The Power of Movement
Evaluating the health benefits of exercise
“Mom!” My fourteen year old is calling. “Can we do yoga—right now?” She is sitting in her preferred homework spot, the night before a math test, bent over a problem in her review packet that is giving her trouble. “I don’t know how to do this!” she exclaims. For my high-achieving daughter, those seven words are recipe for acute distress.
“Sure,” I reply. She and I have been doing yoga together several times a week for the past few months. I love it, and it is a good moment to begin. We go into the living room, and unroll our mats.
“What kind of session do you want today?” I ask.
“Strenuous!” she replies.
I spend the next hour leading her through a series of dance and yoga moves. Beginning with warm ups on the floor, we progress through sun salutations and a range of standing poses, handstands and backbends, followed by some Graham exercises and deep stretches, before ending on our backs, side by side, in the corpse pose.
After a few moments, she stands up, beaming. We walk to the kitchen to begin evening chores. She sits down with her math problem, takes one look, and says, “I know how to do this!” She smiles.
Just this week three scientific studies appeared, trumpeting the “power of movement,” as the New York Times “Well” newsletter put it, in combating death, depression, and disease, respectively.
In a study of approximately 3000 50-79 year olds, researchers found that those with the highest level of total activity had one-fifth the risk of death as those with the lowest. They also found that replacing thirty minutes of sedentary activity with either moderate-to-vigorous or light activity resulted in a “significant reduction in mortality risk.” The participants in the study had been equipped with ultra-sensitive accelerometers for seven days and then followed for eight years as part of the National Health and NutritionExamination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1).
More movement equals less death.
In a study of 38 healthy volunteers, researchers found that exercising on a stationary bicycle (to a heart rate of 85 percent of predicted maximum heart rate) altered participants’ levels of two crucial neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate, that are responsible for the growth of brain cells. As the lead author reported: "Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA… Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters” (2)(3).
More movement equals less depression.
In a study of mice infected with melanoma cancer cells, researchers found that those mice who were allowed to use exercise wheels whenever they wanted had lower rates of cancer and less severe cases than those mice in cages without exercise wheels (4).
More movement equals less cancer.
In all, researchers sounded a refrain that has been ringing loud and clear in our ears for a while now (thanks to Michelle Obama): Get up and move! They promised to do further experiments in order to establish guidelines for how much activity, how often, and how intense is ideal for reaping maximum benefits.
The implication is that as soon as researchers can explain to people what they should do to promote their best health, they will do it. Mind over body. No problem.
But will they? Why isn’t this message enough?
Face it. Sedentary life is addictive. Add a book or a screen and it is even more so.
We rarely admit it, for modern western culture exploits this addiction for its (and our) benefit. If humans had refused to sit in chairs, western culture as it is would never have come into being.
An addiction to sitting (reading and watching), like all addictions, works by reeducating the sensory system. It reshapes experiences of pleasure. It trains people to perceive feelings of discomfort and pain from whatever source they come as a desire for one thing—and more of it.
When it comes to the pleasure of moving, humans are born with it. Babies gyrate incessantly; toddlers dance; children run, skip and play. Because it is fun. Because it feels good. Because they want to. Until they don’t.
What happens? Sedentary activities—like reading and writing and watching and their game variants—train people to desire forms of experience whose pleasures compete with the joy of moving their bodily selves, without offering the full range of benefits.
Watching that high-speed chase ramps your pulse; reading that thriller sends chills down your spine. The lover’s loss pulls on your heart; vivid accounts of violence stir your fury and indignation. You see, you hear, you feel, you move with. Smacked by sorrow, twisted by tragedy, or lifted by joy, you learn what to feel, how to feel--intensely—as if the experience is yours, which it is, in part, but not completely.
The power of books and movies is fierce, and that is why humans love them so. They do not simply convey information, they engage and gratify a deep need to move our bodily selves. They not only teach us about other people and places; they prime our emotional expectations. They guide our imaginations to invest in real life bodily experiences. And in the process, in so far as we are moved, in so far as we experience these vicarious pleasures as ours, we learn to perceive the media that offer them as resources for responding to sensations of distress that arise in any realm of our physio-spiritual lives.
When tired, bored, agitated or in some kind of pain, we escape into a screen, dive into a book, or check our facebook page. While doing so is not harmful in any absolute sense, it can be addictive. It is so when we forget the power of moving our bodily selves.
The growing raft of movement and exercise studies is important. Much of the impetus behind such studies is a lurking suspicion that sedentary lives are harming human health and well being.
Yet, there is more to these findings that has yet to be appreciated. While each study illuminates a trajectory of benefit, together they reveal a deeper reality: movement is not something that humans can or should choose to do everyday to benefit their health, like taking a vitamin pill or brushing their teeth.
Movement is what humans are. And when humans move their bodily selves—whether consciously exercising or not—they stimulate whatever resources exist within them for responding to life’s challenges—whether those challenges hale from cancer, depression, death, or a math problem.
Humans respond, our bodily selves respond, by jumpstarting the production of mood altering neurotransmitters, or (in so far as we are like mice) spurring our immune system to deploy natural killer cells, or generating longevity (by some mechanism). In each case--and there are many more (some of which I discuss in Why We Dance)--full bodily movement taps and releases patterns of bodily movement at myriad scales of bodily life--patterns that represent a human’s evolutionary inheritance, and their emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual capacity to sense and respond creatively to whatever life tosses along.
The question to ask then is not what kind of incentives can be instituted to make people move. Mind over body won’t work. As an approach, it leaves intact an addiction to the sensory pleasures of a sedentary life.
The question is: how can people rekindle their sense of pleasure in moving—their own sensory awareness of how the movements they are making make them?
There are many reasons that schools benefit from including movement practices in the curriculum. Doing so releases pent up energy, teaches physical coordination, encourages obesity-reducing exercise, and provides a mental break. It can help learning concepts in math and science.
Yet there is another as well: to provide students with an experience on a day to day basis of how the act of moving their bodily selves opens up resources within themselves for taking on whatever challenges they face—from math problems to history tests to friendship tangles—and finding solutions.
Children benefit from movement practices, not only sports, but dance and yoga and other bodily arts, that allow them to experience the relief, the release, and the regeneration that happens as they move. They benefit from a sensory education to the power and pleasure of moving their bodily selves--a sensory awareness that they need in order to balance the potentially addictive effects (and affects) of sedentary work.
My daughter and I began doing yoga when soccer season ended because she wanted to improve her flexibility. Then it happened. She began to realize: doing yoga feels good. That feeling good took on a life of its own not only as an object of desire but as a resource—one that catalyzed her own ability to think, as well as feelings of well being.
My daughter knew how to ask for yoga. She recognized her own brain blank, depressed energy, and general malaise as impulses to move. That desire to move found expression in a particular cultural form of movement practice with which she had experience. She didn’t want to do yoga because someone told her it would be good for her. She wanted to do yoga because she knew from experience that it would help her through a moment like this one.
Sometimes we need food. Sometimes we need sleep. Sometimes we need company or a variety of other things. But chances are, if we move first, we will be more able to discern what it is that will best support the ongoing health of our inherently creative capacity to move.
No yoga today. She's reading. I'm writing. But maybe tomorrow. We'll need it.