Movement is like nutrition for our bodies - that is, the loads we experience in our life (from both internal and external sources) directly and indirectly influence the structure and function of our cells, tissues, organs and therefore our whole bodies. Obvious examples are things like bone density and muscle mass - no matter how well you eat or how many mineral or protein supplements you consume, if you don’t move then your bones will weaken and your muscles will shrink.
This can be easily seen in studies on astronauts and bed-ridden patients (and also just makes logical sense) but a similar relationship also exists with movement and essentially every system in our bodies - our cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, immune and neurological systems all rely on frequent, variable movement in order to function optimally.
So just like food, movement is a vital stimulus for changes in our gene expression at the cellular level. And just as with food, our body needs the right quantity, quality and variety of movement nutrients in order to function optimally in the long-term. In a natural context, this would be provided by all the movements we would need to do in order to survive.
Unfortunately our modern environments and lifestyles drastically reduce our movement options - conventional footwear and flat/level ground restricts movement at the feet and ankles, chairs restrict movement in the whole body (by allowing us to be sedentary for long periods at a time). We no longer need to hunt or gather food and we no longer have predators that we need to escape in our daily lives.
Almost our entire environment and lifestyle are set up for sedentarism - even many of our designated exercise/fitness areas actually still promote sedentarism in some subtle ways. So entire populations of people are essentially starving of movement, and we are seeing the effects in statistics around chronic pain, falls, obesity, cardiovascular disease and mental health.
When our body needs nutrients, it gives us an important signal - hunger. This may start off as a slight feeling of emptiness or a little grumble but the longer we go without food, the more intense this feeling can become. Go days/weeks without food and you may start to feel things like lethargy, nausea, stomach cramps and pains.
On the other hand, if we were to eat an enormous meal and continue to shove down as much food as we could, then our body would also give us signals indicating that we’d eaten too much - bloating, discomfort, cramps, pains, nausea etc.
If you had enough calories but not enough micronutrients (like eating 20 chocolate bars a day as an extreme example) then you’d expect to also end up with symptoms that are related to a deficiency in those nutrients.
These are all a natural reaction of the body to a lack of food over an extended period of time or a sudden influx of huge amounts of food in a short period of time. So we wouldn’t see these body signals as a nuisance or something we need to fight with pain medications or tummy massages.
Most people would acknowledge it for what it was - you just haven’t eaten enough or you’ve eaten way too much. Either way is a learning experience and an opportunity for you to change the way you feed your body, so that you can make it feel good more of the time!
When our body is lacking movement nutrients (either quantity, quality or variety), it will also start to give us signals first in the form of stiffness/weakness/aches/lethargy and eventually become more and more intense, contributing to things like recurrent injuries, chronic pain and depression/anxiety.
On the other hand, you may have a short period of too much movement or load that our body was not prepared for, like going for a 10km run first thing after 3 years off running. You’d also expect some symptoms to arise afterwards and wouldn’t be surprised if you had to take a break from movement (at least some types of movement) for some days to recover. Imagine as well, someone who sits in a chair all day for work and then goes for a run in the afternoon to get their daily exercise. This would be the equivalent of eating 5 carrots a day, every day as their only nutrition - carrots are great but without a range of other foods, they’re guaranteed to end up deficient in something.
Sometimes there is more complexity behind the signals than simply a movement nutrition issue - various psychosocial factors can strongly influence people's perception of pain and other musculoskeletal symptoms. Either way we have to listen to these signals in order to learn and grow from them. Sometimes we need help understanding them and knowing how to respond to them. Mostly we can do this ourselves in our daily lives as well, especially if we’ve been trained and guided through these processes initially.
Some simple action steps to get you started:
- List any current musculoskeletal symptoms etc. for example:
- Foot pain
- Hip stiffness
- Tight neck muscles
- Chronic or recurring back pain/injuries
- Tendonitis/tendinopathies (achilles, patella, gluteal)
- List out what kind of movements you currently do on a daily basis and how much time you spend moving - for example:
- Walking or running
- Gym / Personal training / Boot camps
- Sitting on the floor
- Reflect on what your movement nutrient profile looks like for your whole body and for each area (feet/ankles/knees/hips/spine/shoulders/arms etc.) and think about how any current symptoms may be related
- List out ideas for how to start improving your movement nutrient profile - for example:
- Walking to work/shops/markets (or part of the way)
- Sitting on the floor for meal times
- Sit-stand desk at work
- Going barefoot or using barefoot footwear
Learning a new skill e.g. dance/yoga/weightlifting/running
- Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman
- Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman
- Move Your DNA Podcast