Aging with Ease: How Moving Right Can Make All the Difference

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Most of us move and sit automatically without thinking of how it affects our bodies. With age, however, our habitual movements can translate into poor posture and sore or damaged joints.

Mary Derbyshire has some words of wisdom to help us age with less pain, and the approach to movement that she teaches is, well, painless.

Derbyshire has taught fitness and movement for over 35 years. For almost 25 of those years, she has been a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, helping people get out of pain and learn how to move with balance, agility, and ease. Derbyshire is a strong advocate for this powerful self-care technique and is a recognized master and expert in her field. She regularly presents both to and with the medical community, most recently at Harvard Medical School in 2015 and at Brown Medical School in 2016.

Because Derbyshire’s specialty is aging with ease, and because she is on a mission to bring this work to the baby boomer population, HealthCentral thought it would be good for us all to take a refresher course in proper movement. Derbyshire responded to our questions in an email interview.

HealthCentral: Mary, what can people with aging bodies do to improve everyday movements so they can live with less pain?

Mary Derbyshire: One of the first things that people can do is to stop trying so hard to move. Most of us use way too much muscular effort when we move. This muscular effort is essentially excessive muscular tension, and it can cause pain and stiffness. Letting go of this excessive muscular tension will allow you to move more easily.

Here are three things that can improve movement:

  1. Make sure that your feet are wide enough apart. Most of us stand with our feet too close together. Your feet should roughly be under your shoulders.

  2. Tell yourself to stand on your skeleton. Your skeleton is there to support you, and your muscles are there to move you. Let your skeleton do its job.

  3. Now tell yourself to stop. Really stop. And in this stopping, allow yourself to let go of tension in your jaw, your tongue, your neck, and your shoulders. Whenever you notice yourself holding or bracing, tell yourself to let go.

HC: How does moving reduce everyday aches and pains, and what is suggested to accomplish this?

MD: Humans need to move. Nature never intended us to sit. In fact, sitting in a chair is a relatively new invention. Before the 19th century, most people did not own a chair. Only royalty, or the wealthy, owned chairs. The rest of us sat on a stool or a log or a rock, or we squatted. Chairs and stuffed, upholstered furniture are a relatively new invention.

Movement heals. A body in motion has improved breathing, circulation, digestion, thinking, emotional balance, and overall health. But it’s not that you just need to move, you need to move well.

How you move is very important. This is what the Alexander Technique teaches you — how to move better. As an older adult, you probably do not move like you did when you were a child. The Alexander Technique teaches you how to move more like you did when you were far younger.

HC: What exercises are best for improving balance and mobility?

MD: You need to challenge your balance to improve your balance. The classic exercises of standing on one leg, or walking a straight line with your feet very close together or one foot placed in front of the other, are effective.

There are other things you can do to help your balance. Ankle mobility and range of motion are very important. Try these movements, but think about doing them easily:

  1. Sit in a chair and flex your feet at your ankles.

  2. Sit in a chair and draw a circle in the air with your toes, then change direction.

  3. Sit in a chair and roll your feet inwards and then outward from the ankle.

  4. While standing raise and lower your heels so that you are standing on the balls of your feet. You may want to do this with the back of a chair in front of you.

  5. The shoes you wear are important, too. Your foot needs to have room to expand, and your toes need to expand forward from the rest of the foot. Try buying shoes that are a full size larger than what you expect. The sole of the shoe should be flexible and women should avoid high heels!

HC: How can older people learn to move differently and more efficiently to improve their overall lifestyle?

MD: Here are five tips to help older folks move more efficiently to improve their lifestyle:

  1. How you sit affects how you move. Good sitting translates into better movement. Make sure you are sitting on your sitz bones. Do this: slide your hands palm side up under your bum. Feel those boney bits? Those are your sitz bones. Now slide your hands out. You have to sit on your sitz bones in order to sit with any degree of ease. Now place your feet slightly behind your knees closer to the chair. Most of us sit with our legs too far forward. Your feet need to be underneath you and a little behind your knees in order for you to stand easily.

  2. When starting to sit down, make sure you are bending at your ankles, knees, and hips. Your hips are one of the largest joints in your body and they need to bend in order for you to sit or stand easily. Allow yourself to fold at your ankles, knees, and hips as you sit. Unfold as you stand.

  3. Notice how your head relates to your spine. This is very important and one of the main principles of the Alexander Technique. The way your head relates to your spine determines how well you function and move. Think of a small child. Where is their head? Now think of an adult. The small child’s head is poised on top of the spine. The adult's is not. If you place your index finger on the flap in front of the ear on both sides of your skull and then place your thumb behind your ear lobe, you are locating the point of articulation of your head and your spine. Deep in your skull is the atlanto occipital joint. You want your head to be resting on top of your spine.

  1. Understand that there is no separation between the mind and the body. There is just mind-body unity. This means that your thoughts affect your body and your body affects your thoughts. So how you think is how you are and how you are is how you think. The words you use to think about yourself affect you. Most of us use negative and aggressive words when we think about ourselves physically. This is certainly true in exercise culture (“No pain, no gain” comes to mind). Instead, choose words that are kind and supportive, such as “allow,” “release,” “lighten up,” and “let go.”

  2. Don’t walk with your toes up in the air. You definitely do this when you find yourself walking with a hole in the top of your socks, slippers, or sneakers. When we walk well, our weight strikes near the middle part of the heel, crosses the arch of the foot and continues to our big toe. The big toe has two jobs. It helps balance you and it propels you forward. So, when you walk, think of walking through the big toe. Now don’t overdo this. Instead, allow it to happen.

HC: Tell us how moving well can help people age with a better quality of life and feel and look more vital.

MD: People who move well with improved posture and lessened muscular tension move more efficiently. Moving well reduces and/or eliminates pain and stiffness. When you are free from pain and stiffness, you will find more joy in moving and doing those activities that you love to do.

As we age, and as pain and stiffness become more pronounced, we often give up doing the things that we love to do, such as gardening, playing golf, or going for a long walk. Learning how to move well allows you to participate in life, so that you can get back to these activities.

We talk a lot today about increasing brain agility, but we also need to talk about our body’s agility. Exercise is good, but exercise doesn’t address the quality of good movement.

HC: Thank you, Mary, for your encouraging words. Rather than making movement sound like work, you are helping us learn that it’s relaxing and can help us age well. We appreciate your expertise.

Learn more about Mary Derbyshire on her website at maryderbyshire.com.

See More Helpful Articles:

Midlife Exercise May Have Beneficial Effects on Brain Later in Life

Reversing Alzheimer’s: Lifestyle Plan Shows Promise

Using Physical Therapy to Achieve the Best Version of You

Fitness and Aging Well: A Vital Correlation


Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook Minding Our Elders.