Bilateral Coordination

Mary Tweed
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Many people whom I have taught how to Nordic Walk, struggle in the early days with coordinating their opposite arm to swing at the same time as their opposite leg, even though these very same people arrive at my class by walking naturally. The moment they are given a pair of poles and asked to think about their movement they begin to “tick tock”, moving the the same arm alongside the same leg, resulting in a seesaw motion rather than a smooth progression. For some, this “natural” movement can be difficult to master when over analysing what they are doing and last week, in one of my classes, the question was asked about how natural is this so called natural movement and does it matter?

Having conducted some research, it turns out that not only is this an incredibly natural movement learnt in childhood, but it is also a vital movement for brain function, development and everyday life skills. As babies the first bilateral skill that we learn is crawling, an activity, which many paediatric occupational therapists believe to be a critical developmental milestone that carries many benefits for the future. Crawling strengthens the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders, which are used to bear the weight of the upper body, thus engaging most of the skeletal muscles, rather like Nordic Walking. It also teaches the arms and legs to work in reciprocal movements, in other words, the opposite arm works at the same time as the opposite leg, otherwise known as bilateral coordination. Walking correctly promotes this bilateral coordination.

There is an imaginary line that runs down the centre of the body separating left and right vertically, which is known as the midline. Crossing the midline refers to the ability to move a body part, such as an arm, leg or an eye into the space of the opposite arm, leg or eye. The action of the left and right sides of the brain and body working co-operatively together is called cross-lateral integration and builds the foundations for skills that require motor coordination, such as holding a pen; balancing; reading from left to right; using a bat to hit a ball; and even putting on shoes. Being able to carry out this cross-lateral action is a milestone in childhood that indicates that the right and left side of the brain are now working in tandem.

As we age, some of this midline crossing ability can decline resulting in a loss of balance and coordination, which turns even simple tasks, such as putting on socks, into a challenge. Practising sports and exercises that test and stimulate cross lateral integration can prevent (and in some cases reverse) that decline. New treatments for the rehabilitation of patients who have suffered strokes includes an element of bilateral therapy, in order to encourage the non-affected and the affected hands to work together. It is thought that this will persuade the two sides of the brain to work better together again, thus restoring a degree of balance.

Nordic Walking, using the correct technique, as taught by the British Nordic Walking Association, is the perfect exercise to reinforce cooperation between the brain and the body by practising bilateral coordination, thus preventing any loss of ability. Rotating the shoulders and thereby bringing the right shoulder forward in time with the left foot and visa versa enhances this cross lateral movement and therefore the benefits. They say that practise make perfect and eventually this movement will become second nature, even to those who call into question whether or not it is “natural.”

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