, you are more likely to find people inspired by Hébert’s ideas, most notably in the forms of Parkour and Movnat and Rafe Kelley’s Evolve, Move Play
Parkour started in Lisses, south of Paris in the 90s with David Belle who was influenced by his father Raymond. Since then it has spread internationally gained another name (Freerunning) and is the subject of many jaw dropping videos.
Why am I mentioning something that seems so extreme in the context of ‘leaving the swamp’? Most people see Parkour as impossible for them, as too dangerous. That’s because what they see is only the most spectacular and flashy sides of the discipline.
Parkour is really about tracing a way through a physical environment a swiftly and efficiently as possible (hence the title traceur for someone who practises Parkour), and if that means picking your way through slowly, then that’s fine. The goal is to work with the environment to develop greater skill, accuracy, speed and the ability to keep going.
Parkour is now somewhat split between the original ‘be strong to be useful’ idea, which situated the development of the individual and their contribution to the world, and the modern derivatives that might be summarized as ‘be strong to be flashy’.
If you can find the old school good! They will not encourage you to hurt yourself – if you are hurt it’s harder to be strong or useful.
Movnat was started by another Frenchman, Erwan le Corre. Now based in the US he has systematized and added to Hébert’s work. Movnat has in many ways entered mainstream fitness with a nice logo and instructor certifications – which is both good and bad. What is good is that it is reaching more people this way, and that there are good progressions that can help people go from the most sedentary state to a far more active and robust existence. It also has a lot of good science backing it up.
Movnat tends to be done outdoors. It considers the ‘unevenness’ of nature a vital stimulus for the nervous system and to develop real strength. For example tree branches for pull ups are rarely horizontal, or the same thickness. Dealing with this demands more skill and adaptation than the smooth indoor environment. There is also more science suggesting that time spent outdoor unbuilt environments is good for mood and mental health.
There are an amazing variety of dance forms. What many share is that they can be developed and refined to a great degree. They will always offer new challenges, whether in coordination, strength, mobility, complexity or creativity. Dance is also almost always a group and social activity, and often provides another form of nutrition that modern people are starved of which is physical contact.
I’m not a dance expert.
Martial arts are another world to look into. They include much more than East Asian arts. They can vary from technically simple contact oriented sports like boxing, to ‘Health Tai Chi’ which can be reduced to slow solo movement.
Though this is a martial arts site I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing martial arts here. I wouldn’t know where to stop!
Basically if you want to develop practical skill, maximize time working on simple techniques that you can apply with resisting partners. Remember there is a difference between ‘sport’, ‘fighting’ and ‘self defense‘ though there is overlap between these areas.
There can be great differences between schools, both in quality and approach. I know Tai Chi teachers who will make you weep with the harshness of their training, and while MMA may have a reputation for hardcore badassness, the more it gets mainstream the more schools will cater for total beginners (and the more unqualified people will call what they do MMA).
The circus is a culture where physicality is a given. Fortunately these days you do not have to be born into a circus family to learn. Many people practise circus arts with no real desire to perform, just for the pleasure of learning. Some skills require greater degrees of strength or flexibility than others – but you do not need to start with tumbling and acrobatics. If you can hang you can start trapeze work (trapeze is usually divided into static, swinging and flying disciplines). All you need for juggling is balls. Schools and classes teaching circus arts are spreading. Keep you eyes open!
Climbing and bouldering (which is unroped climbing) is a fascinating challenge. It demands a whole lot of interesting physical attributes, and will obviously provide a motivation to improving your strength-weight ratio once you are hooked. It starts easy and gets impossible. There are more and more places to learn. I recommend!
Yoga is another easily found activity. It is mainstream now and of very variable quality. Originally Yoga was a relatively simple physical practice designed to support sitting meditation with the goal of ‘union’ in a pre-industrial world.
These days Yoga is often the search for flexibility through many postures. The separation from its spiritual roots (except for the Om t-shirts and accessories) has helped with the popularization.
There is a lot to be learned and developed in a good Yoga class. It is a also a specialization that lacks the tools to develop many important qualities, and skills, which many Yogis seem to forget or be oblivious to.
I don’t really care where you start – just that you do. I’d rather you picked something where you can immerse yourself in a culture of skill, where the end point of skill will always be out of reach. You don’t need to get there, just to get visceral sense of its existence. This is why you will not find Zumba on the list – it’s not that Zumba cannot improve the condition of someone sedentary, or be fun, just that you cannot go very far with it. It is a simplified version of something much richer.
Once you have started one activity, no need to limit yourself. Get a degree of skill that you are happy with, and then learn another art/discipline. The more you learn, the greater your ability to learn will become! Enjoy being a beginner again, and again!
The rest of this series