Resilience: A Functional Movement Expert on Staying Stronger, Longer

Posted on December 28, 2016 by Elf Jana There have been 0 comments

Resilience-Body-and-Sole-Essay

Softstar is proud to feature this guest essay by Jennifer Gwirtz, Mind/Body Professional, Facilitator and Teacher (Pilates, GYROKINESIS®, performance and therapeutic movement). Over her 15+ years of experience, Jennifer has delighted in exploring the relationship between mental and physical balance, particularly at the origin of stability: the foot. 

Understanding Resilience: Follow the Bouncing Ball...

Resilience has been on my mind a lot lately.

The word is generally used in two related but somewhat different ways. “Resilience” is the ability to recover after adversity. It is also the physical quality of an object that allows it to return to its original shape after being compressed or bent by outside forces. [1]

Resilience is the ability to “bounce back,” whether that means recovery from illness or the ability to move without becoming injured. Sometimes, when thinking about the human body, we use the terms “good health” or “fitness,” which, while they can, do not necessarily include resilience.

Changing direction slightly, here’s a simplified mental image that explains how resilience works in a nutshell; please bear with my description, and if necessary, check out the link below for an illustration. [2]

resiliance-bouncing-illustration

Imagine a ball falling to the floor. Slow it down in your mind’s eye so that you can see its impact. The floor is harder and more immobile than the ball, so as it makes contact, the floor compresses the ball into an ellipse with its top getting closer to its bottom. The ball gets flatter and flatter until it can’t compress any more because it is actually still traveling downwards, even as the lower surface has hit the ground and can go no further. The amount that it flattens depends on how strong and elastic it is and the speed that it travels. When it hits the point of full compression, there is a moment when it stops flattening and begins to re-inflate, which powers it back up from the floor, using the energy from its former compression to take off into the air. As it goes up, it becomes slightly elliptical vertically, so that its sides get closer and its top and bottom get farther away from each other with the top surface traveling away from the bottom. When it uses up the force of its rebound, something wonderful happens: it suspends for a fraction of an instant, as the bottom catches up to the top, continuing the cycle. It starts to drop to the ground, this time with the bottom moving slightly faster than the top.

In other words, gravity does cool things when it comes to a ball or a body moving through space. Gravity is in some ways a classic elephant in the room. It’s everywhere, and anyone who gets around with a body has to work with it in some way. We think of gravity as the thing that pulls everything down, but the story, as described in that image above, is so much more complex and definitely worth examining. [3]

Hold in your mind the moment of suspension at the top of this arc when the upper surface of the shape stops ascending and the bottom is still traveling upwards. That moment is when the burden of weight falls away thanks to gravity. As the top begins to fall and the bottom finishes its ascent, the object breathes back into its original shape. Just like this ball, a body that can recover a neutral position using gravity instead of muscle is able to stay stronger, healthier, and more free of injury over time.

Now imagine yourself as this ball as it bounces and how good it would feel to be that elastic and strong! Unfortunately, our bodies are much more complicated than a ball.

Resilience and the Human Body; Let's Work Together!

Resilience describes a whole rather than a series of parts. It’s relatively easy to talk about a simple system. One thing that this ball has going for it is its regular circular shape. It’s another thing entirely to rethink the human body as a potentially resilient system. Our bodies have structures that come in all kinds of shapes, piled onto other structures with different shapes, with a complicated system of joints that go every which way so that we can move in all directions, pick things up, look with our eyes, sit, lie down, get back up again, and so much more.

Take a moment now to simplify again and reimagine the human body as if it were a ball one more time. More accurately, we can imagine the body as a series of balls, all grouped together, bouncing against each other, off the floor, against walls, or wherever one thing touches another. Let’s take this mental picture for a walk . . .  It’s a pretty funny image, really, but it’s a good way to think about the potentials for HOW we walk, what moves first, what is descending, what is ascending, and how those processes help each other to move forward.

Resilience-and-the-Human-Body-Bouncing-Back

Take a moment again to stand and shift your weight from foot to foot. It’s a subtle thing, to tune into the feeling of the structures of the body descending, compressing, reversing, and suspending. While thinking about this idea, focus on your feet and how they keep the body upright as it moves. If we also think about the relative softness or hardness of our bodies, it’s even possible to feel the bouncing of our bones, which are not truly rigid. We rely on this complex bouncing arrangement from structure to structure. It’s tempting to think in terms of details--bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons--but for now, just think about the structure as a whole.

If we go deeper into the idea of the body as a complicated system of bouncing structures, imagine how, when one structure touches or hits another, not only is there a bounce but also a rebound and rhythm.

Let’s introduce the qualities of strength, endurance, and range of motion, which are generally considered to be the ingredients of good physical conditioning. The presence of these things doesn’t necessarily equal resilience. In fact, if one or more of these qualities is present but in the wrong proportions, then systemic resilience probably won’t happen.

Think of it this way. A foot and lower leg that have enough strength and endurance to do many heel lifts but not enough range of motion to be able to spread the toes or bend at the ankle can wind up getting injured because they will break rather than bend when faced with constant pressures that force them into a wider range of motion than they can handle. If another structure, say, the knees, overcompensates for the lack of movement in the foot and ankle, then the foot might be fine but the knee will become injured. If the foot and lower leg have good range of motion but there isn’t enough strength in the soft tissues and not enough endurance, then injury will also result--for instance, Achilles tendonitis. This happens a lot with people who transition to barefoot or minimal shoes too quickly.

Resilience and Mindfulness: Building the Mind-Body Connection

thinking-about-resilience-meditation

The fourth thing I’d like to introduce here is mindfulness, which lets us tune into whether we are in balance or not.

Take a break again for another quick walk around the space wherever you are. Notice what feels hard and what feels easy in your stride, how your feet feel on the ground or the floor. If you are in a place where you can do so, take your shoes off and compare how it feels to be both with and without footwear. Notice those moments of emotional feedback while you walk--stress, worry, joy--all of these are cues to let you know what your physical state is and how well your body is bouncing.

If strength, endurance and range of motion are in balance, not too much and not too little, and we can tune into the mental and emotional cues that keep us on track, then, within reason, it’s possible to think that bodies can adapt and even thrive in response to physical stress.

Coming back to anatomy, take a moment to think of the human body in terms of its structural integrity as a thing that can stand up efficiently, like a house, just to use that metaphor for a bit. The body is a single system, but it is also made up of many parts that all have to work together. What is on top places all of its weight on what is below. At the very bottom of everything are the feet, which not only have to bear the weight of the rest of the body but also have to be able to move us around. In some ways it would be so much easier if we were like houses or trees, which don’t need to go anywhere, because then our bottom structures could be a lot simpler:

The foot can be thought of as the primary foundational structure of the body.

The foot is both an adaptable base and a rigid lever because the body needs to stand and to move. It knows when to take on which role thanks to the nervous system and the beauty of its domed, twisted, bridge-like structure. There are situations in which the foot is not strong enough, not mobile enough, or not able to maintain a task for long enough, or when there are structural or neurological issues which create compensations or cause it not to know when to do what. In any of these cases, a foot will not be able to do its job, whether that is running, walking, or standing. As the weak link in the chain, it can’t pull its weight, so to speak. If the feet don’t work, the entire body suffers. [4]

When people walk, they place an enormous amount of weight onto the heel, the outside of the foot, the ball, and then the toes on each foot as they pass through one cycle of gait. If this is done without enough resilience, then there will be injury. If the structure of the foot is misaligned, whether that is due to a weak arch, stiff toes or ankles, or any number of other imbalances, then there is a lack of resilience in that part of the foot, and this causes problems that radiate up and out as the foot hits and rebounds from the floor, reverberating through the body.

Here’s one last set of movements to think about. Stand up without shoes and see if you can figure out which part of your foot is holding the most weight. It may seem a little foggy, which is fine, but stick with it and see if you can turn on the mindfulness that will give you the answer. Now shift your weight all the way onto your toes and notice how that feels. From your toes, shift to your heels. Now rock onto the outsides of both feet. Rock to the insides of both feet. Notice which is the easiest motion. Now shift back to a neutral place. See if you can get your weight directly over the arches of your feet with as little tension in the foot and ankle as you can achieve.

Take one more walk. See if your body feels different.

In short, our bodies are meant to bounce, but we can only do so when we achieve a complex integration of all the qualities that are necessary for health. This is what the human body should do, with healthy bare feet that can bear the weight of our bodies as they compress and rebound against the hardness of the earth.

[1] Resilience: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[2] Here is a visual example by an animation artist on conceptart.org who goes by the name of Mr. Ebony
[3] For more wonderful information on ground reaction force and the body, look at the work of Judith Aston
[4] For more information on the amazing, dynamic structure of the human foot, please see the collected works of kinesiologist Irene Dowd, especially Taking Root to Fly: Articles on Functional Anatomy, specifically “In Honor of the Foot.”

For more about the author, visit Right Brain PerformanceLab

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This post was posted in Foot Health, Running and was tagged with healthy feet, foot health, Walking, balance, proprioception, resilience, rebound, toughness, strength, flexibility, biomechanics, mind-body, physiology, gait, stride

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