Tag Archives: Breathing

Is running in Los Angeles bad for your health?

In Downtown Los Angeles there’s a film – not of celluloid, but of soot – covering everything, from shop displays in the fashion district to the tables at high-end cafes.  Blowing your nose at the end of each day proves you breathe it in as well. And when I saw so many people jogging and biking through the streets here  – in this fitness obsessed city – I seriously began to wonder “This just can’t be good for you… right?”

Why exercise outdoors in a city known for smog? It seems counterintuitive. I decided to do a little research and find out if it is really harmful, or just a bunch of hot air.

The American Lung Association releases a “State of the Air” report every year.  In 2011, Los Angeles was #1 in ozone pollution in the country, and #2 in year-round toxic particle (soot) pollution. According to The ALA and a 2008 study by the National Research Council, air pollution aggravates asthma, heart and lung disease and diabetes, and can have a severe effect on children, stunting lung growth. Diesel emissions have been linked to cancer. According to the state Air Resources Board, 9,200 Californians die prematurely each year because of dirty air. Research has also connected a higher risk for these diseases directly to exposure from exhausts of heavy traffic and busy highways.

Now imagine running in that air! You increase your intake of oxygen while running, and subsequently the amount of pollutants. The Beijing Olympics weren’t so long ago as to recall the struggle many Olympian faced when training and competing in China’s own pollution problem.. US Olympic Mountain Biker Adam Craig, went into bronchial spasms because of the air. It’s like suffocating. Craig was unable to fully breathe in the air his body needed. 30 minutes into the competition, he had to quit.  And he wasn’t alone. Many athletes experienced similar problems performing at their peak in the pollution.

While Los Angeles might not be as bad as Beijing, and smog and soot levels have dropped in Southern California over the last decade,  the region still has the highest levels of ozone nationwide, violating federal health standards an average of 137 days a year.  Apparently, it’s getting better, but unfortunately not quick enough to make an impact on our health…sorry Angelenos.

So what can we do? Give up our cars, build reliable, and convenient public transit, plants more trees, and offer more pedestrian and bike friendly means of getting around town…like, tomorrow. And if none of that is happening in the immediate future? Then be smart about activity. Check the air quality before rigorous outdoor activity. My Environment on the EPA’s website provides hourly air quality forecasts. Airnow.gov is another  site providing air quality maps. If you must workout outside, do it when traffic is light. Early morning hours are ideal.

So it seems the answer is yeah…running in Los Angeles is bad for you. But, what’s worse – not exercising at all, or doing it in a polluted city?  Both can cause shorter life expectancy and an array of diseases. Until there’s more research, I’d venture to assume it’s better to exercise than just sit on the couch…though you won’t catch me running through the streets of LA, for fitness purposes anyway, anytime soon.

Stretching and Flexibility. Things to consider before you begin.

Sitting all day – day after day – our bodies become stiff and sore quickly. Suddenly, we feel old beyond our years. It’s no wonder stretching and flexibility practices like yoga and Pilates are so popular, by opening up our bodies and releasing tension we move better and breathe easier.

But is too much of a good thing no good at all? Stretching and flexibility benefits are hotly debated in the physio world. Some say do it, others say don’t and with scientific backing in both camps, it’s hard to know which way to go.

According to some studies, including this one from The Stanford School of Medicine,  dynamic stretching regimens seem the most effective way to stretch – if you feel you need to. Dynamic stretching involves movements while lengthening muscles and connective tissues and could be more effective than static stretching at reducing injuries and soreness. Static stretching is what is most commonly thought of as stretching – holding a position for 30+ seconds.

But if you are looking to do the splits, backbends, or become an extreme yogi, watch out. Dr. Shirley Sahrmann, a professor of physical therapy at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis once said in an NYTimes article, ”In my business, I have more problems with people who have excessive mobility than limited mobility.”

Being overly flexible without the strength to hold up the body structure is a huge problem. If you are already a highly flexible person, perhaps it’s time to add a little strength training.  If you are overly tight, a little dynamic stretching couldn’t hurt. Ultimately, a balance of the two is better than one extreme or the other.

Here are a few recommendations for stretching and building flexibility safely:

1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY Don’t compare yourself to Joe-schmoe in the front of class and copy what he is doing. He could be doing it wrong. If something feels painful, awkward or just not right, ask the teacher, modify or stop. Know what you need.

2. KNOW YOUR INSTRUCTOR Make sure your yoga/pilates/tai chi/circus/etc instructor is familiar with the concept or idea of dynamic stretching. They should also know your weaknesses, injuries and at least, how to keep you safe. Beware the new class that has you immediately trying extreme flexibility tricks that aren’t supported with complimentary strength.

2. WARM UP Do light cardio – jumping jacks, jump rope, jog, whatever, for at least 5 – 10 minutes before doing any kind of muscle stretching.

3. FIND THE WORKING MUSCLES Pay equal attention to the supporting muscles that are contracted and fighting to keep you in the stretch.

4. BREATHE It releases tension and muscles strain. Stretching should not equal pain.

Your 5 minute workout at work starts NOW

Let’s get straight to the point:

You sit too much. You are supposed to get up regularly. You are supposed to move around. You’ve just stumbled upon your chance. It takes 5 minutes. Considering how much time gets sucked into computer zombieland, it’s a small amount to ask. Here we go…

#1. Knee lifts while sitting

Knee lifts and holds, while sitting up straight

Sit up as tall as you can, arms by your sides. Scoop the abdominals in towards the spine to help you gain supported lift. Lift the right knee, pushing the left foot firmly into the floor. Balance and hold 10 seconds and switch. Do 3 sets. Pay particular attention to your hips and pelvis. No shifting your weight from one hip to the other. Keep them evenly weighted. If the right knee is up make sure the right hip is firmly planted and vice versa. No slumping or rounding the back. Sit up tall! Trying this on a balance ball later gives you more feedback.

DON'T DO THIS! No slumping or rounding of the upper or lower back.

#2. Chair dips

Chair dips, option 1. Bend and straighten the arms, keeping shoulders broad and away from your ears. Draw belly into spine.

2 options: hands on your chair handles (easier) or hand on the seat (harder). 10 dips, bending the elbows as far as you can and then straighten the arms. Your body weight is supported by your legs and feet as you move. Keep the spine straight, belly scooped and neck stretching long. Most important, keep the shoulders down away from your ears. This provides more arm work and a chest stretch.

Chair dips, option 2. This one is more challenging. Squeeze legs together, belly in, and shoulders broad.

#3. Balance on one foot

Stand up. If you have heels on, slip them off. (What’s one minute? Your feet will thank you). Standing on one foot with abdominals scooped and posture lifted, hold for 30 seconds. Switch.

Balance on one foot while standing as tall as you can. Opposite knee is high off the ground. Try for 30 seconds to one minute.

#4. Knee bend/Arm swings

Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body, exhale.

Straighten back up, stretching the body back up towards the sky. Swing the arms out and up. Deep inhale.

This one is akin to Radio Taiso, the Japanese morning workout. It should be invigorating and full of movement. Separate the feet shoulder width apart. Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body. Straighten the legs, lifting up through the spine and swing the arms up and out to the sides in a big stretch. This exercises needs a swinging rhythm and momentum. Take deep breaths as you move. 10 times.

#5. Elbow circles

Elbow circles

Sit back down. Gently touch fingertips to shoulders. Reach outward to opposite walls through your elbows. Draw large smooth circles in space with the elbows. Take Deep Breaths. Keep you head floating up towards the ceiling. Keep your head lifted and smile.

A clearer visual of elbow circles

That’s it!  5 minutes (maybe less). Now back to work. …Or, maybe it’s time for lunch.

What it means to scoop the abdominals

Wrong kind of scoop

You are in a Pilates class and the instructor says. “scoop your belly!”, do you:

A. Think, “What the heck does that mean?! I can’t scoop anything.

B. Suck in your gut, and hold your breath.

C. Give up on this weird Pilates stuff and take kickboxing next week instead.

This “scoop” is not only an essential part of traditional Pilates, but a fundamental muscular awareness for all types of sports and activities, including sitting at your desk.

To scoop the abdominals one must engage their transverse abdominal muscle, often referred to by movement therapists as the TVA. This is the deepest abdominal muscle. When engaged the TVA muscle contracts like a corset around the waist. It supports the pelvis and spine creating the “pulled-in” look.

The Transverse is like a corset, pulling the waist in

Too often I meet people who exercise, but still complain of belly bulge and back pain. While chasing the perfect “6-pack”, we focus on building the top abdominal layer – the rectus abdominal muscle. Although feeling the burn of this outer layer of muscle, if you are unable to engage deeper muscle support the back moves unsupported, and the belly pushes out…and you are actually a few steps further from a 6-pack, than when you started.

A 6-pack cannot exist on one muscle alone, it takes the whole body. The TVA  is just one of many muscles that makes up the core, however it is the muscle that creates the scoop.

Here are a few suggestions to help you master your scoop:

Belly in/Belly Out Quadruped

Step 1. Allow belly and organs to drape towards the floor. Keep the spine straight and still. No arching

Step 2. Draw the belly and organs in and up towards the spine. Again, don't move the spine. It remains planked.

On all fours (if it bothers your wrist, a forearm position is fine) Plank the spine. Do not allow the back to sag or round. Holding this table position, allow the belly muscles to relax towards the floor. AGAIN,  no spine movement, only the belly. Exhale and draw the belly muscles in and up towards the chest – like you are scooping your guts up and into the back of the ribcage. Hold this scoop for 3 breaths and then allow the belly to release down towards the floor again, maintaining a flat spine. Try this 5 – 10 times.

Leg extension Quadruped for Core

Add a leg extension for a more difficult core challenge

Once you feel the scoop,  try maintaining it while sliding one leg back and stretching it out. Hold this position for three breaths, while keeping the spine planked (no sagging back). Hold 5-10 seconds. Switch legs. Press into all the finger joints to help lift out of the wrists. Can also be done on fists or the forarms. Try doing 5 sets.

Deep belly sitting

Practice scooping while sitting at your desk

This one can be done sitting at home, at your desk, or at the opera. No one will know you are working out, but they might comment on your good posture.

Sit up tall, and imagine vacuuming in the abdominal wall. Hold while taking 3 gentle breaths. Release.

The vacuuming feeling is akin to a pair of tight pants as you pull up the last bit of the tight zipper. That is your TVA. Another image is if someone were to give you an upper cut to the belly button, punching in and hooking up…not a pleasant thought, but it works.

Scooping pulls in and up - like an upper cut to the belly. ewww

You never want to overwork just one muscle. It takes a coordinated effort from all muscles to keep the body balanced and strong. There is some debate over what the TVA does and how important it is to work. No matter, the awareness of the muscle is extremely valuable to a better understanding of yourself and how you move.

Practice!

Meditation. It’s not just for Sissies anymore.

(Watch out phone viewers…quite a few videos below)

Yeah that’s right. Meditation is being claimed by the resistance movement. Quiet strength and mind body centering is attacking the establishment…silently.

As the benefits of meditation become more widely known, its new age stigma is being shed for a reputation of focus, skill and all around quiet bad ass…ness.

Breathe deep, growl low.

Take the Dharma Punx movement.

Noah Levine, a former druggie and multiple-time convict, learned how to meditate in jail and carried it out to the disenchanted masses. Levine’s meditation movement is gaining momentum among the disillusioned seeking something more from life than drugs, sex, MSNBC, and garage bands.

Although the Dharma Punx are bringing Buddhist philosophy to the streets, it must be mentioned here:  The Wu Tang Clan was first.

While Wu Tang’s philosophical references began with martial arts films, their inspiration validly comes from yet another, older, bad ass group – the Shaolin Monks. There is nothing wimpy about this club. Meditation is their way of life, creating focus, discipline and a centeredness from which they move. I can safely say a 60 year old man able to meditate while balancing one finger…is hardcore.

While meditating on your head might not be in the cards, there is still much to learn from their way of life. For example, here in this video are the simplest elements needed to meditate.

Russell Simmons

Of course, meditation has its celebrity fans. Tiger, Russell Simmons, Sting. Hands down, my personal favorite is David Lynch. Here is a guy who goes fishing into the human psyche, catching all the dichotomies (good and evil, black and white, etc) and exploring them in wild nonlinear, multidimensional ways. Doing things like this:

…while meditating twice a day for the past 35 years. Lynch is one of the most prolific artists out there today. Disturbing, beautiful and compelling. Taking concepts and running with them in various directions. Lynch is a badazzzz.

In the end I defer to The Man, Clint Eastwood. Yup, Mr. Eastwood has been practicing meditation everyday since the 1970’s.

So I gotta ask, Do you feel lucky Punk? Well do ya?

If not, perhaps a little mediation would help….

(I know. Oh so cheesy cheese, but hard to resist.)

Here are a few links for more information:

2009 Scienceline Article

June 2010 – Diane Rehms Show on the power of meditation

The NIH overview on Meditation

Try This – Balloons of Strength

Blow up balloons.

You heard me. Get a cheapy pack of 100 and blow up about 20 to 30 in one sitting.

Blowing up balloons is a resistance based exercise for the diaphram, a key muscle not only for breathing, but for overall core strength. If the trunk muscles are weak, the diaphram suffers (and vice versa), as does your breathing…as does your neck and shoulder tension, as does your stress levels….see how all of this is an endless spiral?

Increase your lung capacity. Strengthen the diaphram. Build core strength. Release neck and shoulder tension. Let go of stress easier by breathing deeper.

Seems we have nowhere to go but up….go blow up some balloons.

Just want to get away from it all

MABA in Augusta, MO

MABA in Augusta, MO

But can’t afford a spa?

Everyday we are logged on, synched up, plugged in, downloading, uploaded, online, tuned in, check out…deep inhale. News and information buzzes all around, lists of to dos pile up and become endlessly long…kids to camp, meetings to make, repair person to call,  doctor appointments to schedule…and throw in a couple loads of laundry while we’re at it.

Our lifestyles can easily become ridiculous. It’s all we can do sometimes to find those 15 minutes a day to give ourselves, let alone an hour for working out or yoga or whatever.

And let’s face it, a week away on a deserted island is a pipe dream. Even a weekend away at a spa somewhere for a little r & r is laughable.

What’s a stress case to do?

Consider the monastic getaway.

Hold up. Let’s stop and address all concerned – From those with a strong religious background, to the agnostic, and even aetheist friends – on a few important points here.

“Retreating” could offer the following:  1. Simple room and board to people of all backgrounds and denominations or lack there of. 2. complete solitude 3.peace and relaxation. 4. praying and/or meditation are optional and not required. 5. Schedules are not given. Your time is your own. 6. Usually costs are based on what you can donate or afford.

A monastic retreat offers perspective and balance…old school style.

Spirituality may or may not be something you aspire to, but there are few adverse to a little peace of mind and quiet away from the everyday rat race. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to run away for some solitude and self care. You may even learn something from those whose lives are lived simply and with such love for humanity.

There are monasteries, abbeys, and retreat houses throughout the US and the world. Here are a few samples:

Conception Abbey, Conception, MO

Mid America Buddhist Association, Augusta, MO

The Monastery of Christ in the Dessert in Abiqiu, NM

Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Berkshire Hills of MA

Valermo Retreat, San Gabriel Mountains, Valyermo, CA

The Raj, Fairfield, IA ( This one is significantly more expensive, and yes it IS a spa, however it seemed important to showcase an ayurvedic option as well).

Christ in the Desert Monastery, Albiqu, NM

Christ in the Desert Monastery, Albiqu, NM