Children with an early neurological problem learn their first movements with a damaged nervous system. Baby brains do recover, but it takes time. It is difficult to study the process of brain recovery in a baby because their brains are also very immature. A newborn uses less than 10% of their adult brain. By age 3 years, the amount of usable brain has only increased to near 30%. Fortunately, the rate of brain recovery in adults with a stroke has been well studied. The first 6-12 months is the period of most rapid recovery of function, with some people demonstrating full recovery. In the second and third year after a stroke, further improvements in motor function are possible, but the rate of change tends to slow down. The adult studies can be interpreted as giving a 2-3 year time window for the primary brain recovery process in humans. There is similar 2-3 year time frame for primary repair of nerve damage such as brachial plexus injury.
It is logical to assume that the young of the human species will follow similar pathways to recovery as the adult human. The key difference with children is, unlike the adult, they have no concept of “Normal”. Babies want to move and they will move using whatever resources are available. These early movements become hard wired into their brains as their own unique walking pattern. No matter how far it deviates from normal to the observer, to them, it feels normal.
Christine learned to walk with her own unique gait and has used this gait pattern into adulthood. Walking independently is a slow process that takes a lot of energy. Although she appears very unsteady, her balancing reactions are quite good and she rarely falls.
For the past two years, Christine has been working with me and a dedicated network of family and friends to change her early walking habit. She has followed a program of rehabilitation that is directed by coaches, therapists and trainers from a variety of health and exercise disciplines. I chose to work with Christine to prove the point that change is possible even in an adult with an early onset problem such as cerebral palsy. She was brave enough to still have hope for change and was willing to commit the time and energy to doing the work of change.
Exercise scientists and coaches understand that it is difficult, if not impossible, to change a habit from within a habit. Equally, it is very hard to change an established walking pattern by walking badly. One of the first and most important techniques for Christine was a water exercise program.
Deep water jogging with a floatation device is a terrific way to train normal reciprocal movements. In deep water, the individual is in a gravity free environment and they have to learn how to move in it. This new environment challenges all the available brain resources and the result is often normal movement, within minutes.
This underwater video clip shows Christine’s legs moving reciprocally. Water provides a gravity free environment and because she is supported by the floatation device, she has no fear of falling. If she tried to move forward with her abnormal habit, she would just turn in circles. The challenge to learn how to move in the water takes her out of her comfort zone, revealing normal leg movements.
Deep water jogging became her core training exercise and a year later, she can jog for 30 minutes straight and moves easily in the water. In this video clip, she has progressed to using water weights on both legs to increase her proprioceptive awareness and further strengthen the normal movement pattern.
Read more about the Basic Water Exercise Program for Gait Training here…