Maintaining a variety of movement patterns can be a big factor in how we age. In his book, Athletic Body in Balance, Gray Cook describes functional movement as “the ability to simply move without restriction or limitation.”
Developing Functional Movement
From the moment we are born we are learning and developing functional movement patterns. Fluid and efficient movement is a precise blend of mobility, stability and control. A newborn baby has very mobile joints and limbs, but very little stability or control. The process of learning to roll, then crawl, then stand, walk and run is all about developing stability and control. From there we develop strength and coordination. Once a child is beyond the toddler stage, their movements seem almost effortless. Kids can run and jump, squat down and spring back up. They can bend and twist, roll and climb, start and stop and change direction on a dime. Their range of motion seems limitless.
Challenges to Functional Movement
As we get older, our movement has a tendency to require more effort. And our range of motion tends to become limited. Age in itself is not a cause of limited movement. Some common contributors are:
Movement Specificity/Lack of Variety. Many people develop very specific movement patterns for a particular sport or activity. While this specificity may help them in their sport, it is often at the detriment of a more broad, functional range of movement. An example would be the power lifter who can deadlift 600 pounds, but injures their back picking up a 40 pound child. The deadlift is a very specific movement of hip extension. Picking up a child (unless you pick it up like a kettlebell) is a more complex movement combining elbow flexion, hip extension with trunk rotation and transfer of weight from one side to the other. If you have only challenged your body in the specific movement, you may not have the mobility AND stability to perform the more complex but seemingly easier task. Thus you are more prone to muscle and joint injuries. This is why most professional and high level competitive athletes incorporate a variety of movements and cross training activities in their training regimens.
Use it or lose it. In a workshop on functional movement, the presenter commented that once we get beyond the age of playing on monkey bars, most of us never have reason to pull our bodyweight vertically. Unless you engage in sports like gymnastics or rock-climbing, or do pullups as part of your gym workout, there’s not much need in our modern lifestyle (until we fall and need to pull ourselves up). So to maintain the mobility and stability to perform movement, we have to make a conscientious effort to engage in those movements. Simple things like balancing on one foot to put on pants or twisting with an overhead reach to put a box on the top shelf of the closet can become difficult if we don’t practice them regularly.
Maintaining Functional Movement
You don’t have to be a professional or competitive athlete to work on functional movement. In fact, we should be working on functional movement all throughout our lives. While functional movement training can be part of a formal exercise program, it doesn’t have to be. Incorporating a variety of movements in our daily routines can help improve functional movement. Activities like dancing, gardening, hiking, kayaking are all great for developing and maintaining functional movement without having to spend a minute in a gym.
If you need help getting started, many health and wellness professionals like physical therapists, personal trainers, massage therapists and chiropractors can guide you on your way to functional movement. Look for a practitioner who has specialized training in functional movement or functional mobility. And before starting any new exercise program, it is always best to consult with your trusted healthcare provider.