When we say a movement is natural what we are really saying is that humans evolved for that movement. These are the top 5 reasons you should practice natural movement.
1. It’s Healthier!
The movements we evolved for are the ones that best optimize our health.
Think about it– every animal has range of foods it will be healthiest eating because it evolved to eat them. Feed a rabbit nothing but meat or a cat nothing but veggies and both will get sick. All animals are evolved to move in specific ways too. You can think of our bodies and minds as tools that evolved to solve specific types of movement challenges.
Without access to those types of movement our bodies can not develop properly. Kids who are allowed to climb trees and wrestle naturally develop upper body strength. If you deny kids the chance, their upper bodies don’t develop. What else would we expect? How is the shoulder musculature supposed to develop if it is never exposed to the demands of pulling and pushing intensely? A human evolved to climb. If you don’t climb things you’re not fully developing your human movement capacities.
Modern exercises can be seen as supplements while natural movement is like whole food nutrition.
You did not evolve to get strong by doing pull ups, anymore then you evolved to take vitamin C pills. Now both can be useful surely it’s better to take a pill than to get scurvy and better to be able to do pull ups than not, but an orange contains far more nourishments than just vitamin C, and in the same way, climbing a tree nourishes us in more ways then just doing a pull up.
Now it’s true just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is always healthier; staph infections are natural and penicillin is a modern processed product (though derived from mold)– staph can kill you and penicillin can save you.
So we need to be careful in thinking about natural movement. Just because a movement is natural doesn’t mean you’re ready for it. Sometimes a supplemental exercise is just what we need.
In general though we should focus on natural movements in the sense of those we evolved for in our training just like we should focus on whole food eating if our goal is optimal health in the broadest sense.
A movement diet of body part isolation training, treadmill cardio, and static stretching is like eating nothing but whey protein, corn starch, and soybean oil. Sure you are hitting your macro’s but you’re missing the majority of what nourishes the body.
2. Movement diversity
One of the primary reason natural movement is more nourishing is because natural movement inherently offers greater diversity in the types of demands we experience and thus the type of movement nutrition our body receives. Think about running on a treadmill versus running on city streets versus running on a woodland trail.
The variability in steps on the treadmill is minimal, there is no variation in how hard the surface is, or how grippy it is. There are no obstacles to move over, you might slope the treadmill up, but their is nothing that challenges the stability of your feet and ankles.
Go for a run through the city streets and you have to adapt to uneven pavement, curbs, different levels of hardness, wetness or surface textures, other pedestrians, up and down slopes and more.
If you just think about running as way to get your heart rate up, this might seem like a downside, but it means that many more systems in your body and mind are being asked to pitch in and many more systems are being nourished. Stabilizers, mental problem solving, even ankle ranges of motion are all being challenged more fully thus making you a more adaptable human being.
Once we move into nature the challenge becomes even more diverse.
There are far more variations in slope, in grip and hardness of the surface, and in objects to move around. For building an adaptable, resilient body a trail run is far more valuable than the same time spent on a treadmill.
Another example is upper body pulling– for most people working on their fitness this means lat pull downs, bicep curls, rows, pull ups, and maybe complex ring work.
A lot of time spent on any of those exercises is likely to result in callouses just under your fingers unless you take steps to avoid them. Train hard enough and you are bound to tear a callous. Thick callouses and tears are often seen a badges of honor for proper hard training athletes.
But to a significant degree, tears are a problem of not training your whole hand properly. The diameter of bars and rings is relatively consistent meaning the same parts of the hand are always pressured where as large parts of the hand are never fully loaded.
This creates a proportional weakness problem the callous is trained, hypertrophied and strong, but next to it is skin that is atrophied and weak when the strong skin pulls hard on the weak skin, you get a tear.
When you climb trees and rocks and wrestle, you’re expressing the evolutionary reason for your upper body strength and you develop a callous that covers the whole hand from top to bottom.
There are local areas of greater callous development but there is a distributed thickening of skin across the whole hand meaning there is no weak skin ready to be torn by a hypertrophied callous.
This problem of proportional strength affects the entire body. Make any muscle too strong without strengthening the connective tissue around it and the muscles that oppose and assist it in all different types of movement and you are setting yourself up for muscle strains, sprains and ligament tears.
If you want a robust adaptable body, you want diversity in your training and nothing provides that like the natural world.
Put simply natural movement skills exist because they were important for our survival throughout our evolution and they still offer high utility– being able to climb up a wall or into a tree can help you save your life or at least help you get into your house when you forgot your keys.
Drowning is still a common cause of death so being able to swim should be high on any ones list of what it means to be fit.
Basic grappling and self defense skills of course can help you save your life but it also makes you more useful in dealing with a drunk friend, a scared animal, or a panicked child.
Being able to move natural oddly-shaped weights and difficult to grip objects around with balance and precision means you are more useful in being able to do actual labor as opposed to just working out.
If you want to be “strong to be useful” to quote George Hebert, natural movement training is the way to get there.
4. Exposure to Nature
In addition to the way natural environments make us more adaptable and resilient, they are good for us just to be in. Training outdoors means exposure to the sun, you probably know that vitamin D is one of the most powerful nutrients in the body and it is synthesized in the body when we are exposed to the sun.
You may not know that exposure to the sun also regulates your circadian rhythm through setting our melatonin cortisol cycle or that sun exposure regulates sex hormone production and is an anti-depressant.
The sun is not the only major nutrient that being outdoors for our training gives us. There is also research showing that the exposure to the negative electric charge of the earth itself has reduces inflammation and chronic pain.
Research indicates microbes in the soil have antidepressant effects. Walking through natural environments in general is associated with many different health benefits including improving immune function and lowering stress.
Simply being in nature nourishes us just as moving the way we evolved to move nourishes us. We evolved to be in nature, to move through nature, and that is the healthiest way for us to train.
5. It’s Fun
Once upon a time we did not have a childhood obesity epidemic, we did not have epidemics of ADHD, in this era we use to tell our children to go play outside. Well the funny thing about it is that kids got plenty of exercise when left to play outside because self-directed play outside is fun.
It’s more than fun though– it’s the basic way that we evolved to develop ourselves as humans physically, socially, and emotionally.
Every species plays in specific way because play is how young animals develop the skills that allow their species to survive and how adult animals keep those skills sharp and develop behavioral flexibility. Kittens stalk and pounce and puppies play games of chase and tug because that is how cats and wolves catch their prey.
If you look at how humans play across all cultures, and indeed the play we share with closely related primates, tree climbing, games of tag, roughhousing, jumping, crawling, exploring, building, throwing and swimming, those are the best training for us as humans, not just the best but the most fun.
No species plays more than humans because we are the most adaptable and behaviorally flexible animal in nature and yet our culture has become incredibly negative towards play. We view it as disruptive and unimportant in children and seduce adults into getting all their play needs through expensive products like video games that fail to deliver the broad spectrum benefits of traditional movement play.
The Evolve Move Play approach to natural movement focuses on understanding what humans naturally need as far as movement through the perspective of universal forms of play and we emphasize play as the primary motivation system to get people moving.
Put more simply if you train natural movement properly you will be having a lot of fun.
Natural movement training done properly is the healthiest type of training, it will optimize your adaptability and resilience, it will build useful physical capacities, get you out in nature, and you will have a blast doing it!