Bioplasticity & Fitness: 4 Things You Really SHOULD Think About

Bioplasticity & Fitness: 4 Things You Really SHOULD Think About

  • By Susannah Steers
  • February 12, 2014

The human body is an amazingly adaptable thing. Every single day in my studio, I watch people who are dealing with pain, movement dysfunction and just plain “ick” in their bodies find new ways of moving more efficiently, more effectively and more easily. I am constantly awed by the power of the body to “shape-shift” as people discover new movement potential, create new habits and begin to move in the way their bodies were meant to move. And more often than not, the path to this new way of moving is not ONLY about strengthening muscles, and pushing your body to the limit! Does that put a different spin on your thoughts about fitness?

When the fitness industry really got up and rolling, in the 70’s and 80’s – the training focus was all about individual muscles. Work the pecs, feel the burn in those glutes! Since those days, knowledgeable professionals have evolved their techniques to train whole movement, instead of isolating body parts. And in recent years, there has been a whole lot of interest and research into the interconnectedness of all our varied systems. This is particularly true in therapeutic circles, but people who work in physical conditioning and movement training are starting to see the wisdom of this approach now too.

An integrated, dynamic systems approach has been part of my movement training programs for years. I need to see the full effect of a given “exercise” or movement pattern on the whole system before I can determine whether it is going to be appropriate for a given client’s needs and goals. So imagine my delight when I saw a post about Embracing Bioplasticity from Professor Lorimer Moseley, a clinical scientist investigating pain, working out of the University of Southern Australia. Professor Moseley and his his team of researchers are discovering some remarkable things about the complex interactions between the body, the brain and the mind, particularly relating to the human experience of pain.

human systemsThe idea of “bioplasticity” is essentially that every single system in the human body will adapt itself to respond to the demands placed upon it. In Professor Moseley’s words: “They all respond to demand – in obvious ways such as growing muscle cells when we lift weights – myoplasticity; sweating more when we acclimatise – endoplasticity; learning to recognise a pathogen and eliminating it on next contact –immunoplasticity;  increasing our heartrate earlier on a hill after running up it a few times – cardioplasticity; adjusting the aperture of our pupil to improve our underwater vision – obiculoplasticity; the toughening of skin on well trodden heels – dermoplasticity. You probably don’t recognize these terms, but they are all, in my view, just as legitimate as neuroplasticity. OK, I made those terms up – but they would be legitimate if we chose to use them as a method of capturing this fundamental property of biological systems – adaptation.” (See the full article here.)

If we can accept that all of our systems have the ability to adapt according to demand, then our overall ability to “change” a current reality – physical or otherwise, is STAGGERING!!  In the context of physical health, wellness & fitness – it means that we have to extend our view beyond the obvious. Keep doing the cardio, keep doing your strength training – but remember there are a whole lot of systems underlying your ability to do those things well!  

In a way, fitness is a little like nutrition. You can understand that over the course of a day you need X calories to maintain, gain or lose weight.  The KIND of calories – with the appropriate nutrients and elements, will largely determine your health within that process. If  your diet has the appropriate amount of calories, but it’s largely fats and sugars… well, you may run into some problems with your health along the way. You know this – so you pay attention to the kinds of foods that you eat, so that you can sustain a long and healthy life.

So why is fitness any different? The media and fitness industry rely largely on marketing to our needs to pay the bills. And in the traditional context of “fitness” what do most of us need help with? For a lot of people it’s weight control, “looking good” and dealing with stress. So… current trends lead people to work out in particular ways. The high intensity stuff builds muscle fast, which helps our metabolisms to speed up and its easier to shed weight. It changes the shape of our bodies, which most people like a lot. The restorative stuff helps us manage stress, stretches us out, relieves tension – and that feels great too.  These are ALL good things!

Wieght trainingBut focusing only on those things has it’s challenges too. With only high intensity work – you may be creating structural stress on your system that you may not feel right away. This will impact your ability to move well in the future – whether that means injury or whether that means a loss of motion in old age. With the restorative stuff, you may be missing out on stressing the system in ways that help to build important strength and stamina. The long term issues are much the same.

So what to do?

1.  Whatever style of fitness you like best – MIX IT UP!! Don’t get so attached to one kind of fitness activity that you don’t other things regularly. Sure you can do cardio on a treadmill everyday; but because your body gets used to processing that cardiovascular stress in only one way, you might not be getting the benefit you think you are… even if you are maintaining your weight.

2. Notice what happens to you when your body feels stressed in exercise. Do you tense up? Do your joints feel tight? Are you working hard and working well – or is it just struggle? For long term best health – struggle is not the goal.

 3. Ask yourself questions! How are your sleep patterns? Your digestion? How is your overall nutrition? If you have pain, what kind of pain is it? How is your breathing? How are you feeling emotionally? All of these thing can affect, and be affected by your “exercise.”  In an ideal world, exercise makes these things better. If not.. you may want to explore some new options.

4. Be patient and keep at it! Wherever you are physically right now, you didn’t get there overnight. Instant solutions are tempting – but let’s face it, they’re not going to get you lasting results. If a bootcamp type scenario helps you jumpstart a more active lifestyle – I’m all for it. But know that there is more committed, longer term work to be done.

If you’re looking for for great results, long term vitality, health and fitness – you have to pay attention to how your body responds to the things you do. Not just in strength and body size – but in how movement FEELS.  As you reach for your goals, whatever they are, your body will ideally start to feel easier, lighter, more relaxed, more grounded. Life will begin to feel BETTER. If that’s what you’re feeling- then likely you are doing things that will support your body’s ability to adapt to whatever demand you place on it.

But if your workouts consistently leave you feeling depleted, fatigued and dreading the next one… or if you’re not challenging your system enough – then you may actually make it harder for your body to adapt and cope with the demands your life places on you. Fitness needs to SUPPORT YOUR LIFE – not just do good things for your waistline.

And for best results, move as much as you can, in as many different ways as you can, as often as you can! I’d love to hear your experiences.  Do you feel fully supported by your fitness program? What’s not working for you? What more do you need to feel GREAT in your moving body? Leave a comment below and let me know if I can help!

Kathleen Watson - February 18, 2014

“Pay attention to how movement FEELS.” This is such an obvious recommendation, and it’s one that I too often forget. I think I get to practice tuning into my body more and choosing to trust its signals, rather than telling myself I can “just work through it.” Thanks for the reminder, Susannah.

    Susannah Steers - February 18, 2014

    You’re welcome Kathleen! So often we get caught up in what we are “supposed” to be doing, that we forget to tune it to how our own bodies are experiencing it. A little mindful attention can go a long way toward successfully reaching your goals. Enjoy!

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