One holiday tradition that isn’t often acknowledged is the moment people begin publicly proclaiming their exercise ambitions for the coming year. In between bites of camembert, our colleagues, friends, and family regale us with tales about their impending elite gym membership, marathon training schedule, or hot yoga challenge. Whether you find it annoying or inspiring—it tends to be unavoidable.
Putting aside the paradox of a capitalist culture that all but force-feeds us indulgence during December, and then asks us to spend money to atone for it in January, there is, of course, nothing wrong with self betterment through exercise. But in our fervor for high intensity interval training, Crossfit, and barre class, we seem to forget about exercise’s older, more elemental sibling: movement. In a sense, all exercise is movement; but not all movement is exercise.
According to Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author who is known for her pioneering work in the “movement movement,” our capitalist consumer culture is at least part of the reason we’ve let movement recede from our priorities. In her enlightening book, Movement Matters, she explains how everything we see as a modern “convenience”—a tea bag, a pair of car keys, a laptop—is actually a symbol for the ways we’ve outsourced our movement to someone or something else. The people who grew the tea, processed it, stuffed the teabag, and sold it in a box so we don’t have to go out in the fields and pick the leaves ourselves—or even go to the trouble of scooping loose leaves in a strainer and then cleaning it out afterwards—is just one tiny example of thousands.
Indeed, it’s easy to berate the family member who never exercises, but what about the majority of us who have outsourced almost all of our movement to convenient (a.k.a. sedentary) options. As Bowman writes: “We can grasp sedentary behavior as it relates to exercise because it’s easy to see the difference between exercising one hour a day and not exercising one hour a day,” Bowman writes. But few of us contemplate the “difference between exercising one hour a day and not exercising the other twenty-three.”
Extreme exercise goals are generally lauded in our achievement-obsessed culture, which is why ostentatious displays of exercise have fueled a wellness industry worth billions of dollars. But let’s be real: few people who aren’t internet influencers can actually retain these intense goals throughout the calendar year. And our ancestors? They probably spent a lot more time “moving” than “exercising” anyway.
“Exercise is one type of movement, that due to the structures of our life, can typically be done for a single daily bout. This single bout of movement in an otherwise sedentary life doesn’t fully meet our need for movement,” Bowman told Quartzy. “This year, instead of only resolving to exercise, recognize that throughout each day are opportunities to move in small but frequent amounts that add up to decreased sedenterism overall.”
Indeed when compared to exercise, movement is a humbler, subtler, and easier practice to implement in dozens of ways throughout our day. Though you can’t brag about your #gains on Instagram after getting off the train one stop early every day, you can slowly but surely change your physical life by turning micro choices into an aggregate habit. What follows is the Quartzy guide to movement—in just some of its varied and nourishing forms—with some input from the experts.
I’m guessing you’re reading this on a screen right now. Keeping your eyes, chin and chest as is, move the back of your head several inches backwards. As Bowman says on her website: “This is an easy adjustment that immediately increases the height of your head, decompresses the vertebrae in your neck, and stretches the small muscles in the head, neck, and upper back.”
As Quartzy told you earlier this year, deep squatting is an “archetypal posture” that a large swath of the planet does on a daily basis, whether they’re cooking by the fire, using a latrine, or taking a rest from manual work. Us office jockeys, on the other hand, almost never do it—and our failure to do so puts us in a “use it or lose it” situation, making the deep passive squat extremely painful for most westerners.
Even if it feels foreign, you can and should incorporate the squat into your life even if just for one or two minutes per day. To start, keep your knees a little more than hip-distance apart and squat as far down as you can. If you’re a beginner and you can’t get your feet flat on the floor, prop up your heels on a rolled up blanket or yoga mat. Put your upper arms in between your inner thighs and think about lengthening your whole spine, from sacrum to neck, lowering your chin slightly. (For extra credit, buy a squatting toilet).
In addition to squatting, there are a number of ways that getting close to the floor can disrupt your linear movement patterns and ground you, both physically and mentally. Tracey Ellis, a London-based yoga instructor and founder of the yoga and wellness brand Shanti Sundays, says that a 10 to 20 minute practice in the morning or evening (or both) is enough. “Simply moving your body through its full range of movement, accompanied by some quiet attention on the breath is enough to put you on the right track for the day,” Ellis says. ”It should be energizing, not exhausting.”
For the morning, she suggests simple poses like a forward bend, runner’s lunge to awaken the hip flexors, and “reverse computer pose,” where you clasp your hands behind your back and stretch the arms away from the body, with the shoulders pressing down. For the evening, she suggests grounding and nervous system-settling poses like bridge pose, supine twists, inversions like supported shoulder stand, and chest opening poses such as laying down with your back draped over a yoga block. If you’re not a bendy yogi, that’s no excuse. Using props (like the soft blocks and yoga bolsters pictured above) are a great way to adjust your practice and meet yourself where you are.
This is so easy, it’s almost a cliche—but it’s for a reason. Walk for all or part of your commute, go to the Starbucks that’s four blocks away instead of one, park in the spot that’s furthest from the shop entrance. Ellis also suggests walking barefoot where you can—such as a park, in your house, or backyard—as a way to physically connect to the earth and change up the physiology of how your feet hit the ground. Bowman also suggests wearing minimal shoes (weather permitting) for the same reason.
Even if we become movement addicts, a certain amount of sitting is unavoidable. What is avoidable is sitting in the same 90 degree pose in a desk chair all day long. So switch things up. Remove your shoes and sit on a couch or office chair in a cross-legged pose. Or put your laptop on a low coffee table and sit cross-legged on a floor cushion. (For more ideas, check out Bowman’s “dynamic house tour” to see how to remove some sitting from your home life, too).
When it comes to healthy forms of movement, it’s helpful to think of what our ancestors did in the days before Amazon, Google, and Apple. A lot of that movement involved carrying stuff—children, fire fuel, foraged food—from point A to B. While it’s possible to have absolutely everything delivered to your door these days (except, maybe, a child), resist the urge at least some of the time. Buy your perishable groceries on your walk home a couple times a week and carry them. Pick up your kid as much as they’ll allow you. Haul your wet laundry across the house and hang it up instead of outsourcing it to an app. These things might be boring, but they’re human. And guess what? So are we. Move accordingly.