Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why do we like cat videos?

There’s nothing like a new cat video—or a favorite old cat video—to distract most people from the waiting piles of paperwork and long to-do lists. But what is it about watching our furry friends that reduces stress, literally reducing tension in the body?

The key may be in neurons that minutely activate muscles when watching or imagining an activity. While these are often referred to as motor neurons, it’s not really something accomplished by specific neurons, but a function of how our sensory-motor system works. This is how elite athletes improve performance. When watching videos or mentally rehearsing an event, the brain imagines the movement and the body pretends, on a subliminal level, that this activity is taking place.

When we watch a cat with all its muscles relaxed, moving only the muscles needed, does that help us relax? I think so, and I think that it teaches us how to move more efficiently, only contracting the muscles that are necessary to accomplish a task. When we see a cat swat at an alligator, do we feel powerful and get a surge of adrenaline and pride? That would explain why these videos are so addictive. Watching animals crawl through boxes, climb into bowls, or do anything to avoid getting a bath gives our bodies a mini-taste of the variety of movement we used to enjoy as children.


Watching cat and dog videos is actually good for your body. For even better benefit, follow up with some inventive movement of your own and you’ll drop even more tension and have more fun.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Unstretchable, but not Necessarily Inflexible

A good idea? Stretching before or after exercise
Stretching used to be the go-to activity to increase flexibility and reduce muscle soreness. However, recent research has found that stretching before exercise does not improve athletic performance, does not reduce post-exercise soreness, and may not even improve flexibility. Furthermore, biomechanics has shown that some muscles are in a mechanical position that prevents them from being fully stretched. This article, The Unstretchables - Eleven major muscles you can’t stretch (no matterhow hard you try), by Paul Ingraham lists more than a dozen muscles that can’t be stretched, including the tibialis anterior, coracobrachialis, masseter, temporalis, suboccipitals, supraspinatus, pectoralis minor, thoracic paraspinals, supinator, latissimus dorsi, the gluteals, the quadriceps (other than rectus femoris), the foot arch muscle, and the IT band.

I take issue with the article on several accounts.

  • First, while it may be impossible to stretch these muscles to their maximum length, there are plenty of people walking around with quadriceps and tibialis anterior that are short of functional length, which contributes to shuffling, limping, and pain. Don’t stop stretching a muscle just because it’s on the list. 
  • Second, even though stretching doesn’t improve athletic performance or reduce post-exercise soreness, stretching does help a lot of people feel better, especially people with chronic pain syndromes. 
  • Also, there are goals of stretching other than lengthening a muscle to its maximum such as improving muscle tone and adaptability. 
  • Most of all, these “unstretchables” aren’t a lost cause. Undulation is a way to improve the feeling of flexibility, regardless of biomechanics.


Take the suboccipitals for instance. This group of eight muscles (four on each side) connect the top of the neck to the base of the skull. They are chronically tense in many people as a result of how often we lean forward and look down (otherwise known as text neck), which often leads to a stiff neck and headaches. Many people complain of tightness and soreness at the base of the skull. If the suboccipitals can’t be stretched, what can you do to make them feel better?

The Nose Circles undulation (a variation of Neck Detangler) mobilizes the suboccipitals to unlock their habitual tight-feeling position. The muscles contract and lengthen in sequence bringing much needed relief. This video shows you how. (Instructions are also included on page 45 of Undulation: Relieve Stiffness and Feel Young.)

If your Nose Circles are jagged, it’s because some of your suboccipitals are tenser than others. However, if you practice Nose Circles regularly, the tenser ones will loosen up and your circles will become more smooth and even.

While you can’t technically stretch your supinator, you can create more freedom in your forearm, wrist, and elbow with the Octopus undulation. Small and unusual movements can help open up the carpal tunnel and ease tension in the elbow. This video walks you through it step-by-step. (You can also find this one on page 38 of my book.)

Of course, the Octopus undulation targets more than just a single muscle, so the feeling of flexibility extends through the whole arm.

It’s true that technically you can’t stretch the muscles along the side of your upper back, the thoracic paraspinals, but the feeling of tightness there is begging for some relief. Most people need to strengthen these muscles, but just contracting them will probably make them feel even tighter. Alternate between contraction and lengthening as in the Reverse the Slouch undulation (page 14) or create a wide variety of movement with Free Form. Free Form is demonstrated in this video. It’s also on page 20 of the book. Free form is the magic grease that can help any place in your body feel more flexible, even if it can’t be stretched.

These undulations are not only easy to do, it is easy to do them anywhere and build them into your daily activities. You don’t have to change into your sweat pants, you don’t have to carve out 20 minutes, you don’t have to leave your desk.


If stretching helps you feel better, keep it up, but if you’ve been stretching a muscle and it hasn’t made a difference, you now know there may be a reason and there are other alternatives to creating the feeling of looseness and flexibility.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Calling in the Movement Experts to Prevent Exercise Pain

Children are Movement Experts
Several Facebook friends forwarded videos to me last year that showed a simple stand to sit test that was correlated with longevity in a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. “What did I think of this test?” they wanted to know. Could I do it? I believe that the tenets of the test are true: being able to sit on the floor and get up without using your arms is an important skill to retain or regain. However, as you can see in the video below, the test from the study is hard on my knees. Can you hear the grinding sounds coming from my knees at thirty seconds?

My training and experience led me to believe that I should modify this test to avoid the grinding in my joints and accompanying pain, so I decided to call in some movement experts. I could have called a physical therapist or a personal trainer, a structural integrator or kinesiologist, a yoga therapist or a Feldenkrais teacher. While I respect professional training and do get advice from each of these types of movement experts, I believe that children have a lot to teach us about movement, too. Kids move naturally with ease. In this video, The Movement Experts, my grand-nephews Beau and Emil, show me how to sit on the floor and get up without using my hands.



Sitting on the floor and getting back up is an excellent way to stay in shape. Follow Beau and Emil in the above video and feel the workout. If you have lost the ability to get on the floor, don’t give up. Rebuilding your strength and flexibility is possible. I created a second video to show you how with a progression of strength building movements. Every time you sit down and get up from a chair, you can build your leg and core strength.



You can also use the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 30 second chair stand test to see if you are above or below average in strength for your age. However, my best recommendation is to find some kids and copy their movements. I will help you with that with upcoming videos from The Movement Experts, who will teach us all how to stay mobile. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Stress Management Tips for the Holidays

I am not a glass half full type of person. I am a glass brimming over and splashing down on the table, staining the tablecloth type of person. It goes with my plate already full personality. I like my life this way, even though it causes me stress. It causes the most stress in December when there is more to pile on to my already full plate. Here is what is still left on my to-do list: a Christmas letter, Christmas cards, Christmas cookies, Christmas presents, stocking stuffers, maybe I should make gluten-free Chex mix for my neighbors (and what about the people in the office building?), plus year-end accounting, my 2017 business plan, and, and, and.

My husband says that the list is completely under my control, therefore I create my own stress. He’s right, of course. Other people have other stressors that they have less control over. An article in Psychologist World reports that 70% of people have work related stress and half worry about their weight. Then there’s stress about money and stress because of gridlocked traffic. The point is that all of these things are magnified in December. The to-do list is longer, the expenses are higher, it’s scarieer to drive in the dark and the rain, and after we’re stressed out about finding time to make the cookies, we are stressed out about how much weight we’ll gain after eating them.

A voice inside our head says, “You should relax,” but it's not as easy flipping a switch in the brain. Stress is as much in the body—maybe more so—than in the mind. The most successful stress management strategies involve changing tension in the body. This article gives you three concrete ways to manage your stress. All three have helped me through the holidays.

Fingertip breathing meditation
The beauty of this technique is that you can do it anywhere, while waiting at the checkout line or while sitting at a stop light.



As you inhale, open your hands and spread your fingers. On a slow exhale, bring your thumbs and little fingers together. Slowly open your hands again in time with your inhale, and on the next exhale, bring your thumbs and ring fingers together. Inhale and open, on your next slow exhale thumbs and middle fingers together. Open on the inhale again and on your fourth exhale bring the thumbs and pointer fingers together. Repeat the sequence until you feel less tension. For example, my to-do list overwhelms me at times and I don’t know where to start. At some point during the fingertip meditation, I will gain clarity and the next step will become obvious. It might take me four or five rounds, but the “time out” from my scurrying gives me the ability to focus and find the next best step.

Variations
I think it’s helpful to vary the amount of pressure on the fingers. What’s the difference if you press them firmly together or try a feather light touch? How about pressing the finger pads together or the finger tips? Trying to touch left and right thumbs and fingers at the exact same moment seems particularly helpful to me.

Why does this work?
Focusing on and slowing the breath is calming and can shift your nervous system from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode. Adding movements from the hands helps unlock stress patterns all the way from your fingers to your neck, patterns like clenching your fists, gripping the steering wheel, or hunching your shoulders.

Being aware of your body is also calming. In the days when we were outside and subject to danger more often, knowing where the body was in space (technically called proprioception) was vital to surviving stressful situations. Even though we aren’t in danger from wild animals or falling tree branches, our nervous system is still soothed by developing proprioception.

Also, you might recognize each of these hand positions as a gesture used in yoga or other meditation practices, called mudras, which are purported to  channel energy in certain ways. When I taught this meditation practice in yoga class, my students found that one finger position was more comforting than the others. I invite you to explore if there’s a mudra that is most effective for your stress, and if different mudras are more effective in different situations. (The sitting in traffic stress relieving mudra might not be the same as the arguing with your spouse stress relieving mudra.)

Stress shaker undulation
This one is easy and depending on how self-conscious you are, you might not want to do it in the checkout line, or maybe just do so on the sly. Simply shake your wrists so that your fingers wobble around. Try to make your hands rubbery.

video


To extend the undulation, change the movement from your shoulders so that your elbows also have that rubbery feeling. Wobble your shoulders up and down and front and back and let your arms and body follow easily along.

Variations
You can also “shake a leg” if you are holding on to a chair or wall for balance and try to get that rubbery feeling in the ankle and foot. You can also wobble your head, but do so gently.

Why does this work?
We spend so much time being still and this shaking movement is very unusual. Your body has to orient itself differently to do the movement and has to figure out how to let go of tension to be able to feel rubbery.

Isn’t this the type of thing we did regularly when we were limber kids? We like to think that we did unusual things when we were more limber, but actually, we were more limber, because we did unusual things.

Animals naturally shake to relieve stress. You often see it when watching nature programs: zebras and pronghorns shake after being chased by a lion. Dogs do the same thing for smaller stressors as shown in this video.


Go outside
This one is simple. If you are stressed in your work cubicle or building tension when you can't find an appropriate, affordable gift, get up, put on your coat (and hat if needed) and go outside. In the outside air. Feel the temperature difference. Feel the breeze, maybe even rain or snow, on your face. Walk around a bit, or a lot. Find a plant to look at, hopefully some birds as well. Let your eyes focus on things far away instead of that computer screen 18 inches in front of your face. Let your peripheral vision open up.

Variations
Going down the hall to the bathroom or getting exercise by climbing steps won’t substitute for this one. This isn’t taking a break from sitting by standing and walking. This is taking a break from being inside where most stress now happens and going outside to the natural environment. Outside can be a city street or just walking around your house or apartment. But it needs to be where you are under the sky and have space around you.

Why does this work?
Taking a break from a stressful situation gives you the opportunity to create a new perspective according to the American Psychological Association. Since most stress today involves inside activities, getting outside expands the perspective even farther. It also gives our eyes a break from short-distance focus, and for those of us, like me, who believe in a mind-body connection, the expansion from physical focus translates to mental focus as well.

Things we find outside—fresh air, plants and animals, the sky—are resources to the nervous system. Even the sensations of cold, wet rain will initiate a change that allows you to let go of stress. Bonus: there aren't any cookies to tempt us outside.

Whether you use these tips a little or lot during this holiday season, I hope they help you relieve tension in your body and give you more peace of mind. After all, that’s what this season is supposed to be about.


Post script for my grammarian readers. For consistency, I had to choose between overwhelming this article with hyphens or eliminating them. Yes, it is missing hyphens, a lot of them.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Don’t Over Do it on Thanksgiving: A Guide to Preventing Common Injuries

Thanksgiving is just a week away. It can be a dangerous holiday; I’m not kidding. After this contentious election, there are sure to be heated discussions, icy silences, and maybe even fisticuffs as Republicans and Democrats gather around the dinner table. But that’s not the danger I am talking about--hopefully thankfulness will win out over politics. Every year, a handful of my clients get hurt preparing Thanksgiving dinner. This article will prepare you so you can prevent injuries that would otherwise upset your holiday season.

Problem #1 – Take a 20 pound turkey, put it in a metal pan, load it with moist stuffing and you can be lifting more weight than you do at the gym. There is a good reason that the gym doesn’t have a weight bench or machine where you bend over as you twist to one side with your arms outstretched holding a heavy weight. That’s a recipe for straining your low back.
  • Possible Solution A – Appeal to the younger, stronger people who are lounging on the couch watching Dallas beat Washington. You’ve done the preparation, let them do the heavy lifting. Before the coin toss, let them know that they will need to hit pause to come into the kitchen and take the turkey in and out of the oven several times. There’s no free dinner!
  • Possible Solution B – Treat this task as a weight lifting exercise. Engage your core as you lean over. Bend your knees a little. Keep your arms as close to your sides as possible without burning yourself on the hot oven. And exhale as you lift or extend.
  • Possible Solution C – Cook a smaller turkey, maybe even a turkey breast or chicken to lighten the load.
Problem #2 – A dinner plate weighs about two pounds. If you are setting the table for a dozen people, that’s 20 or more pounds of plates. If you are like me, you’ll want to be efficient and carry all the plates in one stack with silverware piled on top. This little exercise can hurt your shoulders, your neck, your low back, or your knees, basically hitting the weakest link in your myofascial chain.
  • Possible Solution A – Take several trips and limit each load to a sufficient weight that you are building strength, but not enough to overload your body.
  • Possible Solution B – Follow the guidelines above for using your core and breath to help with the heavy lifting.
  • Possible Solution C – Call on the football fans to help. Maybe it’s the job of the people who are rooting for the team that’s currently in the lead. They don’t need to cheer as much.
Problem #3 – Dirty dishes and pots and pans don’t clean themselves. Most lumbar spines can handle leaning over a sink for only a short time before the ligaments and muscles wear out.
  • Possible Solution A – When leaning over keep your spine straight and bend at the hips. Draw your belly button in toward your spine to protect your low back. When you can’t hold this posture, take a break.
  • Possible Solution B – Avoid a dish washing marathon. Wash a few then sit down to watch a few first downs or Snoopy dressed up as a Pilgrim. Washing dishes only during commercials will give your back a break.
  • Possible Solution C – Start a new trend: Nice paper plates and silver could just be the next cool thing.
You might be the type of family that doesn’t watch football—or even television—on Thanksgiving. In that case, you should have plenty of unoccupied helpers to share the work of putting together and cleaning up after the feast. In terms of how to avoid getting injured in the after dinner family touch football game, I suggest that you take the role of coach.

After hours of planning and preparing for Thanksgiving, you deserve to take some rest time for yourself. Make time on the weekend for a restorative yoga class, a walk in the woods, or other activity that feeds your body, mind and spirit.