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5 Tips to a Happy and Healthy New Year

Ah, the time of Christmas feasting has passed, to be followed inevitably by the season of denying the scales in your bathroom even exist because you really don’t want to know!  Our New Year’s Resolutions then consist of “I will never touch alcohol again” or “chocolate? Not for me!”.  And about two weeks later, you have a stressful day at work and the be-good resolution is out the window.

There is no point in setting yourself a target, knowing that in all likelihood you are going to fail.  It’s got to be achievable!  And it’s not all about what you weigh, it’s about how you feel.

So here are my top 5 tips that you should be looking to work with over this Christmas:

  1. Stay Active.  Not only will this help keep you in shape, but going for a walk each day will also help maintain a positive mental attitude, and reduce the effect of the cold on all those aches and pains that appear around now.
  2. Don’t Do New Year’s Resolutions.  It’s almost a standing joke now – New Year’s Resolutions fail.  It’s because your target is behind you, not in front of you.  Aim to do something by a certain time, not to do it because of a certain time, and you have a visible goal to work towards.
  3. Eat Sensibly.  Don’t give up all the nice things and restrict your intake to the point you can think of nothing but how hungry you are.  It’s a given that we are all going to over-indulge over Christmas, but by gradually phasing out some of the worst culprits such as anything with a high sugar content you won’t send your body into a carb-craving shock.
  4. Be Realistic. Going from doing no exercise at all to jumping around 6 days a week at the gym is never going to be sustainable – and you are very  likely to end up injuring yourself!  Start with doing one or two sessions of exercise in a week, and then gradually work up to doing 4 or 5.
  5. Exercise Smart.  It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.  A walk in the countryside can be just as good as half an hour in the gym if you put some effort into it, and half an hour in the gym can be extremely damaging if you don’t do it right.  Get advice from a professional if you aren’t sure what is going to be best for you.

And one final hint…If you are suffering from aches and pains that you are hoping will just go away, remember that the sooner you get them looked after, the sooner they will go – don’t leave it until it is too late!

Cold weather and pain

It is a commonly held belief that pain is worse in the cold and damp – from years gone by, people have talked about the damp getting into their joints, and how their old injuries can ache in cold weather.  But is this actually true, or just one of those old wives’ tales that are so often quoted as fact?

According to the research, it is indeed a recognised medical phenomenon that pain is made worse by the weather turning at around this time of year.  Injuries, both old and new, make themselves known and arthritic joints tend to seize up more than ever.  It is a miserable time of year for many people – it’s just as well Christmas appears in the middle of it to lighten the gloom!

The real question is – why? What is it about those frosty mornings or damp, drizzly afternoons  that causes pain to increase?  To me it seems incredible, but even with all the scientific knowledge and resources at our disposal, we actually still have no idea!  There have been ideas thrown about, from change in the barometric pressure affecting the body to the chill causing muscles to stiffen, but nothing has actually been agreed upon or proved to be the source.

Atmospheric pressure tends to drop just before bad weather sets in, so it is thought this reduction in pressure around a body can allow the tissue around the joints to expand and therefore increase the pressure on joints.  But the effect is so minute, it is hard to believe it actually has sufficient power to cause such a significant change in the levels of pain experienced.

Another possibility is that areas where injury or degeneration has occurred in a body often have over-active nerves, and therefore any slight change around these areas can be amplified by this hyper-sensitivity.  This means that things which would pass normal, healthy tissue by completely unnoticed are picked up on and relayed to the brain as a painful sensation.

Whatever the reason, winter is a time many of us dread for the damp, cold, dark days and the increase in pain that goes with it.  The best way to cope is obviously to stay warm, but also try to keep moving.  Not only will this help keep you warmer without the need of increasing the temperature on your thermostat at home, but the increase in blood circulation around the body helps to combat any swelling around joints, keeping you more flexible and mobile and in less pain.  Emigrating could work too…. although, personally, I find the idea of a warm Christmas season too odd for comfort!

So, not a myth in the sense we know it happens…but a mystery in that we don’t know why!

25 Days to Fitness

Almost exactly a week into December and the anticipation is starting to build for Christmas.  Kids everywhere (and of all ages!) are waking up each morning, all excited to open the next door on their chocolate Advent calendar.  Office parties are popping up for the adults, with all the related excesses and before you even get to Christmas you’re starting to feel less healthy than you have all year.

After Christmas comes the New Year’s Resolution of “I will never eat anything unhealthy or drink any alcohol ever again and I will go to the gym 5 times a week for at least an hour”.  Yeah, right.  Never going to happen is it?!

But here’s a new suggestion that the lovely Danni Evans from Basecamp Health and Fitness – an exercise advent calendar (link: http://www.basecamp-ellesmere.com/blog/102).  Ok, so I know it’s never going to replace the chocolate version – and nor should it, we’re all entitled to a bit of fun – but as a concept it’s brilliant.  There is a new exercise every day, so on day one you do the first exercise, day two you do the first and second, day three is the first 2 exercises and then a new one…and so on.

Obviously, being 7 days  into Advent Calendar-season, it’s not necessarily the best time to start using it for that purpose (although, really it’s never too late!), but who’s to say it has to be just for advent?  Choosing one new exercise every day, and only doing each exercise for a comparatively low number of repetitions, is a really great way to build yourself gradually towards a fitter, stronger and above all healthier you!

First Aid – for backs!

That horrible moment when you realise that you’ve just done something that has hurt your back, and now you don’t know what to do…

One of the questions I am most often asked when people book an appointment is “what should I do in the meantime?”

In other words, they have a few hours, or maybe even a day or two, until they get into the clinic and they (quite rightly) want to get started on their recovery as soon as possible.  Or even just help a little with some of the pain.

Well, here are my golden rules for back pain – in particular, back pain that has only recently come on.  Some of them may seem a little strange, but I can tell you from firsthand experience they really do work.

  1. Keep Moving. The golden rule when it comes to most injuries is to keep it moving. This doesn’t mean you spend your entire time wandering around, it means wander around for 5 mins, then sit down for a few minutes, then try and bend forward, then walk around some more, then sit down, the try and ease backward, then walk…you get the picture.  Vary what  you are doing in as many ways as possible.  The only exception to this is twisting – don’t do it.  Or anything like lawn mowing, vacuuming and sweeping, which involves a twisting movement.
  2. 2. I Instinctively, we want to put something warm and comforting on whatever hurts. In pretty much every case of sudden onset back pain this is the WRONG thing to do. There is bound to be inflammation in the area, so you are going to be a hundred times better off putting a bag of peas on it than a hot water bottle.  5 mins of an ice packed, wrapped in a towel to protect your skin, then 10 mins with it off to allow the blood to circulate back to the area.  And repeat.
  3. Ibuprofen. See above – ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, and we need to get that swelling under control. Check with your pharmacist or GP that you are OK to take this medication if you are unsure, then follow the guidelines on the packet or that your GP gives you.
  4. Keep Moving. Ok, already put this one in, but just thought I’d remind you how important it is! Do everything you would normally do with your day (as long as there’s no twisting involved) and you will reap the rewards. Not only does it help psychologically if you are getting on with things rather than focussing on your back pain, but it will keep things more supple and less painful.  Of course, if you start to do something and find it’s making things worse, stop.  But unless that happens, get on with your life!
  5. Book an appointment. I started this article by saying usually I get asked by people who have already booked in what they do in the meantime, but if you are reading this and wondering if you need to see a Chiropractor, then the answer is yes. Even if the pain goes away, the function may not be fully restored, risking it happening again in the future. Even if the function does restore as well as the pain going away, this happened for a reason and a Chiropractor will be able to tell you how to avoid it happening in the future.

7 great reasons to do Pilates!

I bore myself silly sometimes, banging on about core strength and posture all the time.  But the truth is, I mention it so much because it really is vitally important to everything we do.  Whether it’s giving you the inner strength (literally!) to stand and wait 3 hours in a queue, or allowing you to pick up heavy items without doing yourself harm, it all comes down to core strength and posture.

One of the best ways to improve yourself in this area is using a form of exercise such as Pilates.  There are many other benefits to this form of exercise as well; I recently read an article which compiled 7 reasons to do Pilates which you may not have thought of before.  I thought, this week, I would share those with you.

  1. It relaxes you. While yoga is well known for its breathing techniques and relaxation, somehow Pilates has missed out on renown in this area.  Linking the stretches and exercises to your breathing has a provably relaxing effect, and seeing as the muscles you tend to “carry” stress in (those around your spine and shoulders) are the very same ones Pilates focusses on exercising, it can be a great way to unwind.
  2. Makes pregnancy and birth easier. Ok, so not such a great reason for men to take it up, but it really can work wonders for women during pregnancy.  Starting to do Pilates when you are pregnant can help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles meaning it will not only help with the actual labour but will also reduce the likelihood of problems such as incontinence after pregnancy.  If you are trying to get pregnant, it’s never too early to start working on your core either!
  3. Great for athletes. London Irish rugby players, amongst others, make use of Pilates in helping to prevent injury as well as giving them a greater overall strength.
  4. Increase muscle mass. Admittedly, Pilates is not a HIIT, cardio or high-calorie burning activity, but is will increase your muscle mass which helps you look more toned and possibly increases your metabolic rate as well, meaning you burn more calories even at rest.
  5. Increases brain power. There have been some studies which shower subjects had a much better attention span after doing a course of Pilates than they had before.  Makes sense if you think about it – gets the blood pumping all around the body (including to the brain), not to mention the reduction in stress allowing you to concentrate better!
  6. Reduces menopausal symptoms. Another one that’s not much help to the men among you (discuss….!) but again it has been shown in some studies that symptoms such as hot flushes and aches and pains can be reduced with Pilates.  Plus it can help build bone density, which will help stave off osteoporosis in post-menopausal women.
  7. Improve balance. Really, really important. Think how many elderly people you know who have had a fall for no apparent reason, or tripped over something inconsequential, and ended up with severe complications and protracted hospital stays, all because they had poor balance. Well, it’s while it’s never to late to start work on this, clearly it is going to be much better to already have a good solid groundwork in place before you get too frail!

So there you have it.  7 excellent reasons for taking up Pilates (alright, maybe only 5 reasons if you’re male, but my point still stands!).  Invaluable in mental, physical and ongoing wellbeing.

Foam Rolling…Part 2!

So, last time I showed you a few ways you could use a foam roll to sort out some muscular niggles.  Don’t forget, those were only a selection of ideas – don’t be afraid to get inventive! If you have a muscular ache, and can work out a way to use the foam roll to apply pressure to it, give it a go.

This week, though, I thought it might be good to go through a few exercises that you could use to help your core strength.  A little warning note – these are not easy, and unless you have already done a basic core strength program you are unlikely to be able to manage them.  But if you can manage them, they are really fantastic for taking you to that next level.

So first, there’s the one that looks really easy.  Lie on the foam roll, with it running along the length of your spine.  Take your arms out to either side without letting them rest on the floor, then tense those core muscles and slowly lift your feet up off the floor.

If you’ve got the hang of this level, there are ways to make it harder – you can raise your arms so your fingers are pointing at the ceiling, and you can also work on straightening out your legs so that you are lying in a straight line.  No pictures of those postures because…ahem…I can’t do them! (Yet – I am working on it!)

Another good exercise for balance and core strength is learning simply to stand on the foam roll.  In the first place, you can stand on it so that your feet are across it.  Tense those core muscles to help you balance and keep a slight bend in your knees.  To start with, it is often easier to also bend at the hips so that you are in a slight squat position – keep your back straight though!  Once you can manage this on 2 feet, try standing on one leg.

Once you’ve got the hang of that, turn the foam roll so that your foot is running along the length. Standing on one leg in either of these foam roll orientations is not only good for everyone’s core strength, but it is also really fantastic advanced rehabilitation for anyone who has sprained their ankle.  A lot of work needs doing after an injury like that (although it is very rarely done, as the pain and swelling goes away and people forget about it) and once that has been started these exercises play a vital role in preventing those repeat-injuries that often occur with ankle sprains.

Finally we have a fantastic exercise for people who have been working on one-legged squats and want to take it to the next level.  With the proper technique, squats are a great way to improve gluteal strength and provide a solid framework for your lifting technique, and one-legged squats are just one step harder.  As it says on the tin, you stand on one leg and perform the same squat manoeuvre.  Bringing in the foam roll really adds core strength and balance into the mix, as you stand on the foam roll to perform the squat!  Initially, you can work on simply standing on the roll and touching the heel of your free foot to the floor.  You can then progress to the full squat movement.

So there you have it.  Some far-from-simple exercises that can really help you become a member of the elite where core strength is concerned – and in the interests of back pain prevention, that’s where we should all want to be!

Foam Rolling

Some of you who have visited the clinic may have noticed a blue foam cylinder propped up in one corner – this is my foam roller, and it’s my essential item for DIY-soft tissue work.  It’s basically a very dense foam which you can use to apply pressure along various parts of your body, squeezing out some of those knots and bands that build up in overworked muscle.

I’ve started recommending them to a number of my patients for a variety of purposes, but I have been asked if I would be able to come up with a series of exercises that make used of it…bring on this week’s blog!

I have selected 5 of my favourite exercises to do with a foam roller, but please remember this list is not exhaustive.  If you have a tight muscle and can figure a way to adapt your position on the roller to allow you to massage that muscle…go for it! There are no hard-and-fast rules, so get inventive and try things out.

  1. The Thoracic and Lumbar Roll

This is probably the most common use I have for the roller, and is very straight forward.  Lie on the floor with the roller positioned across your back underneath you. Support your neck with your hands, and then slowly use your legs to push yourself up and down over the roller.  If you find a particularly sore spot, spend a little time focussing just on there, but otherwise a good all-over workout will help release those tensions and sore points in your back.

  1. The Lat Dorsi Roll

This one is very similar to the Thoracic and Lumbar Roll, but aimed more at the muscles down the side of your back.  When you lie on your back and roll up and down, twist your body through your hips so that there is more pressure on one side of your back.

  1. ITB Roll

Your ITB is a band down the side of your thigh, and is commonly tight in runners and other athletes.  It can cause a number of problems, including hip and knee pain, if it is allowed to continue in this way, and can be quite difficult to just stretch out.  Enter foam roll.  Lie on your side with the foam roll positioned across your leg underneath your thigh.  Use your arms to pull yourself  up and down the roll.  WARNING: this hurts.  A lot.  But it’s worth it.

  1. Quads Roll

Another leg one, this time for the front of your thigh. Lie on your front, with the foam roll across your leg under your thigh, and roll up and down.  A good one for anyone who finds the traditional quad stretches hard to do, for example if standing on one leg is just too hard for you!

  1. Calf Roll

If you get a lot of cramp in your calf or foot, then it may be because you have tight muscles in this area.  A common problem, especially with athletes or women who wear high heeled shoes, it is extremely painful when it does cramp.  Again, sometimes it’s difficult to do a straight forward stretch here – if you have restricted movement through the ankle for some reason, for example.  Place the foam roll under your calf, use the other leg crossed over to add a bit more pressure and roll the foam roller along the length of the muscle.

 

So there are some stretches for you to have a go with.  The foam roll can also be used as an excellent core strength tool – I’ll discuss this further next time!

Core strength and stability

So, as anyone who has talked to me or read my website will know by now, I strongly feel that the risk of almost all back problems can be minimised if you have really good core strength and control.  There are a number of ways of going about gaining this level of fitness, but there are a few things to bear in mind.

You are always going to be better off going to a class, rather than trying to do it at home.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll need to practice at home as a once-a-week session simply isn’t going to get you where you want to be, but having a fully trained, qualified instructor telling you what to do and picking up any flaws in your technique is invaluable.

Second, this is not something you can just achieve, and then leave.  I speak from experience: if you try resting on your laurels thinking “oh yes, I have good core strength” and fail to continually work on your exercises, like any muscle they will simply weaken again in a suprisingly short time.  It’s a good idea, therefore, to build in core exercises to your daily routine so that it comes as naturally as brushing your teeth.  It doesn’t need to take that much longer than brushing your teeth, either, if you do it on a regular basis!

Finally, before embarking on any core strength training, speak with someone like myself (a chiropractor), an osteopath, a physiotherapist, a Pilates instructor or a yoga instructor to make sure there are no current problems that need addressing before you get into it.

All that being said, what is it you should be doing?

Well, I was going to write my own list of exercises, tips and advice…maybe even do some pics to demonstrate the exercises or at least link through to suitable websites that you can look at, yes?

Then, while looking for just such websites to link to, I came across this and decided that was actually a really rather good selection, well written and for the most part easy to follow! So read, digest, enjoy and get that core strength going!

Just a few caveats on this particular set of exercises.  I generally don’t recommend doing the “cobra stretch” that they have listed – it’s fine if your back is pretty healthy, but if you’ve had any problems in the past (which most people I talk to have had!) then it bends everything in all the wrong ways.

Similarly, they have included the “supine twist” and “supine twist on a physioball”.  Now, done very carefully and in complete control, this is OK.  But if it’s done too quickly or without enough support from your core muscles, you can end up putting far too much twist through your lower back.  Doing on the gym ball/physioball is actually better than doing it without, but I would suggest that unless you are very sure of your strength and very careful 100% of the time while you do it, just give this one a miss as well!

Otherwise, have fun!  Remember that core strength is something to continually work on, you are better at least occasionally attending a class, and the more variety you work in to your routine the better.

Pillow talk

Last time, I put out my advice regarding purchasing a mattress, so I thought that I would now do a little bit about pillows.  I actually think that the pillow set-up you have is often more significant than the mattress, particularly in cases of neck and shoulder pain.

There are a few main things to think about with pillows:

  1. What position do I sleep in? The depth and type of pillow you should use varies according to whether you sleep on your side or your back. You will note I don’t mention sleeping on your front – this sleeping position potentially causes myriad problems whatever pillow you use, and is the only way of sleeping that I thoroughly do NOT recommend.  If you sleep on your side you will need a fairly deep height of pillows, whether this is achieved through a big, firm pillow or several smaller, squashier ones.  When you are settled and comfortable lying on your side, your head should remain in a straight line with the rest of your body, not tilting towards or away from the mattress.  If you sleep on your back, then in theory you don’t need anything at all behind your neck, just a small roll behind your neck for a bit of added support there.  Most people, however, find this very uncomfortable, so a thin pillow is acceptable, but you certainly don’t need anything deep.
  2. I move around a lot – what should I use? If you switch from side to your back, and generally fidget all around then there are two ways to approach this. If you spend most of your time flipping from side to side and only occasionally go onto your back, or vice versa, then choose a pillow to suit the position you are most often in.  If you really are an active all-over-the-place sleeper, then perhaps something like a feather pillow would be best – they tend to squash fairly flat if you have them on the bed in a normal arrangement (good for the time spent on your back), but can be pummelled into all sorts of shapes to keep your head in a neutral alignment with your body, whatever attitude you end up in!
  3. What should my pillow be made from? This is a personal preference issue, for the most part. If you have a dust allergy, feather pillows clearly aren’t the way to go; on the other hand, you might hate the feeling of memory foam.  There’s no point having the “right” pillow if you can’t stand to rest your head on it!  Don’t be afraid to mix it up as well – it could be that an artificial fibre pillow mixes well with a feather pillow to give you the support you need while also being flexible.
  4. What about orthopaedic pillows? Ah, where there’s an opinion on the “right” way to have something, there will be someone making money out of it. Don’t get me wrong – many people swear by orthopaedic pillows and wouldn’t use anything else.  But they are often expensive, and if you’re willing to put a bit more thought into things like the position you sleep in, you can probably find something just as suitable for a lot less money.
  5. I travel a lot – do I have to take my pillows with me?! This is another reason I tend to steer away from special pillows like those claiming to be orthopaedic. If you understand the idea behind a good pillow set-up, you can usually arrange the most horrific hotel pillows into a pretty good approximation of what you have at home.  Ok, if the hotel supplies feather pillows and you prefer memory foam there’s not much I can do about that, but you can at least make sure you don’t end up with a crick neck from having them too high, too low or generally in the wrong place.

Hope that helps a little bit – sweet dreams!

Mattresses…

We all use them, but how often do you think about whether your mattress is right for you?  Or how much it can affect your life – both in terms of quality of sleep, and the potential for causing pain or other physical problems.

Most people are aware of how important posture is to your overall health.  If you’ve experienced a full day sat at a poorly set-up work station, and felt the aches and pains after you’ve been there, then it can quickly prompt you to change things so that the computer is the right position, your chair suits you or your desk is the right height.

But let’s take the average-Joe office worker.  Let’s say, they work a 9-5 day, Monday to Friday, with maybe an hour off for lunch in the middle of the day.  They have had the Occupational Health team in, so everything is set up in the optimum position.  That’s a total of 35 hours a week, supposedly sat in the right way, doing all the right things as far as their work will allow.  But they are still getting headaches. Or low back pain.  Or a stabbing pain through their chest every time they take a deep breath.

It’s entirely possible any of these problems are to do with their bed.  35 hours a week of being in the correct, well-supported posture is nothing when you consider an average 8-hours-a-night sleeping pattern means you are spending 56 hours a week in your bed, rarely getting up for a tea break, or to go and check the printer, or for lunch.  Just lying there, relatively still, in whatever position you fall asleep in.

Add to that how rarely most people renew their mattress and we start to see just how important the health of your bed can be.

But what sort of mattress should you be going for?  There are articles and studies and “expert” opinions all over the internet on this topic, but my personal opinion is this: whatever is comfortable for you.  Now, I add the caveat of “nothing too soft” to that – you do need a certain level of support from the surface you are sleeping on, so something that just lets you sink in to it is not going to be any good – but should you go for medium-firm? Hard? Memory foam? Pocket sprung? With a topper or without? It’s all down to personal preference, and sleeping position.

A few tips, though.  First, never test a mattress when you’re tired.  If you are about ready to drop, then you could fall asleep at a bus shelter and think it’s comfortable.  You need to be able to get a comfortable, good night’s sleep even when your mind is tending to overdrive, so if you think you could drop off on something even though you’re awake and ready to go, it’s probably going to be a good bet.

Second, make sure you give it a good long test run.  This is where buying over the internet can be harder – you have no idea what you’re getting until it arrives, and then many of us will settle for not-quite-right rather than get into the hassle of returning it, even if there is a money back guarantee in place.  Go to the store, kick your shoes off and settle in for long enough that you can be sure you are getting something which will be a lasting investment for you.

Finally, consider what position you normally sleep in.  If you are a side-sleeper, you are likely to want a slightly softer mattress than someone who sleeps on their back.  If you sleep one way but your partner sleeps another, consider a split-support mattress so that each of you has the level of comfort you need.