The Healthy Movement checklist
Health is a treasure and movement is a vital pillar of health. This article is a useful checklist that you can employ whether you know you that don’t move enough or if much of your life revolves around fitness.
I promise this will not be the standard cardio, strength, HIIT and mobility kind of list.
What do you get in this article then?
I will contrast the exercise industry with your innate abilities. Then there is the checklist, in which you can read examples and explanations of what is less often talked about.
Towards the end, I will touch on an important concept, a concept that may open all kinds of possibilities in your life beyond movement or exercise. I do this in part to deal with objections that you may have, and I know some readers will object.
Curious? Read on.
The big picture in a paragraph or two
Humans move. Without any formal teaching, babies learn to lift their heads, crawl, walk, run, clamber, throw, roll, dig, wrestle and much, much more. The reason that kids do all those things naturally is that our bodies have evolved to do them. Doing those things is almost always good for our health, not doing them is detrimental.
Recently movement has been professionalised into exercise. That has led to widespread beliefs that you need to have a trainer, a gym, equipment to exercise. It is not true though.
As a movement/exercise professional I do actually have quite a lot of stuff built and bought specially for exercise.
As in many homes, a lot of it gathers dust.
It’s not that I am horribly inactive. It is just that I mostly use two or three things for the majority of my movement needs. These are
- My body
2. The world
3. Other people
I am writing this article in July 2020 and there is a lot of Covid 19 related social isolation going on, so today the focus is on the first two: me, or you and the world
If movement was a pie, it would be possible to slice it in a million ways. Don’t take the slices that I serve up as being the ultimate movement checklist. I have sliced movement in ways that are both easily applicable and may encourage you to reflect, experiment and modify for yourself.
The checklist is based more on what movement is for, rather than categories from a physiology textbook.
Here is my list.
★ Carry and lift
★ Get on the ground and back up
★ Display and recall
It is obvious, we move to get somewhere. This function has been largely replaced by cars, public transport, escalators, elevators, bicycles and boats. Using machines is not a bad thing, until we lose too much of the innate ability to use our bodies to go places.
This category involves all kinds of human locomotion, walking, running, skipping, hopping, crawling, climbing, swimming.
Which brings us to an important idea. Exercise is about body maintenance, movement used to be about getting stuff done¹.
Exercise is an add on to your life, but when things get busy it may be the first thing to go. If you integrate movement into your life to get things done even when you are busy you will get exercise.
So walk to places, run to places, swim to places, climb to places and so on.
You may not be able to do all of those, but we’ll come to that later.
Carry and lift
Obviously this is what people do in the gym. But if you don’t have a handy gym then I’m pretty sure you have something else you can carry or lift.
There may be furniture to rearrange, or shopping to bring home, or tired children.
Lifting irregularly shaped objects will teach your body more than lifting things designed to be lifted.
Do you really need wheels on all your bags?.
Get on the ground then get back up
This is what we used to do before furniture. In exercise, it includes burpees and sun salutations (is a burpee a fast sun salutation or is sun salutation a slow burpee?). Good Muslims practise this five times a day.
If you want to integrate this into your life do more things on the floor, or on the ground. Read, write, play cards, eat, and whatever else you can.
If you want to play with this then find as many ways as possible to go from lying down (back, belly or sides) to standing up.
Do it slowly and do it fast. Breakfalls anyone?
Display and recall
Before we developed our cunning systems of noises (aka words) to represent things and actions we relied almost 100% on gesture, posture and facial expression to communicate with each other. We never stopped doing this, we just took it for granted.
So movement is communication, it is display.
A lot of displays say either “I am a desirable mate” or “I am not desirable as an enemy” and those two can overlap in happy or horrible ways. There is a lot more to it than those two poles though. Displays can also express moods, or code information.
Any physical action can be used on this level. You can walk proudly or furtively. What is the difference? Exploring the differences is what this is about.
Non-literate cultures code all kinds of vital information (hunting, navigation, history) into songs and dances as a robust way of holding and teaching knowledge across generations. Tourists watch but see mostly ethnic quaintness. But it is not a superstitious Macarena. It’s a developed language that outsiders don’t speak.
For contemporary purposes, you could create a little choreography for repeated processes you want to learn (dream, write, edit, publish) or even such ephemeral things as shopping lists.
The latter might seem silly but creating a physical code for carrots, mushrooms, detergent is creative and will do things for your mind that a 5x5 set of deadlifts never will. Start with just one item and see what happens when you get close to it in the (super) market.²
Our species is pretty good at throwing things, rocks, spears, balls punches.
If the ‘Rona has you confined in a glass house I am not suggesting you throw stones. You can throw laundry into baskets, recycling into bins not to mention all the possibilities with balls, frisbees, juggling and more.
Not so much detail on this one. It could be a sign the author can throw more.
This is a big one. It applies to everything else on the list.
Once you learn a gym exercise you can refine it, you can do it heavier, or longer, but the coordination, the angles, the textures remain essentially the same. If that’s the majority of your training, you miss a great deal.
Dance with a partner (or just to music) and you need to adapt to movements and rhythms that you did not choose. It’s the same if you play a competitive sport or anything combative.
Walk in the woods and your gait needs to adapt to the surfaces and available spaces to move through. Climb a tree and you need to adjust to each unique branch in a complex three-dimensional puzzle. It’s very different from doing pullups. You may find a sense of recognition because in many ways our body, our vision, our spatial sense is shaped for movement in trees.
If you don’t have an external situation that forces you to adapt your movement (which might include mirroring someone on YouTube) you can just add constraints to what you do. Don’t walk on the cracks, do walk on the cracks, use the other hand, do it on one leg, don’t bend your knees³….
Making up constraints for fun or challenge is a big part of play. Games all have rules, and rules are constraints. So play!
This is also time to talk about difficulty or intensity.
Ideally, a lot of what you do will be easy and the consequences of failure minimal. It’s ok to drop an orange when juggling, less good to drop a glass while barefoot next to a baby. Attention spikes naturally when you hold something hard and heavy hard overhead. If you want to be stronger, faster, etc. you will have to try things where failure becomes more likely. Assessing the risks involved is part of it which means this footnote is to a disclaimer.⁵
Stop. Don’t move. Stay still. Observe.
There is a theory that meditation has its roots in hunting. The need for silence, attention and often immobility.
Not moving is a discipline in itself which develops awareness, body control, understanding of tension, relaxation and how they are affected by the breath. You can sit still, lie still, or stand still. You can hold an easy position or a challenging one. It’s worth it.
Often when we move and especially when we exercise we accumulate tension. Stillness is the time to let go of it.
Stillness is a time to dial back tension, increase interoception, to observe and reset.
As they say ‘all go and no stillness makes Jack a robot.’
Why I meditate standing up — and why you should try it too
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Much of what I have covered may seem impractical or even impossible. This will be true if you imagine examples that are technically beyond you, require environments you don’t have access to, or take a long time.
If you are scoffing because you have decided I am telling people to swim to the shops that’s your choice. You will have missed the point though.
If it seems too complicated, too hard, too technical it brings us to the important concept I promised at the beginning of the article.
That concept is our perception of the world changes with our capacities and skills.
Here is a strange but powerful example of this. People standing at the bottom of a hill in slippery shoes will rate the hill steeper than those in grippy shoes. They will literally see and experience the hill as having different qualities based on their footwear.⁴
Let’s take this idea and apply it to climbing.
For many people climbing is a big lack in their life. One reason they don’t climb is that they don’t see any opportunities to climb. Climbing means ropes, or expensive indoor bouldering, or falling from a height.
But none of those is necessary.
For me climbing mostly means trees. You probably pass trees you could climb daily.
What is a climbable tree? My definition is any tree that has a branch or a dimple of bark that you can hold onto and will support the weight you give it without being damaged.
You don’t have to do anything more than hold. After that you can begin to transfer weight, to lift feet, to pull a little way above the ground.⁵
Once you have seen one tree that you can do this with you will find others. As your capacity to climb trees develops so the opportunities to climb trees will grow. You will start seeing opportunities that you could not before.
The same applies to all kinds of movement. It doesn’t matter how simply you start, once you start the opportunities multiply.
This is true even if you are stuck inside a small apartment. You may not be able to walk to go to places, but you can still walk.⁶
The executive summary for you darling executives
You have evolved to move, and if you don’t move enough it is likely to damage your health.
If you integrate movement into your life to get things done when life gets busy you will still exercise.
Opportunities for movement are everywhere (especially outside of gyms)and your ability to notice and engage in them will increase if you consistently do what is easy.
Integrate the seven categories into your life and you will feel the benefits. You will go some way to turning the world into your playground.
¹ There are a whole lot of people who have recognised this in different ways, for example Georges Hébert, the early 20th century creator of Méthode Naturelle, Biomechanicist Katy Bowman, Playful evolving Tree runner Rafe Kelley and probably your great, great, great, great grandmother. You can find more about most of them with a simple internet search. Or you could go for a walk.
² Really, try it! I’ll be happy to read about it in the comments below. To learn more about these kinds of Mnemonic methods look up Lynne Kelley. Or go for a walk.
³ Some people may ask why I have not included stretching in this. I like stretching, but the topic is a little complex and often misunderstood. I like to think that if people engage in a full range of healthy movement their mobility will improve naturally through the variety of tasks they engage in and the constraints they put on themselves.
⁴ https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/12/action-visual-perception this doesn’t talk about the shoes, but it is the same loops in action.
⁵ If you try something as a result of this article and hurt yourself or others it is your responsibility. I did say start easy and learn to assess risks after all. If you have the slightest doubt and you live in a litigious culture consult a physician before you start throwing your underwear at the laundry basket or touching trees or engaging in any activity with the intention of improving your health.
⁵ Here are three videos from Rafe Kelley to get you started in treeshttps://youtu.be/1YCOuyAB2tI tree safety
⁶ For thirty years I have practised a Chinese martial art that is literally based on walking in circles. Spend a Youtube minute with my teacher. Then go for a walk. Then decide if you’d like to learn.