Do You Suffer from Floppy Fin Syndrome?

Image from SeaWorldofHurt
Image from SeaWorldofHurt

Recently I read the book Move Your DNA. In this book, biomechanist Katy Bowman explores how our consumer culture isn’t just undermining our bodies because of our poor diets but because of our lack of movement. As Bowman notes, we are not just “what we eat,” but “how we move.” And movement does not just mean exercise, which is a subcomponent of all movement, but the hours that we mostly sit, in which traditionally we would have been using our bodies to survive. For example, anthropologists have found that hunters and gathers averaged about 2.75 miles a day (though with lots of variation of daily distance and terrain over the weeks, months, and seasons) and that each day, the Hazda, hunter-gatherers in Northern Tanzania, spend about 221 minutes in light activity, 115 minutes in medium activity, and 20 minutes in strenuous activity (that’s just about 6 hours engaged in activity every day). Unfortunately, few of us come even close to this, unless we count typing and texting as light activity, and then we’d be in good shape!

The most powerful part of the book is the simple story Bowman tells about what happens to orcas in captivity. Over time, their dorsal fins start to fall over—they get what she calls “Floppy Fin Syndrome,” (or what scientists, in their less engaging way, call “Laterally Bent Dorsal Fins”).

Why do orcas get floppy fins? Scientists don’t know. Possibly the change in diet, possibly because they’re sedentary (as the activist website SeaWorldofHurt notes, in the wild, orcas would swim about 140 miles a day, but to do that in captivity would take 4,280 laps, which no sane animal would do). Or, possibly, it might be because the orcas are only swimming in circles—and not up and down in different water pressures, and not spending any time in deeper, higher-pressure waters. Ultimately, it’s probably a mix of all of these—and Bowman notes that the ailments of modernity—from heart disease and diabetes to bad backs and bum knees—similarly have mechanical components not just dietary ones, and should be seen as “diseases of captivity:”

“As far-fetched as this may sound, we, like these floppy-finned orcas, are animals in captivity, and our tissues are not suited to the loads created through the way we move in our modern habitat.”

For captive we are. The majority of us voluntarily move like we’re in prison—staying inside, barely exploring our surroundings—except to walk to our car or pick up groceries or our take-out meals (unless we use a delivery service and then we just walk to our door). As Bowman notes, long ago, getting food expended a lot of energy and used our entire bodies (gathering, hunting, skinning, planting, grinding, cooking). Now we can get more than we need with just a few clicks of a screen. As Bowman notes: “While the abundance of food and money varies around the globe, for almost all populations, the current global environment has changed in at least one way across the board: Moving is not required.”

We—or at least a great majority, and certainly any who is reading this—are captives of the consumer culture. We eat wrong; we move wrong—when we move at all.

How do we escape?

Bowman offers a series of exercises that could start correcting years of too much sitting and improper walking, noting that going from never walking correctly to walking barefoot 3 miles a day will cause damage (like running a marathon untrained would). But her mission is to try to make the individual reader healthy in her captivity. It is not Bowman’s role to explore the failure of the cultural system we live in. But it is our role to do that.

In the long-term, more of us will return to livelihoods based on survival: farming, foraging, mending, making, and all the other traditional skills that made up a peasant lifestyle or what will make up the post-growth “plenitude economy” (if we get to that positive future). That is something I and many others have discussed for years—from exploring the transition to degrowth to promoting yardfarming.

But during the transition to the plenitude economy (or just simply to survival in a post-collapse future), reclaiming life skills—which are often physical in nature—will be beneficial to our bodies (both diet and movement) and will help get us ready for the transition. These can be activities as simple as gardening or wild plant foraging, which provide food, access to greensong, light activity, and a meditative quality that can help unwind work and life stresses.

Or you can develop a new income-earning skill (doula, medic, forest medicine practitioner, woodworker, even learn to design and build appropriate technologies—it’ll be good business one day converting washing machines into bicilavadoras). Even if it turns out Gaia was far more resilient than we assessed and the consumer culture remains dominant for a few more decades, the worst outcome is that you got outdoors, learned new skills, got your body out from your electronic culturally-created prison, and got it moving again. But even if you never need those new skills, it is probable that your children will be grateful (and more likely to survive) for any of these skills you pass on to them. Now get up and move! Before your fins get any floppier.

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  1. Erik Assadourian

    There are some simple exercises you can do to help restrengthen your body. Hanging from a tree branch or trunk is an easy one that helps open up your chest, lengthen your arm muscles, and strengthen your back muscles (if you activate them). Give it a try!

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