What is ‘movement culture’? Discover how to move the way nature intended
The first time you see them, crawling along the floor like yogi marines or standing in a row turning their spines into undulating waves, you’re more likely to think it’s an interpretive dance performance than a fitness class. And you’d be right about one thing: it’s not fitness. It’s movement.
The “movement culture” is spreading. It’s making waves in the fitness world, asking important questions about traditional exercise programs, like “Why am I doing three exercises just for my biceps?” Its followers are ditching their restricting machines to crawl across the floor and flow with partners. They’re making use of real, natural movement, often with nothing more than their own arms and legs, the floor and maybe the occasional tennis ball. The result? They’re finding greater strength and mobility, and sustaining it for longer as they age.
“We try to teach people to move the way humans evolved to,” says Rafe Kelley. After a life of teaching parkour and gymnastics he created Evolve Move Play, an organisation with the goal of helping people move in more human ways. You can find his students working on joint mobility in parks, jumping across rocks at the beach, maneuvering through trees and trying to push each other off logs.
If it sounds fringe or New Age, you only need to see Kelley’s schedule to know it won’t be that way for long. Last year he held camps in Hamburg, Copenhagen and all over the US. This year he’s set to teach in Perth, Sydney, Shanghai, Croatia and even Borneo, where his students will fly in from around the world and stay in treetop cabins throughout the event.
Kelley’s students are willing to travel because he and other coaches are addressing a problem the fitness industry has been failing to solve for decades. “The fitness industry isn’t attractive to the vast majority of the population,” Kelley says. “It’s a $6 billion industry in the US and yet we have the fattest, least healthy population of human beings we’ve ever had.”
“I think of natural movement like permaculture of the body. It respects the natural interplay between systems. And when you invest yourself in a board portfolio of movement, you produce something that’s able to sustain itself for much longer.”
Hearing this makes me feel better about my own failed attempts to become a gym lover. I stopped writing “Get in shape” on my New Year’s resolutions because I got tired of letting my trainers down. But Kelley and his followers agree the problem with most fitness systems is they fail to excite us and quickly start to feel like a second job. “We’ve made work out of movement,” Kelley tells me, “but people don’t want more work, and they don’t need more work.”
His solution? Play. Or engage in guided play with a goal of creating fit, capable bodies that can move confidently, fluidly and stay mobile into old age. And it isn’t hell dragging yourself to do it. People actually plan their vacations around this stuff. When was the last time you got that excited about your gym routine?
“Kids play. And play is exercise. But they don’t play to get exercise, they play because it’s fun, it’s engaging and it’s intrinsically rewarding. What we’ve done as a culture is tell them, ‘Don’t do that. Stop playing. Don’t roughhouse, don’t climb trees, don’t behave like a human being,’” says Kelley.
What follows is that we grow up and fall out of shape, out of touch with our bodies and out of health. Then come the doctors and trainers who say that by lifting these weights a few times a week we can regain our vitality and improve our health. They’re not wrong — plenty of people become fit on modern gym programs, and some of them truly enjoy it. But what the movement culture seems to be saying is, there has to be a better way. And apparently they’ve found one.
A non-linear approach
Exercise and nutrition have followed a similar arc in recent decades. With supplements we thought we could manufacture a diet healthier than the one nature provides. This is how we got things like vitamin-fortified white bread. While helpful for some populations, the problem with adding supplements is it’s difficult to cover all the bases. We end up with gaps, often filled by empty carbs and processed sugars.
Today we’re seeing people move back to more holistic nutrition where the goal is to eat wholefoods in the way nature intended. Kelley says a similar thing is happening with movement. Too long we thought we could isolate movements like they were vitamins, prescribing a dose of bicep curls or 10 minutes on a treadmill, when our bodies really needed a wholefoods-movement approach.
“When you train like this, you’re going to be training more systems of the body. I think of natural movement like permaculture of the body. It respects the natural interplay between systems,” Kelley says. “And when you invest yourself in a board portfolio of movement, you produce something that’s able to sustain itself for much longer.”
He compares it to the training montage from Rocky IV. Those who’ve seen the classic boxing film will recall a Russian giant who trains under the watch of scientists with state-of-the-art equipment, while Rocky slugs it out in the wilderness, axing his way through trees, dragging around logs and running through snow up to his knees.
Kelley’s students aren’t cutting down any trees, but they are choosing activities that involve multiple parts of the body. They force people to move in weird, non-linear (natural) ways to solve “movement riddles”, problems that work the body and the mind. And science is now showing that we should never have separated those two in the first place.
Feed your body
Daniel Wolpert is a neuroscientist. In his TEDx talk The Real Reason for Brains, he discusses how your brain’s first priority, far from a tool for learning calculus or solving crossword puzzles, is to perform one important task: move your body.
“Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you,” Wolpert says, noting that modern artificial intelligence can outsmart the world’s top chess players, but when it comes to basic movement, robots generally can’t keep up with the average five-year-old.
Wolpert tells the story of sea squirts, who spend their youth swimming around the ocean before planting themselves on a rock, where they stay for the rest of their lives. The first thing they do after landing there is ingest their own brains and nervous systems for food. “Once you no longer move, you have no need for a brain,” Wolpert says.
This could help explain the link between exercise and preventing mental illness. Alzheimer’s Australia notes that regular exercise can lower your risk of dementia, and the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation claims exercise can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 50 per cent. If this is true, could we assume that by feeding your body plenty of natural, non-linear movement, you may be hardwiring your brain to work better and last longer?
The movement culture has been around for years, but recently it has seen a surge in popularity. The reason is tough to pin down, but it may have something to do with one Irish fighter with a big mouth and a penchant for showmanship.
Conor McGregor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has a lot of fans, and probably just as many haters. Judge his brash attitude as you like, but after winning two division titles in mixed martial arts, then holding his own in a boxing match against the undefeated Floyd Mayweather, he has proven himself a highly focused athlete. But what really surprised fans was the day he reported to have hired a “movement coach” named Ido Portal.
Portal might be the unofficial leader of the movement culture. Born in Israel, he’s a man of almost mythical stature. For the past decade he’s been nomadically touring the globe, holding camps in different cities and teaching people how to move better, to move more freely and to move with more understanding. He taught Kelley before Evolve Move Play was born. Before that he spent most of his life learning from masters of kung fu, tai chi and the dance-infused Brazilian martial art, capoeira.
“The best reason to move is because you can,” he’s fond of saying. “Because we don’t need another reason. Because we live in this body.” Watching one of his classes, you’re left wondering how he got all those working-age professionals — everyone from bankers to bartenders — to squat down and walk across the floor like a duck, or balance tennis balls on their hand while a partner tries to knock them off balance. But they happily follow his lead and they’re finding greater strength and mobility because of it.
Winding back the clock
“Part of what we offer is a movement experience,” says Rose Ann Serpico. She’s one of about 35 teachers worldwide in Portal’s mentorship program. She and two other coaches teach Portal’s method out of their studio in Manhattan. “It’s not really a fitness class. It’s trying to teach people skills, a level of co-ordination and sequential movement through their bodies.”
When you look around their space at NYC Movement Co, you notice a trend. Here again, there’s an absence of weight machines and treadmills. Instead, a few sets of gymnastic rings dangle from the ceiling. A large empty floor begs to be manoeuvred across as it reflects the Manhattan sunshine from an open window. Across the room, a man balances on a bar held up by two wooden crates. He looks as though he could eat lunch like that. The focus here is clear: better movement instead of better-looking muscles.
“If you endeavour to look good, that’s fine, but it certainly will end at some point, which I can attest to,” Serpico says. A mother in her 40s, she has the body of someone in their 20s and moves better than people half her age. But she says her students’ greatest reward isn’t what they look like but what they’re capable of. “Teach someone a new skill and they are exhilarated.”
And it applies to all ages. “Even if you’re in your 70s the ability to get up and down from the floor is tremendous,” Serpico says. “People say they have difficulty getting in and out of the bus because of the high stair. I don’t want that to be me.”
She’s not the only one worried about buses. Anoushka D’souza, a yoga instructor based in Toronto and a follower of both Portal and Kelley, noticed a problem when she was taking transit. Not for her, but for the drivers who sit for up to nine hours every day. Sitting, as they say, is the new smoking.
Movement for survival
“My cousin has a meal-prep business and she needed help with deliveries. I was going insane,” D’souza says. She started imagining what a lifetime of driving would do to a person’s body, and how a driver’s hip flexors must be overly tight — things the average person doesn’t dream up on the commute home.
The next time she met a bus driver she asked about a movement program, but the driver said they didn’t have one. Plenty of offers for rehab and physiotherapy, things to help you after you’ve got a problem, but nothing to help prevent one. But prevention and sustainability are at the core of the movement culture. Its followers all seem to be asking, why wait until there’s a problem to finally start moving?
“There should be a change,” Serpico says, “where people are concerned about how their bodies are moving at a much younger age, so you don’t just try to salvage whatever’s remaining. Although you can do that.”
D’souza was taken aback. Currently she’s in the development phase of a program for drivers to help offset all that sitting. She wants to pitch her program to the transportation ministry in Toronto. Recent science shows she’s asking the right questions.
A 2017 study by researchers at Cornell, Columbia, and other top US schools showed a strong correlation between sitting and mortality rates. The results were simple: the longer you sit, the shorter your life span. Given their research findings, those of us who occupy a chair for the better part of our day would be wise to get up and move once in a while.
A lifetime of movement
If natural movement is a way to prolong healthy mobility, ward off mental illness and learn skills like handstands and rope climbing while you’re at it, then it’s easy to see why movement culture — though a bit eccentric-looking at first — is catching on so rapidly.
Serpico has also noticed a spike in enrolment. Her students have seen what a sedentary life does to people and they’re not keen to follow that example. Not only this, but they’re hungry to learn real skills, not just build muscles to show off on Instagram. They’re choosing to look weird together, to find strength and also joy in numbers as they learn about spinal waves, crawl like lizards and move their bodies the way we evolved to.
Before leaving to hang with her five-year-old, Serpico tells me about a teacher she once had, before she met Portal and jumped headfirst into the movement culture. A fellow student was admiring their instructor’s abs and told the instructor she wanted “a body like hers”. But the instructor was quick to remind her that chasing an aesthetic wasn’t the goal of good movement.
“I will never forget it,” Serpico told me. “She said, ‘This is what a lifetime of movement has done to me. I don’t know what a lifetime of movement will do to your body.’” There is, naturally, only one way to find that out.