Sunday, May 12, 2013

Exercise Ecology

Today I am going to start a blog about something I have been contemplating for quite some time - sparked into action by my fellow 90-day blog challengee(?), Kit.  (See HERE)

What this topic is, is the viewing of the body in physical culture and exercise as either a machine or a microcosm - or, from either a Newtonian-Cartesian (reductionist), classical physics, fundamental building block paradigm vs using a post-modern science, self-organizing systems (systems theory), cybernetic paradigm - and what affect/effect, implicitly or explicitly, adopting these world-views has on how we approach our training.

As Kit says in his books, there can be reasons for adopting either in particular circumstances, for efficiency and effectiveness, as he mentions in the 'Supervenience' blog post above.  I've seen this topic has been debated in philosophy of science and philosophy of medicine, but I have not seen too much in terms of exercise and physical training (highly likely it is out there, just that I haven't had contact with it).  

Much of the language and metaphor of physical training today, especially that of athletics, is that of a machine (Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm): we fuel our bodies; program our brains with skills, or our bodies 'break down'. But is this a useful image? 

What if we view our body as an ecosystem (or a microcosm as in the Daoist paradigm)? There is a lot of fascinating evidence from the mulch-disciplinary branches of science, that this could be more like the way the body works - gut bacterial ecology; psychoneuromimmunology; medical anthropology; human ecology, and so on..

What happens to an ecological body when it works out?  Well, firstly, this view allows us to see impact of an exercise session more generally; as Kit said today: "in complex systems, there can be no change at one level without a corresponding change in the subvening levels".

So exercise and movement will have effects upon the immune system, the nervous system and brain; the cardiovascular system; the myofascial system; the lymphatic and cerebrospinal fluid systems; and organ systems. 

On a practical level, I've been contemplating this from both perspectives, when viewing foam rolling and using balls and sticks to work with the soft tissues.

So, we may choose to view our body as a machine (a somewhat recalcitrant machine), that is broken and need 'fixing', or is not functioning optimally/as desired (in a somewhat schizophrenic starting point); and choose to do light, medium or aggressive repair on the un-perfect machine - the recalcitrance justifying the use of maximum pressure on the tissues(?).  This can certainly work well at a practical level (i.e the tissue changes state)!

In the ecological body model, we are trying to contact/dialogue with a highly complex, responsive and sensuous network of interlocking systems (our own biosphere); that responds well to low - medium pressures, and re-organizes at 'subvening levels, as well as the local tissue change, inflammation and resultant metabolic clean-up.  High pressure on the soft tissues can result in other systems being effective in a negative way - SNS response from the autonomic nervous system; limbic system and endocrine system interactions.

For me, the ecological/microcosm model is where it's at when I do soft tissue work with balls, rollers and sticks.  When you practice full body-mindfulness at the same time as doing the local rolling, you feel all types of interesting things happening all over the place. It's totally cool!  Again, this is obviously subjective; but you should seriously checking it out.  

I personally found that when I relax and use a medium level of object pressure on the soft tissues; wait and listen for the tissue absorbing/allowing the object it, and focused on slow, belly breathing and body-mindfulness - that I actually got superior results for less effort (and probably much less inflammation).  I also got a nice, relaxed parasympathetic feel and heightened body awareness afterwards - rather than feeling abused and sore.  Results get better and better with practice - as body skill increases. 

This doesn't mean not training hard (in strength and conditioning), obviously.  For me, it seems like a perfect yin-yang relationship.  You hit the strength work intensely (when you need to, but not every session or in a stupid, injurious way), and you chill the fuck out and roll your body in a smooth, relaxed and interoceptive way.  You don't need to pin your psoas with a 20-plate (there are intestines in there, too), or grind your tendons out of existence.  There are a lot of people who think you have to always train everything as hard as possible (insert proverb about brittle stick snapping and bamboo bending in the wind). 

It's a simple mode shift. Hard and soft in their correct places and correct doses.


  1. Nice topic. Actually my favourite topic.

    Here's something from yesterday:

    Here's something I wrote a year or two ago:

    What you're talking about with balls and rollers and breathing sounds like what you'd do if you were hanging around a lot in trees and on rocks, in between meals and foraging expeditions!

  2. Nice post!
    Not exactly interoceptive but related to mindfulness was something Steve Maxwell wrote:
    "At no time while performing the movement should you grimace, clench the jaw, close the eyes, nor make any unbecoming facial expression whatsoever. These are merely habitual indications of negative exerience, sparking off detrimental hormone secretions and, worse, offering no assistance in getting you over the bar!"

    So it strikes me that attitude ultimately can override the physical supervenience positively or detrimentally. i.e it cuts/flows both ways and can be hacked to accelerate an outcome. But you knew that :)


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