Primal Origins – What Babies Can Teach Us About Movement

Forget your personal trainer. If you want to observe the basics of human movement, go play with a baby for a couple hours. You might learn a thing or two.

The paleo diet. Primal eating. Raw, paleolithic diet. So many recent developments in the fitness world call for a return to our origins. We continue to look to our ancestors to uncover the best way to eat, to drink, to move. Somehow, despite all the progress we’ve made, we find ourselves always looking back. It’s not a bad tendency, but it is a bit curious when you think about it.

I find myself doing the same thing, particularly since I’ve become a parent. I don’t pore over the newest studies on what cavemen ate or didn’t eat, but I do have a similar obsession. I am fascinated with babies.

Have you ever seen an infant move? The first efforts to lift that heavy head off Papa’s chest? Have you ever witnessed the rise and fall of a sleeping infant’s belly? Maybe it’s just the oxytocin speaking, but I can’t get enough of it. Babies are little primitives. If you want to know how we should move, look at these little beings. They are amazing, and they have a lot to teach us.

After my first daughter’s birth, I felt like I was observing a different plane of existence. This little infant was so radically dependent, but underneath that façade of vulnerability was a strength and a will to survive that I had never witnessed. So often we look at babies as helpless and fragile, and in some ways this is true. But they’re also little fighters. They want to move forward, to roll over, to crawl, stand, walk, squat. Assuming they are properly fed and allowed to stretch their legs, nothing will stand in their way. Babies are resilient.

As our daughter grew, I continued to be amazed at her strength and her natural drive to move. My husband and I were poor college students, so we didn’t have any fancy “developmental” baby equipment. Sometimes social pressure kicked in and I worried about that. But the truth is, babies don’t need walkers and push toys to help them develop. Those things are much more of a convenience for mom and dad. Just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, these little creatures are always on the move, no exercise program needed.

So what can babies teach us about our bodies? I propose that babies are masters of three particular movements that present difficulty for many adults:

1. Babies know how to breathe.

In the book Becoming Bulletproof, Tim Anderson discusses the transition from “belly breathing” to “emergency breathing:”

Watch a new born baby, or an infant. Their little bellies go up and down when they breathe. They are taking full advantage of their lung volume by effortlessly breathing with their diaphragm (let’s call that our “breathing muscle”). The diaphragm pulls a vacuum in the lungs allowing them to fill themselves full of life-giving air…this is how we are born breathing – with our diaphragm.

As life goes on, this primal reflex is diminished and many adults start to breathe with their “emergency muscles.” These are the muscles in the chest, neck, and shoulders, which also happen to be the muscles that babies use to breathe when they are in distress. “Constantly breathing with our emergency muscles can cause a forward head carriage, neck pain, poor thoracic mobility, hunched forward posture, early fatigue when exercising, poor digestion, maybe even loss of our reflexive stability in our core muscles. If we are always breathing with our accessory muscles, our bodies are always in stress mode, which is a very inefficient, unhealthy mode to be stuck in for a long period of time.”

Next time you find yourself alone with a sleeping infant, watch her belly and learn.

2. Babies know how to squat.

baby, crawling, primal exercise, primal movement, primal moveYesterday, my 3-year-old ballerina was trying to teach our 1 1/2 year old how to take a bow before the curtain closes. After she demonstrated her very dramatic and elegant bow from the waist, it was the toddler’s turn. With a quizzical look on her face, the little one squatted until her diaper touched the floor, then stood up with a little grin on her face. It struck me that many adults could not complete that movement at all, let alone with such ease.

Squatting is a primitive movement, and babies are pros. My toddler probably spends hours in the squatting position every day, playing with toys and drawing on whatever important paperwork she can get her hands on. It’s the casual play position. What’s more, her form is perfect. Neutral spine and neck, knees tracking over toes, and all the other cues that we adults have to follow. They’re all natural to her.

Next time you find a baby squatting and playing with blocks, check out her form and follow her example.

3. Babies know how to crawl.

Crawling isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. For example, consider that there are many baby variations of crawling. You have the traditional hands and knees crawl, the Spiderman crawl (or the hobgoblin as my husband and I call it), belly crawling, and the crab crawl, to name a few. Crawling is a fundamental movement. As Tim Anderson and Mike McNiff point out:

You can fake walking and running. You can walk and run without using your shoulders and arms properly. You can even do it without using them at all. You cannot fake crawling. It is deliberate. Your shoulders and hips have to work together. With crawling, they are both working together under load. Crawling sets things right, the way they were meant to be. It is the foundation, the template, for our gait pattern.

Next time you come across a crawling baby whizzing around the room, get down and try to keep up with them. You might have a hard time.

We don’t have to go back to the Stone Age to witness our primal origins. As noted by Stuart Brown in the excellent book Play, “We are designed to start moving when we are in the womb. When a grinning and gleeful little infant pulls himself up on his feet you can see in his face the pure pleasure of this little triumph…We are alive when we are physically moving.”

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