The Power of Probiotics

Check out this article about a new study of probiotics given to mice!

I guess my title should be the power of a healthy digestive system. Probiotics are simply healthy bacteria or yeast that are ingested to help balance the microflora in one’s intestines.  According to WebMD, in the average human intestine, 400 different types of probiotic bacteria can be found. This “Gut Flora”, plays a role in helping to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, helps break down undigested carbohydrates using enzymes that humans lack, increase cell growth in the intestines, and has a dynamic effect on the systemic immune system. They are believed to assist us in synthesizing specific vitamins and absorbing ions such as calcium and magnesium. Probiotics help alleviate symptoms of IBS and might also help prevent the developing of allergies. They are also used to help replenish bacteria growth after the use of antibiotics which can kill beneficial bacteria as well as the harmful bacteria they are targeted towards.

While the verdict is still out on for the effects of using probiotics to treat disease and more serious health ailments, as more and more studies are coming in that show serious benefits, I think only good things will be brought to light with the current research. The article above, from ABC News, illustrates the difference in the shiny coat of fur in the skinny yogurt fed mouse versus the regular, noticeably larger, regularly fed mouse next to it. The probiotic mice were slimmer which suggests, as other studies have too, that the yogurt might help the mice reduce the risk of age-related weight gain. And the reported “swagger” in the male mice’ step? Well, healthier = happier = sexier… right?

I’d be interested if the probiotic fed mice were also more energetic, exercising more or just being more active. But I guess, keeping things “moving” so to speak by keeping the digestive system healthy is overall just a good thing to keep on top of!

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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.

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?

Sit up straight!

Posture is simply the position of the body when sitting or standing. While you might think it would be a rigid position, it should actually be anything but static. Good posture aligns the bones and muscles to work the most efficiently so that it requires the least amount of energy. Any posture that forces certain muscles to strain is going to have repercussions. The body is designed for movement so keep that in mind when “sitting up straight,” it’s usually not a great idea to try to lock joints and muscles into place.

The word posture also has some other connotations dealing with projecting attitudes, often in a way to impress or mislead. This seems fairly logical given that we can read a lot about a person by their posture. And it works both ways. Try feeling confident slouched over in your chair…. Now sit up tall, shoulders wide, chin lifted horizontally- it’s like being a totally different person.

Most of posture correcting techniques or methods deal with breaking bad habits. Once you recognize when you are not in an ideal posture it’s easier to change into a more supported position. Having a sense of body awareness is crucial, not only for correcting posture but also coordination and balance. Body awareness and posture also play a role in overall body language, which sometimes speaks louder than you might think.

But the real kicker with bad posture is that it contributes to chronic back pain. A lot of people spend most of their time sitting in front of a computer. It’s important to make sure you are getting up to stretch your legs and walk around periodically throughout the day. Staying in one position for a long period of time is stressful on the body. In order to improve your posture you will need to strengthen the muscles that run on either side of the spine. These muscles, especially the erector spinae, support your spine in an upright position. The reason why it’s often difficult to keep the back straight when sitting down is because of weak erector spinae.

The baby swan exercises in Pilates targets this muscle. By extending the back without using your hands to push you up, you are forced to use the muscles of the back. Do these exercises very slowly to make sure you are not using momentum or letting other muscles compensate.

Lie down on your stomach, engage your abdominals and place your hands, palm over palm, underneath your forehead. Slowly lengthen your spine to lift into an arc coming up only as high as you can control. Just as slowly lengthen the spine to lower back down. Do 4-6 repetitions and then stretch out the back by sitting in child’s pose or cat pose on all fours.

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.

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!

Balance

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.