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.

 

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Book Review: The First 20 Minutes

I’ve been following Gretchen Reynolds’ Phys. Ed. Column in the New York Times for years now. And I’ve just finished her book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. I will be talking about this book for months. A lot of the content of the book comes from studies she been writing about in her column over the past couple years, but seeing it all together really shines light on how much startling information has come to the surface. And the bottom line is this- Stand up and start moving, it will save your life, literally.

In one study by the National Cancer Institute, 250,000 americans, ages 50-71, were followed for eight years. They found, unsurprisingly that the most sedentary adults had the highest risk of cardiovascular and cancer mortality. But more surprising was the fact that the group of adults that averaged 7 hours of exercise per week, but also spent at least 5 hours per day watching TV or otherwise being inactive, were also more likely to die prematurely compared to those who exercised but watched less than an hour of TV daily. Unfortunately, it looks as if isolated bouts of exercise aren’t enough. What they’ve found is that long periods of sitting still changes the cell’s physiology. Overtime, inactivity decreases levels of Lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that that is known to aid in the breakdown of fat in the bloodstream, blood sugar levels spike after meals, and early symptoms of insulin problems and eventual diabetes could become apparent. It’s down right scary. Of course that was from a study that had adult male volunteer to be completely immobile for a day, not putting any weight onto their legs whatsoever. Extreme, yes, but those results were just after twenty four hours!

The book is chock full of great fitness advice, but if there is just one thing that I will take away from the book is that sitting for eight hours during my work day is not OK. I get up more often, if just to fill my water bottle and say hello to my co-workers. I stand at my desk. I take frequent breaks to briefly walk around. If nothing else, it has helped with my energy levels, it has done away with the 3pm slump, and helps assauge my fears of becoming the ever average couch-potato like American.

If you are having trouble motivating yourself to change your lifestyle, or just curious about exercise physiology and the recent research that people all over the world have been working on to prove that exercise is anti-aging and life extending, this is a must read. And I know that sounds cheesy, but seriously the results of these studies are staggering. Gretchen has a strong entertaining voice that isn’t judgmental but instead invested and very encouraging. Although the book is based entirely around different studies, the information and the implications of their results keep you wanting to turn the pages. I highly recommend the read!

 

 

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.

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!

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.

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?

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.