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Time… Trees.. Your Physical Health and Physical Therapy

Yes, its and odd title indeed. But bear with me…

Today I wanted to share a simple analogy… One of the trees. I thought of this analogy while creating a presentation a few years ago, but it has stuck with me. I love it because it is simple, yet provides clarity on how our bodies, our posture and our movement are shaped in a predictable manner by the environment immediately around us.

For a moment I want you to imagine two trees. The first as a seedling. Slowly growing taller. Never experiencing any significant storm or force of nature to disrupt its growth. It grows tall towards the sun until it is a full and established tree.

Now picture another tree, you might have seen one like this before if you have ever driven the ocean coastline. This one is growing as a seedling. But as it grows, it is constantly being driven landward by the strong sea breeze. As it grows, its branches are constantly being pushed and bowed by the wind. These winds are not traumatic, never causing it to break or falter, but simply begin to shape it. Instead of growing tall and full, this one tends to keep low to the ground, its trunk and branches grow more horizontally and in the direction that the wind pushes. Even on a bright, calm and sunny day, this tree shows the evidence of the past winds it has been shaped by.

Both of these trees are strong and healthy. Well established. But the forces they have been exposed to have greatly shaped them over time. Their “posture” so to speak is different. The way they look, feel and interact with their world is different.

I recently began treating a patient who told me that for the past 3 years she has been sleeping in a chair… Not a recliner but more of an upright chair… Every night as she falls asleep she slumps forward, her chin to her chest. Now that I am seeing her after 3 years of this, she is unable to lift her head and look forwards. Her neck has become so stiff she can not look up. Her balance has been affected and she finds it difficult to walk without the ability to look up at the world around her. The “winds” have shaped her.

I also think of another patient, who naturally has a lot of muscle tightness. Due to his work he spends a lot of time each day sitting at his computer. Due to his sitting posture and his predisposition to become very stiff, he has developed significant muscle tightness through his legs, pelvis and lower back. As he stands, he is unable to fully straighten his knees, he leans slightly forward at the hips. To prevent from falling forward, he has to excessively lift his head and pull his arms/shoulders back to establish balance. It is as if his muscles are a tight rubber band, constantly pulling him forward. This has caused a lot of strain on his back, resulting in pain and contributing to recent surgeries. The “winds” have shaped him.

Another patient that comes to mind recently turned 97. He walks daily and has always tended to stay fairly active. He is able to get on and off the floor and believes in regularly stretching. He stands tall and upright, not needing a walker or any equipment as he walks. He performs his daily activities with ease. The “winds” have too shaped him.

Our physical wellbeing is shaped by the forces around us. By the forces we choose to expose our bodies to day in and day out. In the vast majority of these instances, we are completely unaware that our environment is having some effect on us. We don’t think about our posture, how we sit, how we move… we just live and move, completing our daily tasks as they need to be done. But very slowly and very subtly we begin to be shaped. Our posture, joints, muscles, tissues all begin to adapt. They can adapt in negative ways, and they can adapt in positive ways. With this knowledge and awareness though, we can begin to observe and make conscious choices that allow our environment to positively influence our physical wellbeing. A physical therapist can greatly facilitate this.

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