The habit of movement

Do you ever stop and ask yourself what motivates you? Why do you feel compelled to do the things you do? What causes your habits to become habits? And do your habits align with your goals?

In the book, “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg explains it very simply. A habit is a positive feedback loop. There is a cue to perform an action. You perform the action; after the action is completed, you receive some benefit, usually in the form of a natural (or unnatural) chemical boost. Your brain associates the positive feelings with the action so you do it again.

Our brain likes new experiences. The intensity the first time you you do something that gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling is more intense than, say, the hundredth time you do that same thing. However, by the time you perform the action the one thousandth time, the action has become part of you; it’s no longer something you do, you are that thing. There is a difference, for instance, between the person that says, “I run,” and the person that says, “I am a runner.” The former is an activity the person does, the latter is the person’s identity.

If your goal is to become more active and have strength and mobility in a variety of ways, your movement habits matter more than having an actual exercise program. While a well-designed exercise program performed consistently improves body composition, strength, and flexibility, your movement habits offer a way to practice embodiment and engaging with your environment thoughtfully on a regular basis.

When you look at your motivations and compare them to your actions, are they aligned? And if they aren’t, what behavior needs to be altered to create alignment? Habits, after all, are simply behaviors, either conscious or unconscious. Often, we don’t even recognize when we perform certain habits. They are so ingrained and are such a part of us that we don’t notice when we do them.

Gaining strength and mobility is a daunting task, one which, at first glance, requires a fancy gym membership, machines, and at least an hour, three times a week, to get any sort of actual benefit. It requires hard work, the kind that is uncomfortable, and tracking information, like how much weight you use, how many reps you do each set, and how many sets you do. Plus, you have to remember how to use the machines and lift the weights the “right” way so you don’t hurt yourself. And do you stretch before or after your workout? Wasn’t there an article in some magazine the said stretching before was bad, but another article said stretching before was good? Is stretching even important?

There are so many barriers to forming a habit around strength and mobility that it’s no wonder people begin with gusto, only to drop away quickly. Actually, it’s like this with many habits that are “good” for us. They require effort, and when we go back to the idea of the feedback loop, often in the beginning, the positive feelings associated with getting stronger don’t outweigh either the work or the discomfort most experience when they embark on a journey of strength.

Or, instead of joining the fancy gym, maybe you use a high intensity program to get the results you are chasing. The high intensity workout activates your dopamine receptors so you feel good and want to do it again, and the soreness that is a by product becomes an afterthought, kind of like a hangover after a night of drinking. The fun in the moment outweighs the discomfort after, so you do it again.

But what if there existed a way to get stronger and more flexible without fixating on machines and numbers and reps, all of which are barriers of entry to the average person? And what if there was also a way to get stronger and more flexible without also feeling destroyed afterwards? What if instead of making things so complex and fixating on three sets of ten, you could do less and reap benefits? This doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel “work,” it just means the goal is no longer “feeling the burn,” but rather, a specific task. Would this make the habit of strength and mobility more attainable?

Think of it this way: let’s say for the last four years you haven’t picked up anything heavier than a bag of groceries and you avoid getting down on the floor at all possible costs. However, the latest interview with a person trainer you saw on Dr. Oz clearly states that in order to be healthy, you absolutely must lift weight 3 days a week, for thirty minutes at a time. The exercises, the expert says, should include total body exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups. Start as soon as possible, he warns, because otherwise you are losing precious bone mass. How do you think you are going to feel after your first session? And is the inevitable soreness going to make you want to do it again?

Maybe. Some people like the sensation of work in their muscles, and others like the challenge that comes from not doing something well the first time. However, most people don’t find it comfortable to be so sore they can barely get off the toilet, and for many, the lack of strength they experience is discouraging enough that they don’t try again. Or they give up after a week because things don’t feel like they are getting any easier/better.

Instead of following a thirty minute set sequence of exercises, what if you set a specific movement goal of getting up and down from the floor four times every day over the course of a month? You probably wouldn’t experience the same intense soreness, it would get easier fairly quickly, and you would gain strength and mobility that hasn’t existed in recent memory. Would you be more or less likely to stick with this than the program above?

“But wait,” you are thinking, “how is that going to make me more fit and increase my bone mass and do all of the things that I need to live well?”

Because it’s more than you were doing last month, so just the increased movement will improve fitness. Look at it this way: it’s a specific task you are spending one month working on. At the end of the month, pick a different task. Maybe it’s getting up and down from a chair four times a day without using your hands. Or maybe it’s lying on your stomach and figuring out how to push yourself up from the floor in that position. Or maybe you work on getting up and down off of the floor without using your hands. Or you work on getting down on the floor as slowly as possible. The point is it’s more than you were doing which is going to challenge your body and make you stronger and more flexible. If you play with tasks like these monthly over the course of four months, I guarantee you will be more fit than you would be had you started the regimented exercise program, become discouraged and stopped.

When more movement becomes part of your day, you will feel more confident trying other things, so moving a little bit more than usual predicates more movement. And if, at this stage, you decide to try a strength and conditioning circuit three days a week, chances are high you won’t feel as battered, you will feel more confident, and your reward circuits will fire a little more readily, increasing the likelihood that you will do it again.

Maybe we should stop placing blame on people’s weight or computers or sitting. Instead of telling people what not to do, perhaps simply encouraging more movement on a daily basis would be a gateway to developing habits around strength and mobility.

Getting stronger and more able bodied doesn’t have to be miserable to be effective. Clients are frequently amazed that simple little exercises make such a difference in terms of improving strength, reducing stiffness or discomfort, and enhancing well-being. Improve your quality of life by moving a little bit more today than you did yesterday. Make it your habit, and when the feedback loop is so strong that you will do your habit no matter what, add just a little bit more movement, in some form or another. Eventually, it will become your lifestyle.