It’s a Strong Core Thing – Like Windex

According to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, Windex® is the solution to most everything. We hear about a strong core in the same way. Want better posture? Strengthen your core. Want to help alleviate back pain? Strengthen your core. Want more power to lift, run, dance, throw, jump and speak 5 languages? Strengthen your core. Yet there’s more to the story. Cover story image: scott-eaton.com

We don’t simply spray Windex and walk away – there’s some action involved to clean that window.  Similarly, isolating a strong core is not the end-all to physical fitness.

We are functional, ever-moving beings. And while improving our core strength is a must for strong, coordinated movement, remember, we don’t stop there.

Building mindful awareness for how we move, and how often – along with a strong center – results in physical improvements and safeguards against injury.

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“Functional strength is very important for vitality and well-being. Isolating muscles to strengthen them, even important muscles like the abdominals, can interfere with the way we recruit them. We need to look at how we integrate and organize our strength into our daily movements.” Huffingtonpost.com

At the Center of it

Yes indeed, we need to keep the whole body in mind. However for today, we’ll zero in on our center, and why we want to make it strong.
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Know Your Core
So we’ve all heard the pitch “…gotta strengthen your core”. Yet do we have the full picture of what that means and what a ‘strong core’ can do for our overall fitness level?

A strong core stabilizes the body and balances functions.
There are some terrific benefits to having a strong core that we may not always think about. There are also a variety of methods to train our complex midsections that go beyond simply doing some crunches to get that six-pack look (a somewhat superficial approach to strengthening).

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The core is amazingly designed, inherently strong and synchronized to support what the body does. Again – it’s so much more than the coveted six-pack. Imagine all of these key core muscles working for us!

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  • Transverse Abdominis (TA) – the deepest of your abdominal muscles, lies under your obliques
  • External Obliques– located on the side and front of your abdomen, around your waist
  • Internal Obliques– lie under your external obliques, and run in the opposite direction
  • Rectus Abdominis– a long muscle that extends along the front of your abdomen. This is the ‘six-pack’ part of your abs that becomes visible with reduced body fat
  • Iliopsoas– this muscle’s primary role is hip flexion, but because of its deep relationship to both the legs, spine, and diaphragm it can help coordinate the core, especially when complex movement is involv
  • Pelvic floor muscles – primarily the levator ani, the coccygeus
  • Multifidus – which stabilizes a number of vertebrae in the spine
  • Erector spinae – including the longissimus thoracis also stabilize the spine
  • Thoracic diaphragm – which helps control breathing

Thankyourbody.com

Benefits of a Strong Core
I like to think of our core-center as a transfer station of power between the upper and lower body. When all the key muscles noted above are working in unison, we don’t necessarily think about them. We go somewhat on auto-pilot and enjoy the outcome of twisting, lifting, throwing, pushing, carrying, etc., with ease, with power and without pain.

Alternately, when our core muscles are weak and not properly working to support our movements, it can affect balance, torque our backs, add stresses to joints, hinder our coordination and mobility.

When you’re heading out to exercise, consider this:
“No matter where motion starts, it ripples upward and downward to adjoining links of the chain. Thus, weak or inflexible core muscles can impair how well your arms and legs function. And that saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do.” Health.harvard.edu

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Some Terrific ‘Side Benefits’
In addition to what we’ve talked about, consider these ‘auto-pilot’ functions that we take for granted (until something goes wrong):

Internal organ function (and protection)
Think of where our internal organs and digestive systems reside…smack in the center, right? And with our ribcage, pelvis and core musculature surrounding them, what a wonderfully designed “housing” for these mission critical components.

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With strong abdominals and core muscles engaged, our ribcage is lifted up from our pelvis, allowing space for our organs to operate properly. What’s more – a strong core helps protect these vital organs, veins, arteries and spinal cord. We stabilize the core, we enable the body’s center of operations to function well.

Try this:
“A simple but effective exercise for building core stability is to draw in the abdominal muscles (think about your belly button pulling away from your pant line), hold for five breaths, and then relax. Repeat 10 times. Purdy recommends doing this 10 times a day. She also suggests women practice Kegel exercises’ drawing in the pelvic floor ‘to strength the lower end of your core (with the added bonus of better bladder control).” Besthealthmag.ca

Getting taller
Related to improving your posture, “standing up straight” translates to: Lift the chest, roll the shoulders back and down, pull the chin in a bit and lengthen the back of your neck, extend the crown of your head upwards.

This lengthening of the space between your ribs and hips while pulling the shoulders open requires strong abdominal and back muscles. Maintaining this length and ‘standing tall’ with core engaged can increase your height!
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Practice This 3-5 times a day and create a strong core habit:

  • Whether sitting or standing, imagine your spine lifted/extended up through the crown of your head; If your spine was a garden hose, you’d want to straighten it out and shake out the kinks for the best flow, right?
  • Now actively squeeze in your waist, like tightening a wide belt around your middle; take full breaths while continuing to tighten your middle
  • Notice how with a tight, 360-degree center – like “bracing for the punch” with your back tall and active – inhibits the bad slouching habit

Cycling Posture

Better Breathing
“At the root of the natural laws of life and the natural inner rhythm is breathing. [Joseph] Pilates wrote in Return to Life Through Contrology, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last…above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz

The diaphragm is a key player in the role of breathing. “Diaphragmatic breathing” – or breathing with a lateral and posterior expansion of the ribcage – is commonly practiced with Pilates, and recruits the abdominal muscles to both stabilize the trunk and actively squeeze out stale air from the lungs.

This powerful action requires focus and engagement of the abdominal core muscles.
“This in turn promotes deeper inhalation on the part of the primary respiratory muscles and the auxiliary muscles (including the back extensors), bringing a healthy quantity of oxygen-filled air to nourish and rejuvenate the body.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz

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Improved balance and awareness for how we move
It’s not just an age thing. It’s a core thing.
A strong “transfer station” brings awareness and control to how the arms and legs move. How often do we inadvertently throw ourselves off balance by flinging out an arm or leg to catch us? Training our core muscles wakes them up, gets them firing in an effort to stabilize our movements.

“Activating your core helps stabilize the hips and provides an opportunity to move from your midline, creating more control while standing on one leg.” Ace Fit Life

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When we know how something works are then able to take advantage of the benefits. Like riding a bike – once we learn how to balance on that narrow apparatus with two skinny wheels, we never forget and can hop on without thinking.

It takes some practice, but we can learn how to activate our core. With Pilates-style exercises, planks, squats, bridges and more, we can transfer that strength and awareness into other activities. We get to experience more power, and our risk of injuries goes down.

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Great for the Core – The All-around Plank
A powerful, multifaceted exercise that can target the entire core plus back when done properly. It can also be modified to make more or less challenging by lowering the knees, coming onto the forearms, holding for shorter or longer periods, etc.

Happy core building!

Do This for building a happy core (compliments of Acefitness.org):
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Instructions:

  • Begin on hands and knees
  • Walk your hands one hand-length forward and shift your weight forward so your shoulders come over your wrists and your hips are lower than your shoulders
  • Adjust your position so your body is in a straight but descending line from your shoulders to your knees (use a mirror or a friend to find the right position)
  • Engage your core muscles and soften your shoulders
  • Start breathing long, full inhales and exhales
  • Hold for 30 seconds or more
  • To make it harder, tuck your toes to lift your knees off the ground. Stay in that strong, straight line
  • Take it to your forearms if this bothers your wrists, but make sure your hips stay low but supported

Remember that the most effective plank is the one that is in correct alignment, so if you feel your form disintegrates, it’s time for a rest.

 

 

Get Taller in 2017! The Benefits of Good Posture

Maybe I’m hyper aware of good posture – yet with a 5-foot 3-ish frame, I want all the height I can get (and keep it). I adamantly believe that as we age it does not mean we need to accept shrinking. It’s time to stand up straight, grow taller, project confidence and strengthen our spines! Image: i.huffpost.com

Our grandmothers were right. Walking while balancing a book on our heads really does build awareness of good posture (and a host of other benefits). What they didn’t count on is the bombardment of social, practical and technological factors that continually pull us over and out of the tall, confident stance that nature intended.

Enemies of Posture
Think of all the things that literally weigh on our shoulders and negatively affect our posture:

Driving: Long commutes, stressful traffic, hands gripped at 10-and-2 cause us to round our shoulders and slouch into our driver’s seats.

Cell phones: Holy cow – do you know how much the human head weighs? On average about 10-12 pounds for an adult, when aligned properly over the shoulders. Now, tilt that head downwards while, say, texting or reading something on our phones, and that 10 pound head increases to a whopping 40 pounds at a 30-degree tilt. And all of that gravitational pull drives right into the neck and back which can lead to chronic pain. Christchiropractic.com
Posture_textneck_chiropractor-woodstock.com_image Image: chiropractor-woodstock.com

Working: Most of us sit at a computer at some time during the day. However, sitting and focusing on the screen juts our heads forward, and the rounded shoulders while typing on the keyboard pulls us into imbalances. Over time this can lead to ‘fun’ effects such as headaches, shoulder and neck pain, spinal misalignment and more.

Sports Activities: LOVE the training, action and mental focus with a sports endeavor! Yet realize that training for a specific activity with the same repetitive motions can lead to primary muscle groups getting stronger and overpowering the weaker, stabilizing muscles. Think of sports such as climbing, swimming, golf, and biking to name a few. Continual actions such as pulling, twisting, and rounded shoulders can wreak havoc on the spine as time goes on.
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For that matter, any of our daily actions and habits can cause chronic wear-and-tear with deteriorating posture unless compensated for with counter-balancing, strengthening exercises.

AND – recognize that none of the above examples point to the “old age” excuse. Yes, of course, we do age and this is a contributing factor to our physical well-being. BUT we still have the ability to build muscle and strengthen our spines so that we are standing up tall, supporting our skeletal frames, moving freely and enjoying life to our full potentials!

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So, What Is “Good Posture”?
I always start off my Pilates classes with a ‘reset’ of good postural alignment:

Facing front:

  • Stand tall, ribcage lifted, feet parallel
  • Hips stacked squarely over the knees and ankles: draw an imaginary, straight line from the front hip bones, through the center of the knee, over the ankle, and out over the 2nd toe

Facing side:

  • Imagine a plumb-line (testing for verticality) dropping from the ear, straight down through the side shoulder, side hip, knee and mid-ankle

Sitting:

  • Sit at the edge of the seat (not relaxed into the back of the chair)
  • Imagine sitting straight up with a yardstick flat against the back of the tailbone (sacrum) and running up against the back of the ribcage, in between the shoulder blades, and resting against the back of the head.

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“Posture refers to the preferred biomechanical alignment of the body, said Eric Robertson, director of graduate physical therapy education at Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Good posture is important because it minimizes the excessive force that muscles and joints need to absorb, he said.” – Livescience.com

Good Posture Projects Confidence
I was sharing with a class the benefits of practicing good posture and issued the challenge: Try walking into a department store and simply stroll through the displays with your head held high, chin level, gaze forward and back tall, shoulders open and striding forward with purpose.

One client reported back that she tried it. The result: she was confronted twice by “real” customers asking for directions and advice – obviously mistaking her for someone who worked there. Confidence and authority naturally project when we put good posture into practice.

“A recent study from Harvard showed that when people who adopted powerful postures (open shoulders and straight spines) had a 20% increase in testosterone levels and a 25% decrease in cortisol levelsbut people who slouched had a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol. That translates into low self-confidence and high stress.” – Prevention.com

More Than Mental
Practicing good posture – and putting the physical effort into achieving and maintaining it – goes way beyond projecting confidence. It’s absolutely necessary for continued, long-term health of our spines, joints, lungs, blood flow and internal organs.

“Posture is more than just a function of the way someone stands or sits. For example, it also impacts how much pressure these positions place on the lower back and other muscles and joints. What’s more, posture can be a reflection of a person’s overall health, fitness, and the body’s strength and weaknesses” – Livescience.com

Try this yourself and picture what’s going on inside:
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Sit on the edge of a chair, then slump way over.This may be (hopefully is) an exaggeration, however, for demonstration purposes, look what’s happening to the amount of space between your shoulders and hips. That space in the middle is scrunched, reduced, right? And what happens to the space for your lungs to expand? The space for your stomach, intestines and colon to work properly? That “working space” is drastically reduce AND has the added weight of the head and ribcage slumping over your internal organs to further compress and kink. The long-term result: not good.

“…Sitting slouched over can compound the problem. “Shallow chest breathing strains the lungs, which must move faster to ensure adequate oxygen flow, and taxes the heart, which is forced to speed up to provide enough blood for oxygen transport. The result is a vicious cycle, where stress prompts shallow breathing, which in turn creates more stress,”  prevention.com

Let’s help our cardiovascular and other vital process out by giving some room and support to operate as nature intended.

Step 1: Sit Up / Stand Up

  • Think of lifting your ribcage up and away from your hips
  • Add “space” and length in your waist
  • Give your internal organs some room to maneuver, flow, operate

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Step 2: Strengthen the Core (Front, Back and Sides)
There’s no getting around it – it takes muscle, stamina, and endurance to find and maintain a tall back and lifted chest. Stress, fatigue, sitting and inactivity are the sneaky culprits that pull us over and into that ‘comfortable’ slouch.

But – there’s a simple fix (simple, yet work involved):

  • Get up and move. Put into practice that purposeful walk with shoulders back and head lifted
  • Stuck standing? Think A-ten-TION! Pull a salute stance and feel the blood begin to pump (Sidenote: check out this video of the Marine staff sergeant standing, saluting for 3 hours in recognition of fallen soldiers)

Click: Marine Held Salute For 3 Hours

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  • Kick in some core action! Take 10 minutes a day to “remind” the core how it needs to work:
  • Planks – front and alternating sides

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  • Slow abdominal lift-and-hold – unlike typical “crunches”, have a single-minded focus on the abs doing the work (no pulling on the neck, no momentum)

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  • “Swimming” – alternating arm and leg lifts to fire up the back muscle chain

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Why do this?
“Maintaining good posture may help you avoid new health problems. Proper posture reduces abnormal wear and tear on joint surfaces, which can lead to arthritis. It also reduces stress on ligaments that connect spinal joints. Good posture helps you avoid developing an abnormal permanent position, which can cause spinal disk problems and constricted blood vessels and nerves. Good posture also protects spinal joints from injury and deformity.” Livestrong.com

Why NOT do this?
It’s a pretty simple, uncomplicated and straightforward approach to help with our longevity. Barring any unfortunate medical condition, practicing good posture and taking steps to achieve/maintain it are cheap and easy actions we can do each day.

Stand tall, stand proud, feel great and let others ask you for directions!

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A Happy Holiday Core Blast

Love this time of year! Yet, as I’m here listening to Christmas music I find myself somewhat stressing over what shopping I have not done yet and how much I have to do and how I have not been to the gym for awhile, etc. etc.  Getting overwhelmed, over tired and irritated at rude drivers is not the Christmas spirit. Time to take a big innnhaaale and exhaaaale, and go back to my mantra of ‘just need to do something every day’.

I had this conversation with two awesome women who joined me for a Pilates workout earlier in the week when none of us really wanted to.  A long day and so much to do, you know.  After an hour, all of us felt rejuvenated, relaxed, strong and feeling good that we accomplished something good for ourselves. A great reminder that when we least feel like doing something – that’s exactly when we should!

Which is why I’m bringing back my go-to favorite Pilates core blast. Ideal when time (especially during the holidays) is short and stress is threatening. What a terrific way to fire back up and refocus mind and body in about 10 minutes. Not an hour, not driving through traffic to a gym, but 10 minutes that we can do at home.

And while you may disregard a 10-minute exercise session, research shows that short bouts of intense activity during the day have big benefits – benefits that rival those of longer workouts. Here’s the scoop: when you perform frequent, explosive mini workouts, you send messages to your brain that your muscles are crucial, which increases the release of growth hormone and builds bone density and muscle mass. That’s good stuff!

And why Pilates is such a good go-to activity for that intense, core exercise session. Just remember these Pilates non-negotiables before jumping into this routine and you’ll wake up all your abdominals (rectus abdominis, obliques and deep transverse), your back, chest and stabilizers as well:
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1. Breath – deep inhales and exhales throughout the exercises to oxygenate the body, with an added “squeeze” at the end of the exhale as you tighten your stomach to squeeze out the air.
2. Keep core engaged – think “brace for the punch” as you tighten that 360-degree band around your middle to add to that abdominal intensity.
3. Good form – shoulder blades sliding down towards your hip pockets, chest lifted, and a long, tall spine with head in line to activate back muscles.

Now, grab 10 minutes and a mat (or your living room rug) and try this Core Blast Routine*!

Stand tall, take 3 deep breaths and Roll Down.

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Walk your hands out to Front Plank.
(Hold for 10 seconds – wide deep breaths and your 360-degree core band tightened– check points 1 through 3 above)
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Without lowering, shift weight to your left and rotate to a Left Side Plank.
(Hold for 10-15 seconds)

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Rotate back to front plank,and move directly into alternating knee tucks or “Mountain Climbers”.
(Alternating legs, 10 sets; add a little pause-and-hold with your knee tucked in for that little extra somethin’somethin’)
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Shift your weight into your right hand and rotate over to a Right Side Plank.
(Hold for 10-15 seconds)

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Rotate back to hold your last Front Plank, then sit it back to Child’s Pose. Take three deep, rib-expanding breaths then flip around to sitting.

Next, Roll Down onto your back.

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Continue into Roll Up series.
(Complete a set of 5, and finish rolled-down on your back)
Rollup_surfbodysoul.com_imageimage: surfbodysoul.com (and yes, you could do this on a beach)

Begin Leg Stretch Series of 5:
Single Leg Stretch; Single Straight Leg Stretch, Double Straight Leg Stretch, Leg Lowers, Criss-Cross
(5 sets of each)

Starting with Single Leg Stretch:
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Single Straight Leg Stretch:

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Double Leg Stretch:

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Leg Lowers:

doublestraightlegstretch_blogspot

And Criss-Cross:

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Stretch it out, deep breath and roll up to Teaser (hold); repeat Teasers.
(3 full Teasers, finish upright and lower legs to sitting)
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Split legs to straddle, extend arms out and start Saw twists.
(Alternate Saw twist sides for 5 sets)
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Lean back to forearms, extend legs to ceiling and continue to Hip Circles.
(Alternating circling legs right and left for 5 sets)
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Flip to your stomach, extending arms and legs for Swimming.
(Inhale 4 breaths, exhale 4 breaths while alternating arm-leg lifts)
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Lower your legs, pull your arms to your sides, keep your mid-back lifted and extended in Arrow.
(Glue legs together and arms to sides, hold for 10 seconds – and breathe deep!)

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With legs still squeezed tight, extend arms to the front and swing them out and back as you immediately move into Breast Stroke.
(Complete 5 sets; end with your palms on the floor by your chest)

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Push up to Front Plank, then lift hips to Downward Facing Dog.
(Walk the feet, press heels towards the floor and tailbone towards ceiling for a hamstring stretch)

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Walk hands back towards feet and Roll Up to Stand.
Take 3 deep, rib-expanding breaths, swinging your arms up and overhead.
Rinse and Repeat!
(Moving briskly, estimated time 5 minutes for one full round, 10 minutes for two;  expect a little longer if you slow it down)

Remember!! Good form, concentration and focus on points 1 through 3 above helps you “work deep”. Maintaining this intensity – mindful vs. mindlessly powering through – gives you the blast of benefits while protecting your neck, back and joints.

Now – find your 10 minutes in the day, then go celebrate the season and have a WONDERFUL Christmas and HAPPY New Year!

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*NOTE: This Core Blast is recommended for those who’ve taken Pilates classes and are familiar with the fundamentals of the practice. As with any exercise program, seek the advice of your doctor before participating and/or if you suffer from injuries.
Questions? Feel free to contact me or join a class.

 

Mindfulness for a Fitness Breakthrough!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist who first coined the term “mindfulness” in the ’70s, defines it as a state of mind: the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude. The Atlantic.com; image: mumsdreamsignite.com

After just returning from a physically and mentally challenging, world Dancesport competition, I was reminded again about the beauty of focusing on the now – not 10 minutes ago, not next week, but the current moment. Putting the practice of mindfulness into the physical actions at hand is an absolute must in any sport – competitive or otherwise. From a mental and emotional perspective, being “in the moment” during the experience heightens awareness and appreciation. And how completely rewarding it is when the focus is achieved, distractions fade, and the body reacts as the mind desires!
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In today’s A.D.D. style society, where we multi-task, mentally leap ahead to what’s coming next and get an adrenaline rush from distractions,

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simply being mindful is becoming a lost art. Yet one which (I realized, again) is critical to performance and fulfillment.

The Physical Practice of Being Mindful
Being in the moment does take practice. It’s all too easy to go into auto-pilot with routine tasks. Take a look at our personal fitness efforts…do our minds wander as we step through a work-out, or jog along the same route, or meander from machine to machine at the gym?

Most of us do this to some extent – it can be a stress reliever to just “go work out” and not think. However, not paying attention while working out, or doing chores or some other physical activity can risk unexpected injuries and less effective actions.

Man pushing wheelbarrow in backyard   skeleton-back-pain_invitehealthblog.comimage                          image: sciencephoto.com                      image:  invitehealthblog.com

Hence, practice being purposeful. Our bodies react to what the mind envisions. When we can focus on our training time and really zero in on how our bodies are working, what we’re asking our muscles to do, while perfecting form with function, it’s then we can kick it into overdrive (i.e. with competition) or slide into auto-pilot (i.e. simply getting out for a walk) with our bodies ready to perform. The practice of being mindful and paying close attention to how we move will pay off with improved action and less chance for injury.

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How Do We Practice Mindfulness to Improve our Fitness?
First, identify a reason. Why do we work out…To lose weight? Train for a sports activity? Run around with the kids? Feel better overall? Once we identify our true motivator for exercising – and more than simply “because it’s good for me” – it’s easier to become purposeful in our actions. And when we have that goal in front of us, we can truly ‘be in the moment’ and enjoy it!

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Next, try getting out of the normal routine. This is great for mental health, such as spurring our neuroplasticity, which is “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” Medicinenet.com. Incorporating new activities perks us up, helps us learn new patterns and inherently helps us pay more attention to the physical details.

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Add in some “mind-body” work. There’s a reason why Pilates, yoga and Barre classes are so popular. They provide the opportunity for us to focus inward and concentrate on perfecting movement, which only serves to enhance our efforts, actions and performances with any other physical activity.

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image: rbz_fit_city_NFL_Pilates_14_statesman.com

Consider my personal fave, Pilates: “The very structure of the Pilates method requires mental focus, a process that forces your muscles to respond more quickly to training. Rather than performing monotonous and reflexive repetitions, you will carefully execute a limited number of compound movements with an eye toward perfecting every possible detail. By integrating body and mind, you will achieve an effective, efficient and balanced workout.”Pilates Body in Motion, Alycea Ungaro

I love this quote by founder Joseph H. Pilates, in his book Return to Life Through Contrology: “To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life, we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limit of our ability.

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Yes, I’m a Pilates enthusiast and tell people that I “do Pilates” so that I can “do the things I love to do”! And I can attest to the fact that incorporating Pilates techniques results in heightened mind-body awareness. Meaning, the realization of how our bodies move and react in space works wonders for agility and coordination.

Correct movement can be trained to be second nature, so that if we’re not paying attention and take a misstep or get bumped into, our strong core and active muscles can accommodate for the unexpected.

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Pay Attention on Purpose
Let’s help our bodies out and focus in on the how and why we’re exercising. By practicing mindfulness, we’ll move stronger, feel better, improve our balance and overall actions. And Bonus!…We’ll enjoy the here and now!

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Fight Off Stress with Core Strength

It’s a given that core strength is a baseline for overall health and fitness.  It’s been touted from personal trainers to PTs, group class instructors to gym rats, elite competitors to everyday athletes.  You want to succeed at, well, anything physical – you need to have good, strong core strength. Image: Kingfisher_Pilates.com

This is not a new idea.  Joseph Pilates, the founder of Contrology (aka: Pilates), was already incorporating his personally-tried-and-true practice starting in the early 1900s.

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Through a series of exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles of the abdomen (“powerhouse”), along with meticulous attention to form, focus, breathing and precision, he believed that “Pilates develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.” Joseph Pilates

Fast-forward to what we are exposed to every day with the latest fitness trends and health tips published by hospitals, health insurance companies, newspaper editorials and online resources.  Everyone, literally everyone  is in agreement that strengthening that 360-degree band of muscles around your center is critical – a non-negotiable – to keeping us upright and moving, strong and injury-resistant, and now…well-armed to manage stress!

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Stressed Out? Another Reason to Strengthen Your Core

Have you noticed that a person under stress or depressed tends to slump, stoop and project bad posture? Exercise in general has always been recommended to reduce stress, and now, recent research goes a step further to explain why.

“After a complex study at the University of Pittsburgh, involving a lot of neural mapping, the researchers discovered something fascinating. In the motor cortex, the neurons associated with the axial (or abdominal) muscles are actually connected to the adrenal medulla – the source of adrenaline, a neurotransmitter related to stress. Professor Peter Strick explains, “…When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel. Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.” – NeuroGym.com

The good news:  Building up our abdominals, back and deep core muscles not only aids in better balance, strength and overall movement, it also is a key contributor to managing the detrimental effects to our mental well-being.

The Importance of Building Strength AND Awareness

Whatever the reason for the stress – whether mentally stressed from work, family, finances, or physically stressed from illness or injury, stress is a ‘silent killer’ that sneaks up and affects all of us in some manner at some point in our lives. The key is how to handle it before it overwhelms us.

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“The stress response in humans is facilitated by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys and spit adrenaline into our blood whenever we’re in need of fight or flight. That stress response is crucial in dire circumstances. But little of modern life truly requires it…Most of the time, our stress responses are operating as a sort of background hum, keeping us on edge. Turn that off, and we relax.”  The Atlantic.com “Why one Neuroscientist Started Blasting His Core”

So how do we turn off that “background hum”?  It may not seem like much, but this is the sneaky part of stress. When left un-managed, stress can have negative effects on our posture, leading to back and neck pain, and other physiological impacts ranging from increased blood pressure, sleep disorders, weight gain, deteriorating the immune system, and the list goes on and on.

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“While it’s long been accepted that there is “top-down” control (brain to body) over the body’s adrenaline response, this study [by Pittsburgh neuroscientists] discovered that the motor network (the connections between your body and the part of your brain that anticipates and controls movement) was the major source of influence, with the strongest originating from the core.”

“Peter Strick, one of the authors, speculated that this could help to explain why posture has a noticeable impact on confidence and stress (and vice versa). If you understand how to control your core, you may be better able to modulate your level of stress before it becomes overwhelming and counterproductive.” Dancemagazine.com  “Stressed? Try Activating Your Core”

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Pay Attention to the Core!

This is what it comes down to:  incorporate core exercises to correctly strengthen your center, recognize when stress is starting to creep in and activate those core muscles accordingly.  Breathe deep, stand up tall, and get moving – don’t let stress get you doubled over.

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Pilates, yoga, along with activities such as dance and crossfit all help improve body awareness while strengthen the core.  It’s all true – good core strength is great for both mind and body!

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Back Pain, A Top Complaint (Don’t make it yours!)

They say that at any given time, more than 30 million Americans experience low back pain. While yes, unfortunately, there are some unavoidable reasons – accidents, sports injuries, scoliosis, etc. – many of us can make choices to avoid making this common complaint our own. (image: breakingmuscle.com)

Nowadays, we hear all about the common factors that contribute to back pain. Things like improper lifting, being overweight and a sedentary lifestyle make the top three.

When I hear “sedentary lifestyle”, I immediately get huffy and think there’s no way I’m in that category…and yet…how many hours DO we spend seated? Sitting in the car, sitting at our desks, sitting in meetings, sitting relaxing, eating and watching TV…It may surprise you at how many hours are spent sedentary, despite our workouts or how much physical activity we think we’re getting.

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US News and World Report surveyed the top complaints family physicians hear from patients, and along with achy joints and chronic fatigue from stressful lives comes back pain. While some folks are fine with a doctor’s advice of “take an Advil”, many of us realize that we’re in this for the long haul and want a long term solution.

It’s not rocket science. The Mayo Clinic says: “To keep your back healthy and strong:
Exercise. Regular low-impact aerobic activities — those that don’t strain or jolt your back — can increase strength and endurance in your back and allow your muscles to function better. Walking and swimming are good choices. Talk with your doctor about which activities are best for you.

Build muscle strength and flexibility. Abdominal and back muscle exercises (core-strengthening exercises) help condition these muscles so that they work together like a natural corset for your back. Flexibility in your hips and upper legs aligns your pelvic bones to improve how your back feels. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell which exercises are right for you.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight strains back muscles. If you’re overweight, trimming down can prevent back pain.

And use proper body mechanics:
Stand smart. Maintain a neutral pelvic position. If you must stand for long periods, place one foot on a low footstool to take some of the load off your lower back. Alternate feet. Good posture can reduce the stress on back muscles.

Sit smart. Choose a seat with good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. Consider placing a pillow or rolled towel in the small of your back to maintain its normal curve. Keep your knees and hips level. Change your position frequently, at least every half-hour.

Lift smart. Avoid heavy lifting, if possible, but if you must lift something heavy, let your legs do the work. Keep your back straight — no twisting — and bend only at the knees. Hold the load close to your body. Find a lifting partner if the object is heavy or awkward.”

Going back to that “sedentary lifestyle”, Joseph Pilates had already figured out the detriments of an inactive way of life back in the 1920’s – he thought people back then led a sedentary life! He also realized that people moved poorly, created bad habits, had past injuries, etc., that all contributed to pain and discomfort. Hence the introduction of his method of exercise called “Contrology”.

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“Correctly executed and mastered to the point of subconscious reaction, these exercises will reflect grace and balance in your routine activities. Contrology exercises build a sturdy body and sound mind capable of performing everyday tasks with ease and perfection. They also provide tremendous reserve energy for sports, recreation and emergencies.” (Return to Life through Contrology, Joseph H. Pilates)

Be Proactive: Move It
Just do something every day. A little something is better than a whole lot of nothing.

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It’s not always this simple, but simply moving – and moving mindfully – is a huge starting point for alleviating some of the top complaints health practitioners hear. Including back pain.
“To be mindful means to pay attention to what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. Many athletes, both amateur and competitive, talk about “hitting the zone” or “getting into the flow”. It’s that feeling of moving effortlessly and knowing exactly where your body needs to be at every moment.” (Balanced Body, Oct 2015)

So, start with some “non-negotiables” when you’re doing any activity – from hitting the gym, to cleaning the yard, to intense training:
1. Your powerhouse (aka: core) is always engaged: “Pulled in and up.”
2. Your chest is always lifted.  Better for your spine, better for your circulatory system.
3. Your spine is a straight line, from its base through the crown. Hunching the shoulders puts an enormous amount of pressure on your vertebrae. Keeping your spine in a “straight” line is like taking the kink out of a garden hose:  it keeps the energy moving freely through your entire body.
4. Your gaze is always steady / the crown of your head is always lifted. As with so many things, where you look is where you go. Looking down will cause your energy to fall. Looking around will lead to scattered thoughts.

If we make these part of our new good habits each day it will surely help avoid the things that try to drag us down throughout the week.

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Be Proactive: Strengthen It

Start with good old core exercises. Build some strength, stabilization and endurance in that 360-degree band encompassing our mid-sections so we can continue to lift, stand, walk, run, twist, jump and move in all dimensions while protecting our spines.

Side-Lifts

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Plank Variations

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Pilates-Style Exercises

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Don’t forget about glute exercises. Long bouts of sitting and inactivity can result in tight hips and weak glutes which also contribute to limited range of motion and chronic back pain.
Incorporate squats, lunges and hip flexibility exercises for a strong booty to support that strong back!

Squats

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Lunges

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Bridging

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Hip Openers

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Back to Basics:
Time to be proactive and get into a mind-body awareness-building, core-strengthening, posture-improving, exercise habit. A good habit that will increase strength in small stabilizer muscles, correct imbalances, and build endurance to help us be “in it for the long haul”.

There’s nothing “basic” about this. And for those of us who have experience back pain, there’s nothing “basic” about that either – we just want it to be gone. I’ve seen high school track athletes, millennials, gen-X-ers and seniors all experience some sort of back pain (including myself). Yes – getting a physician’s direction is always recommended. But so is taking our own action and corrective measures.

The Mayo Clinic outlines some basic advice above to get started.
Pilates classes are easy to find for a great all-around cross-training method.
And we can all do something each day to build our good habits, and proactively set out on the journey to long-term health and happiness!

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Why Pilates? Benefits Abound!

What’s not to love about Pilates? Or, should I rephrase to what’s not to love about the benefits of Pilates? Better balance, posture, strength, flexibility, energy and coordination…if we ended here I’d be sold! But there is so much more to this long-standing, tried-and-true method of training. image: webodysseum.com

Remember – we are all “in training” at some level, whether an avid fitness enthusiast, competitor, weekend warrior, or a total non-gym-goer. Life is always in motion so we need to keep our bodies healthy, moving and primed for whatever action we want our bodies to take.

I discovered the Pilates method years ago and can honestly say that the more I practice, the more I discover that it’s a fantastic cross-training tool that I can use continually as my activity level dials up or down depending on what I’m doing.

And it’s relevant over time. No matter what age or fitness level, no matter what sport or activity – incorporating Pilates principles and techniques becomes a daily habit for simply moving correctly and efficiently.

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Add to this the sometimes subtle benefits that we take for granted throughout our day-to-day, such as improved body awareness and control, improved ability to focus and concentrate, better breathing…the list goes on. This may sound grandiose, but I’ve truly found that Pilates practice becomes a way of life.

“Physical fitness is the first requisite to happiness.” Joseph H. Pilates
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The Nuts and Bolts

To boil it down to some basic functionality, there’s always a preparation, leading to an action and followed by a reaction that we experience with each and every movement. Whether said movement is intentional or subconscious. By learning the Pilates techniques, the body is continually improving awareness of how to prepare itself, move, and recover which helps with moving effectively and mindfully, thus increasing coordination, power and speed while reducing the risk of injury.

“The very structure of the Pilates method requires mental focus, a process that forces your muscles to respond more quickly to training. Rather than performing monotonous and reflexive repetitions, you will carefully execute a limited number of compound movements with an eye toward perfecting every possible detail. By integrating body and mind, you will achieve an effective, efficient and balance workout.”
~Pilates Body in Motion, Alycea Ungaro

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What Exactly Is Pilates?
“Pilates” and the “Pilates Method” refer to the system of physical and mental conditioning developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s (which he called Contrology, referring to muscle control). It encompasses a range of strengthening and stretching exercises, based on the body’s natural state – in motion. It is low-impact, gentle enough for every day, and yet the intensity level can increase as one’s strength and awareness grows for a substantial work out.

Joseph Pilates was a stud and ahead of his time. It’s amazing how his legacy has lived on and can almost be considered mainstream!

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Originally designed for the dance community where the rigors of extreme movements could result in multiple, ongoing injuries to joints and soft tissue (often suggested rivaling those of football players). Dancers found the need for an alternate form of training to support their art, increase core strength and help prevent injury.

Enter: Cross-training. An essential component for most every athlete with a goal of improving performance and staying healthy – and Pilates is one of the best formats (speaking from experience!).

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Why or Why Not Pilates?
While I personally think that Pilates is for everyone, in some instances it may not be the top choice of exercise. For example:

Just A Stretch Class Please
Pilates may not be for you. However – considering that practicing Pilates results in added flexibility with strength, the benefits go beyond simply stretching. “Flexibility” in this sense refers to having an adequate range of motion around the joints and the muscle strength to support them and the spine. This is imperative in order to perform loaded movement patterns safely (i.e. from lifting weights to hauling leaves), as well as allow for greater ease and efficiency when performing your sport or everyday activity.
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Need a Good Sweat to Really Work Out
Pilates, by itself, may not be for you. However – Pilates as a cross-training addition brings the benefits of correct muscle activation as well as helps keep musculature and bone structure in an optimal state. So we can have that high-energy, high-impact workout while helping to keep our bodies injury free.

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Don’t Want To Think – Just Get Exercise Over With
Pilates may not be for you. However – incorporating Pilates techniques results in heightened mind-body awareness. Meaning, the realization of how our bodies move and react in space works wonders for agility and coordination. Correct movement can be trained through Pilates to be second nature, so if we’re not paying attention and take a misstep or get bumped into, our strong core and active muscles can accommodate for the unexpected.

Many More Why’s
While some may not choose Pilates for their exercise regime, there is a reason why we now see the health and fitness industry bringing more attention to the mind-body forms of exercise. For while we “go hard” – pushing for that extra mile, those added reps in the gym, getting that last strip of the lawn mowed – remember that our bodies are in it for the long haul. We need time to recover and a supporting form of exercise that aids in that recovery.

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That goes for our brain, too. The more mindful we become, learning how to focus inward on how to move, the more refreshed we feel while fine-tuning our actions for quicker responses and long-term, injury-free activity.

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The following excerpt from Pilates, by Rael Isacowitz, summarizes the benefits beautifully:
“The Many Benefits of Pilates”

  • Develops every aspect of physical fitness: strength, flexibility, coordination, speed, agility and endurance
  • Heightens body awareness
  • Enhances body control
  • Teaches correct muscle activation
  • Corrects posture and alignment
  • Facilitates optimal function of thee internal organs
  • Improves balance and proprioception
  • Focuses on breathing and its related physical and psychological benefits
  • Offers a vehicle for concentration and focus
  • Promotes relaxation and the release of tension
  • Benefits pregnant women by providing a safe, effective, nonimpact exercise activity
  • Distributes body mass more aesthetically (people report looking and feeling slimmer)
  • Provides a path to inner harmony through a finely tuned body

The bottom line:  Life is movement.To be healthy, happy, sound in mind and body takes practice and some dedication. Practicing Pilates is training for life!

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Focus In! And See Positive Fitness Results

Ninety-plus years ago Joseph Pilates was definitely on to something when he developed his integrated, full-body training method with one of the foundational principles of concentration. Calling his method “Contrology”, Pilates advocated that “In order to work your body, you must be present with your mind. It is your mind that wills your body into action. Pay attention to the movements you perform and note how your muscles respond to the attention.” (The Pilates Body, B. Siler) (image: focus_sports_danabrahams.com)

Hmmm…Pay attention. Concentrate. Focus. Does this sound like your Junior High teacher nagging you? Funny how some lessons we’re subject to early on continue through our lives, AND get more difficult to remember in our 10-second, sound-bite society of today…SQUIRREL!

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“Our brains are finely attuned to distraction, so today’s digital environment makes it especially hard to focus. “Distractions signal that something has changed,” says David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work (HarperCollins, 2009). “A distraction is an alert that says, ‘Orient your attention here now; this could be dangerous.’” The brain’s reaction is automatic and virtually unstoppable.”

PAYING ATTENTION – Sounds Simple, But…
Consider the importance of concentration in terms of athletic pursuits. Important – no, critical – when actively pursuing a competitive goal and/or simply improving your fitness level. Too many of us move through our day, our workouts, only half paying attention. Not really connecting what we’re doing with exactly how we’re asking our bodies to move.

I was talking with a colleague of mine who competes in CrossFit. A global fitness phenomenon, “The CrossFit Games events are made up of a broad range of functional movements. Functional movements move large loads, long distances, quickly. The Games are designed to test, not train, fitness. The goal is to find the fittest athletes.” (games.crossfit.com)

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I asked if he saw a high rate of injury as there’s a lot going on. His observation is that when you’re paying attention to executing the routines, all is good. However, if one’s mind wanders away from executing to watching the time clock, and the competitive pressure kicks in to push for reps and forget about form – BAM! Injury rate goes up. Better hope that you trained correctly so that your body goes on autopilot to protect against distraction.

In the heat of the competitive moment we push ourselves. That’s the nature of competing. It’s also why training correctly, concentrating on proper technique and being in-tune with our bodies is so critical. So when our focus gets pulled away – as it most surely will – our performance won’t suffer.

But how about the average day, the average work-around-the-house weekend? It’s amazing how often I hear “…I don’t know what I did, but I pulled something and my back (neck, knee, shoulder, etc.) …”. And it’s typically not anything glamorous like a CrossFit Games competition or pulling someone from a burning building. Just last week I asked a nurse escorting me into the doctor’s office if she was ok as she was walking super slow and stiff. She said she had thrown out her back doing the dishes. Doing the dishes.

So what’s the deal? And not the “getting old” schpeel as young people, middle age and senior folks suffer from seemingly impromptu injury.

Flash back to Joseph Pilates: Concentration, focus and control. “Pilates built his method on the idea of muscle control. That meant no sloppy, haphazard movements. They [Pilate’s movements] must be performed with the utmost control to avoid injury and produce positive results.” (The Pilates Body, B.Siler)

Isn’t that what we want? Avoiding the downtime of injury and seeing positive results – at any age?

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The good news is that with some concentrated focus on our form, we can realize terrific results. It’s about increasing our body awareness, creating proper movement patterns, activating our muscles correctly in order to train and protect our bodies. Whether an elite athlete or weekend warrior or simply doing daily chores.

So how do we regain our focus – even for a short period of time?

GET READY – Zero In…

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We’re all busy with tons of things pulling at us. Get yourself ready by setting aside a time in your day to exercise. 15 minutes, 30, 60 – carve out this time to focus on your fitness activity. I read that the average time a person truly focuses is 6 hours…a week! Find your time each day to focus on your activity and focus on executing it right. Cardio, core work, flexibility, strength training – Be IN the moment not letting your mind wander off to the next thing.

SLOW IT DOWN…

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Have you noticed exercises get harder when you take it down half-speed? Challenge yourself to take momentum out of the equation and really FEEL which muscles are activating to complete the task. Be IN your body and focused on it as you move:

  • How are your abs contracting as you slowly roll yourself up and back down from a situp?
  • How are your hips, knees, ankles stabilizing and keeping alignment as you slowly squat?
  • How’s your balance – what muscles are reacting as you hold a one-legged pose?
  • Dancer? What happens when you slowly map out each choreographed 8-count? What’s your foot-leg-hip-arm position?
  • Lifting weights or wheelbarrows? Are you tightening your center and keeping your posture with your back tall, lifted and supported?

GET A THIRD PARTY VIEW…
We all have our internal vision of how we move and perform. Unfortunately, what we “feel” and what we actually do don’t always coincide. Ask any performer who’s watched a video of themselves performing and 99% of the time they find something unexpected… “I did that?… It felt is so different…” (That’s my personal quote, by the way).

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At some point we all need a professional, impartial eye to help makes us aware of how we’re moving and how to correct bad habits.
Schedule some sessions with a personal trainer. Find a coach trained in your sport. Get yourself into a good mind-body exercise class. Always stay in the learning mode – you’re never too old – especially when it comes to your personal health, fitness and performance!

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PERFECT PRACTICE FOR POWERFUL PERFORMANCES…
Bruce Lee was another fitness phenom ahead of his time. His work ethic and dedication to perfecting his training were unmatched. One of his training methods included splitting his training into similar actions, “so that you can put more energy into each skill individually. This allows for greater focus as well as making sure your sessions are a reasonable length instead of marathon four-hour sessions. Practicing for such long periods of time will usually mean you are performing each skill or movement poorly, rather than at the peak of your ability. Why train to perform sub optimally?” (breakingmuscle.com; Lessons we can learn from Bruce Lee)

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A polevault coach I know with a 16-year track record of training and taking high school vaulters to compete at State says “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanence. Perfect practice precedes powerful performances.” Love this! (The coach is my husband – bonus!)

Create good habits. When you can describe HOW you want your body to move and feel, MAP your muscles (correctly) to your movement pattern and then PRACTICE with single-minded focus – you’ll see those positive results.

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TROUBLE FOCUSING?
Take heart – junior highers aren’t the only ones who struggle with keeping focus. In today’s job market, having the ability to hop from one task to another, stay on top of things and multi-task throughout the day is a necessary attribute. However…

While multitasking is an important skill, it also has a downside. It reduces our intelligence, literally dropping our IQ,” says Rock says. “We make mistakes, miss subtle cues, fly off the handle when we shouldn’t, or spell things wrong. To make matters worse, distraction feels great. “Your brain’s reward circuit lights up when you multitask,” Rock says, meaning that you get an emotional high when you’re doing a lot at once.” (Entrepreneur.com)

So, no – it’s not always easy. But neither is being taken out of the game with an injury, nor being disappointed when your body doesn’t perform as you want it to.

It takes 30 days to solidify a habit, so start simply with concentrated focus on how you move, create some good, proper muscle memory – and enjoy it along the way!

And think of Joe coaching you with:
To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limits of our ability.” (Joseph Pilates)

Inhaaale…Exhaaale…Training for Strong Lungs & Core

Sometimes – lots of times – it’s the little things we take for granted that make a huge difference.
Take breathing. Definitely not a “little thing”, however taking in some oxygen is something we tend to forget about until there’s a lack of it. (image: media.mensxp.com)

Among all the tasks your active body undertakes, breathing may seem like the simplest. Air comes in and out of your lungs automatically about 12-20 times per minute, over 17 thousand times a day…”
And in the vast world of health and fitness practices, a simple thing like learning to breathe correctly can make the huge difference in your athletic performance, how your body functions and your emotional state.
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When our bodies don’t get enough oxygen, scary things start happening.
For starters, a lowered mix of oxygen in the blood causes the vessels of the lungs to narrow. This causes the heart to pump harder. It strains to get blood through the lungs. The heart rate and breathing rate are increased. Over time, this strain causes the heart to expand and weaken. (copdbfrg.org)
On a broader scale, low oxygen levels also can have a harmful effect on brain function and physical ability. Attention span and concentration may be reduced. Memory and mood can be affected. Abstract reasoning and problem solving skills can be impaired. Speech may become affected. Simple sensory and motor skills may become difficult. Poor endurance for exercise, muscle weakness and impaired coordination also can be seen.

There are some specific conditions that affect breathing such as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), Sleep Apnea (“a sleep disorder differentiated by pauses in breathing during sleep…”), even Email Apnea (EA) – No joke, “The problem (EA), say experts, affects 80% of internet users…It happens when a person becomes so engrossed in his/her computer that he/she forgets to breathe.” (timesofindia.indiatimes.com)
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Have you ever forgotten to breath?
I was newly competing in ballroom dancing. So nervous and amped up waiting in the lineup before walking out on the dance floor to take up the first dance – the Waltz. I made it ¾ around the floor and found myself gasping. I had forgotten to breath. I literally had to practice my breathing and “choreograph” into my routine when to inhale and exhale.
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So, while breathing is the most rudimentary “exercise” that keeps us humans alive and functioning, it’s not always automatic nor done correctly to help us perform to our maximum.

Today, let’s focus on the positives of breathing (like energy, relaxation, life) and how we can add a bit of focus to HOW we breathe. Let’s train for breathing by paying more attention and practicing as we play, perform and do the things we love.

We all want healthy lungs. Healthy lungs mean taking full advantage of the lung capacity we’re born with and fuel our bodies with a full intake of fresh air. Unfortunately, we tend to shortchange our own lung capacity. Outside of any serious pulmonary issue, stress, lack of exercise and absent-minded, short, shallow breaths don’t allow our lungs to reach their full potential.

The average total lung capacity of an adult human male is about 6 liters of air, but only a small amount of this capacity is used during normal breathing. The lung capacity of free diver and world record holder Herbert Nitsch is measured to be 10 Liters, which he can expand to 15 Liters with a special technique…” (Wikipedia.org)

There are different factors that affect lung capacity.
Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO REPRODUCE THIS

(image: bbcearth.com) Things like our height and where we grow up (i.e. sea level vs. high altitude) are out of our control. However, there are some ways we can make a positive improvement to our lung capacity.

Raise Your Heartrate with Exercise
Exercise has a positive effect: “Regular aerobic exercise strengthens and tones the heart and lungs, enabling the pulmonary system to increase the maximum amount of oxygen that the lungs can handle, according to the Merck Manuals online medical library… Everyone is born with a specific maximum lung capacity, called VO2 Max, which refers to the rate of oxygen flow. When your heart rate increases during aerobic exercise, your oxygen consumption increases”.

No surprise here, but – surprisingly – “The average person’s lung capacity can be improved only 5 to 15 percent even with frequent intense aerobic workouts”. (Livestrong.com).
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(image: nutricisedr.com)

How else can we help out our lungs and increase our capacity?

Strengthen Your Core

Let’s take our standard core strength exercise regime (what we all should be doing, no matter what our end-goals), and add a new perspective.

Did you know that core training (with practices such as Pilates, yoga, good ‘ol ab exercises) go hand-in-hand with increasing lung capacity and improved strength, endurance and overall fitness?
“The act of breathing is a muscular process. If you apply the right kind of training stimulus, you can improve your power, strength and endurance.” (A.McConnell, PhD, exercise physiologist)
man exercising workout

Think of how much more air you can squeeze out with your abs strong and engaged, which then allow you to take in a fuller breath, expanding your ribcage and your lungs!
Ideally, our expiratory muscles (the rectus abdominus, transverse and obliques) activate to help move more air in and out of the lungs, so that more oxygen can reach the muscles to boost energy and power your performance. Since your core muscles are connected to your diaphragm, you can make exercise feel easier – with increased endurance and recovery.”
(Oxygen magazine)

The bottom line, we can train our breathing and our lungs (to some extent) to increase capacity and maintain optimal health!

We do need to be mindful about it and train positive habits vs. negative: “Chronic stress can lead to a restriction of the connective and muscular tissue in the chest resulting in a decrease range of motion of the chest wall. Due to rapid more shallow breathing, the chest does not expand as much as it would with slower deeper breaths and much of the air exchange occurs at the top of the lung tissue towards the head. This results in “chest” breathing.” (Amsa.org/healingthehealer)
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(image: npr.com)
We’re all under some level of stress – it’s called life. The trick is to recognize the signs, catch yourself in those shallow, weak “chest breathing” moments, and take a few full and relaxing breaths. You’ll be amazed at the almost immediate release of tension and refreshing boost.

Healthy Lungs – Where to Start
Want to add more fuel to your fitness AND feel more relaxed? Here are some areas to focus in order to improve your oxygen intake and increase your stamina, energy and overall sense of well-being.

Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) engages the large dome-like muscle located between your chest and abdomen, called the diaphragm. When you take a deep breath – feeling your belly rise a bit – your diaphragm contract as it’s pushed down. This causes negative pressure within the chest and brings air into the lungs. As the diaphragm relaxes (belly sinks in naturally) your air releases.
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(image: thevoicenotes.com)

The diaphragm is a huge muscle and muscles need to be worked. However, it’s often forgotten in our search for the elusive abdominal 6-pack. It’s time to take note of this muscle step-child!

In addition to being a key factor to our lung health, the diaphragm plays a significant role in core stabilization. “It forms the top of the core ‘box,’ working with the internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominus. The diaphragm has multiple origins from the inner surfaces of the seventh through twelfth ribs, medial parts of the L1 to L3 vertebral bodies, the anterior longitudinal ligament, posterior surface of the xiphoid process, and the arcuate ligament, connecting to the aorta, psoas, and QL to insert in the central tendon. To put it simply, a strong box needs a secure lid and hence the importance of the diaphragm in core stabilization.”

(Breakingmuscle.com)

Try This:

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(image: renegadegolftraining.com)

  • Lie on the floor face up with knees slightly bent.
  • Place a small pillow under the head if that is more comfortable for you.
  • Place your hands lightly on your stomach.
  • Concentrate on breathing using the diaphragm, not using the chest, and feeling the stomach rise as the lungs fill from the bottom.
  • Let the stomach fall naturally when breathing out by relaxing the diaphragm.
  • Progress by placing a small weight on the stomach, such as a small book, on do it all again.
  • The next stage is to stand up and place your hands on your stomach again, feeling how you breathe (Breakingmuscle.com)

Finally, practice breathing fully (not shallow) while you’re doing your activities!

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(image: americanhorsedaily.com)

Pilates Training for Core AND Breathing
The Pilates method has its own pattern of breathing called thoracic or ribcage breathing. While not “belly breathing”, the goal here is to keep your abdominal and spinal muscles engaged and your shoulders relaxed while your ribcage expands and contracts.
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(image: wordpress.com)
Joseph Pilates in the 1920s understood that breathing correctly would help control movements. “Pilates designed his method to cleanse the bloodstream through oxygenation. By employing full inhalations and exhalations you are expelling stale air and noxious gasses from the depths of your lungs and replenishing your body with fresh air to energize and revitalize your system.” (The Pilates Body, B.Siler)

So, like diaphragmatic breathing, you engage this muscle while actively using the rest of your core. And, if you consider the diaphragm as the ‘top of the core box’, what a great combo of core and breath training!

Now Try These Activities (strengthen your core while you breathe correctly!):

blonde women train her abdominals

Pilates – Yes, my personal favorite, from “The 100” through the “Leg Stretch Series” and more. Think of Pilates as the full-meal-deal (+ some cardio/aerobic exercise on the side) – fantastic method of training core strength + active, focused breathing for endless benefits.

candiesandcrunches.com_planking-with-bella

Planks – drop down into your plank position of choice (push-up position, kneeling, forearms or side-plank) and breathe; full inhales and exhales while your core is engaged and holding your plank.

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(image: canadianliving.com)

Squats – do these anywhere; deep inhale on the way down (contracting the diaphragm and filling up the lungs) and strong exhale on the way up (actively pulling in your abdominals and squeezing the air out).

Just remember, our breathing can be trained for both a positive and negative effect on our health. Staying mindful and creating a good breathing habit while we’re out moving, exercising, simply living life, will make a tremendous positive impact in how we feel and perform!

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(image: blog.quitnet.com)

 

Favorite 10-Minute Pilates Core Blast

One of my big mantras for improving your fitness level is to do something every day. While that seems like a simple ask, I totally get that it’s not always that easy. When time is short, this following short Core Blast is one of my go-to favorites that fires up and refocuses mind and body.
Before you poo-poo a 10-minute exercise session, realize that research is showing short bouts of intense activity during the day have big benefits – benefits that rival those of longer workouts.  When you perform frequent, explosive mini workouts, you send messages to your brain that your muscles are crucial, which increases the release of growth hormone and builds bone density and muscle mass.  That’s good stuff!

And why Pilates is such a good go-to activity for that intense, core exercise session.              Just remember these Pilates non-negotiables before jumping into this routine and you’ll wake up all your abdominals (rectus abdominis, obliques and deep transverse), your back, chest and stabilizers as well:
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1.    Breath – deep inhales and exhales throughout the exercises to oxygenate the body
2.    Keep core engaged – pull the ‘belly button to spine’ to add to that abdominal intensity
3.    Good form – shoulder blades pulled down, long spine with head in line to activate back muscles

Now grab 10 minutes and a mat (or your living room rug) and try this Core Blast Routine*!

  • Stand tall, take 3 deep breaths, Roll Down:

rolldown_wikihow.com_image (wiki.how.com)

  • Walk your hands out to Front Plank (Hold for 20 seconds – wide deep breaths and core pulled in – check points 1 through 3 above):

plank_studiopilates.com_image (studiopilates.com)

  • Without lowering, shift weight to your left and rotate to a Left Side Plank (Hold for 15 seconds):

Sideplank_Can-Pilates-Make-Muscles-Longer-Leaner_popsugar.comimage (popsugar.com)

  • Rotate through center and over to a Right Side Plank (Hold for 15 seconds)
  • Rotate back to hold your last Front Plank (Hold for 20 seconds)
  • Sit it back to Child’s Pose to release the back, then flip around and Roll Down onto your back:

Pilates exercise series(wordpress)

  • Continue into Roll Up series (Set of 5, finish rolled-down on your back):

Rollup_surfbodysoul.com_image(surfbodysoul.com)

Begin Leg Stretch Series of 5 (5 sets of each):

  • Single Leg Stretch:

 

blonde women train her abdominals

  • Single Straight Leg Stretch:

singlestraightleg_heidispilates_image(heidispilates)

  • Double Leg Stretch:

doublelegstretch_katzpilates_image(katzpilates)

  • Double Straight Leg Stretch (Leg Lowers),

doublestraightlegstretch_blogspot(blogspot)

  • Criss-Cross:

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  • Stretch it out, take deep breath and roll up to Teaser (hold); lower down to your back and repeat Teaser (3 full Teasers, finish upright and lower legs to sitting):

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  • Split legs to straddle, extend arms out and start Saw twists (Alternate Saw twist sides for 5 sets):

Saw_methodofhealing.comimage(methodofhealing.com)

  • Lean back to forearms, extend legs to ceiling and continue to Hip Circles (Alternating circling legs right and left for 5 sets):

hipcircle_maxresdefault_image(maxresdefault.com)

  • Flip to your stomach, extending arms and legs for Swimming (Inhale 4 breaths, exhale 4 breaths while alternating arm-leg lifts):

swimming_maxresdefault_image(maxresdefault.com)

  • Lower your legs, pull your arms to your sides, keep your back lifted and extended in Arrow (Glue legs together and arms to sides, hold for 10 seconds – and breathe deep!)
  • With legs still squeezed tight, extend arms to the front and swing them out and back as you immediately move into Breast Stroke (Complete 7 sets; end with your palms on the floor by your chest):

breast stroke_pilatesbodyworkout.com_image(pilatesbodyworkout.com)

  • Push up to Front Plank and into alternating knee-tuck Mountain Climbers (10 on each side):

mountainclimber_camarillopilates.com_image(camarillopilates.com)

  • Lift hips to Downward Facing Dog (Walk the feet, press heels towards the floor and tailbone towards ceiling for a hamstring stretch):

downdog_sky-cccam_image(sky-cccam)

  • Walk hands back towards feet and Roll Up to stand
  • Take 3 deep breaths, swinging your arms up and overhead, Rinse and Repeat!(Estimated time 5 minutes for one full round, 10 minutes for two)

Remember!! Good form, concentration and focus on points 1 through 3 above help you “work deep”. Maintaining this intensity – mindful movement vs. mindlessly powering through – gives you the blast of benefits while protecting your neck, back and joints.

*NOTE:  This Core Blast is recommended for those who’ve taken Pilates classes and are familiar with the fundamentals of the practice. As with any exercise program, seek the advice of your doctor before participating and/or if you suffer from injuries.
Questions?  Feel free to contact me or join a class:  karen@purefitstudios.com.