Better Movement = Movement Variability

By | March 31, 2016

I realize that I harp on the “dangers of the modern world” a lot, but hey, someone has to play the role! I think of it this way: I’m extremely glad that I have a fancy new operating system rolled out by Apple every few months that allows me to do amazing things, but someone has to keep working on the bug fixes. Every time we update or improve upon something, there’s a chance we impacted or broke something that already existed. That’s just part of progress. Even so, should we not go back and fix those things once we become aware of them? Should we not find a way to make Wi-Fi and cellular signals more “compatible” with our body’s own signaling, for example? Should we not – and here comes the topic of today’s post – find a way to undo how much our modern society has compromised our ability to move in a natural and skillful way?

I’m not going to beat around the bush here; we suck at moving. Surely there are some exceptions out there like really accomplished yoga people and acrobats, maybe dancers or some pro athletes, but most of us, especially compared to our prior generations, kinda suck. We all pretty much know why, right? It’s all the sitting (working at the office, TV binging, car driving) and consequently the “not moving” as a result of sitting (we could be walking, lifting, squatting, swimming, etc.). At the same time, though, it’s not just lack of movement causing problems; it’s also the lack of movement variability.

I mean think about the stereotypical “healthy and fit” office worker. Sure, they sit at the desk most of the day, but then after work they go to the gym and run five miles on a treadmill. Mission accomplished, right? They got their heart rate up and got in their quota for daily “movement.” They “made up for” that sitting just like they “made up for” that Big Mac by burning off the calories with the five miles they ran the previous day (which, by the way, is such a gross over simplification of a much more complex equation). Then they wind up with killer hip pain and a stress fracture in one of their feet perhaps. Why me, right? I try so hard to be fit!

And yeah, they did (I did too). But your body craves variability. It craves novelty. It craves creativity. And while we are “working hard” by being all disciplined and running five miles every day after sitting at work for eight or more hours, it’s just one additional thing we become really really good at when there are so many other movement patterns that ought to be part of our lives on a regular basis.

We also get a little bored and jaded with that type of “exercise,” just like we do with the sitting at the desk all the time, and we start to lose awareness and presence in the moment. We go on autopilot and lose some of our skill for feeling and adapting to a situation because we’re just trying to reproduce the exact same stride over and over again a thousand times in a row on a flat surface that doesn’t change or take us anywhere or reveal to us any different scenery beyond that TV screen mounted in front of the treadmill like a carrot dangling in front of a hamster in a cage.

How did THAT become exercise? How is mindlessly jogging on the treadmill over and over again every day considered exercise for our body anymore than constantly adding two plus two and coming up with four is considered exercise for our mind? What about adding some larger numbers? Maybe even multiplying them? How about trying some algebra? A little calculus if you’re really brave? Or an entire field of study altogether like literature, marine biology, or bagpiping?

I am finding more and more how things that seem like “physical issues” like tight muscles, mobility problems, and lack of flexibility, can more often than not be traced to an overactive and compensatory nervous system rather than actual tissue problems. In other words, poor movement and alignment issues create instability at certain points in the body, and the nervous system engages compensatory muscles to keep us stable but at the expense of increased energy expenditure and inflammation, which later on may actually lead to physical tissue damage.

Don’t get my wrong, if someone goes and cranks out a few sets of bench press, they’re going to have a little muscle damage from the exertion and be stiff and sore the next day due to inflammation. And that sort of thing may benefit from direct physical therapy like massage or stretching or things of that nature. But someone getting back pain and a stiff neck from years of working at a desk? All else being equal, I’m going to argue that the nervous system plays a large role in what’s happening there, a nervous system that is seriously jaded and dulled due to lack of variability in movement.

I had always wondered why stretching never seemed to do much good for me. Often times it would even make things worse, especially if I stretched a little too hard (which I thought I had to do to get it to work), and then I would get this tightening reflex where the muscle would retract even further and be less able to move freely. For one reason or another, my nervous system was conditioned to restrict such movements because it was either protecting against something or was so accustomed to not making that movement. Rather than just try to stretch muscles like taffy to make them longer, they needed to be retrained to handle different lengths in a seamless and dynamic way.

It makes sense when you think about it this way. Imagine you’re the general manager (brain/nervous system) of this massive team of cells (your body), and your team’s job every day is to sit in the car for thirty minutes in the morning, sit at a desk for eight or ten hours working on a computer, and then sit in the car for another thirty minutes on the way back home. As general manager, you’re going to put out a team of cells that really know how to hold that chair posture. You don’t have to be very good and standing up straight and stretching out those legs or core muscles, just really good at maintaing a 90-degree angle. You don’t have to be very good at getting your arms above your head, just holding them down by your sides or a little in front of you. Nothing has to be very flexible or fluid, just able to handle strong, continuous isometric contraction (contractions to hold you in place rather than move dynamically).

After years of practice, this just becomes second nature. You’re a sitting professional. You don’t have to “warm up” at all before the game (going to work). In fact, your muscles are ready to tighten and hold steady the moment you wake up and get in the shower because they know what’s coming! They’re ready for battle. Just the thought of going to work puts them in that tight position, ready to type and click all day long. How about walk? How about reach above your head? How about stand up tall with good posture? What about crab walking or back bending or army crawling? Well those aren’t part of this game of life, so they get ignored by the general manager. No need to practice skills we’ll never use. The team has gotten really good at what they do with laser-like focus.

This isn’t the sort of thing you can change by doing fifteen minutes of stretching when you get home at the end of the day. Your nervous system needs much more frequent feedback – and different kinds of feedback – that these other movements are an important part of life and survival, and it needs to learn how to integrate them into day-to-day life. If it only gets these inputs to stand or walk or lift arms above head once for a few minutes but gets the inputs of “sitting is our job” constantly for ten hours or more, the other more novel movement inputs, the “not sitting” ones, are just a blip on the radar screen, an anomaly to be ignored by the system.

I’ve learned to take the “use it or lose it” philosophy with exercising different movement patterns as well as with strength training. You’ve probably heard this phrase used as a motivation behind lifting weights and keeping muscles strong, but the same works for movement variety. The more frequently you introduce these other patterns of movement, the more attention they get from the nervous system, and you can begin to make changes to things that seem stuck.

To that end, I’ve developed a bit of a “sitting offset protocol” if you will. And the key to getting it to work has been the frequency with which I employ it rather than the intensity or effort. In order to offset the tight chest and shoulders I get from being at the desk, I stand up, raise my arms, open my hands and wide as possible, and just try to feel open. I’m not straining or stressing, just seeing how open my body will naturally go for a few seconds. Then I’ll try to take some deeper breaths, perhaps even hold them a while to get a good expansion in the ribcage. I’ll do this as frequently as I can remember to do so (and as frequently as I can without interrupting work or looking TOO much like a five-year-old who can’t sit still…just a little like a five-year-old who can’t sit still).

After that I need to do something to get my posterior chain (backside, butt, hamstrings, etc.) moving and working after sitting on them so long. I’ll take walks but go backwards which gets those posterior muscles more involved and introduces some more variability from the standard forward walking. This is obviously difficult to do without running into stuff, so I’d caution others not to do it anywhere that may require crossing busy streets or having to walk around lots of obstacles. Please use your best judgement.

There are a number of things you can do here to offset things like sitting, but the key, I believe, is to do them more frequently and do a larger variety of them. The more often you can send those feedback signals to the brain that it is important to be able to move in varied ways, the more you’ll gain control over those stuck feelings as your nervous system allows the body to become more available and ready for new challenges rather than caught up in holding one particular position or movement pattern.

I think it’s also important to apply this to repetitive movements too, not just the absence of movement. Back to the treadmill example, if that’s all someone ever does is jog forward, they’re going to get very stuck in that particular movement pattern and start to have a hard time moving sideways or backwards or bending or crawling. Here again the backwards walking could be a great change of pace, along with sideways walking. As another great example, Hall-of-Fame golfer Gary Player, a fitness pioneer in his sport, used to try to take as many swings left-handed as he did right-handed to keep his body in balance and prevent repetitive stress injuries to the hips and back. I wish I had done this from day one throughout my golf career.

I also find this limited movement issue to be a problem of some heavy weightlifters who do the same handful of exercises every day just for the purpose of getting bulky. There was a time where I got quite strong and “built” in the gym doing the same old lifts and just increasing weight, but I didn’t have enough variety in terms of movements or muscles used, and even though I could move a lot of mass through space, I started getting lots of pain from lack of mobility and began having a hard time doing seemingly easy things like tying my shoes.

I think this is an area where programs such as CrossFit and Kosama are doing some positive things for people because they do impose a variety of movements and exercise disciplines to keep that part of things fresh for the brain. That said, something to be careful of with these programs is whether or not a person’s body is wired well enough to be able to do these varied movements with lots of extra weight and at the high intensity levels that CrossFit and Kosama are famous for. It’s also often overlooked whether or not a person is actually getting enough time for recovery after such intense bouts of exercise as most of them go five or six days a week. For all the good these programs may do, the people who miss these points will likely wind up with unnecessary injuries and adrenal fatigue, especially if they’re doing them indoors and not getting any natural sunlight to help recovery!

There are a lot of good resources out there now from some good thinkers on the subject of movement variability. I believe that those who focus on the mind and nervous system together with the body as a whole are making the most impact out there in getting people moving better and improving their lives. It’s not enough just to treat a part of the body in isolation. Nor is it even enough to treat the body systemically. Treatments that bring about awareness in the mind and nervous system and help a person integrate the concepts functionally are going to be the most successful.

Much of these ideas stem from a fellow by the name of Moshe Feldenkrais who developed what is now known as The Feldenkrais Method. One of his biggest “prophets” these days, and a guy who’s blog I read frequently, is Todd Hargrove at bettermovement.org. He has some of his own ideas on movement programs and pain management, but they are very deeply rooted in Feldenkrais’ methods. He frequently discusses the research on the ideas of “body maps” that your brain has to keep awareness of the various limbs and ranges of motion. If we don’t “refresh” these body maps regularly by using all of our assets in all their possible ranges of motion, the maps go stale, and the brain starts to ignore parts of them, reducing the skillfulness and fluidity of our movement.

I have also gotten similar help from someone by the name of Eric Franklin, author of a book called Inner Focus, Outer Strength. His ideas have a very similar flavor in terms of working with both the mind and the body, but he accomplishes it through lots of imagery. It’s amazing how much extra progress can be made by using images to help “remember” lost movement patterns. Some exercises even revolve around just imagining a certain movement or feeling without actually moving at all. It’s a very good book at a reasonable price for anyone interested.

For all that I’ve been able to accomplish on my own time, however, I have also gotten a lot of hands-on help from my physical therapist at Optimum Performance Iowa. I’ve been working with Jon Schultz there for a number of months with more results than I’ve gotten working with anyone else. He’s the only one I know of in Des Moines that has credentials from the Postural Restoration Institute which provides treatment in what I believe is a truly progressive manner, working with the mind and the nervous system in a holistic way to get better results.

Yes, I am plugging my own physical therapist here because he’s truly that good and utilizes a method that’s simply better than traditional therapy. If you’re an office worker like me looking to move and feel like you did years ago, someone in need of rehabbing an injury, or just someone looking to get the most out of your athletic performance, I’d highly recommend you check out Mr. Schultz. He’s been most responsible for impressing upon me the importance of movement variability and thus partially responsible for the inspiration of this post.

Anyone have their own thoughts on the idea of movement variability? Drop a comment and let everyone enjoy your inside info. Feel like this was all b.s. and take great offense to being called out for sucking at moving? Please feel free to yell at me with a scathing comment. And if you liked this post, share it with your friends (there are buttons below to make it nice and easy to do just that).

Happy moving.

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