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The slow, steady rise of ‘conscious movement’

Forget high-intensity interval training. More and more people are realising that easy-going, thoughtful exercise can have surprising benefits

This year, the Harpers Bazaar list of best new fitness trends and classes to try for 2018 included an incongruous addition. At No 7, wedged between hula-hoop body-toning sessions and trampoline fitness classes, was walking plain, old-fashioned walking, that anyone can do for free. It seemed an odd choice of new activity to highlight in a list of fitness trends.

The idea that walking is suddenly fashionable appears, at first, to be at odds with everything were told about where fitness is going and the pace at which people want to be doing it. A worldwide survey of fitness trends shows that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most popular fitness trend in the west this year. In the UK, spinning is most popular, according to an industry report from UKActive and DataHub.

Of course, the idea of fast, intense, time-efficient exercise that delivers insta-results fits in with how we see ourselves: as people whose lives are the busiest in world history. I went for a walk lacks the heroic ring of: I just killed myself doing 50 burpees. However, a deeper look at how people are exercising or, more importantly, want to be exercising, shows a different trend: a move away from the quick fix, back to slower (although not necessarily less difficult), more measured forms of fitness. Conscious is the word I kept coming across while researching this article: conscious motion, conscious flow, conscious control. Imagine the opposite of hurling your, perhaps uncoordinated body around a fitness class at high speed: thats conscious movement. The idea is that, if youre conscious, youre doing whatever it is that youre doing to your body with precision and a full awareness of the physical mechanisms at work yin yoga is conscious, rugby is not.

More importantly, its also about being self-aware enough to see the big picture, diagnosing your physical, spiritual and emotional needs. As you step back from your once-a-week spinning class you might become aware, for example, that youre still a stressed, underslept commuter with a bad shoulder, dull skin, uneven muscle tone, a spine that has morphed itself into the exact shape of your office chair, an iffy diet and a soulless box-set habit. Having ascertained these things, consciously, you would then go about, best-case scenario, reconfiguring your lifestyle accordingly.

The elite trainer David Higgins delivers bad news, however, for anyone who is hoping consciousness might mean not having to do any exercise at all. The gym, he says is not a substitute for lack of activity during the week. Its not, OK, Ive been sitting on my arse or lying on my back for 23 hours of the day and then Im going to go to the gym for an hour. Higgins was the first person I heard use the term conscious movement. I dont think most people have heard of it. I think its a new thing even though its been around for ever. I think, finally, people are realising that they dont have to necessarily kill themselves to get major, meaningful results.

Higgins trains actors and stuntmen and women for feature films (including Wonder Woman and Mission Impossible). Samuel L Jackson says he was physically broken when he began working with Higgins and credits him with patiently and caringly [putting] me together again. I feel that, because of this and his pilates and yoga background, Higgins probably knows more about health and wellbeing than the average trainer. His favourite two words are mitigate against something he insists you must do to whatever in your life that may be damaging you. Whether its the amount of blue light radiating from your computer screen or the strain put on your back by your desk job, you need to mitigate against it. This, he admits, probably means giving your life a bit of a reset. Get your arse out of the chair, pull your chin back, give yourself a bit of a double chin when youre on the phone or the computer. Pull your shoulders up and down. Stand up and go for a walk at lunchtime: get 20 minutes of sun on your skin. Its the little things that are going to make the biggest difference and if you do go to that spinning class, thats the cherry on top. The big win is what you are doing outside of the gym.

The way were living is not anatomically sustainable, he says. We should be integrating conscious movement into every area of our lives: lateral lunges in front of the TV; rolling on our backs like children to loosen up our spines, to give two examples.

If you can find something that maybe takes you into your body a little bit more, then Im all for it, rather than trying to escape from the stresses of life. Kind of internalise things a little bit and say, How do I feel? What is my body saying to me right now?

He says that HIIT is a quick fix whose practitioners often dont have adequate control over their bodies to execute it safely. Thats not where Im coming from. Im interested in longevity, postural control and a pain-free lifestyle. We are all going to have to look a bit more inwards if we are going to survive and live a happier, healthier, more pain-free life.

Shopping can be part of a conscious exercise regime. Photograph: Guardian Design Team

Those already doing conscious movement may be part of a wider step-change. A look at the sorts of classes on offer in Britains rapidly expanding independent exercise sector, for example, indicates a move towards less hyper forms of exercise. MoveGB gives its 300,000 users access to more than 6,000 physical activity providers across Britain. Its CEO, Alister Rollins, says that yoga, pilates and mind-body classes are by far the most popular activity, with yoga at least twice as popular as a genre than any other single genre available on MoveGB (the other three genres are gym and swimming; fitness classes; outdoor activities and climbing). Mindful exercise such as yoga and pilates are growing in popularity as the market becomes more educated to holistic wellbeing, whereas HIIT once was on the top of everyones list for fast-hitting results, he says. Consumers are becoming more in tune with their bodies and the impact that mindful exercise can have psychologically. He points to an increase in niche yoga classes for example, yoga for climbers and yoga for cyclists. Yoga that is, in Higginss words, mitigating against any damage you might do yourself in other sports.

Beyond yoga and pilates, what else counts as conscious movement? LIIT low-impact interval training is a good example. And a good example of LIIT is the governments nine-week Couch to 5K initiative, where your three runs a week begin with a five-minute walk, followed by 15 minutes of walking and running split into one- and one-and-a-half-minute intervals. LISS low-impact steady state is another form of exercise where youre using conscious control, whether swimming, running, jogging. And high-intensity fitness workouts have created their own niche in mindful exercise: active recovery, a short, low-intensity workout that aims to increase blood flow, metabolism and joint movement, has become a popular class for adrenaline junkies on their days off or for people who have injured themselves in class.

Niki Rein is the founding CEO of Barrecore, a dance-inspired workout that has expanded from one studio to 12 in a decade. Barrecore integrates the fat-burning format of interval training, to exhaust each major muscle group, with static stretches which lengthen your muscles and offer relief.

How would Rein describe conscious movement? When youre not counting on momentum to execute the movement. If you imagine doing a slow bicep curl youre feeling the muscle on the front of your arm as you raise your hand up towards your shoulder and youre feeling it on the back of your arm as youre extending the arm straight. That would be a conscious movement. If youre doing something at speed, youre not necessarily working the entirety of the muscle and injury is more likely to happen over time. We try to work every single muscle in the body in a conscious way and you can really feel those imbalances. So, when you start seeing results, you understand why.

Rein thinks the current fascination with high-intensity exercise is linked, firstly, to the false assumption that exercising faster gets better results and, secondly, to the bragging rights that come with saying: Im busy. People feel guilty if they dont say theyre busy. For a long time I set a bad example to my staff by not doing any self-care. Theres a lot of value placed on being busy and I think its a scapegoat for not keeping fit, for not eating right, not getting a pedicure, having dinner with friends. The term self-care is growing and is helping that issue. For those wanting the hit of a strong workout with the benefit of self-care, she recommends a mixed class such as yin-yang yoga: Strength yoga followed by flow and yin so you dont feel guilty for not getting in what you think you need, but youre also getting what you probably need the most.

Walking, explains Harpers Bazaar, somewhat awkwardly, is often not even considered a sport and when it is only for those around retirement age. But however unintentionally, the magazine has hit on possibly the biggest driver of conscious movement a desire for healthy longevity. Im 35, says Higgins, and Im looking at the long-term approach; unlike the 20-year-old trainer whos had zero stress in their life and cant understand why you cant get to the gym every day. I want to be a grandad one day and live as long as possible, obviously. If you get injured, you get ill, you suffer from pain then what the hell is the point?

David Higginss book The Hollywood Body Plan will be published by Headline on 27 December, priced 25. To order a copy for 21.50 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. P&P charges apply to phone orders.

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