On Stretching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Exercise Boost Your Immunity?

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

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

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

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

NBCNews: 7 easy ways to boost your immunity

Harvard Health Publications: How to boost your immune system

Webmd: fitness and exercise: Boost your Immune System

Active.com: Answering your question about immunity

About.com: Exercise and Immunity

Keeping Fit on Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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