Movement Needs to be Nurtured (Part 1):

Where Things Can Go Wrong

Despite the fact that the musculoskeletal (MSK) system becomes far less malleable as a child gets older, and certainly even less so as an adult, there’s still potential for movement to continue to shape our bodies (including our soft tissues like muscles and ligaments as well as some of the structural characteristics of our bones) well into adulthood and our elderly years. Furthermore, the ability to reinforce learned movements or simply learn and practice new ones always remains at our disposal. The caveat, though, is that depending on the quality and quantity of our movement, these adaptations may occur in unfavourable ways.
Ideal Posture:
  • Decreases discomfort/injury
  • Is capable of being maintained for a longer duration

Movement Quality: How well do you move?

The vast majority of people come out of their developmental stages with predictably ideal postures and basic movement repertoire. NOTE: I’m not referring to athletic abilities or complex skills here. Instead, observe a toddler sitting upright, squatting, bending and climbing. As mentioned in a previous post, these are a part of the basic movement skill set that’s genetically hardwired into our Central Nervous System (CNS).
A 1-year old child demonstrating a sequence (A-C) of movements from upright sitting to a deep squat, just prior to standing up. Take note of the ideal upright posture in sitting (A) as well as the mobility and control demonstrated while on all fours (B) or in a deep squat (C).
But as people move beyond the developmental stages, various lifestyle factors influence their posture and movement skills. From working at a desk for eight hours a day, to enduring long commuting hours behind the wheel, scanning your smartphone while walking down the street to a myriad of other stances we take every day—the quality of our movements can and do affect our bodies in a number of negative ways. Most of these lifestyle factors can be broadly classified into three categories.

3 factors responsible for your aches and pains:

1) Lack of Movement Variability

Besides the typical actions associated with today’s “activities of daily living” (i.e., walking, sitting, typing, texting, driving, etc.)—how much movement variability do you demonstrate in your day-to-day life? Now compare that to a one-year-old child… The grim reality: this pattern starts early! School-aged children are less active and play less overall today than at any other time in history. As they age, little emphasis is placed on learning and maintaining an array of activities to offset the increasingly unvaried activities they participate in day in and day out. And this only gets worse as we move into our working years. I’m not saying we should all be spending most of our day on the floor, crawling, rolling, creeping and climbing. But the comparison serves as a useful contrast between the variety of movement skills it took for you to be able to properly sit and stand up straight and the amount of activity you’re currently doing to maintain those skills.
Next time you go for your bi-weekly run, try mixing it up! If you’re used to the same old routine—say, running 5K at the same speed, along the same route, several times a week—you’re getting a good dose of exercise, but you could get more out of your activities (and avoid common pitfalls of two-dimensional movement, including tight joints and muscles, and poor conditioning overall) by introducing more variability in your movements. Think: cross-training with swimming, or interval training with resistance exercise
Important Note Re. The Quantity Vs. Quality Argument. It’s not my intention to de-emphasize the importance of quantity here. The general lack of quantity of exercises in our society is also a huge problem, one that contributes to many chronic diseases in adulthood as well as in childhood. However, poor quality movement is a contributor to injury, and injury is a very common deterrent to continuing with exercise, which subsequently affects quantity of movement.
Evolution has shaped us into movers, but the unfortunate reality is that within our very recent history, humans have regressed into a more sedentary lifestyle. And while we can all appreciate the perks that come with our modern times, the unavoidable fact is that our modern lifestyle has chained us to our desks, restrained us with tight-fitting clothing and shoes, and has reduced our playtime to scheduled fragments of whatever monotonous activity we can squeeze into our stress-infused and sleep-deprived Google calendars. In addition to the lack of movement variability in our day-to-day lives, the activitieswe do fit into our routine only stress our bodies in a two-dimensional way, and our MSK system and CNS adapt accordingly: Our posture worsens; our joints and muscles become conditioned to only move in certain directions; some muscles tighten while others simply wither away. This places added burden on our soft tissues that compensate for this change and in turn affects our quality of movement and ability to mitigate the strain placed on our bodies—a downward spiral to potential injury.

2) Decrease in Movement Quality

Quality movement is essential in keeping us moving well, preventing injury and even recovering from it. But many factors of modern life contribute to a decreased quality of movement as we age:

A) Lack of emphasis on quality of movement (a.k.a. the step-counter paradox): The quality problem starts from early childhood, where most of the focus is placed simply on the completion of a skill, like running or throwing a ball. Without enough emphasis placed on development of proper technique, however, dysfunctional movement patterns are established early, sometimes with the assumption that these will correct themselves over time. Unfortunately, this is simply not true in most cases. Furthermore, adolescence brings with it a phase of natural “movement awkwardness,” as the MSK system grows at a rapid rate and the CNS—which dictates posture, neuromuscular control and coordination—lags.

In many cases, “movement awkwardness” and its effects on posture can persist into adulthood. But more often than not, the lack of movement quality in adults is largely related to busy lifestyles, where emphasis is placed on the quantity of exercise—to get people moving, however and whenever possible—at the expense of the quality of that exercise. So, while step-counters and exercise logs are valuable tools, they only tell one side of the story.

B) Injuries: When the CNS is out of sync with the MSK system—as in the period of “movement awkwardness” detailed above—there’s a greater likelihood of injury. Some injuries can cause irreparable tissue damage, which has obvious effects on our ability to move. More commonly, however, it’s the acquired dysfunctions in the CNS and the MSK system that may linger and have lasting consequences on the way we move, possibly leading to an increased likelihood of subsequent injury.

Proper injury management must therefore re-establish quality movement in order to successfully aid in the prevention of future injury.

3) Reduction in Movement Quantity 

Activity in our formative years is critical, as this is the when we hone our fine motor skills, when our MSK systems grow their bone density reserves, and our adult bodies develop. Yet, while an infant spends on average 70–80% of their awake-time in active movement, recent studies indicate that only 7% of 5–11 year olds and 4% of 12–17 year olds meet the daily recommendations of physical activity—a trend that may not improve in adulthood, as our affinity for activity as children often dictates our level of activity as adults. Our modern society has progressively shifted towards inactivity. This phenomenon is accompanied by drastic consequences on our long-term health, wellbeing and quality of life. Subsequently this results in a large economical burden on our society. And though we’ve seen a push towards increased exercise through the “Exercise is Medicine” movement in the last several years (with guidelines designed to advise the public about the recommended baseline amount of exercise per age group), further changes need to be implemented on a societal level to correct this trend in the coming years.

Conclusion: As important as quantity of movement may be, it shouldn’t be at the expense of quality.

The typical modern lifestyle is full of tasks and habits that adversely affect our movement. As our way of life becomes more sedentary, the need for active nurturing, taking into account movement variety, quality and quantity, becomes more pressing. For more on this, check out the next post, “Movement Needs to Be Nurtured (Part 2): Back to the Basics,” which expands on what it takes to nurture one’s movement.

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