How’s that for a sensational title? I thought it was fitting for the spooky holiday that’s upon us; “dead” might be a bit overkill, perhaps, but the alarm that I feel when I see and work with so many compromised bodies is not—I could just as well be surrounded by dead people.
I was talking with my mom yesterday after a lovely session of alignment work (in the comfort of her own home!) about a big concern of mine: that our modern world is creating decrepit skeletons in all of us and this decrepitness is happening in younger and younger generations, and that a laundry list of ailments are associated with the gradual deviations in our skeletons, and that these ailments are afflicting younger and younger bodies. Case in point: my beloved 11-year-old niece spent a night with me this week and in spite of being a “typically” active kid, my niece also sits (slumped in the sofa/chair/school desk) for the vast majority of her waking hours, which is evident in how she carries her body. With a few assessment “exercises,” (most are super-simple; bend over and touch your toes, is one) some of my suspicions were confirmed: I learned that she can’t keep her feet from migrating out into a “duck foot” position, nor can she spread her toes very far apart, and her ability to flex her ankle is limited; she can’t untuck her pelvis or bend over to touch her toes without compromising the curve of her lumbar spine or bending her knees; when she reaches overhead, her ribcage is dragged along for the ride. All of these things tell me that many muscles in her young body are extremely tight (many in the back of her body). She is unable to move her hips and her shoulders and her feet through full range of motion and instead, relies on other, less mobile parts of her body to pick up the slack. SHE IS ELEVEN YEARS OLD, PEEPS. This kind of shit shouldn’t be happening to her joints/muscles for decades. My niece isn’t a lazy kid, mind you—she plays tennis, she’s a blackbelt in kung fu, her family life is a frenzied blur of activity, much like any average American family—yet like many average Americans, her body is rapidly conforming to the shape that her body is in the majority of the hours of her life—that of a chair. And the really scary thought is, she’s not alone.
In my training and experience and continuing education as a movement teacher, I witness these and many more transgressions of alignment in various bodies, in clients I work with, and out and about in the real world. When I say “dead people,” I really mean that we’ve become a culture so out of touch with our own bodies, we don’t know what it means to move naturally any more, if we ever did in the first place—we are living an “out of body experience” kind of existence. In my classes, I call the entire back of the body “No Man’s Land,” or “Unchartered Territory” because so many people simply cannot engage the muscles necessary to restack their spines up to neutral (big chunks of the spine are immobile in many of us) or get their shoulders out of their ears to save their lives; they cannot fully extend through their hip joint (instead, their low back does all the work), they can’t untuck their pelvis (hamstrings are chronically shortened) or unbend their knees (more tight hammies and calf muscles). My parenthetical statements are just guesses; likely, the lack of mobility is a combination of many things happening in the body.
As a culture, we’ve separated “exercise” from the rest of our life, and never the twain shall meet again in our first world. I am one of these bodies, a dilemma of motion and stillness. In my last post, I talked about my feet and how my health has been impacted by my sassy-yet-seriously debilitating footwear. I also talked (at length—hey, it’s what I do best) that I am taking steps to address and mindfully, effectively change these transgressions, and that these changes aren’t coming about through exercise—not that it can’t; rather, that the changes in my body are happening faster and more effectively because I’m integrating the mantra of “making my life my workout” into my life. Knowledge and awareness are mighty powerful motivators. So is chronic pain and quality of life.
Why does any of this matter? you might ask. Because our pelvic health matters. Whu–whudda ya mean by that, you ask? I mean dysmenorreah and/or mennorhagia (painful and/or heavy periods), prostate issues, organ prolapse, sexual dysfunctions, urinary and bowel incontinence—are all affected by our alignment (it’s the premise behind the Squatty Potty craze. Squatting to poop is AWESOME! Hell, squatting itself is awesome! Except it’s a LOT more effective and beneficial to our overall health to integrate squatting naturally in our lives, vs 80 squats in a kettlebell class or Crossfit class, especially if body parts that are meant to facilitate a squat don’t know squat (ha—get it? GET? IT???), and other parts end up doing the work (low back, and knees? I’m talking to you). And let’s be real—when in life would you ever expect to squat endless times overandoverandover again, a la Typical Fitness Class?! That’s called Recipe for Repetitive Stress Injury, folks.
Our ability to squat is affected by our ability (or inability) to use the muscles in our pelvis and legs to move (and stabilize) the leg and pelvic bones they way they were designed to move into a squat, which affects pelvic health, fer shut…but I digress—this post is once again growing way longer than I expected, go figure). Let’s get back to the point (yes, there was one. I think) and why any of this matters: because osteoporosis and bone density matter (hint: the kind of exercise you do and how you execute it matter BIGLY if you’re trying to build and/or maintain bone density). We need weight bearing movement, not just exercise—as in, simply, first of all, the ability to bear the weight of our own body upright, like what could be happening when we walk, not like what doesn’t happen for most of us when we walk because all our body parts have been left unchecked for so long, our heads jut forward, our torso is so far in front of our legs, we’re essentially falling forward, step by step, to get from Point A to Point B, rather than using the strength of our legs and core to propel us. Let me repeat: our alignment matters SUPER BIGLY when we walk, if our goal to make/keep strong bones. Because our joint health and arthritis/other degenerative disorders matter. Because our digestive functions, respiratory capacity and cardiovascular heath matter. Because our mental/emotional state matters. Because our immune system matters—get what I’m saying, peeps? EVERYTHING matters because EVERYTHING in our body is impacted by our sedentary lifestyles, which impacts our alignment. (I prefer the word “alignment” when talking about our skeletal structures, btw, vs. “posture,” which is more of a learned/cultural/familial/artificial/forced way of arranging our body parts). While we may not actually be dead, a lot of our tissues and organs and body functions are dying a slow death under the weight of our collapsing scaffolding we call skeletons.
With the hopes to make this point even more vivid (if I haven’t freaked you the hell out already with images of organs falling out of you and painful, bloody periods and breaking bones—what can I say? it’s Halloween!—let’s embark on a little math problem (don’t worry, this won’t be hard—it’s yours truly here making up the problem) to see if we can figure out just how many hours of our day we actually move our bodies well—that’s the operative word here, kids: well.
So, we all have 168 hours in our week. How’d you come across that number, Jen? maybe you just asked, already skeptical, and I can’t say I blame you—me + math = not always a pretty or accurate outcome, as evidenced by all the white-out smears in my checkbook register. But stay with me here—I got a calculator somewhere, we’ll check my work as we go along—it’s more about a concept rather than precision. As a friend I used to work with used to say, “Counting isn’t an exact science.” Easy-peasy, George and Weezy—I took the number of hours in our day—24, if you’re living on Earth—and multiplied it by 7, the number of days in our Earthy week. Ta-da! My calculator confirms the answer is 168. Now, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say this is a perfect world and you get those blessed recommended 8 hours of sleep every night: 8 hours x 7 days/week = 56, so let’s subtract those 56 hours of restful, restorative slumber from our 168 hours in a week, which leaves us 112 potential hours in which to move our bods.
But, wait. Let’s say you have a full-time job outside the home; again in our make-believe world, that would be 40 hours of those 112 hours, which means (spoiler alert: here’s a hint about where I’m going with this big ol’ numbers mess): for many of us, we’re sitting at a desk, not moving our bodies a whole helluva lot beyond the sitting-in-a-chair position for those 40 hours (extra credit: see if you can recall the last time you actually raised your arms overhead or lowered your body into a true, deep squat. Just checking.), leaving us now with 72 hours in our week to move.
Maybe you have an hour commute to and from work 5 days/week (again, more sitting, sitting, sitting—in a car, in a bus, on a train, in a plane, with or without green eggs and ham—I HOPE you have SOME semblance of a nourishing breakfast to start your day right, btw): 2 hours (to and from work) x 5 days a week = 10 hours of more sitting, less moving which now leaves us 62 hours. Let’s be a little optimistic but also realistic and factor in one sit-down meal a day (the others are shoveled into your face while driving to work or working through lunch, if at all), to account for another 7 hours of sitting in our week, leaving us with 55 hours—’scuse me while I run to my calculator and check my math…okay, I’m back. Yep, so we’re down to 55 of our 168 hours. See a pattern begin to appear? Not a whole lotta moving going on in our bodies yet, and we only have 55 hours left of our week …
Are you a TV watcher? Yes? Let’s pretend you’re an “average” viewer of television, which means, according to Nielson data, you watch (this statistic makes knots in my stomach just typing it) FIVE hours of TV A DAY. Not a week, peeps. A DAY. That’s the AVERAGE. (Thanks a lot, Jackass Who Invented Binge-TV-Watching-As-A-Thing. As if we don’t have enough problems in our world.) I’m going to assume, for my own peace of mind, that this figure also includes online time, because to think there could be even more hours for online activity (kind of an oxymoron there, “online activity”) on top of all this TV watching is almost more than I can bear. And, I’m going to be generous and say these 5 hours happen over the course of 5, rather than 7 days, so 5 x 5 = 25. 25 hours from 55 is 30. Whoa. We’ve already used up 138 hours just on the act of “living” (i.e. “sitting”) in our modern world, and we have yet to incorporate anything we modern world dwellers would recognize and label as “exercise.” We are barely moving. Maybe we really are all zombies. Scared yet? Hopefully alarmed, even?
Well, let’s say you interrupt me to say you’re a “crazy-active” person, and by “crazy active” you mean you hit the weight room and/or yoga class and/or Pilates studio and/or head out on your bike/run/walk SIX DAYS A WEEK, for an HOUR AND A HALF each visit, okay, Ms. Bossypants (my mom called me that several times this weekend, btw)?! This “workout schedule,” or a variation on the theme, isn’t unrealistic for a lot of people. So that makes 9 WHOLE hours that you’re “crazy active.” (compared to the 138 hours of sleeping and sitting, sitting and more sitting. Not sayin’ anything here. Just sayin’…) And we still have 21 hours left—I didn’t figure in preparing meals, driving kids to various activities, house keeping activities and yard work (if you own a home), real social activities (actually leaving the house to go out for dinner/movie/etc vs. Instagramming yourself in front of your bathroom mirror), or any of the tiny yet significant time-sucking variables (constantly checking Facebook, “engaging” in Pokemon-Go while disengaging with actual society) that consume our remaining hours yet still offer very little in movement variety from our sitting position, which appears in the form of duck feet, tucked pelvises (pelves?), hyper-curved backs, rounded shoulders, jutting heads, feet that barely move, aching knees … “BUT!” you protest, “DIDN’T YOU HEAR THAT I’M CRAZY-ACTIVE IN THE GYM/STUDIO/FITNESS CLASS/DAILY RUN FOR NINE HOURS IN MY WEEK??!!” Yep, I heard you. Those nine hours are pretty lame, however, when we look at the mind-boggling missed-movement opportunities we have in our lives … and speaking of “BUT(T)S!!! in spite of those 9 hours in the gym/studio/whatever and the 8 million “squats,” yours is still looking pretty damned flat, which tells me your butt isn’t doing a wholelotta anything, in spite of your “crazy active” lifestyle. And let me ask you, how are your knees after those crazy-active 9 hours of working out, btw? Your low back? Your shoulders? Your hips? Your feet? Yep, I thought so.
My little “math problem” isn’t scientific, I well know—we all have wildly different lives with infinite variables that would result in any number of unique inputs for the equation. However, in spite of those variations, my hypothesis is that we would arrive at similar conclusions: that the inputs don’t matter—our sedentary hours vastly outnumber our active ones, even for those of us who are “crazy active.”My point is to start taking notice of the discrepancy between the number of hours we’re not moving, or barely moving (even when we “move,” we barely migrate from a slouched, sitting position—again, just wondering—when did you last raise your arms overhead or go barefoot for any extended period of time, over varied terrain?) and the number of hours we’re active. And take note of the stunning health issues our culture faces; indeed, first-world problems of the truest definition.
In my example, that ratio is stunning: 138 hours of barely moving vs. 9 hours of “crazy active exercise” (which is demanded of bodies that aren’t able to move through normal ranges of motion). I’ve been this person, too, the crazy-active workout person, who “kicked ass” in the gym but lived in high-heels outside the gym, in a body I could barely configure into an upright position, with chronic, often debilitating pain in her right hip, in her feet and low back, for years. Oh, I got “strong” and “fit” in the gym alright, but “fit” isn’t the same as “healthy,” I can assure you. There’s a YUGE difference. I don’t believe working out in a gym or a studio or however we chose to get our fitness fix is a bad thing in and of itself; what I do believe is that those 138 (give or take) hours outside the gym matter more, however, as far as our quality of life is concerned. I also believe, deeply, in the profound, whole-body (mind, body and spirit) benefits of integrating real, natural movement into those 138 hours that we’re not “exercising” but rather, living. Maybe in another post, I’ll wax poetic on the freedom that comes from letting go of the idea of “exercise” and embracing the “movement” movement, Oh, the places we can go, when we are able to move well, without pain or restrictions …
That an orthopedic and fracture clinic is one of the biggest sponsors of a local marathon is an irony not lost on me. Nor is the three-story banner at United Hospital in St. Paul, near where I used to live, proclaiming the opening of its new joint replacement center. Nor is the fact that, instead of getting out of our stiff, immobile shoes and transitioning to shoes that allow for full ranges of motion throughout the 33 joints in our feet and eventually maybe even barefoot more often (at least part time—I’m a work in progress, too!), or start strengthening our back and hips instead of demanding more CRUNCHES and OBLIQUE WORK in our Pilates classes, we’ll just continue to ignore the root causes of our knee/back/foot/hip pain, and instead, add a a stiff, immobile orthotic to do the work of our leg/foot muscles, or a brace to hold our knee together whenever we run, or eventually succumb to surgery to “fix” that herniated disc. And after surgery, we’ll prolly continue to live the way we did before surgery, doing the very things that caused the surgery/orthotic/brace to be needed in the first place because no one told us otherwise … Reactive medicine, rather than restorative, proactive approaches, is our modern world response to ill health. We’ll take surgeries and pills over addressing root causes, over changing lifestyles, nearly every time. 3-story high banners proclaim this. It’s the American Way.
What if we were to slowly shift our perspective from seeing “exercise” as a separate, quantifiable activity that must be scheduled or planned and instead, start finding the infinite opportunities for a varied diet of movement throughout our daily lives? What if we simply began moving our bodies often, and in a variety of ways (beyond what we’re already “good” at)? Instead of slumping for hours on a sofa (at our desk, on the treadmill, on the bike, in a fitness class), what if we were to start by stacking a pile of pillows on the floor and introducing our chair-shaped bodies to a new position? And what if, in doing such things, we, by our own efforts, begin to heal our deteriorating skeletons and (this is no accident), improve our overall quality of life and health/well-being (intricate, intimate, inseparable facets of life)?
By performing a few simple assessment movements, like I did with my niece and my mom, what I do with clients in my studio (what I’ve done and continue to do with my own body and movement profiles), we can discover valuable information about how we are, or perhaps more accurately, are not moving our bodies. This information is enlightening and empowering, and with it, we can begin to take back ownership of our own bodies and health by becoming a mindful, active participant and advocate in our own health and healing journey.
So did I send my niece home with a bunch of stretches and corrective exercises to help get her and her body back on track? No (not that that would have been a bad thing—sometimes corrective work is where we need to begin, to start moving well again if we’ve adapted too well to a sedentary life). She’s a kid—we did what kids do best (and we adults could take a hint from): we went out to play. I gave her my pair of Merrell Vapor Gloves tennies to wear (she came to my house wearing a clunky pair of boots) which gave her whole body more freedom to move and navigate and translate the wild terrain of the great outdoors (yay!! We’re the same shoe size which means my shoe collection has now doubled! Wait—that means I’ll be wearing purple and pink tennies and moon boots…okay, nevermind…). We took the dogs out for a long hike through Minnehaha Off-Leash Dog Park where we were all overcome with joy, running through the woods, climbing over rocks, balancing our way across fallen trees, slopping though muddy creeks…the best way to restore lost movement to body parts is to start moving the body back in the direction of its divine design—a lot, and in many different ways … Happy Halloween, all. Watch out for dead people. xxoo