Aging Gracefully Blog

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)

Strength Training Prevents Lymphedema

October 26th, 2014

It's time to update your thinking about preventing lymphedema, a possible side effect of breast cancer treatments that causes a painful swelling of the arm.  A current study shows that strength training exercises can actually reduce the risk of developing this unwelcome complication, improve symptoms if they develop, and prepare women to return to their normal day-to-day activities.

Traditionally, women have been advised against lifting weights and performing repetitive arm movements like scrubbing, pushing and pulling.  While some women altered their lifestyles out of fear of triggering an episode, many others were not able to abide by the old restrictions because of their normal physical demands such as picking up a child, carrying a laptop, or doing housework.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2009, found that weight lifters had fewer problems because they had better muscle tone and endurance.  The program of progressive weightlifting exercises gradually increased the physical capacity of the affected arm in a controlled setting, making it less likely that daily activities that require upper body strength would overstress the impaired lymphatic system.

In the study, the women worked out twice a week for one year.  In addition to the upper body exercises, they also did a cardiovascular warm up, stretching, and abdominal, back and lower body exercises.  Stretches should focus on the chest and shoulders, since tightness in the pectoral area and decreased shoulder mobility can both interfere with normal lymph drainage.  It is important to restore full range of motion in these areas before starting to strengthen them.

Not surprisingly, at the end of a year the women in the exercise group showed an increase in strength over the control group.  More surprisingly, in that time only nine exercisers had a flare up as opposed to nineteen non-exercisers.  Furthermore, the weight-lifters experienced fewer and less severe symptoms.   Some of the additional stated benefits were improvements in mobility, balance and coordination.

 Safety Guidelines for Strength Training: 

1)         Always check with your doctor before becoming much more physically active than you are now.

2)         If you have lymphedema, talk with your doctor to make sure that your lymphedema is stable (i.e. you haven’t had new problems in the last three months).

3)         Wear a custom-fitted compression sleeve while exercising.

4)         Consult with a certified exercise professional regarding proper weight lifting techniques.

5)         Start slowly and progress gradually. Stop if you have pain, increased swelling or discomfort.

6)         In the event of a flare up, have an evaluation by a lymphedema specialist and wait untilthe flare subsides before resuming lifting. 

Of course, this information should not take the place of guidance from your own physician or other medical professional. 

 

 

 

 

Active Lifestyle Reduces Risk of Breast Cancer

October 12th, 2014

As we become more aware of the role that exercise plays in managing our risk factors for developing breast cancer and/or preventing a recurrence, it becomes apparent that being active is one of the top ways to avoid this disease.

Hundreds of studies show that getting exercise and avoiding weight gain can lower your risk of developing breast cancer.  Most studies see a benefit at 30 minutes of walking a day. One large study by the American Cancer Society study tracked 72,000 postmenopausal women for 5 years and found that the most active women - those who engaged in activities like walking, running, swimming, tennis, biking, aerobics and dancing- had a 29% lower risk of breast cancer than the least active. 

How is exercise protective?  In postmenopausal women, since the ovaries are no longer producing estrogen, the main source of estrogen is fat cells.  Reducing body weight and body fat with exercise decreases the amount of circulating estrogen that could stimulate breast-cell growth.   Being heavy increases your risk by as much as 40%.  One study showed that women who gained more than 20 pounds after age 18 had a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer than women who gained no more than 5 pounds.

 If you have been exercising and you do develop breast cancer, you will be better prepared to tolerate the treatments.  It's important to keep a positive mind set for getting through the treatment and think about living a healthy life afterward.  You want to create a positive mental environment for your body where it will be nurtured and thrive.

 

 

Happiness Improves Fitness

September 13th, 2014

The mind-body connection continues to amaze.  New research reveals a connection between happiness and increased fitness in older adults.  A large study of men and women aged 60 and older suggests that enjoyment of life contributes to a healthier and more active old age, as well as to a longer life.

Most of us share goals of remaining independent, keeping mentally sharp and staying as mobile as possible as we age.  Researchers at University College London conducted the study to discover whether a positive outlook is related to reduced physical impairment over a period of eight years.  They collected data on:

  • physical health
  • walking speed and mobility
  • depression
  • enjoyment of life
  • and levels of impairment in daily activities

Their findings showed strong associations between physical function and life enjoyment. Older people who enjoy life are at lower risk of developing problems with daily activities and for declines in physical function. Once again, a positive mental attitude contributes to a healthy body.

The study, as reported in Idea Fitness Journal, May 2014, is available in Canadian Medical Association Journal (2014;doi: 10.1503/cmaj.131155).

For more posts on this topic, please see:

Get Fit Now!  Midlife Fitness Predicts Healthy Old Age

Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People

A Tribute to a Special Woman