Movement nutrition. Two words that many us, especially those of us who are conscious of our health, are quite familiar with. Though we don't often see them used together. What do I mean by movement nutrition?
Think of all the micro-nutrients necessary for healthy function. Imagine now all the individual nutrients that science has yet to discover, isolate, or fully understand. Imagine further all the symbiotic effects that different nutrients have together when obtained from whole foods rather than as isolated or synthesized supplements. Nutritionists all agree that the interactions between our bodies and the foods we eat are far more complex than we understand. Regardless of our ever-deepening understanding of nutrition science, the best diet advice remains to focus on quality and eat as many different "real" foods to non-excessive quantities as you can.
The same prescription should be applied to our movement profile as well. Few people would argue that eating only a few select foods all day everyday would not have inevitable deleterious effects on our health. Yet this is exactly the type of "movement nutrition" that most of us give our bodies.
Think of the type of movement and positions that you put your body through on a typical day. If you exercise, you'll likely think first of your daily workout. Working out is wonderful, no arguments about that. Catalog in your mind how many different movements you actually performed though. I'll look at the typical CrossFit program since that is where I am most well-versed. A very generous estimate for what the most diverse program includes is 150-200 different movements, with a heavy emphasis placed on 30-50 movements. This include all the warm-up, cool-down, recovery, and workout movements across the entire year-round program.
This may seem like a very good movement nutrition profile. While this program is certainly a vast improvement over one that includes only an elliptical and few machines at a conventional gym or no exercise program at all, I contend that it includes only a minute fraction of the movements and positions available to the human body. A single human foot and ankle contains 26 bones, 33 individual joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments (1). Consider all the possible angles that each of these 33 joints could take, then imagine all the possible different combinations all these joints could form together. The amount of available positions to the human foot/ankle is overwhelmingly large. Include now the other foot and entire body. The number of available joint configurations of the entire human body is essentially infinite, especially considering the complexity of the feet, hands, and spine, and the vast ranges of motions of joints like the hips, shoulders, ankles, and wrists. Each possible position offers a unique load to your body.
Those 200 different movements now prove to be only a tiny percentage of the different movements that you are capable of. Even if these 200 movements where enough for complete nutrition, think of the limited amount of time you spend engaged in them. The most dedicated athletes might spend 2 hours in the gym 5 days each week, then anywhere from 5-15 hours outside of the gym on their mobility and active recovery. That is only 25 total hours a week when they are actively pursuing those roughly 200 movements. This generous estimate only accounts for 22% of their waking hours each week (assuming 8 hours of sleep each night, also quite generous) and only 14% of the total hours each week.
Most people in Western cultures spend a large majority of their time in only a few unique positions or movement patterns. Sitting is the obvious first example. Your office chair, car bucket seat, and couch place you in essentially the exact some position. To be overly conservative, let's exclude the weekends, your daily commute, and sitting in chairs for meals, waiting rooms, etc. The average person might spend 8 hours in their office chair and 2 hours on the couch each day. This extremely conservative estimate already accounts for 50 hours each week in the exact same positions, already double the weekly movement time of the most dedicated athlete. Add back the time in other chairs, commuting, and the weekends and it becomes exceedingly obvious that most people spend way too much time in the single position. Consider further that the most common sleeping position (slightly flexed hip angle allowed by a springy mattress and head and neck elevated on a pillow) looks a lot like a horizontal version of that slouched sitting position. It is not unreasonable to estimate that many people spend over half of their life in this position. No age is too soon to begin pressing people into the same mold. Baby car seats and baby carriers look eerily similar to the car bucket seats, office chairs, and La-Z-Boys that will come later.
Every calorie we eat has a unique reaction within the body. Likewise, every position or movement your body goes through, every second of every day, has an effect on your physical shape. Your body loves to conserve energy and prepare itself for the most common stimuli it will encounter. It's always planning for the future. Your anatomy is constantly changing to allow for the most common position it sees. If your body sees a single or only a few positions a majority of the time your tissues will change shape to allow you to reach these positions more easily. Ever notice how uncomfortable it feels to sit up straight and how you always assume the same slouched posture when you forget to focus on it? Your body is returning to its "normal" state. This is why we feel uncomfortable in a strange bed or feel aching feet in a new pair of shoes. Your body likes its normal shape and any prolonged deviation will cause discomfort.
Our society sees an epidemic of rounded backs, forward shoulders, shortened chest muscles, tight hips, and shortened hamstrings, calves, and Achilles from our over exposure to sitting and elevated heel shoes.
We believe that all the time we spend in the gym, running, at a yoga class, or stretching at home is enough to provide complete nutrition and counteract the effects of our otherwise poor and limited movement. This attitude is akin to eating the exact same nutrient deficient food for the majority of your calories and taking a multi-vitamin or perhaps a nutritious shake a few times per week. While it is certainly better to include this supplementation than nothing at all, the only way to have a truly healthy existence is to change your entire movement diet.
"Wait, are you suggesting that we all quit our office jobs, limit or eliminate our driving time, and forego the use of couches, beds, pillows, and chairs?"
While this is essentially what I did, no, I am not suggesting this at all. The solutions lays in introducing some awareness into your physical existence through out the day and taking measures and alter your position as much as possible. Sitting in a chair is not inherently bad. Nor is where shoes with an elevated heel. These are perfectly acceptable positions to put your body in. The detriment comes when you stay there too long.
Many employers will allow you to have a standing desk. If you have this option, seize it. Be careful though to not let 8 hours of standing replace 8 hours of sitting. Your body is not ready for such an abrupt change. Even if you could handle such long bouts of standing, the emphasis should be constantly varying your position. The true enemies are stagnation and inactivity, not sitting. You can constantly shift weight from foot to foot. Sit back down. Tuck one leg under, then the other. Use a half-dome foam roller to stretch your calves, ankles, and hips while you stand. Put a ball under your feet to roll them out as you stand. Take a walk, touch your toes, reach overhead, swing your arms, twist your torso, and any other quick stretches you can think of as often as possible. Whether you sit or stand at work, make an effort to constantly move and change your position. Changing every 10 minutes is a great goal. There are many timer apps that you can get for your phone or computer to remind you to move.
Use the same tactics from your standing desk for standing household chores such as dishes, laundry, and cooking. Forego the furniture as often as you can. Sit on the floor while watching TV or reading. Use a few pillows for comfort and to aid to reaching certain positions. Not comfortable on the floor? Good, you'll be motivated to constantly change your position. Excessive comfort leads to complacency and enables stagnation and sedation. Begin transitioning to a flatter pillow and firmer mattress. Try laying on the floor for a few minutes. Most people find this position extremely comforting in short bouts.
At the Gym
Constantly seek new movements and new variations on your old ones. If you are the master of your own program you have the freedom to work on many different things. If you are following a prescribed program or class you have the ability to vary the type of movements you do for warm-up, cool-down, and recovery. Any movement can become new through slight variations of position. Don't be afraid to ask to modify something to mix it up. Most CrossFit coaches and yoga teachers I know would encourage your own flourish to a movement in an effort to feed your body some variety.
What does your movement diet look like? Are you getting a diverse and varied nutrient profile? Or do you eat like crap with a few supplements thrown in?
Bring some awareness to your movement, positions, and your physical sensations. Seek constant variety and eagerly explore new movements, activities, and positions.