5 Circles of Health – Movement

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What makes a movement practice?

Today we are going to take a deeper dive into what makes up an ideal movement practice and what this might look like through a typical week.

Movement is one of our 5 Circles of Health. These are the 5 areas that are vital to optimise human health, both physically and mentally.

The 5 Circles of Health

If you have followed us for a while you might have noticed that we refer to movement and movement practices rather than ‘exercise’. This is by design.

You see, when someone talks about exercise a number of images spring to people’s minds. The overriding one being of repetitive, gym-based movements designed to make you sweat, grimace and possibly hate life for the hour you are doing it.

Now I love a good workout. I like to suffer a little under the barbell or in a MetCon session. What others see as suffering I think of as a celebration of what a human body is capable of doing and enduring.

There is nothing wrong with exercise planned intelligently. But it is only one small part of a much bigger picture.

For many people who want to ‘get in shape’ or lose weight, the focus is often on exercise. They book a gym slot, hire a PT and commit to one to three hours in the gym.

Sadly, while exercise will of course help in achieving these goals, the reality is that it can’t do it by itself. There is the old adage “You can’t outrun a bad diet.” And this is totally spot on. About 80% of our body composition comes down to what, and how we eat. Of the remaining 20%, exercise probably only relates to half.

Now this is not to say that exercise is not worth doing, it most definitely is. Here at Wild Life, regardless of your particular goal, the focus is primarily on improving your overall health; optimal body composition and fitness are all handy by-products.

And so your three, hour-long gym sessions most definitely have their place, but it’s not the whole picture.

Over my career, I have been influenced greatly by a number of people, and one of these is biomechanist Katy Bowman.

Katy describes movement in terms of nutrition. Our current ways of moving are like our current ways of eating; often lacking the broad spectrum of variety.

If we swapped out our 3 x 1 hour gym sessions for eating a nutritious salad bowl we can see that eating it three times a week would obviously add some nutrients to our diet, but it’s not going to counteract the fact that we are eating cakes and chips for the remainder of our waking week.

close up photography of bowl filled with spice seasonings

Sorry to break this to you – 3 hours of gym work is great, but it will not counteract a lifestyle that is predominantly sedentry.

This is evidenced by the fact that we now have a term ‘Active Couch Potato Syndrome’. This is where people who adhere to an hour of exercise a day are still suffering from many of the same ill health markers as those that do nothing. Why? Because they are sedentary for the rest of the day.

We need to move more.

So what is an ideal movement practice? Well that depends of the person obviously.

Looking through the ancestral health lens we can see what might constitute an optimal human movement strategy for the modern age.

A great starting point for this is the movement strategy offered up by Mark Sissons and the Primal Blueprint system.


This pyramid forms the basis of my own movement practice, as well that of the many clients to pass through Wild Life. As with all things, it’s open to a little tweak here and there to cater for everyone’s needs and desires.

So let’s break it down.

On the base level we are starting with lots of low intensity movement. This is everything that isn’t being inactive. I’m doing it now. As I write this I am working at a standing desk, constantly shifting my weight around, taking little breaks to walk around and to squat down and stretch out my glutes.

Add to this some kind of mobility work: a daily 5 minute mobility flow, foam rolling, massage, pilates, tai chi, dance, or ground movements and rolling. It needn’t take very long at all. Something is always better than nothing.

“I wish my mobility wasn’t so good and healthy”

No-one, ever.

Next up is some cardio work. Now to most people this conjures up images of a lycra clad, sweat soaked aerobics practitioner aiming to keep their heart-rate jacked up to the point of near bursting for hours at a time. This is not what we are suggesting.

people in aerobics outfit

This is what we Primal Health Coaches refer to as ‘Chronic Cardio’ and it comes with a whole host of issues.

It’s tough on the body. And while this is no bad thing as the body can adapt positively, too much is a bad thing.

It elevates cortisol levels, the stress hormone. When the body is working at a higher level for extended periods of time, the brain assumes we are fully up the creek without a paddle. Remember our ancestors never ‘worked out’. If their hearts were this jacked up it either meant that they were chasing something or being chased by something. Either way, it wouldn’t have lasted 60-90 minutes.

So the body enters panic mode and shuts down digestion, favours quick burning sugars as the fuel, and leaves us trembling in a corner afterwards. This in turn causes us to crave more sugars, over compensate on how much we need to replace the sugars used, and put on some extra body fat as a handy storage unit for energy should this terrible thing happen again. This in turn can reduce the uptake of Vitamin C and lower our immune function causing us to get ill easier.

So how hard should we work?

We work our plans out to an 80/20 principle.

80% of our cardio work wants to be easy. Yes you read that right. EASY. So easy, in fact, that you feel a little embarrassed by it.

The remaining 20% wants to be hard. Really hard. So hard you see god, kind of effort. Just stay away from the light. This is the very infrequent sprint work that crowns the top of the pyramid. We’ll get on to this next week.

Obviously, easy and hard are relative terms. What’s easy for you might be hard for me.

Thankfully, we have coach and clinician, Phil Maffetone’s MAF 180 Formula to guide us. This is a calculation to give us the maximum heart rate that we want to work up to in our cardio work, and it is relevant to pretty much everyone regardless of your fitness level.

The MAF 180 Formula for determining your MAF HR (from philmaffetone.com)

Subtract your age from 180, then modify from one of the categories below:

  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.), are in rehabilitation, are on any regular medication, or are in Stage 3 (chronic) overtraining (burnout), subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed or not improved in training (such as poor MAF Tests) or competition, get more than two colds, flu or other infections per year, have seasonal allergies or asthma, are overfat, are in Stage 1 or 2 of overtraining, or if you have been inconsistent, just starting, or just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems mentioned in a) or b), no modification is necessary (use 180 minus age as your MAF HR).
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, have made progress in your MAF Tests, improved competitively and are without injury, add 5.


  • The MAF 180 Formula may need to be further individualized for athletes over the age of 65. For some, up to 10 beats may have to be added for those only in category (d) of the Formula. This does not mean 10 should automatically be added, but that an honest self-assessment be made.
  • For athletes 16 years of age and under, the formula is not applicable; rather, an MAF HR of 165 has been used.

So for me, at the time of writing this, it works out like this:


136-5 (I have asthma) = 131 bpm

So 131 beats per minute is my max heart rate that I am aiming for during cardio work, and I tend to keep my heart somewhere between 121 and 131 bpm.

For someone who is very well conditioned moving at this MAF heart-rate might be a fairly fast run. For others this may be a slow walk. It’s relative to your fitness levels.

The benefit of this intensity of training is that it is fairly easy on the body so you are less prone to injury and fatigue, which means you can keep this up pretty regularly. You are also working primarily in your fat burning zone, using fat as fuel rather than sugars. This means you are less likely to get those cravings after the workout.

This level of training also seems to be the best for building the aerobic engine, the heart. This means that when you do have to work harder you’ll have the capacity to deal with it.

It’s also a much more pleasant way to train. Before when I would run in a classic chronic cardio manner, I honestly couldn’t have told you what music was playing in my earphones. My focus was solely on breathing, not falling over and a little bit of self hate. Now, when I run I am free to enjoy my surroundings and listen to audio books and my current favourite podcast. I’m learning and getting fit at the same time.

person wearing a heart rate monitor smartwatch
Photo by Jens Mahnke

Now this whole system requires you to have a heart-rate monitor when you are out moving. These are extremely common nowadays, just about every watch seems to sport one.

But what if you are oldskool and don’t own one?

Nasal breathing is a great alternative. It’s not as accurate as a monitor but it’s pretty close. Just do what ever activity you are doing while only breathing through your nose. The minute you start to feel the urge to breath through your mouth you need to slow down.

This works well for beginners. As you get more efficient at your chosen cardio it becomes less so. I think my heart-rate gets to about 20 beats higher than my MAF rate when I nasal breath now. If you have been doing this style of training long enough to feel a benefit, then you can probably justify treating yourself to a new watch.

After switching over to MAF training for a period of 8 weeks or more, all of my race times, from 5k to half marathon went up. I got PBs in everything. All by going slower.

Next week we will look at the other aspects of a Wild Life movement practice. So, we’ll see you next Wednesday.

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