Simple Strategies for Improving Movement

This week I was inspired by two resources that I want to share with all of you.  The first comes from Mindful Strength founder and instructor Kathryn Bruni-Young.  Her practice “combines mindful attention with strength, mobility and functional movement”.  I learned about her from movement specialist Jenni Rawlings, who I have been following for some time.  Those of you who know me recognize that I have long been interested in functional movement and how to improve our capacity for movement at all ages and skill levels.  In my opinion the outward shape of a yoga pose is not as important as the internal feel of that pose for the person holding it.  Can you sense your movement through space?  Do you know where your body’s parts are in relation to other parts and to the external world?  As a result of injury, trauma, or just plain lack of attention many of us have lost touch with our bodies.  Images in the media to which none of us can possibly measure up have given some of us a less than optimum opinion of our bodies.  This further contributes to detachment.  The goal of mind-body disciplines as I teach them is to put practitioners back in touch with their own bodies. Then, perhaps, we can see them for the miracles they are rather than focussing on perceived faults and failings.

On Kathryn Bruni-Young’s website, I was delighted to discover her podcast.  Many of you know I am a podcast devotee so I began listening immediately.  I am now working my way through her archives and have so far been extremely impressed.  The one I wanted to point out to you today features an interview with Nicholas St. Louis, a Physical Therapist and founder of The Foot Collective, which is on a self-described “mission to reclaim the human foot.”  I highly recommend this podcast and also suggest a visit to The Foot Collective website.  In his blog post “An Introduction to Feet and Footwear”, Nick describes our feet as “a magically well engineered body part and yet despite the massive role they play and how robust they are, most people neglect foot health.”  That is, until those feet start to hurt and become a problem.

Nick reminds us that although we take our ability to walk upright on 2 feet for granted, this trait is unique to humans.  The feet, he emphasizes, are “the only part of your body that touch the ground as you navigate the world and because of that they have a rich and extensive network of nerves . . . that relay vital information to your brain”.  In fact, each foot “contains 25% of the bones in our body, has 33 joints and over 100 muscles/tendons/ligaments.”  What could possibly go wrong?  No wonder we have foot problems!

Yet our feet are also incredibly resilient and designed to take lots of abuse.  But we abuse them at our own peril.  According to Nick, a major source of that abuse is the footwear to which we subject our feet.  He details how our footwear choices have allowed our muscles to weaken and even atrophy.  The modern shoe, he states, “numbs the sensory network in your feet and without the input from the ground, the muscles of your foot stop working like they were designed . . . [shoes become] a foot binding contraption that systematically shortens our heel cords” among other issues.  Furthermore, as a result of this “contraption” the absent or misleading information coming from the foot “gets translated upstream to your shins, knee, hip, low back and all the way to your neck.”  Nick even goes so far as to suggest that many of our knee, hip and back issues are really foot issues.  Of course, there are likely other contributing factors that accumulate along the way, but I believe there is great deal of merit to this argument.  It certainly makes sense to include this concept into any strategy for addressing other problems.

In the podcast, Nick also states that many of our problems with balance are also related to our limited ability to translate signals from our feet to our brain and, consequently, other parts of our body.  He suggests some simple practices to help address this problem.  Among them is simply gradually incorporating more barefoot walking.  Also heel-to-toe walking a straight line both forward and backward, without looking down, on a slightly raised surface like a 2 x 4.  This helps to retrain your proprioceptive ability to gauge your body’s place in space.  The height of the surface can gradually be increased as mastery develops.  He also suggests walking on a variety of surfaces, like grass and sand, even rocks.  As with any new or renewed effort, “gradual” means just that!  Start slow and increase equally slowly.  You’re not going to undo a lifetime of poor habits in a day or even a week or month.  But as with any practice, if you stick with it you’ll improve.

The second piece of information I wanted to pass on to you is an article from NPR this past week called “The Lost Art of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines”. This article describes the “hip hinge”, the process of leaning forward from the hip crease instead of the waist.  Your hip crease is that place where your legs meet your torso.  When you bend from the waist, you round your spine.  For those of us with weak abdominal (or “core”) muscles, this creates stress on your spine which ultimately invites back pain.   As Jean Couch, from The Balance Center, states in the article, bending from the waist makes us “all look like really folded cashews.”  Do you really want to look like some kind of nut??

Of course, in Pilates we try to train practitioners to strengthen and engage their core muscles when creating a “C-curve”, but that does not negate the benefits of the hip hinge.  Core strength also helps with hip hinging.  I often hear prospective yogis lament the fact that they can’t touch their toes.  Touching one’s toes is certainly not the be-all and end-all of any yoga practice.  But one of the reasons why many people have so much trouble reaching for their feet is because of chronically tight hamstrings.  “Bending at the hip takes the pressure off the back muscles,” says Liza Shapiro, who studies primate locomotion at the University of Texas, Austin. “Instead, you engage your hamstring muscles.”  That simply means stretching your hamstrings.  People often think of reaching for their toes as a back stretch, but it is really a hamstring stretch.  As the article states, “when you hip hinge, your spine can stay in a neutral position, while the hips and upper legs support your body weight. When you bend at the waist, the back curves, putting stress on the spine.”

The article also advises that “whether or not hip hinging will prevent back pain or injuries, doctors don’t know yet” but it’s one more practice that is worth a try.  If nothing else it might help relieve those chronically tight hamstrings.  I have certainly seen the evidence in my classes that hinging at the hip improves the ability to reach toward one’s toes without back pain.  There is a great little video in the article that demonstrates using the hip-hinge technique to pick something up off the floor.  I highly recommend it.

None of our movement problems have easy solutions, but the more tools we can try in our practices the more we information we can gather.  If you’re reading this you probably already know that each part of our body is inextricably connected to every other part, brain included.  Learning how our bodies work is an endlessly fascinating journey.  Each of us needs to explore lots of ideas to find what works for us.

Advertisements

Warming-up and Cooling Down

Winter is officially upon us.  January 1 has come and gone.  You’ve finally managed to drag yourself to the gym.  Now faced with the realization of how much time has passed since you last tried to work out you try to make up for that lost time by diving in with both feet.  And both arms.  And your back and shoulders.  You remember what you used to be able to do and think “I can do that.”  But, before you know it you’ve overdone, possibly even injured yourself, and your resolve to “get in shape” gets relegated to some mythical future date when you’ll somehow be better able to manage it.  Like when you’ve lost weight or your knee gets better or you find a better pair of shoes, etc. etc.  You know the drill.  There is a litany of excuses you can draw upon for this purpose.  But no matter how much you wish for a better version of yourself, wishing will not make it happen.

Time to come up with a better plan.  If you’ve showed up at the gym or on that walking trail or in that exercise class, then you’ve already taken the most difficult and important step.  That is, you’ve made the decision that you really want to do this.  You’ve also set the time aside and made the commitment to follow through.  Bravo!  Now is not the time to get discouraged.  But perhaps it is time to rethink your strategy.

It’s always difficult to remind yourself that whatever shape you’re in didn’t happen overnight.  If you’re in good shape, it’s probably because you’ve made a regular effort to maintain it.  If that’s not the case, then your best approach is to start slow and give your body some time to adjust.  This provides the perfect opportunity to tout the benefits of a good warm-up.

According to the American Heart Association,

“warming up and cooling down are good for your exercise performance . . .  A good warm-up before a workout dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen. It also raises your muscles’ temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly raising your heart rate, the warm-up also helps minimize stress on your heart.”

A warm-up generally consists of performing an activity at a slower pace.  Although most sources usually advise warming up for 5 to 10 minutes prior to planned activity, the Sports Medicine Information website advises that a good warm-up can last anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour.  In my opinion, longer warm-ups are a good thing, especially as we age.  In fact, if you are new to exercise or returning after an absence, you might want to consider doing your first few workouts entirely at warm-up pace.  Just take your planned activity slower and with less intensity.  When you’re ready to increase the pace and/or intensity you won’t have to force yourself.  It will just naturally feel right and you’ll know you’re ready.  Just have a little patience.  Starting slow now will mean more success in the long run.  Remind yourself of that every time you’re tempted to push too hard.

Your warm-up can include some gentle stretching of your muscles towards the end.  Most experts agree that muscles should be warm before you stretch them.  Quoting again from the American Heart Association : “Stretching allows for greater range of motion and eases the stress on the joints and tendons, which could potentially prevent injury.”  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Warming up may also help reduce muscle soreness and lessen your risk of injury.”  It’s well worth the extra time if might take.  Those extra minutes might save you from days or even weeks of inactivity from soreness or injury caused by overdoing too much too soon.

If you do manage to move from a warm-up to a more intense form of movement, then cooling down is equally important.  Our friends at the American Heart Association have thoughts on this subject, too.  They advise that

“After physical activity, your heart is still beating faster than normal, your body temperature is higher and your blood vessels are dilated. This means if you stop too fast, you could pass out or feel sick.  A cool-down after physical activity allows a gradual decrease at the end of the episode.”

Cooling down is similar to warming up in that you perform your activity at a slower pace for an additional 5 or 10 minutes following your main activity.  This is especially important, and often overlooked, when your activity is a sport such as basketball or tennis.  But it is just as critical after brisk walking or jogging.  If you’ve been lifting weights, try walking around the gym and doing some slow stretching following your workout.  If possible, a good way to warm up for and cool down from a gym workout is to walk to and from the gym.  What a concept!  O

The goal here is not to add yet another layer to your “to do” list, but rather to encourage you to keep your movement intentions on that list.  Don’t let your resolve drop off because of unrealistic expectations.  Although any activity you choose is better than none and the best activity is the one you’ll do and stick to, this is a good time to put in a plug for classes.  Most classes allow for warm-up and cool-down periods.  This is certainly true of my classes.  Even if you prefer some other type of activity, trying a class can give you an idea of how to warm-up and cool down so that you can do it on your own if that suits your needs.  Find what works for you, take it slow and keep at it.  Practice is the key to improvement.