Seeking a New Biological ParadigmFeb 28, 2022 09:31AM ● By Gina Loree Bryan
In the debate over whether diet or exercise is more important for optimal health, it is helpful to consider that food and movement are forms of systemic input that both affect the body similarly at the cellular level. Food is usually assumed to be the source of the components the body uses for growth, metabolism and repair, but it is becoming better understood that through the process of mechanotransduction, physical forces also act upon the behavior of cells. This is the approach that “biomechanist” Katy Bowman, MS, founder of the Nutritious Movement Center, in Sequim, Washington, has taken.
Nutrition is Everywhere
As Bowman explains in her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, mechanotransduction is the process by which mechanical input is converted to biochemical and biological responses by the cells. This renders movement analogous to food when it comes to how cells respond. As she explains, “Both food and movement create a cascade of biochemical signals that alter the state of your physiology.”
The implications of mechanotransduction and its role on biological outcomes are generating excitement in the health science field. A 2016 article published in the Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal outlines the opportunity physical therapists are envisioning for targeted movement healing protocols to affect genetic expression and tissue healing with their patients/clients. For the majority of those outside of the therapeutic relationship seeking practical applications to support everyday health maintenance, it may be helpful to think of movement as a source of nutrition.
A New Science
To understand mechanotransduction better, picture a single cell within an environment of trillions of other cells within a body that is always “loaded” by the surrounding environment, including all the other cells. By virtue of the force of gravity upon mass, all of these cells are being loaded, or “squished”, as Bowman puts it, in some way. Turning, lifting, stretching, breathing, smiling or rolling the eyes will deform the shape of the cells in those areas; the torsion, stretch, shearing or compression of which is then processed as information that affects the cells' activity.
Connect the Dots
Based on mechanotransduction, it is a given that every movement and non-movement of the body will affect the cells in some way, but the degree to which the cells are nourished by mechanical forces is dependent upon the types and locations of the loads. Consistently engaging in weightlifting will result in the biceps growing larger and stronger, just as wearing ill-fitting shoes over time will produce the response of calluses or blisters.
This is an important point, because exercise regimens are often approached with the intent of having a generalized, whole body benefit. For the cardiovascular or respiratory systems, this may be the case, depending on the exercise. Yet, in the same way that as a weight-bearing load on the upper arms will not do much for quadriceps, the body may be left with localities of under-moved parts on a cellular level—localized, movement-nutrient deficiencies, even within an overall active body. In tandem with the rapidly growing field of epigenetics, it is likely that more research into mechanotransduction will shed light on the specific relationships between under-served cellular “neighborhoods” and common degenerative diseases. This is not to say that exercise isn't relevant to vitality, or that there's a right or wrong form to exercise. It's simply to place exercise as one “food” group within the context of a much larger, life-as-movement diet.
Challenge What is Normal
Remembering that everything the body does comprises movement, nutrient-rich “squish” is always available. Any time the body is reconfigured and even slightly challenged in novel ways, the cells are receiving and converting those nutrients into instructions to grow, metabolize or repair.
The most immediate obstacle is learning how to think outside of the exercise box; to look at life and the world as an diverse buffet of movement opportunities. Also, with each advancement in technology offering more ease and convenience, the appeal of movement decreases; thus each generation moves less than the cohort before it.
Although exercise is generally accepted as important, movement is still perceived as optional. As research in mechanobiology and related fields progresses, robust and dynamic movement hopefully will be conveyed, embraced and promoted with the same health imperative as a well-rounded whole foods diet.
Move Smarter, Not Harder
A movement-nutrient-dense life can begin with moving more and in wider variations. It may be helpful to consider four main movement food groups when intentionally constructing an active lifestyle: walking, sitting (unsupported), lifting/carrying and hanging/climbing. Within each of these larger components (think macronutrients, like protein, carbohydrates and fats) are the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, organic acids and trace minerals).
For example, walking is a complex movement made up of a number of smaller movements. Walking on flat surfaces with supportive footwear is more physically accessible to a wider population than walking barefoot on a mountain trail studded with rocks and roots. Yet, on the cellular level, a larger number of localized “neighborhoods” would be served by the latter in terms of the variations of loads. Much like moving toward a healthier food diet, it's easier (and less injurious) to acclimate slowly. Incorporating one new vegetable or movement strategy into a daily or weekly regimen will be easier to integrate and make a habit than the less consistent, go-for-broke workout.
Nourishment Versus Comfort
Begin by recalibrating a mindset around the concept of effort, seeing that as a healthy input rather than something to be outsourced. It's learning to interpret the body's signals of stiffness, achiness and tension as a need for nourishment via movement, rather than for greater comfort.
Movement snacks can be created by making everyday activities less convenient, yet more nutritious. Examples include using more hand-powered kitchen gadgets, walking to errands if they're within a manageable distance, hanging up laundry, or placing often-used items high up on shelves or down low, where overhead reach or squatting is necessary for access.
Consider interior arrangements that passively move the body more. The status quo of furniture design, flat floors, standardized stairs, macadam walking trails and car seats cultivates a repetitive, narrow range of motions and joint angles. Engaging actively with the environment using variations in standing, sitting, squatting or lying down can be supported with living and working spaces that organically move the body in micro-nutrient-like ways, such as a river rock mat in front of the sink; a low coffee table that doubles as a work desk; cushions and pillows that replace couches, recliners or dining room chairs.
In the natural world, there are myriad variations and relationships that the human body knows and expects well and from which it will always extract and enjoy nourishment. Some of these suggestions may seem radical or drastic. but they represent just a few possibilities available to explore.
Gina Loree Bryan is a certified shiatsu practitioner and restorative exercise coach offering services and classes online and in Chester and Lancaster counties. For more information, call 610-304-5120, email [email protected] or visit EmbodyGrace.com.
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