The human body is a remarkably sophisticated organism. It finds a way to do what we ask of it, even if facing constraints. I read recently about a man who was born with no arms, who learned how to paint using his toes. That’s an extreme example, but illustrative of the power of the human body. And also, the human mind.
Scientists mapped his brain and discovered that his brain maps functions for specific toes. Most human brains map functions for specific fingers, but not toes. His brain adapted based on his body’s needs and usage.
I thought this was fascinating.
Anyway, the point is: he body adapts to how we use it — or don’t use it.
An Example of How the Body Adapts
Here’s a more common example of how the body adapts.
If we habitually hunch over our desks or phones, the body develops rounded shoulders and a hunched spine, and tight hips. It assumes we no longer need to use the muscles in our backs and in the back of our shoulders, or our glutes or hip flexors, because we don’t try to sit up straight and keep our shoulders back and we don’t stand up and walk around enough. Those muscles atrophy and become weak. Or they might feel “tight” — because they’re weak.
When we try to use our back muscles, the muscles at the front of our body might try to take over, or our back muscles might feel a sensation, because we haven’t turned them on in a while. We might interpret that sensation as danger, and call it pain. When we feel “pain,” we shut down the areas of pain to protect ourselves.
This is how we create a vicious cycle that reinforces the habit of staying away from using certain muscles.
How to Fix the Imbalance
Doing an yoga every day might start to reverse the curve in the spine, open the shoulders, and release the hips. Weight training can help us strengthen the muscles in the posterior chain (the back of the body) so that we can support the opening in the front of the body.
The Catch: You Must Untrain the Bad Habit
Here’s the catch: the physical training works to some extent, but for it to really take root, we must create a new way of working and moving that doesn’t involve hunching over.
If we leave the gym or the yoga studio and go back to the same way of working, we just continue to reinforce the old pattern. We don’t give our bodies a chance to adapt to a new way.
Trust me on this — I have tested it for you. You can’t reverse years or habitual postural behavior by the physical exercise alone. It doesn’t work unless you also change the underlying postural habit.
Don’t get me wrong: the time we spend exercising and moving to counter the effects of the bad postural habits is better than nothing. But it’s only one part of the puzzle. There are also emotional, social, and environmental considerations here
To reverse the bad habit, you must untrain the previous way of doing things as much as you train the new way of doing things.
(To be clear, your “previous way of doing things” includes physical, emotional, social, and mental factors.)