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PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31143. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031143. Epub 2012 Feb 24.

Mechanical work as an indirect measure of subjective costs influencing human movement.

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Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States of America.


To descend a flight of stairs, would you rather walk or fall? Falling seems to have some obvious disadvantages such as the risk of pain or injury. But the preferred strategy of walking also entails a cost for the use of active muscles to perform negative work. The amount and distribution of work a person chooses to perform may, therefore, reflect a subjective valuation of the trade-offs between active muscle effort and other costs, such as pain. Here we use a simple jump landing experiment to quantify the work humans prefer to perform to dissipate the energy of landing. We found that healthy normal subjects (N = 8) preferred a strategy that involved performing 37% more negative work than minimally necessary (P<0.001) across a range of landing heights. This then required additional positive work to return to standing rest posture, highlighting the cost of this preference. Subjects were also able to modulate the amount of landing work, and its distribution between active and passive tissues. When instructed to land softly, they performed 76% more work than necessary (P<0.001), with a higher proportion from active muscles (89% vs. 84%, P<0.001). Stiff-legged landings, performed by one subject for demonstration, exhibited close to the minimum of work, with more of it performed passively through soft tissue deformations (at least 30% in stiff landings vs. 16% preferred). During jump landings, humans appear not to minimize muscle work, but instead choose to perform a consistent amount of extra work, presumably to avoid other subjective costs. The degree to which work is not minimized may indirectly quantify the relative valuation of costs that are otherwise difficult to measure.

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