Exercise isn’t just about body image or taking selfies for an ego boost
Bodies adapt by developing in a way that is most appropriate to meet the demands that are placed on them.
This is called ‘specificity of training. If you sit all day, your body has little in the way of demands placed on it for movement. Your muscles atrophy, your joints become stiff, and your bones brittle. This is the start of a vicious downhill spiral-the less you do, the less you feel like doing, and then the less you are capable of doing.
Movement actually drives your cerebellum. This is the part of the brain is responsible for coordinating voluntary movements, plus a number of other functions including motor skills such as balance, coordination, and posture.
Movement skills get lost not only because the joints are stiff and the muscles weak, but also because the central controller becomes ineffective. In a sense, we forget how to perform certain tasks.
Watch an elderly person walking. Not only is the stride shortened, (something which starts with a subconscious fear of falling), but they don’t swing their arms. This arm swing is important for counter-balance. At some point they stopped including it and its absence really messes up their gait.
I’m seeing increasing numbers of younger people losing their functionality. Walking isn’t something that seems to flow, their balance is poor and their mind/muscle connection just doesn’t seem to be there. Their walking patterns are something I would expect to see in middle aged people. Their glutes and abdominals are weak from too much sitting, and they don’t know how to switch them on. I have no stats, it’s purely based on personal observation.
I’m currently working a lot with seniors and I can see the end result in how a lack of movement has affected their mobility. There’s a sequence that muscles need to fire in for the body to perform an action. Earlier generations had a lot of incidental movement in their daily lives, so they just kept practising. Labour saving devices and more sedentary work have diminished the need for movement. Not doing those bigger tasks is making it harder to do the smaller ones.
Resistance training provides simple but incredibly useful movement patterns, and these patterns are applicable in tasks we perform in daily life. By repeating these movement patterns, we not only strengthen our muscles and bones, and mobilise our joints, we also re-learn how to do these movements.
Weight training is the original ‘Functional Training’. Lifting, pushing, and pulling are the basic tasks we need to perform to remain independent. Lose these abilities, and your world narrows.
By practising these tasks, we quickly improve because those patterns are buried somewhere in the deep recesses of our brain. Initially, it can take verbal cues to remind us of the specific sequence the muscles need to fire to perform an action. This is where rote learning has a place. Verbal repetition drives the process into your consciousness. A good trainer, coach or instructor can be invaluable as a starting point.
Eventually, the pattern becomes reflexive again, so we don’t need to think about it before doing it.
Felicity Neale has been a part of the fitness industry for over thirty years. She has been a personal trainer, competitive bodybuilder, gym manager and class instructor. She is currently in lockdown in Sydney and using the time to hold Zoom classes for older adults and furthering her knowledge and practical understanding of biomechanics and functional neurology.