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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Moving Past Pain

Humans shun pain. The pang of a stubbed toe, the agony of losing a childhood friend, the ache of a wrenched knee or twisted ankle, back spasms after a day raking leaves, or the pain of embarrassment when stammering in front of a crowd. From the first throbbing of labor contractions, pain is an inevitable part of the human experience.

As a survival mechanism, our brains unconsciously create patterns of behavior to avoid pain. You don’t have to think about how to avoid putting weight on a sprained ankle. Your body (brain, actually) automatically transfers the weight through different muscles so you feel less pain. Long after an injury heals, echoes of these compensation patterns often remain. Likewise, when we experience emotional pain, our brains create patterns, usually of anger, blame, or denial, to relieve us of the discomfort. The more unconscious the compensation, the more likely it is to persist.

When pain is present, the natural reaction is to try not to feel it. Usually we do this by holding our breath and limiting movement. Feelings are e-motions or energy in motion. Stopping motion is one way to stop feeling. When used for this purpose, consciously or not, not moving is also a great way to get stuck.

We must move through pain to get unstuck. It’s good advice to breathe when stressed, but often breathing isn’t enough to get to the other side. Breath is only the beginning of movement. Here’s another option.

Take a moment to feel your pain; don’t push it away. What shape does your body want to take when you feel? Emphasize that shape with small, slow movements while breathing and feeling. That doesn’t mean to create injury in your body. If you have a back spasm or a sprained ankle or a wrenched neck, you don’t want to make it worse, but you can explore the edges of the pain for the length of a breath. Then come back to a neutral shape, either seated, standing, or lying down and breathe and feel. Go back and forth—undulate—between the positions of where your pain is felt and the positions of neutrality.

By putting energy in motion, your body’s wisdom will uncover the underpinnings of pain so you can move past it. Pain is part of life, so is growing from the experience. It’s what we do with pain that makes us remarkable. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I recently read YoungerNext Year by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, MD. They make a very strong case for why we need to stay physically active every day. Here’s my take: Our biology is programmed to repair our tissues when we are moving at a moderate pace. On the other hand, when we are sitting around—like the grandparent who stays safe in the cave while the rest of the family is out hunting and gathering—our DNA and brain don’t send the signals to keep us functioning optimally.

Crowley and Lodge recommend exercising an hour a day, 6 days a week at 65% of maximum heart rate. This heart rate is surprisingly easy to achieve, just enough to produce a sweat, but not enough to be breathing heavy. Even at that rate, my first thought of exercising 6 days a week is, “Ugh, that doesn’t sound like fun.” But Michael and I are sold on the logic of it and are keeping each other on track.

Going to the gym is not what I normally consider a good time, but it works for Michael so we go together two days a week. The gym seems boring to me, so I have to change it up, one day on the exercise bike, another on the cross trainer, one on the recumbent bike, sometimes on the elliptical. There is no way I would go by myself—having my partner makes it fun. We also reward ourselves by goofing around on the equipment after meeting the aerobics goals. It’s entertaining to play with the PRX equipment or try some fancy “power clean” moves with the free weights. 

Last Friday was beautiful, so we went for a walk instead and enjoyed the falling leaves, a peaking view of Mt. Rainier, and the crispness in the air.

I also dance twice a week, so that’s four days out of six. It’s been a struggle to get the other two days in, so I have to come up with a laundry list of possibilities.
·        My favorite, of course, is to go to the property and play lumberjack. It doesn’t even seem to be exercise when we’re clearing brush, exploring the woods, or even lugging heavy chains around. That is the key: when activity gets the heart rate up, but it isn’t drudgery. Yesterday, I chopped down a tree with an ax. (It was a little tree, but still!)
·        Running around after my grand-nephews falls in this category, too. Watching TV with them doesn’t count, but taking them to the creek or getting on the floor to play Legos does. It’s time to make another play date.
·        Since Michael’s back surgery, we’ve also been doing a weekly core exercise routine. Routine isn’t quite the right word. Although we have some regular exercises, like plank, we also come up with ideas to challenge each other, a bit like kids who ask: “Can you do this?” It was starting to get a little boring, so I bought a Bosu ball to add some variety. It also helps us work on our balance.
·        A couples times a month, I have a private Pilates session. Even if the Pilates routine isn’t 100% fun, it’s 100% helpful and my Pilates teacher is always enjoyable.
·        Yoga is fun sometimes and sometimes it’s not. I realize that’s my mood—not yoga itself—that makes the difference. When it the physical aspect of yoga sounds fun, I do it. (I try to practice the non-physical, non-exercise aspects of yoga every day.)

Playfulness is an important part of staying younger, particularly when it applies to exercise. I want to be the old grandma in the cave, but the grandma who is laughing joyfully, not groaning because my joints hurt. So I look for fun activities and try to add them to my regular repertoire of six days a week of exercise.

Please feel free to comment and let us know what you do for exercise that’s fun. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Creepy Crepitus, The Strange Scary Sounds You Hear When You Move

I woke up in the middle of the night troubled by a dream that my teeth were crumbling, my bones dissolving. I walked downstairs to get a drink of water, my heart already running fast, when I heard a creaking sound. At first my anxiety amplified, then I realized it was just my knees. It wasn’t a scary sound, but what has become the familiar, occasional creaking as my bony knee caps and ligaments loudly reminded me that I didn’t stretch my thigh muscles as much as I needed to.

Strange noises that come from our bodies—creaking, crackling, crunching, grinding, popping, and snapping—are known as crepitus. My clients find them creepy, or sometimes downright scary, but the noises don’t usually signify as much destruction as people assume. In this article, I’ll explain what these noises mean and what you can do to improve your body’s health so they aren’t so frightening.

“The popping sounds from my knees must be my arthritis. It must be getting so bad that the bones are rubbing together.” I’ve heard that sentiment dozens of times as clients try to give an explanation to grinding. Fortunately, the real reason isn’t as destructive. Granted, arthritis is commonplace, especially as we get older, but it would have to be very advanced to get to the point where bones actually rub together. It also helps to know that arthritis doesn’t correlate to pain. Many people have arthritis that doesn’t cause pain or other symptoms.

A common cause of crepitus is gasses escaping from joints or muscles, like the sound made when cracking knuckles. Unless the sounds are accompanied by pain or swelling or unless they start after an injury, they are generally considered harmless—even if they are loud.

Another cause of a popping sound is when ligaments or tendons snap over a joint. This happens when a ligament or tendon isn’t flexible enough to stretch around the joint, and often occurs when stretching hip flexors. There are nine hip flexors; to thoroughly stretch them all requires a variety of movements. Since few of us (me included) don’t regularly do all these movements, the tendons can lose flexibility. One way of avoiding the snapping is to stop stretching and moving less. I don’t recommend that! My advice for popping tendons is to limit the range of movement to just before the pop and to stretch regularly to this point. You can develop the awareness of sensations to feel for and avoid the pop. When I stretch regularly, my tendons get healthier and over time (it’s not an overnight fix by any means) my pop-free range of motion increases.

A similar noise is caused by calcification of the tendons. It most often occurs in the tendons of the shoulder, but any tendon can be affected. Calcium salts are deposited in the tendons of muscles that are overused when there is lack of blood flow. Chronically tense shoulders are a prime environment. Based on the grinding sounds that I hear when I roll my shoulders, I have a salt mine inside my tendons. It’s not too surprising since I use my arms a lot in my work.

However, I was once able to dissolve the calcifications in my shoulders and had a week of noise-free shoulder rolls. That was after taking a three-day undulation workshop. By simply moving my body fluidly for hours, my shoulders—and knees and fingers and every other joint in my body—worked out all their inflexibilities and crunchies. Knowing the cause of crepitus—and more importantly, knowing that it doesn’t have to be permanent—takes the fright out of these disconcerting noises.

If you want to read about something really scary, click the link to this article I wrote nine years ago titled Scary Sarcopenia about the very real danger of losing muscle mass as we age. But don’t let it give you nightmares either. You can fight the sarcopenia monsters with regular strength training.