It shouldn’t be news by now that most of us aren’t moving anywhere near enough. There are good reasons why we, as a species, have chosen the way of the sloth. First, it’s comfortable. And second, we have spent most of the past century inventing technologies that make movement unnecessary. Unlike almost all of the other creatures on the planet, we are now in a position where we barely need to shift our bodies to find food, stay entertained or even find mates. Most of it can be done sitting down and occasionally moving our thumbs.
Yet while we (stiffly) pat ourselves on the back for having the brains to make this happen, we are missing something important. The brain evolved not for us to think but to allow us to move – away from danger and towards rewards. Everything else, from our senses to our memories, emotions and ability to plan ahead, was bolted on later to make these movements better informed. Moving is at the heart of the way we think and feel. If we stay still, our cognitive and emotional abilities become seriously compromised.
Studies suggest that both self-esteem and pro-social behaviour tend to be lower among people who spend more time sitting and that sedentary time is linked to a greater risk of anxiety and depression. Although it isn’t clear which comes first, the sitting or the depression, physical activity is well known to be helpful in relieving symptoms of both conditions, so it stands to reason that a sedentary lifestyle is not ideal for anyone at risk of, or already dealing with, mental health issues.
Cognitive skills, too, take a hit when we sit. Being sedentary for long periods is the enemy of focused attention, memory and planning ability and puts an unnecessary lid on our creativity. A recent study of young Finnish schoolchildren found a significant relationship between the amount of time spent sitting and achievement in standardised maths and English tests over the course of two years, particularly among boys. The rot sets in at an early age, and if we do nothing about it, sitting still becomes a lifelong habit.
Ultimately, whether you are looking for more brain power, to feel more connected to others or just more in control of your life, the message from all corners of science is coming through loud and clear: this is no time to be sitting around.
Seven Keys of Expert Movers
A sensible first step is to look at some of the common themes that kept recurring in expert movers. And there were many – at times it felt as if people were trying to do exactly the same thing through very different methods. In many ways they were – because many forms of mind-altering movement tend to tap into the same key body–mind hotlines. Hit all of these spots and you can move however you like and reap the same benefits.
1) Defying gravity
Forget fancy gym equipment: human bodies were built to work against the downward pull of gravity. Putting weight on your bones and moving stimulates the release of osteocalcin from the bones, which boosts memory and overall cognition and may reduce anxiety.
Moving – and resting – in a way that doesn’t involve collapsing in a heap (kneeling, squatting, sitting upright without leaning) also keeps the core working – with potential benefits for a strong stress response as well as slightly less spongy abs. And when working against gravity to move, compression on the soles of the feet helps blood flow around the body more efficiently – potentially providing a boost to the brain.
Moving your weight around also strengthens the muscles, adding to a sense of confidence and self-esteem and, when moving forwards, takes you physically and mentally to a better place.
Humans are social creatures and our movements provide a powerful way to bond with others, particularly when done in groups. Brain-imaging studies have found that students working in groups begin to synchronise their brainwave patterns when they collaborate, and early research hints that the same happens when we dance. We already know that moving to music synchronises individual brains to the beat, and that moving together blurs the boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, making people more likely to collaborate. So it makes sense to do some form of movement that involves synchrony, whether it be dance, drumming, tai chi or a group exercise class. All these will potentially do the same thing – make us feel connected to each other. Or, if you are physically alone and feeling adrift, getting into the ‘groove’ by moving to music (even just nodding along) can help to bring the world just a little bit closer.
3) Survival skills
You don’t have to swim across rivers, climb trees for coconuts or start throwing spears at unsuspecting rabbits, but taking your body through the kind of movements it was built for makes you feel pretty good. The emerging links between fascia, stretching and mobility and a health immune system suggest that moving in the full human range of motion will keep fluids moving through the body as they should, in ways that could keep mood-sapping inflammation at bay.
This could involve slow, fluid motions, like a gentle swim or taking a good stretch-and-limber to prepare the joints to move. Or more explosive running, jumping and throwing – movements that release stored energy and frustrations all in one go. In times of stress, making use of our species’ well-developed throwing skills is a great way to let off steam. If you don’t have a dog to throw sticks for and don’t fancy baseball or cricket, there are now places you can go to learn to throw axes for fun. Try it, it might just help.
4) Belly–nose control
Not a new yoga move, but the ability to move your diaphragm at a rate of six breaths per minute, while breathing exclusively through the nose.
Whatever rate you breathe at, whether you focus on the breath for alertness, slow it down a bit for relaxation or a lot to reach an altered state of consciousness, only nasal breathing allows your brainwaves to synchronise with the breath, offering a fast track to an alternative state of mind.
Plus, there is evidence that inhaling deeply can help both focus and memory while increasing the amount of oxygen flowing around the body. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, avoids all these benefits and contributes to bad breath and tooth decay.
The need to take the mind out of the head and put it back in the body is a theme that links pretty much all movement research to improved overall well-being. It works because focusing on the body forces you into the present and brings attention to bodily sensations that may signify the need for action.
Research is starting to reveal that moving while focusing on the body provides many of the same benefits as high-intensity exercise but, unlike Zumba, circuits or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can be done by anyone, young, old, able-bodied or less so.
This suggests that some form of slow, quiet and deliberate movement that is done with the express intention of listening in to your body is an important foundation for any movement plan. It might sound a bit New Age to some, but it’s essential to remind yourself that you are not a brain on legs, but a fully integrated mind–body beast. And that beast can’t run on thoughts – or mindless iron-pumping – alone.
6) Free your mind
This is the exact opposite of embodiment, and involves unleashing the mind from the body and allowing yourself to just ‘be’. Thanks to the strange-but-true world of brainwave entrainment, rhythmic movements are your friend. When our attention is fixed on the beat, the body moves along with very little conscious effort, and this temporarily unshackles the mental from the physical. The trance-inducing effect of moving to a beat was the way we got out of our minds before we had chemical alternatives, and it still works as well as it ever did.
For a lower-key version of the same thing, running or walking, or in fact any rhythmic repetitive movement – cycling, skiing or anything that you can do well enough to do without thinking – is as vital to our well-being as any other form of rest. It is the easiest way to use your movements to access the kind of creativity that usually shows up only at the most inconvenient times, like when we are in the shower or drifting off to sleep. Do it alone, let your mind wander and marvel at the weird and wonderful things that bubble up.
7) Learning through doing
Our culture tends to equate learning with sitting, but we are built to learn on the move. By taking our bodies through the movements they were made for, we open our minds to new ways of understanding the world and what we can achieve within it.
However you get your movement, feeling strong, agile and in control of your body is a potent source of self-confidence and belief, an antidote to anxiety and a short-cut to feeling better in general. Whether you get there via greater strength, balance or rhythmic movement, the implicit knowledge that your body is fit for life is well worth the time and effort.
Now for the difficult part: finding room in your life to fit it all in. Given that we’re all rushed off our feet, perhaps the easiest way to do this is to forget finding more time to exercise and instead build more movement into your everyday life.
So, what to do? Standing desks and even desks with treadmills or exercise bikes attached are starting to make an appearance in more enlightened businesses. Walking meetings are also becoming a thing, but that only really helps if you’re senior enough to push for them – and for the kind of meeting that doesn’t require note-taking. As for choosing to stand while watching TV, or walking around during the adverts, if you can keep to that for more than one evening then you’re a stronger person than me.
Changing the habits of a lifetime is hard. And, as the behaviour-change psychologist Theresa Marteau, of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, recently told the only environment we really have control over is the home.
Psychology studies suggest that we make so many of our decisions more or less in our sleep – reacting to unconscious cues and doing without thinking. Which means that the only way to bring more movement into everyday life is to change your home environment to the point where you can’t help but move more.