Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Giving Recess Its Due

Finally, recess might get the respect it deserves. The journal Pediatrics this month cited regular recess as an important component of the classroom. Students were better behaved if they took even a short break every day.

It seems that getting away from your desk and relaxing for a few minutes makes it easier to concentrate and get the job done, so to speak. Sound familiar?

An earlier report by the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2006 stated that free play time helps children think for themselves, gives them a sense of self and helps them interact better with others.

And these are the very people from whom we steal recess. Oh, we steal art and music, too, which both have intrinsic value in a child's life — but really, can there be anything more basic to childhood memory and joy than 15 minutes of playing outside in the middle of the morning?

I remember running around the playground, chasing the cute boy in the class (and catching him, which annoyed my fellow female classmates, who actually understood the game and stayed a couple of steps behind poor Peter). I remember climbing on jungle gyms, swatting the tether ball, playing horse or four-square or hopscotch. There was squealing and kicking, jumping and screaming, posturing and snarking. It was a jungle, but it was our jungle.

Nowadays, recess is seen as an interruption. Children have too much to learn and have no time to waste. Teachers send home study guides for parents to continue teaching; apparently, time needs to be spent even on weekends, much like their parents working overtime to try to get it all done.

Don't let them take away the fun. As pediatricians remind us, play "offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children." (Substitute "friend," "co-worker" or "other family member" and it still applies.) Taking a break during the day affords a chance to re-energize.

So do what the doctor orders: play.
- Chris

Monday, February 23, 2009

Finding Muscular Imbalances

Do you have occasional back problems?

Do you lean forward as you walk?

Is your normal walking stride short?

If you answered yes to any of these, you may have a muscular imbalance.

Muscular imbalances can cause back pain, limping and other discomforts. They are caused by many different factors. The most predominant cause is the way we sit at our desks for long periods of time. When our muscles are in one position for extended periods, they contract in that position, causing tightness and discomfort. Without stretching, these muscles and training opposing muscle groups, these tight muscles stay in a contracted state. This can cause pain and stiffness.

Here are a couple of easy exercises you can do to look for imbalances:

  • Get down on one knee in front of a mirror. Can you put your shoulders directly over your hips, without losing your balance? Now, from this position, bring your arms out to your sides and do a spinal rotation to one side, then the other. When this is done, switch legs and repeat the exercise. See if your hips stay in line, or if one hip drops lower than the other. You also probably will find that one side is more stable than the other. Tight hips cause the lack of balance during the spinal rotation. Weak back muscles may cause a feeling of instability. Be sure to perform hip stretching exercises and back strengthening exercises. This will help the discomfort and make you more stable.
Lets try another one:
  • Stand with one leg in front of you, and the other leg behind at a 90 degree angle. Concentrate on keeping your hips square and facing forward. Bring your arms up and keep them rounded, like hugging a large tree. Take a deep breath, pull your arms in close. Exhale and bend at the waist. Inhale reach up with your arms and do a back bend. Switch sides and repeat the exercise. Chances are before you start the second side, just getting into position you are going to feel a stability difference between the left and right sides. You will probably find more flexibility on your dominant side.

If this is the case, add back flexibility into your workout routine.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Exercising on Vacation

When I vacation, I always check out the running facilities of my destination before I leave. Am I in an area that's good for running? If I'm in an urban area, is there a park nearby? Is there a college with a track? If the area is not conducive to outside running, is there a gym in the facility where I'll be staying?

When I mention this in passing ("I can't wait to go running in Central Park, even though it's the coldest December on record!" "I hope the gym has an elliptical because there's construction for blocks around the capital...."), I get funny looks.

Often, there's at least one person who screws up the courage to ask, "You're not really going to run on vacation, are you? That's why they call it vacation!"

And I laugh. Of course I run on vacation. Every vacation I've taken as an adult (except for a couple late last year) I find myself lacing my shoes in the morning. My family doesn't even think to ask if I plan to run, but when. Even on Christmas Day, I'm out in the elements, pounding the pavement. (After gifts; I'm not completely crazy.)

A trip I took this past weekend proved to me the joy of running while on vacation. I didn't know exactly in which South Carolina city I'd find myself, so I couldn't plan. I didn't know much about lodging, or amenities on site or around where we'd be.

But I was ready for anything: I had gotten lost for an hour in San Francisco in the 90s and, one summer in North Carolina, run twice my normal distance (quite by accident, I assure you, and got a sunburn to prove it). I couldn't be thwarted.

I was pleasantly surprised the night David and I arrived in Columbia. We were within walking distance (okay, my idea of walking distance) of the city's throbbing night life areaa. As David and I walked back to the hotel from dinner, we saw the dome of the state capital building. I couldn't wait to check it out in the light of day.

The following morning, David was up with the dawn. I was not. The day was gray and drizzly, but it was 25 degrees warmer than it would have been at home, so I couldn't really complain. I donned my running gear around mid-morning and hit the street.

People rarely see bars in the light of day for a reason, and other "hot night life" areas often suffer from the same spirit. Without the neon and the press of stylishly-dressed bodies, the center of town looked underwhelming and very definitely under improvement. The streets were quiet, the doors were locked and there were only a few cars on even the busiest roads. I loved it.

I discovered a lovely park full of war memorials a couple of blocks from the hotel, and I made a mental note to return with my camera. I could read the historic markers and knew the answers to David's questions about the "train depot" look of part of the strip (it was a train depot at one time). The flour factory was, indeed, in operation. The convention center was getting itself gussied for its next group (Spa Expo 2009, according to the marquee and the two-story inflatable rubber ducky on the lawn). And yes, that was the state capital building.

And I saw it all because I went running.

So, the next time someone wonders why you aren't leaving your walking (or running) shoes at home on your next vacation, know you made the best decision to discover your surroundings while getting a workout. Just remember to be careful — and don't forget to take your camera (a little tip I'll remember next time).
- Chris

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Functional Tai Chi

During my Tai Chi classes, I always get asked, "Why do we breath the way we do? And why do we practice push hands?"

The answer to both of these questions is related. Breathing properly allows for better energy flow, and better energy flow increases health and relaxation.

When practicing push hands and the Tai Chi form, we concentrate on breathing during movement. This teaches us to relax while having better energy flow and posture through the course of our day.

When we practice the form, we learn to keep our bodies in alignment. During regular daily activities, we should always be mindful of keeping our head, hips, knees and feet in line.

Even when we are not practicing Tai Chi.