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For Optimal Health as You Age, Focus on Movement Instead of Exercise

“Exercise” was created to compensate for sedentary lifestyles, so try movement instead.

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

How much time do you spend thinking about how you move throughout the day? If you’re not getting the health results you want, your movement is likely a huge factor.

Movement comes down to a matter of convenience. Today, moving more to perform daily tasks is viewed as an inconvenience. We now have access to devices serving the sole purpose of making our lives easier, from electronic kitchen appliances to phones to vehicles.

But what these devices are doing is externalizing the work of your muscles, outsourcing the work of your own body. “Upgrading” your products often results in doing less work throughout our day.

However, these “conveniences” come with a major downside.

Humans are intended to move. Your movement impacts not only your physical health but your mental health and wellbeing as well. The focus of my work as a physical therapist is to improve a person’s quality of life through movement. Over the years, I’ve noticed a common theme. The mindset has shifted and movement is viewed as “inconvenient” rather than a necessary part of a full and healthy life. The first step in taking your life back involves reversing this mindset that contributes to declining health over time.

For optimal health, you can keep it simple (though simple is not always easy) and start to build more movement into your daily life by trading out perceived conveniences for inconveniences. Over time, this eliminates the need for separate exercise to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle. This may seem counterintuitive at first but contributes to better health in the long run.

Adopting a regular movement practice is a great place to start. A basic understanding of the guiding principles of a movement practice will help get you started on the right foot.

Principle #1: Movement is Essential

Movement is a physiological need for humans like food and water. Much like with food, our movement should be of high quality and offer a variety of “movement nutrients”. But modern life and our environment often result in repeated movement patterns and a lack of variety. We tend to look at movement as something we need to get out of the way rather than something to be practiced and performed all throughout the day.

Every body needs to move in some way every day. Much like our diet must consist of a variety of vitamins and minerals for us to stay healthy, our movement needs variety as well. Repeating the same movement patterns day in and day out can starve certain cells of your body and lead to muscle imbalances. This leads to immobility in certain parts of the body. Start to think of movement as essential, and you’ll make it a bigger focus of your day with practice.

Principle #2: “Movement” is different than “exercise”

Movement science is focused on the importance of daily “exercise” and what defines the best type of exercise. But somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that “movement” is not the same as “exercise”. Exercise was created in response to the negative consequences of our modern environment on the human body. As conveniences continue to make our lives easier, our bodies suffer from the effects of convenience leading to ever increasing rates of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. A new field of exercise science was created to undo these effects and the byproduct was an emphasis on daily exercise.

The daily recommended MINIMUM of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day doesn’t “undo” the effects of being sedentary for the other 23.5 hours of the day. The purpose of using exercise should be to work toward finding new mobility and strength, allowing you to use larger natural movements used throughout the day.

The conversation of movement science has become very polarizing and definitions of “movement” have become more narrow. This makes our society feel as though we are separated into “exercisers” or “non-exercisers” rather than all people being considered “movers”. All of our movement differs, some of us use movement as a means to get around our homes and communities while others are competing in the highest levels of the CrossFit Games. The commonality, however, is that movement is essential to all individuals.

Movement matters for everyone from those competing in the Olympics to the most medically compromised individuals. Whether your goal is to be able to safely walk to and from your bathroom, or deadlift hundreds of pounds your movement matters.

Principle #3: Not All Movement Is Created Equal

With all of that being said, some movement is always better than no movement. However, not all movement is created equal. Your body functions in its’ healthiest form if you walk 3–5 miles throughout the day. Your circulation, immunity, and strength of your bones depend on the function of your muscles for beneficial activities like walking.

Other movements cannot replace your body’s need to walk, however, they can be used as a supplement. For example, riding a bike is not the same experience as walking for your body. Though this is an objectively better activity than spending that time on a couch. By a similar token, walking on a treadmill is not the same as walking overground. Recognizing that not all movement is the same is an essential component of being a better mover.

Movement is complicated, and yet such a simple concept. There are more nuances to movement sciences than most of us realize. It’s not as easy as defining movement or exercise as “good” or “bad”. It all depends on your goals. If your goal is to win the Tour de France, then practice by riding a bike. If your goal is to improve the bone density of your hips, walking overground is the best choice.

Now that you understand the basics of movement you can start to build your own movement practice. Understanding that your body adapts to how you move is the first step. From there, you can start to make observations of your own movement to learn where you need to make changes. How can you get moving today?

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