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 middle age woman standing with good posture at a standing desk in a blue office

Are Standing Desks Better Than Sitting?

Short answer: probably, but actually not by much! But there’s a third – and much better – option.

Ever since standing desks became widely available several years ago, people have been asking: are they really worth it?

Spending hours every day sitting is definitely not great for your health, and society is moving more and more towards jobs that keep us at a desk and computer the majority of our working hours. You’re probably aware that prolonged sitting can leave you feeling stiff and sore. Muscle fatigue can actually build up from holding a single position for an extended time, and seated positions allow the abdominal muscles in particular to slacken and weaken. This leads to increased pressure on the vertebral discs of the lower back, and can increase the risk of significant lower back injury over time, especially coupled with changes in muscle tension that occur in this position.

If sitting for so long is so bad for you, should you rush out and get yourself a standing desk? Actually, no. Though it might be a better option than sitting for hours per day, going cold turkey and standing for the same period has its own set of problems. A standing desk is by no means a guaranteed cure for a tight neck and shoulders stemming from computer use, as it’s just as easy to slouch with these desks – sometimes easier, since you may end up leaning on it to a greater extent. Standing for hours on end can create muscle fatigue in the lower body, as your legs may not be used to supporting your body weight for long periods. As a result, most people tend to shift on their feet and can end up in awkward standing positions, putting more stress on joints of the lower body, hips, and lower back. Prolonged standing is also more challenging to the circulatory system than sitting is, so it may not be a healthy option for people with circulatory conditions, and it can contribute to varicose veins.

So if sitting for hours is bad and standing for hours not much better, are you doomed to discomfort for the rest of your working days? Not necessarily. Your best bet is to invest in a sit-stand combination desk. These desks allow you to vary the height of your desk to allow for both optimal sitting and standing heights, so you can choose your working posture as you see fit. Studies have shown that the body doesn’t handle being in any posture for long periods of time, and responds well to this mix of movement as shown by decreased aches and pains (and subsequent days off work and/or medical treatment) and increased feelings of comfort and productivity while desk-bound. Physically, frequently changing positions also helps maintain normal nerve function and maintains good blood supply for the muscles.

If you don’t have access to a variable height desk, there are a few options. Desktop additions are available that allow you to raise or lower the height of your monitor, keyboard, and mouse, effectively turning any desk into a sit-stand desk. And no matter what kind of desk you have, frequently getting up for a walk around the office is one of the nicest things you can do for your body. Put a reminder in your phone or email to get up for a walk or a stretch and get yourself moving!

 

Have your own question about your health and fitness? Submit it to info@healthfitcoaching.com to get a clear answer on how you can move easily and feel great.

 

 

Image By Kennyrhoads (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What Is Functional Fitness?

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the fitness industry for years, but many people – including many in the health and fitness industries – struggle to define it. To some, the word may conjure up images of exercise standing on one leg with your eyes closed, or even on a huge exercise ball. Good news: You can save those circus tricks for, well, the circus!

Functional fitness means being physically able to meet your daily demands of work, sport or exercise, and leisure activities. Functional training refers to exercises that give you the strength, coordination, and endurance (or cardiorespiratory fitness) to do so. The muscles of the upper body, lower body, and core must be strong, with good neuromuscular coordination to tie it all together effortlessly. Increasingly, functional fitness also means being physically able to counteract the poor postures and physical stresses we encounter in daily life. 

Many people are facing the same physical, functional needs, ranging from weakness in foundational-level stabilizing muscles to imbalances in muscle tension, length, or strength. Creating functional fitness in these circumstances means building up weak points and decreasing stress on overused areas. This can be done by teaching your muscles to activate better, loosening or lengthening muscles and connective tissues, or using a targeted exercise program to build strength and balance out poor posture.

Some of the most common scenarios we see:

  • Too much sitting: Your desk job, meeting, car/bus/train commute – all of these things create excessive tension and shortness at the front of the hips and thighs, which can be a major (eventual) contributor to lower back pain. Stretch out the hip flexors and quads to regain that length and take pressure off the lower back.
  • Too much computer: Any screen time falls into this category, including tablets and smartphones. The forward postures that go along with this shortens the front of the shoulders and over-stretches the muscles of the upper back, leading to the neck and shoulder tension you are likely way too familiar with. As with the hips, stretching through the front of the chest and shoulders is a good start. I’d also recommend doubling up with a deep tissue massage (aka remedial massage) through the entire upper body, as this will help the tissues stretch much more easily and (added bonus) will actually get you feeling better fast!
  • Not enough movement in general: Many, many people have swapped physical stress for mental and emotional stress. We work too much, our leisure activities often involve the TV or computer, and there’s little actual need for movement. But even just 10 minutes of low-intensity movement (going for a walk or playing with the dog, or even doing household chores) can help decrease stress and counterintuitively, can give you a great energy boost!

Not sure what your functional fitness needs might be? Ask one of our expert coaches below to have your answer featured on a future post!