Expand Your Range of Motion

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In the manual therapy world we use the term: (pretty self-explanatory) 'range of motion'.

ROM. It refers to an assessment of how far within an optimum range a person can express flexibility: turning of the head, shoulder or hip rotations, side bending, touching the toes, etc. We are born with maximum, almost hyper, flexibility, as a function of curling up in the womb. Out of necessity, we do lose that to some degree, so muscles and joints can be strong enough to carry us upright.

The sad fact is that as we get older, many of us tend to lose a great deal of our range of motion. We chalk it up to aging, but truthfully, flexibility is something that needs to be and can be cultivated regularly. When our own voluntary movements lose variety, and when we limit our actions to only what modern living demands of us (which is far too little) we lose our ability, as well as desire to stretch beyond what becomes physical boundaries.

Whaddya know? There's that 'comfort zone' theme again! The problem is, it's only comfortable for so long. Like until you find yourself wanting to do something that used to be effortless. Challenge that zone and we are given a quick, and often painful reminder of where our ROM begins and ends.

Limited range of motion is not always due to limited challenging activity. It can also be a by-product of injury, or trauma (physical or emotional). But the end result is the same. Hesitation and fear around re-experiencing pain or injury keeps our movements small and safe... back injuries are a prime example of this. Often a majority of the back discomfort that lingers after an injury is a result of 'protecting' the back by limiting its movement.

Yes, that's right ... lack of movement is a prime contributor to pain and stiffness. And, here's the thing... it also sets the stage for further injury.

I'd like to offer the visual of a circle... the ROM, the comfort zone. We all have one to some degree that we dwell within. After all, certain limitations are necessary to exist in a physical body. The question is how wide of a diameter is that circle? Or how tight? To expand one's ROM is to open up that circle a little wider... creating space, more freedom of movement and more range of possibilities.

So, how do we widen that circle.. both in body and in mind?

  • Identify the circle. Where do you feel limited? What do notice that feels stiff, stuck, challenging? What do you have hesitation, fear, anxiety, defensiveness around? What is an activity that was once effortless, but now seems too scary to consider? Where do you feel you may be in a rut?

  • Choose one area in which you'd like to expand your ROM. Has it been a while since you could easily touch your toes? Or how about that one yoga asana that's been eluding you? What about a life goal? A person you've been meaning to speak to, a different way of accomplishing your professional tasks? I suggest here, if ROM stretching is something new to you, to start small. Injuries and rejections can be painful, discouraging and counterproductive, while successes will fuel your courage.

  • Set an intention to be open to any opportunities for movement. Sitting in an office chair all day? I email myself periodic reminders to get up and move. Whatever form that may take, for example, stretching while reading emails. Setting an intention can also create a subconscious alarm, like when you find yourself retreating into a typical 'comfort zone' situation, a little nagging voice will say, 'Psst! This would be a great time to ask that cute guy out," or "Now would be a perfect time to say 'no', I will not cover your butt to the boss this time."
  • Gather a support system. Our biggest obstacles dwell in our own heads. We know this. Widening the comfort circle, no matter how incrementally, requires impetus, if not outright courage. Having steady encouragement will keep us on our path. In bodywork terms, having a therapist who can bring greater awareness to how your body responds, as well as offering concrete techniques such as assisted stretching, can bring you further than you could go alone.

  • Listen to your body. View its signals as allies. Symptoms of discomfort tell us we're bumping up against those boundaries, which is good to know. It is also useful to invoke patience here, compassion with oneself, and to question what really lies beneath the fears. What are really afraid will happen if we step over the line? Sometimes just asking the question allows for openness.

  • Just to reiterate, have patience. Discomfort is one thing... outright pain is another. Taking on too much may be exhilarating at first, but you'll probably pay for it later. Muscles will contract and defense mechanisms will solidify even harder if pushed too quickly. However, by the same token, sometimes taking big risky leaps is just what we need to do. Remember that support system? Rely on them for feedback, moral support, and if necessary, help in recuperating.

A phrase was given to me is shiatsu school that I will pass along to you: "Encourage movement. Respect boundaries."

Good rule of thumb, I say.

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