How sports affect your body throughout life

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photo: jeff_whiteside

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristole

Sports become a part of who you are, both mentally and physically.  For children, sports become a means of socialization, but they also play a prominent factor in the development of movement.  For adults, sports become a means of fitness, stress relief, competition and commonly injury.  No matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of young to old, or novice to professional, sports have likely impacted your body in some way.  Appreciating how and to what extent may help you address chronic problems, prevent future ones and likely maximize your performance.

Each sport comes with its own particular set of movement patterns required of its’ athletes.  Dancers have chest up, shoulders down, butt clenched, toes out drilled into them.  Tennis players and golfers spend hours twisting one way and not the other.  Bikers ride hundreds of kilometers with their bodies tucked into a tight aerodynamic position with their head poking up, and runners get used to just going straight forward all the time.  How much these movement experiences will affect you really depends on what stage of your life you do them, how much you do them, and if you also have a variety of other sports you do, or have chosen to specialize and commit to the performance of just one.

Early movement experiences will really mold a child’s posture and coordination later in life, which is why I encourage physical play with my kids.  Activities like chase, wrestling, rolling, jumping, throwing and catching really help kids build an awareness of how to use their bodies.  They get some bumps and bruises along the way, but it helps them learn that pain is temporary and that their bodies are really amazing at healing themselves if they give them a chance.  As a physiotherapist, I can quickly tell the difference between adults that have a physical, athletic history and ones that have lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, both in their body awareness and their outlook on their current pain or dysfunction.  Past athletes tend to have a more optimistic and in-control attitude about their rehabilitation because they have relationships with their bodies due to past experience.  Conversely, adults that haven’t competed in sports in their youth tend to be much less assertive in their healing and much more dependent on health professionals because they are less in tune with their bodies.

Although athletes are more in tune with their bodies, they tend to develop posturally with strong imbalances based on their sport of choice.  Dancers and figure skaters get sway backs and bad hips.  Tennis players, golfers and volleyball players get left-right asymmetries.  They all experience the world through the body and lens of the athlete they are, but unfortunately only the rare few turn their sport into their career and what might help them in sport, might hinder them in life.  When you get your body so finely tuned to do one thing it can make other things like work, harder and even painful.  Loosey-goosey dancers have a really hard time posturally staying still at desk jobs.  Asymmetrical golfers can have a hard time with a lot of bending and lifting because their backs can be vulnerable.  It can go both ways, pain and performance issues in sport can be rooted in ergonomic, postural issues at work, and chronic tension and pain at work can be a result of the strong muscle imbalances a person may have developed in sport.  ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’
      
People that have devoted a lot of their time to elite, sport specific training are a fun group to work with because they can appreciate the nuances of how small corrections to their body position can significantly improve their performance, so it isn’t a huge mental leap for them to understand that subtle changes in their posture and movement might change their pain.  That being said, they can actually have a harder time changing their movement patterns because they are so good at moving the way they do that it can be harder to learn something that doesn’t fit into the mold they have created with their training.  People that develop their bodies into finally tuned weapons to do one thing become vulnerable to injury when you ask them to do something else, which is why cross training can become very important for some athletes.   

I would broadly categorize people into three different groups: elite athletes (past and present), multi-sport/ ‘jack of all trades’ athletes, and non-athletes.  The elite group is the most fun to work with, the multi-sport group is the easiest to work with and the non-athletes are the most challenging, but also the most rewarding.  Elite athletes tend to be fast learners and are keen to push themselves, but have to work through their imbalances.  Jack of all trades athletes are body aware, and have less biases but may have a history of more injuries simply due to more exposure to a variety of strenuous activities.  Finally, non-athletes can tend to be what I call motor-morons, where simple movement exercises can baffle them because they have never considered how to move before and their bodies have just become vehicles to move their heads around. 

Everyone starts as a little kid just trying to move and gradually gets filtered into one of my three broad groups over time, which group an individual ends up in will likely determine how sports will affect his or her body as an aging adult.  I like to call it the ‘Goldilocks Phenomenon’, in regards to the amount of sport and exercise that is good for a person as he ages.  Everyone has a personal level of how much exercise is too much, too little or just right for him/her, but the conscious mind’s ‘just right’ is not always the same as the physical body’s ‘just right.’  Some people I need to motivate to do more, some I have to convince to do less, and some just need reassurance that they are in the ‘just right’ part of their curve.

Aging athletes commonly need some guidance on balancing activity and recovery time in any given week.  Their brain may want to play tennis four days a week, but their body maxes out at three and anything beyond that creates pain and injuries.  I encourage older clients to find, what Tim Ferriss calls their ‘minimal effective dose’ of exercise and sports, i.e. what is the least they can do in a week that will give them the most benefits both physically and mentally.  Older people also tend to be creatures of habit and hold the same exercise regimes for years to decades, so I like to be the one to introduce some variety and create some awareness of the idea that their body isn’t staying the same year to year so neither should their level of exercise.

Many ‘non-athletes’ tend to take up exercising later in life when they feel they need to lose weight or ‘get in shape.’  The two most common choices seem to be running and weight lifting because the barrier to entry for the activity is quite low.  The aspect that most adults in this group fail to recognize is that these activities require skilled movement in order to do them correctly and not hurt yourself.  Any able bodied person can run, but to do it regularly and for long distances requires skill to not hurt yourself.  The same is true for weight lifting.  Pushing, pulling and lifting heavy things will likely make you stronger, but it requires skill to do it regularly without hurting yourself.  The non-athletes tend to jump into new activities by focusing on what new thing they are going to do instead of first learning how to do it well.  I make most people start with very basic movement exercises and have them earn the right to progress further.  A non-athlete may take 6 months to progress to what their more body aware counterpart could get to in two weeks, but if they take the time to learn how their body moves doing picky little exercises their fitness won’t plateau or fall off a cliff due to injury.

In an ideal world children would start developing body awareness through a variety of fun sports and games from the ages of three to eighteen years old, but unfortunately physical education has taken the back burner to academics in most school systems and kids are left to figure their bodies out by themselves.  I believe a system that could teach the fundamentals of athleticism to young children would be hugely beneficial to our society because the only way to create a truly preventative healthcare system is to educate the people on how to use it from a young age.  Physical movement creates an appreciation of body awareness in people and a sense of what is normal or abnormal in their bodies.  It is the people that are in tune with what is ‘normal’ for them that actually take care of their bodies and know the appropriate times to reach out for help.  The people that don’t create a physical relationship with their body from a younger age tend to be more unhealthy and create strain on our healthcare system later in life.

Sports should be viewed as more than just play, but as an opportunity to learn and be healthy at any age.  People just need to appreciate where they are on the growth and development curve to realize just how much their sport of choice may be affecting them.  School kids are growing and developing like crazy while they are playing the most sports, so like it or not their teenage years may define some of their physical future.  Adults over the age of thirty are starting their march towards stenosis  and need to appreciate that despite their best efforts that their body is slowly degenerating and needs a bit more maintenance than it once did to keep it going. 

My best advice is:

  1. Play with your kids from a young age
  2. Expose your kids to many different sports instead of trying to build a professional too young
  3. Acknowledge your own invincibility heading into your 30s and adjust your lifestyle
  4. Stay active every day, but appreciate the value of rest days and find your minimal effective dose
  5. Think of your body as an aging car, you can still push it to its’ limits as long as you have learned to drive it well and put time and effort into maintaining it

Please consider donating to Kidsport or a charity like it to make sure all kids have a chance to play!

I welcome any comments or questions in the space below…

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