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Use it or lose it: Brain edition

We’ve all experienced the loss of muscle tone after we stop exercising. If our body doesn’t need to maintain metabolically expensive muscle then it gets rid of it. It makes sense from an energy standpoint. There’s no need to hold onto something that’s expensive in case the energy to maintain it becomes scarce. It’s best to just maintain what we need given our current activity level.

This is no different with the nervous system. If we don’t use a joint or a muscle in its full range of motion, then the nervous system deletes all memory of that range of motion. If you have an injury and moving into the region of the injury is painful, then we avoid that area. The nervous system ‘forgets’ that it was able to access that range of motion and even after the injury heals, the range of motion is forgotten.

But the good news is we can remind the nervous system of what it once knew. Once healed we can move the joints in a way that gives the nervous system more options within the range of motion and leave it up to the nervous system to choose where it wants to spend its time.

Every day in clinic I see examples of a nervous system that has ‘forgotten’ how it was meant to move. Some seemingly simple exercises that are meant to move adjacent joints relative to one another as they were meant to move take a great deal of focus and concentration from a client. These are movements that are supposed to happen without a second thought and yet the nervous system has forgotten it was once able to move this way. Often I see surprise on my client’s face when they try to move a certain way that has to get their weight onto a formerly sore knee, for example. Months, years or decades of avoiding something that was once painful means that much time has elapsed since the nervous system had used that range of motion.

The good news is with some practice you can remind the nervous system of what it once was able to do and you can restore your range of motion. The added benefit is being able to achieve even more personal bests or technical improvements in your sport that you thought were out of reach.