Category Archives: Pictures of Exercises

Diastasis Recti FAQ’s

1. What is Diastasis Recti, and how do I know if I have it?  Diastasis Recti is when the two halves of your Rectus Abdominis (6-pack muscle) separate beyond the natural amount.  It is natural to have a  small space between the two halves.  (Most experts consider a gap of 1 finger width or less to be normal, and a gap of 2 fingers or more (about 25mm or 1in) to be Diastasis Recti.)  It’s also natural for this space to become wider during pregnancy as the muscles and connective tissue stretch.  It will be hard for you to tell if your  muscles have spread a “natural pregnancy amount” or a “wider-than-natural pregnancy amount”. For this reason, I don’t recommend that you check yourself for DR when you are pregnant.  There will be a gap, and it will freak you out unnecessarily.

DR is not a disease; it is a symptom of excessive intra-abdominal pressure, muscle tension and weakness, misalignment, and a core that is not functioning well. There are already so many good articles out there covering this question…why reinvent the wheel, right?  For a full explanation of what it is and how to check for it, read this article from Mutu System’s Wendy Powell.

2. How do I heal it?  Can I close the gap? Diastasis Recti is best healed by addressing your whole body alignment and changing the way you move in everyday life.  I know that sounds like a HUGE undertaking (and it is), but there are some simple things you can do right now to bring profound changes. Start with these 5 Steps to a Stronger Core.  It takes time to rehabilitate your core. Be very wary of people or programs that claim to have a “quick fix” or guarantee certain results….like this program that got a lot of press recently. You can read a GREAT response to this article here. (Seriously, it’s really good and it articulates my thoughts exactly.)  It’s important to know that the gap might not necessarily close all the way, and that is ok. You can still have a strong and functional core with a small gap.  In addition to changing the way you move and moving more, you can try exercises specifically designed to release tension in the trunk and help you reconnect with these muscles.

3. What core exercises are safe to do? I work with a lot of women who have DR and want to restore their core function, but they’re scared to do any type of core exercise because they’ve heard traditional core work, like crunches, can worsen their condition (and it can).  Imagine squeezing a balloon. The displaced air has to go somewhere, and the increased pressure would cause the balloon to bulge.  The same thing happens in your abdominal and pelvic cavities. Many abdominal exercises increase the intra-abdominal pressure, which pushes the contents of the belly forward and/or down.  It’s pushing forward against the connective tissue that is already compromised or down on your pelvic floor, which is especially problematic if you are already experiencing incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse. There are a lot of core exercises that are safe, but they might not look like the core exercises you are used to.   Here are a few you can try as a safe and gentle way to start reconnecting with your abdominal muscles.  These can also be done during pregnancy!

Spinal Twist: Sit on your sitz bones, relax the ribs down. Slowly twist without jutting the ribs forward/up. <–RIBS DOWN IS VERY IMPORTANT! Hold for 1 min, feel the rib cage expand as you take deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.

 

Belly Release: On hands and knees, let the belly and pelvis relax allowing the tailbone to tip up towards the ceiling. Let the belly relax all the way, dropping as close to the floor as possible. Notice any tendency to lift/suck it back up. TVA (Transverse Abdominal Muscle) Activation: From here, take a deep breath. Imagine your belly filling with air and dropping closer to the floor. Exhale through the mouth as if you are blowing out candles. As you exhale, feel the belly draw up away from the floor. Repeat several times. Don’t move the spine or tuck the pelvis! Use this to help release abdominal tension and retrain the muscles.

 

Supermom: Start from the belly release position. Let the pelvis untuck, and keep the ribs lifted up away from the floor. Practice lifting one arm at a time, one leg at a time, and opposite arm/leg together. The spine should remain still as you move.  Feel your abdominal muscles turn on automatically as you move your limbs. Repeat 10x/side to build strength and train the core to engage reflexively.

 

4. What else can I do?

How I Made it Through a Move Without Back Pain

We recently moved to Nashville, and although this move was considerably easier than our last one, it still takes a toll. For most people moving and back pain go together. We’ve all been there: I think I can move that couch by myself….this box isn’t THAT heavy….I don’t need help…. Usually what follows next is a back spasm (and maybe some cursing) followed by days/weeks of pain.  Even if you get off lucky and only have some mild soreness, it’s both uncomfortable and avoidable. Here’s how I got through the move without the typical back pain:

1) I used my HIPS.  You’ve heard “lift with your legs, not with your back”, right?  I’d like to revise that saying to “lift with your hips, not with your back”.  I think a lot of people get into trouble when they THINK they are using their legs because their knees are bent.  It’s true, some of the leg muscles are working when the knees are bent, but the position of the pelvis determines whether the big muscles on the back of the leg (gluts & hamstrings) can work here. The position of the pelvis also effects what is happening in our back (because they are attached).  When our hips are tight, we tend to over use and abuse our spine and/or knees when bending over to pick something up.  The pelvis will tuck, the low back will go into flexion (round) and the knees will move forward. In addition to being a vulnerable position for the spine and hard on the knees, it prevents a person from being able to effectively use the gluts and hamstrings to do the heavy lifting.  A person who lifts like this might use some leg muscle but will also use their back:

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Try this instead: Bend down like you are going to pick somethings up. Now, do it again, and pretend like you are squatting. Untuck your pelvis and back your butt WAY up until shins are vertical. This allows you to use the gluts and hamstrings (hips!) as well as save your back when you lift:

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Now, you might be thinking “I don’t think I can get into that position, much less lift a box in that position.”  Can you see how my knees are coming forward in the picture on the left? I can’t quite make it all the way to the ground with vertical shins, so I allow them to come forward, then on the way up, back my pelvis up as soon as possible, so I can use my hips to do the work. You might also notice that my pelvis is a little bit tucked.  It’s not perfect, but it’s still enough to keep me from the full on back spasms of my past.  I’ve been working on building the strength and mobility to be able to do this for years, and I still have a ways to go.  It takes time. You’ll find some hip opening and squatting homework at the bottom of the page to help you get there.

2) I paid attention to my body’s warning signs and asked for help.  What are the warning signs? I’m so glad you asked. All of these are signals that you are not strong enough to do what you are attempting to do.  Stop and ask for help if you:

  • Have to hold your breath, bear down, valsalva
  • Leak urine (Yes, it’s common. No, it’s not ok.)
  • Feel any downward pressure, straining or bulging in your pelivc floor or abdomen
  • Experience back or pelvic pain (during or after)

By the way, if you experience these signs during a workout, the same guidelines apply.  It’s your body’s way of telling you that you are not ready to do that particular activity. Continuing to do an activity that causes theses things to happen can make back, pelvic floor and core issues worse.  There are steps you can take to gradually build strength without compromising spinal health or core/pelvic floor function. (See the suggestions below.)

3) I relaxed & released my psoas. If you try your best, but still have some pain at the end of the day, try these psoas releases. The psoas is a muscle that attaches on the spine (T12 & all lumbar vertebrae), goes through the abdomen, and attaches on the femur (thigh bone). It is often a culprit in low back and pelvic pain. During this move, some days I had mild soreness/stiffness in my back, but when I did these two releases, it was gone the next day instead of lingering or becoming worse.  Notice I’m calling them RELEASES not EXERCISES. This is because all you have to do here is relax and let the tension release. There is nothing to do or force. If you want more, my colleague Susan demonstrates more psoas exercises on her blog.

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Bolster up the head and shoulders and let the ribs and spine relax towards the floor. Make sure the bolster isn’t under the ribs, pushing them up towards the ceiling. Breathe here for 5 min.

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Place a block under the pelvis (not the low back) and let the pelvis and spine relax towards the floor. Breathe here for 5 min.

 

Here are some ways to start gaining the strength and mobility you need to prevent injury:

  • Get started at home with this easy series.
  • Try an Alignment Snack (20-30 min online class). I like “All Around the Thighs” and “Frankie Says, Relax the Posas” for stretching all the muscles around the hips and addressing the psoas.
  • Join me for Aligned & Fit on Mondays at 8:30 (starting 9/14) at Blooma Nashville Yoga. This class focuses on building functional strength– the kind of strength you need to do daily life.  Play with your kids, lift heavy boxes, climb stairs, chase your dog, carry babies…. without peeing your pants or ending up in pain!

PS- This isn’t just for moving! Apply these principles to any heavy lifting or repetitive bending down you might do– lifting your kids, cleaning the house, lifting weights, loading the dishwasher, etc. to use your hips and save your back.

Movement Breaks for the Office (part 2)

Here is another series that can easily be done at work with no equipment.  These exercises are all meant to reduce the upper body tension that comes with computer/office work. Alternate this upper body series with the lower body exercises from Part 1 to hit the whole body!

1) Head Ramping: Instead of the “forward head” position that creates compression of the cervical spine, gently slide the head back. Pay attention to your head position when you are looking at the computer screen and driving. Ramp the head as often as you remember.

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2) Head Hang: Let the chin drop towards the chest to lengthen the back of the neck. Relieving tension in the neck improves circulation to the brain which can reduce headaches and brain fog. Hold for 1 minute, repeat several times a day.

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3) Hand Stretching: Do you have “claw hands” from computer work? This tension in your hands may seem insignificant, but it can lead to things like carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis. With your palm face up and your elbow by your side, stretch each finger towards the floor.

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4) Thoracic Stretch: Place your hands on a wall, roll the elbows in towards each other so the elbow “pits” point up towards the ceiling and elbows point towards the floor. Drop the chest towards the floor as you hinge forward from the hips.  (If you have learned about rib position, try to pull the ribs “up” instead of letting them slide towards the floor.) Hold for 1 minute.

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5) Standing Crescent Stretch: Stand with your feet a few inches from the wall and your gluts against the wall. Keep the ribs down while you lift the arms over head. Arch your body towards the right, breathing into the right side of the rib cage. Hold for 1 min and repeat on the other side.

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Want more for the shoulders? Try an Alignment Snack (20 min online classes) on your lunch break. For upper body work, I love these: Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck.

I also recommend Katy Bowman’s book, Don’t Just Sit There. It’s a comprehensive guide to sitting less and moving more, without compromising your productivity.

Movement Breaks for the Office (part 1)


By now you’ve heard about the benefits of sitting less a time or two. Maybe you’ve created a standing desk or experimented with sitting on the floor in a variety of positions. Changing you position throughout the day (rather than sitting in one position ALL day) has improved your health in countless ways. Well done!

Here is series to help relieve the lower body tension caused by excessive sitting. These exercises can easily be done at the work– no need to change clothes, get all sweaty, or buy special equipment! The tension in the legs and hips can cause back/hip/leg pain, incontinence, prostate inflammation, pelvic pain, sciatica, poor circulation, muscle weakness and countless other ailments. For best results, do these at least 2-3 times during the day.  It is best to do these exercises barefoot or in socks, as wearing shoes will interfere and make the exercise less effective.  You can also combine these exercises with short walks around your office (or even outside of your building) every time you need to make a phone call. Even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes, moving instead of being stationary improves circulation and glucose regulation. Some say that sitting for too long increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 91% even if you exercise regularly! 

1) Double Calf Stretch: This is a great way to work on untucking the pelvis and stretch the calves and hamstrings. Roll up a towel or yoga mat. Place the balls of both feet on the towel with the heels on the floor. Place your hands on a chair and bend forward from the hips. Your feet should be pointing straight ahead. Let your hips back up so that there is more weight in your heels. Lift the tailbone up towards the ceiling without bending your knees.IMG_2484

2) #4 Stretch: This stretches the piriformis and is great for those suffering from sciatica. It can be done any time you are sitting or standing.

Seated: Sit on your “sitz bones” the edge of your seat. Cross your left ankle over your right knee without letting your pelvis tuck. Relax the left knee towards the floor without letting your pelvis shift to the side

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Standing: Stand on your right leg and cross the left ankle over the right knee. Bend the right knee like you are sitting in a chair (like a 1 leg squat). Lift the tailbone towards the ceiling as you back the hips up. Hold onto a chair or wall for balance.

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3) Wide Leg Wall Glide: To stretch the inner thighs, stand with your legs wide and feet about 6 inches from a wall. Hinge forward from the hips, tailbone to the ceiling. Then glide the pelvis right to leg along the wall. Keep your gluts against the wall and the knees straight (relax the quads if you can). The hands can rest on a chair for support. This can be done without a wall as well.

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4) Pelvic List: Stand with the right foot on a step, phone book or block. Line up the outside edge of your foot with the edge of the step to straighten the foot. Slowly lower the left foot towards the ground (without bending the knee) and bring it back up using the muscles of the standing leg (not the muscles of the low back or waist). This exercise strengthens the muscles on the outside of the hip.

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5) Door Knob Squats: These are a great way to simultaneously stretch and strengthen the gluts and hamstrings. The strength and mobility required to squat is essential for pelvic floor, hip and low back health. As you bend your knees, back up your hips as far as you can, untuck the pelvis and lift the tailbone. Keep the knees over the ankles (vertical shins) to both protect the knees and help you use your gluts and hamstrings. Holding onto a door knob will help you back your pelvis up.

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For more “at work” exercises to address computer claw hands and shoulder tension, see Part 2.

I recommend Katy Bowman’s book, Don’t Just Sit There. It’s a comprehensive guide to sitting less and moving more, without compromising your productivity.  Another good resource is this list of ways to create a more active workstation.

10 Minutes to Tension & Pain Free Shoulders

You are going to love this! These are some of my favorite exercises for relieving shoulder and upper back tension that accumulates during the day. We do so many things with our arms: computer work, driving, studying, carrying babies, breastfeeding, yard work…. add misalignment, old injuries, weak muscles and stress to the mix and you have a recipe for serious discomfort.  If you experience shoulder & upper back pain and/or tension, you will love this routine. It only takes 10 minutes and you’ll feel great! (See additional resources at the bottom of this post as well.)

Minute 1: Rhomboid Push Up

The rhomboids are muscles on your upper back that connect the spine Muscles_rhomboïdesand the scapula (shoulder blades). When you have the habit of retracting your scapula (retraction=pulling the shoulders back like you are squeezing something between the shoulder blades) these muscles get tight and weak. I know that this position is often taught as “good posture”, but it is not good alignment. (Read about posture vs. alignment.)  When you retract your scapula it looks good, but holding this position habitually is sabotaging your shoulder girdle and spinal health. These muscles help hold the spine upright, and when they are tight and weak, they can’t do their job, resulting in hyperkyphosis.

To restore the length of these muscles, try this. Start on your hands and knees. Roll the elbows in towards eachother so that the elbow points back towards your thighs and the elbow “pit” faces the same direction as your middle finger (see picture). Keep a slight bend in the elbow to keep from hyper extending.

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Let the chest drop towards the floor and feel the scapula come together (retraction) WITHOUT BENDING YOUR ELBOWS ANYMORE THAN THEY ALREADY ARE. Then press the hands into the floor and push the shoulders blades wide (protraction). Keep the pelvis untucked.  This is a VERY difficult motion to learn, so it may take some time to master.  WATCH THIS VIDEO of my friend Susan demonstrating the rhomboid push up.

Minute 2: Floor Angels

First bolster you head and shoulders with some pillows or folded blankets. To stretch the chest and shoulders, move the arms slowly overhead like you are making a snow angel.  Rotate the arms so that your palms face up towards the ceiling and your thumbs are closer to the floor than the pinkies.  The hand will start out touching the floor, but will lift away from the floor as you move the arm overhead.

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Keep the ribs relaxed down. Try not to let them pop up towards the ceiling like this:

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Minutes 3-5: Tennis Ball “Reverse” Rhomboid Push Up

I got this AWESOME move from Jill Miller of Yoga Tune Up. Take two tennis balls or balls of similar size & density (I’m using yoga tune up balls here) and put them in a sock. Tie a knot in the sock to keep the balls in place. Lay on your back with the balls underneath your upper back, one on either side of the spine. Start at the top of your scapula.

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Reach your arms up to the ceiling feeling the scapula spread wide, them relax and let them fall towards the floor. It’s the same motion as the rhomboid push up, just upside down. Do this for 1 minute, moving slowly. Then roll the balls down an inch or two, and repeat this motion for 1 minute. Repeat this process one more time. (We are doing 3 different positions here, but you can always do more.)

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If you want more pressure, you can experiment with pressing your feet into the floor to  lift your pelvis up into a small bridge.

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Minutes 6-8: Tennis Ball Floor Angels

Move the balls back up to the first spot they were in (on either side of the spine near the top of the scapula). Repeat the same “snow angel” motion with your arms that you did in the Floor Angels for 1 minute. Roll the balls down an inch or two and repeat 1 minute. Roll the balls down again and repeat.

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If you love this stuff as much as I do, you will want to check out Jill Miller’s new book The Roll Model. My husband gave it to me for Christmas this year, and I’m slowly working my way through it. She shows you how to roll away tension from head to toe. SO GOOD!

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Minute 9: Rhomboid Push Up

Repeat slowly for 1 minute.

Minute 10: Floor Angels

 Repeat slowly for 1 minute.


 

Want more for your shoulders?

1.) Read 3 things you need to know about your shoulder tension.

2.) Drop in for Upper Body Stretch & Strengthen class at Blooma Nashville.

3.) Try an Alignment Snack (20 min online classes). For upper body I love these: Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck.

3 Things You Need to Know About Your Shoulder Tension

1.) Constantly pulling your shoulders back (shoulder blades together) will make it worse. I know that this position is taught as “good posture”, but it is not good alignment.  (Read about the difference between posture and alignment.) The rhomboids are muscles on your upper back that connect the spine and the scapula (shoulder blades). When you have the habit of retracting your scapula (retracting=pulling the Muscles_rhomboïdesshoulders back like you are squeezing something between the shoulder blades) these muscles get tight and weak.  When you retract your scapula it LOOKS GOOD, but it is only masking your shoulder tension, NOT FIXING IT. Trying to keep this “good posture” all the time is causing these muscles to become tighter and weaker, sabotaging your long term shoulder and spinal health.

2.)  The tension in your hands is directly related to the tension in your shoulders.  Before I started studying Restorative Exercise™, it never occurred to me to stretch my hands.  I didn’t even realize there was tension in my hands. If you can relate to this, try these tests.

Test #1: Start on your hands and knees. (If you can’t get on your hands and knees, try bending over and placing your hands on a coffee table.)  Place your hands on the floor so that the middle finger points straight ahead and the thumb and pointer finger make an “L” (a 90° angle).  Then roll the elbows in towards eachother so that the elbow points back towards your thighs and the elbow “pit” faces the same direction as your middle finger.  Keep a slight bend in the elbow to keep from hyper extending. In the photos below, there is a red dot on my elbow pit to help you see it.

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Arms internally rotated, elbow pits facing each other. (Not good for your shoulder health)

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Arms externally rotated to neutral, elbow pits facing forward. (A neutral humerus=better shoulder alignment.)

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“Claw Hands” that are tight and cupping away from the floor reveal the relationship between shoulder and hand tension.

 

Did your hands cup up away from the floor? Is it impossible to get the hand position and arm position at the same time?  This shows you how the the shoulder, arm and hand tension is all related. We SHOULD be able to keep both the hands and the shoulders aligned at the same time, not one or the other.

Test #2: Reach your arm behind your back without letting your scapula “wing” (boney edges stick out). Keep the flat and wide across your back. If you can, reach your arm up towards your neck without winging the scapula.

 

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Scapula (shoulder blades) wide.

Then flip your palm over so that the palm touches your back.  You should be able to do this without the scapula winging. If you can’t, this shows you (again) how your shoulder and hand tension are related.

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Hand flipped over, winging scapula.

 

 3.)  Just because you don’t FEEL a stretch, doesn’t mean you don’t have tension.  It’s pretty common to have one or more hyper mobile joints.  When a joint is hyper mobile the ligaments are too lax, making it easy to move a joint without the muscular tension getting in the way.  In this case, you may be able to move through a normal (or often excessive) range of motion without ever feeling a stretch.  When you try to stretch, you don’t feel anything, so you assume your muscles aren’t tight.  The tension is still there creating pain, tendonitis, numbness, tingling, etc only you don’t realize it because you can’t feel it.  It is MUCH harder for someone with hyper lax ligaments in a certain area to access the muscular tension. It’s very complex to learn to stabilize your hyper mobile parts.  If you suspect this is an issue for you, see suggestions 3 & 4 below.

What You Can Do About It:

1.) Stop pulling your shoulders back/together all the time. Let them relax wide.

2.) Practice Test #2. It’s a test, but it will also help mobilize the shoulder.

3.) Join me at Blooma Nashville for Upper Boday class. Come stretch and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, arms, chest, neck & upper back to create shoulders that are both strong AND mobile. This class will restore upper body alignment, relieve tension & pain, improve flow of blood, lymph & milk, and teach how to deal with hyper-mobility.

Every Thursday at 6:45pm

4.)  Try Katy’s online Super Supple Shoulders webinar for an in depth shoulder workout and education. This class will help you learn to deal with hyper mobility and relieve tension.

5.)  Try these Alignment Snacks (shorter 20 minute classes): Everybody Needs a Little Shoulder Bolster, Rhomboid Madness, Can’t Get Enough of Shoulders & A Real Pain in the Neck. Get Alignment Snacks HERE.

Make Fists With Your Toes

We are flying back to California for Christmas today. If your trip is like ours, you drive about an hour to the airport, sit on the plane for another couple hours (in our case about 4 ½), then ride in a car another hour or (or 3 depending on Los Angeles traffic) to your destination. If you’re like me, that last hour in the car feels like an eternity.

You don’t have much of a choice when it comes to sitting in the car or on the plane. The time you spend in the airport? You have a choice how you spend that time. When your plane is delayed, and you have 4 hours to kill at the airport, you have lots of time to move around before you are confined to your seat. I try to move around as much as possible (and sit as little as possible) while waiting for my flight. This is how we did it today:

1.   I like to check my bag, so that I have more freedom to walk around. (I love that you don’t have to pay to check bags on Southwest, so I try to fly them when possible.) When I’m not schlepping a bag around, I am more inclined to take the stairs instead of the escalator and move more in general while at the airport.

2.   I recommend a bag or backpack that stays on securely without needing to use your hands or scrunch your shoulder up to your ear to keep it on. This also allows you to swing your arms freely while walking and keep your upper body less tense. Letting the arms swing while walking is great for moving lymph (as is walking itself) which helps your immune system. (More on this here.) 

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3.   These are some stretches I like to do at the airport that don’t involve getting down on the floor. Your hips, legs, and spine will thank you!

Yes, the airport is strangely empty 2 days before Christmas.

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Standing Hamstring Stretch: Prop your foot up on something, flexing the toes towards the shin. Try to straighten the standing leg and back up your pelvis.

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Thoracic Stretch: Place your hands on a wall, roll the elbows in towards each other so the elbow “pits” point up towards the ceiling and elbows point towards the floor. Drop the chest towards the floor as you hinge forward from the hips.

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Lunge: Keep the front knee over the shin as you drop the hips towards the ground. Keep the torso over the hips. This stretches the hip flexors (front of the back leg) and is quiet a bit of work for the other leg muscles at the same time.

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Wide Leg Wall Glide: Stand with your legs wide and feet about 6 inches from a wall. Hinge forward from the hips, untucking the pelvis.

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Then glide the pelvis back and forth. You will feel your backside sliding along the wall. Keep the knees straight ( and quads relaxed if you can). This stretches lots of nooks and crannies in the hips.

 

4.   When you have A TON of time, you can sample local craft beers with Lucy, the bartender from Croatia, see pictures of her hometown, and dream about going there. One thing I love about bar counters (or bar height tables) is that you can stand while other people sit, and it’s not awkward at all. After learning about Croatia, you can take your beer to go, walk around the airport, and browse the bookstore. Apparently there are no “open container” rules at Nashville International Airport.

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5.   Once you are on the plane and captive to your seat, you can still get in a little movement. Debbie at Positively Aligned demonstrates some options here. And of course, there’s always John McClane’s seat mate’s advice, “make fists with your toes”. (A reference to Die Hard, one of my husband’s favorite Christmas movies; although, I would argue it has very little to do with Christmas. It doesn’t have the same “get in the Christmas spirit” affect as It’s a Wonderful Life or Christmas Vacation.) Nevertheless, try it, it really does feel amazing. Swelling of the feet and lower legs is a huge problem for a lot of people when they fly, and any movement helps the circulation to the area. Getting up mid flight to walk up and down the aisles is helpful as well. I try to get an aisle seat, so I can take as many “bathroom” (aka walking) breaks as I want.

Whether you are traveling or not, I wish you a very merry, healthy and movement filled Christmas!

(For My Husband: “Ho Ho Ho, now I have a machine gun!”)

Stay Healthy This Cold & Flu Season, Move Your Lymph.

It’s that time of year when everyone is getting colds, flus, chest infections…. You know all the regular recommendations: wash your hands, take Vitamin C, get plenty of rest, take On Guard (I think I’m a little behind the trend on this one– I JUST discovered how amazing this essential oil blend is. Seriously, it changed my life.) or immune boosting herbs.

I’m going to give you a new one today: Move Your Lymph

If you are thinking, “move my what?”, keep reading. How do we move our lymph? Before we get to that, we need to talk about what lymph is and what it does…but before we get to that, let’s start with the blood.  Everyone knows that the heart pumps the blood, circulating it around the body.  What many people don’t realize, is that the muscles are designed to help move the blood along as they contract and relax. While the heart is the main pump, muscle activity helps draw the blood to the smaller capillaries that feed the cells and pickup the cellular waste.  The large veins and arteries are like the main lines in an irrigation system that would water a large garden, and the capillaries are much smaller lines watering specific areas on the outskirts. When muscles are tight, they are not very active, and the blood flow to that part of the body is relatively low.  When this happens, the blood flow may be lower than optimal (or not reaching ALL the cells adequately), but at least it’s still flowing because the heart it pumping.

Now we are ready to talk about lymph.  (Keep in mind this is a simplified explanation of a very complex physiological process.)  The lymphatic system is your body’s garbage clean up system, and it circulates a fluid called lymph. All the cellular waste, toxins, and other “garbage” gets picked up in the lymph, which travels through vessels (similar to blood vessels), passing through lymph nodes to get filtered. Lymph doesn’t have a pump, so it relies on outside forces to move it…muscles, gravity, massage, etc.

When muscles are tight and bodies are inactive, lymph gets stagnant. The lymphatic system is directly related to the immune system, and when it’s not functioning as it should, immune function is compromised.  We often forget that there are mechanical components to disease & illness, and this is one of them.

Here’s a picture of the lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, and organs associated with the system.  The areas with more green clusters are the areas with higher concentration of lymph nodes (pelvis, groin, armpit, & neck).

Blausen_0623_LymphaticSystem_Female

 

Back to the original question: How do we move our lymph?

1) Stretch tight muscles in regions of high lymph node concentration– chest/shoulders, groin/hips & neck. If you’re like me, these areas with a lot of lymph nodes also happen to have a lot of tension.  When muscles are tight, they are relatively inactive and don’t circulate lymph (or blood) very well. Here are a couple of my favorite stretches for theses regions.

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1/2 WINDMILL: Lay on your right side, bolster the head as needed. Drop your left arm toward the wall behind you. Rotate the arm so the thumb points towards the ground (pinky towards the ceiling). Keep a slight bend in the elbow. Slowly move the arm down towards the hip, then back up over head, pausing when you feel tight spots in the chest & shoulder.  Perform at least 1 min. Repeat on the other side.

 

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NECK STRETCH: Sit on your sitz bones, relax your ribs down. Reach your left arm away from you keeping a slight bend in the elbow. Rotate the arm externally (like you have a bowl of soup in your hand and are pouring it out behind you). Tuck the chin to lengthen the back of the neck & let the right ear drop toward the left shoulder. Hold at least 1 min. Repeat on the other side.

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LEGS UP THE WALL: Lay down with your hips a few inches away from the wall and legs straight up the wall. You should have a small space under your low back. If your low back presses into the floor, scoot away from the wall, and use a rolled up towel or your mat (pictured) to help your pelvis untuck. Use a prop under your head to help the ribs relax down. Let the legs drop open to stretch the adductors (inner thighs). Work up to 1 min.

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NOTE: Another benefit of this position is that gravity will pull any lymph that may have accumulated in the feet & lower legs (read: swelling) back “up” to be circulated. It is also a position that encourages dogs and small children to climb on you.

2) Move more, starting with a daily walk. Regular, full body movement is necessary for moving blood & lymph (and for health in general). Walking is the preferred full body movement for many reasons, but that is another post for another day. (I do NOT recommend walking on a treadmill. It’s not the same.)  The rhythmic movement of arms and legs helps pump both blood and lymph around the body, feeding cells & removing waste.

You also may have noticed that the areas of high lymph node concentration happen to be near major joints. These are joints that would get a lot of movement IF we were moving naturally instead of sitting all day.  When I say “moving naturally” I am referring to the way humans moved before we had modern conveniences like cars, grocery stores, high heels, chairs, strollers, toilets….not bad things, but things that require us to move WAY less than before. Walking, hunting/gathering food, kneeling, climbing, carrying kids, squatting….can you see how just “doing life” would facilitate the movement of lymph (and blood) throughout the day? If this concept resonates with you, I’d recommend Katy Bowman’s new book Move Your DNA.

(SIDE NOTE: High intensity exercise is not necessary to move lymph, and it can actually weaken your immune system.)

3) When you walk, swing your arms. You have a built in reflex for arm swing. Without thinking about it, your opposite arm and leg will move together. It’s called reciprocal arm swing. When you are carrying a baby or a purse, that arm tends to not swing, so try alternating sides (or finding an alternative that allows arm swing, like a sling or messenger bag). For optimal muscle use and lymph movement, keep your elbow pointing back behind you and the elbow “pit” pointing straight ahead as your arms swing. Then keep the arms straight (not bent like a race walker), and push them back behind you. More on this here. Yes, you’ll get more toned arms (say good-bye to that flap on the back of your arm), but more importantly, it is essential for breast health!

Now, take a computer break, and go move that lymph!

 

PS- If you want more, here a few 20-30 minute classes that target these areas. Click HERE, then choose one of the following titles:

A Real Pain in the Neck, Rhomboid Madness, Adductor Madness, Take a Load off Your Chest & Hips, Frankie Says: Relax the Psoas

. . .but what about when I DO sit?

I’m always telling my clients about the health benefits of sitting less, and the question that usually follows is something like this: “…but what about when I DO sit? What’s the best way?”  I know that you aren’t going to spend the ENTIRE day standing and walking (and I would not advise that you do so).  At some point, you will have a lunch date or drive in your car or sit down because you are tired. And that’s ok.  It’s not that sitting is inherently bad and standing is inherently good.  The problem comes when we remain in one position almost constantly (whether it’s sitting, standing, or anything else). Moving your body through many different positions throughout the day is the best way to keep all the tissues healthy.  

When you do sit, here are some things to think about.

  1. Sit for short periods of time, and don’t sit in the same position for hours on end.

    neutral pelvis

    When sitting with a neutral pelvis, the ASIS and Pubic Symphysis are stacked vertically. You will have your natural lumbar curve (called lordosis).

  2. Sit with a neutral pelvis. You know when a little kid sits on your lap and their “butt bones” dig into your thigh? Those are called the ischial tuberosities (or sitz bones), and you want to sit up on those rather than on your sacrum (tailbone). See picture on the right. (Thanks to Susanne at Kangaroo Fitness for the great photo.)
  3. Sit in a variety of positions.  I like to sit on the floor and put my food/computer/bills/etc on the coffee table.  If your hips are really tight (like mine), try sitting with your hips elevated to help get your pelvis neutral.  These are some of my favorites:

IMG_1533 IMG_1528 IMG_1525 IMG_1526 IMG_1527 IMG_1524

Turns out it’s really hard to take side view photos of yourself.  Not exactly high quality, but you get the idea.

When we sit, we tend to always sit with 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion (think sitting in a chair).  Note: Sitting on an exercise ball may add instability, but it’s still sitting with 90 degrees at the hip and knee.  Mixing up your positions will stretch the muscles of your legs and increase the mobility of your hip and knee joints.  This way you can work on your health while you do the other things you need to do. Increase circulation while you answer emails. Decrease hip pain while you eat lunch.  Improve your pelvic floor health while you play a game with your kids.  If you’re like me, you probably have tight hips, but you don’t have 5 extra hours everyday to stretch them.  This is a simple (but not easy) way merge your “I need to fix my hips” time with your “I have a million things to do” time.

For more ideas, you can see pictures of resting postures from around the world here.

 

 

5 Steps to Safely Transition to Minimal Shoes

Minimal or barefoot shoes have become increasingly popular in the last few years because of their health benefits.  Vibram claims their shoes will strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs, improve range of motion, stimulate neural function, eliminate heel lift to align the spine, and allow the body to move naturally.  Under the right conditions, minimal shoes can absolutely facilitate these changes; however, most of us don’t have feet that are healthy enough for these shoes without some training. 

Being barefoot is natural, but our feet don’t function naturally anymore.  Two main factors in our modern environment have led to feet that are severely lacking in muscle strength, joint mobility and neurological connection:

  1. Shoes that have stiff, supportive soles and positive heels
  2. The lack of natural surfaces in our environment.

The lawsuit against Vibram Five Fingers has been all over the news and social media the last few days. I’m not going to get into it, but you can read the details and an analysis by Katy Bowman here if you are interested.  The problem is not that Vibrams (or any minimal/barefoot shoe) are dangerous; the problem is that our feet are deconditioned, and we fail to properly train them before jumping into a minimal shoe. Wearing a “supportive” shoe your whole life and then one day putting on Vibrams to go for a hike is like wearing a full body cast your whole life and then trying to do a cross fit workout.  You the lack strength, mobility and neurological connections necessary, and you are going to get hurt.  A principle of any good exercise program is a gradual, appropriate increase in the demand you place on the tissues.

My friend and fellow Restorative Exercise™ Specialist, Jennifer Gleeson Blue, put it this way, “You know how you don’t take someone on the brink of death-by-hypothermia and submerge them in a hot bath? It’s the same with minimal shoes. Your feet are on the brink of death-by-stability-shoe. But step one isn’t a five finger shoe.”  

5 Steps to Transition to a Minimal Shoe:

1) Stop wearing positive heeled shoes.  Switch to flat shoes and make sure they are wide enough for your toes to wiggle and spread.  If you can tolerate it, try a shoe that has a more flexible sole. Even some athletic shoes have a heel that is slightly higher than the toes, so look closely!

2) Stretch your calves.  Wearing positive heeled shoes causes the calves to become short and tight.  We need to restore length to the calves to allow us to safely transition to a flat or minimal shoe.

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CALF STRETCH: Place the ball of one foot on a rolled up towel/yoga mat or a half foam roller. The heel should remain on the floor. Hold at least 1 min, then switch feet.

3) Work on toe and foot mobility. Do these stretches to release muscle tension, improve circulation and neurological connection, and decrease pain.

TOFst

Stand on one foot, reach the other foot behind you, tucking the toes under. Hold for 1 min, then switch feet. If you get foot cramps, take a break and try again.

toelift

TOE LIFTS: Work on lifting each toe individually. This is a motor skill we should have! Keep practicing until the neurological connection has been restored.

toespread

TOE SPREADING: Stick your fingers between your toes to stretch the little muscles between the toes. You can also buy Foot Alignment Socks that do the same thing.

tennisball

TENNIS BALL MASSAGE: Stand with a tennis ball under the ball or your foot. Hold for 1 min. Try to relax and let the foot drape over the ball. Roll the ball back towards the arch, finding a sore spot. Hold for 1 min. Continue down the length of the foot until you reach the heel.

4) Spend time barefoot around the house and backyard.  Try out a variety of surfaces.  This allows your feet to start getting reacquainted with FEELING things when you walk around.

NOTE: This transition may take weeks, months, or even years depending on the current health of your feet.  Steps 1-4 are important for EVERYONE regardless of whether you intend to wear minimal shoes or not.  If your foot has undergone significant damage from a lifetime of ill-use, surgery, or injury, minimal shoes may not be appropriate for you. That’s ok. You can still receive huge benefits from the above steps.

5) Start with short distances and natural surfaces in your minimal/barefoot shoes.  Once you are ready to start wearing your new shoes, start with small distances.  Slowly increase your walking mileage before you even think about running. (Although I don’t really I recommend running in minimal shoes.) Start with natural surfaces such as grass, mulch, or dirt to start training your feet.   Concrete and asphalt are unnaturally hard surfaces and may cause you pain and injury.  (I can wear my vibrams all day on natural surfaces, but I can only last about a mile on concrete.) As you increase strength and mobility, you can increase your mileage and try a greater variety of surfaces.

We just got back from a week in the Great Smoky Mountains.  It was BEAUTIFUL!  I was inspired by “Screen Free Week” to take a tech break while we were there.  I used my iPhone only as a phone, camera and map/GPS, and I stayed off Facebook, email, Instagram, etc.  It was a great decision for the health of my body and mind.  I highly recommend it!

GSMcabin

These are pictures from a 5 mile hike up and over a ridge, down into a valley with a waterfall, and back.  You can see (in the first picture) how rocky and uneven the ground was.  The trail was covered in pebbles, rocks, tree roots, mud, moss…. and my feet, legs, and hips felt great (tired, but great) the whole way and even better the next day!  Had I done this hike  in Vibrams 2 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have made it all the way, and I definitely would have been in serious pain.  I’ve been “training” my feet for 4 years now, so they could handle the workout.  Wearing minimal shoes can be a very healthy and enjoyable experience, but you have to do the prep work!

vibrams           bridgem&tabramsfalls

PS- In case you’re looking for a new pair, here is a GREAT list of minimal shoes.  Click here for winter weather options.