Use It or Lose It

Good morning, LoW! 

Did you know that in the US:
21% of us experience chronic pain?
23% of us do not meet exercise guidelines?
60% of us have at least one chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer?
69% of us are overweight or obese? 

Exercise can prevent you from falling into these groups and it can take you out of them if you’re already there. Exercise can save your life. It is true that some people suffer from chronic pain or disease that has nothing to do with lifestyle choices. However, even in those instances, those conditions can often be improved so that there is less pain and/or better disease management by adding exercise. 

Another concerning statistic, we average only 2,500-3,000 steps per day. Europeans, in comparison, average 6,000-9,000 steps per day. Their cities tend to be more walking-frendly while the US is very car-centric. In some areas, that is changing slowly but most of us still need to put a lot of effort and planning into walking versus driving. Too often, the only walking we do is to move around our homes, get into our cars, take the elevator to our office, drive back home, watch TV, load the dishwasher and go to bed. For me, that kind of movement pattern typically results in only 2,500 or so steps per day. If the only thing you do is add a 30-minute walk, you should be closer to 7,000-8,000 steps per day. Over time, that adds up significantly! It’s also beneficial for glucose control and joint health. 

All of these numbers turn into a circular problem in our daily lives whereby we aren’t active enough and our bodies start to take the shape of what we are doing, which is mostly sitting. Then when we try to increase activity, we feel stiff and sore and we give up on the whole thing.

The other day I was chatting with Dan and I had mentioned that as a parent, it’s so easy to focus so much on your kids and busy family life. Years pass in the blink of an eye. Then one day your kids are older and more independent, and you’re left wondering “When was the last time my back wasn’t sore?” or “My ankle is still stiff from when I twisted it….5 years ago!?” Then as you revisit those years, you realize that those nagging pains have kept you from going for longer walks, from getting on your bike, from doing yoga or lifting weights – because when you try, it hurts. You feel stiff, you don’t move smoothly, and that seems to be a signal that says, “Obviously I shouldn’t do that anymore” when it should be a signal to do more. 

Motion lubricates our joints, therefore it often isn’t the movement that is causing pain and stiffness, it’s actually the lack of movement! We just don’t feel it until we stand up. But if you went for a walk instead of sitting back down, most of the time you would find you move better after several minutes of walking. Give it enough time for your blood to start flowing, and suddenly things will start moving – and feeling – better. It’s the same with activities like yoga. So often I hear people say “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.” You do yoga to improve flexibility and mobility. If you can’t touch your toes, do 5 minutes of half sun salutations. That alone will see you much closer to your toes in just a few minutes, your lower back will be less stiff, your shoulders will move more freely. In just 5 minutes. 

The US government recommendations for exercise keep getting lower and lower in an attempt to just get people to do something. It used to be that an activity didn’t count as exercise unless it was at least 10 minutes. Now absolutely anything counts because experts are so desperate to get us off the recliner that even doing that is now exercise. They know what is ideal (I discuss current recommendations versus what science shows is most beneficial here) but we’ve gotten so sedentary that the goal is now just to sit less because the ideal goal – the one with the most benefit to our health and quality of life – feels like a high bar in comparison. Even 50 years ago we were vastly more active in our daily lives than we are now.

Our country is in the midst of a health crisis that is driven heavily by not appropriately moving our bodies. If you find it hurts to get down and back up off the floor, that isn’t a sign to stop doing that movement. It means your body needs more practice to get better at doing so. I’ve been sitting on the floor writing this for about 45 minutes, so now I’m going to get up and move. Down-and-back through our house is about 25 yards, so I’ll do high knees, side/lateral shuffles, butt kicks, lunge walks and elephant walks. That sequence is part of a Mobility day in our Ecosystem/Momentum app that’s one of my favorites and I use it to break up the work day often. It adds steps, it gets my joints moving and lubricated, it gets the blood flowing, and it works the stiffness out of my lower back from sitting for too long. Be right back!

Whew. I always love using that sequence to get things moving and work out the kinks. If all you did was alternate a quick movement sequence like that with 5 minutes of sun salutations during your work day, you'd find yourself moving – and feeling – better everyday. But if you give into the idea of “that’s uncomfortable, I better not do that anymore” you will find yourself eventually losing mobility. You won’t be able to stretch far enough to reach the bowl on the top shelf. You won’t be able to squat down to talk to a child. You won’t be able to walk a few miles without pain. Over time that progresses to not being able to tie your shoes or go down stairs. You’ll start to be afraid of falling and you’ll decide that driving to a scenic overlook is all you can manage instead of hiking. You don’t have to go down that road. 

We all know the phrase “Use it or lose it” but more often we apply it to skills like doing math. The same applies to using our bodies. Your full range of motion will shrink continuously if you don’t do the work to maintain it and improve it when necessary. Then one day your kids will be moved out and you’ll realize that your back is stiff and your ankle hurts because you were too busy caring for your kids that you didn’t care for yourself. I’ve been there. I’m guessing some of you have too, or are on that road. Trust me, it’s easier to take those breaks to keep up with your movement now, than to fight to fix it later. Use your full range of motion every day so you don’t lose it. 

Keep moving!

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