Movement Habits for a Healthier You (III)

This is the third post of a series of articles on movement habits you can implement for better health. Read the first part and the second part.

3. Move more and move better throughout the day

One of the things I love about the term ‘movement’ is how broad it is. Movement, unlike exercise, is everything you do with your body–shifting your weight, scratching an itch, going to the bathroom, picking up your bag, putting down your bag, reaching for your coffee… I think you get the point. When you think about moving, all of what you do is included. This means that not only is it possible to move throughout the day, you’re probably already doing it (to some extent). The idea, in this post, is to get you to (1) evaluate the ways you’re already moving, and (2) add on new and different ways that use more of your body, or that use different parts of your body.

In the wild, or in a natural environment, you would be moving much more frequently than most of us do in our regular, modern-world lives. Out in nature, a significant portion of your day would be spent walking or otherwise navigating your environment, often while carrying things (and little people) around with you. Our bodies are designed to be able to cover long distances on foot, as well as to squat, climb, jump, swim and otherwise move easily through diverse terrain. They are also designed to keep moving in low-intensity ways over the course of a whole day, rather than to move at a high intensity for an hour and then sit still for 8 hours. Unfortunately for us now, most of our lives consist of limited, repetitive movements interspersed with long periods of stillness in a relatively unchanging environment—which means we can no longer do (with ease) many of the movements I described above.

In fact, these movements are required for optimal functioning of the body. Moving in these ways is one of the reasons our bodies evolved as they did. These diverse, natural movements are necessary to load and grow your bones, strengthen and lengthen your muscles, as well as maintain coordination, balance and control as you age. And yet: natural movements are not found in the way that most of us move—by exercising or doing sport. Your chosen form of exercise may provide one or two of these ‘natural movements’, but it is unlikely it will provide you with all of them. This means that even if you’re a regular exerciser, you’ll probably only be able to do a couple of them easily, and the rest will come with difficulty or not at all. In my own case, as a yogi I can squat pretty well, and I’m a decent swimmer–but climbing and walking or running long distances are not my thing.

So how can we remedy this situation? Since it’s unlikely any of us is going to go back to a life living in the wild, we need to find a way to feed these movements back into our everday routines and environments. Creativity is key—start by noticing the ways that you ordinarily move. Then look around at your home, office and the places you frequent, and evaluate how you can use them or what’s in them in different ways to get you moving. In addition to changing your routine, you can also start to take “movement breaks” throughout your day—short breaks (5-10 minutes) off from your work to move or load your body differently. Taking breaks to move and stretch will help you refresh your mind, feel more grounded, and reduce pain in your body.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Walk more, over diverse terrain
    • If you commute, park further away from your destination or get off your bus/train 1-2 stops early and walk the remaining distance
    • Check if there are places close to your home or office that you habitually drive to, and start walking to them instead
    • If you delegate tasks like getting coffee or printing things, do them yourself (as a movement break, for your health). Or, you could volunteer to be the person who does this for others in your home or office
    • When walking, if possible, walk on ground and grass rather than gravel or paved surfaces; and wear flat-heeled, flexible shoes, or no shoes at all. You can start by doing this for 5 or 10 minutes and then work up to longer as your feet and legs adapt.
  2. Practice balancing on one leg
    • While you walk, or stand at your desk, you can practice shifting your weight from side to side, and eventually work up to standing on one leg for some time (flamingo style!) Being able to balance is great for your mobility, strengthens the legs and engages the brain too.
    • If while you’re out walking, you find fallen tree logs or elevated curb edges, you can also practice on these, provided it’s safe to do so. There may also be a set of balance beams in your local park or playground you can try walking on.
    • When balancing, stay relaxed and move smoothly–stopping or moving jerkily makes it harder. Also check that you’re not holding tension in your shoulders, face or hands while you balance. You can walk back and forth across the same surface a few times, relaxing more and more each time, until it becomes easier.
  3. Practice carrying things
    • I say this from experience, as I have always disliked having to carry things. Get yourself a nice backpack, and don’t be afraid to put stuff in it and carry it around while you walk. You don’t have to weigh it down with rocks, but even carrying what you need or have just bought at the store for enough of a distance can be a challenge if you’re not used to it.
    • You can also practice different ways to carry a bag–fisting your hands around the strap, for example, will develop grip strength. When I want to take a break from computering and typing, I like to pick up an old dumbbell we have lying around and walk around the house with it, changing my grip and how I’m carrying it every few steps.
    • If you have an injury or physical dysfunction that prevents you from being able to carry things, work on it therapeutically until you are able to carry things. Go slow and take it step-by-step, starting with light things for short periods of time, so you don’t overtax or re-injure yourself.
  4. Practice head-carrying, ie. carrying things on your head as is done in village life when fetching water, for example.
    • Head carrying is an amazing way to load and condition the spine. Walking while head carrying means the spine gets loaded with more weight as it spirals through the motions of walking. When you head carry, your spinal stabilisers activate and you get a immediate sense of the plumb line or vertical axis of the spine.
    • I would recommend carrying light, non-breakable things like blankets, magazines, piles of clothing etc. to avoid disasters 😉 Have fun and relax as you carry.
    • You may notice that after you take the weight off your head, your spine feels more buoyant and uplifted. This is because as you head-carry, the spongy cartilage between each spinal disc gets slightly compressed, and then receives a boost in circulation once the load is removed. Super-charged nourishment for your spine!
    • While head-carrying, you can also practice getting up and down off the ground (as I talked about in the previous post)—it’s an extra challenge to make sure the thing you’re carrying doesn’t fall off, so you have to maintain a relatively upright spine while transitioning up and down off the ground.
  5. Hang from a pull-up bar, tree branch or doorframe
    • Our arms are some of the least used and loaded parts of our body. Hanging and swinging are great ways to get the shoulder girdle to mobilise and stabilise, as well as strengthening the hands, arms and back. Hanging also improves grip strength which translates directly into our sense of confidence in being able to hold on to things.
    • You can get a pull-up bar from many sports stores, or if not, many parks have them (or even better, monkey bars!)
    • Start by keeping your feet on the ground and holding on to the bar with your knees bent. Even without lifting your weight off the ground, you are loading the joints of your upper body in new ways and developing skills to help you progress. As you build strength and confidence, deepen the bend in your knees until your arms are bearing all your weight and you can float the feet off the ground (one at a time if needed). Then you can progress to hanging freely, and swinging.
  6. Stretch
    • This is quite an obvious one, so I won’t say too much. Stretching is one of the easiest ways to get moving, and is necessary for the health of your tissues. Regular stretching hydrates your muscle and fascial fibres, helps recover from exertion, increases blood and lymph circulation, reduces inflammation and generally contributes to a sense of well-being.
    • The most important thing to remember while stretching is to be gentle. More is not necessarily better! Start slow, take it easy and don’t force yourself beyond your limits. Your body will respond better to non-aggressive, light stretches, and you will open up over time.
  7. Squat to pick things up or put them down on the ground
    • I personally love to do this! Take a smooth, slow squat (with your hips back and knees over your heels) when you want to get something off the floor. If you can’t squat so well, you can work with a smaller bend in the knees and lesser or slower movement up and down as you regain mobility. Pretty soon, you’ll be squatting to watch TV like me!

I think that’s probably plenty to get you started—stay inspired, and happy moving! The next and final post in the series will be about the mind-body connection, specifically how you can use movement to re-regulate your nervous system.