Physical literacy: why mobility matters


One of my favourite things about my work life is that I get to spend a lot of time with people who are thinking about Big Things about the World. I work in strategy and change leadership within healthcare, higher education and academic healthcare, and there is no world more full of committed, smart people trying to make sure that their work has meaning.

Last week I facilitated a major forum with a bunch of rehabilitation professionals — mostly physiotherapists — about the anticipated evolution of health over the next decade or so. Some of the ideas that we chewed on as a group are right in the sweet spot of what we care about on the blog: what is a truly equitable approach to fitness and wellbeing? what is the role of moving well in living well? what is the relationship between physical mobility and economic, social and emotional wellbeing? how do we define and support physical fitness in way that acknowledges and counters privilege?

Two of the ideas that really intrigued me both related to redefining what we take for granted about wellbeing. The first is the concept of “physical literacy” — defined here as: the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.

The speaker on this topic works with an organization that leads programs and research around the relationship between positive social outcomes (life skills, academic performance, positive health behaviours) and developing physical literacy, activity and participation in sports among kids.

The concept of “literacy” can be a bit provocative — my group yesterday had a good conversation about the issues with implying that people are “illiterate” in their own relationship to their bodies before they are taught differently. But I also know in my own life that as I have increasingly learned to listen to the nuances and signals of my own body — and, for example, sought physiotherapy for pain in my shoulder before it becomes a real problem — I am much more confident about what I’m doing in the gym or on the road. I.e, as my literacy about my body and the things I can do to care for it improve, my health improves.

The other concept that really intrigued me was about the notion of redefining successful health outcomes as not being about lifespan — i.e., the pretty baseline measure of “I’m not dead yet” — to “healthspan” — how long a person is living a *healthy* life — or, how long am I living as fully as possible within my own definition of what’s important, meaningful and possible within my own body?”

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years redefining my own notion of healthy living and aging. I’ve written before about the idea of having regular mobility assessment and plans as we age, which is possibly even more important than regular screening for cervical and breast cancer if we want to preserve our ability to move and do the things that give our lives joy and meaning as we get older. And I’ve about how I’ve already had several different identities around my fitness as my body and life have changed, from Action Figure to Aging Adventurer. Sam has also written eloquently and honestly lately about her increasing comfort with accepting that exercise and movement are sometimes necessary work, not just fun, as her body changes.

I think, when our bodies change and age and hurt, and we get more tired, and movement doesn’t always come with ease, it’s very easy to let it slip away. (Confession: I am writing this post on my back in my bed with a laptop on my … well, lap, and a cat under my knees, after a long work week. I napped instead of working out. #thatsokay). But being physically literate to me is about recognizing that yes, sometimes, napping is what we need — but so is movement, and building strength, and doing the work part of fitness. And that means scheduling movement for the morning after my tortilla chip-fueled recovery nap.

Susan wrote a deeply lovely post this morning about finding new strength to open her own jars. Anytime I pay attention to an ache in my knee or shoulder and get it tended to so I can move better, anytime I shake off inertia and show up to a spinning or crossfit class or yoga class, or anytime I squeeze in a quick run or leave early to walk to a meeting — I’m looking for that same jar-opening strength. Reminding myself that I am in my own body, I own my body, and I’m making life fuller for the lithe old lady inside me.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives, works and naps in Toronto.

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