Stop exercising and start moving: How movement is superior to exercise
If you only change one thing to improve the quality of your life, do this; start moving and do it all day every day.
Humans are designed to move. If we do not move our bodies do not function properly. Many of our internal processes for growth and repair require movement; your lymphatic system and sweet glands use movement to secrete toxins. Movement helps keep joints properly lubricated. It also warms your muscles to increase your range of motion.
People often equate good health with exercise, but they also equate exercise with pain and inconvenience. Movement, however, is about regularly moving the body throughout the day. Exercise is great but should be seen as an addition to movement, not a replacement for movement.
Every year there is a ritual followed by millions of people. It starts in the early part of January and lasts about 6 weeks. For some odd reason scientists have yet to figure out, people who spent the last five, ten, or more years ignoring the condition of their bodies all of a sudden leap off their couch and proclaim “this is the year I get in shape.” They fill the local gyms to capacity in their brand new exercise attire.
These people have determination pouring from their sweat glands. Their screwed-up faces and grunting sounds are proof of their determination. Soon Facebook swells as well with selfies and bold declarations of beach body perfection, 6-pack abs, and finally fitting into that little black size 9 dress. But like clockwork, 6-weeks in they start dropping like flies in the Autumn heat. “It’s too cold,” they say. “It’s too early. I’ll go tomorrow” they lie. Soon their new yoga pants are at the bottom of the laundry basket where they will remain…until next year.
Why do so many people commit to an exercise program only to quit a few weeks or days into it? One word. Exercise. Movement, by contrast, can be anything you want. Literally, everything counts. Doing laundry, yard work, chasing your toddler around the house to get him dressed. They all count. Movement is simple and natural. It is what your body wants. Feeling a little ache in the morning? It’s not a lack of exercise but a lack of movement.
There is a perception that you have to raise your heart rate until it is thumping like a bass drum at a rock concert, that sweet must pour from your body in order to properly exercise. This no-pain-no-gain definition of exercise is outdated. Not only that, it often leads people to gain rather than lose weight.
“Wait, what did you just say? Exercise can cause you to gain weight? That’s impossible.” Time for a quick lesson in biology. There are two forms of fuel your body uses for its daily energy needs; glucose and fat. Glucose is basically sugar or carbs. It is fast burning but runs out quick, as your body can only store a small amount from the food you eat. This is why athletes following the “carbo-loading” fueling method need to refuel constantly during long endurance races. It is also why most people need to eat 3 meals a day, plus morning coffee and mid-day snacks.
Fat as fuel is totally different. When your body burns fat it burns slow and clean. You don’t have those sugar rush and sugar crash experiences common with glucose as fuel. And get this, the average athlete has enough body fat to run distance for up to 100 hours without refueling. You read that right. Non-stop running for more than 4 days burning only fat. Not that I would recommend it, but WOW, that’s crazy good.
So back to biology. When you raise your heart rate above your aerobic base, more on this later, you burn glucose not fat. Your body goes into a stress mode which instinctively stores fat rather than burning it. Your body is basically saying “we must be in danger and will need to conserve fat for later in case this lasts for a long time.” You can thank your lizard brain for this survival mechanism, but regardless it still plays a key role in how your body burns fuel.
Phil Maffetone is a pioneer in endurance training and exercise physiology. He is credited for rebuilding Mark Allen from an average injury-prone athlete into a 6-time Ironman Triathlon champion. Phil’s first coaching directive to Mark; slow down. You have to train slow to go fast. Phil’s initial work with Mark was to transition his body from a carbohydrate-heavy glucose burner to a fat burner. To do this he had to train him within his aerobic zone. This is not the aerobic zone you may have learned from reading a fitness magazine. Phil’s zone is based on the ideal heart rate zones needed to keep you in fat-burning mode. It is now known as the MAF method and has become the gold standard for elite endurance athletes around the world.
So what does all this have to do with movement? A lot. First of all, you don’t need to move as intensely as you may think. Depending on your general condition, it takes very little excursion to reach your ideal fat-burning heart rate. For most non-athletes, you can reach this level with simple walking.
Years ago I remember finding an article with the title “The best exercise for getting in shape.” I am always looking for the latest discoveries in health and fitness, so naturally, I wanted to know what the best exercise the writer found. Was it Cardio Boxing or High-Intensity Interval Training? Maybe it was something I had never heard of. Eager to learn I dove in. It turns out it wasn’t a new form of exercise. It wasn’t even a new twist on an old exercise. In fact, it was so simple I nearly fell off my chair. The best exercise for getting in shape is the exercise you will do. This is why movement is better than exercise.
What counts as movement? You may be surprised to know that most of what you already do counts. Here are a few of my favorites; going for walks, doing the laundry, vacuuming, yard work, riding my bike, swimming, hiking, or simply standing up from my desk and doing a couple of easy squats. Anything that is not sitting or laying down counts. The key is doing something you enjoy and do it as often as you can.
How much is enough and how much is too much? I like to make sure I move at least once every 20 minutes. In fact, I have a timer on my Suunto watch that reminds me to do at least a minimal movement like stand up every 20 minutes. There is no limit on how much. The more you move, and the more often you move, the better.
Movement should be the foundation of any health recovery or maintenance program. Here are some tips for making movement an important part of your weight loss and maintenance program.
Tips for movement success:
- Tip #1: Track your movement (see details below). Science has proven, anything you track you improve. It is important to know how much you are moving each day. This can be done by simply wearing an activity tracker like a FitBit or other step-counting device. There are those who discount step counting, preferring instead to track heart rate only to measure your level of effort. It is important to distinguish movement and level of effort. Level of effort refers to the intensity or heart rate associated with the activity. Some devices will provide both step counts and level of intensity, but you really only need to count steps. Other feedback is great, but if you are just starting on your journey of optimal health and you don’t want to overcomplicate things, keep it simple and just count your steps. The results will speak for themselves.
- Tip #2: Go slow. If you can’t breathe through your nose or hold a conversation you are going too fast or exerting yourself too much. Slow it down and keep to a comfortable pace. Remember, if you make it uncomfortable you will likely quit. Make it enjoyable by going slow.
- Tip #3: Track your heart rate. It’s hard to know if you are moving within your ideal heart rate so wear a heart rate monitor. These days you can get this feature in most movement trackers like a FitBit or other fitness watch. If you are at the gym on a treadmill, take advantage of their build in heart rate monitor.
- Tip #4: Recover fully. Rest and recovery are as important as movement. Make sure you take time to recover, especially after a longer or heavier days of movement. If you decide to hike a few miles up your favorite mountain trail, make sure to take it easier the next day. Some fitness wearable devices will also tell you how much recovery time you need based on your level of exertion.
- Tip #5: Eat to win. Sticking to a good movement practice is not a replacement for eating well. As I like to say, you can’t outrun a bad diet. Putting in an hour of tennis is not an excuse to eat a carbohydrate and sugar-heavy meal. Remember, food is fuel and food is medicine.
- Tip #6: Sleep well. Sleep is your best recovery practice. A good sleep practice will ensure maximum recovery.
You were born to move. It’s in your DNA. If you don’t believe me just check out these great books on the subject of movement; Designed to Move by Joan Vernikos, The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal, No Sweat by Michelle Segar, and Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman. Now start living and get moving!
Movement Tracker Recommendations:
FitBit – This was my first wearable tracking device. The entry-level model tracks steps and heart rate. Features available in upgraded models include HRV tracking and sleep monitoring. Many are waterproof for the swimmers out there. There are a number of similar wearable trackers, so pick one that fits your lifestyle and budget.
Oura Ring – This beautiful piece of jewelry packs some heavy technology. Oura provides key feedback in 3 main areas; Readiness, Sleep, and Activity. Your readiness score tells you how well your body has recovered the previous day so you know if you should take it easy or go all in. The sleep tracker provides insights into how well you sleep. You can see how long you slept, how much time you spent in REM and Deep sleep, and how much you moved during your sleep. Your activity feedback keeps track of how much and how often you move during the day. Not only will it track your steps, but it will also send you notifications thru the mobile app when you need to get up and move if you have been sitting too long. I have been using an Oura ring for the past year and it has been a game-changer.
Mobile phone apps; all phones these days have activity trackers. They count your steps and frequency of movement just like any wearable. The downside is you have to keep your phone on you at all times, which I would not recommend for completely different reasons. However, if this is all you have and you want to get started tracking your movement right away, go for it. As soon as you start seeing the data, trust me, you will want to take it to the next level. It can be a bit addictive. I like to treat it like a game, competing with myself to get better or continue a winning streak. Whatever works for you, just do it.
Author and Optimize Coach
David is a writer and coach specialing in awakening human potential. David likes to think of himself as a conscious creator, student of life, Super Dad, chef, Spartan Athlete, and Optimize Performance Coach. Writing for Dr. Kusher and the CFL community is just one of his many joys.