At Home Senior Fitness is Growing!

It is just over two years since I trained my first client at At Home Senior Fitness. At the time, I was still working as a Personal Trainer at a local gym, but had decided that I wanted to branch out on my own. I worked both jobs for two months before giving my 2-week’s notice at the gym; I knew that in order to make my business successful, I would have to jump in with both feet.

Although I have always been busy, in June I got to the point where I could not take on any new clients virtually or in-person. I had all but stopped advertising since word-of-mouth was my biggest source of referrals, and I did not want to take out ads and then be unable to offer a spot on my schedule to those who would make inquiries. I began to consider whether I should hire someone to work with me. I was working with my SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) mentor to strategize and was about ready to make the move when “fate” intervened.

I mid-July I received an unsolicited inquiry from a certified group fitness instructor who was also studying for ACE certification as a Senior Fitness Specialist. After many years of working with older adults, she was interested in transitioning her career into fitness and wanted to talk to me about the work that I do. We set up a Zoom conversation and, after speaking, we both understood that working together could be a great fit (pun intended!). It was fortuitous for both of us.

I am very pleased to welcome Sam Kalamasz to the At Home Senior Fitness team! Sam will be training virtually as well as in-person in territory that I am unable to cover (Medina, Strongsville, and Brunswick, OH). Sam begins with her first client today! Over the coming weeks, we are looking to build her client base, so if you know people who might benefit from working with a kind, compassionate, and skilled personal trainer–either on-line or in her territory–please refer them to http://www.athomeseniorfitness.net.

I am so excited for this new stage for me and AHSF…and for Sam. We are honored to be able to help older adults live their best lives with improved strength, mobility, and independence!

The Core of the Matter

If you were to ask anyone who participates in my group fitness classes or does personal training with me what are the top 3 phrases I use, one them would certainly be “engage your core!”

We hear a lot of talk about the core, but what exactly is it and why is it so important? The core is made up of the muscles surrounding your mid-section (sometimes called trunk); it includes the abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor, trunk extensors, and hip flexors. Some people define it as the area between the mid-thigh to just below the pectoral muscles.

The core important because it provides stability for doing many of the tasks of daily living, and supports everything above it. A weak core can lead to overloading other muscles, which often leads to back pain. Most of the activities in which we engage–both in the gym and out–depend on us having a core that is strong enough to support the movements required.

When I say, “engage your core,” what does that mean? I usually follow this term with the instruction to keep shoulders back, chest up, and belly button pulled back to the spine. This is an oversimplification, but it is a signal to my clients that they need to be aware of their posture. I often tell them to imagine the drill sargeant is about to come by and they need to stand at attention.

There are a number of exercises that help to strengthen the core. A popular one is doing abdominal braces. Basically, this involves tightening the muscles of the mid-section all at once. Imagine that someone is about to punch you in the gut; what muscles would you tighten to lessen the impact of the punch? This is what you do in a bracing exercise. There are all kinds of bracing exercises, many of which you can find with explanatory videos by using a simple internet search. Doing these exercises will give you a good idea of just how strong your core is (or isn’t!).

Other exercises to help strengthen the core include: Ab crunches, glute bridges, bird dogs, planks, side planks, and superheroes (formerly known as supermans). None of these exercise requires any kind of equipment; they can be done at home on a mat or other soft, but sturdy surface. If you want to make use of dumbbells you can add in: deadlifts, russian twists, wood chops (that also work the arms and shoulders), and over/unders. At the gym, there are machines that will also work the core and allow for varying the amount of resistance being used; ask a trainer or other employee to show you which machines they are and how to use them.

Getting to the core of the matter is an essential part of any exercise regimen. Lots of people like to focus on upper body and arms, as well as legs, but often leave out core. This is like building a home but leaving out the foundation. You cannot build a strong body without a strong core to support it all. Next time you are exercising, I hope you imagine me reminding you to “engage your core!”

Thrown Your Back Out?

There I was, minding my own business on Saturday night, pulling down a shade on the back window, when I “threw my back out.” At the exact moment it happened, it took my breath away and the pain was intense. How did this happen? I had just pulled down two other shades–as I do every night when it gets dark–without incident. What actually occurred?

What exactly is throwing out one’s back? It is the acute onset of low back pain (in the lumbar spine). It can be caused by a number of things: muscle spasm, arthritis, a slipped or ruptured disk, or sometimes for no reason at all (like closing a shade!). Most of the time the condition is temporary, lasting only a few days or weeks. If it lasts longer, it is worth consulting a medical professional as it could be something more serious like a muscle tear, herniated disk, or even a kidney stone.

This is–as they say–not my first rodeo. As someone who is very physically active, this happens every couple of years or so; most of the time it is a result of something silly like this time. My rule of thumb is that if the pain and lack of mobility in my back do not resolve in a few days, I contact my doctor. That happened only once and I was refered to a chiropractor; it took a couple of visits, along with some exercises to finally get back to normal.

Here are some things that can help with a back that has been thrown out:

  1. Treat the pain. Ibuprofen and Naproxen work well to reduce swelling; if you cannot use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), use acetamenophin (Tylenol). Pain patches can help as well. Always follow label instructions carefully.
  2. Apply cold. I usually use a cold pack wrapped in a towel and find it brings relief.
  3. Apply heat. Many people swear by this because they feel the cold causes the muscles to contract and cause more discomfort.
  4. Apply cold and heat interchangeably. It works for some people!
  5. Exercise. The common practice used to be to immobilize the back; the latest research indicates that exercise and stretching can shorten the time it takes to recover. It is best not to overdo it while working out (I have been using lighter dumbbells than usual), but the activity can prevent the muscles from stiffening up further. Certain stretches can help as well: Cat/Cows, Cobra Pose, Child’s Pose, Windshield Wipers (keeping feet on the ground), Supine Knee-Ins, and Pelvic Tilts.
  6. Rest. While your body recovers, it uses a lot of energy; be sure to give your body the chance to recharge.

It is Tuesday, and each day I feel better. Interestingly, many of the same exercises and stretches that I use with my clients who have chronic lower back pain are the same ones I am using now. Hopefully, I will feel myself again in a day or two. If not, I will contact my doctor.

In the meantime, is it a problem to leave the shades up at night?

Getting Back on that Horse

Disclaimer: not me in this picture!

You know the old expression: “If you fall off the horse, get right back on.” It acknowledges that setbacks are a part of life; what is important is how we respond to those setbacks. Either we can choose to be defeated and give up, or we can get back in the game and give it another shot, realizing that we might fall off yet again.

I often refer to this adage when counseling clients and others about fitness and weight management. I addressed this in one of my most popular blog posts about a year ago. Sometimes we are really good at getting to the gym, eating right, and taking care of ourselves in general. There are other times, though, when it is a real challenge (vacations, holidays, illness, etc.) and we “fall off the horse.” In that post, I discussed being kind and forgiving to ourselves. There is nothing to be gained by beating up on ourselves. To paraphrase Pumbaa in The Lion King, often the best thing to do is put your past behind you (or put your behind in the past…one of those two!) Do not dwell on the failure, but get back on the horse and make a change that very day.

This has been on my mind a lot as I have been watching the scale slowly creep upward. Last year, I started doing Noom to take off some extra pounds and to prepare for some upcoming surgery. After the surgery, I was quite a bit underweight and struggled for several months to put the pounds back on. I can report that I solved that problem and then some. I am now above the point on the scale that I vowed I would never hit again. I am not obese or unhealthy, but rather want to make sure that I keep healthy habits as I age.

So tomorrow I’m hopping back on that horse. I am still subscribing to Noom. I will continue to track my weight. I will start logging my meals again. I will get back in touch with my coach. I cannot wait to get back in the saddle again!

We all face obstacles in life–at work, at school, in relationships. This is a given in the human experience. The true test is how we respond. Will we simply give up? Or, will we be resilient? The choice is ours. I will keep you posted as I gallop toward back toward healthier habits.

How Do I Know if I’m Working Out Hard Enough?

My last post tackled the question of how we know if we are making progress in our exercise program. That discussion took more of a long view of things, but how do we know if we are working hard enough in any given workout? This is a topic that I have blogged about in the past as well: once on 9/6/2020 and then a few days later on 9/10/2020.

To recap, when it comes to cardio exercise there is a formula that is often used to determine if the workout is effective. It is not exact, but the equation is 220 minus your age; that number gives you the maximum heart rate, but the goal is to be at 65-85% of that number. For instance, a person who is 70 should not exceed 150 beats/minute; the “sweet spot” is between 97 and 127. When it comes to resistance training (weights), it is a little more complicated as it will depend on what the goal is. Rather than going into detail here, consult your favorite fitness professional; recommendations will vary in relation to a number of factors such as age, current level of fitness, injuries, etc.

Still, in any given workout, is there an easy way to get a sense of things? For cardio, there is something called the “talk test.” If a person is able to talk while doing the exercise (running, biking, etc.) it would be considered moderate; if a person can talk with difficulty but not sing, that is a more vigorous level. If the person is unable to speak at all (like during a sprint), that is the highest level of exertion–one that can only be carried out for a limited amount of time. What level is appropriate? It will depend on a number of factors (are you just trying to stay fit, or are you training for a marathon?), but going back to the formula above will help.

For resistance training, I usually recommend a weight that allows the client to do 12 reps with the last few being difficult. If all 12 reps are easy, it is time to either add weight or reps, or in some other way increase the level of difficulty. Those looking to bulk up, will follow a different set of standards–generally, heavier weight with less reps. I also use the RPE or Rated Perceived Exertion; this is fairly subjective, but it asks the exerciser to rate how difficult an exercise is. I use a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most difficult; most clients are honest (although we all know the adage “never tell a personal trainer something is too easy!”) This is a relatively simple way to gauge the level of work for both resistance and cardio training.

The key is not to rest on one’s laurels. When an exercise becomes to easy, it will not help to accomplish the fitness goal. Progression to a more challenging level is what is called for.

Although it can seem confusing at times, we are usually our own best judges of how hard we are working. We need to be honest with ourselves, though, so as not to overwork or underwork. Being honest with ourselves is a good rule in every aspect of our lives.

A *Foot*note to the Last Post

In my last blog post, I discussed the importance of taking care of one’s feet. To be honest, my post was motivated by some pain I had been experiencing in my left foot that was to be addressed at an upcoming appointment with my podiatrist. After an x-ray, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture and now have to wear a boot for four weeks. Stylish, no?

What is a stress fracture? According to the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone — most commonly, in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone. They’re caused by repetitive force, often from overuse — such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances.” The first time I had a stress fracture, my podiatrist showed me how they happen. He took a regular #2 pencil and tapped it repeatedly on top of my quad muscles; under my quads is the femur–which is the strongest bone in the human body. The doctor told me that if he just kept tapping, eventually he would fracture the femur; it is like erosion that does its job slowly but continually.

I looked at the x-ray this week, and could not really see anything; it is not like a regular fracture where it is pretty obvious that the bone is broken. A podiatrist, however, is trained to identify these tiny cracks. The most common treatment is to immobilize the foot to allow the bone to grow back and heal the fracture. That is why a boot is most often prescribed.

Are stress fractures preventable? Yes, and no. According to the Mayo Clinic, ways to prevent stress fractures are: 1) start new exercise programs gradually so as to allow the bones to strengthen as new demands are put on them; 2) use proper footwear–I discussed that in the previous post linked above; 3) cross train–in other words, exercise different parts of the body in different ways rather than repeating one singular exercise over and over; and 4) maintain proper nutrition to ensure the proper vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that keep bones strong. The “no” is that even when you do all these things (as I do), it is still conceivable that this can happen. I was on a hike in Arizona recently with a very uneven trail; I rolled my ankle at least a dozen times and I think this may have contributed to the stress fracture.

I will heal. This has happened before and, after some inconvenience, things will go back to normal. In the meantime, I will immobilize my foot as best I can. I will also continue to follow the recommendations about exercise, footwear, and nutrition. No 100% guarantees, but injuries will occur now and again–and they are small price to pay to avoid the negative health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.

Cover All Your (Muscle) Bases

In youth, there are certain “rules” that many follow when engaging in resistance training. The reasoning goes that for men to be more attractive they need to concentrate on their arms and chest. Women may feel the need to focus on abdominals and glutes. These rules do not apply in the same ways as we enter older adulthood.

Do not take this to mean that older adults are not concerned about their appearance; rather, as we age we need to take a more holistic approach to the muscles we exercise. It is important to pay attention to the muscle groups that help us to perform the activities of daily living (ADL) such as walking, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, bending down to pick up something we have dropped on the floor, etc., not just the ones that get us noticed when we wear tight clothes! After all, what good is having gigantic biceps and a huge chest if we cannot make our way across the room?

A recent article on AARP’s website by Michele Wojciechowski highlights some of the often-ignored muscle groups that deserve our attention and exercise. The author highlights the following areas: 1) The hip area (the glutes and hip flexors); these are key to walking and getting up from a seated position. 2) The core; this part of the body is from the shoulders through just below the hips and serves as support for the entire upper body. Often, older adults with poor posture have weakened core muscles. 3) The knees–which are not a muscle, but a joint; they are supported by the quads and the hamstrings; keeping those strong and limber is key to walking, climbing stairs, standing, and maintaining balance. 4) Ankles and feet; again, vital to walking but also important in maintaining balance and stability; ask anyone who has had feet or ankle problems and they will tell you that it seriously inhibits mobility. 5) The neck; not keeping the supporting muscles strong and limber will literally cause “a pain in the neck.” It is not uncommon at all to see older adults whose heads are perched out well in front of the chests; this causes problems beyond appearance, possibly affecting sleep, posture, and the ability to drive a car. 6) Hands and wrists; while many are hit by arthritis in this area, others simply allow the lower arm muscles to weaken, which limits the ability to perform fine motor skills like writing, eating, typing.

As I age, I am concerned about my appearance. I always want to put the best version of myself forward. For me this means not only working on the “sexy” muscles, but also on the ones that will keep me active and independent. Do not overlook these muscle groups or they will have a way of calling your attention to them in a way you might not enjoy.

Is it the Big One?

redd foxx

Some of you may recall Redd Foxx’s famous line from Sanford and Son (while feigning a heart attack): “It’s the big one, I’m coming to join you Elizabeth!” While this groundbreaking show was one of the funniest in television history, it did distort the reality about heart attacks (also known as miocardial infarctions). It is extremely rare that they are brought on in the way portrayed in the show.

There is still a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about what causes a heart attack. It is caused by a blockage of blood flow to the heart; these blockages are caused by fat, cholesterol, and/or other substances that cause a build-up of plaque in arteries leading to the heart. Without blood, the tissue loses oxygen and can die. So it appears that there are other things at play aside from Sanford’s son, Lamont!

CNN Health recently featured a story that touches on another myth regarding heart attacks. Two television characters, Mr. Big from Sex and the City, and Mike “Wags” Wagner from Billions suffered heart attacks after using their Peloton bikes. These kinds of stories feed the misconception that exercising vigorously does not improve our health, but rather leads to our untimely demise. Dr. Andrew Freeman, of the American College of Cardiology notes that “…regular exercise is a wonderful way to stay healthy and well and reduce cardiovascular disease. In fact, I call exercise the ‘fountain of youth.'” This is certainly a very diffent characterization of the effects of physical activity. The fountain of youth is about as far away from untimely demise as one can imagine.

It is no secret to those who follow this blog that exercise–at any age–is beneficial. Do people have heart attacks at the gym or while running or bicycling? Yes, but at no greater rate than those who are engaged in other activities. A regular program of exercise is a great way to reduce risk of a cardiovascular event rather than cause it.

A few words of caution, however. Someone who is about to embark on a exercise program or a “fitness journey,” should consult with their primary care physician first to make sure that it is safe to do so. Certain exercises may be more advantageous/harmful than others given a person’s medical history. Another important point is that beginners should proverbially learn to crawl before walking…and certainly before running a marathon! It is vital to build up one’s strength and endurance in a responsible way; as always, a fitness professional can help with this.

Many people–especially older adults–have stayed away from exercise precisely because they fear the same fate as Mr. Big or Wags. Sadly, that fear may have prevented them from reaping the many health benefits of regular exercise. Chances are strongly in our favor that when we work out, it will not be the “big one” and we will not be coming to join Elizabeth any time soon. On the contrary, we might just encounter the fountain of youth!

Take Care of those Joints

Joint Pain

It is no secret to older adults that one of our trouble spots as we age is our joints (the ones inside our bodies!). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 50% of those age 65 or older have osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone; it causes pain and stiffness, especially in the hip, knee, and thumb joints. Is there anything that can be done to take better care of our joints?

A recent article on http://www.aarp.org, suggests 6 behaviors that are harmful for our joints.

  1. Smoking. Nicotine narrows blood vessels thus prevent blood from reaching the cells that seek its nourishment; this includes the cells in our cartilage. Additionally, smoking can add to brittle bones which raises the likelihood of fractures by 30-40%.
  2. A Physically Inactive Lifestyle. People who are sedentary are more likely to have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight; carrying around extra pounds puts stress and strain on the joints–especially the knees. Consult with a doctor or fitness professional about which exercises are best for joint health, since some movements can exacerbate joint problems.
  3. Overdoing Exercise. This is all about maintaining the proper balance. Currently guidelines suggest 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise each week. This need not be particularly strenuous (and in some cases should not be); as noted in #2, consult a doctor or fitness professional for how to best put together a program for your needs and condition. Avoid being a weekend warrior as well; do not stay inactive the whole week and cram 2.5 hours into the weekend. A mix of cardio and strength training is recommended.
  4. Carrying Too Much. Literally, this could mean moving furniture, carrying a heavy backpack, etc. This should be avoided, but if it cannot, be certain to use proper posture and lifting techniques. Keep the load closer to your body for less stress on the joints.
  5. Eating the Wrong Foods. There are many foods that are “pro-inflammatory.” These include: red meat, fried foods, and sugary foods and drinks. On the flipside, there are foods that are considered anti-inflammatory such as fishes with high levels of fatty acids (salmon and mackerel), leafy greens, as well as some tree nuts; work more of these foods into your diet.
  6. Too much Texting. The more we text the more strain we put on the joints in our arms and hands. There are some ergonomic keyboards that can help, but make sure to take a break if your work/hobby requires a lot of typing. Most smartphones also have a voice to text option so that you can dictate rather than typing some of the type.

As we age, it is more and more important to keep moving. Of course, we rely on our joints to make that a reality. Treat your joints well and they will last longer, keeping older adults more independent.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong (Part II)

Two Vintage Red Cross Bandage Boxes

In my last blog post, I wrote about ways to keep yourself safe while working out at home–focusing on having a safe and secure workout space.

Preventing injury requires more than just cleaning up a large enough space and getting possible obstacles out of the way. There are factors to take into account both at home, and at they gym to consider. An article in at http://www.aarp.org points out 5 issues to bear in mind when embarking on a fitness journey; these factors are especially relevant for older adults.

  1. Start slowly. With New Year’s Resolutions on the horizon many of us may resolve to start working out more often. Going from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds may be great for a sports car, but our bodies require us to move forward gently–especially if we have been sedentary for a while. Working out for too long, too often, or with weights that are too heavy is a recipe for injury. Muscles need to get used to the new routine; they need to grow and strengthen before we get more intense. Ease into it.
  2. Speaking of going from 0 to 60, every workout should begin with a warm-up. Typically, a before-workout warm-up should involve dynamic stretches or motions; in other words, they should be comprised of actions similar to those you will do as part of the workout, just at a slower, more gentle pace. The goal is to warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing throughout the body. Static stretches can be done after the warm-up, or (as I prefer) after the workout; static stretches are the ones where you hold a certain position for a given amount of time.
  3. Get the right athletic footwear. Shoes are like tires; some work better in different situations, and some only work on certain models. As we age, many of us develop issues with our posture and the rest of our kinetic chain (think of the hip bone connected to the thigh bone…); proper athletic footwear can help us excel, avoid pain, and stave off injuries. Like tires, they also have a mileage limit; if the treads on your shoes are gone, time to get new ones. I recommend going to a shoe store that only sells athletic footwear; their employees are trained and can get you the right fit for whatever quirks your feet might present. Do not let me catch you barefoot or in socks!
  4. Switch it up. Do not do the same exercise day in and day out. First, you will get bored. Second, you may cause injuries due to overuse. It is also important to work all the various muscle groups; varying the workout can help make that happen.
  5. My favorite one: if you are not sure about how to begin, reach out to a fitness professional. Most gyms have personal trainers or other fitness experts who are happy to help; often, an initial session is offered for free so that you can get acquainted with the gym and its equipment. If you prefer to work out online or one-on-one with a trainer at home, there are personal trainers who specialize in these kinds of settings–and you will probably save money not having to pay for a gym membership. A trainer will make sure that you cover most of the points above and will help keep you on track. There’s nothing like a good personal trainer to keep you accountable to your goals.

Of course, injuries do happen. Sometimes there are accidents, and other times we have physical weaknesses of which we are not aware. While there are no guarantees, the points above are certainly excellent guidelines to keeping your workout–at home or at the gym–less likely to cause an injury.