Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement - by Katy Bowman
The pattern of disease or injury that affects any group of people is never a matter of chance. It is invariably the expression of stresses and strains to which they were exposed, a response to everything in their environment and behavior.
—CALVIN WELLS, BONES, BODIES AND DISEASE
Because DNA can be expressed differently, depending on how external factors impinge upon the cells within which the DNA resides, and because movement is one of these factors, the way we move directly influences how our bodies are shaped—for good and ill. It is not enough for me to tell you just to “move more.” You also need to “move better” if you are to enjoy a more sustainable state of well-being.
NUTRITIOUS MOVEMENT AND DISEASES OF CAPTIVITY
Every unique joint configuration, and the way that joint configuration is positioned relative to gravity, and every motion created, and the way that motion was initiated, creates a unique load that in turn creates a very specific pattern of strain in the body. Every load experienced by the body, whether the distortion is created by our activity (or lack thereof), the position of that activity, the impact of that activity, or the repetitiveness of that activity (or lack thereof), is its own “nutrient”—what I will now refer to as a load profile.
Illness is typically looked at as physiology gone wrong. I assert here that in most cases, our physiology is responding exactly as it should to the types of movement we have been inputting. Instead of thinking of ourselves as broken, we should recognize our lack of health as a sign of a broken (mechanical) environment.
Human diseases are repeatedly explained to us in terms of their chemical or genetic makeup; meanwhile, we’ve completely ignored the load profile that the function of our body depends upon. As far-fetched as this may sound, we, like floppy-finned orcas, are animals in captivity, and our tissues are not suited to the loads created through the way we move in our modern habitat.
The machinery, the process of creating stimulation, the loads that are perceived by your cells’ mechanosensors, and the response triggered by the cell deformations—are collectively called the mechanome. A mechanome is the interplay between forces and biology. For example, your genes contain information about the ratio of muscle fiber types you have, which affects the potential for your muscles to develop in response to exercise—for instance, whether you’ll ever be able to be a world-class sprinter—but genes do not run the programs for developing your body into an athlete’s. Rather, this development occurs when you create stimulation through your actions.
Mechanobiology: A relatively new field of science that focuses on the way physical forces and changes in cell or tissue mechanics contribute to development, physiology, and disease.
The more you can imagine just how your activities of daily living differ from those found in nomadic, food-searching individuals, the easier it will be for you to understand why it takes more than an hour of exercise a day, however high in intensity, to recreate the distinct loading profiles of this lifestyle.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EXERCISE AND MOVEMENT
If the goal of exercise is to reap the physical benefits of movement, the goal of non-exercise movement would be to reap the non-movement benefits of the activity. Going for a one-mile or thirty-minute walk to strengthen your legs, burn some calories, and stretch your muscles is an example of exercise. Walking a mile to the store because you need to pick up something for dinner is an example of movement. Both may use the body in exactly the same way, but there is a difference in the bigger picture regarding how we think about and schedule the needs of our body.
Exercise is movement, but movement is not always exercise.
Yet another reason movement is not optional: In addition to creating loads and modifying genetic behavior, movement is an essential step in the process of oxygen delivery. The effect of exercise—specifically the increase of oxygen delivery—is not systemic.
Instead of dividing your twenty miles a week into tidy 2.75-mile daily walks, try another schedule, like this: Monday: Two miles Tuesday: Three miles Wednesday: Eight miles Thursday: One mile Friday: Five miles Saturday: Zero miles Sunday: One mile If you followed this plan, you’d create a different body than you would by walking three miles every day. You could also plan a greater physical endeavor, like a twenty-mile walk once a month or whenever your schedule allows.
Being mindful about walking throughout the day can have a positive impact on your well-being, even if your “walks” are nothing more than one-to-five-minute laps around your home, office, or block.
As you design your walking program, remember the following:
- The more the foot can move and deform over a surface, the less the ankle is forced to do the work of the foot.
- The more inclined and declined your walking surface, the more variation in ankle, knee, and hip use, pelvic positioning, and the greater variance in muscles used throughout the entire body.
- The more the walking surface is cluttered with natural debris (sand, rocks, leaves, slate, roots, holes, pebbles, etc.), the more your feet, knees, hips, pelvis, and whole-body musculature have to work.
Calf Stretch: Place a thick folded and rolled towel on the floor in front of you. Step onto the towel with a bare foot, placing the ball of the foot on the top of the towel and keeping your heel on the floor. Adjust the foot so that it points straight forward. Keeping your body upright (shoulders and hips over heels), step forward with the opposite foot.
Top of the Foot Stretch: Stand up, barefoot, and reach one leg behind you, tucking the toes under as shown, making sure to keep the torso upright (it is common to move the pelvis or upper body forward).
Foot Bone Mobilization on Ball
You are going to sit a lot of the day. Which is fine. It’s entirely natural to sit and rest and hang out with your peeps. But there isn’t any requirement that you spend your sitting time in a chair. It takes no additional time to sit on the floor instead of on your couch.
Sole-to-Sole Sit: Sitting on a pillow or folded blanket (choose a thickness that makes sitting this way comfortable), place the soles of your feet together, letting your knees drop away from each other. If your pelvis is forced to tuck under, increase the height of the blanket until your pelvis can tilt forward (like your pelvis is a bowl of soup that you’re dumping in front of you).
Soles Against a Wall: Place the soles of both feet against a wall, making sure to elevate your hips until you can straighten your knees comfortably. Relax your body toward your thighs, no forcing, no bouncing. Want to feel something really amazing? After relaxing your torso as far as it can go, relax your head toward your thighs. By decreasing the tension down the back of your neck, you’ll increase the tension all the way down the spine. This stretch goes beyond individual muscles and is a great way to load the connective tissue wrapping that surrounds the muscles of the legs, spine, and head!
V-Sit: This stretch is right out of elementary PE class, but it’s effective! Sitting on a small pillow, widen your legs until you find your groin’s limit and hang out there for a bit. Lean forward as you paint a “rainbow” shape from leg to leg. You can take your time in each spot as well as move smoothly from side to side. Each of these (static holds and stretching while you move) creates unique loads.
Sitting in Daily Life: If you already take an hour to do this, great, but don’t undo your work by practicing your most-practiced habit, sitting on furniture. Instead, sit on the floor for meals and while reading, chatting, or just watching TV.
Straighten Your Feet: Line up the feet so they look more like the tires on your car when you’re driving forward.
Find Your Neutral Pelvis: When you’re standing, a forward pelvic thrust creates more work for the front of the thigh (quads, iliacus, and psoas) than it does for the muscles of your backside. Share the work required for standing more evenly by backing up your pelvis so that your hips align vertically with your knees and ankles.
Ribs Down: Drop your rib cage so that the lowest, most forward bony protrusion of your ribs is stacked vertically over the highest bony protrusions on the front of the pelvis.
Shoulder Blades Neutral
MOUSE HANDS TO MONKEY ARMS
Restore your wrist and finger range of motion with the following:
Reverse Prayer Hands: Place the backs of your hands together, so that all five fingers touch. If your lower arms are tight, getting the thumbs to touch will be the trickiest. Then lower the wrists until they are at the same height as the elbows—without separating the fingers. If the fingers do separate, reverse directions (take your wrists away from the floor) until they meet, and hang out there.
Finger Extension: With hands palm up, place your fingertips onto the floor (if you are kneeling) or table (if you are standing) or hold them with your opposite hand and gently press the heel of your palm forward, away from the body. Try to extend each finger joint (in other words, do the opposite of forming a fist), making sure to stop if any finger joint buckles back into flexion. Once you have extended your finger joints, slowly bend your elbows, until they point directly back behind you and not off to the sides. Your fingers, too, should be directed straight back; a twist in the wrist (as shown by your fingers veering to the left or right) is a sign of tension.
The Rhomboid Pushup: This is my favorite exercise to reintroduce movement back into the “sticky” middle spine. Start on your hands and knees, letting your knees and wrists fall directly under your hips and shoulders. Let your head, pelvis, and belly relax and lower to the floor. Slowly allow the torso to move toward the floor, which will bring the shoulder blades together. Note: This is different from actively squeezing your blades together. You’re trying to work with gravity here and allow the movement—not force it. Once you have reached the “bottom” of the exercise, move the entire spine up toward the ceiling. This motion will spread the shoulder blades apart. Do not round the upper back or tuck the pelvis. Repeat a dozen times, focusing on maximizing the motion between the shoulder blades. This Rhomboid Pushup is often mistaken for a cat-cow yoga pose, but in the Rhomboid Pushup there is not a change in the curve of the spine. You aren’t rounding your back and then extending it. Instead, the spinal column maintains its original curve as it moves toward and then away from the floor.
Paint the Globe: Pretend your upper body is surrounded by a globe. Reach your arms up. That’s the top of the globe. Reach down. There’s the bottom. Reach your hands out to “touch” the sides of the globe. Now use your fingertips to “paint” as much of the globe’s inner surface as you can. The more you do this, the easier it will become and the more of the globe you can touch.
Quadruped Hand Stretch
IT’S HARD TO REST IN A ZOO
Abdominal Release: Keep checking yourself for gut tension throughout the day, softening when you catch yourself clenching!
Jaw Release: Throughout the day, see if you can relax the jaw without opening the mouth. There’s a point where the jaw muscles exert more force than necessary. When you catch yourself tensing, let the bottom teeth move away from the top.
Eye Release: The mechanical loads you are missing in your eyes come when you point your eyes at things really far away and let them focus. Cross-train them when you walk! Keeping your head still, look right and left, up and down, and out of the corners of your eyes—all while looking far away! For those of you stuck at a desk, arrange your office so that you can look out a window a few times each hour, giving yourself a couple of minutes to focus on the farthest thing.
Ear Release: In short, make your life less noisy. Take walks—at least sometimes—without the smartphone. Drive without the radio. Unplug (or un-battery) any non-essential thing. Invest in some earplugs if you’re right up on a roadway or for when you travel. And don’t forget to let the natural sounds in! Open the doors and windows. Take a walk just to work your ears in a different way. Since there is so much about nature we don’t know, cover your bets by encouraging your ear’s relationship with nature.
Spinal Twist: You’re going to start by lying on your back. Bring a knee in, and rotate your pelvis to lower that knee to the opposite side of your body. The goal isn’t to force your knee to the floor. The goal is to note where your pelvis stopped moving due to tension in the trunk muscles. Twist only as far as you can without taking the ribs with you, no forcing it.
Release Your Pillow: It took me about a year to go completely pillow-free, but what I did was change my pillow height over time. I went from something big and fluffy to something medium and fluffy. I progressed to a less fluffy pillow to a towel to a wadded T-shirt to nothing.
Release Your Mattress: Sleeping in nature—something humans have been doing since day one—creates varying loads in your cells. Right now, your pillow and mattress serve the same purpose as an orthotic or “supportive” footwear. Just as an orthotic supports the weakness created by wearing shoes, the pillow reinforces the body position created by using a pillow. Just as constant shoe-wearing and flat, unvarying terrain have left you with poor foot mobility and strength, always sleeping on something flat and squishy has altered the mobility and sensitivity of your parts. The joint alterations required for ground-sleeping are natural and they’re currently underused.
Release Yourself (From the Indoors): Outdoor time, like movement, is not really optional—your body and community truly depend on it.
Rest, in General
WALKING: THE SPECIFICS
I am always surprised when people say they find walking boring. Walking defines us as a species. It is not a luxury. Not a bonus. It is not optional. Walking is a biological imperative, like eating and having sex. Which is why we should, as a species, see the inability to walk without pain for what it is—a huge, red, waving flag calling attention to the state of other parts and processes necessary to perpetuate our humanness.
The pelvis is the skeletal environment for sexual pleasure and performance, egg production, sperm production (read: fertility), menstruation, pregnancy, and delivery. I am most passionate about the pelvis and its issues because the success of the pelvic area is the success of our species. The pelvis, for both man and woman, is foundational to moving DNA on to the next generation.
Legs on the Wall: Keeping your legs straight, relax your legs away from each other until you feel a “stretch” in the inner thigh.
Number 4 Stretch: Sit with your bottom scooted to the front of a chair. Cross your right ankle over the left knee, careful not to twist, tuck, or hike the pelvis in any way. If your knee takes the brunt of this stretch, then your muscle tension is too great for this exercise; go back to doing it on the floor. If you can feel it in your thigh (anywhere—the outside, the groin, the hamstring), then tilt your pelvis anteriorly (to the front) a bit to increase the stretch.
Reclined Sole-to-Sole Sit: Instead of sitting up with the soles of your feet touching, lie back on the ground (bolstering your head and shoulders.)
- Calf Stretch Soleus: Standing on a half foam roller with the ball of one foot up on the dome and its heel on the ground, bend the same leg’s knee—pushing it slightly forward—as you press that same heel toward the ground.
When you squat, take note of your most-frequented foot position and turn it inward (to whatever degree is tolerable) over time, until the foot more or less lines up with the angle of the thigh.
Without glutes, a squat has to be driven mostly by the quads. To slowly challenge your backside, you must think “untuck the pelvis and back up the hips” as you come up and down. There will be a point in squatting (both up and down) in which you can no longer maintain these motions without falling backward, but if you are always trying right up to that point, you will, over time, strengthen and increase the mass of the butt muscles and develop a more well-rounded (butt pun!) way of using your hips. The amount your pelvis untucks and the ability you have to move your hips back toward your heels is a good way to measure your progress toward greater body use.
Taking a snapshot of a squat for the purpose of teaching form can be misleading. Many people, all over the world, “live” in their squat. They cook, clean, play, visit, and explore in a squat, which means that a squat is not a fixed thing. Once you’ve gotten your body used to squatting, try shifting your weight from side to side and front to back, all while down in your squat.
Feel free to eliminate a move that’s not working for your particular body. Unless otherwise noted, perform each move for 30–60 seconds and most importantly, pay attention to the moves between moves—that is, how you transition from one position to another. This phase, too, is movement and can be improved.
- Begin seated in a cross-legged position.
- Spend two minutes leaning forward and back and to the right and left, and finally twisting to the right and left
- Switch which leg is crossed on top and repeat
- Stand and do the Calf Stretch
- Top of the Foot Stretch
- Sit in Sole-to-Sole Sit. Spend two minutes leaning forward, twisting to the right and left
- Paint the Globe
- V-Sit, spend two minutes leaning forward, to the right and left, twisting to the right and left
- Floor Angels
- Spinal Twist
- Spinal Twist
- Calf Stretch
- Prone Inner Thigh
- Quad Stretch
- Cross-Legged Sit
- Reverse Prayer Hands
- Change legs in Cross-Legged Sit
- Finger Stretch
- Strap Stretch
- Psoas Release