How you think about your body shapes you. Our bodies are not inherently weak with a need for protection. They are inherently strong with a need for movement.
This blog post isn’t about loving yourself in the way you might think, although that is important. I will not ask you to stand in front of a mirror and repeat how much you love yourself or your body. But, I am going to ask you to reflect on how you think about your body and movement, and how you refer to your body.
I hear many people, not just my clients, but also friends, relatives, and people I run into at the store talk about how their bodies are failing them or how they need to be careful of their delicate neck, back, etc. They reference their bad leg or their bad shoulder. They refer to their bodies as weak, failing, old, bad, injured, frail, broken, fragile, hurt, delicate, deteriorating, etc. They refer to the damaged or painful area as “my bad leg” or “the bad side of my neck.” It isn’t really their fault. The media uses this language, but the biggest culprit is the retail system. Skillful marketing tells us to protect our fragile necks with this new pillow, our aching back with this mattress, or buy these shoe inserts to protect your deteriorating feet. Our healthcare system even uses this language, but it is slowly shifting to person first language. Person first language shifts a statement about a person to place the person first and the issue second and removes labels such as victim. Rather than stroke victim, we say a person who had a stroke. A person shouldn’t be defined by or labeled as their illness, injury or disability. We shouldn’t define ourselves or our body parts by our illness, injury disability or pain.
I will make gentle suggestions that they try to be kinder to themselves. It is ok to say, “the arm that hurts,” but it would be even better to refer to it as my left arm or my right knee. I might even get really over the top with some clients and encourage them to use language such as “the area that needs more love today.” Words matter. We should be as gentle and patient with ourselves as we would be with a small child. On the other hand, we should also have high yet realistic expectations of ourselves and our bodies. We should expect them to function well if we are treating them well.
I am asked very frequently about the best pillow to protect their fragile neck, the best mattress to protect their bad back or the best shoes to protect their injured feet. My response is never a product. My clients are rarely prepared for the long-winded answer they receive. I usually begin with the statement that your (insert body part here which may be the neck, back, feet, etc.) should be flexible and strong. If it were, you wouldn’t need to protect it with (insert product here which may be a pillow, mattress or shoe insert). You may want the (insert product) now, but if you work on increasing the strength and flexibility of your (insert body part), you won’t want or need it.
Our bodies do a heck of a lot for us. We need to refer to our bodies kindly and feed them with not just kind words and thoughts but also proper nutrition and hydration. We also need to feed our bodies a variety of movement.
Our bodies are meant to move. Our bodies are designed for an amazing amount of motion. Our shoulders, hips, knees, neck, etc. can move through ranges of motion that support all sorts of activity. We are made to be able to reach above our head by extending our arms and lifting up on our toes. We can squat to the ground by bending our feet, ankles, knees, and hips. We can twist our spine in diagonal patterns to reach across our bodies.
However, for most of us, this tremendous range goes unused for hours, days, weeks or even months. But, we fully expect that when we do decide we need to reach way over our heads for the rarely used serving bowl, or stoop down and look under the couch for the dog toy everything will work as expected. Unfortunately, when we do need to move into these extremes our bodies protest, and something often goes awry.
Keep reading because I am not going to ask you to add a regular exercise program of CrossFit or gymnastics to start moving and strengthening all your joints. But, I am going to suggest that you become more aware of how you are moving (or NOT moving) your body each day. I’m also going to suggest that you have realistic expectations of your body.
Take a few moments and think about the last time you reached over your head. Can you identify at least one instance of reaching high enough you had to lift your hands over your head in the past 24 hours? The past week? Recent modern history? Just kidding. This may include placing your coffee on the roof of your car while you opened the door and tossed in your handbag or reaching for your heavy sweater on the top shelf of the closet since the weather has turned chilly. Or, maybe it was several times in the yoga class you attended twice last month. In any case, for many of us, it is not a regular part of our day. So, the fantastic mobility of our shoulders goes unused and begins to take on the shape of what we are doing most of the time. How many times did you reach out in front of you to type on a computer or check your phone? How many times did you reach forward to prepare food or steer your car? This has become the predominant motion of our shoulders. As a result, they become stuck in this position. The shoulder blades spread across and up the back and the humerus, or upper arm bones, rotate forward. When stuck in this position, the mechanics of this joint are completely thrown off. If you look in the mirror and see one or both arms hanging in front of your hips and you see mostly the back of your hands, your shoulder joint is probably stuck in this unnatural position. The fascia thickens to support the joint in this position and support the activities you do most of the time. But, when you need to reach the sweater on the top shelf, you feel the pinch and the tweak in the joint.
This same story can be told about the hips, the feet, the spine or the neck. Our typical day to day movements are minimal, but our expectations of these muscles and joints are high when we need them. I’m not just speaking to people with the so-called sedentary lifestyle. Many people in our culture with the 8 to 5 desk jockey jobs do go to the gym and get in the recommended 3-4 times per week, 30 minutes of moderate exercise. But, what type of exercise? Much of gym-based exercise is very linear, repetitive and limited in range of motion: treadmill, elliptical, bicycle, stair climber, rower. These machines keep our bodies moving in a limited range, not even close to the variety we have available to us and occasionally need to use.
So, what can you do? Reflect on your daily ranges of motion. When are you reaching? When can you squat? Can you set up your life, so you ask your body to make these motions daily or even multiple times per day? Here are some simple ideas.
Place your coffee cups and towels on a high shelf. Then you’ll have to reach above your head at least twice each morning. Put the toothpaste and your pajamas in a lower drawer. Then you will need to squat at least twice each evening. Think about how you can integrate a twist into your day. Can you reach across your body to reach for the soap in the shower every day? Maybe use your left hand to adjust the rearview mirror before you back out of the garage. Notice your patterns and mix it up. Ask more of your body but keep it simple and part of daily life.
I have a chin up bar in the doorway between my kitchen and dining room. While I am pretty far from being able to do a chin up, I stretch or hang on the bar several times a day. I use my arms a lot during the day doing sometimes intense pushes and pulls. It is great for me, but I also need to move the joint in other ranges as well. The bar keeps my shoulders limber and strong in all directions.
If you are a person who has the opportunity to move all day as part of your job, you are fortunate. This movement will keep you healthy. My only caution is that you be sure you are moving in proper alignment and using your body in the manner in which it was designed. If you move a lot but still have aches and pains, check your alignment. Small changes can make a huge difference. If you are the person who sits during most of the workday, can you organize your space for more reaching and squatting throughout the day? Small changes can make a big difference.
Again. Our bodies are not inherently weak with a need for protection. They are inherently strong with a need for movement.
Side note: As an occupational therapist, I understand there are many people who do have illnesses or injuries that have left them disabled and make the suggestions I have in this blog entirely more difficult. My basic suggestion stands that we should all, regardless of our ability or disability challenge ourselves daily to maintain as much motion and health as we have available to us. This suggestions also extends into mental challenges, but that is another blog. Namaste.