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  • Writer's pictureTanner Benedict

Outdoor Adventures: Activities that Improve with Effective Physical Therapy

The great outdoors offer a wide array of activities that not only allow our community to have fun but also help them stay active and lead happy, healthy lives. These activities encompass everything from hiking the breathtaking Belly River area to simply indulging in relaxation while floating on your favorite floaty (with your preferred beverage in hand) along the serene shores of Whitefish Lake. For many, these activities serve as a means to escape the chaotic and ever-changing landscape they call life. However, most individuals merely perceive these activities as basic forms of exercise, primarily aimed at maintaining physical fitness and overall well-being. Nevertheless, by incorporating physical therapy into these activities with the right approach and intention, individuals can enhance their strength, improve mobility, and alleviate pain. Some activities that improve with effective physical therapy are skiing and hiking.

Let's consider skiing as an example. The Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort (yes, it's still affectionately known as Big Mountain to most) offers an incredible opportunity for the Whitefish community and neighboring cities to explore and embrace the snowy wonders of the north. Skiing not only provides an exhilarating and enjoyable experience for overall well-being, but it also serves as a remarkable means to enhance leg strength, improve hip mobility, and increase low back stability while tearing down the slopes or reveling in those coveted deep powder days we all fantasize about. To comprehend the application of physical therapy to skiing, it is essential to delve into the realms of human anatomy and familiarize ourselves with the tools we employ during this thrilling sport.

Wix photo skier
Reflections of your future...

The human anatomy of the legs and lower back is both remarkably intricate and elegantly simple. Let's start by examining the bones comprising the legs and gradually move on to the surrounding structures. The femur, tibia, and fibula collectively form what we commonly refer to as our legs, facilitating the transmission of substantial forces from the ground to the supporting structures, such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. This transfer of force grants us the control needed to navigate through mogul fields, soar across powdery terrains, or even experience the adrenaline rush of a friendly race under chair one resulting in a double ejection (not that I'm speaking from personal experience...). However, there's a catch. When we exert excessive force on these supporting structures, we compromise our ability to move with control. This can arise due to muscular weakness, poor motor control, or even tissue failure. Consequently, we increase the likelihood of injury, develop flawed movement patterns, and potentially experience pain or injury in the future. Now, the question arises: How can we harness the substantial forces involved in skiing and ensure that they benefit us in a constructive manner, rather than becoming detrimental to our well-being?

To begin with, obtaining an evaluation from a skilled physical therapist specializing in functional movement assessment is of utmost importance. A competent therapist will conduct a comprehensive and meticulous evaluation of your entire system, from head to toe, identifying any dysfunctional areas that could potentially affect your skiing mechanics. One common example of a flawed movement pattern is inward knee collapse. Such patterns usually stem from various factors, including weakness in the hip muscles (such as gluteals and deep rotators), restricted mobility in the hip joint or muscles, or a disconnection between the brain and muscles (motor control) resulting from improper form or prior injuries. Once these dysfunctions are diagnosed, corrections can be implemented to enhance your movement patterns, thereby reducing stress placed on the knee. By alleviating this stress, skiing can serve as a dual-purpose activity, functioning as physical therapy to minimize future issues and allowing you to reap all the benefits it has to offer.

Let's now turn our attention to backpacking as our second example. Northwest Montana is renowned for its incredible hiking and backpacking opportunities. Whether you're embarking on short day hikes in Glacier National Park or embarking on multi-day adventures through the Bob Marshal Wilderness, one thing remains constant: the presence of a backpack. Throughout the years, I have assisted numerous individuals in mastering the proper utilization of backpack straps, hip belts, and other adjustable features. However, backpacks can become a major source of stress during hiking and backpacking if improperly fitted or used. In this example, we will focus on the upper back, arms, and neck region. When a backpack is fitted incorrectly, it tends to burden the shoulders excessively rather than distributing the forces through the pelvis and lower back. The good news is that this issue can be easily remedied by adjusting the straps to place more emphasis on the hip belt and the top of the pelvis, allowing the backpack to hang more freely from the shoulders and neck. Failure to make this correction often leads to a range of common issues. Firstly, the shoulders become depressed, exerting increased strain on the muscles of the neck and shoulder region, thereby disrupting the optimal length-to-tension ratio. In other words, the muscles become irritated, leading to spasms and pain. Over time, these imbalances can give rise to poor movement patterns, resulting in discomfort and impairing our ability to carry out daily activities, including shoulder, mid-back, and neck pain.

Wix photo hikers
Abbey road album mountain rendition.

The solution remains consistent: always seek out a physical therapist who is trained in functional movement assessment (a skill touted by many but mastered by few). Once you have found such a therapist (hint hint, wink wink), the next step involves establishing a diagnosis, identifying necessary corrections, and implementing proper movement patterns or adjustments to your backpack. With these adjustments in place, you will be able to carry more gear for longer durations without limitations or pain, enabling you to fully enjoy the benefits of hiking while bearing the load of your backpack.

The moral of the story is simple: choose the activities you love, find an exceptional physical therapist, address any dysfunctions and flawed movement patterns, and leverage your passions as a means to achieve bodily equilibrium while engaging in the activities you adore.

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