I’ve been seeing some things being bandied around on the internet recently – robotic exoskeletons to enable you to ski for longer and springs that you put behind your knees to enable you to stand up for less effort. I got a little incensed about this, mainly because of what they have in common – a lack of strength, continued atrophy of muscles, and the potential enfeeblement of the human body. (Don’t get me wrong – exoskeletons/replacement limbs for paraplegics and amputees are a good thing – I’m railing against something else here.)
It might seem like a lovely idea – a thing that you can buy (no effort), in order to strap on (no effort) for you to then do a sport that you enjoy (for pretty much no effort) and being able to do it for longer with less pain.
Hmmm. let’s take this apart for a moment, shall we?
The ability to do the thing you love is pretty important. Skiing happens to be one of those things which occurs once or twice a year (sometimes more, sometimes less depending on snow, finances and a variety of other reasons). In order to do the activity at a low level you don’t necessarily need to be hugely fit, but you do need some kind of strength to make it a little more pleasant, rather than having your legs screaming at you from the moment you start down the first run.
As humans we are pretty rubbish at planning forward. If we don’t see the immediate benefit of doing something, it tends to get left by the wayside…. Even if we *know* we’re going skiing this winter and you’re going to need some strength in your legs, it isn’t generally until about 2 weeks before a ski holiday that people start thinking about ski specific strength – by which point its a bit too late.
I can see why a set of robotic leg supports is a thing that might appeal to some. It’s ski season, I haven’t had time (or inclination) to train and get ready, yet I want to ski for longer, what can help me do that? Ah – something to strap on, happy days, I can go for longer!
What we lack here is the slow and steady increase in muscle mass, the increase in ability, the ability to move the legs in a useful physiological range, cartilage health, ligament strength etc all of which goes with longevity and ability to do the sport. Yes, exoskeletons are damn cool, and just the thought of stepping into one and having supernatural strength is quite an exciting thing. However – what if you could have that strength without relying on an external source?
Other people can ski all day. It isn’t a supernatural thing to be able to do that. It’s fairly common, to be honest. Yes, there might be some tiredness, fatigue etc. but it is a possible thing to do. Why? Muscles.
Why do people lose the ability to get out of chairs or off of the toilet? Do we suddenly wake up one day and find that it is an impossibility? Is there a general downward trend? Is it as a result of surgery? When we find that something is hard to do, do we think “ah well, it’s too hard, I won’t try anymore” Or do we try and work out how to improve in order to maintain some kind of ability?
In the elderly, a broken hip has a high mortality rate. At the least there tends to be a significant reduction in ability to perform day to day tasks. Is this because a broken hip is particularly dangerous?
I don’t think so – it is generally because by the time someone is at high risk of a broken hip, the musculature around the anti-gravity muscles has atrophied to the point that the ability to stand on one leg, let alone two is significantly reduced. Trying to rehabilitate someone who has a broken hip while the other leg is too weak to work on its own is a real challenge – for the therapist and for the person. Invariably it ends with a massively reduced amount of mobility and independence.
What am I trying to get at here?
Perhaps that getting a set of robotic legs, knee assists etc because you’re feeling old and tired is not a step in the right direction. Yes, it is a quick fix, but really, it isn’t a fix at all. It is papering over the cracks – or turning up the car radio volume to drown out the noise of your engine going wrong.
Weakness and the inability to do something for a sustained period of time is a warning sign. It is an indication that your muscles are tired and needing to rest and are not up to the task of doing what you want them to do. At this point, DON’T turn up the music, DON’T accept defeat and buy a riser/recliner or a knee spring thing… the answer is intrinsic. Your muscles and soft tissues are not serving you well. So improve them. Yes it takes time. Yes it takes effort. No it is not a quick fix, but what it is, is a FIX.
Being strong enough to walk, to ski, to get off the toilet is pretty damn important to most of us. Don’t give up on the responsibility to keep yourself as a functioning human. Just because there is something that makes life easier because it enables you to do a normal activity with less muscle power does not make it a good thing.
I know what I’m trying to say.
Don’t become enfeebled by technology. Your capacity to continue to function well is your responsibility. Declining strength in later years is only an inevitability if you let it be so.