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Stop exercising and start moving

I’m moving house in T-minus 10 days. So, yesterday, after assembling 35 cardboard boxes, dismantling two bookcases, and sneezing a bunch, I checked the clock. Finally! Time for the most critical moving-related task.

Not a restock of bubble wrap, not the phone call to the utility company, not the change-of-address form. Nope—I grabbed my keys and took off for a 45-minute walk in the woods.

How else was I going to survive the coming weeks?

This is a no-brainer to biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA and Movement Matters: “If you said you needed to eat, no one would blink.” Or go to bed at a decent hour, or rehydrate. Many experts now assert that moving around, constantly, in a variety of ways, throughout the day, is just as elemental to both short- and long-term health.

Kelly Starrett, author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, whose coaching and physical therapy clients include Olympic gold-medalists, calls the fundamentals of being human pretty simple: “We have to sleep. We have to drink water. We should have a healthy gut biome and eat food—and we have to move.”

Moving past the gym

Americans are sedentary—we know this. Most adults spend the majority of the workday either sitting at a desk or standing still, like bank tellers or cashiers do. More than a third of American adults (36.5 percent) have obesity, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, all among the leading causes of preventable death, according to the CDC. Swedish research has linked sitting still for more than 10 hours a day to a 2.5 times higher risk of early death than for people who sit for under 6.5 hours a day.

Sitting isn’t the only problem, though, and that’s the point of this story. It’s also the outdated, distorted way in which we perceive not-sitting—as a compartmentalized cure to be scheduled in, a few times a week.

We call it exercise. “I can't even say the word movement without someone conjuring exercise,” says Bowman. “They don't even know what I mean when I say movement.” An hour at the gym like clockwork, and then we say we’re covered on the physical-fitness front. More and more, though, it looks like we aren’t covered on the biological-fitness front—health.

"I can't even say the word movement without someone conjuring exercise," says Bowman. "They don't even know what I mean when I say movement."

The difference between movement and exercise

It’s time to revise our most basic perceptions of what movement is. Right now, says Bowman, the definitions used to explain human movement—physical activity and exercise—are all linked to caloric expenditure. Physical activity is any movement done by the musculoskeletal system that burns calories. Exercise is a subcategory of physical activity—rhythmic and repetitive, with an intentional component: “By definition, exercise is done for the explicit purpose of improving your physical fitness,” she says.

Calling those definitions archaic, given new understandings of additional benefits, Bowman says: Like stepping on a tune-up ball to mobilize your foot, or using the foam roller on your leg. Such movements don’t quickly or clearly link to weight loss, but you have altered the position of your anatomy, acted with and upon your body.

What’s in a word? A lot, says Bowman—affecting how much we ultimately move. “Our mindset is going to affect our perceptions about where movement can possibly happen in our lives,” says Bowman, “and the effects are inherent in what movements we engage in.” If you start seeing movement as something helpful and good that’s available to you at all times—unlike the gym—then you just might move more and more, until doing so is effortless.

First graders have a better movement vocabulary

Think of your favorite fidgety kid and how they tear through recess. Turns out a lot of traditional childhood games teach fundamental skills. Jacks? Hand-eye coordination in a deep squat. Hop scotch? Single-leg jump, single-leg jump, double-leg, single-leg, turn… Also known as single leg motor control. “Go to any playground and you're gonna see little kids jumping off stuff, looking for diverse physical input, unique and unconscious movement,” says Starrett.

Then we grow up, and most of us end up homogenizing our movement lexicon into sentences that resemble tweets: brief and limited. Sitting on the toilet, walking 2,000 steps a day, sitting at the desk, sitting on the subway or behind the wheel of a car. What’s that, you say? Ah, you’re a champ on the elliptical machine. Unfortunately, says Starrett, the elliptical is a higher-speed version of your limited walk: “What we're seeing is that arms haven't gone over the head, full range of motion of the diaphragm hasn't been achieved, we haven't loaded the achilles, hips haven't been through their full ranges.”

In the midst of commuting and computer-oriented careers, says Starrett, many people are now “training,” which sounds spiffy but inherently means we’re training for something, a “measly” once-in-a-while event “in a life that is barren of non-exercise activity, barren of sport, barren of free movement play.”

Think of movement like a nutrient

Scurvy is a gnarly word for a grave affliction. When British Navy Admiral George Anson set out to circumnavigate the globe in 1740, he lost nearly two-thirds of his crew in under a year. Sailors’ teeth fell out, and their eyesight failed. Now the disease is relatively nonexistent, as the cure is so simple. Back then, though, the need for diversity in the human diet was not widely known.

“There is going to be a point in the future where I believe we understand movement to be like any other nutrient,” says Bowman. Just as you can’t eat only M&Ms—or kale—and expect your body to thrive, with movement too, our bodies require variety.

Just as you can’t eat only M&Ms—or kale—and expect your body to thrive, with movement too, our bodies require variety.

In the West, we tend to pick a sport, this one thing we do, and stick with it. You might win some cool medals, but the losses are grim. “We give up running to start cycling, not realizing that running is good too,” says Gray Cook, physical therapist, kettlebell instructor, orthopedic-certified specialist, and founder of Functional Movement Systems, which promotes the concept of movement pattern screening and assessment. “Most runners lose their ability to squat,” which we should all be able to do for 10 minutes at a time. “They create unnecessary tightness and they lack variety in their movement diet.” Think about our most enduring movement traditions, like wrestling and track and field, all handed down from the oldest Greek athletic groups. “It was the fundamentals of being human,” says Starrett. “Can we throw, can we jump, can we run? That's it.”

So much of health has to do with what we put into our systems, and we’re just beginning to understand the ramifications. The positive health potential is staggering. Sure, most of us grasp that movement is good for our knees, our hips, our hamstring muscles, and other tissues like fascia. But the fact is, say Bowman and Starrett, even the gut microbiome changes with movement.

“Movement can be a potential solution for almost everybody for at least one thing in their body,” says Bowman, including illness and disease we don’t connect to the musculoskeletal system. “I’m excited.”

“You feel better right away”

The benefits of moving and the dangers around being sedentary can seem abstract. Honestly, though, the wins can be swift and palpable.

Long term, science is indicating that when you move more, you live longer. Researchers in Sweden monitored the physical activity and followed the mortality of 1,200 people over 15 years. According to their study, published recently in Clinical Epidemiology, if half an hour of being sedentary is replaced with good old everyday activity, the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease drops by 24 percent. While such studies have tended to ask participants about their activity, this one used motion trackers. Not surprisingly, more intense movement has more intense results: The same study showed that ten minutes of moderate to intense activity a day, like at least a brisk walk, lowered the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease by 38 percent—30 minutes a day lowered the same risk by 77 percent.

If you move more, Bowman expects you to quickly see short-term benefits like better sleep, more energy, and greater alertness during the day.

Learn the alphabet before you “just do it”

I know a writer who got excited after 50 pages of Born to Run, scampered up some near-vertical trails in California three days in a row despite increasing chatter from her left knee, and got off the plane back in New Jersey unable to walk. (Yes, I was an idiot.)

We’re so deconditioned to movement, that even small amounts can hurt at first, even if it’s not an injury, and then we get discouraged. And the social pressure to “just get out there and bang out a few miles” seems really easy, says Bowman… unless you're among the one in four people with foot pain. She invites us to see moving more like writing: “Learn your movement alphabet first, and then start putting more together, and then do simple sentences, and then do creative writing."

To start, ask yourself: What do you want to do that your lack of movement is keeping you from doing? Maybe that’s a triathlon, or maybe it’s comfortably playing on the floor with your kids or grandkids. Aim for simple stuff, Bowman says, “and then eventually even your advanced movement practices go through that filter.”

What do you want to do that your lack of movement is keeping you from doing? Maybe that’s a triathlon, or maybe it’s comfortably playing on the floor with your kids or grandkids.

5 ways to get moving right now

“Activity is a life that moves,” says Cook. These are accessible ways to start moving more right this minute. Put down your phone and...

1. Strengthen your feet and ankles. You've got 33 joints in each foot. If you work on your body but ignore your feet, says Bowman, “your feet are going to throw you under the bus.” In Whole Body Barefoot, Bowman calls out a calf stretch—using a rolled-up towel or a half foam roller—as the one thing she wishes she could get everyone to do, given how crucial our calves (which impact our feet and ankles) are for walking and standing, and how chronically shortened they are by heeled shoes and sitting.

2. Get a Squatty Potty. Starrett says every person should be able to hang out in a squat for at least 10 minutes at a time—effortlessly. With a tagline of “You’re going to heart-emoji the way you poo-emoji,” this toilet stool will get you started. “Most people could easily get their squat back using one of those squatting potties,” says Cook. “Because it's sustainable! You're going to do it every day anyway!” Hopefully.

3. Try the Magic Ten. This is an extremely basic yoga combination of sun salutation, side bends, and gentle backbends and twists that you can do every day in seven to 10 minutes. Basic or not, get thee to an introductory yoga class first for professional instruction. Don’t stress the handstand, either; the author of this story has been practicing for 15 years and still leaves that move out.

Cook is a huge fan of the sun salutation in yoga and the Turkish get-up in kettlebell culture. “These are two very, very easy-to-learn patterns. If you run these circuits every day, you will have covered 80 percent of the things you need to do in a given functional life, and then if you want to go express yourself as a tennis player, or golfer, or hiker, or whatever, you've covered all of your bases.”

4. Breathe. “There are only three forms of exercise that are over 4,000 years old, and each one of them tells you to breathe before you move,” says Cook. “That's the one thing Westerners don't do.” Breathing exercises abound on the web, and of course there are apps—popular ones include Calm, Oak, and Breathe on the Apple Watch. Above all: Don’t hold your breath. Remember to breathe while you’re walking, working, hiking, riding your bike.

5. Walk or dance. Take a stroll down the hall or down the street. Find a staircase and be the one who goes both up and down it. Or fire up Spotify on your phone and dance for three minutes and 47 seconds to Superfruit’s “Bad 4 Us.” Careful with that breakdancing, though.

If you experience aches and pains, look to them as helpful clues. “If certain movements are difficult, pursue them,” says Cook. “If they're painful, then get some help.” (Here’s a directory of Functional Movement Screen practitioners.)

The author moved around regularly during the research and writing of this piece—squatting in the office during interviews and swaggering through the woods in the style of BBC Kid.

Kate Crane splits her time as a content marketing manager between writing for Relate and the Zendesk blog. A longtime New Yorker and veteran of publications including SmartMoney and Time Out New York, she is now based in Silicon Valley—for the trees, not the Teslas or Zuckerberg sightings.