Exercise to reinforce primal posture?

The 2012 study A Single Bout of Exercise Improves Motor Memory published by scientists in Copenhagen found that exercise impacts the development and consolidation of physical memories. What particularly caught my eye were the findings that:

“A single bout of intense exercise performed immediately before or after practicing a motor task was sufficient to improve motor skill learning through a better long-term retention of the skill.”

“The positive effects of acute exercise on motor memory are maximized when exercise is performed immediately after practice, during the early stages of memory consolidation.”

These discoveries gave me pause. What if I were to incorporate acute exercise–that is, exercise of sudden onset and short duration–into the teaching of my 8-Steps posture techniques? By so doing might I improve learners’ long-term retention of individual components of each posture lesson and–ultimately–speed up and perpetuate their recovery of primal posture?


Because the study authors note that the effects of acute exercise might have important practical implications in rehabilitation, as well as in sports, and because helping people in pain rehabilitate primal posture is my life’s work, the notion of exercising to reinforce primal posture is a topic worth exploring.

What is motor memory?

Often referred to as “muscle memory,” motor memory, or motor learning, underlies the expression: “Once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget.”


Motor memory is what’s involved as my fingers rapidly type this sentence on my laptop keyboard and what my husband unconsciously employs when he sits down at the piano and plays Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Of course “muscle memory” has nothing to do with muscles actually creating and storing memories of how to type or play keyboards. Instead, muscle memory is a sort of procedural memory that consolidates specific motor tasks into memory via repetition and files them away for future reference. It’s the form of memory that enables a middle-aged woman who hasn’t ridden a bicycle in decades, to climb aboard, wobble for just a moment, and then confidently pedal away.


The study


It’s well accepted that physical activity positively impacts cognition and brain function, and that aerobic exercise promotes adaptations in the human brain, among them: an increase in brain activation, blood flow, connectivity, as well as brain volume in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with spacial navigation and the consolidation of information from both short- and long-term memory. Until now, only a few studies focused on the effects of acute exercise on specific types of memory, and no studies investigated the long-term effects of acute exercise on motor memory consolidation and motor skill learning.

In the Copenhagen study, the men who exercised after practicing the motor skill showed improved long-term retention of the computer motor skill

In the Copenhagen study, the men who exercised after practicing the motor skill showed improved long-term retention of the computer motor skill

Study design

Two key questions Marc Roig and his colleagues set out to answer were:
  • Can an intense bout of cycling optimize the acquisition and retention of a motor skill?
  • Does the timing of the exercise in relation to the practice of the motor skill influence motor memory and skill learning?
Here’s how they set about their task: Three groups of  healthy young men attempted to master a visuomotor computer task–that is, a task that challenged both their muscles and their minds. Specifically, the men were asked to track with a joystick–as closely as possible–a red, squiggling line with a white cursor.
Tracking task graphic from Copenhagen study

Tracking task graphic from Copenhagen study

The men repeated the task many times until tracking the red line became almost automatic. One group engaged in 20 minutes of intense cycling on a stationary bicycle before the task, another group intensely cycled for 20 minutes after the task, while the third quietly rested after practice. Motor skill acquisition was measured 1 hour, 24 hours, and 7 days after practice.


The researchers hypothesized that the performance of a single bout of exercise before motor practice would improve acquisition of the motor skill and that exercise after practice would mainly optimize its retention.  The results surprised them:
  • Whether the men vigorously cycled before or after practice didn’t significantly impact the rate of skill acquisition.
  • Regardless of when they exercised, the men who cycled showed a better long-term retention of the computer motor skill, compared to the group that did not exercise.
  • The group that exercised after practicing the motor skill showed better long-term retention than the group that exercised before practicing the motor skill.

What’s the ‘takeaway’?

The timing of the exercise is important. To maximize long-term retention of motor memory, acute exercise must be done right after the memory is learned. The researchers conjecture that short bursts of intense exercise before practicing the motor skill may leave the brain overstimulated, making it less able to zero in on and access new memories. Note that the improvement doesn’t show up in the first hour, but rather when tested 24 hours or 7 days later, perhaps because after just one hour the memory is still being encoded and moving from short- to long-term storage.

Eager to explore how these study results might be applied to the teaching of Gokhale Method posture techniques, I invite you to participate in a simple, not quite rigorous experiment to test the notion that by exercising briefly and intensely after repeatedly practicing a single movement, you can cement this motor memory and better retain it over the long term. And I propose that we center our visuomotor-memory practice on a neck stretching and strengthening technique–neck-shearing (or head-gliding) from side to side.

Head gliding–a forgotten primal skill

Although we all share a fine blueprint for physical well-being, it takes cultural support and repeated visual cueing, especially in the formative years, to pass body wisdom from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, many in 21st-century industrial society have lost touch with the sort of  kinesthetic traditions our ancestors performed for thousands of years. One of these losses is the primal ability to balance substantial weights on our heads. 

Kinesthetic tradition is alive and well in Burkina Faso

Kinesthetic tradition is alive and well in Burkina Faso

While most of us are not prepared to transport a load of bananas atop our heads, we can practice and learn to stretch and strengthen our neck muscles, without stressing the cervical spine.

Take a look:

How to head glide

The best and most natural way to practice this visuomotor skill is to:

  1. Sit or stand before a mirror.
  2. With your palms facing in, hold each hand several inches from the side of each ear.
  3. Keeping your body still, slide your head from side to side, aiming to touch each ear to the corresponding hand.
  4. To ensure that you are translating this motor task horizontally and not moving your body, keep looking at yourself in the mirror.
  5. Practice this head-gliding movement from side to side, again and again, until you think you’ve got it.
  6. Then, on a scale of 0 to 10, self-evaluate how successful you were in head-gliding.
  7. Jot down this number for future reference.

Speeding up learning headgliding TeleSeminars

To very loosely test whether engaging in a short bout of vigorous exercise after practicing a visuomotor skill will enhance long-term retention of this skill–I invite you to join me for two 30-minute online meetings:

Saturday, August 10th, 10:30am PT

Sunday, August 11th, 10:30am PT

To register, click here.

As a preview, please view the above 2-minute video clip at least once.

While the protocol we’ll follow is not rigorously scientific, it will be fun and–with practice–may leave you with a new and useful skill. Beyond all this, our experiment may lead to interesting results you can apply to other motor skills you’d like to learn and retain.

We look forward to seeing you!

What would Copenhagen researchers say about this?

Finally, just for fun: Is the motor memory being reinforced by vigorous hammering before and after “the pause that refreshes” a memory of how to grasp and raise a glass? (The video runs for just 39 seconds.)


Photo and Video Credits:
Left-Right Brain, Creative Commons

Child on a Bicycle, Jacob and Marlies, Wikimedia Commons
Bike Rider, Josh Bluntschli, Wikimedia Commons
Stationary Bike Riding, Wikimedia Commons
Visuomotor Tracking Task Graphic, M Roig et al. PLoS One. 2012; 7(9): e44594
Burkina Faso Wo
man Carrying Bananas, Esther Gokhale

Neck Shearing/Head Gliding Video, Gokhale Method Institute
Blacksmiths, 1893, Thomas Edison, YouTube uploaded by cpenter






Posture focus and ping pong is a win-win combination

An explosive sport with everyday applications

Many people in the US think of ping-pong as a somewhat lackadaisical sport, but it’s actually a very active game that requires a great deal of fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and athleticism. It takes explosive power, in addition to strength and flexibility, to get to the ball in time. In fact, one of the benefits of playing table tennis is that it allows you to develop an explosive power that is helpful for building bones and strengthening muscles.

Professional table-tennis player Timo Boll, below left, illustrates these truths. His form is superb. Not only are his legs externally rotated, but he’s doing a perfect hip-hinge, his shoulders are back and low, and his left wrist is in good alignment. The pivot of his head on his neck, which enables him to look up without scrunching cervical vertebrae, also serves him well.

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

If, after studying this photo, you still have any doubts about ping pong being an exciting and athletic sport, take a look at at this video billed as “one of the best table tennis points ever.”

Clearly, table tennis isn’t just about standing close to the table and hitting one kind of shot. The game is all about swiftness, power, balance, coordination, precision, and stamina–and healthy posture is a driver for all of these things.

Posture and sustained use of healthy limbs

While our focus here is table-tennis readiness and using posture to improve play, ping-pong posture pointers can be extrapolated to everyday uses of the shoulders and arms—for example, when driving, typing, or washing dishes.

Woman_Pauses_At_Laptop_Kirill Kedrinski_Flickr_PhotoPSharing

While the precision and explosive power required to play table tennis are less relevant to most routine activities, underlying posture fundamentals apply, especially those pertaining to the healthy positioning of the shoulders and arms. This is because when the shoulders aren’t drawn into a hunch, when the nerves that arise in the thoracic spine are not impinged, when there’s no tightening of the pectoral muscles, and when natural movement in the opened-up chest is free to provide a natural massage, breathing and circulation are improved.


Ping pong and posture is not just a sports story. It’s a story about the sustained use and continued health of the limbs–enabling the limbs to  do their everyday thing long-term.

Table tennis is my game

Childhood play

When I was about eight, my Indian father taught me to play table tennis at one of the two tables at the Breach Candy swimming pool in Bombay. Ping pong was popular in India when I was growing up, and I played quite a lot, mostly at school. Over time, I developed what was thought to be a mean backhand, but I did this without developing any sort of forehand. While the standards for play weren’t as high as they were in East Asia or Sweden, I participated in tournaments of middling quality, and had some success.

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Later, as a high-school-senior exchange-student in New Jersey, I won a local table tennis tournament in what, again, may have been a tournament of questionable competitive caliber.

Still, by local standards of that time, I had a pretty wicked backhand, together with a winning record. All this without having yet developed a good forehand.

A ping-pong courtship

I was a freshman at Harvard when I met my husband Brian over a ping pong table in Princeton’s “Debasement,” now called the D-Bar. I was visiting my then-boyfriend, a very discerning person, who shared my view that Brian was a very likable fellow.

What first struck Brian about me was that I was an authentic person. And what struck me about Brian was that he was beatable at table tennis! Actually, what struck me even more was that my handily beating him at ping pong didn’t bother him. Whereas some guys’ enthusiasm for playing would be dampened by regularly losing to a woman, Brian remained engaged, alert, and dedicated to improving his game. Accepting of pulling up from behind, he worked his way to the point where he handily beats me now, as he has for some time.

My husband and I met playing table tennis

My husband and I met playing table tennis

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Table tennis hiatus, then a family of players

After Brian and I married and had kids, there was quite a long stretch where table tennis was no longer a part of our lives. Then, about 10 years ago, we purchased a table and ping pong became a family game.

The kids are mostly out of the house now, but Brian and I play frequently, sometimes as often as several times a day. This is in part because the table is usually parked right in the center of our living room. While this is somewhat unusual decor, it aligns with our priorities. And when the living room is required for other activities we either move the folded table to the side, or outside on the patio (it’s an outdoor table).

Plucking up paddles and playing a quick game of ping pong is one of the ways Brian and I take pick-me-up breaks. Because we talk when we play, it’s also an opportunity for us to visit together.

Voila!–a forehand!

When Brian and I first met and began to play in 1977 I was not yet focused on posture. But when, after about 20 years, we resumed play, I was very surprised to discover that in the complete absence of playing I had developed an effective forehand! I attribute this “gift” to my (at that time) 5-year commitment to healthy posture. My body may have been older, but its essential architecture was much healthier, which meant that more than ever I was poised to play a more complete game.

The posture-sport connection

Improving at ping pong in the absence of playing really interests me, in part because it prompts the impulse to connect the dots between posture improvement and improvement in sports–not just table tennis, but any number of athletic activities, whether this be fly fishing, cycling, tennis, or golf.

Poised to play

Because healthy posture provides mechanical, physiological, and even psychological advantage, focusing on posture while engaged in sport makes good sense. After all, the body is an intricate system involving not only the bones, the joints, and the muscles of the mechanical system–the “pulleys and levers”–but the complex physiology of circulation and innervation, together with sports psychology and sports performance anxiety. In table tennis–as with every sport–anatomy, physiology, psychology–and posture–are intricately entwined.

Anchoring strokes to posture points

When I play table tennis I put my “body-as-human-machine” at mechanical advantage by focusing on key elements of my posture. Doing so helps all aspects of my physical game, including my oft-used backhand, my ever-improving forehand, and my ability to rally. (Posture-focus also serves me psychologically and emotionally, but more about these aspects of play in just a bit.)

A ready position and a posture-focused state of mind

Before any game and between rallies (but not between strokes), I focus my attention on:
  • Lengthening my neck
  • Depressing and pulling back my shoulders
  • Anchoring my ribs
  • Hinging at my hip joints
  • Keeping my behind behind me
  • Externally rotating my legs and “kidney-bean”-shaping my feet
While visualizing and executing these posture points once required a conscious effort, focusing on them now has become a natural part of my game.
Neck and shoulders. The ping-pong posture habits most helpful to me may be super-correcting when pulling back and lowering my shoulders, and lengthening my neck with extra muscular force. I exaggerate simply because doing so makes my swings more effective. Optimally positioning my shoulders helps with my range of motion, my power, and precision. It also helps prevent injury of my shoulder joints, joints that have craggy, complex interfaces, and are vulnerable to inflammation and wear and tear.

Ribs and hips. When playing table tennis, I’m also aware of rib-anchoring and hip-hinging. Keep in mind that most of the posture-tracking I do happens between games, or between rallies. It’s too much to consciously focus on posture points during active play.

Buttocks, legs, and feet. Pouncing in ping pong is essential and fun. In order to do this well, I remind myself to keep my behind behind me. Neglect this posture point, and my ability to speedily reach the ball on less than a moment’s notice will be compromised. And, although the leg and buttock muscles do the bulk of the work in table tennis, having the feet turned out and shaped like kidney-beans also helps with speed and power.

Backhand, forehand, and rally


It is in the nature of the game to get more backhand than forehand practice, and this is especially true when I stay in one spot. When preparing for backhand strokes, I think about my shoulders staying down and and my neck going tall in a slightly exaggerated way.


Despite marked and continuing improvement, I still feel a bit disconnected from my forehand and am sometimes surprised when a shot that comes off my paddle actually lands on the table! But, because of the posture work I’ve done and because my shoulders are now “closer to home,” I now have a bigger range of motion and a more precise stroke. I suspect that shoulder positioning was at least part of the missing piece that prevented me from predictably hitting smooth forehand shots in days gone by.

Posture focus as an antidote to performance anxiety

If there’s any kind of emotional flutter when I play table tennis, focusing on posture takes the worries out of my head and places them into the act of play. A posture-point review offers sufficient material to displace anxiety; there is no longer any room for it.

Similarly, because table tennis is so quick and labile, so sensitive to little fluctuations in the psyche, it’s counterproductive to think, “Oh I’m really going to smash that ball!” To do so is to pretty much ensure that the ball goes flying off the table.

Bottom line? Focusing on posture is an instrument for greater mindfulness. By making myself fully available to the physical reality of a ball coming at me, sports-performance anxiety–all anxiety–is displaced. Anchoring posture habits to particular aspects of play helps both the physical and emotional components of my game.

Forrest Gump rallies

In the following video clip, Forrest Gump faces the (un)reality of an approaching ping pong ball…the “movie magic” that underlies actor Tom Hanks’ game is enlightening, but not so much his style of play. While it’s obvious Tom is a limber and athletic fellow, his ping-pong posture could be improved. Because he raises and pulls forward his shoulders with almost every stroke, his “pecs,” “traps,” and shoulder joints take a heavy toll.

Of course Forrest Gump is a character who would never complain of pain. But he does point to his shoulder and observe that play was exhausting. Here’s a suggestion, Forrest: One shoulder at a time – a little forward, a little up, and a lot back!

Brian and I rally

Finally, without the benefit of “movie magic,” my husband and I briefly rally to close out this post.

Of course our game is a work in progress–as are we! This is part of what makes applying posture points to a sport like table tennis so much fun.

Image Credits:
Timo Boll and Christian Suss, Creative Commons
Woman with Laptop, Kirill Kedrinkski, Flickr PhotoSharing
Brazilian Woman Washing Dishes, Christian De Vries, Flickr PhotoSharing
Mumbai Street Ping Pong, Roshan Pajwani, Flickr PhotoSharing
A Game At Which Both Win, 痞客邦 PIXNET 留言(0) 引用(0) 人氣
Bill and Hillary Clinton Play Ping Pong, Blazing Paddles, Larry Hodges
Ping Pong Courtships, JCC Youth Conference, 1947, Flickr PhotoSharing
Ping Pong Videos, Gokhale Method Institute

Muscling up

“Males should be tall…have broad shoulders, toned arms, ‘six-pack’ abs, and a small waist.” This, according to The Center on Media and Child Health, characterizes the “ideal male body” being aggressively marketed to boys and young men.

Body image and self-esteem

Of course, promotion of the he-man physique is nothing new. For decades, starting in the 1940s, the once bullied Angelo Siciliano, better known as ‘Charles Atlas,’ marketed his transformation from “scrawny weakling” to “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man,” in order to sell his bodybuilding program. Atlas’s message was overt: If I could turn my  string-bean body into pure muscle and no  longer be the target of bullies, so can you.

Charles Atlas ads, launched in the 1940s, ran in comic books and boys’ magazines for decades

Charles Atlas ads, launched in the 1940s, ran in comic books and boys’ magazines for decades

Today, “muscular messaging” is  overt and insidious. Via the Internet, television, film, magazines, and countless products, impressionable teens can be targeted pretty much 24/7.

And it’s not just about boys.

“Strong is the new skinny”

Fitspo, characterized in the media as “the new thinspo,” refers to online content girls seeking “fitspiration” can easily create and access via FacebookPinterest, and Tumblr. While the objective of these online postings is purported to inspire a fit, active way of life, many fitspo images feature worrisomely thin or overly sexualized bodies most girls could never achieve.

Fitspo: Online content for girls seeking "fitspiration"

Fitspo: Online content for girls seeking “fitspiration”

“Strong is the new skinny” is fitspo’s tagline.

Recent research confirms “strong and muscular” trends.

Adolescent muscularity–a new study

The authors of “Muscle-enhancing Behaviors Among Adolescent Girls and Boys,” a study published in Pediatrics in November, found that muscle-enhancing behaviors were common among both boys and girls, and that muscularity is an important component of body satisfaction for both genders. To pluck out a few of the many fascinating (and in these instances, alarming) findings: About 8% of girls and 10% of boys report using protein supplements, and just over 2% of girls and 4% of boys report using steroids.


Muscle-enhancing behaviors are common among boys and girls; 4% of boys and just over 2% of girls report using steroids.

What can grownups do?

Discouraging boys and girls from embracing unobtainable standards as yardsticks by which they measure their body image is a daunting task, but concerned adults can begin by paying attention, asking questions, talking about body image, and providing wise counsel. Parents might also consider how their own issues with body image might be impacting their kids.

The authors of the muscle-enhancing study in Pediatrics make some specific recommendations, among them:

  • Broaden existing body-image programs to address muscularity, as well as thinness
  • Explicitly ask adolescents about muscle-enhancing behaviors
  • Initiate conversations when conducting sports physicals
  • Emphasize moderation in behaviors
  • Focus on skill development, fitness, and general health
  • Craft messages to ensure they are culturally relevant
Constructive conversations might also touch on the fact that strength training should not be confused with bodybuilding, weightlifting, and powerlifting–and that while strength training is meant to increase muscle strength and endurance, “bulking up” is something else.


Photo Credits:
Charles Atlas Cartoon, public domain
Strong Is the New Skinny, Tumblr
Bench Press: U.S. Army, public domain