Aging Gracefully Blog

Archive for the ‘Aging and fitness’ Category

Stay on Your Feet: Reduce Your Risk of Falls

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

May is National Osteoporosis Awareness month. The bottom line of exercise for osteoporosis is to prevent falls and hip fractures, the most debilitating and life-altering type of fractures.  A combination of strengthening, stretching, and balance training is the perfect formula for fall prevention, and it can all be done 1-2-3!

Have you noticed that your balance is slipping with age?  Sometimes when I make a lateral move, like side-stepping to avoid something, I go off balance and swerve a bit. I definitely look tipsy and feel embarrassed!

Our ability to balance peaks at around age 20 and normally remains excellent through our early to mid-40s, after which it begins a subtle process of deterioration.  It happens so slowly that it is almost imperceptible, but the fact is that the neurotransmitters that coordinate balance deteriorate with age.

The good news is that balance improves with training, both with strength training and with specific balance training.  The first gains in a strength training program are neuromuscular, creating a new integration between the brain and the body.  As you learn proper form to coordinate the movements, the signals to the brain create growth, first in the pathways to the brain and then to the muscles and joints directly. 

The neuromuscular stimulus results in quicker reaction time, the ability to recover from a stumble or to change direction.  Our balance centers – eyes, ears and feet – work together to sense imbalance and correct the course.  As the muscles get stronger, especially in the lower body, we become more stable and more able to prevent a fall or an injury.

Specific balance training is also very effective.  If you are just starting to work on balance, try this simple stork stance to determine which leg is more stable.  Stand on one leg, fixing your eyes on something in front of you. Engage your core muscles by drawing your belly button in toward your spine.  When you can hold the position for 30 seconds, try closing your eyes (or one eye) to increase the level of difficulty.  When you switch legs, note the difference between the two sides, which can be quite dramatic.

Next, add movement for dynamic balance, such as doing a "tight-rope" walk on the floor.  Walk heel-to-toe in a straight line.  Again, it helps to keep your eyes focused on something in front of you instead of looking down since the eyes are one of your balance centers.  Maintain proper alignment, holding your torso upright, chest lifted, eyes straight ahead. 

The next challenge to your equilibrium moves you from a stable surface, the floor, to an unstable one such as a stability ball.  You can sit, lie, or place your feet on top of the ball to create instability.  Just sitting on it requires continual adjustments:  the ball activates the muscles of your feet, legs, hips, and spine to maintain your balance.  Some schools in Europe have replaced chairs with balls in classrooms to improve posture and activity levels in children. I use one myself for a desk chair.

Your balance will improve with practice.  Do strength training exercises to enhance your mind-body connection and to build stability in the large muscles of the legs.  Then do specific exercises to challenge your balance and create symmetry between the two sides of your body. You'll reduce your risk of falling and prevent a possible injury.

Watch this video to see a simple way to strengthen your ankles, stretch your legs and practice balance.

Video: 1-2-3 Calf Raise, Leg Stretches, Balance

Joan Pagano demonstrating calf raise

Joan Pagano is a member of the National Osteoporosis Foundation Ambassador Leadership Council. She is the former trainer to Jacqueline Onassis and Caroline Kennedy, a best-selling author, a speaker on health and fitness topics and the owner of Joan Pagano Fitness in New York City.  For more about Joan and her services, please visit www.joanpaganofitness.com

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

Miracle-Gro for the Brain

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Flex your mental muscle with exercise!  Physical fitness provides powerful protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s. While it is true that your brain changes as you grow older, cognitive decline is not inevitable with age. Studies examining exercise and brain health have clearly established links among physical activity, cardiovascular fitness, weight training, mental function and brain plasticity.  They have found that the dynamic nature of the brain is responsive to lifestyle, including whether and how you exercise.

Studies show that both aerobic exercise and strength training can beneficially change the structure of the brain and produce improvements in memory, while being inactive may lessen mental capacity. And here’s even more reason to get moving now:  Those who are most fit at midlife have a substantially lower risk of developing dementia later in life than those who are not physically active.

The brain retains plasticity, or the capacity to be reshaped, throughout our lifetimes, i.e. it continues to be able to change physically, functionally and chemically as long as we live. The more "plastic" the brain becomes, the more it can reorganize itself, modifying the number and strength of connections between nerve cells and different brain areas. Plasticity in the brain is important for learning, memory and motor skill coordination. 

Aerobic exercise jump-starts that process, cutting your lifetime risk of Alzheimer's in half and the risk of general dementia by 60 percent.  Even one 30-minute session of vigorous cardio activity has been shown improve the brain's plasticity. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, triggering the release of a chemical (brain-derived neurotrophic factor also known as "Miracle-Gro for the brain") that stimulates activity in the hippocampus, the area involved in memory, learning and the ability to plan and make decisions.  It also repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, which connect brain cells.

In general, older people require more of the brain's resources to complete the same tasks that young people do with less cognitive effort.  These are high-level mental tasks that require attention, problem-solving, and decision making.  However, the brain of an older person who is aerobically fit acts like a younger brain; much as a fit body is more efficient in performing the same physical task than one which is less fit.

As you pump up your muscles, you also pump up your brain volume.  Muscles, like brains, tend to shrink with age, affecting how you move.  One study looked at how changes in gait with aging could indicate declines in brain health. It found that after a year of twice-weekly light weight-training sessions, the participants had less shrinkage of the brain and walked more quickly than those who only trained once a week or just did stretching and balance twice a week.

So how much exercise should you aim for to keep your brain sharp?  Brisk walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week and light weight training twice a week have both been shown to be enough exercise to boost the brain.  For simple tips on at-home strength training exercises, please visit www.joanpaganofitness.com

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

 

 

 

Dangerous Curves: Simple Steps to Reverse the Forward Slouch

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Your posture speaks louder than words!  “A slouching posture tends to suggest a certain laziness of character…whereas an upright posture can confirm a sense of self-possession,” according to Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

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 moves help reinforce the natural curves of the spine, improving both your normal posture and your form in weight training exercises. 

In neutral alignment four natural 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

They help counteract the constant force of gravity on the body, ensure that your joints work efficiently and enhance your body mechanics in all positions – sitting, standing and moving.

However, 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.

Good and poor posture are both habits that develop from repeated movement patterns. To re-train your spinal curves, get in the habit of doing these four simple exercises. 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 ta

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

Improving posture requires a conscious effort and begins with developing the mental awareness of how to hold the natural curves of the spine.  As a result, you will not only avoid pain and strain, but you’ll also project a proud, confident personality, or in Count Rostov’s words “confirm a sense of self-possession.”

Video: Two Easy Exercises to Align the Spine http://www.joanpaganofitness.com/daily-video-tool-kit.html

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

 

 

 

Strength Training by the Decade

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Mother and daughter doing push-ups

Strength training sculpts the contours of your body and strengthens the bones within. By building lean body mass,it boosts your metabolism and your energy levels, making you resistant to the slow-down that occurs with age. A well-designed exercise program that includes weight training will impact your weight, health, fitness and well-being for decades to come.

At 20: A 20-year-old woman who does not lift weights will lose about 6 pounds of muscle and gain 5 pounds of fat by age 50. This means that even if you maintain your scale weight perfectly over time, subtle changes are occurring in your body composition that can affect your health and appearance.

At 30:Strengthening the muscles benefits the bones as well. Now is the time to put "bone in the bank" to fortify against the natural loss of bone that occurs gradually with age.  By age 25 to 30 you’ve achieved your peak bone mass, the highest bone content you’ll have in your lifetime. Although bone continues to renew itself, from this time on you will experience a natural decline in bone density that accelerates at the time of menopause before leveling off again.

At 40: Turning 40 is a wake-up call as many women begin to notice changes in their bodies that sound the alarm. You may be perplexed by creeping weight gain and stubborn belly fat. At around age 40, most women start to lose bone and muscle mass causing a decrease in metabolism of about 5% every decade. The slower metabolic rate contributes to mid-life weight gain when you eat the same amount of food but don't burn all the calories consumed. Strength training revs up the metabolism by maintaining muscle.

At 50: What causes midlife belly? The average weight gain during perimenopause is 10 pounds, and there is a natural tendency to store fat in the abdominal area. The combination of age, hormones, and stress all contribute to belly fat. With age, a woman's level of estrogen declines and the male hormone testosterone becomes more prominent. This causes fat to migrate to the gut from other parts of the body. Stress reaction has a similar effect on fat distribution as it releases another hormone, cortisol, which also encourages fat storage in the belly. Women who lift weights gain less abdominal fat than those who don't.

At 60, 70 and beyond: Sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength, causes a generalized slow-down. Between the ages of 50 and 70, women lose almost 30% of overall strength, with dramatic losses after age 70. The fast twitch muscle fibers shrink in size, causing not only a loss of muscle mass, but also a loss of power and energy levels. With advancing age, it becomes more critical to preserve your  "functional independence" as measured by your ability to perform all your day-to-day activities, which together comprise a lifestyle. 

Strength training is the key factor in an active aging process. Strong people are more able-bodied and self-sufficient. Studies show that lifting weights can improve your quality of life into your 80s and 90s. Steady exercise can help recover lost vitality, reverse physical frailty, and manage chronic health problems like osteoporosis, glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. You are never too old to begin a weight-training program and the sooner you start, the longer you benefit.

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

Stay Supple with Stretching

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Inevitably with time, things change. You feel a bit stiffer in the mornings; your joints are a little creaky; a glimpsed reflection in a Cat stretchingwindow reveals you're not as straight as you thought.  Decreased flexibility may be a common aspect of aging, but it is one that you can do something about, no matter what your age. 

Just a few minutes of daily stretching can help maintain flexibility, which in turn keeps the muscles supple and counteracts the wear and tear of everyday life, allowing you to maintain a youthful appearance and active lifestyle. By enhancing your mobility, stretching increases your efficiency in all activities so that they require less effort and leave you feeling less tired.

Your ability to stretch depends on genetics as well as your daily habits.  The unique structure of bones and the length of the soft tissue (muscles, tendons and ligaments) surrounding them determine the joints' range of movement.  Some joints, like those affected by arthritis, may be "stiff" or restricted; others like those of a contortionist, "loose" or hypermobile.

The constant downward pull of gravity and gradual dehydration of the body's tissues cause us literally to shrink over time, but stretching can help by lengthening the muscles.  There is a natural tendency for some muscles to be short and tight, while others are prone to being long and weak.

Stretching can help offset this imbalance and improve the alignment, as in the "forward slouch." This is a typical posture of aging:  upper back rounded, shoulders hunched, and the head forward of the body. The remedy is to stretch the chest and shoulders and re-align the head by strengthening the neck and back muscles.

Poor posture and alignment can cause pain when the muscles become chronically tired and strained and more prone to injury. Headache, neck and shoulder tension, sciatica, low back, hip and knee pain can all be symptoms of this. In addition, shortened muscles are more at risk for injury caused by simple movements. 

Here are easy stretches you can do throughout the day:

Gentle Morning Limbering:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0cYeDANUwk

At-Work Desk Stretches:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE-uuiZnChM

End-of-Day Couch Stretches  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prLmMmObous

See more simple exercises you can do around the house in my Daily Video Tool Kit.

Is Your Spine Bent Out of Shape?

Saturday, 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/