I've been thinking about this for a while and have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is no such thing as exercise. The very concept is a modern invention, born of people gradually and very recently, anthropologically speaking, becoming richer and more stable and therefore more sedentary for most of their waking moments.
As humans, as living creatures, we've always moved our bodies, but not until relatively recently have we moved them in prescribed repetitive motions for a short period of time per day and decreed that as "healthy."
Imagine our ancient ancestress, hanging out with her tribemates. She covers miles a day searching out roots, then bending to pull them. She walks slowly, not setting any landspeed records here, because she's got the pace of kids and older folks to match and, anyhow, where's the hurry? She carries the food she gathers as well as her nursing toddler, and when they settle in to camp for the night, she walks to a nearby stream to carry back heavy water skins. She squats and then stands throughout the day: to gather, to rest, while preparing food, while braiding a daughter's hair, while peeing. All day long, she's working her muscles but doesn't call it weight training. She's working her heart and lungs but doesn't call it cardio.
Fast forward to a couple hundred years back for the average farmer woman: She's not logging as much mileage, because her family's settled on a particular plot of land now, but she is still on her feet plenty, and moving. She squats to milk cows, leans and pulls to churn butter, reaches to hang laundry on the line that she first laboriously handwashed, walks into town pulling a wagon of produce to sell. She's still lifting and holding a child throughout the day, and all her chores are done by hand and by the sweat of her brow.
Contrast it with the movement habits of your average modern Westen woman. She makes a quick breakfast with conveniently prepared food and appliances, perhaps goes to a desk job for the day or perhaps stays home with the kids. She sits on upholstered seats, uses a chair-height toilet, drives for errands and parks close to the doors, and her leisure time is spent on a comfy couch. Then, once a day, or maybe once or twice a week, she does this thing called "exercise." She drives to a temperature-controlled building to run nowhere and contort her body on a circuit of machines. Her heartrate is up, so there's her cardio. Her muscles are sore, so there's her weight training. She feels virtuous, because that's honestly more than most of us do, and she figures she's healthy. But is she?
I'd argue that saying "exercise" doesn't exist is more than just semantics. We could define the way our ancestors moved their bodies as exercise if we wanted to, right? But the way they moved their bodies is so very different from the ways we move (or don't move) ours that I'd suggest it's not useful trying to conflate the two.
By most measures of modern health, our ancient ancestors were better off, without particularly trying, and without paying for a gym membership. Don't be prejudiced by the death rates influenced by high infant mortality, infectious and intestinal diseases that were poorly understood and had no known cure or prevention, or the higher rate of accidents that come from living rough and tussling with wild animals and warring neighbors. The hunter-gatherers who made it through lived about as long as we do and were healthier throughout their lifespan, with a much lower incidence of our modern Westen "diseases of civilization," including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and autoimmune diseases.
Walking an hour a day, going for a jog for thirty minutes, riding your bike on the weekend, taking a salsa class once a week…. What are these against the hours and hours and hours we spend sedentary the rest of the week?
I'm not suggesting a moral bent to this issue. I'm just talking what our bodies need and have come to expect over generations of humans behaving similarly and, now, not. Our bodies don't understand that they're supposed to make do with a few hours of movement per week (if they're lucky) when they're used to near-constant maneuvering through the forces acting against them in the world.
Even the motions we choose to substitute are dim facsimiles of natural movement. Compare running on a static treadmill in air conditioning to walking on spongy grass, clambering over rocks, digging into sand, balancing on a log, scrabbling over roots, and wading through a stream. Compare swimming laps back and forth in a heated pool to splashing into the ocean and diving down to score some shellfish. Compare lifting and lowering a dumbbell to target your biceps to rolling a heavy rock out of the way of a sleeping area or picking up logs for a fire.
The common element I see in natural movement is that it served a purpose. It wasn't movement for movement's sake (aka exercise) — it was to accomplish something. We walked to find food. We ran to hunt it down. We lifted to bring supplies back to the camp. We swam to get to the other side.
How strange that we've eradicated natural movement from our lives, then added back in the obligation of artificial movement and then — and this is the doozy — elevated the artificial movement as preferable for health and morally superior! Garbage collectors who yank and haul heavy sacks all day, UPS deliverers who stack boxes, cashiers who stand on their feet, nannies who run upstairs and around town with their little charges — how much attention do they get versus the people who run marathons, climb a mountain, or lift a heavy barbell?
I feel it on a personal level when I walk, slowly, slowly, but often and regularly and for many miles, every day. People pass me sometimes. A lot of times I'm with a kid, and we take many breaks to sit, look, have a snack. I know such behavior is not considered "proper" exercise, and that's so silly.
This is a post without a tidy solution. I don't know how to retrofit our lives to look more like our ancestors' but retain the comforts and advantages of our modern ones. I have a few ideas for possibilities, like walking to errands, playing with our kids at the playground, squatting to help them with zipping jackets, parking as far away as feasible, being inefficient at housework, altering positions when using computers or watching TV, etc. — but we all have to find what is feasible for us, for our level of ability, for our level of health, for our mental willingness to change, and for what feels good or doesn't. One thing I've started doing is walking around a safe space indoors while Swyping blog posts on my phone, so I am writing this while meandering around the grocery store and trying not to get in anyone's way. It's not exactly paleolithic, but we have to make our compromises somewhere.
I'm also not denigrating forms of exercise that make you happy. If you live for the stair climber and the free weights, don't let me stop you! If you hate them, though, I'd suggest that there are many more options out there than our society deems worthy of the name of exercise, and maybe you're someone who feels the ancestral pull to connect movement to meaning. Sam is like that. He'll walk, but only TO somewhere, not aimlessly to think, as I will. He'll lift heavy boxes in our business but not bother with weight sets. If you're similar, maybe you can add function to your movements and find your happy place. For those of us who aren't jocks or athletes, it's very freeing — to realize that we too have the power and grace to move our bodies, not necessarily in socially elevated or impressive ways but in ways that make us feel good and help us function, in exactly the way we would have if we'd lived before the concept of exercise existed.
Is modern exercise better than nothing? Well, sure, though maybe in the way that cotton candy and Starbursts are better for your body than starving, as Katy argues at Nutritious Movement. It seems like we've broken down bodily movements into discrete, limited motions (exercise) and then favored those above … just … plain … moving. Or how exercise is talked about as if its sole function is to "burn calories." This is an impossibility that should be plain. If moving our bodies constantly made humans shed weight, our ancestors would all have died off. It's a much more nuanced system than that. It's like how nutritionism seems to have broken food down into components of macronutrients and micronutrients and missed the broader idea to just … eat some good food. Or the way the formula industry keeps trying to reinvent breastmilk in a lab by analyzing the teensiest molecules (not that it's not a worthy goal to provide the nearest simulacrum to babies who are nourished by it) but miss the bigger picture of feeding at the breast in its entirety. It's as if we've forgotten the forest for the trees, as if we don't realize the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.
- "Junk Food Walking" at Nutritious Movement — particularly the interesting ways treadmill walking and real-world walking differ biomechanically
- "Sitting (in Heels) Is the New Smoking" at Nutritious Movement —
"it is so wonderful to see someone realizing–for themselves … that being (working, living) in a different position results in the same outcome you strive for 'during exercise.' … You can keep searching for the 'perfect exercise program' or you can just change how you move all day long."
- [PDF] "Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent With Our
Hunter-Gatherer Heritage" in The Physician and Sportsmedicine — details fitness for hunter-gatherers and how we can try to replicate that in our lives
- "Just How Long Did Grok Live, Really?" at Mark's Daily Apple — discusses a study showing the lifespan of hunter-gatherers approximates ours, once high infant mortality is excluded, and talks about the typical causes of death and illness in hunter-gatherer populations
- "Hunter-Gatherer Body Composition" at Mark's Daily Apple — answers the question of "What did our ancestors look like?" with links to photos
- "Debunking the Hunter-Gatherer Workout" at The New York Times — this sounds like it's saying hunter-gatherers don't have a lot of activity, but it's actually the opposite:
"The Hadza live in simple grass huts in the middle of a dry East African savanna. They have no guns, vehicles, crops or livestock. Each day the women comb miles of hilly terrain, foraging for tubers, berries and other wild plant foods, often while carrying infants, firewood and water. Men set out alone most days to collect honey or hunt for game using handmade bows and poison-tipped arrows, often covering 15 to 20 miles."The "controversy" in the article is that modern people are supposedly fatter because we're sedentary, and that's what's being debunked. But I already knew that….
- You might also be interested in Katy Bowman's books, such as Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement and Don't Just Sit There
- MovNat — Find others interested in Natural Movement
Trust me when I say this is not something I've mastered. I am nowhere near as fit as my ancestors, or probably many of you. And by setting out averages I wasn't suggesting that each of you personally is sedentary. Maybe you walk ten miles a day, babywearing triplets, weaving cloth diapers, and grinding your own millet all the while. (You rock!) This is more commentary on a culture-wide phenomenon, and one that becomes more ingrained as we age (though why not, considering most of us were taught to sit at desks in school seven hours a day?). So I'd love to hear tips from any of you who have found solid ways to incorporate movement into your day! Please share in the comments.
NOTE: I am not a medical professional. I am a blogger. If your healthcare provider has recommended a certain course of movement, don't let me sway you.