Recover the ability to move well

Recovering the ability to move well after decades spent sitting still is hard. I’ve spent years working on it, making fitful progress—walking more, running (when I managed not to injure myself), riding my bicycle, lifting weights, doing taiji, etc. I feel better than I have since I was much younger, and I move with more flexibility, mobility, power, and control. I am very pleased with my progress, especially these past three years since I went down the rabbit hole of natural movement, but it was a hard trip.

The internet is a help—there are many, many videos of movement gurus demonstrating how to move well, and many pages with advice, corrections, and exercises for getting from here to there. One good place to start is with Katy Bowman, whose eight books and thousands of blog posts provide step-by-step instructions on recovering the ability to move well (and much else besides). But as I say, it’s hard to do without local support, and until the last few weeks my efforts had just one source of local support—my taiji instructor and community of fellow students (now my students).

So I am delighted that we now have one of Katy Bowman’s students teaching here in Champaign-Urbana: Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. I’ve taken several of her classes and can assure you that she knows her stuff and knows how to teach it.

(She also knows how to geek out about it, which is a marvelous delight for someone like me. I learned so much about shank rotation! Learning to get my humeri into neutral position made a world of difference for my rhomboid pushups.)

I gather that her special interests are things like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction (and pelvic function in general), which are potentially issues for everyone, but especially pregnant and postpartum women, but she also teaches the full range: foot function (did you know that your foot contains 26 bones and 33 joints?), squatting, neutral posture, core function, shoulder mobility, etc.

Getting this sort of local support earlier would have helped me a lot. Although most of the work of recovering the ability to move better comes in the form of time spent moving, it’s easy to exacerbate problems rather than improve things when you start to move more. I’ve certainly limited my own progress many times by trying to up the intensity when I should have been becoming more grounded in the basics, or simply by practicing moving incorrectly.

Taiji is an excellent movement practice, being as it is about having an intention to move in a particular way, and then paying attention to whether or not you are executing your intention. But its roots in martial arts give it a particular focus, and it does not serve all areas of movement equally well.

The first time I tweeted something about Katy Bowman, one of her senior students tweeted back, welcoming me to the fold. I said something like, “I’m just working my way through the archives of her old posts,” to which Petra Fisher responded, “That’s how it starts.” I have to admit that she was right.

If you want to learn to move better, and you’re local to the Champaign-Urbana area, I recommend Ashley Price highly.

Getting my mind right with the cold

After posting a couple of weeks ago about how I was having trouble adjusting to the cold and dark, I got a comment from Srikanth Perinkulam suggesting that I take a look at What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney, which I have now done.

The book grabbed me right from the start. The forward by Wim Hof is delightful. The preface sets the stage for the climactic event. In the introduction the author suggests that his spirit animal is a jellyfish—a comforting thought for someone like me whose totemic animal is the sloth.

Because the first few pages were so interesting, I suggested that my brother use Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read them, but he was unwilling to do so—pretending to be daunted by the fact that the “look inside” feature depends on scripts he had turned off in his web browser. He also declared the book to be “pseudoscientific drivel.” (A comment that must have been—since he wouldn’t read even a few pages—based entirely on the subtitle: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.)

Of course it’s not a scientific book, but rather a journalistic one, and my urging was because I thought he would appreciate how well the story was set up—and the jellyfish spirit animal. After all, my brother’s totemic animal is the slug.

The book does talk a good bit about new scientific research into how the body responds to cold and other stresses. Part of the background that is being reported on is emerging evidence that humans have some degree of control over all sorts of autonomic responses, and that one path to gaining that control is by exposing yourself to stresses that trigger those responses, so as to gain an opportunity to practice exerting control.

One area that’s still disputable is how much of that control is real, and how much of of the observable changes are really a matter of “getting your mind right” about the stressor—maybe all of the changes being measured, such as increased mitochondria turning white fat into beige fat (or turning muscle that preferentially burns carbs into muscle that preferentially burns fat), are merely incidental, and the real difference is just deciding that being a little bit cold isn’t so bad.

Since that was, after all, why I was reading the book, that would not be so bad either.

Last winter, when I got off to a better start than I had this year, much of the change in attitude had been prompted by Katy Bowman’s comments pointing out that the actions your body takes in response to cold (vasoconstriction, shivering, activation of the arrector pili muscles) are all movements—movements that, like squatting and crawling, are done all too rarely these days by most people.

The arrector pili muscles in particular intrigue me. Always described as a left-over muscle that helps animals keep warm by making their hairs stand up for extra insulation, it seems like an awfully complex mechanism to have been so well conserved in humans if that’s all it was for. I suspect they have additional uses. Perhaps the calories burned pulling on hair follicles provides a bit of local thermogenesis that can stave off frostbite without the risk to core body temperature that would result if the area were warmed by blood-flow.

Carny talks a bit about vasoconstriction, suggesting that the pain associated with it is due to the fact that it’s such an uncommon movement in most people. If you train yourself for it, he says, it becomes much less uncomfortable.

Carny also has interesting things to say about non-shivering thermogenesis, which is produced by specialized mitochondria that live in brown fat and beige fat (but also apparently in muscle). In particular, he says that the process of converting white fat to beige fat starts with temperature sensing nerves in the skin! I would have assumed that difficulty maintaining core body temperature would have been the initiator, but apparently not: All you need to do is get your skin cold. This means that going for cold-weather runs will do the trick, which has to be the easiest possible way to do it, because your body produces enough heat while running to scarcely feel cold at all.

Thinking about this sort of thing makes it easier for me to get my mind right with winter.

Also helpful is that we’re getting a few days of less-cold weather. It’s still cold enough to provide the necessary circumstances to induce some cold adaptation, but not so cold that I immediately turn up the thermostat and pull out my warmest parka whenever I need to go outside. In fact, I’ve been making  a point of dressing slightly less warmly—choosing a jacket one notch down—than I would if comfort were my only criterion.

I expect that by the time full-blown winter weather arrives, I’ll have gotten my mind right.

A long walk on the Kickapoo Rail Trail

The Kickapoo Rail Trail had its ribbon-cutting Friday. Jackie and I attended as volunteers for the Champaign Forest Preserve District. We walked a short distance that evening, but our feet were tired after spending a couple of hours passing out flyers and listening to local dignitaries speak, so we cut that walk short.

We returned on Sunday to make a proper walk of it.

We parked at the Urbana WalMart (which has said that it’s okay for hikers and bikers to park there, as long as they park in the northwest corner, which is where you’d want to park anyway).

Then we hiked pretty much the whole trail: From High Cross Road to the end of the trail in St. Joseph and back again. We had lunch at the Wheelhouse, a pretty good restaurant in St. Joe that’s right there on the trail, and is appropriately cycling-themed. The only part of the trail that we didn’t hike is the short stretch west of High Cross Road that runs to Main Street where it nips up to University.

It’s a great trail. As Jackie and I discovered when we hiked the Kal-Haven trail, that crushed limestone is a great surface—hard enough for even a skinny-tired bicycle, soft enough to be gentle on feet that are going to be getting a pounding over a long hike, relatively cheap and easy to maintain.

There were a lot of cyclists out on the trail; they outnumbered the walkers by maybe 20 to 1. I guess that makes sense. The round trip is over 13 miles, which puts it up close to what I consider a very long walk (anything over 14 miles), but quite a modest distance for a bicyclist.

Sights along the trail include this spectacular view from the bridge over the Salt Fork:

There are supposedly river otters along the Salt Fork now, according to the text on this sign, but we didn’t see any. (“They hide from you,” says my brother.)

We will be back to bicycle the trail very soon. I don’t know if walking it will be a regular thing or not, but at a minimum we’ll get out to walk the stretch west of High Cross Road that we haven’t done yet.

My dad has fond memories of the old rail right-of-way from when he was a grad student (this would have been the late 1950s) and his advisor brought students out to there to see prairie remnants. Seeing this land properly preserved is wonderful, and I’m very much looking forward to the expansion of prairie species along the path that will follow with proper management.

We’re very excited about future plans for the trail. It’ll be years before it connects all the way to Danville, but there are bits that’ll probably get done sooner—trails heads at Weaver Park and Kolb Park, a short extension that will take it a few blocks further through St. Joseph (to the road to Homer Lake).

If you’re local, you should get out and bike or walk it at your next opportunity. It’s a wonderful trail.

High-intensity workouts good for aging mice

Starting with sedentary mice aged about 65 in mouse-years, half were put on a program of high-intensity interval training:

the interval-trained mice seemed in many ways younger than they had been at the start. In particular, they were stronger; when pulled backward gently by researchers, they would cling to a bar longer than at the start of the study. They also had greater endurance capacity, as well as more muscle mass in their hind legs than the sedentary animals, and they scampered faster. Few now were frail.

Source: High-Intensity Workouts May Be Good at Any Age – The New York Times

Open workout tracking

I really like to gather and play with data from my workouts, but I dislike the way the tools I use to gather it tie me to their own websites for analysis and display—and in particular the way they always want to spin up their own scripts on my website when I want to display the data here. So, via Srikanth Perinkulam, I’m experimenting with WP-GPX-Maps as a way to display a workout with less use of closed software. This is a test:

Total distance: 2.32 mi
Total Time: 00:28:34

That’s my run from Thursday, along my most common route for a short run: Out on sidewalks along Curtis Road and First Street (around “The Place), and then the rest of the way on trails back through the Lake Park Prairie (along what we call the High Road—on top of the berm along the north edge of the prairie), over the weir across the creek that feeds into the Embarras River, past the little pond and down along the west and south sides of the Lake Park Woods, and back again across the weir.

If you’re a reader of this blog, your opinion is earnestly sought: Is that better than the workout sessions I used to share via Endomondo? Or did you never object to the closed tools in the first place? If you simply have no interest in my workout tracking data, that’s okay too.

Here’s one more test, the hike Jackie and I took at Forest Glen on June 11th:

Total distance: 5.56 mi
Total Time: 02:36:31

Replied to:Expanding my movement practice: Animal movements | Srikanth Perinkulam

I just took my own first yoga class!

I’d meant for years to study yoga and hadn’t managed to make it happen, but this week the stars aligned: one of my neighbors is a yoga instructor and is starting an outdoor class right here on the lawn at Winfield Village.

This sounds pretty interesting, Philip. Something I should consider adding to my workout regimen. I’ve always had a tough time coordinating my limbs and following flow sequences. Several years back after a failed attempt at learning Kalaripayettu , I was heavily demoralized. My flexibility seemed to be abysmally low and I had a real tough […]

Source: Replied to:Expanding my movement practice: Animal movements | Srikanth Perinkulam

Expanding my movement practice: Animal movements

My most recent addition to my movement practice, just started, is animal movements.

These are basically just ground exercises where the shapes are inspired by animal movements: Bear and Crab crawls, Ape and Duck walks, transitions from one to another.

Playing on a fallen log at the Nature Playscape at Homer Lake

My hope is that doing them will help me connect some of my mobility practice with movement (as opposed to static stretches). My hip mobility and my toe and ankle dorsiflection are limited enough that I can’t do certain things that I’d like to do—in particular a deep squat, but also a particular kneeling-to-standing transition. Probably other things I can’t think of at the moment.

For three years I’ve been working on these aspects of flexibility/mobility and I’m making progress, but I’m not there yet. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, but one possibility that comes to mind is that I haven’t tried to connect these things with other movements. I’ve done isolated stretches, and I’ve done assisted/bolstered versions of the movements, but I haven’t tried to use the movements as part of a sequence of other movements. Very possibly my difficulty is not merely my muscles being “too tight,” but rather springs from a the lack of a proper mind-body connection linking these moves and other moves I do.

My hope is that the animal forms, by giving me an opportunity to pass through these postures (rather than merely trying to hold them as static stretches) may help make the mind-body connection in a way that lets me relax into the postures quicker than just more stretching would do.

In any case, I’ve been meaning for a long time to increase the amount of ground exercises I do and not getting around to it, and animal movements—by giving me a framework for that—have finally gotten me started.

I don’t think I’m going to stick with the animal forms for long. There are plenty of natural human ground movements which are largely similar, but some of the animal forms modify them to justify the name, and although that can be fun, my own affinity is always going to be for natural human movement.

Still, tolerating the silliness can lead to impressive results in terms of power and control. Check out for example, this video of movement guru Mike Fitch demonstrating what an animal movement practice he calls Animal Flow looks like:

Once I’ve established the habit I’ll look to transition away from animal forms and just do combos of human-style crawling, rolling, sitting, squatting, kneeling—and the transitions between them.

Gathering garlic mustard

I’ve been occasionally joining Jackie when she does stewardship workdays at natural areas around the county as part of her Master Naturalist work. They’re fun, and they fit in very well with my shift away from exercise and toward movement. Our work Sunday, clearing garlic mustard from the South Arboretum Woods, is a great example.

(Garlic mustard is a nasty invasive, largely because the first-year growth leafs out very early, and covers the ground almost completely. Native plants emerge a little later in the spring, by which time they can’t get enough light to get going. The upshot is that the understory loses most of its natural diversity, becoming just a vast carpet of garlic mustard.)

What we did Sunday was make our way through the woods, spotting and then pulling up all the second-year garlic mustard. (It’s a biennial. The first year is the low ground cover. The second year it puts up a flowering stalk and produces seeds. If you can get the flowering stalks before they set seed, you can make a dent in the local garlic mustard density.)

What struck me was how similar our activity was to “gathering” à la hunting and gathering. It was physically similar—walking through the woods, and then squatting, bending, reaching, and pulling. It was also mentally similar—doing exactly the same pattern-matching that someone seeking to gather edible or medicinal plants would do.

I suspect that both of these aspects of this activity enhance the well-known beneficial effects of “forest bathing” (aka spending time in the woods).

The area we were clearing has a lot of downed branches, big and small, some partially or completely hidden by the ground cover, making for a complex walking surface—more good stuff for both the body and the brain.

Of course, volunteering for and participating in a stewardship work day produces all sorts of additional benefits—in particular, doing something good for the local communities (both the human community that uses the space and the natural community that inhabits it) is rewarding, as is making social connections with the other volunteers and engaging together on a common effort.

Every time I do one, I am reinforced in my desire to do more stewardship workdays, despite my slothful nature.

(The picture at the top is another view of the Cecropia moth that Jackie spotted while we were there.)