In this episode, we discuss:
- What movement, exercise, and physical activity means
- What’s causing the growing epidemic of sedentary behavior
- How you can incorporate more movement into the things that you’re already doing in your life and find ways to prioritize it
- Why variation is important in the types of movement that you’re getting
- The consequences of sedentary behavior on children and how you can encourage and facilitate a better relationship with movement in kids, including through culture, food, and clothing
- How the proliferation of technology and devices impacts children
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Katy Bowman as my guest.
I’m sure many of you have heard of Katy. She’s a well-known author, speaker, and leader in the Movement movement, if you will. She’s a [biomechanist] by training. She has really thought deeply about changing the way we move and think about our need for movement. She’s written eight books, including Move Your DNA, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages worldwide, she teaches movement globally, [and she] talks a lot about the dangers of too much sedentary behavior. I really like her broader, more expanded approach to movement and getting away from thinking about movement solely as exercise and this chore [or] grind that we do because we know it’s good for us into really embracing a holistic approach to movement as our birthright as human beings.
I really enjoyed this conversation. I think you will, as well. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Katy, welcome to the podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
Katy Bowman: Thank you for having me.
Chris Kresser: Maybe we could start with a little bit of background. You have a very holistic approach to movement that I’ve always appreciated. I think talking about exercise and movement sometimes goes in directions that are not that interesting to me because it can be a chore, [or] something that we do because we have to. I think a lot of people have a relationship with physical activity and movement that comes more from a sense of obligation than a sense of pleasure of being in a human body. And I know that’s a focus of your work. How did you get interested in this approach that you have to movement? What really started that for you?
Katy Bowman: It’s hard to say because I’ve been doing it for so long. My understanding of movement has definitely evolved over a couple of decades. I trained as a biomechanist at university, so [my] understanding of movement is really exercise- or research-centric, very health-centric. I definitely started there, just enjoying fitness. But I really took an interest in injury in graduate school, or I think I just ended up working with a lot of people who were injured because I was someone who was degreed in exercise. You tend to get all the people who need more than general fitness, [or are] special populations. Then after doing it for a few years, I was like, “Everyone’s sort of a special population in their own way. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of movement.” And it just evolved from there.
I’m very much a nerd, in that this is my science and I want to know it really well. So part of my approach has come from simply understanding what movement is in a very broad way, and then always presenting it in not the narrow exercise or even physical activity way, because those are three different phenomena, and there [are] more phenomena in there still. So I think it just comes from that. It comes from talking to a lot of people over a lot of years and appreciating the complexity and trying to distill it down so people can find whatever their motivation is for moving more.
What Is Movement?
Chris Kresser: Let’s start with defining some terms because you just used three there, and you said there’s even more nuance within those categories. Movement, physical activity, and exercise. How do you define those terms? What’s the difference for you in those terms? And if there is additional nuance within those categories, what would it be?
Katy Bowman: Movement [is] the broadest term. It’s any physical change in the shape of your body or the tissues of your body. So that’s really going to be all-encompassing. Physical activity is a research term that looks at those types of movements that use the musculoskeletal system and also utilize a more than baseline amount of kilocalories or kcals. You’re talking about something where you’re burning some calories a little bit. One movement that wouldn’t fit into the category of physical activity would be if you’re climbing on a bar [and] that bar pushes into your skin. The fact that your skin and tissues are deformed by something pushing into [it], that doesn’t use the musculoskeletal system per se, but still changes the shape of all those tissues.
Exercise is another clinical term and is a subset of physical activity. It still has to meet the conditions of using your musculoskeletal system and utilizing calories, but it’s even a little bit more narrow in that it’s a bout of movement that usually has some parameters that are predetermined before you started. You’ve picked the duration that you’re going to do it, the mode that you’re going to do it, usually the intensity [at] which you’re going to do it, and you’re usually doing it for the purpose of improving your health. It has a goal associated with it that is speaking to improving your physical fitness in some way. An example of riding your bike for five miles at a certain rate on the weekend because it’s good for you would fall into the category of exercise. But you could take that exact same bike ride, even with the [same] intensity and duration, but you’re going to use it as transportation. You’re riding your bike to work. That’s what moves it out of the category of exercise. Something else is getting done during that period of time.
So you can have exercises or movements that fit, it appears, multiple categories, but intention has a lot to do with it. I’ll just give one other example of a category that I haven’t yet defined publicly very well or in any of my books, and that is the category of labor. Labor would be another subset. It would often meet the parameters for physical activity, but it’s done for a different purpose. There [are] other parameters that we can talk about in terms of why we would move, but that would be an example of an emerging category, I guess.
Chris Kresser: Or a reemerging category?
Katy Bowman: Well, it’s never gone away. But when you look at movement research, it’s not being called out necessarily.
Chris Kresser: Right. I was just thinking of our ancestors, where a lot of their movement revolved around getting things done. Building shelter, migrating from one place to the next, hunting, gathering, etc. That was not for pleasure, per se, and certainly not for any related health goal that they had. But [rather] just because that was inherent to their life. And I like that as a category because someone who’s a forest ranger, for example, is going to have a very different experience in their body day-to-day than someone who’s working at a desk at Google or something like that, just from the nature of their work.
There’s this other category that I’ve heard more recently in the literature, which is non-exercise physical activity. And this isn’t my area of expertise, but again, it seems like this was coined to differentiate between the health impacts of periodic exercise. Let’s say you go to the gym for an hour, three days a week, and then the rest of the time, you’re just sitting at your desk job. I’ve seen a lot of studies suggesting that being sedentary all that time is harmful even if you’re getting the recommended amount of exercise weekly, and that people need to also be thinking about their non-exercise physical activity. What happens outside of those distinct periods of exercise and outside of the periods of being sedentary is also very important to health. Do you consider that, as well? Or does that just blend into physical activity overall for you?
Katy Bowman: I mean, exercise is a subcategory of physical activity. I think in terms of circles. You have a giant circle labeled “movement,” [and] there’s a smaller circle labeled “physical activity” that sits inside movement, and then there’s a smaller circle [labeled] “exercise” that sits inside physical activity. Anything that’s inside the physical activity circle, but outside the exercise circle is non-exercise physical activity. So yes, that category is there because there’s been such a focus on exercise as the only means [of] moving our bodies more. There has been an understanding of, “Oh, it turns out that exercise, in an environment of sedentarism the rest of the time, still doesn’t pay off as much as exercise surrounded by more movement throughout the day, or also simply a lot of movement throughout the day.” And then also, because labor as a category isn’t really only for the ancestors, when you take a global perspective, or even a broader North American perspective. There are many people who labor for a living. They wouldn’t be sedentary like desk workers, but desk workers are a very small population. There [are] dishwashers, bartenders, farmers, [and] field workers. There are many active jobs out there. So it’s just another drill down of going, “Oh, we didn’t understand the whole phenomenon when we started creating terms and solutions. Now we understand more, so, of course, you’re going to find that the science becomes more complex because more elements are understood now.
The Epidemic of Sedentary Behavior
Chris Kresser: Let’s dive in a little bit to sedentary behavior. I know that’s the focus of your work. It’s really an epidemic. I just saw a study out of Finland [that] was looking at the impact of sedentary time on type 2 diabetes. The researchers took a group of people who were mostly sedentary and asked the intervention group to spend one hour less a day being sedentary, just using light physical activity. Not exercises, [but] non-exercise physical activities. They had significant reductions in blood sugar, improvements in insulin sensitivity, and improvements in liver health [after] just a three-month intervention. And there are lots and lots of studies like that. So what are the trends with sedentary behavior over the past couple of decades? And why is that such a unique problem for human beings?
Katy Bowman: Well, the trends have been increasing, and it’s on a global scale. Humans, if you look at the timeline, [have been] in a steady transition toward less movement, but it has definitely accelerated in the last handful of generations, starting with the Industrial Revolution. Then you get to the technological revolution, or the computer revolution, and I think that smart technology, which seems ubiquitous and like it’s been with us forever [but] is [only] 10 years old, [has] been another exponential growth factor for sedentarism. So my view on it is that it’s not only increasing, [but] the rate of it increasing is increasing. Then I think that the pandemic created even more [of an issue]. I don’t think that everyone sees everything in terms of movement, but I certainly do. You can think about convenience as saving time, but it also is something that saves movement. We’ve gone to less movement for individuals.
We already don’t grow much of our food. We’re already getting it from the grocery store, which is sort of new. It doesn’t feel new, but if you interview your grandparents or your great grandparents, you’re going to find that we live in a novel environment. We’ve gone from not growing our food, to buying stuff in the grocery store, to buying the already chopped thing in the grocery store, to buying the already cooked thing in the grocery store, to parking in front of the grocery store and having the already cooked thing brought to [our] car, and now we [can] just get the full meal. There’s no labor involved in the food system for many individuals. And food and movement used to be in a direct relationship. The reason you moved in the first place was so you could eat. As we’ve been the animal that’s really shifted how we relate to stuff on Earth—important stuff, the most important probably being food, but there’s other stuff, too, like clothing and shelter—as we’ve changed the fundamental nature of that relationship, movement seems to be the thing that is lost the most. I think nutritionists would argue it’s nutrition that’s being lost most. And I would agree with that. But I would also say that it’s movement and mechanical environment. Relatively speaking, you’ve altered the mechanical environment much more than you have altered the nutritional environment.
I would also say that my hypothesis for what’s driving all these things has a lot to do with this paradox that we have, which is [that] while human bodies require a tremendous amount of movement, we’re simultaneously wired to avoid it when we can. As we are more clever and build more environments for which movement is not a requirement at all, we take that opportunity every time because we don’t realize what we’re trading off. So I’m just here to name it. That’s what we’re trading off, movement.
Chris Kresser: There’s so much there to unpack, and I want to investigate some of what you said further, because I think it’s really, really important. Have you seen the movie WALL-E, the Pixar film?
Katy Bowman: Sure.
Chris Kresser: Our daughter is 10, and she had never seen it, so we watched it together as a family. It was made quite a while ago, but it’s amazing how prescient it was. For those who haven’t seen [it], [the movie] takes place in the future where humans are living on spaceships, and they’re conveyed around the spaceship on something like a conveyor belt. They’re drinking all their meals through a straw, they have a screen in front of their face the entire time, and they never leave their lounge chair that gets conveyed around on the spaceship. And when you were talking about the impacts of COVID[-19] and the progression from growing our own food, harvesting our own food, [and] chopping and making our own food, to now going to the grocery store and buying those same things to then buying chopped up things so we don’t have to do that, [to] picking up food from the grocery store, and now, of course, with Uber Eats and Instacart and all these services, not even that. This is the motion. For those who are not watching, I’m moving my finger on my phone. That’s the extent of physical activity that is now required to get a meal.
As you said, in an evolutionary setting, we were adapted to spend as little energy as possible getting our food because we had to spend so much energy in general that when we could conserve it, we would. That was just a question of evolutionary fitness. But when that innate, biological[ly] hardwired desire meets modern technology and meets a global pandemic, which isolated a lot of people and created curbside delivery and all these delivery services, it’s really a confluence of variables that doesn’t work out in our favor, in terms of our basic need for human movement. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about the emerging laptop class and the bifurcation between people who are able to stay at home, work on the computer, order food, and do all that, and the people who are out there running around doing those deliveries and still at the grocery store.
Katy Bowman: And still growing the food and still harvesting the food and the things for the laptop. I mean, there’s definitely people still moving.
Chris Kresser: It seems like there’s a growing bifurcation happening in our economy, both here in the [United States] and elsewhere, between those different groups of people. I’m curious, from a sociological perspective [and] research perspective, what kind of differences we’re going to see in the health and well-being of those folks, just from this one variable [of] changing the amount of movement that is required on a day-to-day basis.
Katy Bowman: I think about stuff like that all the time. There’s a lot of novel things happening right now. I just finished writing a book about children and really wanted to call out, because I don’t know how aware of it we are, [that] this is the first generation of children [who] were born into smart technology. They’re sort of the digital native group, and there is not a real[ly] broad understanding of what that will look like going forward. So, yeah, [there are] lots of questions about it. Humans have always been changing and cultures have always been shifting. But we are in our culture and our time. So it’ll be interesting as we become the elders to see, “Yeah, that’s why we didn’t want to do that.” Perspective is handy.
Chris Kresser: For sure. Given that we are, as humans, a little bit wired to be lazy due to our evolutionary programming, and given that, historically, and I think this is changing thanks to people like you, but there’s a lot more focus recently on finding ways of moving your body that are satisfying and fun, and not just going to the gym and being on the treadmill. Not that I have anything against that necessarily; [it’s] maybe better than nothing. But let’s say someone is sedentary, or they know they need to incorporate more movement [and] physical activity into their life, but they have a lot of resistance because maybe they’ve been conditioned to believe what matters is going to the gym and getting on the treadmill or doing the StairMaster or whatever it is. How do you work with somebody like that? What do you suggest that they do to find their relationship with movement, their body, [and] physical activity? One that they can develop over time, that can really be satisfying and fun, and [that] they’ll be more likely to stick with because it’s something that’s engaging for them.
Incorporating More Movement Into Your Routine
Katy Bowman: I definitely think that just understanding that equal to our wiring for laziness is our wiring, outside of disability, for a tremendous movement capacity. That’s going on alongside our wiring for rest and to take ease. To recognize that if you’re not really moving to the amount that you want yet, it probably has to do with you not finding your movement jam, so to speak. For many people, exercise is their movement jam. Or if you grew up playing sports, you found [an] internal reward system from doing that. But there are many other ways of being physically active that fit into the activities of your daily life, so the way that I approach it is by showing all the ways. If you are a nature person, if you’re a gardening person, if you like animals, if you have a young family, if you are a dynamic ager, you want to get started by finding the things that you’re already doing in life that you could reverse engineer to find their more movement-rich version. We use so many technologies in our life. We don’t even really recognize them as technologies. We’ve started to call just digital stuff technologies, but your backpack is a technology, [and] the shoes that you put on your feet are technologies. They’re the techne of the people.
So, looking around at the things that you have in your life that are movements, saving and removing some of those. And then I always have people start with, “What would you like to be doing with your body?” Because people rarely put exercise, outside of those who are already exercising. If you make a list of what would constitute your best day, chances are there’s a movement component there. Make that your focus of what you’re training for. Even if it’s spending time with my significant other or grandchildren, or I’ve always wanted to travel to this place, put it in terms of movement. Then, once you have an intrinsic desire to do something and can learn to see the movement elements of it, it makes prioritizing movement a lot easier. It even moves it out of health because I think that health itself is a very narrow niche. It’s not that it’s not a priority; it’s just that it’s not a worldview for everyone. That was something that I really had to learn. There’s people who are into their health and then there’s people who are into other things. But again, movement’s ubiquitous. So you have to find out where the movement [is] in the thing that you are into because it is the portal. That will be the portal for you adhering to regular movement, [and] more importantly, wanting to move. Not just continuing to do something that you heard on a podcast that you should, or read in a study that it would be better for you if you did. You’re connecting it to how you personally view what makes your life a good life.
Have you read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal? I feel like for anyone who’s read that book, it’s sort of aligning with that. As humans move through [life], there’s going to be [an] inevitable decline that comes with aging. But at every stage [of life], you can have your optimal experience. And when you reframe your [pursuit] of movement as not just adding longevity or freedom from disease, but enhancing the celebratory parts of your life that you love and want to do at greater volume, that to me has really changed the importance of movement for people.
Chris Kresser: I love that. It’s definitely consistent with my own experience. I started with sports and surfing, and movement for me has always had a strong outdoor and nature component. I love the experience of connecting with nature, but I like to do that when I’m moving more than I like to do that when I’m sedentary in nature. So a lot of my movement practices have been outdoor activities. Also there’s a strong component of fun, which is important for me. Over time, because I know the health benefits of movement and I know that I feel better, if I’m not able to do any of those fun, exhilarating outdoor activities that I enjoy, I will go to the gym. I went to the gym today because it was snowing, all the ski resorts are closed, [and] I couldn’t ride my mountain bike or do the things that I would typically do. So I went and did some squats and deadlifts and, yes, I still enjoy that. I do it because it feels good and I know it’s good for me. But if I have to choose, if I can go skiing in the backcountry in a given day or go do deadlifts, I’ll go skiing every time.
It’s interesting to hear you phrase it that way. Because even though I’m obviously into health and I think about health a lot, that’s often not the motivating factor for me when it comes to movement. I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s been so consistent for me. I don’t want to say that desire for health is not a deep motivation. It definitely is. But there’s something that feels even more basic and fundamental to how I pursue movement that I think is more what you articulated there. It’s just part of the experience of being human and connected to a lot of things that I really enjoy and that improve my quality of life on a moment-to-moment basis, not even thinking about what’s going to happen 20 years in the future.
Katy Bowman: Another one of my approaches to helping people move more is recognizing that a lot of people didn’t grow up active, so they have a negative relationship with movement because maybe it wasn’t their family culture. Then there’s a lot of lack of skill and embarrassment that comes in. Movement is put into schools, and rightly so—if a child’s going to be someplace all day, it should be a dynamic space. But as the schools made a choice to feature sports as movement, if you didn’t come from an environment that nurtured those skills, or [were granted] them genetically, so to speak, then you have a deficit, then you have a negative relationship, and then you have pain, or you have a lack of awareness of your body. Then to start it as an adult, or even a teenager, becomes a challenge.
Helping people learn about how all their parts can move, you start to get some of that creative, fun spark of like, “I’m interested in me.” People are interested in themselves and knowing themselves, so it becomes sort of an exploration that way. They get these small successes with these very small exercises [that are] called corrective exercises because we think of them as the exercises you need to do so you can graduate to doing the real exercises over here, but it’s really the same thing. It’s a chance for you to overcome an obstacle or a hurdle or learn something new. And as they do, they start to look for opportunities to explore movement in other ways. That’s been another approach is to help people transition from being a non-mover to a mover.
The Importance of Varied, Whole-Body Movement
Chris Kresser: On that note, I want to talk a little bit about the landscape of movement, if you will, going back to the exercise craze of the 1980s and ‘90s and things like the treadmill and the StairMaster, where you’re doing something that’s [an] extremely repetitive, similar motion on a flat, non-variable surface, and sometimes only moving certain parts of your body and not your whole body. This has also been a focus of your work—moving your whole body and the difference between the mechanical, built environment and the natural environment, where you have hills, and ups and downs, and rocks, and things like that. How does that play into this conversation? What’s important as people begin to explore their relationship with movement in a broader context or a more holistic way?
Katy Bowman: Well, you don’t only need to move your whole body; you need to move all your parts. So it’s not only that we need to move more; a lot of us don’t move a lot of our parts very well. Our movement diets aren’t very good. If you tend to take the same mode of exercise again and again and again, some of you is getting the benefit from the fact that you moved at all, but many parts of you haven’t moved at all. What happens is, yes, you are a whole body, but your physical experience is also made up of how the individual parts of you are doing. It’s rarely our whole person that’s sick. It can often be a small area. So it’s to recognize that you’ve got this dual phenomenon going on. What terrain does, or movement landscape is, the more complex the landscape, the more parts it moves of you. If you just take a walk in your neighborhood [and] if it’s cemented, that moves you in a particular way. But you can take that exact same walk in something that’s got a more complex terrain, and more of you will move for that same bout of movement.
It’s just recognizing, again, that all our individual parts need to be nourished by movement, not only our whole person. And to hold that when you’re choosing [whether] I go out for the same mode of exercise that I always do that I love. Because it’s like food. You have foods that you love and you want to eat again and again. But you’re going to find some nutrient that you’re missing and need to update your diet or pull back on the thing that you love a little bit because you can get too much of a good thing, so to speak. Certainly mechanically, to recognize that your tissues are adapting to what you’re doing. It’s just this idea, again, of more nuance when it comes to movement. That it’s a part-by-part phenomenon, as well.
Chris Kresser: I like the analogy there to diet. That’s something I think people can understand pretty easily, that if you eat the same six foods, even if they’re really healthy foods, at every meal every day, that’s going to have a negative impact on your health because you need a diversity of nutrients from a broad spectrum of foods in order to really thrive. And it sounds [like] it’s a very similar concept to what you’re saying with movement. To use a silly example, if you’re just going to do bicep curls and that was your only form of exercise, you would end up not getting the full benefits of movement, in addition to looking probably quite strange, with large biceps and nothing else that is fit on your body.
I don’t think that’s gotten a lot of attention, though. I think it’s easy for us to fall into habitual patterns of movement. Many people just go and do the same routine at the gym. And that might also tie back to what we were talking about earlier [in] that they haven’t found their jam, to use your term, or their own kind of inspiration. They’re just doing it almost like they would brush their teeth or some other thing that they know is good for them. They’re reconciled to doing it, and good on them for doing it, but it’s lacking that variation because there’s not that sense of spark or inspiration there.
Katy Bowman: Yeah, variation is key. Just like eating, there [are] parts that you enjoy, and parts that maybe you don’t enjoy as much, but they’re all nutrients. That’s what a nutrient is, an essential. It’s a non-negotiable intake. You might choose not to take it, but there’s a consequence for not taking it. That’s how they get classified that way. So yeah, there [are] definitely more mundane movements, but there [are] ways to make them more enjoyable, as well.
When it comes to movement, modern lifestyles often work against us. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, author Katy Bowman explains the science behind our need for natural movement and how you can get your entire family moving more, together. #chriskresser #movement
Movement and Kids
Chris Kresser: I want to talk a little bit about kids. I think we both share a passion for [the] importance of movement with kids, and we’ve talked briefly about the downsides of sedentary behavior for adults. Of course, a kid is a lot younger than an adult [and] has many more years of their lifetime ahead of them, and thus the consequences of being sedentary for kids can be, in some ways, even greater than the consequences for adults. I think about traditional schools and how they’re set up, where a kid is in a classroom sitting at a desk for the vast majority of their day. They might have something called [Physical Education (PE)], which has varying levels of success and interest for kids, because often it can be [these] sort of rote activities that are not inspiring or not tailored toward the kid’s particular interests. And I think what you talked about before can come up—if a kid isn’t naturally a great athlete or doesn’t excel at sports, then maybe they just walk around the edges of the gym during PE, and they don’t have a good experience. How in this kind of environment, which is the reality for most kids, can we encourage and facilitate a better relationship with movement?
Katy Bowman: Oh, I mean, I took a whole book to answer that question because there are many different ways to do it. Just to go back to your point because I think it’s a really important one to stress, sedentary behavior in children has more consequences than sedentary behavior in adults. Mechanically speaking, you are setting your adult body in childhood. You’re not just growing out of that phase and then [you] can make changes when you get older. You are setting the cap on many things. Bone is one of them. Bone is the easiest example for people to understand [the] mechanical argument. How you load your bones in childhood or the juvenile period sets the capacity for how you can load them as you get older. That’s something important to consider.
How do you do it? I like to go by container. There [are] so many different approaches that you can take or areas of your life that you can address. Do you want me to go container by container?
Chris Kresser: That’d be great.
Katy Bowman: I wrote Grow Wild in order of containers because I was imagining [that] people would most often say that time is the biggest hurdle they have. They can’t see where movement fits in as far as time goes because again, they’re thinking exercise. They’re thinking of something that happens outside of all the rest of their life, where nothing else is being accomplished except for physical betterment. That’s one of the biggest limitations of exercise. Because it is something that you often [do] in isolation of all your other to-dos, there’s no way to really ramp up to the volume that you need. Because we have many other needs.
Throughout the human timeline, movement was not done as exercise. It was done alongside all the other activities that we needed to do. My general approach is [to] put the movement back into the activities that used to hold it so that you are still meeting the other needs that you have in your life while also getting movement at the same time. So, by container, I started with culture. Culture is a pretty big container. That chapter has a lot to do with the rules that you have. Let’s talk about in your home. What are the rules that you have in your home that encourage or discourage movement? What [are] your implicit and explicit rules? You might not even know the assumptions that you hold around how children should behave, what physical motion is okay, [and] what’s considered too loud or rowdy or dangerous. Understanding your relationship as the alloparent, [and] not just for parents. Teachers, therapists, anyone who is involved in a space that has children should take themselves through the bias check-in in that section, which [is], “What are your rules?” Ask the children in your space what they think the rules are. Because chances are that you have rules you’re imparting that you’re not even aware you’re imparting. So open that discussion.
Second is clothing. We spend a lot of time surrounding our body with casing that doesn’t allow our joints to articulate well. It’s like a daily costume that you put on. The quote that I often see that I said being circulated around on social media is, “If you have exercise clothes, what are all of your other clothes, then?” Because we call them exercise clothes, but we don’t call the rest sedentary clothes. We don’t call the pants or the jackets that we put on, or the shoes that we put on that don’t allow our arms to go overhead or you can’t crouch down or bend, or you wouldn’t be able to walk a few miles in the shoes that you wear. These are, without realizing it, something that we do to discourage ourselves from moving all day long. Children, who often move more creatively and robustly, can be impacted by a pair of jeans that you thought was cute but doesn’t actually allow their legs to step up to the next rung, or [by] rain boots or snow boots that are heavy but don’t allow their ankles to articulate, so now they’re clumsy and can’t balance and fall off stuff more often. Just understanding that clothing is the second largest container because you get dressed after you wake up in your culture. You’re putting on your clothes.
Chris Kresser: That’s really fascinating. I haven’t thought much about that. But the recent skinny jeans trend is terrible, I think, for movement and people who want to be fluid in their bodies.
Katy Bowman: I don’t even think we consider it. That’s the challenge with the sedentary culture is [that] the sedentary culture doesn’t call itself sedentary. That’s not written anywhere except for some of my books. It’s not our most glorious descriptive.
Food is the next large container because movement and food have been the axis of culture forever. And they are still an axis of our culture. But the way that we have set up food, as we previously mentioned, has taken all the movement out of it. You’ve got these main threads that are biological imperatives, and we’ve moved them out of culture, or the culture is getting rid of the thing that defined humans for so long.
Because there is so much movement to food, whether you’re talking about starting a garden, learning, foraging, cooking things from scratch, finding an old recipe that is your individual family’s culture, your heritage, and spending the time to cook it from scratch to not only get the all the movement that goes into it, but passing along that thread of where you and your children come from, [and] connecting them to their elders, if you will. It could be walking to the grocery store. It could be taking your food on a picnic instead of eating it inside. It could be sitting on the floor. Floor sitting is one of those non-exercise physical activities that’s gotten a lot of attention because we tend to do most of our sitting in a technology that allows us to outsource anything the musculoskeletal system has to do to hold us to what you choose to take your rest on. [Whereas] a large portion of the world will rest on its own skeleton and thus still be active even during the rest period, which is a little paradoxical. Sitting to squat or even sitting up where you’re holding yourself on the ground, holding your own torso, uses the musculoskeletal system and expends calories. There’s no relationship between exercise and intensity. It can be lower intensity and still count as exercise and still meet those qualifications. There’s so much that you can do with food because it’s on everyone’s mind all the time. Why not make that a movement-rich environment in some way?
Chris Kresser: I love that. Like we said before, it’s fallen out of favor. But I can think back to my own childhood, [and] there was a lot of food preparation that went on in our house, and I remember long periods of standing in the kitchen chopping stuff, mixing stuff together, and that was just built into my experience growing up. It’s totally possible now that a kid could have none of that, with take-out and delivery food and very little relationship with that process of being physically and manually involved in food making or food sourcing, collecting mushrooms, or growing food, or whatever.
Katy Bowman: Well, this generation has got the biggest deficit when it comes to understanding where food even comes from. Then, of course, the side effect of that is poor nutrition. They go together, so what we’re trying to do is boost everyone’s nutrition on an individual but also a government level. But we’re not really talking about the root of the problem, which is [that] we’re not participating in where food comes from anymore. That knowledge really comes when you put the two of them together. It’s good at letting the lessons permeate.
I am fortunate to get to work with a lot of school children. I always like to volunteer, and I will make whatever I’m supposed to volunteer about food. I will bring in some old, ancient, three-ingredient activity, talk about the plants [and] what it was like to harvest, including the movements, and then have them make it and eat it. And children who are normally very picky eaters in a dinner-time context are so enthralled by seeing something grow, seeing something picked, seeing something being made, that they will eat it because it is now on their terms. You’ve made it more their jam, if we’re going to go with the language of this podcast at this point. Food, to me, is the easiest place to start moving more and [also] tackle more of the non-movement things that you wanted to do, [like] improve diet, learn more about nature, [and] learn more about the food system at the same time.
Impact of Technology and Devices on Children
Chris Kresser: One of the biggest obstacles that I see with kids and movement is the proliferation of digital technologies in their lives. That could be everything from video games to screens, social media, [or] Instagram, depending on the age of the kid and how they’re using it. I struggle with this because I’m not a Luddite, although sometimes I lean in that direction. I see the value of a lot of these technologies when they’re used appropriately. But I’m also acutely aware of the risks and the potential for abuse. And when I say abuse, that can go from minor impacts to absolutely devastating, life-altering, course-changing impacts. It’s a struggle for any parent in this society at this point in time. They’re negotiating this, they’re making decisions about it, [and] they’re dealing with it in some form or another. When I was a kid, a lot of my social life revolved around movement. It was, “Let’s go out to this place,” which meant getting dropped off and then walking somewhere. Let’s go down to the beach, let’s go surfing together, [or] let’s play a sport together. Almost everything that I did with friends involved some kind of movement or activity. Now, certainly there [are] still kids for whom that’s true, but there is an increasing social focus around the phone or digital devices. A tension that I’ve seen is [where] a parent is aware of that [and] wants the kid to do more active things, but the kid feels like if they don’t participate in the social activity of digital technology, then they won’t have friends, or they will be ostracized from their peer group.
I don’t know. I mean, you’ve thought a lot about this. What are some of the things that you recommend for parents? We have a slightly more draconian approach where we really restrict the use of these technologies with our child, [and] that’s a choice that we’ve made. But I know [that] for a lot of parents, that’s not, for various reasons, a choice they want to make. And they’re looking for some path forward [where] they can get their kid out and about and moving, while still allowing them to feel like they’re part of the culture.
Katy Bowman: Yeah, there’s a lot there. We could do an entire podcast.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, or three.
Katy Bowman: And we should. We should do a whole one. I guess for context, my children are 9 and 11. That helps. Also, for context, we are the first generation of parents having to deal with this. It’s not clear what the path forward is, and it’s also equally not clear what the outcomes are going to be. There is no certainty anywhere. So that’s just all the context that I always [give], and also, I can only speak to my experience. I’ll give some examples of things that we’ve done. It’s challenging because I think there’s a difference between the device and what’s on the device. The more you know me, the more you’ll know that I’m always needing to parse everything down into the elements. I will break up the device from the media. I can’t speak too much [about] the media because I don’t know anything about [it] besides what every other parent who took an interest would know. But as a biomechanist, I can tell you the effect of devices on position and movement. So that’s more what I’m talking about.
[From] early on, we’ve always done very little media. We’re a no TV household. So [I’m also coming from] the perspective of these [being] the choices that we made early on. We chose to start there, rather than have to take a household that’s already media-rich and reduce it. I don’t know anything about that. I think that a lot of times, what people are saying is, “I started on a different path [and] now I want to adjust,” and a lot of my advice would come from someone who made that choice early on. But I will say [that] this has been something that’s going on in our community. I guess I’ll give one more thing. I don’t think that parenting was ever meant to be done by two or three or four people and their children. The last chapter of Grow Wild is about alloparenting, and that might be the largest feature that we’re missing from the environment right now—the fact that so many things were done in a community. We’ve moved away from community, and I don’t think that devices are not related to that. I think that the adult use of device[s] [and] of technology or media has made it so we need fewer people. We just need our device and then, of course, the millions of people that our device depends on. But we don’t need anyone local to us who knows our children.
I’ve spent a lot of time developing a community, [and] one thing I realized is as the kids move into preteen time, they step away from their parents being everything [to] their peers being everything. That’s a given. The more you know about child development, [the more you understand that] they need to step away from their parents. I’m 46, just for context, [and] where I stepped away was to my peers. And how I did that was at school—before school, after school, always outside, always moving around. We had our own space in time. We needed to be away from adults, or at least feeling like the adults were controlling the environment. That’s a natural step. What’s happened is, as people are moving to that step, they don’t have any means for communication anymore. The thing that I just brought up at our little community group hangout the other day was [that] if no kid has a landline, then there’s no way that they can call each other or talk to each other like we did unless [they borrow someone’s phone]. So you get this issue of every single child now needing a phone, every preteen needing a phone, and then also not even talking, [but] texting [instead], which is completely different. I’m going to just say that it’s not equal to conversation. I can see children who are not used to talking to someone on the phone [and] having physical conversations. The skill of conversation is out.
So our group, we all [realized] we don’t have landlines. We took away a thing or we’re hesitant about giving them the thing, but we also didn’t realize that we obliterated the thing that was there before, the lower-tech thing. So that has been a solution, where now whenever they [say], “I want to talk to my friends,” I’m like, “Great, give them a call.” And they’re memorizing phone numbers, [which is] another skill set that I have noticed dwindling down. That was an example of something that we came up [with] as a community. I mean, it’s analog, but I think that we forget that we’ve made an environment where the thing that the child needs doesn’t exist anymore, except to pass through the phone.
Chris Kresser: Right. I’m smiling because we have a landline here, actually. I’m probably the only person I know [who] has a landline phone at this point.
Katy Bowman: And me.
Chris Kresser: And [now] you. There’s a couple of things that struck me about what you said that I’ve thought about a lot [and] my wife and I have talked about. We will have to do another show on kids because I think it’s absolutely vital that we talk about this in more detail. There’s the difference between the tool and the capacity that is needed to use that tool. You mentioned that when you take away the landline and you enable texting, you don’t just take away the tool and the technology; you take away the capacity to have a conversation. I read a book called Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle from MIT, who has been studying the impact of digital technologies since the 1980s. It was a powerful book that really made a big impact on me because it was an aha moment of, “Wow, we’re raising generations of kids who don’t know how to have a conversation, either in person or on the phone, because those are skills that they have not had to develop because they’re relying on techspace digital communication.” What are the consequences of that? We don’t really know. But we’re seeing some significant downsides. I think we can all agree there.
Another thing with the landline is [that] people don’t even know what those are. Some of our daughter’s friends try to text the landline and they’re like, “What’s happening here? Why am I not getting a response?” It strikes me that we’re part of an ecosystem and a context, and we have control over certain elements of that context and ecosystem and an ability to influence certain elements, and there are certain elements that we don’t have full control over. We just have to learn how to respond in an appropriate way that’s consistent with our values. And I think that’s a challenge for us as individuals in this society, for us as parents, and, of course, for our kids, learning how to navigate this crazy and ever-changing landscape. It’s hard enough to be a kid, and then to have all this layered on top is an additional challenge that I didn’t have to deal with when I was a kid.
I’m sure every generation looks back and says, “Oh, it was much simpler when I was a kid.” And perhaps that’s true. But I think there is something to the growing complexity of all these [things]. And then tying this back to the topic of the show, how that has impacted kids’ experience of themselves in their bodies. Their relationship with their body, their self-image in their body, and how they relate to movement overall, is very much influenced by all these digital technologies.
Katy, thank you for this fascinating conversation. Can you tell everybody where they can learn more about [this]? I think you’ve written eight books now?
Katy Bowman: You can find me at NutritiousMovement.com. From there, you can find anything else that you’re looking for. If you’re an audiophile, there [are] podcasts or audiobooks. If you’d like to read, there’s an abundant number of books and hundreds of articles curated by topic. And then, of course, social media for regular glimpses of things in action.
Chris Kresser: Well, I highly recommend the books. We’ve got a few of them here at home. My wife is a Feldenkrais practitioner, [and] movement and how we inhabit our bodies is a big theme in her life and in our life, and has [always] been a big part of [it]. It’s even how we met originally. So I really appreciate the nuanced and holistic approach to movement that you take and how your work encourages us to more fully inhabit our body, and via that, inhabit our humanity. Because I think that movement is inseparable from being human. We’ve tried pretty hard to separate it in society [and] in the built environment, but you really can’t talk about being human without talking about movement. I really appreciate all the work you’ve done there.
Katy Bowman: Thank you.
Chris Kresser: Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.