Evolution or Epidemic?

TAGS: sedentary liftstyle, eliminating pain, Brady Cooper, mobility

elitefts™ Sunday Edition

At times, some of the simplest things in life can be the most amazing. Take a young child for instance. As we grow, we learn through trial and error. As a baby learns to crawl, stand, and eventually walk, he fails many times. However, he doesn't have any concept of failure. He doesn’t get frustrated and he doesn't give up. The only thing that makes sense to him is to get up and try again.

Eventually, we begin to walk and explore. We bend down to pick things up. We learn how to feed ourselves. We grab and throw things we aren’t supposed to. We learn all these movements on our own when our bodies aren't even close to being fully developed. As humans, these basic primal patterns are part of our evolution. It’s what defines us as a species. Crawling, squatting, bending, reaching, running, twisting, and pulling are all movements that we were given as a gift from our friend, evolution. Unfortunately, friends sometimes take advantage of one another.

For millions of years, we used our primal movement patterns to hunt and gather food, build and find shelter, defend against enemies, and take care of our loved ones. It’s these primal movement patterns that allowed us to eventually rise to the top of the food chain. However, as of late, we as human beings have started to take what evolution has given us for granted. It isn't any surprise that advances in technology have made it easier as a species to live, work, and play. It’s what has got us here in the first place. From the very first hunting tools to the invention of the wheel to the internet, humans have been advancing for millions of years through simple trial and error. The question is, have we finally outdone ourselves? Have we created so many solutions, quick fixes, and shortcuts that we've lost sight of what has gotten us here in the first place? I'll go out on a Stone Age limb here and say most definitely.

Let’s go back to the baby. Have you ever watched a toddler squat to pick up a ball? Without any guidance or cues, a baby can hold a squatting position with an upright torso, hips below parallel, feet straight with weight on the heels, knees tracked over the toes, and head in a neutral position with a flat back. How many adults do you know that can do this? How many hours do we waste as trainers, coaches, and physical therapists cueing adults as to how to perform the most fundamental and basic movement pattern that babies perform on a regular basis? How many times have you heard that squatting is bad for your knees? Don’t squat below parallel? Squatting hurts my back? Surely, as adults, we are more structurally sound, have a stronger core, and have better balance than that of a two-year-old. So then why is it that it seems so many of us adults have fallen into an evolutionary ditch? The answer is quite obvious. We, as humans, are far less active now than we were ever before in the history of mankind.

Let’s explore the old saying “use it or lose it.” The human body was designed for movement. As bipedal mammals, we have a huge advantage over quadrupeds. Bipedalism has given us the ability to transport food; feed in an upright, stationary position; avoid predatory attacks through better vision; and use tools in many different positions. Children are a perfect example of the beauty of human movement. As a child, we don’t care about the laws of motion or the fear of hazards when learning to crawl, stand, and walk. We don’t have joint pain or back spasms. We don’t associate basic movements like bending over, squatting, or jumping with pain. We are totally free in our surroundings. When we stop moving, we lose our functionality. We were not designed to sit for prolonged periods of time. Whether sitting in a car, behind a desk, or in front of televisions and computers, sitting has started a new evolution of the human race. I have heard the term “de-evolution” before and, quite frankly, this is a misnomer. Whether good or bad, evolution is defined by any change in the inherited characteristics of a population over successive generations. Unfortunately, our current generation, especially in the Western world, is no longer a society that is forced to exert ourselves in order to survive.

Let's look at some interesting statistics. As of 2010, almost three million Americans work from home. More than 80 percent of the workforce have jobs that are sedentary or only require light activity. About 140 million Americans commute to work, ten million of which commute more than sixty minutes. Eighty-five percent of males and 65 percent of females work more than forty hours per week. Americans spend almost eight hours a day sitting (almost twice as much as other countries). Americans average about two hours of exercise each week (this is being generous).

That’s a whole lot of sitting. Now, I understand that the majority of us, including myself, have to support our families and put food on the table. Whether this means working forty-hour work weeks or commuting five days a week, we do what it takes to support ourselves and loved ones during hard times. However, when I see grown men and women who are relatively healthy unable to perform some of the most basic movements of human life, it drives me crazy. Maybe the apocalypse has come early because seeing so many humans move like zombies all day is downright scary. There are 168 hours in a week. We are only exerting ourselves on average for two of those hours. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this ratio is slightly off. No matter what our responsibilities are, it should never get this bad. Back pain is estimated to cost Americans twenty to fifty billion dollars annually. There isn't any reason why we need to live our lives in constant pain or fear of moving because we might injure ourselves. Children don’t complain of back pain. They run, jump, crawl, and roll all day long. Their supple little bodies are receiving constant sensory information, which keeps their muscles and joints flexible and mobile. Tight, short, and stiff muscles and immobile joints will more than likely cause pain.

People, we need to start moving again. I might be going on a tangent here, but the sitting epidemic has gotten so bad that there is now such a thing called a “comfort height toilet.” This is a toilet with an extra two inches of height to allow an elderly person or someone who needs more assistance in the bathroom. Are you kidding me? Americans are now having trouble standing up from a sit, never mind a squat, position. I'm sorry, but if I ever get to the point in my life where I have lost the ability to sit down to take a poop, that will be my final day. In fact, let’s stay on the topic of pooping for just a moment.

Before the modern flushing toilet was invented—:somewhere around the nineteenth century, humans actually had to squat down to take a poop. Can you believe that? Now, don’t get me wrong. Indoor plumbing is something I definitely don't want to live without. However, pooping on our comfortable commodes for the last 200 years or so might not be the evolutionary blessing we might think it is. According to proctologists, humans aren't meant to sit on toilets. We were meant to squat in the field. In fact, this suggestion isn't anything new. These arguments and studies date back to the 1950s and 1960s when doctors were warning us that the mechanics of defecating actually can affect our health. Sparing you the details of pooping, I will say that the proponents of sitting on a toilet produce an anorectal angle that is ill-suited for defecation. Squatting straightens out this angle and makes defecation more complete. The issue of how we have been eliminating our waste has been linked with hemorrhoids, disease causing toxins, Crohn’s disease, and even colon cancer. So what the hell are we supposed to do? The idea of squatting on top of our toilets like we are catchers at a baseball game is not the safest idea, but let’s stop and think about something for a second. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have squatted. Today, billions of humans squat because they simply can’t afford a toilet or don’t have a home. Many more of us in Asia and the Middle East squat to rest and eat and have designed toilets specifically for squatting. It’s just something to think about.

Let’s get back to our primal roots or at least try. Let’s teach ourselves how to move again. There are plenty of ways that we can incorporate mobility and flexibility exercises into our day. Just pushing ourselves away from our desks and standing up to move and stretch, even if it's just for a minute or a few seconds, will help. Start with a joint by joint approach. Start from the ground up and work on the joints and parts of our bodies that seek mobility first. These include the ankles, hips, thoracic spine, and glenohumeral joints.

Let me borrow one of my favorite quotes from someone everyone is familiar with when it comes to movement—physical therapist Grey Cook: “When the intended mobile joint becomes immobile, the stable joint is forced to move as compensation, becoming less stable and subsequently painful.”

The process is simple:

  • Lose ankle mobility and get knee pain.
  • Lose hip mobility and get low back pain.
  • Lose thoracic mobility and get neck and shoulder pain or low back pain.

“Looking at the body on a joint-by-joint basis beginning with the ankle, this makes sense,” Cook says. Grey’s “Functional Movement Systems” and “Athletic Body in Balance” is a must have for anyone interested in measuring and improving movement quality.

Kelly Starrett is another great physical therapist and coach who has also been sharing some terrific stuff as of late over at San Francisco Cross Fit. Kelly mentions, “The real benefit of mobility is the mechanical advantage. Ideal positioning allows for optimal power output. Until you’ve got proper range in all your joints, you simply haven’t discovered your body’s real potential.”

I highly recommend anyone who is suffering from any sort of joint pain/mobility issues to check out his MobilityWod blog as well as his six exercises for maximum mobility. I also dare anyone to try his ten-minute squat test.

The bottom line is that immobility can cause postural defects, loss of strength and muscle mass, loss of balance, sluggish circulation, osteoporosis, obesity, and infections. The list can go on. All of these problems can be prevented if we just start taking better care of our bodies. Most people could use more ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility as well as some soft tissue work in these areas. By working on our range of motion in these areas, we can improve or even eliminate pain in areas that are meant to be stable (knees, low back, shoulders). Don’t get me wrong—soft tissue work is also just as important as mobility and should even supersede mobility at times. However, that is out of the scope of this article.

Below are three of my favorite mobility drills for the ankles, hip, and thoracic spine. What's great about these drills is that you only need to dedicate ten minutes of your time and they can be performed anywhere.

Ankle mobility:

  • Half kneeling dorsiflexion (against wall)
  • Quadruped rocking ankle mobilization
  • Lateral leg swings (transverse ankle)

Hip mobility:

  • Striders
  • Cook squat
  • Wall squat progressions

T-spine mobility:

  • Foam roller T-spine flexion/extension
  • Quadruped extension/rotation
  • Wall slides
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