“If it is important, do it every day, if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.” – wrestling Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable
I have referred to this quote many times, but I keep coming back to it, because there is a lot of truth to it. In the past, when I would design a workout program, I often included at least one rest day (complete day off). I thought it would be good for people to have a day to rest and recharge (assuming they were sticking to their workouts during the rest of their schedule). I’ve come to the conclusion that this was not a sound strategy, especially for beginning workout clients or clients returning from a long hiatus. I believe it’s best to have no days off. That’s right, you heard me, not a single day off! I believe movement should be a daily thing, like brushing our teeth, eating food, and drinking water. Consistency is the best way to solidify exercise as a healthy habit. One that you can’t go a day without. I am not talking about hammering yourself with puke worthy workouts on a daily basis, but grabbing a movement snack, every day! Sure, some days it’s great to test out our limits, while other days should be dedicated to gentle movements to facilitate recovery. Instead of a recommended day off, I now recommend that people at least go for an easy walk. Most people don’t move enough, whether it’s being attached to a desk for work, or spending their leisure time on an electronic device. We need to counteract those sedentary moments with movement. After a decade of training clients, here are a few movements that have filtered to the top, and I believe you’ll want to engage in every day. I’ll give you the reasons why they are important and how they can improve your life.
- 10 Deep Abdominal Breaths. This is a simple one that could be done more than once a day. I like to do it in the morning, when I first wake up, and in the evening before I go to bed. I am talking about some good, deep abdominal breathing. If you follow a religious tradition that involves prayer or you like to meditate, then that would be a perfect time to initiate some deep breathing. Try it in different positions, lying down, standing, seated, and even on your belly. According to the Mayo Clinic, here is the list of benefits that deep diaphragmatic breathing provides.
- Slowing your heart rate
- Lowering blood pressure
- Slowing your breathing rate
- Reducing activity of stress hormones
- Increasing blood flow to major muscles
- Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
- Improving concentration and mood
- Lowering fatigue
- Reducing anger and frustration
- Boosting confidence to handle problems
A study from the journal of Biomedicine and Pharmocotherapy showed that diaphragmatic breathing was helpful in the reducing blood pressure, especially in the afternoon when blood pressure tends to be more elevated. Many years ago, when I was suffering from a flare up of social anxiety, I believe that consistent diaphragmatic breathing practice played a part in helping me overcome it. The habit of chest breathing can help solidify poor posture by causing tightness in the neck and upper back. Instead of fully using your diaphragm for breathing, people use the smaller assistance muscles as the primary ones. Train yourself to avoid the chronic habit of daily chest breathing. Do some deep belly breathing every day, and there is more chance that you will breathe this way all the time. Although, in a dangerous situation, chest breathing can help initiate your fight or flight response, which in those cases, is a good thing. It would be best to spend the rest of the time utilizing diaphragmatic breathing. Belly breathing drills will give you a large amount of benefits for a small amount of time invested.
- Cat/Camel and Neck Nods/Rotations. A couple of years ago, I started adding the cat/camel movement to my daily routine. It has almost completely eliminated the migraines I once struggled with. Even though I was first introduced to the Cat/Camel movement when I took a yoga class a decade ago, I didn’t come to realize it’s importance until I read the textbook, Low Back Disorders by Professor Stuart McGill. According to McGill, the flexion/extension cycle (cat/camel) helps to reduce spine viscosity (internal resistance and friction) and floss the nerve roots as they outlet each lumbar level. The professor recommends 5 to 6 cycles of flexion/extension and focusing on motion, not stretching at the end ranges. Neck nods and neck rotations performed from the hands and knees position are something I have recently added, after reading Original Strength by Tim Anderson and Geoff Neupert. A tight and weak neck has been something that has plagued me ever since I was a kid. An unfortunate sledding accident sent me careening headfirst into a patch of ice, which felt like I was hitting my face on cement. It resulted in a concussion and busted up lip, but the overwhelming pain from the acute injuries masked a more chronic injury to my neck. My neck became more of a problem as I aged, but with the recent addition of neck nods and rotations from quadruped position, it feels better than it has in a long time. According to Tim Anderson, if you watch an infant during “tummy time,” lying on their stomach is where they learn to control their head, helping them develop posture, balance, and coordination. He claims that the ability to control your head, builds strength in your neck’s extensors and deep flexors. I have heard some people refute this “move as a baby” movement, but I do know it has made a difference for me, so I am going to continue doing it. If you have a serious neck problem, you probably should consult a medical professional before performing any neck exercises. These neck movements should be gentle and comfortable. These are simple drills that don’t take a lot of time to perform. Give it a try and see what you think. For people who have stiff backs in the morning and perform the classic low back stretches when they first wake up, try replacing them with the cat/camel. You may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
- Add a little Rock and Roll to your day. I’m not talking about music, but feel free to add that too. I am talking movement here. Rocking and rolling are movements I have been adding to warm-up programs for several years now. I guess I intuitively knew there could be something magical about them. They were also covered in the book, Original Strength. Anderson says rolling drills are good for restoring reflexive strength and movement patterns, and I would agree. There are many different ways to roll, and feel free to explore. Just make sure to never roll up on your neck. Rocking helps improve posture, reflexive stability, and mobility, states Anderson. I usually perform some simple kneeling rock-backs. Think of it as squatting from your hands and knees.
- Squat and Hang Loose. I do both of these things everyday and they feel fantastic. I usually hit up some deep squat holds while I coach a client through their warm-up routine, or while they are doing some core stability training. I recently posted an article about these primitive stretches by trainer Danny Kavadlo, PCC master instructor. According to him, he loves the deep squat hold because it opens up the hips, plus it stretches the spinal erectors, calves, quads, glutes, and more. Try spending some time in a deep squat and watch your squats improve, unless you have some serious knee or hip troubles. Dan John recently wrote an article about brachiation, to swing from arm to arm. I would recommend at the very least, to just hang with both hands from a sturdy bar or branch. Just hanging around can help bring length to the spine and help mobilize the thoracic spine. Just remember to keep your shoulders down (not shrugged to the ears) and active. I have worked with many older clients who have lost the ability to bring their arms over their head. This can help a person regain that lost mobility, assuming you don’t have any serious upper back or shoulder injuries. At the very least, you can grab a sturdy low bar or set of straps (think TRX or Jungle Gym) and allow the hips to drift back and knees to bend while your arms raise up over head. You can lower the intensity with this exercise because you can keep your feet on the ground. Eventually, you can work your way up to hanging. Once you are skilled at hanging, you can progress to swings and one arm hangs. Things can really start to get fun and feel free to play around.
- A Walk in the Woods. Walking is a contralateral movement that involves the movement of an opposite arm with an opposite leg in a coordinated motion. According to Tim Anderson of Original Strength, performing midline crossing movements cause the brain to make new neural connections between the two hemispheres. Those movements are crucial for learning and brain development. I know I have mentioned this one repeatedly, but if you take your walk into the woods, you can access the phenomenon known as “forest bathing.” This study out of Japan showed that it has many benefits including lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity. My father just turned 70 years old and is in great health. He is very active and plays tennis 3 to 4 days a week, even winning a doubles championship in the local Big Al’s Tennis Tournament a couple of times. I believe one of the keys to his longevity is the fact that he hikes with his dog just about every day. Walking/hiking is a simple activity that most people can participate in. Even on the toughest of training days, a walk is still possible, and can even start the recovery process.
- Find some time to Play. Whether it is playing a sport, or just playing with our kids, we can enhance our fitness while having fun. If an activity is enjoyable, we are more likely to participate in it. Also, playing can expose us to a wide variety of movement patterns, especially if we engage in many different activities. A local group in town, known as Rushmore Society, organizes game oriented activities for active adults. They organize games such as kickball and capture the flag, where you may find yourself jumping over bushes, crawling rolling, running, and having a whole lot of fun while you do it. If you have kids, take them to the playground, and actually play with them. Run, climb, slide, and feel free to be silly. Maybe you have a family pet, get down on the ground and play with them. Even the act of getting up and down from the ground can help build strength. Try to figure out how many different ways you can get up from the floor. Here is a sample of 52 ways to get off the floor. A study out of Brazil showed that people from ages 51 to 80 who struggled to get up off the ground, had a higher risk of all cause mortality. If you lack strength, balance, and flexibility, it can shorten your life. The good news is, all these qualities can be improved. I recommend finding some time to play each day. I either wrestle with my dogs or take my kids to the playground. Have some fun!
This list seemed to keep growing as I began typing it, but I think all these activities are well worth your time to improve your quality of life. Most of these activities/movements only take a small fraction of your day and can provide some really nice benefits. The other great thing is that no matter what your workout involves, these activities/movements can probably be seamlessly incorporated into your fitness routine (if they are not already there). Remember, you can choose the intensity of your movement each day. Some days you can push the envelope, and other days you can facilitate recovery. The key is to move every day!