Junk Food Walking

Junk Food: Something you eat that provides short-term satisfaction at the expense of long-term health.

Junk Movement: A way of moving that provides short-term fitness benefits at the expense of long-term health.

Food, like movement is a complicated issue. I hope that by this point in your internet-reading career you understand the difference — at least in principle — between whole food and junk food. Fresh, organic, unprocessed foods are now recognized in many circles as superior to their preserved, extended shelf-life, highly processed counterpart. Then, to make matters even more complicated, it turns out that even fresh, organic foods (like grains) eaten extensively and repeatedly throughout a lifetime aren’t so hot either.

Junk food does have a place though. For example, if a starving population were in need of calories and junk food was the only thing available, then junk food would be a short-term solution by providing this population with energy. While the benefits of junk food pale (pale pale) in comparison to benefits from a diet rich in varying, naturally occurring whole foods, there are undeniable short-term benefits. Of course most of us aren’t starving. Instead, we have a serious convenience habit. Our desire for “quick and easy” as well as inexpensive food has led us to a habit of selecting junk food out of preference. We reap the short term energy benefit while paying the biological tax of decreased health and/or longevity.

You can apply this model to movement as well. For most of us time limitations have eaten away the space in our lives for the all-day, life-long varying whole-body movement required for biological function. In lieu of a “natural movement” diet, we partake of short, daily bouts trying to manipulate variables so that we might create a similar effect, in 60 minutes, to what we would have gotten over a 24-hour period. Exercise is convenient, for sure, but it can also be a highly processed version of what our body requires from movement. Exercise can fall way short of the nutrients movement provides. In short, exercise is the junk food of moving.

(Uh-oh, I think I may have just lost a lot of you, but please hang with me! At least to the end of the post.)

Most of us think we eat food to feed our body, but really the eating of food is to fuel the process of feeding oxygen to cells. It is the movement of oxygen through the walls of the capillary and into the cells surrounding that area. Movement is essential to that cellular feeding process and there are movement habits that deliver oxygen more so than others. Said another way: You can sit in a bed and have excellent-quality food brought to you every single day, and your cells will still die sooner than later. Why? Because movement is the vehicle for cellular feeding.

The body’s movement requirements are very specific as every muscle drives it’s own circulation. “Exercise” tends to improve circulation through the main arteries, but they way we do it, hundreds of muscles go unused. The key to long-term health requires circulation in the tiniest of the blood vessels — the capillaries. Most people have learned that the heart does all the work of the circulatory system. What is seldom taught is that each muscle (and you’ve got over 600 of them), when it is used, pulls blood out of the artery and into the capillaries in every muscle’s area.

We currently live in a movement-drought. Yes, even regular exercisers are essentially sedentary compared to the quantities and qualities of movements used by our ancestors. Which is why a daily bout of exercise doesn’t get you a ticket out of heart-disease town when you are still for the bulk of the day. Exercise in a movement drought absolutely serves a purpose, but what we are failing to recognize collectively is the way we are choosing to move is “junk food movement.”

Exercise programs vary greatly, some of them more processed that others. Equipment can be a dead giveaway. I’d like to point out that sometimes equipment can be used to help reach a body-part otherwise unreachable due to the modern jungle we now live in. And sometimes that equipment is simply used, over and over again (like some grains I won’t mention) simply because we like it and find it convenient.

Which brings me to the topic of treadmill desks. “Tread desks” seem to be the new thing when it comes to getting more aligned with all-day movement. As I have written before, though — treadmills create what is essentially the reverse of the human’s natural reflex-driven (movement initiatives stored in your brain) gait program. Which might not seem to be a big deal if you are thinking in terms of exercise science. It’s a huge deal though when you are evaluating with biomechanical science.

Exercise science reduces enumerable benefits of movement into primarily metabolic ones, like calories burned, heart rate, blood pressure. Of course, in most cases, moving in any way trumps not moving at all. But what is often left out in the over-simplified presentation of exercise for the masses is, there are biomechanical benefits to movement that are missed when you partake of junk food walking (on the treadmill) instead of actual human walking.

Yes, I said it: treadmill walking is the junk food of walking. As with processed food, the use of a treadmill removes much of the biologically beneficial “movement vitamins” and replaces them with empty fillers, some of them actually doing harm over time. In my upcoming book, I’ll go into the evaluation process more deeply, but for for a quick read, this is a short sample of the biomechanical differences between treadmilling and walking:

  • The belt of a treadmill reverses natural gait from one that is posterior-driven (using the contraction of the posterior pelvic, hip, and thigh muscles to move forward) to one that is hip-flexion (using the psoas and quads). This means that there is no longer a natural balance to pelvic floor activity, slowly creating a situation where the pelvic floor can generate hypertonicity. Treadmill gait patterns call on body-position programs similar to the ones used for sitting all day.
  • Reversing the use of the legs reverses reciprocal arm swing. The naturally posterior driven swing of the arm aiding in balancing the rotations to the spinal column, stabilizing the shoulder girdle, and moving the lymph in the axillary (armpit/breast) tissue is reversed. On a treadmill, arm swing is muscularly similar to computer/driving arms. And, if you’re actually working and/or typing while you tread, the muscles down the spine must fire excessively to pick up the work of the arms.
  •  Your head is still, relative to the environment, despite your moving limbs. This is so confusing to your brain, your brain automatically resets proprioceptive information to match your environment. Have you ever gotten off a treadmill only to feel like you are walking a million miles a minute? Perplexed at new data (I’m moving my arms and legs in my regular gait, but no visual input is streaming past my eyes), your brain concludes that you must be walking very, very slowly. Then, when you get off, still running the treadmill data, the streaming of info past your eyes leads to your brain to conclude that now you are walking really fast! Your brain and body have a temporary disconnect because the info just doesn’t add up.
  • And speaking of mind-body connection — your treadmill desk decreases the cerebral benefits that come from somatic movement. You’re not paying attention to walking because the surface and pace never provide anything for your body to react to. After doing the same movement for a couple of minutes, your brain switches from running a regular motor program (through your motor nerves) to an inter-neuron process. Lack of variability is “hypnotizing” (for lack of a better word) and zoning out away from your body is likely. If you’re watching TV or the internet, then it’s unlikely you’ll maintain an awareness of your choice of movement.
  • You’re indoors. (Although, you might have an outdoor treadmill. Does anyone out there have an outdoor treadmill?) We rarely consider are all of the teeny muscles in our skin that work in response to environmental conditions. These skin-muscles atrophy in response to stagnant air and unvarying conditions throughout a lifetime. They need to respond regularly to keep their tone!

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer here (I’m actually quite fun at parties!), but I think we’re missing the critical point that exercise, as we know it, doesn’t work in the way we’ve led ourselves to believe it does. Is it better to do the treadmill in lieu of doing nothing? I don’t know, frankly. If I say “Yes,” then many people will feel like I’ve given a nod of approval to jumping on the treadmill whenever life (or weather) seems too tough to rearrange. If I say “No,” then many feel paralyzed to move at all when life seems too tough to rearrange. In the end, the bigger picture to see is we feel trapped by our life. And this is the underlying factor to most health outcomes, I’m afraid. What I will say is, I encourage you to start viewing life’s unchangeable obstacles as entirely changeable. No, it’s not convenient, and yes it takes effort. But effort is the very thing we are trying to get back to. So there’s that.

The time constraints of a modern lifestyle play heavy on our choice to consume junk movement. I understand this, personally, all too well. But the presentation of information like the differences between natural and unnatural movement shouldn’t go away because people are too busy to move naturally. The reason we strive to replace exercise (processed moves) with natural movement is the same reason we strive to replace processed food with whole food. Your body and all its biological processes simply run better.

Here’s my new t-shirt idea:

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 3.18.47 PM

Moving “better” takes just as much work as eating better. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for junk food movement. It’s fun. And convenient. But it’s not the stuff health is made of. And, as with all healthy decisions, the “missing time” in our day will likely need to come via working less, being on the internet (Facebook*, Facebook, Facebook) less, etc. I wish there were another way, but the answer to all the big questions (health, family, fuel consumption, global environment) simply comes down to doing less. Such a challenge.

P.S. My 30-day Facebook break was a huge change in habit, but I survived and my body thanked me…immediately!

*You should totally come visit our Facebook page.

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39 thoughts on “Junk Food Walking

  1. Thank you for this commentary. I have become committed to walking my young dog in all weather through my neighborhood. I am grateful that my dog makes me get out and move. (I may even try interval running with him). So I don’t have to feel guilty about abandoning the gym or our home elliptical machine….THANKS!

  2. Except for the fact that I wish people would stop using the term “Debbie Downer” (my sister is a huge abuser… hmmm..) I really am thankful for this post. I will immediately refer people to this post 32 times a day. Thank you!!! “But effort is the very thing we’re trying to get back to.” YES!!

  3. I like this post. Exercise is how you live you life, not what you do for an hour a day. That’s kind of serious.

    On a the other hand, how about a “fit person’s entrance” to a building to go along with the wheelchair entrance? There would be low hanging branches, uneven terrain, etc. 🙂

  4. So my plan to grow a garden that I have to (gasp) walk down the hill to is going to benefit my muscles AND my plate? Once I actually get things to grow in it, that is. Frost bit my lettuce 🙁
    I have totally felt that confused brain thing, where it’s like the world is running past you- but not.
    I am trying to get up the nerve to have a Facebook hiatus again. I go off, come back again, give it up and come back begging every couple of months. I’m guessing my body and mind would thank me though. Great post!

  5. I do try and walk outside where possible but on days where I can’t is there any other type of exercise that gets the Katy seal of approval?!

  6. I have read from Katy in the past that walking and squatting properly to your ability (not doing lots of squats as reps) at least keeps the body moving inside the house on snow days 🙂 We don’t have those in my part of CA so I have no excuses….)

  7. Another great article. I shared the link with some treadmill-addicted friends. Love all your articles. Thank you for all sharing all this great information.

  8. I always felt that a tread mill was like a Tilt a Whirl but not as much fun. Thanks for the insight and analogy to junk food. So, what is your top five for whole food exercise/movement? As a ballet and African dancer and downhill skier, I hope dance and skiing are among them.

  9. A treadmill desk is better than being trapped in a chair in front of a monitor, and a treadmill is better than sitting on the couch watching TV, as plenty of studies have shown. Not everyone has the luxury of a granola and hiking lifestyle. I disagree with your observations regarding arm swing, detrimental brain confusion and hypertonic locomotion patterns but if you cite the study you are quoting I will stand (as well as walk slowly with an exaggerated Alexander Technique stride and run at intermittent speeds on an incline with appropriate cooldown) corrected.

    Sandy

    1. There is a happy medium between “being trapped in a chair” and using a treadmill desk which is simply to stand while you work. I have my laptop on an elevated surface and feel well-energized by standing at my computer, even for long stretches. It’s not walking or being outside, but I am actively engaging my body and feel far better than if I were sitting. And, even if the reasons Katy cites aren’t enough, common sense would dictate that doing the exact same motion on the exact same surface for hours at a time will have a wear and tear effect on the body. Do movements that are unnatural to the body repetitively for hours and the wear and tear will be even more pronounced.

      “Not everyone has the luxury of a granola and hiking lifestyle…” .

      It would seem that something about Katy’s post has really struck a chord with you. I, for one, am completely and totally envious of the fact that Katy lives somewhere hikable but I know that she and her significant other have made thoughtful, lifestyle choices that have put them in that position. Again, not totally within reach for everyone, but is that any reason to begrudge her? Because, after all, it is totally and completely possible to live life in an active, energetic, movement-filled way in an urban setting. Granted, it won’t completely mimic our ancestors, but it is better than nothing.

      Most people make hundreds of choices every single day to minimize their movement. I am sure it’s some mechanism that we possess to conserve energy. But I try to be mindful of when I am making those choices and stop making them. For example, when I sit on the floor or stand up from that position, I try not to use my arms to hold onto something. I load my hips to unload the dishwasher. I try to get a full range of motion in my knees when I go down to pick up toys off the ground. If I see a set of monkey bars, I hang. You get my drift.

      I like to think of it as moving mindfully throughout my day, and who couldn’t use a little bit more of that?

      Thanks to Katy for writing this. I have been very dismayed at the popularity of the treadmill desks as of late by some of the big time Paleo folks, because it seems so at odds with the notion of natural movement.

    2. I would love to know Katy’s take on the stride you have described, Sandy; this sounds a lot like the way I use my treadmill desk. I alternate standing on the treadmill, sitting on an exercise ball, and walking on the treadmill at around .6kmph using a push back motion with my back leg and a pelvic listing movement to bring the leg forward again. I am hopeful that this is not only less junk than most junk food, but also possibly doing me some good.

      The question is whether I’d have bought the treadmill at all had I read this post first!

  10. Follow up question. Would a non-electric powered treadmill be the same? It seems if the treadmil was only powered by you, you would have to use your posterior muscles to “push” the belt back behind you, whereas with a powered treadmill, the belt is moving foward and you are falling into your steps?

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! I’ve known/felt for ages that ‘exercise’ is so wrong, so unnatural ……. Running around, dancing, playing — damn, even housework & gardening — that’s what it’s all about. I’ve been telling my students for a while that (I believe) exercise is an artifice that’s been created to try & simulate what we’re missing by spending so much time sitting -work, cars …… And treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes (most) – don’t get me started …….

    Another important aspect, I think, in connection with treadmills, is the slight ‘bounce’ effect. You’re not getting a true reading of the effect of your feet/ weight coming into contact with the ground, which our brains expect to to be stable. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake the mental realization that the ground is not stable under you is huge. The ground is NOT supposed to do that. Katy – would be interested In your take on the lack of true cognitive feedback from this perspective …..

  12. I took part in a study a year ago & had to go to the gym & do treadmill or elliptical 3 times a week for a few months. I thought I was going to lose my mind …….

  13. Thanks for this post. I’ve never been a fan of the treadmill, or elliptical or exercise bikes, for that matter… I think the repetitiveness of the movement turned me off, but it wasn’t until reading through REx stuff that I had some scientific back up!
    It’s interesting how defensive some exercisers get regarding their chosen form of exercise; I’ve been a Pilates Instructor for 13 years, and I can go on for days of its benefits, but I also know its limitations. If you enjoy the treadmill (or jogging outside, for that matter), great… just don’t kid yourself that pumping away at the pavement in your 2 inch high Nikes has nothing to do with your massively tight IT bands, your knees are shot, you have plantar fasciitis and you pee when you sneeze. Ahem. BUT do what you LOVE… just recognize its limitations.

  14. I wonder if there is happy medium of sorts or other way of looking at this. Clearly it can be argued that it is more beneficial to move our bodies in the natural environment and not use a treadmill. I think you have sufficiently argued that, but what I’m wondering about are the things that may prevent people from following this suggestion. Is is really that it’s just “inconvenient” and that our sedentary lifestyles have become habit. That may certainly be what it is for some people, but for others there may be more to it. I guess I’m thinking about the practical aspects for many people. Childcare care comes to mind of course too. It may be much easier for a mother to run on a treadmill as opposed to pushing her child in a stroller (which I have to say when my kids were little I seriously hurt my upper body doing this). I also wonder about where women feel safe running. I know in several ways I have felt “safer” running in a gym than being the only one on an outdoor track or road early in the morning or it’s still dark. For the record, I personally regularly run outside and definitely prefer that to a treadmill, but again I’m just wondering if a treadmill may be a better option than not walking or running at all. I see your point about not wanting to say that it is better than doing nothing for fear that it would give people a free pass to just resort to this but I guess what I worry about is people that may read this and instead through in the towel entirely. Again I am curious about how others may take this and really what their motivations may be for using a treadmill or what their fears may be when it comes to getting outside more.

  15. “But effort is the very thing we are trying to get back to. ” Amen to that, sister. We are much too inclined to, and good at, making things convenient or easy.

  16. You don’t have to do effort if you use a rebounder. I started at age 52, sedentary and obese, and now, at age 57, I have for some years been able to outhike, on hills, my conventionally exercising friends. I just bounce to music for 15 to 30 min. a day on the best rebounder.

  17. All I know is this.. I have never felt my abs engage on their own.. Without me engaging them myself … On a treadmill or any other machine, or ever really. Until I started getting my self aligned with the help of Katy… Mostly for free….and now when I stand or walk my abs automatically kick in with out me forcing them to. It just feels more natural and Pretty awesome. I didn’t need this article 🙂 because I am selling mine at my next yard sale. The only feeling I got on that elliptical was a numb foot and boredom. So whatevs.

  18. Nicely written. Thank you. I am lucky in that I have time, 20 min every other week, to make my granola and have opportunity to walk everywhere. I do feel for people living in large cities though. With all the pollution and security issues, I wonder if these outweigh the other benefits of health by walking outside. I think this is going to be my new slogan HEALTH BY WALKING. Back to what I was saying, a varied indoor movement program may be equally possible, say swim a few times, I don’t know, box a bit, cycle a little, walk up and down the stairs, swing down the corridor on monkey bars, etc. You get the idea, lots of movement spread during the week, changing all the time.

  19. Youve explained in detail how it’s different than the real thing (running outside) but you haven’t demonstrated how it’s not beneficial. What studies prove any ineffectiveness of treadmills?

  20. Yo, Katy back in excellant form after taking some down time.

    This is so timely for me.

    This week my husband and I were reviewing what kind of damage we might have inflicted on our poor unsuspecting bodies by the year we actively did the Nautilus Machine thing. Worse than “junk movement” I’m sure – maybe out right tearing down. Oh those poor joints.

    By the comments I can see some people are still a bit “fuzzy” on this concept. My suggestion is keep on tuning in, read some archived info, use some common sense (huh, wa’s that?), and don’t stay with what you do just cause you are doing it and like it.

    My morning calf stretches and standing (in alignment) at my computer keep me on track to working alignment into my everyday actions. Taking advantage of the local B.E.A.C.H. alignment studio helps too.

  21. So much wonderful information in this post in how to lead a healthier life!! It just makes so much sense. All we can do is our best as we live our lives, becoming more aware of our choices and the consequences they have on us. Small changes in our movement habits go a long way….. And who knows that could be just the beginning

  22. So when injuries adversely affect movement (or prevent it in the case of hanging) and measures to recover from injury (like staying off the injured joint(s)) have unintended consequence for the rest of the body, what then?

  23. hello, thank you for this article. would the same discrepancy exist between movement/visual input on a stair stepper?

  24. Very thoughtful and insightful post! Immensely witty and smart writing!

    What do you think about Fascial Fitness? Huge strides continue to be made by the Fascial Research Congress about the significance of the web-like complex of fascia in every human body. No longer is it viewed as just ‘packing material’ of the body, but it is an integral biological fabric that is always changing when we move and exercise. More and more of these courses are popping up throughout the globe and it’s a very exciting time for us health and wellness practitioners.

    Thanks for your awesome writing….

    Best,

    Minki Kim

  25. I had been considering a treadmill desk until I read this article. Someone asked earlier in the comments, but I would also like to hear the authors take on manual driven treadmills. Thanks!

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