Does Your Brain Have Time for a Quickie?

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the benefits of shorter workouts. Studies show that short bursts of activity have positive effects on one’s physical health; this is good news for those who do not necessarily have a lot of time in their day to exercise, but who might have smaller chunks of time throughout the day. Getting up from a desk or couch and engaging in moderate physical activity can still have a positive effect.

New research was reported on this week that not only can Quickie workouts have physical benefits, but they can also improve our brain health. A study at the Institute of Sport, Exercise, and Health at University College London found that people who spent even smaller amounts of time (6-9 minutes) in vigorous activity each day had higher cognition scores compared to those who did not. Vigorous activity was defined as aerobic dancing, jogging, running, swimming and biking up a hill–activities that boost heart rate and breathing. The researchers looked at how this affected participants’ short-term memory, problem-solving, and processing skills.

This is just one more important piece of research that proves how important exercise is–and reinforces the connection between physical activity and brain health. Although there are some brain games and other activities that help build brain health, the single biggest factor in improving cognition is physical activity; the more we exercise, the more blood our hearts pump to the cells keeping them properly nourished and doing their jobs. Of course, this includes all those cells in the brain.

In upcoming blog posts, I will explore this further and talk about ways that brain health can be boosted further by exercises that combine both physical and cognitive tasks.

Until then, get up off the couch–even if it is for less than 10 minutes–and get moving! Your body and your brain will thank you.

Two Years on my Own (sort of)

Today marks two years that I am working on my own as a Personal Trainer. November 15, 2020 was my last day employed at the local JCC. Last year I blogged about my thoughts on the one year anniversary; and it was an interesting read.

I wrote “sort of” in the title because I am not exacly all on my own any longer. The addition of Sam Kalamasz to my team means that I have someone who is helping me expand my territory and business. Sam will begin offering on-line classes aimed at a more beginner/intermediate level; my fitness classes are more on the challenging side. Once we get one class up and running, we will expand the offerings further. These classes will be offered virtually, so if you are interested or know others who would be, please contact me at michael@athomeseniorfitness.net.

There are still many opportunities out there. I would like to get into the digital realm and hope that 2023 will be the year that happens. I will be in need of more help the east side of Cleveland soon as I have potential clients whom I have turned away. I am also eager to find ways to partner with others who serve older adults. It is all looking up.

It is important to mark milestones like these. It is a time for reflection–looking back and looking forward. For now, as we are about to head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for all the help and support.

Here’s to many more anniversaries!

Yes, I Can!

As I studied to become a personal trainer, one of the concepts that I learned about was self-efficacy in exercise. Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of completing a task–in this case, exercising. The reason why it is important is that when we believe that we can exercise–in spite of impediments such as a busy schedule, being tired, feeling intimidated at the gym, etc.–we are more likely to actually carry out the physical activity. It sounds somewhat self-evident, but the issue is a little bit complicated.

It is not unusual for me when I am working with clients to hear them say something like, “Oh, I can’t do that,” or “I have never been able to do that before.” It is up to me to safely push them out of their comfort zones. Once they realize that they are capable of doing what I am directing, it builds up their confidence. Later on, I can refer to that success when confronting a new or challenging exercise; I may say, “Remember how you thought you could not balance on one foot for 10 seconds and you could? I bet you are also capable of doing reverse lunges that also involve an element of balance.” Each success builds on the other creating higher levels of self-efficacy.

The concept of self-efficacy goes beyond just exercise, and is particularly important for older adults. The scope widens to include a belief that we are able to influence the events in our lives. As we age, we often sense that we are losing control as our bodies do not function as they once did, and cognition declines. The greater our self-efficacy, the more likely we are to engage in the kinds of activities and practices that will help us to live longer and better. In other words, if we experience greater challenges carrying out activities of daily living, we may reach the conclusion that life will just be a long decline, so there is no reason to “bother” doing anything to improve our levels of health and fitness; on the other hand, if we feel like we can influence our health and fitness, we will act upon that. In both cases, it can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is why self-efficacy is so important for older adults.

How to start? Sometimes we have long-standing feelings of inadequacy; confronting those beliefs is difficult and may require help from a mental health professional. If, in general, we do feel adequate (or even proficient) in life, it becomes a matter of continually challenging ourselves to do more. This is why many older adults are attracted to fitness classes or personal trainers where clear directions are given with appropriate progression from easier tasks to more difficult ones. It lessens the likelihood that we will go easy on ourselves or convince ourselves that we simply are not capable.

As I have grown older, I have come to realize that there are certain things that I may longer be able to do. At the same time, there are other activities where I have doubted my ability and come through with flying colors. I would not say that it is all in our heads, but belief in our ability to influence the direction of our lives can have deep and long-lasting positive outcomes.

Sex and the Senior

It has been clearly shown that living a healthy lifestyle (eating properly, exercising, and getting rest) can lower the odds of getting certain diseases. It can also contribute to greater brain health and longevity. These are all important data points, and they become all the more crucial as we grow older.

As we age, we know that there are many changes to our bodies; we can notice transformations in our appearance (wrinkles and graying or disappearing hair). There are changes in our cardiovascular system, in the musculoskeletal structures, in digestion, and in cognition. Every one of these area can be improved by engaging in regular physical activity, eating a balanced and healthy diet, and getting enough sleep.

What most articles about the effects of aging leave out is a topic that is of interest to many seniors. How will getting older affect our sex lives?

Women experiences changes before, during, and after the process of menopause. Hot flashes, hair loss, weight gain, and mood changes may occur. Some women have a diminished sex drive. There can also be other changes that make the act of sexual intercourse more difficult and even painful.

Men may experience erectile dysfunction. They may also have problems related to an enlarged prostate or prostate cancer. Libido may decrease as well.

These are natural occurences, but they can be exacerbated by other health issues, medications, drinking alcohol excessively, and smoking.

The good news is that there are ways to maintain sexual health in our senior years. The National Council on Aging published an article in late 2021 that outlines some of the ways that we can have better outcomes when it comes to matters of intimacy. There are three main strategies when it comes to a better sex life: 1. Talk to your doctor. It may seem embarassing, but s/he has probably heard it before; your doctor can help address whatever issues you are facing. Normalize talking with your health professional about everything that concerns you, including your sex life. 2. Talk with your partner. If you are in a long-term relationship with a spouse or partner, be open about the changes and what expectations are on both sides. Many older adults may find themselves in new relationships after being widowed or divorced. This will require open communication; do not make assumptions since everyone’s sexual history is unique. 3. Live healthy. Diet can help or hinder our sexual health. Those who exercise regularly may have greater stamina and less circulatory issues which can contribute to longer-lasting lovemaking, greater arousal, and better orgasms.

Sex is one of the great gifts given to human beings. As we age, there does not necessarily need to be a lessening of intimacy between loving partners. NCOA has excellent resources as will most physicians. Here is to love and joy in the golden years!

Research on Avoiding Early Death Says…

We all know that taking care of ourselves can lengthen our lives. The most important elements are eating right, exercising, and getting rest; of course, regular medical check-ups are key as well.

In August 2022, The Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, published the results of research of the National Cancer Institute on what activities were most effective at lowering the risk of early death. Over a quarter-million adults 59-82 answered questions as part of a 12-year study conducted my the National Institutes of Health and AARP.

The guidelines are still in place that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. As always, any kind of activity is better than nothing. What gets the most bang for your buck though? According to an article at cnn.com that reported on the study, racquet sports reduce the risk of death from heart disease by 27%, with an overall reduction in risk of early death of 16%. In second place, running reduced the risk of death from cancer by 19%, with an overall reduction in risk of early death of 15%. Coming in third, is walking, which is very good news since so many older adults engage in this activity as their primary form of exercise.

The other good news is that any other kind of activity also reduces the risk of early death. The information shared in this study is helpful, but only if you actually participate in that exercise. If you really like riding a bicycle, doing aerobics, dancing, etc., stick with what keeps you motivated and interested. It is better to do 150 minutes of “something” on a regular basis than to only occasionally participate in a racquet sport or running if you really do not like them.

The weather in getting colder in many parts, so now is the time to plan for possible changes in our routines. Walking and running may need to move to indoor track. Tennis and pickleball may also need to come inside. Plan ahead so that you can keep active, feel healthy, and live longer!

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 coreĀ 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.