Move those muscles!
Movement. We categorise and label it swimming, dancing, tennis, cricket, running, football, walking, fitness and a host of other names.
Fundamentally they are all patterns of movement. The human body was evidently designed to move and is probably the most versatile of all in the animal kingdom. When you stop and really think about it, it is nothing short of amazing what we are capable of. Take for example all of the different sports that constitute the Olympic Games. Now imagine the circus arts, rock climbing, martial arts, parkour, playing music, various forms of dancing and yoga.
We run, jump, lift, walk, throw, catch, carry, wield, swim, climb, brachiate, strike, ride, crawl, invert, and flip just to name some of the tasks that we easily perform with this human body of ours. A large portion of our brains is devoted to neuromuscular complexity. Our versatility of movement has no doubt been an essential part of the survival and dominance of our species. It has allowed us to harness our superior intellect to do almost anything that we could imagine.
Specialisation inevitably leads to limitation. Animals that are very specialised, like dolphins, are limited by the narrow scope of their range of movement. The same principle also applies to athletic development. The human body has an innate ability to adapt to better suit its environment. This is how we become fitter, stronger, more flexible and frequently leads to sport specific physiques like that of a frail marathon runner or inflexible bodybuilder.
This over-specialisation that creates top level athletes actually in the long run can severely limit their potential of becoming truly great. All too often in sport, athletes and coaches make the mistake of believing that to be great at what they do they must train for those movement patterns specifically and not waste time or energy on the things that they mistakenly believe don’t matter. However, there is a new conflicting school of thought that says this could not be further from the truth. Anything that improves your overall athleticism, makes you a better athlete.
Familiar patterns of movement become comfort zones, outside of which most athletes become just average or handicapped in their capabilities. The man who squats 1000 pounds doesn’t run very far or fast; a marathon runner won’t have the speed or power of a sprinter, who conversely lack the former’s sprinters little endurance, and gymnasts, while as impressive as they are, often lack the ability to jump because they are always relying on springs and rebounds. Coming out of one’s comfort zone of familiar patterns of movement and alignment is inevitable, which for the over specialised very often is the cause of injury.
Branching out from our familiar patterns of movement serves to improve our proprioception and kinesthetic awareness (terms governing the awareness of the body’s sense of its parts, positioning and effort required to complete tasks), which allows our brains to gain better control over our bodies. This improved self dominance and awareness gained by venturing outside of the familiar patterns of movement now in turn makes you better at controlling and timing those same familiar patterns. New techniques and forms can now be learnt at a much faster rate because the brain is more keenly aware of the relative location of parts of the body and can now exert greater control over them.
So by stimulating this neuromuscular learning process you become better at learning, and each new challenge has a slightly less steep learning curve. Even simply brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand can serve to foster this increased control. Although the initial frustration can be discouraging, with persistence the possibilities are almost limitless. Take for example people learning to swim, or amputee victims who must switch the dominance of their limbs. If you can’t first properly control yourself, what right do you have controlling other things?
There is no coincidence that the “wildest” and most energetic young children, the ones who climb and bounce around continually, end up far ahead of their peers when it comes to sports. This is not simply “talent”, this is nurtured kinesthetic awareness and proprioception, naturally gained athleticism, free from limiting patterns, versatile, the way nature intended us to grow. The children who are sedentary, on computers and playing video games find themselves behind their peers with frustratingly steep learning curves that put them off of sports and possibly even enjoying healthy physical activity for life, which can lead to a myriad of problems down the road.
The greater the area of the base of this pyramid of athleticism built at a young age, the higher the potential in their athletic careers. As a young child I was allowed to grow up outside and often in the water, then later received exposure to gymnastics, cricket, football, tennis, swimming, water polo, and later basketball. The skills I learnt in each discipline carried over into the others, creating a synergy that propelled me.
We are designed to move, yet we sit all day. Sitting at home, sitting in the car, sitting at work, lying down at night. It is curious to note that we no longer squat. Squatting used to be rest from standing and standing rest from squatting. When we were hunter/gatherers we would squat to eat, light fire, gather food, make tools, and rest. Squatting serves to open up the hips and stretches the very leg muscles that need stretching from walking and standing. Sitting around is the new smoking, and our sedentary lifestyle is killing us.
Movement is essential for our health, just like water. A sedentary lifestyle substantially increases our likelihood of Type II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, blood clots, back pain, the list goes on… I have just been sitting almost nonstop for approximately 24 hours in travelling from Trinidad to Moscow, and arrived last night for the beginning of the FINA World Cup.
Today I hate to admit, but I feel terrible, just as I do after every long journey. My back and hamstrings are stiff, feet slightly swollen, my neck hurts, my breathing feels tight. I went for a swim and had to continually remind myself that there is still time to get over this funk before I must swim fast. It was depressing. I felt like how I imagine an old man feels.
There is a Chinese proverb that says you are only as old as your spine. That phrase conjures up images in my imagination of bent over withered old people walking. It is probably because of this truth that my grandparents, who are in their 90s are in the pool most afternoons, simply moving, like a dance of life. Working out the stiffness, pumping the heart, moving the blood around, stretching, just moving any old how like nature intended.
“Use it or lose it”, move or otherwise pretty soon you won’t be able to, and it will be a depressing day when you can’t.