How to Move More: A Simple Guide to Physical Activity

This article is an excerpt from my book The Self-Discipline Blueprint.

Ever since the dawn of humanity, we’ve been hunting and gathering, dancing around the fire, walking, running, jumping, climbing, crawling, lifting, swimming, fighting, and having sex. The demands of all these movements have shaped us from head to toe. 

In her book Move Your DNA1, biomechanist Katy Bowman explains that there are more than one trillion cells in your body. Almost every one of them has unique equipment specialized to detect your movement.

And just as diet, stress, and environmental factors can change the expression (or the physical outcome) of your DNA, so can physical activity. 

That is why movement is one of our fundamental habits. Every single thing our bodies do needs movement to work optimally. Functions like immunity, reproduction, and digestion all require us to move.

If we don’t, it doesn’t matter if we sleep sufficiently and eat a healthy diet. Without the loads created by physical activity, these efforts will be thwarted at a cellular level, and we won’t function optimally.

Movement versus Exercise 

There’s a difference between exercise and movement. Weight lifting, trail running, and swimming are examples of exercise. Walking to the store, taking the stairs, and stretching your back are examples of movement.

Both exercise and movement may use your body in similar ways, but to give your body what it needs, it’s still important to understand the difference. You can think of it this way: movement transcends and includes exercise.

The reason this is such a crucial distinction to understand is that we can be active and sedentary. Even if you dutifully show up at the gym every week, your body will still suffer if you spend the rest of the day sitting.

Research has shown that people who spend a lot of time sitting are significantly more likely to die prematurely—regardless if they exercise or not2.

Exercise is important, but we also need to move a lot more. How much more? Well, here’s the thing: these days, most people would be proud if they managed to exercise five hours a week. But that’s not even close to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

They would move up to eight hours a day. And even when they were resting, it was an active kind of rest. They were constantly “on their toes” and ready to move.

Now, the good news is you don’t have to sell your stuff and head off to some cave to be able to move all day. A few small changes in your daily choices can have an enormous impact on your health and vitality. And that’s not all.

The Benefits of Movement

These days, it’s common knowledge that physical activity can help us lose weight, combat diseases, and boost our energy. But there are plenty of other benefits. In his book Spark3, neuropsychiatry expert John Ratey explains:

Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain’s fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.

That’s because movement stimulates the release of positive neurotransmitters, like dopamine (which encourages motivation, attention, and pleasure), serotonin (which enhances learning, mood, and self-esteem), and norepinephrine (which leads to arousal and alertness).

And, most important, movement increases the production of BDNF, a protein which Ratey has dubbed “Miracle-Gro for the brain”:

Researchers found that if they sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning. 

So, movement is just as important for the functioning of the brain as it is for the rest of the body. All in all, it’s crucial for our well-being and performance.

On top of that, movement can also be a tremendous self-discipline booster. Research has found that two months of exercise can be enough to significantly increase the ability to resist temptation and persevere in challenging situations4

Those are some pretty sweet benefits, don’t you think? So, how do you make exercise and movement regular parts of your daily routine? 

Find Your OTMs 

At first glance, making time for daily movement might seem difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. In her book, No Sweat5, motivation scientist Michelle Segar writes that it can be a lot of fun to find what she calls your OTMs—opportunities to move.

When you start looking for them, you’ll be amazed at how often you become aware of free spaces in the day that are perfect for movement.

A handy framework for finding your OTMs is to divide them into what philosopher Brian Johnson refers to as micro, mini, and macro movements6:

  • Micro movements are simple shifts from static to dynamic. For example, stretching every time you open your email, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or changing your sitting position every fifteen minutes.
  • Mini movements are slightly longer dynamic movements. For example, doing a sun salutation every morning, doing five pushups during each break throughout the day, or walking five thousand steps every day.
  • Macro movements are typical exercise sessions. For example, running, dancing, weight lifting, and doing tai chi or yoga.

By regularly engaging in all these kinds of movement, you optimize your daily routine for physical activity and limit the time spent sedentary every day. I recommend you start by picking one micro, one mini, and one macro movement to implement first. For example:

  • back stretches (micro movement);
  • sun salutation (mini movement); and
  • running (macro movement).

Then use the following strategies to make each type of movement a part of your routine.

Create Triggers 

Until your movements have become habitual, you’re going to need cues that remind you to do them. The best way of doing that is to create if-then plans for all of them. For example: 

  • Micro movement: If I open my email, then I will stretch my back. 
  • Mini movement: If I get out of bed in the morning, then I will do a sun salutation. 
  • Macro movement: If I leave the office on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will go running. 

Design Your Environment 

Make sure that your surroundings are designed in a way that nudges you to move without thinking about it. You can, for example: 

  • get a parking space farther away from the office; 
  • place your wastebasket across the room; 
  • get a standing desk; 
  • put your phone someplace where you’ll have to get up to answer it; 
  • do “walk and talks” instead of meetings in which everyone is sitting down. 

Make It a Game 

Each time you finish a micro, mini, and macro movement, write it down in a calendar. At the end of the day, count your movements and see how that day compares to previous days. Keep adding new movements and compete with yourself to move a little more every week.

How to Move More, In Summary

  • There are more than one trillion cells in your body. And almost every one of them has unique equipment specializing in movement.
  • Your body was designed for movement. If it doesn’t get to do that, it won’t function optimally.
  • You can be active and sedentary. Even if you dutifully show up at the gym every week, your body will suffer if you spend the rest of your days sitting.
  • You need both exercise and movement. Exercise includes things like running, yoga, or strength training. Movement includes getting up from your desk, stretching, and walking to the store.
  • Physical activity is crucial not only for your health but also for the functioning of your brain and the strength of your self-discipline.

Action Steps

Find Your OTMs 

✓ Establish your micro, mini, and macro movements.

Create Triggers 

✓ Use if-then plans to remind you to do your movements.

Design Your Environment 

✓ Shape your surroundings so they nudge you to move without thinking about it. 

Make It a Game 

✓ Track your movements, compete with yourself, and try to move a little more every week.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Self-Discipline Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman
  2. Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222 497 Australian Adults
  3. Spark by John Ratey
  4. Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise
  5. No Sweat by Michelle Segar
  6. PNTV: Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman