Aging Gracefully Blog

Posts Tagged ‘posture’

Can You Tone Up without Exercise?

Thursday, 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.


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
  • Other related posts:

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.

S-T-R-E-T-C-H it Out!

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

For most of my young life, I felt I was too tall – too tall for boys, too tall for heels, too tall to ever be called cute.  I was always in the back row of class photos and could never be inconspicuous. My posture suffered as I tried in vain to shrink down and blend in, which of course only made me more conspicuous.  A pronounced slump is clearly not attractive!

When my self-image finally "grew" into my height, I straightened up to claim my full 5'10 ½ inches.  Now at the age when loss of height can be an issue, I am conscious of maintaining my height and look forward to being measured at my annual physical.  While there is nothing we can do to stop the aging process, there are a number of things we can do to stay tall, including working on posture and alignment, ensuring the health of our skeleton, and of course, stretching out our muscles.

Stretching is one third of a well-rounded workout (the other two being aerobic exercise and strength training).  After you've been contracting the muscles repeatedly in your aerobic workout – walking, running, cycling, swimming, etc. – it's important to lengthen them out by stretching.  The same principle applies to strength training:  after the muscles have been contracting against resistance, they need to be stretched out to their full length.  Short, bunchy muscles will never give you a long, lean line.

Your workout is not over until after you've finished stretching!  I always allow five or ten minutes after my run to do a full-body stretch.  Although running primarily involves the legs, the upper body and core are also integral to the movement.  I perform the stretches as part of my cool-down in the park or outside my building, knowing that if I come back inside I may get distracted and skip them.

It's advisable to stretch every day, even on days you don't exercise.  Take a lesson from your pet dog or cat and notice that they stretch periodically throughout the day.  You can move your joints to help wake up in the morning and get your circulation going.  Or take a few minutes in the evening in order to counteract the demands of your daily activities and discharge tension from the muscles. 

And definitely make it a point to conclude every workout with appropriate stretches for the muscles you used.  Lengthening the muscles will help keep you tall and straight.  Being flexible makes you agile and keeps your movements fluid and youthful.