The movement secret most people don’t know

Mind Shift is a 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.


In a previous post, I talked about the importance of varying up your movement and the fact that most exercise programs only tap into a small subset of the movements your body is capable of (yes, even yoga). You can catch up on that post here.

Moving Without Moving

Today, I want to illustrate how it’s possible to be moving your body as a whole–for example, running or doing yoga–and still have parts of your body that are stuck or otherwise immobile.

The easiest example to look at is your feet. If you’re like most people, you wear shoes. A lot. And unless you’ve sought out shoes specifically designed to allow for more natural movement (“minimalist” or “barefoot” shoes), chances are your feet are hanging out in those shoes, all day every day, barely moving.

To use the words of biomechanist Katy Bowman, your feet have been cast in your shoes, like a broken leg held immobile by a cast.

Your foot has 33 joints–33! That’s a lot of movable parts. And yet, if our shoes have rigid soles that essentially turn the bottom of our foot into a plank of wood whose movement is restricted to hinging at the ankle, and/or our shoes have constricting toe boxes that prevent our toes from moving, most of those 33 joints aren’t being used. We have sedentary feet. (And our ankles are getting seriously overused.)

Why does this matter? Well, for so many reasons that I can’t enumerate them all here, but let me choose three, starting with the most obvious.

1. If your current movement capabilities allow you to move your body from A to B, and you’d like to hang onto this ability, your feet are vital. Without functioning feet, you can’t move yourself around without some sort of added support–cane, walker, chair, etc. So if you’d like to continue moving, take care of your feet.

2. Your feet affect your entire body, so if they’re out of whack, you’re out of whack. Here’s just one example: When you walk, your body relies on sensory information from the feet (among other inputs) to send messages to other parts of the body to help make walking efficient and functional. For instance, when the joints of your metatarsals (the long foot bones connected to your toes) and the tissues between them make contact with the ground, sensory receptors send a message to the quadriceps (front of the thigh) muscles, triggering those muscles to help absorb the forces of walking.

This helps us move without putting undue stress on our joints and tissues, while also allowing us to move with more efficiency (i.e. without expending more energy than necessary and feeling pooped out even by minimal exertion). Here’s the key, though: This communication between feet and quads is limited (and even eliminated) when our shoes prevent our feet from being able to naturally spread out over the terrain. No spread, no communication, less functional walking, more wear and tear on the body.

3. Our cells require movement to stay healthy, starting from our time in the womb (here’s one study demonstrating that reduced movement in utero leads to improper skeletal formation). In an earlier post, I talked about current recent connecting a lack of cellular movement with a host of diseases. Clearly, movement is extremely important, and not merely from a “staying fit” perspective; without movement, our cells die or otherwise go awry. Returning to the feet, if you’re moving about in stiff shoes, there are loads of cells in your feet that are still starving for movement.

It’s Not Just the Shoes

This stuckness can occur in other ways, without a physical constraint like rigid shoes. If you sit for hours at a time, you are casting your body into a specific position. Then, when you stand up and head to yoga after work, parts of your body casted by sitting might have difficulty moving, even in those twisty, bendy poses. What typically happens is the more movable areas have to pick up the slack and move even more, causing undue wear and tear and leading to injury, while allowing the stuck spots to stay stuck.

Here’s a little exercise to see what I mean. If you’re like most people in this culture, you spend a lot of time at a screen or in a car. Your shoulders are likely rounded forward, either a little or a lot, and this limits your shoulder’s ability to move freely.

Reach toward the ceiling with one arm. Now, notice how much your ribcage had to come along for the ride. If you focus on keeping your ribcage down, how much is your shoulder motion limited?

While your body might be different, 99.9% of the clients I see have some degree of forward rounding shoulders limiting their shoulder mobility, and as we talked about above, when one part can’t move well, other parts have to make up for. In this case, that’s demonstrated by the rib cage being hoisted up to compensate for the shoulder’s limitations.

So, what’s a body to do? Well, the simple answer is: Move more, and move more of you when you move.

A more nuanced answer might look like this:

  1. Move more. Get away from seeing movement only as exercise (read this post for tips), as this opens up countless opportunities to move throughout the day, and not just during “exercise” time. Squat down to get pots from the cupboard. Sit on the floor in various positions while watching Netflix instead of adopting one couch pose. Reach up and grab the doorway above your head, etc.
  2. Gradually start to uncast your body so that more of you is actually moving when you move. Two fantastic resources are Move Your DNA and Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman.

That last step contains two mini steps. To get more of you moving involves 1) transitioning away from things that are preventing you (or parts of you) from moving, such as poor footwear and hours sitting or standing in one position, and 2) using restorative exercises and bodywork to introduce movement back into areas that, even when freed from their constraints, don’t know how to move anymore.

Again, Bowman’s books mentioned above can help you on both counts (if you’re in CoMO, they’re available at our public library!), and her website is a fantastic resource as well.

Start where you are: What’s one way you can introduce movement to an under-moved part of you today?

Maybe you can slip off your shoes at work and wiggle your toes.

Place items that you reach for frequently behind you, introducing a rotation to the torso and shoulder movements that might not happen otherwise.

Pick one of the movements from this awesome list and work it into your day.

Have fun!