We really shouldn’t need a reason to play and explore in our exercise and training programs, but with all the voices buzzing around the interwebs telling us to stay focused and keep our eyes on the prize, we may start to feel a little guilty if we stray off the beaten path at all.
Working on new movements requires you to go through the motor learning process, which involves various anatomical bits and actions in the nervous system.
The benefits of this are physical, as well as psychological.
The Science – Neuroplasticity, Brain Mapping, and Other Buzz Words
The initiation and learning of physical movements is a complex phenomenon, involving a variety of anatomic structures and pathways in the central and peripheral nervous systems, including not just the brain but areas such as the inner ear.
The nervous system stores movements as motor patterns, which are housed in a collection of neurons that communicate with each other. When we learn a new movement, the sensory information the nervous system receives is used to create new linkages and patterns.
One area of the nervous system that is particularly interesting with regards to motor patterns is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
Observations of patients with head injuries in that region demonstrate deficits in spontaneous movement, and also an inability to stop “triggered motor subroutines” – these are essentially pre-programmed motor patterns, such as reaching out for a doorknob and turning it when it’s within reach.
It seems that from the time we are born, we are just bundling up patterns and routines to put us on autopilot as much as possible! The trick to learning is to break out of those routines and, luckily (unless you were unfortunately hit in the head where the ACC is) we are also equipped to disrupt old motor patterns and learn new ones.
It’s pretty common in new exercisers, or when experiencing a new activity, to hear “I’m using muscles I never used before!”
Of course that’s meant to be facetious, but while it may not be new muscles, it can certainly be said to be new motor pathways. Novel movement sequences stimulate new neural pathways in our brains and, therefore, you are literally blazing new trails every time you try an unfamiliar physical experience.
Research also shows that people with longstanding pain actually lose and/or have altered representation in their brain of the painful area. This also goes along with distinct physiological changes, such as decreased blood flow and lower skin temperature, as well as altered movement patterns.
Successful treatment for those in chronic pain has to involve appropriate movement and sensation retraining to restore normal brain mapping.
The au curant term of neuroplasticity, simply means that our nervous system is quite changeable, as we gain and lose neural networks contingent upon what we do and repeat from day to day. It’s both liberating and distressing to know that we literally create and impoverish ourselves everyday depending on our actions.
In a fascinating lecture, Lorimer Mosely speaks about mental representations of, not just your body position, but also “the space around your body.” Moving into new “body spaces” stimulates brain patterning of new areas.
So, with new movement exploration, you are creating more and varied body spaces.
There’s definitely a “use it or lose it” factor to every movement we have, but there’s also a “never know it unless you try” factor that we should be aware of, and is a big part of learning and growing as a person.
The Mind-Body Connection
We can throw away the habit of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains. – FM Alexander
I remember in physical therapy school (15 years ago – yes I’m old), being introduced to the embodiment practices of the Feldenkrais method and Alexander Technique. The focus of these methods was ameliorating poor physical habits through deliberate and critical thinking processes.
At first, these approaches seemed a little woo-woo to me, as I had more trust in the highly tangible benefits of getting stronger and more flexible. But I soon realized it was much more than just “thinking” your way to improvements.
We become removed from ourselves when we artificially try to separate mental vs. physical effort, and don’t notice the innate relationship between them.
Our physical reactions and our mental state are intimately linked.
Anxiety creates the bodily reactions of higher heart rate and shallower and more rapid breathing.
Conversely, physical actions affect our emotional makeup – smiling makes you happier, clenched fists rile you up, and a slumped posture can decrease our energy.
It’s easy to be turned off by some who combine these very real phenomena with the new age “laws of attraction” (or crystal healing or whatever else floats up), but mindfulness and exploring our physical potential takes us beyond hype and hokum.
Combining this awareness with consistent effort creates growth and staves off the rigidity of being stuck in old patterns.
Consistent meaningful effort, in other words, working on deliberate practice, involves a lot of repetition, but is much more than just plowing through hour after hour of the same pattern. It has to be challenging and working your weaknesses for improvement.
For the best brain patterning, you need to have focused repetition on areas you want to improve.
You can use mindfulness and deliberate practice to cultivate new variations of movement and break out of old patterns and old thinking.
Practical Ways to Flex Your Mental Muscle (and Improve Your Movement Skills)
How can you work on applying these concepts to better your skills right now?
Well, just knowing about them helps a little bit. You don’t need to change your program to approach it with more careful thought and less autopilot action.
Just go into your same exercise routine with a little less routine!
Being mindful of how you are performing your exercise and how it can change depending upon your mood and mindset is a great first step. In addition, it’s helpful to employ new ways of thinking about what you are likely already doing in your training.
Stretching for more than Stretching
Flexibility for its own sake is a debatable benefit, but if you have specific reasons to improve your flexibility, such as improving your ability to move your body in certain positions (this is especially important for dancers, martial artists, and other performing artists), then the debate falls away.
But aside from that, the primary importance for flexibility training is as a method to explore unaccustomed movement.
Heading into new ranges of motion stimulates muscle spindle activation and joint mechanoreceptors, which all contribute to new knowledge of where your body is in space.
But it’s not enough to just stretch. You have to also have dynamic movements in and around these novel patterns.
In a recent study, authors looked at the effects of improved hip flexibility on functional movement patterns. They found no transfer without additional “grooving in” of these patterns. To quote: “For a new motor pattern to become spontaneous, old movement patterns must be overcome.”
It also points to the observation that practicing varied movement in isolation, such as a lot of so-called joint mobility exercises, is not as useful as practicing whole body movement patterns.
Bottom line: work on improving your flexibility as needed, but quickly train and use this new range of motion in your chosen movement skills for actual benefit.
Observe and Grow
There is a lot of value in watching and copying (as best as you can) those people with high level movement skills.
Dancers, acrobats, parkour traceurs and other athletes are not just simply inspirational, but also provide tangible examples of what our bodies are capable of.
Performance artists have amazing control with fluid motion, as well as incredible strength and skill, but they may be somewhat restrained by the needs of the choreography. Street dancers, and those who perform parkour, freerunning, and the like, aren’t necessarily bound by the limitations of choreography. As such, their movement self expression can be truly unbounded and pushed past their perceived limits.
You don’t even have to come close to the moves they are doing, but you gain from at least trying them out.
The controversy behind “mirror neurons” notwithstanding, there is absolutely something to even just watching someone break movement expectations.
Think of Dick Fosbury’s first flop in the high jump, Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four minute mile barrier, and Tony Hawk’s 900 degree backside. These incredible “first feats” shook everyone and rallied them to perform what was once considered impossible.
Giving ourselves this inspiration, even in a small way, can lead us beyond our assumptions.
Continual Movement for Self Improvement
The physiological analysis behind getting out of your current ruts in exercise and training can be quite complicated. But these real physical happenings between our actions and the changes in our nervous system only serve to highlight that the mind-body interface is inextricable.
Put simply, we are one whole piece.
Mind, body, and spirit all intertwine to create our full selves. We do ourselves wrong when we attempt to separate the inseparable. So let’s stop doing that!
Moving our bodies in fun and creative ways is what we were meant to do. Physical improvement means so much more than looking good naked – not that there is anything wrong with that – but it is in the process of chasing these aesthetic goals that we can find the true benefit.
Perhaps we are so bombarded by crazy before-and-after pictures, or from watching incredible athletes on their playing fields, that we take for granted our ability to change.
Instead, we should be amazed at our capacity to adapt and be impressed with every little bit of change!
Once we realize that, we can allow ourselves to move forward with these consistent small steps, and that is the key to growth.
Movement Multivitamin, our 28-day course on learning to move better, is a truly unique program that will jumpstart your system.
You can do it in conjunction with any other training program, or you could take a break and focus on learning to move better for a month. It’s completely flexible.
After a month, you’ll be surprised by how much better your body responds to your command.
Exploring the many ways we can move is a big part of continuing our self-development and, for me, it’s not so much expanding a particular movement, but rather, getting rid of the notion that you have to move a certain way.
Find Your Own Movement Freedom
It’s great to admire and aspire to the amazing skills and strengths of particular people, but there is no benefit to training rigidly to be just like them.
Breaking free from moving and looking just as they do brings a true freedom and one that fits exactly what we need for ourselves.
We’ve offered a variety of reasons both psych and physiologically to take time to play and move creatively.
What do you feel is stopping you from making this part of your fitness program?