Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The joy of flexibility

Like most girls, I first started stretching in gym class. I remember my gym teacher saying "It's important to stay flexible," and although I didn't know why, I dutifully stretched. As I was a fan of gymnastics and ballet during junior high and high school, I did a lot of stretching in association with those pursuits as well. Fast forward to college and beyond, and my stretching almost completely fell to the wayside.

I didn't notice too much of a difference because I wasn't particularly athletic and my primary form of exercise was walking. But I was losing range of motion little by little and sometimes experiencing muscle pain. By the time I was in my late 40s, I was stiff and found it difficult to bend down and to twist my head back. When I stretched my arm back to get something behind me I would sometimes pull a muscle. As I was also 40-plus pounds overweight, I basically felt like a sluggish lump. I attributed my fatigue, aching muscles, and limited range of motion to the natural process of getting older.

What I didn't realize was that more than getting older, my lack of flexibility and aching muscles were caused by disuse. I wasn't moving very much all day long. Primarily I sat at my desk for hours and did a bit of walking here and there. Back then, I didn't understand how weak and stiff muscles, ligaments and tendons can become unless they are challenged on a regular basis. (I get that now after studying anatomy and exercise physiology to become a personal trainer and group fitness instructor.)

I began stretching a bit more as well doing resistance and cardio exercises about eight years ago after I started on a healthy lifestyle and weight loss program. That helped some. But it wasn't until I started taking yoga that I really began to methodically stretch my entire body from my fingers to my toes. At first I was seriously stiff and had the least range of motion of anyone taking the class, but I kept with it.

Over time, my tendons and ligaments loosened up as my muscles became stronger. I regained the strength and flexibility I had in my 30s. Let me tell you right now, as I have said before, life is better when you're fit and flexible. During a flamenco show I attended after I regained flexibility, one of the dancers came to our table and asked me if I wanted to get up and learn how. Without thinking I jumped up and jumped right into it, shaking it with the best of them.

To continue drinking from this fountain of youth, I continue to work out, including stretching, consistently. I now teach yoga and other forms of senior fitness as well as practice it. Yoga has become part of my workout routine and part of how I train my clients and teach group exercise. Stretching makes me feel so good, I do it now not because I have to but because I want to. Just as I can't imagine not brushing my teeth every day, I can't imagine not stretching.

Attending yoga classes isn't the only way to add more stretching to your exercise regimen, but it's a simple and effective one. An excellent book on stretching for do-it-yourselfers is "Stretching" by Bob Anderson. It's thoroughly illustrated and includes stretches targeting various sports and activities.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Taking it slow and steady

Most of us get impatient when it comes to losing weight, toning up, building strength or other fitness goals. We typically want to make faster progress than is realistic. Consistently following a healthy diet and exercise program works magic, but it is slow-working magic.

When dieting, it can be pretty tempting to try short cuts such as using the latest diet-aid fad, skipping meals, or driving ourselves with extreme exercise. Unfortunately, most often such attempts at cheating nature end up setting us back on our health and fitness journey. I’ve definitely experienced that a time or two myself. Try to avoid falling for the short-cut trap, or if you fall in, climb out, dust yourself off and begin again with a wiser, more patient attitude.

One colleague I know who has tried to lose weight for more than six months has gained weight instead. She continues to set herself up for failure because she won’t recognize what she’s doing wrong or try a different strategy. She severely restricts her calories during the day because she’s “dieting” but then she has strong food cravings at night and compulsively binges. If she ate enough during the day, properly fueling her body with healthy foods, including a balance of lean protein, veggies, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, she likely wouldn’t be famished and binge at night. She would end up eating fewer calories.

The best way to promote weight loss is to keep your body fueled. Otherwise not only do you develop cravings, your body goes into “famine mode” and burns less calories. It’s important to address your hunger throughout the day. I keep a pack of peanuts or another healthy snack with me whenever I’m out so I can satisfy my hunger if need be rather than becoming ravenous and later shoveling in food indiscriminately.

Another woman I know who is trying to lose weight heard on television about the wonders of using green coffee bean extract to boost metabolism and assist in appetite suppression. I discouraged her from using a diet aid unless it was part of a reputable medical weight-loss program supervised by a physician. Unfortunately, soon after beginning to use the supplement she developed atrial fibrillation. While there is no way of knowing whether the caffeine (or some other substance) in the supplement precipitated her health condition, her doctor told her not to take it anymore because the effects of the supplement have not been thoroughly studied. Also, dietary supplements are not FDA approved and vary by manufacturer.

A third common mistake when it comes to short cuts is to overdo it with exercise to the point that you hurt yourself or give up on exercise. In part I blame cultural influences such as “The Biggest Loser” for making folks want to push themselves so hard. It’s best to start off slow and build your cardio, strength and flexibility over time. Listen to your body. When you first begin training especially you should be able to talk comfortably while you’re doing your cardio.

When I hear about gyms that provide a bucket to vomit in for those who are really pushing themselves, I truly believe we have become far too enamored with the boot camp approach. The reality is that it’s completely unnecessary to drive yourself that hard in order to get fit and/or lose weight. The bottom line: Research has proven that high intensity exercise leads to more injuries and higher exercise dropout rates. Why short cut your way to a set back? Like Aesop said, “Slow and steady wins the race."