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Zoo Human Syndrome: Results in Chronic Pain, Depression & More

Uncage the wild animal within you

Story at-a-glance

  • Humans are suffering from “zoo human syndrome,” a cooped-up, caged-animal type of life that results in chronic pain, immobility, depression and lack of vitality
  • MovNat, or mobility through natural movements, is a fitness program designed to help you reclaim your ability to move naturally
  • MovNat focuses on real-life practical movements, things like jumping over obstacles, climbing and lifting and throwing objects, and encompasses locomotive, manipulative and even some combative skills
  • Increasing natural movement in your daily life can help you improve stability, balance, focus, strength and mental well-being

By Dr. Mercola

The key to staying healthy is to move well and regularly. Not just exercise: For over four decades I exercised for at least an hour a day, yet I really did not have a good movement practice and I sat for many hours when I was not exercising. Once I gave up sitting regularly and engaged in a movement practice my back pain disappeared. I have been very impressed with the MovNat exercises to get your body moving the way it was designed.

The video above features some MovNat movements designed to increase your mobility in about 10 minutes per day. MovNat is a “fitness for the real world” program created by coach Erwan Le Corre. The featured mobility exercises are appropriate for all fitness levels and represent basic, yet incredibly effective, movements that many humans have lost touch with. Your body is designed for movement, yet the average American spends 13 hours a day sitting.

Add in another eight hours, on average, spent sleeping, and you’ve got 21 hours a day spent in a sedentary position.1 This leaves just three hours a day for movement when, in order to be optimally healthy, you should spend no more than three hours sitting while staying active for the rest of the time (aside from your time spent asleep). There is clearly a large disconnect between what is optimal and what happens in reality for most Americans, particularly those employed full-time in an office-type environment.

Positive changes, such as the growing use of standing workstations, have been made, but many people are still far too sedentary for their own good. Some try to remedy this by going to the gym, but even then it’s not typically enough to compensate for the lack of movement that occurs during most other hours of the day. Further, even among exercisers, you may only move your body in a set range of movements allowed for by your particular workout or piece of gym equipment. Real life isn’t like that.

At one time in the not too distant past, humans pushed their bodies to the limit, bending, jumping, stretching and utilizing the full range of motion and agility that came naturally. In the modern day, many have lost touch with their body’s natural movement abilities, but they’re still there — just waiting to be reawakened.

MovNat: Mobility Through Natural Movements

MovNat operates on the premise that modern-day humans are suffering from what they call “zoo human syndrome,” a cooped-up, caged-animal type of life that results in chronic pain, immobility, depression and lack of vitality. To recover, you need to reclaim your ability to move naturally. Erwan told Breaking Muscle:2

“It’s hard to wake up a zoo human, because there’s a difference between the animals in the zoo and us. The animal in the zoo knows they are in the zoo. They know they are captive and are not free. We think we are free, but we’re not. The cages are virtual and, in fact, the bars reside in our own self-imposed limitations, whether we are conscious of them or not.”

MovNat goes beyond the strength training or cardio workouts you may be used to in the gym, focusing instead on real-life practical movements, things like jumping over obstacles, climbing and lifting and throwing objects. Erwan explains that conventional fitness programs compartmentalize strength training and cardio while MovNat’s programs are all movement based, even going beyond conditional and functional movements like pullups, pushups or balancing on a BOSU ball. Erwan said:3

“Just because you’ve done functional things doesn’t mean you’re going to be practical and efficient at climbing a tree, or lifting a fallen log, or balancing on a tree across a river. They [functional movement drills] are supposed to help these movements, but if you were to actually train these movements, then you have a direct diagnostic level of physical competence. What can you actually do that’s real, that’s practical?”

Locomotive Skills Precede Manipulative Ones

Locomotive skills like walking, running, jumping and hopping are an important foundational aspect of MovNat, and mastering them takes precedence over manipulative skills, such as being able to carry heavy objects (including weights). This makes sense, since you have to be able to move your own body effectively and efficiently each day of your life, and if you cannot, you will have difficulty moving on to manipulating loads.

If you focus solely on strength training or manipulative skills, putting the cart before the horse, as Erwan puts it, you not only reduce your ability to use your strength for practical purposes but also increase your risk of injury. “The ability to move your own body well comes first, always,” he says, adding, “I know, ‘mobility drills’ can be easily disregarded and then discarded because they often sound or look boring, as if they were optional. The point is, they’re not.”4

That being said, MovNat encompasses all of this, in progressively challenging formats. From mastering locomotive movement skills, manipulative skills and also some combative skills, like striking and grappling, MovNat can lead to improvements in:

Mobility Stability
Movement skills Balance
Focus Applicability of the strength you already possess
Physical competence for practical performance

Natural Movements Have Become Unfamiliar, but Getting Back to Nature Is Best

Many people despise the thought of training on an elliptical machine or doing bicep curls in the gym, and perhaps there’s an inherent reason for this. While movement is natural, these types of programmed movements are not. Consider a wild tiger, eagle or horse, Erwan says:5

“The horse will run and jump. The tiger will also walk and crawl, balance, climb, jump. The eagle will fly … the reason those animals are the way they are and move the way they do is that it’s just their nature. They don’t come up with super complicated, sophisticated drills presented in fitness experiments. It’s something completely basic, yet powerfully effective and real.”

Humans have species-specific movements, too, but most of us have lost touch with them. That’s where MovNat comes in, helping people to develop physical competence through the use of progressively challenging movement skills. While many of the skills can be practiced in nature, on playgrounds or in parks, you can also devise a space in your backyard or use a specially designed MovNat gym.

An example is the tuck pop-up, demonstrated above. It requires a low wall about 4 to 6 feet high and a horizontal bar, ideally 4 inches in diameter, placed across the top, 5 or 6 feet high. This particular movement is the culmination of a four-week MovNat program.6 At the end of the four weeks (give or take, depending on your starting fitness level), the goal is to be able to effectively and efficiently perform the tuck pop-up.

The first week starts with a dead hang, side swing and forearm hangs, progressing to side swings, forearm pullups, forearm hand knee tucks and weighted forearm pullups in the later weeks. Each week has a progressively more challenging goal:

  • Week One: Hold the active forearm hang for 10 seconds
  • Week Two: Perform two perfect low-to-medium forearm pullups in a row
  • Week Three: Perform five perfect low-to-medium forearm pullups in a row, followed by one low-to-high forearm pullup
  • Week Four: Perform one tuck pop-up successfully at the end of the week

Better Movement Frees Your Mind and Body to Do Greater Things

At the heart of MovNat’s foundation is the freedom of both movement and mind, which really go hand in hand. “The commercial fitness industry, what we see on TV and in magazines, has most people believing that being in shape is about looking fit and not being fit. It’s about discipline and pushing yourself hard so you can burn calories for a weight loss kind of thing, mostly for cosmetic, superficial results,” Erwan explains.7

“It is mechanistic and reductionist. It is such a radical impoverishment of our true potential.” On the other hand, focusing on natural movements requires you to be mindful and strengthening your body is essential to your well-being. He continues,

“[M]ovement is the first experience of freedom. If you cannot move anymore — and especially if you can’t move well because you neglected your body for years and years, never moved, never ate right, and let your body become degraded — you’ve lost a big chunk of your freedom.”

Not to mention, it’s long been known that exercise is linked to happiness and lower rates of depression, but even nonexercise activity is linked to psychological health benefits. In one study of more than 10,000 people using data collected from cellphone apps (including that from accelerometers on users’ phones), it was found that more physical activity — exercise and nonexercise — is linked to increased happiness.

Further, people are happier in the moments when they are more physically active.8 If that is true, then imagine how much happier you might be if you spent the majority of your waking hours engaged in active movement instead of sedentary behaviors.

Other Takes on Natural Movement

MovNat is just one of a handful of fitness options you can try out if you’re interested in adding more natural movement to your life. Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement,” similarly promotes the transition from conventional regimented exercise to a more “global movement” view.

In Bowman’s case, the focus is on staying active throughout the day, along with participating in real-world activities to stay fit while avoiding unhealthy repetitive postures and movements. She even removed most of the furniture in her home to encourage what she calls “nutritional movement:”

“When I was a full-time working parent of two small children, I didn’t have time to do things like corrective exercises. I didn’t have time to take exercise classes that I had done before to help me mobilize particular areas. But then one day, I noticed that 30 minutes of the time I spent in a class to mobilize my hips is essentially sitting on the floor. I can do that. I just have to choose not to sit on my couch. [So] I started sitting on the floor …

I just started recognizing that half of what I did for exercise, whether it was going to walk, jog, take a yoga class, or whatever it was to mobilize or strengthen could be found in just living my life. I didn’t have a stroller for my kids. I carry them. I was lamenting that I couldn’t get to any sort of training class to train my upper body, and then I realized carrying my children is probably the most functional upper body task that I can do …

In the same way, I don’t stock my freezer with ice cream just in case there’s a time that I want to eat it, I don’t stock my home with furniture to make not moving easier on me … It’s a cultural phenomenon, the fact that we’ve all stocked our homes with a lot of furniture to make being sedentary so simple. I thought, ‘I’m a pretty logical academic-minded person. I’ll just remove the problem.’ The problem was the couch. Now it’s not an option. It’s been great ever since.”

How to Get More Natural Movement Into Your Life Each Day

You can certainly opt to join in on a MovNat workshop in your area to get back in touch with your natural movement side. It is not, however, the only way to get back to the basics. Try to incorporate more walking into your day, for starters, and while you’re at it, try some lunges or squats. When you walk through a door, put your arms up to touch the door jamb and pause for a second. This is a motion most people don’t get nearly enough of. I also do overhead squats while watching videos.

I picked up an inexpensive 6-foot-long PVC pipe for this purpose, but you could just as easily use a broom stick. In your kitchen, you can also choose items that require more physical involvement, like a hand grater. While you may not be ready to get rid of your couch or desk chair, you can spend less time on them, opting for other positions on the floor or standing instead.

If you happen to be near a playground, try out the monkey bars or the swings — really get your legs moving. Or how about the other childhood favorite, climbing a tree?

You’ll be surprised by how many opportunities you have to move in a day if you start opening your eyes to them. The key is to move often and in as many different ways, effectively and safely, as you can. With MovNat, for instance, you can learn not one or two but seven ways to climb a horizontal bar. This is the type of physical competence that leads to true whole-body fitness, but it can only be gained with regular, purposeful movement. As Erwan put it:9

“A simple way to get started … is to re-explore your potential for natural movement. If you think about the different ways you move each day, you’ll realize they are not very varied and stick to a fairly rigid pattern. Get out and find or create opportunities to move naturally (running, jumping, crawling, balancing, climbing, carrying, etc.).

This approach is simple and effective, but keep in mind the essential difference between natural as done spontaneously but not necessarily effectively, efficiently, or safely, and natural and done effectively, efficiently, and safely. Without guidance, you may not even be able to feel the difference between good technique and bad form, and take risks you are not prepared for.

Knowledge, technique, mindful practice of efficient movement, and the respect of progressions (volume, intensity, and environmental complexity) are the keys for a successful transition from the innate but inefficient, to efficiency and competency.”

About Dr. Joseph Mercola (67 Articles)
Dr. Mercola finished his family practice residency in 1985 but was trained by the conventional model. In his first years of private practice, he treated many symptoms with prescription drugs and was actually a paid speaker for the drug companies. But as he began to experience the failures of this model in his practice, he embraced natural medicine and has had an opportunity over the last thirty years to apply these time tested approaches successfully with thousands of patients in his clinic. Over 15 years ago he founded to share his experiences with others. The site is the most visited natural health site in the world for the last seven years with nearly two million subscribers. He's also written two NY Times bestselling books, and has had frequent appearances on national media including the Dr. Oz show and major news channels.

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