Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't just stand there! How are you *actually* supposed to stand?

There's a lot of talk in the media these days about how standing is way better for you than sitting, but did you know there's actually a "right" way to stand?  Here it is: space your feet pelvis width apart, line up the outside edges of your feet, fully straighten your legs, relax your quads, and carry your weight in your heels (get your hips directly above your heels).  This advice may be different from what you've heard over the years, like "keep your knees soft (slightly bent)", or "tuck your pelvis under to engage your core".  So who's right?  How do you know which advice to follow?  In my opinion, you should follow the advice that doesn't do damage to any of your body parts.  Read on, you'll see what I mean. 
First image: hips forward, loading the feet.  Second image, knees bent, loading the knees and the feet.      Third image, hips over heels, loading the posterior muscles.
Let's start with the feet.  Your feet are like your hands, your toes are like your fingers.  If you did a handstand, you probably wouldn't let your body go forward and put your weight on your fingers, you'd keep it in the heel of your hand, closest to your wrist.  The rules are the same for the foot.  Your feet actually house 25% of your body's bones and muscles, and are packed full of nerves.  The fact that your feet are capable of an infinite number of positions and are so sensitive to pressure, shape and texture suggests that they are made to read information from the environment.

A nice, flexible foot will be able to form to the surface you are walking on, giving you greater stability.  If your foot can't move to accommodate a rock or a hole in the ground, or a rogue Lego, some other joint will have to (sprained ankle, knee), or you fall over and break a hip.

The side of my foot can come up over the block so I don't have to fling my whole body to the floor to avoid getting hurt.  If I carried my weight in my toes, this would be very painful.

When you carry your weight on your toes, your foot has to contract and grip the ground all the time to hold you up.  This puts a significant amount of strain on the small muscles and soft tissues of your feet, makes the muscle stiff and unyielding, and actually cuts off blood flow to your foot.  Your poor foot loses its fantastic range of motion and will be in pain and may even start to deform from the strain (bunions, hammer toes, flat feet, etc.)

The size of muscles and bones can give us a clue to their intended function.  Bigger muscles and bones should be doing heavy load bearing work.  Smaller muscle and bone is more for proprioception and other functions, like the delicate task of capturing nose goblins from a sleeping 2 year old.  When you carry your weight back in your heels and turn OFF your quads, you allow the large muscles on the back of your leg and your butt to hold your weight, rather than the teeny tiny bits and pieces that make up your feet. 

Another thing to look at is the effect of a contracted muscle on other parts of your body.  When you use the back of your legs and your butt to hold you up, your butt muscles gently tug your tailbone outward, which maintains a healthy tone to your pelvic floor ( it is attached to your tailbone).  Cool!  When you use your quads to hold you up, either by having your hips shoved forward or having your knees bent, it pulls your kneecap up and into the knee joint, grinding through the cartilage, creating lots of friction and inflammation, leading to chronic pain/disease, eventually knee replacement.  Uh-oh.  Also, you lose any toning effect on the pelvic floor.  Dang.

The last thing I'll mention is the effect that the placement of your weight has on your bones.  In order for your hip bones (femoral heads) to develop and maintain their proper density, your legs MUST be vertical.  Your leg bone is triggered to grow (ie, NOT degenerate over time) through the compression it gets between the ground and gravity. 

A tilted leg bone, as in hips forward OR knees bent, is not getting the right amount of compression, which means your bones are not as strong as they have to be for your weight.  If I weigh 100 lbs, I want my bones to be able to handle that weight when I'm walking, or if I have to jump to avoid getting hit by a bus, or if I'm going downstairs and I think there's another step but there's not and I land hard on my leg and get that jolt that reverberates through my skull (we've all done it) .  If I don't bear my weight on my bones properly, that means that maybe they'll only be able to handle 85% of my weight, which is bad news for me in the above scenarios.  I don't know about you, but I'd REALLY rather have my bones strong enough to hold me up, since I have an aversion to chronic pain and osteoporosis and hip fracture.

(A side note, this is why time spent sitting is such a big factor in the development of osteoporosis.  Those hours you spend sitting in a chair are hours that you're telling your bones to go on vacation.  A horizontal bone isn't getting ANY compression from gravity, so it isn't getting ANY signal to replenish!)

So there's my case for standing with your weight in your heels, and for learning how to relax your quads when you stand around.   Makes sense, doesn't it?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The body's check engine light:how to know if you're wrecking the crap out of your machine.

I'm going to use some references and comparisons to machines today to help illustrate some points about the human body.  Sometimes it seems like people aren't comfortable thinking of their body as a machine (with correct and incorrect ways of use) even though that's what it is; a living machine.  To ensure the proper functioning of a machine, you have to make sure you're using it properly, the way it was designed to be used.  Dont' use a lawnmower on a rock beach.  Don't use a snow blower as a wood chipper (especially not Fargo style, ew.)  Don't use your drill as a hammer, etc.  Your body and its parts are subject to the same rules.  Don't use your forefoot as a heel (to carry your weight), don't use your knee as a hip, don't use your low back as a hip, etc.  What I'm trying to say, is don't let one body part do the work that another body part was specifically designed to do.  When you use your parts to do stuff they weren't designed to do, they start breaking down prematurely (so stop calling it a part of aging!  you're just doin' it wrong.)

So, how do we know that machines are breaking down?  Sometimes they straight up break.  Sometimes they stop functioning properly, like when your drill will run but it does "grrungg, chk, chk,chk (grinding sound here) vrrrrggg".   Others, like your car, have a sweet warning system, a red flag: the check engine light.  What do you generally do when the check engine light comes on?  Put a piece of black tape over it? Outta sight, outta mind? Just because you don't see it, or aren't thinking about it, doesn't mean you won't still have to deal with the eventual consequence of ignoring the problem.  Personally, I think "oh man, the check engine light!  Better get this piece of crap into the garage before this issue destroys my car".

What's that you say?  Your body doesn't have a check engine light, or a complicated on board computer system that lets you know when something is wrong?  Of course it does!  You have a very technical system, called your nervous system, which monitors your body, and has a very clear check engine light to let you know you suck at operating your machine.  It's PAIN.  When something hurts, it's a pretty good indication that something's wrong.  A malfunction, or a misuse of sorts.  We don't always pay attention to this warning system until it's too late though, and our machine starts getting wrecked. :( 

We don't even realize we're ignoring our check engine lights!  Sure we go to the doctor, and we usually end up taking some kind of pain medication or anti inflammatory or giant needle in the joint.   Here's the kicker:  taking these medications is like putting black tape over the light.  Just because you bring down the inflammation, or can't feel the pain, doesn't mean that the ROOT CAUSE is gone.  Say you have inflammation in your knee because you walk with your foot turned out, and you depend on your quadriceps to do the work of your backside.  Then you take an anti-inflammatory and a pain medication.  Weeee!  The pain is gone!  But you didn't address the actual reason for the pain in your knee, so the damage continues to be done, until you need a knee replacement. 

If you hear yourself saying "but my pain is from arthritis" or "my bunion is hereditary" or "my back hurts for (insert whatever reason here)", maybe you should get a second opinion from a restorative exercise specialist (like me!! :D).  Soooo much of this stuff is due to user error (you're the user, and you're using it incorrectly), and if you can learn to start using your machine correctly, you can stop wrecking the crap out of it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why I love to walk with my kiddlet.

I recently got back from a wonderful trip to Newfoundland where I was visiting my family.  I love it so much there, not only because it's my home, also because it speaks to a really human part of me.  It's a place where I feel acutely aware that couches and cement aren't part of the "natural order" of things.  The primal human in me feels a little more at home in the setting of looming cliffs and close trees.  As my daughter grows up, it's important to me that she gets to spend time in actual nature.  I feel like it's essential for her development as a biological human, if that makes sense.  She has to know where she came from, what she would have called home 40,000 years ago.  When we go walking here around the house, it's mostly on paved trails with the distant sound of 18 wheelers rumbling down the road.  In Newfoundland, there are rugged trails meandering high into the cliffs, old trees creaking in the wind, and the rhythmic "shhhh... shhh ... shhhhh" of the ocean meeting land far below.  It feels really untouched and authentic (because it is).

It's actually really important for a child's physical development as well to be able to wander around in environments like this.  So while we were in Newfoundland we took Myriam for her first 2 real hikes.  Though she's only been walking for 6 months or so, she didnt' have much trouble adjusting to the uneven ground beneath her feet.  In a super soft leather shoe, she could feel every pine needle under her heel, and her foot could splay like a hand as it formed to the shape of a root or rock.  All the muscles in her little feet worked in harmony to keep her vertical (most of the time).  1 hour, and over 200 pictures later, she finally asked to come up for a rest in my arms, at which point I had to carry her over the same bumpy terrain until we got back to the beach.  Luckily I was wearing my own thin soled moccasins, and didn't worry about falling down.

It's really important for babies and young children to start going on walks early in their life.  Basically, as soon as they can walk they should walk.  A Lot.  Children gain mass very quickly, and it's essential that their muscles get a chance to develop at the same rate.  Babies are born with the ability to hold themselves up, but if we start them off right away with passive positioning (car seat, bouncy chair, cradled in your arm) then they gain mass but do not get any muscle development along with it.  That means that the muscle they have is no longer strong enough to hold them up.  It's the same for their legs.  They should go for a walk every single day, for as long as it takes for them to reach their limit.  Some days it's gonna be 10 minutes around the block, some days it might be 45 minutes before they need a break.  Don't shy away from difficult terrain either.  Just let them do it.  That way they're building their endurance and strength, their muscles will never be too weak to support them.

Don't forget that their little feet are always growing and developing too, so be sure to keep them out of stiff, bulky shoes and in non-restrictive thin soled footwear. That will give the foot muscles a chance to develop properly as well.   And never EVER let your kid wear shoes that are too small. 

Getting our kids out walking does amazing things for all of you!  It's so great for your body, but it also creates some wonderful memories.  I know it's one of the things I remember most about my childhood.  Walking with my mom on a rock beach on a sunny summer afternoon, padding along after the first snowfall in the dark singing Christmas carols, scooting over to the park after work with mom and dad to take a walk in the back trails.  It's something we still do to this day when we're in the same city, and I'm almost 30 years old now.  That's more than 25 years of creating something special with my folks.  And check me out now, repeating the cycle with my own chicklet!

Start young.  Don't mind the weather.  Dont' mind the time.  Find exciting places.  Walk the same boring route.  Go with friends.  Go for hours.  Go for 10 minutes.  Go as often as your kid asks.  No one's ever said "well that walk was a waste of time" (unless they're stupid).  No one's ever said "I wish I spent less time walking with Mom and Dad and more time watching tv alone in my room."  No one's ever said "We should have spent more time in the car." 

Thanks a lot to my dad who spent this walk with a camera stuck to his face.  I really appreciate it.  :)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Don't bankrupt your joints with your poor spending (movement) choices!

The way you move throughout the day has a big impact on the health of your joints and spine.  Think about things like picking up a sock, unloading the dryer, tying your shoe, washing the bathtub, sweeping the floor, putting a DVD in the DVD player (assuming it's lower than waist height), getting up off the toilet.  Think about all the things you do with your body in the run of a day that require you to go from being vertical to being bent in the middle, or at the knee.  There's are a multitude of ways to get closer to the ground,  but depending on how you do it you may be causing a lot of wear and tear on your joints.

Knee over toes, no lumbar curve, even some neck compression.  I also had to grip the floor with my toes to keep from falling forward on this one. It hurted!

Let's say you have a bazillion dollars in the bank.  But over the years you spend all of it on stupid stuff.  You bought a  pale blue diamond studded track suit, you bought a helicopter made of gold, you ate take out sushi for every meal instead of buying groceries and making your own food...  Now you have one dollar left, and you spend it on a chocolate bar.  You blew your last dollar on a chocolate bar.  Tell me, did you go broke buying a chocolate bar, or did you go broke because you made bad choices with your money, and had poor spending habits?

Your joints are kinda the same deal.  When you use them improperly, their health is finite.  FINITE!  If you're always bending at the spine, letting your lumbar curve do the work of your hips, it's like taking a big fat $50 bill out of the bank.  At some point, you're not gonna have anything left in the bank, and you're not gonna have any health left in the joint.  So when you bend over to pick up your newspaper and you put your back out, it's because you just took out the last dollar in the account.  You did not injure your back picking up a newspaper, you injured your back due to years of making bad choices with your movements, and having poor postural habits, then you blew your last bit of health picking up a newspaper.

We always work to put and keep money in the bank, likewise you need to work to maintain the health of your joints and spine.  You can start right now by changing those mundane actions you do day in day out.  All those damaging little movements add up over time, turning into pain and disease.  My three helpful hints to keep your joints and spine from going bankrupt are:

1.  Try not to let your knees track over your toes when you bend them.  That might mean really backing your weight into your heels and bending quite a bit at the hip, you may not be able to bend your knees very much at first if you're trying to keep your shins vertical.

Lumbar curve in tact!  My shins could stand to be a little more vertical.  Some practise in a mirror will help me learn how to feel when my shins are really vertical.

2.  When you bend at the middle, make sure you're hinging at the hip instead of from the lower back, keep your tailbone untucked and your lumbar curve intact. Try bending over while looking in a mirror at first, sometimes it's hard to tell if you're moving from the spine or the hip.  You can also put your hands on your lower back and feel for movement as you bend (hint: there shouldn't be ANY movement in your lower back).  If you're not used to it, you may not be able to get very close to the floor.  That's ok.  Keep at it.

Let your fat ass back up behind your heels to keep from falling forward.  Otherwise you have to grip the floor with your toes, and they weren't designed to be used like that.

3.  Switch it up!  Sometimes try bending with your legs straight, hinging at the hip.  Sometimes try bending at the hip and knee, with your shins vertical, like a squat.  (click for more squat how-to)

It's difficult at first, but just changing the way you move will help you loosen up, and before long you'll be touching the floor without having to worry about hurting yourself.  When you move this way, you actually increase the health of your joints.  Your hips, knees, and back will really feel like...a million bucks.  ha.  ha ha.  ha ha ha.