A veteran athlete learns the value of reintegrating nonexercise movement into her life — and how doing so yields surprising benefits
The message of the current “movement” movement is crystal clear: Move more. But that’s not enough, says biomechanist and author Katy Bowman, MS. She also wants you to move more of you. “No matter how many exercises you stuff into an hour or two,” she explains, “much of your body is still sedentary most of the time.”
I figured my years of endurance training had earned me a lifetime permit to grab the closest parking space, but I attended Bowman’s first Movement Matters retreat in Chimacum, Wash., with an eye to broadening my nonexercise movement. I came to understand that all exercise is movement, but not all movement is exercise. Exercise is like a small planet in the movement universe. I like visiting Planet Exercise, but I was ready to explore new and neglected movement terrain.
The two-day retreat started with a stint working at Finnriver Farm and Cidery, interspersed with movement classes to prep attendees for the next day’s adventure: a 20-mile hike along the Olympic Discovery Trail on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Bowman describes the program as a tool to help participants “weave their fitness or athletic feats back into their community and other parts of their lives, like food and activism.”
Not so long ago, moving to find food ensured our existence. This connected food and movement in ways that didn’t involve counting calories or tracking steps — the opposite of exercising to justify eating dessert. Bowman points out that our bodies still have that biological imperative to move, even though food is now readily available.
Moving more of you starts with recognizing sedentary patterns. “You were born into a sedentary culture, so 99.9 percent of your sedentary behaviors are flying under the radar,” Bowman writes in her book, Movement Matters. “Start paying attention.”
Thinking further about nonexercise movement, she challenges readers to consider how they outsource movement. Your key fob eliminates the need to turn your wrist to unlock your car, for example, and using a leaf blower takes far less effort than raking.
Those sedentary behaviors are bad for your health, but that’s not where the story ends. Outsourcing movement can damage other people, your community, even the environment — noise pollution from gas-powered yard work, single-cup coffee pods that end up in landfills, car exhaust emitted during an errand that was within walking distance. That’s when I realized that how I move matters beyond benefits to my own health.
Recruit the Whole Body
We met on day one inside the open-air Cider Garden Pavilion at Finnriver, flanked by organic flower gardens and an apple orchard. A flock of geese wandered outside; they weed around the trees when a group of 30 movement students isn’t there to help. The Chimacum Creek, a restored salmon stream, flowed nearby.
Bowman led us through a series of corrective exercises to wake up muscles that often lie dormant in our daily movement, especially while walking — a movement as automatic as breathing. Many people overuse their knees and underuse their hips, she explained, or they outsource some of the more refined hip and thigh work to their arms and shoulders. As we practiced balancing on one leg, she noted how we used our arms to stay upright. The upper body was taking over for the leg muscles that now didn’t have to show up to help.
We kept our arms out of it and practiced recruiting only the outer hip and thigh (to carry our weight while lifting one side of the pelvis to let the swing leg through) and the glutes (to push off the ground). We learned to keep a straight leg, so our push-off resembled an oar in the water. Pushing back with a bent knee, like a bent oar, is not as efficient.
These exercises — and practicing this leg movement — are not to be rushed. Slower-paced movement is necessary, Bowman said, because you can have “parent-child” relationships in your muscles. Parents can take over certain tasks for children, because it’s easier or faster, but in the long term, slowing down to let children figure it out is what allows them to become more capable.
“We don’t value slow,” Bowman noted. “We value short and fast.” Our gym mentality has conditioned us to get in and get out as efficiently and effectively as possible, because we have things to do. But what if we looked at that to-do list for opportunities to not only move but to move more of us?
Our crew, eager to get out of the classroom and into the lab, made quick work of weeding and harvesting in two rows of dwarf apple trees. We squatted, hinged, reached, carried bags of apples around our shoulders, loaded apples into buckets, and pushed wheelbarrows.
After lunch, we met for more corrective exercises before heading into the flower gardens. Still lush and colorful at the end of summer, these flowers are not grown to be cut and sold, but to die on the stem so their seeds can be harvested for the Organic Seed Alliance.
We bellied up to high tables strewn with dried flower blossoms — zinnias, marigolds, and sunflowers — and learned how to locate and extricate the seeds. I’ve grown these flowers in my own garden, and it pained me to think I’ve never saved any seeds, so I made plans to take this knowledge — and movement — back home with me.
Seed saving was simple and satisfying, but the movement was more challenging than expected, especially for my thumbs, which get a fair amount of use texting throughout the day. Turns out, shucking sunflower seeds from giant blossoms is a great way to vary movement in your hands and fingers.
We ended the day with a stretching session and a walking tour of the farm, which included tasting the cidery’s current offerings.
Go the Distance
At sunrise the next morning, our group gathered at Sequim Bay State Park. The name of the trail itself — the Discovery Trail — seemed prophetic, once Bowman explained, “Twenty miles is a great revealer.”
I approached this as merely a series of four five-mile walks, a distance I covered regularly. But Bowman explained otherwise: “Twenty miles is not four five-mile walks.” Uh-oh.
She explained that a long-distance walk requires the body to switch between gait patterns as muscles fatigue. Those “parent” muscles will eventually poop out and let the “children” muscles take on more work.
As we grew fatigued, she suggested going off-trail. “Motion on a different terrain is a type of recovery,” she explained. “Stopping might not be the answer. Moving differently can be.”
Walking at different paces is also important for going the distance. On this hike, we couldn’t help but slow down to forage mouthfuls of blackberries from the bushes that lined the trail. We also strolled through lavender fields at the midway point when we stopped for lunch at the Martha Lane Lavender farm.
By mile 20, I was walking differently, and parts of my body that are usually silent were speaking up. But they weren’t the usual aches and pains I worried would become worse on a long walk. The usual suspects were nowhere to be felt.
Living this movement-rich lifestyle for two days created a new appreciation for slower ways to move (like walking 20 miles) as well as smaller ways (like pulling a seed from a flower blossom). I once considered those types of movements insignificant, but I now see how they contribute to moving more of me — and how my own health and the world around me benefit from connecting those movements to a purpose beyond exercise — perhaps in slow and small ways as well.