I find myself constantly striving for balance in my life. For me, this looks like the even distribution of work, life, family, household management, exercise and healthy eating. In my life, I find I’m constantly adjusting to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. For others, it might refer to your bank account, where there is an adjustment of funds to keep everything equally going in and out. The concept of balance, in any area, requires constant change and adapting to the environment. In the physical sense, it requires your body to be adapting to the physical demands of what you are doing at that moment. Your body needs to adjust to changes in balance much like your bank account, you adjust your spending when you have an unexpected expense, you adjust your position in space with an unexpected change to balance. It’s something that many of us are (fortunately) able to take for granted, but when it becomes a problem, we notice. Day to day, most of us will not experience any loss of balance. This will occur with higher demand activities such as hiking on a mountain or jumping over a stream, or maybe while carrying too many things up and down the stairs. As our bodies age, our balance starts to noticeably decline, and that is due to the changes in our muscles and nervous system. Balance problems can start as early as your 40’s, or sooner due to an injury, chronic illness or disease process.
So how exactly does balance work? Balance is a carefully coordinated activity that requires our muscles and nerves to carry the correct information up to our brain, for our brain to process this information and send the correct information back down to our legs to respond to changes in movement. The brain takes information from sensory receptors that provide information about what surface you are walking on - grass, hardwood floor, carpet, ice and any changes to that surface. Your brain then processes that information to know how you might need to adjust to walking on that surface, for example if it’s icy, you might notice that you bend your knees, take shuffling steps or start grabbing onto your car. The brain also receives information from your joint receptors which gives information about where you are in space, what joint is moving and what direction and how to adjust to that movement. The eyes and inner ear are also constantly providing information to your brain that adds to the information from your sensory system and muscles to allow you to remain stable while you are standing or moving. Balance while you are still is referred to as “static” balance, balance while moving is referred to as “dynamic” balance. The body has increased demands with dynamic tasks, they require more attention from more parts of our body.
Everything mentioned above happens in a split second, and much of the time without our conscious effort. Our bodies do not require us to think much about our balance, until we start to lose it. Changes in our sensation, decreased strength, pain, laxity in ligaments and vision changes all affect our balance. It’s important that, in the presence of a problem, we address the issue directly instead of avoiding it. So if you notice that every time you do a backward lunge you lose your balance, you shouldn’t avoid it, but rather work on it. Maintaining tree pose for two minutes will also require you to challenge yourself and pushing yourself toward the goal is how you can improve your nervous system. This is a concept known as “motor learning”, and follows similar principles to strength training. If it feels too easy, you probably aren’t doing enough to make gains.
Balance, coordination and strength are very closely linked. If your muscles are not strong enough to react to a loss in balance, you won’t be very good at catching yourself from falling. The same is true, that if your nervous system isn’t able to send the right signal to your muscles to react to a loss of balance, you won’t be able to recover from a fall. The good news is, a lot of exercises can be used to target a deficit in both of these areas. An example of this would be a lunge, it is a quick transition from single leg, to one leg forward (or backward or lateral) and then a return to the start position. This movement requires a combination of strength coordination and balance so that you don’t fall over.
Now, back to the aging concept, as the rest of our bodies begin to show signs of aging, our nerves are going through this process as well. This means that there will be a limit to how much recovery can occur in the nervous system. This is also true of any disease or disorder that affects your nerves and muscles. The concept holds true, however, that you still need to push your body between that too easy spot and when it’s too hard and you fall. Your body needs to learn from errors, but also be able to recover so it knows how to be successful.
So, what is the best way to target balance in an everyday setting? It doesn’t mean you have to do daily tree pose, but that wouldn’t be a bad option. A few exercises that I think are really good will incorporate a combination of leg strengthening and balance. These exercises can include, but are not limited to:
I’ll leave you with this, don’t wait until you start seeing changes in your balance to work on your balance. Doing these exercises in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s are a great way to “up train” your neuromuscular system so that it is at a higher level then it otherwise would be. The sooner you can be proactive about training this system, the better “shape” it will be in, and so will you!
Physical Therapist, Mom, Wife, Friend, love for the great outdoors and physical activity
Pain is our body's normal response to an uncomfortable stimulus or sensation. I would like to emphasize the word normal because I really want to paint a pretty picture of the sensation of pain. Pain is good for something, it provides us with useful information about what is going on with our body. It allows us to respond to our body to prevent further injury, respond to it in a kind way, to allow healing, tissue repair and for us to feel better. Pain has become something of a nuisance, however, given societies push for ways to alleviate it and get on with living. It’s been treated like something we shouldn’t have to have, instead of being appreciated for what it is. It is a normal, biological part of us. Is it annoying? Of course!!! Pain…..we can ask the question (cue Edwin Starr “War”), what is it good for? Huh….absolutely, nothing! Or, instead is it, absolutely, something?
The good news is, pain is a normal part of our biology. It’s as normal as breathing, emotions and hunger. Pain is a symptom of our brain, alerting our body that something isn’t right and we need to do something about it! It then becomes our choice on how we manage that pain. Pain was designed to be protective, to alert our body that what is happening needs to stop. This can be as simple as taking your hand off a hot pan, to needing to give your body rest and a few ibuprofen after you did too much yard work. Persistent pain can indicate a problem that isn’t resolving, think low back pain that doesn’t get better after rest or a few days from a flare up. It can also indicate tissue damage that does need to heal or seek medical attention, for instance, a broken bone. The lesson is, listen to your pain, and respond to it!
Chronic pain is a whole different beast, yes, I’ll name chronic pain as a beast. The classification of chronic pain is typically reserved for any pain that persists beyond 12 weeks from the initial injury. I will also categorize my patient’s pain as chronic, if they report having ongoing low back pain for several years, but are back in the clinic due to a flare up. In this example, chronic pain doesn’t always have to be debilitating, it can just be a part of who you are. The key to any type of chronic pain is learning how to manage it. Management may result in resolution of the pain, however it may just mean that you a) know how to keep it calmed down b) know how to respond to it when it flares up and c) have a sense of peace about the fact that it exists.
Management of your pain can be broken down into activities that I like to call “symptom management” exercises. These are the stretches, exercises or activities that you know will help you when your specific problem flares up. If you are over the age of 25, you probably have at least one of these spots that you are aware of. You most likely have a few strategies that will help calm things down when needed. Management strategies can also include avoidance of certain activities. For instance, my hip flares up terribly when I do deadlifts. Could it be my form? Possibly, but I have found that not doing deadlifts and doing a different exercise instead help me to avoid the flare up in the first place.
Pain can be influenced by other factors that stimulate your nervous system, specifically your sympathetic nervous system, as well. Just as a reminder, the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight response, the one that kicks in when a lion is chasing you. An example of something else that might increase your nervous system could be anxiety. If you’re having a really bad day, feeling overwhelmed, this can also affect your body's response to pain. Another factor is lack of sleep, when you don’t sleep enough or well, this increases your irritability and also decreases your tolerance for pain. These are important factors to keep in mind and address when you just can’t seem to manage your pain.
When your body experiences pain, the most important thing you can do is give that pain attention and decide what needs to be done about it. It is normal for most of us to want to ignore it. While that can be an effective strategy (our minds tend to focus on and intensify what we give attention to), it can be more effective to address it. Let’s use a few examples.
You may realize that there are just certain things your body doesn’t want or like to do, and this keeps aggravating your problems. It’s also important to pay attention to how you are doing things, or what these things are so that you can make adjustments. The problem might not be the exercise or activity, but the number of repetitions or amount of weight. Or, the problem might be how you are lifting, bending, or doing your job and making small ergonomic tweaks can help decrease the tissue irritation.
Pain, what is it good for anyway? Pain is really good at helping you be aware of your body. Being aware of the pain and acting on it, is a way to protect yourself from further injury or harm. By responding to your pain, and hopefully decreasing it, you are actually telling your brain that everything is ok. By not responding to it or calming it down? You are intensifying the response and your brain is not assured that everything is ok. Dealing with pain, anxiety or any other stimulus that increases your nervous system is a way to take care of yourself. Maybe you have been putting off a massage because you can’t justify the time or money. But would that help your pain and allow you to relax? Yes, it probably would. So pain is good for justifying a massage. I’ll be right back…..
The important thing is to pay attention to the pain. Respond to your body with love and gentleness and not frustration that the pain exists. Change what you are doing, add more of what is good, avoid what isn’t so great, and reach out for help if you need it!
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist, mom and wife who lives in Alpena, MI with her husband and 3 kids.
What exactly is the core all about? Why does every fitness instructor tell you to engage your core, why does your doctor tell you that you have a weak core, and how do they even know?
The core is the support of your trunk, which supports the rest of your body. It provides support for your low back with movement, supports the movements of your arms and legs and allows you to breathe properly. All of this is possible, but only when you have a properly functioning core.
What exactly is the core? Well that’s a great question. Think of your core like a cylinder. The top is your diaphragm, the bottom is your pelvic floor, the front is your transverse abdominis muscle (your deepest layer of abdominal muscles) and the back is your multifidi, (your deep back extensors) . The good news is that your core muscles work together as a team, so you can activate one and get the others to kick in as well. The diaphragm functions on it’s own so we don’t get to control the actual strength in the diaphragm, but with proper techniques we can improve how well it moves and how efficiently we breathe. The other good news is once we teach our core how to engage, it won’t require as much effort to keep it that way. During normal functional movement, our abdominals only need to engage 10-12%, so it doesn’t require a huge effort to stabilize our trunk with daily activities.
So why does the core get weak? And how can you effectively strengthen it?
The core weakens over time because it is not a large mover muscle, like a bicep. It does require attention to make and keep it strong. It can become inhibited, or “turned off”, with low back pain and it requires conscious effort to turn it back on. It’s also really easy to compensate with other muscles, like our lats or back extensors which can also exacerbate back pain, further inhibiting the core and continuing the cycle. The core can also weaken with life events, hello childbirth, and again requires consistent exercises to help get it back. Following childbirth, you are dealing with not only weak core muscles, but also elongated core muscles, which does require some healing and tissue change. So when you’re trying so hard to “get that core back”, after a surgery or childbirth for example, you do need to wait on your body.
There are several effective ways to address strengthening the core. Pilates exercises are one of the best to incorporate for core strengthening. However, if you can’t figure out how to engage your core properly, just like anything else, it won’t be effective and you can set up yourself for injury. I typically recommend Pilates based exercise once my patients are done in Physical Therapy. Here are a few simple ways to start to engage your core:
It is important to work on both of these exercises in sitting, standing and during functional activities such as walking, lifting, rolling in bed, rising from sitting and doing stairs. If you’re an athlete or participating in a fitness routine, these exercises will need to be incorporated into those activities as well. You will know you are ready to progress when this exercise feels easy and you can engage without much effort. It is a good idea to try and engage during activity as soon as possible. Some examples of exercise progressions include:
It truly is “simple” to support your spine during functional activities. It’s important to realize that strengthening your core really can be done while sitting at a red light, watching your son’s soccer game or doing the dishes. In fact, this is exactly when you should be making time for this! Here are some other simple ways to engage and strengthen your core:
If trying to tackle a 30 minute pilates class seems overwhelming right now, start small and work your way into something bigger. Use these tips to make time for your core, Most likely this is what your body needs most anyway.
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist, wife and mom to 3; she lives in Alpena, MI and loves to be outdoors and spending time with family and friends.
When anyone hears the word, “posture” they immediately sit or stand up straighter. I watch this in the clinic all of the time. Why is your body having difficulty attaining or maintaining that “perfect” posture? It’s not always as simple as remembering to sit or stand up straight. You might need to stretch some overly tight muscles, or strengthen some overly weak ones. Even the most fit, strong, body aware individuals could find a way to grow in their postural awareness.
Awareness is the first step to improvement of your posture, but stretching and strengthening specific muscles is key to making sure you can maintain this long term. Having good posture allows your joints to be in proper alignment, which minimizes abnormal wear and tear; makes you look taller and more confident, helps you appear thinner and good posture can help strengthen your muscles!
The trunk and core muscles are the important postural muscles. The trunk includes everything from your shoulders to your hips. So how do you know where you are tight, or weak or what exactly needs attention? One of the easiest ways to check this is standing against a wall. You want to make sure your head, shoulders, low back and butt are all touching the wall, bonus if your heels can touch too! If you aren’t able to do this easily, pay attention to what is difficult or tight, and that is where you can focus first. As for weakness, when you are trying to sit up or stand up tall, what feels the most difficult? Is it hard to keep your shoulders back? Your head and neck in good alignment? Your abdominals engaged to support your low back?
The muscles in your upper back are typically weak. These muscles are called your scapular stabilizers, which means they are responsible for controlling movements of your shoulder. As a society, we are really good at strengthening the big movers, because we use them everyday. But we tend to forget about the little guys that help us control movements, and eventually that catches up to us. The core is the support of your trunk, which supports the rest of your body. It provides support for your low back, arms and legs with movement and allows you to breathe properly. All of this is possible, but only when you have a properly functioning core. The final important detail on these muscles is that they don’t have to function full force. These muscles can turn on at a low level but then stay on for longer to help support your posture and movements. These muscles need more endurance training then strength training.
So, let’s get practical on posture. What are some easy ways we can stretch and strengthen these important parts of our body?
Stretches for posture will target any muscles that keep you flexed or bending. These can include your hip flexors, core muscles, pecs and thoracic spine. The thoracic spine tends to develop a kyphotic deformity, which is a flexed posture. Think Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is an extreme example of this posture. Feel free to use whatever stretches make you feel good, but my recommendations include:
Foam roller stretch: thoracic spine, pectorals and abdominals
Hip flexor stretch: hip flexors, abdominals
Prone press ups: abdominals and hip flexors
Chin tucks: thoracic extension, cervical extension
Strengthening will need to focus more on extensors or muscles that help keep you upright. These include core muscles, back extensors, scapular stabilizers and deep neck flexors ( I realize this one contradicts the extensor piece, but these little guys are important!) Examples of exercises include:
Posture correction: Sit up with extra perfect posture and then relax about 10%, hold this position for 5-10 seconds, slouch and repeat 5-10 times.
Shoulder blade squeezes: Sit upright, pull your shoulder blades down and back, hold
for 5 seconds and relax, repeat 10-15 times.
Bird Dog: On hands and knees, engage your abdominals, raise the opposite arm and leg and lower back down, making sure that your back doesn’t rotate. Alternate with the opposite side and repeat 10-15 times.
Scapular strengthening: rows, lat pull downs
Core strengthening: the focus should be neutral positioning, compared with a sit up or crunches. Examples include bridges, planks (modify if needed!) and supine marches.
Chin tucks: perform seated or lying down, keep your nose looking straight ahead, pull your chin back slightly without moving it up or down and relax. Perform 10 repetitions.
Posture support is critical for allowing proper sitting or standing mechanics. Think about your desk set up, or whatever daily tasks you spend most of your time doing. Are you driving a lot during the day with terrible lumbar support in your car? Do you perform a job that requires a lot of rotation in one direction? Adjust your daily tasks and work station to allow for improved support in good posture.
Lumbar support: purchase a lumbar roll or roll a small towel to place in the small of
your back while you are sitting or driving.
Work station: Make sure that while you are sitting your hips and knees are at 90
degrees with your feet on the floor, your elbows are at a comfortable position and resting on arm rests, your computer is level with your eyes and your hands can rest comfortably on your keyboard. You may need to prop up your monitor or get a wireless mouse or keyboard for a laptop. Sit to stand desks are also becoming more popular and can offer a way to change your position throughout the day. If you are on the phone a lot, look into a headset so you aren’t hurting your neck.
Hopefully these tips help you develop a plan to improve your posture and prevent long term complications. These tips can help reverse changes your body is experiencing from being bent over your laptop for the past year while you work from your dining room table, couch or even if you are still in your normal space but feel like something isn’t working right. Even small changes can have big long term impact!
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI who enjoys her job, spending time with her husband and 3 kids and all things outdoors.
I will admit that I have tight hamstrings and calf muscles. I will also admit to being terrible at stretching them. I also am guilty of telling my patients on a daily basis that they need to stretch so clearly there is something wrong with this picture.
When thinking about tight muscles, especially in the absence of a true musculoskeletal problem, why is stretching such a big deal? Why does flexibility matter? Should you really be doing a daily yoga program? And finally, why am I having such a difficult time stretching out muscles that I know need my attention, especially when I know better!
Let’s tackle the “ why” for flexibility first. Tight muscles create an imbalance with how your body and joints function. The bones and joints of your body have been fit together in a very precise way, they are also designed to move in a certain pattern. When tight muscles pull on your bones and shift this precision, it creates an abnormal movement pattern, which can, in very small doses, create abnormal wear and tear on a joint. Eventually, this abnormal wear and tear can create a problem that will need to be addressed by a medical professional. Ideally, you would prevent this as much as possible and stretching (and maintaining good posture and alignment!) will help keep your joint moving smoothly through daily activities.
Now, how often do you need to stretch? Principles of tissue lengthening teach us that consistency is key. Muscle lengthening can take 8-12 weeks for full elongation to take place and the only way this is possible is with consistent stretching on a daily basis. Ideally this would be performed 3 times per day for 1-2 minutes, for that particular muscle. If you think of a typical stretching routine, none of us are doing enough to target these tight areas of our body! Yoga is starting to sound a lot more necessary isn’t it?
So to recap, stretching tight muscles is necessary to allow your body to move properly. To be preventative, that you want to minimize any problems with your body as much as possible. In the world of fitness, cardio and strength training get a lot of attention. Flexibility and stretching aren’t as popular, but really need to be your friend. If you don’t have adequate flexibility, let’s say in your hamstrings, it will be very difficult to be able to properly perform a deadlift. If your form is compromised with a deadlift, that excess strain will need to be taken up somewhere else, and typically this will be in your low back. Perform those reps 10-20 times, 3 times per week and add 20# to the deal, and eventually your back is going to let you know it is not happy with this off balanced arrangement.
So, should you start doing daily yoga? Not necessarily. As I mentioned before, stretching your tight muscle only needs about 3 minutes per day. Maybe you have three muscles that really need your attention, that’s still less than 10 minutes total to address this muscle tightness. You could be creative about stretching. Maybe while your lunch is warming in the microwave for 2 minutes you get a hamstring or gastroc stretch in. While doing dishes, you get a standing hip flexor stretch in. If your mind is swimming thinking, how the heck do I even stretch my gastroc? Or even better, what is my gastroc? Don’t worry, I’ll include pictures of some simple stretches you can do. Now if you want to really level up and get that amazing feel good, full body stretch of yoga, then by all means, jump into it. I’d recommend seeking out the website: www.doyogawithme.com for a free profile and highly customizable options. Yoga also provides relaxation and breathing techniques that can provide additional full body benefits. So should you do more yoga? Probably. I do want to caution, that even something good can create a problem, so please listen to your body and don’t ever over stretch or force your body to move in a direction that doesn’t feel good. Stretching isn’t supposed to hurt.
So why am I so unmotivated to spend 10 minutes per day stretching? There are a lot of reasons for lack of motivation that are more than what I want to dig into right now. Most likely, I don’t see why it’s important for me. I am not yet experiencing, on a pain level, the impact my tight hamstrings and calf muscles are having on the rest of my body. I’m carving out time for a run and strength training session, but not giving my body the blessing of a good stretch. Here are some simple ways I can try to incorporate more stretching into my day:
There are other creative ways to incorporate stretching into your daily routine, whether it is linked with another activity, before, after or during, or you just make a stretching session part of your morning or afternoon routine. Stretching isn’t going to completely eliminate a future musculoskeletal problem, but it can make it easier for your body to recover from, less severe or less of a problem when it does arise.
So do your body a favor and stretch it out.
Katie works as a Physical Therapist in Alpena, MI. She enjoys running, biking, baking and hanging out with her husband and 3 kids!
Dear Fitness Inspirers,
I'm here and I want to coach you! I would love to coach you at the highest level I’m offering right now which is the VIP package, but if that is not the right fit for you right now or yet. The Inspired level of the signature program is just phenomenal, and it will rock your world if you let it! It will give you the tools, the coaching, the accountability and team! It will help you show up for better health in 2021! And a better mindset, waist line if that makes sense for you as well, and other positive ripple effects are here when you notice.
With the virtual options that all of us need for 2021, I don’t need to put a cap on these two groups. But we made the decision to anyway. Because I want to know who my team is! I want us to show up for each other, and for your goals too! I am so excited to see your potential in real life! I promise you, if you stretch yourself, if you challenge yourself even a little bit each workout/program/session on repeat, you will amaze your self/family/friends/team with how much you are capable of!
I am going into this year, with renewed and fierce belief with what you are capable of. With what this Fitness Inspired community is capable of. And the ripple effect of positive impact and the decision to invest in ourselves like we invest in others. Your generosity, joy, knowledge and impact will overflow when we “but first” make the choice to put some water in our cup to start our days and keep on doing that!
Here’s to you! Here’s to 2021! There are seven spots left in our VIP level right now let me know if you want in on that or the Inspired level!
You’re A Star!
Happy Fall y'all! Below are the bullets/cliffnotes if you will of this episode with the same name on Making Changes You Love to Live With Podcast, where I go into more detail and of course invite you to take a little walk in the crisp fall air or drink some fall inspired tea while you enjoy the listen too!
Who feels better when they have great energy?! Me. Me. Me and I can always feel it when I’m around people at a workout or around someone in general what their energy is! If we are being honest, we know that this makes a difference right? The energy we bring to a situation and what vibes other people are bringing makes a difference! We are in the middle of a fired up 4 day challenge here at Fitness Inspired and I wanted to share these 3 ways we can do to get and keep us fired up!
How do you get and stay fired up?! Any hacks you practice to keep your mind right and pump you up to bring your best self to the situation?
Here are five strategies you can try that I think could really help you when you are not feeling motivated! Or maybe you are in a downward spiral of emotion or mindset muck (like I was the other day ). Or it could be that you keep on not doing and being the person you set out to be.
Yeah, me too! I want you to start by doing two things: 1) know that you are not alone! 2) Let’s take a big deep breath together, hold the air in, and blow out the air with a long exhale. I wanted to share a few ways we can all use exercise as medicine (please note I am not a doctor and this doesn’t replace any medical advice) to help during this time. Think of exercise as an incredible tool, especially if you are feeling like your schedule, sleep, or stress is out of hand! Check and see if one of these ways of looking at exercise helps you, and I invite you to disregard anything that doesn’t apply to you, and your current situation. Don’t forget to apply these tips in a safe way given our current health and pandemic recommendations :)
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!