Rx: Exercise?

I just ran across this website called Exercise is Medicine yesterday and can’t help but write about it here. I love the idea of getting health care providers  to evaluate a persons health by their level of physical fitness as well as all the other tests they run. Exercise can be medicine too. Increasing a person’s physical fitness level can be a great way to prevent and treat certain chronic diseases.

The mission statement of the organization is to increase the awareness of the benefits of exercise and to increase medical professionals standards of physical activity. They have created a large resource and guiding force for fitness professionals to collaborate with health care providers to work toward that goal. Its a well developed site and I’m a little surprised I have never heard of it before now. I’m looking into a graduate program on applied exercise physiology and this idea of exercise as medicine is one of the main reasons that I’m interested in studying more about the promotion and biomechanics of exercise.

Exercise physiology is a field that has been a little slow to build but, its momentum is gaining. With so many focused on developing new drugs, I like the idea of finding other, more preventative solutions.  Exercise physiologists’ research can include the affects of aging, rehabilitation, and the overall health benefits of exercise.

If you are interested in some simple guidelines on how or if it’s safe for you to start an exercise program check out the Exercise is Medicine website.

If you are a fitness professional interested in promoting exercise and collaborating with other health care providers wanting to prescribe exercise check out the Exercise is Medicine website for a complete source of information on how to start the conversation.


Good Morning Stretch

One of my favorite things when I wake up in the morning is that great big yawning stretch. It’s instinctual to want to reach out and breath deep to start the day. The mornings that I get up and don’t have time to do a full work-out I’ll make sure to do a bit of stretching, meditating, core work, or whatever else my body feels like it needs that day. It gives me a boost of energy and motivation for the rest of the day and also kick starts my metabolism.

Because the vertebral disks have a tendency to swell a bit during your sleep, it’s not always comfortable to begin stretching immediately after waking up. I prefer to walk around my apartment a little, get a glass of water, sit for a few minutes and then when I’m feeling a bit more awake I’ll get started. It won’t help me if I decide to meditate only because I want a few more minutes of sleep…

My fifteen minute routine:

-First, child’s pose taking slow even breaths

-Gently move into downward dog (staying in that pose I’ll tread my feet to work through the ankles and get the blood flowing)

-Go back into child’s pose and then move into a plank position (Here I’ll focus on pressing into my hands so that my rib cage doesn’t sag away from my shoulder blades and I’ll either hold this for a few seconds or do a couple push-up depending on my energy level)

-Back to child’s pose and then tucking my toes under I’ll shift my weight into a low squat and then slowly straighten my legs, hanging my torso over. This is an intense stretch on the hamstrings and if you are able to release the muscles of the back, it’s a little bit of traction on the spine)

-Very slowly, roll up to standing. (you can repeat this sequence if you’d like before moving on to the core)

-Next, grab a swiss ball and lay back on it with arms wide to open up the chest. (If you don’t own a swiss ball, think about purchasing one, they are great exercise and stretching tools and relatively inexpensive. Most manufacturers have height charts because they come in a variety of sizes and you’ll want to get the appropriate diameter for your height.)

-Crunches on a swiss ball are challenging so you can do fewer reps with the same effect. (If you can extend your legs and keep your balance this will inhibit the hip flexors making your abs work harder.)

-Walk your feet out slightly so that you are in a supported bridge position with the ball under your upper back you can bend and straighten your knees to work the glutes and hamstrings.

-A deep runners lunge will stretch out the hip flexors. (If that is too intense you can put your back knee down into a kneeling position and gently press the pelvis forward to open the front of the hip.)

-End sitting on the floor, bend the right leg and cross it over the left. Use your left arm to pull the bent leg close to you to stretch the glutes. Reach back behind you with your right arm and twist your torso to increase the stretch. Sit up tall and take a few deep breaths before switching sides.

Born to Run

There was an article in the New York Times last week about a recent study that was done on the relationship of which part of your foot strikes the ground and how likely you are to get an injury. The debate on this question was spurred a couple years ago when barefoot running and those barely there shoes became popular. Basically, the idea is that as human evolved we were running barefoot for thousand upon thousands of years so that it most likely the best way to run. When running barefoot you are more likely to land towards the forefront of your foot which is able to better absorb the shock than if you landed first with the heel. With the creation of the highly padded running shoe a little more than a half a century ago, when running was just beginning to become “trendy” again, the foot of most runners tends to strike with the heel first. Until this study of the harvard cross-country team there has not been any strong evidence that would suggest that you were less likely to get injured no matter where you foot struck the ground.

The conclusions of the study were that the runners who struck with the heel most of the time (no one does one or the other 100% of the time) were twice as likely to get injured than the forefoot runners. However, all of the runners in the study wore shoes, some lightweight, others cushioned, and there was no correlation to the type of shoe and the number of injuries.

Adam I. Daoud, a graduate student in the Skeletal Biology Laboratory at Harvard and the lab’s director, Daniel Lieberman conducted this study by filming the cross-country runners and looking at the teams database of all of their logged mileage and injury diaries. But Mr. Daoud, who is a long distance runner himself, was the first to admit that changing your stride too quickly can also lead to injury. He broke a metatarsal during a marathon after he swiftly changed his form from heel striking to landing on the ball of the foot. He suggests that if you want to adjust your form do so slowly by first just focusing on landing on the ball of your foot during the last five minutes of a run and monitoring whether you feel any additional soreness or pain. They also suggest that if you are not getting injured as a heel-striker there should be no reason to change your form.

The commonness of injuries in runners is shockingly high in general. Myself, I enjoy a good run every once in a while but it has never been my exercise method of choice. As much as I would enjoy running outside, concrete is the worst possible surface to run on as the material has no give whatsoever. If I do run, I prefer a treadmill or a track if it’s available. I’m curious to see if I strike more with my heel or the ball of my foot. Maybe it’s time to pull out my running shoes again…

Read about the history of the athletic shoe!


Feeling Tense?

Sometimes as I’m walking down the street, or sitting at my desk I”ll suddenly become aware of my shoulders hiked up by ears. The muscles that elevate the shoulders (rather the shoulder blades) are the upper Trapezius, the Levator Scapula and the Serratus Anterior. The upper Trapezius being the largest muscle of that group is considered the main culprit. Our bodies tend to tense up as we get stressed, as we pent up emotions or just out of habit. Many of us hold this tension in our neck and shoulders, it is a little instinctual. Constantly elevating the shoulders causes the muscle to become tense and short which is why a good shoulder rub can feel so good!

To relieve some of the tension in the upper trapezius, take both hands and grab hold of the fleshy muscle on top of your shoulders and pull them forward. For an added stretch tilt your chin up and let your fingertips gently massage the muscles. You can also sit up tall, pull your shoulders down and back slightly then drop your head forward letting the weight of the head stretch and lengthen the upper trapezius, which attaches at the base of your skull.

The best thing to do when you realize you hold tension there is to become aware of it. Notice when your shoulders are up and consciously bring them  back to neutral. Roll your shoulders back opening up the chest and gently pull the scapula down using your lower trapezius and your Latissimus Dorsi (these are the largest muscles of your back, the traps and lats). You should automatically feel a little taller and maybe even a bit more confident! Take a deep inhale without letting your shoulders ride up and a long exhale imagining the tightness of the shoulders melting away.

Nurturing our Practice

This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet up with my lovely friend esther. She is an amazing yoga teacher and is studying thai massage as well. For quite some time now, we’ve been swapping sessions with each other whenever we get the chance. We actually met at the Ohio State University’s dance program, I was in undergrad and she was getting her Masters, and then we reconnected here in New York.

It does not surprise me that so many dancers begin to turn to other forms of movement and teaching. The connection with the body and movement rarely just leaves someone after they’ve spent years training in a studio and performing and creating and experimenting. Even if that person decides their dancing days are over, they often find something else to fill that void. While I still love to dance, and jump at any opportunity that arises for me to play around in the studio, I’m glad that I’ve found a way to connect with this unique knowledge that I’ve gained after fifteen years of traditional dance training and to bring that into each class I teach.

“Swaps”, as we call them, are such a nurturing way of giving back and continuing the education. Esther has been giving me private yoga and meditation sessions and I’ve been training her with Pilates techniques. While the two forms are drastically different in style and philosophy we surprise ourselves with the underlying connections and often pause during our sessions to discuss possibilities about anatomy and why each practice approaches specific movements with slight differences. It keeps our own practices fresh and makes us think about why we do what we were taught to do, or if maybe we should think about doing things differently. No matter what we decide, it’s the conversation that keeps us on our toes.

Irene Dowd Interview

I ran across this old interview with Irene Dowd that was published in Dance Magazine back in 2005. I love the way Irene describes movement and anatomy. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a workshop with her looking at the shoulder girdle and the anterior serratus. She is such an amazing teacher with the ability to break things down to a functional and graspable thought that can be applied to any movement practice.

In the interview, I especially love the question about visualization. Before we move we have to have some sort of idea of what the movement is going to be so we all use visualization whether we are conscious about it or not. Our brains are constantly communicating with the rest of our body. This becomes important when trying to correct old habits or change the way we initiate movement. Irene has extensive experience in re-training motor control processes and she does this through visualization techniques. You can re-train your body, it takes a bit of conscious thought and practice, but it can be done.

The question and answer below is great as well:


“Right” varies according to the movement goal. We are artists first, and our goal is to serve our art. “Right” is constantly changing. Mabel Todd used to say, “The mind is an instrument of thought, not a museum.” We are constantly learning.



A Popular Mistake

I recently read an article in fitsugar.com, about common mistakes for Pilates Mat beginners. I couldn’t agree more with Susi May’s pointers.

The first mistake she mentioned, not going deep, has got to be the biggest. When I was doing my observation hours during my training, I watched a lot of group classes. It was refreshing to see people enthusiastic about coming in week after week, but it was disheartening to see some of them not putting the work in while they were there. I didn’t want to see them as being lazy because it could be that they just hadn’t figured out how to connect with their deep abdominal muscles.

The problem with group classes is that it really depends on the teacher giving the right cues, and lots of them. Constant reminders about scooping in the abdominals and pulling up the pelvic floor is necessary, especially for the beginners. What I like to tell my clients is to “find the challenge”. If you are doing an exercise and thinking, “wow, this is easy” you probably could be working a lot harder!

What helps me when I feel like I’m losing that connection is imagining the movement initiating from the deep core. Really focusing in on the abdominals first to bring the limb or torso to move will ensure that desired engagement.

If you are having difficulty locating the transverse abdominis, the inner most abdominal layer that wraps around the waist helping with that “flat tummy” appearance, spend some time practicing that connection before your next workout.  Lay down on a mat with your knees bent and place the palms of your hands on your lower abdomen. Take a big inhale and on the exhale think about drawing the pelvic floor up and the navel in toward the front of the spine. Try to keep that engagement and take another big inhale expanding the rib cage wide and then exhale “ha-ha-ha.” You should feel the lower and deep abdominals engage to produce those quick short breaths. That is the transverse abdominis, the cinch belt that will help keep you from bulging the muscles outward when you do core work.

Once you get used to finding and engaging the deep core easily you begin to understand a lot more of the Pilate curriculum and it will actually make the exercises more challenging! The key to exercising effectively is to know what muscles to engage and to keep the ultimate goal in mind.


Finding your Motivation

The past week I’ve been feeling a little like I’ve been moving in slow motion. Since the new year and all the holidays last month it’s taken me a while to get back to a normal routine. For me exercise has always been inevitable. I stay active in my life style no matter what but I do have lulls here and there where I forget to try new things, have more adventures, and have trouble getting myself to wake up early to workout (especially in the winter when the bed is so much more cozy!).

So to get myself out of this lull I need to remind myself why I do it in the first place. Like I stated before, it’s a lifestyle choice. Starting in grade school I was always involved in track, soccer and dance. It kept me healthy, in shape and full of energy. When I’m not exercising regularly I’m easily agitated, I start eating unhealthily, and I am less productive overall with my work. It’s a little bit of a downward spiral!

For some motivation, read this incredible list of reasons why you should exercise!

To paraphrase the  listed in the article:

Exercise makes you feel better overall and about yourself, helps you fall asleep faster and sleep well, gives you more energy while you’re awake, and will help you think clearer and faster! It also helps with managing stress and living a longer life! 

Exercise can also help prevent coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and even some forms of cancer. OR if you already have any of these conditions it could help you control them and feel better.

Exercise helps keep bones, muscles, and joints as healthy as possible. Lifting weights will make your muscles stronger but it also increases bone density. Stretching the muscles will keep you flexible and coordinated and improve your sense of balance as well. You might find yourself surprised that simple movements like bending over and reaching up become easier too!

Last but not least, exercising burns calories so you can lose weight or stay at your healthy weight. This can also be a boost to your self-confidence and overall out look on life!

So tonight I’m going to re-energize my routine and take a new fitness class in my neighborhood and hopefully meet some new people, and get some fresh ideas for the new year. It’s never too late to start being active and start reaping the rewards of physical fitness, find a class near you and start something new!


Someone at work the other day gave me a huge compliment. She said that I was balanced.

It made my day because I can be proud of having balance in my life. I work at a health center, I am a Pilates teacher and a dancer, I try to eat well but I’m also human. To me living a balanced life means trying your best but not beating yourself up about every little thing. I have my fair share of guilty pleasures (such as fresh baked cookies) and I’m not ashamed to go out on a Saturday night with my friends. But at the end of the day, those things are perfectly normal, and if we were too obsessed with being perfectly healthy everyday we would drive ourselves crazy.

We can have the goal of keeping our diet and lifestyle healthy without being so strict and forget to have a little fun. The majority of my diet consists of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats. I try to listen to what my body is hungry for, it usually has a good sense for what it needs. But what I believe is important is giving in to those little cravings (guilty pleasures) every once in a while. In moderation of course, but it’s nice to let yourself know that its OK to do so and not feel bad about it.

Pilates for Stress and Anxiety

Have you ever heard of a “runner’s high?”  The “I’m on top of the world” feeling you get after exercise is actually caused by chemicals your body releases after physical exertion.  These endorphins, believe it or not, have similar properties to morphine.  They decrease the body’s perception of pain and promote an overall feel-good, positive energy.  Benefits are not just limited to the few hours after the workout.  In fact, according to WEBMD, regular exercise has been proven to help reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self-esteem AND improve sleep!

So, what’s the catch?
It seems like regular exercise is a miracle remedy, so it should be easy right?  Well, unlike morphine, endorphins are not addictive.  That is a good thing, but it also means that you have to have the motivation to get started and keep with a program.  The good news is that once you start and begin seeing and feeling the effects of exercise, it’s easier to set fitness goals and motivate your self to meet them.

If you are prone to stress and anxiety, one of the things you should absolutely avoid is taking on an exercise routine that will only increase your level of stress!  Choose activities that you enjoy and that you can look forward to during your week.  Everyone is different.  For me, the idea of taking a spin class is way too overwhelming but for others it’s just what they need to get into that zone and feel that “runner’s high.”  For me, pilates is the perfect workout.

Pilates is an excellent addition to any exercise routine.  Because it is physically challenging you’ll get the reward of endorphins which in turn provide a boost of energy.  But the real benefit is gained by the attention to the breath, which is choreographed into the movements.  The breath is a link between the mind and the body.  In oriental medicine, it is believed to be the prana, or life force.  Breathing exercises are thought to increase the awareness of bodily sensations so we are able to communicate to the body with our breath.  Think about it, when we want to calm down, we slow our breath; when we are excited, our breath quickens.  By incorporating the breath with exercise we learn greater control of our bodies and muscular activity in a soothing and organic way.

Learning to breath properly by utilizing the diaphragm, will help increase lung capacity.  When coupled with the Pilates technique of posterolateral breath which also keeps the abdominal muscles engaged, the breath becomes strong and helps tone and strengthen the core.

Pilates will help tone your muscles, improve posture by strengthening the muscles of the back and core, increase flexibility and range of motion, as well as increase your bodily awareness.  As a bonus, these will all help boost your self-esteem!  But it’s important to note, body awareness is not about noticing flaws in ourselves, but rather it’s about appreciating ourselves.  With pilates, we gain greater control over our movements and we become more efficient as we get stronger.  We learn to listen to what our body needs.

What ever exercise routine you choose, make sure it isn’t painful.  Pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong.  Listen to those cues!  Overdoing any form of exercise will be counter-intuitive to your stress and anxiety-reducing plan.

Most fitness professionals recommend starting out small, three times a week, if you are an exercise beginner.  Exercise for at least twenty minutes if you can, gradually working up to longer workouts.  I recommend starting out in the morning.  Fewer excuses not to exercise can sneak into you schedule if you set aside a few minutes into your morning routine.  This will also allow you to take advantage of the boost of energy it will give you and help you face the rest of the day with a positive outlook!


*First published on www.yinovacenter.com/blog