Flexibility

Stretching the Truth

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I am not very good at relaxing. I have to work at it. Which is kind of ridiculous, right--working hard at not working? But it's true. I can't sit still. I tap my toes and bounce around if I'm forced to sit for any length of time. Meditation is torturous. I sit there and think about all of the things I could be doing that I'm not doing because I'm sitting here thinking about all of the things I could be doing that I'm not. Yoga is the same. It's always been too quiet, too slow. And when I finish my workouts I just want to be done and off to eat breakfast or start the rest of my day. Stretching is a thing that I force myself to do. I' know it's supposed to be the reward for all of that hard work I just did, but I have historically given it short shrift. I don't anymore.  

Because flexible muscles are an important component of overall physical health. Muscles that function at their normal, resting lengths are happier and safer muscles. Among other things, flexible muscles help your joints move through their normal ranges of motion. That, in turn, can decrease injury and allow your muscles to operate at their optimal level of function.

About a year ago, Nikki slipped on the wet sidewalk outside of our building. While she did suffer a partial tear in her quadriceps muscle, she recovered relatively quickly. She maintains that one of the reasons it wasn’t a worse injury is because she works so hard on maintaining her flexibility. When she fell, her leg muscles were limber enough that they could absorb most of the strain put on them by the impact.

Stretching helps us to maintain that critical flexibility; it delivers blood flow (nutrients) to our muscles; and it increases oxygen delivery to our brains. All good things.

Here are my rules for happy, healthy stretching.

Only stretch warm muscles. I cannot stress this one enough. Stretching without warming-up first can cause you to tear muscle fibers, which will be painful. I do my stretching after I exercise, spending about 5-10 minutes on the major muscle groups I worked that day. If you don’t have time for a full workout, but still want to do some stretching, just do a quick 5-minute warm-up first. Take a walk; do just the warm-up portion of your favorite workout DVD; repeat the dynamic warm-up exercises you do with your trainer—get those muscles warm and blood flowing before you start stretching. Stretching cold muscles = injury and bad times.

Slow, steady stretches are the ticket. I cringe when I see people bouncing in their stretches. And I see it more often than I'd like. Once you settle into a stretch, stay still there for a while, ideally until you feel that muscle relax. Bouncing movements can cause tears and injury to the muscle fibers and are not effective.

Breathe. Often people hold their breath while they exercise. I do it too sometimes. Not sure why. I guess it seems like it’s helping, but it really isn’t. Just as breathing during exercise is important, breathing through your stretches is important too.

Never stretch to the point of pain or force a stretch. You can probably guess where I’m going with this—if you stretch to the point of pain, or try to force a stretch you will hurt yourself. Relax into your stretches. When you reach resistance in the muscle, stay there for 15 seconds or so and breathe. The way to communicate with a muscle is simply to think about it. So, think about that muscle relaxing and softening (as cheesy as that may sound). At about the 15 second point, you may find you can relax a little bit deeper into that stretch. If so, feel free to take the stretch a bit further. But again, it should never be painful. It should feel good to stretch and if it does not, back off a bit.

Make stretching a habit. As with other components of a healthy lifestyle, consistency is key. If you exercise several times per week, stretch after each session. Regardless of whether you are doing regular resistance or aerobic exercise, aim to complete a stretching session that targets all the major muscle groups in your body (calves, thighs, hips, back, neck and shoulders) at least 2-3 times per week. Your flexibility will improve each time you stretch.

Sitting is not easy. A quick note for those of you who spend your workday sitting at a desk—sitting is tough on your body. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Among other things, excessive sitting can cause tightness in your hip flexors and hamstrings, and can actually cause your gluteal muscles to atrophy. That in turn, places additional stress on your knees and lower back.

So a big yes to stretching, right? Have I convinced you to stretch yet? Or if you’re already stretching, have I made you feel like a rock star for doing so?

 

We're Going to be Live on Facebook!

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Hi all! I've talked before on the blog about our monthly open house events, where you can stop by the studio and we'll answer your fitness-related questions, demonstrate exercises and stretches and just generally try to help you make your exercise experience safer, more effective and more fun.

This month we're doing something a little different. We're going to Facebook Live our open house! So if you don't live anywhere near us, you can still participate. Submit your questions to us on Facebook, or by leaving them in the Comments section below and we'll answer as many as we can.

The event is from 5pm-7pm, tomorrow, May 16th.  We'll check-in on Facebook Live periodically during those hours--whenever we have a handful of questions to answer and we can step away from the open house for a few minutes. You can find us on Facebook by clicking here.

We hope to see lots of you on Tuesday night!

Stretch & Unwind Class

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Well, it's the month for new classes at the studio! In addition to our positive body image class, Boost Your Body Image: Confidence at Any Size, we are also launching a stretching and relaxation class called, Stretch & Unwind. Stretch & Unwind will be 45 minutes of gentle stretching, relaxation and breathing exercises. In addition to relieving stress and decreasing tension, the class will enhance body awareness and flexibility.

It will be a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and to improve the connection between your mind and your body. Modifications will be demonstrated, so Stretch & Unwind is appropriate for all fitness levels.

Stretch & Unwind happens on Wednesday evenings, from 8-8:45pm at our studio in Tacoma. The cost for the class is $60 for a monthly pass, or you may drop-in for $20 per class (payable by cash or check when you arrive).

You'll want to wear comfortable clothing, that's easy to move around in. If you have an exercise mat that you use at home and like, plan on bringing that too. But if you don't have a mat at home, no problem! Let us know ahead of time and we'll make sure we have enough mats for everyone. You can find our contact information here.

You can click here to register.

Hope to see you there!

PS: If you sign(ed) up for the Boost Your Body Image: Confidence at Any Size class, we'll give you 50% off of the first month of Stretch & Unwind (at the monthly pass rate). Contact us to get your discount code.

5 Things to Love About Barre Workouts

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I LOVE barre workouts. I got certified as an instructor last year, and while I don't teach classes at the moment, I do incorporate some elements of barre into my own workouts. There are some misconceptions about barre, which might be stopping you from trying it. I can tell you that you don't have to be a dancer (or graceful) in order to love it and be good at it. Goodness knows graceful is not a word anyone has EVER used to describe me :-) People of all shapes, sizes and ages take these classes and rock at them. You don't have to wear toe shoes or a tutu, although you could if you wanted to.

Here are 5 reasons why I love it. Maybe you'll be inspired to give it a try too.

The Mind-Body Connection. Because form is so important and because you have to use lots of smaller, supporting muscles, you must develop strong communication links between your brain and your body. You pay attention to it in a way other kinds of workouts don't necessarily require. There are mirrors everywhere in a barre studio and they help with this. You can actually see what you're doing; you can see the shape your body is making. Incidentally, this mirror time is actually beneficial in other ways. Many of us (women especially) are uncomfortable really looking at ourselves in the mirror. We avoid it, or we use it as an opportunity to catalog faults. Looking at yourself in this context is good practice for viewing your reflection as simply information. In this case, information about safe exercise form. It's not about judging imperfections. It's just about looking at what's there. It's actually very freeing.

It's always challenging, no matter how many times I go. The equipment is minimal, the weights are light, and you do the same movements every time. BUT...somehow, it's always challenging. A little change, like lifting your heels during a plie, totally changes how it feels. There are tons of ways to modify everything, either to make it more challenging or to give yourself a bit of a break while you build up the strength and flexibility to do more.

The stretching. You're working your muscles but stretching them at the same time. I imagine my muscles getting longer and leaner with each repetition. It's one of the things I loved about Pilates as well.

The focus on core work. In barre you work your abs throughout the class, mostly in an upright position, which is how your core muscles are designed to function. There is usually a floor segment at the end of the workout where you do some more focused ab work, but not the traditional kind.

I'm a ballet-class dropout, but barre let's me feel like a kid again. I know I said that the tutu is optional, and I've never worn one to class. But it does take me back to when I was five, sporting my fluffy pink tutu, plie-ing and releve-ing my little heart out. You should never discount the power of fun in exercise. Anything that hearkens back to play is a workout we are more likely to stick with.

If you've never taken a barre class, but would like to, the good news is they are almost everywhere now! I encourage you to try barre, or whatever exercise sounds like fun to you. Keep trying different things until you find something you like--something you look forward to each week. Classes can be a great addition to your workout schedule, and you don't need to be intimidated by them. (Check out this post I wrote about group classes.)

What are your favorite kinds of exercise? What do you love most about them? Share in the Comments section below.

 

Inside My At-Home Gym

I'm not currently working with a trainer or taking any exercise classes anywhere, so my workouts are exclusively home workouts at the moment. The good news is that you actually don't need much in the way of equipment to get a great workout in at home. There are lots of exercises you can do using your body weight, or common household items for resistance. When I was really new to exercise I used canned vegetables as weights. No joke. And they worked.

However, at a certain point you'll want to invest in a few items. Some will allow you to add challenge to your workouts, which is important if you want to continue to see improvements in your strength. But, the right equipment can make your workout life easier too.

So here's what I've got.

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Dumbbells. Generally speaking, you want a weight that's heavy enough that somewhere between repetition 8 and 12, you are feeling challenged but can maintain proper form. I'm using my 5-pound and 8-pound dumbbells for my current workout.

A mat. I have a couple. This one is a thicker foam mat that I use for floor exercises. IMG_1027

This one is a yoga mat. It's stickier and good for...you guessed it. Yoga.

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Some resistance bands and stretchy bands. I use the resistance bands for upper body stuff primarily, and the stretchy bands (the wider yellow and green ones) for leg work.

A ball. I use this to add challenge to some leg and glute exercises, such as bridges and heel presses.

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And that's about it for the necessities.

Now on to the splurges.

This is a BOSU. BOSU stands for both sides utilized. That's pretty self-explanatory. The BOSU is a piece of equipment designed to provide you with an unstable surface on which to stand, jump and/or complete exercises. Balance is such an important component of fitness. If you've worked out at our studio, you may have done biceps curls, rows, lunges, squats or push-ups on the BOSU. I liked it so much when I used it at the studio, I bought one for my home gym. It's fun and bouncy, but man-oh-man is it a challenge.

A stability ball.

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I love this for crunches and some upper-body exercises. Like the BOSU it adds a balance challenge to whatever exercise in which you incorporate it. But it's also a great substitute for your normal chair. Just sitting on it forces you to engage the muscles of your core.

If I had to guess, I'd say that all the items above (necessities and splurges) cost me a couple of hundred dollars. The BOSU was half of that, at $99.

So, that's it. That's what I use on a daily basis. I've had most of it for years and it's showing no signs of needing to be replaced. Pretty good for a $200 investment, I'd say.

Let me know if there's a piece of equipment you're thinking about buying, but aren't sure whether it's any good/necessary. I'm happy to give my two cents. I've tried all sorts of fitness equipment over the years. Some good (the BOSU). Some bad (anyone remember those belts that shocked your abs into shape? I sure do.). Even if I haven't personally tried it, I can probably tell you whether the claims have any basis in fitness fact or not.

Okay, that's all from me today. See you here again later this week!

5 Fitness Myths

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I wrote last month about the myth of spot-training, and then I realized that there were a bunch of fitness myths that deserve to be exploded. So here are my Top 5 Fitness Myths De-Bunked. Myth 1: If I stop working out, my muscle will turn into fat. Very, very much untrue. Scientifically impossible, in fact. Muscle tissue and fat tissue are two completely different kinds of tissue. One can no more turn into another than I can turn into, I don't know, a cute, fluffy kitten at will. If you stop training a particular muscle, you will lose muscle mass. That loss can cause your metabolism to slow, thus you are burning fewer calories overall. That can lead to fat gain. But it isn't your muscle transforming.

Myth 2: Crunches are the only way to strengthen my abs. Not only is this not true, but floor crunches aren't even the best way to strengthen your abs, in my opinion. Your abs are designed to engage when you are upright, so there are tons of great standing exercises you can do to strengthen your core, which includes your back muscles, incidentally. Here are a few from PopSugar. It's not a standing exercise, but planks are great for your core too, as are squats. Really, you can and should engage your abs throughout your workout to support your back.

Myth 3: How much I sweat is directly proportional to how many calories I burned. Sweating is the body's cooling system. How much you sweat is dependent upon a number of factors, but the lack of it is not an indicator that you aren't burning calories or vice versa.

Myth 4: If I'm not sore the next day then the workout was too easy. This is closely related to Myth 3. While soreness in the days after a workout indicates you stressed that muscle, the absence of soreness doesn't necessarily mean you didn't. Sometimes your recovery protocol--what you ate, how much sleep you got, how much water you drank--impacts how sore you are later.

Myth 5: No pain, no gain. This one has the most potential to actually physically harm you. Exercising can be uncomfortable. Sometimes your muscles burn. Sometimes they get a little shaky when they're fatigued. You may also experience soreness in the days following your workouts. But, exercise should not be painful. If you are in pain during an exercise, don't push through it. Stop and find an exercise that isn't painful, and possibly go see your doctor depending on the severity of the pain and/or how long it lasts. Pain is your body's way of telling you something isn't right. So, discomfort is okay. Pain is not.

Are there other things you've heard about exercise or health that you want to know whether or not they're true? We're happy to address them, so please submit them as a Comment and maybe you'll see them mentioned in a future post!

Balance

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I think balance ranks just above stretching in terms of important elements of the fitness equation that don't get their due. We spend an awful lot of time talking about the importance of cardiovascular and resistance exercise--and for good reason. But walking, going up and down stairs, getting up and down out of a chair, bending over to pick something up off of the floor--each of these activities relies on your body's ability to balance itself in space and through varying degrees of movement.

In addition to making the activities of daily living easier, practicing balance and engaging in regular stretching makes you less likely to trip and fall. Tripping and falling can be embarrassing. But more importantly, you can injure yourself with a fall. And badly. The consequences of a fall for seniors are especially frightening. So, the more we do at any age to improve and maintain our balance and flexibility, the better.

There are pieces of exercise equipment you can purchase, designed specifically to help improve balance. But there are also loads of free ways you can incorporate balance work into your daily life and your regular exercise routine. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stand on one foot. When that becomes easy, practice raising your lifted leg out behind you or out to the side. You can do this throughout your day. Waiting for something to heat up in the microwave? Stand on one foot while you wait.
  • Do some of your normal strength-training exercises on one foot. Try one-legged biceps curls, or try combining a lateral raise with a side-leg lift of the opposite leg.
  • Practice sitting down into, and getting up from, a chair without using your arms.
  • Walk while alternating high knee lifts.
  • Do walking lunges up and down your hallway at home.
  • Sit on a stability ball instead of a chair. (If you are particularly unstable, have someone there to spot you.) Once you can sit on it easily, practice doing hip circles or shifting side-to-side on it. The idea is to improve your ability to adjust to the dynamic surface and maintain your balance. Then practice rolling down so that the ball is under your shoulder blades and rolling back up to sitting again. (Only do this when you feel confident in your ability to maintain your balance.)
  • Walk a tightrope. Not literally. I just mean walk on the floor like you would walk if you were on a tightrope. One foot directly in front of the other. Why? Well, the closer your feet are to one another width-wise, the harder it is to balance. The most stable position is having your feet underneath your hips, as they are when you walk normally. Narrowing that distance increases the balance challenge.

The cool thing about balance challenges is that you get to see the connection between your brain and your body get stronger almost immediately. You can attempt a balance exercise at the beginning of your workout, and almost without exception, if you try it again later in the workout it will be easier and/or you'll be able to maintain your balance longer. Your brain is so amazing that even when you're working on other exercises, its figuring out what you need to do differently to balance better. Try it. You'll have a whole new level of appreciation for your body.