Preventing Polar Posture

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Polar vortex, polar invasion or just plain winter. No matter what you call it, it’s HERE already and I am beginning to hear and see what this cold weather does to people.  Living in the north I hear the best excuses on why people can’t come to exercise classes- ” it’s dark outside when I get home”, “it’s snowing “, ” I just feel sleepy in the winter “.  Crazy or arctic hysteria I don’t know, but when we give in to those thoughts we sabotage our continued fitness efforts and this can lead to what I see and have now started calling-POLAR POSTURE.  Here’s what it looks like- forward head, rounded shoulders, flexed low back, tight hip flexors-  basically the couch sitting, Snuggie wearing, cocoa drinking posture we assume to hunker down and hibernate in front of our TVs for 5 months. Ughhhh. From lack of sunshine, prolonged sitting, to changes in eating habits all of these winter behaviors can really take their toll physically.

Musculoskeletal imbalances from posture changes result in back, shoulder and neck pain, and can be impacted by our postural hibernation habits. These imbalances can increase our risk for injuries. So let’s talk about why.  First off,  with the days being shorter and weather worse we spend too much time indoors mostly sitting. Our bodies are designed to stand not sit, and the more we sit, the worse our posture gets, as our spine rounds forward, neck protrudes forward and shoulders round forward. These postures result in increased upper neck tension, stiffness in joints, increased risk of disc protrusions, referred pain like sciatica, shoulder impingement and even more shallow breathing due to the forward posture restricting rib movement.

The cold temperatures do not help.  When we are cold, the body’s response is to curl up to conserve heat. What do we do again? Round our shoulders, round our upper back, flex forward and breathe more shallowly. Sound familiar? Again the same posture as sitting on the couch.

Abdominal core strength is also impacted by this winter postural position. When the core is not used to support the spine in a neutral posture it becomes weak. It weakens from the inside out. So the deep postural muscles are no longer supporting the bony structure as needed to provide stable movement.

In the winter we eat differently too. Summer salads and fresh foods are replaced with warm cozy comfort foods.  We are less active. This combo leads to weight gain and reduced muscle tone. Our muscles lose some of their elasticity from the disuse, making it harder to cope with the above mentioned postural imbalances. This then makes us more prone to strains and injury when we finally do roll off the couch and out from under our fur throw.

So what do you do?  Be aware of all these issues first. Know that you have complete control and the power to make the right choices.  Keep up with your regular fitness schedule. Don’t make excuses because of the weather. You cannot control the weather but you can control your fitness routine.  If you cannot get out of the house because you are snowed in there are many quick exercises you can do to keep that posture in check.

Here are a few exercises that only require a chair and a foam roller.  If you don’t have a roller, you can get one at http://www.optp.com. I like the black axis foam rollers best.

1. Deep lateral breathing exercises- Sit up tall on the edge of a chair. Place your hands on your lower rib cage. Inhale for 10 counts and let your ribs expand. Exhale for 10 counts and feel your abdominals pull your rib cage down compressing all the air out of your lungs. Repeat 5 -8 times

2. Chest Stretches– Open up your rib cage and shoulders by laying on your foam roller vertically with your arms open to a 90 degree angle. Breathe into the pectoralis muscles and feel the chest stretch. Allow the muscles to relax and lengthen. Repeat breathing at your own pace for 3-5 minutes.

3. Chin nods– While laying on your foam roller, inhale and tuck your chin towards your chest as if squeezing a small ball between your chin and chest, exhale and let the chin resume it’s normal posture.  Repeat this 10 times.

4. Upper Back Stretch– Place your foam roller horizontally in your upper back. Place your hands behind your head with your knees bent and hang backwards over the roller stretching your upper back and reversing the thoracic curve. Hold for a few breaths, then lift your pelvis and roll on the upper back muscles to relieve any tension.

5. Hip flexor stretch–  Stand up, hold onto a stable surface, reach back and grab your ankle while bending your knee and pull your leg back. Hold for 15 seconds to stretch the front of you hip and thigh. If you just have to lay down at this point 🙂 you can do this while laying on your side.

These exercises can be done daily to help keep you out of the “Polar Posture”. Remember to keep up with your regular classes for flexibility , strength and cardio too and you should make it out of the Arctic weather season unscathed.

If you would like more foam roller stretches. My e-book-” On a Roll@Home, Stretch and Massage” has all the exercises you need to get you through that long winters night.  Visit my website store page to view retailers.

Need more ? Classes and private training is available , just be warned. You must leave your house during the winter to attend!!

ARE YOUR HAMSTRINGS TIGHT?

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Since we are doing the 8- week Hamstring Challenge in my classes this fall I thought I would write a bit about why those tight hamstrings are a problem. They are really relatively easy to stretch and easy to measure the range of motion, so there really is no excuse for not taking the time to do the stretching exercises.  And you will feel the results happening quicker than you think. Stretching only once is a while can stretch them but the results will only be short lived. The stretches must be done over a period of time to see the long term results. After that then a maintenance program can be done.
You can liken stretching the hamstrings to stretching a rubber band. The rubber band will eventually bounce back to its original length unless stretched again. In that way there is a carry over from one stretch to the next.
A study by J. Yimen et al, found that after a 4- week stretching program at home, straight leg raise angle increased by 25%. participants in his study were men in their 20’s who stretched their hamstrings in standing for 30 secs, 6 reps, once a day. You will be doing an 8 week program and performing the exercises twice a day !

WHAT ARE THE HAMSTRINGS?

Your hamstrings consist of a group of three posterior thigh muscles located on the back of your leg which run from just below your knees up the backs of your thighs, all the way to your gluteus maximus. As the name suggests, your “hamstrings” refer to the string-like tendons (that you can actually feel) behind the backs of each of your knees.There are three hamstring muscles on the backs of each thigh, two on the inside of your thigh and one on the outside of your thigh. The scientific names for these muscles are:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris (long head)

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Your hamstrings actually play a pretty important role in your day-to-day life and can have far-reaching effects on your movement, stability and joint health. Your hamstrings are responsible for:

  • Hip extension
  • Flexing your knee
  • Knee rotation and bending
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Sprinting
  • Jumping (and controlling trunk movement)
  • Deceleration (particularly where your knees are involve

WHAT CAUSES TIGHT HAMSTRINGS?

Imbalanced quadriceps are most often the cause of tight hamstrings. Your quads are a large, strong group of anterior muscles located on the front of your thigh just above your knee. When your quadriceps are stronger than your hamstrings, it creates tension because your hamstrings are weaker. When your hamstrings (or any muscle for that matter) is weak or fatigued, you are more susceptible to injury.

In sports such as soccer or running (particularly sprinting events), your hamstring muscles work overtime to help you extend your legs to run fast or jump. It is somewhere during the point where our foot or leg is fully extended, that we are most susceptible to a hamstring injury or strain.

Runners, cyclists, rowers and soccer players are all at higher risks of developing “tight” hamstrings as all of these activities require quite a bit of strong knee flexion. However, other causes of tightness can also be the result of sitting for long periods of time (Hello, desk job and long road trips!).

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR HAMSTRINGS ARE TIGHT?

You often don’t realize you have tight hamstrings until they start affecting movement or start creating back or knee pain. Tight hamstrings affect the position of the pelvis which can directly affect the posture of the spine and this can cause mechanical low back pain. Poor low back posture could also be a sign that your hamstrings are tight. You will see a flattened lumbar spinal curve if your hamstrings are tight.  You also may notice that you have hamstring tightness if you are doing programs like Pilates or Yoga. Tight hamstrings interfere with normal flow of movement and your ability to get into the correct position to execute your moves.  A quick note – is that your hamstrings are not all “equally”tight. Meaning your right and left hamstrings may be different lengths.  This can cause problems too.  You want them even.

HOW DO YOU ASSESS TIGHT HAMSTRINGS?

This is easily measured by a physical therapist or trainer, and can be done in a variety of ways. My favorite testing method is done while you lie on your back. The hip is bent to the 90 degree position and then the knee is straigthened from there and the angle at the knee is measured. To do a quick test to see if you may have tight hamstrings withoutthe help of  a professional. Sit on the floor with your legs straightened out in front of you. Can you sit with your knees straight while keeping your back in a neutral posture ( meaning good sitting posture with your spine straight)? You should be at a 90 degree angle.

SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Here is the program that we are doing in the hamstring challenge. Give it a try for the next 8-weeks. If you can get measured at the start and then again at the end it would be a great idea and rewarding to see your progress.
Here’s the plan:

Perform the exercises at least 2 times a day
Perform them EVERY day for the 8- weeks

WHAT YOU’LL NEED – a wall, a yoga strap or belt, foam roller

1. Legs Up the Wall: Lay on your side with your knees bent with your sit bones on the wall. Roll onto your back with the legs extending up the wall. Make sure your tailbone is on the floor, that you are NOT arching your back. Flex your feet and tighten your thigh muscles to touch the back of your knees to the wall. Lay there for 10-15 mins (tip- you can use your yoga strap over your feet to help flex your feet more and stretch the hamstrings)

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2. Single Leg Supine Hamstring Stretch: Begin by lying on the back, legs extended and chin tucked in. Place the strap to the arch of the left foot. Inhale and slowly raise the left foot up towards the sky keeping the right leg and hip connected down towards the floor. Grip the strap with both hands and only go to the point where you feel the first initial stretch in the hamstrings. Flex the left foot and contract the quadricep muscles. Stay here for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side. Repeat 3 times

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3.  Foam Roller: Massage hamstrings by sitting on the roller and rolling up and down them length of the hamstring from gluteals to the knee.

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Let me know how you did in the feedback !  You CAN rid yourself of tight hamstrings and feel yourself moving more freely and maybe even notice pain syndromes disappearing !

Straighten up Girls !

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http://www.infintyhealth.org
Being a 6′ tall woman, I have always been particularly aware of my posture. There is nothing worse when you are tall than to slouch. It draws even more attention to yourself. So I have always worked to keep from “slunching” ( combo of slouch and hunch) forward to hide my height. Afterall, I really couldn’t hide it by slunching. Much like the girl who started to blossom earlier and more voluptuously than the average girl, they rounded their shoulders and slouched forward to hide their ample bosom. Or were you the girl who felt self-conscious, not one of the “in” crowd. Did you try to hide behind your forward posture to get lost in the crowd? Or did your posture problems begin with motherhood? Carrying heavy children around on your hip, hauling large carriers around.
Many of our poor postural habits began when we were developing and growing, some reflect our state of emotions, and some have started as we go through our adult lives raising families. Now we are faced with muscles that are lengthened and weak and other muscles that are tightened and short, a spine that has shifted or changed it’s shaped. Postural pain and syndromes are directly related to the way we hold ourselves to face the world and it’s challenges.

Besides sapping your energy and making it more difficult to accomplish everything you’ve got packed into your day, poor posture has a slew of health consequences that can put a damper on your fit lifestyle; back pain, neck tension, disc herniations, arthritis, headaches, digestive issues just to name a few.
Learning to perfect your posture, can boost your active life and also your efforts in the gym. Why? Because it’s ALL about alignment ladies. The better your posture, the greater range of motion in your joints and spine, the better your muscles are able to work efficiently. When the spine and joints are in their optimal alignment, the muscles can respond without strain. If you are working out in poor alignment you will encourage and strengthen that poor alignment. If you are in good alignment then you encourage and strengthen GOOD alignment. If aligned you will prevent pain and injuries, boost your flexibility, improve your breathing, and after a workout feel more energized.
So how do you do it, how do you change years of poor posture? Well,first you need to have someone evaluate your posture. A licensed physical therapist can do this. They will be able to tell you where your problems are, which muscles are weak and which muscles are tight, and what position your spine is in. This way you can streamline your workout to focus on only strengthening the muscles that need it and stretching the muscles that need lengthening so you can balance your posture.
Once you become aware of your postural habits you can work to improve them during your daily activities and during your workouts. The therapist will be able to tell you exactly how to strengthen your form and which exercises specifically will be effective.
It’s not too late once your posture has changed. Most of the time with the right program you can stop or even reverse these postural changes. So what is this program? Well, I am knowledgeable in many programs and the reason I felt inspired enough to confidently leave the clinical setting and pursue a new career in Pilates is because it’s the best. I saw changes in clients posture and pain that I never saw with any other exercise program. It is really the most efficient exercise program there is for postural changes and back/neck pain issues. Pilates exclusively focuses on alignment, core strength and breathing that can help change alignment like no other. It will not happen overnight OR if you do not practice and follow through with your exercises at home. TRUST ME ON THIS. You cannot change posture by just doing one class a week with no follow-up exercises. Seriously? You know that right? So if you have done 6 or 8 classes and expect miracles they will not happen. Postural change happens with continued practice and dedication. YUP.

So are you in a class? Once you are upright again in fabulous posture you’ll not only look better visually, but feel better and feel more confident.
Interested in an evaluation and possibly a class? Visit http://www.infinityhealth.org for current classes and to register. You won’t regret it.

PREVENTING BACK PAIN AT HOLIDAY TIME !

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Christmas can mean increased back pain for those of you who have a history of back injuries.  Christmas time is loads of work for YOU- Santa’s elf.  As you are decorating trees, climbing ladders, hanging lights, baking cookies, shopping, and traveling it can all lead to increased strain on your spine. Preventing back pain at holiday time means not only being extra careful and using good techniques (or what we therapists call body mechanics) when lifting and decorating, but also incorporating exercises to help prevent back pain at Christmas time.  According to the Product Safety Commission, 11,000 people end up in the emergency room every Christmas due to decorating injuries, which include broken bones, cut, burns and falls. In the therapy clinic I would see many new patients the first of the year for low back strain due to straining  while holiday decorating.  As someone who loves to decorate myself ( yes, I have 5 trees) I have 13 tips for preventing back pain, as well as falls at holiday time:

1. Lift with your legs, when hoisting up packages and boxes of Christmas decorations.Try specifically not to bend, twist and lift all at the same time. Exhale when lifting. This helps to decrease disc pressure that could lead to a herniated disc and also helps to engage your core, which will help keep your back stabilized.

2. When carrying boxes and packages, keep them close to your torso. Don’t try to carry too much.  The lazy mans load does not apply here. If you are shopping, unload some of your gifts into your car during your shopping visit so you are not trying to carry too much and then engaging in awkward postures- as you lug around 15 shopping bags, carry a purse, text and drink a latte.

3. When picking up grandkids, etc, lift with your legs. Do not swing kids around or even sit for prolonged periods of time on the floor playing with new toys. These positions can strain the back. Also trying to shop, cook and decorate holding a child on your hip can be very tiring for the back and the arm. You are unbalanced when lugging a kid around. Put them down and give them a job to do instead.

4. When handling boxes of Christmas goods that are on the floor or on low shelves, kneel or squat, rather than bend and hunch over. This position increase disc pressure and makes you at risk for a herniated disc.

5. When wrapping  Christmas gifts, don’t do it hunched over or on the floor .  Put the gift up on a countertop or table so that it is at waist level and  you can maintain correct posture while having the gifts at this comfortable height.  Standing or sitting on a high stool is best since sitting on the floor usually causes you to strain the upper body and low back.

6. Don’t force yourself into contorted positions while reaching or use a prolonged awkward position to decorate Christmas trees or hang Christmas lights. Find someone taller, or use a stable stepping stool.  Straining to reach as you flex forward can really strain your back  muscles, put increased pressure on your discs and increase your risk for falls.

7. If you must use a ladder, make sure it’s stable and have someone hold it at all times. The most common fracture that occurs when falling off the ladder is heel bone (calcaneal) fractures. Trust me on this one, I have personal experience.  Not an easy injury to heal from.

8. When carrying packages outside, first scan the path you’ll be walking to make sure there’s no ice or anything else you might slip on. If you can’t see over your packages or out in front of you, make two trips.

9. If driving for long periods, stop every 2 hours for some stretches, walking and water. While  sitting for extended periods in your car, be conscious of good sitting posture; no persistent slouching or leaning. Use a lumbar support pillow to help keep your lumbar curve in a healthy position. Feet on the dashboard is not a good position for your body.  Perform some of your Pilates exercises like chin tucks, shoulder shrugs and rolls,  seated pelvic tucks, gluteal squeezes, and spine stretches forward. This will help to keep your postural muscles happy.

10. If traveling by air, get up every 30 minutes and walk around and continue to use your lumbar pillow. Perform the exercises above as well to keep the back from getting stiff. Add in some toe tapping and ankle pumps to keep the blood flowing in your legs too.

11. Watch what you eat: Christmas time weight gain can add strain to the back and cause pain. ( Are you listening Santa? Go easy on the cookies)

12. If you will be standing in your kitchen for a long time baking and cooking, try to either stand on a shock reducing mat or wear supportive shoes to help alleviate  strain to the back while standing. The support of the shoes will help you to stand taller and decrease strain on the legs. Ho, ho, hold in your core to help keep postural muscles in check.

13. Do not skip your workouts. Make time to take care of your body with a PILATES CLASS,  a roller workout, gym visit , or walk. You will feel so much better if you just take 30 minutes a day and move your body.

Happy Holidays and may all your backs be pain-free —  Gift Certificates for Pilates classes or private sessions from Infinity Health are available at www.infinityhealth.org