In the conversation around injury – usually lower back injuries, as I’m a chiropractor and strength coach – I often talk about the term “capacity” with my patients. What I mean by capacity in the context of injury is the ability to experience something (i.e., rolling an ankle) and come out of it uninjured.
While we can’t prevent all injury, as it is a sometimes random part of life, we can certainly build resilience against it. One key strategy is to build a larger movement capacity. Simply put, we want to improve the body’s ability to handle a wide variety of movements.
The best time to build a baseline is early, and it starts with unstructured play as kids. We should be encouraging kids to be outside, interacting with different environments, and expressing their body’s movements as much as they can.
Running, jumping, climbing, and crawling are just a few examples and are an essential part to a child’s physical development. These things expose the body to healthy, full ranges of motion that will help strengthen it, increasing balance, resilience to injury and the ability to produce force. Funnily enough, the same things are great for an adult’s health as well – if they’ve built the capacity to do so.
As we repeat exposure to these motions, the entire system gets better at dealing with them. The body is especially good at adapting and preparing us to do what we repeatedly ask it to do. It gains balance and control of the ankles when we repeatedly walk on unstable surfaces, gains strength and muscle mass when we repeatedly lift weights or carry heavy objects for work, and even gains lung capacity when we walk long distances – eventually progressing to being able to run. These capacities grow with each repeated effort. If we push the limits of what we can tolerate we get greater gains in capacity, due to a principle called “progressive overload”.
This gift is not without its downside, however. When we ask people to sit in the same place, doing repetitive tasks for hours at a time, we’re asking the body to get good at exactly that… not moving. When we are not using and challenging our body’s full ranges of motion, we run the risk of losing both strength and control of those ranges. As the old adage goes – if you don’t use it, you lose it.
We sit in slouched postures, head jutted forward over a desk, shoulders pinned to our ears due to stress – and this is not an age-exclusive thing! We do it at work, at home on the computer, and we ask kids to do it day in and day out during the school year. These postures that we stay in for hours without noticing are called habitual postures. Habitual postures and repetitive motions play a big role in the conditions I see and treat day to day. The body wants to move, it feels good when we move, and I find myself repeatedly prescribing more and more movement – almost any movement – to my patients.
In my opinion, a person’s physical health decisions are a lot like steering a boat – if you change course early, even by the smallest of degrees, you’ll end up in a vastly different place over time. If you make good health decisions as early as possible, the benefits compound over time as well.
This is why pure, unstructured, outdoor play as a child is so vital to physical health. Letting kids run, jump, and climb through a playground, play tag, and play different sports will expose them to so many different physical and mental stimuli. Walking through the woods over unpredictable terrain, climbing trees, and jumping off rocks all produce their own unique and beneficial stimuli. The more the better. This all enhances a kid’s vocabulary for movement, allows them to gain strength in a wide range of motions, and prepares the body and brain to handle unpredictable and unstable surfaces. These things aid in keeping these kids in the driver’s seat of their own physical health, and their trajectory continues towards greater health throughout their life.
The young have a much easier time building this movement capacity. They aren’t encumbered by bills and responsibilities, they aren’t held back by old nagging injuries, and they’ve got the energy to do it. Our job is to encourage it, nurture their interests if we can, and give them the space to grow. The icing on the cake is, once the capacity and the skills have been built, maintaining those levels require much less effort. They will have the ability to be strong and resilient to injury as they age, even as their responsibilities grow, and their free time shrinks. Healthy kids become healthy adults, and all good habits are worth building early.
So, go. Run, jump, and Thrive Outside!
Dr. Tom Lombardo, DC is a guest blogger for Thrive Outside