The Exercise Dilemma

Much of my time as a student at the Teachers College has been focused on why people should exercise more. We learn about the mechanisms involved in how exercise effects all the major systems of the body to prevent and … Continue reading

Rehearsal with (Alex)andra Taylor Dance

I’ve been in the studio with (Alex)andra Taylor Dance as we prepare for an upcoming performance in November. We have been playing around with the idea of “absorbing” each other in our improvisations. I find this sped up version of our improv warm-up playful and inspiring. We have a great connection to each other even when we are simply doing our own thing, and eventually we all find our way back to the group.

Check out Alex’s Website and facebook page!

Enjoy!

On Stretching

As a dancer, I can feel my body getting stiffer and less flexible within days of going without stretching. For most individuals it isn’t necessary to be able to touch your nose to your knees with your legs stretched out, so why is stretching so important?

While studying exercise physiology, I have begun to notice that there is a strange lack of consensus for or against stretching. As for preventing injuries and improving athletic performance, the research is conflicting. And although stretching can certainly help to increase and maintain range of motion over time, and this is becomes extremely beneficial as we age in terms of our functional ability to do activities of daily living, there is not a lot of research on what type of stretching works best.

Active or dynamic stretching is most often encouraged. Yoga would fall into this category. This type of movement encourages the lengthening of one muscle or muscle group while activating it’s antagonist. It incorporates slow movement throughout the entire range of movement. For example, lowering into a runner’s lunge will stretch out your hip flexor while challenging the quadriceps for stability and the hamstring of the opposite leg for support.

Static stretching is probably what most people think of when they hear stretching. This would involve the isolation of certain muscle and holding at the end point of that stretch for an extended length of time. For example,  lifting your elbow over your head and using your other hand to pull it toward the opposite side is a static stretch for your triceps.

Setting up for ballistic stretching can be similar to either dynamic and static but the idea would be to “bounce” into the stretch near the end point of that range of motion. One example would be reaching your arm overhead and leaning to the opposite side into a lateral flexion. This side stretch which lengthens the obliques and intercostal muscles of the elongated side is often repeated at the end point, and was popular in aerobic style classes.

There is also  passive stretching which requires a prop or a partner. This type of stretching necessitates for complete relaxation of the joint and surrounding muscles.  In yoga, the use of a strap to help stretch the hamstrings, while lying on your back, can be very helpful for people whose leg cannot exceed a 90 degree angle.

In my opinion, these are all valuable methods of stretching. Figuring out what works best for you will probably require some trial and error. Dance training utilizes all of these techniques, and incorporating a little of each into a routine will probably get you the best results.  And of course it will depend on what your end goal might be; maintaining hip and hamstring flexibility might be a priority if you want to be able to reach down and tie your shoes. For older populations, maintaining shoulder range of motion becomes helpful for activities such as dressing. One thing is for certain with flexibility and range of motion, if you aren’t “going there” today, you can’t expect to be able to be there tomorrow. In other words, if you don’t use it you lose it.

What I like about movement classes, is the fluidity you can achieve while stretching. This would be considered dynamic stretching but it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or pushing toward the maximum stretch. Finding the range of motion in your rib cage and hips can just be about motion, and finding an ease in the joint. Tai Chi is a good example of this, and there have been multiple studies of why this is good for the joints and overall health. The body holds a lot of stress from our day to day lives and practicing some kind of movement technique helps you become more aware of what your body is doing and allowing your self to consciously let that tension go.   Personally I believe this is something we can all gain from, whether you are an athlete or just an individual wanting to become more active and stay in good shape as you age.

If you are not afraid of looking a little goofy, trying a movement improvisation based on circles and spirals in all of your joints might tell you a lot about your movement capacity.

If you aren’t into dancing around in your living room, here is a series of stretches you could do at work that might not attract too much attention.

1. For the front of the chest and shoulders: (great for posture) Find a door jam. Place your hands at shoulder height on either side of the door frame and allow yourself to fall forward opening up in your chest. Keep your core engaged for support and if you can keep your heels down you’ll get a bit of calf stretch as well.

2. For the glutes and lower back: (great for those of us who sit a lot) Sitting in a chair, put one ankle over the opposite knee and round forward into the stretch. Take a nice deep breath and try to relax in your hip socket. Repeat with the other leg.

3. For the neck (great to release tension): Sit up tall in your chair, drop your shoulders down, lift slightly in the sternum to open the chest. Lower your chin toward your chest hold for a few breaths and then begin circling your head. Imagine drawing a circle with the top of your head and be careful not to drop your head completely to the back. Repeat the circling in the other direction.

4. For the hip flexors (great for the front of the hip and the lower back): From standing, take a big step forward into a small lunge. Tilt your pelvis back trying to open up the front of the hip. Make sure your front knee is tracking over your foot and doesn’t go past your toe putting extra pressure on your knee. Stretch your back leg long and reach your heel toward the floor. If you are feeling strong here, you can raise the same arm as your back leg up over your head and lift up and over to the opposite side into a small lateral stretch. This will enhance the stretch of the hip flexor and test your balance.

5. For your obliques (great for the spine and core stability): Stand up with your feet together. Clasp your fingers together and rotate your arms so that your palms are facing away from your body. Raise your arms above your head and slowly reach up and over to the right side. Imagine lengthening the left side while keeping the hips stable and your weight evenly dispersed on both feet. On your next inhale slowly lift back up to standing before starting on the opposite side. Careful to only go as far as you can control, this stretch requires quite a bit of core strength if you are doing it correctly!

Take deep breaths during your stretches and if you start to feel pain back away. Some stretches are more uncomfortable than others but you should never feel sharp pain, this may be a sign that you are stretching too far.

The Importance of Hydration

Recently, I was lucky enough to sit in on a lecture from Lawrence Armstrong, Ph.D. FACSM an expert in the area of hydration. It seems like a lot of health specialists give out the advice to drink more water, and … Continue reading

Get Up, Be Active

Since my last entry I have started studying at Teachers College of Columbia University to get a Masters in Applied Physiology of Exercise. The course work thus far has been incredible, and I’m learning so much about the state of our country (and the world) when it comes to being physically active. It has taken a long time for the science to catch up with the changes in our daily habits and current culture of work and leisure. The most haunting facts that have been discussed recently regard our sedentary behavior.

We sit, and we sit a lot. We know that we should exercise, and many of us do! But what the current studies are finding is that even if you get in your recommended 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity exercise per week, but spend the rest of your time sedentary, you will still be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.

So much of today’s work consists of sitting in front of computer screens, sitting for meetings, sitting for phone conversations. When we get home, we sit in front of our personal computer, or TV. Today I am going to list a few tips that has helpful for me to try to increase my daily physical activity and minimize inactivity.

1) Wear an Accelerometer or Pedometer. Something that measures your daily activity or steps will give you a way to track your activity from day-to-day. Seeing how active you were one day over another might be enough motivation to get you moving, or set goals for yourself to increase your activity.

2) Get up periodically during the day. Some people like to set alarms on their computers, or make themselves get up frequently to refill a glass of water. Whatever you do at your desk, every half hour, or hour make sure you stand up for a minute, take a brief walk. It just might help you to concentrate and be more focused when you get back to work.

3) Change your work habits. If you are so inclined to change your work space, there are multiple options. Some people prefer standing desks, or desks that can alter their height from sitting to standing. At the Teachers College lab, they even have a treadmill desk! Getting a balance ball chair is also a great alternative, you might still be sitting, but your core and balance muscles will still be at work. Also think about walking meetings. Who says the only way to solve a problem is to sit and talk about it? Go for a walk and see what ideas come up.

4) Take the stairs. Walking is excellent for your health, and if you are healthy enough to take the stairs do it. Why wait for the elevator if you’re just going up a few flights?

5) Schedule your workouts. Whether you go in the morning, in the middle of the day, or at night, make sure it’s on your calendar and that you actually go. It’s too easy to press snooze in the morning, go for a long lunch or fall into the couch after work. Do what ever you need to do to make sure you still get in some exercise.

Can Exercise Boost Your Immunity?

It’s cold season. I hear people sneezing on the train, people sniffling at the office and coughing as they are walking down the street. You can’t avoid it. According to John Hopkins Medicine, the average adult gets 2-4 upper respiratory infections per year. We are constantly being exposed to millions of germs on a daily basis. Our immune system, is just that a system, that works to combat the germs and fight against infections.

In the past decade there have a number of studies looking at the effects of physical activity on immune function. While exercise is known to be beneficial for helping control and prevent a number of age related ailments and disease, this is a relatively new subject to be researched. One’s overall immune function is mostly genetic but the average adult’s immune defense does varies from day to day based on lifestyle choices. Vitamins, supplements and basic dietary choices can help promote a healthy immune response. Sleep plays an important role and not surprisingly, the amount of stress in your daily life can also negatively effect your ability to fight off a cold.

So what about exercise? It is one of the lifestyle choice that appears to be helping immune function. This shouldn’t be too shocking as moderate exercise is also helpful with dealing with stress and anxiety. Just another reason to be getting in those daily physical activity minutes! But studies show that too much can start having an opposite effect. Intense exercise, labeled at more than hour and half of sustained physical activity (i.e. marathon runners, professional athletes) can weaken your ability to combat viruses. Many athletes are more susceptible to getting sick after a big competition where they were training for extended periods of time. So unless you are a professional, like for so many things in life, moderation is key.

Check out these links below that talk about how to boost your immunity this cold season!

NBCNews: 7 easy ways to boost your immunity

Harvard Health Publications: How to boost your immune system

Webmd: fitness and exercise: Boost your Immune System

Active.com: Answering your question about immunity

About.com: Exercise and Immunity

Keeping Fit on Vacation

Vacations and traveling can be refreshing and energizing but they can also leave us feeling a bit heavier upon return home. My dad used to tell me, “there are no calories on Holidays” and like so many others I take advantage of times with friends and family or on vacation as times to splurge and not think about eating “right” and just enjoying a good meal and a dessert. And there is nothing wrong with that! The last thing I would recommend is to go on a trip and not experience the food! But vacationing is not an excuse to be less active either….

On most of my vacations I do a lot of walking without thinking about it. Walking is great, and can mean the difference of 1.3 more years of healthy life in terms of cardiovascular disease if you are walking just 30 minutes a day. (according to a 2005 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine)

Living in New York City, I can easily walk 30 minutes a day when I include my commute to work and running errands in my neighborhood. If you live in a more suburban community getting those minutes in might have to be a bit more proactive when you drive everywhere you need to go. But exploring new cities, it should be easy to get in that burst of activity each day- but that might not be enough if you are also eating slightly more- or more richly than normal.

Unless you are at an all amenities included hotel, chances are you are without a gym. Here is when knowing how to get a good work out without relying on machines is most beneficial. Pilates and Yoga are both great to utilize in these types of situations. And getting creative with squats, lounges, and planks can give you a full body workout with limited space and equipment.

I found this article on a ten minute plank work out by Tina Haupert on Health Magazine’s Website. I tried it over the weekend and my abs and arms were definitely sore the next day. It’s incredibly intense and not suitable for beginners to plank workouts but it is telling just how little you need to work up a sweat. A modified version of this workout would be to add in moments in downward dog and child’s pose to rest.

Extra time stretching can also be a great addition to vacation time workouts. Stretching can be very relaxing and much needed after long periods of time sitting (travelling). Long trips on a plane or a car can be terrible for circulation. Try to stand up for a minute every hour or so, and making sure you rotate your ankles, stretch the calves and legs and doing a few straight leg press ups onto your toes can increase blood flow and prevent cramps.

Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.”

I just finished another great book by Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. Hours after I finished the last chapter I’d already handed the book to a coworker to read. I highly recommend it. I might be biases towards Murakami because I am also a fan of his fiction writing, but this memoir/ running journal was a lovely read.

Not all of us train everyday to be an olympic athlete, and most of us wouldn’t want to, or wouldn’t have the motivation to do so. What I appreciated out of this book was how he related his running and training toward his work as a writer and a person in today’s society. To be a long-distance runner and participate in over 25 marathons and numerous triathletes, you can already guess that Murakami is very dedicated to running, and has some serious will power to continue even after all these years.  He found running because he felt himself gaining weight and losing energy when he started writing full time. Even though he kept a busy schedule with work, he would still find time to run for an hour almost every day. The memoir talks about some of the places where he has run, and races he’s participated in, but mostly its about the struggle to keep going. But overcoming the struggle to get moving brings immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

It doesn’t get any easier, even after running for 25 years apparently. But his notes, looking back on that roller coaster, the thoughts and inspirations that have come to him over time are emotional and heart warming. Running can be a little bit like meditation, once you find that groove, your body takes over and your mind quiets down.

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

Murakami admits that he sometimes prefers to be by himself, he talks about not having the most likable disposition, so training long hours alone suited him. I think everyone needs to be alone once in a while though (to take a moment of reflection, to clear the brain) and working out no matter what you are doing, can be a great time to give yourself that opportunity. Otherwise why are you doing it? One of Murakami’s mantras while running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

One of the chapters that resonated the most to me was him talking about getting older and how he never really imagined himself getting older. He remembered Mick Jagger once saying “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty five”.  But who can laugh at Mick Jagger, who was still singing Satisfaction into his sixties? We all think we are going to be young forever, when we are young. This is all our first times growing older, he says, and so these feelings are new, and we don’t always know how to deal with them. I think everyone no matter how old they are can relate to that.

I think most people are competitive in nature, but not everyone chooses to be competitive all the time. In one section Murakami talks about the nature of running and how if the only reason to participate in a race was to beat a particular person, we wouldn’t have any motivation when that person didn’t show up to the race. Running has to be motivated from somewhere in yourself. I think that can be true to most competitive sports, but running in particular.

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

So whether or not you are interested in running, or writing, I would recommend reading this book. It gives inspiration to those of us who struggle to get up early in the morning to work out- or train for a particular goal, but it also gives the reader insight into some observations on life and people in general.

“Has the dark shadow really disappeared?
Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?
Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly, waiting until everyone’s asleep. I have looked deep inside myself, trying to detect something that might be there. But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body. Everywhere you turn there’s darkness, and a blind spot. Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is waiting for you.”

On Knees

The knee is often considered to be the most complicated joint in the human body. It is a large and often injured structure. Many of us, of all ages, struggle with knee pain, and it annoyingly can get in the way with exercise.

The catch-22 with exercise is that too much of it can lead to overuse injuries, commonly of the knee, and too little leaves muscles and joints prone to accidental injuries if you’re not careful. And once you have an injury, you are even more likely to sustain another in the future. So what’s the solution?

My best advice if you are suffering from knee pain, but there hasn’t been a formal “injury” to the joint, is to take preventative action! That goes for people who have had knee injuries in the past as well. Keeping the surrounding muscles and tendons strong is the best way to get rid of the pain and help prevent an injury from occurring. My knees have begun to bother me due to the athletic stress and unpredictability of over 13 years of modern and classical dance. They pop and crack constantly. So my compromise is to run on an even treadmill instead of hilly concrete, which has made all the difference in keeping my knees from hurting after long runs.

The vastus medialis is the muscle of the quadriceps on the inner part of the thigh. Strengthening this muscle is often prescribed for relieving knee pain when squatting, sitting or going up or down stairs. The muscle inserts into the quadriceps femoris tendon and the medial (inner) part of the knee cap. As a part of the quadriceps it’s basic action is to extend (straighten) the knee joint. But due to its location, it is believed to activate most when the knee is fully extended.

Strengthening the abductors and adductors of the thigh will also help stabilize the knee joint. Other stabilizers of the knee, which are a little less intuitive, are the hip extenders such as the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus. Weakness in these muscles can sometimes cause rotation in the leg which can agitate the knee joint.

The exercise below are targeting these muscles in an effort to relieve and prevent knee pain. Form is very important in these exercises, you want to make sure you are targeting the right muscles and not setting yourself up for a different injury. Have a mirror or a friend ready to help you if needed.

Stability ball leg extensions: (quadriceps) Sit up straight on a stability ball with your feet flat on the floor, knees at a 90 degree angle.  Find your balance, and a tall spine by taking a few moments to tilt your pelvis forward and backward. Settle once you find a neutral pelvic position. On an exhale, extend one leg out in front of you. Be careful not to lock the knee joint completely but try to concentrate on flexing your quadricep muscles. Relax that down and repeat on the other side. Do four sets, trying to keep the leg out in front of you at a 90 degree angle for a couple of slow breaths.

Ballet demi plies: (quadriceps, external rotators of the hip, hamstrings, adductors) Stand tall with your feet together. Now slightly turn out (externally rotate) your thighs so your feet are making a small V shape. You aren’t training to be a ballerina so really take it easy on the rotation and only go as far as feels comfortable. Your inner thighs and rotators (underneath the glutes) should be working in this position. Inhale and bend the knees slightly so that the heels of your feet are still on the ground. On the exhale, press into the floor and squeeze the inner thighs together to come back to a standing position. Repeat slowly 8 times and then again separating the feet a little beyond the shoulders (2nd position in ballet).

Ball squats: (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings) These are good to do if you don’t want the stress of regular squats. Stand feet parallel and hip width apart with a stability ball behind your lower back and against a wall. Let the ball guide you down into a squat aiming to get into a sitting position. Press your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes to come back to the starting position making sure your shoulders are over your hips and your abs are engaged throughout the entire exercise.

Sitting leg lifts: (quadriceps) Trying to target the vastus medialis, sit against a wall with your legs stretched out in front of you. On an exhale, tighten your abs and lift the right leg flexing the quadriceps muscle. Hold for a few counts then slowly lower down. Repeat on the other side, Do 5-8 reps.

Quadruped leg lift series (hamstrings, glutes) On a mat, or putting a towel underneath the knees, get into a quadruped position (all fours). Make sure your shoulders are directly above your wrists and your knees directly under your hips. If your wrist begin to hurt during this exercise, feel free to come down onto your elbows maintaing a neutral spine. Keep the abdominals engaged and extend the right leg straight behind you. Pulse the leg up 15-20 times in a quick 1.)lift a few inches 2.)hold 3.)lower a few inches pattern (controlled pulses). Repeat to the other side. Repeat with the knee bent at a 90 degree angle with your heel going straight up to the ceiling, then again with the thigh externally rotated.

Inner thigh leg lifts: (adductors) Lie on a mat on your left side with your hips and shoulders stacked directly over each other extend the bottom leg long and either bend the top knee and put the foot on the ground in front of your left thigh or get a yoga block and rest your knee on a block in front of your left thigh.Keep the abs lifted and engaged as you lift your bottom leg off the ground using your inner thigh muscles. Your hips should not move. Lift and lower the bottom leg 16-20 times then hold it up and trace a tiny circle with your heel 10 times in both directions.Then extend your top leg straight out and hold it at hip height. Bring your bottom leg up to meet your top leg, squeezing the thighs together before lowering the left leg down. Repeat 8 times then switch to the other side.

Lunges: (adductors, abductors, hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps) Start in a standing position feet parallel and hip width apart, hands on hips. Take a big step forward with the right leg keeping the shoulders over the hips and your abdominals engaged. Don’t let your knee track beyond your toes but make sure it is tracking in a straight over the middle of the foot. Your pelvis should lower into a 90 degree angle from ankle to knee to pelvis. The shin of your left leg will be roughly parallel to the ground and you will probably get a little stretch in the front of the left hip. Bring the left leg up to meet the right as you stand up then repeat on the left side. Take 16-20 steps moving around the room, then try to reverse the lunge by stepping backwards.