In developing my own approach to exercise and movement in general, I’ve been forced to confront my own limitations. If I do too much I trigger a flare, if I do too little I rapidly get stiff and sore, so moderation and pacing has been key.
Ironically I think this has given me a pretty good perspective on exercise, one that’s quite in tune with how our ancestors moved. They didn’t do the bench press, or do a high intensity session on a stationary bike, they didn’t run a marathon or spend 20 minutes stretching every day.
They walked a lot, danced and played a bit, did the odd sprint and occasionally needed to lift heavy things, they also rested a lot. Of course I’ve invented this pattern of ancestral exercise to suit my own bias. Roman soldiers probably marched for 30 miles a day for weeks on end in full armour carrying heavy packs, some hunters probably jogged 20 miles every day, but it suits me to think that on average I’m not far off. I’ve written this guide to moving well based on my own very basic and minimal exercise approach, it definitely won’t work for everyone, but it seems to work well for me.
My basic recommendations are intentionally simple, easy to follow and fairly easy to achieve. I think they provide a good baseline level of fitness that’s sustainable:
- Walk a minimum of 10,000 steps every day, ideally broken into two walking sessions (morning and late afternoon). Other aerobic exercises are not really a substitute for walking, we are born to walk, they should be considered a complement
- Sprint 2-3 times a week, walking up hill fast enough to need to stop and rest counts as sprinting, swimming or cycling as fast as you can for a minute or so, 5-10 times might be better. I like the exercise bike for sprints, although its not often that I’m well enough to do them.
- Do strength exercises at least a few times a week. My favourites are the classic body weight exercises, press-ups, bench dips, pull-ups and the amazing plank, do these to exhaustion. All other guides you read will recommend doing multiple sets and doing all four+ exercises every other day. This is much too intense for me, it would trigger a flare for certain. I just do one set each day of a single exercise and cycle through them every 4 days. I can’t imagine our ancestors doing much more and I continue to improve month on month.
- Stretch multiple times a day, paying particular attention to the Hamstrings, Achilles tendons, and the Shoulders. I’m sure I need to stretch more, but I can only sustain activities I enjoy.
- Don’t sit for much more than an hour without moving. I recommend drinking a lot of water while at your desk so you have to get up to pee. Then walk around, maybe stretch, use a toilet that requires a walk up/down stairs.
- Once or twice a week do a longer walk, bike, swim or play sport
- If your body can tolerate it lift weights twice a week, go for maximum intensity rather than duration (I don’t do this, but the evidence is strong that it’s worthwhile, I would do it if it didn’t cause a flare)
- Try and mix exercise and play
Equally important though is not to do too much exercise. The metric that I use is not to do more than 4000 calories of exercise a week, excluding gentle exercise like walking or cycling to the local shops.
I fit my exercise into my daily schedule, I don’t make special time for it:
- I do a towel stretch of my Achilles tendons while still in bed in the morning
- I do the plank when I wake up for a couple of minutes
- I do inclined press-ups and/or dips on benches that I walk past while walking in the park or along the prom
- I do stretches while waiting for the cafe to open
- I do heel raises and drops when climbing the stairs
- I do pull-ups on a door frame bar when I walk past it at home, we leave it up all the time, tall visitors need to duck
- I walk to the swimming pool or cafe first thing in the morning
- I walk to the supermarket at night to buy tomorrows salad and tonight fruit salad
- I sometimes cycle to a coffee shop a three miles away rather than walk to the one a mile away
- During the summer we play ball or Frisbee on the beach
- I walk up and down stairs a couple of times between conference calls
- I use a push mower to cut the lawn
- I watch work videos or company briefings on the exercise bike in my home office
- I do some hiking every other week, with decent hills
Sometimes when I’m flaring I can hardly walk for 5 minutes down the street, I can’t manage more than a few press-ups, other times I can walk 15 miles and do 50. The important thing for me is to keep moving every day, regardless of how little I can do or how slowly I can do it.
This guide is very much attuned to me and my lifestyle, but I think it provides a good baseline for everyone, many people will want to do a lot more but if you do remember the 4000 calorie ‘rule’ and adapt it to your circumstances.
Special notes for those like me:
- Keep moving no matter how bad you feel, even if its just walking up and down stairs, or bottom shuffling.
- If you legs hurt try not to limp, shuffle etc., not only does this make you feel ill (just like smiling makes you feel happy) it can cause more problems than it solves by putting strain on the rest of the body
- Do your normal body weight exercises, but very slowly with perfect form, so for example do 3 slow press-ups and then imagine doing the rest, this slow version is much gentler on the joints
- If you can’t do even slow body weight exercises, invert them, so lie on you back and move your arms as if you are doing a press-up, or plank. Support your feet on a chair and pretend to do chin-ups. Do you also do other slow imaginary exercises, for example do a slow motion imaginary power lift, spear throw etc. Amazingly these build strength pretty well.
- Do gentle stretches
- Get out of bed
- Get dressed
- Get outside the house
The picture today is from the peak of Cat Bells, a nice little climb – who am I kidding, it nearly killed me, even though it is one of the lowest peaks in the Lake District.