Aging Gracefully Blog

Can You Tone Up without Exercise?

August 6th, 2015

No time for the gym or for routine workouts? Is it true, as Salma Hayek claims in People magazine, that you can stay toned and taut simply by "holding the body in a way that activates muscles all day"? If you have an active lifestyle, can you really skip regular exercise and still be healthy and fit?

It is true that once you have a foundation of fitness and the kinesthetic awareness of how to use your muscles, you can consciously activate them in your daily activities to engage the core, stabilize the shoulder blades, contract your glutes to squat, and your biceps to lift and carry. This is something we should all aim to do! You won't develop strength in the muscles but you can maintain a level of toning by contracting muscles at a low level of intensity. You'll also improve your posture, alignment and body mechanics.

Here's how:

  • To engage your core and flatten your belly, "zip up" your abs as if you were zipping up a tight pair of jeans. Pull your navel in toward your spine and then up, lifting the pelvic floor. This move trains the deep abdominal muscle that lies right under your jean zipper.
  • Stand up straight, rolling the shoulders down and back. Hold them there by engaging the muscles between the shoulder blades to anchor them and prevent a "forward slouch."
  • Sit without support, using your core muscles to keep your spine tall, ribs stacked over the hips.
  • When you bend and lift, use the large muscles of your legs – the glutes, quads and hamstrings – to squat down, keeping your back straight.
  • When you are leaning forward, practice the "hip hinge," bending forward from the hips and not the waist. Keep your spine straight instead of rounding the upper back.
  • Get up from any seated position without using your arms for support.
  • When you brush your teeth, stand on one leg for balance and feel the muscles of that leg working to support you, especially in the ankles. Do both legs or focus on the weaker one.

In terms of overall fitness, using these simple techniques can help maintain muscle tone; however, you are not conditioning your cardiovascular system which is a key component of good health. Even if you are very active during long work days, if you are not elevating your heart rate and breathing levels you will not improve the function of the heart and lungs. Cardio activity aids in reducing your risk of disease and adds energy, stamina and longevity to your life.  Plus it burns a lot of calories!

What else can you do if you have little to no time?  At minimum, you can do simple body weight exercises like squats, push ups and the plank to condition the muscles for greater endurance. For cardio, incorporate 10 minutes of fast walking or stair climbing throughout the day to accumulate at least 30 minutes most days of the week.

 

A Natural Mood Booster

June 24th, 2015

Aging Gracefully by Joan PaganoWhen you're down in the dumps, you may not feel like exercising, but maybe you should.  Studies show that even short bouts of exercise can boost your mood as effectively as medications, relieving anxiety and depression, and building resilience to stress in the future.

Changes in your brain are associated with depression and severe stress.  Low levels of certain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin result in loss of brain nerve cells, contributing to feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of interest in normal activities and ability to focus.

Antidepressants can raise the levels of brain chemicals to normalize them, but so does exercise.  As you work your heart and muscles, you release norepinephrine and serotonin into your blood stream and increase the levels in your brain.  By increasing circulation throughout the body, you also increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, making it perform better.

Working out can also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  The link between chronic stress and the potential for mood disorders is well-established.

Long term stress can actually contribute to shrinking volume in the brain, while depression is associated with loss of brain nerve cells and reduced blood circulation in the brain.

Exercise triggers a number of chemical chain reactions that help reverse some of the biological effects of depression. It can help:

  • Stimulate new nerve cell growth
  • Improve the network of fibers to strengthen communication between nerve cells, enhancing brain function
  • Increase blood flow to fuel brain activity
  • Activate the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory
  • Break down kynurenine, a substance that accumulates in the muscles as a result of stress

How much exercise do you need to beat the blues?  Most studies on exercise and depression have involved structured programs of cardio and strength training.  The combination of the two may be better than just cardio training.

If you are just getting started, aim for accumulating 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio activity for five days of the week and strength training sessions twice a week.  Remember, you can get your cardio in doses of 10 or 15 minute sessions throughout the day. 

For more on building resilience, please check out previous posts: 

http://www.joanpaganofitness.com/blog/2013/08/25/resilience-bouncing-back-with-spirit/

http://www.joanpaganofitness.com/blog/2013/09/07/seven-habits-of-highly-resilient-people/

 

Exercise Smarter, Not Harder

April 8th, 2015

Take a creative approach to exercise.  Not only is it fun to find innovative ways to shake up your normal routine, but all the body’s systems need to be surprised with diverse patterns of stress in order to continue to improve.  Use these simple tips to become more resourceful in your every day activities and watch your body redistribute as you shape up. 

Instead of doing the same old route when you're out for your usual walk/run, look for inclines to power up, stairs to hop down and places to throw in 20 jumping jacks.  By adding intervals of varying intensity, you are simultaneously building bone, tuning up your cardiovascular system and burning extra calories.

If your program is stale and needs rejuvenating, try something new.   Intervals of high intensity work can be adapted to resistance training as well as to cardio activity.  Try interspersing one minute of heart-pumping cardio into your strength training exercises.  You can use exercises like jumping rope, step-ups or running in place to keep your heart rate elevated. 

Use compound movements in your strength training. Combine upper and lower body actions to target 8-10 muscle groups for efficient toning and calorie expenditure.  For example, try combining a front lunge with a lat row, a squat with a biceps curl and calf raise, a plie with a shoulder raise. You improve your coordination and core stabilization in addition to getting a full-body workout in a shorter period of time.

Invent time-saving ways to fit exercise into your day-to-day.  If life intervenes and you can’t do your normal weight training session, at least do some exercises using your body weight, like push ups, squats, crunches and planks.  Do two sets of diagonal push ups after your walk/run, using a railing or back of a park bench for support. Practice balance by standing on one leg while brushing your teeth for two minutes.  Sit on a stability ball at your desk to add some core training as the muscles of the trunk work to keep you upright.

Ramp up your daily activities by becoming more creative in how you choose to exercise.  As you develop an active lifestyle in your daily routines, your body will thank you by becoming healthier and more energetic.  And the changes will be reflected in the way you wear your skinny jeans!

 (c) Copyright - Joan L. Pagano. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

 

 

Is Your Spine Bent Out of Shape?

March 7th, 2015

As you sit reading this, what is the shape of your spine?  Are you hunched over your computer, leaning on your desk or slumped back in a chair?  Daily postures can sabotage proper spinal alignment, but a few easy exercises help reinforce the natural curves of the spine, improving both your normal posture and your form in weight training exercises. 

 The natural curves of the spine:

  • serve to counteract the constant force of gravity on the body.
  • ensure that the joints work efficiently.
  • enhance body mechanics in all positions – standing, sitting, on all fours, moving.

 In neutral alignment the curves create a functional balance:  

  • two slight inward curves of the neck and low back
  • two slight outward curves of the mid-back and sacrum

When any of these curves becomes exaggerated it can cause strain in the joints, ultimately leading to headaches, neck and shoulder problems, sciatica, and hip and knee pain. When overloaded with weights, this can cause worse problems.

Get in the habit of doing these four simple exercises to improve your spinal alignment. You can even do them sitting at your desk.  Repeat each move 5-10 times daily. 

  • Lengthen the spine:  To restore and maintain the normal curves of the spine, try this "growing exercise." Take a deep breath, filling the belly with air, and gradually lengthen the spine as you lift the top of your head to the ceiling.  Think of elongating through the torso, stretching the space between the ribs and the hips, decompressing the spine.  Fluff up the chest by drawing the air up into the chest cavity. As you exhale, hold the height and stay tall.
  • Realign the head:  It is common to develop a forward head position from our daily activities.  The "neck press" strengthens the muscles of the neck and upper back and realigns the head over the shoulders.  Put two fingers on your chin.  Inhale, then as you exhale use your fingers as a cue to retract your chin, i.e. move it straight back, pressing the curve out of the back of your neck.  Keep your chin level being careful not to push it down. Release and repeat.
  • Anchor the shoulder blades:  When you're in the habit of slouching, your shoulder blades slide forward and apart exaggerating the curve of the mid-back.  "W's" activate the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades, an extremely important technique to use when doing upper body weight training.  Hold your arms out to the sides, palms forward, with the elbows bent and in line with the shoulders. To form a "W", inhale, then squeeze the shoulder blades down and together as you let your breath out slowly.  Hold for 2-3 seconds and repeat.
  •  Align the pelvis:  the position of the pelvis determines the degree of curve in the lumbar spine.  Neutral spine alignment is midway between a full arch and a flat back position. Explore your personal range of motion by tilting your pelvis forward and back. Return to a neutral position, allowing the slight curve in the low back area - just enough to slip your hand in if you are lying on your back or standing straight with your back against the wall. Tighten your abdominals to hold this position.
  • Video: Two Easy Exercises to Align the Spine http://www.joanpaganofitness.com/daily-video-tool-kit.html
  • Other related posts:  http://www.joanpaganofitness.com/blog/2010/08/16/s-u-s-secret-code-for-posture/

A Balancing Act

February 1st, 2015

Years ago there was an ad on TV that showed a woman putting on panty hose while standing up. My mother asked me then if I could do that and at the time, I could.  Now, however, when I try to wiggle into leggings and tights while balancing, it's a real challenge!

Our ability to balance peaks around age 20 and normally stays excellent through our early 40s.  From the mid-40s to early 70s, balance starts to deteriorate.  The changes are so subtle that most women are not aware of them.

After the mid-70s, loss of balance begins to affect our quality of life.  In the U.S., falls are the leading cause of injury for people over age 65.  In fact:

  • 25% of older people who fall and fracture a hip die within a year.
  • 80% have severe mobility problems causing a sudden loss of independence.

Balance is controlled by the brain's cerebellum, which is responsible for movement and coordination.  It's a complicated function involving vision, muscle strength, proprioception and attention.  With age, these elements deteriorate.

What are some of the risk factors for falling?

  • Muscle weakness:  balancing is directly related to the strength of our ankles, knees and hips
  • Muscle tightness and loss of agility
  • Arthritis of the knees (related to lack of joint mobility)
  • Previous falls
  • Age-related sensory changes, like slower reaction time, reduced vision
  • Changes in spinal alignment and center of gravity, e.g. bent-over posture of osteoporosis
  • Medications, e.g. for hypertension which can cause postural hypotension and dizziness

However, while certain declines with age are unavoidable, studies show that much of the sense of balance can be preserved and even restored through exercises that require no special equipment or training.

Test your balance:

  • Stork stance on one leg, eyes open, eyes closed
  • Tandem stance, on both legs as if on a tight rope, eyes open, eyes closed
  • Weight shift:  do a squat (weight back on your heels) followed by a calf raise (lifting up on the balls of your feet)

Easy ways to improve balance in daily life:

Can You Beat Belly Fat?

November 13th, 2014

If you are frustrated by stubborn belly fat, you're not alone!  It's a common aspect of menopause, affecting not only the way we feel and look in clothing, but also our health risk profile.  So what is the story:  Is there any way we can defeat it?

First, the facts.  In 2012 the International Menopause Society conducted a large review of decades of research and concluded that the hormonal shifts of menopause trigger a redistribution of body fat, causing it to accumulate in the abdomen.  Last year, researchers at the Mayo Clinic compared fat tissue in pre- and postmenopausal women and found that at the cellular level two enzymes that work to store fat were more active in the postmenopausal women, primarily because of the drop in estrogen.

While it's been documented that women gain an average of ten pounds as the metabolism slows down around the time of menopause, studies also show they can lose weight through diet and exercise.  As published in the journal Menopause in 2012, one study randomly assigned 17,000 postmenopausal women to either a control group or one that was put on a healthy diet emphasizing foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  After a year the healthy diet group had fewer hot flashes and was three times as likely to have lost weight.

Another study called the Women's Healthy Lifestyle Project followed 535 premenopausal women as they went through menopause.  About half of them were assigned to follow a low-calorie diet and to burn an extra 1000 to 1500 calories a week through physical activity.  After five years the women in the diet and exercise group saw greater reductions in their waist lines and were more likely to have remained at or below their starting weight.

So the proof is in the pudding!  We can beat belly fat by tightening our belts and increasing our exercise output.  Create a lifestyle routine to cut unnecessary calories, make healthy food choices, rev up your cardio in terms of both volume and intensity, and  lift weights to boost your metabolism.

(A reported by Anahad O'Connor in the Ask Well column of the NewYork Times, 4/1/14)