Getting smaller on Hilton Head: A movement analyst reflects on a fitness class

18 Mar Getting smaller on Hilton Head: A movement analyst reflects on a fitness class

On a recent winter break to Hilton Head Island, I participated in a fitness class. The 50-something female instructor, taught a fast, vigorous, complex class advertised for “healthy” seniors. The room was fine if a little too warm, with a sprung floor, mirrors and no windows. It was clean, well set up and equipped with fans, chairs, balls, bands, and free weights. Of 15 bodies in the room, two were men.

The instructor moved quickly from one combination to another. She managed her music well through a series of standing and sitting combinations. She supported a wide range of abilities by offering modifications on the fly. I reflected on the tempo of the class and the experience it created. Do we want our exercise students to learn the combinations or just follow along mindlessly? Do we want them to move well or just move?

Everyone struggled to keep up, including me at times. There was no time to settle into one sequence before the next challenge was presented. We did a variety of kicking and punching movements, forward of the body which are fairly easy to do to a quick tempo. The big arcing movements of the limbs, however, needed more time and space but had to be rushed to fit the same music.

And what about doing too much of the same thing? My hip joint flexors started to seize up from doing a lot of kicking forward without a break. Varying the combination using multiple joint functions and spatial change would mean breaking that fast tempo. On the plus side, varying the use of our joints provides R & R and avoids overuse.

I observed other movers in the class, gesturing out away from the body but never really reaching through the whole limb. It takes longer to reach away from the body than to pull toward the body. If the movement is too fast, the elbows and knees cannot use the full ROM for which they are designed. When the connective tissue or fascia surrounding those joints doesn’t get fully used, the space we occupy gets a little smaller and more compact. This is why we seem to get smaller as we get older.

We were game to keep up with the instructor and the music. It’s the herd instinct. What did we take away? What’s the value here? The priority it seemed was keeping us moving, and it worked. Should we be retaining the combinations? Every learned combination is a movement pattern that gets stored in the brain. We build our motor patterns through practice. However, movement performed too quickly does not get stored because the brain is just trying to keep up; it can’t embed the material.

These classes are fast because instructors and the public believe that speed is important to get results and keep us moving. But we then become automatons that struggle to follow the instructor, forget the combinations and shrink our bodies with each incomplete gesture. We take nothing away but sweat. Later that day, I enjoyed the exquisite movement of wild dolphins, perfectly suited to their environment and their body shape, with no need for fitness classes.