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.