Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Going back to the basics

Arianna Auber
aauber@statesman.com

Advocates of a growing exercise trend in Austin tone their muscles throwing rocks instead of holding barbells. They scale trees instead of fake rock walls. And they run on the uneven ground of the outdoors instead of on a stationary machine like a treadmill.

If their workout sounds more like the daily routine of a caveman, that's because it's supposed to – the advocates of this trend, natural movement, try to emulate the movements of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose survival often depended on swift and skillful footing.

The members of the Austin Natural Movement group have so much fun moving as our ancestors did that their ranks have swelled to 289 members within the past several months, a jump from last summer, when about 80 people belonged.

"It's basically a bunch of adults playing like kids do," member Tracy Jones said. "Kids' physical movements are more like our ancestors than ours when we exercise. They run around and jump and throw things, and now so do we."

Jones, whose active involvement has boosted her to the role of co-organizer, was the only woman who regularly attended when she first started. Now, she said, the group is evenly split between men and women.

They travel to playgrounds or the Barton Creek Greenbelt or various natural parks in the area and engage collaboratively in what Jones calls "playouts" – climbing over boulders or up trees or even playing kids' games like tag or follow the leader.

But the natural movement trend is not just an excuse to be a kid again.

Some of its biggest supporters include Erwan Le Corre, the founder of MovNat, a five-year-old company that teaches natural movement skills using a set of principles and a methodology. The company offers workshops, taught by MovNat instructors, in cities across the U.S. and Canada, as well as in other areas across the globe, such as Europe and the Pacific Rim.

Le Corre, a Frenchman who now lives and trains in New Mexico, is featured in videos on the MovNat website scampering across boulder-ridden streams while shouldering logs taller than he is. He believes that we should be using the full range of our uniquely human movements as a way of enhancing our mental and physical development.

"Moving naturally means walking, running, jumping; they are evolutionary and instinctual and universal, but can we move skillfully? Anyone can go in the woods and move naturally, and that's great. But in today's society, most people are too out of shape and too out of touch with their bodies to do that successfully. So we teach that," Le Corre said about the purpose of MovNat.

This purpose is not lost on another member of the Austin Natural Movement group, Josue Stephens, a project manager for an IT services company who has run 100-mile races.

He read about Le Corre in a 2009 issue of Men's Health magazine and reached out to him, training with him and learning the MovNat philosophies.

Stephens began posting events to the Austin Natural Movement website once he stumbled across it on Meetup.com, a site for people with similar interests in the same region to meet up. He joined the group just as it began to grow, with more and more people becoming active and creating events.

Often at these meet-ups, Jones said, there will be a leader who comes up with activities to do ahead of time, giving some structure to what seems like just a lot of playing around. But members do not have to strictly follow what the leader does because everyone has different abilities and limitations.

This idea – that a workout ought to be customizable for each person – is crucial to MovNat, which accounts for the needs of each person training, Le Corre said. He noted, however, that not every program needs to be as serious as his.

"One way to coach is to do what the Austin Natural Movement group is doing by encouraging people to try things and see what they can do," Le Corre said. "I think it's great, it's exploratory."

Stephens is a prime example of this kind of exploration. He is involved with a few other fitness movements and also follows the Paleo diet – eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors and cutting out grains, dairy, sugar, and processed foods. He finds that this diet gives him a lot of energy.

The Paleo diet isn't required with MovNat, but Le Corre, who also follows the diet, said they complement each other.

"It's all about going back to natural basics, and Austin is definitely a leader in this, at least in this part of the country," Stephens said.