The Force of Habit
When you are born you still need to acquire the skillset to survive on your own. We can do very little voluntary movements at this stage. The motor programs we develop are learned through experience; from lifting your head, rolling over, reaching for that favourite toy, to crawling and walking. The brain repeats the movement over and over, repeating the pattern that did the job, reinforcing them, and discarding the ones that failed. Here the brain is in the process of writing a ‘software program’ for all the actions it must perform to; orientate, transfer, locomote, communicate, vegetate, defecate and reproduce.
By doing so it ‘wires’ your brain and movement habits are born. These programs are not set in stone though and can change throughout your lifetime, either conscious- or subconsciously depending on awareness and intent of the person. However, this system of habit-based movement can be both a blessing and a curse. When you write your software program to the optimal specifications, you cheer with joy! Muscles and joints work in perfect harmony to execute the command from the control station above without any excrescent load on muscle, nerves or connective tissue. This, however, is a utopia lived only by a few and most people will, often subconsciously, develop some kind of sub-optimal habitual movement pattern that results in tissue being repeatedly overstressed.
Most western countries are dealing with an increasing epidemic of low back and cervical spine degenerative diseases. 60 to 90% will go through at least one episode of low back pain in their lifetime and at least 40% will experience cervical discomfort. The modern medical model looks at degeneration in the lower lumbar and lower cervical region as “normal aging” although its effect is not uniformal through the rest of the spine. Because if that’s the case, we are victim of a failing genetic branch. If sub-optimal movement and posture is the cause, the answer lies in changing, optimizing and diversifying our habitual movement patterns.
Your Body is your Teacher
“We see in order to move; we move in
order to see.”
― William Gibson
In order to improve and evolve in our movement patterns, we have to become aware of three things.
First, we need to become aware off and distinguish between sensory information that enter the brain during movement. When performing say, a high speed-, high intensity movement like a javelin throw, your brain is bombarded with sensory information. In this split second, you must orchestrate nearly all joints and muscles in perfect harmony to both throw a significant distance and not injure yourself. It’s hard to quantify how many bites your body sends upward in such a split second and it’s even harder to specify how much your brain can process in that given time. You can compare this with a CCTV guard in a shopping mall or casino, sitting in his cubical, leaning in his chair watching multiple screens. It’s impossible for him fully focus on one screen while at the same time being aware of the others. Like trying to watch two channels at the same time, You’re probably able to differentiate between the general themes in both programs, but telling apart the individual dialogs is a lot harder.
One way to ‘see or feel’ more of a movement like throwing, is to slow it down. Doing the same form of movement, but in slow motion, gives your brain time to zoom in on different parts that make up the action, muscles activating or stretching, the effect it has on the adjacent joint and other specific feelings in the rest of the body. Another strategy is to alternate between both directions of movement in a joint or kinetic chain, giving a clearer view of both ‘ends’ and helps the brain establish a better sense of a middle, center or neutral.
Second, we need to know what good movement feels like. The quick answer here is, that it’s the choice of the experiencer. Only the person inside will know the intrinsic feeling of a movement and if it ‘feels good’. Feelings of ease, comfort, preference, fluidity, balance, groundedness and stability are inner perceptions that are accessed mostly by the experiencer. These can be accessed through trying out different patterns and comparing the effect it has. Is this movement pattern stressing a region that I know has more hypertonicity and works towards my bias, or can I feel that I’m opening up, streching a region that I know has a tendency to stiffen?
Third, What makes a movement “good” or “bad”? The short answer is that there are no good or bad movements per se, but there are choices between less and more optimal patterns of movement. The shape of a joint tells us what kind and what direction of movement is preferable in that joint. Looking at a hip for instance, you’ll notice the round shape of ball and socket, making it an excellent rotator with significant range of motion. The knee for example works more as a hinge and is happy to flex and extend, but doesn’t allow for much rotation and can be injured if rotated too far. Same goes for the low back, where the joints have a more vertical orientation, so when you rotate too much, they’ll bump into each other and the chance of injury will increase. Using the joint in the direction as intended is a big part in moving well, but for a movement to be most optimal, a joint needs to be a team player, working alongside his friends in the kinetic chain. This is where the muscle patterns govern the stage.
As mentioned in the segment “Force of habit”, we start developing patterns starting at early child-hood and continue to develop these patterns until we created one that gets the job done, reinforcing it through time, or when we deliberately alter a specific habit. Although we do get some general physical education in preschool and high school, and a decent amount of people will do some kind of sport in their lifetime, we are almost always left to fate when it comes to how we move. Combine this with the lack of variety and quantity of movement in general and a dangerous concoction is starting to brew.
You’ve probably heard some of these corrections to our posture; ‘pull your shoulders down and in to straighten your chest’; ‘activate your abdominals to protect your low back’; or ‘sit straight’. These are corrections that reflect an increasing issue of low-back and neck issues in our western society. When we become older, the body starts to show the effects of sub-optimal movement as it will slowly adapt to the direction we use most often. For example, always standing, sitting and bending over with a rounded thorax will reinforce this pattern, resulting in a path of least resistance towards flexion. This makes it harder or creates a path of most resistance going into the opposite direction of extension, sometimes even resulting in complete obliviousness of that movement as a whole. Same goes for standing, lifting or sitting in extension in the low back. For these people, going into the tiniest bit of flexion, can profoundly change their lives. Look around and observe peoples posture and notice their bias towards one of these examples.
Thus, we have to balance our patterns and start to make an effort going into our unfamiliar, dormant or even forgotten directions, refamiliarizing and expanding our database of possible movements, giving us more options to utilize in our everyday lives.