Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Health

Happy Holidays Everyone!

While most people have vacation time during the holiday season, the massage business is busy(and that's great, thanks!)  People treat themselves or a friend, try a new therapist, or maybe spend the last of their HSA funds.  The New Year finds many people resolving to take better care of their health as well, and I'm here to help.

This morning I had the inspiration for today's topic: Getting out of bed.  Since lots of you don't have to rush to work for the next week or so, this is a great time to add a new morning habit(after sleeping in, of course.)  Don't worry- it's easy, quick, and feels good.

While you sleep, the joints and muscles get a little stiffer, with less lubricating(synovial) fluid between the bones, various bits of new collagen healing points of micro-trauma in muscles and fascia, and extra fluid swelling the inter-vertebral disks in the spine making it more prone to strain.  All this means the body needs to ease into action gradually to help avoid causing, or delaying the healing, of an injury.  In fact, I have both heard from clients and read that early morning is the most frequent time for back injury.

To get started with less risk, do some gentle back mobilization before jumping out of bed.  Note that mobilizing doesn't mean stretching, it means moving within a comfortable range without force.  While still lying down, tilt the hips side to side and forward and back a few times in each direction.  Raise one knee at a time and do a few small circles with the leg bent.  Roll onto your side and push yourself to sitting- don't do a sit-up.  Do a few circles with the spine in each direction, shifting your weight from side to side.

At this point, if you have pain on the bottom of the foot caused by plantar fasciitis, firmly roll a small ball under the foot(I'll give more details later, or on request.)

Stand, do a few hip circles, and start walking.  Many people like to stretch immediately when they get up, but it is much better to move around for 30 minutes or more first. (For those with plantar fasciitis, do stretch the calves before walking.)  I like to make coffee and go onto my balcony and water the plants, or give it a good sweeping, then do my deeper morning stretches.

Going out to the garden may not be possible for many people, but the point is to walk around before stretching.  And before starting to doing that walking, do some mobilizing while still in bed.  The whole routine takes only a minute or two.

Enjoy your time off, and sleeping in, and mellow that harsh wake-up with a healthful mobilizing routine.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Becoming Aware: Facebook and The Turkish Get Up

Hello, Facebook!

I now have a business page on Facebook to reach out to that community, and I encourage readers to use the "fan" function to share it with their friends.

I've been trying a new exercise which is proving very educational.  It has the amusing name "Turkish Get Up(TGU)" and is great for breaking up a routine and building full body strength, coordination, and balance.  Here's a detailed description from Palo Alto kettlebell master Jordan Vizina and a shorter one here, but briefly, you lie on the floor with a weight in one hand, and stand up.  A very simple, fundamental act, but doing it while holding up a kettlebell or dumbbell creates a surprising challenge.

The weight has to be balanced straight overhead while you move underneath it, and getting out of the supine position takes a lot more strength and agility than you might think.  Combining movements in multiple directions is required, and suddenly you discover that almost all weight lifting exercises you know work the body in very, very, limited ways.  The TGU is done slowly, giving you time to observe yourself.  You become more aware of your body's capabilities, and you become aware of the difference between training for functional strength, and bodybuilding to enlarge a few favorite muscles.

Awareness is a central theme of all the various health and fitness topics of this blog.  Exercising while conscious of what your body is doing, choosing exercises that require focus such as Olympic lifts or balancing on an unstable surface, and not mindlessly using the same simple machines and movements every workout are aspects of awareness.  Yoga is fantastic for developing awareness of your body and the fine details of how each part is aligned and connected and learning to control them.  Receiving massage makes a person aware of areas that may be tight or holding stress, but have been a problem for so long they seem normal.  (And the best therapists are those who develop a facility for being aware of their clients' condition.)

Being aware of what it is you eat leads to eating healthful food. Many people deliberately ignore what they are eating, consuming marketing instead of food. Growing and cooking for yourself, buying produce not products, and considering how what is on your plate got there will all inspire more healthful eating. Awareness of nutrition also helps of course.

Posture is another realm where awareness- of your body, of what are good ways  to stand and sit and move -is critical.  You always have a posture, 24/7, unlike exercise or eating which happen only for brief periods, so improvement requires a ready and habitual awareness.

Good therapists, trainers, and teachers provide an external perspective, and bring to your awareness things that aren't obvious from within.  Mediocre ones correct without teaching, and poor ones just go through the routine.

So now I work on making the Facebook community aware of me, and I hope I can bring a bit of health awareness to them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fit Brain addendum -Obesity

Obesity isn't a normal topic for this blog, but this latest research showing its negative influence on the brain coincides with my last post so well I'm including it.

More Obesity Blues: Obese People Are At Greater Risk For Developing Alzheimer's, Study Finds
They found that obese people had 8 percent less brain tissue than people with normal weight, while overweight people had 4 percent less tissue. According to Thompson, who is also a member of UCLA's Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, this is the first time anyone has established a link between being overweight and having what he describes as "severe brain degeneration."
University of California - Los Angeles. "More Obesity Blues: Obese People Are At Greater Risk For Developing Alzheimer's, Study Finds." ScienceDaily 25 August 2009
There is a long list of health problems caused or exacerbated by being overweight, to which brain degeneration can be added.  The good thing, the really great thing, is that the treatment for obesity- better diet and more exercise, is good for the other aspects of your health at the same time.  Isn't the body amazing?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Fit Brain

Everyone reading this blog is already convinced of the importance of exercise and good nutrition to maintain a strong, healthy body.  But what about your brain?  And what about those people who think of themselves as beings of pure intellect, unconcerned with their physical bodies?  Do they have a logical reason to exercise and eat right?
For some time, researchers have known that exercise changes the structure of the brain and affects thinking. Ten years ago scientists at the Salk Institute in California published the groundbreaking finding that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells...
...elderly people were assigned a six-month program of either stretching exercises or brisk walking. The stretchers increased their flexibility but did not improve on tests of cognition. The brisk walkers did.
The New York Times, September 16, 2009

  Aerobic Activity May Keep The Brain Young
ScienceDaily (June 30, 2009) — New research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine finds that aerobic activity may keep the brain young.
University of North Carolina School of Medicine. "Aerobic Activity May Keep The Brain Young."
Exercise Increases Brain Growth Factor And Receptors, Prevents Stem Cell Drop In Middle Age
ScienceDaily (Nov. 27, 2008) — A new study confirms that exercise can reverse the age-related decline in the production of neural stem cells in the hippocampus of the mouse brain, and suggests that this happens because exercise restores a brain chemical which promotes the production and maturation of new stem cells.
American Physiological Society (2008, November 27). Exercise Increases Brain Growth
Exercise helps brains bounce back
CHICAGO — A toned, buff bod isn’t the only thing a workout is good for. Exercise protects special brain cells in monkeys’ brains and improves motor function, a new study finds.  The data, presented at a news briefing October 18 in Chicago at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, adds to a growing body of evidence that shows exercise is good for the brain, too.
Exercise Helps Prevent Age-related Brain Changes In Older Adults
ScienceDaily (Dec. 2, 2008) — Older adults who exercise regularly show increased cerebral blood flow and a greater number of small blood vessels in the brain, according to findings presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
Radiological Society of North America (2008, December 2). Exercise Helps Prevent Age-related Brain Changes In Older Adults.

Fitness And Childhood IQ Indicators Of Cognitive Ability In Old Age

ScienceDaily (Oct. 12, 2006) — How well your mind works in old age depends on physical fitness and your IQ score as a child...
"...the study found physical fitness has a greater impact on cognitive ability in old age than childhood IQ."
"The important result of the study is that fitness contributes to better cognitive ability in old age," says Deary. "Thus, two people starting out with the same IQ at age 11, the fitter person at age 79 will, on average, have better cognitive function."

American Academy of Neurology. "Fitness And Childhood IQ Indicators Of Cognitive Ability In Old Age."

Alzheimer's Researchers Find High Protein Diet Shrinks Brain
ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2009) — One of the many reasons to pick a low-calorie, low-fat diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and fish is that a host of epidemiological studies have suggested that such a diet may delay the onset or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Now a study published in BioMed Central's open access journal Molecular Neurodegeneration tests the effects of several diets, head-to-head, for their effects on AD pathology in a mouse model of the disease. Although the researchers were focused on triggers for brain plaque formation, they also found that, unexpectedly, a high protein diet apparently led to a smaller brain.
BioMed Central (2009, October 21). Alzheimer's Researchers Find High Protein Diet Shrinks Brain.
Low-carb Diets Can Affect Dieters' Cognition Skills
ScienceDaily (Dec. 15, 2008) — A new study from the psychology department at Tufts University shows that when dieters eliminate carbohydrates from their meals, they performed more poorly on memory-based tasks than when they reduce calories, but maintain carbohydrates. When carbohydrates were reintroduced, cognition skills returned to normal.
Tufts University (2008, December 15). Low-carb Diets Can Affect Dieters' Cognition Skills.
Let's review: Physical exercise makes you smarter, and for longer in life.  It's best when started young, but helpful at any age.  Plenty of carbs boosts the brain, and too much meat shrinks it.

Here's the best part:  The same exercises that improve your brain will make you fit below the neck at the same time.  There is no duality, no reductionism, no body part isolation, and no being of pure intellect.

A hat tip to the brilliant Chip Conrad at Bodytribe Fitness for leading me to the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain which I haven't read yet, but promises to inspire more posts on the topic.

For the curious, the Man From Tomorrow image is from the original Outer Limits TV show.  I couldn't find a proper attribution to give, but the show was awesome.

In other news, more from the NYT about my favorite vitamin(actually a hormone), previously blogged about  here and here:

Vitamin D Shows Heart Benefits in Study
Got vitamin D? It may protect you from heart disease.

Vitamin D, of milk fame, is known for helping with calcium absorption and for building strong bones, which is why it’s routinely added to milk. But there is more and more evidence that vitamin D is a critical player in numerous other aspects of metabolism. A new study suggests many Americans aren’t getting anywhere nearly enough of
the vitamin, and it may be affecting their heart health.
The New York Times, September 16, 2009
I like to think of vitamin D as being of sunshine, not milk, fame though.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thoughts on Stretching

This week I added another stretch to the Self Care page of my business website Positive Massage Therapy. The stretch targets the hip flexors and the front of the torso.  I won't repeat the details here, instead I will give some background explanation on my stretching recommendations.

My suggestions are made in the context of my massage practice, with many clients who suffer from long hours sitting at a computer but have limited time or inclination for stretching at their workplace.  The principles generally apply to everyone though.

Some important considerations are:
  • Compliance is everything.  Stretches not done don't help
  • Do therapeutically beneficial stretches, not just any stretches, or stretches because they feel good 
  • The greatest need to stretch is to counteract the position of sitting at a desk and reaching forward
  • The most important time to stretch is as a break from a period of immobility
  • Frequency of stretching is more important than duration, i.e. many short breaks are better than the same amount of time in fewer breaks
  • People, their employers, and the work culture discourage too much deviation from doing work
In summary, the idea is to recommend the stretches that will help the most and have the best chance of being implemented.

Nota Bene:
Sitting and reaching forward shortens certain muscles- those are the ones that need stretched.  Sitting and reaching forward lengthens certain muscles- those should NOT be stretched.

To achieve better compliance by fitting into the work culture I try to suggest stretches that can be done in office attire, without lying down or requiring any special space or equipment.  Stretches that can be done next to the desk are best.  This is not because moving around wouldn't be very healthful, but that simplicity and brevity make compliance more likely.  Also the emphasis on frequency includes more movement out of the sitting position as well as setting up a particular stretch.

An additional factor helping with compliancy(remember, compliancy is everything) is to approach stretching as a habit integrated into existing routine instead of as an exception.

In future posts I'll elaborate on the types of stretching and stretching in an athletic context.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Special: Scary Inventions

While I strive to be cheery and upbeat here, considering the present holiday I feel it appropriate to mention a few scary things related to fitness.  Reader discretion is advised.

Nautilus Machines and Other Mechanical Marvels
In ancient times people exercised by picking up rocks and swinging on vines, and they were very fit.  Then fancy scientific exercise machines were invented, with pulleys and gears and a padded seat on which to rest, and everyone got weak and flabby.  Fortunately kettlebells and Olympic Rings(and TRX) have been invented, based on prehistoric cave drawings, and fitness is again possible.

The Remote Control
People think that television is a problem, but really it's the remote. Think about it- before the remote, when someone channel surfed, it was jump up, run to the TV, change the channel, run back to the laz-y boy, stretch out. Repeat.  It was like doing Turkish get-ups or burpees with a sprint in the middle.

Von Mies Chair
The Von Mies chair is the best example of a way of sitting, and indeed an entire style, which has wreaked havoc on our postures.  Instead of maintaining the natural tilt of the pelvis and normal curves of the spine, the Von Mies chair rounds the body into an unhealthy lump, giving one the appearance of being crushed under an unbearable load, or perhaps employment as a Notre Dame bell ringer.
Photo grabbed from Vicens on

Deep Fryer
Isn't normal frying is bad enough?

Vitamin Pill
The vitamin pill is the enabler for separating nutrition and food.  Instead of eating healthful food, eat whatever you want, and then take a vitamin, right?  Even when the importance of nutrition is acknowledged, the attempted "solution" is to add vitamins into manufactured food products, rather than to choose and promote actual food with its natural nutritional goodness.

The Drive-Through
Heaven forbid someone should have to walk from their car into the fast food station for their deep fried food-like products.  The drive-through makes it possible for the indolent to procure and consume mass quantities of grease and sugar without ever leaving the comfort their automotive nests and standing upright.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Excellent Book Combining Anatomy and Yoga

Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana, by Judith Hansen Lasater, Ph.D., P.T. is an immensely informative book that gracefully combines rigorous anatomical theory with yoga teaching and practice. Instead of merely relating a series of yoga positions and the muscles involved, Yogabody covers different regions of the body in clinical detail, discussing the anatomical structure and kinesiology and how they apply to yoga teaching. The book thoroughly illustrates the anatomical structures being discussed, with details such as the ligaments surrounding a joint and the individual features of a bone.

Lasater's expertise as a physical therapist is clear from the depth of her writing about the human body, and her knowledge of therapeutic yoga shows in her discussion of how to apply the anatomical concepts to teaching yoga.
"There is a simple way to tell the difference between a structural and a functional scoliosis. Have your student stand in Tadasana and then bend forward. She should not try to stretch out in Uttanasana but rather just hang forward. Now stand behind her and observe her back. If she has a functional scoliosis , the stretch will result in the soft tissue releasing, and her back will look even from side to side. If she has a structural scoliosis, it will be more apparent that one side of her rib cage is higher than the other."
Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana, p. 76
Here we see that the information given is useful to many bodywork and fitness professionals besides yoga teachers, but that some yoga terminology may need to be looked up. Overall though, a lack of familiarity with yoga terms, mostly asana(the yoga poses) names, should not be problem. Do note that the specific terms given are in Sanskrit, so even if you know what Down Dog is, you may not recognize the pose when called Adho Mukha Svanasana.

The anatomy and kineseology come first, then asanas are used to show how the concepts apply to yoga practice. An experiential example is given of the movement of the head of the femur in the acetabulum:
"Ask your student to lie down on her mat for Supta Padangusthasana [figure shown]. First observe as she raises her straight leg up to an angle of 90 degrees. Many students raise the leg with an action that appears as if they are lifting the whole femur at once. Watch this action several times. Now suggest that she lift her femur in a different way: have her imagine that the head of her femur is descending just as she begins the action, in order to allow the rest of the femur to lift. It is as if the femoral head rolls down, back, and out as she raises the thigh and leg up. This way of thinking about the action is more in harmony with what the head of the femur actually does in the movement. Instead, most students just pick up the whole lower extremity and lift it. This way of moving does not allow for the femoral head to move deep into the joint for a mechanically sound movement with increased congruence. This type of movement does not follow the concave-convex law for this joint."
Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana, p. 107

If you teach yoga or are a dedicated student, the contents will you give an awareness and clinical foundation of why certain asana alignments are optimal, based on the structure of the body. If you aren't a yogi, but want to expand your knowledge of applied anatomy, you will still find Yogabody informative, and you may also gain an appreciation for the potential of yoga.

I would love to take one of Lasater's workshops, even though I'm not a yoga teacher(yet). In the meantime, I hope any teacher I have a class with already has.

Food tip
As the local fruit season concludes, I look for a substitute for my morning cereal. The winner is steamed sweet potato chunks. Colorful, sweet, and soft, they are perfect with my muesli mix and soy milk. As an important bonus, they are exceptionally nutritious.  Sweet potatoes usually go into my soup as a contrast to the spicy things, and, best of all, my famous sweet potato ginger cookies. I will have a batch of those for clients next week(book at Positive Massage now!)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lactic Acid Myth

The New York Times today contains the story "Is the Exercise Cool-Down Really Necessary?" which refutes the idea of cooling down after exercise. Notice this one part:

"The idea of the cool-down seems to have originated with a popular theory — now known to be wrong — that muscles become sore after exercise because they accumulate lactic acid. In fact, lactic acid is a fuel. It’s good to generate lactic acid, it’s a normal part of exercise, and it has nothing to do with muscle soreness. But the lactic acid theory led to the notion that by slowly reducing the intensity of your workout you can give lactic acid a chance to dissipate.

Yet, Dr. Foster said, even though scientists know the lactic acid theory is wrong, it remains entrenched in the public’s mind.

“It’s an idea we can’t get rid of,” he said."

It's an idea often heard in the bodywork world as well. Many people, including sadly many massage therapists, continue to believe and sell the idea that massage after exercise is important to flush lactic acid from muscles. Typically this is considered part of Sports Massage.

Here is a good article in Massage Magazine written in 2001 on Sports Massage & Recovery Time: Re-examining the Role of Lactic Acid

"For years, many massage therapists have been taught that lactic acid can and should be flushed from the muscles of athletes after intense activity. This truism has been passed on to clients who have also accepted it as fact. Both therapist and client thus have established and perpetuated a mutual belief system that purging of lactic acid is not only necessary, but also efficiently accomplished with the assistance of massage. Some beliefs die hard. This one and others related to lactic acid have been holding their own, not only in some massage schools and practices, but also in the community at large, despite emerging research to the contrary."

So, is there a benefit to massage after exercise?

Absolutely! There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence supporting the practice. While the success of Sports Massage may have been incorrectly attributed to lactic acid removal, it still shows substantial benefit to many people. But why?

My thoughts are that the benefit comes from two things. First, exercise and competition create stress, which massage helps to relax. Nothing like trying to outrun the pack, or holding a hundred pounds of iron over your head, to create stress. Second, the exercise can create hypertonic(tight) muscles or fibers within the muscle that manual pressure, stretching, and neuromuscular techniques may loosen. Note that both intense massage, IE Deep Tissue(also this blog post), just like intense exercise, can cause stress and tissue damage, therefore the more intense the exercise the less intense the massage should be.

The myth of "flushing lactic acid" with massage has been refuted for years, yet I still hear it, and in Googling for other good articles to reference I immediately saw massage providers promoting it. Certainly seek massage after your workout or competition, but be wary of therapists or spas who either don't understand, or knowingly propagate, the lactic acid myth.

Palo Alto survives horrible storm!
The Bay Area had its first winter storm, and the news makes it sound like we were nearly annihilated. Well... I grew up in Ohio, and folks here don't know what a storm is, let alone winter. A light rain at 65 degrees with a 20 mph wind gust does NOT count as a "winter storm." So don't bother sending that care package, except for the really tasty bits.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Posture Shown to Affect Confidence

New research shows that the way a person sits affects their feeling of confidence in their thoughts:

"Researchers found that people who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.
On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.
The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University."
"The end result of this was that when students wrote positive thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more highly when in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to confidence in the positive thoughts.

However, when students wrote negative thoughts about themselves, they rated themselves more negatively in the upright than the slouched posture because the upright posture led to more confidence in their negative thoughts."
Ohio State University. "Body Posture Affects Confidence In Your Own Thoughts, Study Finds." ScienceDaily 5 October 2009.

Again we see the interconnection between mind and body. Just as feeling confident gives us better posture, better posture makes us more confident.

A wonderful comment I've heard occasionally from clients after their massage is "I feel taller!" What does that do to their confidence in themselves, and how does does it affect others' perception of them? It's all good, as the saying goes.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Palo Alto Posture Classes

Palo Alto is fortunate to have two excellent centers for posture training. I have taken the free introductory class each offers, and recommend both.

They are the Esther Gokhale Wellness Center, and Jean Couch's Balance Center. Both are small studios teaching a series of classes on how to sit, stand, bend forward, and walk with good posture and alignment that will eliminate many common causes of chronic pain. Both are based on a French technique called Aplomb, and the very similar content of the two introductory classes reflects this common origin.

Aplomb bases its technique on anthropological observations of people in traditional cultures. The main idea is that people in modern, Western cultures curve their spines too much, and that they lose the natural forward tilt of the pelvis. Both the Balance Center and EG Wellness have many beautiful photographs of people in Africa, Asia, and South America looking exceptionally upright and handsome with strong healthy backs, and pictures of slouching Westerners looking rather wilted and pathetic.

I don't exactly agree with everything I heard in the intro classes. Primarily, I found both to put too much emphasis on holding one ideal position, whereas my opinion is that while there may be an optimum way to sit or stand, it is also important to create variety and movement rather than holding still. Also both don't seem to support massage as therapy for pain or postural problems, which of course I do. To be fair, I got only a small sample of what they offer so maybe in the longer programs these issues are addressed.

Overall though, I think almost anyone will benefit from these classes. Whether to address an existing pain problem, prevent a future pain problem, or enhance your appearance from better posture and poise, this work will help you. Check out their informative websites, try an introductory class, and go with whichever is more appealing. I think any difference in their programs is less important than picking which teacher will convince you to change.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Functional Fitness and Vitamin D in NYT

Here are two good articles recently in the New York Times. They have a theme in common with my ideas on fitness and health- Humans are made for moving around in the randomness of Nature, and we should either do that, or at least train as close to that as possible. That means working with things like free weights, TRX or Olympic rings, and especially, not sitting down and using muscle isolating machines, plus getting lots of sunlight and fresh air.

"Back to Basics: Yes, Sergeant!" is about functional fitness and boot camps.

"He makes use of other low-tech equipment that has resurfaced in recent years, including kettle bells (borrowed from the early Soviet military); stability balls (popularized in Switzerland in the 1960s); air-filled balance boards (a physical therapy staple); and medicine balls (“In ancient times, they’d fill an animal bladder with water or sand,” Mr. Roozen said of the balls’ origins). While such rough-hewn techniques and gear may look old-fashioned, they comport with a modern shift away from developing individual muscle groups and toward so-called functional fitness, which refers to overall strength and comfort in performing everyday activities, like lifting, walking and reaching, along with cardiovascular health."

More information on vitamin D, in the NYT story "Can Vitamin D Improve Your Athletic Performance?" It seems that vitamin D level is being positively linked to performance, although the research is fairly new.

I've written about vitamin D before; this is just strengthens my belief in its importance.

A new exercise, or variation of old exercises, is a current favorite of mine. It is an alternating ring fly-out and press. Here's how it works.

Suspend Olympic rings or TRX handles at a low to medium height, try waist high to start. Stand a meter behind them, with your feet wide. Grasp the handles.

Try each of the separate moves. First, a press(push-up), then a fly. The combo is to do a fly with one arm and a press with the other, and alternate between them. Serious strength, balance, and core, all at once.

Experiment with the height of the grips, how far back you stand, and how wide your feet are. The more horizontal you are the harder it will be, and the narrower your stance is the more stability you'll have to draw from within to keep from falling.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Exercising the Core

"Core" loosely refers to the area between upper body- ribcage, shoulders and arms, and lower body- pelvis and legs. The major muscles are the rectus abdominus(six pack muscle), transversus abdominus(horizontal muscle from back to front), obliques(wrap around the sides from ribcage to pelvis), quadratus lumborum(aka QL, connects pelvis to spine and ribcage), erector spinae group(along the sides of the spine), and psoas(spine to femur, across anterior pelvis). The best way to think of them is in the role of connecting and stabilizing between top and bottom, where the extremities are doing their thing, eg. lifting, running, throwing, carrying, throwing something that you're carrying as you run, etc.

A Functional Core
Considering the role of the core muscles, I consider the best way to work them is with exercises where a force is transmitted between the upper and lower halves of the body. This typically means that something is lifted, pushed or pulled with your hands while standing. Actually, I always recommend not isolating particular muscles, but involving as much of the body as possible(see Don't Sit Down), the possible exception being for rehabilitation of an existing problem. This is particularly true of muscles responsible for stability and connection.

Here's an example. While emphasizing(but not isolating) the chest, use an adjustable cable pulley machine(assuming you have access to one) with two weight stacks. Adjust the pulleys to shoulder height and up, stand between and in front of them, and do either a press or fly. What keeps your body from bending backwards? The core muscles. Now do the same exercise but holding only one cable(see Independence Day Fitness.) What keeps you from bending backwards and twisting around? Core muscles. A continuous chain of muscles from your hand to your feet is being worked, and being trained to work together. That's functional fitness.

For the posterior body, set the cable to shoulder height or lower, face the machine, and do a row(pull the grip toward you.) The core muscles hold the shoulder and upper torso steady, transmitting the force to your legs.

Using just your bodyweight
A great equipment-free exercise that engages the core is holding plank position(top of a pushup), and side plank is better because more muscles are involved, particularly the obliques and quadratus(QL). Make sure the pelvis doesn't drop but that everything from toes to nose stays in the same relative position as when you are standing. Side plank can be made easier by putting the foot of the upper leg in front of the lower knee for more support, or harder by elevating the upper leg. Really increase the challenge of side or regular plank by supporting either your hands or feet on an unstable surface such as a stability ball or TRX strap.

The Crunch
Since some folks will insist on ignoring my great advice above and working just the abs, here are a couple suggestions. Lie down and start a crunch, but instead of trying to roll yourself up into a little ball, lift the torso straight up toward the ceiling for just an inch. This is harder than it sounds. Remember that the abs connect the ribcage and pelvis, but the head and shoulders are separate. Don't strain your head, neck and shoulders forward, but keep them in line with the back. The spine keeps its normal curves, neither flattening nor rounding(at least not a lot.)

and another opinion...
In this short interview with "celebrity trainer" Gunnar Peterson he says his favorite core exercise is the wood chop, which involves holding a cable grip or weight in both hands and twisting as you pull or lift. Hmmm- transmitting a force from the hands, through the core, down to the legs- sound familiar?

He also gives his recommended multitasking move as a squat while curling and pressing dumbells, and the photo shows a client on a stability ball lifting dumbells with clearly engaged abs. Squats, free weights, stability balls... I'm not making this stuff up folks.

To recap, trying to work just the core will likely distort your posture and not prepare you to use any strength you might gain, but doing exercises involving your entire body and maintaining good posture as you do them will strengthen your core in a useful way.

Garden news: I've eaten the first green beans and they were delicious! All four of them!

There has been a dramatic difference between the ones planted in new potting soil with the maximum sun, and the others I put in with existing potted plants. The ones in my optimum conditions have grown three to four feet high, and that's with wrapping themselves around the supports. The other poor things are only eight to twelve inches tall.

I can't tell how much of the difference is from the soil, and how much is from the sun, but it's safe to say the putting beans in shady, depleted soil is bad.

Side plank photo by sleepyneko

Friday, September 4, 2009

Exercise and Weight Loss

A few weeks ago Time Magazine ran a troublesome article telling people that exercise won't make you thin. Troublesome, because do people really need to be discouraged from exercising? They make the point that after exercise people tend to eat more, maybe even more than they burned doing the exercises. It could be a physiological response, but an even stronger factor is likely that some people think they deserve a "reward" for their effort. And even if eating something extra after the workout can't be resisted, it can be something healthy, not some manufactured snack or "energy bar/drink."

Well, today I read an article from a science website that is much more encouraging. The article "Exercise Minimizes Weight Regain By Reducing Appetite And Burning Fat..." is more constructive. It makes a narrower, less sensational point: "Exercise helps prevent weight regain after dieting by reducing appetite and by burning fat before burning carbohydrates, according to a new study with rats. Burning fat first and storing carbohydrates for use later in the day slows weight regain and may minimize overeating by signaling a feeling of fullness to the brain."

There is overwhelming evidence supporting exercise as part of a weight loss strategy. Of course personal attitude and practice can negate exercise's benefits, but let's not blame the exercise for that behavior. Instead let's promote good habits which include both diet and physical activity.

Good health depends on many factors, all of which are important on their own. Exercise is important, independent of desire for weight loss, as is good nutrition. Don't pick one article or study to determine if you should exercise to lose weight. Keep on exercising because it helps make you healthy, it's fun, plus it will actually help control your weight. And eat right, whether or not you exercise.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tendon Pain and Exercise

The New York Times blog "Well" had a great article a few days ago titled "Phys Ed: An Easy Fix for Tennis Elbow?" which recommended a treatment for that condition, and had some good information about eccentric muscle contraction exercise.

I will elaborate on the topic of tendinosis versus tendinitis.

Most people will assume a painful tendon has tendinitis, an inflammation injury(the "-itis" part of the word.) Inflammation is typically treated with ice and anti-inflammatory drugs. However a chronic area of tendon or muscle attachment pain is likely to be tendonosis. Tendinosis is a long term condition, possibly from untreated tendinitis, which involves degeneration of tendon tissue. Since tendinosis is not inflammation, inflammation treatments aren't effective.

Unfortunately the article did not mention massage as part of the treatment. While tendinitis, or any inflammation, contraindicates massage, tendinosis does respond well to massage. The direct pressure of massage to the tendon will stimulate the growth of new collagen, and help strengthen and heal the area. Incidentally, this is a big part of clinical "Deep Tissue," which is not just a massage with really strong pressure.

This is the point where I add a disclaimer- I am not a doctor, and the information I offer is not medical advice.

From today's San Francisco Chronicle: "Exercise beats angioplasty for some heart patients" "Studies have shown heart patients benefit from exercise, and some have even shown it works better than surgical procedures." Why am I not surprised?

Some personal workout news: A few months back I mentioned that I starting doing dumbell snatches, a challenging Olympic-style lift. I did a baby 20 pound weight for a month, then slowly worked my way up to 50 lbs. Wow, that's some weight to be heaving overhead with one hand! Now I'm backing down a bit and trying to perfect my technique even more.

Exercise Links
I'm getting more knowledgeable about doing the snatch from the videos on the CrossFit website. Another great exercise site I recommend is BodyTribe Fitness. Both of these emphasis functional, full-body, non-sitting down workouts that I do(or at least attempt.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Two Massage Success Stories, plus Colorful Quinoa

Earlier this summer, I started working with a couple of clients that illustrate the range of what I do in my practice at Positive Massage Therapy.

One is an elite college swimmer who had some tightness and pain impeding her performance. This is a person competing in international events where fractions of a second make a big difference. Focused deep tissue massage and myofascial release enabled to her to "get her kick back." I plan to be cheering for her in the next Olympics.

The other client is a woman in her sixties who had been on medication for severe low back pain for an extended period. Another condition forced her to stop the pain meds, and her back was really bothering her. After her session, she told me her back didn't hurt for the first time since she stopped taking the pills, and there were no side effects.

Knowing my clients are losing their pain, improving at their sport, or escaping from a stressful week is what makes my profession so rewarding.

Very exciting food news- I've discovered the new red and black quinoa at the Palo Alto Whole Foods. I eat a lot of quinoa- big servings at dinner and a few spoonfuls mixed into my breakfast cereal. The extra color makes the grain more interesting- presentation counts for a lot. I've happily learned that I can cook regular beige quinoa with the flashy new varieties and they both retain their colors. Does it get any better than multi-colored quinoa?

Quinoa is excellent nutritionally- balanced amino acids, alkaline instead of acid like most grains, gluten-free, quick cooking, and tasty. People usually know of it as a high protein grain, however while it is true that it the highest, it actually is only slightly higher that wheat and the others.

If you're already a quinoa fan, try mixing the colorful varieties together. If you don't already eat it, this is a great time to start.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stability Balls for Fitness and Fun

A great fitness tool I recommend to everyone is the stability ball, also called a physio ball or Swiss ball. Personally I think it should be called an "instability ball" because it rolls around and changes shape while you do the work of providing stability. The stability ball is just a large, inflated plastic ball, but it can be used for back care, stretching, exercise, and a place to sit. Besides versatility, they are also inexpensive. There are many ways to use them, below are my favorites.

Sitting and Back Care
Sitting is a necessary evil for most people. One problem is the poor posture we tend to assume while sitting, the other is the lack of movement. While sitting properly and ergonomic chairs help, no position held for a long period is healthful. Sitting on a stability ball may help you be in good posture, but the main benefit is that it will keep you from sitting completely still. Muscles and joints get subtly(or not so subtly) worked. The low back particularly will be helped.

An excellent stretch to counteract rounded shoulders and upper spine is to lay supine on top of a stability ball. Squat on the floor with the ball behind you and slowly lean back onto it. Raise your arms up and behind you, and roll backwards until it is under your upper back. The feet stay on the ground.

Your weight is supported, so your muscles can release and you can stay here without effort.

This stretch is not for anyone with an injury or compromised spine, or without the strength to control your position. A larger ball, 75mm and up, will make the stretch more manageable. Putting the ball against a wall so it can't roll away is a good way to start. This modification should also be done by anyone with hyper lordosis of the lumbar area, to keep from increasing the flexion there.

A stability ball can be used in place of a bench or other rigid support to get much more of the body involved in your exercises. Even for familiar exercises, more muscles will be recruited, and most importantly, they will learn to work together instead of isolation. Additionally, because the ball is compressible, the exercises are more dynamic with the force applied creating less stress.

You may find you can lift a lot less than with the same exercise done on a rigid support. Good! That means you're using more muscles that don't get worked with common gym exercises, developing balance, and not propping yourself up with furniture.

One exercise I suggest is a reverse dumbell fly. Lay with your chest on the stability ball and a small dumbell or medicine ball in each hand. From a slight spinal flexion(forward bend) go to a slight spinal extension(backward bend.) With the ball lower on the torso you would be working the glutes, hamstrings, and low paraspinals, but I prefer to make this an upper spine exercise. At the same time you're straightening your upper spine, bring the shoulders back and arms up. Make sure the shoulders are retracting, meaning they are pulled together toward the spine, and the top of the spine is pulling back. Done this way you will be working the muscles needed to counteract the typical rounding forward of the upper body from sitting at a computer.

So, introduce some instability on purpose, and prepare your body for when it happens as a surprise.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Strength and Yoga Anatomy Books

Two good anatomy books I've read recently are today's topic. They are oriented to different specific and non-technical audiences, one for yoga and the other for strength training. Both show the muscles involved in their respective activities and describe technique in anatomical terms.

"Strength Training Anatomy" by Frederic Delavier contains graphically superb and extensively detailed illustrations of athletes doing weight lifting exercises. Not only are the major muscles involved shown, but also pretty much every muscle and bone that would be visible without skin. Proper form is carefully shown and described, with variations for modifying which muscle or muscle part is emphasized. There are also very good explanations of common weight lifting injuries and how to avoid them.

Even though most of the exercises are muscle specific and use single plane of motion machines, while I do exercises involving the entire body, the quality of the book is so high I really enjoyed it. Showing exercises that isolate muscles also helps convey with more anatomical precision what is happening.

The other book is "Yoga Anatomy" by Leslie Kaminoff. It covers a broad scope of hatha yoga asanas and anatomy, but the anatomy is secondary. After some good discussion of breathing and the spine, the book covers individual asanas, detailing the technique and alignment for each. Unfortunately the muscle specifics are a bit vague, at least for my level of anatomical background. For dedicated yoga students and teachers this book will be well worth having, but for non-yogis it won't be very useful.

For someone interested specifically in yoga, or strength training and body building, pick the book with that focus. If you have a general fitness and anatomy interest, I recommend Delavier's book.

A quick garden update- The bean seedlings have emerged with admirable vigor, and I've been thinning them to pick the best.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stand Tall for Good Posture

Good posture is key to avoiding, or eliminating, many common sources of muscular pain. Good posture also enhances our appearance, breathing, and effectiveness at sports. Unfortunately what feels "right" is what we're accustomed to, not necessarily what's healthful.

In a very simple sense, good posture is keeping the body tall and in a vertical line. Of course the spine does have a natural curve and the body isn't made of square blocks, but the overall effect is straight up and down, with everything balanced in a column. The more deviation there is from vertical, the more strain there will be on the spine and spinal muscles.

Here are two simple things to do to check your posture, and to help with improving it.

The first involves using a wall to check the positioning, forward and backward, of your hips, spine, shoulders, and head. Stand about 12 inches away from a wall, facing away. Try to be in your typical posture. Now, without changing how you stand, slowly shuffle back towards the wall. Ideally your heels, hips, mid-back, shoulders and head will touch simultaneously(some sources suggest the feet can be several inches away when the rest of the body touches.) Keep the eyes level.

There should be a gap above the hips between the lumbar spine and the wall about the thickness of one or two hands, with the palm flat to the wall. At the neck the gap should be a bit larger.

A common problem is there will be a larger space behind the neck, the head not touching, and the shoulders not touching. This often caused by too much sitting at a desk and reaching forward.

Now try to align your body so that it does touch the wall in the places mentioned above. Raise your chest up, shoulders and head back, everything taller. If the gap at the low spine was too large, tighten your abs to tilt the pelvis back a bit.

The second is done either as a visualization technique, or with a partner. Your partner's real hand, or an imaginary one, touches the top of your head. Now push the hand higher by straightening your self out. This makes you taller, and removes some sags and kinks in the process.

Keep in mind that good posture looks poised, not rigid. Don't let the idea of standing against a wall make you think otherwise. And as your posture improves, you will find a greater ease of movement that will be far from wall-like.

Practicing these techniques daily will both teach you how to stand and make it more effortless to do so. See the self care page of my main website Positive Massage Therapy for some stretches that will also help.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Burn More Calories- Don't Sit Down part 2

Someone pointed out to me another great reason to not sit down while exercising. Don't Sit Down is a simple exercise rule I explained previously. Briefly, if you're not sitting down, then you're involving much more of your body in each exercise, and training all the different muscles to work together. This is the key to "functional fitness," fitness useful in real life and sports.

The extra reason is that less sitting means burning more calories. Exercising sitting down means most of the body gets a rest, but if you stand or use an unstable surface for support the whole body is working and using energy- aka calories.

Weight loss techniques are not part of my expertise, but I know that it is important to many people. So, really, Don't Sit Down!

More Palo Alto Balcony Garden News
The Morning Glory on my balcony has finally started to bloom. I grow it across the rafters in the northeastern corner where it won't cast any shadows(I've lots of them already.)

I gave up on one of basil plants, which I don't think grew a bit since I put it in except for trying to flower. Strangely, its disappearance seems to be motivating the remaining basil. Just in case, I threw out the dirt in the pot as well.

In nice new clean dirt I planted a variety of pole beans. This particular pot hangs from the aforementioned rafters, in the opposite corner from the Morning Glory. It will get the most sun I've got, and I will try to trellis it above the roof level to get even more. A few bean seeds went other places, since there were more seeds in the package than I'll use for years. More news to come.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day Fitness

Happy Independence Day! On this day I always remember that the USA was once a distant group of frontier colonies of the most powerful nation on the planet, and we fought a war to win our independence and found a new nation.

This inspires a workout tip(of course.) A simple way to increase the functional aspect(useful in life, not just the gym) of an exercise is to do it with just one arm or leg at a time instead of both. In technical terms, unilateral instead of bilateral. For instance, instead of doing a barbell curl using both arms, do dumbell curls, one side at a time. Try doing a cable row with just one hand. Suddenly all sorts of muscles get involved keeping you balanced and the weight aligned. It is the same idea as my recommendation Don't Sit Down. Particularly the obliques and other twisting/anti-twisting core muscles will get engaged.

One more benefit is that it is harder to "cheat," or at least more obvious, by having the stronger side do more work than the weaker. Symmetry and balance are important exercise and bodywork goals.

It's OK to do some bilateral exercises, but I suggest predominantly unilateral exercise for increasing functional fitness.

So start enjoying your independence, one arm and leg at a time.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vitamin D, Sunlight, and Health

Today, being the Summer Solstice and beginning of the season, is an appropriate time to mention vitamin D and sunshine.

First I will remind everyone that I am not a doctor, and anything I say or write does not constitute medical advice. OK? Onward then.

Over the last few years there has been more and more research showing health advantages of maintaining an adequate vitamin D level. Numerous diseases as well as cancer show a correlation to vitamin level. Here is the best overall place to get more information:
There are many outside articles in addition to the ones by that organization.

Health issues linked to vitamin D deficiency:
The Nutrient You Need Now:
"What's most remarkable about vitamin D is the sheer number of health issues it's been linked to. In the past few years, studies have shown that a lack of the vitamin may be the primary culprit in depression, heart disease, pregnancy problems, birth defects, skin and other cancers, and multiple sclerosis."

Here is a good article discussing sunscreen use:
The Sunscreen Dilemma:
"Wearing sunscreen prevents sunburns, but research suggests it might not reduce your risk of developing cancer; in fact, it might actually increase your risk.
That's the sunscreen dilemma. "

A caution regarding vitamin D supplements vs. sunshine:
Vitamin D Deficiency Study Raises New Questions About Disease And Supplements
"...ingested vitamin D can actually block VDR activation, the opposite effect to that of Sunshine."
Other vitamin D research news releases are listed here as well.

A somewhat sensational article, which includes the best form of supplement(D3):
Vitamin D in a New Light
Very informative and not sugar-coated.

Being a massage therapist, I get an additional perspective on the effect of excessive sun- Aged skin. It isn't so obvious when people are walking around and wearing normal clothes, but on the massage table the difference between the appearance of areas with heavy exposure and light exposure can be extreme. For some people, the difference in apparent ages is literally decades apart.

Given the strong evidence of vitamin D benefits, and a strong preference for natural health care over taking chemical supplements, here is my personal approach. I spend a lot of time outdoors. The areas of my skin that get most exposed, and have been burned the most already, get sunscreen. This includes my forearms, shoulders, and face. The rest of me gets no sunscreen, and I try to give lots of sun exposure, but without burning.

Now, consult with a real medical authority, make up your own mind, and enjoy the summer.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Back Pain and core strength

This week the New York Times had an excellent article about dealing with low back pain with exercise. I got a nice bit of smugness reading it, because it said the same things I've been telling clients.

The reason though isn't how bright I am, but that I've read both of the books published by the medical scientist they quote. This gentleman, Stuart McGill, does laboratory research on what actually happens to the spine and spinal muscles in different exercises.

I won't rehash the entire article, but the main point is that contemporary exercise practice over-emphasizes abdominal strength compared to back strength. There is a good video showing proper ab and back exercises.

Read the article here:

Another tip from McGill not mentioned in the article is the value of walking for low back pain. Keeping the spine gently moving keeps it from seizing up and promotes healing. The key is to walk with the arms and body loose. A rigid walk, with the arms and shoulders held in place, will exacerbate the problem.

Low back pain is a problem where I have great sympathy with my clients. I have had debilitating back pain myself. I know how much the smallest movement can hurt, and the dread feeling of the muscles about to go into another painful spasm. I got to practice what I preach, and confirmed that, yes, constant gentle movement does help. Receiving massage from a couple of therapist friends was also a great relief.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New stretch and new exercise

On my main website is a new stretch for your hamstrings. This stretch, besides the direct benefit, is described because so many people try to do it in a harmful way that exacerbates an existing posture problem. Hint: the nose is not connected to the leg. Look here for the details.

I'm starting to do dumbbell snatches at the gym. This is like the Olympic barbell snatch but with just one hand and a dumbbell. I'm practicing my technique on small weights, then I'll take it from there.

Olympic style lifts involve strength + speed, which equals power, and coordination. Form is critical. The snatch starts with the weight on the floor. In one continuous motion, you lift the weight overhead. Simple! The whole body gets moving, and you still have the satisfaction of picking up something heavy.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Posture Book, Tiny Toms, and Current Cookies

A very good book I just finished reading and will now recommend is "Posture Alignment" by Paul D'Arezzo. It is written for a general audience, unlike most of the technical bodywork books I read. It really conveys why posture matters, and is also good at motivating people to start improving. Here's a quote from chapter 1, page 13:
  • "Others perceive us differently. Like it or not, we are judged and we judge others by their posture. With good posture, we are perceived as more confident, happy, and in control. Older people with correct posture are perceived as younger and sexier.
  • We move better. There is a grace and economy of movement that comes with postural alignment.
  • We feel better. Our posture, how we stand and move, directly affects our emotions and how we feel.
  • All our organ systems work better and more efficiently. Our muscles and bones aren't separate from the rest of our body. A closed chest limits our breathing. A pelvis that is overly tilted forward puts strain on our abdominal organs."
Wow! Boldly said! I agree completely, although I'm more conservative when speaking with clients because I don't want to alienate them.

I don't exactly agree with all the corrective advice given- It's good, just not quite my approach.

The book is available at the Los Altos Library(as soon as I return it), and online at Amazon.

A few weeks back I bought a "Tumbling Tom" hanging tomato plant at the Farmers Market, and I'm thrilled to see teeming tiny tomatoes covering it. The plant itself hasn't gotten any larger, so the total crop will be limited though. My balcony is sunlight challenged, so finding a tomato that could hang from one of the overhead beams is likely the only way I can get such a sun demanding plant to thrive. That being said, a neighbor gave me a tomato seedling which of course I had to plant. We'll wait and see if it grows.

This week I have sweet potato spice cookies. These are my signature cookies, and they go fast!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Exercise enables fitness, not fitness enables exercise

Cool exercises
Yesterday at the gym a man commented to me "You do the coolest exercises. I wish I could do that." I was jumping or swinging or throwing a medicine ball around; he was lying down doing a bench press. I told him "You can! The exercises you're doing are what's limiting you."

Sadly, he went back to the bench press. I experimented with sideways crunches suspending my feet from a TRX band.

Exercise causes fitness
There is often an opinion that being fit is what makes "cool" exercises possible, but that's exactly the opposite of the process. It is doing exercises that involve the entire body, lifting without support, and balancing while moving, that builds fitness. Isolating muscles, sitting down, using machines- those will never make you fit. At best they will strengthen particular muscles, at worst cause injury and distort posture. Fitness comes from training your body to support itself and move the different parts together.

Don't put off the cool exercises until you're fit. Start now and the fitness will follow.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chair massage, squirrel control, & colonial gardens

A few days ago I spent an hour doing chair massage at the gym when someone canceled their appointment at the last minute. I set up in the lobby, and was almost immediately fully reserved. (The price, free, helped.)

Chair massage is a great way to get introduced to a therapist and to see and experience his work. That said, a brief time in a chair is very different than what a "regular" massage on a table is like. I think it is more about meeting the therapist than learning what a full massage would be like, besides the massage itself. From my perspective, it can be a good way to introduce myself to people who may become clients, not just those who receive the massage, but other people who walk by and see it(and notice how happy people are afterward.)

One person loved it, but was from out of town. Another thanked me and told me it was great, but didn't really seem interested. A very nice person told me that she got more benefit from 10 minutes on my chair than from an hour in a spa massage, and asked about my schedule. The last person immediately booked a full session with me after 10 minutes on the chair. She also told me that she's a massage regular, but since her current therapist is not working due to tendinitis(a common injury with massage therapists) she has been looking for a new one.

One definite and one probable new client. An hour well spent.

Out on the balcony, I installed some anti-squirrel measures yesterday. The critters like to run along the overhead beams, tear up the Morning Glory I'm training to grow there, and drop onto my other plants for a bit of mayhem. The solution was to put a tight strand of wire a couple of inches above a couple of the beams. The wire is too thin for them to walk on, and doesn't leave enough room for them step onto the beam.

They can find a new path that keeps them away from my plants.

I'm currently reading a book on gardening titled "Flowers and Herbs of Early America." A couple of things impress me(besides how much more magnificent the plants look than mine.) One is how wide and well established the knowledge of plants was during the colonial period, and even centuries before. People knew so much more about plants and how to use them than in what aisle the bags of salad greens are found. Seeds were traded from frontiers around the world, and new books were added to an existing set going back to Classical Civilization.

People(me at least) vaguely know that indigenous and ancient peoples had tremendous knowledge of Nature, but this book helps remind us that the wisdom is not just remote or abstract, but part of our heritage that only in the last couple of generations has been uncommon. Fortunately there is a bit of a renaissance in gardening today. Lets hope it thrives.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Happy Bike to Work Day

Today is Bike to Work Day! Biking is great for your health, the environment, and the community.

However an element of awareness is needed to maintain a happy back while riding. Except for very upright styles of bicycles, most bikes tend to put the you in the same rounded back, bent neck, reaching forward, folded at the waist position as our office chairs and cars, except worse. The upper back is over stretched, the neck is seriously over loaded, and the whole front of the body is kept contracted.

I was not surprised to find many online articles on the problems caused by poor bicycle posture. They seem to have good advice on the correct way to sit, but have the same limitation as many articles on office ergonomics. That limitation is describing only about the "right" way to sit without telling you no position is healthful if held for long periods.

Here is a funny Victorian era article from the medical journal _London_Lancet_ about bad bicycle posture. "...the evil consequences of this unwholesome posture in wheeling..."

My advice is simple- sit up occasionally in the saddle, stretch backward a bit, and grasp your hands behind you. The stretch is the first one described on my self care webpage. Ten or twenty seconds sitting up a couple times an hour will not cause you to lose the Tour de France. Besides that, work on unrounding your back so you ride with a neutral, not forward bent, spine.

Happy riding, and see you on the road!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Music for massage

Music isn't at the top of the list of important elements of a great massage, but it certainly adds to the experience. Since any music I have tends to get played frequently, and since it takes only seconds to pick a cd or playlist for each session, I do make an effort to provide music that will contribute to the treatment.

I try to choose something that will be enjoyable, but not so interesting as to demand a client's attention. New people usually get one of my vanilla "relaxing" recordings. I have some that are(I think) not too bland but still pleasant in the background. For each massage, I try to think of what will be appropriate to this person. Then I consider if the session is more of a sports or clinical massage, or more for relaxation.

Things get fun when I learn to what sorts of music a client already listens. Sometimes this motivates me to explore new music and put together a new recording. One client who is an opera lover got me searching for vocal music, and I ended up with choirs singing Bach, Handle and other sacred "classical" composers. This is a good illustration of finding something appreciated by both the client and by me. I didn't find any operas that I liked and that I thought would work for massage, but the search led me to other music that works beautifully.

Another client is a jazz musician, and talking with her led me to music by Duke Ellington and Glen Miller. For these I combined several albums picking the slower pieces and removing the snappier, more exciting tracks.

Two big favorites of mine for massage music are Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. For a bit more modern sound I have some trance-y and urban groove recordings.

A few things go into choosing music. I look for a lot of consistency between tracks, with transitions that aren't obvious. The tempo shouldn't change much, or the volume. The style needs to be the same. Words shouldn't be too distinguishable, or not in English. The most important rule is no "surprise" tracks that seem to be from a completely different cd.

Of course I have only music that I enjoy, so no matter what I play, at least one of us likes it.

This very moment, a not uncommon enough strange thing happened. There are beams across the top of my balcony that once held a roof. Squirrels use them as freeways, and in the early morning, a squirrel shadow will dash across my computer monitor.

The squirrels are my nemeses, as they dig up my plants just for fun.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Don't sit down, please

Last week was very busy for bodywork, hence a tardy post to the blog. I'm happy to have so many people making appointments, so thank you.

Although I do my work on my feet, most of us work sitting down. We also drive sitting down, eat, read, and use our computers and TV's while sitting.

So when we go to the gym, does it make sense to exercise while sitting?

My simplest suggestion for exercise is to not sit down during your workout. First this means your body is out of the sitting posture it's in so much and which is not natural for our alignment. When sitting our hip flexors and hamstrings are shortened. All the muscles which should be working to maintain balance are idle, and circulation is restricted. There are other disadvantages, but you get the idea.

The other reason I give the "don't sit down" advice is because almost all of the sit-down machines are designed to isolate a single muscle group. If you're a professional bodybuilder trying to meet some arbitrary ideal of proportions, or care only about a few particular muscles and not overall fitness, fine. But sports and life don't involve sitting down with out backs, butts, and feet braced while pushing or pulling a rigid mechanism constrained to move in a single direction. Simply by avoiding sitting, you will avoid these nearly useless machines.

At the gym you can stand, lean, swing, roll, or jump. In sports and life, when we need strength, we aren't sitting down. We're moving, picking things up, pushing, pulling, often all at the same time. Think of putting a child in a car. The entire body gets involved, working and coordinating muscles from hand to foot and at varying angles and directions.

I think you'll find whole body exercises to be a lot more fun besides. Do consider working with a personal trainer at first to teach correct form, since there won't be a machine holding you in place.

Yesterday I went to the garden store and bought a basil and a parsley start. I love walking through all the plants there, and I deliberately take only a few dollars so I won't buy far more than my balcony can accommodate. In a few days I'll get another basil for sure though, and maybe a marigold to eat as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Massage and Posture

Recently a new client asked me if massage could help with posture. Wow, what great question! And you can tell she was new because otherwise she would know that's my favorite bodywork topic.

I'll answer this starting with some background describing what poor posture is, then go from the most direct effects of receiving hands-on massage to more indirect and self-guided benefits.

The bones, muscles, and connective tissue have a natural shape and arrangement. Deviations from this tend to cause chronic pain and limited range of motion. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to notice and appreciate when others have good posture and so it is safe to assume ours is noticed as well.

The original causes of posture problems include injury, emotional issues, physical activity such as weight lifting or yoga, and anatomical. These all tend to reinforce each other, so it takes a deliberate effort to overcome them.

For example, a person's leg is injured playing sports. While the leg is healing the other leg has to work harder, so it grows stronger. The injured leg hurts, so it is used less(antalgia) and grows weaker and less mobile. Years later, a habit of standing with the weight on the uninjured leg is unconsciously continued and now feels 'normal.'

Here's another example. As a teenager a shy person develops the habit of protectively wrapping the arms around the chest and holding the head down. The front(anterior) torso muscles shorten and the posterior muscles overstretch. This person may take up yoga and do stretches(asanas) that stretch the upper back because it feels good, but these muscles are already overstretched. Asanas such as backbends are avoided because they are harder. Another person with the same problem may take up weight lifting, and without realizing it, overdevelop the chest and abs compared to the back. Since the chest is already stronger, and the closing in motion more familiar, exactly the wrong exercises are done. All this is made worse by sitting and reaching forward to a computer keyboard, or a steering wheel(sound familiar?)

Okay, back to massage now. The muscles which are held chronically short need to relax and be trained to let go. After progress begins with that, the fascia(connective tissue throughout the muscle) needs to be gently stretched, and adhesions within the muscle sticking it together need to be worked out(deep tissue.)

The kinesthetic sense of these things happening, combined with verbal communication with the therapist, brings awareness to where holding occurs. This is part is critical, because otherwise the patterns of poor posture are maintained unconsciously all the time you're not on the massage table.

Finally, self care exercises and stretches are taught. The shortened areas need to be stretched frequently and the opposite(antagonistic) muscles need strengthened.

To recap, massage, from Positive Massage Therapy at least, helps with posture by bringing awareness to the issue, helping release the tissues pulling your body out of alignment, education about the anatomy involved, and how to stretch and strengthen to care for the problem yourself.

At this point, you may be saying "That's great, but what about cookies?" It's been too hot to bake for a few days, but anyone with an appointment Friday or Saturday should get a fresh peanut butter cookie to eat.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Deep Tissue, and Soup Day

Yesterday I made soup, and started simmering ideas about Deep Tissue massage. Massage first:

Many people specifically ask for a Deep Tissue massage. But just what does that mean? I was taught, and the usual technical definition, is that DT is focused work in one spot to break up adhesions within and between muscle fibers. However clients usually mean they want an overall massage with really strong pressure.

Spas may offer Deep Tissue on the menu, but I can tell you what they are almost certainly giving is a firm Swedish massage. There is no such thing as a full body Deep Tissue massage- DT is used in one area for a specific reason. It isn't relaxing either. And since the spots where clients want the most pressure are spots that need to relax, causing those spots discomfort is likely to cause them to tighten even more.

Instead of labeling a massage one or the other, my solution is to ask clients what their goals are for the massage and what pain or limitations they feel. I don't ask what massage modality they want. I do invite feedback as the massage proceeds to be sure I'm on track.

At one moment during the massage I may use a technique from Deep Tissue and at another moment a PNF stretch from Sports Massage gets added. Then it may be followed by something I picked up studying Lomi Lomi. It's the result that counts.
More information is on my website:

OK, now the soup. Here are all the ingredients that I remember:
  • Bean juice- the water that I previously cooked garbanzos in
  • some very finely chopped carrots bits, to dissolve
  • potato
  • yam(probably really a sweet potato)
  • turnip
  • rutabaga
  • parsnip
  • onion
  • green beans
  • tomatoes frozen last summer
  • garlic. Must have garlic
  • zucchini
  • jalapeno and serrano chilies
  • some other things I forgot
  • some other things which are secret
  • energy, in the form of heat
Consumed with greens from the farmers market plus nasturtiums from the balcony, lentils, and a chunk of whole grain bread. That's nutrition!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New stretch and homegrown EFA

This week I added another stretch to my website. Like the others so far, it's great for people who spend too much time sitting with their arms, shoulders, and head pulled forward.

The Selfcare: Stretching and Movement page is where a lot of my more serious advice goes. (As opposed to this blog, which is more whimsical.) I will be adding some lower body stretches, and plenty of more information about stretching in general.

The news from the balcony is that the purslane is emerging like crazy.

Purslane is commonly considered a weed, but in the last few years it has gotten great publicity as a "superfood." Its greatest virtue is being a fantastic plant source of omega-3 fatty acid, and it is also high in vitamins A and C, plus other fabulous nutrients. I put the leaves and smaller stems on salads and chop the thicker stems into soup. The California Avenue farmers' market has a stand full of various weed-like veggies, which is where I got the originals. A few cuttings put in water, transplanted after roots develop, et voila!

In the exercise department, I did a trade with a personal trainer that was a ton of fun. The good news- all the core exercises went great. The bad news- my tri's are still hurting, and I'm terrible at the military press. The best news- I consider core strength far more important than the military press.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Elements of health

Three key elements of health are bodywork(of course!), exercise, and nutrition- specifically my delicious, homemade, organic, vegan cookies. Today I made for clients and co-workers a batch of oat/barley/date cookies- my favorite. If it is possible and I can figure out how I'll post a PDF of the recipe. Until then, you'll just have to book a massage with me to get one.

On the exercise front, today I did a fun low body focused one I'll describe. First, note that this is not isolating anything, and the whole body is involved. Here's the deal: Balance a dumbbell on its end. Stand on the dumbbell with one foot. Touch the other leg to the floor behind you, then in front, then tilt your torso forward and raise the leg to horizontal behind you(like the yoga pose warrior 1.) If you have any back injury or pain skip the last step and keep the torso upright. If you do it be sure to bend from the pelvis and keep the spine neutral* the whole time.

Obviously this works on balance, plus the abductors are engaged to keep you from falling sideways. In the two foot taps on the floor the quads are worked and in the forward bend the glute max and hamstrings are exercised.

For extra fun, hold a small weight in one hand(I use 15-20 lbs.) For extra, extra fun, switch the weight between hands as you go.

If you're still working your way up to this level of fun, stand on something more stable than a dumbbell, and do only one of the touches of your foot.

*I first wrote "spine straight" but that's not accurate since the spine is naturally curved. Neutral means don't increase the curve as you bend at the hips(top of the legs.) More(lots) about the spine in future posts. -SR

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hello, world.

Fun new things for the week:
  • picked and ate the first produce from the balcony garden- a nasturtium blossom
  • modified a difficult exercise to make it even harder
  • started this blog
I'm happy to see that my nasturtiums have survived the brutal Palo Alto winter and are already producing food for my table. The salvia, which I don't eat but the hummingbirds do, is doing well, but not surprisingly the basil has gone on to that great pesto bowl in the sky.

Here's a fun way to shape and tone your bod: Imagine doing a push-up. Now put your hands on the edge of an inverted bosu. Put one foot in a TRX strap. Sounds fun, but wait, there's more! As you go down into the push-up, swing the free leg forward under you, and as you straighten your arms swing the free leg up and over to the opposite side. Extra credit for keeping the moving leg straight and getting a big twist in the lower torso. Don't let your midsection sag at all.

As far as blogging goes, I will start thinking of things to say about the massage business that don't involve talking about actual clients(which would not be ethical.)