Episode 21 | Katy Bowman | Rethink Your Every Step
Why you should listen –
- How examining your butt:chair ratio could change your life
- Why you might want to re-consider where you place your most used kitchen items
- How to realistically gauge when to sit and when to stand
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Katy Bowman: Oh, thank you for having me. I love your Three Fs. It’s brilliant. It’s just great. I love that simple, yet, profound organization to help people make this transition to this lifestyle that is hugely beneficial.
Kathy Smith: Years ago, I did an exercise ball workout, and we started talking about this concept of functional training. These big physio balls became popular, and I remember we started using them for chairs at our desk. It was kind of fun because you sat there, and with the fluid movement, you were engaging your core and stabilizing muscles. The only bad thing, they would float away when you got up from your desk.
Fast forward to where you’re at now. You’re at the forefront of this idea of move more, and it’s become a mission whether it’s in your home or in your office. Tell me a little bit about your journey from fitness, because I know you’re in the fitness business forever. So, from fitness to movement, tell me about your journey.
Katy Bowman: I found exercise later in life. I wasn’t an active kid. I was a bookworm. I think I joined my first gym when I was 18, and I had started walking when I was 16 and 17 and, then, I joined a gym and I started working out for the first time and I felt great. Interestingly enough, I even grew two more inches after I was 18. I was extremely sedentary. I was kind of one of those kids who read two books a day and, so, I think I had been kind of movement starved. Once my body got a taste of moving a lot, it just kept perpetuating my need for more and more.
Then, I went to school to study math and science, but I had this kind of brand new hobby of exercising. I was working out all the time, and I started running after hating running as being forced to run the mile in gym class. I just really found myself loving it, and I eventually found that there was this department in school where I could study biomechanics, which is math and physics of human movement.
So, I parlayed these two paths – my newfound interest in moving and my love for physics, really specifically. Then, I went down the fitness path. I became a fitness trainer and I worked in gyms and I got my degree in biomechanics through a Kinesiology Department.
Then, I started working with all these different people who had all these different injuries, who were still fit. I thought that’s interesting. I always assumed that exercising people didn’t have knee and hip problems, because I have been kind of told that those types of problems were for people who were more sedentary. So, there was this kind of weird discrepancy in my mind. Then, I decided to study that discrepancy in graduate school where I studied biomechanics.
I started looking at what is exercising? What’s the difference between exercise and movement? I started honing in on clear, more scientific differences between the two. It was interesting, where in the 80s and the 90s, all the research was about you were either classified as an active person – someone who exercised 30 minutes to an hour a day, you were active – and if you didn’t exercise you were sedentary. But as I had kind of noticed in the 90s, it became more and more apparent that people who were active or exercisers, the benefits of exercise didn’t make them look that different on paper from people who were total couch potatoes who didn’t exercise at all.
It’s like, why are exercisers and couch potatoes both needing so many knee replacements? So, I started to try to flesh out, like, ok it seems like people who exercise aren’t really that different than people who don’t, relative to time. It’s only an hour difference in habit a day. When you consider 24 hours a day, the difference that only exercising 30 minutes or 60 minutes makes was kind of small. Then, I thought, well, I only knew exercise. I only knew those two options – sedentary or exerciser.
I started looking into other populations of people that really had to move for survival, these populations of people who moved just like all humans have had to move throughout their life before there were cars, before there was water piped right into your house.
Then, I started to look at what about squatting. I was always told people had to not squat to protect their knees but, then, those populations that didn’t squat had worse knees than people who did squat. So, I started reconciling large volumes of information and came to this point where I am today, which is I think that our definitions of exercise are so vague that we keep trying to find the best way to move for an hour instead of going, oh, one of the reasons sitting is the new smoking and all these other headlines that keep coming up – you need to go outside because of increases in myopia in children.
I started putting the mechanics of all those things together and going, “Oh, I see. We’re really just creatures that need to move all day long. So, how is that possible in a modern setting?” That’s really what I’ve done with my career so far.
Kathy Smith: To put that in perspective as far as sitting is the new smoking and how much we do sit, it’s kind of interesting. You actually have something that I heard on one of your interviews about the chair-to-butt ratio in your home and how that simple step of noticing how much you sit per day, all day long.
I actually have a speech that I do. One of the things that I talk about in the speech is that when you think about it, you get up in the morning, you’ve been in bed all day, you make your cup of tea or coffee or whatever, make a little something to eat, you sit down, have your breakfast. Then, you get up, you go to the car, you drive to work, you sit in the car, you drive to work, you get to work, you sit. You go to lunch, you go to the lunchroom, you sit.
You’re just kind of piecing small amounts of walking every few hours maybe to more sitting for hours and hours and hours. You come home. If you’re lucky you have a dog, you walk the dog, then you make dinner, you sit, you watch TV, you sit and, then, you go to bed.
You’ve taken that whole concept to the next level of just analyzing your home and how many chairs do you have and where do you spend most of your time? I get the impression you might be suggesting even doing a little quick daily analysis of how much are you sitting every day. Because it’s pretty shocking when you go through that. Tell me when you did an analysis for yourself, were you finding that you were sitting a lot through the day?
Katy Bowman: Well, I was a graduate school student. That was an interesting transition for me as well, because I was a fitness instructor. I easily taught four to five exercise classes a day, sometimes three to four days a week. So, I was an athlete and an exerciser through my 20s. I went to graduate school in my later 20s – 27 or 28 – which was then I had to drive an hour to school. I was going there and back every day. Then, I was sitting six or seven hours.
Even though I was doing large amounts of exercise, I was feeling the effects of the back pain, my pelvis wasn’t working really well. So, I started think, oh, wow. My whole environment, everything that it takes for me to achieve in my environment, whether it’s academically or financially at work, it requires a chair.
From a biological perspective, culture is of interest to me. How does our environment kind of coax the shape that your body is in out of you? Then, I started looking around, going well, there’s two people who live in this house. and there are 30 places to sit. I’m not talking about you could sit on a table or sit on the floor. There were actually 30 butt spaces for the two butts that lived in our home.
Once you start putting the mathematical spin on it, I think you become more aware of it, then you can see how inherent sitting is to the functioning of our culture. Our whole culture right now depends on, from a young age, getting up and going to school and sitting in your desk all day. That’s a transition from when kids are running around, then later on when you’re working. Usually, to get from point A to point B requires that you place your bottom in, yet, another seat for transport.
So, I just thought, “What would happen if I would change up the messaging of my environment,” and I removed my couch from my home. I made it so that that chair wasn’t there, kind of in the same way where if someone is trying start eating more healthily, you don’t keep junk food in the house because your habit is to reach for it. So, by not having it, you eliminate even if you go to reach for it, if it’s not there, you’re just not going to have it. Same with a couch. If it wasn’t there, I couldn’t reach for it, and I went all the way for the floor.
It was interesting, because you were talking about your speech of you get up a little bit and you sit and, then, you walk a little bit and, then, you sit and you sit. I look at that a little bit further to say, “Look at the height from which you are getting up and down out of.” So, when you go to bed, if you just think of your knees–I talk about knees and hips a lot, because that’s a very injury-prone area for our particular culture. If you look at the chair height and the bed height and everything that you’re going to get up and down off of today, it’s all going to be two feet off of the ground, meaning your butt never has to travel below two feet ever.
That’s another environmental queue. It’s like, wow, everything in our house has almost casted the knees and hips from going beyond that two foot–you can’t get your bottom any closer to the ground unless you’re going to sit down without furniture.
I noticed that I might not have been moving more in terms of steps I took per day without having a couch, but my knees and my hips were traveling twice the distance, meaning ranges of motions my knees and hips would only get if I parsed out time to go take a yoga or a strength and conditioning session, I got just by getting up and down off of the floor in my house. I solved a couple of problems. One, I didn’t have to have any more exercise time added to my day and two, I got more knee and hip motion than I normally would have ever been able to fit into my life.
Kathy Smith: It’s not a very nice way of saying it, but there’s something in exercise where we say, “ass to ankles”. And it’s basically that idea of when do you ever get that full range of motion.
It’s interesting, on a few of the trips that I’ve taken in international travel, you do sometimes go into bathrooms where you have to squat or when I was hiking Kilmanjaro, there was a setup that if you were going to use it properly, you had to get in a squatting position. Some other cultures kind of naturally have it integrated into their lives.
But I know, sometimes here in the United States, if you go to a Japanese restaurant in certain parts of the United States, you might sit down on a futon or cushion or something and you, actually, are going down to a table that is, maybe, one or two feet off the floor. Beyond that, you are not, as you said, getting that range of motion, and I love the word you’re using which was casted. It almost sounds like frozen. Things get sort of tight and frozen in a short range of motion.
So, what’s the solution? I know, for you, you’ve made some radical changes around your home, but if you start with mini steps for the person listening, where would you start and how would you progress to a place where you’re getting this range of motion throughout the day in your everyday life?
Katy Bowman: You certainly don’t need to get rid of all of your furniture like I have. Like you said, it’s radical and it comes with time, but just use your furniture less. It’s very easy just to sit down on the floor in front of your couch or also recognize – and some people will say, “Well, my knees and hips don’t go that far.” Fantastic. Take a pile of pillows, then, that just drops down the height of your couch. Like, I have two or three pillows that would be still shorter than my couch. Just sit on those, because then, like you were mentioning, just like you’re using an exercise ball to either do exercises on or sitting at your desk, your television time just becomes more core work and more hip and knee work.
That’s one way is just first paying attention to it to changing it just a little bit. Sit differently. Maybe you don’t want to sit on the floor for whatever reason, but you could certainly sit cross legged on your couch instead of in that same position that you sit in at your desk and at your chair. So, there’s sit less but, then, there’s also sit differently. Those are two options that are instantly introducing you to greater ranges of motion.
Walking more – there’s like these same tips that we try to give over and over again – like park farther away from wherever you need to go into. One of my other favorite tips for people who have to drive to work or who are taking children or grandchildren to work or various places is just park a little bit farther away. It doesn’t have to be only the farthest parking lot. Maybe park a half a mile away or, what we’ve done here – everyone in my community, mostly at my request – is pick one place that you normally drive to that you could easily walk to but that you just don’t out of habit.
For me, it’s two places – my sister’s house and the post office. Those are places that are easy walks, meaning I don’t have to cross over freeways or anything like that. They’re places I go somewhat frequently that it would be quicker for me to hop in my car and drive there and back, but at the end of the day, they’re not more than 18-minute walks for me to go there and back. I just wasn’t in the habit of doing it. So, I decided, I don’t care if it’s snowing, these will be places that I will only go to on foot and sticking to it.
It’s amazing how when you add in these little 10-minute walks here and there, not only for the purpose of the movement but to accomplish some other task in your life, that’s when you’re transitioning your mindset from not focusing on exercise so much as much as putting back the movement into our lives.
There are other cultures right now that move more as a lifestyle, but keep in mind that all humans used to. All of us used to. All of us have the roots in people who used to have movement in life as an organic relationship. The exercise outside of getting anything else done besides exercise is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s very young, 30 years young. So, changing your mindset around it a little bit, I think, is probably the most helpful place to see where more movement is possible.
Kathy Smith: I totally respect what you’re saying and have just naturally gravitated in that direction through the years, partially because I’m the type of person that likes to move. When my mom took me to my first ballet class and they take me to a ballet bar and I’m supposed to stand there and wait for the instruction. Instead, I’m climbing on the bar. I’m using it as a monkey bar. It was just one of those things that it was fun for me to move my body.
I’ve noticed that throughout the day, I have a few things that I do. A couple of these I got from you, and I think they’re brilliant. What I love about your book and your blogs, you have very practical ideas.
One of them, which is just whatever you use in the kitchen most frequently, instead of putting it in an easy-to-reach place, why not put it on the top shelf. After I heard that–I do a drink every morning. It’s a lemon-ginger kind of cocktail, and I put my cutting board way on the top shelf which doesn’t seem like a big deal. But you have to reach up, go on your tippy toes, use your calves and, then, I put the second thing I’m going to use on the very, very bottom so that I have to squat down. Those two movements of reaching up, squatting down is how I start my day.
Yes, if you come from the mentality, well, is that burning many calories or am I toning my butt, you don’t go there. What I go to is, “Ah, that feels so good on my body to stretch out my calves, and bending over feels so good.” Then, adding to that, the other tip that I got from you and it comes so naturally, but it is the idea that you’re on your chair and you mentioned before, just shifting the way that you sit. One of the things that I do is I scoot a little forward on the chair, and I don’t use my back support. So, now, I’m using my core to support my back. I also, sometimes just reach around and grab the top of my chair and just stretch out my chest. All those little bitty things throughout the day pick up my energy beyond just stretching.
Katy Bowman: It’s interesting because I would say that the people who are teaching exercise and movement to the world are probably the people who love it the most. So, motivation and explanation is almost not needed for people who love to move, because it’s inherent. You’re climbing over the bar. No one needs to tell you that’s good for your arms and your shoulders and calories. You’re doing it because there’s a cellular joy that you are rewarded with, that you’re in an organic relationship with movement.
But I think that organic relationship has been disturbed a little bit by talking about exercise so much or thinking about exercise as the only way to move. When I was in school, I had a textbook that said there are three types of human movement: fitness, dance and sports. Those are the only three in a textbook, and I’ve seen it written so many more times that, ok, you could walk, but that’s not real exercise. So, I think what’s happened is we’ve created a movement culture that does not value anything else besides the thing where you’ve got the heartrate monitor on and you have your change of clothes, you have to get a special outfit, you might need a membership, you definitely need a teacher. Because you don’t know how to do it on your own, because movement isn’t natural to you. You need an instructor and you need to have a start and a stop time and you need to be able to look up in a book how many calories that you’ve burned for.
So, we’ve disrupted the natural reward system in our minds, because we don’t value it anymore. Because we’re so overwhelmed with all of the things that we have–we have to tend to our children, we have to tend to our relationships, we have to make great food and source it and we have to keep our houses clean and, then, there’s all the minutia of the day that we only have time for the important exercise. So, it wouldn’t necessarily occur to anyone to drop down on the floor is the same thing you’re doing in a yoga class.
I wish you could see me right now recording your podcast. I’m sitting in the sunlight, looking out a window, flowers. I’m doing essentially the stretches I would normally have to go to class to do, but I’m doing them right now while I’m getting my work done. I fold my laundry in the same manner. I just think about all the time, how could up the nourishment? This is why I call it Nutritious Movement. How can I up the nourishment of the 10,000 necessary tasks that I have to do a day so that the thing that I love and that makes my body feel the best, that boosts my energy, keeps me supple through the hips, keeps my muscles in my legs well-developed and keeps my blood oxygen levels saturated? How can I get that done while I’m living my life or else I’m always going to feel under moved? This is how.
It’s just about that exercise is a very small circle within a large category of movement. Exercise might not always be available to you, but movement almost always is.
Kathy Smith: Brilliant, so well said. You mentioned a few times now, but explain this idea of cellular level and how important movement is. You said something. How did you say it? You said you get the automatic feedback or the automatic loop of when you are moving and you start to get in tune with that. You start to notice that movement makes you feel better physically as well as mentally.
Katy Bowman: I talked about a better delineation, which is just a science-y word that says a better understanding of variables. So, we had active and sedentary, but being an active person or a sedentary person are normally considered to be whole body states. You’re an exerciser clearly and the idea was that you were active, but what’s really come out in the last, maybe, 10 to 20 years is this idea that just because some of you is moving doesn’t mean that all of you is moving, that your whole body could be running from point A to point B or maybe you were doing pushups or whatever it is that you’re doing. The parts of you that are receiving the benefit from that movement are the parts that were actually doing the moving.
So, that’s the whole point behind cross training. The whole point behind cross training is if you do too much of the same exact thing, you’re more prone for an injury because you have really strong parts next to not-as-strong parts. When you have strong parts and not-as-strong parts, it’s the same thing as in any materials. You get a breaking off between those two tissue types, which is essentially what an injury is.
With cross training, great. We cross train so that your different types of activity so that all of your body gets to be strong, but there’s an even more nuanced way of looking at it, which is saying, well yes, you, Kathy, and me, Katy, we are single bodies, but each one of our body’s is really made up out of trillions of smaller bodies that we call cells.
You could think about when you’re not cross training that some of your muscles are working and some of your other muscles are not working, but it’s even smaller. It’s in those areas where those muscles are working, the cells of those areas are being moved, and the cells in the areas of the non-working muscles are not being moved. So, when you look at movement, the benefit of movement is not only these larger fitness variables that we’re used to talking about. It’s really an adaptation on the cellular level, meaning that the cells that are moved, the cells themselves are the ones that are changing and your whole-body state is changing because of how the cells are adapting.
So, you can be a very fit person through all fitness larger measures, but on a cellular level, on a local area, you can have spots in your body that aren’t doing as well as others because you’re not really exercising or using your body, I think, homogenously is the word that I’m looking for, where it’s not an even head to toe thing. There’s parts of your body that we are setting up in our culture to use more than others and so much of our exercise kind of looks like slightly different versions of the same motions.
One of the things with functional is everything used to be super linear – lots of step and bending at the hips and bending of the knees, kind of marching. Cycling’s kind of like that and running and jogging and walking. They’re all kind of using the same ranges of motion. There wasn’t a ton of rotation of the hips and rotation of the shoulders, so maybe you would add a little dance or something to use more of these muscles that are only used when you rotate.
That’s that idea of there’s cellular benefits that really do require that you use all of your body, and when you have injured places or places that are tight, I use the word cast a lot. Because when you only use your body in certain ranges of motion, effectively the result is the same as if you were in a cast. If you’ve ever had a casted arm, when you take your cast off, it doesn’t go back to how it was before. Usually, the muscle’s a little tighter, the arm is–I’m thinking of a broken arm. So, you have elbow flexed or bent for a couple of months, you take the cast off, your arm doesn’t drop right back down. You have atrophy and, also, there’s tension that’s developed in this casted scenario.
So, I think a lot of us are dealing with body parts casted through narrow ranges of use. There’s nothing preventing us from getting up on the floor except our habits. That way your mental constraint kind of effectively works just like a structured, physical cast on the outside of your body. So, there’s that but, then, you’re used to hunger pangs and other signs of depletion. Sometimes, though, you have signs of nutrient deficiency that you don’t necessarily know is related to the nutrient deficiency, but maybe go to a nutritionist or a dietician and they’ll say, “You’re low on vitamin D.” Chronic pain is associated with low levels of vitamin D so you supplement. Once you supplement, you’re like, “Man, I feel so good. I didn’t realize that I could feel this good.” Then, getting more vitamin D, changing your diet, learning how to shop or cook a little bit differently, prioritizing, going out in the sun becomes more of a priority because you have felt what it feels like to have that element of biological necessity met.
The same thing happens with movement. When you’re under moved, if you’ve always been under moved, there’s not a lot of intrinsic motivation to start moving, because there’s nothing really to compare it to. But once you start moving a little bit, it’s like you get in this feedback of once you’ve recognized a particular state, it’s easier to seek to maintain it, so most of our exercise motivations are extrinsic. Katy says I should do this, Kathy said I should do this, the surgeon general said, my doctor said and, so, you have this idea that you’re supposed to but not necessarily a desire burning inside to be able to start.
It’s that idea that once you get moving, your body will take over, because you’ll have a relationship with being a mover and that missing nutrient being filled and, then, you adapt yourself to it and it becomes more of who you are. It becomes more of your habits.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, it’s interesting. I call that going from you have to you want to. It’s that idea of you’re absolutely right, you have to do this because so and so said you have to work out 30 minutes a day to where you go, “I want to do this because it’s so much fun to be hiking with my friends.”
As we talked about when we first called each other this morning. The beautiful changing of the colors and the leaves, we were both so ecstatic that we were outdoors in nature, sharing time with whether it’s friends or with our thoughts, but you’re out doing something that makes you feel so darn good.
I could talk forever about this, but we do have to wrap up. I want to mention that as you’ve been going through this, I know that your husband is a Ayurvedic practitioner and I had recently interviewed Mark Bunn, who I met when I was in Bali. I was on a TM retreat, a Transcendental Meditation retreat. He was the Ayurvedic doctor there that was teaching some principles. One of the things that I notice through the theme of your book, of your philosophy is this idea of the naturalness, the organic side of how we were meant to move, how we have moved throughout history and simple logical ways of connecting with your circadian cycle, with nature and with your heart in a sense of just understanding the joy that comes when our bodies are working well.
So, I really have to say I hate to wrap up here. I just want our listeners to know where can they find out more information about everything you do. Is the best place to go your website?
Katy Bowman: I think NutritiousMovement.com is a good place to start. You can try anything on that website: blog posts, podcasts. If you like listening, that’s a good place to maybe start too. Nutritious Movement has all of the offerings, and you can figure out what suits you best.
Kathy Smith: Ok. Well, Katy, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure having you here today.
Katy Bowman: Thank you so much.
Kathy Smith: Looking forward to more of your tips. Thank you.
Katy Bowman: Thanks.