From the moment of conception, our ability to move in ever challenging environments is linked to our survival. It is instinctual. It is developmental. It is evolving. It is ever dynamic.
THE HUNTER GATHERERS
Our movements around 4000 years ago were driven by our survival instincts. Physical development followed a natural path determined by the practical demands of life in a wild environment, and to avoid threats and survive. We were tribal, and our individuality, physical ability and uniqueness contributed to our role in the group. In hunter-gatherer tribes everyone had to be strong – men, women and children. The scales were tipped, and in facing daily life or death challenges and situations, only the strongest survived. We lived in cyclical, seasonal changes at the mercy of Mother Nature and Father Time.
The strength and mobility of early man was not developed through structured programs or methods but rather the instinctive, necessary practice of functional, practical and adaptable movement skills. We needed to be able to perform a variety of complex movements - like running, balancing, jumping, crawling, climbing, lifting, throwing, catching and fighting. We can also assume that some early forms of dancing were performed when bellies were full and we were safe from danger. Early Man moved naturally with the demands of life.
Between 10000 BC and 8000BC, Man’s transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer led to dramatic changes in physical activity. Tasks became more repetitive and required a more limited range of movement. The need for performing complex movements such as running, jumping, balancing, jumping crawling and climbing were greatly diminished and rarely performed or performed in a simpler fashion. We swopped trees for ladders - our movements were becoming more constrained and predictable. We still moved naturally with the demands of life.
As time moved on, civilizations rose and fell through war and conquest. Physical training was imposed on all young boys and young men to prepare them for battle. Military training had similarities to movement performed in nature by our cavemen brethren, but with more structure and a different goal. Young men practised fundamental skills such as walking and running on uneven terrains, jumping, crawling, climbing, lifting, carrying heavy things, throwing and catching. Unarmed training and weapons training were included.
Civilized populations valued physical culture for sports too. Records of athletic competitions exist from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece where the Olympic Games were created. All these early sports were based on practical, natural movement skills and were fundamentally related to the preparedness needed for war. Examples are running (sometimes in armour and shield), jumping, throwing (javelin or discus), and martial skills and fighting (striking and wrestling).
THE MIDDLE AGES
Outside of military training, the Greeks first and then the Romans began celebrating the body’s beauty and strength and embraced physical training as both a philosophical ideal and an essential part of a complete education. They were the first to acknowledge the “sound mind, sound body” approach to physical wellbeing, beyond the practical necessities.
The Renaissance era brought a greater interest in the body; anatomy, biology, health and physical education. As early as 1553, a Spaniard by the name of Critobal Mendez wrote the first book exclusively addressing physical exercise and its benefits. Several chapters even provide specific advice on drills and games for women, children and the elderly. 16 years later, Italian Physicist Mercurialis published what was to be the first book on Sports Medicine. This strongly influenced the wave of physical education and training methods that started to emerge in Europe two centuries later.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The start of The Industrial Revolution in 1760 marked the transition from manual production to machine based, and quickly generated social, economic and cultural trends that changed the way people lived, worked and moved. It was the start of society becoming more sedentary, spurring a new movement towards intentional physical exercise.
By 1774, in Germany the emphasis on physical exercise and games - including running, riding, fencing, vaulting and dancing - inspired the founding of many physical training institutions. Physical training began to be more systemized, included as an integral part of the educational curriculum.
1810 saw Frederick Jahn arrive on the scene. Known as “the Father of Gymnastics” he was an essential pioneer of physical exercise. His Gymnastic movements spread rapidly. The essence and end goal of his gymnastic and calisthenics methods were above all, functional, practical and not artistic. He advocated the practice of natural movements like running, jumping, balancing and climbing. By contrast the Swedes used less equipment and focussed on calisthenics, breathing and stretching exercise as well as massage. All movements had to be performed correctly and collectively in a freestanding fashion under a leader’s direction. Both these methods can still be traced in modern exercise programs.
The prime focus of physical education and training continued to be preparing young men for combat. Most training methods were based on the so-called “natural method”, coined by French Navy Officer George Herbert after studying the principles of his predecessors. His methods were entirely based on natural skills such as walking, running balancing, jumping, crawling, climbing, manipulative skills (lifting throwing, pushing pulling) and self-defence (adapted from Indian and Eastern Martial Arts), all of which were practiced on obstacle courses both indoors and outside.
LA BELLE EPOQUE
This period in Europe and in America between the Franco Prussian War and the beginning of World War 1 is known as the “beautiful era” in Western history, characterized by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity and technological, scientific and cultural innovations.
At the same time as Georges Herbert developed and promoted his ‘natural method’, another Frenchman - Professor Edmond Desbonnet - managed to make physical exercises and strength training fashionable through the publication of fitness journals. He photographed male and female athletes for these journals and he opened a chain of exercise clubs.
This not only laid the foundation for a strong physical culture in Europe but also for fitness as an industry - ‘Fitness to look good’.
His clubs were a reaction against the decadence of the era, during which people lived without thinking of their physical condition and health. After the Franco-Prussian war, the working class also started to gain access to the physical culture movement, previously reserved for high society. It was the turning point for movement and exercise.
We began to forsake ‘natural methods’ where we exercised to improve functional demands, to ‘unnatural methods’ where we exercised for aesthetic beauty. In 1893 Eugen Sandow gained fame for his ‘muscle display performances’, appearing on stage and in a movie in Germany in 1894. He helped develop the ‘Grecian Ideal”, the “Perfect Physique”, and his books Strength and how to Obtain it and Sandow’s System of Perfect Training laid out specific prescriptions for weight training using equipment to achieve ideal proportions that are still used today.
THE MODERN AGE - THE AGE OF TECHNOLOGY AND THE SEDENTARY MAN
So much has changed in a relatively short space of time. Most obvious is our sedentary, comfortable lifestyle in an age of abundance: abundant technology, fast foods and fast cars. Today our idea of hunting and gathering is the mere push of a button. We run around in our fast cars and can do almost everything whilst sitting.
Throughout history we have moved naturally with the demands of life. But today we have created a culture where life has no movement demands! This has created the opportunity for an ever-growing exercise empire of gigantic proportions. It recognizes that our survival is not dependant on our movement abilities but rather that our lack of movement comes with dire consequences and new challenges for humanity - obesity, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory conditions and diabetes to name but a few. It has become necessary for us to invent ways of moving in unnatural circumstances, using unnatural methods together with man-made equipment trying trick ourselves into believing that demanding movement is as good as moving on demand. To a large degree this has been a failure.
Over the course of the century, thousands of methods and programs have emerged - all promising to get us into the best shape of our lives in the quickest amount of time possible. However, the results are generally limited to improvements in our physical appearance. Just think back… Jane Fonda’s aerobics, Swiss Ball, Wii Fit, HIIT, CrossFit, Yoga, Les Mills- PUMP, boxercise, Spinning, 8-minute abs, Core classes, Martial Arts, Tai bo and Tai Chi and the list continues….
We have moved further and further away from the basics, whilst trying to engage a society driven by technology, instant gratification, is easily bored and distracted and always hunting for something new, gathering new acquisitions. Overwhelmingly people seem to be motivated to exercise in order to look fit and look good. Life is no longer about having a healthy body that can perform functional practical life skills.
TODAY'S REALITY: SITTING SYNDROME
There is widespread awareness of the importance of exercise and there are gyms all over in every community where we can work out. We know so much more about how the body works, yet for most, exercise is seen as a chore, something we are forced to do because we think we should, or are told we must. Despite the growing health industry people have never been so physically inactive. A recent WHO report indicates that life expectancy in the US dropped for the first time since 1993. The health of modern man is declining despite advanced medical technologies and the thriving health and fitness industry.
Most pertinent is that most of us trying to address our fitness needs are confused at what modality to choose. We’re caught up in the world of advertising and compelled to give every new fad a go. We’ve lost clarity and simplicity. We’ve lost our ability to acknowledge our own expertise regarding our own bodies.
“I see the age of fitness tech, with connected gadgets and their apps, sensors and wires, the age of ‘bio hacking’ and exercise efficiency the era of ubiquitous self-quantification where people obsessively check out data curves on a screen, trying to manage their health and fitness in the most scientific way possible. What I see starts to resemble a technological, trans humanistic approach to the body’s health. Is this really where we should be heading?”
“Art of Manliness.com” by a Guest Contributor
In response, we ask ourselves whether we need more research to develop more technologically advanced programs and equipment, or whether we need to simplify our approach and go back to basics.
So how do we reclaim our authentic movement and exercise appropriately in this current passage of time in the world, and at this time in our life cycle, using natural, back-to-basic methods?
Throughout our history, movement has followed the demands of the times - caveman, farming, famine, fighting. Demands change but the fact that the body is designed to move has not. As we look for health and wellness in our Midlife, acknowledging that time has changed us and that we live in ever-changing times, we need to define our goals for the future and what we wish to accomplish as time moves on.
“We are meant to grow strong and to age gracefully." - Gary Cook, Functional movement expert.
Welcome to TheOptimal.me and our Movement as Therapy (MaT) programme. Our back-to-basics approach to movement is unique and accessible to everyone. Our focus is on functional movement addressing modern life, the demands of our times and the time in our lives.
For a more great reasons to try functional movement, look out for the next article in this series written by Physiotherapist and Pain expert Simone Levy, “Movement Today”.