Tuesday 21 May 2019

Katie Byrne: When it comes to movement, why is there a prevailing idea that faster and stronger is always better?

Breathing Space

Tai Chi, which has grown in popularity throughout the world, is typified by slow, deliberate repetitive movements. Photo: Getty Images
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

When it comes to movement, why is there a prevailing idea that faster and stronger is always better?

More to the point, why do we glorify intense forms of fitness - the spinning class that breaks you out in a sweat; the gruelling CrossFit class that leaves you gasping for breath - over gentler forms of movement that are kinder to the body?

The health and fitness industry has become more holistic in recent years but the 'no pain, no gain' philosophy has remained stubbornly entrenched. Indeed, even yogis are getting themselves into a tangle trying to perfect Instagram-worthy poses.

In a #TrainHard world, we tend to think of lower-impact movement as a form of stress-relief. We walk to clear the mind; we sign up for a Tai Chi class when work becomes overwhelming.

And it's true: lower-impact movement calms the mind, but what we forget is that it also helps us get in touch with the body.

When movement becomes an endurance test, we are less likely to hear what the body is trying to tell us. And when we prioritise fast and furious forms of movement over gentler and more mindful movement, we miss an opportunity to gain greater body awareness.

As an example, try doing a few quick arm circles with your right arm, covering as much distance as possible in each cycle.

Now, put your right arm straight in front of you and, this time, try doing very small and slow circles by imagining that your fingertips are slowly tracing the circumference of a tiny button.

The difference, as you probably noticed, is that you felt more aware of the gentle nuances of the sensation during the second movement.

The late Moshé Feldenkrais, founder of the eponymous bodywork method, often talked about the profound insights that we can gain from smaller, finer movements.

"If I hold a twenty pound weight, I cannot detect a fly landing on it because the least detectable difference in the stimulus is half a pound," he explained. "On the other hand, if I hold a feather, a fly landing on it makes a great difference. Obviously then, in order to be able to tell the differences in exertion one must first reduce the exertion. Finer and finer performance is possible only if the sensitivity, that is, the ability to feel the difference, is improved."

Of course, those who equate movement with #MuscleGains don't always feel this difference. They become so fixated on their goal of a stronger, leaner physique that they don't notice that their cortisol levels are chronically elevated and their bodies are dangerously inflamed.

Put simply, the #NoExcuses brigade work against their bodies than with them and, eventually, they run the risk of over-training, injury and burnout.

Let's be honest, tortuous workouts usually require a mind over matter outlook. Breathless and sweaty, we keep our eyes on the prize - even if we're stealing glances at the clock.

'Conscious movement', on the other hand, is about slowing down and bringing attention to the body. Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are the obvious examples - but it's worth noting that all forms of movement become conscious when they are performed with presence and poise.

If you prefer high-impact forms of fitness, you could try focusing on the quality of the movement and bringing more awareness to your breath. This will naturally slow down your workout, but you'll also notice that you get a better 'read' of your body in the process. You'll start becoming more aware of imbalances and, with practice, you'll naturally start leaning into the discomfort that your body can handle, and moving away from the discomfort that it can't handle.

Otherwise, you could try thinking of movement as a way of life rather than a hierarchy with higher-impact at the top and lower-impact at the bottom.

Fast and slow exercise is complementary - so it's all about striking the right balance. If you like HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), try combining it with LISS (Low Intensity Steady State) which places less strain on the heart and body.

If you always opt for more energetic styles of yoga (think Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram), try mixing it up with a slower-paced yin yoga or restorative yoga class.

If you practice martial arts, consider complementing it with a weekly dance class (you might be surprised by just how much these forms of movement have in common).

Remember, high-quality exercise doesn't have to leave you sweaty and red-faced. When we slow down our movements, we are more likely to focus on form and precision. And when we focus on form and precision, we start to tune into the body, and what it's trying to say.

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