Katy Bowman. (Photo: Mahina Hawley)
Katy Bowman. (Photo: Mahina Hawley)

Katy Bowman on Why “Movement Nutrition” Matters

The trained biomechanist and author argues for making better daily movement choices and reintegrating ancestral movements into our lives.
By Ekin Balcıoğlu
November 14, 2023
14 minute read

The writer, speaker, and biomechanist Katy Bowman is at the forefront of the “movement movement,” which aims to challenge the way we perceive movement and how we incorporate it into our daily lives. Transcending traditional exercise routines, her work focuses on the concept of “movement nutrition,” a kind of bodily nourishment achieved through both full-body engagement and targeted exercises for individual body parts. As one of journalist and former first lady of California Maria Shriver’s “Architects of Change” and a prominent figure in the “walking movement,” Bowman has collaborated with companies such as Patagonia, Nike, and Google; authored several books, including the best-selling Move Your DNA (2014), Movement Matters (2016), and most recently, Rethink Your Position (2023); and founded the Washington-based company Nutritious Movement. Across all of her work, she promotes her message of “move more, move more body parts, move more for what you need.”

Here, Bowman discusses how “movement malnutrition” impacts our health, argues for making better daily movement choices, and highlights the importance of reintegrating ancestral movements into our lives.

In Move Your DNA, you note that many ailments today are related to insufficient movement. Can you explain what you call “movement malnutrition,” and how it impacts our health?

We could start with what movement nutrition is. As a framework, it looks very similar to dietary nutrition, where not only do you require sufficient calories, but your calories need to contain the right macronutrients—fat, protein, carbohydrate. Micronutrients would be the next level. Even with a good blend of macronutrients, it’s quite possible to still have nutritional deficiencies. Movement nutrition is the same. We need to move enough—that would be the equivalent to [consuming enough] calories—through certain categories of movement, balanced well—for instance, cardiovascular, strength, mobility, and flexibility.

What would be the equivalent of the micronutrients?

Even if you labor all day, you might just be doing the same movements over and over, so you could have parts of your body that are overused and parts that are underused, in the same way that you could be eating nutritious food, but only one or two specific food items. A healthy movement diet includes not only moving more—which is where a lot of people stop thinking about it—but also the diversity of the movements. You might see a physical therapist for your micronutrients, for instance, if you’ve sustained an injury in a tiny muscle that never gets used and they give you an exercise to ameliorate that. Or you might have a small habit that is overusing this or that movement food, and you need to dial it back.

What are some practical tips for making better movement choices throughout the day? I know you are especially an advocate of a daily walk.

Yes, let’s start breaking things down a bit. You need your daily moving calories, but just as you wouldn’t want to eat an entire day’s food in one sitting, you don’t have to get your movements in all at once, and in fact it’s better not to. If you can find ten- or fifteen-minute opportunities over the course of the day, that might be an easier way to get more movement calories. Then as far as macronutrients, if you are moving for exercise or for pleasure, perhaps you could get to work on your bike rather than via car or bus. Start considering a diversification of your modes of movement, lest you be drawn to the same movement meal again and again.

Even if you have a regimen that’s working for you, try to add to it. If you ride your bike daily, maybe add fifteen minutes of dancing in the kitchen—something that looks very different. Or if most of your movement is cardiovascular and intense, stretch while you’re watching TV at night, so that you get a different category of movement in those minutes.

What are some tips for getting in our movement micronutrients?

Start thinking of the shape of your body throughout the day. I explain it this way: If you imagine a star at every one of your joints, your body is making a constellation. So there’s a constellation while working on the computer, a constellation while taking a walk, a constellation while riding a bike. Can you refine those constellations, for instance, by improving your posture at your desk? You have many joints in your body, and they’re there to allow you a different way of doing the tasks that you’re already doing. Think of a star for every single one of your vertebrae—not just, you know, a star at your shoulder and a star at your hip. The more you change up those shapes, the more movement micronutrients you’ll be getting.

How can people set up their workspaces to promote better bodily alignment and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal issues?

You could try enacting different constellations while doing whatever your work is. My advice is the same, whether you’re doing computer work or much more physical work. You can adjust your pelvis, adjust the position of your head, change the curve of your spine. Mix up what you sit on. If I were on a ball right now, my constellation could be constantly shifting while I’m doing my work—some parts of me would be active even as other parts were relatively still.

You note in your book Rethink Your Position that extremely simple movements such as chewing can impact cognitive function and overall mental well-being.

Yes. The shape of our anatomy is quite old, even if the environment it occupies is quite new. We can all easily imagine what would happen to our leg muscles if we very rarely got up out of a chair: They would atrophy. But our muscles aren’t just moving us around. Their movements also serve multiple functions like delivering nutrients, getting oxygen to different tissues of the body, aiding the immune system.

One of our strongest muscles is in the jaw, the masseter muscles. Our diets have changed so radically that we’ve stopped masticating tough foods. Many of our calories are now literally taken as liquids. But it turns out that regular chewing is part of how the brain gets its blood flow. Society doesn’t need us to use certain muscle groups very much anymore, but our physical tissues evolved in a context where those movements were always happening. I’m starting to see jaw exercisers on the market, because researchers do recognize that this is an issue. But could you just look at your diet and ask yourself: “Am I drinking a lot of my calories? Could I instead eat more whole carrots, whole apples, dried fruits, dried fish?”

Many people experience daily aches and pains. How can they identify the specific areas of their body that need attention? What are some simple exercises or adjustments to improve those areas?

Most people know which areas of their body don’t feel good simply by listening and paying attention. But just because a certain area of your body is experiencing pain doesn’t necessarily mean that the missing micronutrient pertains directly to that area. I teach people how the anatomical parts articulate [themselves]. Maybe your shoulder joint needs rotation, either internal and external. Through trying out little movements, head to toe, we see where certain parts move well and others don’t. It’s quite prescriptive in nature. It requires having someone who knows how those parts move watch you and instruct you, and then learning how to evaluate yourself.

Your book Move Your DNA notes that the human body evolved to perform specific moments like walking, squatting, hanging, and carrying. In a convenience-centric culture, how can individuals reintegrate these moments into daily life for better overall health?

Well, we should clarify that many of these movements are still intact in many cultures around the world. But to answer your question, sitting and standing and squatting are things you inevitably do all the time if you have children. But still, you can create a situation at home where not all the sitting surfaces are exactly a chair’s height. Opt for sitting directly on the floor! Walking is, again, not an outdated movement, although it’s rapidly becoming very unpracticed. But walking to do chores, walking for entertainment, walking with friends for bonding time—giving purpose to walking is one key way to help preserve it.

Movement comes very naturally to children, but as we grow up, we’re no longer spending our free time in places like playgrounds or trees. So can you convert your living space into something more like those environments? Can you install a pull-up bar in a doorway? It’s low-profile, it’s not an eyesore, it’s easy. And it allows you to cultivate a really nourishing upper-body movement and grip strength. Our grip strength is collectively diminishing as more people swipe and type as opposed to hand and arm movements that require more muscles.

My grandmother, who is 87, walks to the farmer’s market, then carries her vegetables back home. It brings her joy, and it’s beautiful. We say, “Grandma, can I do that for you?” And she replies, “No, no, I love doing it.”

The joyful part is so important. When you’re in your middle age, the busiest age, you think, “It’s so much better to get this done faster. Or maybe I don’t even have to do it, I’ll pay someone else to do it.” But when you get to the age where things slow down a little, you want to still be strong enough to take care of yourself. Not just the physiology, the brain and the body, but the way you think about yourself as being relevant and capable. And you have to do it through middle age to be able to do at an older age; it is incredibly difficult otherwise. Your older body is dictated by what you do in your middle age, just like your middle age is dictated by what you did in your earlier age.

We’re the first generation to wholesale jump on the “someone else can bring me everything” bandwagon.

This is all outside of disability, of course. If you have disabilities, it’s quite possible that you need to outsource certain motions. But working to your personal capacity, whatever it is, is crucial.

Your book Movement Matters explores the connection between sedentarism, privilege, and nature. How can individuals become more aware of their personal relationship with sedentarism and make conscious choices to increase movement in their lives?

Much of my work involves teasing out the difference between movement and exercise. We tend to pursue movement these days in the form of exercise only. But it’s very challenging to exercise multiple hours a day, because when you’re exercising, that’s the only thing that’s happening. Only people with abundant free time are able to do that. There’s a very small category of people for whom adequately tending to their body through exercise is a possibility. For the rest of us, we need to fit movement into the non-leisure moments of life: moving more for transportation, moving more in the home. People don’t even clean their homes much anymore—they hire others to clean, or they get a robot cleaner. People used to wash and hang all their own laundry.

Don’t just ask yourself, “Did I exercise today or not?” You can call yourself active when really you’re still quite sedentary. You can begin to change your relationship with sedentarism by paying attention. Look around and realize, “Hmm, I’ve outsourced most of my movement to other people.” Or, “I’m spending almost all of my time inside my dwelling.” Embrace discomfort. Live more outside of the exoskeleton you’ve built. Being outside not only takes more movement, it involves regulating your temperature via either sweating or goosebumps, shivering. These are valuable bodily movements. If you never leave spaces that are thermostat-controlled, you lose these abilities to move. Try eating outside. Go on a picnic. You were going to eat lunch anyway—why not do it sitting on the ground? Now you’re working on your flexibility, too.

To finish, what to you, Katy, is the good life?

The good life is meeting all of my actual needs—sleep, food, movement, community, nature—with as little distraction from the nonessentials as possible, but punctuated with regular celebrations. Celebration is so important to me for a good life.