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The Dark Side of Fitness

A recent article in the New York Times, "Doctors See a Big Rise in Injuries As Young Athletes Train Nonstop" highlights a serious and growing health concern for teenagers and their parents. Typical injuries include stress fractures, cracked kneecaps and frayed heel tendons and damage to the alignment of the spinal column brought on by excessive flexing. As the article states, “...doctors in pediatric sports medicine say it is as if they have happened upon a new childhood disease, and the cause is the overaggressive culture of organized youth sports.”

The consequences of this new “disease” can be very serious, often requiring many months of expensive rehabilitation or even surgery. Some young athletes are left facing a lifetime of pain and physical restrictions.

The article emphasizes the role played by pressure from coaches and parents and by a culture in many sports that places so much emphasis on performance, and on winning, that players often ignore the pain signals coming from their bodies.

I was struck by the parallels between this teenage phenomenon and the wave of injuries reported during the early stages of the fitness boom of the 1980s. At that time, there were a great many newspaper and magazine reports of everything from severe shin splints caused by prolonged running on concrete to serious back and neck pain due to improper methods of weight lifting.

I can well remember the sudden influx of students during that period who came for Alexander Technique lessons after giving up on demanding exercise regimes because of pain or injury. They just wanted to learn how they could get back to where they were before and sadly that was not always possible. It seems that when a new fitness or sports trend begins, there is a heavy price to be paid by some participants.

What strikes me about both the current spate of injuries and the one that took place two decades ago is that in both cases, a huge emphasis on QUANTITY of exercise almost completely obliterated any concern with the QUALITY with which the exercise was performed. All too often fitness programs tend to be about things like how many miles you run, how many pitches you pitch, or how many hours you swim rather that how well you’re using your body as you run, pitch or swim.

It’s a bit like driving a car as fast as you can, for a long distance, without bothering to learn how to drive it well!

I am convinced that the current over-emphasis on quantity is one of the main reasons there are still so many sports and fitness related injuries. Sometimes it comes from the athlete him or herself - perhaps reflecting a common cultural idea that more is better. Sometimes it comes from outside. That certainly seems to be a large part of what’s going on with some young athletes today.

Anyone who studies the basic ideas of the Alexander Technique will very quickly see just how important the quality of one’s posture and movement is to the effectiveness and safety of any activity. This is true whether it’s a vigorous activity or something as mundane as using a computer or even watching TV. And if they decide to take up a new sport or fitness program, they have the knowledge and ability to approach it with skill, and with an appropriate level of body awareness and care.

(The article, “Doctors See a Big Rise in Injuries As Young Athletes Train Nonstop” can be found on page 1 of the February 22, 2005 issue of the New York Times.)

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique.

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