Sharpening Your Functional Fitness
The importance of training specific body systems to improve health, functional fitness, and body function has been discussed in other articles. When trained properly, the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems provide individuals with the strength and stamina needed to perform a variety of simple and complex activities ranging from sitting, standing, and stepping to skipping rope, walking down stairs, or even running a marathon.
Historically, the emphasis of health and fitness programs has been on challenging the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems and improving aerobic capacity, muscular fitness, and flexibility. However, over the past few decades, the importance of training another essential body system is known as the neuromuscular system has been established.
The neuromuscular system is a complex and interconnected network that links the brain, spinal cord, and extremity nerves with sensory receptors and muscles located throughout the body. The role of the neuromuscular system is to integrate sensory information and, based on this information, to coordinate the appropriate muscle actions needed to produce a desired movement. The relationship between the various components of the neuromuscular system is similar to that of a musical conductor and the musicians in an orchestra. The conductor (the brain and spinal centers) is charged with directing the musicians (the muscles) in order to perform a specific musical piece. The conductor communicates with the musicians and directs them on how and when to play their instruments so that the correct notes are played with sufficient clarity, pitch, precision, and tempo (sensory information). If conducted effectively, the musicians execute a highly complex and precisely orchestrated musical performance (the desired motor task). Like the conductor directing musicians, the neuromuscular system uses sensory cues to control the muscles’ actions with sufficient precision, coordination, and speed.
The neuromuscular system coordinates every motor task completed throughout the day, and the amazing part is that the majority of these tasks are performed with little to no conscious effort. Even a simple task like getting dressed requires coordinated muscle activity. While getting dressed, did you consider engaging the muscles of your trunk, hips, and legs as you leaned forward to put on your shoes? Most likely you did not put a lot of thought into engaging all the muscles that were needed to carry out this activity. You simply considered the task that needed to be completed, and the right muscles were activated at precisely the right time. This is your neuromuscular system at work, and it has the extraordinary job of coordinating every muscle action for every movement you perform throughout the day.
The neuromuscular system helps people navigate their surroundings efficiently, effectively, and safely. Whether you are training for the sport or for general health, this system is essential to maintaining balance, agility, coordination, and body awareness. Improving neuromuscular function may significantly reduce the risk for future falls and some musculoskeletal injuries. Muscular fitness, cardiorespiratory endurance, and flexibility are important for long-term health and fitness; however, it would be difficult or even impossible to coordinate the thousands of muscle actions required to perform activities such as standing, walking, running, or jumping without a fully functional neuromuscular system.
Fortunately, like the other body systems, the neuromuscular system can be trained to help the body respond more rapidly and economically to the physical demands faced in everyday life. The most effective means of training the neuromuscular system requires a targeted exercise strategy, which for the purposes of this article is referred to generally as neuromotor training.
Neuromotor training, sometimes also referred to as functional fitness or sensorimotor training, involves specific exercises that challenge the neuromuscular system and are aimed at improving balance, agility, coordination, reaction time, and proprioception. This article outlines some of the important health and functional fitness benefits that can be derived from neuromotor training and details useful training tips to help you develop a personalized neuromotor training program based on your individual goals and needs.
Health and Functional Fitness Benefits of Neuromotor Training
All movement requires a specific sequence of muscle actions, and the neuromuscular system coordinates and produces these muscle actions based on information learned from previous movement experiences.
From infancy to adulthood, your neuromuscular system is continuously learning, processing, and storing new pieces of movement-related information that can be recalled at any time to help coordinate future motor tasks. Aging, deconditioning, musculoskeletal injury, and various neurological injuries and conditions can negatively affect neuromuscular function and movement quality. The neuromuscular function may begin to decline after the age of 30, resulting in diminished coordination and muscle control.
Fortunately, emerging evidence suggests that neuromotor training can be an effective strategy for improving various skill-related components of functional fitness and may positively affect the structure and function of the key brain and spinal centers involved in the movement. The benefits of neuromotor training have been examined in aging and athletic populations and have been reported to improve balance, muscle strength, and agility and to reduce the risk of falls and some lower limb injuries.
A number of underlying mechanisms have been attributed to neuromotor training including improved speed and efficiency of muscle recruitment, enhanced muscle force production, and improved reaction time in response to changes in environmental conditions and body position. In addition, because of the highly dynamic and multidimensional nature of neuromotor training, it is likely that this type of training may induce greater changes in the nervous system, resulting in improved skill acquisition and retention, when compared to more stationary, one-dimensional exercises.
Multifaceted physical activities such as tai chi and yoga involve varying combinations of neuromotor, resistance, and flexibility exercise and have become popular training methods for individuals ranging from professional athletes to the aging population. Tai chi and yoga provide individuals with low-impact and relatively safe forms of neuromotor exercise that can directly benefit balance, motor control, and proprioception.
In recent years, the term functional training has become popular within health, functional fitness, and athletic training settings and is used to refer to a specific form of exercise training. Historically, functional training was used as a rehabilitation strategy to engage patients in exercises that closely resembled, if not entirely replicated, normal activities of daily living. Over the past decade, functional training, as a form of neuromotor training, has become a very popular training method. Although the exercises prescribed for athletes and healthy adults may require greater function and skill compared to those used in clinical settings, the principles of functional training, when used among healthy adults, still retain their clinical roots by basing exercise strategies on movement patterns that mimic activities in daily life or athletic competition.
A more detailed description of some of these activities is provided later in this article. Some of the possible benefits of functional training are improved agility, reaction time, muscle force production, and body control. Improvements in these areas can directly affect how well people react to changes in their environment, especially when faced with rapidly changing conditions such as those experienced when one trip, stumbles or loses balance.
Despite the potential value of participating in neuromotor training activities in nonclinical settings, much still needs to be learned about the optimal duration, frequency, and intensity of training for long-term, sustainable health and fitness benefits. Definitive exercise recommendations for neuromotor training across all ages and ability levels have not been established; however, it is likely that benefits exist for anyone participating in physical activities that require agility, balance, and other motor skills or anyone who may be deficient in any of these areas.