changing patterns takes time

If I asked you to balance on one foot right now (and that is something your body is able to accommodate)– which foot would you pick up?

When you reach up to open a cabinet, which arm do you use?

Do your shoes wear more on the inside, or the outside of the soles?

These aren’t likely things that you have to think about, but patterns that are long-established in your body. For example, my brain feels more confident stepping with my right leg and reaching right arm– they’re stronger and more dextrous. It also knows that my balance is stronger on my left foot– since breaking my right big toe 25 years ago, my right foot doesn’t have the same strength or mobility.

These engrained patterns of movement occur through simple pathways in the brain stem called central pattern generators. Their job is to generate reflexive movement– that is, movement you don’t need to think about. You might think of these as neurological or physiological shortcuts– the easiest way for our body to get from A to B with the minimal amount of physical and mental energy expended.

In repeating the same patterns, I’m reinforcing those deep neural pathways, making it more likely I will continue to use them in the same way. I’m also denying myself the experience of other patterns. In my body, this means that my left leg is likely to continue to be weaker than my right; my left arm less dextrous than my right (and my left latissimus dorsi does not stretch as comfortably or easily as my right!); and my left foot will always be my go-to for demonstrating a balancing pose.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” -Henry Ford

Our familiar patterns aren’t necessarily bad, but we there’s a consequence to limiting or movements. Over time, sticking to our familiar patterns can mean that our body starts to shut down access to other patterns. This can be neurological or physiological– neuronal pathways close down, or the tissue itself changes so that we’re not able to move in as many ways. This often happens so gradually that we don’t notice we’ve “lost” a movement until we attempt it. “I used to be able to do that,” we think, or, “man, it sucks getting older.”

Changing these reflexive patterns takes time and a certain amount of diligence. Sometimes it’s a case of having to remind ourselves to do something differently– for example, I have to make an active effort to open a cupboard with my left hand. If we’re dealing with physiological changes, we might have to engage in more physical effort to create tissue change as we “rewire” the brain. There are many ways to approach this (with my clients, I use the Functional Range Conditioning System/Kinstretch to teach the body and brain how to work together to create the desired movement).

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at the frustration that comes from trying to change patterns, and how we can leverage that to our own advantage. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Can you think of an engrained pattern in your body– perhaps it’s something that’s just a habit, or the result of a long-ago injury? Have you tried to change it? What was that experience like?

4 thoughts on “changing patterns takes time

  1. Laura, Aristotle said we are indeed creatures of habit. Charles DuHigg wrote a great book called “Habit” where he discussed replacing bad habits with better ones. The key is to determine the trigger and alter what happens next. A top of mind example is an overweight person at work would take a restroom break which took her past the breakroom. So, she ended up eating a snack on the way back every time. Once she knew the trigger, she started walking a different way and avoided the unneeded snack.

    As for working out, it does make sense to vary the routine, so that you do not make too routine the exercise. I call this “phoning it in.” When I do this, I chastise myself saying don’t cheat the exercise, as you are only cheating yourself. Keith

  2. Fun article. I am left handed and as a lefty I entered a right-handed life. Simple things like scissors, ladles, desks with desk built into a chair and then sonography rooms (which were stuck into vacated offices or storage rooms- ALL designed for a right handed person. It was a good thing, weird ways of holding certain things, but left our imaginations open. Ultrasound was a plus in the old time 1970s, I quickly learned to use my right hand and could do much better scanning right handed and handling the keyboard, and phone with my left. On portables I could enter a room and scan left or right handed whichever involved the least intrusion to the patient. Ladles started to have the little dipper part on both sides. I miss scanning because when I left, I started losing that ambidexterity. I open cabinets, etc with one hand, the easiest and pull out stuff with the other. But, darn, I eat and brush my teeth with my left and when I try right, it’s too hard. Next article do we get homework to place our dominant arm in a sling all day? Feet vary, numerous sprains on ankles, mostly left, ignoring injuries too long due to stubbornness have made the balance change from side to side depending. My Kinstretch practices really help, but, I only have the initial training from you, but, it has made AMAZING progress for me with ROM. Thanks for another great article, Laura.

  3. Laura,

    My 40 year jogging habit came to a surprising halt at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Running was some thing I didn’t think about doing as I headed out each morning for a 3-6 mile run at the same time of day, running the same route. This past year has distracted and depleted me to the point that my yoga practice has also suffered.
    One of the gifts that has come from this Covid year has been the opportunity to work with you 1 to 1. Every time we meet you ask how I’m feeling (and get way too much information) then you mindfully begin asking me to move with the body I’ve got. You always surprise me with your knowledge and attention to the issues I’m working with, all the while making exercise playful and fun …not at all the routine I’m used to.
    I leave our time together feeling stronger and more grounded than when I arrived. This feeling stays with me for days.
    You’ve breathe new life into mine and I’m a better person for knowing you.

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