Katy Santiago, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura, California, and creator of Gaiam’s restorative exercise DVD programs.
Lots of exercise plans take a highly targeted approach: Some have a bias for beefy biceps, others focus only on constant cardio, and still others fixate on abs—literally at nauseam. Now that may suit a sports- or image-related need, but adopting a simple, sustainable wellness routine makes more sense in the long run. While we all understand that any type of movement is better than hours logged in our favorite chair, many of us have no idea that specific types of exercise can prevent or even reverse disease.
Although each of us has a unique personality and genetic makeup, our bodies all function in much the same way. They produce cells as rapidly as we need them—unless something happens to impair the process. When cellular reproduction begins to slow down, pain, injury, or disease can result. What’s the fix? Keep moving: Cartilage, bone, ligament, muscle, and nerves are just a few of the tissues that can regenerate if circulation increases through more muscle movement. Physical activity pulls fresh blood and oxygen—what cells thrive on—toward the muscles and surrounding tissue.
Every one of your body’s 650 muscles needs frequent use. When you limit your movement, the body shortens the affected muscles and the connective myofascial tissue that surrounds them. Certain muscles become dormant, circulation and range of motion decrease, and disease and injury become more likely. To ensure all muscles and connective tissues are at their optimal length, get moving with our ultimate exercise plan.
Every day, choose…
Whole-body exercise. Your body functions best with regular whole-body movement. Daily workouts may seem like an indulgence in our overly scheduled days, but for the body’s optimum health, exercise is non-negotiable. While gravity aids the downhill flow of blood from your heart to the rest of the body, returning the blood back up to the heart depends in part on the rhythmic contraction of the leg muscles. When we sit for too long or too often, our leg muscles become inactive, forcing the cardiovascular system to pick up the slack. The heart has to pump harder and more frequently, while the small muscles in the blood vessels have to work the blood uphill by themselves, wearing them out before their time.
Whole-body exercise can range from free-form dancing to walking around your neighborhood. Choose activities that require you to use both sides of your body equally and in which you sit as little as possible. While exercises such as rowing and pedaling a bicycle may be a good way to break a sweat, they don’t offer the same health benefits to your organ systems as movement requiring that you carry your own body weight. To see if your exercise preferences qualify as whole-body exercise, ask yourself the following questions: Am I carrying the majority of my body weight? Do my knees have a chance to straighten? Is my spine straight and not rounded forward as it is when I’m sitting in a chair? If you answer yes to all, you can feel good about effectively undoing the unhealthful toll that sitting takes on your body.
Whole-body exercise covers the basics. Walking, hiking, swimming, and dancing are the best forms of all-over, healthy movement. Ideally, you need an hour of this type of motion a day, but—good news—you don’t have to get it in all at once. Taking brisk 15-minute walks four times a day enhances wellness just as much as walking for an hour nonstop.
For the most advantageous whole-body movement, you need the motor skill and flexibility to move each joint to its fullest range of motion. Even regular exercisers still spend the greatest portion of their day in a sitting position. The body, able to adjust to almost anything, adapts to constant sitting by shortening tendons, tensing fascia, and reducing blood flow to underused muscles.
The exercises below help undo, in just minutes a day, the most common (unhealthy) posture habits and increase circulation and mobility to muscle systems not regularly used. To keep optimal range of motion, do these daily. When you first start, hold each stretch for 30 seconds, gradually working your way up to a minute per hold.
Research shows that small but frequent weight-bearing impacts, also known as vibrations, can maintain and generate bone density. Walking correctly, with the heel striking first, creates these kinds of vibrations up the legs and helps keep the bones of your hips healthy. This exercise for the lower leg and foot eases the tension in the lower leg that causes us to shuffle instead of reaching a full stride.
Try: Place the front of your left foot on a tightly rolled towel or yoga mat, while keeping the heel of the same foot on the ground. Take a step forward with the right foot, and place it on the ground. Straighten your spine, and move your hips over the back foot, holding on to a wall or chair if necessary. Repeat on the other side.
Sitting all day means less blood flow throughout your body. Though you may walk an hour or more a day, often the body has adapted to sitting by shortening the muscles at the back of the legs—even when you’re up and about. To lengthen those hamstrings, stretch with a strap.
Try: Start by lying on your back with your legs outstretched and together. As you inhale, draw your left knee up to your chest, and loop a belt or strap around the ball of the left foot. Holding the strap with both hands, straighten the left leg until the knee is completely straight. Ideally, your leg should be perpendicular to the floor, but you may need to lower your leg somewhat before you can straighten it. Repeat on the other side.
Although today’s urban landscapes require us to wear shoes, our bodies function best when barefoot. Shoes give the small muscles of the feet little reason to move, which in turn lessens the contact your brain keeps with your feet. In part, that translates to less blood flow to the tissues of the foot—a major health issue when it comes to diabetes, high blood pressure, and balance.
Try: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and holding on to a chair, reach one leg back, and tuck your toes under until the tops of them rest on the floor. Try not to bend either knee. Repeat on the other side.
Tension across the chest can increase mid-back spinal curvature and pressure on the heart and lungs.
Try: Keeping your hips on the floor, lie over a cushion (or stack of pillows) so it supports your mid-back and head. Lie comfortably with your arms open and palms facing up. Remain here for five minutes or more.
Prone Groin Stretch
Keeping your legs bent at the hips most of the time, thanks to sitting, reduces the amount of activity through the large lymph nodes—located in the groin—that remove waste from your body.
Try: Lie on your stomach with your forehead resting on your hands. Bring one leg out to the side, as far toward your head as you can. Rest the inside edge of the foot on the floor and allow your inner thigh to completely relax. Repeat on the other side.
Thoracic Wall Stretch
Stooped posture can affect everything from blood pressure to bone density and, in extreme cases, can lead to kyphosis, also known as widow’s hump. This simple stretch reduces excessive curvature in the upper spine, loosens shoulders, and relaxes the neck.
Try: With legs straight and torso leaning forward, place your hands flat on a wall in front of you. Walk your hands up the wall until they rest just over your head. Without bending your arms, walk backward while leaning your body forward until your torso stretches out like a hammock between your hands and your hips.
Choose the Workout That’s Best for You
Here’s how to customize our fitness plan for any of these 7 common conditions:
For Digestive Issues
Latest news: Just a little exercise goes a long way. A Canadian study found that patients with Crohn’s disease, ant-inflammatory bowel condition, who walked 30 minutes, three times a week significantly improved their quality of life.
Katy’s tip: Spinal twists can help, too. As your stomach muscles contract and move toward the spine, the smooth muscles, organs, and fascia of the digestive system are massaged and stimulated to work more efficiently. Do twists on an empty stomach.
Try: Sitting upright in your chair, cross your left knee over the top of the right. Turn to your left, and hook your left arm over the back of the chair, and try to clasp your hands together. As you exhale, pull in the belly to massage the digestive tract. Hold this for 60 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
Going Through Menopause
Latest news: Having trouble catching some z’s? You’re not alone—in a study of menopausal women, 95 percent suffered from sleep difficulties, the most common symptom reported. A recent Brazilian study showed that moderate aerobic exercise not only helped patients with chronic insomnia sleep better, but it also helped them sleep longer. Aim for three hours of aerobic exercise a week.
Katy’s tip: Increasing your level of activity can reduce hot flashes. As you begin to exercise, blood moves toward the skin, where it is easier to cool.
Try: 10 minutes of light exercise to dissipate the heat.
Bone and Joint Issues
Latest news: A study published in Osteoporosis International showed that a combination of strengthening, aerobic, balance, and coordination exercises reduced fracture risk in postmenopausal women by improving bone density as well as muscle strength and balance.
Katy’s tip: Include balance-based exercises, such as standing on one leg, in your workout. Work up to a 30-second balance on each side, holding on to the back of a chair if necessary.
Try: When you walk, make sure your walking shoes are not overly cushioned in the heel. Excessive cushioning actually decreases the bone-generating vibrations that come from your heel striking the ground. Consider walking barefoot, perhaps on a grassy field or a path free of debris as often as possible.
For High Blood Pressure
Latest news: Walking is just as beneficial as running when it comes to warding off heart disease. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports that otherwise sedentary people who walked 30 minutes a day, three times a week for 12 weeks, saw their systolic blood pressure (the top number) drop five points and their waist measurement (a strong indicator of heart health) shrink by 2.6 centimeters.
Katy’s tips: Relax first, then exercise. With high blood pressure, the priority is relaxation. Intense, unpleasant exercise can actually increase stress levels and even blood pressure in the long-term. A better game plan? Exercise at an easier pace but for a longer time.
Try: Pressure on the cardiovascular system often comes from tension in the muscles that surround your chest cavity. Chest stretching, as illustrated in the mid-back exercise, can decrease muscle tension, opening up more space for blood to flow.
If You’re Overweight
Latest news: When it comes to weight loss, many heavy people think, Why bother? But researchers from the University of Michigan recently found that even an hour of light aerobic exercise helped study participants burn fat.
Katy’s tip: If you are new to movement, exercising in a pool is an excellent way to begin. Most health clubs offer water aerobics; ask to sample a class before you join.
Try: Stretching on a regular basis. This can ease any discomfort that comes with moving your body for the first time. Start with the range-of-motion exercises, then cycle through them for four or five sessions before moving on to something more vigorous.
Suffering from Diabetes
Latest news: A study by experts at Johns Hopkins University shows that moderate aerobic exercise three days a week, combined with weight lifting three days a week, may slash levels of fat in the liver by up to 40 percent in people with type-2 diabetes. Higher liver-fat levels, a common side effect of diabetes, may increase the risk of heart disease.
Katy’s tips: Another common problem for diabetics, neuropathy of the feet, may significantly improve with regular lower leg, ankle, and foot exercises.
Try: Do the foot and leg stretches twice daily. Make sure that your footwear fits comfortably and doesn’t cut into your feet or cause you to grip with your toes.
At Risk for Dementia
Latest news: A study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that any physical activity helps the brain grow new cells, which guards against dementia.
Katy’s tips: Any unfamiliar movement can increase motor skills and brain function. For five minutes a day, open doors, write, and eat with your non dominant hand. Always walk the same route? Try reversing it. If you walk on concrete, try a grassy surface or any varied terrain.
Try: Keeping your house clear of obstacles minimizes the odds of tripping, but it also decreases your chance to practice recovering from a stumble. Practice balancing by walking sideways in your kitchen, or stand on one leg a few times a day. Avoid becoming comfortable with your movement routine—strive to mix it up every few months.