Movement is Life

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness October 21, 2014
Women performing Yoga exercisesI’ve been a physical therapist for 30 years and this much I know: how well we move directly influences our overall health, pleasure and independence. Don’t believe it? Stay in bed for a few days and see how you feel. Stiffness, weakness, fatigue, and a fuzzy head will be just a few of your cozy bed fellows.

The medical community has been telling us for years that being active is a vital part of staying healthy, so many of us engage in regular exercise. What you may not recognize is that most of our activities are performed in a limited forward-backward direction only. This front to back motion is also called a linear or sagittal movement and is great for moving forward but not so good for long term mobility in your joints.

Running, walking, biking, elliptical, treadmills and rowing machines are all examples of linear training. And while all activity is good, these exercises repeatedly train our bodies in the same direction, which then can result in imbalances that lead to injury and pain, eventually restricting physical mobility.

Let’s take running for example. The muscles that advance the leg forward are used over and over again, making them stronger. But these are the same muscles that get stuck in a shortened position for long periods of time while we sit or drive. Muscles used in shortened positions repeatedly get tighter and shorter.  Those not used get weaker, creating imbalance of the soft tissue around joints and potentially accelerating arthritic changes.

Ultimately, the exercises and activities we do now can keep us from suffering some of the mobility-related problems that typically come with aging. To stay mobile and balanced, it is critical to add in some exercises that train our bodies in a lateral (side to side) direction. Doing so will improve our mobility now and help us age better.

Some examples of these exercises include; 1) walking sideways on a treadmill or down the street first in one direction for a minute or two and then in the other direction to work both sides; 2) yoga, which stretches and strengthens the entire body while also working on balance and mindfulness; 3) lateral lunge and lateral squats; and 4) machines that works like an elliptical but side to side instead of front to back. For those of you who belong to a gym or health club, the new machines work the often-neglected lateral leg muscle groups.

Our physical mobility impacts our brains, fitness, sexuality and work. Our mobility today will change with age and for most of us that change will be negative. Over time, injuries, poor posture, arthritis and busy schedules, among other things, conspire to restrict our mobility. You can fight these negative changes. Aging well depends on long term mobility, which is achieved by breaking out of chronic patterns of movement that make us vulnerable to injury. So while you might feel laughable exercising in a side to side direction, the improved mobility and balance you are sure to gain make the giggles worth it.

October is National Physical Therapy Month. To learn more about physical therapy, visit the American Physical Therapy Association website
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