It’s pretty great when you find some scientific, health-related justification for doing what you’re already doing, which is “whatever the crap I want,” as I once scribbled on a doctor’s form asking what I did for exercise. And that’s basically how I’m interpreting Katy Bowman’s book, Move Your DNA.
My approach to health and lifestyle for the past five years or so has been: Gyms suck, metrics suck, fat-pinching sucks, long bike rides are bad for you, triathlons are for nerds with wetsuit fetishes, and if you’re obsessed with anything you probably are going to wind up injured. However, being able to do whatever you want whenever you want is awesome. According to Bowman, the key to this is loading your body in different and optimal ways instead of using limited movements and loads. “Cycling athletes tend to have lower bone density than running athletes. Why? Because sitting on a bike creates less of a vertical load than carrying your weight on your legs does.”
Human illness is not so much a state of mind as it is a statement about the way we’ve been living: “in most cases, our physiology is responding exactly as it should to the types of movement we have been inputting. Instead of thinking of ourselves as broken, we should recognize our lack of health as a sign of a broken (mechanical) environment,” says Bowman. Sitting is a huge part of this: “Most of us have assumed the sitting position through most of our lives, and in turn our bodies have adapted to sitting.”
Bowman suggests an easy way to fix this: “There isn’t any requirement that you spend your sitting time in a chair. It takes no additional time to sit on the floor instead of on your couch. What do you gain from sitting on the floor? First there are the numerous ways you can position your joints — each one creating a unique load.”
Additional suggestions: walk more, wear minimalist shoes or go barefoot, make your life less noisy by ditching the iPod, relax your jaw to prevent TMJ, stretch, use a flatter pillow, sleep on different surfaces. And move more. Move, in different ways, as much as possible.
All of Bowman’s suggestions made me feel a bit smug since I already do most of them. It is probably no surprise that I will never be a world-class athlete and my cardio endurance is lacking. I don’t work out, I play. I snowboard, rock climb, walk around town, roadbike around town, mountain bike, hike, backpack, do yoga, do acro-yoga, practice gymnastics in the grass, mess around on playgrounds, slackline, play ultimate Frisbee, swim in the lake, dance, carry small children around. I do none of these things exceptionally, and some really terribly. However, one thing is consistent: I am drawn to whatever will connect me most directly with my surroundings and provide the most natural range of movement. Granted, this tends to be easier if you’re in a place like Sandpoint where all the social events are active. But I also do socially unacceptable things like go home, squat on the front stoop and eat blood-dripping steak with my bare hands. If you’ve never done this, try it. It feels awesome. Also, it keeps the neighbors from borrowing your hedge-trimmers.
One of the things Bowman hones in on is feet. She points out that the shoes you wear determine the posture of your entire body, and over time, this posture changes your body. Now, given all the above things that I do, particularly my lifelong attraction to dance, alignment has rarely been an issue for me. So I was shocked to discover that, like many people in the modern world, my femurs are twisted slightly inwards as evidenced by the fact that the backs of my knees point outwards — the result of a lifetime of wearing shoes with heels, even slight heels. So now, for example, as on my way to Europe a couple of days ago, I work out standing still in line at airports by externally rotating my hips until my knees are over my straight-ahead toes. This is actually reasonably difficult to maintain.
I have also started going barefoot more, and wearing totally flat shoes. This last Sunday, I went on a ten-mile hike up the side of a mountain, through frigid streams and over sand and gravel. I did at least a couple of miles barefoot (bonus: this keeps your shoes dry when forging the aforementioned streams. Other bonus: you tend to look ridiculous, particularly if you’re already dressed like a mom from the 1990s, which encourages humility). The rest of the time I wore minimalist shoes. As Bowman points out, you need to work up to this. Your body has to adjust if it’s used to padding, especially on concrete, so easing into things is a must.
In sum, she says: “It’s clear that there is a major mismatch between the loads we make in modern life (sleeping in our beds, driving our cars to work, sitting in front of our computers, and vigorously exercising for sixty minutes a day, then sitting in front of the TV, repeat, repeat, repeat) and the loads we would have made (searching for, gathering and preparing our own food, walking for water and building materials, carrying our home and children in our arms, repeat, repeat, repeat) were we living more in nature. No, this is not the point where I tell you that the solution is getting rid of all your clothes and moving into a cave. The solution will be much simpler than you realize… even tiny adjustments to your loading habits can be worth millions in unspent healthcare dollars and bring about tremendous relief from your load-induced ailments.
“If you want your health to change, you must change the way you move, and the way you think about movement.”