With our society's growing dependence on technology, we are quickly phasing out the the need to have strong, capable bodies that work for us. Physical fitness is no longer built into our lives. Cars make walking long distances obsolete. The only climbing that most people do is on stairs. Our home and work environments are rigid and boring and unnatural. We are a new species of “zoo human” who lives indoors and is soft and physically inept. Our movement vocabulary falls within the narrow spectrum of things we can do on two feet. We have adapted to this environment that no longer requires strength, coordination, mobility, or effort to navigate.
Societal norms make it harder to stay fit these days, because most people don't exercise. Being out of shape is considered okay and being physically fit is seen as optional. Throughout human history, the pursuit of physical fitness has been an essential endeavor, and it was simply a part of living. Fitness was considered insurance for survival during war or natural disaster, and was also necessary to remain useful and efficient in work and life. It had nothing to do with building chiseled pecs and bulging biceps. Fitness was expected to develop qualities of mental and physical toughness as well as real world strength.
Bodybuilding is relatively new on the time-line of fitness culture and has only existed for a few decades. Bodybuilding grants the illusion of fitness without the function. What use is all that muscle if you can't run a mile to save your life or efficiently climb a tree? I don't deny that strength training has massive benefits. Strength training develops the muscles and joints, and improves your health and body composition, but there is more to fitness than being strong or muscular. What does a bench press prepare you for? True, it builds general upper body strength and is great at developing the chest, but its' functional carryover is limited. You'll never find a situation that puts you on your back, pressing a weight off your chest in real life or athletics. Deadlifting builds excellent levels of full body strength, but real life likely won't provide you with a neat, 1-inch bar to grip when picking something up off the ground.
The human body is meant for variety and exploration, not repetitive, back and forth motions. The gym is a artificial environment that attempts to mimic our natural patterns, without the natural setting. This is one reason why gym workouts are often seen as a chore. How many times have you sat on some bench press machine counting the seconds til it was over, casually watching TV and checking your Facebook between sets?
So, what is natural movement?
It is simply moving our body in ways that are natural and performing skills that are practical. The human body has a wide scope of movement capabilities, but the essential skills can be broken down into walking, running, squatting, jumping, crawling, rolling, climbing, swinging, balancing, dancing, fighting, carrying, catching, and throwing. We have a vast array of movement possibilities to explore with the end-goal being to develop a mind-body connection that allows you to move through complex environments with ease. Natural movement will help you feel good, look good, and perform at your best.
“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” ― Socrates
Movement is essential to having flourishing health and improving quality of life. The modern “zoo human” is unhappy and under-stimulated. We are not meant to be plugged into technology 24/7, work in cubicles, and spend our days being still. Humans may be more productive and live longer, but we are not thriving. We spend more of our lives suffering from chronic diseases than ever before. As a species, our quality of life is the lowest it's ever been in terms of mental and physical health, simply because we are disconnected from our true nature, movement. Movement is linked to improved mood, better sex drive, enhanced cognitive function, and increased lifespan. How much we move has a huge impact on how healthy and happy we are.
The human body has been shaped by millions of years of evolution in response to our environmental needs, and we are meant to be strong, flexible, agile, and have the ability to pass obstacles and move our bodies through space with ease. Children still retain most of their primal instincts, especially for movement. You'll see children crawl, run, squat, roll, climb, jump, balance, and throw without ever being taught these skills. These are movements that provided our fitness in early history – the movements our bodies are designed for. Knowing how to perform these movements efficiently ensured we could catch our food and survive against the elements and predators. These are the skills that made our species thrive for thousands of years. Primal fitness didn't consist of structured programs and periodized progressions, but playful and instinctual practice of necessary movement skills.
Natural movement requires no gym, because your body is the only equipment you need. The primal brain craves natural, engaging environments that provide chances to explore and play. Natural movement is a holistic style of training that integrates the training of mental awareness, physical ability, and reaction time in a natural environment. This type of training requires acute focus and sensory integration. You have to connect your mind to your body to succeed in a highly variable environment. This develops mindfulness, the ability to be in the moment. Imagine crawling on all fours across a slippery fallen log. You'll put your full attention into the task to avoid falling.
Learning natural movement prepares you for life. It prepares the older population by teaching balance, rolling, and landing – skills necessary to avoid nasty falls. Natural movement provides parents with a way to integrate fitness into their life while having fun with their children. It can develop full-body mastery in youth athletes and enhance their confidence in navigating their environments.
In this age of bio-hacking and fitness quantification devices, we have largely moved away from instinctual fitness. Despite the endless array of gadgetry in modern gyms, the populous has never been more inactive. Natural movement was the heart of physical fitness for thousands of years. It's how we all explore and learn about what we're capable of as children. We enjoyed movement because it made us feel capable and connected to the world around us. Maybe it's time we get back outside for some much needed play.
Here are three ways to get started with a natural movement practice.
Sitting with your lower body bent at 90 degree angles most of the day turns off your glutes and your core and puts strain on your lower back. Try sitting on the ground more often. Ground-sitting is naturally uncomfortable and forces you to change position regularly, which is a big benefit to your hips. You are more likely to engage your core while on the ground which will strengthen your posture and decrease back pain.
Learn to Crawl
Crawling is the first method of locomotion we learn. Most animals on the planet walk on all fours and it's a great way to train your core stability and teach your arms to support some of your bodyweight. The key is learning to move your arms and legs contra-laterally. This means your left arm moves with your right leg and vice versa. Crawling can be hard, so begin by trying a knees and hands crawl before moving to a hands and feet version.
Find a low, narrow surface to balance on, like a log or a rail. Practice walking forwards, backwards and sideways. Try turning around or squatting. Step it up a notch by balancing while carrying an object.
The only rule is, there are no rules. You simply need to explore and have fun. Add some movement into your life and your training and see the difference it makes!