Sitting is the new smoking.
That’s right, if you’ve been paying attention to the latest health research, you’ve probably heard that the risks of an all-too-common sedentary lifestyle are akin to the shortened lifespan of long term cigarette smokers. And the studies on the subject are detailed in their findings; for example, one 2010 study showed that over 10 hours per week riding in a car was associated with an 82% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and 23 hours per week of combined time riding in a car and watching TV correlated with a 64% greater risk of death.
“Well that doesn’t apply to me,” you might think, “I spend 3 hours a week at the gym, I’m not sedentary!”
Well as it turns out, the studies that show a link between time spent sitting and mortality are teaching us that this rule applies independent of leisure time physical activity.
Translation: You can’t make up for 8 hours spent sitting every weekday with 45 minutes of vigorous physical activity – it’s your overall time spent moving that reduces your mortality risk.
With this new awareness has come a wave of support for something called “natural movement,” or moving your body as nature intended it.
Katy Bowman, natural movement expert and author of Movement Matters, argues that it’s not enough to make natural movement just one slice of your overall pie of exercise; she urges people serious about improving their health into old age to create what she calls a “movement-rich life.”
But what exactly is a movement-rich life, and what’s the difference between that and a couple of weekly trips to the gym?
What Is The Difference Between Natural Movement and Exercise?
As much as our culture tends to idolize the “gym rats” who spend most of their spare time working out, there are downsides to an exercise-obsessed life.
Exercise is pre-planned, often indoors, and typically follows commonly accepted norms of structure and timeframe. There tends to be a focus on the numbers: how many calories are burned, how much weight is lost, or how many sessions are completed in a given week. Exercise is often motivated by guilt over food choices, leading to a self-punishing relationship.
Natural movement, on the other hand, bridges the gap between our natural human urge to move our bodies and the importance of doing so in a natural, normal setting free of limiting methods and structure.
In natural movement, there is little to no structure to the activity. The focus is on enjoyment and integrating one’s self and movements with nature and natural rhythms, not on achieving specific outcomes. Natural movement is done as a form of self-care and self-love, rather than a punishment for dietary choices. Instead of compensating for hours spent at a desk or in a car, natural movement breaks down the barriers between “work” and “play” and makes space for movement breaks and nature immersion throughout your daily life.
Natural movement is much more a lifestyle that you choose, rather than an occasional hobby you participate in.
What You Get From Natural Movement That You Can’t Get From Exercise
With natural movement, you get to be full present in the movement, and appreciate how your body allows you to enjoy the activity. In addition, by being in more contact with the earth’s surface your body benefits from a reduction in stress, pain, poor sleep, and many common health disorders including cardiovascular disease.
Take walking as an example. When a person says they’re going to “go for a walk,” they often mean restricted movement with thick-soled shoes, possibly on pavement or a treadmill that doesn’t allow you to experience the feedback from the earth’s surface, maybe even breathing stale indoor air.
When taking a natural movement approach to walking, you get a completely different experience. Research has proven that being in more direct contact with the earth’s surface both reduces inflammation and improves blood flow. From ensuring your movement is outdoors, to varying your terrain, to spending as much time as possible being unshod or in minimal footwear on natural surfaces like grass and dirt, the research shows there are massive health benefits to doing it the natural way.
How to Integrate More Natural Movement Into Your Life
There are hundreds of different ways you can integrate more natural movement into your daily life, and they really all begin with a subtle mindset shift.
When we begin to bend our habits and routines to move with nature, rather than against it, our bodies (and minds!) become healthier.
What exactly does this look like in practice?
Here are a few examples:
You’re feeling the 2 o’clock slump – you’re sick of sitting all day and just need to move. So bend to your body’s nature! Get up, dance, move, stretch, sway, take a walking break, or better yet schedule your next meeting as a walking meeting. Respond positively to your body’s cries for more movement.
You love going for a daily walk in the morning, but feel that the constant forward-moving steps on a paved walkway are missing a variety in terrain and position that you body desperately needs. So, use nature to meet your body’s natural needs! Move off the paved path and step on the rocks along your path, hop from one rock to the next, balance along a log on the side of your usual route. Bonus points if you actually take a new path, hiking along a steeper slope or even incorporating your arms and hands into your movement by pulling yourself up onto some boulders along the way.
Is this starting to sound a little bit like child’s play?
That’s because it is! Even if you live in an urban environment, between playgrounds, parks, and just the trees in your neighborhood you can create lots of opportunities for playful, natural movements that will increase your mobility and strength in ways that repeating sets of bicep curls never will.
The more natural the movement, the better. Whether it’s rock climbing, walking barefoot over grass in your neighborhood park, practicing outdoor qigong or yoga, dancing, walking (over varied terrain is best), jumping on a trampoline, swimming, or whatever movement speaks to you, making it a normal part of your lifestyle will bring the best results for your health and wellbeing.