Strong to the core

Stiff neck? Aching lower back? What’s holding you upright if you don’t do anything to exercise your core muscles?

What is my “core”?

You rely on your body to get out of bed, to lift your children, to perform your job and to move around with ease every day.  While our limbs provide mobility and strength, it is our body’s core that provides the basis of each movement. Your core is the midsection of your body, from your shoulders to your groin – basically everything in between your arms and legs. The core includes the pelvis, abs, back and chest muscles. It is this core that offers stability, balance and flexibility.

Every movement you make originates in the core – whether you are reaching for a snack or running a marathon. If the core is not properly conditioned, it will limit your ability to move freely and will leave you open to injury. Remember, the most common sites of injury are usually the parts between your arms and legs!.

Working the muscles in your core will improve the effectiveness of movements in your limbs. Most exercise routines focus on building muscle predominantly in your limbs and superficial muscles. By creating a stable strong base, you can optimize the strength and flexibility of each limb.

How do I strengthen my core?

As a physio, I have treated many patients whose main reason for injury was poor strength and lack of flexibility in their torso. The Pilates method of training targets the deep postural muscles of the abdomen and spine to improve overall central core stability and posture. This system of exercise strengthens the entire body from the deepest layers of muscle to the most superficial and also corrects imbalances or weaknesses.

It was devised by Joseph Pilates in the 1920’s. He believed that our modern life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health and ultimately devised a series of exercises that could be performed on the floor (mat pilates) or equipment based pilates.

Even if there are minimal or no weaknesses present, it gives the body a solid foundation from which to work.

For example, when I first started participating in pilates classes, I thought as a runner, my body and abs were quite strong. I quickly discovered muscles that had been untouched by traditional exercise. Obviously, pilates was able to address any strength or endurance issues in those muscle groups. After a 6 week break from running (for injury rehab) which included pilates classes only twice a week, I went back to running my usual route and couldn’t believe the faster times I was achieving in my long runs.

I soon discovered, as my core became stronger, it supported my upper body weight with ease. This freed up my legs to focus on running and propel me forward instead of supporting upper body weight AND running. In other words, this type of strength translates to any sport one plays as the body is literally able to support it’s own spinal and upper body weight more efficiently than if the core was unconditioned. I sometimes liken it to having strong arms and legs attached to an eggshell foundation or attached to a brick foundation. This is the difference core conditioning exercises can make to your overall strength.

Exercises I can do?

Many Pilates exercises are great muscle-toners that work large muscle groups beyond just the abs and lower back. The Plank position effectively works almost every muscle in the body in one move! Leg kicks work the glute and hamstring muscles very well.  Squats and lunges are the best lower-body exercises around, working the quadriceps, the hamstrings, and the glutes whilst engaging the core musculature for stability. Some great core strengthening exercises can be found at these sites:

It is important to perform all movements with maximum control to ensure it is you that is managing your body and limbs and not use gravity or momentum.

As always, please consult your doctor before embarking on any new fitness program, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition or have not exercised in a long time.

Running keeps you young

Regular running slows the effects of ageing according to a new study…

We have known for a while now that exercise has been shown to improve many health outcomes and the well being of people of all ages. I know that I am fitter this year than I was last year and every year seems to follow this same pattern. I started slowly, walking of course with a few metres of running. This slowly increased from metres to minutes, then the minutes led to solid jogging then running. After a while, someone suggested a fun run and I looked at them bewildered. How could they put those two words in the same sentence? Needless to say, I tried one and never looked back….

But don’t take my word for it, see what the experts have to say on the matter:

According to a study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine,  running and other vigorous exercise in middle age is associated with longer life. There was also a stronger correlation between continued mobility and running well into the runners nineties compared to the non runners. Runners were younger, leaner and less likely to smoke.

When Professor James Fries and his team began this research in 1984, many scientists thought vigorous exercise would do more harm than good for people in their age group.

Professor Fries team began tracking 538 runners over age 50, comparing them to a similar group of non runners. The subjects, now in their 70s and 80s, have answered yearly questionnaires about their ability to perform everyday activities such as walking, dressing and grooming, getting out of a chair and gripping objects. Nineteen years into the study, 34 percent of the non runners had died, compared to only 15 percent of the runners.

The effect of running on delaying death has also been more dramatic than the scientists expected. Not surprisingly, running has slowed cardiovascular deaths but has also been associated with fewer early deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes.

“The study has a very pro-exercise message,” said James Fries, MD, an emeritus professor of medicine at the medical school and the study’s senior author. “If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise.”

So, the message is loud and clear: To ward of lack of mobility and live a long and healthy life, put those sneakers on and head outside. The power is in your hands!

Cramps and stitches

Cramps and stitches, who needs them? Here’s the lowdown…

What is a cramp?

Cramp is a sudden, tight and intense pain that most commonly occurs in the leg muscles especially the gastrocnemius (calf), hamstrings (back of thigh) and quadriceps (front of thigh). It can range from a slight twinge to an excruciating pain, and may last for a few seconds or several minutes.  A cramp can be a one-off occurrence or repeat several times before the muscle relaxes and the pain goes away.

The cause:

  • Cramp is caused when a muscle involuntary and forcibly contracts and does not relax. Cramp is more likely to occur in tired muscles therefore poor fitness or exercising at high workloads can increase the likelihood.  Inadequate stretching may also contribute.
  • Dehydration may contribute to cramp especially when fluid and sodium losses are high.  Sodium is involved in initiating nerve signals that make muscles contract.  A deficit of sodium and fluid may “irritate” muscles causing them to contract uncontrollably.
  • Cramp has been attributed to the depletion of potassium and minerals such as calcium and magnesium. It has been suggested that magnesium is relocated in the body during exercise rather than lost in sweat.  Therefore, a magnesium imbalance in relation to other electrolytes such as sodium and potassium may be involved.
  • The use of creatine has been linked to cramps, based on anecdotal reports from athletes and the hypothesis that a creatine-loaded muscle cell may become so “full” with the storage of creatine and fluid, that the integrity of the membrane is disrupted. This theory is currently being tested in research studies.

Treatment of cramps:

  • Allow adequate recovery and rest after hard training sessions.
  • Increase strength and fitness. Stronger muscles are more resilient to fatigue and cramps.Remember, fatigued muscles take longer to adapt to increased workload so progress slowly.
  • Wear comfortable, unrestrictive clothing and footwear.
  • Stay well hydrated during exercise by drinking appropriate amounts of fluid.
  • Stretching helps to decrease the muscle contraction and allow the muscle to relax.
  • Massaging the area may help to alleviate pain.
  • When cramps are severe, applying ice can stop the spasm and help to relieve pain.

Does cramp indicate a more serious problem?

In most cases, cramps are a temporary event and do not lead to serious problems. You should always see your doctor if cramps are severe, occur regularly, fail to improve with simple treatment or are not related to obvious causes such as strenuous exercise.

What is a stitch?

Stitch is a localised pain usually felt on the side, just below the ribs.  It is sometimes accompanied by a stabbing pain in the shoulder joint.  The pain can range from sharp or stabbing to mild cramping, aching or pulling.  Sometimes people can exercise through the pain however, usually the sufferer is forced to slow down or stop exercising.  The pain usually eases within a few minutes after ceasing exercise although some people do experience soreness for a few days. A stitch seems to be more prevalent in activities that involve vigorous upright, repetitive movement of the torso.  Activities such as running and horse riding may be more prone to stitch but it can occur in any type of activity.

The cause:

Scientists are unsure of the exact cause of stitch.  For some time, stitch was thought to be caused by a reduction in blood supply to the diaphragm in favour of supplying the large muscle groups. This theory has since lost popularity as both the diaphragm and the limb muscles need to work harder during exercise so it is unlikely that an inadequate blood flow is directed to the diaphragm.

A more recent idea is that stitch is caused by irritation of the parietal peritoneum. Two layers of membrane, the peritoneum, line the inside wall of the abdominal cavity. One layer covers the abdominal organs. The other layer, the parietal peritoneum attaches to the abdominal wall. The two layers are separated by lubricating fluid which allows the two surfaces to move against each other without irritation. The parietal peritoneum is attached to a number of nerves. It is thought that the stitch occurs when there is friction between the abdominal contents and the parietal peritoneum. This friction may be caused by a distended (full) stomach or a reduction in the lubricating fluid.

Eating and drinking inappropriately prior to exercise may exacerbate stitch by causing a full stomach or dehydration. Poor fitness, an inadequate warm up and exercising at high intensity may also be factors. A sudden change in biomechanics such as increased stride length or frequency may increase the risk of stitch by affecting the way that the torso moves.

How can I avoid stitch?

•     Eating too closely to exercise or consuming inappropriate foods and fluids seems to exacerbate the stitch.

•     Concentrated fluids such as soft drink and cordial empty slowly from the stomach therefore are likely to lead to a fuller stomach.  Water and sports drink empty more quickly and are a better option.  It is also preferable to adopt a pattern of consuming small amounts of fluid at frequent intervals during exercise rather then trying to drink large volumes all at once.

•     Stitch may also be minimised by following a training schedule that progressively increases in intensity and duration. Sudden increases in intensity are more likely to cause stitch.  It is much better to start at an easy level and slowly build up.

How should stitch be treated?

Sometimes the stitch eases if you slow down and drop your intensity for a period.  However, the most common way to alleviate stitch is to bend forward while pushing on the affected area and breathing deeply.

Another option is to lie down and elevate your hips.

Does stitch indicate a more serious problem?

The stitch is rarely a sign of more serious problems.  However, any pain that is persistent and does not ease when exercise ceases should be investigated by a doctor.

The more you know, the more you grow.

Source:Australian Sports Commission