Updated: Dec 29, 2018
The whole is not the sum of separate parts
[In 2016 I wrote an article for Human Performance Magazine, an idea of Kurt Vogel, MSc. Sports Science. This is an updated and edited article based on it.]
Recently there has been an overwhelming new demand within the sports, exercise and fitness worlds; movement. But what does that mean? What is movement? Aren’t we already doing a lot of exercise, therefore movement?! Well, the answer is more complex than yes or no.
Mode (what kind of activity), duration (how long), frequency (how many times) and intensity (how hard) are the components of what we can “scientifically” evaluate/quantify as an exercise. Movement, on the other hand, refers to any motion made by the body.
We have been specialising and formalising exercises in a way that has taken movements away from their context in terms of location, timing, intensity and overall complexity. The industry has been taking care of us by creating more and more sophisticated equipment and gear in order to support and enhance performance, even during our daily lives. Think about the evolution of shoes. Born to protect the human foot (functional), they are now often sold just for fashion’s matter. In practice we have removed a huge amount of variability from our lives trying to create the most “comfortable and safe” environment.
Let’s take a common movement like walking as an example. Walking is a natural movement and we can perform it on a variety of surfaces and conditions. The complexity that we can add to it is pretty much limitless. Think of barefoot walking on rocks at dusk on a stormy day carrying a tired child without slipping and hurting ourselves or the child. Are our feet conditioned enough to let us move on rocks without the support of thick shoes? Is our brain ready to process the feedback from a slippery surface with poor visibility? Are we confident in doing it carrying our child at speed?
Nowadays the concept of natural movement is becoming quite popular and there are a few different points of view about it. I’d like to mention Katy Bowman’s perspective and her distinction between natural movements and natural movement. These are extracts from the Katy Says podcast (EP.2 : Natural Movement, 14 July 2014):
[..]natural movements would be anything that the human body does that it would also be doing were it in nature[..]even more than that would be the movements that you would do for the purpose of getting life done. [..]natural movement, without an S, would be the sum total of everything that we would do to exist. [..]So natural movement vs. natural movements would be the frequency and the distribution and the load profiles which are all those movement nutrients that come from doing things in a particular way are distributed throughout a day, throughout a week, throughout a lifetime in the way that they would have occurred in nature.
Experiencing a strict natural movement lifestyle is nowadays unaccessible to most of us, perhaps all of us, but we can get closer than we have been. We can all implement our daily movement “intake” making some adjustments. If we keep considering walking as an example, consider barefoot as well as different kinds of shoes, have a go on a variety of surfaces, try it at different speeds, strides, heights, etc.. Every single little variation means a lot to your system, let your creativity guide your experience and your mechanotransduction take care of your body.
Moving on to physical education, the closest system that I have experienced is MovNat. MovNat is defined as a ‘school of physical competence for the real-world’. The system works on natural movement skills (locomotive, manipulative, combative), physiological preparedness (strength & conditioning), and mindsets that promote resilience. A recent study conducted by Tracy Alloway, PhD and Ross Alloway, PhD (Authors of The Working Memory Advantage), researched the effect of proprioception on working memory, the active processing of information (linked to performance in a wide variety of contexts, from grades to sports). Working memory was measured using a backward digit recall test. The results showed that the active, healthy adults who undertook acute, proprioceptively demanding training improved working memory scores compared to the classroom and yoga groups. It needs to be considered that the training was proprioceptively dynamic, requiring proprioception and at least one other factor – such as locomotion or navigation – at the same time. [Ross G. Alloway, Tracy Packiam Alloway. “The working memory benefits of proprioceptively demanding training: a pilot study 1,2.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2015; 120 (3): 766-775] This study is just a recent example of how movement complexity can affect our performance.
We can also find how valuable complexity is in education philosophies like John Dewey’s (more on his philosophy). Dewey focused his concept of instrumentalism in education on “learning by doing or hands-on learning”, which means to learn not only by theory, but also by practice. “Instrumentalism” is a theory of knowledge created by Dewey in which ideas are seen to exist primarily as instruments for the solution of problems encountered in the environment. Dewey thought that people learn the best through experience. He thought knowledge can be falsified. Thus, it needed to be consistently challenged and experimented on. He emphasised on inquiry based education and I can see this value been carried in physical practices like Fighting Monkey.
The complexity that we can experience is clearly limitless. If we move away from our usual environment (the gym, the flat floor and the barbell for example) and start interacting with whatever physical environment (consisting of all living and non-living things) that surrounds us, we’ll have a new level of workout experience. The amount of information our system will have to process is so complex that many of us will struggle in the beginning. But that’s where the magic happens, doesn’t it?
Awareness, emotion and repetitions seem to be the key points to effectively affect our neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to lasting change throughout an individual’s life course. Paul Bach-y-Rita made an experiment back in the 70s during which he proved that all sensory cells have the capacity to respond to every incoming sensory stimulus when “neuroplastic research was considered of little interest by other scientists”. He was a pioneer in the neuroplasticity world that nowadays has become scientifically interesting and popular even in the movement industry.
Moshé Feldenkrais (1904-1984), the Israeli physicist who created the Feldenkrais Method, read Paul Bach-y-Rita work and started to integrate his concepts into his own method. Some of his principles are nowadays becoming popular through much more recent methodologies and systems. Here are some of Feldenkrais core principles explained in his book “Body and mature behaviour” that I think are the most relevant for better understanding the connection between movement and neuroplasticity:
• The mind programs the functioning of the brain
• A brain cannot think without motor function
• Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement
• Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning
• Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways
• Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs
• Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body
[more info at http://www.bodymindcentre.com.au/PDFs/DoidgeCh5.pdf]
Michael Merzenich, Professor emeritus neuroscientist known for his brain plasticity research, is a big fan of the Feldenkrais Method. Here are some very powerful statements from a short interview (http://youtu.be/rupZ-wlRdA0):
• The feelings and the thoughts about movement are inseparable from the movement itself.
• One of the lessons of this research is that stereotypy is the enemy. And that you really want to exercise the brain with a variety of movements, a variety of actions. A variety of challenges.
• 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.
• When you get older it’s common that an older person will stereotype their movement. Let’s say they’re walking. They are actually less safe. Safety and walking has to do with the surprise…. The only way to deal with a surprise that can come in any direction is to walk with substantial variability. The same with thought. The same with your operations in general…. The more richer, the more varied the possibilities of your movement landscapes, the more powerful you are. And the more imaginative you are and the more fun you are having.
If Feldenkrais tends to have a more clinical and therapeutical approach, what about the general population who simply wants to mindfully move and to challenge their mind? Exercising does affect our brain but how can we enhance this experience? As trainers and coaches we all create physical challenges that allow our athletes to reach a new level of physical preparedness. But how often do we design sessions thinking about how much impact we’ll have on neuroplasticity?
Here is my answer. In order to improve performance, I need to expose my athletes to contextualised situations. I must consciously integrate movement complexity into my athletes training plan. It applies to the general population as well as professional athletes, it simply works on every human being at any stage of life. When it comes to creating a session that goes beyond the physical side of it, I would consider these two points:
1. Increasing awareness during the sessions. We can keep the movements simple, but create a complex mindful demand (i.e. how do you organise your body weight centres over your feet when you catch a ball?)
2. Making athletes interact and have fun. An external unpredictable input is probably the most powerful feedback your organism has to deal with (i.e. play tag in a confined and )
The work I have been doing in the last years with the movement research group Fighting Monkey (FM) has helped me a lot in developing my current approach to training. Their material is incredibly vast and it is so open source that I can apply the principles during session of any kind. FM has given me the tools to explore my creativity, polish my knowledge and enrich the training experience I offer.
My other major influence comes from Inge-Jarl Clausen, creator of Vegetative Training (VGT). VGT is a hands off practice that allows to get deeply in touch with the self-regulating capacity of your body. The approach can be considered as a holistic, almost monoistic approach in understanding the human organism, and looks at all the manifestations of the organism as an expression of aspects of the same whole. Central to this whole is the functionality of the vegetative system (autonomic nervous system), which is seen as one of the pillars of the organism’s adaptation, and will determine how the organism is able to utilise its growth and self-regulation potential. From a practical perspective, it helps to better understand your organism, optimise recovery and enhance performance through simple movements and breathing practice that affect the vegetative system. I find massive benefits from my regular VGT sessions and I encourage anyone to experience it.