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.