Protect Your Body, Move It Daily
Evolution shapes the form and function of all organisms over unimaginable timescales. Each organism changes slowly over hundreds of generations to fit into a niche, to thrive in its environment, and to survive with particular strategies. Humans, being no exception, evolved a particular set of characteristics, and behaviours to match. The terrain, weaknesses of our body, challenges, threats, and opportunities to exploit our surroundings for energy and security shaped our physiology. We were enmeshed in an interaction between habitat and physical body that required us to walk, scramble, carry, climb, swim, run, leap, crouch, wrestle, throw and think. The energy systems, cellular structures, nerves, muscles and minds of our modern bodies expect, require and are optimised for, significant amounts of daily, highly varied movement. Since the first single celled organism was able to wiggle a little distance, closer to an energy source in the primordial stew, movement has been a part of life. Long periods of inactivity, reclining, sitting and a distinct lack of variety in our movements are a painful, detrimental and modern phenomenon.
In very short order (on this evolutionary scale), We have completely transformed our environments. We have essentially removed all the physical challenges faced by our ancestors. These challenges, that kept us strong, robust, mobile and fit, are almost completely absent from daily life. Stairs are the perfect height to minimise the effort needed to climb them. Chairs, desks and tables are positioned to minimise the needed range of movement around the joints of our lower body, the majority of jobs are now desk bound, our ovens get hot without the physical effort required to gather wood and start a fire. All these things make for a comfortable, pleasant existence, I accept. But it does not come at zero cost. The price we have paid for a life of comfort and convenience is the absence of the physical exertion built into being alive that affords us fitness, leanness, robustness, and vitality deep into our later years.
As such, we must now balance our easy environment with the inclusion of deliberate practices that present these physical challenges. This is, in fact a blessing in many ways. Whereas the exercise required to stay alive in primal times was by no means structured, balanced or optimised for health, our modern substitutions such as running, strength training, yoga, Pilates, Thai chi, climbing, and calisthenics can be. We have the luxury of selecting our movement practices based on our preferences, needs, goals and resources. Not simply the necessity of acquiring food, running from predators and building shelter.
At this point, it is not my intention to deliver a prescription as to how you should move each day, simply to enlighten you to the fact that you should, in some way, move daily. Methods modalities and details can come later. But for now, please understand that movement is medicine for so many modern woes. Allow me to scrape the surface of the iceberg.
At the cellular level.
Each cell is complex structure, containing various fluids and organelles, (tiny, inner cell organs that each perform specific functions that keep the cell alive, such as mitochondria that produce energy). Movement has a number of positive impacts on the cell’s health and function. Firstly, tension is required to maintain the fluid balance of the cell, putting a cell under tension drives hydration in and waste products out of a cell. This stops the cell from drying out or being victim to early death and degeneration. Secondly, movement demands energy and energy comes from mitochondria. Movement improves mitochondrial density in muscle cells, leading to greater energy levels and slower degeneration of muscles. For more on that, read our blog post on mitochondria and how it’s the internal fountain of youth.
At the tissue level.
Cells combine to form tissues. When the cells making up a tissue are in poor order, the tissue itself is in poor order. Take the articular cartilage that covers the joints of the knee for example. A lack of the need for deep knee flexion (where the knee is fully closed, such as in a deep squat), caused by chairs, stairs and high toilets! Leads to the distinct lack of that deep knee flexion over years and years. This in turn leads to a lack of loading and tension over the parts of the articulations surfaces that are only loaded in this range of movement. This lack of loading sustained over years leads to slow degeneration of the cells making up that part of the tissue and resulting degeneration of the tissue as a whole. This leads to pain and reduced function, which ultimately leads to increased risk of injury, likelihood of surgery and decreased quality of life. The deep squat is simply one example of a fundamental movement of our past being removed from our present lives with significant consequences. Rest assured, also, that the full squat is a natural part of human life. It is the natural, resting, sitting position of our species. Observe both people in developing parts of the world and still wild living peoples. You will see this posture used to rest, to eat, to cook, to gather food and to eliminate the contents of ones bowel, (which, interestingly has been shown by studies at Duke university to be the optimal posture for poo-ing, and doing so elevates many modern woes associated with bowel function such as constipation, and even lead to the development of the “squatty potty”). Even in developed parts of the world, regular, full range squats are associated with good skeletal health and youthful old age. Take Okinawa, in Japan, the centenarian capital of the world, where women in their 90s will regularly squat up to 30 times a day in the course of normal life.
At the organ level.
Movement has been shown to actually influence the stiffness of internal organs such as the liver. When organs become stiff, the function of that organ will be negatively impacted. Even simply producing movement and increased, varying tension around the internal organs via deep abdominal breathing has been shown to reverse these effects.
At the systems level.
On the level of multiple tissues making up multiple organs working in synchrony to make up functioning systems, movement is a critical factor in our health. The musculoskeletal system requires movement to preserve its very ability to move, maintain strength and work capacity and even insulin sensitivity and bone density. The digestive system functions better when gentle movement is abundant, relative to extensive sitting and slouching. The respiratory system requires movement to preserve the health and function of the heart, lunges and blood vessels. The brain benefits from movement by increased BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor. A substance that stimulates the growth and repair of neurones, the release of which is stimulated by strength training), neuronal health and preservation of cognitive function (from learning new physical skills).
At the whole organism level.
Movement protects the vehicle. We benefit from a profoundly clever system that is programmed to constantly adapt to the demands of its environment. Movement of the right nature stimulates a plethora of beneficial effects that not only protect the body from decline of many natures, but also provides active benefits of wide and varied type that enhance function. The body is the vehicle through which you experience every aspect of life. The health of that body will, therefore, impact every aspect of your life.