A Different Approach to Fitness

by Robert Rickover

I recently overhead the following exchange in the locker room of my fitness club between two middle-aged men:

“Hey Jim, I haven’t seen you in a couple of months.”

“I’ve been taking it easy. I had an operation on my left knee a few years ago and now my right knee is starting to hurt. I don’t want to have to go through another operation so I tried using it less but that didn’t really seem to help. I don’t really know what the best thing to do is - should I use it less, or should I use it more?”

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, my first thought was, “Why not use it differently?”

Experience has taught me that in most conversational situations it’s best to keep such thoughts to myself. But Jim’s question - “Should I use it more or should I use it less?” - has been bouncing around in my head for some time and caused me to wonder why most people never consider the “third option” - doing the same activities, but doing them in a different manner.

I think a lot has to do with current trends in fitness which emphasizes quantity above all else.

But 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.

For example we 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 bodies and, consequently, on our personal chances of suffering pain - in our knees, our hips, our backs, even in our shoulders and neck.

The importance of posture is also now well understood by arthritis researchers. As Dr. Frederic McDuffie, former 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 explains: “....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 - methods 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?

I 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 http://www.alexandertechnique.com/somatics

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique provides a comprehensive guide to this method.


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 Website.