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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Fear of Falling

Winter has only just begun and already I’ve heard about several incidents of injuries from falls, at least one of them serious.  Of course, anyone can fall at any time of the year, but it seems like winter is a particularly dangerous time when ice and snow accumulate all around us. Some falls result from what we call “black ice”.  This is that devilish condition when a thin layer of ice on asphalt is invisible to the eye.  When encountered it can cause supports like feet, bicycle tires or even autos to slide perilously.  Another insidious form of hidden ice occurs frequently in my area where daytime sunshine causes standing snow to melt and then refreeze when the sun goes down and temperatures fall.  This condition can be particularly precarious when another layer of snow falls on top obscuring the ice layer below so you don’t know where it is until you step on it.

Although older adults seem more prone to falls, and many studies show that the consequences of falling for older adults can be particularly dire, no one is immune from falls.  There are many articles featuring suggestions for preventing falls.  All you have to do is Google “Fall Prevention” and you will find examples.  But I would like to focus on the causes that I see most frequently and that I think can be at least partially addressed with training.  First and foremost is failure to pay attention.  Our modern lifestyle seems to encourage hurrying.  We worry about slowing down when there are people behind us.  Or making that car wait for more than a few seconds while we cross a street.  Something distracts us and we forget to pay attention to our surroundings.  Have you ever been looking down at your feet (or your cell phone) and suddenly been hit in the head with a tree branch?  Admittedly I’m guilty of that one.  So the first piece of advice I would give is slow down.  Look around you in all directions.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Make sure your next step is on firm ground.  Sometimes I will take my foot and just slide it back and forth in front of me to make sure my next step is not on ice.  That car that’s waiting for you to pass is most likely not going to run you over.  And no matter where you’re going, the extra few minutes will not make any difference in the long run.  Unless they save you from injury.  Then, in fact, the extra few minutes might make a huge difference!

The second most frequent cause of falls I’ve observed or heard about is not taking proper precautions.  For example, not wearing appropriate shoes.  You think “I’m only going out for a few minutes.  I can make it in my high heels.”  Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture.  You get away with it once and think it won’t be a problem the next time.  And maybe it’s not.  Until it is.  Wouldn’t it be better to just take that extra few moments to be safe.  I could go into a big rant here about the footwear industry and how it encourages us (especially women) to wear inappropriate shoes, but I’ll save that for another time.  Suffice it to say that most of you know what works in these situations.  It often comes down to the choices you make.  It’s also important to remember that just because you’ve been careful to clear your own walkways, this may not be the case everywhere you need to go.

There are many reasons why people fall.  Some of them are related to physical conditions or side-effects of medication.  If you have these types of concerns hopefully you will get professional advice on how to deal with them.   But so many falls result from preventable circumstances that it’s worth another reminder.  This provides yet another reason to tout the benefits of movement practices.  Mind-body practices like yoga, Pilates and others can help you to learn to pay more attention to the way you move.  These practices help encourage strength, flexibility and balance.  We think of balance as being able to stand on one foot.  But practicing balance exercises can also be a way to strengthen the muscles that will help you catch yourself and avoid falling.  Or help you get up if you do fall.  Holding onto something because you fear falling might be helpful, but wouldn’t it be better if the muscles that support you were stronger.

Mobility has been described as more than just being able to move, but also maintaining strength through a full range of motion.  Stability is the quality that enables one to retain or regain position when impacted by an external force.  So, for example, if you’re standing and something pushes you, you’re ability to recover your position would be a way to measure stability.  So you can see how mobility and stability go hand in hand.  Then there is flexibility which might be described as the quality of being able to bend without breaking.  Clearly all of these traits are also necessary components for good balance.  If you feel stronger and more stable you will also gain confidence.  Fear can make us tense.  Tension makes us brittle and rigid.  Rigidity is the opposite of flexibility. Tension zaps energy and strength.  So learning to relax can be as important as all the other elements of balance.  Breathing practices, also an important component of mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates, can help relieve tension and encourage relaxation.  They also help you slow down and recognize that few circumstances merit the hurrying we often feel is so necessary.

Finally, being in good physical condition might not prevent a fall, but it will certainly help you recover from one.  And cultivating more conscious awareness of your mind and your movements can help you in all aspects of your life.   If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too late.  If you can move and breathe, there is a practice for you.  Take the time to find one.  You won’t be sorry.  And it just might save you from yourself.