Finding the Balance… Something you should NEVER stop

Movement is Life, some say. And when you think about it, life without movement is hard for most of us to imagine. Movement is getting out of bed in the morning, or lifting the coffee cup to your lips, or running to catch the bus. Anything you do in your daily life requires some degree of movement to accomplish.

Despite its central role in our ability to sustain life on a day-to-day basis, movement has one very significant quirk – no two individuals move quite the same. Sure, we do the same movements: we walk, we run, we sit down and we climb stairs. But all of these movements are something that we learnt. We learnt how to move in different environments, at different times and speeds, and each one of us had individual challenges that we had to overcome to achieve movement that was functional – that is, movement that allowed us to achieve a certain goal. Take handwriting as an example. Most of us learnt it at the same time (first year of primary school), in mostly the same way. But we know that each person’s handwriting is so unique to them that experts in handwriting analysis can recognize your style of writing like a signature. Is there a right way or a wrong way? Well, that depends on the function of your handwriting. If the person who was meant to read the information found your handwriting illegible, then it failed in it's function, which was to convey a message.

Fig 1: Forensic Handwriting Comparison

Fig 1: Forensic Handwriting Comparison

So skip forward a few years, to when we are older and motor skills such as walking and running and writing have become something we take for granted. Gradually, many of us become acquainted with the experience of pain. Not the ‘fall-of-your-bike-and-skin-your-knees’ kind of pain that can be fixed with a kiss, a band-aid and a lollipop. No, almost all of us, at some point in our lives, discover that pain is something that can start to affect how well we function in the world. The level at which we are accustomed to function will determine the degree of pain that each of us perceives as limiting. So the ultra-endurance athlete may be limited by a sharp shooting pain that develops in her hip joint after 150km of running while the stay-at-home mom may be limited by lower back pain that makes picking up her toddler seem like an impossible task. In both cases, a normal, everyday movement that humans have been designed to do for thousands of years (running, picking up a child), becomes a virtually impossible task. In both of these examples, a normal, functional movement has somehow, over time, become dysfunctional. The human body was designed to do these things, but suddenly it no longer can, because something has started to go wrong with how the brain, nerves, muscles, tendons and ligaments interact with each other to make the movements happen. Usually these little mechanical errors are so slight to start with that you really are not aware of them, and because they feel familiar, this becomes your habitual way of moving. You are normally quite comfortable with your way of movement, and blissfully unaware that you are moving inefficiently, until the repetitive imbalance in the movement causes strain, pain or stiffness. This is a bit like a car with poor wheel alignment – the tires will start to wear down unevenly, and sooner than expected.

So how do we re-align this proverbial “car’s” wheels? We adopt a sensorimotor re-training approach. “A what?” I hear you ask. What ‘sensorimotor retraining’ means is that a professional helps your brain to become more aware of how it moves, re-interpret how successful a particular movement is at achieving a desired function, and become better at managing, or fine-tuning, the quality of the movement, resulting in a reduction in strain (wear and tear). You may be more familiar with this concept under the description of ‘mind-body’ exercise.

Fig 2: Early Pilates Class with Joseph Pilates

Fig 2: Early Pilates Class with Joseph Pilates

So how do we change a habit? The first thing to do is to consciously not continue to practice, or re-inforce, the habit we are trying to break. You are not going to teach your brain a new way of communicating with your body by asking it to do movements that it already has a well-established pattern for accomplishing. For example – cross your arms. Chances are, that unless you concentrate on it very specifically, you will always cross your arms the same way. If, for some reason (e.g. an injury), crossing your arms this way becomes uncomfortable, you are more likely to stop crossing your arms entirely rather than going through the effort of teaching your brain the new pattern of crossing your arms the other way.

Fig 3 Cross your arms

Fig 1.3 Cross your arms

To change a habitual way of moving, we need to practice non-habitual movements. Again, try crossing your arms the opposite way to what feels comfortable. Suddenly, you are very aware of sensations that you don’t normally associate with the everyday action of crossing your arms – how warm your palm feels on the skin of your arm, the texture of the fabric of your top, how heavy the ‘bottom’ arm feels an unbalanced feeling in your shoulders and neck… Suddenly, you have engaged your brain, with all its powerful senses, in the simple, everyday movement of crossing your arms. You have accessed the possibility of re-training movement by engaging your senses, one of which is body awareness (or proprioception, to use the fancy word).

And this is why people who suffer from chronic pain or from movement imbalances that affect their ability to succeed at their sport find so much benefit from doing pilates or practicing yoga. Movements done in these classes are not something you will find of use in everyday life, because they are not usually functional (from a survival point of view). The tree pose in yoga won’t help you get to water or find food or procreate, but doing these non-habitual poses and exercises enables you to develop new, improved patterns of movement that are less damaging to your body. The tree pose will improve your balance, which may stop you from falling into the water and drowning when you are crossing the river on a fallen tree trunk. The downward dog pose is really good for stretching out your spine and the back of your legs, but your arms are not anatomically designed to support your body weight and your circulatory system isn’t designed to cope with your head being lower than your heart for extended periods of time. So even though this pose has many physical benefits, it does not mean you will start doing your job in this position. It is a tool that, when practiced correctly for short periods of time, will help you improve, through better flexibility, balance and strength, the way you move when you do practice ‘normal’ movements.

Fig 4: Downward Dog Pose: It’s a great exercise, but you’re not supposed to do this for the whole day!!

Fig 1.4: Downward Dog Pose: It’s a great exercise, but you’re not supposed to do this for the whole day!!

But this blog post is actually about dogs…so without fur-ther ado, let me get to the relevance of…well, all of the above for our precious four-legged friends. Dogs learn to move in pretty much the same way we do. After birth, they need to get somewhere to survive (their mother’s milk), so they try different things to get there, and the thing that works the best or gets the greatest reward will probably be done again, over and over, until it becomes a pattern of movement. If a movement hurts (like after an injury or in the presence of a degenerative or genetic joint problem) the dog will stop doing that movement, or alter the way that movement is performed. Once this altered movement pattern becomes a habit, the absence of pain, such as pain medication or the complete healing of an injury, does not guarantee that the movement pattern will automatically become optimal again, assuming it ever was perfect (and no dog is perfect…). So how do we change a habit? You guessed right – by adopting a sensorimotor retraining approach. In other words, we teach the dog a selected range of non-habitual behaviours that encourage deep concentration and physical effort, improving flexibility, balance and strength, thereby facilitating the development of new, more efficient movement patterns.

One of the simplest and safest foundation exercises I like to teach my clients is the ‘Beg’, or ‘Sit-Pretty’. When taught correctly, this exercise improves a dog’s hip stability and the ability of their muscles around the dog’s spine to control movement of the spinal segments, limiting excessive movement and therefore wear and tear during intense, high-threshold activities such as sprinting or jumping. This is critical for reducing the incidence of soft tissue injuries such as iliopsoas strains. When working on duration in this exercise, the dog needs to be really focused and calm, and this improves body awareness. It has been argued by some authors that the dog’s anatomy is not designed to sustain the ‘sit-pretty’ position. This is an accurate observation, and is precisely what makes it an excellent non-habitual movement or posture. The dog would only be anatomically designed to sustain this position for extended periods of time if it was part of the normal movement repertoire of daily dog survival. The fact that it’s not a normal movement for the dog, is what makes it valuable as a non-habitual movement in sensorimotor retraining. It is not a high impact exercise, so any dog at any age can start practicing this exercise, starting with a little bit at a time.

This is the same reason why we have designed some of our most challenging gym-programme exercises for our canine clients. Each exercise is created specifically to target key muscle groups that the dog needs to better achieve functional movement goals, whether they are competitive agility or just to be able to climb the stairs at home again.

The video below illustrates an exercise that encourages improved dynamic control of the thoracic sling muscles (the muscles that support the chest between the front legs). This is done by teaching the dog to perform non-habitual movements with the shoulders, while having to maintain her balance. This prepares her for the landing phase of jumping in agility, a sport that often requires the dogs to turn sharply as they land, putting significant stress on the front legs.

Please watch the video below to see a summary on the benefits of the 'Beg' or 'Sit-Pretty' behaviour.


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