Move more. You’ve probably heard it and maybe you’ve even said it, but before we heed this advice, let’s unpack it.
We live in a time and culture of unprecedented stillness—a movement drought, if you will. So it’s time we learn to recognize and discuss the symptoms of movement malnutrition for what they are.
Do you remember learning about scurvy in elementary school? The thought of sailors losing their teeth because of a single missing nutrient amazed me. Because I grew up in a culture aware of dietary nutrients (some of them, anyhow), I couldn’t imagine a time when no one knew there were things in food we needed—a time when the best advice regarding how food related to physical experience was “don’t starve.” After losing traditional dietary practices and knowledge, it took hundreds of years for the Western world to re-learn that we need different types of foods to thrive.
Scientific research has helped us divide foods into categories and shown there are different outcomes when we eat different proportions of macro and micronutrients. Today, we’re developing a more nuanced understanding of diet every year, finessing our understanding of our cells’ behaviors in response to food.
Which brings me back to “move more.”
Not only are we unprecedentedly undermoved in terms of quantity, the variety and variability of our movement is miniscule compared to the movement of our ancestors—from our grandparents to, especially, our distant hunter-gatherer foreparents. Imagine not only the amount of movement required to harvest and prepare food from scratch; gather materials to create weapons with which to hunt animals on foot; clean them; turn their bones into tools and their hide into clothing—but the actual variety of moves themselves. Each of those tasks—repeated over and over throughout a lifetime, a little differently every time—involves thousands of movements that each bend the cells of the body uniquely.
Mechanotransduction is a cellular process—a process that converts the cell’s shape (its movement from one shape to another) into biochemical processes. This means that how movement works on a cellular level is very similar to how food works. Movement is “inputted” to the cell, and via that input, the cell adjusts its behavior. Because each movement we do bends each cell of our body uniquely, movements can be thought of as each containing different necessary inputs.
If we went to a dietician and about how to approach healthy eating, and they said, “Eat more,” we know enough about how food works to recognize the insufficiency of this prescription. Similarly, the “just move more” messaging is confusing. Yes, we clearly need more movement, but just as all foods won’t make us better, neither will all movements. In fact, for many, painful movement is the limiting factor to moving more. So how does “move more” fall upon those ears?
While we don’t use words like “movement nutrients” (yet!), we use movements like supplements all of the time—spot-infusing certain cells with exercises derived from their more natural forms (i.e., how movement occurs in nature). Sometimes we do this for aesthetics (it’s pec day, baby!) and sometimes we do this therapeutically (using corrective exercises to better distribute movement over an area), and sometimes we do this accidently by taking our exercise in the exact same form, over and over again (it’s worth noting that many movement-related ailments stem from moving some parts too much, so without a more nuanced prescription, “move more” can sometimes do harm). The takeaway here is, our physical issues of movement malnutrition are not only affected by how little we move, but also by things like movement type, and distribution of movement. Our movement issues can relate to how little of us is moving when we actually do move.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the nutrients we need, that we forget that the original source of these coveted chemical compounds are food. While we’re lucky to have nutritional science on our side and the ability to take supplements as needed, we can’t actually survive on supplements. We need to pair our supplements with calories. And so in the end, it’s more efficient to eat a diet so rich and varied that we rarely need supplements. Likewise, exercise is not sufficiently meeting our movement requirements; we see symptoms of movement malnutrition even in the exercised.
Because we are a sedentary culture, our discussions of movement rarely go beyond the exercise box; it is almost as if we cannot perceive movements that are not exercise, or grasp the idea that there are many humans on this planet that have never exercised—have never needed to develop movement supplements—because their life is rich in abundant and varied movement.
Viewing a handful of exercise-supplements as more necessary to our health than a widely varied movement diet distributed throughout each day, throughout our life, has, I propose, made it difficult to develop behaviors that make large dents in the widespread sedentary behavior in our culture. If we continue to perceive and promote exercises as the only healthy movements that exist, we’re going to be movement malnourished for a long while. (Then again, it took about 500 years to “discover” Vitamin C, so perhaps this is just par for the human course.)
I get it; we need to keep things simple. But we can do simple a tad more accurately. How about don’t just move more—but move differently, move more of you, and move more outside of your exercise time.