Why is the gym so intimidating?

I haven’t been to a gym in years. I have relied on time spent in the studio dancing, running and doing Pilates for my exercise routines. But since I’ve always had a bit of an issue with my knees from years of athletic modern dance, lately running on concrete around the neighborhood hasn’t  been feeling too great. So I decided to check out the options for nearby gyms. Running on a treadmill doesn’t bother my knees, so even though it’s not as entertaining as the outdoor adventures, it’s much better than laying on the couch with ice on my legs after each run. (And apparently, I’ve learned recently that icing doesn’t do much to help sore muscles feel better or heal faster!)

I walked into the cheapest option that was down a couple blocks from my apartment and almost immediately turned around. I wasn’t looking for a fancy spa like atmosphere but if I can’t stand the smell of the place, I’m never going to want to come back to work-out. And you get what you pay for though, at ten dollars a month, I was warned never to use the lockers unless I want my things stolen.

I declined that membership and walked on to the gym that’s just around the corner from my apartment. Smelled fresh, the place was spotless, the front desk staff was friendly enough. I asked to speak to someone about membership options. Although the membership staff could have been more welcoming, the gym had all the amenities I would ever need and then some. It even had a hair and nail salon on site. Ridiculous, yes, but maybe convenient? It was big, CLEAN, and no funky smells. Everything checked out except the price. Of course the year membership cost was way more than I had intended to spend.

I checked out a few other places but they were smaller, and I was afraid that the treadmills would fill up fast at peak hours, and they were all off the beaten path, so to speak. I ended up deciding that since going to the gym was going to be a new challenge for  me anyway, I might as well choose the one place I wouldn’t dread going to in the first place. I took the easy, if slightly expensive, route.

My knees have been thanking me since the switch away from concrete, but I’m taking it slow to start out. I haven’t worked with weight machines since college so I’ve been a bit hesitant to venture to the weight room. It doesn’t help that everyone there seems so serious, I’m almost intimidated to go wait by a machine for it to free up. Why is everyone so somber? The treadmill that I’ve been using faces the weight machines so I’ve been doing a lot of people watching to pass the time. Its surprising how much people are lacking in form. I’m not a personal trainer, but when you are using momentum more than strength to flex your bicep, my guess is that your not doing a whole lot to benefit your muscles.

I see all kinds of strange forms and exercises that seem like they are more painful than anything else. And everyone has a straight face and attitude as if they know exactly what they are doing. Does it have to be like that? There is something about being surrounded by people working out that makes me insecure about my own fitness. I’m sure other people must feel that too.  Even if I think I know what I am doing, and know exactly what I want to do, I feel myself second guessing it all and then deciding to do my core work at home in my living room instead.

Maybe it’s the gym I chose, or my own self doubts of being back in a gym environment, but it’s something I’m going to have to figure out for myself.

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Food and Fitness

Like two peas in a pod, right? People’s motivations for exercise are different. Some want to lose weight, some want to maintain weight, some want to be able to eat whatever they want, some exercise to help with health issues, others are obsessed with being “fit” and some have always been active and it just comes naturally. But no matter the reason or goal for physical activity, what you consume plays a definite role in seeing results.

There was an article in the New York Times about the effects exercise has on appetite and the results were slightly inconclusive. Basically, depending on how active you already are, your appetite may or may not change after a work-out. If someone’s goal is weight loss, exercise alone will never be enough. Diet habits have to changed in order to make a difference.

The average person in America does not fully understand the quantity of food/nutrients they need each day. The fact that it is so much less than would be expected is part of the reason we have an obesity epidemic in our country. People can exercise regularly but not see any difference in their weight because the believe their workout gave them the leniency to spurge on that [insert dessert/fried food/favorite indulgence] they’ve been drooling over all week. The fact remains that an average work out may only burn 400-600 calories, and that cheesecake has just as many. Even the idea hydrating with a flavored sports drink takes away half the output of a decent exercise.

The problem we are seeing is that most people are not interested in basic nutrition or eating balanced meals. It’s a downward spiral that starts when we are young. From school cafeterias to the media, to the myriad options of pre-packaged processed goods that are cheap and easy. Eating is more about convenience to many of us than it is about getting the nutrients our bodies need. There are so many diets out there, I’m not going to go into any specific one. I don’t think any of them are completely right, and I think that every one is going to have a different idea of what is right for them. And that is perfectly OK.

We are not striving to be perfect, because that is impossible and if that is your goal you are probably driving yourself crazy. Instead, strive to be healthy when you can. Little changes such as incorporating less processed foods and more whole foods makes a giant difference. Once you switch over you will start to crave those packaged foods less as your body begins to recognize them as less satisfying.

Anyway, I diverged from my beginning statement. Exercise can affect one’s desire for food and as Americans, who culturally have a strange relationship with food to begin with, it might be hard to keep a regular diet because our brain might be telling us we need more. The simple fact is that if you are wanting to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you consume. For many of us that can be exceedingly difficult when the more we exercise the more we feel like we should be eating.

In my experience, depending on what time of day I exercise, my appetite might increase or decrease after a workout. Immediately afterward, I never feel like eating, but if I don’t eat a snack sometimes later on I’ll get ravenous and end up eating a huge meal. My biggest problem is craving sugar. I’ll start to feel like I have to eat something sweet and won’t be able to think of anything else until I’ve satisfied my sweet tooth. In many of the books and blogs I’ve been reading, the 80-20 rule has been quoted: be good 80% of the time and allow yourself to give in to your cravings for the other 20. This is the healthiest way to think about your diet. You don’t want to be so restrictive that you can’t even go to a party and enjoy a few hors d’ oeuvres!

The bottom line is that there are lot of aspects of nutrition that we still don’t understand. The reason eggs were good and then bad and then good again, is that new information is always coming in that changes our perspective. Exercise too, has been a little bit like that. There is no clear-cut plan: do this and you will be healthy. Part of the struggle is finding out how to listen to your body. I think it knows, it just doesn’t always know how to fill us in.

Concentration and Control

When working with clients who are new to Pilates, sometimes the hardest part for them is finding the abdominals. The exercises seem too easy for them in the beginning when they are recruiting muscles outside of the core to do the work. We want to avoid this! Isolating muscles groups will help retrain the clients’ movement patterns.

As you become familiar with the movements you can concentrate on the abdominals and find the challenge of the exercise. It hasn’t gotten easier for me in the eight years I’ve been doing Pilates because as I have gotten stronger I have pushed my self to make the movements more difficult.

The Pilates exercises weren’t designed to be confusing. The movements are simple and to many people look familiar and similar to exercises done in traditional conditioning techniques. The difference lies in the approach. The principles of the Pilates method promotes awareness of the body and concentration so that you can’t cheat your way through the motions.

While it might be frustrating to start out small and simple in the beginning it is only after you locate and get used to engaging the proper muscles will you get stronger and start feeling the difference.

Detoxing? You can still be active

Spring is here! This means that I’ll be cleansing soon. Last year I did a month long cleanse from the Blessed Herbs company. During which, I eliminated alcohol, caffeine, gluten, dairy, meat, and refined sugar from my diet. This year I am just going to do a week of the herbal cleansing but keep the strict diet for another two weeks. It helps that other people at work will be on the same cleanse so we can all keep each other motivated and on track!

Keeping a specific diet is hard, and this cleanse really limits what we can consume to clean and easy food to digest. What is did teach me last year though was that the body responds better to unprocessed foods and that is always the healthier choice. It helped me keep a few of my habits and addictions in check as well. Sugar? Coffee? I love it, but maybe only in moderation.

Last spring I remember the first week was the hardest, especially going cold turkey without the caffeine in the morning to help me get through the day. This year I am going to start cutting back and switching to tea a week early and plan on keeping an exercise routine as well.
Even though during a cleanse your body is going though some changes, staying active will help keep your energy level up.

What I recommend:

If your cleanse significantly cuts the amount of calories you are eating, don’t continue with strenuous exercise. This could lead to injuries and over exhaustion. Instead, focus more on stretching, walking, and localized strengthening.

Spinal twists can be especially therapeutic while you are detoxing because of their cleansing like nature. Joseph Pilates used to tell there clients to imagine wringing out the lungs while twisting the spine. In yoga theory, twists are usually done first to the left and then to the right in accordance to the anatomy of the large intestine to promote healthy digestion. In a spinal twist your internal organs are gently compressed. This can help increase circulation to the area. It will also feel really good on achy lower backs.

The traditional Pilates Hundred is also a great exercise to do while cleansing. It is challenging for the core, the breath is integrated into the movement, and the pumping of the arms will increase circulation and warm up the body quickly.

Planks are an exercise that will never let you down. Holding the position will challenge almost every major muscle group. Try the full plank or balance on your forearms. Add leg lifts or push-ups for an extra challenge.

On Walking

There’s no excuse. If you can walk, you can exercise. Whether you are trying to lose weight or just want to be more active, the first step is to simply start moving. You’ve probably heard it before but the littlest changes in your day can make a huge impact on how you feel. Taking the stairs whenever possible, getting up from the desk as often as you can, taking a walk after dinner, parking the car further away than usual are some simple ways to get a few extra steps into the day.

Walking is the most basic and accessible form of exercise. A study published in 2008 in the January issue of Archives of Internal Medicine reported that those who had a higher level of physical activity actually had cells that appeared younger than their sedentary counter parts. This suggests that regular exercise can help prevent age related illness. What more motivation do you need?

Besides the age slowing benefits, walking is good for blood circulation and keeping your joints healthy. What is that old saying, a rolling stone gathers no moss, or a moving gear never gets rusty? Our joints were made for moving, so keep them healthy and strong with regular exercise.

By watching New Yorkers all day through the window on East 11th Street, I’ve come to realize that everyone has their own gait. Most people don’t think about the way that they walk. Why should they? It’s a skill learned pre-cognition, before our first memory even. I’ve talked briefly about being aware of your posture, and the same goes for when you are on the move. Keeping your shoulders over your hips is just as important as keeping your head in line with your spine. Jutting your head forward as you are rushing to the train won’t get you there faster, it will only give you a neck ache. If you are walking as a form of exercise, focus on the back of the leg (the glutes, hamstrings and the calves) to propel you forward and always remember to wear supportive shoes!

Now that the weather is getting nicer I suggest you put your favorite songs on your ipod, grab your sneakers, and head outside. Even if just for fifteen minutes. You have to start somewhere, right?

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.

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!

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

Prenatal Pilates

The Benefits of exercising throughout your pregnancy are plentiful. Not only will it help limit the excess weight gained, but mid-intensity work-outs, such as Pilates, have been shown to ease symptoms of pregnancy (i.e. back pain, morning sickness, fatigue), help shorten the labor, and reduce the time it takes to get your body back in shape after you’ve given birth. Not to mention, strengthening and functional exercises will help prepare you for the lifting, playing, and running around you’ll be doing once you have a newborn in the house.

Many women also find the breathing techniques of Pilates to be helpful in preparing for the labor, and the devotion to scheduled exercise time can be great for keeping a positive outlook during the pregnancy and a healthy mindset during a time when your body is going through a lot of changes.

There is a lot of contradictory information floating around about exercising while you are pregnant. The reason for this is that in the not so far past, doctors treated pregnancy as if it were an “illness”. What recent research is showing however, is that moderate exercise will help make the pregnancy easier. The body is incredible. It has an amazing ability to adjust to all the new changes taking place. While resting is important to remain healthy, exercising decreases the feeling of exhaustion and actually helps the placenta grow more efficiently. The more efficient the placenta, the better the baby is able to absorb nutrients and oxygen from the mother.

I believe you just have to listen to your body, and be in touch with the signals it will give you. This is not a time to push the limits of what you are able to do! Start small, especially if you are a beginner to exercise. If you are professional or recreational athlete you can continue, within reason, to your normal routine but talk to your doctor or an exercise specialist for modifications and warning signs that you should discontinue or tone down your workouts.

If you plan on working out on your own, remember to keep hydrated, fueled (eat a small snack before and after exercise) and always warm-up  and cool-down for about five minutes before and after your sessions. Due to changes in the vascular system, it is important to give your body a fair warning that you are beginning a workout. Save high intensity workouts for after the baby has been delivered. Stay in a range of 5-8 on the perceived exertion scale which means in the highest intensity you are slightly tired but you can speak a full sentence while you are exercising. If for any reason you feel light-headed, fatigued, or have abdominal area cramping stop immediately and talk to your health care professional.

It is true that the body is under a lot of stress and changes take place in a relatively short amount of time and that is definitely a matter to take seriously. However, keeping the mother’s body active and healthy is incredibly important for a healthy labor and a healthy baby. Think about it in terms of preparing your body for labor and delivery, an intense biological marathon. It is especially important to do a lot of core/abdominal strengthening in the first trimester before the muscles begin stretching. It is harder to continue to strengthen them after that point and you are going to need them for the final push!

Pilates is a perfect compliment to any prenatal aerobic regimen. It will primarily work on building that core strength as well as toning the arms, legs and back. The functionality of the exercises will be beneficial to all the bending, reaching, lifting and squatting you will have to be doing with the baby. To keep sessions interesting, I like to incorporate a couple different props such as an exercise ball, resistance bands and foam rollers to keep the movements flowing so that you safely get the workout you need and want.