When it comes to movement quality and fitness, nature had it right all along.
Developing movement quality before fitness is hard-wired into us.
We crawl before we walk.
We walk before we run.
First we develop the quality and control of movement. Then we start doing more of it, which develops our capacity of movement (fitness).
This is the pathway that humans have followed forever, until recently.
Now, around about the age of 5, we send children off to school, where they learn to sit still. We even give out stickers to the kids who do it best.
At this age, things aren’t too bad though. We have about 4 years of movement “training” under our belts compared to 1 year of sitting.
Fast forward to age 10, and that ratio is now 4:6, not great, but still not too bad.
Let’s accelerate to 18, when most kids, now young adults are graduating from high school.
They’ve now been sitting for the majority of their day for 14 of their 18 years.
Many would have played sports recreationally, and suffered injury as a result.
Can you see the problem?
And we are only looking at an 18 year old, who for all intents and purposes, is in the peak of youth, and physical potential.
What happens when we hit 40, 50 and beyond?
Fitness First, Then Injury?
You’d think getting fitter and healthier would be easy. Our bodies are designed to thrive after all.
The problem is, people start out with poor general health.
Think of the average person over 30. They are likely over stressed, possibly anxious or depressed. Body functions like their digestion, elimination and breathing are dysfunctional. Their physiology is impacted by poor sleep quality and quantity, and abnormal light exposure. And, they aren’t moving at all, with the average Australian clocking in at a measly 4000 steps per day. (1)
For the average person who decides to take action and make themselves healthier, it’s an uphill battle before they’ve started.
So when they start exercising with intense, and often short term programs, they are actually adding more stress on to an already stressed body. Combine this with a restrictive diet, and the situation becomes even worse.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this might be too much.
Get Healthy First
What should you do instead?
Before you jump head first into an intense exercise program, commit to walking*.
Sounds too easy?
That’s the point.
If you walk daily, you experience a myriad of health benefits that compound. This sets you up for more intense work in the future, if that’s your goal.
Walking is sustainable, so you can do it for the rest of your life (and you should).
You can walk outside, which is ideal, but if weather or safety doesn’t permit, you can walk on a treadmill.
The whole point of starting with walking, is that it is supposed to be mentally and physically achievable. Success breeds success.
All this walking will:
- Reduce your stress levels
- Improve your body composition
- Improve your cardiovascular health
- Allow you some “down time” in our constant “on” world
This in term will help you sleep better, so your mood improves as your brain and hormones start to balance out.
As a result, it becomes easier to improve your diet, because you aren’t fighting against a stressed out and fatigued brain that wants quick fixes of sugary, salty and fatty convenience foods.
The principles of a healthy diet are simple. Changing your diet is not, because it is about changing your habits.
For most, the best approach is to work with a dietitian or nutritionist. Because in most cases, it isn’t a lack of information that stops people making change. Everyone knows they should eat more vegetables, but most don’t eat enough.
If you can’t, or don’t want to, you can try and change yourself.
For the best chance of success, you want to change one thing at a time. This is why I recommend walking first. It establishes a healthy habit which can have a snowball effect.
With nutrition, change one meal at a time.
Check out the Australian dietary guidelines. Then, starting with breakfast, look to improve your diet one meal at a time. Once a breakfast becomes a healthy habit, move on to lunch and so on.
If you can start walking regularly, and get your diet in order, you are more than half way to a healthy lifestyle that minimises your risk of all kinds of diseases.
This also enhances your quality of life, which is often overlooked – it’s not just how long you live, but how well you live.
This process might take time. Months, even years for some. So it is important to learn how to relax, both physically and mentally.
You can’t keep putting stress upon stress and expect good results, let alone good health.
Learning how to relax physically and mentally allows your body to recover, which is when your body repairs and your health improves.
Everyone is different, but I find things like having a spa/steam, getting a massage, going for a walk and reading a book great ways to relax either alone, or with family/friends.
Again, the challenge here is more mental, the feeling of being in a “rush” to get fit.
It’s funny, because usually this rush is felt after years of doing nothing. Hence the appeal of “12 week programs”. A better approach would be a “12 month program”, but often this is felt as being too slow. The same people who feel 12 months is too long will undoubtedly be saying “wow, that year has just flown by” come December.
The simple act of getting healthier will improve your fitness, but trying to get fit when you aren’t healthy won’t improve your health, and can often harm it.
Then Move Well
Movement quality, like health, is often skipped over in the chase for capacity.
Like skipping the “get healthy” stage, skipping movement quality is a recipe for future injury.
The problem is, movement quality is hard to measure.
Doctors will be able to tell you whether you are healthy enough to exercise with intensity, they won’t be able to tell you if you are ready for a loaded squat or running.
There is no one way to move well, but there are common features on moving well. Think of watching a high level dancer. It likes smooth, controlled, almost effortless. They are moving well.
Moving well is a lifetime endeavour (are you sensing a theme?), but to start out, you can perform some simple tests to see what your starting point is like.
- Can you touch your toes?
- Can you reach over and under your shoulders and touch your fingertips, without straining?
- Can you squat to below parallel without your heels rising or losing your balance?
- Can you stand on one leg with your knee lifted above your hip for more than 10 seconds?
- Can you perform a plank for 30 seconds? What about a push up? What about 5?
Most of these movements are simple, yet involve a lot of physical capability. If you can’t perform them, are you ready to be running for 30 minutes or performing “functional high intensity workouts”?
If you lack some fundamental movement quality, you don’t have to put your fitness on hold – remember, improving your health, in this case your movement quality, will improve your fitness.
Improving your movement quality doesn’t mean you don’t get to use load either. Load can often be corrective.
But it does mean identifying why you aren’t moving well.
If you have a mobility issue, simply adding load won’t resolve it. Likewise, if you aren’t moving well because of impaired sensory function, you will want to address that.
Moving well is a continual process, but after you have established a healthy base, you will likely want to build capacity.
Next, Develop Your Fitness
You need fitness too.
Especially later in life, when having low physical capacity becomes problematic.
The key though, is to build your fitness/capacity before you get older. The earlier you start, the better, but it’s never too late. Never.
How much fitness, or capacity do you need? Enough to do what you need to do, with a little left over.
This left-over is termed the physiological buffer zone (2).
It is basically your margin for error.
The bigger your buffer zone, the more you can do without breaking down, getting injured or ending up in pain.
A favourite study of mine showed that in US Marine recruits, those with low Functional Movement Screen (FMS, a simple screen to assess movement quality) scores and a low 3 mile run time had a much high probability of getting injured during physical training (3).
Both the run and the FMS were predictive, but the combination was much higher.
This suggests that moving well, or being fit alone is beneficial, but moving well *and* being fit has a compounding effect.
High Training Loads Protect Against Injury
Lots of recent research in sports science is showing that high training loads are protective of injury. (4)
This means, the more work you do, the more resilient you become.
However, how you get to those high training loads matters.
If there is a sudden jump in workload, that is a big risk factor for injury, so you have to build up slowly. If you look to fit people for inspiration, and try and model what they are doing, you are failing to take into account that it likely to them years to achieve their current level.
Monitoring your workload is important, so that you can know when to push and when to back off. A good personal trainer or exercise physiologist can help you, and will accelerate your progress.
This is a lifetime process.
If you do it correctly, focusing on health as your priority, then you set yourself up for a lifetime of benefits.
It’s definitely not easy.
You will have periods where you feel like it is all clicking.
You will have periods where it all seems so hard.
But, if you establish healthy habits, then you can continue with the behaviours that benefit you no matter what life throws at you.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.
*If you are unable to walk due to disability, then a similar low intensity replacement is ideal, but for able bodied people, walking is the best option.
(1) Australian Daily Steps
(2) Movement Reserve: Enhancing the Physiological Buffer Zone
(3) FMS and Aerobic Fitness Predict Injury
(4) Monitoring Athlete Training Loads: Consensus Statement
(5) Andrew Read and Greg Dea seminar, September 2016: Advanced Program Design