Imbalances aren’t a natural part of aging
One of the themes from my first column is that much of what we attribute to aging itself is actually the result of bad habits practiced for a long time, usually years. Today, I’m applying that theme to physical (biomechanical) imbalances that, although they generally increase as we age, are not a natural part of the aging process. We can correct them, and learning how much damage they will do over the long run can motivate us to do so.
In recent years, serious athletes have become more familiar with addressing muscle imbalances in their workouts. Repetitive pitching, for example, moves the same muscle groups through the same range of motion over and over. Without attention to the opposing muscles, imbalances develop. These imbalances negatively affect joints and can result in overuse injuries.
But for most of us, athletes included, trouble starts with poor postural habits. We get good at sitting, standing, walking and even running badly.
My husband, Randy, who has run 26 marathons, is an example. Seven years ago, during his New Year’s Day run, his left knee went out. Or so he thought, until an MRI revealed no knee injury. But the pain was bad enough to stop a dedicated, disciplined runner who had run through a lot of pain and discomfort.
Fortunately, a physical therapist determined from watching him walk that he had a pelvic rotation – which most likely started years before with bad posture – that was causing tightness through his left thigh that was, in turn, placing undue stress on his knee.
Over the years, Randy had experienced various aches and pains that he thought were normal for a runner. But many of those problems were signs of this underlying imbalance. They went unrecognized, though, and none of them took him out for long. That is because our bodies are very good at compensating for imbalances. The underlying problem gets worse, the body adjusts, the imbalance gets even worse and finally, the body cannot compensate anymore and something finally gives.
Specific exercises helped Randy get back on the roads, but Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running helped him run pain-free again. Dreyer’s method focuses on proper alignment and teaches people to run with a slight lean from the ankles, which promotes a mid-foot strike. The runner leads with his body instead of “reaching” out with his legs. With proper alignment, the stronger core muscles do more of the work and the runner is no longer braking with every stride.
Correcting imbalances can improve athletic performance at any age, but we now know it is essential to keeping us moving as we get older. Not that long ago, an experience like Randy’s would probably have been interpreted as a sign that he was too old for running.
Daily life activities also exacerbate our imbalances. Sitting too much and with poor posture, hunching over our computers at work and at home, wearing poorly designed shoes (yes, ladies, I am talking about high heels), are a few of the things we do that cause postural imbalances.
My new trainer, Carolyn Parker, owner of Ripple Effect Training in Carbondale, agrees. She works with many advanced and elite athletes (I’m not one of them) but describes all movement as athletic and helps clients at all levels correct imbalances.
Proper alignment is a top consideration in her training, as it is in exercise regimens such as Pilates and yoga. Poor posture can work havoc on one’s spine, leading to exaggerated curvatures, disc compression and degeneration. These can lead to painful conditions, like sciatica, that are more common as we get older but are really caused by doing the wrong thing for too long.
Awareness must come first. So take a step back and learn to stand and walk again. Try this exercise from Dreyer’s Chi Walking, which outlines the same principles as Chi Running:
Stand in front of a mirror with your feet together. Relax your abdominal area and slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other. You will notice your pelvis shift from side to side. Then, try the exercise again while using your lower abdominal muscles to lift and level your pelvis and you will not experience that swing as you shift your weight. Engaging your core like this helps prevent inefficient movement and is a key component of good alignment.
So, whatever your age, take a step or two back and become conscious of your postural habits. Practice standing and sitting with proper alignment. Consult your chiropractor, physical therapist or personal trainer for exercises that improve your posture and correct your musculoskeletal imbalances. With a little effort, your body will once again feel like your sturdy and comfortable home, not a burden you have to carry around. And instead of caving in on you, it will protect you for many more years.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music.
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