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Improve Your Mobility for Better Fitness

Could a complete biomechanical analysis help you stay active longer?

By Kris Herndon

Last December, I got rear-ended in traffic. Shortly after that, my ex-boyfriend joined my gym. These two unfortunate events, happening quickly, made me wonder if the universe might be sending me a sign: Was it time to change my workout?

A pilates class. Next Avenue, improve mobility, how you move lab
Low-impact workouts like pilates and barre have deep roots in injury recovery, and can be both restorative and athletic  |  Credit: Getty

At 50, I'd already been questioning my exercise routine.

Little did I know that less than a year later, I'd be getting a full biomechanical workup using technology pioneered for elite athletes at a state-of-the-art movement lab. But more on that later.

At 50, I'd already been questioning my exercise routine. A dedicated runner since college and a hardcore devotee of boxing-based training since my mid-forties, I'd noticed it was taking me longer to recover from minor injuries like plantar fasciitis or a twisted ankle. 

In addition, regular activities, like driving and desk work, sometimes left me stiff and sore. Then came the fender-bender and classic whiplash symptoms:

  • A sharp, intermittent throb at the base of my skull
  • Numbness in my fingers
  • Sudden stabs of pain from simple movements like turning my head or raising my arms

The pain often woke me in the middle of the night or left me unable to sleep. I'm lucky to say it was my first real experience with chronic pain. I saw a specialist who took X-rays and prescribed painkillers and physical therapy.

He also told me something that surprised me: While treatment for whiplash once involved immobilizing the head and neck, it was now recognized that this could result in permanent loss of mobility. I've never heard a more frightening sentence. Permanent loss of mobility?

Search for a New Workout

I started Googling low-impact workouts before I left the parking lot. Here's the thing about chronic pain: It's depressing. I embarked on my recovery with a negative mindset that, in hindsight, was unlike me. My search for low-impact workouts showed me few options, and I gloomily bought a three-month class package at a local Pure Barre studio, pretty sure I would hate it. 

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After the intensity of boxing and running, a low-impact workout would be a huge letdown. But surprisingly, Barre turned out to be an excellent post-injury workout. It's not only challenging and strengthening but therapeutic and fun. 

Your proprioception (the awareness of where your body is in space) improves immediately and dramatically. Instructors check in with you about injuries before you start and help you modify them if necessary. Despite being low-impact, the workout is intense, and almost every move involves core strength. I began to love it.

But surprisingly, Barre turned out to be an excellent post-injury workout. It's not only challenging and strengthening but therapeutic and fun. 

My friend Elizabeth Gordon, a Pilates instructor, wasn't as surprised as I was. Low-impact workouts have deep roots in injury recovery: "It can be both restorative and athletic," Elizabeth told me.

"Pilates is a proven prescription for stroke rehab and Parkinson's therapy. It also encourages neuroplasticity and facilitates alignment and proper posture."

That was good because, after the accident, posture was starting to be a significant concern. So in an attempt to avoid the sudden twinge of lingering whiplash pain when I turned my head, I'd started turning my entire upper body, stiff-necked. That, as it turns out, is a ticket to a new world of chronic pain. For me, it was in my shoulders, jaw, and back.

What is a 'Guarding Injury?'

This, I learned, is known as a "guarding injury." Most active people learn early that rushing back to your exercise routine before you're fully healed leads to re-injuring yourself. But what's less obvious is that compensating – being too careful, like when you keep a joint immobile but stress your other joints – can also cause injury.

Around this time, a contact at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Stamford, Connecticut, mentioned that HSS had launched the How You Move Lab, (HYML) a personalized fitness and wellness experience at Chelsea Piers, also in Stamford.

Musculoskeletal health is the focus at HSS; they've worked with many elite athletes, performed more hip surgeries and knee replacements than any other hospital in the United States, and have pioneered new wrist implants, tissue regeneration and repair techniques, and regional anesthesia.

I scheduled a consultation, including a visualized digital assessment and a session with mobility specialists. Upon arriving at HYML, I met with Polly DeMille, an exercise physiologist, RN, Max Castrogaleas, an exercise physiologist, and the HYML Coordinator.

Castrogaleas told me: "This is the first non-clinical setting for HSS and our first outreach to the general consumer to help reduce the risk of an injury down the line." He explained that good motion health habits should ensure that you can stay active for as long as possible.

DeMille added: "You may know already there are weak links, but the idea is to quantify, 'you can't go as low on one side, or your alignment isn't good.' You want to address those things before issues become a problem and before you start having pain or compromised performance."

She told me not to beat myself up about my guarding injury: "The better the athlete, the better you compensate," she said.

I'd been told that HYML uses breakthrough biomechanical technology, but I needed to figure out what that would mean. So, after a quick assessment of my basic fitness level, a mobility specialist, Brandon Schneider, showed me the ropes.

The first assessment, called DARI (named after the Dynamic Athletic Research Institute, where it was developed), uses an array of infrared cameras to capture your motion as you're guided through a series of predetermined moves.

I left feeling motivated and powerful. Somewhere along the way, I'd stopped waking up in pain and started feeling energized about recovering full mobility.

The following assessment tool is a PROTEUS machine, which measures the strength and power of each movement. A specially calibrated device measures your power and acceleration as you bat, swing, chop, squat, row, lift, and execute various other moves.

Then Schneider walked me to a workstation, where my data, already uploaded to the cloud, had been compiled into a detailed digital report with an overall score and five sub-categories: Strength, Acceleration/ Deceleration, Balance and Posture, Mobility and Symmetry, and Power.

Those categories, in turn, had sub-categories: things like Core Control, Lower Extremity Tightness, Movement Education, Hip Control, and more. I'd ranked in the 95th percentile for Balance (thanks, Pure Barre!) but incredibly poorly in Thoracic Mobility (a miserable 4th percentile).

"That's my guarding injury!" I exclaimed to Schneider, who looked slightly perplexed but told me to click on any percentage for recommendations to improve my score. I clicked "Thoracic Mobility" and found two recommended exercises with animations to show how to do them correctly. The report included scores and recommendations for every single category.

I left feeling motivated and powerful. Somewhere along the way, I'd stopped waking up in pain and started feeling energized about recovering full mobility. It may sound corny, but I'd changed my mindset from negative (fear of loss of mobility) to positive (measurably improving, even optimizing my performance, in dozens of specific areas).

Now, if only I could rejoin my old gym. But, alas, there are some things even biomechanical analysis can't fix.

Kris Herndon is a longtime freelance writer whose byline has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Entrepreneur and many other publications. She writes frequently about entrepreneurship, sustainable design, and environmental issues. Read More
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