Fitness Without the Flaws

father and son walking

Fitness Without the Flaws by Robert Rickover

Several years ago I watched a man kill himself in the name of fitness. I was living on Manhattan’s lower West Side at the time and, morning and evening, I couldn’t fail to notice the grueling exercise program of one of my neighbors. Throughout nine months of a bone-chilling New York winter, a regenerating spring and a hot, sultry summer, he jogged through city streets, congested with people, cars and pollutants. I heard from his wife that he had suffered a mild heart attack two years before, and after recovering decided to exercise regularly. He had read somewhere that jogging would keep him fit.

What fascinated me most about his exercise regimen was how uncomfortable he looked. Almost running, rather than jogging, his movements has a frantic and desperate quality to them. His head was pulled tightly back on his neck and his shoulders were raised, as though he carried an enormous burden. His fists were clenched rigidly at each side, and he always wore a painful expression on his face. It was one morning during the second winter of his program that he collapsed while jogging and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital - he had suffered a massive coronary.

After what had happened to my neighbor, I was particularly struck a few weeks later by an item in the local community paper. A middle-aged fitness buff, who was a regular at the neighborhood gym, had begun shoveling his car out of a snowdrift. Ten minutes later he was dead of a heart attack.

Why, I wondered, had these two men, who apparently were doing all the right things, been betrayed by their bodies? This is the kind of
question which today is being voiced with increasing frequency. Cases proliferate of exercise leading to injury - and even death - instead of health and well-being. More and more fitness participants are asking if there are safe - and unsafe - ways to get fit.

What we really need is a completely different approach to fitness, one which shifts the emphasis away from today’s almost total preoccupation with the quantity of exertion. It isn’t only the number of miles run, the time spent doing aerobic exercises, or the heaviness of the weights lifted that matters. Far more important is the quality of our movements - our balance and coordination and our ease of breathing. The crucial importance of the way we use our bodies is beginning to be recognized in other fields. Take, for example, our understanding of back pain.

We’ve known for a long time that, statistically, more than seventy-five percent of us will suffer serious back pain sometime during our
lifetime. But we now also know, as a result of recent scientific
investigations, that the way we stand, sit and perform activities - in
other words or posture and how we adapt it to changing circumstances - has a major impact on the amount and kind of pressure we put on our spinal column and, consequently, on our personal chances of becoming a back pain sufferer.
The importance of posture is also now well understood by arthritis
researchers. As Dr. Frederic McDuffie, Medical Director of the Arthritis
Foundation, explains:

“Bad posture can lead to more pain for a person with arthritis because it puts unnecessary stress on joints and muscles. It can also contribute to deformities of the hips, ankles, knees and spine.”

It is increasingly clear that the loss of our natural balance harms us in a variety of ways.

Tony Jones, writing for the “Ultimate Fitness” series in Esquire

“....chronic posture imbalances bend and stretch our bodies in unhealthy ways. Skeletal and muscular symmetry is distorted. Circulation may be impaired. Joints and bones bear added pressures. Tension pools in muscles that must constantly strain against gravity to maintain us upright. After a while, we begin to note small crookednesses. Instead of true balance, we are held in a complicated array of offsetting compensations. We feel out of sorts, confined, uncomfortable, unable to concentrate, drained of energy.”

Skilled athletes and performers have always placed a high value on
balance, flexibility, agility and coordination. A growing interest in
activities like yoga, Tai Chi, and Aikido reflects the general public’s
recognition of the importance of these qualities. It is now clear that
what is needed are methods that will enable us to bring these same
qualities into our daily lives - a method that will help us improve the
way we use ourselves in all our activities.

Such methods should help us to expand our inherent capabilities in
whatever direction we choose. They should be something we can use for the rest of our lives, something which will help us prevent injuries - not cause them - and yet still enable us to enjoy vigorous sports and exercise activities.

We can all think of people we know who somehow seem to carry themselves easily, with poise and balance, and whose movements are a pleasure to watch. These same qualities can frequently be observed in young children. Before reaching the age when they start to interfere with their natural movements, children are active in a unselfconscious and graceful manner. They really enjoy what they do, whether listening to a good story, learning a new skill or plunging wholeheartedly into an energetic game or contest.

Most young children are completely at home in their bodies. We were all children once. Can we learn how to reclaim these abilities and use them constructively in our adult lives? Is there a way for us to reclaim our natural body harmony and be fit, once again, in the true sense of the word?

find a therapistI believe a large part of the answer can be found in some of the somatic, or movement-based, methods that have come to the fore in the past few decades. These include methods such as Feldenkrais, Rolfing, Hellerwork, craniosacral therapy and the like. My own field of expertise in in the Alexander Technique, a century-old method of learning how to release harmful tension from your body and perform all your activities with greater ease, comfort and efficiency.

If the issues raised in this article resonate with you, I urge you to
explore one or more of these methods - it could change your life!


The Posture Page provides information about a number of somatic approaches. Information about the Alexander Technique's relationship to other somatic methods can be found at
Copyright 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 at 

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