Warming-up and Cooling Down

Winter is officially upon us.  January 1 has come and gone.  You’ve finally managed to drag yourself to the gym.  Now faced with the realization of how much time has passed since you last tried to work out you try to make up for that lost time by diving in with both feet.  And both arms.  And your back and shoulders.  You remember what you used to be able to do and think “I can do that.”  But, before you know it you’ve overdone, possibly even injured yourself, and your resolve to “get in shape” gets relegated to some mythical future date when you’ll somehow be better able to manage it.  Like when you’ve lost weight or your knee gets better or you find a better pair of shoes, etc. etc.  You know the drill.  There is a litany of excuses you can draw upon for this purpose.  But no matter how much you wish for a better version of yourself, wishing will not make it happen.

Time to come up with a better plan.  If you’ve showed up at the gym or on that walking trail or in that exercise class, then you’ve already taken the most difficult and important step.  That is, you’ve made the decision that you really want to do this.  You’ve also set the time aside and made the commitment to follow through.  Bravo!  Now is not the time to get discouraged.  But perhaps it is time to rethink your strategy.

It’s always difficult to remind yourself that whatever shape you’re in didn’t happen overnight.  If you’re in good shape, it’s probably because you’ve made a regular effort to maintain it.  If that’s not the case, then your best approach is to start slow and give your body some time to adjust.  This provides the perfect opportunity to tout the benefits of a good warm-up.

According to the American Heart Association,

“warming up and cooling down are good for your exercise performance . . .  A good warm-up before a workout dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen. It also raises your muscles’ temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly raising your heart rate, the warm-up also helps minimize stress on your heart.”

A warm-up generally consists of performing an activity at a slower pace.  Although most sources usually advise warming up for 5 to 10 minutes prior to planned activity, the Sports Medicine Information website advises that a good warm-up can last anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour.  In my opinion, longer warm-ups are a good thing, especially as we age.  In fact, if you are new to exercise or returning after an absence, you might want to consider doing your first few workouts entirely at warm-up pace.  Just take your planned activity slower and with less intensity.  When you’re ready to increase the pace and/or intensity you won’t have to force yourself.  It will just naturally feel right and you’ll know you’re ready.  Just have a little patience.  Starting slow now will mean more success in the long run.  Remind yourself of that every time you’re tempted to push too hard.

Your warm-up can include some gentle stretching of your muscles towards the end.  Most experts agree that muscles should be warm before you stretch them.  Quoting again from the American Heart Association : “Stretching allows for greater range of motion and eases the stress on the joints and tendons, which could potentially prevent injury.”  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Warming up may also help reduce muscle soreness and lessen your risk of injury.”  It’s well worth the extra time if might take.  Those extra minutes might save you from days or even weeks of inactivity from soreness or injury caused by overdoing too much too soon.

If you do manage to move from a warm-up to a more intense form of movement, then cooling down is equally important.  Our friends at the American Heart Association have thoughts on this subject, too.  They advise that

“After physical activity, your heart is still beating faster than normal, your body temperature is higher and your blood vessels are dilated. This means if you stop too fast, you could pass out or feel sick.  A cool-down after physical activity allows a gradual decrease at the end of the episode.”

Cooling down is similar to warming up in that you perform your activity at a slower pace for an additional 5 or 10 minutes following your main activity.  This is especially important, and often overlooked, when your activity is a sport such as basketball or tennis.  But it is just as critical after brisk walking or jogging.  If you’ve been lifting weights, try walking around the gym and doing some slow stretching following your workout.  If possible, a good way to warm up for and cool down from a gym workout is to walk to and from the gym.  What a concept!  O

The goal here is not to add yet another layer to your “to do” list, but rather to encourage you to keep your movement intentions on that list.  Don’t let your resolve drop off because of unrealistic expectations.  Although any activity you choose is better than none and the best activity is the one you’ll do and stick to, this is a good time to put in a plug for classes.  Most classes allow for warm-up and cool-down periods.  This is certainly true of my classes.  Even if you prefer some other type of activity, trying a class can give you an idea of how to warm-up and cool down so that you can do it on your own if that suits your needs.  Find what works for you, take it slow and keep at it.  Practice is the key to improvement.

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Keeping What’s Right From Going Wrong

Our bodies are made up of so many parts and systems that it’s almost impossible to think about all of them at once.  There are numerous muscles, bones and nerves, but also fluids like blood, lymphatic and spinal.  Then there are the energetic systems that enable all of those parts and systems to interact with each other.  At the cellular level, there is an entire universe within each of us.   If you think about the precision with which everything needs to interact in order to move us, it’s no surprise that sometimes things go wrong.  In fact, it’s often more of a wonder that things go right!

Among the goals of both yoga and Pilates is to help us get to know our bodies and really start to pay attention to how the different elements of mind and body work together for optimal movement.  “Optimal” is a subjective terms and may mean different things for different bodies, but the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can move toward optimization.

This week I read a great little book  called “The RBG Workout”.  What is “RBG” you ask?  It’s the initials for our Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an inspiration to all of us at any age.  Tag line for the book is “How she stays strong and you can too!”  Of course, I’m sure she is also blessed with good genes, but she has certainly had physical challenges including two bouts with cancer.  The book was written by Bryant Johnson, who has been her personal trainer of almost 20 years.  Throughout the book he talks about how tough and strong she is, but also how she progressed during those years.  The workout described in the book seems pretty challenging, but Mr. Johnson takes pains to remind readers that it took time and persistence to get her to the point where she can now do the whole workout.

One of the quotes in the book that I especially like is this:  “. . . exercise is a great equalizer.  A push-up, a squat , a lunge, or a plank doesn’t care who you support or . . . about your race, religion, color, gender or national origin.  You may have a powerful job . . . but your body will still have veto power over you.  . . . If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”  One more reminder that we are mutually dependent on all of those systems described above.   We need them, but they need us, too.  Taking care of our bodies is no guarantee that things won’t go wrong, but it will certainly improve the odds.  And if things go wrong, you’ll be better able to deal with the problems if you’ve made that effort to stay strong, flexible and mobile.

The message here is that it’s never too late to start moving and no matter where you start, you can improve.  It might take some time – maybe longer than you thought it would – and there may be moves that will continue to elude you, but if you stick with it you will make progress.   As I’ve often said throughout these blog posts, the hard part is starting.  Once you start you’re already making progress.  After that, the only obstacle standing in your way is you.  In her foreword to the book, Justice Ginsburg talks about the demands of her job.  Yet she prioritizes her workout.  When the time comes, she sets everything aside and maintains her commitment to her body and, ultimately, her health.

As Mr. Johnson says, if Justice Ginsburg can do it so can you!  Maybe not in the same way that she does, but if you can move and breathe there is still a level of exercise that each of us can manage.   The terms “balance”, “strength” and “flexibility” have multiple meanings.  Balance is not just about standing on one foot, but also about maintaining a balance in your life.  If one aspect of your life starts to overwhelm all the others, stress will result and your body will react.  Exerting strength will help you maintain the discipline you need to take care of yourself.  And flexibility will help you to go with the flow when life takes a turn you hadn’t planned on.  All of these qualities are part of what you will build when you commit to movement.

So next time you’re tempted to blow off your workout because you think something else is more important, remember that all the systems in your body are depending on you to keep them running.  All the important things in your life need you to be functioning at your best.  You’re no good to anyone if you can’t function.  Help yourself to be the best that you can be!