You gotta move!


It‘s crazy to think that doctors once used to prescribe cigarette smoking to help with respiratory problems. Some doctors believed illness came from dust, germs and lack of menthol and that cigarettes were the cure! Nowadays, we look at that advice and laugh. A sad, ironic laugh admittedly, but a laugh nonetheless! It’s hard to make sense of how slowly society moved towards fully acknowledging the dangers of cigarette smoking. After all, we would never be so slow to listen when scientists bring us clear unequivocal warnings about health today!

We wouldn’t, would we?

What we are learning about movement.

As recently as the 1980s and 1990s doctors used to prescribe bed rest for people with lower back pain and other spinal problems. Unfortunately, the practice continued for some time even after it was discovered that bed rest resulted in a 1% loss of muscle strength per day. The wonders of compounding interest would often leave people with more pain and a much weaker spine after following their doctor’s advice of two or more weeks of bed rest.

The warning has been out there for some time now, that it’s not just people with acute spinal injuries that need to be wary of inactivity. Prolonged sitting In particular has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some types of cancer. Underlying these increased disease risks is a decrease in metabolic rate and an increase in insulin resistance and inflammation. No wonder many now call prolonged sitting “The new smoking”.

Most of us know the obvious reasons why movement is so essential for spinal health. It helps to keep the muscles, ligaments, and joints of the spine strong and flexible and it also increases blood flow to the spine and the surrounding tissues. But this is only half the answer.

Movement and the Brain.

Increasingly, movement is coming to be recognised as a nutrient in and of itself. Every time you move you fire off sensory nerve endings which report changes in alignment, tension and loading to the brain. Unique and interesting movement patterns stimulate the brain in unique and interesting ways. A poor movement diet is as detrimental to your neurological health as a poor food diet is to your metabolic health.

Movements that you do not practice regularly, become tricky for your brain to coordinate safely.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

Imagine that you learned to drive a manual car but that was many years ago and now you haven’t driven a manual for a couple of decades. How safe would you feel if you were asked to drive a stick shift manual car through Sydney peak hour traffic?

What would make it feel so unsafe? I mean, you have the strength to depress the clutch and move the gear stick so it’s not about strength. You have the flexibility to move the clutch and gear stick so it’s not about flexibility. What you would lack is ready access to the coordinated movement patterns that you haven’t used in decades.

In all likelihood, your timing will be off and your coordination between the clutch and gear stick will be clunky. It wouldn’t surprise you if stalled at the lights and then bunny-hopped your way into the Mercedes Benz in front of you. Ouch!

Now let’s take a spine that is only used to sitting, bending slightly to put on socks and occasionally reaching up to grab a coffee mug out of the cupboard. Let’s ask that spine to bend sideways and twist far enough to pick up a paper clip that has bounced on the floor and landed just behind your left foot. As you start to move, the brain begins to scramble looking for some movement programs to run that will control your spine through this movement it hasn’t explored in many months. Thankfully, most of the time the brain will take a stab at it and end up with a movement sequence that works well enough.

But not always.

In the worst-case scenario, the nervous system can fail to recruit the right muscles at the right time and in the right sequence. Suddenly your discs are exposed to loads beyond their tolerance. I’m sure you’ve heard of cases where someone bent forward to pick up a _____ (insert something small here; paper clip, sock, fork, etc) and their back seized up with excruciating pain. It happens every day.

The not-so-entirely-safe safety protocol.

A more common scenario is when the spine starts to bend, the brain scrambles to find an appropriate motor program to run, doesn’t find one and instead defaults to its safety protocol.

Now the ideal and appropriate protocol would be a motor program that matches exactly the movement you are attempting. When your nervous system runs this program it will tension exactly the right muscles by exactly the right amount in exactly the right sequence for exactly the right duration. Joints are loaded evenly as they are taken through smooth trajectories of movement and you pick the paper clip up with elegant precision. Well done to you!

The default safety protocol is nothing like this.

When the brain can’t find an ideal protocol, it instead runs the default protocol which is “JUST TIGHTEN EVERYTHING YOU CAN. NOW. QUICKLY”. Unfortunately, the more often your nervous system has to run this default protocol, the more likely you are to end the day feeling fatigued and sore with muscles that feel like rocks.

You can watch my 3-minute video on “What the Spirit of Tasmania Taught Me About Balance and Muscle Tension”

Having someone rub your shoulders is a brilliant idea but you may need something more. Let’s explore some options.

What to do?

Take a good look at your movement diet. How often do you take your spine through interesting ranges of motion that involve twisting and bending movements which load your spine in novel ways? If your movement diet is the equivalent of plain white bread, try adding some yoga, Pilates or dance each day. (This is the yoga routine I use to start my day – though I mix up the breathing patterns I pair them with it for some really interesting effects.)

How often do you deliberately tax your balance systems? Not much huh! Okay, starting tonight, at the very least, brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand while standing on one leg. Let’s wake those body-coordinating balance systems up!)

If you’re a little behind on your adjustments, consider seeing your chiropractor make sure your body has joints that are capable of moving through generous and interesting ranges of motion. This will nourish your brain with all that delicious and novel stimulation. Jammed joints move and report very little and deprive the brain of essential information about where the body is in space. Jammed joints represent a form of neurological starvation (the “science” term is dysafferentation for those of you that are into that sort of thing1).

If you think your movement control systems might be operating a little below par, ask your chiropractor to run you through a Fukuda step test and a gaze stability test. These are easily performed tests and are good starting points to assess the efficiency of your motor control systems.

Until next time, as Sam Cooke used to sing; You Gotta Move!

Grab Sam Cooke’s “You gotta move song here”

Interested in learning more about the intimate relationship between movement and nervous system health? Have a listen to “The Real Reason We Have Brains” 

Dr Keiran Shanahan.


Healthspace Oatley

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