Human locomotion needs ecology

Antonia Malchik
4 min readOct 20, 2022

Our bodies don’t exist outside of nature

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

In her book Movement Matters, biomechanist Katy Bowman makes a case for the importance of movement in our lives — not fitness confined to an hour on an exercise machine, but real-life movement: walking, foraging, strolling, meandering, running a bit, playing. For hours. The kinds of movement our species evolved to engage in over many eons.

Throughout the book, Bowman addresses the many ways that natural, everyday movement for long periods of time is good for us (mental health, myopia, bone density, cardiovascular strength — the list is endless). She also returns repeatedly to the flaws in the ways we study and understand human movement.

As I wrote about in a previous article, our understanding of human health and locomotion is still too tied to a metaphor of the human body as mechanical. Bowman makes this point for, essentially, all of science, but in particular science related to the human body. Using the example of calculating the amount of “work” involved in a bicep curl, she writes that,

“Biomechanics is the study of mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of a living organism. But applying mechanical laws to living things is tricky, because the tissues that comprise the body aren’t as easy to model as metals are. . . .

We’re taught how not to consider all the movement when we build a model because, well, it’s easier that way. So I guess this is really an important piece to consider here — not only are the number of moving parts reduced to a few, but the parts that do remain are set to ‘still’ before a solution is calculated.”

Dr. Karen Adolph, a psychology professor and neuroscientist who studies how infants learn to walk, found something similar when she first began her research. Up through the 1980s, research on infants learning to walk was static and unnatural. Scientists observed toddlers walking on a flat mat, for example, focusing on stability and number of steps while they walked in a (supposedly) straight line.

But as I wrote in A Walking Life, any parent could have pointed out how wrongheaded this approach was. In fact, anyone who’s ever walked with a toddler knows that their relationship to walking in a straight line is…

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Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.