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Tom McCook, 60: Tap Into Your Body’s Wisdom

We may tend to think that exercise has to be exhausting to have real health benefits, but movement specialist Tom McCook says that healthy movement can feel great and take only a few minutes — as long as we understand our body and move accordingly. McCook discusses the full body impact of simple movements, the importance of good form, and giving people the tools to help them get the most out of any form of exercise.

To be alive is to move, but how many of us consider how we are moving? We can be very fit using the usual metrics, but that doesn’t matter that much if we are moving inefficiently or even moving in a way that may be harming us. Lifting, running, exercising in all ways is good, but optimizing how we move is even better. It is similar to the difference between eating the correct foods and making an amazing meal out of the same foods. 

Tom has dedicated his life to understanding these things. He is a teacher and student of the body. For anyone who would like to experience Tom and his work, he will be in residence teaching at always-wonderful Modern Elder Academy in Baja Nov 6-13. The best life insurance is to take care of your body. At this very special session, dig deep into MEA’s core curriculum while learning to tap into your body’s wisdom and attune to living in it with fresh eyes. 

How old are you?
I’m 60.

How long have you been doing the work that you do?
Ah, 35 years. 

Where are you located?
Outside of San Francisco.

What would you call the work that you do?
I’d say I’m a movement specialist. Especially in the last 10 years, my focus has been more to teach people how to age well. I have found over the years I’ve always been asking the question, “How do I level the playing field for everybody in the class, instead of just the people that already move well and get the most out of it?” And from being inside of that question, I realized, well, if somebody doesn’t have an understanding of their body, it’s hard to direct their attention on how to improve what they’re doing. If you have some useful information about your own body and then you can process that through movement, touch, and some imagery, you can improve. Anybody can improve every area of their body, regardless of their age.

“Movement can really feel good; you’ll move more if you can lean in that direction and be taught how to do that”

When you say you have a movement studio, what does that mean?
Our studio is called Center of Balance. We teach a number of modalities, always looking for the answers to these questions: How is our body designed? How are we related? How are we designed to relate to gravity? How are we designed to breathe? How do the movements interrelate with each other? How does our body absorb force? All things that we’re not really taught, we’re not taught in athletics, those things we’re taught to grin and bear it. 

It’s pretty amazing when you start to learn how incredibly well our body is designed. And that’s really helpful, especially for an aging population, to know that you can learn some really useful things about your spine and your hips and how to relate to gravity better, especially if you’re sitting a lot, which is our current world. And the whole notion of pain — if you’re in pain, the tendency can be to not move, when that’s really not a good choice. The body’s designed to move and we need to move more often instead of less. But it doesn’t need to all be hard. That, I think, I’ve found over the years. People think of exercise as something that’s, “I need to do, it’s something I’ve got to grin and bear.” Instead of that, movement can really feel good; you’ll move more if you can lean in that direction and be taught how to do that.

It’s usually people that are 40 and above. And you start to think about your mortality in your body a little bit more when it starts to talk back to you. [chuckles] When you’re young and you can get away with pretty much anything and then, at a certain point in time, things shift and movement becomes a lot more important, your health becomes more important, how you’re using your mind and your attitude becomes more important, all those things tie together. 

I’m a longtime meditator and a lot of my clients would say, “Ah, I don’t meditate; that’s too difficult, it’s too hard.” And I think it’s the same with the body. If you have some really useful information about how your body is designed and then you can apply that to exercise, now you have something to put your attention on. And if you need to have some clear ideas of where to put your attention and why, then it becomes easier. And then that becomes the practice. “Okay, well, I’m feeling a little stiffness in my lower back, or my hips feel a little bit off, what do I need to do?” Then, you’re developing a tool bag to help yourself on any given day. It doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes at times. It could be 5, 10 minutes and you shift your energy, you shift your attention patterns, you shift your mood. And those are tools that are great for all of us. So, that’s my focus. That’s my work at this point in my life. 

Awareness is the starting point. Awareness of: What do I currently have going on in my body that I would like to improve? How do I relate to gravity? How do I stand better, so my body becomes more efficient? How can I breathe a little bit better? We breathe 20,000 times a day. If you improve your breathing just 1%, you’ve already improved quite a bit. Just becoming more efficient and more aware, it helps you put less wear and tear on your body. And that’s pretty critical as we get older because, statistics show, people make their New Year’s resolutions, they go to the gym in January and by mid-February a high percentage of them are no longer going. 

I think it’s related to these points that it doesn’t feel good; they either get maybe some minor injury, a little tweak, and then they don’t go back. But if you give them tools on, okay, based on where I am, how do I progress, how do I take care of my body, then you can get stronger, faster, but also, the movements will be more beneficial for you. 

You watch somebody like Michael Jordan and go, “Wow. Now, there’s somebody who’s graceful.” I think we tend to not use our mind in ways of using imagery to help ourselves change how we use our body. If you go to a performance of the ballet and you watch somebody move amazingly well, then you just saw something you didn’t know was possible and that’s inspiring what you just saw: “Wow, that’s pretty incredible to see somebody move well.” A runner, same thing. The efficiency and the fluidity tend to get overlooked with the notion of strength and conditioning being more talked about than really what makes them perform so well. 

Efficiency and Body Awareness

And as we age, when you think, what do we want to do? Well, we want to walk well, we want to relate to gravity well, we want to get up and down with ease, we want to feel confident in our body, we want to feel we have good balance, we want to have good energy; those are all related to efficiency. I think that’s not taught enough as it could be. It’s just beginning to be. And then people will move more, they’ll try new things if they feel confident. When you’re 15, you’re welcomed, you’re willing to push the wheelbarrow up a hill. But when you’re 60, maybe not. Or maybe you don’t want to. You’ll give it to the neighbor kid. 

Some thinking in terms of strength, if I teach people some simple things about their hips, and their spine, and their shoulders, then they can go do a deadlift or they can go lift something safely and effectively and get more benefit from it. And that’s been my focus with all the athletes I’ve worked with, too. I’ve worked with the Olympic swim team and a variety of athletes for many years. And just a little bit of a change in their mechanics, their performance improved. And they were much less injury prone, which is huge deal when you’re training that much. So, I think that hierarchy you mentioned is accurate and this piece tends to be left out: efficiency and body awareness. 

What do I got to do to stay mobile and fluid in my body on a daily basis? Mobility tends to be left out. In our spine, we have over a hundred joints when you include the ribs and these are all synovial joints. And synovial joints get lubrication through movement. That’s the nutrition and lubrication for the joints. And very few people on a regular basis will move their spine through its full range of motion on a daily basis. And simple spinal movements are not just good for your spine, but it’s good for your organs, it’s good for your head, it’s good for all of your systems of your body, and it doesn’t have to be dangerous or complicated. I think I love seeing people get inspired by that when they move in. They go, “Wow, that took five minutes. I feel pretty good right now. I’ll take that.”

That’s right. I think that the efficiency of movement, the quality of movement is something that people don’t train for.
And you think about it: What do we want? We want maximum benefit for the least amount of output. And that’s really not talked about very much in terms of strength training. And if you’re wearing your body, I’m not so sure if that’s really great for our health either. We get stronger at the expense of getting really beat up and tired all the time from our workouts. Really, I question that as a health practice. 

Giving people tools that are short, simple vignettes of movement that they can do daily — energetically, they feel so much better from two to five minutes of that. And that can be a break in the middle of their day or after you’ve been sitting at the computer for a couple of hours or less. Those little tools are really what’s valuable for us to actually shift our mood, shift our energy, and take care of ourself on a more regular basis. It doesn’t have to be just going to the gym.

“Giving people tools that are short, simple vignettes of movement that they can do daily — energetically, they feel so much better from two to five minutes of that”

I’m a huge believer in novel movement. And most people, we all think we move in new ways, but it’s incredibly difficult.
It is. And the other big piece is our feet. Our feet are a sense organ, just like our hands. And most of us have lived most of our life wearing shoes all the time. So, our feet have been dumbed down. I have them in the course: do these five or six exercises that change their ability to stand on their feet correctly, have better balance, which relates to neck tension, posture, lower back awareness, all related to your feet. Having that as a little break in the day, do something for your feet, do something for your lower back, do something for your spine, short little vignettes, it just makes everything work better and your mind works better. You’ve brought some blood flow and energy to your brain and you’ve cleared out the cobwebs and it’s a good thing. [laughs] 

Maybe once a week or every two weeks, I do full max heart rate. Because it’s just too —
Too taxing. Now, that’s really smart. That’s really smart. Yeah, I got the Oura Ring. So, I’m with you with the HRV and all of that. Yeah, it’s helpful. It’s really good information. That’s another piece of just giving people little tools that they can start tracking themselves a little better. And I think the awareness light starts to turn on a little bit more. They start to see that, “Oh, my quality of life, actually, I do have some say in it and it’s important that I track it.” Whether it’s from everything from diet to movement to meditation, all of these things, we have agency.

Most people don’t believe that. They are just like, some grim reality. It’s an act of God. Dude, you weighed 300 pounds because of something you’ve done.
Right. Well, I think that’s what I was like when I first mentioned, a lot of the people that exercise already had an affinity for movement. They already either move fairly well or they felt fairly confident in their body. But there’s still a large portion of the population that doesn’t. So, you can help people, even if they’re really good. But the stuff that I teach, you can help anybody get more confident because they start to see that our bodies are all designed the same. 

“I care less about a system of exercise and more about having people understand their own body”

We all have the same hip joints, we all have the same spinal design, same shoulders. If you have an understanding of how to use them better, it becomes more interesting and you feel more confident, and you get better results. I think that’s my goal is to have more people see that and learn those things.

I care less about a system of exercise and more about having people understand their own body. Then you can go do any system of exercise and get more out of it, because you know how to organize yourself. So, that way, I want to give people those types of tools. Then they can choose whatever they want to do in terms of their exercise. I don’t really care. They can pick whatever they’re interested in, and do it with more skill, and finesse, and some wisdom around it. And that makes more sense to me than, well, you got to do these things, because these things are more important than others. 

I think there’s thousands of exercises you could do. There are no bad exercises. There’s only exercises done badly or done with a bad philosophy. I’m not a big proponent of training to failure when your form goes to shit. 

I taught Ashtanga for about 15 years — very athletic form of yoga, which I like. And there’s still a portion of the attitude, especially in America, that good yoga is how far you go in the pose. That has nothing to do with yoga. Yoga is more about: can I stay sensible, calm and present under pressure? That’s really more of the philosophy of yoga. Can I stay kind to myself and be sensible and appropriate instead of further is better? Further is not necessarily better.

Then you would see that most of the teachers that became teachers in yoga were already flexible before they took a yoga class. 

Then the public thinks, “Oh, they must be a good yoga teacher because they can do a split” when it has nothing to do with yoga. That always struck me. I said: No, your practice is about you and your body. You bring your history to it. We all do, and let’s make it healthy for you so you can get the most benefit and not get caught up in judging yourself, comparing yourself to the person on the mat next to you or thinking that you’re deficient.

“Your practice is about you and your body — let’s make it healthy for you so you can get the most benefit and not get caught up in judging yourself”

I think that yoga and CrossFit have probably caused together more injuries than football or boxing. I’ve hurt myself worse in yoga than anything, and I practiced martial arts for five years.
One of the things when I was training a lot with swimmers, the swimmers that lasted were the ones that had pretty bulletproof bodies, because the whole system is getting better. The whole system is — they all over train. They all train way too much. If you’re a 100-meter racer, why are you swimming three to five miles a day? It doesn’t make any sense because you can’t swim that far with good form. What you’re going to do to survive is you’re going to make your body relax and your form is going to go to crap inside the water. So, it’s a really interesting thing to see. 

But we’re all learning here, right? So, I just feel I’ve been exposed to a lot of stuff, and I just think there’s a world open for people to move better, learn how to use their body better, and age well. I don’t think there’s any reason the last third of our life can’t be really fulfilling and that we can end our life in functional movement relating to gravity well and doing what we want to do that we find fulfilling and enjoyable.

Connect with Tom McCook:
Tom’s Modern Elder Academy Course November 6-13
Study with Tom
Website
Tom’s previous course with the Modern Elder Academy

1 COMMENT

  1. I took Tom’s online course with MEA. He teaches you a lot about anatomy and simple, beneficial moves that feel effortless. His shoulder exercises really helped me bring full range of motion back to a frozen shoulder.

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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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