Exercise and Stress

What springs to mind when we hear the term “stress”? For most of us, we think of heightened mental and emotional states, feelings of anxiety caused by too much work, fighting with friends or loved ones, financial situations, and a million other aspects of life. Sometimes we associate stress with muscle tightness or headaches, or an upset stomach, but these seem to be because of stress, rather than causing it. So what happens when we throw physical stress into the mix?

Interestingly, physical stress – caused by exercise or physical activity – can both alleviate and worsen our stress symptoms. Too much stress of any kind can overload our bodies. There are links between all types of stress and mental and physical health and wellbeing, ranging from being exhausted and cranky to the development of diseases like Type II diabetes or triggering latent mental illness like bipolar disorder. But stress is not all bad – it’s useful, in that it can motivate us to get things done instead of putting them off. So we want to find that fine line between good stress and overload.

Back in 1936, an endocrinologist names Hans Seyle came up with his General Adaptation Syndrome model to explain how the body reacts to any given stress, or level of stress.

General Adaptation SyndromeIf you look at the left side of the graph, we can see that some stress is necessary to get out of bed in the morning. A little more stress puts us into a healthy, productive state. Keep building on those stress levels though, and they become less than helpful. Whatever is causing your stress, you’ll now start feeling an increased levels of fatigue, procrastination, anxiety, depression, etc.

BUT – and this is a big but – even though our bodies recognize physical stress as it does any other stress, we can use the aftermath of it to our advantage. This is called supercompensation – where appropriately timed stress and appropriate recovery leads to the ability to handle more stress, better. And even though we are talking purely about physical stress here – again, from exercise or physical activity – when we give ourselves the appropriate stress and recovery, we bounce back so much better physically, mentally, and emotionally.

SupercompensationSo how much is enough? If you’re just getting started with an exercise routine, having a day off between each workout day is a good starting point. It’s also really important to listen to your body. If you’re feeling particularly sore, or just that you need an extra day or two, take the extra time. That’s when you recover, get better, and get ready to handle the rest of life.

 

 

Exercise of the Week: The Tall Plank

We’re stepping up our planks once more this week, with a progression on last week’s prone plank. This is the tall plank (also called high plank, or just plank if you’re into yoga). This variation is slightly more challenging, because you are holding your center of gravity higher off the ground. That being said, some people think this is an easier variation, which can have a lot to do with shoulder, arm, and wrist strength and conditioning. Remember, we’re always looking for an exercise that is both challenging but achievable with good technique. Which do you prefer?

Exercise type: Core strengthening

What it does: Builds strength for core stability

How to:

Tall Plank

  • Start on knees with hands under shoulders
  • IF NEEDED: Use a Cat/Camel exercise to find a neutral spine w/ a “normal” curve in the lower back
  • Lift knees off floor to come into tall plank position with hands under shoulders and spine in neutral
  • Squeeze shoulder blades slightly
  • Keep tummy and pelvic floor tight – gently squeeze glutes and “tuck hips under” if you’re not feeling it in the core
  • You should feel this: a little between the shoulder blades, and through the arms/shoulders and core
  • Hold for 10-12 seconds, then relax back to ground
  • Repeat 4-6 times

You should feel: “Work” through the arms, torso, and hips

 

Disclaimer: This does not constitute medical advice, and not all exercises may be suitable for all people. Please consult your health care professional if you are unsure whether these exercises are right for you. If these exercises increase pain or any other symptoms, please stop immediately and consult your health care professional. For best results, get your doctor, physical therapist, and personal trainer/exercise coach talking for a united approach – as well as your chiropractor and massage therapist if you see these. To find out who I refer to in the Alexandria area or the rest of Northern Virginia, please get in touch.

Food Friday: Shakshuka – Breakfast For Dinner

Food Friday is back! After a loooong holiday break, I want to kick off with one of my favorite food topics: Hot breakfasts. Having a hot breakfast is awesome, especially during this time of year.  Having dessert for breakfast is not, though, and that’s what a lot of hot breakfast choices are. If you think about it, the butter/syrup/jam/powdered sugar combinations that go with pancakes, waffles, or french toast do not exactly fall into the category of clean eating. And it’s hard to convince people that a side of broccoli goes well with pancakes.

Enter shakshuka, a Northern African dish of eggs based in a spiced-to-your-liking tomato sauce. Baked eggs have always been the epitome of breakfast luxury for me – they traditionally take a while, between the prep and cooking of your base, and then baking time in the oven. It’s not terribly time consuming, but it’s probably more of a commitment than most of us have time for on a weekday morning. The idea of spicy tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions (veggies – check.) with eggs baked right into it (protein – check.) was too much to give up, so I thought I’d see about making it workday-morning-friendly, and this is what I got:

Shakshuka for One

Start with this mildly spiced New York Times recipe. There are lots of options out there on the internet, but this version won me over with the addition of feta cheese. The spices and seasoning are perfect – super flavorful and well balanced. 

Follow the recipe up until the addition of the feta.

Put your tomato-and-pepper base in the fridge, for use on the following days.

When you want it, decide whether you want to use the microwave or the oven to bake your eggs.

Oven: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Heat about a third of the tomato-and-pepper base* until hot, in the microwave (faster) or on the stovetop (less fast). Transfer the base to an oven safe dish, break up some feta cheese over it, crack your eggs over the base, and bake for 12-15 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking. If you have one, using a dish that is both microwave and oven-safe will cut down on cooking time and clean up. Winning.

Microwave: Heat about a third of the tomato-and-pepper base* in the microwave until hot. Sprinkle some feta over the base, crack your eggs on top, and microwave for 3-6 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking. This method will cook your yolks faster, from my experience, so if you want a runny yolk and still want to use the microwave, try to let the egg white spread more over the base.

*The recipe as written makes about enough for three two-egg servings. If you want to make enough to last for a whole week (or for multiple people to use on multiple days of the week), double the recipe (or more) and use the appropriate amount of base per serving. Or just use more base, if you like the base. It’s pretty amazing.

Breakfast For Dinner: This dish fits so nicely into this category. Use single servings on busy evenings, or if you want to eat as family (or with friends, roommates, or whomever else you want to invite to dinner), follow directions for the oven baking (with an oven safe pan) and serve it family-style with bread and a salad.

 

Fit or Fat: What You Need To Know About Body Composition

If you’re not an exercise professional or in the medical field, the term “body composition” might be a bit confusing, or mean exactly nothing at all. And that’s totally ok – you’ll never know something you haven’t been taught! But from a health and fitness perspective, it’s a great concept to understand, and pretty easy to wrap your head around.

At the very basic level, body composition refers to the ratio of lean body mass to fat, or, more simply, the amount of fat you have compared to all the other tissues in your body. Poor body composition has a higher percentage of body fat than good body composition, but that doesn’t mean that good body composition looks like a super fitness star, or that bad body composition necessarily looks “fat”.

The American College of Sports Medicine, the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world, provides a wealth of information about body composition and body fat percentage standards, which vary by gender and age. “Minimum” body fat levels are set by the ACSM at 3% for men and 12% for women, though bodybuilders at their extremes can sometimes get lower than this for very short periods of time.

ACSM Percentage Body Fat Norms

According to ACSM standards, body fat percentage between 10-22% for males and 20-32% for females of all ages are considered satisfactory for good health; higher body fat percentages are associated with higher risk of lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease (increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke) and Type II diabetes, among others. At the very low end of the scale (no pun intended), other health problems may occur, as having some body fat is necessary for tissue and organ function, especially the female reproductive system. It bears noting that most of us need to be more concerned about being too high than too low!

Do you really need to worry about your specific body composition though?

Well, yes and no. If you’re looking to lose weight, keeping your body composition in mind can be helpful. After all, I can sit on the couch for a week and not eat a thing, and I’ll have lost weight – but as much of that will come from muscle as from fat, and I probably wont feel very well (even once I start eating again). What most people are after, really, is fat loss. Having a little bit of muscle tone coupled with low fat levels is actually what makes us look good 🙂 as well as making us healthier and better able to cope with day to day life. The right exercise coupled with the right nutrition leads to improved body composition (we’ll have some specific plans for this coming out in the next couple weeks).

The extreme ends of the range probably know they’re at the extremes without any sort of measurement, and the difference between 2% and 5% body fat, or 40% and 50% body fat isn’t necessarily going to make a big difference in terms of health or appearance. If you’re at either of these extremes, you probably already also know what you should be doing about it (again, more of us could stand to lose some fat than to gain it!). From a health risk perspective, there is evidence showing that regardless of current body fat levels, fat loss will improve health outcomes (read: decrease the risk of bad stuff). If you’re somewhere in the middle and don’t want to worry about your exact number on a day to day basis, it’s likely that living an active lifestyle and focusing on making other healthy choices will place you in the right categories.

Exercise of the Week: The Prone Plank

Time to work more on your core!

Contrary to popular belief, crunches, sit ups, and Russian twist-type exercises are not your friends when it comes to building core strength and stability. In fact, Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading researcher in spinal biomechanics – tells us that to avoid injury, we need to “spare the spine” when it comes to core training. That means minimal spinal movement, especially through the lower back, and letting the core muscles provide support and stability and allow efficient transfer of force between the upper and lower body. (As an aside – Think you aren’t producing force? Every time you take a step, you create force that bounces from the ground back into your body. Good force transfer helps it dissipate without negative impact on your joints.)

So if crunches are out (or anything else that causes repeated movements in the spine), what’s in? Well, anything that teaches your body to build strength without movement (or while resisting movement). Plank variations are not an old standby for nothing. The prone plank – your face-down version – is a great all around core stabilizer and strengthener.

Exercise type: Core strengthening

What it does: Builds strength for core stability

How to:

Prone Plank
– Lay on ground with feet hip width and arms shoulder width, elbows under shoulders
– Tuck toes under, gently squeeze glutes, tummy, and pelvic floor
– To move into plank position, lift knees and hips off ground
– Keep a neutral neck and  spine – no sagging through the lower back, and keep hips in a straight line from shoulders
– Hold for 10 seconds, return to start position on the ground
– Repeat 4-6 times

You should feel: “Work” through the entire torso

 

Disclaimer: This does not constitute medical advice, and not all exercises may be suitable for all people. Please consult your health care professional if you are unsure whether these exercises are right for you. If these exercises increase pain or any other symptoms, please stop immediately and consult your health care professional. For best results, get your doctor, physical therapist, and personal trainer/exercise coach talking for a united approach – as well as your chiropractor and massage therapist if you see these. To find out who I refer to in the Alexandria area or the rest of Northern Virginia, please get in touch.