Moving in Nature: How the Natural World Moves and Shapes Us, as We Move and Shape It

As a Postural Alignment Specialist, it’s my goal at Primal Alignment LLC to help my clients reduce or eliminate pain symptoms by helping them reclaim functional movement and correct joint alignment.

I work with clients whose bodies, most commonly as a result of disuse, have simply forgotten which muscles to engage to do even simple tasks, like lifting the arms overhead to put away a box, looking over their shoulder to back out of the driveway, or crossing their ankle over their knee to tie a shoe.

 The author (right) leading a postural alignment assessment and answering questions for a group class at  Peaceful Winds Yoga Studio  .  ( (Credit: Bonnie Palmer Reed.)

The author (right) leading a postural alignment assessment and answering questions for a group class at Peaceful Winds Yoga Studio((Credit: Bonnie Palmer Reed.)

The result is often pain, as the body rushes to accommodate the movement request, but is forced to compensate: “Which muscles do we use to pick up a fussy, squirming toddler off the floor, again? Well, it’s usually these sets of muscles, but we haven’t used those in a while. Let’s compensate with these muscles, instead. We use those all the time!”

Cue sudden, confusing pain from muscles that finally gave out from overuse or being misused, followed by the all-too-familiar resigning comments of, “I guess I’m just getting too old to do [X] anymore.”

My job is to help these clients realize that dynamic, functional movement isn’t an ever-dwindling resource that steadily declines as they age, but something that can be fought for, reclaimed, and maintained. Just like our bodies crave and need different vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to remain healthy, it also needs (as biomechanist Katy Bowman calls them) movement nutrients.

These are movements you feed your body every day, and they go beyond the usual “30-60 minutes of exercise at least three times a week” advice. Non-exercise movements are just as important—if not more so—than exercise movements (e.g. swimming, running, playing tennis) for helping maintain a functional, pain-free body for life.

Examples of everyday non-exercise "movement nutrients" you can feed your body might include getting up and down from the floor, or squatting down to get a pan from the lower kitchen cabinet, allowing yourself to hang momentarily from a doorframe-mounted pullup bar, walking barefoot on your lawn, whisking ingredients by hand instead of using an electric mixer, etc.

The old adage is right: “Use it or lose it.” Small movements like these are seemingly unimportant, but if you don’t (for example) regularly practice engaging the muscles you need to get yourself up from the floor, you might find one day that you’ve “fallen and can’t get up.”

  (Credit: https://bit.ly/2M4iHmb)

(Credit: https://bit.ly/2M4iHmb)

In addition to running my practice, I also volunteer as the Director of Outreach for The Urban Interface (TUI). In this role, I further TUI’s mission to help people reconnect with nature, by booking events where we share the beauty and importance of nature, primarily through encounters with our Wildlife Ambassadors.

 The author with Hermes, TUI's Great Horned Owl Wildlife Ambassador, at the 2018 Llano Earth Art Festival.

The author with Hermes, TUI's Great Horned Owl Wildlife Ambassador, at the 2018 Llano Earth Art Festival.

However, as I’ve learned more about the role of nature in human health, I’m struck by the connection between how time in nature naturally facilitates the dynamic, “nutritious movements” we all need to maintain healthy and functional bodies. And as I have personally sought more of these “movement nutrients” outdoors, my respect and care for our natural world has only deepened, leading me to greater environmental advocacy and stewardship goals.

Put simply: As I move more in the outdoors, I care more about the outdoors.

But how does movement in nature differ from movement in a gym?

While gyms can offer a great, safe space for movement, (and for those who are differently-abled mobility-wise, they can be a godsend) a gym is designed to only facilitate certain kinds of movement.

Using the squat machine to do squats? Totally fine.

Climbing the squat machine? This would, understandably, be frowned upon.

Likewise, you’d be a nuisance to use a track lane to work on your crawling, or the stairwell’s handrails to practice your balance, and you’d be a downright liability if you decided to hurl kettlebells to work your throwing muscles.

 Don't be this person.  (Credit:  https://gph.is/2xdgNsu)

Don't be this person. (Credit: https://gph.is/2xdgNsu)

Further, the concept of a functional body goes beyond the “big-picture movements,” like squats or crawling.

For example, our feet contain fully one quarter of the total number of bones in our bodies, with intricate muscle systems surrounding them to support dynamic movement. Yet we typically enclose those muscles and bones in tight, non-flexible shoes once we're old enough to toddle, then we walk for the vast majority of our lives only on flat, level surfaces, bemoaning the rare occurrence when we’re forced to walk on anything that isn’t perfectly even.

Then, one day, we find that it actually hurts to walk on uneven surfaces. We chalk it up to old age, completely overlooking that we actively sought the flat, level and cushioned our whole lives. We fail to recognize that our feet muscles (and the entire muscle chain that arises from them, going from the soles of our feet, all the way up to the top of our head and above the eyebrows) have simply forgotten, due to disuse, how to handle uneven surfaces.

These muscles were—and very likely still are—capable of walking on uneven surfaces. They’ve just lost the functionality. A functionality that could be regularly worked and reminded of itself in the natural world, where smooth textures and flat surfaces are rare occurrences, regularly posing new challenges not only to the muscles and bones of the feet and ankles, but the entire chain of muscles above them, as well.

When I go for walks in my neighborhood, or am at the park or another natural setting, it’s not uncommon for people to stare at the weirdo who’s intentionally walking alongside the sidewalk on the grass in her minimalist shoes, or who’s balancing on a fallen log, or walking up and down steep hills, or carrying around a large, irregularly-shaped rock using different arm positions.

The variability, the different muscular and functional challenges posed by irregularly-shaped “equipment” and wild environments, can’t be easily replicated in a man-made environment like a gym, so I seek out natural spaces to move in as often as I can. I believe that we as humans are evolved to move in the natural world, and that when we don’t, the long-term effects can be disastrous. We need movement nutrients to keep our bodies healthy and functional, and wild spaces offer a superior opportunity for giving our bodies a more complete "movement multivitamin."

Something else happens when you move your body through the natural world

You begin to notice things, not only in your body as you test it with different loads and movements in untamed spaces, but in the spaces themselves.

You better understand the devastating effects of the litter from single-use materials when you walk by a Whataburger cup slowly decomposing into hundreds of tiny Styrofoam pieces in a bed of bluebonnets, or see water bottles overflowing out of a trash can at the park.

You begin to question why you don’t hear more birds or insects, then start to advocate for greater biodiversity in your area, to reintroduce life into your surroundings.

Places you normally race by in your car without a thought suddenly become like old friends, because you’ve traipsed through them and feel as if you know the secrets of their spaces intimately.

“That’s the grove with the huge pecan tree in the middle.”

“That vacant lot has a tiny spring hidden in the back.”

 “Muscadine grapes grow in that thicket close to that sidewalk.”

“I wonder if that duck nest I found near that pond is still there?”

Once you know wild spaces, even if they appear uninteresting at first glance, you feel nourished by your special knowledge of their hidden diversity and secret intrigues. This knowledge of a wild space can give us a sense of place, of grounding, of home. And just as we would fight for our friends or our home, we will also fight for wild spaces once we feel we know them. And what better way to get to know a space and advocate for its health and wildness, than to move in it?