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Exercise Guide - Fitness Guide - Exercise Tips

October 20th, 2011 Healthy Living

Back Exercise Basics Help Your Core Strength

Back exercises are an essential part of a fitness program because a strong back enables you to perform other exercises safely and effectively. Chronic tightness and pain in the low back is an unfortunate side effect of many desk-bound jobs. But a few simple stretches and exercises can go a long way towards combating the tension in the back that’s caused by extended sitting.

Believe it or not, there are 29 core muscles your trunk and pelvic area, and strong abdominal muscles are important to maintain a healthy back. Try these simple exercises that work several of these muscles simultaneously. Bonus: You can do them at home as easily as you can at a gym.

Abdominal crunch (or sit-up) in whatever variation you like best. Start with 2 sets of 15 repetitions. Concentrate on using your abs, rather than pulling your head forward with your hands. If you are tempted to pull on your neck when you do sit-ups, try extended your arms forward instead. The important thing is to focus on quality and proper technique, rather than quantity. You don’t need to do 100 situps; do 30 in which you focus on a full range of motion and you can really feel the muscles.

Plank position: This is the pre-pushup position. Place your hands on the floor and curl your toes under to lift your body up and away from the floor. Keep your hands positioned directly underneath your shoulders. Focus on pulling your belly button in towards your back, but don’t hold your breath. Keep breathing smoothly. Try to hold this position for 20 seconds, then relax and repeat. Try to work up to 2-3 repetitions.

Break Out of Your Workout Rut

Are you bored with your exercise routine? That doesn’t mean you should quit exercising. One of the best ways to break out of a workout rut is to try something that you haven’t done before. And changing your fitness routine every now and then makes you fitter and stronger by working different muscle groups. Change your routine by doing your exercises in a different order, try a more advanced yoga or aerobics class, or walk your favorite route in the opposite direction. Are you moving to a new neighborhood with a pool? Find out about adult swim classes or water aerobics.

Even if you love your exercise routine, substitute a different activity now and then. Working the same muscles in the same way every day will keep you in great shape, but you can have too much of a good thing. Most exercise-related injuries are due to overuse, and a little variety goes a long way in terms of injury prevention.

Chart Your Exercise Progress

Experts agree that journaling your new healthy living lifestyle will help motivate you toward achieving your fitness and exercise goals. By writing down your daily food intake, the exercise routine for that day (cardio, weight training, yoga, etc.), the amount of time you spent exercising, and your alcohol intake, you can begin to see patterns in your day-to-day routine that might be distracting you from your overall weight loss goal.

Keeping a diary or a journal will help you think more clearly about eating and fitness habits, identify the bad influences, and come up with better solutions to achieve your overall goal(s).

Dress (Your Feet) For Exercise Success

Most people recognize the importance of wearing proper shoes or other sports apparel when exercising, but don’t underestimate the value of a few good pairs of sports socks.

When choosing sports socks, think about your shoes. If you take part in competitive sports, remember that a lighter weight sport sock may fit more comfortably in your lighter weight race day shoes, but a thicker sock with more padding is best for longer training sessions in heavier shoes. But if you like the extra padding that the thicker socks provide, stick with them on competition day. Just test the shoe/sock combination if you wear different shoes for different activities.

Even if you’re not a competitive athlete, it’s worth investing in a few pairs of moisture-wicking sports socks for daily walks or modest workouts. Especially during warm weather or if you are sweating inside at a gym, your feet will thank you because the moisture-wicking socks will help prevent blisters. Most sports socks (like any sock) are sold by approximate shoe size, but if you are faced with small, medium, or large, use your judgment. If the fit is too snug, or not snug enough, try a different size; you don’t want socks to bunch up inside your shoe or restrict your toes. It’s worth the effort to treat your feet right.

Exercise For Your Body, Mind, and Spirit

You know that regular exercise is good for your body, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Remember that any physical activity counts as exercise, so there’s no reason to be intimidated. You don’t have to train for a marathon or spend half the day at the gym to benefit from exercise.

Still need convincing? Exercise makes your life better in many ways, including the following:

  • Shaping up your attitude and self-esteem. The benefits of fitness go beyond building your strength and endurance. Improving your fitness will boost your self-esteem and enhance your body image. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and you’ll feel stronger and better prepared to deal with the stresses of work, family, and everyday life.
  • Maintaining strong bones and muscles. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to build and preserve bone mass and to prevent osteoporosis (the weakening of the bones that occurs as you age).
  • Keeping your heart and lungs healthy. Exercise strengthens your heart (it is a muscle, after all) and helps your lungs grow stronger and better able to absorb oxygen. Your blood flows more smoothly and you prevent the buildup of blockages in your blood vessels.
  • Keeping your weight in check. With age, your metabolism slows down, so you burn fewer calories, and your weight can creep up. Exercise can help you lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, and reduce your body fat while increasing muscle.

For example, if you’re a regular runner, take a yoga class once a week. You’ll give your running muscles a different kind of workout and you get in even better shape while staying injury-free. Similarly, if you usually ride your bike a few times a week, try taking some long walks, too.

But be sure to check with your doctor before making significant changes to a fitness plan, especially if you are older and have any chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. That doesn’t mean you can’t train for a marathon or take up tai chi, just be sure to build up your activity level gradually.

Extreme Elevation: Put Up Your Legs, Not Just Your Feet

Elevation is an important principle of first aid, but elevating your legs regularly is a restorative exercise for anyone because we ask so much of our legs and feet. Some personal trainers, sports coaches, and yoga instructors will use this relaxation technique at the end of a workout to increase blood flow to the legs and feet.

But it’s not just a post-workout activity. You can do this move at home in the evening for 10 minutes or so before bed. Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a door or an empty patch of wall space. Fold a blanket or large beach towel into a rectangle that’s big enough for your torso and place it against the wall.
  • Lie flat on your back, scoot your tailbone as close to the wall as possible, then roll to one side to gently swing your legs up and rest your feet on the wall. If you can, scoot as close to the wall as possible so that your legs touch the wall, too, and the base of your lower back is 2-3 inches from the wall.
  • If you aren’t that flexible, it’s OK to be as much as a foot away from the wall with your heels on the wall, but keep your legs as close to the wall as you can.

Stay in this position for at least 2-3 minutes, or as long as 10 minutes. This simple exercise revitalizes your legs, and you should notice a feeling of lightness, especially if you can stay in the position for at least five minutes.

Get Fitness Advice To Start Your Workouts Right

Whether you are new to an exercise program an experienced exerciser but you are joining a new gym, talk to the staff for helpful fitness advice about how to use the weight machines and fitness equipment.

Not all gyms have the same brands of equipment, and the settings on the treadmills, stair-climbers, and weights may be different from machines that you have used in the past. Be sure to check with the gym staff if you need help adjusting any equipment, because doing a workout on a machine that is not adjusted for your body size can lead to injury.

Also, if you want to jump-start your fitness program or if you are new to regular exercise and would like some customized fitness attention, consider a few sessions with a certified personal trainer for personalized fitness advice and instruction. Most gyms have personal trainers on staff. When choosing one, ask to make sure that he or she is certified, and make sure that you are clear about your goals, whether they include losing weight, getting in shape to run your first 5K, or just improving your strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.

The bottom line: Ask questions if you’re not sure how to use any machine or any accessory at the gym, such as a fitness ball or balance board.

Get on the Ball For Core Fitness

You’ve heard the term “core fitness” but what does it mean and why does it matter?

The “core body” refers to the muscles of your torso that help you maintain your posture, whether you are running, standing, or sitting. Strengthening these muscles will improve your posture and make you betting able to engage in your daily activities, such as lifting groceries, chasing kids, playing golf, or gardening.

Fitness balls will help strengthen your core muscles, and they are fun to use. Just sitting on a fitness ball engages your abdominal and lower back muscles as they work to keep you from falling off the ball. But you’ll strengthen your core even more with some basic ball exercises.

Start by sitting on the ball and roll back so the ball is centered under your shoulder blades and your head is dropped back towards the floor behind you. Place your hands on your ears and curl up into a sit-up. Release. Start by repeating 10 times and work up to 30. If you are new to using a fitness ball, keep your legs wide (3-4 feet) as you sit on the ball. Once that feels easy, move your feet in so they are shoulder-width apart.

Many gyms have fitness ball available, but if you have a workout space at home, consider buying your own from any sporting goods store or sports equipment web site.

Get the Most From Your Yoga Class

Yoga can be a fun and healthful part of anyone’s exercise and fitness routine, whether you practice yoga at home with a video or DVD or attend a class. Even practicing yoga once a week can improve your flexibility, relieve stress, and keep you more fit for other sports such as running, tennis, or golf, or for the activities of your daily life.

If you are new to yoga, and you decide to attend a class, keep these points in mind:

  • Respect the space. Whether you attend yoga class in a yoga studio or in a gym, respect the yoga space by placing your shoes, socks, bags, and jackets in lockers if possible, or off to the side on the edges of the class space. Keeping personal things away from the class space cuts down on distractions and prevents someone tripping over a shoe or purse strap while moving into a pose.
  • Turn off your phone. And turn off any other device that may make noise and distract the class.
  • Be quiet during the class. Once the yoga class begins, don’t talk to your neighbors. Yoga is about inward focus.
  • Listen to the instructor. Focus on his or her voice and directions to help block out other sounds. Most yoga instructors will ask a class to align their mats in a certain way or stagger them so that participants won’t bump into each other. Some instructors may ask you to use props, such as blankets or straps, to get into poses that are more challenging for you.
You need not limit yourself to only one type of class. Try starting the week with an Iyengar class to stretch out and relax after a busy weekend, or take a Power Yoga class for a tougher, stress-relieving workout during the week. But whenever you consider a yoga class, be sure to ask whether the instructor is certified.

Lift Weights to Help Your Health and Boost Your Bones

Why is strength training important if you’re not interested in being Mr. or Ms. Universe? Strength training not only tones your body, it boosts metabolism so you will burn more calories at rest, which can help you lose weight or maintain your weight.

Here’s how: When you exercise regularly, you build up the proportion of muscle in the body compared with fat. Unfortunately, lean body mass decreases with age in everyone, regardless of how fit you are. If you don’t do anything to preserve your muscle, it will be replaced by fat. If that’s not motivation for strength training, what is?

You don’t need to lift heavy weights, either. Just 1-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions that feel moderately difficult will make a difference. Make strength training part of your workout routine and you’ll not only build your bones, you’ll also reap these benefits:

  • Joint protection. Strength training builds up your muscles, which protect the joints from injury.
  • More stamina. Strength training makes you stronger, of course. You’ll feel less tired by daily activities.
  • Less fat. Building muscle strength helps your body burn fat more effectively, which can help you control your weight.
If you don't feel comfortable using weights, ask someone at your local gym, or consider a few sessions with a personal trainer to help you choose exercises that are right for you.

Seated Stretches For The Deskbound

Sitting at a desk can leave you tense in places that you don’t realize until you stretch them, especially your legs, hips, and lower back. Try these easy stretches to re-energize your body and relieve tension, and you don’t even have to stand up!

Here’s how:

  • Low back bend. While sitting in a chair, breathe deeply and evenly, and fold forward over your thighs, reaching your hands down to touch your feet if you can. Don’t strain, and don’t hold your breath. Even if you don’t feel a stretch in your lower back, this simple forward bend will help your circulation. Hold for 45 to 50 seconds, then place your hands on your thighs to carefully push your torso back to an upright position.
  • Hip helper. While sitting in a chair, raise your right leg and clasp your hands around your right knee. Gently pull your knee towards your chest. If you are flexible, use your left arm to pull your bent leg across your body slightly towards your left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds in a position where you feel a comfortable feeling of stretch in the upper hip of the bent leg. Never pull a stretch to the point of pain, or hold a position if you feel any discomfort. Release and repeat on the other leg.

    Repeat these periodically whenever you are sitting at a desk for a long time.

Stretching: It Does a Body Good

Here's the bottom line: stretching doesn’t hurt, it won’t increase your risk of injury, and it feels good. You don’t have to spend a lot of time stretching. Try a 5-10 minute stretching routine before a workout or afterwards, and see which you prefer.

Some people stretch extensively before a workout and others stretch very little. But it is worth remembering that stretching as a way to release muscle tension prior to a workout. If you are stressed or tired or nervous before a fitness class, your muscles will be tense, and tense muscles are more easily injured than relaxed muscles. Your primary goal in stretching should be to release tension release tension, and increasing flexibility will be a positive side effect.

Some principles of stretching:

  • Never stretch to the point of pain. When you feel a stretch in a muscle, stop and hold it at that point.
  • Stretching is not a competitive sport and trying to stretch as far as the person next to you will only leave you with a pulled muscle.
  • Remember to breathe normally. Don’t hold your breath while stretching.

Tips For New Marathoners

Regardless of your age, when you are a beginning marathoner (or a beginning runner), build mileage gradually to let your body adapt to running longer distances. If you are new to running and you want to train for a marathon, give yourself several months of training time so you can build mileage and endurance. Don’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% per week and you’ll reduce your risk of overuse injuries.

Runner’s World magazine, both in print or online at runnersworld.com, is a great resource and includes detailed suggestions for beginning runners.

Some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose the road instead of the sidewalk whenever you can. Many beginning runners think that running on a cement sidewalk is no different from running on an asphalt road. But cement sidewalks are the worst running surface when it comes to putting excess pressure on your joints. Asphalt has some “give,” while cement has none. If you may find that your feet or lower legs are starting to hurt as you increase your mileage, do you run on cement sidewalks? Try to run in neighborhoods or on side roads where you can run on the street rather than the sidewalk, and seek out asphalt paths wherever possible.
  • Stay left. Remember that when you run on any road or street not on a bike path or sidewalk, be sure to run on the left, facing traffic, and stay on or near the shoulder of the road when possible.
  • Stay alert. If you like to run with an iPod or even an old-school walkman, that’s fine, but don’t tune out so much that you’re not paying attention to cars, people, or dogs. Know what’s going on around you to stay safe while running.

Yoga Builds Strength Without Joint Stress

Yoga is an excellent way to build strength for anyone of any age or activity level. Why? Because you are working against your own body weight; you are not stressing your joints but you are still building strength.

Balancing poses such as tree pose (vrksasana) help you build strength in your legs and especially in the quadriceps muscles, which support the knee. And balancing postures engage your core muscles and build core body strength.

Also, doing a yoga workout at home or attending a class as little as once a week can improve your flexibility and exercise muscles that you don’t use much during other sports or during the activities of daily life. This combination of improved flexibility and muscle balance will reduce your risk of injury, and improve your performance in other sports by building core body strength and by strengthening those lesser-used muscles. For example, ashtanga yoga improves shoulder strength, and while this may not sound like it matters to a distance runner, the shoulders get tight while running, and improving shoulder strength helps reduce fatigue during a long run.