Aging Gracefully Blog

Archive for August, 2010

Exercise for the End of Summer

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I'll be spending the next two weeks in Cleveland with my mother, and I have great plans for both of us in terms of exercise.  My mother is 92 and I'm eager to work with her on upper body strength and flexibility.  As for me, I look forward to getting into a regular running routine.

We share breakfast at a table by a window with a panoramic view of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Lake Erie in the distance.  Sitting opposite each other, I'm able to take her through exercises for her arms and shoulders using light weights.  Upper body strength is so important in getting through the day with ease, and we've all had moments when we realize we could be doing better.  My mother mentioned recently that she wasn't able to organize her closet because she was having difficulty lifting some of the boxes in it.  She hasn't been doing her weights lately, so it's definitely time to get back on the program. 

Stretching is also important for my mother because she has become a little stooped with age and from relying on a walker for stability.  So after the weight training, we do a series of stretches that she loves.  It feels so good to sit up tall, stretch the sides of the torso and lift the chest, arching the upper back gently.  Then we do some specific stretches for the muscles of the arms and shoulders that we worked with weights.  By the time we're done, Mom is absolutely beaming.

For myself, I put on my running shoes and in less than five minutes I'm jogging around the lagoon in front of the art museum.  I do four laps, incorporating some stairs along the way.  Afterwards I do a full body stretch in the park outside my mother's building and in less than a half hour I'm done.  It's a great way to fit in a daily run, which is difficult in my normal work schedule. 

We both start the day feeling virtuous and smiling!

Enjoy the last of summer and I'll be back on the blog after Labor Day.

S.U.S.= Secret Code for Posture

Monday, August 16th, 2010

When I was growing up, my mother and I shared a secret code for posture.  S.U.S. meant "Stand Up Straight" and I seemed to need constant reminders.  I still think a lot about posture.

Last week, I mentioned that the back extension is an easy exercise to help you straighten up.  I described a version of it that you can do seated or standing, which is very handy when you're working at a desk or bending over baby strollers all day long.

However, the prone back extension or "Press Up" is even more effective for strengthening the spine since you perform it while lying face down on the floor.  The reason for this is that when your back is parallel to the floor, the force of gravity exerts more direct resistance on the spinal muscles.  They have to work harder to extend or lift the spine and that makes them stronger.

Elongating the spine before you lift up is the trick to executing this movement successfully.  Lengthening the torso will reduce the risk of compression in the low back.  You should be pain- free before you try the exercise, and you should proceed cautiously to avoid creating any strain.  The only sensation you should feel is the muscles of the low back tightening as they work.

1)  To begin, lie face down on the floor with a folded towel under your forehead to ensure proper alignment of the head and neck with the spine.  Bend your arms and rest your forearms on the floor, palms down.  Contract your abdominals to support the low back.

2)  Lengthen the spine by reaching forward with the top of the head.  Draw your shoulder blades down and together.  Exhale as you lift your head and shoulders off the floor, without using any strength from your arms.  Keep your nose down. Pause at the top, then inhale and slowly return to the start position without resting.  Repeat 10 times.  Try to build up to two sets of 10.

Remember:  S.U.S!!

Straighten Up with 3 Simple Exercises for Posture

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

I've been very conscious of posture lately, mainly because I see so many people who could improve theirs.  A combination of tight muscles, stiff joints and lack of awareness takes a toll on posture and adds years to one's appearance.  When a dancer friend of mine was complimented on his posture, he said, "It's not by accident.  I work on it all the time."

Personally, I've also worked on improving my posture over the years.  You have to ingrain good habits while the musculoskeletal system (your muscles and bones) can respond to the training.  Over time, the elasticity of tendons, ligaments and joints decreases, making it harder to change established patterns.  The spine is one of the areas most vulnerable to osteoporosis. If the vertebral bones weaken and fracture, it can cause a permanent kyphosis or rounding of the mid-back.

Some small movements remind me to straighten up as I go about each day.  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.

To strengthen the muscles of the mid back, do "Ws":  Hold your arms out to your sides with the elbows bent to form a "W".  Inhale, then squeeze the shoulder blades down and together as you slowly let your breath out.  Repeat 10 times daily.  Retraining comes through repetition.

Do a back extension to strengthen the muscles that run the length of your spine so you stand taller and straighter.  The movement of arching backward also improves mobility in the upper and middle back.  Standing or sitting, place your hands on your buttocks below your waist. Take a deep breath and lengthen the torso.  Exhale and lift the chest up as you pull your elbows toward each other, causing the upper back to arch slightly.  Release back to center and repeat 5-10 times.

You can easily do these exercises any time, any where.  They're perfect to do while working at a desk.  Do them often, whenever you think of them and always remember to keep a mental image of yourself standing tall.

Next week I'll share one of my favorite floor exercises for posture.

Fitness Tips for a Summer Tune-Up

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Yes, it's hot and humid, a time to slow down and move at a leisurely pace.  But please don't let your body lapse into an activity coma during the lazy days of summer.  Remember Newton's first Law of Motion:  an object in motion will stay in motion; while an object at rest will stay at rest as long as nothing pushes or pulls on it.  Overcoming inertia is difficult!

Your normal exercise routine keeps you at a certain level of conditioning throughout the year.  Summer presents a welcome change of pace and scenery, as well as the opportunity to do some cross training with outdoor activities like tennis and swimming.  But falling off the wagon completely presents the challenge of major damage control in the fall. 

Here are a few of my own "Laws of Motion":

1)         Establish a Minimum Daily Requirement:  It takes a lot of effort to get into shape, but it doesn't take as much to stay in shape.  Brief doses of exercise done consistently over time have a dramatic effect on your health and fitness levels.  You can maintain the benefits of your hard work with a modicum of training and resume full speed in the fall.

2)         Develop a Maintenance Strategy:  For cardio maintenance, squeeze in the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least five days of the week.

For muscle maintenance, do the "4 for Life" bodyweight exercises every other day:  2 sets of 15 each of push ups, squats, back extensions and crunches.  And remember to stretch a little every day.

3)         Be an Opportunist:  Find opportunities to move in the course of your day.  One of my clients just finished a summer writing course. Her classes were on several floors of the building and she realized after the fact that she had missed her activity mark by taking the elevator.  She could have offset the hours of sitting in a classroom by using the stairs.

Think of each dose of exercise as a building block of fitness.  See how many 10 or 15-minute doses you can accumulate during the course of the day.  Enjoy your lazy days, but be sure to incorporate some activity to keep your body tuned and toned.