Katy Bowman is a biomechanist, the author of the award winning blog katysays.com, and the founder of Restorative Exercise. Today she talks with us about her most recent book, Move Your DNA. We get into what diseases of mechanotransduction are, the profound ways our environment shapes us, why exercise and movement are not synonymous, how cardio can be harmful in our sedentary times, and how we are animals who have put ourselves in our own cages. Plus much, much more. Oodles more. So much more!
Diseases of mechanotransduction: instead of looking at the chemistry precursors to a disease (like a blood lipid profile), it’s looking at what are the mechanical issues associated with this disease. The category diseases of mechanotransduction are any of those diseases known to be influenced by something mechanical.
Loads: If you’re carrying 7 bags you are going to be loaded by them. It is a response to this load. You are always being loaded by gravity, but the loads that you experience depend on your position relative to it. Loads are the affect of applied forces. The way you orient your body dictates what load occurs.
There is a big interface between people who are thinking in terms of biotensegrity and Newtonian biomechanics. I think one of the reasons loads can be so hard to understand is that they have been reduced to the applied force- like when knees hurt and people ask how much you weigh- and then determine that is too much weight for your knees. That is a very basic way of looking at loads.
There are other things tha affect the load to the knee like what’s on your foot, the position of your foot, and of your knee, and your ankle and your knee to your hip, and your position relative to gravity- so all of those things go into consideration when you consider loads. It’s not the weight, it’s how you carry it.
It’s really impossible to calculate a whole body load because the applied force is experienced differently by all parts of the body. For example: The wind going through the trees. In biomechanics, you’re looking at a problem and asking how is the wind affecting these trees, but there is no way to measure how the wind is pushing on every single tree because every tree is experiencing the wind differently. Because that math is overwhelming, we have to reduce it so we call the load the wind and quantify the applied force. It’s kind of erroneous to do that because it really doesn’t matter, what matters is the adaptation of the tree to the wind.
[I give the example of the Orca in captivity with its floppy fin which Katy uses in the book Move Your DNA] Structures that are not maintained by their environment- we don’t see ourselves in the same “tank” as the Orcas in captivity in their tanks.
It’s that generalization of quantifying things- like saying an Orca swims in the ocean, so the Orca can swim in a tank, that way the “swimming” box is checked, therefore this [the floppy fin] could not be disease of mechanotransduction.
You need to break down swimming into something more specific. You can call swimming a macronutrient, but if you look at the micronutrients the questions are: What were the distances covered by whales in the ocean? What are the speeds that are normal for a whale to swim? What about swimming in a circle, is that normal?
Where we are with movement is where we were with nutrition 40 years ago. We say, “Just move more!” if a whale in captivity were to just swim more, it would make the flopped fin worse. Moving more might bring about even more of the forces that brought about the disease of mechanotransduction- in this case the flopped fin. It might make things worse.
At the end of the day swimming more wasn’t really the problem. If you walked in a circle everyday, you would notice that your body became shaped to that.
Then you walk fast in that circle, it will highlight those diseases even faster.
When we say we need to move well or differently, often we say [in this example], “Walk in the circle in the other direction.” You would offset some of the adaptations with that correction, but it’s still treating the symptom.
Corrective exercise is spot-treating these nutrient deficits by creating something novel instead of pulling back and asking what is the actual problem here? What are my actual movement requirements and how can I actually meet those instead of taking the vitamin or pill equivalent?
I just got back from a book signing and people ask what are the programs they can follow, or what is the prescription. And once you are in the prescription-land, you are out of movement-land. The solution would be, in the most general terms, to consider all of the movements you would be doing with your body if you didn’t have any of the things you have. You don’t have a car, or food in your refrigerator, or cabinets… How would you move? You start to be surrounded by the conveniences but opt not to use them.
For example, when I’m making breakfast for my kids I will opt to make it on the floor. I don’t want to reinforce that they need to bring a chair to the counter, and my standing at the counter is a kind of cast- always bringing things up to that level where I don’t need to use my knees or hips. Not only are they practicing the movements that are natural to them, but surprise!, I got squats in in my busy workday this morning.
The more you want to find an exercise solution, the more you will struggle with trying to fit it in to your day. Exercise doesn’t support the movement paradigm.
There is some junk food exercise out there. [Using the food analogy] so many people survive on junk food or heavily processed food because it can satiate part of your biology. For someone who has no food, it is filled with positives. But the reason it’s junk is that with some satiation of this biological signal of hunger, it also comes with a tax.
There’s exercise that satiates many of the “you need to move” signals you are getting, but it may not support your health in the long-term. It’s costing your body something that you will require in the future.
Exercise is becoming more nuanced. It’s always going to be processed food, but you could be eating the equivalent of an organic, minimally process whole food bar. We’re moving towards more high quality exercise in the same way that we did with food. People who know how to create something that is synthetic but better meets our needs.
In the next 40 years I expect I fully expect movement to be as nuanced as nutrition is now, and they will understand why a treadmill is really the equivalent to a Snickers.
So many people are out there doing a ton of work and taking time away from their families and crafting their lives around exercise for their better, and then they are getting this list of ailments, so I’m just trying to bring out the biological understanding so that people have a better context for why to fill in the movement deficits.
When you have sedentary populations- which we all are, even the exercisers- when they are still they are assuming one geometrical position. That is the bigger problem. I’m actually ok with people not bumping up their total movement as it relates to moving across the ground, even if you could just be still differently than you are always still, that would be a better nutrient.
If you are always sitting in the same chair, or how you sit in a car, you have this one specific body constellation. The bulk of your life is in this one geometrical position. Your mass distribution of your entire body has adapted to this shape. It becomes easier for you to do.
Then you have lots of kinks in your hoses of your arteries, and they are receiving a repetitive use injury because the blood is flowing in this exact same geometry, there are a lot more bends than there should be. You accumulate this arterial plaque, but it’s secondary. You’re changing the genetic expression of your lumen cells, the endothelial cells, you’re changing some of the genes here because of this repetitive blunt trauma.
Plaque is put down to reinforce the walls. So then you take that structure and you do something highly intense for a short period of time each day and are accelerating blood through it, so you are compounding the problem.
We’re trying to balance being sedentary by doing something short but high intensity, and I don’t know that it has the payoff that we believe it to have. I think it would be much better for people to address that they can’t be sedentary and in the same geometrical position for 98% of their lives. In the end that’s what affects your arteries’ ability to respond in the way they need to respond. In the same way you can’t eat junk food everyday and then exercise to take it off.
Balancing out to zero is a mindset we have, but it’s all input. Your body adapts to what you do the most.
I do think the purpose of getting your heart rate up is a skill that every human should have. I don’t think that it is the thing we should be spending the bulk of our time training. If you are interested in your cardiovascular health there are many other things you need to do first.
If you look at people like Tim Noakes research on cardiovascular training and function. The notion that people have about needing cardio isn’t really an evidence supported thing. It is understood in science, but it does not’ trickle down to the health magazine that you read.
Brooke: I mention the Jeremy Morris study which is always presented as thig being the study that proves that cardio is good for us, when really they weren’t describing cardio exercise.
There are a lot of conclusions that are extrapolations, and I always encourage people to go back and look at the actual data. Really what the conclusion is is that you should mimic the movements of the ticket conductor, not that you should exercise beyond what was measured.
I was just in a Reuter’s piece (in resources) this morning and we were talking about how walking is really a superfood, it contains quite a bit of nutrition. And it’s the thing a body would be doing the most of, it would be the most frequent vitamin intake. Then at the end a professor tosses on that it doesn’t’ maintain your bones as well as running. But that notion comes from a similar extrapolation. They found kids with strong bones and so put an accelerometer on them and noticed they were moving at 4 Gs. So we know that peak bone mass in kids comes at this high G. Then they had woman with osteoporosis wear them and they say they only got to 1 G. Then they had college students do a bunch of exercises to see what would get them up to 4 G, and running did. So then they just say, running gives you strong bones. That is not the scientific process. That is just everyone’s need to be told what to do.
And the answer is we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to take a whale in captivity, what kind of exercise program could you give it to have it be the same robust function as if it were in the wild? But the biologically plausible prescription we can give is to do the things you would have been doing in the wild. That’s where it’s at.
There is load science stuff that comes from physical therapy, we know that the position of your foot and the angle of your knee and the way you walk create load profiles that are likely to tear your ACL, and that’s where therapy and correctives come from. We can know what exercises can balance out and distribute the loads well, those are great places to start. But if you’re still swimming around your tank, your correctives aren’t really enough to get you out of the diseases of your tank.
We only have limited energy, so I like to focus on the problem instead of treating the symptom.
Brooke: Would it be fair to say that our bodies are hunter-gatherer bodies that are undernourished by leading these lives of convenience?
Remember you are an animal walking around in a zoo. Reflexively your body is always trying to conserve energy. The decision to shuck convenience has to be a choice. You are going to have to choose to get out of your couch and sit on the floor. You’re not really in a cage, you’ve put yourself in- there’s no lock, it’s habit. You can go outside whenever you want.
Movement is way easier to get in your life than exercise. Exercise takes time away from your family living. It takes a drive, a shower, a special outfit, equipment. It’s not as easy as. “I’m making breakfast anyway, I can make it on the floor? I’m walking on this path anyway, why don’t I just walk on the grass just 6 inches to the left? I’m going to the bathroom anyway, why not put my feet up on this squat platform?”
Because movement is not exercise, you have the potential to move all day long. I have no more time, I’m doing this podcast now so I could be sitting in front of my computer, or I could be standing and doing a calf stretch, and squatting a bit. Once you start thinking that way you can really move all day long even if you can’t go anywhere.
Me: I think it’s been diminished as valuable in our culture.
We’ve lost the understanding of the word movement. We are a non-moving culture. If you grew up in captivity, [for example] if we ask the Orca to figure out that it is in captivity, you are asking it to understand a concept of which it has no knowledge. We’ve never seen a person who didn’t exercise.
The real difference between exercise and movement would be anytime you are doing movement for the purpose of reaping a health benefit, that’s exercise. While movement is something that happens while you are getting something else accomplished.
You’ll never have enough time to get all the necessary loads in your body if you are only exercising. In order to fit the time constraint you have to accomplish your life while you are moving. Movement has to be a part of accomplishing your life. I go for a walk every day and I need to accomplish something in my work or my regular life. I try to give my brain a reason for going out and doing some sort of movement that is about accomplishing something else that needs to get done.
Brooke: My son’s school is about 6 miles from my house and we could walk it and he would get 6 miles in before school, and I would get 12 miles in, but these are the things we don’t’ think of when we’ve grown up in captivity.
I have a friend who did this and she didn’t have time to do the full walk, so she drove to where they were 2 miles away. Then her sons had has a very nutritious movement breakfast before they went to where we all learn how to be still. She got the time with them and in a different context, and she also got a 2 mile walk to herself walking back, and she got them to school.
Brooke: What are you playing with in your own practice?
A lot of upper body hanging and playing is new and challenging for me.
Playing with surfaces is probably where my brain is as well as my own body. Looking at the difference between a set of monkey bars, which would never occur in nature, and then looking at trees. Not just their angles, but also the textures of the bark. All the things you would touch would not have been smooth, they would bite into your skin and require that your skin strengthen.
Our skin is a big limitation to our health. The muscles of the entire body has to pass through either the hand or the feet if you’re doing something with body weight, and yet the skin has never been exposed to anything natural. Even if you are barefoot the nutrient you consume the most is a flat man-made surface.
I’m observing how everything is flat and smooth in my whole life. Nothing has asked the skin to the party. Nothing has asked the skin to participate in your body’s way of moving. Walking on different surfaces just for the sake of the skin. Playing with grip, diameter, and how that changes muscle recruitment.
Our idea of cross-trainig is so small. We think about adding 2 or 3 things- how about adding trillions? The habitat we’re in is really not conducive to health.
Let’s do as Katy suggests and imagine our lives stripped of all its conveniences. Where would you sit? Stand? Prepare and eat your food? ow would you get from point A to point B? See what new potentials for movement are revealed when you look at your life through this new lens.
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