It’s true. I am like the majority of Americans. I grew up hunched over my school desk, hunched on the school bus or chair or couch, and after I grew up I still sat hunched in the car or at my desk. I don’t work in a business office. I work at home. I’m an author hoping to attain publication here in the not so distant future. I’m not there yet but I spend large quantities of time leaning over my desk.

 

I am also blessed with hyper-extended joints, particularly in my elbows and knees. For years, I stood wrong. I locked out my knees which stuck out my tush and sent all the weight and pressure into my lower back. I’m sure it still is not grateful for the enormous weight of all those school books on my shoulders. And yes, I believe I probably hunched forward to carry them, too.

 

When I began dancing in college, my instructor told me that I stood wrong. I worked on correcting that the whole semester of Ballet I and I am indebted to her for fixing me. I believe that she saved me from the back pain so many people throughout the world experience. How? Dancers have incredible posture. They know how to hold themselves. They engage every muscle in their body to stay upright in a safe, secure fashion or else they would topple over on those pointe shoes. They do this regardless of whether they are in the studio or out of it. In fact, one of the diagrams I have from Ballet II (the next year) shows somewhere around 17 directions for proper dance posture. Among them are tailbone down, shoulders down, chest up, chin parallel to the floor, abs engaged, thighs rotated around to the outside of the bone, gluts engaged (not totally squeezed though), knees soft, etc.

 

Back injuries, from a simple pull to sciatica to ruptured discs, are becoming a leading cause of time off due to medical needs in the workplace. Insurance companies are shelling out millions of dollars each year, and companies are losing loads of money. Little wonder why the employee co-pays are going up.

 

The reality is that we only have one back. Science has not come up with its replacement yet and, frankly, I’d not take it if it did. Synthetic replacements just don’t work as well. Period. They make life liveable but at some point, until science comes up with new technology, they need replacing or wear out. Am I an expert on this? No. I am no doctor. I have no replacements. My job as a fitness instructor specializing in Pilates is to prevent injury from happening. Sadly, it is a battle me and my fellow instructors are losing because everyone has an excuse as to why they do not want to take care of themselves.

 

Health and wellness is about making choices, even making sacrifices, in order to live a better quality of life. As I’ve said, you only have one back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and living a quality life is virtually impossible. Prevention is about taking pro-action. This is particularly true for backs.

 

There are not a whole lot of rules or definitions or jargon associated with the back. It is a series of 33 discs that support the upper body, neck and head, provide foundation for the ribcage, and connect your two halves together. It is flexible, allowing the individual freedom to move across all three planes of motion. It is the framework for ligaments, muscles, and skin, which connect the bones together and provide support for the internal organs. It is the centralized location of your nervous system from which stems out into your extremities. Hence the reason why it causes you so much pain when it gets injured.

 

How do we prevent and/or fix back problems in the fitness industry? Do you really want to know? Or will you just shell out more excuses? It’s your choice…

 

First, we advise you to become aware of your posture. Where do you feel pressure? Do you lock out joints when you’re standing? Is your head tilted forward? Do you get frequent headaches? How do you lift objects up from the floor? Are you hunched over your work much of the day? In the car while driving? Can you breath, or inhale fully? People who walk with their chests caved inward experience higher rates of negative mood and depression, poor self-esteem, and are easier targets for predators and criminals as they are less observant and less likely to fight back.

 

The most common postural deviations are lordosis, or the anterior tilting of the pelvis and deepening of the arch in the lumbar spine, and kyphosis, the forward rounding of the shoulders. The former leads to severe low back pain, tight hamstrings, hips, and hip flexors. The latter reverses the natural muscular balances of the body.

 

Awareness is possibly the easiest step in the process of improving posture. When I began to consider it, I would make myself think of it at random times of the day. I would take an assessment of myself. What did I find? Often, I was practicing my bad habit of ‘slumping’. The muscles of my shoulders and upper back were loosening and those of my lower back, hips, and legs were tightening. When I thought about it, I corrected myself. As I continued this process, it became easier, but I made sure that I did it daily.

 

Second, incorporate back exercises into your workouts. Pilates and yoga are great ways of improving back strength if you prefer classroom work. They work your whole core, not just your abs. And speaking of abs, crunches may be ineffective ways of improving abdominal strength as most people strain their neck, shoulders, and backs by grasping their heads and jamming their chins down onto their chests. If you must do them, I recommend letting the fingertips hang out behind the ears, across the chest, or let the hands slide up from the thighs to the knees and keeping a fist’s-width space between your chin and chest, and to lower and lift with your breath (inhale, exhale respectively). However, don’t just work the abs. Work your back muscles: the erector spinae, rhomboids, trapezius, obliques, latissimus dorsi, intertransversarii, and multifidus. Incorporate lower back strength to improve support around the pelvis. Add upper back strength to straighten those shoulders and lift the chest and head.

 

The last thing I often tell my students when I’m crazed enough to pull stunts like incorporating dance into my Pilates workouts is to feel a sense of self. Find your presence. Enjoy it. Reveal it to the world. You are important. You are valuable. Hold your head up, smile, and stand tall. You’re less likely to be attacked, but more importantly you will be taken seriously by those around you. You may even get questions about what you’ve done that transformed you into the new you. You can keep it a secret if you want.

 

I’d rather tell people because I feel good and I want them to feel good too.

I have been asked to speak at the Marine Corps Community Services summer stand-down on stress relief. When the aerobics coordinator first asked me, I thought, No way in hell, lady. Not this chick. You’re asking me to speak in front of a lot of people.

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Granted, the base I live on is not so dense in population as it is huge. As I walked my little heart out on the treadmill after the initial conversation–I did not say “no”, by the way; I needed to give it some thought and check my schedule–I wondered why I would say no to an opportunity to reach out to people who are overstressed, fatigued, unrealistic, injured, medicated, depressed, and often losing hope. Am I not an American Council on Exercise certified group fitness instructor and lifestyle and weight management coach? Am I not passionate about health and wellness as a whole? Did I not stand up before people several times a week and instruct them in my classes?

The answer simply is “yes” and within the hour I met up with the coordinator to say that I would speak at the three briefs MCCS had scheduled in a week and a half. A subscriber to Whole Living and reader of the complimentary subscriptions of the journal sent to all ACE-certified instructors from the same organization, coupled with IDEA, I went back to my house filled with confidence. The aerobics coordinator informed me later that day that the lady in charge of the briefs would make up some slides for my 10-minute presentation on stress relief and ways to alleviate its ailments.

But that isn’t good enough for me. I started rummaging around through my magazines and journals after picking up ACE’s latest issue, and quickly decided to do my own presentation. I finished the initial presentation and sent it off for review to my “boss” (technically, I’m a volunteer so I don’t have a boss, but the AC is a great woman to work with). The research that I have put into this has given me fodder for this post.

Let’s face it. We’re all stressed and most of us are stressed all the time. A recent study suggested that 75% of Americans are overstressed constantly. What? With reaching for it all–the big house, the fancy car, the fat paycheck, the family with two kids, the cute dog, the perfect body–we barely have time for sleep let alone for ourselves. What happens then is the opposite of what we want: we get fat and lethargic and grow unhappy with ourselves; we develop chronic illnesses such as heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes; we grow depressed and seek professional help, which most often results in drugs (and sometimes a lot of drugs); or, if we don’t seek help, we turn to the things that comfort us–food, alcohol, drugs, etc. So many people say they don’t have time to do something for themselves but the result is death.

Yes, truly. Death of the quality of life. Death of our health. An early death. And potentially the early deaths of our children.

Come on, people. Wake up and smell the roses. Life is an amazing experience and we need to learn to STOP. Literally. And then prioritize. If all that money and stress is worth it to you, if sacrificing your health and the positive experiences associated with finding time for you, then don’t bother reading this post. This isn’t for you.

If you’re hurting and depressed and confused and don’t know where to start with finding help, I’m glad you took the time to stop by and read it.

Here’s the reality: You, and YOU alone, have the power to impact your family, your workplace, your health, and ultimately your life. This is a choice. Not anything short-term, either. I’m not talking about losing that 20, 30, or 50 pounds in order to fit into that bikini you have always wanted to wear, only to let quit the gym after summer is gone because it’s raining. I’m not talking about eating “clean” in order to reverse the effects of inflammatory disease until you feel well enough to go on with your life, or get bored of doing what the doctor ordered because “it’s tedious”. This is about lifestyle behavioral changes that last the rest of your days.

Here are some things to keep in mind when looking to reduce stress factors in your life:

1. Acknowledge your limitations and fears. Define them. Write them down if necessary. Do whatever it takes but get real. Once you know what the evil monsters under the bed really are, it is easier to face them. Create a “no fear” zone and learn your ABC’s. A = action: take a leap of faith and do something you have always wanted to do. B = Belief: have faith in yourself and watch your fears diminish. C = courage: be strong; you’ve succeeded elsewhere, so why not here too?

2. Be realistic. Set goals you know you can accomplish. Remember, lifestyle and behavioral changes take time, money, and patience. Baby steps result in progress. Whether it is a change in your dietary or fitness habits, how you think about yourself (known as positive self-talk), or merely taking the time out of your schedule to spend more time with your family, embrace what is important to you. Take it by the hand and run with it. You will feel free.

3. Accept failure. The mindset Americans have about failure is unhealthy. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why people grow depressed and suicidal. They are imperfect and make mistakes, and that affects their lives and how they interact with others, and others with them. Failure is how we learn and grow and human beings. It makes us better because we see the consequences of our actions. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes and failings. Try again tomorrow, for it is a new day.

4. Deal with you first, then move to take action. Don’t start a five-day a week high-intensity cardiovascular program if you are taking heart or blood pressure medications. Don’t start an exercise or diet program at all if you suffer from an eating disorder. Reach out and seek help from professionals. That is why they are there: to help you live a full and quality life. Say you suffer from negative mood or depression, and exercise isn’t helping alleviate the darkness. Talk with your doctor. Let your friends know that you are struggling. Or say you have a bunch of emotional garbage stored up that inhibits you from succeeding. Deal with it. Clear out the clutter to make space for yourself.

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When you’ve dealt with your you, then reach for your goals. Get moving! Exercise benefits the brain in numerous ways, from combating the onset of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to alleviating aches and pains to reversing negative mood and depression–even saving lives!

Try a mind-body class, such as yoga or Pilates. In a recent Whole Living article on the benefits of mind-body classes as related to healing, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber said, “My conviction is that healing is less about battling illness and more about nourishing life.” Mind-body classes help connect you to your inner self through exercise, breathing, and meditation. Perhaps you don’t want to meditate. That is fine. There are classes that are physical. I’ve taken them. They still calm and connect you to your emotions, and allow you to let go of the crap you’re holding onto. Yoga, meaning “union”, connects mind, body, and soul. Pilates seeks to do the same through a method called controlology, an effort to coordinate all three aspects of your you through concentration and mindfulness. These, and others, seek to bring balance into our bodies and lives.

Not up for, or ready for, exercise? Great! Try cultivating mindfulness. Be aware of your posture. People with good posture–shoulders back and down, chest up, head settled on the neck, tailbone tucked down, abs engaged, weight evenly distributed over the four corners of the feet–have more self-confidence and feel better about themselves and the things they do. Women who have good posture are also less likely to be attacked. Also, the cultivation of mindfulness improves sensory awareness, benefits suffers of MS, and increases gray matter density. Yes, that’s right. You build more brain.

Try wabi-sabi, Japanese for “simplicity” + “beauty of age and wear”. Better stated, it is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is seeing a thing or a person for who and what they are, and accepting it or them as such, rather than seeking from them perfection, endurance, and monumental deeds that they might not be able to meet. Talk about stressful! Which of us can really be perfect? Or live forever? Or do something that will go down in history as being remembered, whether good or bad, but nonetheless, huge? Stop trying and accept yourself and those around you.

Indulge in a hobby. Be creative. Get in touch with a part of you that may be crying out for release. I believe that creativity is essential to the human being. It is freeing. It connects us to our very souls. Go to a museum or attend a dance concert. Better yet, slap some paint on a canvass, get jiggy wit’ it, write a poem, compose the next great opera. You’ll see what I mean.

Create a complaining shrine to “get it off your chest”–break the stagnation and repression and let go of your junk. You cannot control what others do anyway, and often times you cannot control the situations you end up in. Why bother then?

Go on a vacation. Cut the noise. Turn off the television. The news only relates the bad and the terrible these days. Where is the beauty and the joy in that? Enjoy a good book. Listen to soothing music.

Get some sleep. Adults who get the recommended 6-8 hours, or even 10, a night are more alert, aware, positive, and productive in the things they do with the time that they have. I’m not dogging on caffeine. Sleep just works better.

Stress relief and a better quality of life requires a proactive approach. It might be in the form of a yoga class. It might be taking time to get in touch with your significant other on an emotional level. It might only be 15 minutes a day of deep breathing, or that quick cat nap you look forward to every lunch period. Whatever it is that you want to do, do it!

You are the one who has the power to succeed or to fail.

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A writer friend of mine got me thinking about this subject with her recent posts on OmmWriter, mental Feng Shui, and her personal gains and obstacles with that ever-present irritant that creeps in on us. Yes, I do mean clutter. The stacks of papers, the bills yet to be filed, the books piled up on our floor, the laundry that needed to be done two days ago, the grudges we’re still holding against the erratic assholes who cut us off three freaking times in the gas line at the only station awesome enough to sell American fuel for 10 cents less than the other stations nearby. (Although, if I were the type to get annoyed enough, I’d probably just hit the last pig who cut me off…)

What was that? Yes, you heard me right. We all think about clutter as that junk that piles up around us but what about the garbage we let build up inside of us? Why are we hanging onto it? So that we can return the favor the next time we see that jerk in the me-too hot rod? Honestly, perhaps if you were my husband but I cannot tell one brand car painted white from its twin brother.

As writers, we take this junk and we twist it into useful bits of story that create three-dimensional characters, worlds, and those funny moments where we find ourselves peeing our pants or those awful minutes where we’re sobbing because we killed our favorite bad guy. Great as these bits are, however, they can also inhibit us from proceeding forward. Take a recent upheaval in my own life for an example. My husband serves as a U.S. Marine and just deployed. We also just moved from Japan 7 months ago. That seems like a long time to most people. In military life, it isn’t. It took us four months just to get housing, and to top it all off, we moved in two days before my husband was due out into the field for a training exercise–they graciously gave him 24 hours from the time the rest of the unit got their rifles (at 6 pm PST on a Thursday) to help me unpack our basic stuff. Needless to say, he left me half-swallowed up by boxes and piles of stuff I really just wanted to toss. And he was gone for a month. And when he returned, he had a few weeks before he deployed. Not to mention his two-week leave got tanked halfway through it, ruining our plans to see his parents that very weekend.

I’m not complaining about this. Jaded as it sounds, I am used to the lifestyle, used to my best friend and lover being gone in a moment’s notice. What I wasn’t used to–what made it so damn hard this time–was the plug inside me that kept me from writing a single word. I was used to being able to be upset and to sit down and charge forward in my story because I could push aside all the crap.

What I realized somewhere in the midst of this is that the crap had reached a maximum. I had to clean myself out. I had to let whatever I was holding go. Again, I’m usually fairly good at this. I’m no grudge-holder. I’ve learned that being laid back helps more than getting wound up when things go wrong. Thank you military lifestyle!

There is a moment when even the things you thought you had let go resurface. We push and push and ignore the things that creep into our lives until *poof* we’re “blocked”. Now, some might not believe in writer’s block. Some writers out there say that it’s nonsense, and they may very well be right. They’ve got their systems for pushing through the hard times. I applaud them (and you, if you’re one of them). Life, regardless of who we are, tends to be a wild roller coaster. At one point or another, it is going to throw us up into the air to see if we float back down. Some of us just have more unsettled lives than others. It therefore behooves us to take the time out of our busy schedules to go through the junk in our bodily attics and toss a few things.

For me, it was as simple at taking a break from writing altogether and then not rushing the restart once I felt ready to begin again. I needed to recharge. I needed a break. Part of this recharging process was beginning to teach Pilates again, and to resume yoga classes. Forget the spiritual aspects of the lifestyle of the latter, the physical exertion alone from these classes challenged me not because it was hard but because I was already struggling. It was awesome! It was what I needed to break the chains that had been holding my mind down. The five minute focus at the beginning and end of yoga class, and the concentration Pilates exercises require, got my head organize and let go. It was not a conscious effort. My subconscious did it and when it was ready, it spit out its first great idea in months.

Say you don’t have time for a full class. Why not try deep breathing? Set your egg timer or phone for 15 minutes and lie on the floor with a pillow beneath your head. (I recommend a phone with a soothing timer app if possible; my egg timer nearly gives me a heart attack every time.) Take several slow, deep breaths in and out through the nose. When you’re ready, add a count to your breath. Inhale for 4, hold for 2, exhale for 4, hold for 2. Focus on the count. Acknowledge any passing thoughts but don’t be consumed by them. They’ll still be there in 15 minutes.

Iuguolo. All rights reserved to the artist! Please do not steal or repost. Thank you.

Interested in cleaning up your computer? Yeah, that’s right. OmmWriter. (http://www.ommwriter.com/) Really, really awesome program, and Dana Version I is free. (Who does not like free?!) I’ve used it consistently since my friend recommended it, and she herself gushed today about how much she got done in a small time frame. Look at it. Try it. It might just clear up your head.

Is physical clutter causing you problems? Turn off the TV, the texting, anything that gets you distracted and set your timer for 15 minutes. Grab a trash bag and start tossing and organizing. It’s amazing how much we can get done in a quarter of an hour.

And if it’s intake of clutter that you’re concerned about, try giving up TV altogether. I’ve never been more productive than when I did not watch television. Although I’ve been enamored with cable for a few months, it’s wearing off. I’ll probably be TV-free again here by the end of the summer. It’s amazing how much time and mental energy it can take up. Need I repeat the crazed dreams I have about one show or another?

Most of all, take the time to create space for yourself. You’ll feel better and feel less stressed, and get more accomplished in the run.

(Gentlemen, beware! Sensitive subject ahead!)

 

I mean this quite literally. Please, forgive my rant. Earlier this week I had the most unfortunate, and unpleasant, experience at the gym. I was struggling to push myself through a 30-minute bought of running when the woman across from me began her jog. Now, I don’t mind some distraction when I’m exercising, especially when I’m doing something that gets hard fast. Running is one of them.

 

This distraction was of the absurd kind that only made my poor, tired brain more tired (it was not yet 0630). I swear that her sports bra was as old as she was, and not in the least bit sporty to a part of her that needs a bit of help when she runs. The elastic had run its course for sure…about 15 years ago. That is how bad this was!

 

Not everyone is a runner. I do not care who says it, some bodies are just built differently than others, and some joints will pitch a fit 15 minutes into a jog and continue to grumble for three days afterward. But this does not mean that we ladies ought to throw our underwire we wear for normal activities before pursuing our recreational ones. I cannot tell you how many young teenage cheerleaders I’ve told to get sports bras in order to prevent what I call “the Saggy Boob Syndrome” (SBS for short). They don’t believe me that a proper exercise bra really does reduce discomfort and breast tissue breakdown. Studies have long shown that, while pretty and sexy, underwire bras promote quicker breakdown of breast tissue than a wireless bra. Why, then, do I still see so many women wearing them to the gym?

 

I can only guess as to their reasons. Some probably think like I do: they’re ghastly expensive, these proper gym bras! A decent sports bra runs a lady anywhere from $35-60, and that is if you’re in the “normal” size charts. I’m willing to bed that plus-size bras cost much, much more.

 

Then there is the discomfort that can be associated with them. A lot of women pick the wrong bra to wear for high-intensity cardiovascular exercise. They often also pick the wrong bra to wear for yoga class. (I have made all the mistakes, and have learned how embarrassing it is to have to constantly pull up that cute little sporty top because my girls are thinking about making a surprise appearance. I have also learned how vital it is for a stiffer sports bra when doing long bouts of high-intensity cardio, like running, so I don’t feel like I need to duck tape them in place for the next few days while doing any activity whatsoever. Trust me. I’ve been there, done that, and it’s not fun or pretty.)

 

Here’s the deal, ladies (and gentlemen wanting to help their ladies), spend the money. Don’t buy the cheap $10 bra with some unheard of name. I also did that for years. Not only did they wear out fast but then didn’t do a great job to begin with. Since I’ve coughed up the money for these expensive purchases, I have to say that exercise has been a lot kinder to my girls. The bras last much longer–and if you can handle letting them air-dry after one workout to wear for another before washing, even longer than that; look great and hold shape. I haven’t experienced any stretch that has not returned to its former place after a wash. Plus, if you’re wearing a great sports bra, you can focus on the task at hand (usually a form of exercise or similar activity, although I like to wear them for long plane rides too), which means better results and massive exposure to those awesome endorphins that promote good mood and better self-esteem.

 

Interested? I hope so. Breast support is part and parcel to good breast health. So, depending on the activity you do, shop using some of these quick tips I found in a recent Whole Living magazine article (www.wholeliving.com):

 

1. Yoginis and those who do a lot of mind-body exercise don’t need a huge amount of support, but coverage helps one focus on the Downward-facing Dog;

2. Runners and those participating in intense cardio need support that won’t constrict breathing, and would do well to find something that wicks sweat away fast;

3. Low-impact exercisers want comfort that allows a wide range of arm motions and flattering silhouettes;

4. As breasts move across three planes, you may want to look for an encapsulated (molded) bra, particularly if you are larger;

5. Halter-style, racerback (also called T- or Y-backs), crossback (X-back) bras reduce or eliminate neck and shoulder pain, numbness, tingling in the arms, headaches, pressure on the trapezius muscles, and overall muscle tightness when compared to regular U-back or normal bra straps;

6. U-backs provide the least support but allow heat to escape;

7. Racerbacks have high anchor points that keep straps in place but cover a major sweat zone;

8. Crossbacks are best for larger breasts but may irritate trapezius muscles;

9. If you’re one to “nip-out” during class, look for a bra with removable pads or padded cups.

 

Personally, I prefer Under Armour and Nike bras and halter tops. I like how they limit movement. I’ve got a big thing about SBS and boob bounce. (Sorry, guys! I know you like the show, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about.) I was the girl in high school who all the guys stared at when she was running, and who got asked the questions about black eyes by those very same testosterone-driven jocks. Needless to say, I was also the girl trying to figure out a way to surgically remove my breasts without much money, pain medications, or my parents knowing.

 

You may not like compression, however, which some say inhibits breathing. There are a lot of bras out there, ladies. Do your research. Decide what you like for your girls. But for gosh sakes, please wear a sports bra if you exercise. You’ll save your breast tissue and skin ligaments in the long run, and prevent the guy running next to you to trip over his shoe laces, dog, treadmill, or tongue because it’s fallen out of his head, The Mask-style.

 

Don’t know where to look? Check out these websites as places to launch your search:

http://www.shopadidas.com

http://www.patagonia.com

http://www.movingcomfort.com

http://www.championusa.com

http://www.asicsamerica.com