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:
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.