An organic approach to exercise
Picture the playgrounds and PE classes from your childhood. Remember jumping jacks, push-ups, jump rope, rope climb, dodge ball and just running and hopping from the jungle gym to the slide? All of these very simple exercises focused on the whole body, using its own weight for resistance, rather than isolating and working its parts.
This low-budget, practical kind of exercise began to change in the 1970s, when machines were promoted as the “modern” way to exercise.
Exercise machines, like those popularized by Nautilus and Universal, were designed to reduce risk while also conditioning the muscles. But instead of allowing all of our muscles to work together as we are naturally designed, each machine isolated individual body parts. This took out the movement patterns relevant to how we naturally live our lives and – ouch – along came the back injuries and joint disabilities.
Today’s increasingly compact devices and old-school circuit-training and boot-camp routines signal a shift back to more natural body movements for strengthening and conditioning.
Training for function and movement, instead of svelteness or sculpted muscularity, is both the wave of the future and a reclamation of the past.
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While he researches cutting-edge treatments and compact new devices, Neil Wolkodoff, program director for the Rose Center for Health and Sport Science, stays true to principles that have yielded good results for centuries.
His workouts combine German-made X-CO Trainers (tubes filled with a granular substance that shifts weight naturally to boost upper-body fitness for runners and walkers), SandBells (sand-filled neoprene pouches), the SRF Board (a sliding device for developing rotational stability) and the BodyRev (a rotating weight system that engages more muscles than stationary weights).
“The basic principle of all training is to overload the system to create adaptation,” says Wolkodoff. “To build strength, force the muscles to adapt to increasingly heavier weights; to build speed, work on explosive movements so that the body learns to react quickly; to build endurance, push the body for longer distances.”
Training programs should be mixed and matched based on what each person needs, as opposed to a cookie-cutter approach based on what is in vogue, he says.
“From the 1930s through the 1950s, the ‘Rocky’ method of brutal training until you puke was the vogue,” says Wolkodoff. The science of exercise has moved far beyond the marble steps that Sylvester Stallone ran in the 1976 movie, but a modern workout still starts with a solid base of muscle, core and cardiovascular strength, he says.
“A person should get evaluated before participating in an exercise program, ” says Wolkodoff. “Generally, a good overall program will mix it up, including dynamic moves like wood chops along with endurance work.”
Denver personal trainer Anne Parker says her boot-camp approach is relatively easy on the joints but still burns calories. “In my opinion, there is no better way to train than using your own body weight as resistance. It can be as simple as doing military style push-ups, pull-ups or using a TRX Suspension Training system.”
At the Dallas health, research and training center founded by the “father of aerobics,” Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, researchers are now seeing the effects on those those who “felt the burn” back in the ’70s and ’80s.
“We now teach more integration of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, which aids in balance and mobility,” says Karyn Hughes, Cooper Institute associate director of education. “Baby boomers and seniors in particular need this because the emphasis is on movement stability and balance in order to maintain a healthy and independent lifestyle.”
“The exercise equivalent to organic food is functional training,” says physical therapist Gray Cook, co-founder of Functional Movement Systems, a Virginia company that employs a standardized approach to assessing and correcting underlying physical weaknesses and imbalances. Because the body is an interdependent organism, any weak area can trigger breakdowns along the chain of kinetic movement, which can lead to injury.
Cook, who works with professional and college sports teams, says working isolated body parts is not relevant for today. “Healthy movement patterns do not evolve from static machines or exercises where each muscle group is isolated from the other muscle groups,” he says.
Statistically, the No. 1 risk factor for any athlete or exerciser is a previous injury. This is because an injury in one part of the body creates an imbalance or compensation in another area of the body. Weaknesses will naturally occur when this happens. These imbalances need to be identified and corrected before returning to activity, says Cook.
Correcting and improving movement patterns stop the body from reinforcing something that is broken. “But the resolution of pain does not mean the injury is resolved,” says Cook. “Assessment of movement patterns should continue.”
Strength and flexibility are built into functional training with its emphasis on the whole body, not just muscles. But there’s more research to be done. “We like the trend towards correcting functional weaknesses, but we cannot forget the basics,” says Hughes. “After all, it is cardiovascular fitness that is the best predictor of living long and living well, along with maintaining strength and flexibility.”
So it’s back to the playground, or at least to a simpler exercise prescription that looks at the whole body instead of just its parts.
Linda J. Buch is a certified fitness trainer in Denver; email@example.com.