Scientific advances in assistive devices such as supportive robotic exoskeletons can have great benefits for people with irreversible musculoskeletal problems or severe movement impairment. These devices may have excellent military applications.
In this post I’ll discuss something different: the claim, as covered by an article in Outside Magazine, that these devices have a legitimate and lasting place in the domain of athletic performance.
In a word: no. In two: bad idea.
The idea to use robotic assists as performance enhancing devices often stems from the hope of trying to reduce stress on joints for purposes of lifting weights or running with less load, as shown in this video. (Hugh Herr, the presenter, is awesome. To reiterate my opening point, I love the technology, but I strongly disagree with its athletic applications—essentially the idea of putting it on an otherwise perfectly healthy person.)
The most important reason I disagree is because the body is an adaptive system: chronically reduce the load on it, and you’ll reduce its load-bearing capability.
This is no hypothesis. That’s exactly what happens to astronauts when they spend time in space: they come back with skeletons that are less dense. If the stay is extended, as is the case with astronauts who spend time in space stations, it may take months to regain running ability.
A similar thing happens with weightlifting belts, arm casts, you name it. Studies show that there is no question that weightlifting belts stabilize the spine during lifting. But other studies suggest that this might be a problem: Baggage handlers who wore a weightlifting belt and then stopped were more likely to be injured than the people that wore it throughout the study, as well as the ones that didn’t wear one at all.
This is no news in systems thinking. A systemic archetype called shifting the burden to the intervenor recognizes and studies the underlying structure of the occurring events. This archetype is related to shifting the burden—one of the most famous and most prolific systemic archetypes.
Shifting the burden to the intervenor outlines how, when a perfectly-functioning, adaptive system becomes supported by an intervenor, it quickly loses resilience in whatever domain it was supported in. If you were really good at free kicks, and then someone comes along who now does free kicks for you, you’re going to lose that skill.
We all intuitively know and understand this systemic archetype: that’s why it’s an archetype. And this is what we call it: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The human body isn’t broken. By all accounts from an evolutionary hypothesis that is quickly gaining traction, the human body was built for endurance running. The most common and widespread running injuries—knee pain, shin splints, etc.—aren’t due to some intrinsic incapability of the human body to run. In a nutshell, the problem is that the endurance runners have turned into chronic sitters. And when they try to run, they get hurt.
There is no shortage of gait, physical therapy, and biomechanics experts to support this claim. In Movement, Gray Cook writes: “Many times, the activity gets the blame when the blame should be placed on the poor foundation the innocent activity was placed upon.”
You can’t run on a sitting foundation. But the answer still isn’t to wear crutches. Not for racing, certainly not for all running.
The answer is to get that body ready to run.
Using these robotic enhancements in the mainstream will only pull us further away from knowledge of our bodies, and catapult us more deeply into ignorance. Just like the people that get hurt more after using a weightlifting belt, we’ll be forever tied to those crutches. We’ll further cement the myth that we have weak, frail bodies, unfit to compete, while “those athletes, over there” just can run.
Our joints are not unsuited to interacting with gravity. In fact, interacting with gravity is all they are suited for. The myth that they are somehow inadequate is perpetuated by a society—and an athletic industry—that deals with running like someone who found a Ferrari in an abandoned warehouse.
They take it out for a spin, and it sputters and groans through the first mile, only to break down completely. Disappointed, they conclude that Ferraris were only built for show.
But they should have cleaned out the engine first.