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.


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 in leggings and a tank top doing a plank exercise to develop core strength

The Fourth Element of Fitness: Neuromuscular Exercise

Most exercise programs focus on the three most common elements of fitness: strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. However, a separate focus on each of these elements means you’ll overlook what training and exercise is all about: Allowing you to move better. Better could mean moving more, or being able to do specific activities, or moving in a way that is safe and will keep you pain-free.

The fourth important element is neuromuscular training. It is this type of exercise that helps maintain your movement ability and good physical function. It builds on your existing strength, endurance, and flexibility to develop coordination between muscle, joints, and the brain. For every movement you want to make, your brain will take in information from your five senses and from the thousands of tiny nerve endings all over the body, and then tells the nervous system when and how to activate various muscles to create that movement.

Sometimes this is straightforward – simpler movements like drinking from a glass take less coordination. More complex movements are highly coordinated. For example, many of us take walking for granted, but think about a child learning to walk: You have to move lots of body parts at once in a very specific manner to maintain your balance and body position and move forward.

This muscle-joint-nervous system coordination allows you to complete physical movements like walking and maintains agility and reflexes, as well as balance and body positioning. In exercise science, we refer to this as Functional Training, as it supports your ability to carry out tasks and activities of daily life. If you’re an athlete, that can mean specific skills training in your sport. If you don’t play sports, neuromuscular control is what allows you to catch yourself if you trip, or drive a car or ride a bike.

To maintain good movement, you do need strength, cardio endurance, and flexibility – but these elements along don’t guarantee lifelong good movement. You can maintain good neuromuscular control if you challenge yourself with exercises that mimic the movements that you use in everyday life, like standing up from a low seat, walking up steps or a hill, or changing your walking speed while you’re on the move. Training balance and good posture is also important, but you don’t need to do any sort of crazy exercises to do this. In fact, this training can be as simple as standing on one food while you’re brushing your teeth, or remembering to sit up straight when you are at your computer. Even simply remembering to think about your body as you move can be immensely helpful!

 

Need help developing your functional fitness and movement quality? HealthFit Coaching is mobile, offering in-home personal training and exercise physiology and making everyday fitness easy to achieve. Contact HealthFit now to take your first step!


Fit healthy middle age man swimming in an outdoor pool in Brisbane

What Are The Most Common Types Of Exercise?

Depending on your workout or the type of physical activity you do, you can gain muscle strength, cardiovascular and aerobic endurance, improve your flexibility and joint health, or help maintain other components of good physical function like balance and coordination. The most common components of exercise programs are resistance training, cardio or aerobic exercise, and flexibility. Since they all provide different benefits, it’s essential to include a balance of these different types:

Resistance training (also known as strength training or weight training): Resistance exercises are those that train your body to produce force against some sort of resistance, whether that is your own body weight, resistance bands, traditional dumbbells and barbells, or a multitude of other training equipment.

Moving against resistance stimulates your muscles to develop size, optimal length and muscle tone, and contraction ability, as well as the coordination to be able to complete daily tasks with ease. These characteristics can promote good posture, reducing the risk of injury and poor health, improve body composition (the ratio of body fat to lean body tissue), enhance movement abilities, and generally boost self-confidence and self-esteem.

Resistance training can be further broken down into training programs that are focused on developing maximal muscular strength and power, muscle size, or muscle endurance. For most people with non-athletic goals, development of muscle size will provide the greatest all-around benefit for lifelong muscle health. It’s important to consider that the training benefits are directly related to the amount of work you put in – regardless of the training focus, if you aren’t training with enough effort, no benefit will be seen.

Cardiovascular training (also known as aerobic training or endurance training): This is exercise or activity that is made up of repeated, often rhythmic movements that use the large muscle groups of the arms and legs. These types of exercise usually don’t require much or any special training or practice, and are often done for an extended period of time – though “extended” is all relative. (If you’re just starting out with aerobic exercise, extended might only mean five minutes.) Some of the most common examples include walking and running, cycling, and swimming, though many other activities also fall into this category.

Cardio exercise helps your heart to beat more efficiently, in turn using less energy to move oxygen and nutrients, and keeps the blood vessels healthy and able to respond to the demands that movement can place on your body. This decreases wear and tear on the heart and the blood vessels, lowering the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular conditions, as well as the risk of sudden conditions like a heart attack.

Flexibility or Stretching and Joint Mobility Training:  These exercises have two specific but closely related training goals. Flexibility exercises are designed to promote optimal length in the soft tissues surrounding a joint or a series of joint, which will allow the joint to move freely within its available range of motion. Flexibility training targets the muscles and connective tissues around the joint. Joint mobility refers to the ability of the joint itself to move freely. Joints can become stiff with lack of movement, which can stiffen the connective tissues within the joint, or can lose movement ability when the flexibility of surrounding muscles and connective tissues decrease. In order for a joint to be mobile, the soft tissues surrounding it must be flexible, and in order for the soft tissues to develop or maintain flexibility, the joint must be able to move freely. Both of these components are important in maintaining good posture and movement ability – key components to an active, pain-free lifestyle with low injury risk.

Flexibility can be developed by traditional static stretching exercises, which involves moving to the point of moderate stretch and holding that stretch for at least 30 seconds (the minimal amount of time required to create a lasting change in flexibility). Dynamic stretching is a better option for joint mobility training, as it’s performed by moving into a stretching position, holding it for a few seconds, and then backing off. By combining this stretch with a greater degree of joint movement, you can develop and maintain optimal joint mobility. Spending time on both static and dynamic stretching will give you the best results.

Resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, and flexibility are the three most commonly discussed components of a balanced exercise program. But there is another component that is often overlooked, yet is perhaps the most important component of exercise and activity, especially when it comes to maintaining good functional movement throughout your entire life. Be sure to check out our upcoming post on Neuromuscular training at the end of the week!

 

Looking for the best in-home personal training and exercise physiology program? Look no further. HealthFit coaching provides exercise programs that are real-life ready – flexible enough to work with your lifestyle without sacrificing your health and fitness goals. Take the first step to lifelong health and fitness – Contact HealthFit Now.


Dumbbell hand weights for strength training and muscle building at home

Do I need to do weights to lose weight?

You don’t have to – it may not do much to boost your calorie burn. But there are still some excellent reasons to include strength training in your weight loss plan.

Weight loss (and maintaining your new body weight) is a complex process. Exercise doesn’t actually have a huge impact on weight loss, regardless of what type you do. Food choices and your normal diet are far more impactful, but it’s more complicated than needing to eat fewer calories than you burn. And what your body is doing when you aren’t working out or eating plays a significant role that is often overlooked.

Strength training will help you maintain muscle mass over the long term. If you lift on a regular basis, your body will recognize that it needs to keep that muscle around for something. This is to your benefit during weight loss, weight maintenance, and aging in general. Bear in mind the following when you’re deciding whether you want to add some weights to your routine:

  • Weight loss from a combination of calorie restriction (changed diet) and increased exercise or daily movement will actually decrease your metabolism and daily energy use, since this is directly linked to total body weight. Strength training will help you maintain or increase your muscle mass and therefore your metabolism, which means that you can maintain higher energy use while still losing body fat.
  • Weight training can help the appearance of fat loss in certain areas of the body by giving underlying muscle more definition or size. It’s not possible to preferentially burn fat in certain areas (often called spot toning or spot reduction) – when fat loss happens, it happens all over the body.
  • While cardio exercise will burn the most calories in a given workout, because it’s relatively low intensity, your body quickly recovers. Weight-based exercise will create more of a challenge for your body, and you’ll use more energy in recovering from this. (Bear in mind that exercise intensity rather than type will ultimately determine how much energy the body will use for physical recovery.)

Strength training is also good for your health, in a variety of ways:

  • Regular resistance training will keep the cells involved in energy production and use working smoothly and your body systems functioning well. For example, muscles that are regularly exposed to high intensity exercises will be better at absorbing and using blood glucose, requiring less insulin production and decreasing diabetes risk.
  • Maintaining or even increasing muscle mass can help prevent frailty in old age.  Muscle mass and movement ability are linked, and movement ability means good mobility, agility, balance, and catching yourself if you trip and fall.
  • Strength training can prevent and help treat osteopenia and osteoporosis, two types of decreasing bone density. Bone loss can be due to the aging process, or can be brought about by calorie restriction or dieting. Lifting weights can help stimulate bone growth, especially when you also have adequate calcium intake.

One last note about strength training and weight loss: Because weights will stimulate at least a small increase in muscle mass, using weights in your weight loss program may actually lead to less change in scale weight. For most people, this is a tradeoff they’re happy to make – looking great makes the number on the scale matter a lot less!

Do you know someone who might find this helpful? Use the buttons below to share with someone who will appreciate it!

 

References
Elia M. (1992). Organ and tissue contribution to metabolic rate. In: Kinney JM, Tucker HN, editors. Energy Metabolism: Tissue Determinants and Cellular Corollaries. New York: Raven Press.
Plowman, S. A., & Smith, D. L. (2017). Exercise physiology for health, fitness, and performance (5th ed.). Sydney: Wolters Kluwer.

Microscopic view of heart muscle cells

If exercise and high blood pressure both lead to an enlarged heart, why is one good and the other bad?

Before we get into the answer, it’s helpful to remember that your heart is actually a muscle, and like any other muscle, it responds to the demands of hard work by getting stronger and larger. So while an enlarged heart – known clinically as cardiac hypertrophy – might not sound good, it can actually be great for your long term heart health.

Let’s break down the anatomy and physiology:

The heart has four chambers, and the size of these chambers determines how much blood the heart can pump with each beat (volume). The thickness of the chamber walls determines how forcefully the heart can beat, or to think of it another way, how fast the blood is moving when it is pumped from the heart. The elasticity of healthy blood vessels helps accommodate changes in heart beat volume and blood speed, allowing the whole system to work efficiently with minimal health risk.

Regular cardiovascular exercise stimulates changes in both the chamber size and the wall thickness of the heart, as the working muscles will need more oxygen and nutrients to continue exercise and the heart will beat faster to accommodate. This stress can be good for your health, as over time, these changes allow the heart to pump more efficiently, using fewer beats to move the same amount of blood.

High blood pressure can also cause heart enlargement, however in this situation only a thickening of the walls occurs. This is primarily seen in the left ventricle, the last chamber of the heart before the blood is pumped into the vessels. This specific enlargement is called left ventricular hypertrophy, and is actually stimulated by a loss of elasticity in the blood vessels. Stiffer blood vessels require the heart to pump harder to move the blood, as there is more resistance from the blood vessel walls that prevents the blood from flowing as easily. Because the overall needs of the body don’t change, the volume of blood pumped per beat will remain the same and no change in chamber size will occur. Overall, thicker walls without a concurrent change in chamber size will complicate good heart function, as the heart chambers may not fill as well and the volume of each heart beat will be decreased.

If you have might blood pressure, it’s worth talking to your doctor about your risk of left ventricular hypertrophy, as it has been associated with sudden cardiac death. If you already have this condition, it’s really worth talking to your doctor because there is evidence that exercise and changes to your diet and body composition can have a positive impact on the heart structure, and you want to be able to make these changes safely.

 

References
Cohen J. L., Segal K. R. (1985) Left ventricular hypertrophy in athletes: an exercise-echocardiographic study. MSSE, 17(6):695-700. 
Pluim, B. M., Zwinderman, A. H., Laarse, A. V., & Wall, E. E. (2000). The Athlete’s Heart : A Meta-Analysis of Cardiac Structure and Function. Circ, 101(3), 336-344. doi:10.1161/01.cir.101.3.336
Smith, D. L., & Fernhall, B. (2011).  Advanced cardiovascular exercise physiology.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

 

Image by OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

stressed out man looking out window with serious expression wondering what to do

More On Exercise For Stress Management

Do you remember your last big job interview or exam? How did you feel?

Ugh, stress.

Whether it comes from your job, family demands, a bank balance or an overcrowded calendar, stress is a fact of life. We’ve all experienced the impact of stress on a day, week, month – or even longer. I’m sure I’m not along in wanting to have less of it, but for better or worse, stress is actually an important part of life. A stress-causing incident (a stressor) has a quantifiable physical impact, creating changes to circulating levels of hormones that help prepare the body for fight-or-flight.

The fight or flight response can be used to your advantage. Short-term and/or moderate levels of beneficial stress (eustress) can help improve motivation, sharpen focus, and boost memory and recall – exactly what you need for big presentations or school exams. Physically, eustress can help improve physical performance and endurance; the zebra running from the lion is definitely experiencing heightened stress levels! Biochemical reactions that occur as part of the physical stress response can even dull or block pain levels in some situations. And the right amount of ongoing physical stress in the form of physical activity or exercise is actually what stimulates improved levels of strength and fitness.

Of course, too much stress can also be hard on the body. While we primarily think of stress as a mental or emotional difficulty, stress levels that are very high or remain high over an extended period of time also has a physical cost.

One of the primary stress responses is an increased release of epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol. High epinephrine levels can lead to feelings of anxiety. In the short term, this can help you get stuff done, thereby ridding yourself of some of your stressors. Over time though… You probably don’t need me to tell you that long-term anxiety isn’t healthy! Excessive cortisol and adrenaline can also have a negative impact on your immune system, making you more susceptible to minor illnesses like the common cold. Increased levels of epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress hormones can also lead to headaches, eating pattern and digestive issues, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions, depression, insomnia, and fatigue. There is also growing evidence that high levels of stress and related physical responses can lead to increased cancer risks.

Stress is a pervasive problem. According to the American Psychological Association, the majority of American are living with at least moderate to high stress levels, and a 2014 study by the Australian Psychological Society found that about one in four Australians are living with distress.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, exercise can help. Isolation or avoidance are two common reactions to high stress levels. (I know that when I’m stressed, I want to get away from everyone and everything until I can get a handle on things.)  These reactions aren’t particularly helpful, but getting moving is!

Almost every type of exercise has been shown by decades of research to decrease short and long-term stress levels. Even if you’re not feeling it, going through the motions can be a distraction from your stressors, and can help decrease muscle tension and cortisol release. In turn, this can lead to decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as physical changes like decreased heart rate and blood pressure. It’s possible that the amount of exercise you do can impact how significant these effects are. Some studies have shown more exercise leads to greater stress reductions, while others have shown that neither the amount, frequency, or intensity change how much stress is decreased. So walking the dog may be just as beneficial as a tough run or weights session.

The take-home message: It’s not worth getting stressed about how much, how hard, or how often you get moving – just get going! Any sort of movement will serve as the above mentioned distraction, and boost positive feelings of well-being. Take a moment and consider what kind of movement, physical activity, or exercise makes you feel better. It doesn’t have to be gym-based, or any sort of organized sport, just something that you enjoy at least a little!


Walking along coronation drive in Brisbane

Stress-Busting Moves: Exercise for Stress Management

I was chatting with a client yesterday who mentioned that she might not get another session in before the new year. She’s been working hard for the last several months, and has had a significant mindset change – regular low-intensity work outs, a shift in eating habits, managing her stress levels like a pro, and with a great plan for keeping up with health choices while out of routine.  I think a couple of months “on her own” will be a great way to figure out what’s left to work on – if anything!

Not all of us are headed into the holiday season quite so prepared though. No matter how much you love the holiday season, it can be a stressful time. Family is great – but not always. Holiday foods are delicious – but easy to go overboard with. Add that to a disrupted routine and a bunch of extra chores/jobs/travel to juggle and stress levels can skyrocket.

Researchers have looked at stress management and a wide variety of exercise types, intensities, and frequencies  – what you do, how hard you work, and how often you do it. The results are pretty awesome: it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Exercise has a significant positive impact on mental, emotional, and physical stress and health. So pick one of these stress-reducing workouts (the one that sounds most appealing) and give it a try. You’ll feel better, brush off the stress more easily, and maybe even look forward to the holidays a little more!

Cardiovascular Exercisewalking the dog

Walk, jog, run. Ride your bike, paddle your kayak, jump on your unicycle. Take the dog out for a cruise around the block. Steady, rhythmic movements are the hallmark of cardio work.

The stress-busting benefits of cardiovascular work come when you get your heart rate up. But that doesn’t mean you have to break a sweat! Even a small increase, like one you would get with going for a walk, is easily enough. Aim for a minimum of 10 minutes, but go for a little longer if you want greater benefit. This can be any combination of slow, steady work or interval training. No matter your current fitness, this can be an option for everyone!

Strength Training

Same heart rate rules apply with strength training. This is essentially interval training, with periods of harder work alternating with easier work or rest (assuming the weights you’re lifting are a bit challenging). Find a heavy thing. Pick it up. Put it down. Repeat, then rest. Choosing exercises that use multiple joints give you a little more bang-for-buck, but anything works. Plus, feeling strong is an awesome feeling!

yogaYoga/Tai Chi/Pilates

People jump in here to tell you that these types of exercise are different. It’s true that they are different in their methods and approaches, but they are all movement. These types of exercise are often slow and deliberate, with an emphasis on breathing and a mindful approach to how you’re using your body. (This is a really powerful way to build body awareness, which is a great tool to managing your own health.) The mindfulness of these movements is one of the greatest benefits. Focusing on your breath and movement keep you from thinking about any other stressful things. It’s a zero-sum game and I like it!

Stretching

Done correctly, stretching should be mildly uncomfortable, enough so that holding feels fairly intense (without being so horrible that you want to quit). If you want a stress-busting stretch, stretch your muscle until you feel that comfortable-but-challenging stretch, and breathe deeply and slowly with an aim to relax that muscle. You’ll feel the stretch melt away, and might even be surprised by breaking a sweat. Please remember though: there is such a thing as too much stretch! Aim for a maximum intensity of 6-7 out of 10 to keep your muscles lengthening without damage.

For stress management, you can do as much or little exercise as you like. Even a minute of two of taking time our for a quick stretch or a walk down the block can help clear your head and drop your blood pressure. This list is certainly not exhaustive though. What are your favorite stress-relieving moves? I’d love it hear it!


Muscle and Joint Health In Three Steps

Ready to start an exercise or physical activity program? Already active or working out? These three steps will keep your body happy and healthy, minimizing aches, pains and injury risk.

You probably know: Regular movement is really important to maintaining lifelong health. Keeping your body injury- and pain-free is really important to being able to keep moving.

Increasing daily movement can come at the end of a rehab program, or you may (correctly) see it as a way to get rid of ongoing sore spots. It may be your path to improving your health, or feeling even better than you do right now. These three DIY steps focus primarily on loosening and lengthening your muscles and connective tissues – leading to decreased joint stress – and then getting your muscles strong and fit. Following these three steps will keep your muscles and joints working efficiently and minimize the stiffness and pain that can prevent good quality movement. Improved movement ability directly leads to better health and quality of life.

Step 1: Loosen

Muscles that are overly tight (aka hypertonic) don’t work efficiently. Excessive muscle tension can decrease how quickly a muscle can contract and how much force it can contract with. Since the speed and force of contraction are what creates movement and supports your body, this is less than optimal (plus, tight muscles don’t generally feel good).

Many circumstances can lead to excessive muscle tension. Muscles can spasm and hold tension to protect a sore or injured area, or tension can build from long term movement compensations that result from an injury or tissue damage. Tension can also be caused by posture and occupational or lifestyle demands.

“Loosen” is step one because it has the greatest impact on the other two steps. A muscle with optimal tension and with minimal adhesions – what we commonly think of as “knots” – will be able to stretch and strengthen better.

Different “loosening” techniques include hands-on techniques like deep tissue massage, remedial, or sports massage therapy, myofascial release, and trigger point therapy, as well as self-massage techniques using a foam roller, trigger point ball, The Stick, and other similar tools. You can also help manage muscle tension by staying hydrated, using a heat pack or hot water bottle on tight muscles, and ensuring a diet high in magnesium.

Step 2: Lengthen

Muscles that are too short can lead to poor joint alignment and repetitive strain or overuse injuries. For most people, stretching after doing soft tissue work will give you the best results, as adhesions and tight areas don’t stretch well (and can potentially cause the tissues around them to overstretch). Appropriate stretching will keep joints moving freely and easily, and can also help prevent tension buildup caused by poor postures and movement patterns that shorten and stress muscles.

One caveat to the Lengthen step: If you are hypermobile (i.e. double jointed), stretching may actually aggravate muscles and joints. In hypermobility conditions, the tissues surrounding a joint are longer and looser than optimal, giving the joint very high degrees of movement (aka joint laxity). As this can predispose to injury, and your body’s #1 goal is to not get hurt, ever, the reaction to this laxity is to create more tension in the tissues around the joint. This can leave you feeling like you need to stretch, but that’s actually the opposite of what your body needs. If you are hypermobile, skip this step and do more self-massage (or go and good a good remedial or deep tissue massage) to decrease muscle tension. The strength work in step three will help further build joint integrity.

There are many ways that you can stretch, like traditional static stretching, or partner variations like assisted or PNF stretching. Regardless of how you do it, hold your stretches for a very minimum of 30 seconds, as it takes at least that long for the tissues to lengthen to a beneficial degree. And don’t bounce! It’s a recipe for disaster.

Step 3: Strengthen

The first two steps are all about getting the muscles ready. Now it’s time to get going! The right strength program identifies any areas of strength or activation imbalance, and will selectively target them build on the movement quality you’ve already achieved with the Loosen and Lengthen steps. For maximum benefit, get some advice from a movement professional who will help you determine your weakest links. This information will allow you to build a strong foundation, further decreasing any injury risks and making any ongoing physical activity or exercise much more effective.

Strength programs come in many, many forms. The best programs are created based on both your physical needs and the types of movement you enjoy, and may include components of body-weight exercises, band-resisted exericses, yoga, pilates, and traditional strength training.

How much work you do in each of these stages will depend on your starting point (current movement quality, activity levels, injury and health history, and the like). The art of creating the best program for YOU means understanding what your body needs in order to handle the activities you love, and then simply working through the steps.

While including all of these components is becoming more widely used in strength and fitness programming, there are many people and places that still miss a step or two. If you have questions about how these steps apply to you, leave a comment here or jump on our Facebook page – we’re happy to talk specifics!


Healthy Habits to Prevent High Blood Pressure

Have high blood pressure, or at high risk for it? Building healthy habits can really help your blood pressure levels. In fact, though there is a genetic component to your individual level, lifestyle choices have an enormous impact on blood pressure – for better or worse!

How is high blood pressure dangerous?

Picture this: You’re filling up a water balloon. As you put in more water, the balloon stretches, and the walls start to thin, which makes them much more susceptible to damage (like when you throw it at someone and it bursts on impact!!). On the other hand, a balloon with only a small amount of water in it will be much harder to damage.

High blood pressure (known in medical terms as hypertension) works in much the same way. The increased pressure on the blood vessel walls makes them more susceptible to damage. Vessels can become more stiff and build up deposits of plaque, leading to the blockage of blood that causes heart attack and stroke. High blood pressure can also damage small blood vessels in your kidneys, eyes, and other organs, which in turn damages the organs themselves. And like the water balloon, blood vessels can also weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm. An aneurysm that bursts can quickly be life-threatening. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for other diseases and health conditions, increasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and even cognitive conditions.

These high blood pressure complications are not especially appealing! But the lifestyle choices that keep your blood pressure at healthy levels and help prevent complications can be easy, and even enjoyable.

Simple Changes to Lower Blood Pressure

Get daily exercise or physical activity: A healthy heart and blood vessels can be achieved and maintained with as little as 30 minutes of daily activity. You can even break this up into smaller blocks – there is significant evidence that multiple, short bouts of activity have the same health benefits as one longer one. So if a brisk half-hour walk doesn’t sound good, you could try a 10-min walk in the morning and evening, and another 10 minutes of exercise or even active chores like vacuuming to hit your 30 minutes. If it’s been a while since you’ve been active or exercising, please chat with your doctor prior to starting a new exercise routine, especially if you have health problems.

Make healthy food choices: Choose fresh foods that are as close as possible to their natural state. That is, pick lean steak over salami. Eat more whole foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), and fewer pre-prepared foods, as these are generally higher in sodium, cholesterol, and trans fats. Choosing foods with no added sugars will also help. Don’t forget to include beverages in this category too!

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight: Carrying extra body fat can cause blood pressure to rise, and increases physical stress on the body’s systems. Even a small amount of weight loss can have a big impact on blood pressure levels, and additional weight loss can lead to additional improvements. The above two ideas will certainly help with this.

Choose healthy stress management strategies: Gentle physical activity like walking or tai chi, meditation and breathing exercises, keeping a journal or working on arts and crafts are all healthy relaxation ideas. Take some time to have some fun!

Avoid unhealthy stress management: Two common but unhealthy stress management choices that many people make are alcohol and tobacco use. Keep your alcohol consumption under one standard drink per day for women, and two for men. And we all know that tobacco use is deadly – spiking your blood pressure is just one reason why.

Sleep well: Restful sleep is key to stress management. Poor sleep quality can impair your body’s ability to regulate stress hormones, which can lead to increases in blood pressure. On average, adults under the age of 65 should get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Adults over 65 should get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. If you have trouble getting this amount of sleep, or don’t wake up feeling rested, please talk to your doctor about this. It’s one of the single biggest things you can do to improve your health!

Taking action in any one of these areas can make a significant difference. Making more than one of these choices on a regular basis will help you easily control your blood pressure, and potentially even prevent the need for medication. What’s one change that you can make today?