What does it means to be alive? Not just the experience of living, but the actual physiological process that accompanies being able to exist in a conscious way?
In the book, “The Big Picture,” Sean Carroll breaks being alive down to three basic principles: compartmentalization (which is part of self organization), metabolism, and replication with variation.
Let’s break these down a little bit further for a moment and think about what each section means. If our physiological structures, from our cells to our joints are able to separate themselves from the other components that make up the body and are able to self organize in such a way that everything functions together to keep the organism (us) alive, then we are one third of the way to meeting the criteria for life. We are designed at a cellular level for each piece that is part of us to have a unique job that integrates with the rest of the system.
This is a hot topic in movement right now. Systems such as the FRC and physical therapists like Gray Cook teach that each joint should be able to move independently, just like a cell, while bound together with the next, has a membrane that separates its inner structure from the outside world. However, during life, neither the joint or the cell works by itself. Both contribute to the ability of the organism to maintain daily function as effectively and efficiently as possible.
What this means from a training movement perspective is that while it is important each joint understands its role in the function of movement, it is critical the joints have an opportunity to work together and an opportunity to self-organize. Self organization, it seems, is something we are designed to do. It would make sense the rest of our parts are able to organize themselves in a way that promotes optimal function.
Simply put, if you watch someone squat and he can’t distinguish his hips from his back, of course spend a bit of time teaching differentiation of the hip joint versus the lumbar spine and pelvis. But once you do that (and it shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes if you are working with someone that has minimal physical limitations), have the person squat again with little cueing. The neuromuscular system is intelligent enough to choose the most efficient path; hypothetically, improved joint differentiation should result in a visible change in coordination.
One of the most important aspects of teaching is giving people an opportunity to figure things out. This has always been challenging for me- I am a verbal person, and I like to offer feedback. However, when people have light bulb moments on their own because of the guidance you offered, they are much more likely to retain what they have learned and apply it in other setting. Self organization after an awareness intervention is exactly this- an opportunity for the neuromuscular system to use the information it has just been exposed to.
After self organization, for life to exist requires metabolism. Metabolism involves fueling movement and happens even when we aren’t moving. As I sit here typing, my digestive system is metabolizing my lunch and sending energy to my brain and fingers.
While it’s understood movement keeps the digestive system functioning in a more efficient way, the value of basic, repetitive movement is often ignored. Walking, for instance, is an example of a movement modality that is frequently pushed aside because of its simplicity. It’s a basic mode of transportation, requires minimal energy because our system is designed to take advantage of the natural elastic properties of the tissues during locomotion, and is rhythmic in nature.
On a physiological level, walking regulates cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels (1). It increases the resiliency of the immune system, reducing the amount of colds and flus we get throughout our lifetime. It’s also an effective intervention for chronic low back pain (2).
Finally, (and perhaps most importantly), there is the benefit walking has on mental health. Walking reduces symptoms related to depression and anxiety and enhances feelings of well-being (3).
While movement and variability is extremely important for the physical self, simply walking may be one of the most profound things we can do for our health.
The final aspect to life is replication with variation. Replication occurs on a cellular level, with the idea that variation generally makes things a little bit stronger.
Let’s look at the simple example of a vaccine. Why do vaccines work?
When you are injected with the vaccination of a specific virus, the immune system produces antibodies to attack the virus, attempting to eradicate it and protect the organism. In an effort to ensure the virus doesn’t stand a chance next time, the antibodies stay in the bloodstream, killing the offensive virus before it makes you sick. The introduction of a small amount of a potentially threatening virus alters your physical makeup, ultimately making you stronger.
When you practice or teach a skill, introducing variation gives the person performing the skill an opportunity to self organize in a different way. The nervous system is smart. When introduced to a different way of doing a similar task, it will assess which way is most effective and efficient and adopt that variation. Repetition with variation, then, is an opportunity to try different movement patterns on, toss out the ones that are ineffective, and figure out how to improve upon the ones that most closely accomplish the desired goal.
It also makes you stronger. Variation acts like the antibodies against the virus, exposing tissues to different angles and positions so that when you are exposed to a strange position while lifting an awkward piece of furniture, you have the strength to perform the lift without injuring yourself.
Towards the end of the book, Mr Carroll writes about desire, “…no person can ever be truly motionless…Life is characterized by motion and change.” Every single part of us, down to the atoms that compose our cells, is designed to move. It’s a curious thought we would even consider a life without movement.
Movement is an expression of being alive. It allows us to use our bodies and experience the environment in more fulfilling way. Encouraging movement that utilizes independently moving joints working together through both repetitive, rhythmic movement and through movement with variation is a way to maintain vitality. Maybe the key to health really is that simple.
- Williams, P.T., & Thompson, P.D., (2014). Walking vs. running for hypertension, cholesterol, & diabetes risk reduction. Arteriosclerosis Thrombosis Vascular Biology, 33(5), 1085-1091. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4067492/
- Sitthipornvorakul, E., Klinsophon, T., Sihawong, R., & Janwantanakul, P., (2017). The effects of walking intervention in patients with chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Musculoskeletal Science Practices, 34, 38-46.
- Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F.D., (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC14706