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What Cell Phones Are Doing to Our Bodies

Head in the cellphone - Lauren March 2015 smallA new malady is sweeping the world, one that mainly targets children and teenagers but does not spare any age group. If you become afflicted, you can suffer disc herniation, pinched nerves, metabolic problems, reduced lung capacity, vascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, chronic headaches, poor emotional health, and chronic pain, not to mention reduced good looks. In 2008, the medical community named this new disorder “text neck.”

“Text neck” occurs when you allow your head, a ten-pound weight, to fall significantly forward of your body as you gaze down at an electronic device for long periods of time. This posture becomes more stressful on your spine as your head tilts progressively downwards. According to experts, every inch your head moves forward puts ten more pounds of weight on your spine.  If for example you hold your head six inches forward, you are putting a crushing 60 pounds of weight on your back and shoulders. Worst of all, this posture eventually becomes engrained in your body. bad-posture-620w from CBS NewsWhat our mothers told us, it turns out, is true: Slump, and you will get stuck that way! No wonder that we have an epidemic of young people with neck and back pain!

How do you treat “text neck?” Some doctors tell their patients to text less and try calling people. Others suggest lying backwards on an exercise ball. Chiropractors, who are all over this issue, recommend neck stretches and adjustments, and the cosmetic industry has come out with lotions to smooth neck wrinkles caused by texting.

These treatments might provide short term relief, but they fall short when it comes to providing a long term solution, one that would guard against getting “text neck” in the first place. Such a remedy could reset people’s posture physically and mentally so that they maintain relatively good posture throughout the day, even when they text. In my view, this solution would need to address “text neck” on three fronts: 1. Strengthen weak back and core muscles, 2. Increase poor body awareness and 3. Train in habitual good posture. You probably have already guessed where I’m going with this: the remedy is exercise.

Holding good posture during "diagonal seat"

Holding good posture during “diagonal seat”

Now that we’ve gotten this far, we still need to determine what kind of exercise best accomplishes these goals. For back strengthening, I’d like to suggest that barre workouts are an excellent choice. All barre classes, whether dance or exercise, compel your back muscles to work harder than usual over gravity as your muscles contract and extend, and many barre workouts include intense back strengthening intervals as well. In contrast, some ways of working out such as doing Nautilus circuits have you leaning on equipment much of the time. Second, an exercise-based remedy must teach you good posture, and last but not least it must increase body awareness by keeping you aware of your body alignment throughout the class. Without these last two features, a barre class could allow you to do the workout with your shoulders slumped, your back arched, and your head dropped forward, putting the 60 pounds on your spine that you’re trying to avoid!

All this considered, my recommendation for a long term solution to “text neck” is a barre workout that puts special emphasis on both improving posture and increasing body awareness. I know from personal experience that one such workout is The Bar Method.  In a Bar Method class, teachers mention the posture benefit of each exercise, then help you as you work on your individual posture goals. If your shoulders go up, they will remind you by name to draw them down. If your head drops forward, they will encourage you to keep it lifted. They may also give you gentle hands-on adjustments to give you a deep awareness of your alignment.

Over the past decade, countless students have told me that The Bar Method’s focus on body awareness has transformed their posture. Hear it from a student named Amy, who wrote us this testimonial after one month of classes:

“I am becoming convinced that improved posture is now within my reach. I still have a ways to go, but that daily awareness is there, which is huge. An additional benefit is that in “standing tall” (versus slumping) I feel more energized and balanced. I’m sure I’m breathing deeper too. As I learn how to integrate all my muscles into good posture, I have a picture in my mind of what that looks and feels like now. I don’t want to go back!”

 One last word on posture (see below): As the saying goes, if you don’t stand up straight, you could get stuck that way…forever 🙂

texting crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Tips for Boosting Your Results from The Bar Method, Part 3

My tips last month on how to get the most out of the Bar Method’s “flat-back” exercise brought in a large number of comments and questions about this challenging exercise. Two of these emails brought up some interesting points that I’ll share with you later in this blog.

But first, here are tips #9 and #10 for boosting your results from the Bar Method, which are for the workout’s last two exercises, “back-dancing” and “final stretch.” Both of these sections are considerably less intense than those you do earlier in class, and might burn fewer calories than for example “thigh-work,” but they both have the power to make a major contribution to the way you look, move and feel.

tango dancersTip #9: Find your inner dancer during “back-dancing.”

Back-dancing teaches your body to move like a dancer. The next time you watch a ballroom dancing competition, notice how the dancers swing their lower torsos all over the place while keeping their upper torsos elegantly aligned with their partners’. Back-dancing gives you a head start on developing this same graceful fluidity in your torso by allowing you to rest your back on the floor. You can then focus on relaxing your lower back muscles, freeing your glutes and hamstrings to move your hips like a salsa dancer’s. Imagine you’re dancing, and stay with the tempo even when the song is fast. You’ll develop not only more tone in your rear, but also a more expressive and youthful spirit in way you move in general.

Tip #10: Go for the “stretch burn” during the final stretches.

butterfly textDuring the final section of class, give the stretches just enough energy to create a slight burning sensation in the muscles you’re stretching. When you assume the “butterfly stretch” for example, align your shins directly opposite your knees in a “T shape” so that you feel a “stretch burn” in the outsides of your upper legs (the location of your “IT band”). During the “strap stretch,” completely straighten the knee of the leg you’re stretching to fully extend your hamstrings, which reach across final stretch burr crop edit text smallthe back of your knee. The burn you feel when you do find the “edge” of your range of motion for these stretches is a sign that you’re now going beyond simply stretching a muscle. You’re also strengthening it and enhancing its fine motor skills (see my blog: “Stretching Makes You Stronger, And More”). Be mindful, patient and gentle with your body when you stretch. At the same time, supply enough power to the stretches to tap into these additional benefits that stretching can give you. By keeping your focus on gaining benefits from your workout, even in this last part of class, you’ll gain a leaner shape, a more graceful bearing, and control over a greater range of motion. Your back will feel better, you’ll feel more youthful, and you’ll move more effortlessly. Don’t miss out on this last chance to change your body!

diaphragm and taThe first noteworthy comment on last month’s tips was from Lizzie, a knowledgeable reader who pointed out several inaccuracies in my explanations about how flat-back works. “Just to clarify,” she wrote, “the diaphragm contracts on an inhale, not an exhale.” I double-checked this correction with the Bar Method’s medical consultants, Physical Therapists Cayce and Wendy, and they confirmed that Lizzie is right. Our diaphragm relaxes rather than contracts when we exhale. If we exhale forcefully however, our abdominals kick in to press the air out of our lungs by sharply pulling in our belly. The specific ab muscle that is most responsible for this pulling-in is our deepest one, our “transversus abdominis.” When you exhale sharply during flat-back — as well as during round-back and curl — you’re working and toning this deep ab muscle. You can make the contraction even more effective by consciously pulling in your abs with each exhalation.

Lizzie also set me right about which muscle is responsible for students’ abs “pooching” during flat-back. If your abs pop out when you attempt to lift both legs, the weakness, she said, is in that same deep ab muscle, the “TA.”

Both Lizzie and my PT consults agree with me however on the best strategy for achieving flatter abs during flat-back: Exhale sharply and pull in as much as you can on every rep, even if your abs pooch out a little. You will incrementally strengthen your “TA” until it becomes able to hold your stomach in when you raise your legs.

roundback holding onto strapThe second of the two emails I received was from Maria, who wanted advice on an exercise she struggles with called “round-back,” which students do right before flat-back in the studio-based workout. “Hoping you’ll have some suggestions for round back and how to improve form,” she wrote me. “I’m finding even after two years of practice that I feel this more in my hip flexors than in my quads.” 

Round-back is one of my favorite exercises because it gives students’ back muscles a needed stretch after they’ve held their spines straight for most of the first half of class. Round-back also stretches the glutes and hamstrings after the preceding “seat-work.” As for strengthening, round-back tones the quads and flattens the abs. That’s a lot of benefits from one exercise, but good positioning is key to reaping those benefits. To help Maria and students like her to do round-back comfortably and to best effect, I’d like to offer a few tips on comfortably and effectively performing this multi-faceted exercise.

First, lean on the wall so that your torso is at a 45 degree angle, or diagonal, to the floor. If you sit too high, you will over-flex your hips and be unable to contract your abs. If you sit too low, you’ll overly round your back.

Second, lift your chest so that your back is almost straight (the “round” in “round-back” is slight). Then press your navel downwards. Think of the shape of your back as similar to how you position it for “high curl,” except that during round-back you’re stretching your glutes rather than gripping them.

Third, pull in your abs with every rep! Like “flat-back,” this exercise requires you to forcefully exhale in order to recruit and flatten your deep abs.

Last but not least, if you have sensitive hip-flexors, hold onto your working leg the whole time! If it’s difficult for you to reach your leg, loop a strap over your arch, as illustrated above. Don’t worry about missing out on the results by taking these options. Challenge yourself to completely straighten your working knee during the straight-leg moves while maintaining good form, and you may even begin to enjoy round-back as much as I do.

The Beautiful Look and Style of Bar Method Studios

Summit Accent WallIn 2007, we welcomed our first Bar Method studios located outside of our home state of California. All of the new studios were beautiful, but one stood out for its highly creative design choices. The owners of the Summit, New Jersey studio, Jen and Angie, had painted the wall behind their front desk a deep, chocolate brown and mounted onto it a shiny metallic logo. They also exposed the brick on one wall of their studio. Both of these ideas took fire within the Bar Method, and other studio owners painted accent walls, mounted shiny logos, and exposed brick as you’ll see below. Today, on approaching a Bar Method front desk one of the first things you’ll notice is an accent wall, which has now become an essential design element in all new studios. Below is a selection of the many gorgeous colors studio owners have chosen:

accent wall collage

The development of our accent walls is an example of the collaborative effort among ourselves, our studio owners and our students that has gone into the evolution of the Bar Method’s studio design style. Based on our students’ input, we’ve learned to equip exercise rooms with soft flooring to cushion feet, knees and hips, plenty of “stall-bars” (bars with lower rungs) to accommodate students with tight hamstrings, calming, neutral colors on the walls, and natural light for a cheerful ambiance.

At the same time, we’ve encouraged studio owners to be as creative as they wish beyond these design basics. In this blog I’d like to give you a tour of a few studios whose owners have come up with their own distinctive and dazzling looks.

As I mentioned, studios in older cities such as Summit, New York, Boston, Salt Lake City and Montclair, New Jersey exposed the underlying brick in their exercise rooms, reception areas and hallways. Some of these walls reveal the ghosts of former stairways, windows and doors impressed in the brick, providing students with a bit of fascination with what came before while they work out.

brick

Owners in other cities took advantage of unique architechural features of their spaces. In Portland owners Denise and Meghann enhanced the dramatically high ceilings of their space with larger-than-life-size photos, faux beams, and industrial-style lighting:

Portland Collage

San Diego studioSan Diego Bar Method owner Allison located her studio in Point Loma’s Liberty Station, a cluster of buildings that once housed a naval training center and is now a nationally designated landmark. Allison built on her space’s historic flavor by installing fans, lighting and curtains that evoke the mid-century style of the period.

Montclair studioIn Montclair, New Jersey, Shannon and Kelly were forced to make an flamboyant design choice by unforeseen circumstances. Shortly after they’d signed their lease, their contractor popped out a few ceiling tiles and discovered a long-hidden decorative ceiling, which their landlord then insisted they restore. After many extra months of construction, Shannon and Kelly now have a studio room to die for. No problem doing the last 20 curls in the Montclair studio! All you have to do is look up and be transfixed.

Orlando LoungeAmong my favorite design inspirations of all is the lounge in the Orlando, Florida studio. Owner Karen installed a retro banquette worthy of a Raymond Chandler Hollywood mystery, then dressed it up with glittering modern accessories. The Orlando Disneyland couldn’t have been more imaginative!

I wish I could show you all the fabulous Bar Method studios. Catherine in Carlsbad and Carrie Salt Lake City stained their bars and stall-bars in rich mahogany. Joey in Burbank chose black lockers, red walls and red faux leather furniture that give his locker rooms a wow factor. Palos Verdes, California is just plain magnificent throughout. I’m proud of all care and thought owners have put into making their studios fun, unique and inviting.

Congratulations, studio owners, on your gorgeous designs!  

How The Bar Method Enhances Sex, Part 1

Sex and the CityI was putting away my mat after taking class a few months ago and a student approached me. She was pretty and looked like she might have been a lawyer or worked in the corporate world. “Have you or anyone ever written about how great the Bar Method is for sex?” she asked me. Out of habit I gave her my usual answer: Yes, it’s great for sex, but we’ve always played down that feature. “Thanks for your answer,” she said, “but it really is.”

As the student walked away, it hit me that for 20 years I’ve been giving that same stock response to questions about the Bar Method’s connection to sex. My habit of side-stepping this issue started with my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990. That year I was studying in New York City to become a Lotte Berk Method studio owner, and my trainers wanted me to keep my approach to this subject consistent with theirs. “People might ask you about sex,” they told me. “Focus on other benefits.”

I went with their advice during my ten-year term as a Lotte Berk Method licensee.  Now that license has been expired for ten years, and it’s about time that I formulate by own policy on this subject.  So here it is: The Bar Method-type workout is absolutely great for one’s sex life, and let me tell you why:

First, exercise itself has been proven to increase sexual potency. According to researcher Mark Stibich “Studies have shown that women who frequently exercise become aroused more quickly and are able to reach an orgasm faster and more intensely.” Exercise gives you an especially powerful boost if you do workouts that focus on stamina, muscular endurance, strength and flexibility. Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise credits exercise with “physical improvements in muscle strength and tone, endurance, body composition and cardiovascular function (specifically, enhanced peripheral blood flow),” which he says says “can all enhance sexual functioning.” Why? Paige Waehner ACE explains.  “Sex also requires you to hold…er…occasionally unusual positions for short periods of time,” she says, plus, “Being limber can enhance anyone’s sex life by making it a bit easier to get into your favorite position with a minimum amount of fuss.”

Lotte Berk dancingDo The Lotte Berk Method/Bar Method techniques have any advantages over other exercise forms in this arena? Most definitely! They build a fantastic degree of stamina; they make you more flexible; and most distinctively, they focus on strengthening and stretching the muscles around your pelvis pretty much during the whole class. The Bar Method’s “narrow V” thigh exercise, for example, strengthens the “pelvic floor” muscles, according to Physical Therapist Heidi Morton. Then of course there are all the glute and abdominal exercises such as “water-ski thigh,” and “water-ski seat,” and the other “seat” exercises, plus the curl work, which students perform with their pelvis locked in place by means of all its surrounding muscles. Finally we come to “back-dancing,” an exercise that looks almost embarrassingly sexual, but more about that later.

Considering that sex is probably our greatest natural high, you’d think these benefits would be worth mentioning. Even so, over the past 20 years, the hundreds of press articles written about my Lotte Berk or Bar Method studios have pointed out only the Method’s ability to make you look sexy. Nowhere in my memory has there been anything written or said about its effect on sex itself. The most direct reference to sex in connection to the Bar Method that I could find appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July of 2002. The writer speculated on what would happen if the “Sex and the City” characters moved to San Francisco. “Samantha,” the article said, “would be in to various trendy California pursuits like… the Bar fitness method.” Nothing, however, on how much more fun Samantha, um, might have had later…

This reticence hasn’t always been the case. In the early 70s, the press was all over the news that an exercise technique was improving people’s sex lives. Why then did my Lotte Berk Method trainers in 1990 tell me to zip my lips on this subject? The answer goes back a half a century to the workout’s inventor, Lotte Berk, who expressly and unapologetically designed the workout to enhance sex.

Next week: The rise and fall of Lotte’s sexual revolution (and why we can finally start talking about it again 🙂

Why It’s so Important to Exercise as You Age

Burr in Chair for blogNow that I’m 64 and the aging process is noticeably changing my body, I’ve become profoundly grateful to have exercise in my life. I feel especially lucky that the workout I’ve been doing for the last three decades, the Bar Method, seemed to have assumed the role of protector against time. In my 30s and 40s I loved the workout (which was then the Bar Method’s predecessor, the Lotte Berk Method) because it made me look and feel good. Over the past few years I’ve been stunned to find that my workouts, while not exactly reversing time, are turning it back significantly. Now they’re not just making me more buff and toned. They’re also wiping away fatigue, mental cloudiness, grumpiness, aching joints and a host of other symptoms of the aging process. I can go into a class feeling exhausted and walk out of it almost magically energized. My muscles don’t as easily retain the strength gained from my workouts like they used to decades ago, but the classes always leave me calmer, more centered, and in a better humor. I hate to think how different my life would be at this stage if I didn’t have this workout to renew me on an ongoing basis.

Burr in round-backEverything I’ve reported to you in this blog thus far is old news to the medical community. Doctors and economists have been all over this subject for decades, and their research has been sending up flags about the dangers of older adults not being active. A group of several hundred physiologists found that millions of Americans are dying prematurely each year from “Sedentary Death Syndrome,” or lack of physical activity. Meanwhile, economists have determined that the cost of these deaths to our country are somewhere around three trillion dollars a year due to life-style related diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, dementia, accidental falls, and other lifestyle-related illnesses and issues. Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control estimates that if all these physically inactive Americans became active, we’d save “$77 billion in direct annual medical costs, and an estimated $150 billion in direct and indirect medical costs.”

There are signs that more and more of us in this country are beginning to understand the relationship between inactivity and illness. We see an increasing number of older people whose bodies remind us of cars that haven’t been maintenanced for decades, and their downcast, disappointed, and defeated-looking faces can’t but affect us. We might ask ourselves, ”what happened to those people? Could they have been in accidents?”  More likely, they’ve lived the sedentary lifestyle that our society has made the norm.

Bill CunninghamCall me an optimist, but I believe that at some point in our future history, people will figure out a way out of this pitfall. The results have come in from our mass experiment with inactivity. We know that it hurts us, especially now that we’re living longer. Fortunately, as a species we’re ambitious when it comes to our right to enjoy life to the last drop, and we have the drive, ability and adaptability to reinvent ourselves when it serves our purposes. One example from the past is our dental care habits, which have evolved to become unrecognizable from the way they were 200 years ago. “Sedentary Death Syndrome” is actually a pretty recent problem. People started to become inactive in great numbers less than a century ago when enough modern conveniences were invented to relieve them of the necessary of exerting their bodies. We’re really just in the preliminary stages of tackling this challenge.

Already some Americans have been deciding to lead very active lives in their later years. Jack LaLanne lifted weight into his 90s. Cloris Leachman competed in Dancing With The Stars at age 82, and the wonderful 83-year-old photographer Bill Cunningham still spends his days riding his bike around Manhattan with the grace of a dancer shooting street fashion for the New York Times. I’d like to imagine that in a few hundred years these athletic late-lifestyles will no longer be the exception but our new norm.