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Alleviating Aches and Pains through Fun and Games


Playing movement-based games invigorates the mind, body and soul and is a great way to get all the physical benefits of exercise without the mental stress of always having to count reps, sets and trying to improve one’s performance. The savvy personal trainer appreciates that clients enjoy these play-like activities and utilizes games in people’s workouts to motivate them to succeed. Unfortunately though, many clients have pain and movement restrictions that prevent them from engaging in these types of fun, free-form activities. However, this doesn’t need to remain the case. If you identify your client’s problematic musculoskeletal imbalances before you getting started with workouts that incorporate fun and games, you can integrate progressive corrective exercise strategies into these playful activities so that your programs actually correct movement dysfunction and alleviate pain as your clients exercise.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Learn the importance of having fun and playing games when establishing and maintaining a variety of movement patterns.
  2. Discover how our modern structured society can lead to a number of common musculoskeletal imbalances that can lead to aches and pains.
  3. Learn how to integrate corrective exercise strategies into fun games to help alleviate these common musculoskeletal imbalances.

Stop Playing Around

We grow up playing games to learn how to move and interact with our environment.  As we progress from crawling to walking and become more confident on two feet, we challenge our balance capabilities by running, skipping, hopping and climbing on different surfaces and over varying terrains.  As children, we also play games with various pieces of equipment, like catching and throwing balls or building huts and forts, to develop skills in how to use our body to manipulate other objects within the environment (Brown, 2009). These types of activities help improve our coordination and confidence.  Moreover, these loosely structured endeavors provide for freedom of movement, creativity of thought and the possibility to change the parameters of the game at any time.  All of these factors help ensure that moving our body is enjoyable and encourages exploration of the incredible capabilities we have as human beings.

 

 

As we grow older, society demands that we stop “playing around”. As we hop or skip down the street our parents instruct us to “walk properly” and stop “messing about’. We are told to wear our shoes and always walk on the sidewalk. At school, teachers state that we must sit quietly at our desks and not run through the halls in case we hurt ourselves while coaches train us in “proper technique”. While these parameters seem necessary to help us live in a structured society, they also stifle our creativity and limit our exploration of movement. 

The conveniences of modern life have also created an environment that no longer encourages movement and participation in somatic fun and games.  The routine use of computers, handheld communication devices and social media applications mean that we no longer communicate with each other in person. While it may seem as though we are interacting meaningfully with others through these devices, face-to-face communication requires the use of our body to communicate subtle, yet important body language cues to the other person. This vital form of motion has been replaced by text messages and emoticons to tell people how we feel while we sit motionless at our computer.  Furthermore, the proliferation of computer games and Internet-based free time activities means that we spend most of our day seated either at a computer, in our cars, or in front of a television. These constraints of modern society dictate that we limit our body’s potential and only move when it is absolutely necessary such as during an emergency or when performing structured exercise routines (Forencich, 2006). 

While hitting the gym seems to be a logical antidote to our heavily sedentary lifestyles, most gyms and health clubs are stacked to the brim with pieces of expensive equipment designed to put you in the best seated position possible to perform each exercise.  Most of these pieces of equipment limit integrated movement and restrict the user to the positions that are deemed “safe”. While this is important from a business liability standpoint, the gym goer no longer has to use their body to adapt to their environment as the environment is continually being adapted to them.  Compounding these gym equipment problems is the fact that a lot of premade exercise programs encourage people to perform multiple sets and reps of a few basic exercises. While this format enables the exerciser to become proficient at performing their set work out routine, it eventually leads to the body performing the same movement patterns time and time again and further limits the person’s mind and body potential (Chek, 2000).

 

Painful Adaptations

Inevitably, the movement restrictions and limitations described above lead to musculoskeletal imbalances, dysfunction and chronic muscle and joint pain. Since most of our time is spent seated with our hips constantly flexed, spines rounded forward and heads and eyes fixed in one position (focusing on desks, computers or television screens), our lower body ends up doing very little work because it is supported by a chair or sofa.  These postures and movements invariably stay the same day after day meaning that we no longer have to balance on our feet on a variety of surfaces, support and extend our spine or adjust to an ever changing environment. 

These common postural adaptations have led to a number of musculoskeletal imbalances that frequently affect a majority of the population. Overpronation (i.e., a collapsing inward of the feet and ankles) is a prevalent imbalance caused by weaknesses in the lower kinetic chain that can cause foot and ankle pain (Hill, 2008). Overpronation can also lead to an anterior pelvic tilt and excessive lumbar lordosis (characterized by a forward tipping pelvis, a flexed hip position and overly arched lower back) which can cause lower back pain (Rolf, 1989).  Furthermore, excessive thoracic kyphosis (i.e., a rounding of the upper back and shoulders which can result from many hours being seated and working on a computer) is an epidemic in today’s society which leads to upper back, neck, shoulder and arm pain (American Council on Exercise, 2010).  Each of these imbalances creates muscular and skeletal compensations throughout the body that can lead to chronic pain and a diminished quality of life.  Foot and ankle pain, creaky knees, achy backs, sore shoulders and tight necks create anxiety for clients and affect their ability to move with confidence.  Consequently, they further restrict their movements to avoid pain and stick to structured exercises where they feel they are safe from harm.  This means that dynamic, fun and a playful movement-based activity for them are out of the question…or does it? 

Corrective Games

People with aches and pains who seek the help of a qualified personal trainer generally understand that they need some type of corrective exercise service to help them improve their movement and alleviate their painful symptoms. However, a lot of these people (and their trainers) mistakenly believe that corrective exercise is all about lying on the floor with a foam roller and performing static stretches and isolated strengthening exercises. While the underlying premise of these strategies is extremely important to the success of any corrective exercise program, it isn’t the only way to approach the correction of movement restrictions and dysfunction. A personal trainer who is confident in applying integrated corrective exercise techniques can assess their client’s underlying musculoskeletal dysfunction and correct their imbalances and movement patterns as part of a fun and playful multifaceted workout program (Price, 2011).

Example 1:

As discussed previously, our structured modern society and the lack of variety in our movement patterns means that most of your clients will have issues with overpronation. The musculoskeletal compensations/balance issues that occur as a result of this collapsing of the foot/ankle (and the rest of their kinetic chain) can be addressed through a series of corrective exercises that engage the toes, feet, ankles, knees, legs, hips and torso while throwing a ball. If you determine that your client habitually overpronates, get them started on the path to correcting this problem with the following exercise series:

  1. Instruct your client to perform some self-myofascial release (SMR) work as part of their workout warm up. Examples of good exercise choices would be rolling the bottom of their foot with a golf ball, massaging their calves with a tennis ball, and foam rolling their hip flexors, glutes and front/sides of their legs.
  2. Teach the client how to engage the muscles of their foot by performing the “Big Toe Pushdown” exercise which requires them to press their big toe into the ground to activate the muscles and arches of their feet (see video below for example).
  3. Let the games begin! Ask your client try to balance on their right foot (engaging their big toe) while standing with their left side turned toward you.   They may require a balance aid at first to ensure that they can balance correctly with their right hip stacked on top of their right leg and their right foot not collapsing. Once they are able to maintain balance on their own, increase the distance between you and toss them a ball. The object is for them to be able to catch the ball over their head and throw if back to you while staying balanced on their right leg. As they throw the ball across their right foot encourage them to use their big toe (by pushing it down) to prevent their foot from collapsing too much as they throw the ball. Progress this activity moving further away from your client and suggesting that they try it in bare feet. Don’t count reps and/or sets. When your client feels confident that they are mastering the technique they will begin to enjoy the movement. Stop while they are still having fun and perform the same movement on the other side.

This activity integrates movement of the feet, ankles, legs and hips whereby the body must learn to decelerate the movement of throwing a ball in order to be able to perform the exercise successfully. It helps the body learn how to accept and transfer weight without overpronating and also introduces some fun and play into client workouts.

Example 2:

Prolonged sitting postures mean that most of your clients will also lack the ability to extend their hips, legs and spine.  As these imbalances are common causes of many aches and pains, it is a great idea to help clients correct them with the fun activity described below.

  1. Instruct your client to perform some SMR work as part their workout warm up. Examples of good choices would include the exercises described in Example 1, especially foam rolling the hip flexors, as well as adding some tennis ball SMR for the abdominals, upper back and shoulders.
  2. Have the client practice stepping backward and raising their arm (using the same arm and leg on one side). Check to see that their back foot is straight when it lands (i.e., not turned out) to ensure that they are moving into correct hip and knee extension.
  3. Once they are warmed up and understand the desired movement pattern, let the games begin! As they step backward and raise their arm, stand in front of them, toss them a ball and have them throw it back as they step forward again. As they progress, you can toss the ball higher to increase the challenge.

This exercise promotes extension in the knee, hips and spine and even dorsiflexion in the ankle. It’s a fun and easy way to undo the harm done by sitting down all day.

Demonstrations of how to integrate these fun and playful corrective exercise games into your personal training programs are highlighted in the video clip below.

As you integrate these exercises into your personal training programs, remember that your client may have multiple problems and far-reaching movement dysfunction.  Progress these clients slowly to ensure you do not make their problems worse or cause them pain and shake their confidence in your corrective exercise program design skills.

Conclusion

Understanding and applying strategic musculoskeletal assessments into your client intake procedures will enable you to identify your client’s movement imbalances at the initial stages of their program. Armed with this information, and the appropriate corrective exercise knowledge, you can help correct their imbalances and alleviate their aches and pains all while keeping your clients engaged and enjoying fun and playful workout sessions.

References:

American Council on Exercise.  2010.  ACE Personal Trainer Manual (Fourth Edition). American Council on Exercise. 

Hill, C. et al. 2008. Prevalence and Correlates of Foot Pain in a Population-based Study. Journal of Foot and Ankle Research: July.

Price, J. 2011. The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Educational Program (Level Two). The BioMechanics Press. 

Rolf, I. P. 1989. Rolfing: Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being (revised edition). Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

Brown, Stuart. 2009. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin. 

Chek, Paul. 2000. Pattern Overload: Part 1.. Featured article on Personal Training on the Net. www.ptonthenet.com

Forencich, F. 2006. Exuberant Animal: The Power of Health, Play and Joyful Movement. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House Publishing.