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Sensory Mismatch!


Ok, hold on to your handles, on that elliptical or treadmill you’ve been ramping up for the initial phase of that New Year’s Resolution, and get ready for this…

Now, press STOP on that equipment and let go of those handles! See, one of the things we are learning in the fitness industry (as well as the speech therapy, behavior therapy, counseling, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc, I think you get the picture) IS just how important the nervous system is and the critical role it plays in the success rate of any of these programs! This may seem obvious to some of you reading this, maybe self-explanatory, but LET US EXPLAIN how this applies to your cardiovascular exercise and hopefully to your training program as well.

Our brains are incredible!

The number one job of the brain is survival and the second job is to move us around (coordinating that movement with number one, survival). Because of the design, our brains are also really good at pattern recognition. Our five senses send signals to the brain with information and this information is processed, organized and recognized in patterns. Depending on the pattern (or the collaboration of that information) the brain decides if threat levels are low and it can stay relaxed (affects hormone levels, body tension, etc) OR if threat levels are too high, the brain will start to signal to the body that we need to go into PROTECTION mode. What does that look like?

The Startle Reflex Thee protective steps are called the “Startle Reflex.” It’s hardwired into our brains. If threat levels get high enough, our brain stems are programmed to respond in very similar ways. These steps are: head tips down to protect the eyes and throat, jaw clenches to harden against a blow to the head, shoulders come up and forward to give more of a base of support to the neck and more protection to the heart and lungs and the arms come up to block anything coming toward your torso. Muscles in the abdomen also tighten. The pelvis tilts and a forward bend initiates to protect the vital organs. Adrenaline and other hormones pump into the bloodstream to get us ready to move out of harm’s way. You’ve probably heard of the flight or flight response. This is step one in that response and in a high threat environment, it all happens very fast.

The startle reflex can also vary in level of intensity and usually is correlated to the level of threat (or perceived threat). You don’t need to have a bear jump out from behind a tree and start moving toward you. Driving in an Atlanta traffic jam or in a snowstorm can raise threat levels somewhat. There are thousands of other things that can play into the creation of a low level startle reflex as well.

We talk about three systems as critically important for sensory integration (those 5 senses working together to recognize patterns and manage threat levels). It bears mentioning that low levels of threat also improve performance in the arts, sports, strength training, language acquisition, etc. The three systems are the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The vestibular system is made up of canals and what we understand as crystals or tiny stones in the inner ear that help us maintain balance, i.e. resist gravity and know which way is up and which is down in relation to gravity. The proprioceptive system is easiest explained as your bodies 3-D map of where each body part is in space.

What does any of this have to do with treadmills and your New Year's Resolution?

Remember those 3 systems and how integral the nervous system is in optimizing performance? Well, we want you to enjoy and maximize your workouts, your work life, your relationships, your writing, your speaking, your artwork, your hobbies, etc.

See, when your brain compiles information from the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems and the information doesn’t follow the normal pattern or the brain’s expectation, we run into something called ‘sensory mismatch.’ This triggers an appropriate level of the startle reflex. Track with us for another paragraph or 2 and this will all come together and make a lot of logical sense.

When we walk down the street, hall, up stairs (NOT stairmaster) what happens?

Well obviously, we are moving forward (and up in the case of stairs). The important thing to look at here is what the 3 systems are experiencing as we move through space. Our eyes, peripheral and focal point, recognize that things are coming toward us and we’re moving past other things (peripheral). Our inner ear is experiencing the forward movement (normal) and the consistent relationship of each step with gravity. Our proprioceptive system (3-D map) also relates to the brain that we’re moving forward through space.

What happens when we hop on the elliptical or walk/jog on a treadmill?

The visual system is clearly getting the same peripheral input the whole time and we’re not getting any closer to our focal point (hopefully not a distracting TV mounted on the wall). The arms and legs get input of moving through space but we won’t get as much air on the face or the sense of sounds changing around our ears. The vestibular system will still sense that we ‘should’ be moving forward. See the major differences, just in this brief exploration? Our brains will start to raise threat levels because of sensory mismatch. The response is basically, ‘this is NOT a pattern I recognize! This seems like when I’m sitting at home, reading or watching TV, but my arms and legs are moving and I’m getting a whole lot of activity and demand from my vestibular system.’ So what happens? Threat levels are up and if we had a bad day or didn’t get enough sleep, we can likely multiply that effect and see a low or moderate level of the startle reflex initiated! Yikes!

This decreases performance in a number of areas, including strength (yes, we’ve tested it). You may be thinking, ‘Well, what if I train on the treadmill, elliptical or stairmaster every day? Won’t my brain start to recognize the pattern?’ Good point, and absolutely, it will. But we also need to realize that the pattern is programmed and associated with a certain level of the startle reflex. Every time we jump on the treadmill, we’re going to achieve that level of pain increasing and performance busting startle reflex. Also, what happens when we go back to walking around normally through space to get where you need to go? Well, we’ll be back to sensory match (YAY!) but it will still be in conflict to the treadmill, elliptical, stairmaster use.

Where does that leave us?

So should we stop using treadmills and ellipticals in the fitness industry to burn calories? We won’t tell you that you have to do that. However, we don’t encourage our clients to use them and certainly will NOT use either of those tools to help clients warm up for their training session. Personally, I won’t use them again and I’m not disappointed about that! :-) There is a lot of buzz about eating whole foods and keeping it natural and raw if possible, right? Well, we would encourage natural movement that makes everything about your fitness journey better as well. Less tension, decreased threat levels (may lead to less pain), strength gains and hopefully, better sleep are all that await.


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