One of the reasons we moved to our new house in the Malvern hills was to get more exercise. This wasn’t about finding more time to go to the gym but being more active in daily life. The location and layout of our house requires and encourages us to move a lot more.
It’s crazy that most of us spend almost all of our time sitting. Most of us sit at work, we sit on the way to work (driving, on the train or bus, or even cycling), we sit to eat, and at the end of the day we sit on the sofa to relax.
Why is sitting bad?
The seated position creates a shortening of the hip flexors and hamstrings. It also allows muscles to atrophy because they aren’t being used to work against gravity (and this affects our bone density as well). These (and other) adaptations mean your body is reshaped to do the movements you do most. For most of us this means we’re basically designed for sitting.
Aside from the lack of movement, sitting is not a great position as it squishes the blood vessels passing through our pelvis and into our legs. It requires men to tuck their pelvis forward to avoid sitting on their reproductive organs. Unless you have great sitting posture (and most of us don’t), it also encourages the collapse of the lumbar spine, and a slumping forward of the shoulders.
So, sitting all day is bad, but standing all day is not really any better. There’s no one perfect posture. What we need is frequent changes in position. Avoid repeating the same movements too much (one problem with always doing the same form of exercise). Instead engage in natural movements like walking, squatting and climbing throughout the day.
One word of warning – transition slowly into new movements to avoid injury.
What can you do to introduce more natural movement?
The most important thing is to notice when you’re still and look for opportunities to move more.
You don’t necessarily have to go on a five mile hike every day (though it’d be great if you could). But try to look for opportunities to walk. If you could walk to your local shops, park or cafe, try to make it a rule never to drive there. The usual advice to take the stairs rather than the lift or get off the bus a stop or two early apply here too.
Most of us have really tight shoulders, upper backs and arms because we keep our arms out in front of us most of the time. Whether we’re using a computer, cooking, eating, writing, reading, building lego with the kids, our arms are pretty fixed at a low level in front of us. Hanging is a natural movement that most of us don’t do much any more. And it stretches out the shoulders while building a bit of upper body strength.
We have a pull up bar that hangs from door frames so it can be moved from room to room. It’s usually hanging on the office door. We hang from it each time we enter or leave the room (the kids love it), and when taking computer breaks. Do this alongside some exercises to mobilise the shoulder. Start with hanging on two arms, then start swinging, hanging from one arm, and then add some pull ups.
If you start hanging a lot, you’ll begin to get callouses (thicker patches of skin) on your hands. The skin is more vascularised, which is good, unless you only develop callouses in small patches surrounded by weaker skin. This is where you get blistering and other problems. Ideally you want to get even thickening and the way to do that is to hang from various textured surfaces. Tree branches are ideal.
Sit on the floor
Sitting on chairs and sofas isn’t great, so we sit on the floor when we can. When you sit on the floor, you’re a lot more dynamic than when you sit on chairs. You’re less likely to stay in one position for a long time, you’re less likely to stoop, and it helps strengthen your back. Most floor sitting postures also involve stretching areas that will have become tight from years of sedentary living. We took the legs off our dining table, but you can start by eating around a coffee table or picnic outside. Turn ‘Netflix and Chill’ into ‘Netflix and stretch’ – all you need is a few cushions.
See opportunities to move in your daily tasks
I’ve started seeing my household jobs as opportunities to move more. Folding the laundry can be done squatting on the floor. Sweeping the floor becomes an opportunity to stretch and strengthen the legs – traditional tai chi schools have done this for ages.
Modern life is mostly about convenience and comfort. We build machines that save us from having to engage in effort, and then build more machines to help us exercise. It’s crazy! Doing things the old fashioned way is a great way of engaging in natural movement while achieving something useful. Besides, one day you might need to know how to meet your daily needs without electricity.
When you start looking for ways to move your body, you’ll find opportunities everywhere. Stretch while you’re brushing your teeth, sit on the floor instead of a chair, don’t pass a good climbing tree without at least hanging off a branch. Have fun with it.