In my last blog we discussed how patterned motor behaviors may unknowingly affect your body and brain negatively. Your sport, habits, and other repetitive patterned actions may be causing your body to move in sub-optimal ways. In this blog, I want to introduce a concept called movement variability, and simple things you can be doing to reduce patterned motor behaviors and improve your movement variability.
Let me tell you about the most sore I have ever been from an activity or sport. I have done many (crazy) athletic events and endeavors in my day including Ironman triathlons, marathons, epic 14er trips, and long bike rides. However, the most sore I have ever been was after a game of capture the flag. In 2006 I spent the summer biking across the country with 30 other really awesome people. We biked from Virginia Beach to Cannon Beach outside of Portland, OR. We averaged 70 miles of biking per day for over 10 weeks, getting as high as 120 miles in one day. By the end of the trip, anything less than 90 miles was an “easy” day, and we could complete it on water and PB&J and still have energy to goof around in our destination town.
About two-thirds into the trip (somewhere in Idaho, I believe) we decided it would be fun to play a game of capture the flag in the campground where we were staying. This was after 7 weeks of biking nearly every day, and at the end of a day where we biked around 75 miles. The game was intense. Whoever lost had to clean dishes. We were sprinting and dodging and diving and cutting; moves we had not done in months. Our bodies were trained to bike a long way over big mountain passes and against vicious headwinds. However, off the bike, we had very little movement variability, since we were only trained to pedal in circles. Our muscles and ligaments were not ready to sprint, dodge, dive, and cut.
That next morning I felt like a mummified Egyptian trying to crawl out of a casket. EVERY muscle was stiff and sore. Quads, glutes, back, abs, neck-everything. I thought I was in great shape! Heck, I was able to bike 100 miles in less than 5 hours with a Camelback on my back, while stopping to take pictures every 45 minutes. How was I so sore?
That was a profound experience in what it feels like to lack movement variability. My body was patterned so much to cycling that it was not prepared to do anything off the bike. An extreme example, yes, but similar thoughts can be applied to chronically sitting at a desk, sports, and other recreational or work related activities.
Often, an overall goal for physical therapy intervention is to improve your movement variability. We need to get your body (joints, muscles, tendons) to move in a way to allow you to tolerate different activities, at varying intensities and durations. Near the end of that bike trip my body could tolerate a high variability of cycling conditions, durations, and intensities; however, a low variability of non-cycling movements. Physical therapy interventions may also increase variability enough to allow for more of the same motion. If your body is near the threshold of over-doing it with a certain motion or activity, we need to find techniques for you to improve your variability within that movement to allow for increased toleration of that activity.
Let me give you an example. Many (mostly females) patients who have back pain often have exacerbation of symptoms wearing heels. Some can make it only a few minutes before their hips and back start screaming at them. As we work on their position and posture, through manual and non-manual techniques, their backs gradu
ally improve. Back pain goes away when standing in regular shoes and with their daily activities. As we continue to progress their program, they find that they can wear shoes with a heel longer during the day before their back starts to hurt. Their physical therapy program has improved their movement variability to allow for longer durations of wearing heels. So what are ways we can improve our movement variability to make us more well-rounded moving beings and prevent injuries? Below are a few ideas. NOTE: these are not meant to treat any condition. If you have pain, symptoms, feel “off”, worried you may get injured, or feel any other niggle (a medical term, I’m sure) then get in to see a physical therapist who can work with you on a program that is unique to your mechanics and needs.
- Mix up your workout routine! If you find yourself doing the same thing in the gym, work with a physical therapist or qualified personal trainer to add some variability into your workout.
- Pick up a new activity or sport! If you always run or bike, consider playing a racket or ball sport. Or fly fishing. Or ultimate Frisbee. Or paddle boarding. There are so many options!
- Learn something new and different. Study a language. Learn to knit. Become a birder. Our brains need to be challenged in different ways just like our body. Brains need to do something different to learn.
- Identify habits in your life and change it. Drive a different way to work. Heck, ride your bike to work! Start your day with an apple and light workout versus coffee. If you can’t let go of coffee (and that’s fine!) make your coffee differently or find a different coffee shop. There are endless ways to add spice and variability to your life. Have fun with it!
- Use your opposite hand for routine tasks. Brush with your non-dominant hand. Put the mouse on the other side of the keyboard. Hold your phone to the ear you aren’t used to listening with. Become more equal with the left and right halves of your world .
- Sleep on the other side of the bed. You know when you are at a hotel and you wake up and for a moment you have no idea where you are? That’s introducing novel stimulus and variability to your brain and body.
The opportunities to add variability in your life are endless. Once you find one movement or activity that is habitual and routine, think of ways to mix it up. This will not only improve your movement variability but also make you a well-rounded person in general. Feel free to leave other ideas to improve variability in your life in the comments section below. I look forward to reading them and trying it out myself!