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 🙂


Outdoor gym and walking path at Moorlands Park Toowong

Great Outdoor Gyms in Brisbane

In-home exercise physiology sessions are really popular thanks to their convenience and flexible scheduling, allowing clients to fit sessions in with the other things in life that matter. But that doesn’t mean people necessarily want to be stuck at home. And one of the great things about living in Brisbane is that we can take our in-home sessions outside, taking advantage of the parks, walking trails, bikeways, and outdoor gyms that the Brisbane City Council has installed throughout the city – plus the (almost always) beautiful weather. Some of our favourite spots for in-home sessions are actually outside!

Here are some of the outdoor exercise spots we love to put to use:

Moorlands Park, Toowong

A playground for kids is complemented by a playground for adults. This little park is tucked right off of Coronation Drive in Toowong and is complete with an outdoor gym including parallel bars, chin up bars, suspension training rings, and plyometric boxes, among other choices – definitely enough to give yourself a well-balanced full body workout. It’s also an easy spot to jump onto the Bicentennial Bikeway through a tunnel running underneath Coronation Drive.

Bicentennial Bikeway and Walking Path, Coronation Drive – Toowong/Auchenflower/Milton/Brisbane City

Ok, this one is not a gym, but it is great. The Bicentennial Bikeway (the Coronation Drive Bikeway to locals) was upgraded a few years ago into a pretty flash cycle and walking path. The upgrade saw the Bikeway split into dedicated cycle and pedestrian lanes, keeping the faster and slower moving objects separate so that you don’t have to worry about getting run over! The bikeway runs from Toowong to underneath the William Jolly Bridge, about 2.7km. This is an immensely popular stretch with well maintained paths and minimal hills. The biggest drawbacks: There’s not a lot of shade, and if you hit peak foot and cycle traffic, you’ll find it’s quite busy. There are plenty of water stops along the way, and some covered seated areas where you could do dips, step ups, and squats, if you wanted to do a combined bodyweight strength and cardio workout.

Robertson Park, Indooroopilly/Taringa

A nice little walking loop tucked between the St Lucia Golf Links on one side and Indooroopilly State High School on the other. There are several exercise stations interspersed along the path, including a climbing rope, chin up bars, step up steps, and others. You could get a great workout here by running or briskly walking a loop, and stopping at a different exercise station for each lap you do. You can also duck across the road and take a walk or run down the wide walking path that runs along Hillside Terrace in St Lucia.

Frew Park, Milton

New in 2014, Frew Park has an amazing playground complete with climbing and bouldering areas that are good enough for adults to play on when the kids aren’t around. If you’re looking for more traditional exercise equipment, there is also an outdoor gym area featuring cycle and elliptical type equipment, chin up and dip bars, and others. The gym area is edged with a concrete edge that is perfect for high squats or step ups. And there is a concrete walking path that rings the gym, allowing you to walk or run some laps if that’s your thing. An added bonus: As home to the Roy Emerson Tennis Centre, Frew Park also hosts their own coffee shop, open 7 days per week.


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.


Cartoon of two people sitting down having a conversation

Why Healthcare Is Like Dating

You’re looking for someone to care about you, enough so that they want the best for you.

Could be dating, could be finding a new healthcare provider. Whether going well or not, these two situations have a lot of similarities. They boil down to some base questions:

Are you meeting the right kind of person?

In dating, you want to meet someone that you have something in common with.

In healthcare, you want to meet a provider that has training “in common” with your condition. A doctor for illnesses, a dietician for nutritional advice, a massage therapist and exercise physiologist for muscle imbalance and injury prevention – the list could go on and on.

Are you meeting them at the right time?

I recently had a client come in with debilitating back pain. She could hardly move. She’d already been to the physiotherapist, who had given her some exercises to increase her core strength (the right solution, long term)… that she couldn’t do, because she could hardly move. What she needed was the right type of healthcare for her present condition – in this case, remedial massage to relieve the muscle spasm and allow the exercises to work. For the most effective and efficient outcome, you need the right healthcare at the right time.

Do you like them?

In healthcare and dating, there are many fish in the sea. Your doctor, exercise physiologist, dietician, remedial massage therapist, physiotherapist, etc. has approximately the same training as all the others in their field. But, as with dating, just because a person meets basic criteria doesn’t mean that you have to stick with them. Better healthcare happens when you have good communication, and good communication happens when you connect with people. Look for someone who listens to you, asks good questions about how you feel, wants your input, looks to make you a part of the solution, and is nice to you!

(And just like dating, when you find a good one, hang onto them!)


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?

Fit and healthy middle age woman getting ready to run on a treadmill in a gym for a cardio workout

What gym equipment will give me the best cardio workout?

To improve cardiovascular fitness, you need to challenge your cardiovascular system. Simply put, that means moving your body in a way that increases your heart rate and makes you breath harder. Of course, you can get fit without a gym membership, but the variety of cardio machines under one roof can make your cardio workout a little more enticing. Make sure you get the best cardio workout by picking the machine that will work best for you. That mean safe and keeping you pain free, effective, and maybe even enjoyable!

Stair Climber / Stair Stepper

The rundown: The stair stepper (or stair climber) is exactly what it sounds like. Generally the “stairs” take two forms: A treadmill-type “staircase”, or a set of foot plates that moves up and down.

  • The stairs are tough! Prolonged stair climbing will quickly elevate your heart rate, especially with a faster speed. But “tough” is all relative – you have control over speed or resistance to make the workout somewhat easier or harder.  And don’t feel bad about giving yourself plenty of breaks throughout the workout. It will make it easier to get through the session and you’ll lose little or no benefit from it.
  • The stair stepper can be good for keeping your joints healthy. You need use a bigger range of motion, as each step will require more bend in the hips, knees, and ankles to lift your leg and take the “step”.  This greater range of motion can help keep joints well lubricated and mobile.
  • Provides a nice added strength boost for the lower body. Because you have to take bigger steps, the muscles in your lower body will work harder. This means you’ll develop more strength in the major muscle groups in your legs (your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves).
  • The stair stepper may not be the best choice if you have existing knee pain, though that doesn’t automatically rule it out, either.  Use a foam roller or trigger point ball on your quads (front of thigh) and glutes (butt and sides of hips) prior to taking your first step up.  Loosening tension through these areas will take a lot of pressure off of the knees.
  • Getting tired? DON’T lean on the arm railings – this takes away much of the “work” and can put your body in an awkward position, which can lead to physical stress through the joints of your spine and upper body, and can long-term set you up for injury. If you feel the need to lean, take a 1-2 minute break instead, either by slowing the machine way down, or by hopping off and walking around.

The Verdict: The stair stepper is one of the most effective cardio machines at the gym, because the movement is inherently high demand. Plus you get the added bonus of strength building through the lower body and large ranges of movement.

Elliptical Machine

The rundown: This machine guides you through low-impact movement that’s a cross between running and cross-country skiing.

  • Many machine have optional arm bars. Use them! Adding in upper body movement will lead to a larger increase in heart rate than just using the stationary handles. More muscles moving = higher heart rate and more calories burned.
  • This is generally the closest you get to running and still keep in low-impact (actually, no impact). If your elliptical machine has an incline setting, give yourself a boost here for a greater range of motion, which can help joint health.
  • Because you generally keep your feet connected to the foot plates, the gliding motion can sometimes lead to discomfort through the joints, especially if you’re already holding tension through the muscles of the hip and thigh (muscle tension can sometimes create more twist and torque through joints).

The Verdict: Excellent if you like to run but don’t feel comfortable with the impact any longer. If you choose an elliptical workout, get your upper body involved to maximize your results.

Stationary cycle / Spin bike

The rundown:  Another low-impact cardio machine, stationary cycles and spin bikes can give you a great workout with minimal joint stress, provide you set the bike up to suit your body. Because you can set the resistance,  you can somewhat turn your cycle workout into a strength builder as well.

  • These bikes can still lead to joint stress and strain, even without the impact. To prevent joint pain, make sure the bike settings are adjusted correctly for your body. Seat height should be set so that your knees are slightly bent when straight out, and the distance between the front of the seat and the “handlebars” is about the same as the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. This will minimize your risk of knee pain or lower back pain, though again, the risks are small!
  • Increase the resistance to simulate riding up a hill. This can be an excellent way to build strength in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Variable resistance and the smooth motion of the pedal stroke means that stationary cycles and spin bikes are great in almost every situation, from knee surgery rehab to cross training for high level sports.
  • Leaning too heavily on the handlebars/arm bars can result in a lot on tension buildup through the neck and shoulders. During your ride, sit up straight frequently and shake out your shoulders and arms to keep everything loose.

The verdict: Great for use in almost every situation, as the speed and resistance can guide smooth movements with minimal physical stress. Make sure you know how to set the bike up for your arm and leg length to keep yourself comfortable and pain free.

Rowing ergometer

The rundown: This machine is one of the most frequently mis-used, which is a shame. It can offer a really phenomenal workout!

  • Out of all the standard cardio equipment you find in a gym, this piece has the highest potential for a high intensity workout. Good rowing technique requires a powerful push with the legs, and a pull with the torso and arms, meaning that almost every muscle in the body is working hard.
  • This machine also allows you to set your own speed and resistance, so the workout doesn’t have to be crazy challenging. An important note though: make sure you have enough resistance to work against, especially with the leg push part of the movement – without this, there is a greater risk of losing control of the movement, which can lead to physical stress and injury.
  • One of the most common complaints with using the rowing machine is a sore lower back, and/or neck and shoulders. This happens when you lean too far back as you pull the handle, and when you pull the handle too high. At the end of the pull, you should be leaning back only slightly, and definitely not more than about 45 degrees, and the handle should be pulled in towards your bellybutton.
  • You might want to start small with this machine. Because there is a lot more upper body involvement, many people tire quite quickly. Interval training is a great option on the rower, or just start with 5 minutes’ work and combine it with another type of cardio.

The verdict: Once you’re comfortable with the technique, this is a really excellent option for a big workout in a short amount of time – big being relative, of course!

Treadmill (Walking, Jogging, or Running)

The rundown: The most well-known of the cardio equipment, you can walk, jog, or run in a controlled environment.

  • The tread can be a little bit more joint friendly than concrete, as it provides some cushion to help decrease the impact of each step. But that and the movement of the tread make it less work than walking or running outside. Get all of the benefits: Use a little incline to cancel out the “give” of the tread. A 1% incline is roughly equal to the work of walking on the ground, without the loss of cushion.
  • Don’t lean on the hand supports or arm railings. If you aren’t using your arms, your missing out on natural body movement and extra calories burned. This is especially true if you’re walking at a high incline, holding the handles and leaning backwards – you’re missing out on a lot of the benefits, and it’s not particularly safe on the off chance that your phone rings and you absentmindedly let go. THE ONE EXCEPTION: If you need some help with balance, by all means, hang on. Help maintain good body mechanics by keeping your hands somewhat in front of your torso, and away you go.
  • One of the benefits of using a treadmill is that you get your workout without going anywhere, so if you get tired, you get to just stop and get off. BUT. Please let the tread come to a complete stop before stepping off. Those videos you see off people flying off the back of the treadmill? I’ve seen that happen in real life and it’s not fun.

You’ll find most of these cardio machines in most gyms, but this isn’t a complete list of the equipment you might have available, nor is it a complete list of pros and cons. Always chat to a personal trainer or exercise physiologist about which cardio workout will be right for you and your specific situation.

 

 

HealthFit Coaching provides in-home and in-clinic personal training and exercise physiology in Brisbane’s western suburbs of Indooroopilly, Taringa, Toowong, St Lucia, Graceville, Chelmer, and Sherwood.
Find out how you can look good, feel great, move easily, and enjoy life more. Contact us now to learn how.

Middle age woman raising her eyebrows in surprise

The Secret Life Of A Health Coach

Want to know the biggest secret about my life as a health coach/exercise physiologist/personal trainer?

I’m just a normal person.

I like all types of fried potatoes, working out is sometimes more effort than it seems like it’s worth, and I definitely do not have a six-pack. I’ve been through periods of being super active and fit, and periods of being super lazy, and while I much prefer feeling and being super fit and healthy, I frequently struggle to make the time for it.

It’s called real life – as least, it is for most of us. There are great trainers out there who are able to juggle big workouts, prepping and eating routine meals, making their body their whole focus – Awesome for them. I’ll even admit that I’ve more than a little jealous. I had that for a few years and it was great, but it was also when I was in college with the luxury of plenty of time to spend on it.

In the years since, I’ve stopped beating myself up over NOT doing all those things. I’ve found my balance between eating healthy and really enjoying my meals, between being fit and being out of shape (though I often sit slightly below my ideal fitness level). These days, my ultimate goal is to strike that balance between making my entire life about my body, fitness and health, and being able to enjoy what life has to offer.

So, my big secrets?

My fitness levels fluctuate A LOT and I have to really work for what I have. My biggest challenge is balancing my time between every life demand in a way that I’m happy with (or at least can live with). Sometimes workouts lose out.

I love eating. LOVE IT. I love movie popcorn and giant salads and everything in between. Portion control is my nemesis.

I struggle to make myself a priority. I spend all day every day talking to people about taking care of themselves. I’m the worst at taking my own advice!

Stress-eating: Ugh, yes, that’s me.

I would much rather watch Netflix than go to the gym. (Though as with most people, I get a lot more satisfaction from going to the gym, once it’s all said and done.)

I may or may not read on my phone every night in bed, even though I know all the science says it’s bad for your sleep. Oops.

The point is, this is real life. We can have all the education and experience in the world – I’m not short on either and definitely know better – and making the best choices is still challenging. I live those choices day in and day out, just like everyone else. But these days I’m ok with those challenges. They are a lot easier now that I’ve learned to make life about habits and choices I enjoy, rather than choices that feel like chores that I should or have to do. I’ve found my balance between the effort I’m happy to make, and the results I’m happy to have. I’m launching this new section, The Secret Life Of A Health Coach: Food and Fitness in Real Life, to share what those choices look like for me, and to give you some ideas and support in finding your own balance.