Sweat and Stress: The Best Stress-Busting Exercises

We’re on the eve of one of the most stressful holidays in the United States. Though Thanksgiving should be a day of peace, love, and turkey, many of us find ourselves making huge meals that we may be ill-prepared for, travelling with any combination of small children, adult-children, heavy traffic and airport security (all while trying to keep the casserole warm), or just not looking forward to the inevitable religion-or-politics conversation with Uncle Bob. Holidays are stressful!

But we also know that a little sweat can really drop those stress levels. The research on the impact of exercise on stress has studied a wide variety of exercise types, intensities, and frequencies – what you do, how hard you work, and how often you do it. And they found some pretty awesome results – it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Cardiovascular work, strength training, yoga… the list goes on and on, and everything had a positive impact on mental and physical health. So before you head over to Uncle Bob’s house, sneak one of these stress-reducing workouts in. You’ll feel better, brush off the stress more easily, and maybe even enjoy that slice of pie a little bit more!

Cardiovascular Exercisewalking the dog

Go for a walk. Go for a run. Ride your bike, paddle your kayak, jump on your unicycle. Steady, rhythmic movements are the hallmark of cardio work. If you’re looking for immediate stress relief, make sure you put enough effort in to get your heart rate up a little (or a lot). This doesn’t necessarily mean hard work – I want to emphasize that walking is a great option! Aim for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes if you’re sticking with long, slow cardio. Or, if you’re working with high intensity intervals, try to get in 10-plus rounds of 15-30 second efforts. More on high intensity interval training here. Yes, it’s for everyone.

Strength Training

Anyone who lifts weights on a regular basis can tell you about how good they feel when they’re done with a workout. Same heart rate rules apply: work towards at least a small increase in heart rate. Strength training is essentially interval training, assuming you’re actually lifting weights that pose a challenge. You find a heavy thing. Pick it up. Put it down. Repeat, then rest. Heart rate goes up a little, then comes down a little. Plus, knowing that you’re strong and getting stronger is a mood boost in itself!

yogaYoga/Tai Chi/Qigong

Purists will argue that these types of exercise are all different. It’s true that they all have different methods and approaches to movement, but they are all movement. This movement is often slow and deliberate, with an emphasis on breathing and a mindful approach to the flow or posture. The mindfulness aspect is actually one of the best parts about these exercises. By focusing on your breath and movement, you aren’t focusing on all the other stressful things going on. It’s a zero-sum game and I like it!

Stretching

Do it right! It should be mildly uncomfortable, enough so that holding it is somewhat unpleasant (without being so horrible that you want to quit). If you want a stress-busting stretch, focus on the muscle and stretch, and breathe deeply and slowly. With the right amount of effort, you might even be surprised by breaking a sweat. Just remember, there is such a thing as too much stretch! Aim for a maximum intensity of 7 out of 10 to keep your muscles getting long without actually tearing them up.

These are my go-tos for decreasing stress using exercise and movement. But this list is not exhaustive. What’s your best stress-relieving move? We’d love it hear it!

Thoracic (Upper Back) Foam Rolling, Part 2 – Improving Joint Mobility

The start of the previous post was a little bit doom-and-gloom, talking about all the stress that we put on our upper backs. Really. We hammer them with poor posture, uncomfortable seats (and hours in them), tons of screen time, and about a thousand other things. This all can create tension through the soft tissue (muscles and connective tissues), which in turn impacts our joints – it can grind their ability to move well to a grinding halt. Consider that we don’t have much movement in any given joint in our spine to begin with, and this can be a recipe for disaster.

Good news though! As I pointed out last time, the foam roller is a great way to balance out this stiffness – both from a soft tissue and joint perspective. Unlike foam rolling for most other areas of the body, there are two aspects to consider when foam rolling the area around the thoracic spine.

  1. We have muscles in our upper backs that get tight and stretched out.
  2. We have vertebrae in our upper back (our thoracic vertebrae) that get stiff and kinda stuck together.

These two differences require slightly different approaches. We can use the foam roller to help release some of the built-up muscle tension, or we can use it to encourage appropriate movement to come back to the joints in the spine. Remember that we only want to work through our upper back – in anatomy speak, our thoacic spine. The vertebrae in this region are usually stiff when when want them to be mobile, but our lower back and our neck should be left alone! Bonus: the thoracic spine is easy to identify. Stick to spine from the top to bottom of your ribcage, and you’re good! Remember as well, like our soft tissue, there’s only so much help we can give ourselves – beyond a certain point, you need a trained pair of hands to adjust soft tissue and joints. We’ll talk about that in a minute though. In the meantime, let’s look at what we can do for ourselves:

What it does: Improves joint mobility in the joints of the thoracic spine

How to:

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension 1

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension 2

– Sit in front of the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
– Lay back until your back touches the roller (it doesn’t matter where you start) and put your hands behind your head to support your head and neck
– Keep your hips on the floor and relax backward over the roller, like you’re going to let your head touch the ground behind you
– Hold for desired time, then slowly return to start position
– Move roller to a different level of your thoracic spine and repeat

It’s super important to breathe and relax. You can hold this anywhere from thirty seconds to a half hour, though most people will find it pretty intense at first! Take a break if, when, and for a long as you need to, and if you feel in any way unsafe or uncomfortable doing then, stop right away! You may better benefit from seeing a good chiropractor to get things moving more smoothly, since they can make minute adjustments to joint positions, compared to the all-over effect that the foam roller gives (if you’re local to Portland, my go to is Dr. Alicia Smith at Discover Chiropractic).

 

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 Beaverton or the rest of the Portland area, please get in touch.

 

Thoracic (Upper Back) Foam Rolling, Part 1 – Muscle Tension Release

Our poor upper backs get hammered ALL the time. Every opportunity we have to slouch, we do! Think about all the chances we have to round out through the shoulders and upper back (or thoracic spine, in fancy talk)…

Driving…  Sitting at the computer….  Reading the paper or eating…  Slouched on the couch, watching the piggers win the big game….

In other words, most of us spend a lot of time slouched over, without even realizing it. The foam roller, in all it’s goodness, is a great way to balance out all the slumping we do. Unlike foam rolling for most other areas of the body, there are two aspects to consider when foam rolling the area around the thoracic spine.

  1. We have muscles in our upper backs that get tight and stretched out.
  2. We have vertebrae in our upper back (our thoracic vertebrae) that get stiff and kinda stuck together.

These two differences require slightly different approaches. Let’s take a closer look at the muscles that get tight and stretched out. Our slouched posture means our shoulders roll forward and in, and our head drops forward and down, so the muscles on the other side get pulled along with it. The muscles between, on the back of, and just above our shoulder blades bear the brunt of the stretch (we’re talking rhomboids, part of our rotator cuff, and trapezius). Tension developes in these muscles to help counterbalance all the “forward” in this slouched posture – almost like a seat belt strap holding your head back!

Upper crossed muscles - BackWe can’t affect ALL of these with the foam roller, but some of them are certainly fair game! Check out the muscles in yellow above – prime rolling territory to help decrease some of the tension built up by a slouched posture.

Our thoracic spine isn’t just highlighted by the above picture though. It runs the entire length of your ribcage, meaning you can pretty safely foam roll the muslces on your back almost all the way down as well. This means that we can definitely create a tension-relief effect in our lats and erector spinae muscles as well. Yay! Let’s make our muscles feel better!

What it does: Decreases tension in the muscles of the upper and middle back

How to:

Foam Roll Thoracic Roll Start

Foam Roll Thoracic Roll Finish

– Sit in front of the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
– Lay back until your back touches the roller (it doesn’t matter where you start) and put your hands behind your head to support your head and neck
– Lift your hips and lay on the roller, looking straight up at the ceiling
– Push and pull using your feet to roll up and down on the roller
– Remember, ONLY roll along your ribcage (this keeps all your soft squishy bits safe!)

Cruise up and down the roller for 30 seconds minimum (more if you want!) and take a break if needed! Remember that we can target the vertebrae in the thoracic region a little more specificically – we’ll talk about that next week so check back soon!

 

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 Beaverton or the rest of the Portland area, please get in touch.

 

 

Hot or Cold: Recovering Quickly The Right Way

The use of heat and cold therapies like ice packs or hot water bottles is a common thing when you are active or starting a new exercise routine. Between the two, you can aid your recovery from exercise, help decrease muscle and connective tissue tension, and speed injury healing. But which one should you use, and when?

Cold Therapies

Polar bear ice bath

Not everyone minds…

Cold therapy comes in numerous forms, from ice pack to the dreaded ice bath to a bag of frozen peas. Cold not only has a pain relieving effect; when used immediately after exercise it can decrease any post-exercise soreness you might experience over the following day or two. It’s also extremely useful immediately after injury of any kind – definitely use ice, not heat, to help decrease swelling and pain as it can allow for faster healing times (though I’m sure your doc will have told you that already). The benefits of cold therapies are likely due to decreased blood flow, tissue temperature, and nervous system response:

  • Decreased blood flow decreases swelling, which can also lead to pain reduction.
  • Decreased tissue temperature can decrease the amount and rate of damage at a cellular level (caused by either exercise or injury).
  • Decreased nervous system response blunts the transmission of pain sensations from nerves to the brain, so it just doesn’t hurt as much.

Because the effects are primarily restrictive, cold is better used early in recovery and the healing process.

How to: 

General recommendations tell us to use ice in 15 minute durations, using a towel or cloth between the cold source and your skin. For post-exercise recovery, one application is usually enough to mitigate post-exercise soreness, but if you are dealing with an acute injury, re-applying once an hour for up to three days will provide the best results.

Caution: Cold therapies are not appropriate for everyone or every situation. Don’t use cold if:

  • You are hypersensitive to cold.
  • On an open wound.
  • Directly to the skin, unless using ice massage. You don’t want an ice burn (yes, that’s a real thing).
  • When taking pain killers, as they can prevent awareness of any problems that might arise.
  • If you have circulatory problems.

Heat Therapies hot-pack-back

As it turns out, heat therapies have the exact opposite effects of cold therapies, and also can be used in a number of ways, including heat packs (filled with wheat or therabeads, or chemically activated), creams and ointments, or just a warm bath. Using heat leads to relaxation – often both mental and physical – and has pain relieving effects of its own. Remember though, just because it feels good doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to use! Because heat leads to increased blood flow and tissue metabolism, and decreased stress hormone levels and thickness of joint fluids, it’s a great treatment for later after your exercise session or for use on healed or old injury sites:

  • Increased blood flow and tissue metabolism can help eliminate cellular waste products, which is especially useful during massage treatments.
  • Decreased stress hormones help with mental and physical relaxation. Tissue relaxation can relieve pain, when it’s caused by muscle or connective tissue tension.
  • Decreased joint fluid thickness can ease stiff joints. This can be helpful pre-exercise.

How to: 

General recommendations tell us to apply heat for 20-30 minutes, and to ensure that your heat source is not applied directly to the skin. One might think this is common sense, but it’s worth a mention. 🙂

Caution: Heat therapies are not appropriate for everyone or every situation. Never use heat:

  • Immediately after an injury.
  • If you are hypersensitive to heat, or where there is any numbess of the skin or loss of sensation.
  • If you have circulatory problems.
  • Directly to the eyes, genitals, or to the abdomen during pregnancy.
  • If you have a fever.
  • On open wounds or skin infections.
  • When taking pain killers, as they can prevent awareness of any problems that might arise.
  • If you have cardiac disease, cancer, or high blood pressure – unless you get a specific ok from your doctor first.

If there is any take away message, it’s this: Pick the right one!

Why Massage?

Appropriate exercise, good nutrition, and quality rest and recovery are the cornerstones of really great results in health, fitness, function, and even appearance – most of us know this. Since you’re doing the hard work with these, why not maximize the positive impact of your hard work with the occasional massage session?

It seems that massage is very much still in realm of spas and facials, and not yet widely thought of as a valuable addition to a healthy, fit lifestyle. However, quality deep tissue massage (also called therapeutic or remedial massage) can have an enormous impact on mental and physical health, both generally and for specific conditions. I see it as an integral part of maximal health, fitness, and well-being.

From a physical perspective, massage works to decrease the tension in tight muscles and connective tissue. The pressure used by the therapist stimulates mechanical and nervous system reactions that cause the muscle and connective tissue to decrease tension and return to an optimal state (or closer to one). Overly tight muscles can be caused by poor posture, repetitive movements, stress, injury, illness, or surgery, and inactivity, among others – if this sounds like you (most of us have at least one of these going on) you’re a prime candidate for massage!

Decreasing this tension leads to a number of positive changes. Your circulation will improve, allowing a better flow of nutrients and water into the tissues, and better removal of metabolic waste products. Normalizing tension of the outer most layers can help to decrease the tension of deeper muscle and connective tissue layers, which also leads to improved nerve function. Better nerve function can help each muscle play its role in movement more efficiently and can decrease nervous system complaints like sciatica. Good muscle and nerve function and tension can decrease the risk of aches, pains, and injuries, generally making both exercise and the activities of daily life more pleasant.

Beyond the physical reactions, massage can elicit stress reduction and relaxation responses. This can disrupt the body’s pain response, easing not only every day aches and pains, but also those associated with chronic conditions like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and fibromyalgia. Massage can also increase focus and concentration, thereby increasing productivity and easing stress from a different perspective. And simple touch can go a long way towards feeling better cared for. It’s a pretty amazing thing.

Finding a good deep tissue therapist usually means looking beyond your local day spa. They are much more likely located in shared offices with chiropractors, physical therapists, and other allied health professionals. Prepare yourself for the possibility of a more intense treatment, especially if it’s been a while or you’ve never had one. You may need more frequent treatments initially, but as your soft tissue quality improves, you can go longer and longer between sessions. This is really a worthwhile investment. Lastly, don’t be afraid to trust your gut – no pain, no gain is not exactly true in this circumstance. The most effective treatment is one that is deep enough to decrease tension, but not so heavy that you want to jump off the table the entire time. Your therapist can sometimes tell if they are going too deep, but it’s always in your best interest to let them know if you want more pressure, or less.

 

If you are looking for a great massage therapist in the Alexandria area, I highly recommend Erica Petrilli – she’s got great hands and intuitively knows what needs work.

Relief For A Tight Neck And Shoulders

It’s pretty common for people to hold tension in their upper back, shoulders, and neck. In fact, it probably accounted for at least half of my client complaints when working as a massage therapist. Deep tissue massage, also called sports, remedial, or therapeutic massage, is the best way to decrease the tension in these areas. Since most of us can’t just drop everything we are doing to get treatment, I’d like to share a few self-treatment techniques that you can use to keep your tension levels down between massages.

Self Management of Soft Tissue

You could also call this DIY massage. The idea is to use pressure to help relieve the tension in the muscles, decreasing pain and improving movement. Having a neck so tight that you can’t turn to check your blind spot is not super useful.

1. Tennis Ball Self-Massage – Upper Back

You’ll need a tennis ball and an empty wall or door that you can lean into.

Hold the tennis ball on your upper back, then lean against the wall, pinning the tennis ball between your back and the wall. Move side to side and up and down to roll the tennis ball around on your back, avoiding pressure on the bony areas of your spine and shoulder blades.

Hold tennis ball on upper back

Hold tennis ball on upper back

Pin tennis ball between back and wall

Pin tennis ball between back and wall

 

2. Upper Trap Self-Massage

The Upper Trap Area

The Upper Trap Area

Your upper trapezius (or upper trap, for short) is the fleshy area of muscle between your neck and shoulder, towards the back of your body. People under stress tend to hunch their shoulders towards their ears, putting this part of the muscle under constant tension. The longer it is under tension, the less easy it is for this muscle to relax, and the more sore and painful it will get.

You need the corner of a wall or doorway that you can lean into, and a small towel.

Fold the towel a few times and place it over your shoulder for a little padding. Bend your knees and bow forward, placing both hands on the corner of the wall/doorway to control your body weight. Lower your upper trap area onto the corner, pushing through your hands to control how much of your body weight is leaning onto the corner (more push through the hands will take pressure off the upper trap, less push will put more pressure through it). Go easy until you figure out the right positioning. Make sure you maintain neutral positioning through your back and keep your knees bent. This will also help deeper muscles in the back of the neck.

Towel over shoulder for padding

Towel over shoulder for padding

Placing your hands on the wall

Placing your hands on the wall

Leaning into the wall to put pressure on upper trap

Leaning into the wall to put pressure on upper trap

Stretching Your Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulders

When you’re dealing with a tight neck and shoulders, releasing muscle tension is only half the battle, since the tension release will not actually lengthen the short muscles. Gentle stretching is recommended after your self massage for the best results. GENTLE. Your neck is full of important stuff – you don’t want to put any unnecessary strain on the area. It’s also important to note that if these stretches cause any pain, tingling, numbness, or other neural sensations, or any sudden changes in vision, you should stop immediately and get yourself to your medical professional.

1. Upper Trap and Side of Neck Stretch

Reach behind your back with one arm and grasp the wrist with other hand. Very gently pull the wrist further across the back while dropping the head to one side (away from the side you are stretching).

Upper Trap and Side of Neck Stretch

2. Front of Neck Stretch

Slowly drop one ear toward the shoulder, then tilt the head back slightly to look up. You should feel a gentle stretch in the side and front of the neck.

Looking diagonally up to stretch the front of the neck

Looking diagonally up to stretch the front of the neck

3. Back of Neck Stretch

Slowly drop the chin towards the chest and relax. You should feel a gentle stretch through the back of the neck.

Back of Neck Stretch

Please note, the exercises shown above may or may not be the solution to any neck and shoulder tension you are feeling. As always, the best thing you can do for yourself is get treatment from a qualified professional. In this case, my first stop would be a good remedial or deep tissue massage therapist. If you are looking for a great massage therapist in the Alexandria area, I highly recommend Erica Petrilli – she’s got great hands. You’ll get so much more out of that treatment than you can ever give yourself.

 

 

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.

Four Great Stretches For Sitting

We all sit a lot.

Like many big cities, the Washington DC metro area has no shortage of offices filled with desks to sit at, and the Northern Virginia commute is notorious. We sit a lot at work, in the car, and when we get home, a lot of us sit down on the couch or at the kitchen table to relax. I have nothing against relaxing, but all that sitting can end up doing a number on our hips.

Our muscles are adaptive, and spending such long periods of time with little or no movement, and with some muscles in shortened positions, can cause stiffness in the hips. This in turn can lead to lower back and knee pain – two of the more common problems I hear about. Give your hips a break by stretching them out using these stretches.

1. Seated Figure Four Stretch

This stretch is great for your glutes and deep hip rotators, especially your piriformis. In the instructions, your bottom leg has foot on the ground, and your top leg has foot off the ground.

– Start sitting up with both legs out straight in front of you
– Cross on ankle over the opposite knee
– Bend the bottom leg, sliding the foot toward you
– Come as high as needed to achieve the right stretch for you

You should feel: A stretch through the glutes/outside bottom of the hip on the front leg.

Tip: If propping yourself up with your hands is too difficult, sit up against a wall and brace your back against it.

Seated Figure 4 Stretch

2. Pigeon Stretch

Stretches the same muscles as the figure four stretch, but uses gravity to help achieve the stretch. This can be more intense than the figure four.

– Start on hands and knees
– Slide one foot forward towards the opposite hand
– Slide the other foot backward away from the head, so the whole body slides backward
– Keep arms straight or lower torso by coming to elbows

You should feel: A stretch through the glutes/outside bottom of the hip on the front leg, and possibly through the front of the hip on the back leg.

Tip: Keep the front heel towards the opposite hip for less stretch, or work on getting the front shin perpendicular to the body for more intensity.

Pigeon Stretch

3. Kneeling Hip Flexor/Quad Stretch

Targets the hips flexors at the front of the hips, as well as the quads. All our sitting keeps these guys very short, which can have huge implications in lower back pain.

– Start kneeling on both knees
– Step on foot out in front – make it a long step
– Keeping your feet, knees, hips, and shoulders all in a straight line, drop the hips and torso forward
– Keep your bodyweight through your heel on your front foot, not your toes
– To increase quad stretch, wrap a towel around your back foot and pull the foot up towards your hips

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and possibly thigh of the back leg.

Tip: Use a folded up towel under your knee for a little extra padding if needed.

Hip Flexor - Quad

4. Short Adductor Stretch (aka the Butterfly Stretch)

A great stretch for the adductor muscles of the inner thigh, especially the upper (short) ones. We don’t think about them much, but they are highly active in both hip flexion and extension.

– Sit up straight with the soles of your feet together in front of you
– Let your knees drop down towards the ground

You should feel: A stretch through the along the inner thighs of both legs.

Short Adductor Stretch

 

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.

 

This article is has also been published at our sister site, Fix Fitness & Bodywork – Alexandria’s premier in-home personal training and massage providers. Visit us there if you want to exercise the sustainable way!