I was at the playground with my daughter the other day, when I heard a mother calling out to her child, “Walk! Don’t run!” It’s not an unusual command, but it got my wheels turning. I remember being told that as a child, even as a young adult. And at some point, I stopped running. But why? I LOVED to run!
Fast-forward 20 + years, and as a medical exercise practitioner, I hear clients tell me, “running is bad for my knees” or “running is bad for my back.” I hear similar statements regarding the squat: “squatting hurts my knees,” or “squatting hurts my back.” And yet we have to sit and stand a hundred times a day.
The fact is, most normal movement isn’t bad for us. Of course, there are exceptions. There are some folks who really should not run anymore for medical reasons. But most of us can and SHOULD walk and even squat more. Ditto for lunging, climbing stairs, pushing, pulling, lifting and carrying weight. The caveat is, if you are a modern human, you probably sit too much and move too little- myself included. That means we must first learn to move well, and then start moving more.
Moving well is a complex topic and open to many interpretations. Here are three points I’d like to offer:
- Our hips should be looser. If you sit a lot, I’m talking to you! As you sit reading this, your butt has probably stopped working correctly. Normally, your hips should be able to extend without hurting your back (think of the push-off phase of walking as the leg goes behind you.) Ditto for internal and external rotation of the hip (that is, the thigh bone rotating inward and outward in the hip joint. Sitting too much tightens the hip and can make us compensate by moving where we shouldn’t (like in the lower back.)
- Our thoracic (upper) spines should move more. If you are on a computer or driving a car a lot, this is likely true for you. Presently most people perform tasks directly in front of them, utilizing poor posture with the shoulders rounded and the head forward. The upper back needs to be able to lengthen (straighten) and rotate (turn the shoulders side-to-side) without causing pain.
- We should be able to reach the arms overhead. Again, sitting too much seems to be the culprit. To make matters worse, most of us have very little reason to reach overhead anymore, so we have literally forgotten how. As crazy as this sounds, if you’re on your computer or behind the wheel of the car a lot, you’re probably tight in the upper back (see above,) and some key shoulder muscles have likely atrophied or at least ceased to work correctly. This can make lifting overhead painful, either in the shoulders or in the lower back.
Let me tell you about Judy. She was in her forties, but had been an athlete in her college days. Sometime around her late 20’s, she suffered a meniscus tear on her right knee. After the knee injury, she gave up running for cycling, but started having hip pain in her thirties, so she stopped doing that as well.
In time, she became increasingly sedentary at her job as a successful financial advisor, and the hip pain gradually led to lower back pain. This touched off a 10-year journey of seeing doctors and physical therapists in search of a “cure.”
Orthopedists prescribed medications that were largely ineffective for her. They told her that her x-rays were “normal,” and there was nothing they could do. Physical therapists prescribed exercises and stretches that seemed to help short-term, but when she tried to return to “normal exercise,” she would re-lapse. Eventually she found me through the recommendation from a friend, and she was understandably skeptical and not very hopeful.
After watching Judy move, her tight hips and upper back became obvious to me. Targeted stretching and mobility exercises started to reduce her hip discomfort right away. Once the hips and upper back were moving better, we started working on spinal stabilization, teaching her to hold her spine neutral against the movement of the arms and legs. From here, we were able to start her on a strengthening program without pain. Within a month, Judy was performing squats and lunges pain-free. Movements she had been told were “bad for her knees” or “bad for her back” were now pain-free and feeling strong. It wasn’t that these movements were “bad for her;” it was that her body was not moving well, so “normal movements” were causing her pain.
The above story is not meant to serve as a “cure-all” for back or knee pain, nor do I mean to imply that resolving pain with exercise or movement is always the correct solution. I do want to relay a thought: the human body was meant to move and LIKES to move. Immobilizing it in a chair is not and must not become the answer to pain. Instead of shying away from having an active lifestyle or even exercising because you have been told that it is “bad for you,” let’s work to find movement that is good for you. Be on the lookout for more tips on stretches and exercises for those of us that sit too much over the next month. Let’s get moving!
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