The Exercise Dilemma

Much of my time as a student at the Teachers College has been focused on why people should exercise more. We learn about the mechanisms involved in how exercise effects all the major systems of the body to prevent and … Continue reading

The Importance of Hydration

Recently, I was lucky enough to sit in on a lecture from Lawrence Armstrong, Ph.D. FACSM an expert in the area of hydration. It seems like a lot of health specialists give out the advice to drink more water, and … Continue reading

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.

Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.”

I just finished another great book by Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. Hours after I finished the last chapter I’d already handed the book to a coworker to read. I highly recommend it. I might be biases towards Murakami because I am also a fan of his fiction writing, but this memoir/ running journal was a lovely read.

Not all of us train everyday to be an olympic athlete, and most of us wouldn’t want to, or wouldn’t have the motivation to do so. What I appreciated out of this book was how he related his running and training toward his work as a writer and a person in today’s society. To be a long-distance runner and participate in over 25 marathons and numerous triathletes, you can already guess that Murakami is very dedicated to running, and has some serious will power to continue even after all these years.  He found running because he felt himself gaining weight and losing energy when he started writing full time. Even though he kept a busy schedule with work, he would still find time to run for an hour almost every day. The memoir talks about some of the places where he has run, and races he’s participated in, but mostly its about the struggle to keep going. But overcoming the struggle to get moving brings immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

It doesn’t get any easier, even after running for 25 years apparently. But his notes, looking back on that roller coaster, the thoughts and inspirations that have come to him over time are emotional and heart warming. Running can be a little bit like meditation, once you find that groove, your body takes over and your mind quiets down.

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

Murakami admits that he sometimes prefers to be by himself, he talks about not having the most likable disposition, so training long hours alone suited him. I think everyone needs to be alone once in a while though (to take a moment of reflection, to clear the brain) and working out no matter what you are doing, can be a great time to give yourself that opportunity. Otherwise why are you doing it? One of Murakami’s mantras while running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

One of the chapters that resonated the most to me was him talking about getting older and how he never really imagined himself getting older. He remembered Mick Jagger once saying “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty five”.  But who can laugh at Mick Jagger, who was still singing Satisfaction into his sixties? We all think we are going to be young forever, when we are young. This is all our first times growing older, he says, and so these feelings are new, and we don’t always know how to deal with them. I think everyone no matter how old they are can relate to that.

I think most people are competitive in nature, but not everyone chooses to be competitive all the time. In one section Murakami talks about the nature of running and how if the only reason to participate in a race was to beat a particular person, we wouldn’t have any motivation when that person didn’t show up to the race. Running has to be motivated from somewhere in yourself. I think that can be true to most competitive sports, but running in particular.

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

So whether or not you are interested in running, or writing, I would recommend reading this book. It gives inspiration to those of us who struggle to get up early in the morning to work out- or train for a particular goal, but it also gives the reader insight into some observations on life and people in general.

“Has the dark shadow really disappeared?
Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?
Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly, waiting until everyone’s asleep. I have looked deep inside myself, trying to detect something that might be there. But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body. Everywhere you turn there’s darkness, and a blind spot. Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is waiting for you.”

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.

 

Looking at the Foot

This past Sunday, I spent the afternoon at a workshop given by Irene Dowd about our ever versatile feet. One model of the foot looks at the structure as a twisted plane. What this means it that the bones of the foot can rotate to accommodate uneven ground. The ability of the bones to shift also acts as a shock absorber when walking and taking weight onto the foot. As we learned the different movements that can take place we analyzed our peers’ feet as they walked, taking notice to the patterns.

We then learned a slew of exercises and stretches for the muscles of the foot and ankle. We tried to notice differences in our abilities to balance on one foot, before and after the exercises, and the different patterns of the foot when walking after the exercises were completed.

I was unsure of how much I was going to be able to take away from such a focused discussion. The foot is complex and intriguing, and as a dancer, I have a bizarre appreciation for my feet. But how is this knowledge applicable to “everyday” life? Most people aren’t walking around thinking about how much their feet twist and untwist with each step. If you are a nerd like me, you might begin to overanalyze everything, finding unevenness between the right and left side, and swivels of the ball of the foot, and tension in the big toes and etc. I walked and analyzed so many times that I felt I couldn’t walk normally anymore, it all felt strange and forced.

But the truth is, if it’s not broken…

Sometimes fixing a small problem with your feet could fix the problem with your knee, or hip. Alignment issues tend to have a cascading effect. Not to say that there is always a definite right and wrong. Everyone’s body is built differently. At the workshop, my walking partner, Jay had a tendency to turn out his right leg as he walked. Irene looked at his hip and thought it was possible, since parallel was uncomfortable, that the head of his femur might be placed in such a way in his hip socket that turning the leg in could be pinching a nerve or tendon. In that case, it’s perfectly fine to walk with one leg turned out so long as the knee is tracking over the foot and not in the directional line that you are walking.

The funniest part of the day was trying to complete these foot exercises. We exercise the large muscle groups all the time, but when was the last time you tried to isolate the abductor hallucis? Yeah, it’s difficult. The first time I tried there was absolutely no movement, but standing up my foot felt more stable and closing my eyes, my balance had definitely gotten better. There was less wobble! Irene noted that even if the first time you try to work the intrinsic muscles of the foot and are unable to do them correctly, just trying will awaken the foot and within a week or two you will be able to access the muscles with much less difficulty.

Here are a few for you to try at home, and don’t feel bad if it seems like its impossible! Good luck!

With feet on the ground move your big toe away from the other toes toward your other foot.

With feet on the ground move your little toe away from the other toes.

With feet on the ground, keep toes flat and in place as you “inch worm” you heel forward doming your foot.

Pick up one foot, apply pressure to the base of your big toe, keeping the toes long, flex the big toe into your finger (metatarsal phalangeal joint) Repeat with each toe.

Dome the foot by drawing the points of the cuboid, ball of big toe and ball of little toe towards each other, keeping toes long.

With feet on the ground, press the entire plantar surface of the toes into the floor and flex the metatarsal phalangeal joints so that the metatarsals rise up. Then, press the metatarsals down and extend the toes off the floor.

With feet on the ground, keep toes in place and walk the heel in toward the big toe and back to center then over toward the little toe.

Rx: Exercise?

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

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

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

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

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

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.