Exercise prescription,  Functional exercise,  Health & wellbeing,  Physical activity,  Strength & conditioning

From my inbox

Turns out I’m a bit of a research magpie. I pick up shiny looking articles and store them away – just in case! My nest was getting a little crowded, so I spent most of last week tidying up my inbox. There was a bit of rubbish in there, but a few things I did consider interesting and worth another look. This blog is a short highlights reel of some of the things that I found that have been drawing a bit of attention, or got me thinking.

Physical Educators as role models

To be accredited, U.S. programmes for physical education teachers apparently have to provide evidence that their graduates achieve and maintain a health-enhancing level of fitness (whatever that is?). These folk are big on role modeling as an influencer of attitudes and behaviors – things like health practices and physical activity. Most programmes demonstrate their compliance by using fitness testing at the start and end of their programmes. Baghurst et al (2016) explored whether using activity monitors could be a better substitute for fitness testing, finding that the amount of moderate physical activity recorded by participants did not correlate strongly with their body mass indexes (BMI) or fitness test scores. That result doesn’t surprise me a whole lot but it does have me wondering whether it’s more important for these people to look good and test fit, or would it be better to model a physically active lifestyle? I get the role model concept, but is a lean, fit individual going to work as the preferred role model for everyone? Is that not going to be intimidating and off-putting for some? Am I going to be more inspired by someone with a ‘normal’ BMI or someone who is simply happy enjoying an active lifestyle? (of course, those two things are not mutually exclusive). And do we really need to measure how much physical activity simply to tick yet another box?

Fitness industry workers and health

Two studies by Bennie et al (2018) explored Australian registered exercise professionals’ (commercial fitness) attitudes to health aspects of exercise. One study asked about the exercise professionals (EP) level of interest in engaging with clients with various health-risk profiles. The strongest EP preference was for working with healthy adults wanting to improve health and fitness (82%), and weight loss (73%) clients (OK, probably the clients they typically see). They were less interested in older clients (60%), clients with health conditions (55%) or older clients with health conditions (~40%). The researchers concluded that public health policies should encourage fitness industry professionals and high health-risk populations to interact more! The authors also question whether working with higher health risk clients was beyond the expertise of many fitness industry professionals. In this respect, they suggest that professional education of fitness professionals should include more of an emphasis on working with high health-risk populations.

These authors’ second paper, presumably using the same sample, asked about the EPs interest in adopting a standardised testing protocol. Arguing that an initial assessment and monitoring of client fitness and health are fundamental to EPs’ work, the researchers noted that previous research had shown that less than 25% of EPs regularly assessed and monitored client fitness and health. In their study, a similar number (only 25.5%) felt that a standardised testing protocol would be highly feasible. The authors were adamant that this needed to be improved and speculated that attitudes might correlate with the EP’s level of education, although in this study the most qualified were the least enthusiastic about standardised testing.

I’ve included these two papers because the arguments for and against interest me greatly. You could certainly adopt the stance of the authors and agree that EPs need to better educated and better trained to assist neglected population groups with physical activity, and that maybe yes, they should be performing regular standardised health and fitness assessments. Or you could  think that the whole ‘unnecessary’ medicalising of exercise is part of the reason that exercise professionals are not overly excited about working with higher risk populations. The paradoxical argument that you need to exercise for your health, but hey, you need to be really careful because it’s risky, can be really puzzling for exercise professionals and their would be clients. The idea of extensive screening, ongoing testing, and monitoring can be interpreted as yet another costly barrier, and likely leads to a dependence that isn’t really needed. Do we really need somebody telling us what to do every step of the way? Could this be one of the reasons that older and at-risk individuals are not flocking to commercial fitness centres? This type of messaging seems contrary to the latest ACSM screening recommendations (Riebe et al, 2015) that have now bypassed most of the conservative restrictions on exercise participation – the new recommendations are a little more encouraging. Seems to me we need to be making physical activity MORE accessible, not LESS so.

Functional variability

Plyometric style, ballistic movements are a regular part of most activities of daily living, physical activities, and sport. These movements, repurposed as drills, are typically included in most strength and conditioning programmes. A study by Chandler et al (2018) investigated the movement variability of plyometric type exercises using a force plate to measure ground reaction forces and 3-D motion capture to track key joint movements (kinematics). Well-trained athletic participants completed squat jumps (3s hold at the bottom of the squat), depth jumps (from a 40cm box) and rebound jumps (self-paced countermovements) in a single training session. Three sets of 10 reps of each exercise were completed with 3min rest between sets. Although individual’s jump heights were consistent, the analysis showed variability between the actual joint kinematics. The authors suggest that the observed jump technique variability was likely due to individual responses to compensate for the constraints encountered. These constraints might have been things like fatigue, poor landing technique, and a slight loss of balance before jumping. By varying their jump technique ‘in the moment’, the participants were able to maintain optimal jump performance. This is ‘functional variability’ and is a way by which expert performers can adjust technique to maintain performance. Watching elite athletes, this should come as no surprise – a poor ball toss for a tennis serve, softer ground when setting up for a kick or gust of wind while making a pass – are all somehow skilfully compensated for by an expert athlete.

Why I liked this article was the take-home message for strength and conditioning coaches. Since there is no optimal jump technique for everyone, it is probably worthwhile for S&C coaches to include movement variations in the drills that they use. By throwing different constraints at athletes while they perform drills, we are exposing them to a wide range of perturbations that they may encounter in competition. Rather than instructing athletes on how to be ‘technique perfect’ we perhaps want them to learn, and be able to use functional variability.

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More highlights soon/..

Selected references
  1. Baghurst, T. et al (2016) Objective Measures of PETE Student Achievement and Maintenance of Physical Activity and Fitness. PHEnex Journal , v. 8, n. 1,
  2. Bennie, J.A. et al (2018): Feasibility for the Use of a Standardized Fitness Testing Protocol Among Australian Fitness Industry Professionals, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2018.1486965
  3. Bennie, J.A. et al (2018) Australian fitness professionals’ level of interest in engaging with high health-risk population subgroups: findings from a national survey. Public Health 160; 108-115
  4. Chandler, P.T. et al. (2018) Variability of plyometric and ballistic exercise technique maintains jump performance. J Strength Cond Res 32(6): 1571– 1582.
  5. Riebe, D. et al (2015) Updating ACSM’s Recommendations for Exercise Preparticipation Health Screening. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 47(8);2473–2479.

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