Fitness & Well Being

 

lower back painPhoto: ugurhan/iStockphoto

Millions suffer from lower back pain. Learn why so many people have back problems and what exercises can be done to help alleviate the pain and strengthen your back.

 
According to the American Chiropractic Association, 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time. If you have chronic back pain, here’s how to strengthen your lower back.
 
Before getting into exercises that strengthen the lower back, it’s important to understand why so many people experience back pain.
 
Most cases of chronic back pain are due to muscle imbalances. As a result, in the last decade or so, “core” has been the buzzword in the fitness industry. Strengthening your lower back and eliminating muscle imbalances has everything to do with strengthening your core.
 
Think of your core as a corset hugging your vital organs and spine. Some people think that the core is your stomach. Wrong. Your stomach is a relatively small organ that helps break down food. Others think that the core is the abdominal muscles but the ‘abs’ are only a small component of the core.
 
Perform some crunches and you’re only strengthening a part of the core.
 
Here are all the muscles of the core you’ll need to strengthen to help you avoid back pain:
 
  • Rectus Abdominus (commonly referred to as the ‘abs’)
  • Obliques (known by some as the ‘side abs’)
  • Transverse Abdominis (deepest layer of the abdominals)
  • Spinal Erectors (muscles that keep the spine upright)
  • Glutes (the bottom of the core, the largest muscles of the body)
 
Together, all the muscles above form a three dimensional group of muscles that resembles a shipping box. Your rectus abdominus, which runs from the bottom of your breast bone all the way to your pelvis is the front of the box.
 
The obliques are the sides of the shipping box. The spinal erectors form the back of the box and the glutes are the bottom of the box.
 
The transverse abdominis, the deepest of four layers of abdominal cavity musculature can be thought of as the contents of the box.
 
These muscles, collectively, run up and down, across, and diagonally. Using the shipping box analogy, if one of the dimensions of the box, say, gets soaked with water, the integrity of the box will be compromised. The same thing occurs with your muscles. If one or more group of core muscles is weaker than the others, especially the deep transverse abdominis muscles, the lower back will feel it.
 
Exercise ballHere then are some basic exercises to strengthen your lower back:
 
 
Perhaps the most important exercise to begin with and practice daily is the plank. Millions of trainers and physical therapists attest to the planks ability to activate and strengthen the deep abdominal cavity muscles. Depending on what exercise physiologist you ask, there are three or four layers of muscles in the abdominal wall.
 
If you’re doing a plank correctly, your deep intrinsic muscles will be shaking. This shaking is indicative of your muscles being activated and the brain-skeletomuscular communication being in sync.
 
Most people that do crunches perform dozens of repetitions. This is a waste of time and though you might be strengthening the abdominals, what’s really getting the workout are the hip flexors. Not a bad thing necessarily, but if your goal is to strengthen the front of the core, keep in mind that the abdominals don’t need endless repetitions to get strong.
 
To perform a crunch correctly, get in a sit up position, but try to hold your head off the ground and feel your shoulder blades barely making contact with the floor. Look up at the ceiling or sky and peel your shoulder blades just one to two inches off the ground and hold for a three count as you breath out.
 
You should be shaking. Return very slowly back to the starting position. Inhale and immediately come back up. Remember that only a micro movement is necessary to properly stimulate the abs.
 
Try to perform 10-12 reps. To strengthen the obliques (the sides of the core), simply twist to one direction at the top of the movement. Return to starting position and then repeat to the other side. Remember to hold at the top for a couple of seconds.
 
Performing 3-5 of these exercises on a daily basis for as little as 10 minutes may help strengthen the core and help you mitigate back pain.
 
Photo: adria.richards/Flickr
 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a health coach and freelance writer in Encinitas, California.

 

Stressed-out man

Whether it's emotional, mental, physical, environmental or social stressors, the following tips will help you deal with — and eventually overcome — whatever roadblocks life has put in your way.

 
Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images
Has your life become like a country song lately? Lost your job? Spouse walked out on you? Truck broke down? Dog ran away? Fret not, partner; it’s not the end of the world. Here’s how to relieve stress.
 
Whether it’s emotional, mental, physical, environmental or social stressors, the following tips will help you deal with — and eventually overcome — whatever roadblocks life has overwhelmed you with.
 
To combat stress, you’ll want to:
  • Eat more
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Rest and re-evaluate
  • Balance hormonal levels
 
I’m already overweight — and stressed out. You’re telling me to eat more?
Yes. Many people who lead stressful lives tend to skip meals and binge. Skipping meals results in the body undergoing more stress. Skipping breakfast or going several hours (more than five) between meals results in your metabolism screeching to a halt and blood sugar levels dropping to less-than-ideal levels.
 
To relieve stress, you’ll want to fuel your body regularly. Make sure to eat at least three meals a day and have a snack in between meals, if necessary to regulate blood sugar levels. As much as possible, avoid high-starchy foods like pasta, pastries, breads and any foods loaded with white flour. Flooding the body with foods like these will spike blood sugar levels and won’t help you relieve stress.
 
Stress zaps the body of energy. Resupply yourself with balanced meals and snacks that always include protein, natural fats and low-starch carbohydrates. Indulge in a little piece of milk or dark chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth.
 
MeditatingI’m going through a divorce. How is contemplating my navel going to help pay alimony?
Meditation won’t miraculously erase your stress overnight. But over time, setting aside as little as 10 minutes in the morning and evening for meditation can help you relieve stress. There are many forms of meditation.
 
To combat stress, one of the best forms is to focus on one thing: your breathing. Throughout our hectic day, we forget to take deep breaths. We hold on to our breath and bottle up the stress inside.
 
Our chest and upper back muscles get tight. Sitting still (can be in a chair; doesn’t have to be like Buddha cross-legged) and focusing on inhaling and exhaling deeply, each lasting about a 3-Mississippi count, can have a profound relaxing effect.
 
Try to not think about the stressors in your life, but it’s OK if you do. Think of bad thoughts as dark storm clouds quickly moving through the sky (your brain). Let stressful and negative thoughts come in one ear and quickly out the other.
 
Focusing on the flame of a lighted candle, while concentrating on breathing, also helps put stressful situations in perspective. Seldom are our problems as serious as we think they are — in the grand scheme of the universe.
 
I already do triathlons, but I’m still stressed out. How can exercise help me?
Most people know that exercising regularly can help deal with stress. If you have a stressful job, say slaving away on Wall Street for the big bucks, maybe you’re already hitting the gym to get the stress out of you. But working out too intensely can actually make you more stressed out. How? High-intensity workouts can flood the body with cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone.
 
The more cortisol coursing its way through your system, the more your adrenals will become fatigued. Your adrenal glands, which rest on top of your kidneys, release the hormones that help you battle stress. Too much cortisol will leave your body struggling to battle stress. High-intensity workouts may add to sluggish adrenals.
 
If you have lots of stress in your life, pick an activity that will help balance your already hyper mind. Yoga or Pilates are just two examples of exercise modalities that may help relieve stress.
 
Are you really held captive eternally to your stressful life?
If you’re determined not to have a stressful life, make changes that remove yourself from stress. Do you have a friend who stresses you out and unloads all her drama on your lap? Distance yourself from that friend, no matter how long a history you have with her. Wall Street slave: do you really need to make as much money as you’re earning, at the expense of all that stress? Quit and find a less stressful job.
 
Unemployed and can’t find work in your field? Scour the Web for outside-the-box opportunities. Become a caretaker for an estate in another country. Pack up your family and move to a less stressful environment. The confining and debilitating walls of stress will only box you in if you let them.
 
Decades of stress can wreak havoc on your health. Balance hormones to counteract it.
All that cortisol flooding your system over the years can throw your hormones out of whack, compromising every system of your body. Seek a medical professional like a naturopathic doctor to help you reestablish correct and balance hormonal pathways.
 
Photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr; anna gutermuth/Flickr
 
Judd Handler is a certified functional diagnostic nutrition coach and health writer in Encinitas, Calif.

 

Salmon

Our expert gives the low-down on which fats are essential and which should be avoided.

 
Cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, are the best sources of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids. (Photo: iStockphoto)
As a weight-loss coach, I’m astounded by the number of people I consult who still think eating fat is bad for their health. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Healthy fats are crucial for a variety of reasons, including:
  • Maintaining steady energy
  • Vitamin absorption
  • Promoting healthy-looking skin
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Staving off heart disease
  • Minimizing risk of developing cancer and Alzheimer’s
Certain healthy fats, like flaxseed oil, even help metabolize dietary fat.
 
I always thought that fats should be called by their more scientific name, "lipids." Perhaps then, a fat-phobic, yo-yo dieter wouldn’t be afraid of consuming 5 grams of lipids in one sitting.
 
Stroll through any supermarket and you’ll notice a preponderance of low-fat and non-fat items. Is it a coincidence that the national obesity rate has skyrocketed as a consequence? I think not. People who avoid healthy fats tend to consume more carbohydrates, which metabolize into sugar, and ultimately get stored as body fat.
 
Dietary fat is, per gram, denser than its protein and carbohydrate counterparts. There are nine calories in one gram of dietary fat versus four calories per gram for both carbs and protein.
 
The good news about there being more calories in a gram of fat is that it will help you feel fuller longer. Just as there are healthy and non-healthy carbohydrates (good: vegetables; bad: baked goods), there are healthy and non-healthy fats.
 
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
Perhaps the most touted of the healthy fats are Omega 3 fatty acids. Many products, from eggs to cereals to mayonnaise, market their products as healthy because they contain Omega 3, but fortified Omega 3 products don’t contain the most potent and beneficial compounds. The best sources are cold-water oily fish, such as:
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • mackerel
  • albacore tuna (pregnant women and children should minimize because of mercury contamination risk)
  • herring
Why are these fats essential?
EFAs are necessary for peak health because our bodies don’t produce them on our own; we need to acquire it from dietary sources. There are three forms of Omega 3 acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. The cold water fish listed above contain EPA and DHA, which have been proven scientifically to:
  • reduce blood pressure and fat in the blood
  • lower triglyceride levels (a more important marker for heart disease than cholesterol)
  • reduce risk of sudden cardiac death
  • inhibit development of coronary heart disease
The American Heart Association recommends those with heart disease to consume at least one gram of Omega 3 EFAs per day. (Preferably in the form of cold water fish or a high-quality EPA/DHA supplement.)
 
Healthy fats for vegetarians?
Opt for vegetable sources of Omega 3s (the ALA form). These include:
  • flaxseed oil
  • soybean oil
  • canola oil
  • walnuts
  • broccoli
  • beans
Some researchers argue that ALA is not as beneficial as EPA and DHA, so vegetarians are advised to take Omega 3 EFA supplements.
 
Saturated fat: avoid like the plague?
Mainstream dietary professionals continue to vilify saturated fat as a major contributor to heart disease.
 
Some researchers, however, contend that a modest amount of natural sources of saturated fat like butter and dairy and other animal sources offer numerous nutritional benefits. Some even go a step further suggesting that a major culprit for heart disease is not saturated fat, but polyunsaturated vegetable oils turning rancid during the cooking process as well as hydrogenated oils used in processed foods, which are also commonly known as trans fats—the worst type of dietary fat to consume.
 
A dab of coconut oil or butter are examples of healthy saturated fats, especially for cooking. Saturated fats when exposed to heat do not chemically change easily like vegetable oils. Olive oil, a monounsaturated vegetable oil and a very healthy fat, is the exception to this rule.
 
Conclusion
Consume at least a little amount of healthy fats at every meal, if you want to enjoy steady energy throughout the day and get optimum nutrition benefits. Opt for Omega 3 cold-water fish sources two-four times per week. Include monounsaturated sources like olive oil, avocados and most nuts. Avoid cooking with polyunsaturated fats like soybean and safflower and corn oil. Saturated fat is ok in moderation as long as it’s from a natural source and hasn’t been overcooked.
 
Judd Handler eats avocado, nuts, butter, cheese and other dairy, and cold-water fish and maintains a bodyfat level of 10 percent. He can be reached atThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Woman practicing yoga in the evening.

Find out more about how yoga can help you unwind at the end of the day and sleep better through the night.

 
Yoga in the evening can be a wonderful activity to help calm your mind and body. (Andrew Kalat/Flickr)
Are you a busy beaver suffering from insomnia? Here, we offer a few yoga poses to help you sleep and explain why yoga is such a wonderful activity to help calm your mind and body.
 
Yoga, or any exercise routine for that matter, doesn’t have to be a two-hour ordeal. In fact, just 10 minutes can be extremely beneficial for a variety of factors, including helping you sleep better.
 
With its 5,000 year-old tradition of emphasizing focusing on the breath and clearing the mind of negative thoughts, yoga is one of the best ways to help you “cool the engines” so to speak before slipping into bed.
 
Adding a yoga routine most days of the week will also, among other things:
  • Help detoxify the organs
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve circulation
  • Increase flexibility and strength
  • Boost immunity
 
Choose the right kind of yoga for your type
There are many types of yoga styles to choose from, if you elect to attend classes or perform along with a DVD.
 
For those who have trouble sleeping and have hyper dispositions, it’s best to avoid a rigorous style of yoga like Ashtanga later in the day, although Type-A personalities who require a challenge and are in good physical shape might do well with Ashtanga earlier in the day.
 
To achieve better balance and calm the mind, however, it would be best to incorporate a mellower form of yoga. Many local gyms and YMCAs offer gentle yoga classes, perfect for those with little or no previous yoga experience.
 
Don’t worry if you have no flexibility. You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to reap the benefits of yoga, including making your body more relaxed and sleeping better.
 
If you are interested in taking a yoga class, try to talk to the instructor and tell them that you have trouble sleeping at night and ask them if the style that they teach will help you relax at night.
 
Keep in mind that our body’s main stress hormone — cortisol — tends to naturally slow down production after 6 p.m. In other words, try to avoid physically-stressful activity in the evening.
 
3 yoga poses to help you sleep if you don’t take a class
Any pose that has your head below your heart will increase blood flow to the brain and help you achieve a more relaxed state of being.
 
forward bend is perhaps one of the easiest poses to perform. You don’t have to touch your toes or be anywhere close to touching your feet for this pose to be effective. Simply inhale, bring your arms overhead, reaching for the sky and then exhale, rocking back on your heels slightly and let your arms relax and travel down the front of your legs until you feel a safe stretch in your lower back and hamstrings. Knees can be bent. Let your head and neck become totally relaxed. Inhale for 2-3 seconds. Exhale for 2-3 seconds. Repeat 5 cycles of breath. Try to increase the stretch by a half-inch on every exhale. Come back up slowly uncurling your spine one vertebra at a time until standing. Repeat forward bend twice more.
 
Downward dog, one of yoga’s most popular poses, also helps with calming the mind. For this pose, start on your hands and knees with hands directly under shoulders, your back flat and knees under your hips. If possible, lift your knees off the ground and lift your hips up and get your body into an upside-down “V” position. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees. Remember to cycle your breath 3-5 times. Repeat the pose 3 times.
 
And finally, a simple relaxing yoga stretch is commonly known as child’s pose. Place your knees wide (not too wide as you’ll feel this stretch in the groin) and sit back on your heels. Stretch your arms in front of you and slightly out to the sides. Inhale and reach your arms out further. You’ll feel the stretch also in your lower back. Cycle the breath 3-5 times. Repeat the stretch 3 times.
 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a health and lifestyle coach and freelance writer in Encinitas, CA. He has been an avid yoga practitioner for 12 years and sleeps much better because of it.

 

Standing on a scale.

It's not an easy question to answer. Our health expert explains why you could be fooled by the widely used Body Mass Index calculators.

 
Photo: keith011764/Flickr
One of the most common health questions asked is, “How do I find my ideal weight?” While it may seem at first glance to be a simple task, discovering your ideal weight is actually a complex science.
 
If you do an online search for “Find my ideal body weight” you’re likely to come across dozens of free Body Mass Index (BMI) calculators that are simple to use. Type in your height, weight and gender, and voila, your BMI is calculated.
 
Private health insurance companies reference BMI charts to, in part, determine health insurance coverage and premiums, based on if an individual falls within a healthy weight range. Since its widespread use in the 1970s, the BMI has been one of the most popular determinants of whether a person is underweight, average, overweight or obese.
 
Problems with BMI
But the BMI, just like your bathroom scale, fails to take into consideration important factors such as:
  • Body fat percentage
  • Lean body mass percentage
  • Water weight
  • Body composition (thin-boned, average, or stocky and muscular build)
  • Fitness level
According to the BMI, many professional athletes (take NFL or NBA players for example) would be considered overweight. Even a non-professional, physically-fit male who stands 6 feet tall and weighs a muscular 180 pounds would actually be considered slightly overweight by BMI standards.
 
Instead of relying on BMI or any other methods that don’t take the above parameters into account (for instance, the Met Life Table), if you want to figure out what your ideal weight should be, first don’t be so focused on a set number on the scale.
 
If the BMI isn’t perfect, what’s a better way to determine my ideal weight?
How do you currently look and feel? Do you feel bloated? Does it look like you’re belly or buttocks has gotten flabbier? If so, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be losing weight or even finding your ideal weight. Instead, be determined to shed body fat and gain more lean muscle mass.
 
If your goal is to drop 10 pounds so you can fit into a wedding dress, keep in mind that going on a diet and skipping meals may lead to a lower number on the scale but it’s really not worth subjecting yourself to low energy and mercurial moods that come with a typical starvation diet.
 
Are you a goal-oriented person who needs to set a numeric target, say 10 pounds? Modify your goal statement. Try this one: “I will lose 10 pounds of body fat in 12 weeks.”
 
This will only be accomplished by daily moderate-intensity exercise and altering your diet. Avoid sugary foods and simple carbohydrates that easily convert into sugars, which when not burned off, ultimately get stored as body fat.
 
Try to eat the fewest calories possible and consume nutrient-dense foods that will give you the longest lasting energy. For example, ditch the orange juice and instead eat an orange. The natural fiber and longer-burning fruit sugar of the orange will help you reach your ideal weight better than chugging orange juice will.
 
Keep in mind, however, that even though a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat, muscle, per square inch, does in fact weigh more than fat. So if you don’t notice the pounds coming off right away, don’t be discouraged.
 
The scale in your bathroom can be your best friend or your worst enemy. But even when you think it’s your best friend, it’s a false one at that. It’s not telling you the whole picture. Pay attention to how your clothes fit, how your body looks and what you’re feeling.
 
It’s not a bad idea to strive for a more ideal weight, but you might want to instead set a goal of simply feeling better, looking better and not being so focused on what you weigh.
 
Judd Handler is the above-mentioned 6’0”, 180-pound slightly overweight (by BMI standards) athlete. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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