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.

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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.

Dynamic Opposition

Dynamic opposition creates stability. This is one of the less frequently talked about principles of the Pilates method. I was familiar with this concept because it came up a lot in dance classes. Dancers tend to do this fairly naturally because it promotes a total body awareness, and three dimensionality that is great for performing. Basically dynamic opposition is the conscious decision to think about every action in two directions. If I’m thinking, “sit up straight” I’ll try to sense energy shooting through the crown of my head, but also energy grounding me down through my tailbone. If I’m thinking draw the shoulder blades down, I’ll also be thinking open the chest, broaden the shoulders.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

This way of thinking keeps us from floating away, or getting pulled to the ground. We are always trying to search for the appropriate middle area, the elusive feeling of balance. Whether you are looking at your posture or your form when exercising try imagining pulling forces of energy. It turns out it is a lot more effective and much simpler than trying to list all of the things you think you should or should not be doing simultaneously. You might just find that things fall into place and find a more natural harmony.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

In Focus

Recently in rehearsal with Marisa Ballaro, we were discussing the ever importance of focus.

Focus changes how we perceive what we are seeing, what we are feeling, and what we see when we watch it. It’s amazing to me what a difference it makes in someone’s dancing when they have an active focus. It becomes more intentional, more committed, even more full bodied- even if the only thing they change is really seeing whatever is in their view. It’s exhilarating to watch a dancer who is fully aware of her surroundings, of the other dancers, of the audience. It is a point of engagement.

focus: n., a center of activity, attraction, or attention. Also, a point of concentration.

Focus brings purpose to a dance. It gives the dancer a purpose, something to convey to the viewer.

It’s no coincidence that focus is one of the principles of the Pilates Method. What a difference exercising with full awareness of what you are doing makes to the overall experience and effect. The eyes can be thought of as a major link to the mind body connection which is so important when exercising or doing any type of movement. The body is instinctively smart and by letting the mind become more involved in what the body is doing, you give it a chance to do what it naturally wants to do, making movement easier and more efficient.

Thinking about the gravity of it’s involvement in dance and movement made me think about how this can translate into everyday life. Every type of action or goal needs an underlying focus. As simple as this may be, I think sometimes I forget about the main goal and go through the motions of what I think I should be doing at that moment, whether its with my friends and family or with my career or with a stranger on the street. So often I find myself walking down the streets of new york city completely blurring everything around me, stuck in my interior thoughts. I usually get my motivation and inspiration for ideas just by watching the people around me so it’s no wonder that I give myself a hard time for not always paying attention. How much have I been missing?