Is Exercise Causing You to Move Less? Part 1

4341141005_78a2ff8524_zWen-Bin Chou, a psychologist and researcher at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan has demonstrated that taking multivitamins causes people to be less healthy due to an ironic effect of dietary supplementation. It turns out that people who believe they are taking a multivitamin subconsciously believe that it gives them some degree of invulnerability, which leads them to make less healthy choices throughout the day. So if they took a multivitamin in the morning, and at lunch are faced with the choice between two trips to the all-you-can-eat burrito buffet vs. a salad and some wild salmon, they'll go for the buffet due to an unconscious belief that they've covered their bases with the multivitamin. Of course we all know a multivitamin is not the same as eating real, whole food- and a recent article in Outside Magazine questions whether they are at all helpful or even harmful- yet the subconscious belief in being bulletproof seems to clearly exist anyway.

Here's how it went down: In two experiments all the participants were given a placebo pill, some were told it was a multivitamin. Those who believed they had taken the multivitamin engaged in less healthful and more hedonistic activities on a regular basis like eating larger quantities of less nutritional food. It's called The Licensing Effect. As in, they believe that their positive choice or behavior (taking the multivitamin) gives them license to then engage in less healthy behaviors ongoing.

So why am I writing about this when I've never written about dietary supplementation in my life? Because I believe it applies to movement as well. So let's substitute "multivitamin" with "trip to the gym" and "eating less nutritional food" with "moving less".

Re-written the licensing effect applied to movement would then read something like: "Those who had gone to the gym engaged in less healthful and more sedentary activities on a regular basis."

We spend our days sitting our butts in chairs, staring at screens and moving in extremely small ranges of motion. I believe this happens for three reasons:

  1. We don't distinguish between movement and exercise.
  2. We don't understand the benefit of movement (not exercise).
  3. We believe that exercise absolves us of not moving for most of our lives.

So let's talk about it:

We don't distinguish between movement and exercise:

  • In a culture that so values stasis (my son goes to public school and even though I adore his teacher, school in this country is basically one big "sit still" training ground) we have handily earmarked "exercise" as "the time we have allotted to move".
  • This stems from what I think is a subconscious belief that there is an "on" and "off" switch to our bodies receiving input from movement. For example: "I'm out for a run! You can pay attention now body..." and then, "I'm sitting in my office chair for 8 hours, you are in the off position now body, no need to pay attention to this..."
  • As I alluded to in that last point, while exercise is one kind of movement, movement is a much broader category which includes standing, walking, breathing, chewing, reaching, shifting, etc. All the movements- large and micro- that you make moment to moment. I thought Katy Bowman (goddess of educating what movement actually is...) did a great job differentiating between movement and exercise in the interview I did with her when she pointed out a baby breastfeeding as movement- and how we would never describe that as a baby "getting his exercise".

We don't understand the benefit of movement (not exercise)

  • I wrote "not exercise" in parentheses because I think we have all been thoroughly indoctrinated into the benefits of exercise. So we'll just leave that as is.
  • Then the question is, if one is exercising, why does movement throughout the day matter too? And the answer is: because we are alive. This means that everything you are doing (or not doing) movement-wise is being registered by your body as input. It doesn't discriminate via the magical on/off switch of paying attention. And that input is what is being put to use on a cellular level to build you up or tear you down.
  • An example: if you, like most, sit for somewhere in the range of 10 hours a day (that's conservative), your body registers a number of things from that and then does its best to help you make that shape more. So your body is thinking, "Okey doke, hamstrings always contracted, check, we'll keep those short. Sitting on sacrum, check, let's smoosh out those vertebral discs to make that shape, compress the respiratory diaphragm, slacken the pelvic floor, and basically create thickenings throughout the spine and thorax which holds you in a C-curve..." This is an extremely tiny slice of what is going on when you hold one shape for a long time.
  • The example above is of what happens structurally; As in, you become the shapes you make most of the time. However, there are also other significant health risks to stasis. Recent data shows that it contributes to mortality from all causes. Yep, heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc. One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that every hour spent sitting shortens lifespan more significantly than every cigarette smoked. And Dr. Levine, an inactivity researcher at the Mayo Clinic, describes sitting as "a lethal activity".

We believe that exercising absolves us of not moving for most of our lives:

  • Unfortunately, even if you workout almost daily and are therefore considered "fit", a workout amounts to a grand total, usually, of somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes of exercising in any given 24 hour period, best case scenario.
  • And since we have discussed that our bodies don't have an off switch which causes them to not pay attention while we are inactive, hopefully it is clear that this is a game of frequency. Not of intensity. I don't care how hard you rock it at the gym at the end of the day. Work out til you puke and blackout (no, really, don't) but it won't erase all the static activity of the day. In fact, going from long periods of stasis to incredibly demanding workouts is a risk for a multitude of injuries, but that's fodder for another post.
  • Our bodies want us to still be hunter gatherers. Oh our physiology longs for the days when a wide variety of movements were required of our bodies all day long as we hunted and gathered for our food! But today we put food on the table- for the most part- by typing away at these computers all day long. And our bodies are confused. Where are the missing movement ranges? Where did the frequency go? While you don't need to abandon contemporary culture and go live in a tree, it helps to acknowledge that you are still wired to thrive with the demands that a hunter gatherer would have had.

Depressed? Oof when I mention this stuff in my classes or in my practice I kind of see the light go out of people's eyes. Which sucks. I believe the thought cycle goes something like, "Well my life depends on sitting most of the day, so I guess I'm hopeless. I will have terrible chronic pain, joint dysfunction, and die from this 'lethal activity' that is required by my job."

Ready? Deeeeeeep breath. There is hope.

The movement part is easy, albeit with a small adaptation period, and you may have to occasionally fight (or even just nudge) The Man. That's it. And we'll get into how to do both in part 2 of this post. Stay tuned!

photo by skittledog