Why Do We All Move So Differently?
File:Run cycle.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
I am quite fortunate to live next to some beautiful tropical beaches with well-maintained walkways here in Cairns, which many people like to walk and run on, especially first thing in the morning.
On many a morning walk, however, I find myself distracted from the natural beauty around me and start people watching. Once you notice it, you just can't help be fascinated by what is going on with the way people are moving. Almost no one moves the same way.
When walking or running, some swing their right arm more than their left, some have shoulders dipped to one side, others have a ankle or hip kinking out to one side, a few have knees that cave in, pronated feet, rounded shoulders, forward head posture...... the list goes on and on.
But why is this? Why don't we see such variation in other animals? Maybe you have never cared to look, but if you do, you'll notice that this kind of thing happens with very few other species. Personally, I have only noticed it with one other animal, our furry friend the dog. And it is perhaps no coincidence that our closest animal friend shares this rather odd characteristic. Let's delve into a bit of evolutionary theory to explain why we move so oddly different to each other.
It seems that humans particularly are absolute masters at compensating their movements. We all seem to have our own little idiosyncratic way of moving, although we obviously share many characteristic compensations with others as well.
If other animals had to compensate their movements in the same way, they wouldn't survive, evidenced by the fact you don't see many compensation patterns in other animals. They mostly all move the same way as other animals of the same species. Why? There are a few explanations as far as I can tell:
Humans are a social animal that work together with others.
Humans live a long time.
Humans are cared for by others when they are injured or sick.
Humans live modern lives that are out of sync with most of their evolutionary history.
Humans use intelligence as much, if not more, than physical prowess to survive and thrive.
We have few problems surviving, especially in modern times.
A Social Animal
To understand why being social and cooperative is important, first imagine a cheetah. These mostly solitary hunters rely on their athletic prowess to hunt regularly for food. Once that is compromised, they are pretty much dead. Compensating their movement is just not an option because the reduction in efficiency in the compensation pattern is likely enough to mean they don't catch their prey.
Humans are different. Imagine we are back to our hunter gatherer days for a moment. You are out hunting or foraging for food and you fall and break a bone or tear a ligament. If you are almost any other animal, you are screwed. You limp along for the next couple of days before something eats you (if you're lucky) or you starve over a few weeks or die of an infection or exposure. Humans on the other hand can work together to help each other survive until they are healed.
After you have healed, your body will compensate for the lack of strength in that area, created by the injury itself and by the muscle atrophy because of lack of movement. Voila! There's the root and usefulness of our compensation patterns.
Other animals go around in groups too, but herd animals in particular are subject to moving to greener pastures and if you can't move there you get left behind. You just die, so what is the point in compensating your movement patterns. You get a little injury, you stick out like a sore thumb to predators, so you get targeted and you die. Same thing.
Most animals have to be at the peak of their physical powers or they are a goner. Even minor defects in gait or movement efficiency are punished by natural selection. We are not subject to the same pressures, especially in this day and age.
Inefficiencies are even passed on to the next generation in our genes. This happens both in a traditional sense, i.e. people with genes for imprecise or inefficient gait are not eliminated, and so therefore passed on. But increasingly epigenetics is looking like it is also playing a significant role.
A Brief Word on Epigenetics
People watching has taught me some interesting things in recent years. Firstly, I see postural issues cropping-up in people of younger and younger ages, and secondly that kids often move like their parents. There are of course a few possible explanations for this, which include the traditional genetic inheritance arguments, lifestyle changes, and simple mimicry, but epigenetics also could provide another explanation.
Epigenetics is the inheritance of traits that were acquired by the parents within their lifetimes. For instance, there is some compelling evidence that you can inherit the propensity to be fat from your parents even if their parents, and their ancestors prior to them never held the genetic propensity to put on weight. Again, this is with other explanations taken into consideration, like acquired lifestyle and eating habits.
Could the same thing be occurring with people's postural and movement dysfunctions? As far as I know, I have not seen any research done on the subject, which is unsurprising given the alarming dearth of research in this area. Personally, I have observed some startling postural and movement dysfunctions in young people which I struggle to explain with lifestyle and traditional genetic inheritance alone.
A Long Life
Not only do we live a long time, but humans live long past our physiological usefulness to the group. We make up for this with our wisdom, intellectual usefulness, and care of grandchildren however, in a way which no other animal can. In every other social animal, the elders of the group still have to pay their way with physical work or they become a liability or just can't keep up with the everyday task of surviving.
Compensation is Protective
Our bodies react to the stress we put upon them. Our muscle and connective tissue strengthen in reaction to the stresses and strains of our lives. I have heard many a physiotherapist remark that bad posture is not correlated with injury, and they are right (but they are wrong to dismiss it, like many do). But why would it when the specific purpose of postural change is one of your body's strategies to avoid injury. Let me explain.
Bad posture in humans is a reaction to stressful activity. This is often connected to a stressful work lifestyle, but could also be connected to exercise or other habits too. You will thicken areas of muscle and connective tissues in relation to these stressors, which in turn tends to inhibit movement, which helps manage all the stress you are putting on certain areas of your body.
If you sit at a computer all day, for instance, with your head leaning forward for hours on end this can place significant strain on your neck muscles and the vertebrae in your neck. Your body's reaction is obviously to strengthen this area up, which is done by thickening fascia and other connective tissue and laying-down more muscle. This in turn makes you less flexible in the neck region and will pull your head forward on a more permanent basis. But here is the point I want to drive home; if this process did not occur you would very likely suffer a more serious acute injury at the neck, like a muscle strain or ligament or tendon damage. You wouldn't last long at your desk job. (Note: this is also a reason you have to be very careful when trying to correct your posture as you can cause other problems which may be worse than the ones you already have).
Bad news for your ability to work, but in a hunter-gatherer situation regular acute injury that disables you for long periods of time is not going to make you very popular with your friends. They might look after you from time to time after a freak accident or animal attack, but if you can't fulfill your physical duties on an everyday basis, you aren't much good to anyone.
Minor injuries or harsh times physically have to be adapted to. Most animals have to operate at near 100% of their physical ability to survive, we can still be useful at 75%, even 50% or less. We have learned to compensate our movements to avoid catastrophic or regular acute injury, the trade-off however is chronic injury and pain as we age, and we don't have to live an awful long time to pass on our genes either, so if any genetic issues crop-up that would make us more prone to problems in later life, they aren't eradicated and stay in the gene pool.
Bad posture is indicative of a clear compensation pattern to the stresses of people's lives or the lives of their ancestors passed on to them. If there is one thing we can all agree on it is that poor posture inhibits movement. The inhibition of movement protects you from going beyond safe ranges of motion by reducing your range of motion. It is mostly protective with the only problem occurring when you have a life that requires regular intense physical work, like a professional sports player, for example. In the heat of battle, sports players may push themselves to the point where their body needs to go to ranges of motion their compensation patterns don't want to allow, and that is where injury may occur. For most people though, quick changes of direction, highly intense bursts of speed, high levels of resistance, or physical contact are not common. Their reduced range of motion is protective for the lives they live, at least until they get older.
So Why Do People Move in Such different Ways?
I have gone through the more in-depth, background answer to this question, but the simple answer is that we all have our own unique blend of different physical stressors in our lives.
Most people share the habit of sitting under stress whilst, say, driving or working and not being active enough so most people have characteristically hunched shoulders and tilted or shifted pelvises that often cause lower back pain. But we have an almost infinite range of variables on top of this. Just in lifestyle alone, people play different sports, have different hobbies, live in different areas of the world with different climates, wear different clothes, have different cultural habits (e.g. sitting on the floor in parts of Asia), have babies (one, two or more) or don't have babies, have pets, drive cars, ride bikes, etc, etc, etc.
Throw in the genetic aspects I talked about earlier with the different levels of frequency and intensity people do all their activities and you have a mighty complicated set of variables. Is it any wonder scientists have such a difficult time nailing down movement dysfunction, posture and it's relationship to pain and injury? The trouble is that you wouldn't think it. There is a level of arrogance in the medical profession in this regard, which I have covered before and a lack of appreciation of the level of complexity at play here.
We are all so different physically and psychologically, and although we share many things in common, when problems occur the cause and the solution can be so entangled with these variables sometimes that we have to be humble in what we don't know and, at least sometimes, have individually tailored treatments or practices.
Ultimately the best way is to learn about yourself as much as you can and take the time to make yourself as healthy as possible. What I set to achieve with this site and the people I train is to help them understand their compensation patterns better and work towards a more efficient ideal in their own individual way. I can't feel what they feel when they do a myofascial release or an exercise, so I am simply trying to give them the tools to make changes themselves. I'm not a miracle worker, I can't do much good if people don't come along with me and figure their problems out for themselves.
"Know thyself" is a phrase mostly associated with personality or psychology, but it should also apply to the physical, and most people have even less understanding of their physical being than they do their psychological being.
To learn more, contact Chris:
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