- Brain cells are rewiring themselves enabling us to process, retain and organize information
- Muscles are being repaired from normal wear and tear
- Skin is being repaired and rejuvenated
- Your immune system is regulating and building itself up
- Growth hormones are being produced for cell reproduction and repair
Balance in life comes in many forms whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. It is a key to health and vitality. Today let’s look at the physical side of balance. Whether young or old, balance keeps us healthy and reduces the potential risk of injury. For athletes, balance is the key for being either a mediocre or excellent athlete. For the rest of us, balance enables us to move through life freely and without hesitation.
There are key components that keep our balance in check; a combination of sensory input from our eyes, a correctly functioning inner-ear system, along with an awareness of the position and movement in our feet, legs, and arms. Especially with sedentary living, these components can be compromised as we age, making a lack of balance a key cause of injuries and increase in fearful attitudes. According to the CDC, “each year, millions of older people—those 65 and older—fall. In fact, more than one out of four older people fall each year, but less than half tell their doctor. Falling once doubles your chances of falling again.”
Does this mean we accept this as a part of aging? I say a resounding NO! Studies have shown that, even among adults over seventy years old, it’s not too late to start a balance-improvement program and get results. For example, a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal showed that both men and women ages seventy-five and older had a 46 percent reduction in falls over a year’s time after working on their balance.
So what can we do about it?
Let’s begin by looking at the factors we can take responsibility for:
Vision – In addition to the obvious, use your eyes to focus more. When trying to balance, pick a spot about 20 feet ahead of you and focus on that spot while doing a balance movement. Often I see people looking down towards their feet and more so than not, this will cause them to lose their balance. Bring that head up and look ahead or on a fixed object.
Core Strength – Get those core muscles working for you! There’s a difference between holding in your stomach to look better verses using your entire core to lift that torso and engage in all the muscles around your waist and spine.
Get stronger! – The more you engage your muscles in movement, especially full range of motion, the greater feedback loops you will have to the brain. We will talk more about this in a moment.
Practice balance daily – If your balance is poor, start with static balancing. Stand on one foot. Stay up on your toes. Things like this. Once you’ve mastered this make your movements become dynamic. Stand on one leg and move the other one around. Stand on one leg and move your upper body. Put one foot behind the other and move. Use a balance board. Anything to keep the movement challenged.
Incorporate balance into your daily life – Get out of the habit of leaning on something to put on your pants or wash your feet in the shower. Center yourself on one leg, strengthen that core and go ahead and lift the other leg to put on those pants or wash that foot. We need to break those lazy habits now!
Learn to love those side leg lifts & kicks! – The muscles found on the outside of your hip, the Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimis and Tensor Fasciae Latae all help to stabilize your pelvis when standing on one leg. If they’re weak, they can’t fully support you and therefore need to be strengthened on a regular basis to keep your balance in check. You may want to check out Essentrics for an instructor in your area, videos or PBS classes on this fantastic type of exercise!
Get those feet out of shoes! – We have so many joints in our feet and they need to move individually in order to send feedback messages to the brain. If we are always held tight into our shoes, those joints get lazy and rely on our shoes to keep us upright. This spells disaster over time. Get all those joints working independently again.
Work through that old injury – Proprioception is compromised after an injury such as a sprained ankle or a hip replacement. The only way it can be regained is to work through it. Be gentle on it but move it, take it through every range of motion that is normal for that joint. Of course honor pain but don’t let the pain stop you. Find that place where you can relax and move it ‘just before’ the pain starts. Over time you will find it moves more and more and those feedback loops are reawakened.
Exercise regularly – People that exercise regularly have better balance. You can even increase balance if starting over age 75. The point is just do it!
For better understanding, I’d like to talk briefly (I could go on all day but I’ll spare you!) about proprioception. This is our body’s awareness of where we are in space. Proprioception is a feedback loop from receptors located in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints that send messages to the brain about where we are. For every one message sent to the brain, up to 30 messages are sent out from the brain to the rest of the body to appropriately adapt to the necessary combination of movements. Think full glass verses empty glass. You lift a full glass of water to drink and the brain will need to determine the weight of the glass with the water to smoothly take it to your mouth. Once the glass is empty the weight has changed again and the brain needs to direct the glass back down to the table adjusting for a different weight. All this is easily and unconsciously accomplished through an efficient proprioception system.
One of the biggest feedback loops in regards to balance is in the ankles. This study relates the importance to enhanced sports performance and yet is equally important for all of us. The ankles and feet are our main contact with the floor and therefore need to be especially tuned in to avoid injury. Challenging them through various balance techniques is a key factor in keeping us upright, literally.
Change is inevitable. Let’s make that change in the positive direction rather than the reverse. Strengthen those muscles throughout your body so they can perform at their best, move in every conceivable direction to get those feedback loops functioning fully, get out of those shoes and bring that head up to focus on something rather than your own two feet. 🙂
To see this system at its finest while reading more about proprioception, check out this phenomenal video of a cheetah running. As you watch it, notice her head is upright, hardly moving while focusing. Enjoy the beauty of her musculature moving fluidly through space. My favorite part – notice how she uses her ankles, lands heel to toe and spreads her toes with each and every landing.
We may not be cheetahs but we sure can move fully and gracefully throughout our life by participating daily in the art and beauty of complete balance.
This is one of my favorite meals for breakfast. It requires a limited amount of time to make, can be doubled to have again another day, and keeps me going on those days that require a lot of energy.
|Olive Oil||1 T|
|Carrot, sliced thin||1|
|Onion, chopped||1/2 med|
|Zucchini, quartered lenghtwise then sliced||1/2 reg|
|Crookneck Squash, quartered lengthwise then sliced||1/2 reg|
|Reb Bell Pepper, sliced into 1″ pieces||1/2 reg|
|Aleppo Pepper||1/2-1 tsp|
|Refried Beans, natural||1/2 of 16 oz can|
|Spinach, chiffonade||1-2 C|
|Egg, poached or Fresh Guacamole||1 or 2 eggs or 1 T Guacamole|
In a med/lg saucepan add olive oil and sauté carrot, onion, zuccini, crookneck squash, bell pepper over medium heat for a few minutes. Add cumin, pepper and salsa. Cover and cook until vegetables soften; about 8 minutes on med/low. Add beans and cook an additional 5-8 minutes until heated through. Place spinach in bottom of bowl. Top with bean mixture. Place poached egg or guacamole on top. S&P to taste. Garnish with cilantro if you like.
Serves 1-2 depending on how hungry you are!
You’ve been sitting at your desk for hours on end. You get up and think ‘wow, is my neck sore!’ Wonder why? Let’s take a look at the more common thing that happens over time from extended sitting.
Initially you may start pretty upright in your chair. The day is fresh and you are ready to go. As the day progresses you start to slump a bit. The lower back starts to round, causing your abdominal and chest areas to come forward and shorten. Naturally your head follows and starts to move forward and closer to the computer screen. Your eyes need to see what you are reading so you slightly tilt your head up. All these moves are unconscious yet by the time you get out of your chair your entire body positioning has been compromised. After months or years of this poor posture, the muscles become adapted to this new position.
To begin, a natural position for the head is to be directly above the shoulder joint. When it is sitting in this position, it requires the least amount of energy for your head to rest comfortably. However as that head starts to move forward of that ideal posture, your muscles have to take over in holding the head up against gravity. It may not sound like a big deal but according to Dr. Renee Calliet for every inch your head is forward of normal alignment it adds 10 pounds of pressure on the neck muscles. Over time as the head migrates further forward it can result in 30 pounds of additional pressure on the muscles of the neck! Talk about a heavy load! Our head already weighs between 10-12 pounds on average and now we are throwing an additional 30 pounds or more onto it! No light matter.
So who’s doing the work? It is the neck muscles that run directly down the spine that end up taking the load. Not only do they have to work hard to hold up that head, they are spending a great deal of unnecessary energy to do so. That energy results in an output of waste products including lactic acid. At the same time the muscles are tight from contracting, which results in decrease of blood flow causing those waste products to accumulate and irritate the nerve endings. Pain! Over time the spine will start to adapt to the position and finally recruits the body to lay down some extra connective tissue to assist. Have you seen people with that lump on the back of their neck at about shoulder height? It is called a dowager’s hump and is primarily a result of this head forward posture.
This is only part of the story. Remember I mentioned that you tend to tilt your head up to see the screen? Our body naturally realigns itself to bring the eyes to the horizon by tilting that head slightly up at the base of the scull. There are muscles there called the suboccipital muscles that hold your head in that position. When they are shortened for a long period of time they can develop hyperirritable nodules that can actually cause headaches – like a tight band around your head at the eye level. Ever had one of those headaches?
At the same time there are muscles in the front of the neck that end up short. One in particular – the sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) can also cause
temporal headaches and jaw pain. Another group called the scalene muscles can press on the nerves that innervate the arm, causing numbness and tingling in the arm and/or hand. It is a bit more complicated than this but you get the picture.
I could go on about the resulting effects of the chest muscles but let’s wait for another time. For now, we should look at things that you can do to get yourself out of this positioning. Here are a few tips:
- Make sure your chair has correct back support. You need to have a slight curve in your low back or you are going to round that low back which will result in rounding your chest, bringing your head forward and starting a barrage of other problems over time.
- Make sure your keyboard is in a position in front of you where your arms can relax by your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees. If your keyboard is too high, you will elevate the shoulders. If it is too low, you will be more likely to round that upper back, cave in your chest and end up with your head forward.
- If you work on a laptop, you might want to consider a monitor so you can look directly ahead rather than down onto the laptop screen.
- Get up and move regularly! The longer we sit, the more our posture starts to get compromised. Even if it is just a quick walk around your desk, when you sit back down you will hopefully be sitting more erect.
- Stretch out the neck muscles in the front, sides and back of the neck.
- Do some door stretches to stretch out the pectoralis muscles.
- Don’t know the ideal positioning for these stretches? Check out my eBook. It will give you full details for stretching these muscles and much more.
- Think of lifting up the top of your head towards the ceiling to elongate the neck and slightly tuck your chin in towards your neck.
- Set a timer every hour or two to recheck your sitting position and realign yourself accordingly.
If you are not sure if you have your head forward of ideal alignment, ask someone to take a picture of you from the side. You may be surprised!
As I am sure you know, sitting is only one of the culprits for that head ending up in a forward position. Many other factors can play a role including imbalanced musculature in the upper body and hips. If you have chronic neck pain or regular headaches you may want to check with a physical therapist or neuromuscular therapist to assist in assessing your situation. You may also want to look into forms of exercise that will help you rebalance your body such as yoga, Pilates or Essentrics. Not only will these help in getting the blood flowing but over time will assist you in getting your body properly aligned.
These are just a few tips to get your started.
I hope you found this helpful!
To your health,
We started talking about movement last post. I’d like to continue on that subject because, as mentioned, we have become way too sedentary for our health. Even an hour or two of daily exercise can’t make up for the 8-10+ hours of static sitting that has become way too commonplace for most people!
With movement comes the stimulation of the musculature and various cellular processes throughout the body that keep all our systems functioning at a higher level. We get more fuel to all of our cells, our pancreas does a better job of balancing out blood sugar levels, our brain gets fed the glucose it needs to function properly, our digestive system continues to work and our muscles get the blood they need to both flush out waste products plus bring new oxygen and nutrients to function properly. And, as we talked last time, to assist with keeping full length in the muscles that tend to stay short after prolonged sitting.
The above is to just name a few of the many actions our body does when we keep moving as opposed to too much sitting. Did you know that even getting up and moving your own body weight around for a few minutes will start your system moving again? This is why it is ideal to walk around at breaks, work part of the time at a standing desk, use the steps rather than taking the elevator whenever you can and much more. You get the picture.
Start getting creative as to how you can move around more even if you do have to be at your desk all day. What about standing and doing squats while you are on a conference call? This will get those glutes and quads working to increase metabolism and burn a few extra calories. Need to read that paper? Walk around your desk while you are reading it or do little lunges from side to side. Perhaps do a little Tai Chi movement or two while you are reading something on your computer. Don’t know Tai Chi? Here is a video with some basic moves for you from Jake Mace Note side benefit: This might just calm you down a bit at the same time!
Drink more water! You will get the double benefit of rehydrating your system, which is most likely dehydrated, and it will make you get up and go to the bathroom more. 🙂 For more information on hydration, here is an article I wrote a while back about drinking water.
Of course none of this is meant to take the place of regular vigorous exercise but to help counter the negative effects of sitting too much.
Another benefit is every time you get up and sit back down, you are likely to sit in your chair more upright and out of that slumped position that seems to come so naturally when sitting for long periods of time. You thought I forgot about the posture piece, didn’t you? Nope. Next time we will look at what often happens to the head and neck from sitting too long.
Meanwhile I hope this inspires you to move more and more throughout the day!
To your health,
As we discussed last time, the position of the pelvis has a lot to do with whether you are going to have low back pain or not. The more your hips are rotated forward the more undue stress on the low back. I hope you tried the Iliopsoas stretch to see if that started to relieve your back a bit. Since the Iliopsoas muscle directly relates to the back and the muscles of the low back, as it starts to get full length back it will start to support a healthy position of the pelvis. Did you try it? How did you feel?
In addition to lengthening out the low back, it is important we stretch out the muscles in the front of the thigh that also cross the hip joint. There are several stretches that can help you with this. Here is a great one for addressing one of the main culprits:
To stretch the right Rectus Femoris:
- Bend your right knee and grasp the front of your (right) ankle behind you with your right hand.
- Bring your right heel to your right buttock while tucking your pelvis under; making sure your knee is always pointing towards the ground. Only go as far as you can and still keep your pelvis tucked. (To give you the idea of how to ‘tuck’, tighten or squeeze your buttocks. This will help to pull that pelvis into the correct position.)
- While holding that position, push the front of your right hip forward, maintaining the ‘tucked pelvis’ position. You should feel the stretch in the front of your right thigh. Hold for a few seconds, relax, and then push the pelvis forward again.
Repeat on the second side.
Once you start to get some length into those short muscles it is then time to start to strengthen the ones on the opposite side of the joint, namely the abdominal and hamstring muscles. We can talk more about those after you get some length back.
Meanwhile it is incredibly important to start thinking about the initial cause – namely sitting too much. The new saying is ‘sitting is the new smoking’ since it is so hard on our bodies and health!
Let us begin by looking at what can be changed at your desk. More and more companies are realizing the importance of getting off that chair and into a standing position. Maybe you still have to be at your desk working but at least there are now options to do some of your work standing. Check out these great new tools to turn your desk into a better work place at Varidesk.
Of course in addition to standing, moving is vital! Rather than go grab a snack on your break, what about taking a walk around the building? Perhaps start taking the stairs? Park farther away from the door! Take a walk after dinner rather than sitting in front of the TV! Start finding creative ways to incorporate more and more movement into your daily life. Your body will love you for it!
To your health,
Does sitting ever drive you completely crazy? I don’t know about you but I am a mover. I get so fidgety when I have to do too much work at the computer. I’d much rather be up and moving around! Unfortunately in today’s society sitting comes with the territory.
Sitting is just one of the culprits that can start to cause low back pain. The muscles in the front of the thigh that cross the hip joint are all hip flexors; in other words they lift your leg up in front of your body. If you think about what that looks like, you can see the thigh perpendicular to the body when standing is the same as when you are sitting in a chair. Stay in this position for prolonged periods of time and eventually those muscles won’t go back to their full length. The result? When you stand those muscles pull the front of the hip down to compensate for being shorter than normal.
So what, you ask? With that pelvis being pulled forward it ‘squishes up’ the lower back, which shortens and tightens those muscles resulting in pressure on the joints of the vertebrae.
The same thing can happen when you have a larger belly than you should have. I know, you don’t like to hear that but it’s true! That extra belly takes you out of gravity and pulls your whole body forward and down at the front of the pelvis. Again this causes undue stress on the muscles and bones in the low back.
When those muscles get tight they cause pain. As for the joints, there are small joints called ‘facet joints’ which are part of the vertebrae. They are loaded in pain receptors so when they are unnaturally jammed together, they send lots of messages to your brain that says PAIN!!
So what can you do about it? We will talk about this more on my next blog. Meanwhile here is a great stretch to get you started on making some changes:
Give this a try on a daily basis and see if it doesn’t start to help with that low back pain.
To your health,