“The human body’s evolutionary story is to help understand what our bodies are and are not adapted for” – Evolutionary Biologist, Daniel Lieberman
I’ve just finished reading the book Built to Move, The Ten Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully by Kelly and Juliet Starrett. Since I started my coaching career ten years ago, author and physical therapist Dr. Kelly Starrett has been a guiding source of inspiration. His previous books, podcasts and movement/mobility courses have greatly influenced how I coach, practice and think about human movement. The Starretts’ new book continues to inspire me, but I also highly recommend it to retirees and my Be Resilient community. Their healthy aging message of “use it or lose it” rings loud and clear throughout the pages. As the middle-aged authors state, “everything in this book is geared toward seeing you stay active and well into old age,” because “to be able to keep moving when you’re older, you need to get or keep moving now!” The Starretts are not encouraging us to “exercise” more because that message has fallen on deaf ears for most people. Instead, they give us a healthy movement and lifestyle game plan, summarized as: “10 tests + 10 physical practices = 10 ways to make your body work and feel better”.
This article is not so much a review of the book as it is a plea to awaken our physical selves and to rebel against the pernicious ways of our sedentary culture. As the authors describe in their intro, one of their goals “is to get you to simply get out of a chair more often”. It’s not a coincidence that the first chapter describes the practice of getting down and up from the floor. The authors encourage us to make it a daily habit to get off the couch and spend time sitting on the floor. This ancestral habit is a way to “tune” our bodies and restore the range of motion in our creaky and achy joints. Most older Americans have lost the ability to easily get down to the ground, because our bodies have adapted to lifetime of sitting in chairs. As we age, our sedentary lifestyle contributes to a host of other health problems, including falls, the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults.
This begs the question of how much of the aging process is an inevitable slide into decrepitude, and how much of it is a result of sedentary habits and not using our bodies the way they were evolutionary designed? I literally have a front row seat to share some insight into this question.
My most popular fitness classes at the retirement community where I work part of my week are performed while sitting in a chair. The class was once called “Sit to Be Fit” but I argued to change the name so that it wouldn’t entice those who are capable of walking without assistance, to sit in a chair to exercise. Most who attend my seated classes today have muscular-skeletal issues and come to class assisted by their walking devices. On the other hand, my standing and floor-based exercise classes are not well attended, but those who do attend, including a few in their nineties, walk unassisted into class, strong and steady on their feet, and have no problem transitioning to the floor and back up again. From my perspective it’s easy to see why there’s a discrepancy between the many retirees who are shuffling along, stooped over their walkers, and the few who walk upright with a pep in their step. It all comes back to the “use it or lose it” premise of the Starretts’ book.
Genetics and modern medicine certainly play a role in how long we live, but more importantly, going against the grain of our sedentary culture by being physically active throughout our lives often dictates the quality of life as we age. Many evolutionary biologists posit that for most of human history our ancestral, bipedal bodies were well-adapted to being physically active outdoors most of the day, and are not suitable to spending most days indoors while sedentary. The pandemic has only exacerbated our sedentary ways, worsening our physical and mental wellbeing. Many people are now working from home, which may give us more flexibility to be physically active, but studies show this is not the case. Studies also show that retirees have become more isolated and inactive since the pandemic.
Let me be clear, most people don’t get sick, suffer from chronic pain, and become frail as they age through any fault of their own. Instead, from an early age we are “encouraged, enticed, and even forced” to sit indoors most of the day. Whether you’re a child confined to sitting long hours in a classroom, or an adult deskbound to your job all day, or a retiree who rarely leaves the comfort zone of your house or favorite chair, our culture perpetuates the notion that your body is built to sit, not move. Consequently, our lifelong sedentary habits start to catch up with us in debilitating ways. If we’re fortunate, our early retirement years start out with traveling or engaged with favorite hobbies and recreational activities. But soon our bodies can no longer support us because of years of disuse, hence the popularity of my seated fitness classes.
Is it possible to restore our bodies and reclaim our physical selves from decades of sedentary behavior? I’m onboard with the Starretts in believing so, but it’s first going to take a renegade mindset to go against the norms of our sedentary culture. Why? Because “comfort and pleasure are the two most powerful and immediate rewards that exist”. Case in point: we tend to accept the world around us as normal and fail to realize that what might be easier (taking the elevator instead of stairs), or feel good to us in the moment (spending hours of leisure time on our cushy couch), may actually make us weaker and be detrimental to our longterm health.
We’re all susceptible to the lure of comfort and guilty pleasures,
especially when we’re stressed or our lives are upended from a global pandemic. However, you don’t have to succumb to the temptation of your couch and end up someday being a participant in my seated exercise classes. The Starretts’ book and our Be Resilient fitness and wellness programs can guide you to go against the grain of society’s norms and help rebuild your ancestral body. You’ll not only become a stronger, more mobile and resilient human being as you age, but your healthy deviance can have a profound influence on your family, friends and those in your community.