One of my principal goals for 2019 was to improve my level of fitness. I had been only sporadically active for 10 years -- beginning with starting graduate school while working two jobs, then segueing into becoming president of my local union -- and it had definitely negatively impacted my health and well-being.
The year of getting more fit? No.
I was highly motivated and the year started out well. I bought new hiking boots and some rain gear, and we explored all the manageable trails in our area. I bought swim gear and got back in the pool for the first time in 10 years. After we adopted Kai and Cookie, I began each day with a walk, and I walked to work a few days each week. I was feeling good about the effort.
Then I tried to resume a strengthening program I had used a few years back, and ended up with intense back spasms, fully out of commission for a week, then with reduced movement for another two or three weeks. That began a frustrating cycle: every time I would increase my activity, I would end up with an injury. At some point my knee -- my "other" knee, not the "bad" knee that I've had trouble with since age 12 -- started to hurt. It got progressively worse until I was nearly immobilized.
I had some physio, which helped somewhat, but the overall picture was grim. As little as 10 minutes of walking produced back spasms and stabbing pains in my knee.
I was becoming afraid that my back and knee pain were permanent conditions. Perhaps that seems premature, but that's how much anxiety the pain and injuries were causing. I was frustrated and becoming anxious and unhappy.
Various people suggested various things, but I was either unable to do them at all, or my pain would increase.
Enter Katy Bowman
Katy Bowman's Nutritious Movement.
I ordered a very basic program designed for chronic pain. I started the program, and within a few days, my knee pain was markedly reduced. After two weeks, I was walking without pain, and was able to gradually increase my daily and weekly fitness routine. I track my exercise, and the minutes rose from almost zero to 180 or more minutes weekly.
A word about my lower back pain
I first experienced lower back pain in the early '90s, the first time I had a job that required standing for long periods of time. I found some exercises to loosen the tight muscles in that area, and I've used them ever since. Before any sustained walking, I would do these stretches, and that would allow me walk without pain.
Over the last 10 years, that equation started to deteriorate. I was having more lower back pain, more frequently. The stretching would "wear off" sooner. The pain would become more intense and last longer.
I consulted with physiotherapists, but nothing resolved it. One therapist's ideas made it significantly worse.
Katy Bowman's program has me not only stretching the muscles in the lower back, but strengthening the muscles in the upper back. I can now walk for 45 minutes with no back pain -- and if I get a slight twinge, I can adjust my upper back alignment, and it stops!
To me, this borders on the miraculous.
Movement versus exercise
Bowman's philosophy is that both the demands and the comforts of modern life have messed up our alignment and cause us all kinds of trouble. On the one hand, we spend a lot of time driving, and a lot of time sitting at our desks. On the other hand, we are relaxing in cushy furniture, and using all kinds of conveniences that make our lives easier -- or, put another way, allow us use our muscles less.
In addition to her exercise routines, Bowman recommends lifestyle changes, some of which sound good and some of which seem impossible to me. But unlike most programs I have tried, Bowman teaches how to gradually transition to these changes. One example is using a standing desk. If I were to try using a standing desk, I'd soon be in agony. But if I had a gradual plan to do so, and a goal of perhaps using a standing desk half of my desk time, it might be very different.
Bowman also teaches lifestyle changes that I have a hard time believing I could ever do. She wants us to wear minimal footwear, also done through a gradual transition. I have prescription orthotics and I wear hiking boots almost all the time -- i.e., I need a lot of support. Bowman's programs all begin with the stretching and strengthening the feet, something I've never tried. Who knows?
She also teaches a "furniture free" life -- strengthening your muscles to make getting on the floor, sitting on the floor, and getting up from the floor comfortable, and to make floor-sitting a standard habit.
I have a hard time believing I will ever do this! But I am very aware that I used to be able to do all those things comfortably and now cannot.
Bowman makes a distinction between exercise and movement, comparing exercise to vitamin supplements, and movement to a healthy diet. She wants us to move our bodies more like our pre-modern ancestors did -- to stand, squat, lift, and carry.
Here are some examples of what Bowman calls a "movement-rich life". Some of it seems obsessive to me, not unlike people who struggle with exercise bulimia or compulsive exercise -- people who can never sit still because they are compelled to burn calories every waking moment. I know that's not what Bowman means, but some of her acolytes can sound that way.
Where does age fit in
I bought one of Bowman's books geared specifically to seniors, which she wrote with the participation of four older women. (They use the lovely euphemism goldener.) All four have had dramatic results from the Nutritious Movement program. There are stories of knee replacements cancelled, lifelong back pain disappearing, doing all the daily errands on foot.
Each of these women applied themselves to Bowman's programs intensively. They took 2-hour classes, five days a week, and eventually trained to become Nutritious Movement instructors. I'm not going to fit that profile.
On the other hand... Bowman feels that our belief that much of our physical pain and breakdown is down solely to age is misplaced. For example, if our alignment has been wrecked by bad footwear, or endless hours of sitting, then as we get older, that's 10 more years, 20 more years, 30 more years of the bad footwear and the hours of sitting -- and all those years of compensating for the immobility and pain. So age is a factor, but -- Bowman believes -- not necessarily for the reasons we think it is.
Her work is as much about re-training our brains as stretching our muscles. She uses the example of learning how to ride a bicycle. One day you cannot ride a bicycle, you're wobbling around, you're falling off... and then one day, it clicks, and boom, you're riding a bike. Nothing much has changed in your muscles. You haven't built up any new strength. But you have new coordination -- meaning, you've retrained your neural pathways.
Skeptical but proceeding
Normally when I recommend something, I'm all-out about it -- I love it to death and have enthusiastically jumped in the deep end. With Bowman's program, so far, I have only dipped my toes in. But the results have been so remarkable that I want to go further.
One drawback I'm finding in Nutritious Movement is that there are so many sessions, each focusing on different muscle groups. Some are 20 minutes long, but many are an hour or longer. The challenge, for me, is to find a way to use the programs that is challenging, but sustainable.
I don't yet know what that will look like. Bowman offers many different options and I'm hoping that I'll be able to create a path that works for me.