Creatures of Habit

Like other animals, we all develop habitual movement patterns. We form favorite sleeping positions, favored limbs for fine motor skills, maybe we tend to shift our weight onto the right hip, or we might chew our food mostly on the left molars. Movement habits are awesome when they help us hone complicated skills, becoming more coordinated and efficient with movements we do a lot. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned in my years as a massage therapist, it’s that our most frequent, repetitive movements shape our bodies for better and for worse. So when we end up with pain or injuries that seemed to come from nowhere, we can usually look to the imbalance created in our bodies from our most common movements.

The good news is that we can learn better posture and alignment habits to help relieve our pain and sustain our bodies, preventing further or future injury. In the same way we train our bodies to perform specific movements to play sports or musical instruments, to dance or write in cursive, we can train ourselves to use better posture and alignment in our everyday lives. When we practice our form, day after day, eventually what was once strange and new will feel natural. But the hardest part sometimes can be actually doing the work. Maybe we struggle to find time. Maybe we simply forget. I’m going to share some strategies that help me incorporate healthy movement habits into my life to help balance out the repetitive activities I already do all the time.

1. Add on to an existing routine.

Every morning I comb my hair and brush my teeth. I never forget, and I always make time to do this. So I’ve added a couple pieces to this routine, and I know I won’t forget to do them either. Next to my toothbrush, I keep a small, round rock that I use to give myself a short foot massage every morning (described in an earlier post). I also keep a “half dome” bolster in the bathroom so I can stretch my calves. There are so many things I do every single day! I eat food, I go to the toilet. I wash dishes and do house chores. I walk my dog. These daily tasks make up my life! So I try to turn them into opportunities for movement. Toweling off after showers becomes a moment to practice single legged balance, and cleaning the floor is a time to work on my hip hinge as I bend over. Not only does this create more time for self care but I feel like I spend more of my time invested in something meaningful.

2. Enjoy yourself.

It is so much easier to get motivated to do something if it’s fun to do. For this reason, I like to keep some really yummy movement practices in my repertoire. For example, most mornings before I head out or become occupied by other things, I will lie down on the ground and do some delicious spinal twisting, shoulder stretches, or upper back moves. Other times, it’s knowing how good I’ll feel afterwards that rouses me into action. I may look out the window at the blowing, rainy sky and hesitate to head out on a walk, but keeping in mind how nice it will feel once I get going, I find the courage to get outside. Rather than spending time feeling guilty about all the times I’m not being mindful about my movement, I try to celebrate the times I do move because that’s more likely to encourage me to keep going.

3. Take advantage of idle moments.

A common practice these days is to fill any idle moments with phone time. Since we all know we ought to spend less time on our phones, we can use this as another opportunity for mindful movement. If I’m feeling a little self conscious of those around me waiting in line or sitting in a reception room, I might practice standing on one leg (with my eyes closed!) or do some gentle neck stretches. When I realize no one cares what I’m doing, or a little movement gets me excited to do more, I go for hamstring stretches, doorway reaches, and maybe some lunges. I might find that suddenly I’m not waiting anymore!

Sometimes self care is also just doing nothing. Sometimes I simply don’t pick up my phone, don’t mentally run through my to-do list. I might look off into the distance. I might take time to observe. I might just be.

4. Do it with other people.

Perhaps the best way to develop new habits is to do them with friends. When I’ve got others who are counting on me to show up, I’m going to be there. I have much more fun doing things with others—I’m much more likely to commit to a new practice if I’ve got friends (or friendly strangers!) there. Sometimes it’s enough just to be able to talk with someone about my intentions, keep me working toward my goals. I try to surround myself with people I know will help motivate me. I find myself agreeing to things I wouldn’t otherwise have had the strength for, like an evening outside instead of on Netflix, or a polar plunge.

When our ancestors lived in the wild, much of their lifestyle and environment would have made sure they were moving in a variety of nourishing ways. But given the heightened amount of repetition in our modern lives, our health can benefit significantly from some intentional effort to balance the habitual pattern of our movements. With the right strategies, this can be enjoyable and meaningful work.