Is Your Core Strong Enough to Maximize Mobility As You Get Older?

Jannine Myers

It’s no secret that we lose muscle as we age! While muscle loss is easily noticeable, it’s degenerative effects are often less so; it’s not until limitations in flexibility and movement begin to cause pain and discomfort that they are recognized. And where back pain is concerned, weak core muscles are often at the root of the problem. The weaker the core, the less able it is to support the body as intended, hence the onset of pain.

The truth be known, I had never before considered, or felt it necessary to have my core strength evaluated. But with the Exerscience Clinic directly opposite my place of work, and touted as the “first medically-focused exercise rehabilitation clinic of its kind in New Zealand,” it was only a matter of time before I’d learn more about the benefits of exercise science and how it can be applied to improve one’s health and quality of life. Included in the list of services offered by the clinic, is a test that uses the MedX Lumbar Extension Machine to assess lower back strength; it was with an air of presumptuousness that I went ahead and took the test.

Surprisingly, or should I say shockingly, my assessment results were not at all what I expected; they revealed that I have been quite disillusioned about my self-perceived versus actual strength! I learned that in comparison to other healthy women in my age bracket, my lower back strength was considerably less than average (it’s a wide gap in age, mind you; 36 to 59). But even when the data was skewed to further break down the comparison to other women similar to myself in weight and size, I still fell slightly below average on the measurement chart –  by 3% – across all angles tested. The Exerscience Clinic recommended a 12-week programme involving twice weekly dynamic sessions on their MedX machine, with mid and post-programme strength testing.

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I decided to follow through with the programme (as each session took only 5 minutes of my time and no more than one set of approximately 15 repetitions on the Lumbar Extension Machine), but I want to emphasize that if you’re someone like me who works out regularly and devotes a reasonable amount of time to core strengthening, you might have the same attitude as I did and not feel it necessary to do anything more beyond what you’re already doing. But, knowing what I do now, I am suggesting that it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick assessment test; you may be as surprised as I was to learn that your usual core routine really isn’t cutting it.

One more thing, the term “core strength” elicits for most people thoughts of strong – and quite visible – abs! But the core is much more than that; it’s the transverse abdominals (the muscles that lie deep beneath the waist and form a protective and stabilizing belt around the spine); the obliques (that help to rotate the trunk, as well as perform other vital functions), the rectus dominus (the long muscle in the front abdominal region, or the ever-elusive six-pack, that enables flexion of the torso and spine), and the erector spinae (the muscles that run the length of your neck down to lower spine). All of these muscles work in conjunction to contribute towards ease of movement, injury prevention, and protection of the inner organs and central nervous system.

Getting back to my testing however, the following improvements were made over a period of 12 weeks and a total of 20 sessions:

  • Initial Test Results – maximal amount of force produced over a series of angles from 0 to 72 degrees: 75 ft-lbs of force at the fully extended position of 0 degrees, and 133 ft-lbs of force at the fully flexed position of 72 degrees.
  • End Of Session Results – 118 ft-lbs of force at the fully extended position of 0 degrees, and 166 ft-lbs of force at the fully flexed position of 72 degrees. The chart below also shows an increase in the amount of force produced across all angles.

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That’s an increase in isometric lower back strength by 29%, and a huge jump from being – on average – 3% weaker, to 26% stronger than healthy females of a similar age and weight! Oh, and incidentally, about halfway through my treatment programme, I suffered minor whiplash from a rear-end car accident and temporarily saw a chiropractor for relief. At the initial consultation, after assessing an x-ray, the chiropractor said he was impressed (considering how long I have been running), at how well-hydrated my spinal discs were. What he meant, is that because my lumbar range of motion is good, my discs are able to more adequately receive nutrition and hydration, and thereby function as they should.

Now, moving forward, I am following an on-going maintenance programme that involves just two 5-minute dynamic workouts a month on the MedX Lumbar Extension machine. Maintaining my lower back strength from hereon in gives me confidence that I will have a much better chance of moving about with ease and with minimal pain as I get older.

If you would like you to have your lower back strength tested, or if you suffer from back pain and/or arthritis, go see the girls at The Exerscience Clinic in Grafton, Auckland; they’ll take great care of you and get you on the right path! Call them at 09 393 8500, or email them at info@exerscience.co.nz

Use Pantry Staples To Avoid Splurging On End-Of-Week Take-Away Meals

Jannine Myers

Do you find that meal prepping only seems to take you through the first half of the week and by Thursday you’re out of food and meal ideas? I’m sure you’re not alone; I feel that that is probably the case in most households, even in those where meal prep and planning is a priority. It’s difficult to keep the momentum going from Sunday all the way through to Friday, and most likely, end-of-week temptations to pick dinner up from a favourite take-away joint will override any resistance.

If you really want to save money however, and also put a healthier home-made meal on the table, then don’t underestimate the meal potential of a few staple pantry items and leftover produce. Last week, for example, as Thursday rolled around and the perishables from our previous weekend’s grocery shop were mostly all consumed, it was time to get a little innovative. Here’s how I managed to put together a meal (that also served as leftover Friday lunch), from the following items:

  • Canned corn kernels
  • Canned pink salmon
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Eggs
  • Dried onions and dried garlic
  • Italian seasoning
  • Shredded cheese
  • Leftover produce – broccoli, beets, and zucchini

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I guess you could say the end result was a brown rice and salmon pie, with roasted veges. It’s obviously not nearly as appetizing as the take-away meal you’d much rather be eating, but if health and finances are a priority for you then cooking with simple and minimally processed pantry staples should be an option you’re willing to consider : )

How To Train When You’re Tired But Not Exhausted

Jannine Myers

Last week I started out on an evening run and knew right from the outset that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. I was plain exhausted after a long day at work and simply couldn’t muster up enough energy. Add to that the cold air and the smoke fumes from surrounding neighbourhood chimneys, and one thing was certain: it was obvious that my planned intervals weren’t going to happen.

In the past, as a novice runner, I would have attempted to ignore how my body was feeling, but I know better now. Learning to discern the difference between actual fatigue and the feeling of simply not wanting to work out, can often be the one thing that prevents the onset of overtraining.

As I think about my years in Okinawa, where year-round training was the norm, I recall how tempting it was to persevere through training sessions even when the body was under duress from either too little rest or extreme heat conditions. I saw many of my athlete friends and acquaintances experience setbacks because adherence to training plans took precedence over listening to body cues.

In many cases however, physical and/or mental fatigue may not be serious enough to warrant taking a day off. On such occasions there’s no need to throw the towel in and give up altogether; some quick modifications can help satisfy the urge to train and more importantly, reduce the risk of injury or illness.

Here are some ways to follow through with your scheduled run without hurting yourself :

1. Easy pace, short runs on a flat route – break up the distance into quarters; fast walk the first quarter, run at your usual easy pace for the second two quarters, and slow jog the final quarter.

2. Easy pace, short runs on a hilly course – run at regular easy pace on flat and downhill sections of the course, and walk the uphill sections.

3. Tempo runs – reduce tempo pace and/or tempo distance, according to how you feel. It’s also a good idea to leave the garmin and other timing devices at home; that way you’re not tempted to try and meet a set pace.

4. Speed workouts (fartlek/interval/track repeats) – reduce intensity (goal time for each repeat) and/or the number of repeats. You can also increase the recovery time between repeats.

5. Long runs – in lieu of a long run, it’s sometimes best to settle for a nice easy run that’s half the distance of your long run distance. If you’re determined to do your long run however, then at least add 20 to 30 seconds to your regular long run pace, and opt for a route that takes you on a double loop so that you have the option to stop after the first loop if it becomes obvious that you won’t be able to complete the full distance.

Train smart, and remain healthy and happy!

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“Never be afraid to reevaluate and adjust your goals. It is far more important to be honest with yourself about where you are at than to set unrealistic goals that lead to self-defeat.”
Teri Larsen Jones – US National Waterskiing Champion

“…pro-runners are comfortable with adjusting their expectations…… they have the ability to turn a lemon workout into lemonade”
Greg McMillan – World Class Running Coach

“…..some (workout) sessions are stars and some sessions are stones, but in the end they are all rocks and we build upon them.”
Brett Sutton – World Class Triathlete Coach 

Putting Supervised High Intensity Strength Training To The Test

Jannine Myers

In an effort to promote improved eating and fitness habits amongst staff members at BodyTech Gym, my co-workers and I were challenged by management to enter an in-house Body Composition Contest.The winning male and female would be determined by the greatest percentage of body fat lost over a period of four weeks. To make it reasonably fair, since some staff members had significantly more (or less) body fat to lose, other variables such as girth circumference measurements would be taken into account.

My personal goal throughout the contest was less focused on weight loss, and more focused instead on minimally decreasing body fat while simultaneously increasing strength and lean muscle mass. My usual workout routine outside of running typically involves at-home calisthenic and dumbbell workouts, but it’s been years since I last did any type of strength training in a gym environment with heavier weights and machines. I reasoned that this Body Composition Contest was the perfect catalyst to get serious about strengthening my injury-prone running legs! Additionally, I wanted to see what kind of results I could get by a) using BodyTech’s Supervised HIT Circuit two or three times a week, b) making no dietary changes at all, and c) limiting my cardiovascular training to no more than 30 to 60 minutes every other day.

First of all, for those of you who have never had a body composition test done, what you can expect is a measurement of estimated fat mass, which can be further measured by essential, and non-essential fat:

Essential Fat – fat that is required in order for the body to function properly; for women, 10 – 13% of essential fat is necessary to meet this need and anything below is going to be detrimental to long-term health. Conversely, a body fat percentage over and above 31% is too high, and also potentially harmful. Women who have between 24 and 31% body fat are seen as having an “Acceptable” amount of fat, although lowering their percentage to under 24 would be most optimal.

Non-Essential Fat – is exactly that; “non-essential.” The body uses this excess fat for storage, to protect organs and provide insulation; it is stored in the abdomen, around inner organs (visceral fat), or in various body locations underneath the skin (subcutaneous fat).

Everything else in your body that is not body fat (i.e. lean body mass), is made up of vital body tissues and cells: muscle, water, organs, connective tissue, and bone. Lean body mass should ideally be between 70 and 80% of a female’s body composition; 70% is acceptable, while 80% is very fit. And incidentally, a woman’s total body water percentage is also an indicator of good (or bad) health. For women, an ideal body water percentage is anywhere between 45 and 60%.

My baseline measurements on day one of the challenge revealed that my body fat percentage was already below 20%, with total water percentage being 60% and everything else (muscle, organs, tissue, and bones) being 22%. So health-wise, you could say that my body composition results were already showing favourable percentages, however there was still room for a little improvement and according to my physiotherapist, definitely room for leg and glute strength improvement.

The following is a sample of the weekly workout routine I stuck to, although admittedly it wasn’t until about a week and a half into the challenge that I got serious about my intentions of using the Supervised HIT Circuit:

Monday – 20 minute cardio HIIT workout on stationary bike, followed by Supervised Circuit and supplementary glute exercises (total workout time 45 minutes)

Tuesday – 50 minute easy-paced run

Wednesday – 25 minute cardio HIIT workout at home, plus 5 minutes of oblique exercises

Thursday – 20 minutes steady cycling on stationary bike, followed by Supervised Circuit (total workout time 45 minutes

Friday – Rest

Saturday – 20 minute cardio HIIT workout on stationary bike, followed by Supervised Circuit and supplementary glute exercises (total workout time 45 minutes)

Sunday – 45 minute steady-paced run

[I’ve also posted below a few examples of what a typical day of meals looks like for me]

At the end of the 4-week challenge, my body composition was tested again and the following changes had occurred:

  • a 1kg (2.2lb) decrease in weight
  • a 1% decrease in body fat
  • a 1% increase in water
  • a decrease in all girth circumference measurements: I trimmed a little fat from my triceps, hips, waist, and thighs
  • no change in fat free mass (muscle, organs, bone and tissue)

So how can these results be interpreted? Given that no dietary changes were made, the fact that I was able to still trim down in weight, body fat, and girth circumference measurements, indicates that the changes I made to my usual exercise routine (higher intensity weight training combined with moderate cardiovascular workouts) were most likely responsible for the overall fat loss. Notice too, that the percentages of weight and fat loss are not extreme, which also suggests that the results were safely achieved and less likely to last only temporarily (which generally happens when women try to lose weight with quick-fix diet strategies).

At this point you may be wondering if, despite the loss of weight and fat, my goal of increasing strength and muscle was achieved. The answer is yes and no. My workout card, that keeps a running record of weights lifted and number of repetitions on each of the Supervised Circuit machines, showed a small but gradual progression in strength gain on all but two of the machines. With regards to an increase in muscle mass, it didn’t happen; however, there was also no change, meaning that weight and fat loss occurred without compromising muscle mass.

The end result: a moderate but improved (and appropriate/steady rate of) change in body composition, as well as overall strength. Over a longer period, I suspect an increase in lean muscle mass would also have been seen.

Examples of my typical daily meals are below; I cook and bake most of our meals and rarely eat anything out of a box. Also, please note that although the generally accepted view is that sufficient daily protein intake for adults is 0.8g per kilo of body weight, I consume almost that amount in my post-workout shake alone! A study in the British Journal of Nutrition (August 2012), suggests that 1.2g per kilo of body weight is more beneficial, especially for endurance and strength-trained athletes.

Meal One: Post workout protein shake with half of a small banana, almond milk, flaxseed, and a small handful of walnuts (my choice of protein powder is made of undenatured whey, and contains 36g of protein).

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Meal Two examples: tofu and vegetable curry with brown rice + kiwifruit, or mussel and chickpea salad with roast vegetables + small green apple, or grilled salmon with roasted pumpkin, brussel sprouts and green beans.

Meal Three examples: apple-spiced millet and seed slice with plain yogurt and kiwifruit, or 3 rice cakes with peanut or almond butter + a small piece of fruit, or 2 pieces of toast with boiled egg and avocado + small piece of fruit.

Meal Four examples: Small bowl of chickpea and vege soup, with black rice/beet/mushroom patti served with small side salad of halloumi cheese, or grilled pesto chicken with brown rice and broccoli/pea soup, or ground turkey loaf with roasted capsicums and butternut squash + beet soup. And, I always end my dinner meal with a home-baked but healthy-ish sweet.

On weekends I enjoy a couple (or more) glasses of red wine, and I often go out for lunch or dinner, or order in and also enjoy a not-so-healthy dessert :)

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Disclaimer: The conclusions made in this blog post are mine alone, and based on my own thoughts and opinions. What works for me may not work for others. I am also not a calorie counter and nor do I recommend specific diets. I simply eat meals that I feel are nutritionally dense and balanced, I eat portion sizes that satisfy my appetite, and I allow room for a little indulging.