Archer's Bow and Shortened Hamstrings: More Markers of Occupation

Yesterday I wrote about the markers of occupation, the way our activities can shape our bodies over time. My friend Todd sent me a dramatic example from the military history of the middle ages: a lifetime of drawing the longbow was visible in the long dead bodies of archers.

We can actually identify a longbowman’s skeleton by the damage they have done to their bones; otherwise rare defects show up along the shoulder blades, wrists, and elbows. The act of drawing back hundreds of pounds of force every day, hundreds of times per day, strained ligaments and bones to such an extent that some skeletons even started growing extra bone to compensate. Their devotion to their skill permanently changed their bodies enough that we can still identify them hundreds of years later.

Our modern markers of occupation are quite different from the English archers. We are much more likely to be changed by the extreme sedentariness of our modern work environments.

The solution, of course, is to move more, and so people exercise. As important as exercise is, there’s new research that suggests that sitting all day is so detrimental to our health that all the exercise in the world isn’t enough to undo the damage—if we continue to sit all day.

This point was reinforced by a recent piece by Brook Thomas on stretching. Sitting all day shortens the hamstrings and so people try to stretch them to increase their length. Why does this often have so little effect? Thomas argues that it’s not just that the physical substrate of the muscle needs to be stretched. The nervous system needs to reset its expectations about what is possible:

While working on the Liberated Body Short Hamstrings Guide, I kept coming back to the issue of how the hamstrings function, in some chronically short-hamstringed people, as an emergency brake. This kind of compensatory pattern happens for plenty of reasons, but top among them might be under active deep core musculature, too rigid core musculature (yes, underactive and too rigid can come together), weakened adductors, and more. If these or other key stability structures can’t fully do their job, the hamstrings are at the ready. They sub in for a lack of support elsewhere by battening down the hatches...

If your car were parked on the edge of a cliff and was held there only by its emergency brake, would you release it? Not if you are sane. This is the same decision your nervous system is making when you attempt a forward fold and are stopped prematurely.

To bring about a change in the structure of the musculature, both mind and muscle have to be taken into account. The best way to do this? Change what we do each day.

The way to approach rehabilitating [short hamstrings] would be to move with more normal hamstrings length more frequently. For example: to use a standing desk for all or part of the day, to sit on the floor with our legs outstretched in front of us (if we can accomplish that without rounding our backs, another symptom of short hamstrings), wearing neutral-heeled shoes, and to walk and to take frequent movement breaks, among other things.

The road to rehabilitation would not look like stretching the bejeezus out of your hamstrings at their absolute maximum end range for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty and ninety seconds per day.

We have to stop dividing our lives between sedentary work and vigorous exercise. Alexander lessons can certainly help us unlearn the unfortunate habits that our work lives encourage. But work also needs to become more dynamic. Most tasks do not actually require us to sit for 8 hours a day. The same problems can be solved and the same projects completed using a variety of positions and actions. Ultimately, if the work environment changes, it will be easier for employees to take responsibility for their own health.

This is starting to happen, but it can be frustratingly slow. My sister recently injured her knees in a fall. After getting reassurance from her doctor that nothing was torn or broken (she received a diagonsis of patellofemoral pain syndrome), we talked about how she could modify her activities to help her heal. We had two priorities: cultivate length in the back to take weight out of her knees, and prevent the kind of distorted, compensatory patterns that creep in to the rest of the body after a knee injury.

She found sitting and standing still to be the hardest activities to maintain. So we talked about her options at work. Could she get up and walk around? To a limited extent, yes. If she perched on a stool with her feet on the floor, her knees would be at a wider angle than when sitting. This might provide some relief. Was there a high desk and stool that she could use to experiment and see? No, that wasn’t possible. Could she find a place to lie on her back for 10 minutes or so every couple of hours? It would help prevent compensatory patterns. No, there was no place that she could lie down.

We both were a little frustrated. My sister’s workplace is very intellectually stimulating, but it’s very physically restrictive. This is the norm in many work environments, not the exception.  At some point, our office places will have to change. The archers of the middle ages had no choice about practicing with the longbow—it was demanded by the king. But we don’t owe such fealty to our employers. We owe our work work. We don’t owe work our health.