Movement as Health: Are You Training to the Razor’s Edge?
How many trainers and coaches encourage clients to fully embrace the experience of movement? Is the industry even up to the challenge? Vik Khanna and Chad Estes say we are, but only if we look at movement as health.
On the other, we are the most indolent and out-of-shape country in the history of Western civilization.
Movement as Health
American adults don’t do anywhere near the amount of intentional exercise they should, even though there is a cornucopia of resources and information (almost all of it exhorting them to do more.) Something does not compute, and the mainstream media is now starting to notice as well; these articles in The Daily Beast and The Washington Post eviscerate the fitness industry.
One problem is the abundance—overabundance even—of data and information that supposedly “scientific” studies of exercise produce every year, which are parroted, often without insight or analysis, by the mainstream media and the industry. Couple this with the surfeit of worthless gadgets, gizmos and fads that the industry generates all by itself each year, and it’s easy to understand why Americans turn their backs on exercise.
None of these data or gadgets supplants a fundamental truth known since Scottish epidemiologist Jerry Morris birthed the modern notion of exercise by illuminating the connection between inactivity and cardiovascular risk. His studies of British bus drivers and conductors had a firm conclusion: move more, live longer. Period. American physician-scientist James Fries confirmed Morris’s work with his elucidation of a fitness-related compression of morbidity, published in 1980.
Movement is all.
Yes, there are things at the margins that can matter: resistance training and aerobic exercise have unique and specific requirements and effects, and you should do both for all around fitness. Specific sports require distinct training to facilitate particular kinds of adaptations. Those, however, are not what matter to the broader population and the country.
The nation’s dysfunctional and hyper-expensive medical care industry isn’t laboring under the weight of athletes looking to improve their first step off the line. Rather, it’s laboring to support everyone else who, quite frankly, is being sold a bill of hyper-confusing and ineffective goods that they cannot understand, trust or use effectively for the long term.
The Razor’s Edge
For the solution this conundrum, we turn to another Scot, William Ockham, who, in the 1300s produced the philosophical construct known as Occam’s Razor. Essentially, it is this: when you have two competing theories or options, go with the simplest one and, more often than not, it will be right. Stated another way, Occam’s Razor posits that the more assumptions you have to make to explain something, the less likely it is that you are stating sustainable truth. The fitness industry, with its maelstrom of exercise and supplement fads, is about as far from an Occam’s Razor approach to business and education as it can be.
The challenge for fitness professionals, then, is to simplify, not complicate, matters for their clients, many of whom enter the gym, fitness studio or coaching relationship with trepidation. Simplicity is even more important for reaching the legions of people who are too embarrassed to even start the process because over-the-top detritus like The Biggest Loser makes them feel like they haven’t got a chance to improve their lot unless they’re willing to engage in a uniquely American and appalling form of voyeurism and voluntary self-immolation.
The seminal works of Morris and Fries teach clearly that the mere act of movement produces striking health benefits that, in turn, portend less disease and dysfunction throughout the aging process and a much higher quality of life. This problem of poor movement quality and quantity is particularly acute for middle aged adults (40 to 65). There are not only a lot of them (about 84 million), but it’s a crucial time in life to establish good movement habits. This population will rule the roost in terms of the nation’s healthcare spending for the next 25 years because, generationally speaking, they are entering the phases of life when serious chronic ailments are most likely to appear.
This is all doable within the framework of boiling down the idea of exercise to its foundation . . . movement. In fact, as Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais wrote, “Movement is Life. Life is a process. If you improve the quality of the process, you improve the quality of life itself.” When it comes to improving health for American adults, especially that all-important middle-aged population, we believe that shifting the focus from “do you workout or go to the gym?” to “how well do you move and how do you feel when you move?” is a crucial transformation that can open doors people never imagined. All movement matters and all movement can be impactful. In fact, that’s what we are designed to do as humans. We embrace the view of neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert that our brains evolved first and foremost as central processing units that enabled movement, from the contractions of the largest muscles to the tiny contractions of your vocal cords when you speak, your hand muscles when you write or type and your eyes when you shift your gaze. According to Dr. Wolpert, we sell ourselves—and our clients—short when we limit our view of muscles and movement to things that exist only for locomotion. In fact, the neuromuscular system is the essential tool for experiencing both our internal and external environments.
Another neuroscientist, Michael Merzenich, says, “It is better to try to move to a point in space in 100 different speeds in 100 different ways . . . than to move 200 times in the same way to get to that point in space.” Our take: movement variation and paying attention to the feelings and thoughts that go along with movement are of utmost importance and almost always ignored. Mindless running on a treadmill (or worse, trying to read a magazine while you run), or moving from exercise to exercise while your headphones are blaring is to miss out on many of the brain-related benefits of moving with full attention and awareness.
How many trainers and coaches encourage clients to fully embrace the experience of movement? Listen to their breathing? Feel their heartbeats? Feel the rush of blood to working muscles and the release of stress that movement produces?
In this construct, then, the fully-loaded business executive or full-time parent who’s already over-committed doesn’t benefit by being told he or she now must also make time to go to the gym. They might, however, benefit from someone helping them study their schedule, organize obligations and resources more efficiently, encourage the identification and setting aside of things that are of marginal value and learning how to do simple things, such as get ups from the ground in the morning, and then walking during lunch or in the evening. When clients have mastered the ground get ups, they can move on to standard push ups and then push up variations and other calisthenics; the walking can eventually become fast walking, and then possibly even jogging, but if it remains just plain vanilla fast walking, they’ll do quite well over the decades because they’ll be able to do it for decades.
The notion that the executive or full-time parent does better by enduring the stress of finding the time to drive to the gym, park, change and then wait his or her turn to sit on one of a dozen or more machines in order to “exercise” is absurd.
Evolution, Not Revolution
Most people don’t want more to do, another place to go to or another item to add to their endless list of obligations. They want help finding simpler, more effective ways to do beneficial things in their immediate environments in ways they can sustain and in ways they can model positive behaviors for family and friends, because they know what we forget . . . that’s how you impact behavior patterns going forward. Outliers will self-select for more demanding pursuits, such as distance running or cycling, kettlebell training, martial arts or CrossFit because those are good fits for them.
Most adults, however, are under the bell of the curve. They know, intuitively, they should do something, but they can’t deduce what to do from the complex and constantly changing messaging about which exercises are “best.”
Here’s the answer to that question: none of them and all of them.
The fitness industry finds itself quite unintentionally and fitfully filling the yawning self-efficacy chasm created by an educational system that disregards the importance of teaching everyone basic anatomy, physiology and self-care—starting in pre-k and continuing through college. Health-related self-efficacy—and, thus, the reduction of risk for premature morbidity or mortality—is all about mastering one set of skills and then moving on to another in an incremental, sustainable manner.
It’s an evolution, not a revolution. And, it’s an open question whether the fitness industry itself is up to the task.
Twenty-first century life truly is life lived at the end of a fire hose. Lifelong good health, however, is not achieved that way. Nearly all the health benefits of movement are achieved by doing just enough, but not too much, and doing so for a very long period. This is a dance on the razor’s edge, balancing all of life’s competing demands for time, money and attention.
Fitness professionals who really want to help clients live longer, better, happier lives must be able to help clients visualize and then achieve this balance.
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