Anti-Exercise for the Older and Wiser

By Frank Wildman, Ph.D.

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The older we get, the more clever we must become. As we age, it is more important to use our bodies more efficiently. We must improve our quality and ease of motion, our coordination, our sense of balance, control and comfort. After a certain age, our bodily wisdom tells us it's too difficult to slam our bones, strain our muscles, and do the things we used to do with will power and brute strength. However, there is little available in our culture to help us learn to reduce stress while increasing muscular efficiency in a pleasurable and comfortable manner. Because of this, it is not natural for people in their 50's, 60's, 70's and older to explore new ways of moving.

Old age, for most people, is a time of increasing physical discomfort, stiffness, and fatigue. Everyday activities like walking up a flight of stairs or carrying groceries becomes more and more difficult. To counteract the process of apparent bodily decline, it is frequently recommended that older persons perform traditional forms of exercise designed to strengthen muscles or increase endurance. This not only seems sensible and obvious, but contemporary research points to the benefits of strengthening, flexibility, and endurance exercises for the elderly patient. But traditional exercise programs often involve a degree of strain, fatigue and regimen that most older people are unwilling to partake in. A seventy-year-old woman who has difficulty with degenerative joint disease is neither ready for nor enthusiastic about jogging or weightlifting.

An infant's body and its capabilities are quite different from those of a five-year old, or a teenager, or a 40-year old. However, most people continue through life with the same movement patterns that were self-taught in the years between birth and the point at which one considered his or her mobility to be satisfactory enough to do whatever one wanted to do to get around in the world (i.e., walk, run). If an individual was interested in athletics, further training would be undertaken but often with little regard for how the body actually works, such that success at sports was usually understood to be the result of talent and hard work, rather than wisdom about how to use the body efficiently.

If one proceeds through life with the same set of movement patterns that were developed and codified at age three, it isn't surprising that eventually those neurological habits will no longer be applicable to a changed body. As the patterns seem to become less efficient, the main route that we usually proscribe for ourselves to deal with this is to try harder to ingrain these patterns. And we attempt to do this with whatever knowledge we have on the subject of somatic alteration, which, for many of us, is quite limited.

The Feldenkrais® Method offers a thorough application of current models of dynamic systems approaches to motor learning and motor control. In Feldenkrais movement lessons, the student recreates the childhood experience of learning to organize and control all the body's movements; including all aspects of interacting with the environment and what one has to do to move through that environment. The Method provides an innovative and exciting movement program that can quickly enhance your ease of movement, flexibility, relaxation, and posture faster and further than any form of conventional exercise.

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Awareness Through Movement® lessons are an excellent course of study in focusing our awareness on how we move. Dr. Feldenkrais has systematized the process of paying attention; a rare and necessary element in the process of growth and change. Awareness Through Movement lessons begin with the proposition that correct movement is movement with minimal effort, and that most people have learned to move incorrectly by straining with more than the needed effort to do what is required. Awareness Through Movement lessons are therefore designed to call into awareness the basic movement habits that cause stress, and then to systematically release the body into more effortless motion.

For example, when most people, especially the elderly, move from a lying to a sitting position, whether in bed or on the floor, they strain their abdominal and neck muscles. A Feldenkrais teacher retrains student to sit up by first becoming aware of exactly how they strain and where the focus of tension is, and then by altering the dynamic pattern of the movement, so as to reduce fatigue. Rather than repeatedly doing sit-ups, a person learns how they sit up and how many different ways they can sit up, while learning how to sit with less effort.

At a movement program for older adults presented through the University of California, I introduced students to the gentle and intriguing Awareness Through Movement lessons developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. The results were astonishing. The majority of the people in the class believed their physical limitations and difficulties were the inevitable result of aging. They had a self-image of pains that don't improve, rigidities, and movement limitations. They had come to the class with the idea of exercising their limited bodies to develop enough strength and flexibility to continue on, but continue on within the same essential body image. Instead of straining, groaning, and stretching, they learned stress-free interesting movements that were easy to do and, most importantly, changed the way they understood and used their bodies.

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There were striking changes during the course of the program. In the first class many participants needed help getting to the floor and even more needed help in standing. Lying flat on the firm floor was a painful experience for many. By the tenth class, people simply got down to the floor and up by themselves. During class, they lay flat on their backs without pain, some for the first time in decades.

The results of this class reached beyond improved posture and muscular efficiency. The students of this Feldenkrais® course gained an awareness of how to use their bodies better. They were able to perform tasks previously accomplished with much force but little skill, for example, standing up from a chair. It does not take much leg strength if done properly, if there is an understanding of the relationship of legs to back to pelvis to shoulders to head. However, if someone does not have a clearly felt image of the relationship between body parts, it can be an extraordinarily difficult task. The less information we have about how to coordinate a simple action, like standing from a chair, the more effort it takes.

Some people had stopped going out alone because they feared they would tire or lose their balance or not be able to get up from sitting without asking for help from a stranger. When they learned how to get out of a chair in a balanced, smooth fashion, they were amazed. Some cried. The world had opened up to them again.

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While anyone would benefit from learning how to sit up more efficiently, it is older people who need such training the most. As strength and stamina decline, it is necessary to learn how to make the best use of available energy. To address the needs of the older population, and the therapists that are dedicated to working with them, I have developed an extensive program in innovative movement strategies for older adults. This program includes discussion and participatory movement lessons designed to teach therapists to apply Feldenkrais® principles to their work with older patients. As an accompaniment to these courses, a series of video tapes featuring Awareness Through Movement Lessons designed specifically for older adults makes these fascinating movement techniques available for instruction and home use. It is my sincere hope that these revolutionary teaching tools will introduce new ways of moving, and thinking about moving to a community that can benefit immeasurably from their proven success.

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