The (surprising) downside to exercise

Mind Shift is a new blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


The start of a new year is a time when many of us dust off our workout gear and head to the gym, so it’s the perfect time to talk about a very important distinction: exercise versus movement.

They’re the same, right?

Nope. And the difference holds the key to creating a healthier life, so let’s get into it.

When we think of exercise, we’re typically referring to specific activities done for the purpose of improving our physical health—perhaps lifting weights to build more muscle mass or jogging to enhance cardiovascular fitness. This creates a distinction between the movements your body does, say, during a fitness run or a yoga class versus the movements your body does throughout the rest of the day.

Why should you care? In this post, we’ll cover Reason Number One: time. Unless you’re an athlete or fitness professional, exercise usually takes up a relatively small portion of your waking hours. Even if you exercise for one hour, seven days a week—something many of us would consider to be a high level of physical activity–that’s a small percentage of your life spent moving.

Let’s do the math: Assuming you sleep eight hours a night, that leaves you with 16 waking hours a day, or 112 hours in a week. If seven of those hours are spent exercising, that’s 6% of your waking time. Scientists have coined a term, “active sedentarism,” to describe this scenario that many of us are living in.

When we look at the numbers, I’m not sure many of us would consider moving 6% of our waking time to be sufficient for health, although we’re so embedded in our sedentary culture, it’s sometimes tricky to really see things for what they are, so compare it with this: If someone told you that they ate a healthy diet 6% of the time, and then ate McDonalds the other 94%, would you consider that to be a “healthy diet”? I doubt it.

When we equate “valuable movement” with “exercise,” we’re then in the position of trying to find more time in our already jam-packed days to get to the gym or go for a run, because we’ve decided that those are the only kinds of movement that “count” in terms of our health.

When we shift from trying to get more exercise to trying to get more movement, we begin to see all the different ways that we are—or are not—moving throughout the entire day, and we can make tiny changes that really add up, much more so than the 6% of time we’re able to make it to the gym.

Outside of our exercise time, we tend to think in terms of conserving our energy, and thus, minimizing movements. For example, our kitchens might be arranged to minimize how much stooping, bending, reaching, or squatting we have to do to prepare food, because how many of us consider squatting down to get something from a low cupboard important to our health?  And then when it’s time to eat, we reflexively sit down in a chair.

When we view exercise as the only means of getting valuable movement into the day, we mentally check out the other 94% of the time, missing numerous opportunities to move our bodies and increase our wellbeing.

Starting right now, how can you sneak more movement into your day by doing things that you’d be doing anyway, just a little differently?

Can you put your coffee grounds on the top shelf and your mugs on the bottom, creating opportunities for reaching and stretching and squatting? Free CrossFit in the comfort of your own kitchen!

Can you sit on the floor while eating breakfast, and let your body indicate when it’s time to shift positions, perhaps sitting cross legged, then legs out in front, knees bent underneath you, etc? And if sitting on the floor isn’t comfortable yet, can you sit on a cushion (or cushions) of a different height than your usual chair, changing the geometry of your sitting position slightly?

While you’re talking on the phone at work, can you roll the soles of your feet on a tennis ball, introducing different movements to the many joints and tissues in your foot?

All of these actions are movements, and they’re just as valuable to your health as hitting the gym.

Now, to be clear I’m not advocating that you ditch your exercise program. But I am suggesting that you see your exercise time as just one part of an entire day of movement opportunities.

In the next Mind Shift post, we’ll talk about a second reason for shifting our perspective from exercise to movement. In the meantime, happy moving!

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Can massage alter your genes?

Mind Shift is a new blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


I offer a type of massage utilizing a technique known as myofascial release. “Myo” means muscle, but what the heck is fascia?

Fascia is a type of connective tissue in your body (other types include bone and, surprisingly, blood). If you’ve ever made chicken for dinner, the silvery white membrane covering the meat (muscle) is an example of fascia, but far from being just a covering for muscles, fascia is everywhere in your body. Fascia surrounds and interpenetrates all of your organs, your muscles, your bones, and even your nerves.

Let’s look more closely at fascia’s relationship with muscles to see just how amazing it is, and we’ll focus on one of your quadriceps muscles, the rectus femoris. For starters, fascia wraps around the entire  muscle like a wet suit, turning what would otherwise be just a pile of muscle fibers (aka muscles cells) into what we know as the rectus femoris. This “wet suit” is known as epimysium (“epi” = above, outer, over; “mysium” = muscle).

But the fascia doesn’t stop there: The muscle as a whole is organized into little bundles of muscle fibers, called fascicles, and each of these fascicles is wrapped up in–you guessed it–fascia. And then, like a Russian nesting doll, each of the muscle fibers (cells) contained within the fascicles is wrapped up in its own little fascial wet suit.

Source: Pearson Education

Check out the similarities between the above image and this diagram of a spinal nerve, which is also packaged in a series of fascial wet suits:

Unknown Source

Returning to the rectus femoris, this muscle is then anchored to your bones–specifically your pelvis (at a bony landmark called the AIIS) and one of your lower leg bones, the tibia–by tendons. The fascial wet suit surrounding your rectus femoris muscle extends beyond the ends of the muscle like the twisted ends of a Tootsie Roll wrapper and forms these tendons.

Source: orthopaedicsports.com

The key is that all of these fascial structures are continuous with each other. While science has divided them into separate structures and given them names, like tendons and epimysium, your entire bodywide network of fascia is continuous. The image above of a spinal nerve wrapped in fascia? That nerve fascia is connected, via this bodywide web, to the fascia forming your rectus femoris tendons, to the fascia surrounding your small intestines, and so on.

Even more interesting is recent research in the area of mechanotransduction. That’s quite a mouthful, but it refers to your cells’ ability to transform a mechanical input, like the pressure of the therapist’s hand during a massage, into electrical and chemical (electrochemical) signals within the cell. Hearing is another example of mechanotransduction, whereby the vibrational pressure of sound waves is relayed into signals that our brain interprets as sound.

What does this have to do with fascia? Well, more than we could cover in this post, but here’s one very cool example: Your cells have a special type of receptor called an integrin, and these integrins are anchored into the cell membrane. Think of the membrane as the little baggie containing all of the contents of the cell.

The integrins span across this cell membrane, and you can imagine them like a rubber band with one end dangling outside of the cell and the other end sticking into the inside of the cell. The end dangling outside of the cell is “plugged into” your fascia.

Let’s say you’re reaching to get a coffee mug from the cupboard, stretching your fascia as you move. As the fascia stretches, the “rubber band” of the integrin gets stretched, too, and it relays this mechanical information inside the cell, where it is then transformed into electrochemical signals. Why should you care? Well, these electrochemical signals have the ability to activate or deactivate your genes. 

This is huge, and it supports the growing field of research1 into the connections between faulty mechanotransduction and a host of diseases. It also begs the question: Is our sedentary culture leading to so many health issues, in part, because our cells aren’t getting the necessary stretching, squishing, vibration, and other movements that are vital to their–and our–health?

The next time you get a massage, think on this: So much more is happening than “just” the release of stress and muscle tension. You could be altering the very function of your genes.

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1Ingber, D. E. (2003). Mechanobiology and diseases of mechanotransduction. Annals of Medicine, 564-577. Retrieved January 22, 2018.

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