We caught up with local personal trainer Stephen Clarke who’s passionate about restoring and exercising the body’s natural range of movement. Here’s his take on why natural health and fitness matters to all of us;
Fitness isn’t just about spending hours on the treadmill or squeezing in an extra spin class. It’s about being fit for life; able, pain free, confident and happy.
For most people health and fitness is a way of losing weight. People are often consumed by the idea of getting into shape, fitting into smaller clothes and looking better naked. But health and fitness, when done properly, is worth much more than that. Just for starters take greater mental clarity, better relationships and improved motivation in all aspects of life.
The human body should, quite simply, move. Unfortunately, modern life makes it very difficult to do so and even those who exercise regularly tend to do what they are comfortable with (physically and mentally) rather than what is best for their body. This usually means walking/running/cycling/swimming for hours each week, maybe a class or two or even lifting some weights. Sure, those who exercise regularly will be relatively healthy and fit but the quality of that exercise will speak volumes over the quantity.
Think about our ancestors. The human body is capable of so many different movements and to explain them all would be far outside the scope of this article but let’s think about one simple movement - the squat. Gym goers the world round like to squat because they are great for the legs, the bum, the core and almost every other part of the body in some way. But for our ancestors the squat was a means of relaxing, for getting lower to the floor to forage for food or build a fire and for… erm….. going to the toilet.
A full depth, bum to floor squat is one of the most natural positions we can adopt. It’s much more natural than sitting in a chair yet most adults in the western world struggle to do it. As demonstrated perfectly by my own son Argyll, a toddler with no instruction or training will naturally go into a full depth squat just to play with toys or to watch (and try squash) any bugs walking around. Adults should be able to do the same.
It’s been proven that those who move well feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. They also have better productivity, improved brain function and memory, healthier relationships, live longer and enjoy more confidence and happiness than those who don't.
Humans struggle to move naturally due to one simple principle; The body adapts to it’s environment to save energy. Sitting for long hours causes the hip flexors (at the front of the hips) to shorten and the glutes to switch off and lengthen. This then causes the hamstrings and lower back to become very tight while switching off the abs. Pretty much everything undesirable. Females during pregnancy also go through similar changes leading to bad posture, extended stomachs, often lower back pain and low moods. When the body lacks strength and stability in a joint, it will create stability by restricting movement. Hence why most people can’t get close to a full depth, relaxing, bum to floor squat.
The good news is these effects are (mostly) reversible. The body will continue to adapt to its environment. Give it a new environment and it will start to change.
Although everyone is unique and will come with their own problems and restrictions, there are three exercise and training principles that can be followed to maximise the effects of any health and fitness venture.
The feet play a huge role in health and fitness. The makeup of the feet is similar to the hands in that they have multiple joints which are capable of multiple movements yet everyone wears supportive trainers and walks/runs on perfectly flat surfaces. The feet are the body’s connection with the earth and there should be a certain level of experience that just doesn’t happen in modern life. Whenever possible the shoes/trainers should be off to allow the feet to move more naturally.
If modern life switches off the glutes and shortens the hip flexors then most training plans should do the opposite. Strong glute muscles are the cornerstone of good posture, hip stability and effective movement. Get squatting and squeeze those glutes.
Humans should also experience a variety of movements in everyday life including;
Try to make these elements feature in your training plans too. Running, cycling and conventional weight training are very good for you but it can also be one dimensional. Training for natural health and fitness should include something different from the list above in each session.
Muscles work in different ways depending on the activity. During running the muscles use their natural elasticity and that of their tendons to create most of the movement. This is why humans can run for such great distances. This is also why running is not the best way to lose weight as your muscles become more efficient at the movement and so you burn less and less calories.
On the other hand, the typical weight lifting male who growls when you even mention cardio training would benefit highly from breaking up his normal routine of concentrated contractions and trying a Zumba class. It’s very natural for the human body to experience different muscle contractions and movement types. From elastic-muscle bounce contractions in running, to omni-directional light contractions during dance style movements, and even to the slow and precise, or sometimes explosive-power weight lifting.
Balancing the body and moving naturally are what allows an individual to be fit for what life throws at them. To be pain free, confident in their own body and to be happy.