Exercise and Play to Relieve Stress
Too much rest is rust.
Sir Walter Scott
Proper, balanced exercise is one of the most important health enhancement strategies we have at our disposal. A wise integration of aerobic conditioning, flexibility exercise, strength training, activities that build neuromuscular coordination, and play is at the heart of any true holistic lifestyle. The benefits span all realms of our being, not just our physical health. Each of these elements of exercise supports each of the other elements. Choosing the right combination needs to be done in a systematic way. Selecting the right type of each of these elements is even more difficult. Hopefully, the information that follows will help you choose the exercises best suited to you so you can be more resilient to daily stress.
Aerobic fitness is the biochemical, cardio-pulmonary, and muscular capacity to generate useful energy for physical activity. It is a relative matter, in part determined by age, sex, heredity, disease, and circumstance. An 80 year old woman might be at her maximum aerobic fitness level providing the capability to do daily chores, work in the garden for short spells throughout the day, take the dog for a walk to the neighbors, and climb a few flights of stairs per day. An elite distance runner might be optimally fit when he runs a marathon in just over two hours after months of training at levels of 100 miles of running per week.
In holistic health terms aerobic fitness is related to a level of functioning that provides the highest level of benefits with the smallest amount of disadvantages consistent with a well-balanced lifestyle and supporting the individual's life goals. That's different from maximal aerobic capacity or endurance.
30-60% of Canadians and Americans engage in no leisure-time physical activity.
The Health Benefits of Aerobic Exercise
So how should we use aerobic exercise to improve our entire well-being and not just fight stress? Looking at how the body adapts to physical activity, and the documented health benefits it receives, will help us answer this question. A reasonable amount, frequency, duration, and intensity of aerobic exercise has been documented to do the following:
It increases physical energy. This means more energy to accomplish what we need or want to do on a daily basis. Heart and lung capacity and efficiency increase. The oxygen carrying capacity of the blood improves. There is a more efficient use of various energy pathways in the cells and tissues of the body, the muscles especially.
There is an improvement in mental health with exercise. Depression, anxiety, tension are all reduced. Intellectual functions and learning are enhanced. Multiple causes for these improvements have been researched and can be explained, in part, by increased blood flow to the brain, hormonal changes, alterations in neuro-transmitters, the production of endogenous opiates (mood elevators within the brain), reduced stress from balancing of the nervous system's autonomic functions, and the tranquilizing effects of increased body temperature. This does not even take into account the psychological benefits of achieving goals, discovering a sense of self control, improving self esteem, transforming one's self image, or socializing with others.
Longevity is increased. This is due in part to physiological improvements such as a decrease in blood pressure in those millions with hypertension, increases in blood vessel strength and size, decrease in body fat, decrease in blood cholesterol, an increase in heat acclimatization, more rapid recovery from illness, and delay of the aging process.
Other health benefits: lowering the risk of injury by strengthening the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles; improvements in work performance; regularity of bowel movements, thus reducing conditions like toxic bowel syndrome, constipation, and hemorrhoids; improvements in liver and kidney function resulting in enhanced detoxification of the body's metabolites and poisons; better digestion, thus improvements in nutritional health; better menstrual function due to regulation of hormones and increased blood circulation; healthy child bearing; improvements in sleep patterns; reductions in skin infections; and less hunger.
10% of Americans and 25% of Canadians are regularly and vigorously active.
So how do we achieve these benefits? How do we determine the correct level and type of aerobic training? As usual the first step is to assess the present level of fitness and then determine how much improvement is needed. Once again, there are multiple levels of fitness testing. On the lower end of the scale are submaximal aerobic exercise tests which measure one's ability to complete an aerobic task, like run a mile or run for about fifteen minutes in reasonable comfort.
A more precise calculation of this physiological limit can be made through maximal treadmill or cycle ergometer exercise. Monitoring of ventilatory capacity of the lungs at the same time with an evaluation of blood gases, blood pressure, heart rate, ECG readings can all add more information. For most purposes it is unnecessary. There are also some risks in doing maximal testing on the old and the infirmed. These more precise tests can be performed on the serious athlete if desired, or on people needing special care, as those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and in rehabilitation programs.
For the most part the submaximal fitness testing readily available at YMCA exercise programs or health club, is adequate for most peoples' health enhancement needs. If you are over forty and/or not accustomed to regular aerobic exercise, it is advised that you first consult with a health care professional specializing in sports medicine for a preliminary evaluation. This can be a chiropractor, physical therapist, exercise physiologist, naturopath, osteopath or medical doctor. Contacting the American College of Sports Medicine for a referral to someone appropriate in your locale is a good approach.
It is important to know our target heart rate regardless of what fitness activity we choose. This is the heart beats per minute that, if sustained during aerobic exercise, will give the best conditioning. Conditioning increases in proportion to intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise within this training zone with diminishing returns at the maximal limits. Fitness improvement generally occurs when the heart is beating at 60-90% of its maximum capacity (The elderly can elicit an improvement from training with as little as 40% of maximal heart rate.). To calculate maximum heart rate just subtract your age from 220. (There are more accurate measures for athletes with low resting heart rates.) Adults with no symptoms of disease can achieve their best conditioning at 70-85% of this figure. Patients on a cardiac recovery program generally start at 50-65% of maximal heart rate for their training zone. Elite athletes have to push the upper limits of this zone to see improvement. Pushing these upper limits in not only intensity but duration and frequency can result in diminished health from over training. The immune system can be depressed and energy reserves sapped. Fatigue and sickness often result. If we can get 30 minutes of aerobic conditioning 3-5 times per week it will help greatly in giving us a greater capacity to respond to daily stress.
Below is a list of the most effective and safe aerobic activities. The safest activities are at the top of the list.
- cross-country skiing and quality indoor x-country ski machines such as Nordi-Trac
- bicycling, including stationary bikes
- non-impact aerobics
- water aerobics
- stair climbing, including stair climbing machines
- power walking with hand held weights or ski poles
- aerobic circuit training with weight training equipment
- aerobic backpacking and hiking
- handball, racquetball, squash
- aerobic sculling, paddling or rowing
- rowing machines, including Health Rider types
- tantric sex (just checking to see if you're still awake)
One of the best sites for guiding you through a thorough fitness program: Shape Up.org/
Make sure you are getting the aerobic exercise you need for best health.
When man is living, he is soft and flexible.
When he is dead, he becomes hard and rigid.
When a plant is living it is soft and tender.
When it is dead, it becomes withered and dry.
Hence, the hard and rigid keep company with the dead,
The soft and supple keep company with the alive.
A supple, freely-moving body is a major asset to total health. When joints and soft tissues possess ideal flexibility, benefits are seen not only in the musculoskeletal system; the benefits ramify, mostly through improved neurological function, to virtually every organ and system of the body. The vast majority of people are not aware of the enormous impact flexibility has on different aspects of our health despite the praise hatha yoga practices have accumulated over thousands of years. Today stretching exercises get high praise from athletic trainers, sports medicine specialists, and athletes because of their proven ability to prevent injury and increase performance.
Even with that high praise few individuals engage in any significant stretching routines. Fewer still use them intelligently or frequently enough to even prevent injuries or relieve stress. And only a miniscule number practice a flexibility routine that is designed for their special needs and structural weaknesses. Even dedicated adherents of hatha yoga many times do not have sound routines for improving flexibility in the tighter areas while protecting and stabilizing excessively mobile regions.
The Physiology and Benefits of Flexibility
When muscles, tendons and ligaments are too tight they limit proper joint motion. This causes several unhealthy reactions in the body. Tightness in soft tissues generates excessive nerve impulses through much of the nervous system, altering functions in different parts of the body. Sometimes these excessive nerve transmissions interfere with normal nerve signals to internal organs, confusing them and causing them to malfunction. For instance, lower back and gluteal muscles, if too tight, can trigger excessive nerve firing causing excessive uterine contractions in women, making their menstrual cycles more uncomfortable.
Another mechanism involves the classic stress syndrome of "fight or flight." This happens when an individual habitually learns to respond to stress by unconsciously tightening muscles that are not really needing to be activated. This results in chronically tight, shortened muscle fibers, and even pain. Virtually every organ in the body is affected by this stress-generated muscle tension; it cascades neurologically and hormonally throughout the body inflicting both short and long term damage.
Soft tissue tightness can also restrict joint motion enough to disrupt the flow of nerve impulses coming from the neurological bed of the joint itself. This causes the same confusion of nerve signals to internal organs as described above. For example, abnormal nerve firing from improperly functioning joints in the thoracic spine can send abnormal rhythms to the heart or produce too much stomach acid.
When joints are restricted, other joints nearby usually become excessively mobile in an automatic effort to compensate. This creates even more abnormal nerve signaling. It is one of the prime causes of joint injury at work, in the home, or in athletic activities.
Proper stretching creates:
- muscles that are relaxed and at a normal length while at rest (This actually makes them stronger.)
- soft tissues that have a strong tensile strength
- soft tissues that do not fire extraneous nerve impulses into other systems of the body
- joints that move fully and freely through their designed range without producing abnormal nerve signals.
For people with considerable muscle tightness, joint restrictions, and/or excessive mobility, restoring better, balanced flexibility will:
- reduce injuries to the musculoskeletal system
- diminish the "flight or fight" stress syndrome
- reduce muscle tension; alleviate many joint and muscle aches and pains
- reduce the symptoms and progressive deterioration of many types of arthritis
- improve sleep patterns
- improve athletic and work performance
- contribute to better posture
- allow for more efficient movement throughout the day
- decrease the frequency, duration, and intensity of headaches
- lower blood pressure
- reduce respiratory distress
- improve internal organ function
Obstacles to Performance of Effective Stretching Exercises
With all those benefits why do people not engage in good stretching programs? There are two reasons. One, it is usually not a very fun exercise. Not only does it border on painful the psychological rewards that come with other forms of exercise are missing. Somehow, gaining an extra inch of movement in a stretch after a couple weeks does not give the same joy as finishing a 10 K run in a personal best time. There is not a similar "endorphin high" that aerobic exercise induces. While there are running, triathlon, biking and swimming competitions and clubs and social events that support those activities, stretching gets nowhere near the same support. Yoga classes are the closest one comes to camaraderie in this form of exercise. Yoga vacation retreats and workshops are available, but on a limited basis.
Secondly, stretching has failed to catch on because of the poor quality of current techniques. It is important to mention the two most serious offenders. The first is the bouncing stretches where a person stretches a muscle complex and joint to its maximum stretch and then bounces it in an oscillatory manner past that point repeatedly. This is a less painful stretch than the slow, steady-pressure maneuvers which are not as likely to cause tissue damage. Bouncing stretches will also give a sense of quick improvement for that moment. Unfortunately, with every bounce small tears occur in soft tissues; if done repeatedly, bounce stretches eventually end up producing rigid scars. There are therapeutic times when this type of stretching is used to break up joint adhesions, and in those situations it is effective if specifically and properly directed. But using a bounce-type stretch for general soft tissue elongation is not wise.
The other type of stretching that poses many problems for people is stretching joints or soft tissues that already are overstretched or hypermobile (excessively moving). This occurs when general stretching exercises are adopted by people without an accurate, preliminary assessment of which areas really do need increased flexibility and which might actually need to be stabilized and avoid excessive motion. Yoga classes and individual yoga practitioners frequently fall into the trap of doing a prepared routine that is generalized for everybody without recognizing the high number of individual needs that people have. All too often the problem comes from stretching a broad area that overall might be restricted but individual joints or particular angles of motion are already too mobile. Instead of the stretching force going into elongating the shortened tissues it impacts the excessively mobile segments.
A typical example is doing a back arch exercise, like the Bow or Cobra in yoga terminology, to increase spinal extension motion. Well, in many people the thoracic spine, or mid-back, needs this type of stretch, but they also have an unstable lower lumbar spine that will be severely irritated by the same maneuver. Often it is difficult at the time of the exercise to distinguish between the pain of the stretch and the pain of injury. The standard precaution given in yoga instructions is that if it hurts afterwards, be careful in repeating the exercise or omit that particular stretch altogether. Unfortunately, the damage is many times done already. It seems a much wiser approach to have a skilled professional carefully evaluate flexibility, both restrictions and excesses, then plan specific stretches for the areas of limitations and stabilization / strengthening exercises for the hypermobile, over-elongated areas.
Undertaking Effective Flexibility Training
The problem then arises, how to find someone skilled in making this assessment and prescription. Good chiropractors and physical therapists who do a lot of sports injury work will often be the best people to ask. Some yoga instructors who have special relationships with these knowledgeable health professionals will be good at accommodating special needs. Once again, the more preliminary evaluations that are done in any aspect of our health the more accurate the health enhancement procedures can be. This is particularly important in those individuals who have significant musculoskeletal problems already or have been injured in the past with residual weaknesses. Individuals who strive for optimal levels of athletic performance and push themselves to the limits should also seek out professional assistance. They are risking injury, not so much because of serious weaknesses, but because small biomechanical faults can pose an enormous risk when the body is challenged to the brink of its capacity.
These are also reasons for integrating a stretching program with strength training and manipulative therapy. After full assessment of flexibility, strength, and joint motion-- stabilization training, stretching and joint manipulation can be combined to give benefits far superior to a stretching program alone. Often a person will stretch a restricted joint for months on his own with only minimal improvement and some overstretching of surrounding tissues. Then they receive an effective joint manipulation taking a few milliseconds to accomplish what they agonized over in hours of self stretching.
It is also important to mention that there are different types of stretching ideally suitable for various types of restrictions. Shortness and excessive tightness in muscle contractile fibers are best stretched and relaxed using techniques incorporating neurological inhibition mechanisms like proprioceptive neuro-muscular facilitation (PNF). These involve stretching the tight muscle, then isometrically contracting it for several seconds while under full stretch, then contracting its antagonist muscle, and sometimes even incorporating different eye motions and breathing patterns---all in order to reflexively condition the nervous system to assist in the relaxation and stretching of the targeted muscle group.
Stretching non-contractile fibers such as ligaments, tendons, and fascia utilize slow, prolonged stretching techniques. Joints can be stretched similarly or manipulative techniques involving slow, rhythmic oscillations or quick movements can be used.
Elongation of any human tissues is enhanced with increased temperature. That is the reason why all stretching programs should be done only after the tissues are warmed. The usual way to accomplish this is by any gentle, safe, aerobic warm-up exercise for 10 minutes before stretching.
Many people have the misconception that they get enough flexibility exercise in the activities of daily living that they don't need extra programmed stretching. "I get plenty of stretching bending over picking up kids, my husbands dirty clothes, and working in the garden." Nothing could be further from the truth. There are scores of joints and muscles throughout the body that need regular stretching in all directions for optimal health. Providing it will reap many unseen benefits. Ignoring it will sow the seeds of future problems.
Since there are few people who would not benefit appreciably from a regular stretching routine, there are many who need to find some form that is suitable for their needs. For those seeking self care through flexibility training without professional assistance, it is advised to use Evjenth and Hamberg's book, Auto-Stretching. The excellent illustrations show in superb detail how to isolate specific muscles and angles that are often overlooked by more generalized instructions. The Health Care Center also has available an abbreviated, inexpensive version of the core exercises in this book called The "Better Than Yoga" Stretching Guide.
There is little reason, in holistic health terms, to justify excessive efforts towards extreme flexibility. Two blatant examples of stretching excesses that have few advantages, if any, over what might be termed reasonable, healthy flexibility are gymnastics training in childhood and advanced yoga postures. Unless one thinks he or she can gain holistic health by being an Olympic gymnast or contortionist, these practices should be discouraged. Encouraging young children, particularly girls, to force their developing bodies into stressful positions and maneuvers their tissues were not meant to sustain is asking for tragic consequences in later years. Remember that holistic health connotes balance and moderation. We are aiming at reducing stress, not increasing it.
Make a commitment to get more regular stretching. Be evaluated by a health care professional for advice on a specific plan or use the Auto-Stretching book as a guide orThe "Better Than Yoga" Stretching Guide. Auto-Stretching can be ordered from 800-592-7329.
What is strength without a double share of wisdom?
The strength of a muscle refers to how much force it can generate. There is also the factor of muscular endurance, which is the ability to perform low-intensity work over a sustained period of time. Power refers to performance of work per unit of time. This is calculated by multiplying force times velocity of motion. There is also tensile strength of tissues, which is the ability to resist tearing or forces pulling apart. Resistance to compression forces in bone needs a certain type of strength, too. In non-technical, holistic health terms, we want to be strong enough to engage in all the desired activities of daily living without fatigue or risk of injury.
Improvement of one's strength comes about by challenging the tissues to ever-increasing, graded exercise that stresses the tissues sufficiently to stimulate an adaptive response to the challenge---Muscles grow in size, blood vessels expand to bring more oxygen, and nutrients to the area, ligaments and tendons change their internal structure, and bone increases its matrix of living cells and minerals.
The Benefits of Strength
Improving all these types of strength produces many health benefits. It can give us more livelihood, social and recreational opportunities, raise self-esteem, and provide more variety in our lifestyle.
Strength protects against injury and the process of aging. One of the most frequent causes of incapacitating back pain is weak muscles.
Eighty percent of all adults will suffer back pain at some time in their life.
Twenty five percent of all worker compensation claims are for industrial back injuries.
Ninety-eight percent of all people with back problems have weak spinal musculature.
Osteoporosis, or the demineralization and weakening of bones with age, can be greatly reduced by activities that promote strength. Any muscular effort stimulates bones that the muscles pull against to increase their mineral content and the substances that connect the minerals into strong shapes. So when we talk of strength training we refer primarily to the direct strengthening of muscles and the consequent strengthening of the bones.
Twenty million Americans suffer from osteoporosis.
Of the 1,300,000 fractures caused by osteoporosis every year.
50,000 of our elders will die from hip fractures and their complications.
The elderly fall and break their hips and other bones because their leg muscles are weak from lack of proper exercise. Ninety year olds have three times less thigh muscle mass than they did at 20 years of age. Proper strength training exercise at 60, 70, 80, 90, or even 100 can produce important increases in strength. Not only is balance improved, but the increased muscle mass from strength training reduces the percentage of body fat.
Assessment of Strength
The first level of strength assessment is just asking oneself "Am I a weenie?" If the answer is yes then some sort of strength enhancement is recommended. There are more sophisticated tests than this but if you fail this one further testing will just determine degree, or "weenie factor" in technical terms. More detailed testing of strength is valuable in many individuals.
Sub-maximal testing with strength training equipment at gyms or at home can provide valid testing data for the average person to start a strength training regimen, periodically retest progress, and alter the training protocols accordingly for effective strength improvements. Self-motivated individuals can use the recommended resources to accomplish this. But there are, fortunately, sufficiently informed personnel at most gyms who are more than willing to assist those needing help in the proper use of strength training testing, equipment, and procedures. Some of the less knowledgeable personnel in gyms and spas convey improper information regarding strength training techniques. To guard against being misinformed one can reconfirm procedures with the guidelines presented here and by using the recommended resources.
For a large segment of the population though, more careful and precise forms of strength testing are advised. People who should approach strength training from this avenue would include:
- people recovering from a significant musculoskeletal injury, particularly of the spine
- those who have had a long period of inactivity which might make them susceptible to injury due to lack of conditioning
- those with significant alterations in flexibility, either very restricted mobility or excessive
- those with significant musculoskeletal handicaps
- elderly who are susceptible to osteoporosis, particularly inactive, post-menopausal women not using hormone replacement therapy
- those of any age whose athletic or work endeavors demand pushing their bodies to the limit of physical capabilities
There are a number of different facilities that do advanced strength and musculoskeletal testing. These facilities are equipped with a variety of instruments, many computerized. The best muscle and functional strength assessment equipment evaluates different types of strength in isolated muscles at all angles through which they work. They can identify certain types of weaknesses undetectable by more generalized and cruder mechanisms suitable for relatively healthy individuals. By finding these "hidden" weak points, special exercises can be prescribed to overcome them. Other instruments can evaluate bone density as a factor of strength.
They are supervised and operated by different combinations and quality of health professionals -- chiropractors, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, and doctors specializing in physical medicine. One group that works for quality control in medical facilities is the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, 101 N. Wilmot Rd., Suite 500, Tuscon, AZ 85711; (602) 748-1212.
Principles of Holistic Strength Training
When we speak of holistic strength training we are, in part, implying that there is a level of adequate strength and that this strength be balanced. We want to focus our priorities on how much strength we need to safely and efficiently carry out any of the day's activities. There is no need to engage in a regimen involving bench pressing 400 pounds if you are never going to require your body to even approach those levels of achievement on a day-to-day basis. Holistic strength training is designed to produce and maintain strength at a level which will support all the other aspects of life.
Too often people get carried away with one aspect of fitness improvement, and this distorts other aspects and priorities in their lives. Many body-building enthusiasts display such an imbalance. There are some physical and many psychological reasons for enjoying ever-increasing strength and muscular bulk beyond what is holistically needed. That is why it is important to carefully and continually assess the goals of any self-improvement program if the overall goal is holistic health and stress management. Otherwise some minor priority like heightened sexual attractiveness might overtake and obscure the big picture.
Balance in strength can be looked at several ways. There is a balance between strength and flexibility which is very important. The excessively bulked-up body builder who lacks a proportionate flexibility is a typical example of this. In reality, high levels of strength training and muscular development can and should come about with increased flexibility. Proper pre- and post- stretching routines should complement strength training.
Balance can also refer to an equality of strength between left and right pairs of muscles. Many people engaged in irregularly balanced activities, either at work or at play, can develop left-right strength imbalances so significant they put them at risk of injury. Laborers, like carpenters or landscapers who are predominantly one-sided in their activities---hammering, sawing, raking, shoveling---many times have visibly larger muscles on that side. An accident is often just waiting to happen. Developing the weak-sided muscles assures better biomechanical function and improved neuro-muscular coordination.
A less noticeable strength imbalance, but not less frequent, is that between muscles and their antagonists, and/or stabilizers. Muscles that act as primary movers of a joint are termed just that, primary movers, or agonists. Muscles that stabilize the joint complex while the primary movers act to produce the desired motion are called stabilizers. Antagonist muscles are the muscles that counteract the force and motion of the primary movers. They must be neurologically signaled to relax at the same time the primary movers and stabilizers are signaled to contract. A confusion in nerve signaling, altered flexibility of the tissues or joints, or excessive tone or weakness of the antagonists, will cause problems.
There are now scientific calculations on specific muscle strength ratios that are healthiest -- back extensors to abdominals, quadriceps to hamstrings, various shoulder girdle muscle ratios. There are even differences calculated for maximal performances in different sports---the quadriceps to hamstring ratios should be different between runners and cyclists, and rowers have different ideal strength ratios in the shoulder muscles than baseball pitchers.
Elements of Proper Strength Training Techniques
Isokinetic and isotonic strength training exercises are superior to isometric types of training. Isokinetic and isotonic exercises involve moving a joint against some resistance through the joint's entire range of motion. The resistance can be in many different forms: free weights (dumbbells and barbells), pulley system weights (Universal Gym, Isolator, and Nautilus type equipment), hydraulic systems (Unex and others), surgical rubber tubing, "the most cost-effective strength training system" (Lifeline Gym, Medi-Cordz, Theratubing, Xercise Tube, and Thera-Band), isokinetic machines (Cybex, Biodex, Lido, Kin-Com, and Fitnet), and using a partner to provide the resistance. These build the strength of muscle cells throughout the length of the muscle. Isometric exercise of a muscle means contracting it against resistance without moving the joint. Muscle cells are then stimulated to strengthen in only one portion of the muscle. Isotonic exercise involves keeping equal tension on the muscle throughout the entire range of movement. Isokinetic exercise involves moving the joint through an entire range of motion at a steady rate of speed while keeping maximum tension on the muscle.
Muscle strength can increase during both the contracting phase and the relaxing phase of resistive exercises. The contracting phase, when the muscle is shortening, is termed concentric contraction. It is usually the act of lifting a weight. Eccentric contraction is the term used when the muscle is lengthening. For holistic strength training purposes, concentric contractions are preferred over eccentric because there appears to be more tissue damage and muscle soreness from eccentric exercise. More rest time is also required between exercise sessions when doing eccentric exercise. Competitive athletes sometimes like to use eccentric exercises because these can sustain the greatest forces, thus stimulating maximal strength. Unfortunately, injuries increase with these escalating tensions.
Although some of the best strength gains come when taxing muscles to 90% of their maximal capacity for work, it is difficult to tell when 90% maximal effort is actually taking place. This encourages training to absolute fatigue. Unfortunately, it also threatens the health of the muscle. The likelihood of injury increases as greater tensions and weights accumulate, and also as fatigue sets in. Egotistical urges to push to the upper limits are not conducive to preventing injuries or obtaining holistic health.
“Slower is safer” is another rule of thumb that serves holistic strength training well. Rapid, ballistic maneuvers are known to produce power more than slow movements. In some sports-specific exercises, these quick, powerful contractions are needed to perform the desired activities (Boxing punches and vertical leaps in volleyball are examples). Unfortunately, these quick, forceful bursts produce very small muscle tears every time they are performed. They can also lead to more serious tearing injury to the muscles and tendons. In resistive types of exercise it is wise to contract a muscle concentrically for a slow count of two and contract eccentrically for a slow count of four.
The number of repetitions needed to contract a muscle to 90% of it's capacity for work varies depending on the amount of resistance. The greater the resistance, the fewer repetitions needed to induce fatigue. For holistic strength training purposes it is wise never to use a resistance so great one cannot perform 8 repetitions. The forces and risk of injury become too great. Super fit athletes, body builders, power lifters, often use high resistance with as few as one repetition for maximal strength gains. Remember that maximal performance is different from optimal health. Upper body resistance exercises for strength usually require 8-12 repetitions for good improvement. For lower body and trunk 12-20 repetitions is usual. For endurance gains lighter resistance is used with higher repetitions in the 40-80 range. In one exercise session one muscle group can be contracted for the desired number of repetitions and then after a short rest this can be repeated. This is termed "doing multiple sets" of an exercise. There are different opinions about the degree of benefit from doing multiple sets.
Sufficient rest time after each session of resistive training is a must. Strength gains do not occur during exercise; they occur during the rest periods between exercises. Some people need longer rest intervals than others. At least 48 hours of rest between successive bouts is mandatory. Some athletes will exercise different muscle groups on different days so that they can train on successive days. They might have 2, 3, or 4 different routines, each working different groups of muscles. They then rotate the routines in such a way that they give plenty of rest to muscles but also re-stimulate them in sufficient time to continue strength gains. A once-a-month visit to the gym to pump some iron won't cut it. In order to make significant improvements in strength, a six week period of three exercise sessions per week is usually required. To maintain strength, challenging the muscles in two sessions per week is typically necessary.
There are an infinite number of different combinations of resistance, repetitions, sets, frequency, rest, and exercise equipment. In the arena of maximal performers such as competitive body builders and power lifters, football players, and hammer throwers, there is much discussion of which combination is best. For those seeking well-balanced, optimal, holistic health, the debate over the details and nuances of strength training is irrelevant. Engaging in a strength training regimen within the recommended parameters set forth here is adequate. Remember though, that these recommendations include seeking qualified assistance when needed. And the importance of balancing strength training with aerobic conditioning, flexibility exercises (At least 10 minutes of stretching before and after a strength training session is absolutely necessary), and coordination activities, is essential.
Kisner, Carolyn and Colby, Lynn. Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations & Techniques. Davis, 1990. Oriented towards exercise therapists but great for well-educated individuals wanting one source for excellent exercise protocols.
Make sure that you have sufficient strength to protect yourself from life's daily demands. If not, engage in a wise program for strength enhancement, with supervision if necessary.
The centipede was happy, quite
Until the frog in fun
Asked, "which leg comes after which?"
This set his mind in such a pitch
He lay distracted in a ditch
Figuring how to run.
Synchronized, efficient movement of the body is a result of proper neuromuscular signaling. This in turn is dependent upon full joint motion, tissue flexibility, strength, brain function, and learning. If joints do not move fully and freely, abnormal arcs of motion develop to accommodate the best movement possible. This abnormal motion disturbs proper signaling from the joint to the brain and spinal cord and then these coordination centers send the wrong signals back to the muscles. These nerve signals generate more stress on the tissues involved and make one more vulnerable to injury, both frank injury and the repetitive motion stress of cumulative small insults over time.
If the soft tissues---muscles, ligaments, tendons---are not flexible enough, they disturb joint movement, and the same abnormal nerve signaling occurs. If muscles are not strong enough, abnormal motion results with similar neurological aberrations. Most locomotor functions are learned. There are some rudimentary, inborn movements like sucking, reaching, head turning, and crawling, but any sophisticated movement is basically a series of conditioned reflexes and responses.
Even elements like proper nutrition are important aspects to keep in mind when addressing optimal coordination. Minerals like calcium and magnesium and B-complex vitamins are essential for proper control of movement. In one study it was shown that the fine muscle coordination needed to competitively shoot a rifle in Olympic biathlon events was dramatically improved if the athletes were given vitamin and mineral supplements in addition to a good diet.
Visual acuity, binocular coordination, and the accurate interpretation of visual data are vital to coordinated movement since so much of our activities are visually dependent. If we are not getting accurate information into our brains about the world around us it is very difficult to interact with that world in a coordinated, healthy fashion. It may be due to hidden visual disturbances that can be identified by standard optometric testing. Find an optometrist that can do a proper evaluation if you believe visual problems may be adversely affecting your health.
In the United States accidents are the leading cause of death
for people in the 1-37 age group.
Below is a short test that might reveal the subtle signs of incoordination. This test is not meant for those with serious neuromuscular impairment such as: cerebellar dysfunction, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophies, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, etc.
- Are you always the last to be chosen for a pick-up team sport?
- Do people always offer to drive when they go somewhere with you, even if it's your car?
- Do you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time gluing things back together?
- Does your spouse keep sharp objects where you can't find them?
- Do you find yourself in hospital emergency rooms more often than all your friends?
- Has your spouse suggested increasing your life insurance policy?
- When you offer to fix something around the house, like changing a light bulb, does your spouse say, "No, maybe we should call a professional?"
If in answering these questions you have the feeling that improved coordination is needed in your life, it would be wise to take many of the recommendations that follow. Even if answering this small quiz gave you a feeling of confidence in your coordination certain suggestions that follow might significantly improve the quality of your life and prevent injuries even in well-coordinated individuals.
We have tried to add a bit of humor to this discussion when addressing the average person. For those unfortunate individuals suffering serious coordination difficulties due to significant neurological disease or injury, incoordination is no laughing matter. It is important to mention that if there is any suspicion of serious incoordination it could be a sign of a major health problem. Many advanced testing procedures to discover the root causes of serious coordination disturbances are available and should be sought out. Consulting with your family physician, chiropractor, naturopath, or physical therapist for possible referral to a neurologist with extensive testing capabilities is advised.
But for the clutz with all thumbs who doesn't have the excuse of serious nerve damage to fall back on, and for the individual who just wants to function optimally, the question is---how do we become more coordinated and enhance living and our health?
Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi Chuan exercises from China are extremely appropriate for anyone seeking better coordination---from the elite athlete honing his or her skills to those with serious clinical coordination problems. The repeated practice of moving the entire body in refined, flowing motions condition and integrate one's body consciousness. Balance and awareness is learned. We tune into a more harmonious relationship with our environment. One of many websites to buy Tai Chi videos is: Tai Chi for Health.
Ergonomics refers to energy-efficient, proper body motions. Learning how to move properly in relation to all the objects we interact with, and all the activities we engage in, is more important than we think. Our initial reaction is to just do something. Our bodies should know how. Yes, our bodies are quite remarkable. They will usually figure out a way to do what we ask. But the key word is properly. Optimal safe, efficient movement has to many times be better learned.
Proper lifting technique is an ideal example. Many people lift objects on the floor by bending over at the waist with knees straight or only slightly bent. This causes enormous strain on the low back---muscles, ligaments, and discs of the spine. A more biomechanically sound method is squatting with the knees and keeping the lumbar spine relatively straight.
Carrying objects close to the body rather than at arms length is another obvious example of efficient body movement. Pushing heavy objects to move them rather than pulling them is also more sound biomechanically.
Proper body positioning during relatively passive endeavors, like sitting while reading or typing, is important also. Having one's reading material or computer screen at an ideal height for relaxed eye movement and neck comfort can have dramatic impact on physical health when these activities occupy many hours and days of our time. Just a few inches of variation in wrist position can make the difference between comfortable, healthy typing and the development of incapacitating carpel tunnel syndrome. Scott Donkin's Sitting On the Job: How to Survive the Stresses of Sitting Down to Work -- A Practical Handbook is a good reference for practical steps towards better ergonomic coordination.
Stabilization exercises are part coordination training, part strength training, and part ergonomic training. These exercises are done for the low back, particularly in people with unstable, hypermobile, lumbar (low back) spinal joint abnormalities or previous injuries or part of a rehabilitation program. The exercises strengthen weak trunk musculature in order to help stabilize the low back. They include coordination exercises which teach new movements that stabilize weak structures. And they include training in ergonomically sound performance of daily tasks. The San Francisco Spine Institute has put together some good videotapes and handouts for these procedures. Consulting with a physical therapist or chiropractor who utilizes these programs is recommended when spinal problems threaten one's health.
Summary of Elements Contributing to Coordination
Maintain optimal flexibility of joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments with regular stretching exercises and any necessary manipulative therapy.
Maintain balanced strength of musculature.
Provide optimal nutrition and supplementation for ideal nerve system function.
Locomotor skill development and opportunities for varied interactions with the world from a young age are of the utmost importance.
Identification and correction of any hidden visual deficits that might contribute to distorted sensory input to the central nervous system and thus to altered psycho-motor responses might prove helpful in a large number of individuals.
Mindfulness concentrates our attention to produce more precise action with fewer errors. Mindfulness training would enhance everyone's well-being, not only in the realm of coordination.
Avoidance of intoxicants obviously improves coordination. There are also many prescriptive and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that adversely affect the nervous system causing incoordination significant enough to cause many accidents. Warning labels on medicines that advise against use while driving or operating dangerous equipment should be heeded.
Tai Chi Chuan exercises are moving meditations that do much more than improve coordination. They are beneficial enough to recommend to everybody.
Attending to proper ergonomic function in all of the day's activities is a key to healthy coordination.
For those who have weakened or injured musculoskeletal functions, special stabilization exercises should be undertaken.
For those active in athletics and sports, instruction on ideal biomechanics is valuable.
Evaluate your daily activities. If you need more coordination improvement to decrease stress in your life make efforts to get help, whether it be learning Tai Chi from a video or consulting a health professional about a specific problem.
A happy heart acts like good medicine.
Recreation, sport, and leisure all can have very important influences on health. There can also be negative impacts. Many factors need to be considered when evaluating how to integrate different playful activities into a health enhancing lifestyle.
A Balance Between High Energy and Low Energy Activities
Play is the exultation of the possible.
A balance needs to be made between active and passive leisure activities. Most of us are familiar with the extreme dominance of one over the other as in the case of the compulsive, hyperactive amateur athlete who trains in the gym four nights a week, and runs and cycles five days a week, just to keep in shape for his season to season sporting activities. All of his weekends are devoted to some high-energy, competitive event, whether basketball, marathons, racquetball, tri-athalons, or tennis. Vacations are spent at a frantic pace using every possible moment skiing, rock climbing, windsurfing, whitewater, or kayaking. Because of this obsessive drive many injuries are sustained, and there is often physical burnout when the body reaches the limit of its abuse.
Contrary to this, but equally damaging, is the sedentary couch potato. It is identified in its extreme form by a combination of hobbies, none of which requires a maximum peak energy output greater than that needed to open the refrigerator door and snap open another can of beer. If watching old movies on the boob tube, stamp collecting, playing cards, and counting liver spots is the sum total of our recreational activities, efforts to increase more active leisure endeavors would prove useful.
This is not to say that there is no value in playful abandon. Tramping through puddles barefoot on a rainy day, building sandcastles that will wash away momentarily, or flying kites to pay homage to the wind spirits all have enormous value when they grace our lives in a timely fashion. Music too can be a unifying and healthy form of recreation. If it brings joy to the heart or meaning to the soul, its value is clear. If it shatters eardrums, throws the body into a frenzy, and provokes the mind with turmoil, it probably is not healthy recreation. In the resource section there will be some recommendations on where to find good, wholesome music.
Music attracts the angels in the Universe.
Are we providing a balance of aerobic conditioning, flexibility and strength development, and coordination training, with more passive relaxing activities? Most people like to mix their health-promoting, physical-conditioning activities with some enjoyable sport. It seems that most of us stay with a regular exercise regimen if it is part of our play and is not just pounding our feet on a treadmill, lifting hunks of iron, and stretching to the tune of creaking joints. Finding a good combination of sport and play to be supplemented by more specific training endeavors is usually not difficult, and the variety increases the joy.
Men do not quit playing because they grow old;
they grow old because they quit playing.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Imagine this week of sport, play, exercise, relaxation, and socialization: relaxing but energizing moving meditation with Tai Chi three mornings per week, silent, seated meditation three mornings per week, and one session of group meditation, prayer, song, chanting, or other form of worship; a high energy walk in the park on one day, a mountain bike ride in the woods on another, a swim or some water aerobics on another, an aerobic rest day, a bicycle ride the next day, an aerobic strength training session with rubber tubing the following day, a volleyball, tennis, racquetball game on the seventh day. During every energetic pastime a short period of pre- and post- stretching exercises is performed. Seven days a week there is time to listen to relaxing music, dancing, singing, helping others, artistic expression, stimulating reading (often on health subjects, we hope).
Many of the above can be done alone or with friends and family. A balance needs to be found. Notice some items not included: hanging out at the mall, shopping for non-necessities and eating at the mall, drinking in the bars until the wee hours of the morning, stripping brain gears with mega-decibel heavy metal music listening, mud bog tractor pulls, television watching, video game playing, thumb sucking or nose picking.
Again this implies the wise use of priorities for overall happiness in life while traveling the paths to wholeness. The best use of time is a large factor when choosing types of recreation. That is why it is wise to find those activities that provide multiple health benefits where they are most needed in one's life. Finding sports that are fun, relaxing, energizing, mentally stimulating, and which also provide good opportunities for healthy interpersonal relationships are valuable indeed. Choosing pastimes with the most health benefits and the least detrimental qualities is what we should strive for.
Appropriateness of Sport to the Health Needs of the Body
Are the sports one participates in matched to one's physique and potential? Too often our athletic activities put too much stress on our tissue weaknesses, and injuries are the result. This happens at times when our egos tell us to push, against the good judgment of the body's feedback mechanisms telling us to take it easy. Competition is a prime culprit in deceiving us to push our bodies past their limits. The endorphin/adrenalin high that comes with the excitement of competition often blocks good judgment of what is best for our bodies. Competition and striving for maximal performance involve pushing the body to the limit. It is a fine line which we often misjudge. The result of stepping over the line of tissue strength is injury.
Health and competition are mutually exclusive.
It is even more tragic if parents push their children into sports, competition, or levels of performance not fully and freely chosen by the children and just for the egoistic fulfillment of the parents. Untold physical and emotional tragedy occurs to children when they play, not for play's sake, but for some psychological emptiness in themselves or their parents. This increases in intensity directly proportional to the level of competition.
In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.
Publius Ovidius Naso
Consideration should also be given to the risks inherent in the sport relative to its benefits---risk of death, risk of serious injury, risk of cumulative injury, risk of minor injury. Statistics for college and high school athletics show that for categories of death, catastrophic injury, and serious injury football far and away leads the list. Wrestling, basketball, and gymnastics follow. For non-collegiate sports high altitude mountain climbing may be one of the riskiest. This should be expected when a sport involves pushing oneself to the very limits of physical capacity in a hostile environment of enormous unpredictability. Boxing's inherent cumulative head trauma is also another sport one would find difficulty fitting into a balanced holistic health or stress management program.
Psychological Contribution of Play
It is a happy talent to know how to play.
Attention needs to be focused on the psychological qualities reinforced by games. Is cooperation and improvement of self-esteem encouraged or is ego-protecting competition the rule? It is often very educational to investigate the ulterior motives for participation in any athletic event. Is it a way of gaining acceptance; making friends; expressing hostility, frustration, anger; overcoming fear; displacing emotions; or battling perceived inferiority? If so, is the event an effective means for enhancing life, or should its ends even be questioned? So the issue is not so much does this or that recreation make us feel good emotionally, but rather does it feed our psychological growth or prey on our emotional weaknesses?
Leisure as a Part of Alone Time and Interpersonal Relationships.
The place of the dance is within the heart.
How many activities are done alone and for what reasons? Healthy alone time is much needed in an increasingly hectic world. But an excessive compulsion to spend leisure time alone could indicate unfulfilled needs in other aspects of one's life. Likewise a fear of being alone and always needing someone else's company could indicate problems. How much does a particular form of recreation improve interpersonal relationships? Is there a good balance between solitary recreation and participation with others?
Our minds need relaxation, and give way
Unless we mix with work a little play.
Is the leisure activity intellectually stimulating? A game of chess has more intellectual health benefits than watching a monster truck drag race. Physically active sports can also be intellectually challenging. Route finding with map and compass while backpacking, or creative choreography in dance are examples.
Ecological Concerns of Recreation
How does the environmental setting influence health? The ear-shattering decibels of a rock concert differ in their impact on one's health from listening to a bubbling brook in a high mountain setting. Imagine how an all night poker game in a smoke filled room adversely contributes to one's health. These are important stress management issues to consider.
There are many internet sites for articles on non-competitive games. Just Google non-competitive games.
GET OUT AND PLAY!
He who laughs, lasts.
Mary Pettibone Poole