Efficient movement is what everyone wants. But what is it and how is efficient movement different from effective movement? First, let’s make clear that we are all moving with the maximum efficiency our nervous system allows. That is, we do our best with the resources we are aware of—not necessarily the resources that we have.

The nervous system solves the problem of doing something, or moving toward or away from something, in the most efficient way it can. To accomplish a task in the most efficient way possible, the puzzle-solving machine of the nervous system figures out the best method based on the resources available, the context the task has to be completed in, and several other factors. If you complete the task, you could say it was performed effectively. This is not the same as being efficient. Effective just means that you produced the intended result, while efficient means that you completed the task with little wasted time or effort. That is a big difference.

Some examples about Efficient Movement :

For example, let’s observe a baby learning to walk. She sees something and wants to reach it. The baby will learn to move efficiently enough to effectively reach the object. If she can crawl to the object there is no need to learn to walk; she will just keep crawling to effectively accomplish the task. If the baby wants to increase how quickly she can reach the object, she will have to figure out a way to do it faster. She tries standing up and walking toward the object. Initially, she does so by holding onto something, but eventually she needs to get to something that is in the middle of the floor where there is nothing to hold onto. It might take a while, but through trial and error and many falls, eventually the baby learns to walk without falling. She can reach the object in the middle of the floor faster and more efficiently by walking than crawling. More-challenging tasks force the nervous system to figure out more efficient ways to move. It may be just as effective to crawl to reach the object, but it is not as fast or efficient!

Another example might be an active adult who plays tennis. He plays effectively enough to go out and have fun at the local tennis club a couple of times per week and eventually decides to join a tennis league. Initially, it is just for fun, so he goes out and plays. Then he might decide to become competitive. Now it is not good enough to play effectively; he must also learn how to play more efficiently. The nervous system needs to learn how to coordinate movements better so that he can move faster on the court while still hitting the ball well and placing it out of reach of his opponent. The nervous system has to figure out how to do this consistently. He may be able to do this effectively if he can win a match, but not efficiently enough if he is so sore the next day he cannot win another match. Then to increase the efficiency, his nervous system needs to figure out how to either increase the resources available (get stronger, more flexible, faster) or to improve how it uses the resources (where to stand on the court, how to read the opponent better, be better coordinated, improve motor patterns).

There comes a point where we believe a given movement is efficient enough. When we can effectively accomplish the task at hand in an efficient manner, learning grinds to a halt. We then automatically repeat what we consider to be efficient, even though it could become more efficient if we continued to learn. This could be like the baby deciding to crawl through life. If we had to become more efficient we could, like the tennis player upping her game, but the cost–benefit ratio is too high. That is, it often requires too much time and effort for the nervous system, so learning essentially ends. The movement is effective and efficient enough, so we practice the task repetitively until it becomes habitual. Later in this article we examine how we get stuck in movement patterns that no longer serve us and how these habits can lead to injuries. For now, let’s look at how to improve our movement abilities.

We are typically able to perform a task better through the combination of increasing available resources and improving how the resources are being used. When we face movement challenges, if it is important enough—if the cost–benefit ratio makes learning or improving a new skill worth it—we will figure out a way to do it. Both the baby learning to walk and the tennis player are being challenged. They become stronger, more balanced, and develop better muscle coordination over time. This holds true for everyday activities such as walking up and down stairs, squatting to plant a garden, and driving. If the challenge is not important enough to us, there is no reason for the nervous system to become more efficient or learn new activities.

We need to challenge our nervous system with meaningful movements if we want to stay active as we age. For us to learn something new or to improve on an activity in which we are already effective, we must give the nervous system puzzles. Solving problems makes us more efficient. From understanding this distinction between efficiency and effectiveness, we will move on to a third factor of movement: quality.