It is well understood that sedentarism is a major cause of physical and mental pain and disease in humans and that our modern environment greatly restricts our movement in many ways. To make up for this lack of natural movement, humans invented ‘exercise’ and created certain areas or facilities that promote movement e.g. gyms/studios, rehab centres, sporting and play grounds. Exercise can be defined as ‘activity that requires physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness’ - common exercise activities include things like running, swimming, cycling, resistance training and ‘bootcamp’ style high intensity workouts.
The majority of people know that they should be exercising or ‘working out’ more, but they view it as an undesirable chore that needs a lot of discipline to keep up with in order to get or stay ‘in shape’. This tends to result in people trying to get as much work in as possible in a short amount of time, without giving much thought as to how they’re moving or what else they’re doing throughout the day to prepare their bodies for this type of load. People also tend to stick to one type of exercise e.g. running, lifting weights or HIIT and avoid movements that they don’t have experience or confidence with. Unfortunately this can very easily lead to things like overtraining and pain/injuries, due to the imbalance in quality, quantity and variability of movement nutrients.
A more intelligent and sustainable approach to exercise is to develop a movement practice. This means you are focusing on learning and mastering movement skills, rather than simply working muscles. Taking a skill-based approach means you are forced to work on the efficiency and technique (i.e. quality) of the movement in order to progress from basic to advanced skills. This is both more engaging and more rewarding as the mind and body thrive on this type of gradual progression. This is especially true if the skills you are learning are relevant or enjoyable to you in some way, like getting back into an activity you used to do when you were growing up, or something you always wanted to try but never got around to.
Some common examples of this would be things like surfing, skating, martial arts, hand-balancing and acrobatics and these are all great things to start playing with - but you can also turn your usual ‘exercise’ into a practice by simply focusing on the skill components of the activity you’re doing. Running, lifting, swimming and are all complex, technical skills that can be developed with the right guidance and feedback. You don’t have to be working like you’re aiming for the next Olympics, but there is immense value in getting some coaching especially in the early phases. Once you build confidence in the key skills you can quickly become more independent with your training and progression.
Some characteristics to consider when developing a movement practice:
- Am I learning more about my own capacity, limitations and goals by practicing this?
- Am I tuning in to the way I am moving in order to improve my skill and efficiency?
- Is this making me a more useful and/or valuable member of my community in some way?
- Am I better able to respond to varied or unexpected demands in my daily life through this practice?
- Am I able to explore this movement in an unstructured and creative way?
- Am I getting some kind of fun or enjoyment out of this?
Every session doesn’t always need to tick all of these boxes but these questions can help direct you to certain disciplines or approaches - for example:
- Mindful - breathwork, walking meditation, yoga, handbalancing, Kinstretch, Feldenkrais
- Useful - Natural Movement (running, lifting, climbing etc.), martial arts, parkour, strength training
- Playful - Surfing, skating, skiing/snowboarding, dancing, beam-ing, team sports
Of course there is a lot of overlap between the categories so the lines aren’t clear, but with some reflection you can identify what general category you should be focusing more on, based on your history, situation and goals. If you’re a beginner with very little experience you might start with a more mindful approach, to reconnect with your body and build awareness in your movement. If you’re a well-trained athlete who’s getting bored of your usual gym you might start with a more playful approach to shake things up and feel excited again. If you’re a surfing addict who lives for the waves but you want to become a security guard, you might start with a more useful approach to build more strength and confidence.
Regardless of where you’re starting from or moving towards, a complete movement practice should always have elements of both work and play. Work is generally structured, repetitive, progressive and extrinsically rewarding - we do it for some external or future outcome. It is perfect for building the levels of strength/mobility/control that are required in order to progress with a skill or to prepare the body for the demands of practice. Examples would be things like strength training, breathwork, beam work and mobility training.
Play is generally unstructured, creative, explorative and intrinsically rewarding - we do it because it makes us feel good on the inside. It’s perfect for developing adaptability and for getting into a flow state where we are fully present in the moment, feeling and performing our best. When we play, we can connect dots and solve movement problems in a way that is generally not possible in ‘work’ mode. Play is our natural state of being and an extremely important part of our learning process - especially as children but certainly as adults as well.
There is a significant interdependence between the two approaches - doing more work should help you achieve more in your play time, while doing more play should help you identify what you should be focusing on in your work time. You could also find enjoyment or flow out of ‘work’ type activities and even have a more ‘work’ style approach while you are playing, depending on the mindset going into the activity. The idea is to find a good balance that allows you to get the most out of each approach, that keeps you strong and healthy in the long-term.