In the past few weeks, I have been asked by several people to discuss some simple, easy-to-do abdominal exercises that help strengthen the core. I am very specific when I say core as opposed to abs. The region referred to as the core in Pilates stems from the lowest rib to just beneath the hips. The muscles that comprise this area help support and stabilize the pelvis, back, and internal organs. Controlology, the idea that all movement begins with the core and the basis of Pilates, is used to neutralize the pressure on the lower back–the most common area of pain these days–by strengthening the obliques, transversus, iliopsoas, hip flexors, gluts, and spinal erectors. The rectus abdominus, that showy superficial muscle that gives “six pack abs” plays a minor role in actual core stability and strength.

 

As many people struggle with increasing back pain, it becomes integral that a few minutes every day strengthening the core to minimize the damage done by sitting hunched over at desks, in cars, etc., habits that create bad posture and, therefore, weak abs and unstable lower spines, pelvises, and hips. Poor posture also tightens the hamstrings and lengthens the muscles of the upper back. Since everything in our bodies is integrated, it is important to work from your “center” outward. Each time you exercise, you should start by “engaging” your core. This means pressing the bellybutton in toward the spine and lifting it up toward the heart, creating a zipper effect that lengthens the lower back (alleviating pain), cinches in the rib cage (think “corset”), and neutralizes pelvic tilt.

 

Go ahead and give “neutral spine” a go before trying the exercises below. Lie on your back, knees bent, heels toward your gluts. Relax the arms down by the sides. Become aware of the natural curve in your lower back. Think about it for a few breaths. Then tuck your chin down slightly, lengthening through the back of the neck. (NOTE: chin should be about a fist’s-width space from the chest; or you should be able to squeeze an apple or orange in the gap. This prevents neck strain.) Inhale through your nose. On your exhale, scoop the bellybutton down and up. Eliminate as much space from between the low back and the floor as possible without tilting the pelvic bone too far forward (referred to as a posterior tilt). Inhale and relax back into your natural curve. Try this a few times. If you have difficulty slipping a hand beneath your lower back when your abs are engaged, you are doing it right!

 

Ready for the exercises?!

 

The One Hundred

This classic Pilates move targets the abs, creating strength, developing trunk stabilization, and stimulating the circulatory system and warm up the body. It is named for the breath employed during the exercise. Inhale through the nose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5–exhale through the mouth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for a total of 10 breaths. It is okay if you aren’t there yet. Start with five full breaths and work up to the full 10. Even if you forget which way to breathe, the idea is to breathe! Practice this several times before moving on.

Photo linked to site with more info and pictures! Enjoy!

Start in supine position (i.e. lying on your back), knees bent, feet toward your gluts, palms face down on the floor, chin tucked. For those who have back problems, do the exercise with the feet on the floor, gradually working toward the next step as you develop strength. For those without back problems, lift the legs, knees bent to a 90-degree angle so that shins are parallel to the floor. Engage the abs, scooping the bellybutton down, and lift the shoulders as high as you’re able, maintaining a proper distance of chin from chest. Look at your knees. Lift the arms so that they are parallel to the floor, palms down. When you are ready to begin, pump your arms sharply with every breath (pumping up and down 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on both the inhale and exhale) until you have finished the exercise. Important: be mindful of your lower back; it should not lift from the floor. When finished, return to your supine position and take several deep breaths in.

 

The Ab Oval

Bring the fingertips behind the ears. Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor. Again, maintain that scooped belly and neutral pelvis as you progress but also check your shoulders. The shoulder blades should be pulling down the spine as if being tucked into your back pockets. On an inhale through the nose, twist to the right as far as you can, lifting the shoulders, keeping elbows wide. On a long exhale through the mouth, lift the shoulders up and over until you are twisting to the left, elbows wide, before relaxing down to the ground. Begin again, this time going left to right. Imagine that you are drawing an oval through the air with your nose and that you are trying to lift your shoulders up and over a golf ball (or, if stronger, a tennis ball) as you go from side to side. Be mindful that you do not relax the shoulders onto the ground until you have finished the oval/exhale. Do 6-12 total reps, alternating sides. This exercise works the abs and obliques, emphasizing the latter, while developing pelvic stability during spinal rotation. Think twist and lift!

 

The Bridge/Pelvic Curl

Both names are used. This exercise improves spinal articulation, establishes pelvic-lumbar stabilization, and develops ab and hamstring control. Begin in your supine position, knees bent, feet flat on the floor close to gluts, arms firmly pressing down at your sides, palms down, chin slightly tucked. It is important that you do not allow the knees to knock or fall out to the sides. Engage your inner thighs. On an inhale through the nose, curl the pelvis and try and lift the gluts off the floor. On the exhale through the mouth, release back down. Do this three times.

 

On the fourth inhale, curl up farther to the middle back, releasing on the exhale for another three times. Finally, bridge up all the way to the shoulders. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to knees. Your belly should be flat. Your feet firmly planted, your weight evenly distributed through their four corners. On the exhale, scoop the abs to initial the roll down. Try to get each vertebra back on the floor separately, especially focusing on getting that lower back down before your gluts touch. This takes practice. Do it 3-8 times. Develop awareness of your spine. Eventually, you will be able to start with a full bridge.

Photo linked to page where there is more information and exercises.

 

Swimming

To counteract overly strong abs, we must also work the back muscles. This exercise aims at back strength, trunk stabilization, building coordination and cross-patterning, and improving shoulder flexor and hip extensor control. Lie in prone position (i.e. on your face), pressing the pelvis onto the floor and squeezing the bellybutton to the spine to help lengthen the lower back. Try to keep this area long. When doing back exercises, it is very easy to crunch into the lower back. Squeeze the legs together, or if that isn’t feasible, squeeze the heels toward one another. Lift the arms overhead. Forehead rests on the ground, chin still in neutral spine. Maintain visual focus on the floor directly in front of your eyes throughout the exercise.

 

On an inhale through the nose lift the right arm and left leg off the floor; exhale through the mouth and lower. Next inhale, lift the left arm and right leg; exhale and lower. Continue for 8 total reps.

Picture will take you to a site with more directions and exercises. Explore!

When, and if, you are ready (remember: listen to your body! You know yourself best!), lift both arms and legs from the ground. Hover and engage the core muscles. When focuses, flutter the arms and legs in a swimming motion, right arm/left leg, left arm/right leg (always opposites!). Your breathing will be the same as The One Hundred: inhale through the nose 1, 2, 3, 4, 5–exhale through the mouth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Start with five breaths and work your way up to a total of 10 breaths. When finished, place the hands beneath the forehead and relax. Then, when ready, press the hands beneath the shoulders and sit back onto your heels, rounding the spine, forehead on the floor, arms extended in front of you. (This is called extended child’s pose.) It is vital that you create space between the vertebrae after back extension exercises.

 

The Plank/Side Plank

An isometric exercise known for core strengthen and scapular stabilization, plank works every muscle in your body. Be mindful that you breathe throughout the entire exercise. Start by holding plank for 3-5 breaths. Work up to 1 minute.

 

For plank: Start with wrists (or elbows for those with bad wrists, backs, or deconditioning–you will work up to the hands in time) directly beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. Do not let the hands get in front of your shoulders as this makes the exercise much harder and threatens the integrity of the shoulder girdle. Engage the abs. Tuck the shoulders into your pockets without letting the chest fall through them. Think about this before moving on. Also, do not let your shoulders round to the ceiling. You want to be flat as a table top. If you have a mirror, check yourself visually. When ready, extend one leg behind you, toes tucked under. Then the other leg. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to heels. (NOTE: if this position is too difficult to hold without causing lower back strain, locked elbows, or release of the abs, drop your knees to the floor, maintaining a straight line from shoulders to knees.) Keep the head on the spine. Don’t forget to breathe!

Picture will take you to a website that has more directions if needed.

For side plank: Sit on the right hip, right hand on the floor. Again, elbow or wrist beneath the shoulder–do not let it end up beyond you or  you will jeopardize the joint. Place the left foot in front of the right foot, knees bent. Take an inhale. On the exhale, push up onto the hand, pressing the soles of the feet onto the floor, until you are in a straight line from shoulder to feet. (NOTE: if this position is too unstable or difficult to maintain, drop the bottom knee onto the ground but keep that straight line.) Lift the left arm up to the sky. Breathe! Lower down carefully and press onto the opposite side of the right hand, bending the wrist the opposite way. Switch to the left side and repeat the exercise.

 

During these exercises, you may find that one side is stronger than another. That is okay! Remember, the goal is to create symmetry and balance in the body. Push through the burn but be mindful if there is sharp or acute pain. Stop the exercise immediately if felt. If comfortable, try again or try an easier version of the exercise. If not comfortable, discontinue the exercise altogether. Remember, you know your body’s needs the best!

Vacation Time!

July 18, 2011

As of today, I am on a week-long vacation. My parents are in town for a visit and we will head to Vegas for a few days of fun and wandering in the sun. This means, as promised, no work–instruction or writing. This is fine as this chick got bitten by the vacation bug last week. I met my word goal for the week but it was far less than what I have been writing the past 6-8 weeks.

 

My body also needs a rest. I have been training hard. People always ask why? Truthfully, I have no reason except that I enjoy sweating while I exercise and good chunks of time to do it in. Maybe one day I’ll put it to good use for something. At the moment, I’m doing it because I enjoy it.

 

Tomorrow, I turn 27! Go me! Ciao, friends! Until next week!

Mindful Intentions

July 15, 2011

Mindfulness. You may have heard of the term. Another word for it is awareness. But how does this pertain to fitness and health? Why on earth do you hear it talked about in a yoga class?

 

I will try and sum it up in a few simple sentences.

 

Mindfulness is the connection of your thoughts to the task your body is doing. It is the connection of mind and body. Moreover, it is the reconnection of your head with your heart, the seat of emotion. It is connecting the reasons why you do something to the motives and emotions propelling you to act, react, or not act. It is the integration of action, thought, feeling and even soul.

 

On the practical side of this talk, mindfulness creates focus and drive. It helps you identify with yourself and your reasons. It also keeps you safer from attacks by criminals of all sorts, enables you to cope with stressful situations more easily and readily (not that there is anything easy about stress) and allows you to move beyond them quicker. Awareness can give you a clear-cut pathway for dealing with both negatives and positives in your life.

 

Most importantly, I think, mindfulness allows us to reconnect with ourselves. So often we go through the day wearing various hats. I, myself, wear the wife hat, instructor hat, writer hat, sloth hat (for those lazy days), hermit hat (for days when I’d rather not be seen in public), etc. The problem with hats is not how they define you but rather how you identify yourself with them. Often we–me included–disassociate our feelings and even our thoughts from the deed we perform. We get wrapped up in doing and being perceived by what we do by others. We leave ourselves behind and march on, only to stop at the end of the day (or week, or whatever length of time it takes) to wonder what benefit we have received from our actions.

 

Mind-body classes aim to help you reconnect with yourself. Many people take them to reduce stress, yet yoga and Pilates are so much more than that. They aim to get you to know or re-know yourself. There are days that I ask my students to think of one positive thing about themselves and to focus on it, to feel proud of it. See, mindfulness is not about self-judgment. It is about self-awareness and self-acceptance of both the good and the not-so-great parts that comprise you. We tend to act as judges, and judge ourselves most harshly of all.

 

Even if you don’t step into a mind-body class, taking a few minutes to breathe deeply, push away the distractions cluttering your head, and examining yourself in a positive, non-judgmental way lightens your stress load and brightens your day. If you can see past the clutter, the self-imposed negativity, and the other junk we store within ourselves, to find one thing to make our day, you will find that the deeds you accomplish find meaning. They no longer are the things that define you. Rather you are defining them.

 

So go on. Take a deep breath. Or two. Or three. Find something good about yourself. And smile. In the end, no deed, no great achievement, is worth nearly as much as you, your health, your emotional well being, and your sanity.

As mentioned in my latest health post, I have been eating a lot of this recipe. It’s quick, simple, and so tasty. Hope you enjoy it and make it your own.

 

1 lbs. chicken, cubed

3 tbsp. natural (plain) low-fat  yogurt

1.5 tsp. garam masala

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. salt

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tbsp. coriander (cilantro)

1 fresh green chili, chopped

 

Mix the spices, yogurt, lemon juice, coriander and chili together. Add thawed chicken and stir. Marinate in the fridge for an hour. Preheat grill (broiler) to very hot, then lower to medium. Put chicken into a flameproof pan lined with foil. Grill for 15-20 minutes until tender and fully cooked, turning chicken twice. Remove.

 

I like to eat it over rice with cabbage and yogurt. You could also stuff it into a “naan pocket”, as the original recipe states, and add cabbage, tomato wedges, and onion rings. I also tend to eat it over salad, using yogurt as the dressing over a mountain of greens. I suggest playing around with the recipe. As I usually forget to buy the green chili, I’ve found that it tastes just as great without it!

 

*Modified from “Chicken Naan Pockets”. Best Ever Indian Cookbook, Baljekar, Mridula; Fernandez, Rafi; Husain, Shehzad; & Kanani, Manisha. Hermes House, London, 2010; p. 131.

I am a huge lover of Indian and Asian cuisines. Lately, I have made a ton of yogurt-marinated chicken roasted beneath a boiler. After beating my brain up for the week trying to come up with a great health post, I thought I would take a break from stress relief and exercise and focus on something the majority of people enjoy: eating. Here are three great spices to help boost the flavor of your foods and promote a healthy body.

Cardamom: true cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum, a perennial plant with simple erect stems that produces small, green fruit containing up to 18

Wikipedia.

polygonal seeds with flat sides, is second only to saffron in terms of price per kilogram, which often results in adulteration or substitution. Some well-known inferior, related plants include cardamoms from Siam, Nepal, and Java. The true cardamom comes from India in two main varieties–Malabar and Mysore, the latter of which contains higher levels of cineol and limonene, making it very aromatic; Ceylon; and Malaysia, where it is still grown wild. It has an airy, gentle gingery taste with a hint of pine, and is readily used in curries, desserts such as pastries, and as a fragrance for soaps, detergents, lotions and perfumes. Cardamom has long been recorded in Chinese and Indian medicines, was chewed by Egyptians as a tooth cleaner, was used as a perfume by the Greeks and Romans, was featured in Arabian Nights for its aphrodisiac qualities, and has long been considered by Indians as a cure for obesity.

Having long been taken as a digestive, cardamom’s prime uses are similar to cinnamon and ginger–as a carminative (a substance that promotes elimination of intestinal gas), digestant, and stimulant. When selecting cardamom, one can purchase the whole fruits or pods or as whole or ground seeds. It is recommended that one buys them whole to preserve the volatile oils and grind as needed. If used whole in cooking, remove them from the dish before serving. One often finds fall recipes calling for the spice and if interested in giving a boost to that morning cup of coffee or tea, add 1/8 teaspoon before brewing or steeping. Cardamom has no safety concerns associated with dietary levels of consumption.

Ginger: Zingiber officinale is a rhizome, or root, with a pale yellow interior and skin varying in color from brown to off-white. Jamaican ginger, a pale buff, is regarded as the best, along with the multi-colored Kenyan variety; those from other parts of Africa and India are considered inferior. Generally, it has a firm yet striated texture and boasts a taste that is fragrant, pungent, and hot. In Chinese medicine, dried ginger tends to be hotter energetically than fresh ginger.

Wikipedia.

It comes in a plethora of forms, all of which I have tried. Whole fresh roots can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks if left unpeeled and comes in young and mature varieties, the latter of which needs peeling before use. Dried roots are sold “black” (with the root skin left on) or “white” (skin off) whole or sliced. Most of us are familiar with the buff-colored dried powder seen in the spice section, but there is also preserved, or “stem” ginger, peeled, sliced and cooked in heavy syrup before being canned together; crystallized ginger, also cooked in sugar syrup and then air dried and rolled in sugar (a personal favorite of mine); and pickled ginger, known in Japanese as gari and often found on sushi platters to refresh the palate between courses. Personally, I find this final form very sharp and need little of it when I eat sushi.

Native to southeastern Asia, India, and China, where it has been found in culinary and medicinal literature, the ancient Romans first imported ginger from China over 2000 years ago. From that time, its popularity in the West remained and although it remained relatively expensive to Europeans, explorers introduced it into the New World. It was also considered one of the spices used against plague, thus became a common article in Medieval and Renaissance trade. Among the places it is grown in today are Fiji, Australia, and the West Indies.

Historically, ginger has had a tradition of alleviating gastrointestinal distress. It is regarded as an excellent carminative and intestinal spasmolytic (a substance that relaxes and smooths the intestinal tract), an antioxidant and inhibitor of inflammatory compounds, and direct anti-inflammatory effects. Clinical studies report that ginger may help prevent motion sickness, especially sea sickness, and one study showed that it may be superior to the drug, Dramamine, commonly used to treat motion sickness. It has also been used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy. As an anti-inflammatory, ginger contains compounds known as gingerols, substances believed to explain why many people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis experience pain reductions and improvement in mobility when regularly consuming the spice. Gingerols inhibit the formation of inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers of the immune system. One preliminary clinical study reported that all patients noted substantial improvements in pain relief, joint mobility, decreased swelling, and morning stiffness; a larger follow-up study reported that 75% of arthritis sufferers and 100% of those suffering from muscular discomfort experienced pain and swelling relief. Since ginger contains high levels of active substances, the dosages do not have to be high in order to produce benefits and, although most studies have used powdered ginger root, fresh root is believed to  yield better results due to its active enzymes. Ginger contains moderate amounts of oxalate, therefore individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should consult their physician for the best recommendations and avoid its overconsumption.

Turmeric: a member of the ginger family, Curcuma longa rhizome has been extensively cultivated in India, China, Indonesia, and other tropical countries since approximately 3000 B.C. It is cured (boiled, cleaned, and sun-dried), polished, and ground into a powder that tastes peppery, warm, and bitter, while its fragrance is mild and slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger. “India’s saffron” is deep yellow-orange in color and the major ingredient in curries and a coloring agent in prepared mustard. Other uses for it include Hindu religious rituals, a dying agent, and a venerated constituent in Ayurveda. Although introduced by Arab merchants to Europeans in the 13th Century, it has only recently begun enjoying widespread popularity.

A key component to both Chinese and Indian medicinal systems, turmeric is an anti-inflammatory agent and treats numerous conditions including flatulence,

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jaundice, menstrual difficulties, bloody urine, hemorrhage, toothache, bruises, chest pain, and colic. Poultices made from turmeric are often applied locally to relieve inflammation and pain. Its yellow pigment, curcumin, seems to have demonstrated in scientific studies its significant anti-inflammatory benefits. Unlike potent drugs like hydrocortisone and pheylbutazone and over-the-counter agents such as ibuprofen, curcumin has no toxicity concerns while still competitively alleviating inflammation. Clinical studies have alsoshown that curcumin exerts powerful antioxidant effects, enabling it to protect healthy cells from free radicals that damage DNA and lead to cancer, significantly in areas such as the colon, where cell turnover is quite rapid; studies involving animals have shown that it inhibits colorectal cancers more effectively in all stages than aspirin.

Furthermore, it helps destroy mutated cancer cells and prevents their spread through the body, and stops tumor growth by inhibiting epidermal growth factors (EGF) receptor sites, inhibiting angiogenesis (fibroblast growth factor is a protein that promotes the formation of new blood vessels to feed growing tumors; curcumin inhibits its production), inhibits nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kb; protein that many cancers produce to block signals commanding them to stop proliferating), increases the expression of the nuclear p53 protein (promotes apoptosis or “cell suicide”), inhibits growth-promoting enzymes. As an antioxidant it also inhibits cancer-causing nitrosamines, enhances the production of cancer-fighting compounds, promotes proper liver detoxification of cancer-causing compounds, and prevents the overproduction of cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), an enzyme that may contribute to tumor development. Experimental studies have found that curcumin fights tumors arising from prostate, breast, skin, colon, stomach, and liver cancers.

Additionally, turmeric may help prevent heart disease and degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and multiple sclerosis. It not only helps lower cholesterol levels but also prevents the oxidation of cholesterol, the culprit for damaged blood vessels and plaque build up that leads to heart attack or stroke. As a brain-protective agent, studies have shown very low levels of neurological disease in elderly Indian populations where diets were high in turmeric consumption.Overall, turmeric is safe and well tolerated, even in high doses.

Fresh turmeric can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a month or, sliced and sealed in an air-tight container, three months. If one buys the more ubiquitous dry powder, make sure that it is stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark, dry place. It can be kept for up to a year. If it gets onto clothing, wash quickly with plenty of soap and water to avoid permanent staining.

As a side note: I just realized that all three spices are from the ginger family. So there you have it, folks. Eat more ginger. It comes in many more forms than you might think!

*Information comes from The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. with Lara Pizzorno, M.A., L.M.T., Atria Books, New York, NY, 2005; p. 470-471, 484-488, 521-524.

Avoiding Relapse

July 3, 2011

Relapse in the fitness industry is simply defined as sliding back into old, unhealthy habits without a foreseeable end. Usually, it results from the inability to cope with stressors or environmental triggers that derail an individual’s progress toward permanent healthy lifestyle behavioral changes. Stressors can take the form of pregnancy or new motherhood, illness or injury, an old favorite edible or drink, missing out on a workout one day…and then the next, vacations, etc.

These things, in and of themselves, are not evil. They may detract from an established routine or healthy behavior but they do not necessarily end the behavior. They are stressors. They cause lapses, short bouts where a lifestyle behavior is broken.

I believe that where lapses become relapses stems from a sense of guilt for not accomplishing “what everyone says” is right or healthy or good or better or

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meaningful. I will give two examples. The first pertains to myself. I have a horrible sweet tooth and I caved into it the other day and bought a bag of Swedish Fish. Boy, are they tasty! Yet I cannot help feeling a bit guilty about eating them because I know they aren’t the best thing in the world to eat, not when I have a pineapple staring at me from the kitchen counter. The second are two ladies who graced me with their presence in a class I subbed for this morning: they had not been to the gym, or had not worked out even, in a week; one had suffered a severe cramp in the stomach and, as accountability partners, this derailed both exercise routines. However, they showed up today and I was able to give them the advice stated below.

Life happens. No matter how much we plan, or how controlled we are in our daily routines, sickness, injury, children or spouses, work commitments, muscle strain, that tasty morsel, and so forth get in the way. It is not always bad to succumb to these things. When we’re sick, our bodies need rest. When we go out to eat with friends, we ought to enjoy our time and eat whatever we like. The trick is being aware of the stressor that has cropped up in your life, and the feelings associated with it, so that you can cope and move on as guiltless as possible.

In more basic terms, know what and why.

When we know why we do what we do, we are more able to adapt to the situation, cope with the stressor(s) involved, and avoid complete relapse–that awful thing that makes us feel more guilty, worthless, out of control, and less likely to try correcting the behavior again. Say, an individual eats when highly emotional. The best way to cope with this behavior, which can lead to weight gain or other health issues, is to identify what causes the emotion, why it happens, how the emotional reaction can be controlled better…and from that then how better to control their eating. While solutions are not always simple (some require outside help), the path toward success is. Self-awareness of one’s behavior, self-acceptance when one slips up, and the adjustment of personal goals when a lapse occurs, are the best ways of coping with lapses. What we want to avoid is complete, permanent relapse.

Remember, know why and what, and that tomorrow is full of new beginnings and a fresh dose of self-control. Don’t give up! Get back in the saddle and try again. The ladies in my class did. So am I. I’ve hidden those delightful red gummies so that I do not see them whenever I search my pantry. Now if only I could exchange my teeth for ones less inclined toward sweets!