With such a focus on movement in physical therapy, we sometimes forget about one of the keys to proper movement: food. Balance, coordination, strength building, recovery—all of these important elements of PT are impacted by the things we put into our bodies. Have you ever experienced grogginess after a meal? How about muscle soreness that seems to take forever to go away? Both are related—at least in part—to diet. Here are a few important ways nutrition impacts movement.
Weight, Muscle Gain (and Loss)
An unhealthy or unbalanced diet can lead to fluctuations in weight and muscle gain. Too much weight can lead to obesity, a condition that has all kinds of implications on movement. When we don’t eat enough, we can lose the muscle mass we need to perform movements like walking, running, and jumping optimally. Both are common in physical therapy, especially when people recovering from injury go through sustained periods of reduced exercise, and tend to have uncharacteristic lapses in their diet.
Inflammation isn’t an abnormality: it’s an important part of the healing process. But excess inflammation can cause permanent tissue damage that impairs movement. Certain foods, however, combat inflammation by promoting blood flow and cell activity. Essential fatty acids like omega-3—commonly found in avocado, almonds, and olive oil—should be part of the diet of anyone suffering from inflammation. Of course, vegetable oils and fried or processed foods should be avoided, as they can worsen inflammation. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis? A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and antioxidants can help improve symptoms dramatically.
Muscle soreness, and the time it takes us to feel 100% again, is all part of the recovery process too. Interfering with recovery by returning to training, or training too hard, can lead to overuse injuries. How does this relate to diet? The body needs calories and, specifically, protein in order to carry out the recovery process. Tendon and muscle synthesis, connective tissue repair—the ability of the body to repair damaged tissue relies heavily on protein intake. Here’s a rule of thumb: consume one gram of protein per pound of body weight, daily—especially if you are exercising regularly.
Nutrition and movement are inseparable. The challenging part is encouraging patients to pay attention to something that happens internally—to see connections between nutrition and things like pain and inflammation that are invisible to the naked eye. The good news is that physical therapists are in a unique position, given the comparative frequency with which they see patients. This means more opportunities for educating patients on the ways diet affects movement, and for providing concrete steps they can take toward improved eating habits. Reiterating even simple things, like calorie counting, food groups, and weight tracking can make a significant impact on how a patient views their own nutrition and, ultimately, how well they can move their bodies.