Physical activity. Physical fitness. Exercise. These words are fixtures in modern culture. Scores of us seek physical fitness, for fun and for health, often using exercise as a means to that end. But what do these terms actually mean? Why should we care? And why the heck isn’t movement a central part of the conversation? Even to the fittest among us, our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is creating issues for healthy, injury-free movement. Our overall capacity for motion is taking a hit, and that has serious implications for our ability to be fit and active over the long term. What can we do? The solution is to move more and move better, and that means broadening our perspective of what physical fitness activities actually are. Let’s get our heads out of the gym and back into our bodies – where they can do more good than you might imagine!
First, let’s dig into those words:
Physical activity can be defined as the things we do to move our bodies around in the world every day. These things can be sports, recreation, work or household chores and other activities. Exercise is a subcategory of physical activity, which is structured and repetitive, and usually has a specific goal associated with it; often the achievement or maintenance of physical fitness.
Physical fitness describes a set of traits that allows us to be prepared and successful at a wide variety of physical tasks. These attributes are typically either health or skill related, and are measured by specific tests. We’re commonly taught that a person’s level of fitness (or lack thereof) depends on cardio-respiratory strength & endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition and flexibility. Sound familiar?
But there is one very important measure getting lost in the equation here, and that’s movement itself. For optimal, long-term health, our bodies need to be able to move in a wide variety of different ways, with different loads, in different ranges of motion at varying speeds and intensities. Flexion, extension, twisting, rolling, reaching, pushing, pulling, squatting, lifting, balancing – we should be able to do all of this and more; spontaneously and with ease. I would hazard a guess that many of us don’t move as fully as we once did, even if we consider ourselves fit and active. We avoid things that we know will hurt our knees, or things that make us worry about our backs or our necks, because they don’t feel good. And somehow many of us convince ourselves that our dysfunction is more about genetics or aging than about poor movement patterning. What if we just moved better, and moved more?
Think about it. We move a lot less than we did in decades past. The daily movement tasks of our lives have largely been automated – so we don’t have to move our bodies much to get from place to place; to do our work, to maintain our homes, even to recreate! Regardless of our dedication to physical activity and fitness, we are moving our bodies around a lot lot less than we once did. And we sit a whole lot more. We may blow it out at the end of the day in a spurt of strenuous physical activity – but that sedentary stuff leaves its mark. Why?
Our bodies get really good at doing what they do often, and that’s a double-edged sword. We get really efficient at doing the movement tasks we do every day, even if that task is just sitting! When we are inactive for many hours of every day – our structures work hard to keep us upright and stable in a sitting position. In a job where there is repetitive motion, the body will, for better or worse, develop patterns for managing that repetitive motion. Unless movement that contrasts those repetitive patterns is deliberately introduced and consistently practiced, the body will gradually lose its capacity for movement outside of that repetitive range. It is quite literally a case of “move it or lose it.” Our structures are designed for efficiency, so they morph to provide stability and strength where they’re consistently needed most. The brain won’t waste time supporting a pattern it never uses! As a result, certain movements may eventually become less coordinated, more challenging, and less fun to do. They may even become associated with pain.
So what do we do? It’s quite simple really. The trick is to challenge ourselves to get outside of our comfort zones. Move our bodies more fully. Use all of our joints in their fullest range of motion. Connect to the core because it’s necessary, not just because we want the six-pack abs. If you’re a football player, try ballet. If you’re a swimmer, maybe soccer is a fun choice. If you sit a lot, try yoga or go for a hike. And if you jump into a new activity and it feels risky – it may be that some of your fundamental support patterns have been corrupted along the way. You may need a little extra support in a new area before feeling safe and comfortable with new movement. That’s why people often hear about the importance of core training after back injuries.
But trust me… it’s about more than just muscle. You can throw all the muscle you want at a structural or movement problem, and you’ll likely just make it worse. Loading dysfunction is a bad idea! Learn where your instabilities are, understand failed load transfer patterns that might exist in your body. Begin the process of re-constructing your strength and stability FROM THE INSIDE OUT! Support your structure well first, and then add heavier loads. Instead of creating an external armour that looks strong but is actually quite vulnerable, you’ll find ease in your motion and a spring in your step. Create resiliency by learning to access coordinated, efficient movement patterning throughout the body and developing the stamina and strength to maintain those patterns in motion!
But here’s where I see things get sticky. If we’re choosing to do more than just throw more muscle at things, then we have to actually educate our bodies to work in a different way. Our brains have to recognize our own patterns. We have to learn to feel when things are working in a clean and integrated way, or when things begin to disintegrate under load. We need to explore ranges of motion that may feel unfamiliar. We have to appreciate that every movement is whole body movement. And we have to learn that our training goals have to respect our structural capacities on any given day. Either that or face the fact that we are actually training dysfunction into our bodies.
We tend to think that we know our bodies well, and that they will just work the way they are supposed to work. Unfortunately though, this is one of those cases where you just don’t know what you don’t know. Even with years of living in your body, or years of training as an athlete, fitness trainer or therapist, we sometimes need an outside eye to help us connect to the pieces we can’t yet see or understand. A well-trained movement professional can help you to better understand where your movement is working well, where it could use some new support, and how to integrated all the various pieces you’re working on.
Over the years, I’ve found the Pilates method to be a powerful tool in supporting a more balanced relationship to movement within the context of physical fitness. Beyond a frou-frou exercise routine for the Lululemon set, Pilates and integrated movement training provide a solid foundation for improving movement, and create a springboard to function at even the highest levels. If you’re ready to explore the possibilities that could open up for you and your movement, why not schedule an Introductory Private Training Package at Moving Spirit today? We’ll guide you in the discovery of a whole new joy in moving your body.