Weekly musings, 6/18/17: Efficiency

Weekly musings, 6/18/17: Efficiency
In the book, “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement,” the authors write, “the human body is at most 25% efficient.” This refers to mechanical efficiency, or the amount of energy that is required to accomplish a specific task.

What struck me about this is how inefficient we actually are. Perhaps the reason we lack efficiency is because there are many ways for us to perform any given movement. Our central nervous system is constantly working to figure out what the best strategy is, depending on the environment and our current physical state. 

Anyone that teaches movement knows what a person skilled in a motor task looks like versus one that is unskilled. For those that lack efficiency, our job as coaches and trainers is to coax a greater sense of ease out of the movement. Understanding that we are only 25% efficient means there is always a different avenue to explore, to see if it’s possible to tap into a strategy that opens a slightly different path towards less resistance, knowing maximal efficiency will always be slightly out of reach.

Weekly musings, 6/11/17: the purpose of function

Weekly musings, 6/11/17: the purpose of function
Last Saturday, a man was pushed on to subway tracks at a station in New York City. A professional ballet dancer recovering from a herniated disc witnessed the entire thing. When no one came forward to help, he leapt down on to the tracks, lifted the man up, and, while carrying the unconscious man, used the strength of his leg to perform a deep step up back up on to the platform.* A movie couldn’t have scripted the scene much better,

There is a lot of debate about what it means for fitness to be functional. As long as there is a cross over benefit to movements in real life, it stands to reason the fitness you acquire in the gym has a functional purpose. 

Ballet requires the ability to land from jumps with control and from high depths. A large degree of hip mobility is necessary to achieve the artistic expression required to dance at the professional level. Male dancers regularly lift their partners in a variety of ways. (Lifting bodies, I am told, is much different than lifting weights). The ballet dancer’s training translated into a real life situation in a powerful way.

Getting strong improves self confidence. It opens doors to exploring the natural environment more fully. Trusting your legs to lift you up a mountain, for instance, makes climbing up the mountain a lot more enjoyable. Whatever you do in the gym that involves lifting weighted objects will give you strength that translates into real world function. However, if you truly want your strength to be functional, practice moving in different contexts, using your body in varied ways. (And maybe add a bit of jumping in once in a while because jumping, like other movement skills, gets better with practice).

*To read the full article, check it out here: https://nyti.ms/2sFs12E
**If you want to witness the athleticism of ballet in action, I find this one inspiring: https://youtu.be/RJBZWt8lQXk

Weekly musings, 6/4/17: Distance running

If you follow distance running, you are probably familiar with the fact the Kenyan athletes are a powerhouse. Athletes from the Kalenjin tribe have won three times more Olympic medals in distance running than any other nation.* This is an impressive feat for anyone, and bit incredible when you consider this small village only makes up 1/2000 of the world’s population.

We believe there are a lot of factors that allow athletes to excel. In the US, we have coaches and trainers. We hire nutritionists to manage our micro and macronutrients, and we have devised a number of techniques to ensure we recover in the most efficient way possible. Over the last three decades, researchers have tried to pinpoint what allows the Kalenjin tribe to excel in the world of running. Possible theories that have fallen flat include:

  • They live and train at high altitude, influencing oxygen capacity. No difference in maximal oxygen uptake was found between elite Kenyan runners and elite Scandinavian runners.
  • Their nutrition is somehow superior. It turns out their diet is actually lacking adequate vitamins and minerals. They also go into a negative energy balance during intense training cycles, which means they lose weight. (A recent Runner’s World magazine cover promised to teach readers how to not gain weight during training season. I guess we have the opposite problem in the west).
  • Genetics. No association between genetic makeup and performance has been found. 

So what allows these runners to excel? Maybe it’s partially due to the exposure they get to running long distances at an early age. Between the ages of 6-14, the way they get to school is by running and walking 5-13 KM each day. They build a solid base during a time when their tissues are adaptable, but it’s not through formal training or coaching. No one tells them how to be more efficient or that they should change their running stride to match a certain aesthetic or idea of what is “right.” They just run and walk, finding the most economical means of getting from point a to point b. Maybe one of the reasons they become running phenoms is because their movements aren’t micromanaged at a young age? Or maybe the fact that there is no outcome associated with the early years of running in these athletes contributes to a different mindset around running? Whatever it is (and I’m sure the “it” is a lot of things), can’t be copied or packaged into the perfect training plan. But maybe we can learn something from the lack of early coaching and giving children the opportunity to learn from self practice. 

*Abstract, with link to full text here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24149957

Weekly musings, 5/28/17: Clearing up why and learning

Weekly musings, 5/28/17: Clearing up why and learning
Over the weekend, I hung out at the park with my 4 year-old nephew. We played, with the loose rules of the game appearing to be I did what he did, unless he put me in time out or gave me alternative directions (for the record, I seemed to spend a fair amount of time in time out). When he would get stuck on a particular task, he would have me do it. He would watch how I moved, and then mimic me, trying to figure out how to move his limbs in the same configuration.

Children have an innate curiosity about how their bodies move and how they can manipulate their shapes. Adults lose this curiosity, largely because we don’t have the flexibility and control to move our bodies in the ways we do when we are children. This loss of freedom doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. I will never be as flexible as my nephew because of fully developed growth plates and muscle mass, but I can still move spontaneously in a variety of ways. I have options because I do the work in and out of the gym to develop those options. 

One of the most challenging parts of training is figuring out what people’s goals actually are and if they have the motivation to do the work it takes to meet those goals. Our lives don’t require much activity; we have to search for ways to include varied activities in our everyday lives. For me, this means I can play with my nephew at the park and not worry about getting injured. For others, it might mean maintaining the ability to get up and down from the floor. It’s not about everyone having the same goals, but it is important to be clear what your goals are.

*In this excellent, short blog post from Jules Mitchell, she eloquently describes what it’s like to write publicly about movement. I write to work out my thoughts and deepen my understanding of what I observe. They are a snapshot, freezing my thoughts in a moment of time. As I continue to learn and grow as a practitioner, my opinions change, but the old posts remain. They represent growth and the never ending process of learning. Read her blog here: http://www.julesmitchell.com/question-everything/

Weekly musings, 5/21/17: sleeping when tired

Weekly musings, 5/21/17
In the book, “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World,” Benjamin Reiss writes, “A significant part of the contemporary obsession with sleep is that we’re somehow doing it wrong.” 

This idea that there is a “wrong” way and a “right” way to sleep is in line with how the rest of the health and wellness disciplines are treated. Eating a specific way will kill you; eating the right way will cure cancer. Exercising the right way will extend your life, exercising the wrong way will increase risk of heart disease. (What constitutes the “right” way to eat and exercise, as far as I can tell, depends on how you manipulate the research). 

I love science. I love the idea that questions can be answered in a systematic, conclusive way. The problem, of course, is that science has flaws and researchers have biases.* When it comes to human nature, black and white statements regarding how much sleep we should get, how much exercise we should, and what we should be eating can be anxiety provoking. Perhaps it also makes it harder than it needs to be. What if we ate whole foods when we were hungry, slept when we were tired, and moved regularly, in a varied way throughout the day? Would we feel better and have more energy? Unfortunately, it goes against societal norms to take naps when we feel sleepy, or to get up and down from the floor regularly at work. But maybe it really could be that simple.

*This is a long, but interesting read on this topic: http://redux.slate.com/cover-stories/2017/05/daryl-bem-proved-esp-is-real-showed-science-is-broken.html

Weekly musings, 5/14/17: the importance of fun

People occasionally ask me why we are doing a specific exercise.

It’s a valid question. They are spending their money with me to ensure I design a safe and effective exercise program that keeps them strong and fit. They are absolutely allowed to ask why.

Depending on the exercise, my answers can be anything from, “because it’s a precursor of a more challenging exercise,” or “because movement x is challenging for you so I am breaking it down even further,” to, “because it’s fun.” (Fun involves things like working on hand eye coordination with a ball or crawling around in strange ways on the floor).

Somewhere along the line, “exercise” became synonymous with “chore.” It conjures up images of work and drudgery, completely devoid of any enjoyment. We focus on “activating” certain muscles and moving in a specific pattern. However, back before we became adults, playing tag, hopscotch, and creating physical games was a fun way to pass the time, all while using our bodies in a varied way. 

Adding things you enjoy into your exercise regime make life more interesting and keep you more mentally engaged. It breaks up the monotony of lifting ways and improves your physical confidence. Plus, we could all use a little more fun in our lives.

*An essay on handstands: https://nyti.ms/2pKR3zf

Weekly musings, 5/7/17: Discomfort

“We live in a world where we don’t get scars. We get paper cuts.” ~Morgan Spurlock

The documentary, “Rise of the Sufferfests,”* chronicles the boom of obstacle course racing (OCR). In it, filmmaker and journalist Scott Keneally suggests people are spending hundreds of dollars to be seriously uncomfortable because we miss the sense of accomplishment that goes along with physical challenge. Our lives are filled with all of the comforts we could ever want, he argues. We never have to be cold, most of us don’t ever have to work physically hard; we don’t even have to get up to adjust the settings of the lights anymore. All of these conveniences are creating a void between us and the physical world.

There is something to be said for a physical challenge.** Hiking a big hill, scrambling over rocks, or climbing a tree all create a connection between us and our external environment. Our daily lives don’t require this, and as time marches on, many of us continue to move further and further away from the ability to rekindle that connection. We lose flexibility and strength and we go to gyms instead of trails. 

I don’t necessarily think getting electrocuted or tempting hyperthermia is necessary to rekindle this connection. I do, however, think there is power in playing outside and physically challenging yourself on a regular basis. I strongly believe what people do in the gym should support the ability to spontaneously react to their external environment when an opportunity presents itself. As Laird Hamilton said, “You can never have too much fun. You just need to be in really good shape to do it.”

*The documentary, “Rise of the Sufferfests,” is available to rent online. 
Catherine Cowey wrote a guest blog on my site about the importance of daily discomfort. Check it out here: http://www.bewellpt.com/blog/2017/4/27/resiliency-training-daily-discomfort-vitamin

Improve flexibility, mobility, and learn how to react to the physical environment June 2-4 at the Nature and Movement Retreat in Napa Valley: http://www.bewellpt.com/events/2016/9/11/mind-body-nature-a-two-day-movement-retreat

Weekly musings, 4/30/17: the power of different

Weekly musings, 4/30/17
In the book, “The Power of Different,” Gail Saltz* discusses the power of exercise on depression. “What is perhaps most fascinating is that not only can exercise be as effective as antidepressant medication, but its effects are longer lasting,” she writes.

Perhaps more important than the physical benefits of getting stronger and feeling more capable, are the benefits of exercise on mood. Exercise increases self-esteem and cardiovascular exercise in particular releases neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation. 

If you only focus on the physical aspects of exercise, you are missing what could arguably be considered the most powerful reason to get moving. Stabilizing your mood positively impacts not just you, but the people around you. Depression afflicts 6.7% of Americans in a given year, and anxiety affects 18% of adults annually.** A regular exercise routine can be extremely beneficial and should be part of a multi-faceted approach for individuals struggling with mood disorders.

*”The Power of Different” is a great survey of mood disorders. There were three sections where I found myself thinking, “I can relate to that.” This is sort of like reading a medical textbook and self diagnosing yourself with every disease you read about.
**Data can be found here: https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
***There are still spots available in the nature and movement retreat, June 2-4 in Napa Valley. To register: http://www.bewellpt.com/events/2016/9/11/mind-body-nature-a-two-day-movement-retreat  

Weekly musings, 4/23/17: The Masai and jumping variability

I was watching video footage of the Masai tribe jumping during a traditional dance recently. What struck me was the variability between people jumping. One person kept his knees completely together, another had his feet turned in, and yet another had knees that went in slightly on each landing.*

If any of these tendencies were spotted in a gym setting, you would be told to make sure you land with the knees pointing straight ahead so you don’t stress the knee joint. If you watch the Masai jump, they have a spring like tendency that is unusual for US adults. They look almost like human pogo sticks, loading and re-loading in a way that is efficient, despite the variable feet and knee positions. (I tried to find information on knee injuries in the Masai tribe and failed. Either members of the Masai aren’t having knee surgeries or they aren’t prone to knee injuries. One could also argue their life expectancy is under the age of 50, so perhaps they aren’t living long enough to experience things like knee pain).

One final thing to note about the Masai is they move.** A lot, but at low intensities. Rarely during the day do they run, and even their huts are made of lightweight material, so they aren’t lifting really heavy things, though they bend and lift frequently over the course of 24 hours. There is no right or wrong way to move, and maybe the true lesson from the Masai is moving variably, throughout the day, makes for a more robust and resilient structure. 


Weekly musings, 4/16/17: the value of warming-up

Five days a week, I get on my mat and begin the warm-up to my daily practice. I use the term practice to describe my workout routine because I am always working on a skill, whether it’s the skill of a fantastic chin-up, or the skill of a handstand. 

My warm-up supports whatever skills I am working on that day and is one of the things I look forward to. The act of warming-up my joints, tuning in to my breath, and thoughtfully moving has a meditative effect. I feel my sticking points, notice where things feel tight, and observe my mood as I move. I also notice as things begin to unwind a little bit, feeling areas as they warm-up. Many times, if I feel a little bit off before I begin my warm-up, by the time I am finished warming up, I am focused, calm, and feeling (for lack of a better word), centered.

When people are short on time, the warm-up is one of the first things to be shortened or eliminated. I am guilty of this; we prioritize work over sensing. But there is power in both, and the ability to tap into sensing before work can sometimes make all of the difference. 

*One of my favorite hip warm-up routines. If you are working a lot of lower body skills, try this beforehand and see if you notice a difference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NG9qbvAN3gQ

Weekly musings, 4/9/17: words and images

Weekly musings, 4/9/17
I have a client who had a hip replaced 9 years ago. She was in her early 50s at the time and quite active. While she was doing physical therapy, the therapist said to her, “you know, in the scans, the hip they didn’t operate on looks far worse than the hip they are operating on.”

My client never forgot this, and mentioned it to me somewhat regularly, despite the fact she had no pain in that hip.

Earlier this year, a series of events led to discomfort in her back and hip. The hip pain was consistent with what she experienced right before she had the original hip operated on. 

At some point, I noticed she wasn’t using her non-operated leg. She hovered off of it, like it couldn’t quite stand to bear her weight.

I brought this to her attention and encouraged her to get scans. I wanted to make sure things in that hip hadn’t gotten worse.

She began bearing weight on her “bad” hip. Her back and hip pain went away.

She got her MRI results back. Her “bad” hip was perfect. There were no signs of degeneration. Her operated hip looked extremely stable.

When she came in to share this with me, she was floating. She was carrying herself differently, and I could tell she felt much more secure with the strength of her lower extremity.
Words and images have power. Whether it’s a scan that shows damage even when there is no pain present, or it’s the implication that a muscle is dysfunctional, people remember. So if you are a teacher in any capacity, choose your words wisely.

Weekly musings, 4/2/17: discomfort and tendencies

Earlier this week, my husband complained his low back was feeling kind of crummy. “What should I do?” he asked.

“Deadlift and plank,” I responded. 

I walked in after my bike ride the next morning, and he was deadlifting. Later, after his workout was finished, I asked him how his back was feeling. 

“Better,” he said, without hesitation.

What’s interesting about this (at least, to me), is when my low back feels achy, I make it feel better by rolling around on the floor in a mindful way. This encourages bending and flexing in a relaxed manner. He, on the other hand, does really well if he loads the spine. His spine is naturally very bendy; mine is not. When our habits are exaggerated (which is often the case the when the low back is achy), giving the nervous system an input that’s opposite our natural tendencies quiets things down. 

Figure out your habits. Know how to exaggerate them and know what it feels like to do the opposite. When things feels cranky, play with your movement patterns. Does moving in your habitual way feel good? If not, can you change it? We have more control over general discomfort than we think.

Weekly musings, 3/27/17: perspective

Weekly musings, 3/27/17
I was chatting with a long time client last week, when she said to me, “the first time you walked around me, many years ago, I wondered what I was doing wrong. All of the other trainers I worked with in the past always stayed in front of me. After I thought about it, I realized you were just getting another vantage point to check my form.”

If we only look at thing from one perspective, the perspective becomes narrow. We don’t get all of the information and we miss things. (I miss things regardless, but at least changing my perspective helps me miss less). From a coaching standpoint, I am frequently amazed when clients are struggling with a movement, if I change my where I’m standing in relation to the client, how it often gives me an idea of what to cue or where to go. 

In a 2007 article* in “Simply Psychology,” author Saul McLeod writes, “Each perspective has its strength and weaknesses, and brings something different to our approach of human behavior.” This is the interesting thing about perspectives- each will tell us something different and inform our decision of what to say or do. When I coach, my goal is to help my client move in an efficient way that enables him or her to maximize strength and mobility and meet goals. If I only look at movement from one angle, I can’t do that. The same is true in other facets of life as well. Change your perspective occasionally and see what happens. 

*Article here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/perspective.html