If we believe that we are what we eat (which means I am actually a cupcake with a sprinkling of doughnut chromosomes), we should also believe that we are how we move, too.
I believe that the way in which we move our bodies should be considered just as important as the food we put in it.
The human body is made up of trillions of cells. These cells rely on the nutrients in our food to survive, but their health is also dependent upon receiving mechanical input that is derived from movement.
This hasn’t really changed over the last thousand years, so our bodies are still designed to resist gravity, move a lot, and have lungs full of oxygen. However, our change in lifestyle has meant that these ingredients for a healthy and optimally functioning body are no longer part of our daily menu; the supermarket does not require us to chase and catch our dinner, we travel to most places sitting down and if we do any exercise it tends to be concentrated into a small window of time.
Ultimately this means that our Thoroughbred-esque, movement dependent bodies are being treated to a life more suited to a 3 legged mule.
This cycle of minimal movement and habitual movement patterns (when we DO move) leads to a chronic imbalance of ‘movement nutrient’ distribution through the body.
The human body is designed to work as a functioning unit, a complete, interlinked ‘I can’t work without you’ kind of a set-up. Each joint and muscle has its own job, which compliments every other joint and muscle doing theirs. This is all rather lovely until a structure cannot fulfill its job due to being over nourished with movement and breaking down, or being under nourished with movement; ie not being moved at all. As with eating an unhealthy diet, this imbalance in the body lights up the cycle of damage control, which eventually manifests as pain and immobility.
If you don’t use it, you lose it
If you over use it, you lose it too
This scenario is happening to the majority of people, as our modern day bodies have to endure a lifestyle of restrictive/compressed postures; driving, sitting, and for our equestrian community; riding.
There is, unfortunately, a white sugar/processed food equivalent in the nourishing movement department and it shows up in the rather seemingly benign form of a chair.
So What actually happens to the body when you sit down so much?
Gravity. Gravity happens. In a body that is designed to actively resist gravity by standing upright, sitting down takes the ability to resist it away. Gravity then becomes the boss and starts to compress, collapse and squeeze the body inwards and downwards.
The head is pushed out and forward, shortening the muscles of the neck and creating tension at the base of the skull. The shoulders are then drawn forwards and downwards, shortening the pectoral muscles of the chest. The ribcage starts to drop and the abdomen becomes shorter, effecting the function of the diaphragm, the expansion of the ribs and therefore the lungs.
The thoracic area of the spine and the hips become jammed and malnourished, which means the lower back takes on more movement than it should; the muscles of the lower back then have to be overactive to try and stabilize the spine, which then causes pain.
Lower Back Pain
The statistics of riders with LBP is not good, with 78% of riders suffering. The above paragraph tells you a little bit about why, but let’s look at a real life example of one of the reasons you may experience back pain.
Tacking up probably seems like the easiest job of the day, but imagine that your shoulders are a bit ‘sticky’ as you have kept your arms in the same position for most of the day; on the steering wheel/typing on your computer. To get the saddle on, your arms have to reach above your head, but your shoulder joint can’t do the full movement, so you have to push your ribcage forward, which deactivates your core and leaves the lower back taking the strain. You won’t realise this is happening every day, every time you put the saddle on, but at some point you will feel a niggle, which will then head down the path signposted to pain.
The cycle does not stop there because as soon as there is pain in the lower back, the deep spinal stabilizing muscles switch off. This means that you are not able to control each segment of the spine, and therefore you cannot control your posture or cope with your horses’ movement or asymmetries. This then leads to a lack of horse and rider synchronicity, your horse will have to change how he moves and this can lead to a strengthened asymmetry/loss of performance/lameness.
Every joint in your body has an optimum range of movement, which, when available to that joint, allows it to function in its fullest, most useful form. The problem is that not many of us will have a fully functioning set of joints. Far from it. What we DO have, however, is a few joints which move quite well, some that move a bit and others that would really rather not move at all.
Hayley Beresford and Coach Frankie getting into some nourishing movement
It is all Postural
When our bodies are in the correct posture, only then can the joints have a chance of working how they should. Good posture is constantly challenged, as mentioned above; gravity is always playing its role and lifestyles are inherently leading us to compress the body as if we are secretly longing to be hobbit size.
If you want to avoid this, awareness of your own body is key:
Take a Personal Inventory
Becoming acutely aware of your own body, how it feels day to day, where the niggles are coming from, what feels tight and sticky, what feels achy or what downright just hurts like hell, is the key to the beginning of moving better and therefore riding better.
It is admirable to try and contort your body into the perfect riding position for your lesson, or each time you trot past the mirrors, but it is how you move and conduct every physical task throughout the day that will determine how successful you are at attaining great posture on the horse.
Check in with your body throughout the day and start to really get to know it.
Know what good posture FEELS like
Quite often we have to ‘feel it to believe it’ and this certainly applies to learning about how your body should be posturally aligned.
Our bodies are expert cheats, and what feels correct and normal will quite often be anything of the sort!
In order to conserve energy, the body will always find the path of least resistance in every task it has to do. The body has a way of moulding itself around dysfunctional areas, so that over time, sitting crooked, looking over your shoulder instead of rotating your upper back, collapsing a hip, hunching your shoulders, sticking your elbows out etc, all start to feel normal. A normal way to function, a normal way to move the body.
All of these things occur as a result of the body adapting for a structure that cannot fulfil its role, so they are not at all a normal way to move! Changing your posture has to be felt and practiced, so that it then becomes the new, correct normal.
My top tip would be to have some expert guidance when learning what correct posture should feel like. It is very difficult to correct your own without help.
Having some micronutrient-style decompression moves to perform throughout the day can go a long way to keeping the joints nourished and functioning better.
Below are a few examples of the key areas that we want to keep mobile:
You should always be trying to draw the scapula (shoulder blades) together, in EVERYTHING you do. ‘Together and down’ should be your motto. From this posture, and without thrusting your ribs forward or your head up/down/round and round, take your arms straight out in front of you to shoulder height, then reach them up over your head. Take note of how far they go easily; you will find a ‘point of bind’ (where they get stuck). Stop here and hold for 15 seconds. If you push past the point of bind you will very likely adopt another part of your body to get the extra movement; it won’t be coming purely from the shoulder joint.
Keep doing this move throughout the day and you will start to nourish the shoulder joints, which will then reward you with increased mobility.
You can do these at your desk regularly throughout the day, I don’t advise doing them in the car..
Keeping the rib cage and thoracic vertebrae mobile is paramount to spinal health. This is the region that should have most rotational movement, but it is the area that suffers a lot from compressive postures.
This can be done in a seated position (at your desk, feet flat on the floor); with correct shoulder blade positioning, and hands on your thighs, keeping the pelvis pointing forward, rotate/turn the shoulders to the left slowly, and then to the right. DO NOT fling your head around to trick your body into thinking it is turning!! This might need to be a very small movement initially, but again, take an inventory of how the body feels to the left compared to the right, take notice of where it feels sticky and keep asking it to move. Keep nourishing the body with controlled movement.
Our hips are like that annoying aunt who we try and forget about most of the time, but who come into our lives periodically, shrieking and protesting about neglect, abuse and over work.
As riders, the hips are a crucial part of our ability to sit in the saddle in a dignified way, yet we mistreat and abuse them and only remember about them when they clobber us with debilitating pain.
The great news is that you don’t have to be a gymnast to achieve hips that function a bit better. The key is small, controlled movements that are performed repetitively. If you can think about movement in nutrition terms, the micro (small) nutrients are the ones that keep the system functioning at its best. Small, controlled movement provides the same nourishment for our joints.
Standing with feet hip width apart and shoulder blades together and slightly lowered, bend one knee and lift it up in front of you to hip height. Circle the knee outwards, away from the body, complete the circle and bring the foot back down to where it started. Repeat on each side 6 times.
Try and do this regularly throughout the day, if you have a desk job, aim to do some sort of movement for 10 mins out of each hour. This can be divided up into regular minute breaks or larger chunks of time, depending on how you can make it work. Sometimes it helps to set a reminder on your phone that it is time to move. Implementing change is always easier if it is small to start with, and you will be surprised at how small things do add up to great advantages.
You ARE how you MOVE
Move Well to Ride Well