Move Your DNA — Book Review

As a polemic, Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA rates 5 stars. As a work of popular science and an exercise manual, I have to drop this rating to 2 stars.

As an Alexander Technique Teacher, I can’t help but cheer at Katy’s thesis that the mechanical forces created from our daily hours of sitting, wearing shoes and staring at screens is shaping our bodies. Even an admirable daily exercise habit cannot combat the other 23 hours of our day.  It’s F.M. Alexander’s thesis—”Use affects function,”— reformatted for a modern audience with a scientific, ‘paleo’ twist. After reading Bowman’s book, you may find yourself squatting to go the potty, running barefoot and sleeping on the floor— or at least throwing away your pillows.

She opens with the dramatic example of “Floppy fin syndrome.” The mechanical forces created when a killer whale swims in the ocean at variable depths, speeds, and direction loads the fin tissues in ways that stimulate the fin to stiffen and stay upright. Whales in captivity don’t get these natural mechanical loads and the top fin flops. Every modern convenience from heat, to cars, to your fluffy mattress, protects the body from the mechanical loads necessary for health. Our bodies are the whale’s floppy fin.

Bowman does not shy away from strong analogies like “casting.”  The adaptations our bodies make when we have to wear a cast, such as muscle wasting, stiffening and bone loss occur in response to our environmental “casts” of smooth sidewalks, chairs, and even indoor time. From our eyes to our feet, our tissues conform to the limitations of our daily positions.

Bowman has a firm handle on the reality that our bodies function as a whole and the added benefit of a scientist’s perspective on the effects of force on tissue development.  I’m happy that she points out that the invocation to tighten your tummy to protect your lower-back is hopelessly outdated. The endless regimen of crunches (that occur even in some of my favorite yoga classes) may have limited value and may even damage the spine.

The book is less wonderful as an exercise manual. It’s poorly organized and hard to search. This problem may be worse in the Kindle version, where the index lacks hyperlinks and location references. The illustrative photographs are often pages away from the text instructions. If it was hard for me as a movement specialist to decipher all of her exercises, I’m imagining it would be quite frustrating for a layperson.

Although the book is not intended as a technical study in bio-mechanical sciences, I would have appreciated a little bit more evidence. For example, she devotes a large section to her thesis that Kegel exercises (isolated contractions of the pelvic floor muscles) may cause more harm then good. I completely agree that Kegels do not address the overall use patterns of the pelvis and torso, and ideally, it’s best to let those muscles function automatically. However she does not present evidence that her approach works better. Although something seems intuitively true, it may not be.

There’s no way that such a small book can be comprehensive. Bowman’s attempt is not to get us to adopt a fully paleo lifestyle, but to rethink our current one. By bettering our daily movement habits, we have a better quality of life.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.