I wrote this article for the June/July 2015 edition of Paleo Magazine. Grab one at Whole Foods or other locations or a digital copy here.
The typical kid in today’s world isn’t outside much, and when indoors they’re not moving as much as they should, if at all. As a result of this immobility and a highly processed and nutrient devoid diet combined with wearing modern footwear, the majority of our children have developed awkward and uncoordinated movements.
It’s said that one in six kids today will either be born with or eventually be diagnosed with a developmental disorder. These developmental disorders can range from sensory disorders such as dyslexia, ADD, and autism, to motor skills disorders such as dyspraxia. Not only are these diagnoses more prevalent today but many “typical” kids experience balance problems, weight issues, and generalized body weakness. Many kids never exercise at all while others specialize in one sport during their entire childhood years. There’s a veritable shortage of kids who are well rounded, balanced, fit athletes.
Dysfunctional Problems in Kids Increasing
In my practice I see a wide variety of people with a wide range of problems. I may treat a professional athlete with a knee injury one hour, then a housewife with hot flashes the next. I also see a lot of kids in my practice. It’s not uncommon for me to see at least one kid a week with some form of a rather significant movement disorder. A number of these kids, but not all, have already been labeled with some type of developmental coordination disorder. The diagnosis never matters much as it doesn’t address the problem, it solely gives the problem a name rather than identify where the problem is stemming from. What is for certain is that a lot of the kids who do move are often moving very poorly. Unfortunately, a lot of kids just don’t move much at all.
The average child today, whom I will define as between the stages of just beginning to walk and driving a car, is uncoordinated and simply inefficient at movement. Some of these poor movement patterns could be present because they were never properly developed in the first place. Perhaps they were forced to walk too early to impress the grandparents at Christmas or perhaps they were wearing traditional footwear while they learned to walk rather than be barefoot.
Then there are the kids who are really good at sports. These kids are different today from those of when most of us grew up. Today a kid finds a sport and sticks with it – often all twelve months out of the year. They quickly become specialists in only one sport whether that sport is running, swimming, golf, baseball, soccer, or a host of others. This is an essential time in a developing person’s life as their body doesn’t just want, but requires the development of various movement patterns. Yet due to the high levels of competition today, these kids are quickly isolating single (or several) movements early on in life and throughout their childhood. I’ve had the unique opportunity to treat high caliber Division I soccer players only to quickly realize that most can’t perform more than a half squat without raising their heels off the floor. These kids, to get to the level they’re at, started their soccer careers between the ages of three and five.
Specialization and Isolation = Modern Day Rehabilitation
The kid who grows up playing just that one sport is going to increase his or her chances of an injury due to the fact that essential and intricate neurological and musculoskeletal patterns are never properly developed. But perhaps even worse are the kids who must exercise via convention methods solely as a result of a developmental disorder such as dyspraxia or hypotonia (low muscle tone). Most often the therapist treating these kids recommends isolated, unnatural movements in an artificial environment rather than nervous system stimulating outdoor exercises in a natural setting. Even worse, most of these kids are fitted for unnecessary foot orthotics which further dampens their sensory system resulting in diminished motor response.
Moving naturally is an innate behavior – we are hard wired for it. If kids have never developed normal, natural, innate movement patterns such as crawling, walking, jumping, climbing, etc, then their brain has yet to develop to its full potential at the current time in their life. Having a child use a therapy band to strengthen a muscle for walking is not a functional, nervous system stimulating movement. Any person, especially a developing child, is not going to thrive with such therapies.
Play Naked Outside
Okay – well actually being naked is probably only a good idea up to a certain age but let’s keep your feet naked. Modern day footwear is perhaps the simplest way to screw up a kid who is not only developing structurally but also neurologically.
Have your child un-shod as much as possible, inside or outside. Unless foot protection is needed, lose the shoes entirely. Where shoes are needed then they should be flat, firm, flexible, and wide. This means there is little to no heel (level footwear) – the shoe is essentially flat with no arch support in the middle either. There should be no cushion or thick sole but simply a firm sole to protect the foot from anything under it. The shoe should be flexible throughout and in every direction so you can flex it and twist it even in the midsole. Finally, there should be a wide toe box for the toes to naturally splay apart as most shoes are often too narrow and forces the toes to cram together.
Proper body awareness and position (proprioception) and sensory feedback into the nervous system (kinesthetic sense) cannot be achieved while wearing modern footwear. Shoes distort important neurological patterns from being developed by the brain. Neurological input from body movements increase blood flow to the brain, which promotes growth and development of speech, learning, and memory. These processes can be impaired in the child wearing shoes especially the traditional ones of today which are often recommended by pediatricians. Most shoes also disrupt gait which is never good for any kid especially one already dealing with some type of health problem.
Let your kid play. Hopefully you don’t have to make your kid play, but at later stages in life (teens) unfortunately many kids don’t want to play or have lost the ability to play naturally (outside). This tends to be more of the case for girls than boys. So you might have to persuade your daughters to get outside and move! If they’re just not sure how to run, climb, crawl, throw, lift, etc., then some instruction may be needed. If your child has any movement disorder consider so much can be gained by having them walk barefoot, crawl around, (forwards and backwards), balance, and lift a manageable object and carry it a distance. I think that’s ideal rehab for the entire body and complete nervous system. This isn’t to imply that you take your child’s rehab therapy into your own hands and completely disregard certain therapies. However, to accentuate that process, or perhaps prevent a problem before it starts, encouraging your child to move around freely outside can have profound effects on their overall well-being.
It’s also important to reduce or even eliminate artificial sensory stimulation in your child’s environment. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to limit TV and computer time, even handheld devices. Not only are kids less active the more they watch TV or use a computer device, but it excites their nervous system which in turn affects their focus and ultimately their motor system. (This is why a child with sensory issues has an ‘ism’ such as jumping or hand flapping when they are over-stimulated.) I’ve seen some pretty amazing results in kids when the parents cut TV down to one-half hour a day or in some cases, altogether. Specifically remove a TV or computer that is in your child’s bedroom as it’s well known that they can negatively impact sleep, even if not actually ‘on’.
Don’t Lose It
The overall message here is that kids need to practice or re-learn natural movement skills. It’s definitely harder to try to get something back once it’s lost rather than to hold onto a skill. A good example of this would be the full squat. If you watch kids play at a very young age you’ll often see them on the floor in a full squat position. They’re at rest and their bottoms are almost touching the floor while their heels are still in contact with the ground. Most adults in developed countries have lost this rest position – we just got too comfortable sitting in a chair.
At one point in life most almost everyone had the necessary locomotive and manipulative skills but then due to injury, lack of use, or some health disorder, they lost them. Perhaps this is you and because of modern day living you’re no longer able to move as you should be able to. It’s never too late to start re-developing these movement patterns. You’ll see some pretty amazing changes in both yourself and in your barefoot-moving kid regardless of your current health or fitness level.