Sunday, December 6, 2015

Maintaining an Imperfect Body: the Mini-Workout

Every body has them­­ – the trouble-making areas where pain, weakness, or disease tend to crop up. Sometimes they’re hereditary, sometimes the result of the wear and tear of decades of life. One of the perks of getting older is that these areas become familiar companions, not exactly friendly but no longer intimidating.

Over the years I’ve identified six or seven muscle groups or parts of my own body that are likely to cause problems. This year I’ve started doing a mini-workout of seven exercises every morning to monitore, stretch, and strengthen those areas. I also do an eighth move which is an experiment; if it turns out not to work, I’ll quit doing it. The whole series takes about 15 minutes.

Neck. When my father was in his sixties he developed a pinched nerve in the back of his neck that was very painful. Advised by his doctor, he started using a traction device to relieve the pressure on the nerve. To strengthen the muscles in the back of my neck and maintain flexibility I do this:

- Lie down on a flat surface and raise my head 2-3”. Stay in this position and count. Over several months I’ve worked up to 100. I take a break by bending forward toward my feet. I grab my heels (but that’s not essential for a good stretch).
- I return to the first position but this time I turn my head to the right and to the left as far as I can, like shaking my head “no” slowly and deliberately. I go up to 30 reps on this one.
- When I was a child I used to sleep on my stomach all the time, which meant that my face was turned to one side. As an older adult, I started to lose flexibility in the ligaments at the base of my skull so I work on them. I lie on my stomach, turn my face to one side and count. With all neck exercises it’s important to do them gently and work up gradually.

Calf and Hamstring Muscles, especially on the right side. My legs have pretty good strength and flexibility but my range of motion is limited in some exercises. This is not because of arthritis – I don’t have much of that – but because I have tight, bulky calf muscles, especially on the right side and little sore spots in the calf and hamstring. A massage therapist told me I have scar tissue in those areas.

- The sore spots are in different places each day so I start by doing sleeping child pose to see where they are. (Sleeping child is the yoga pose where you kneel with your forehead on the floor and sit back on your heels.) When I find a spot, I rub and push into it with a circular motion to loosen the area. Usually there are three or four spots.
- I check my work by standing up, then sitting down into a squat and counting. Then I stand up without using my hands. Sometimes I have to stop in the middle and work on more sore spots.

Lower Back. In old age my aunt and uncle on my father’s side both had lower back problems. (My uncle had a disastrous back surgery that crippled him for life.) With that in mind, I do five superman reps. Lying on my stomach with arms stretched out in front of me I lift my upper body for a count of 25. For this one, it’s important not to tilt the head up but to look down at the floor.

Upper Back. As a young adult, my upper back muscles were so weak I couldn’t do a single push-up. P90X changed that. I do 50 of these, though I don’t go very deep on the last 10.
Sit-ups. Rounding out the core group, I do 50 sit-ups.

Balance. My right leg is a bit shorter than the left so my balance is not great. I stand in a doorway on one leg and count to 10. Then I close my eyes and count to 30. If I get shaky, I grab the door frame. Same on the other side.

Back Strength and Flexibility. Using a pull-up bar, I lift myself as high as I can. I can’t do a full pull-up yet but I’m making progress.  Holding onto the bar but with my feet on the floor, I stretch through the whole length of my back and count to 75. If I’m in a hotel room I skip the pull-up and use the top of a piece of furniture for the stretch.

Jumping. My last bone density test showed that I was losing bone mineral density faster than I would like. I read about a study that showed that a 10 or 20 jumps with 30 second breaks in between significantly improved BMD in the jumpers as compared with the non-jumping control group.

We’ll see if this routine works for me. As for the cause of the lower BMD, I’m guessing that the dosage of thyroid hormone I take for hypothyroidism has been too high for too long. My doctor has lowered the dosage. I had also cut back on my intake of calcium supplement after reading scary stories in the media. That was probably a mistake and I’ve gone back to what I was taking before. 

Update 12/31/2015:

An article in the Wall Street Journal a  couple of weeks ago persuaded me that I shouldn't be doing situps anymore. I now do variations on plank for one minute, followed by 25 rollouts using an ab wheel. 

My personal trainer explained to me that the central ab muscle, the rectus abdominis, is designed to be a stabilizer and is meant to be stretched out flat, not curled up. Doing appropriate exercises will improve its appearance as well as being safer.

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