The Lost Art of Natural Movement

Movement and fitness have become optional extras for modern humans.

Most of us now spend the majority of our lives sitting for prolonged periods – at our desks, in our cars, on our sofas.

This prolonged inactivity has been linked to an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and increased all cause mortality. See here and here for some further reading.

Such chronic positioning also has negative impacts on the musculoskeletal system: over time, our bodies adapt subtly to the chair shape, making us unsuited to other less frequently performed movements, and prone to back pain and injury.

Even for those of us who try and exercise regularly, we tend to engage in repetitive activities such as running, cycling or bodybuilding, which can lead to overuse injuries, chronic pain and immobility.

We have become either soft or overspecialized, and have lost the ability to move in the same way as our ancestors, whose very survival depended on their ability to run, throw, carry and fight.

But it wasn’t always this way: look at the way young children play and move. Adults can learn a lot from the way they get up and down off the floor; the way they roll and crawl and climb naturally. Children generally run without heel strike and can squat fully and easily.

At some point in our lives we stopped playing and started sitting, and lost the ability to perform many of these important natural movements: running, jumping, climbing, balancing, crawling, lifting, carrying, throwing and catching, swimming and wrestling.

If you want to see if this applies to you, have a go at some of these basic movement skills at home (I did and was unpleasantly surprised at my lack of mobility):

  • Can you move from standing to sitting on the floor and back up again? How easy is it? Can you get down and get up without using your hands?
  • Can you perform a deep squat, keeping your heels on the floor? Can you hold this position comfortably for 10 minutes?
  • Can you hold yourself in a dead hang from a pole or branch for 30 seconds or more?
  • Can you perform a single pull up from a dead hang? You can? That’s fantastic – how many can you do without kipping (kicking) for assistance?

But does it really matter if we’ve lost the ability to perform these primal movements? After all, we no longer need to hunt down our dinner or be able to outrun predators.

Proponents such as Erwan Le Corre, the developer of MovNat (a fitness system based on natural movements), believe so. He suggests that practicing these innate skills will not only make you a more well-rounded athlete and improve mobility, but also that it has practical application in our everyday lives. In its purest form it will help reconnect us with nature, by training outdoors using the natural environment as our gym when possible.

To illustrate, a beginner’s natural movement workout might look something like this:

3-5 cycles of:

  • Bear crawl 15m
  • Leg swing jump to a precision landing (x 8)
  • Deadlift (x 8) – preferably using a rock!
  • Running at fast speed over 30m
  • Balancing along a 3m long beam (x 8)

Advanced practitioners might progress to doing some of the following:

  • Muscle ups on a pull up bar or tree branch
  • Balancing farmers walk
  • Rope climbs
  • Log carrys

This functional approach to fitness is not new and was the mainstay of earlier versions of physical training in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, which emphasized gymnastic and calisthenic skills, such as the Methode Naturelle created by George Hebert.

What’s clear is that inactivity has become a major problem in our society and we urgently need to move more. But how often do we need to move? How intensively? What movements and exercises are best?

It may be possible to offset the effects of inactivity simply by doing more exercise. This study suggests that 60-75 minutes per day of moderate intensity activity may eliminate the increased mortality associated with sitting.

It’s likely that this is not a realistic option for most people who already struggle to do the recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day; we would perhaps be better off focusing on reducing our sitting time and finding ways to incorporate more movement into our daily routines, whilst still trying to fit in exercise when we can.

Could natural movement and functional fitness help address our inactivity and overspecialization?

The evidence base is limited here, but the idea of relearning natural movement skills makes sense, and the philosophy is appealing, with its focus on performing practical activities rather than repetitive, isolated movements, and a renewed connection to nature. There is certainly mounting evidence that contact with green spaces and natural environments is associated with benefits to mental and physical health.

Natural movement practice won’t appeal to everyone, but it does offer certain advantages: in the beginning it requires little or no equipment, no gym membership, it can be relatively time efficient and provides an interesting, holistic workout, combining both strength and aerobic conditioning.

However, as with other forms of bodyweight training, as you progress, the movements become harder and it helps to have some extra tools such as a pull up bar, kettlebells and a medicine ball, but of course these can be improvised using tree branches, rocks, logs etc if you really want to be strict about the natural ethos!

Finally, if you want some inspiration, check out this master class of natural movement, showing just what human beings are capable of.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKGF-ErsJiI

Low volume marathon training

James_Kirby_2113

This year I’ve decided to attempt the Glencoe Skyline, a 55km mountain run which circumnavigates Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, involving 4700m of ascent with some scrambling/ rock climbing thrown in for good measure. To quote the race organisers ” the nature of the challenge is very severe and there is a risk of serious injury or death whilst participating in the event.” I’m excited and terrified in equal measure.

I’ve done quite a few challenging races in the past, but I’ve never actually run a pure marathon, so it made sense to incorporate one into my Skyline training schedule.

After all, there’s something special about a marathon – not just the challenging distance, but its history – its beginnings with Pheidippides in 490B.C, Spyridon Louis winning the event in the first Olympics of the modern era fortified by local wine, the famous races, the legendary athletes.

First timers like myself inevitably start with a lot of questions about training and nutrition, and the amount of information out there is overwhelming and often conflicting. How many times a week should you run? Should you do any other types of exercise other than running? What is a tempo run? What should you eat before, during and after a race?

It’s highly unlikely that there’s a one size fits all training plan. Ideally we would all have our own coach, who could devise personalised training regimes based on our goals, fitness, physiology, natural abilities, proneness to injuries etc.

But most of us don’t have this luxury, so we have to pick a training plan that sounds reasonable, monitor our performance, experiment with it, and tweak it as our training progresses.

In keeping with my interest in a time efficient, less is more approach to training, I was interested in trying a 3 day a week marathon training schedule, as advocated by some running authorities.

I like the idea of this approach – it seems more achieveable and realistic for the average runner (like myself), and in theory, reduces the risk of injury in the short term. It may also have more of a chance of establishing a lifelong commitment to distance running, than more hardcore training plans which advocate running five or six times a week.

Anyway, here’s how it went:

The plan:

My aim was to get round the course in one piece without getting injured, and use the training as a stepping  stone towards the ultra marathon.

It was a bit of a struggle to find a race that fitted in with work and family commitments and occurred on a date that allowed me enough time to train. Eventually I picked the Lakeland Trails marathon – it sounded great (a loop of Coniston in the Lake District) and it took place about the right time in my training schedule.

I didn’t have the luxury of the usual 4 to 6 month plan, but I thought I had a reasonable base level of fitness, so I found a 10 week plan from a running magazine which advocated 4 runs per week, 2 rest days, with a day of cross training.

training plan

 

The reality:

I work full time and have a young family so I modified the plan to suit. I ran three times a week – I would do an easy 6km run, a 10km run, and a long slow run which was supposed to build to a maximum of 18 miles on week 8. Runs were generally off road on hilly terrain. I tried to add in two sessions of circuit training a week where possible, leaving me two days off.

Training was going well until about 3 weeks away when I developed flu, which forced me to take 10 days off training and so I failed to achieve my long slow run of 18 miles. I never ran further than 14 miles and there was no time for a taper.

On race day itself, I felt I had recovered from my bout of flu and was happy that I could run safely without too great a risk of viral myocarditis. The first half of the race was fine and I felt strong, however my lack of training in the last few weeks eventually took its toll, and the last 10km was particularly grim, and I finished in a slower time that I had hoped.

Given my age and suboptimal training, I expected to feel worse in the days after the marathon, but apart from some knee pain and a bit of nausea on the evening after the race, I recovered better than I thought.

What went well?

Having some sort of plan written down and pinned to the wall was crucial. I stuck to it as far as possible, but didn’t beat myself up if I missed the occasional session through work or other commitments.

I’m a big fan of training as specifically as possible for the event you’re involved in. This was an off-road trail marathon on the fells of the Lake District, so I tried to train in a similar environment.

Learning points

Getting sick was unfortunate, although in retrospect fairly inevitable. It’s highly likely that you’re going to get sick or pick up an injury at some point during your training, so factor this in. Give yourself enough time to train properly, even if you already consider yourself fit.

I like the idea that you can run a marathon using a regime based around only 3 runs per week, however, it doesn’t leave you with much leeway when things inevitably don’t go to plan – like getting sick (or going on a stag weekend the weekend before the race).

Also, once your ambitions go beyond finishing the race in a vaguely respectable time, you’ll undoubtedly need to up your weekly mileage, whilst still focusing on being as efficient and effective as possible during your sessions.

Here are a few other tips I picked up from my first marathon experience:

  • Train as specifically as you can (ideally reconnoitre the course)
  • Every run should have a purpose (hills, speed work, endurance)
  • Factor in set backs – trainer harder and for longer than you might think is necessary
  • Listen to your body

High Intensity Interval Training – is less really more?

We all know exercise is good for us – it helps us lose weight, reduces blood pressure, and increases our fitness levels, which in turn decreases our chance of strokes, heart attacks and premature death. It also makes us feel good.

So why aren’t we all doing the currently recommended prescription of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, 5 times per week?

Firstly, because this isn’t a realistic option for most people, who have other demands on their time, and may also not possess the equipment, facilities, finances or motivation.  Secondly, humans are not logical; we will usually seek the path of least resistance, discounting future benefits (health and longevity) for more immediate ones (pizza and beer).

Traditional endurance exercise prescriptions may well be quite effective, but the reality is that telling people to do 30 minutes of exercise per day, 5 days per week is not helpful, without a major shift in our cultural attitudes and behaviour.

Having said that, there’s an urgent need to incorporate movement and exercise into our daily lives to address the growing obesity and inactivity pandemic.

So what if we could improve our fitness and health by doing simple exercises at home for less than 30 minutes per week?

This is the enticing prospect offered by High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a shorter, more intense version of traditional interval training,  which dramatically reduces the time necessary to achieve meaningful health benefits.

It sounds like a fad, but there’s a growing body of evidence which suggests that it can be effective. Equally importantly, it offers a realistic approach to getting people moving.

So what is HIIT?

High Intensity Interval Training is generally taken to mean repeated bursts of high intensity exercise at or approaching maximal effort, with short periods of rest or low intensity activity in between.

An typical example of a lab based HITT session might involve cycling all-out for 30 seconds followed by 4 mins of recovery, repeated 5 times. This is repeated 3 times per week for 2 to 6 weeks. This equates to 2.5 mins of intense exercise per session and 7.5 mins per week.

Obviously the total exercise time is somewhat longer when you factor in warm up and recovery times, but is still considerably less than the currently recommended 150 mins per week.

These very low volumes of  high intensity training have been shown to improve not only cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by a persons VO2 max, but also metabolic health, as measured by ones glucose control.

What is VO2 max and why should we should care about it?

VO2 max is a person’s maximal oxygen consumption. It can be estimated by putting someone on a treadmill or cycle ergometer and measuring their peak work rate achieved.

It represents your ability to transport oxygen from the atmosphere to your muscles to perform physical work. A chain of events are involved in this process, which involves the lungs, heart, blood vessels, skeletal muscle cells and mitochondria. So V02 max can be thought of as a marker of total body health.

A low VO2 max is associated with heart disease and death, and is a marker of poor health in the same way as traditional risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, small improvements in VO2 max are associated with significant improvements in mortality, with the largest benefits being seen at the low end of the fitness spectrum.

It has even been suggested that VO2 max should be measured routinely in health checks in the same way as other vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, weight etc.

Does HIIT actually work? What’s the evidence?

A growing body of research exists to support the effectiveness of HIIT in producing beneficial physiological changes in the cardiovascular, metabolic and skeletal muscle systems, even after short periods of low volume training.

A number of such studies have come from McMaster University in Canada (for example see here and here). They suggest that HIIT regimes can be as beneficial as traditional endurance training in improving exercise performance and other markers of health (VO2 max, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity), despite involving considerably less time commitment.

However, there are limitations to the general applicability of this research, because to date, the studies generally involve short term, laboratory based training programmes on small groups of young, active people.

And many questions still remain unanswered, such as the optimal intensity and volume of HIIT regimes to achieve worthwhile benefits, whilst still being practical and tolerable to the average person.

How low can you go?

The investigators at McMaster compared a very brief HIIT protocol with a traditional endurance protocol. The HIIT regime involved 3 lots of 20s sprints on a cycle ergometer, within a 10 minute session including warm up and cool down.  The traditional endurance regime consisted of 50 minutes of moderate intensity cycling. The sessions were performed 3 times per week over 12 weeks. Markers of cardiometabolic health (V02 max, insulin sensitivity, muscle mitochondrial content) improved to the same extent in both groups.

Martin Gibala, a professor of Kinesiology at McMaster, who is responsible for a number of studies on HIIT, suggests that the one minute protocol described above (3 x 20s sprints), is likely to be the lowest effective workload. Indeed this has led to him co-writing a book on HIIT, teasingly entitled the One Minute Workout.

A recent meta-analysis (research which combines data from similar studies) suggested that sessions involving even fewer sprints (e.g., 2 rather than 3) are associated with greater improvements in vo2 max.

So how do the likes of you and me put it into practice?

Most of the studies on HIIT involve sprints on a cycle ergometer or treadmill. I don’t possess either of these and have no desire to, and neither, I imagine, do the majority of people. I’m also not a gym goer, although I appreciate many people find them useful. The whole point of doing HIIT, as opposed to more traditional exercise, is, in my opinion, that it offers a solution to the barriers that prevent many people exercising in the first place, namely time, money and opportunity.

So we need more pragmatic solutions for engaging in HIIT.

One option would be to simply work interval training into your daily routine. For example, if you are out walking then you could simply pick up the pace for short periods, or walk up hills, or take the stairs more often.

Alternatively, the method I’ve found to be interesting and practical is High Intensity Circuit Training (HICT) – there’s no special equipment required here, it can be performed anywhere, using body weight as resistance.

Probably the best known example of a HICT regime is that designed by Brett Klika and Chris Jordan, who published this practical article in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal. Their seven minute workout was popularised by the New York Times and has spawned a number of apps which guide you through the circuit.

Their workout combines both aerobic and resistance training in a series of exercises that takes 7 minutes to complete. The circuit consists of 12 stations, designed to exercise all the major muscle groups and achieve a balance of strength throughout the body. Ideally they should be performed in the following order to allow opposing muscle groups enough time for recovery:

  1. Jumping Jacks
  2. Wall sit
  3. Push ups
  4. Abdominal crunches
  5. Step ups
  6. Squats
  7. Triceps dips
  8. Plank
  9. High knees running on the spot
  10. Lunge
  11. Push ups with rotation
  12. Side plank

 

Each exercise is performed for 30 seconds at maximum intensity, doing as many reps as you can, with 10 seconds of rest between exercises.

Does it work? The bulk of the evidence for the benefits of HIIT compares sprint interval training using cycle ergometers with more traditional moderate intensity endurance training. I’m not aware of as many studies that compare low volume high intensity circuit training (ie. 7 minute workouts) to more traditional workouts (but here’s one). However, provided you’re exercising fairly vigorously there seems no reason why HICT shouldn’t provide similar benefits in terms of cardiorespiratory fitness.

Purely anecdotally, I’ve been doing HICT for a few months now and subjectively I’ve noticed improvements in my fitness levels. By that I mean, the exercises now seem much easier and I can push myself harder, to the extent I’ve started substituting some of the easier exercises for harder ones (e.g. lunges —> jumping lunges, plank —> mountain climbers, jumping jacks —> burpees).

So what are the pros and cons of HIIT? 

HIIT is certainly a time efficient form of aerobic exercise and studies suggest that it’s effective at improving cardiorespiratory fitness and insulin sensitivity.

However, we should keep in mind that these are generally small, short, lab based studies on younger people without significant health problems, so we shouldn’t over-extrapolate the findings.

It’s also not immediately obvious how best to maintain interest and make progress in the long term, once you’ve reached a certain level of fitness. How do you modify the regime? More circuits? Longer sprints? Less recovery time?

Nonetheless, despite these issues, anything that helps people to get moving and exercise regularly is a really exciting prospect both for individuals and at a public health scale.

HIIT is not going to appeal to everyone however, and there will be some people who are put off by the discomfort involved. That’s fair enough –  exercise should be enjoyable, not unpleasant. There are plenty of other options around. HIIT is by no means the only game in town, it’s just time efficient.

Experiment and find an activity that interests and excites you. Or try and incorporate exercise into your daily routine – taking the stairs, walking or cycling to work, run on the spot while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, chase around after your kids/ grandkids.

Finally, because of the high intensity nature of this type of training, it’s really important for anyone who is overweight, deconditioned, elderly, injured or with comorbidities such as high blood pressure or heart disease to seek medical advice before starting HIIT. While these are the groups that could potentially benefit most, it’s crucial that they approach HIIT in a sensible, graded way, tailored to their needs and background.