I’ve been geeking out lately on all things natural movement. It started when I picked up Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman. Actually, I had ordered the book when it first came out, but just now got around to reading it. I’m sorry I’ve waited this long!!!
As a chiropractor trained extensively in the function and disorders of the musculoskeletal system, I’ve always taken a keen interest in Katy’s work. What I love most about it is that what Katy talks and writes about is functional movement. It’s to chiropractic what functional medicine is to the western medicine/sickcare model.
I help fix my patient’s musculoskeletal complaints in the short-term, but the reality is that most of those symptoms came to be because of long-standing patterns in how a person uses (or doesn’t use) their body. Take for instance, someone who has developed arthritis in their lumbar spine. They probably have lost disc height and maybe have begun to grow osteophytes off of their vertebrae. Osteophytes are bone spurs that begin to grow in areas where a tendon attaches to a bone. They don’t develop simply because you get older. They develop in response to abnormal forces/loads placed on that muscles/tendon/joint every minute of every day, day in and day out, for years.
With this in mind, the only way to truly ‘fix’ the problem is to begin to undo those patterns of movement that place the abnormal loads on the tissue in the first place. This involves diligence and commitment to maintain awareness about problematic movement patterns as well as consistency in executing restorative stretching and strengthening exercises (Note that I did not say that it involves getting adjusted three times a week for the next six months). The payoff for that hard work and consistency is similar to that to be gained from consistent commitment to eating a whole foods diet: significantly improved health and longevity!
Regaining functional movement and natural movement patterns isn’t just about being pain free; it’s also about health. Through a process known as mechnotransduction, the loads placed upon an individual cell can affect how the DNA of the cell is expressed. Whoa! Movement is another epigenetic factor!
One of my favorite points Katy makes in her book is about atherosclerosis. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that this disease develops because your cholesterol is too high (because you’ve been eating those evil animal foods and saturated fats that humans have been eating since their evolutionary beginnings) and that statins will save you. This indoctrination is so complete, we in the alternative health movement are guilty of assuming that if our patients & clients simply eat better, they can reverse the disease and no longer need a statin drug. What Katy points out however, is that if atherosclerosis is primarily a biochemical problem, then we should see it develop in any and all arteries with equal frequency.
But that’s not what we see.
Atherosclerosis is most likely to develop in the abdominal aorta, iliac, femoral, popliteal, carotid and cerebral arteries. Basically, in areas where the arteries have to change angles. This changes the hemodynamics, or the way the blood flows through those arteries. Picture two rivers- one flowing fairly straight and another with lots of twists and bends. The one with all the twists and bends while have more eddies and rapids. When a similar change happens within a blood vessel though, we get localized areas of higher force, or loads on the cells of the artery wall. Over time, this may damage the arterial wall, leading to a need for cholesterol to act as the spackle to patch the ‘hole.’ Can you see now why taking a statin drug may lower your total cholesterol level but not actually protect you from cardiovascular disease or a heart attack???
Here’s what more- most of those arteries named above where atherosclerosis is most common are in the area of the hip and the knee. Which for most modern humans who are accustomed to sitting in chairs for hours a day for YEARS of their life, increases the loads on the arterial walls even more, because if the joints are constantly stuck in 90 degrees of flexion from chair sitting- so are the arteries. So what is really leading to the atherosclerosis- eating healthy animal foods in your diet or being stuck sitting in a chair all day? Can you see now why sitting is the new smoking?
At this point, you are hopefully itchy to get out of your seat and move somehow. So here’s a few practical tips to get you started moving more functionally.
1.) Stretch your calves. Get a towel, roll it up and place it on the floor. Put the toes & ball of one foot on it so that they are higher than the heel. Now stand with your feet hip width apart, toes even with each other. You should feel the stretch in the calf muscle on of the leg that is on the towel. Now notice the rest of your posture. Do you have to learn forward at the waist to maintain this position? Is your pelvis tucked under as you hold this position? With the foot not on the towel, try stepping forward a few inches. Do you have to break at the waist to accomplish this? Does you pelvis tuck to allow your foot to come forward? This is a great stretch to do through the day, every day. Since most of us have worn positive-heeled shoes for our entire lives, this stretch begins to combat the muscle length (& mass) changes most of us have in the lower leg that have developed as adaptations to shoe-wearing.
2.) Do anything but sit in a chair. It’s not that chairs and sitting are evil in and of themselves. It’s that we spend so much time in this one position that over a lifetime of chair sitting, our muscles adapt to chair sitting. So much so, that even when you stand up, your muscles maintain some of the length adaptations they have made to sitting. The fact is that there are many, many ways to sit that don’t involve sitting in a chair with the hips and knees flexed and the pelvis tucked under. The solution isn’t just to stand all day either. The key is to try lots of new and novel positions so your muscles & joints can experience loading in all different directions. Forget apples, kick your chair habit if you really want to keep the doctor away.
3.) Go barefoot. Of course, please be sensible here. If you’ve been wearing shoes all of your life, your foot muscles have atrophied, just like when you broke your arm as a kid and your arm was all little and wimpy when the cast came off. Start with walking around your house barefoot. Try taking it outside in your yard. If you want go next level, get a pair of super minimalist shoes and starting taking walks in them. Start slow and small with your barefoot walks and slowly work your way up.
4.) Speaking of walking… go walk!! Walking is one of the best things you can do for your musculoskeletal system. Think of walking as being on the same level as kale in your diet. You don’t have to go super fast; this isn’t about burning up the calories. Even better, make walking a useful, integrated part of your day. Walk to the post office or the mailbox. Walk to visit a neighbor or friend. Give your walking a purpose other than ‘exercise.’ And just as note here, walking indoors on a treadmill is not the same thing as walking outside. First of all, the biomechanics are totally different. In walking over ground, forward motion is created by hip extension (pushing backwards). On a treadmill, the backwards motion of the tread does that part for you, so all you have to do is flex the hip to swing the leg forward to met the tread in front of you. Especially if you are trying to counteract the musculoskeletal adaptations of chronic sitting, treadmill walking is not the way to go. Also, its messes with your optic flow. Ever notice how when you get off the treadmill you have those few seconds of feeling disoriented and maybe even dizzy? That’s because your brain was getting information that the body was moving, but the eyes were telling the brain ‘nope, same scenery. We’re not moving past or by anything.’ This information mismatch is what gives you that disoriented/dizzy feeling and the science indicates that this only gets worse as you get older. So, do me a favor and just walk outside, mmm’kay?
5.) And speaking of eyes and optic flow- LOOK UP. Look out a window. Focus on something really far away. Or go outside and focus on something far away. We are having an epidemic of near-sightedness because of all the screen time we log. The shape of your eye- and therefore, what you can focus on- is determined by the length and contraction of 6 different muscles around your eyes. And just like any of the other muscles of your body, they will adapt over time to the length at which they are used the most. So if you use them all the time to focus on things 12″-24″ in front of your face, that’s what they are going to be best at. Take ‘eye breaks’ throughout the day to train these muscles to retain their ability to see distances. You can also download a handy Time Out program for your computer to remind you take a screen break, get up and stretch or whatever.
Stay tuned for some more posts about functional movement. And on that note, I’m going to go take a short walk and get away from this computer screen for a bit!
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