two medicine balls for at home strength training exercise and fitness

Client Question: What is functional exercise?

This is a great question!!

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the fitness industry for years now. It likely conjures up images of someone exercising while standing on one foot, doing much of their workout sitting (or standing – though please don’t!) on a big rubber fit ball to switch on their core. Spoiler: This isn’t actually what it means!**

In reality, most exercise can be functional exercises: Functional exercises are those that have a direct benefit to the movements you make in real life, whether that’s going about your day to day activities, going to the gym to get stronger, starting a beginners running program, or even training to compete in a big race. There is no particular group of exercises that are “functional”.

** As people (personal trainers, coaches, clients, and athletes) have seen how little the above types of exercise help in daily life and performance, the industry has moved away from the balance and instability elements that are the hallmark of the early “functional” trend. In fact, these exercises can lead to poor exercise technique, increased compensation patterns, and minimal additional benefit. They aren’t terrible across the board, but you can make better choices with your time!

Writing A Functional Exercise Program

When I see a client who’s interested in getting into functional movement or exercise, I get really excited, since it lets me stretch my creative juices a bit (and also because these clients have the highest chance of long term success – winning!). The process starts with a good chat about what real life looks like for you, what kind of movements you might struggle with, what kind of movements you get pain with, and what you would like to be able to do more easily. We’ll do a brief movement screen to let your body tell it’s side of the story, since most of us have movement compensations we are not aware of, and then we’ll get started on creating a balanced exercise program to match your needs and goals.

Here’s where the art comes in. When I think about what exercises should go in this program, I think about the movements you make in daily life and/or training. I’ll pick exercises that are similar to those movements to help strengthen the muscles that keep you going day to day. I’ll also pick exercises that will turn on any muscles that aren’t quite pulling their weight in your normal movements (under-active muscles play a key role in injury rates) and exercises that provide a balance to your main working muscle groups, which will further decrease injury risk. You should be able to recognize your in your workout exercises that mimic the movements of your job, or that help you improve strength or cardiovascular fitness levels so that the activities of everyday life become easier.

Common Examples of Functional Exercises

Functional Exercise

Similar Real Life Movement

Squats Sitting down and standing up, as from a chair
Step Ups Walking up stairs
Bicep Curls Picking up a small child
Farmers Carry Carrying the grocery bags

Is Your Program Functional For You?

Whether it’s called functional or not, the best program will evaluate your daily movements, energy needs, and lifestyle goals, and focus on exercises that will improve or maintain your abilities in these areas. Not every exercise will seem like something a movement you make every day, since creating strength for movement can require different muscles and joint angles than you might expect. Your body is a complex machine, and it’s rare that you’ll ever sit down, stand up, walk, carry, or lift things in the same perfectly straight line every time! Overall though, you should be able to see the similarities to your daily life, and within a few weeks should be able to feel the benefits.

If you’re not sure that your program is ticking these boxes, HealthFit can help. Your exercise physiology program is designed to be done in-home, at your gym, or anywhere else you feel the most comfortable and likely to do it, and if that’s not functional, I don’t know what is!

HealthFit looks after residents of inner city Brisbane and the western suburbs, including Spring Hill, Paddington, Bardon, Rosalie, Milton, Auchenflower, Toowong, Taringa, St Lucia, Indooroopilly, Chapel Hill, Kenmore, Graceville, and Chelmer. 

Want more info about how HealthFit can help you? Get In Touch

 


Hypermobile woman doing the splits

Improving Hypermobility

Joint hypermobility is a condition where the ligaments surrounding a joint aren’t as tight as they would normally be, which gives that joint greater movement ability than someone without hypermobility would have. Many people call this condition being “double jointed” or having “loose joints”; clinically we talk about having various degrees of joint laxity.

Joint hypermobility isn’t a black-and-white diagnosis. It actually occurs on a spectrum – everyone has more or less laxity in every joint. Hypermobility is seen more commonly in younger people, since your joints will naturally stiffen as you age. And interestingly, your level of hypermobility can greatly vary between your joints. You may be hypermobile in your elbows and shoulders, and much more stiff in yours wrists and knuckles. You’ll generally be diagnosed as hypermobile when you have extreme ranges of motion in several joints. The most common test for hypermobility is the Beighton Score. You can read more about that test at this link.

There’s a small percentage of the population that stays hypermobile throughout their lives. This can be a positive for some sports and activities, like gymnastics, dance, and martial arts, but for many people, hypermobility can lead to moderate to significant muscle and joint problems: When we look at normal physical structure and function (anatomy and physiology), we see that the role of ligaments are to hold the bones in a joint together in a way that allows smooth, pain-free function. When these ligaments are loose (increased joint laxity), the bones won’t be held together as securely. This can lead to increased wear and tear on the bones and cartilage in the joint. Muscle tension around the joint will also increase as the nervous system tries to create substitute support for the joint.

As such, hypermobility can lead to several annoying or painful symptoms:

  • Pain and tension in muscles and joints
  • Joints that click or pop
  • Joints that dislocate or sublux (come out of correct position) easily
  • Tiredness or fatigue, thanks to your muscles working hard
  • Increased joint injury risk for things like twisted and sprained ankles, or for joint overuse injuries

The most common complaints that my hypermobile clients have are muscular tension, sometimes leading to muscular aches, referred pain, or headaches (when the joints of the neck are affected). Many people don’t actually realise that hypermobility is the fundamental cause of this, instead thinking that it’s stress, or something they are doing in their daily lives that’s creating these aches and pains.

Now, the important part: What do to about hypermobility

There’s no “cure” for hypermobility (short of having surgery to shorten your ligaments, and you’d be hard pressed to find a surgeon who would do that!). It’s also not something that you should think is “wrong” with you. It’s just how your own body works. There are lots of ways that you can help manage hypermobility symptoms though, if you’re finding it to be unpleasant.

DON’T StretchFor Hypermobility

This might seem counter-intuitive, since tight muscles often feel like they need a good stretch. However, if you’re hypermobile, your joint laxity means you’re already “stretched” longer than your body wants you to be. Since stretching may further decrease your joint stability, it can actually backfire and increase muscular tension.

What to do instead?

Get A Remedial Massage

Remedial or deep tissue massage can decrease muscular tension without increasing muscle and connective tissue length. This tension often occurs in both the small stabilizer muscles and the larger muscles that power movement. It’s important to note that the body is using this tension to create joint stability and protect the joints, so by decreasing tension, you’ll have a small drop in joint stability. A good remedial massage therapist will be able to gauge how much tension to relieve. (Great remedial massage choices in Brisbane are Just Knead It and No More Knots.) This is still the number one way to decrease the feelings of tension though, so don’t skip out on it. Instead, think of it as one half of managing the symptoms.

What’s the other half?

Build Strength In The Muscles Surrounding Hypermobile Joints

Strength training builds muscle tension. This might sound bad (and too much of it can make you feel uncomfortably tight), but with hypermobility, this tension is actually a good thing. Stronger muscles hold a slight contraction at all times, even at rest, which can provide the joint stability that your body is looking for. As such, your nervous system won’t be pushing your body so hard to protect your joints, so you end up feeling less fatigued, feeling less muscular aches and pains, and may see a decrease in joint popping, clicking, or otherwise doing weird things. Plus you get all the other benefits of strength training too!

A strength training program for hypermobility should have a large focus on building activation ability and strength in your stabilizer muscles, since these are what the joint rely on for support and integrity. You can follow a program that address that alone, or that incorporates stabilizer training into a well-rounded fitness program.

Hypermobility is one of the more common complaints that HealthFit Coaching provides sessions for. If you’re in Brisbane and are interested in finding out how exercise physiology can help you manage your hypermobility, get in touch today!

 

Want more info? Check out these links:
Gazit, Y., Jacob, G., & Grahame, R. (2016). Ehlers–Danlos Syndrome—Hypermobility Type: A Much Neglected Multisystemic Disorder. Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal7(4), e0034. doi: 10.5041/rmmj.10261 Read it here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5101008/
Joint hypermobility symptoms and treatments. (2019). Read it here: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/muscle-bone-and-joints/conditions/joint-hypermobility 
Featured Image Sourced From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yoga_Split_2.jpg?fbclid=IwAR1mgs9wappmEXULt8ZfSYoD9zCuduyozzEwukYqWI_qFrETlyeGYOAjpHU

Three Top Tips for Injury Prevention

So you want to prevent injuries? If you’re in one of the three following groups, injury prevention should be on your mind, because you’re at higher risk of muscle strains, joint sprains, and overuse or repetitive stress injuries. High(er) risk groups include:

  • Aging bodies (disappointingly, physically this means over the age of 35-ish)
  • People who train hard, often, or both, especially without appropriate physical recovery
  • Weekend warriors, or those who go longer periods of time between workouts or physical activity

Kickstart Things With Hands-On Massage Therapy

Daily life is hard on your body. The normal activities of daily life frequently create tension in muscles and connective tissues, either shortening them or overstretching them. Changed tension and length can create joint stress through misalignment and instability. In turn, this can increase injury risk for both joints and muscles.

What to do? Get some help! Remedial massage therapy, also called deep tissue massage or manual therapy, is the best way to kickstart your injury prevention efforts. While there are many things that you can do at home to mimic hands-on treatment, the fact is that you probably won’t make the at-home effort for the same length of time as a standard remedial treatment. Even if you do, you probably won’t be able to target the soft tissues (muscles and connective tissues) in the same way. You just won’t get the right angle on it!

A good remedial therapist will be able to target the muscles and connective tissues putting you at highest injury risk. They do this by asking you about your injury and exercise history, and by finding out what you would like to be able to do moving forward, whether that’s simply staying pain free or being able to keep up with the kids on the mountain bike. The long term goal for any hands-on therapy should be to get you feeling good so that you can maintain it with just a tune-up every now and then.

For Brisbane’s best remedial massage, check out Just Knead It or No More Knots.

Keep Things Moving Well – At Home

There are many, many different approaches to home-based injury prevention programs. The hallmarks of any good program: Exercises to maintain good muscle and connective tissue tension, and exercises to build and maintain joint mobility. (Joint mobility is the ability to actively move a joint through its full range of motion – similar to flexibility, but with additional contributing physical factors.)

Foam rolling and trigger pointing are two of the most common “exercises” to help maintain good soft tissue tension. They aren’t exercise in the traditional sense, though they can take some work! Instead, they are essentially a DIY remedial massage. These are usually completed by sitting, laying, or leaning on a foam roller or a spikey trigger point ball (or a tennis ball, which works just as well). Holding the pressure on a muscle-y area will trigger a nervous system response that causes the muscle to relax. How long to hold? There’s no single answer to this. It depends on a number of factors including positioning and how long the tissue has been building tension, but I always ask my clients to aim for a minimum of 30 seconds per spot. The wonderful thing about your body is that no matter how tight you might feel, if you do this consistently, you’ll be much looser, very quickly – especially if you’re starting this process after having remedial massage treatment. Once you’re feeling good, aim to maintain this by checking in with your body once or twice a week.

Joint mobility exercises are similar to flexibility exercises, in that they’ll challenge your body to move beyond its normal muscle lengths. As with static stretching, you’ll feel… stretching. The big difference is that with most joint mobility exercises, there’s a movement element as well as the stretch. Paying attention to your body alignment, you’ll move into a stretch in a controlled manner then move back out of it. This lengthens short muscles and connective tissues, provides some slack to overstretched areas, and teaches your brain to control movement through the entire range of motion available the joint(s) you’re working on.

Pro tip: Always do your soft tissue work before doing your joint mobility work. The decreased tension from the foam rolling or trigger pointing will give you more range of motion.

Get Strong

Being able to move your muscles and joints easily is vital to staying injury and pain-free – but only if you’re strong enough to control them! This doesn’t mean that you need to go to the gym and lift heavy weights every day. Rather, it means sticking with a plan for gradually challenging your muscles to get stronger, which can happen at a gym, at home, at the park, or in a group fitness class. A strength training program for injury prevention should, generally speaking, provide the following:

  • Exercises for all major muscle groups of the body
  • More “pulling” exercises than pushing (think moving a weight or resistance toward your centre of gravity rather than pushing it away)
  • Exercises that require large joint movement, preferably through multiple joints

Individualised injury prevention programs will take into account what movements and postures are most common for you on a day to day basis, any injury or exercise history you have, any current injuries or niggles you’re dealing with, and most importantly, what being injury-free (and worry-free) will let you do with your life! For most people without major sporting goals, an injury prevention program can be done in 20-30 minutes a few times per week. A small investment for lifelong peace of mind!

 

Have questions about exercise physiology? Interested in signing up for in-home sessions? Get in touch! 

HealthFit Coaching looks after inner city Brisbane and the western suburbs, including Spring Hill, Paddington, Bardon, Rosalie, Milton, Auchenflower, Toowong, Taringa, St Lucia, Indooroopilly, Chapel Hill, Kenmore, Graceville, and Chelmer.


Blue theraband being stretched between hands

A New Approach To Stretching Tight Hamstrings

Feel like your hamstrings are always tight?

Tension along the back of the thighs is one of the most common complaints I hear as both an exercise physiologist and a remedial massage therapist. And when I ask people what they focus on when they stretch, the answer almost inevitably includes hamstrings. Why are these buggers always so tight?

There are many reasons your hamstrings could be tight, having to do with your normal activities, posture, or how you generally use your body. Let’s focus on one of the most common reasons your hamstrings feel tight, and more importantly, what you can do about it!

Tight Hamstrings Often Come From Your Hips

As cliche as it sounds, everything in the body is connected. Your hamstrings run along the back of your thigh, and attach to the bottom back of your pelvis, on bony areas often referred to as your “sit bones”. Your hip flexors are shorter muscles that run from various spots on the front of the pelvis to the top of the thigh bone (your femur). They may be small, but they pack a punch!

Side view of pelvis with hip flexor and hamstring attachment points highlighted

Hip Flexor attachment and direction of pull in blue
Hamstring attachment and direction of pull in green

When you sit a lot, and most of us do, your hip flexors rest in a shortened position. Stay in a shortened position long enough, and the body will adapt to that, essentially resetting to a “new normal” – a short one. This tilts your pelvis forward slightly during sitting, standing, and movement, a lower back, pelvic, and hip posture we call anterior pelvic tilt.

This has a flow-on effect on your hamstrings. When the pelvis tips forward, it pulls the top of the hamstring muscles up towards your head. Because the bottom of the hamstrings don’t move upwards, the muscles become stretched out. Much like stretching a rubber band, this stretching leads to increased hamstring tension, and you’ll feel like you need to stretch your hamstrings.

Since you now know that they’re already stretched, what can you do to get rid of the tension feeling?

Stretch Your Hip Flexors

Lengthening the hip flexor muscles at the front of your pelvis and hips can decrease the pull on the hamstrings muscles, which in turn can decrease the feeling of tension along the back of the thigh. Try these three stretches:

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

How To: 

  • Kneel on one knee and take a big step out front with the opposite foot.
  • Keep the hip, knee, ankle, and foot on your back leg aligned (most of us tend to twist the hip so the foot twists inward.) Front leg can be aligned, or can move slightly out to the side.
  • Tighten the glute muscles (the muscles of your bum) – this is key to the hip flexor stretch. Drop your hips forward and down. Keep your torso more or less vertical. Your front shin should stay vertical or knee slightly extended, and your weight should stay through your front heel to protect your knee.
  • Extra credit: Lengthen along the entire front of the body by reaching up and slightly backward with the arm on the same side as the stretching leg.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. You may only feel it stretching one area or the other – that’s ok. All the muscles are being stretched. Your brain just pays attention to the one that is stretching the most.

Not ok with kneeling? Try this version:

Standing Hip Flexor Stretch

How To: 

  • Take a big step backward with one foot, and a big step forward with the other foot.
  • Keep the hip, knee, ankle, and foot on your back leg aligned (most of us tend to twist the hip so the foot twists inward.) Front leg can be aligned, or can move slightly out to the side.
  • Tighten the glute muscles (the muscles of your bum) – this is key to the hip flexor stretch. Drop your back knee halfway to the ground, pushing your hips forward. Keep your torso more or less vertical. Your front shin should stay vertical or knee slightly extended, and your weight should stay through your front heel to protect your knee.
  • If needed, take a slightly larger step forward, or drop the back knee down towards the floor more, which will help keep the back thigh and torso vertical.
  • Extra credit: Lengthen along the entire front of the body by reaching up and slightly backward with the arm on the same side as the stretching leg.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. This standing version tends to feel like more of a quad stretch (front of thigh), but the hip flexors are lengthening too, especially with the glute squeeze.

If you want even better results, add this next stretch in. It targets the quads, which are the muscles at the front of your thigh. One of these muscles also acts as a hip flexor due to it’s attachment point on the pelvis. Most of us don’t spend nearly enough time on stretching the muscles at the front of the body anyway.

Standing Quad Stretch

How To:

  • Stand upright with feet together. Without bending or rotating your pelvis or hips, or shifting your weight too much (some shift will occur), bring one foot up behind your hips and hold it there.
  • Keep your knees together and torso upright, and squeeze your glutes.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. This standing version tends to feel like more of a quad stretch (front of thigh), but the hip flexors are lengthening too, especially with the glute squeeze.

Do these stretches daily for two weeks, then drop back to doing them 3 to 4 times per week to help keep your hips and hamstrings feeling good. As an added bonus, you’ll also be helping your lower back stay healthy and pain-free, and will make your workouts more effective. You can also substitute your own preferred hip flexor stretches. If you’d like, tell us about your favorite in the comments 🙂


Middle age woman walking for fitness

Private Health Insurance Needs To Support Exercise

Want your private health insurance to help you cover your exercise costs?

Getting and staying fit and healthy takes time, effort, and often your hard earned money. I’m clearly biased, but I believe these investments are worth it. Most private health insurance companies agree – at least in statement. Unfortunately, they agree less when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are.

Many private health insurance companies do offer exercise physiology coverage through their extras programs, which is a great first step. Frustratingly for both exercise physiologists and our clients – that is, for you – the coverage is often limited, with large gap payments and relatively low limits on what your private health might pay annually. As exercise physiologist, we are also limited in what services we can provide when you are claiming with private health. General fitness sessions are not covered under exercise physiology. Rather, your EP session should be designed to address a specific health condition(s). Given the amount of science telling us how much exercise helps keep us all healthy, preventing disease and chronic conditions, it would be nice to see some support for regular exercise in a preventative capacity.

You can do something about this! Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA), the governing body for exercise physiology and exercise science, has released a statement encouraging private health insurance customers to get involved. A petition is available, and they’ve provided a template letter for contacting your insurance company directly to support an increase in exercise physiology benefits. If you want better coverage and better support for exercise for health and fitness, head over the read the statement – petition links and letter template at at the end.

 


Woman walking dog in large field

What Counts As Exercise?

Working out: If you’re not in the habit, it’s not always fun to get started. Good news though! Lots of everyday activities, hobbies, and recreation can count as physical activity, which has a big impact on maintaining good cardiovascular and metabolic health, prevents and helps manage joint pains, and can help with weight loss or management, if that’s your goal. You might not get 100% of the physical benefits that a big gym session would provide, but as it turns out, it’s the small amounts of day-to-day movement that are really important, so get moving!

Incidental Exercise At Home

Vacuuming and mopping: Push, pull, push, pull – it’ll get your heart rate up. Bonus points: Swap arms halfway through to help maintain balance in left side-right side movement ability. If your back gets sore, stop, place your hands on the back of your hips, soften your knees and gently extend your back to bend backwards.

Window Washing: Will have you moving your shoulders and arms in a low-stress way you’re not used to, which is great for reducing injury risk and maintaining joint mobility. Aim to swap arms frequently to help maintain left side-right side balance (see above).

Gardening / Yard work: The most common heavy lifting of around-the-house exercise. May including lifting, carrying, and placing heavy objects, reaching or stepping in movements that are less common, and generally being on your feet all day. Like vacuuming, if you’re finding you’re stuck in a single position for a longer period, stop and give your body a break by doing the opposite of that movement.

Washing the car: Reaching, stretching, and squatting down. Keeps you moving!

Playing with the kids: Might involve running around after them – good cardio. Might involve getting down and up off the floor – good joint mobility. Might involve staying down on the floor – good opportunity to give the hips a little bit of a stretch.

Carrying kids around: Even small kids get heavy pretty quickly! Carrying the kids around adds to the cardio effect of walking and moving around, but it also create poor posture as you shift your torso and hips to carry more comfortably. Make sure you swap sides, because your body does best with equal stress and effort.

DIY home maintenance: The other heavy lifting you might do around the house, DIY work often has you moving into different positions that you might during the course of a normal day. Moving through different positions is great for maintaining flexibility and joint health, and can keep posture good and pain at bay.

Incidental Exercise At The Office

If you have an office job, you know how challenging it can be to maintain any amount of movement. Haven’t we all looked up from email to realize that we haven’t moved in three hours?

Getting coffee: Adds steps to your daily step count. Two bonuses on this: Coffee (or tea, or your beverage of choice) does actually count towards your daily hydration goals. (Even though it has a mild diuretic effect, you drink more liquid than you’ll excrete.) More hydration means more bathroom breaks, and therefore even more steps.

Fidgeting: The subconscious movement that your parents might have scolded you for actually burns calories. It will not amount to much extra, but it does count.

Taking the stairs: One of the most bang-for-buck activities you can do, as it gets your heart rate high and gives the big muscles in your legs a bit of a workout. Pro tip – Minimize knee pain risk by stepping with as much of your foot on the stair as you can.

Standing around, i.e. Serving customers, using a standing desk: Simply maintaining a standing position takes almost twice as much energy as sitting does, and can reduce stress and strain on through the front of the hips and the lower back. All standing, all the time has it’s own set of problems though, so your best bet is to alternate postures.

Get away from the desk, i.e. make your own copies, have face to face conversations: More steps, more steps, more steps. Plus, in-person conversations can be just as fast as email (and sometimes a lot clearer!).

Incidental Exercise Out and About

Going out and doing stuff makes a big difference to your levels of physical health and fitness. Why spend your free time sitting around?

Grocery shopping: Again, more steps. Walking is good! Bonus: If you’re not getting much, use a hand basket and carry your groceries for some added strength training. This goes for any sort of shopping, really.

Riding a bike: You don’t have to ride like you’re on the Tour de France to get some good for your body. Go for a cruise to help keep your legs strong and get some cardiovascular work in.

Hiking: A great way to gently challenge your joints and muscles, since the paths aren’t even and smooth. Being out in nature is an amazing way to boost your happiness quotient too.

Going for a walk: Doesn’t have to be fast, or far. There’s something about the rhythmic nature of aerobic exercise that makes it a meditation in movement, so you get some de-stress time as well as some gentle cardio work.

Playing in the pool: Fun! The pressure from the water gives your body something to work against, but it’s not so much resistance that it actually seems like work. Explains why you’re always more tired than you expect when you jump out.

Backyard games: Play with the kids. Set up teams for horseshoes or a beanbag toss. An easy game of touch football. Keep yourself on your feet and moving as much as you can. Your engagement will increase your enjoyment!

 

So, what can you plan into your day tomorrow to boost your movement time?


Walking along coronation drive in Brisbane

Is Walking Worth It?

With the popularity of high intensity workouts like Crossfit, F45, or bootcamps, it might seem like going for a walk isn’t much of a workout at all. If you’re looking to increase your fitness and improve your health, is it worth your time?

Actually, yes – especially if you are interested in health benefits more than getting lean and ripped.

Going for a brisk walk is moderate intensity exercise for most people, and can even count as vigorous exercise if you aren’t normally active. A meta-analysis (a research paper pooling and organizing other research to better understand and apply results) reviewing 32 studies has shown that a brisk walk at least a few times per week will improve your health. Significant improvements in aerobic fitness were found, as well as decreased BMI, body weight, body fat percentage, and measurements of waist circumference – all of which are strongly linked to high risk of cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure also showed a significant decrease following a program of regular walking.

So what?

The benefits of weight loss and lower body fat are well-discussed: Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic health conditions. But those are things that may or may not happen in the future. What about right now?

While the health and fitness improvements found in the reviewed studies weren’t so great that the participants ended up with six-pack abs, the average increase in fitness was about 10%. This is enough to make a noticeable difference in how easily you can manage to do daily tasks, or how much energy and stamina you might have to get through a busy day. This means that by the time you get to kick back and watch some TV before heading to bed, you’ll actually get to watch the entire episode of your favorite show, rather than falling asleep on the sofa. Overall, better fitness means more energy for the day to day things that matter to you, which in turn means a better quality of life.

These benefits improvements took place in as little as eight weeks of regular walking, with the most people in the studies walking 30 minutes, three to five times per week as part of an organized program. You don’t have to “start exercising” to make walking worthwhile though. A few 8-10 minute walks per day can give the same benefits as a single 30-minute session, which in real life might mean walking around the block in the morning and evening. (An additional benefit of “starting small” is that often you just need a nudge to get going. It’s easy to extend once you’ve gotten out the door – or onto the treadmill.)

Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that health and fitness improvements aren’t all-or-nothing. Instead, they happen on a continuum, and in fact any movement has a positive impact on your fitness levels and health risks, and therefore your quality of life. It doesn’t have to be high intensity to be worthwhile; your own brisk walking pace will be just fine. So whether you have five minutes to spare, or fifty, it’s all worth doing – what are you waiting for?

 

More Information
Murtagh, E. M., Nichols, L., Mohammed, M. A., Holder, R., Nevill, A. M., & Murphy, M. H. (2015). The effect of walking on risk factors for cardiovascular disease: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised control trials. Preventive Medicine, 72, 34-43. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.12.041
Phys. Act. Guidel. Advis. Comm. 2008Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report: 2008Washington, DCUS Dep. Health Hum. Serv. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/Report/pdf/CommitteeReport.pdf

Brain-Boosting Exercise

Exercise 101:  It builds muscle, and increases fitness, and can make life a little easier – and not just physically!

It’s well known that exercise and physical activity helps you maintain good physical health. Did you know that exercise is good for your mental health too? Maybe you’ve heard that it’s a primary treatment recommendation for depression, or heard a friend describe getting a mental boost from a workout. Maybe you’ve had the really strong “I FEEL GREAT” feelings after you’re done. But where does that boost come from?

exercise fun

While these “feel-good” feelings are stimulated by exercise, their actual source is in the brain itself. During times of stress, which is how the body perceives exercise, the brain releases endorphins, a type of hormone that we commonly associated with a rush of euphoria. These hormones help block any pain signals that the stress might be causing, as a preventative measure of sorts.

They also make you feel damn good. As above, endorphins create feelings of euphoria – they are chemically similar to morphine! – and can increase positive thoughts and feelings. The “endorphin effect” can be both immediate and (with regular exercise) long-lasting. My first-hand experience with post-workout elation and exhilaration has made me a strong supporter of exercise as a useful element of treatment for depression and anxiety, both of which have popped up in my life. And there’s growing support that exercise can play a role in treatment and prevention of other mental illnesses, including helping to manage physical health challenges that can sometimes occur alongside.

It’s not just about feeling good, though. Long-term mental health can also get a boost from exercise. During times of stress, the brain releases another biochemical protein: brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein protects brain cells and their connections with each other, called synapses, which in turn helps improve brain cell signaling and can reverse cell damage. Improved connections between brain circuits mean improved memory, attention span, and processing speed. In some studies, increased levels of BDNF have actually been shown to have a reparative effect, and may eventually help us restore learning abilities and memory. Even low-key or modest levels of exercise, like going for a walk every day, have been show to produce BDNF-related improvements.

Neurons

The protective effects of BDNF extend throughout life. Many studies of brain health in older adults have shown that people who were more physically active earlier in life were less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In the early stages of these diseases, people can also benefit from exercise: the aforementioned walk can help prevent disease progression. We tend to produce less BDNF as we age. Given the benefits, it makes sense to get moving regardless of current age or mental health.

Biochemicals aside, exercise actually benefits the brain in some of the same ways that it benefits the rest of our body. The blood vessels in our brains are very small, but still susceptible to the same types of damage as any of our other blood vessels. A stroke is one of the most common types of cardiovascular disease, and is the brain equivalent of a heart attack. While large strokes are usually quickly noticeable, small ones may occur without your knowledge. Tiny blockages leading to potentially unnoticeable mini-strokes can damage small areas of the brain and may lead to long-term mental health decline. You can vastly decrease your risks though: Your brain’s blood vessels are positively affected by exercise – the same way as the rest of your blood vessels throughout your body. Good blood vessel health (also called vascular health) also means optimal blood flow to the brain, and with it, optimal delivery of nutrients and oxygen. Sounds like a good idea to keep those channels open!


middle age woman doing yoga on rooftop

How do I become stronger physically without going to the gym?

I don’t have (or want) a gym membership. What can I do every day to get stronger?

Muscle mass naturally decreases with age, about 1% per year from your mid-30s onward. Strength decreases along with that loss. This is easy to ignore – when you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s, it’s easy to not notice any losses, or feel like you’ve got plenty of time to make them up. And there’s no shortage of people that say they figure it’s just part of getting old.

While these losses are indeed part of the aging process, that doesn’t mean you just have to sit there and accept them. There’s lot that can be done to maintain strength and muscle mass regardless of age. And you definitely do not need a gym. Instead, get creative and find ways to move your body against resistance. Some of the examples commonly discussed with our personal training and exercise physiology clients include:

Do some pushups. For easier versions, choose an incline option, with hands on the wall, the kitchen table, counters or benchtops, back of the sofa etc. The lower you get to the ground, the harder the exercise gets. You’ll want to find the balance between the difficulty of the exercise and your ability to maintain good technique – if your back hurts or you can’t maintain a straight line while doing it, find something easier.

Carry your groceries in a shopping basket or bags, rather than a cart. This will help build upper body strength and perhaps surprisingly, core stretch – the core muscles will work hard to counterbalance the external weight and keep you in an upright position. It’s important to alternate which side you carry items on, only using one can actually create an imbalance in core strength and muscle tension. Bonus: If you park farther away, you’ll carry grocery bags for a longer period (building upper body and core strength) and get more steps.

Take the stairs. This may seem more like cardiovascular work, and climbing stairs does count as aerobic exercise, but it’s also a great strength builder for the lower body. Minimize your risk of knee pain by taking your bodyweight through the back of the foot, not just the toes. Bonus: Carry things while you’re doing it for increased resistance.

Squat down to pick things up. Instead of bending over from the waist to pick something up off the floor, squat down by reaching down and back through your hips and sitting on your heels. NOTE: This move is often stiff and uncomfortable for people who sit a lot, especially at first. Squat as low as you can and keep your chest lifted to minimize back strain. Even if it’s not a large movement, this will actually help you regain joint mobility and movement ability through the hips over time.

Do some sit-to-stand squats. Find a chair, sofa, stool, etc. that is slightly lower than what you normally sit on. Reach backwards with your hips and slowly lower yourself down to the seat, controlling your movement all the way. Push through your heels to stand back up. Repeat 10-15 times per set.

Daily activities can be safe strength builders as long as you keep two key points in mind. Anything you do need to be pain-free, both during and after the movement (noting that there is a difference between the muscle burn from 1000 crunches and the catching, stabbing, sharp pains that often go along with acute injuries). The first rule is always “Stay Pain Free”. The second point: Strength building still takes effort, regardless of where you do it. That means that whatever you’re lifting, moving, or carrying will still need to be heavy enough to feel like effort. There are many many ways to achieve this, so get creative. What can you come up with?


Fit and healthy middle age woman exercising in the morning by running on a path

Client Question: Is morning exercise or evening exercise better for weight loss?

Great question from one of our personal training clients in Taringa this last week:

Should I do my workouts in the morning or the evening for better weight loss? 

When it comes to working out, most of us want to maximize the results we get, so it would make sense to work out when your body can make the most of it. Popular belief in the personal training and body building worlds holds that cardio first thing in the morning is a great fat burner, perfect for losing weight and toning up. How true is that?

The answer: Somewhat.

There is evidence that morning exercise can set you up for better fat burning (and improvements in other health markers) throughout the day, meaning that over the course of the day, you may burn slightly more fat than you might if you were relying solely on evening exercise. Why am I talking about fat burning if you want to lose weight? Body fat loss is far more likely to be what achieves your weight loss goal, than overall weight loss. Body composition is what determines how lean and toned you look, and from a health perspective, lower body fat levels are associated with lower levels of health risk; fat loss rather than weight loss can significantly improve your health.

Any exercise you do will have a positive impact on your body fat levels, regardless of what time of day you do it. But both morning and evening workouts have their own benefits. Several factors are in play here:

  • Exercising leads to a slight to moderate increase in metabolism during the “recovery period”, or the time after your workout when your body is busy replenishing cellular energy stores and making repairs to tissues. Because of this, exercise in the morning may provide a slight advantage by adding to the normal amounts of energy used during your daily activities. Overall, you may see a small increase in overall energy (calories) burned during the day. It’s important to note that this difference will be minor, especially if your morning workout is low to moderate intensity, and will not be enough to make a huge difference to body weight and body composition in a short or even moderate/medium time frame – this is for playing the long game.
  • Some studies have shown an increase in fat burning tendencies after exercise in the morning compared to exercise in the evening, though other studies have found no differences. This also appears to be dependent on the types of fats in your diet, with unsaturated varieties being more easily used than saturated fats. This can be particularly useful if you’re exercising for heart, cardiovascular, or metabolic health.
  • Exercise intensity and the resulting hormonal and immune responses (generally thought to be related to the physical stress of exercise) both influence the use of fats versus carbohydrates in providing energy at a cellular level. In normal physical function, these responses are influenced by the time of day as well as how you exercise. Many physical responses to exercise are amplified in the evening; Evening exercise appears to increase the body’s hormonal and immune responses, which in turn can lead to higher release of fat molecules into the bloodstream – basically, leading to increased breakdown of fat stores. It’s important to note, however, that increased breakdown of fat stores does not necessarily mean increase fat burning, as these molecules may continue to circulate in the blood without being used.
  • Given that the hormonal responses to exercise are heightened during the evening hours, you may wish to consider how these might impact your sleep. One normal exercise response is to increase levels of your “fight or flight” hormones, making you more alert – rather than ready for bed. If you already have sleep challenges, you may wish to avoid evening exercise.
  • Exercise at any time of the day is can be followed by a decrease in blood pressure. While this response is larger after evening exercise, there is evidence that the blood pressure decrease after morning exercise is more consistent. It may also be more valuable if you are prehypertensive or have high blood pressure. As part of normal body functions, you experience a temporary rise in blood pressure in the mornings; the decrease in blood pressure following morning exercise can return these morning “spikes” to more normal levels.

Evidence exists for both morning exercise and evening exercise to be more effective in fat burning and weight loss, and there are mindset and motivation effects of morning exercise that are hard to look past. For example, if you hit the gym in the morning, will that make you less likely to grab that pastry from the office kitchen for breakfast? Regardless of the science and the mindset effects, your work outs, your ability to lose weight, and your health will all stand to make the most improvements on your own timeline. The most effective workout time is going to be the time when you feel best prepared for it.

 

For more information:
De Bristo, L. C., Rezende, R. A., Da Silva, N. D., Junior, Tinucci, T., Casarini, D. E., Cipolla-Neto, J., & Forjaz, C. L. (2015). Post-Exercise Hypotension and Its Mechanisms Differ after Morning and Evening Exercise: A Randomized Crossover Study. Plos One,10(7).
Kim, H., Ando, K., Tabata, H., Konishi, M., Takahashi, M., Nishimaki, M., . . . Sakamoto, S. (2016). Effects of Different Intensities of Endurance Exercise in Morning and Evening on the Lipid Metabolism Response. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine,15, 467-476.
Kim, H., Konishi, M., Takahashi, M., Tabata, H., Endo, N., Numao, S., . . . Sakamoto, S. (2015). Effects of Acute Endurance Exercise Performed in the Morning and Evening on Inflammatory Cytokine and Metabolic Hormone Responses. Plos One,10(9).
Votruba, S. B., Atkinson, R. L., & Schoeller, D. A. (2004). Sustained increase in dietary oleic acid oxidation following morning exercise. International Journal of Obesity,29(1), 100-107.

 

Shameless plug time!
If you’re interested in exercise for weight loss and better health, we can help. HealthFit Coaching offers exercise physiology, personal training, nutrition coaching, and our signature Complete Coaching package in the Brisbane suburbs of St Lucia, Sherwood, Chelmer, Oxley, Indooroopilly, Taringa, and Toowong, or online at your convenience.
Contact us now to look good, feel great, have more energy, and enjoy life more. We offer a free no-obligation Kick Off call to make sure we can meet your needs. What do you have to lose?