Does an active lifestyle make us healthy, or do we need to “work out”?

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I live in the Pacific Northwest, on the edge of vast amounts of National Forest land.  As a result I know a lot of people who, like myself, enjoy spending their time hiking, bicycling, gardening and doing all the other forms of delightful outdoor recreation that we get to do around here.


While some of these sports have their season, there is a consistent transition from one to the next that helps to keep us active, at least in bursts, most if not all of the year ‘round.


But is it enough?


We’d have to define–enough for what?


It’s enough to make me feel good.  It’s enough to help me feel connected to nature, both in the garden and in the mountains.  It’s enough to have a big effect on my quality of life and general well-being.


But is it enough to stimulate optimal levels of growth hormone?  Enough to maintain cardio and metabolic conditioning?  Enough to keep me mobile and keep my connective tissue pliable and strong?  Enough to keep the muscles of my body from atrophy?  Enough to prevent or decrease incidence of injury?




It’s not.


I’ve deliberately designed a lifestyle that demands more work from me than a lot of modern lifestyles demand and it still doesn’t contain enough intensity, variety and regularity of physical movement to meet any of the markers I’ve named above.


Which is cool, because I’ve always wondered why it was so hard to do certain things.


It’s just because I’ve been growing weaker as I age…and I can turn that around.


The trouble with complex movements.


Most of our daily activities are complex movements.  That is to say that they are not isolating a specific part of our body, like our triceps or upper trapezius, but rather using many different motions and body parts at the same time.  Like the way pushing a wheelbarrow across the lawn involves gripping with my forearms and hands, lifting with my shoulders and various muscles on the back of my body, and pushing forward, also with my shoulders as well as my calves.


When there’s that much going on it would be really, really hard to monitor where the work of moving the wheelbarrow was landing in my body.


It would be my body’s tendency to use the areas that had enough strength to do the work, while glossing over the ones that were weakest.  This makes sense, because I wouldn’t want to place a sudden or unstable load on a weak area of my body if I could possibly come up with a strategy to avoid it.  


This all happens without my being aware of it.  The body is very clever.


It’s lucky for us that we can spontaneously generate strategies that allow us to do most of the work we want to do most of the time.


But there are two problems with this.


The first is that we will from time to time run into actions that are just not possible for us, and it’s hard to understand why since we thought we were reasonably fit people.


The second is that often the work lands in places that can’t handle that amount or type of work, so we get sore, or we get injured.  A good example is when we use our low back to do work that would be better suited to our glutes.


But, when I do an isolated or simple motion, I can pay close attention to where the work is landing in my body, and if I know where I want to feel it I can even make minor changes to the simple motion to try to get the work into the right spot.


For example, when I garden regularly I spend a lot of time bent over.  Being bent over makes the back of my body work.  Unfortunately that work is landing in my low back or my hamstrings and not being shared at all by the glutes.  


It would be hard to change that pattern in the moment, particularly with my mind on other things like the root maggot situation in the brassicas.  So rather than attempting to overhaul an ingrained pattern in the moment, I take it back to the movement lab, and I start practicing getting work into my glutes.


I do this by finding simple movements that make the glutes do work.  Since I’m not distracted by other things, I can stay attentive to keeping the work in the glutes and not letting it wander to other areas like the low back or knees.


As I practice this I not only get stronger, but I learn a motor pattern that I hadn’t been using.  I learn it so well through my persistent practice that when I go back to the garden my body recognizes this new motor pattern and has the option to choose it over the old, familiar motor pattern that was stressing my low back and hamstrings. Viola!


That’s the coolest thing ever, right?


So, the next time you’re performing a complex motion and you’re getting sore or experiencing pain in a joint, you might be able to ask what areas of your body aren’t helping out.  Maybe there is a way to train those areas to get engaged.  When they do they will change the whole movement pattern.





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