Our ancestors heard it: A constant, echoing drumbeat of threat, sounding a daily reminder to run for their lives. They were wired to leap, climb, and swim to survive.
Evolution took its course, and hunters and gatherers transformed into farmers; eventually, many became operators of tools and machines.
With the advent of 20th century technology, activity as a necessity almost completely faded away, especially in certain parts of the world. Though we’re meant to move, many of us became sedentary.
Today, many people’s physical activity peaks by their mid-20s, and less than a third of American adults meet recommendations for daily movement. Instead, we too often find ourselves sitting for the majority of our waking hours.
Without movement, however, we deteriorate. James A. Levine, MD, PhD, first designated “sitting as the new smoking” because of all its health risks. Excessive sitting is associated with dozens of diseases and conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, back pain, obesity, depression, and cancer.
What was true for our ancestors remains true for us today: An active lifestyle is crucial to our survival.
As much as absence of motion destroys us, the presence of it improves us. Movement affects all 600-plus muscles in our body, increasing our strength, bodily awareness, stability, and coordination. Weightbearing activities, like hiking or jogging, help build dense, durable bones. Move, and the risk of heart disease decreases while cardiorespiratory endurance increases.
Movement also supports brain function. It improves our attention and memory. It enables us to more quickly process and switch between tasks. It helps us learn new skills and perform better at school and at work.
Over time, it can help protect and grow synapses, the connecting structures of the brain whose deterioration is linked to aging and cognitive decline.
Emotionally, movement stimulates the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, increasing the feelings of pleasure, accomplishment, and meaning — well-being that goes far beyond effort itself.
Many people have grown to love high-impact, sweaty, performance-driven exercise — the operative word here being grown. Once you start to move and discover how good it feels, there’s a better chance you’ll repeat it. Which means the key is to start, and discover something you enjoy. And here, the options are endless.
Park in the space farthest from the entrance. Go for a walk around the block. Take to the city streets or head out for a country stroll. Hike through a forest or a nearby park.
Find a lake or a pool. Step into the shallow end; take your time, and slowly submerge. Gravity seems to disappear, and through the elemental nature of your body, buoyancy takes over.
Hop onto a bike. With a bit of physics and balance comes freedom. Propelled by the combustion of your metabolism, you decide where you want to go, how hard you want to work. It doesn’t take long to absorb the medicinal effects of nature.
Try yoga. Watch your chest rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. Arms and legs start to move and, somehow, connect with your breath. Effort, then stillness. Notice your perspective shift as you listen to your heart pumping blood through your body at rest.
Walk onto a pickleball court and remember how fun it is to feel like a kid. Surprise yourself with a burst of speed, and reconnect with how good it feels to reach, swing, laugh, and stretch.
Or be part of the almost spiritual, soul-lifting experience that happens when people come together in a fitness class — any kind, any level. The movements may feel foreign at first, but twisting, shifting, and dancing quickly become more natural. Alone or in unison, rhythm meets ritual as you find a new beat.
Once you begin, you discover how movement is so much more than exercise.
It’s contentment when you find yourself, early one morning, on a path to happiness.
It’s connection as strangers become friends through passing nods and shared destinations.
It’s transcendence when you reach the top of a hill and realize anything is possible.
It’s grace that guides you through loss, grief, and sadness.
It’s faith that if you keep your eyes up and feet moving, you’ll go forward.
It’s power that gives you the confidence to outdistance any voice telling you you’re weak, wrong, or broken.
It’s satisfaction as you progress from first times and first attempts to going all out.
Movement becomes an expression of who you are. And all you have to do is start.
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