Let’s Do Some Back Talk

We are going back to basics here with today’s post. Oftentimes at the gym we become so focused on “seeing” results that we pick exercise that cover the obvious choices (arms, legs, abs) and leave out some of the crucial, or CORE, elements of a good exercise regimen. We all like to see the buff arms, and watch our bench and leg press increase, but what ever happened to covering ALL of the muscles in a workout.

So let’s talk about our Core. Contrary to popular belief, the core does not soley refer to that washboard six-pack you and all the other gym go-ers are working towards. The core refers to any and all muscles surrounding the “trunk” of your body (that lovely piece of work below your neck and above your hips).  In our body we have what are called agonist and antagonist muscles, which are in simplest terms muscles that oppose one another- by stretching one, you are flexing the other and vice versa. Our bodies are constructed in this give and take way in order to allow mobility in all directions and planes. You have the biceps/triceps, quadriceps/hamstrings, etc (for extensive list see: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/101882465/agonist-and-antagonist). Our core is no different. You have the erector spinae which work for spinal extension, and the rectus abdominis  (abs) that relax to allow the spinal extension and contract to create spinal flexion.

Is this you?


Chances are if you have a desk job, like most of the work force, at some point or another you end up in this lovely position. For the ease of argument, let’s ignore ALL the other issues the diagram brings up and focus solely on the back and your poor, poor spine. At this position, all of your erector spinae (the long muscles that run down your spine) muscles are stretched (extended) to an extreme point. You are crouched over in a complete unnatural position, and yet somehow manage to freeze yourself here for 8 hours a day.

Now let’s say after sitting like this all day (your back muscles are all “stretched out”), you head to the gym to work out your chest. Now, not only is your back STRETCHED, but you have tightened your chest muscles and in so doing pulled your shoulders farther in and stretched the back even further. You’re on a time crunch so you skip the stretching, head home, eat dinner, fall asleep and repeat the process. Your body can withstand one or two days of this kind of tension, but eventually this becomes a chronic issue that manifests itself in one of the most commonly reported pain issues—low back pain.

Alright alright, stop with the lecture, you say. What can I DO? And by what you mean “what’s easy” and by do you mean “can be completed in five minutes or less.” Well, my friends, there is a fix, and it’s a simple one- strengthen that CORE. Since this is just a basic introduction into back and core, I’ll give you 3 good exercises (let’s be honest, remembering more than three would be a stretch- ha).


1. Superman- This is a back flexor (shortening that erector spinae), and GREAT for after a long day of sitting in that hunched over position. You lie flat on the floor arms extended (easier= arms folded behind your head), and then simply contract your lower back muscles to lift your shoulders and upper chest off the ground. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then release back down. Repeat 5-8 times).


Challenge step 1: Simultaneously lift the legs with the upper body.

Challenge Step 2:  Lift both legs and arms simultaneously and then perform a kicking/swimming motion with your legs alternating with your arms (aim for 20 seconds, then 30 seconds, etc—try to accumulate 90 seconds).



2. Quadraped Arm/Leg Raise- This one strengthens the low back and can also hit the abdominals a little bit too at the more challenging levels. To setup, position your body like a table top, with a flat back resting on your hands and knees (hands beneath the shoulders and knees beneath your hips). Extend one leg out while lifting the opposite arm up until they are in alignment with your back (not higher), then return back down and switch sides.


            Challenge Step– As you bring your arm and leg back down, try to crunch in and have your elbow touch the opposite knee. This adds a flexion component to the exercise and thus engages your abdominals.

For video: http://functionalresistancetraining.com/exercises/quadruped-opposite-arm-leg-raise


3. Low back stretch– So if your back is feeling tight, more strengthening won’t help with immediate relief, but this stretch will. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab one knee and pull it into your chest while extending the other leg. Hold for 10 seconds, then switch.


            Challenge Step: Lying on your back with feet flat on the floor cross a leg over thigh of other leg. Grasp thigh of lower leg (uncrossed leg) and pull towards chest. Hold for 10 seconds then switch. (http://www.exrx.net/Stretches/GluteusMaximus/Lying.html) This will give you a deeper stretch that hits more in your glutes. Sometimes lower back pain is actual initiated in the glutes.


You can google search and find any of the exercises I’ve mentioned, but these are the ones I would highly recommend for low back pain, or just a sedentary/desk lifestyle. One last tip I’ll leave you with, a sort of gift from above for back pain, is the miracle cure of tennis balls. Yes friends, tennis balls and duct tape will change your life.

Observe: Grab two tennis balls and strap them together with some tape (duct, medical, etc), and VOILA.             Instant back stretcher. 


Place the tennis balls on the ground  and lie down with your face up and keeping your knees bent. Position the tennis balls so that the middle taped part of their figure eight shape is directly on the spine and the tennis balls are on either side.  Slowly use your legs to roll your back over the tennis balls all the way up to below your neck, to wherever is comfortable on your lower spine.


To wrap things up, as nice as it is to see the results of a gym workout (bigger arms, more “toned” legs, etc), never ever minimize the importance of your core exercises (and while I focused on the back as the “forgotten core”, remember abdominals need your attention too). Despite your backside being by definition behind you, out of eye sight and off your radar, believe me when I tell you that If you ignore it long enough, even though you may not see the problem, you will feel it.


Five Fitness Facts for a Fit Forever

With all the dieting and weight loss advice out there, it’s hard to differentiate fact and fiction. As an exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer I can say with confidence that the top goal I hear from clients, subjects, friends and family is weight loss. So I’m going to hit on the top five easy changes you can make to get yourself started on the right path towards a healthier you.

1. Drink water. No, I don’t just mean swap water for every juice, soda or nightcap you currently consume (though not drinking calories would help dramatically). I mean carry around a cup of water with you everywhere you go and constantly sip. You will quite literally have to train yourself to do this at first, but eventually it becomes a habit. The water not only keeps you well hydrated, but it can also help stave off hunger by filling your tummy. Please note- I am not suggesting water can substitute for a meal. What I am saying is that research has shown drinking water both throughout the day and immediately prior to meals has increased weight loss. (http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2010/08/082310-cals-davy.html)

2. Make one more “move” a day. One of the scariest up and coming causes of obesity, cardiac events, atherosclerosis and death is a sedentary lifestyle, and if you think you don’t fall into that category of deteriorating physical activity, think again. If you have any type of desk job, chances are that you are in a seated position for about 80% of your work day. Even if you are one of the few that follows work with an intense gym trip have to realize that that activity does not cancel out the other 15 hours of sitting that comprised your day. Aside from the obvious weight loss detriment of burning fewer calories while sitting, there are many, many other health risks associated with inactivity. http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/ I’m not saying you need to change your whole lifestyle and start doing jumping jacks at your desk, but even just a couple minutes of moving every hour can lower your risks (not to mention increase your daily steps and calorie burn).

3. Practice food swap instead of solely calorie drop. Yoplait has it mostly right in their commercials about finding “Swapportunities,” but I’d argue that not every “bad” food needs to be swapped for yogurt. Instead of counting calories, try practicing calorie awareness. It is not necessary to have a food scale and measuring cups in order to be mindful of what and how much you are eating. Besides, scaling out your food daily is likely not the most sustainable lifestyle change, and let’s face it- the only way weight stays off is with life-style change, not crash dieting. This video was truly eye opening for me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMGUmcveQeg. I’ve taken nutrition courses and have learned the ins and outs of metabolism, but there is nothing quite comparable to visual representation of calories. It’s three minutes long, and WELL worth your time. The take home message for it? Find foods where you truly get the most bang for your buck. You can eat a plate of carrots, apples or zucchini for the same caloric content of one chocolate bar. This goes back to the drinking water before you eat concept—what you’re really doing is filling your stomach with less calorie dense foods. I even sometimes make up a bunch of veggies before I eat my real meal. I pack in all my nutrients and space hoarders first, so that I’m less likely to gorge on the more calorie dense foods.

4. Sneak protein into every meal/snack/etc. Research studies differ on the long-term benefits of high protein, low carb diets, but most suggest that in the short-term they are more effective than diets with high protein and medium carb intakes. (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/1/44.long). Ignoring all of the metabolic reasons for consuming more protein, the satiety factor alone makes it worth your while to add in more protein. In simplest terms, protein takes a long time to digest ( not quite as long as fat, but longer than carbs). Carbs are a great quick fix to hunger as we can eat them and feel satisfied almost immediately, but the feeling is fleeting and before long we are pantry cruising again for the next snack. Studies have shown that eating protein (even in small quantities) with each meal or snack helps you feel fuller (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8862476). Even though in this study the higher protein breakfasts didn’t lead to decreased eating habits throughout the day compared to high carb or high fat breakfasts, the high protein meal did lead to feeling more full and less hungry. If the protein does nothing else but keep your tummy from being rumbly, that’s a good enough reason to go for it.

5. Treat yourself in moderation, but do treat yourself. One of the worst things you can do during a diet change is to deprive yourself of all indulgences. More often than not this will lead to binging episodes that have greater calorie content than the treat you bypassed in the first place. Now, if your “treat” is a slice of cheesecake, you are going to need to find a similarly satisfying, less calorie dense “swap” as there is no such thing as a cheesecake diet (if only). But there is nothing wrong with having something small and sweet at the end of the day. (http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/3-reasons-its-important-to-treat-yourself-when-dieting.html)

So there you have it folks, my five best pieces of advice for a lifestyle change. I’m not and will never be a promoter of crash dieting and all of my tips are meant to be small stepping stone changes to a better, healthier lifestyle that, if you are carrying some extra pounds, should slowly help drop them off. As I’ve spoken to mostly the nutritional side of the changes though, please note, no lifestyle change is complete without EXERCISE. Minimum recommendations include 30 mins of moderate intensity exercise (meaning you are working hard enough that speaking is difficult) 5 days a week. Understand that for weight loss, that goal will be doubled, if not tripled. So if your goals are more immediate, you will have to seriously amp up your exercise. As delicious as those calories are to consume, each pound of fat on you is worth about 3500 calories. In simple terms this means to get rid of that 1 pound of fat you have to burn 3500 calories. Lucky you, you can negate those calories by a combination of diet and exercise, but it will still be work, and if you do it right, it will take time.

So put one foot in front of the other, grab a water bottle and some veggies and get going towards being your best you.


I love the days when you have that sense of being exactly where you need to be. I don’t just mean right place, right time (though those moments are fabulous as well). Today I mean I love having the confidence that I am professionally right where I need to be, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

I heard the song “Brave” by Sarah Bareilles the other day as I was driving home, and despite having heard the words hundreds of times over the last few months, that day they struck a chord.

Say what you wanna say, and watch the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.

I suddenly realized why the lyrics resonated with me and gave me that warm and fuzzy feeling: in my life I want to see people be brave. For me, the best feeling in the world is seeing someone step out of their comfort zone and succeed. In my chosen field of work, it’s part of my everyday life to push people past their limits. As a trainer, I help them break down barriers, as a researcher, I’m fighting to discover new ways for people to overcome obstacles, and one day as a teacher, I hope to instill in students a love and passion for learning that prepares them to reach new heights professionally.

This is my field. This is where I belong and this is where I will stay. And believe me when I say, I wanna see you be brave.

Living life in extremes

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first came across this poem when I was in my highschool English class and 7 years later the words ring truer than ever. I’ve always been the kind of person to embrace life to its fullest, but there came a point where I saw myself slowly retreating back into a bubble of isolation. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t grab a knapsack, put on some shades and park myself in a hole of deep despair. Rather, I slowly withdrew myself and stopped reaching out as much. I spent more time with myself and had a period of self-discovery that continues to shape who I am and who I want to be.

In response to this, I jumped back out of that time of reflection a while back and have more recently taken the opposite extreme approach to life. I have become the “yes girl.” It originally stemmed from the need for a bounceback from the shut off world, and eventually evolved into this desire to experience more and take advantage of my time to really invest in the relationships I have.  

Examining both extremes, I feel most people would say the second is far more appealing, but I would argue neither are healthy. Edna St. Vincent’s poem illustrates this perfectly. When you take life by the horns and go full-speed all in, your candle is literally burning at both ends. Picturing this happen, one can logically assume that the candle will burn out twice as fast, and this weekend that is exactly what I experienced. My candle of life energy was SO gone by Friday, that surviving until my vacation day Monday seemed impossible.

In fairness, I was burning my candle of social light. I wasn’t working late nights doing research or writing a thesis. I was simply saying yes to all the friends I hadn’t seen in so long, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  By the time Monday hit, however, I realized I desperately need to find some middle ground between social butterfly and happy recluse. I was flat burnt out and had no one to blame but myself.

It all comes back to doing all things in moderation and with a sense of balance.  In truth, when anyone is burning that candle at both ends, it’s a bright little show for about one or two nights, but then what are you left with?  Melted wax, a lot of smoke, and a need for time to put together a new candle. In simplest terms, you will never be your best self when you let your life slip into extremes.

 So I will continue to build in and place value on time with all the people I love and care about, but I also need those nights with just myself, and this means that sometimes I need to learn to “just say no.”


Control and Fear

I’ve flown dozens of times in my life. Now that my family lives far away, I consistently take at least 3 flights (x2 for the roundtrip-ness of my ventures) every year. One would think that this experience would bring about a sense of peace with the winged travel, but in actuality all my traveling has brought about this sense that every time I fly, I am “beating the odds” when I land safely. In short- I am NOT a calm flyer.

This past Christmas I had one of the most “turbulent” flights of my life. Turbulent is their euphemism for “you will be tossed around like a rag doll as our paper airplane hits some hurricane force winds.” The wind was so bad that even the sure-footed flight attendants took their seats and strapped in. I quickly assumed my death grip on the arm rests position of sheer terror and turned on my music as loud as my ear drums could handle.

I had this sudden sense of complete and utter insignificance. Looking out the window, seeing the wind jump all around the tilting wing of the plane, I realized just how small the plane I was on was. Normally when I see planes, I think of how huge they are and how impossible it seems that they can lift off into the air. Not now. No, at this moment I kept thinking how crazy this experience is. I’m sitting in a tiny paper airplane racing through the clouds at 500mph expecting a smooth ride. I am so insignificant right now, I thought. I gripped the arm rests harder and waited for the landing.

Per usual, everything was fine and we landed without a hitch. They did, however, announce an “unexpected plane change due to technical difficulties.” That reassured me that my sense of terror was reasonable since the plane was obviously broken and I’d barely escaped with my life. Phew. I wasn’t over-reacting.

When I finally saw my family and regaled them with my survival story, my dad’s first comment was “why were you scared?” Um, excuse me, would you like me to repeat the airplane in a metaphorical blender story? He said “no, but really, you shouldn’t be scared because there’s absolutely nothing you could do to change anything that would happen.” In the moment, I think I responded something along the lines of “well, I didn’t want to die and I was scared,” but later on it got me thinking about what fear really means.

Was I scared because I thought something might happen? Or was I scared because I had no ability to prevent  something from happening? My Dad’s theory is if you can’t do anything about the situation, then you shouldn’t be scared because it won’t help. While I understand this logic as it applies to worrying (as worrying never fixes anything), I’m not sure I believe it applies to fear. For me, my greatest moments of fear come from events and experiences that are out of my control. I am scared because I cannot control the situation or outcome. But should I be?

Is control the root of all fear? If we didn’t have this sense of an ability to control our lives, surroundings and relationships, would we ever have that fear when we seemingly lose our control? This is something I need to work on. In situations where my actions won’t affect an outcome, I need to have faith that they will be resolved. In reality, no matter what you are facing, there will be a resolution. It might not be the one you want, but in time all things are resolved. If you are religious, your inner peace of a higher power being in control should help dispel fear of the unknown. If you aren’t, previous life experience should reassure you that life goes on.

So maybe in the end my Dad was right- I shouldn’t be afraid of something I have no ability to control. Being scared didn’t bring me a sense of peace. Giving into my fear actually made the whole situation much, much worse. I can’t promise that all of these revelations I’ve shared will make me fear flying any less, but it is now my goal to try to find a peace when I’m on that airplane. I can’t control the weather, the plane or the pilots and if that plane goes down, there’s no way I’m stopping it. So all I can really do is enjoy the ride and hope for the best. And isn’t that what life as a whole is all about?

Empathy vs sympathy (12-18-2013)

It’s easy at times to become so focused on the trials you are facing that you fail to notice the struggles of everyone around you. The truth is, at any point in time, everyone is fighting some sort of inner battle. While we do our best to hide behind the masks of well placed smiles and perfectly timed laughs, we all have those moments of feeling defeated. It is in these moments of darkness when we reach outside of ourselves to find comfort in a friend. These moments are what define friendships, and far too often in these crucial exchanges we become flustered and end up trying to “fix” our friends rather than console them.

There was an article/video I came across a few days ago comparing empathy and sympathy and the dangers of confusing the two. This piece has literally transformed the way I think about my interactions with people. When someone comes to you with something deeply concerning and emotional, it is in our human nature to yearn to comfort them. We want to console and find a way or a word to make everything “better.” For instance, when someone tells us something is wrong, a typical response will involve a short statement of empathy “I know how you feel,” followed by a monologue of “at least it’s not” or “it could be worse because.” We use these phrases to try and show that there is a brighter side, but really all we have accomplished is to minimize the trial they are facing.

When I saw this, all the times I’ve used the “it could be worse” patch with my friends came flooding back. Rather than just being there in that moment, listening to their struggles, and appreciating their trust in me as a confidant, I tried to give them a bandaid and have them leave smiling. The truth is, as this video states, no words can truly fix a problem. No perfect sentence exists to remedy a broken heart or utter distress. Words don’t fix things. Connections do. Knowing someone cares matters more than their ability to “cheer” me up. When I leave a friend’s apartment after sharing a burden, I will still return to my home feeling the weight of that burden. Their words won’t suddenly relieve all of that pressure. But now they will carry the burden with me, and that will make all the difference. I will know I’m not alone.

So when people seek your counsel, I urge you to remember and be mindful of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is simply recognizing the emotions of someone and having concern for their well-being, whereas Empathy is recognizing and experiencing the emotions of someone. Sympathy is feeling bad and trying to cheer them up. Empathy is truly understanding what they are experiencing so that they aren’t alone in their emotions.

There are no perfect words. Nothing you say will fix the trials of another person. Sometimes the best way you can help is to be honest and say “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me,” because that creates a connection.

We may use empathy and sympathy interchangeably at times, but in moments of crisis, the difference between the two is the difference between a band aid and a connection. One acts as a momentary patch for the problem, and one provides a second heart to carry a burden that could be truly overwhelming for one to carry alone.

SOURCE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

Maintain don’t gain (12-11-2013)

This time of the year is notorious for pictures, and, in at least partial consequence, notorious for dieting fads. Everyone wants to drop those last few pounds before seeing their family, because there’s always that one camera-crazed family member (for my family it’s my dad), that wants to capture every kodak moment. All of a sudden we wake up worried about our hair and makeup, are overly distressed about the big decisions in life like “sleeves or sleeveless” and “jeans or leggings,” and we don’t come out of our room until we look like the superstar we know we are. Sound familiar?

I’m guilty of this photo dread as well. I’ll admit my eating habits change ever so slightly right before going home. I only see everyone a few times a year, and I’d better be wearing the same jean size as last year when I see them. While I understand, and have in the past participated in this holiday adjustment, this year I’m focusing more on “maintaining not gaining” rather than “drop for no photoshop’.” If you already have a good diet and exercise routine, there’s  no reason to do drastic changes for a week or two. It’s much better to hold true to as much of your routine as possible through the holidays.

Exercise isn’t a hoarding  activity. You can’t exercise more one week to make up for a completely sedentary vacation. Your fitness starts to decline after just a few days without purposeful exercise. So rather than racking up “bonus” exercise sessions the week before, make time during your vacation for little walks, body weight exercises, or even just some core work. Don’t sell your soul for four slices of pie and some bread pudding.

We all splurge a little when we reach the holidays. It’s only natural. We are around good people and delicious food, and how can you not eat Christmas cookies when “frosty the snowman” is playing in the background? I’m not suggesting to compromise your enjoyment of the festivities and all that they entail. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot easier to maintain habits than it is to change, indulge, change.

Give it a try and let’s really focusing on maintaining, not gaining this Christmas! 🙂 Happy Holidays