The Movement Movement: ‘Functional fitness’ is not exercise, but it is healthy and, these experts say, essential.

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THE THRESHOLD OF Katy Bowman’s house in Sequim might startle you — and your feet. Just inside the front door, a chunk of wood flooring has been removed and filled with loose rocks of varying size. To enter, you take off your shoes and walk over the lumpy surface.

If you’re skittish, you might be tempted to leap. If you know and practice Bowman’s work, you might stroll across, happy to stretch your feet. Or if, like me, you are new to walking on texture, you wince slightly.

Bowman’s house can be fun, or challenging, depending on your perspective. The living room has no couch — sit on the floor on the soft rugs, squat or perch on the bench if your hips and ankles aren’t ready (yet) for the floor. Wander into the playroom, and grab on to monkey bars. In the backyard, choose from sky-blue aerial silks; TRX straps; or a ladder strung between two trees, where you can hone your bat sensibilities and crawl across while hanging upside down.

Parkour instructor Rafe Kelley found his own heroic journey, like the ones he read about in literature, through a career working with others on extreme movement. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The setup reflects Bowman’s approach to movement and the body, sharpened from her years as a biomechanist. She says her house gives people permission: “You are free to move here.”

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In the world of fitness, functional fitness — being strong enough to carry your kids and groceries — has taken hold. Of course we want to be strong! So we swing kettlebells, do pullups and sprints, and release with foam rollers.

But the Northwest is home to experts advocating a deeper understanding of what movement can be. They want to know what motivates you to move, and they are interested in illuminating why so many of us don’t move. They spend their time educating us how to add movement into our days, every day, while also exploring how our sedentary culture has shaped the state of our bodies and health. They want us to move more, and in healthier ways.

The results of a movement-led life include strong and mobile hips, backs and shoulders. It means more time outside, and barefoot. It might look like jumping from tree to tree, or at least climbing them, even if you’re 80. Yes, 80.

If your mind has concluded this vision is lovely but impossible, it’s time to get to know your mind and body from a fresh perspective on movement. This includes shifting away from the culture of “exercise” into a world of movement.

 

WHEN RAFE KELLEY said we would be jumping through trees while chased by a partner, I had flashbacks to childhood tag, and not in a good way.

I was at Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill on a wet and cold Saturday. Kelley, a Seattleite who teaches his natural movement method, Evolve Move Play, around the world, didn’t seem like the type to cancel a class because of weather, so I put on a rain jacket and gloves. As I shivered, another student walked up barefoot, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and knit cap. I was clearly out of my element. I stashed my gloves.

A class with Kelley is a master class in natural movement. You jump through trees, chase and be chased, and huff and puff your way through the leg-burning workout.

Rafe Kelley, center, and students Scott Su, left, and Robert Lansdell, right, use several bouncy balls at once to improve peripheral vision and quick movement during Kelley’s movement class. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Rafe Kelley, center, and students Scott Su, left, and Robert Lansdell, right, use several bouncy balls at once to improve peripheral vision and quick movement during Kelley’s movement class. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

You also receive a mini-seminar on movement and the body. Kelley, 35, whose parkour videos feature him moving with catlike grace and doing barefoot back flips, muses continuously about movement. During class, he riffed on how goals motivate humans, like how you run faster when chased. I can attest to that.

We randomly tossed tennis balls in a circle to hone our peripheral vision and reaction time. We squatted and kept throwing to work in time close to the ground. We kicked the balls. Kelley discussed how the best athletes aren’t the strongest or fastest, but the ones who process challenges the quickest.

The big question constantly on Kelley’s mind is how to motivate people to move more. After years of teaching, his conclusion is simple: Play.

“Play is what motivates and gives you a reason to do this stuff,” he says. “We are set up to seek things, and to explore.”

Kelley grew up exploring and roughhousing on his family’s property in Skagit Valley. He struggled in school, and physical activity helped his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. By 23, he thought he wanted to coach gymnastics; then he discovered parkour: “A bomb went off in my brain.”

As parkour grew, Kelley saw that people loved its playful nature, and the challenge of jumping, running and navigating obstacles. But as parkour moved to urban settings, he felt a desire to return to nature and apply parkour techniques there.

Nature coaxes your human instinct to move, Kelley says; movement is woven more deeply into our bodies than we can understand. He knows that when he is pushing his body intensely, he accesses a different side of himself.

“When I’m in complex physical situations, I have to be so present in the moment; I feel much more deeply alive,” he says. “I have peak emotional states unlike anything else in life, except falling in love or having a child.”

Evolution has built in an internal drive to move, he says, and the key is finding how to access it for everyone.

Katy Bowman, center, and her family forage for miner’s lettuce for a taco dinner. From left: husband Michael Curran; Bowman with their daughter Roan, 4; and son Finn, 6. The family is always on the move. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Katy Bowman, center, and her family forage for miner’s lettuce for a taco dinner. From left: husband Michael Curran; Bowman with their daughter Roan, 4; and son Finn, 6. The family is always on the move. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

WHEN BOWMAN HAD her first child, Finn, now 6, she decided not to use a stroller. She wanted to let him develop as humans naturally would (“going Dian Fossey on our family”), so she carried him everywhere.

For Bowman, a former triathlete, this turned into a weightlifting challenge, as any parent knows. As Finn got older and heavier, she got tired. There were times she thought, “Seriously?”

But she was committed. As a biomechanist, Bowman studies how gravity, pressure and friction affect tissue, focusing on disease and injury. Basically, Bowman looks at whether your body works as intended. She uses science to delve into why or why not.

Her books and blog offer the exercises and tools, such as how to help resolve plantar fasciitis, and her science-based reflections also dive into how our sedentary culture has created so many physical ailments. “Dynamic Aging,” the latest of her eight books, was co-written with four women in their 70s who used Bowman’s approach to gain the confidence and strength to walk on logs across streams, and to climb trees.

Katy Bowman’s daughter, Roan, left, 4, and son, Finn, 6, are being raised with options to move. This device is adjustable, so it can be raised for Roan and Finn’s parents to use. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Katy Bowman’s daughter, Roan, left, 4, and son, Finn, 6, are being raised with options to move. This device is adjustable, so it can be raised for Roan and Finn’s parents to use. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

 

Bowman points to history to understand healthy movement. In hunter-gatherer times, people chased animals for meat, climbed trees and gathered berries from low bushes. They squatted to make fires and cook, hauled water and slept on the ground. They could sprint or walk long distances, and carry heavy things. Their knees and hips had good range of motion. Their feet were supple and strong. Their upper bodies could pull them from tree branch to tree branch.

In our modern world, water is piped to our houses, and food is prepackaged at the store. Knives chop what isn’t already prepped, and our stoves turn on to cook — unless we go to a restaurant and skip the cooking, and the dishes, too. Instead of sitting on the floor, we sit on a couch (usually soft). We might work all day at a desk, and sleep on a comfortable bed.

Our culture of convenience has “outsourced” movement, Bowman says. Sitting on a chair instead of the floor means you don’t use ankles, knees and hips to sit down and get back up. Shoes trap our toes, and elevated heels force us into a position that affects our hips and lower back. We walk less, and scramble to find more time to exercise.

And we are less healthy. We have knee injuries, shoulder injuries and lower back pain. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population is considered overweight or obese.

Research has identified sitting and lack of movement as the foundations for almost every human condition — hip issues, cancer, myopia, Bowman says. Populations that move more than us don’t have these problems. But we still don’t move, at least not in ways that will help us.

Author and movement guru Katy Bowman climbs in the backyard play area at her Sequim home. The play area is as much for herself and her husband as it is for their kids. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Author and movement guru Katy Bowman climbs in the backyard play area at her Sequim home. The play area is as much for herself and her husband as it is for their kids. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Movement is complex, and we are not doing enough, Bowman says.

“It’s not exercise you need more,” she says. “You need to move while getting the rest of your life done.”

What she proposes might sound radical — like ditching your couch — but many of her suggestions are small and simple: Slip your shoes off at your desk, and stretch your toes. Stand while working. Sit on the floor once or twice a day. Take five-minute walking breaks during the day. Park farther away.

This is not about exercise. Even regular exercisers get an average of just 300 minutes per week, compared to the 3,000 a hunter-gatherer moved, Bowman writes in her book “Move Your DNA.”

Consider your seven-minute workout not even close to enough. Bowman wants 10,000 steps to be the minimum, not the goal.

She likens exercise to eating something healthy so you can have dessert.

“Eating a kale salad does not negate three crème brulees,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way with movement, either.”

I love to move, and sometimes I’m active for two or more hours a day. The further I dug into Bowman’s books, blog and podcasts, the more I realized how my flattest shoes aren’t flat or flexible, how rarely I walk, how often I choose to park closer, how frequently I sit on the couch and how many hours a day I spend in a chair.

I am what researchers call “actively sedentary,” a title I am not proud to claim.

 

BEFORE LAURA HOUSTON started working with Bowman, she coached ChiRunning and ChiWalking, which apply the principles of tai chi to running and walking. By most standards, she was active.

Laura Houston deploys different ways to move during her day, including a pullup bar near the kitchen and dining area of her Wallingford house. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Laura Houston deploys different ways to move during her day, including a pullup bar near the kitchen and dining area of her Wallingford house. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

But Bowman’s work opened Houston’s eyes to the times she chose the easy way, like driving the mile to the grocery store. Now she not only walks; she carries grocery bags to get stronger, instead of using a backpack. She sits on the floor, and no longer has back pain from scoliosis. She was thrilled to install a pullup bar in her house. The running coach walks more than she runs.

Bowman teaches a concept about “stacking” your life, such as walking to the post office to get in movement and an errand. Houston regularly walks to Capitol Hill from Wallingford for her dog-walking job.

“I don’t see a distance of 3 miles as something I need to drive to,” says Houston, who is 62.

Sitting on the floor used to hurt her back. Now, other people Houston’s age or younger ask her how she does it.

“It’s not that I have more flexible hips,” Houston says. “It’s just getting into the habit of getting down and getting up.”

Running now is for fun and play, not for exercise.

“You get stronger getting life done in different ways,” Houston says.

Bowman also took time to make lifestyle changes; it took having kids to shift her house and daily life. Her office has a standing spot and a table low enough that she can sit on the floor on a pile of cushions. She and her husband, Michael, gradually got rid of the couch and all the chairs.

She learned that if she walked all day, including a trip to the grocery store, she was too tired to run. Her mind perceived running as better, until she realized she had moved three hours versus one. “Why choose less movement?” she asks.

Author and movement guru Katy Bowman has spread rocks at the entrance to her Sequim home to cause people who enter to think, engage and be aware of their movements as they walk into the house. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Author and movement guru Katy Bowman has spread rocks at the entrance to her Sequim home to cause people who enter to think, engage and be aware of their movements as they walk into the house. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

When I visited Bowman in Sequim, we discussed whether her constant movement is the secret to her productivity (she wrote all eight of her books after her kids were born). Yes, says Bowman, who has bright blue eyes and talks at a much faster clip in person than on her podcasts and audio books. But she acknowledges she is a naturally fast thinker, reader and writer.

“I don’t have a lot of down time,” she says, laughing.

After a tour of a firm futon mattress set up lower to the ground so family members move more to get in and out of bed, and a backyard playland, we chatted outside. Her kids came home. Four-year-old Roan ran up to her mom, grabbed her hands, climbed up the front side of Bowman’s body and hooked her legs around her shoulders. Her 41-year-old mom’s face was buried in her child’s belly, without any apparent discomfort or strain. She had Roan climb down because she was, of course, being interviewed. Shortly after, Finn followed suit and leapt into her arms. In Bowman’s arms, it looked unremarkable — though you or I might worry about throwing out our backs.

Bowman says she is stronger and leaner than in her triathlon days. Now, she can climb trees and walk for 20-plus miles. Another advantage to a movement-rich life, she says, is time moving together with family, rather than stressing about exercising and doing it apart from loved ones.

Sometimes, the movement lifestyle is tough. She has been stranded 3 miles from home in the rain with a kid. Everyone had to deal.

Bowman says she knows she is pushing against the tide of our American culture of convenience. But science backs her up, in addition to what she has seen firsthand.

“We all move for a living,” she says. “How are we going to get there? It’s an art form.”