Category Archives: Mental health & stress

Muscle tension

Have you noticed that we use the same words for “good” muscle tension and “bad” muscle tension? What’s the difference?

Here are two types of muscle tension:


1) A muscle has to generate tension to exert force at a joint. This may or may not result in observable movement. This is what we do when we are trying to strengthen or contract a muscle. This type of muscle contractions could be concentric (muscle actively shortens), eccentric (muscle actively lengthens against a load or gravity) or it could be isometric (muscle length is unchanged during a contraction).

2) A muscle that “should” be at rest but is still generating tension and/or movement. This may be the type associated with mental stress. Areas where we may feel this “tension” is the neck, jaw, hands, chest and abdomen. It really could be any muscle. We may tighten the muscles in these areas inadvertently in response to stress.

Either way you look at it, muscle tension is created through muscle contractions, voluntary or involuntary, done consciously or unconsciously.

So why should you care?

Because we have control over both types of tension, even the one that seems to be more “unconscious”. And one of the best ways to learn how to “release” or “exert” muscle tension is through exercise. Exercise helps us to increase our kinesthetic awareness. More simply, exercise can help us feel and understand our bodies better, and become more adept at modifying muscle tension according to our needs.

Even better, if our focus is to “release” tension, there is a reciprocal inhibition of one muscle over another with every muscle contraction. This means, if I want to release tension in my tricep (located on the back of my upper arm) then one way to do this is contract the opposing muscle (bicep) on the front of the arm.

Do you want your muscles to get stronger to improve function or do you need to release and learn how to “let go”?

Probably a bit of both. So why not move with intention at least once daily? This could be a walk, an exercise video, an exercise class virtually or in person, a personal training session, swimming, or multitude of other physical activities. Start with what is familiar and preferably at least mildly enjoyable. Buddy up with someone who is looking to do the same thing.

When you exercise regularly or intentionally move on a consistent basis, you will slowly learn more about your body and how it feels after certain activities. You will become better at determining when a muscle is “on” for the purpose of strengthening, or if it is “on” because of habits that have connected our mind’s stress to a physical response in our body.

If you would like to learn more about your body through movement, Essentrics is a great place to start. Essentrics uses all types of muscle contractions and will help you zone in on areas where you need to release. Check out my page Essentrics with Andrea or check out Essentrics.com for more information.

Let’s MOVE!!



Exercise and mental health

Exercise and mental health are hot topics nowadays with the pandemic. In Toronto, we have started our third round “lock down” and you can’t help but wonder, “when is it going to end?” I have been steadfast in maintaining a physical activity routine despite not finding a strong internal motivation at times. It’s tough to get moving when your mind is filled with stress or worry. On the other hand, there are some who have been able to re-invigorate their programs while working from home.

There are many reasons to exercise or engage in daily physical activity if you are struggling emotionally. Do you need some peace of mind? Maybe “get out” of your head and into your body for a little while?

We have been cooped up for some time and we continue to be asked to limit where we go on a daily basis. Your “live” social sphere may be limited to just a few people. We feel restricted in more ways than one.

Now may be the time to make some breakthroughs on exercise and mental health and make new connections on what you can gain from daily exercise.

Runner’s high. Zen like states. Release after exertion. Coldness converted into warmth. Contraction followed by relaxation. Stiffness transformed into fluidity. Restriction remolded into freedom. Exercise can address mental health on many levels and from different angles.

Here some of the angles I use exercise to transform my personal state of mental health well being.

Mental centering through exercise

When exercise requires you to focus “inside” it may have a calming effect. Taking the time to focus on our inner health using exercise can provide that daily reset, allowing us to cope better with all of the competing demands for our attention.

On a practical level, start with a walk. During the walk focus on your posture and how your feet connect with the ground. As you change your weight from one foot to the other, notice how the energy is transmitted from the ground and through the foot. Next imagine how that energy is transmitted upward through your lower leg and knee. At what point do you feel the front of your thigh or gluteals contract? Can you breath deeply as you lengthen your spine? This could start out as a walking meditation at first, and once warmed up, could end in a brisker walk. Keep it going once you are home with a few stretches that you are already familiar with, allowing yourself to cool down and release.

A lighter note on reducing the mind’s chatter

When using exercise to quiet your mind and to be present, fewer distractions is likely better. If you are exercising with a friend, finding exercise that is intense enough will make talking at a regular rate or volume difficult. This could be a strategy to get you and your friend out of your heads and into your body.

Endorphins

More vigorous or sustained exercise can also lead to the release of endorphins. This can leave you feeling elevated or energized. This is what I work towards when I need a mental break.

Releasing tension that is held in our body

If we sit all the time in a slouched position, there will certain muscles that are tight and others that may be weak or too long. Both can result in muscular discomfort. Now add in some stress or worry. Are your shoulders up to your ears? Teeth clenched? Scrunching your forehead? See if you can find the areas of tension. You may be able to use this information to guide your exercise process by gently contracting then relaxing these areas. With this awareness you may be able to improve your alignment.

Increasing circulation or “flow”

Exercise promotes the stimulation of not just the circulatory system but an increased flow in all of systems that produce energy and discard waste including digestion, respiration, and the lymphatic systems. This enhanced flow decreases stagnancy and improves the clearance of toxins, literally lightening our load.

Our existence and exercise

From a more existential perspective, exercise involves a commitment to the self. It is an acknowledgement of our mortality and the need to address the physical and mental self in order to maximize its wellness and to enhance our ability to experience life.

Get into the exercise arena everyday. Use that arena as your special place where you can re-energize and be in charge of everything that you do. Remember that intentional physical activity(like taking a brisk walk) is just as important as a structured exercise program. If we use physical exercise to center ourselves on a regular basis, it becomes a habit to break up the doldrums. It can become a dependable landing pad that we use to feel more grounded and free, everyday.

Are you ready?

Let’s go!

Essentrics with Andrea

When exercise doesn’t feel good: 6 reasons why and how to overcome them

Sometimes exercise doesn’t feel good. If you are like me, I exercise for a release. But what happens when that release or elevated state after exercise doesn’t occur? What if it is just the opposite?

I recently did an online class with my favorite instructor.  But I will admit, I wasn’t feeling it.   Until we got to the side leg lifts.  More on that later.  Maybe it was because I had a kink in my neck that was distracting me, and a resolving shoulder tendinitis on the opposite side. I was in a bit of a funk. Probably even before I started. I left class on a neutral to grumpy note. I didn’t experience my usual lightness of being.  My focus was also a little scattered with concerns unrelated to the class.

Let’s start with the obvious:

1: Pain or injury. Sometimes we can manage to do what we like to do despite a little niggling irritation or pain. Sometimes after exercising that discomfort is gone. But sometimes its worse. If you are in the habit of feeling more pain after exercise, you are doing the wrong thing. Switch your intention to releasing versus tensing. Go “loosey goosey”(credit : Essentrics). Go through the range of motion without visiting the painful limits. This may be enough to nudge you back into balance.

The other thing is try something completely different. Give that unhappy area some relative rest. Do an activity that focuses on another area of the body (stationary cycling instead of upper body activities for a shoulder injury). Focus on ideal postures and positions for the area involved. If you can’t figure it out, consult with someone who should know how to approach injury and exercise.

The exercise itself may not be the reason for your pain. It could very well be how you spend your day (sitting, slouching?) that is the main contributing factor to your malaise. Start paying to attention to more of what hurts and what helps. This may inform you as to what activities may be beneficial and what is harmful.

2. Illness. if you are sick, you are sick. Some of us know when we are about to get sick. This is the time to back off so your body can focus its energy on your immune response. Taxing your body at this time is a bad idea. It doesn’t mean you can’t take a short walk, if you are truly up for it. You still need to move but bring it down several notches so nature can take its course, getting you better sooner than later.

3. Self criticism. Sometimes we enter into exercise with a less than positive attitude. Find the spaces where you know you have felt uplifted before. If you are just getting started, can you create or find an environment where you feel the desire to thrive? Where can you find some positive encouragement for your efforts? Try not to compare yourself to others, even if just for the next 20 minutes. Be present for your own benefit.

4. Over training / overexertion. This is again where the ego’s desires exceed the physical ability or capacity. Yes, you may have run a marathon, but the boot camp isn’t a run-a-thon, so take yourself through new activities with several ounces of caution. What’s the hurry? What’s the point of exercising beyond your tissues’ limits?

I like exercise that I can sustain everyday. I no longer want to train so I can barely walk the following day or two. It depends on what your goals are. If you are directing your efforts towards a specific goal, are you starting from a base level of fitness or are you starting from square one? A different approach will be required for each circumstance

Overtraining can lead to chemical imbalances that can can be more destructive than constructive (long term elevation of cortisol) , leaving you feeling lousy instead of energized.

5. Not enough fuel/water/sleep.

Fuel. We need food to maintain our basic human processes. If we are exercising, we need more. This doesn’t mean you should eat the McDonald’s cheeseburger because you ran for 1.5 hours. Look at what you eat and drink as your building blocks to success. Not eating enough to sustain your activities may result in increased cortisol levels and decreased recovery.

If you are pairing exercise with reduced food intake for weight loss, try not to be too extreme. Look for the nutrient dense food (aka healthy) so your body gets what it needs. Cut out the junk food. We can eat crappy food on occasion when we are fitness focused. But feeling dizzy during exercise because you haven’t eaten or drank enough shouldn’t be an option.

Water. I don’t derive a lot of pleasure from drinking water. I feel the same about eating green vegetables but at least my body recognizes that they are important and sometimes craves them. Water? I am rarely thirsty and hate the taste. I just know I need water. So I try to choke down a a cupful or two during exercise. I use a cup instead of a bottle for easier access.

Sleep. If you didn’t sleep at all the night before, should you be doing that morning routine? Sleep is a tough one if your are having trouble finding it. If you like to keep your exercise schedule regular, switch up your workout that day and try something calming or meditative. Maybe do a light stretching routine. Get in tune with yourself instead of maxing out that day.

6. You are too hot or too cold. This is very important but often overlooked. I am guilty of this, having noted my ability to overheat seems more likely than ever before. Peri-menopausal? We need to exercise at a temperature that allows us to cool off when needed, and to be warm enough to encourage soft tissue extensibility.

I am particularly sensitive when it comes to my feet and ankles. I think that I have beaten up my tender tootsies one too many times. The result is that I can’t function well with cold feet. It hurts. If it’s cold, dress warmly. Move around gently in anticipation of more complex movements later in the workout.

To summarize:

Getting on the fitness train isn’t as difficult as staying on the train. I think if you focus on the big picture, and keep reminding yourself that it is a constantly evolving process, you will have more reasonable expectations. You will judge yourself less if you don’t follow through on the exact prescription you created for yourself that day. Accept the reality that movement will result in a healthier and longer life. Daily small successes are way better than none at all.

If I am in pain, I need to modify. If I am sick, I have to take it easier. If I am sad, I have to give myself a mental break. If I am unrealistic, I have to redefine ground zero or reconsider what level of elevation I am aiming for. If I am too cold or hot, I bring on the layers or expose a little more skin.

All of these perceived barriers have answers. No need to struggle. Just be a little better than yesterday or just maintain your gains. You are in charge. Ask for help if you need it. You are stronger than you think (credit: favorite fitness instructor).

Essentrics with Andrea

Exercise in times of elevated levels of stress

This is a blog that I wrote some time ago during the early COVID days. I am not one to succumb to the pressures of stress.  Generally, I feel that I can handle stress well but recent world developments have had an impact on my current primary occupation and financial sources of income.  I would like to think that I can do it all, but as of late, I have allowed myself a bit more flexibility in my exercise expectations than I normally would during a regular week. Exercise in times of elevated levels of stress can be challenging.

To exercise or not to exercise.  That is a question.  I last put in a “formal” workout 3 days ago.  It is not a long time, but long enough to trigger some guilt for not doing my usual (Essentrics) exercise workout at a rate of 3-4 times per week.  On the brighter side, I have been walking twice daily for 25 minutes for the purpose of transporting myself to and from work, a safer option than taking public transit at this time.  So I am getting some DIPA (daily intentional physical activity).  All is not lost.  The daily walks give me the time to refocus and distract myself from the ongoing foreboding threat. 

I know tomorrow that I will without a doubt add in a formal workout in addition walking.  But for today I am giving myself a relative break.  Relative rest is what I like to call it. 

Trying to balance the equation

When it comes to immunity, we know that the balance between stress and exercise can have an impact on our body’s response to fight infection.  There is no exact prescription.  It will be different for everyone depending on your starting point. Exercise in times of elevated levels of stress needs to challenge you and not degrade you. 

I have benefited from exercise so many times that I could never truly give in.  But it’s tempting.  What is less tempting is to reduce my level of fitness to a point that my energy levels change.  I am not worried that I have fallen off the wagon.  But it really makes you think about what is important. It’s easy to make excuses so I will keep these periods in check, when intending to promote the preservation of energy through decreased movement, because at some point the equilibrium is lost and then you have to build it up again.

I’ve decided that my strategy tomorrow is to start my day with a workout when my energy level is higher.  I know I can do it.  I am looking forward to it.  These times will always pass, its just that this one is truly out of my control.

Keeping it simple

I am setting my goals at a level that I know I can accomplish.   Sometimes its a day to day assessment.  I personally can depend on myself but if that wasn’t the case, who or what would I turn to, to help motivate me and keep me on track?  For the last 2 Saturdays at around 1pm I have been doing an IGTV workout with Jillian Michaels.  I think it really helps to know that you are not alone, and there are others working out with you at the same time.  I’ve also considered giving my own Zoom class to private clients(my colleagues) to replace their weekly Wednesday Essentrics.   I have also started using the Nike app again combined with some cycling.  

Options

Exercise in times of elevated levels of stress means that I will always go with my flow.   This means that I will do some form of intentional activity but there are no hard set rules, just options.  The more options you have then the more likely you will just get started and then see where your flow takes you.  For example, my options could be stationary bike, treadmill, stretching, Nike app, Essentrics TV, or learn new Essentrics choreography. I also have Zoom Essentrics and HIIT class options with a preferred teacher. 

My only “should do’s” are actually cardiovascular exercise where my heart rate is elevated, either in a fat burning zone long duration or HIIT.  Keeping the VO2 max healthy is all about our capacity to perform.  If only I could accurately assess my VO2 max, that would be wonderful.

Exercise in times of elevated levels of stress can be challenging.  Trying to find balance in my self when the world is full of unpredictability is all I can do.  Keeping it simple and allowing myself to have options decreases the internal pressure.  Keeping the heart and lungs healthy are key in maintaining energy levels.  Its almost always worth the effort.  Picking the right level of effort will ensure that I will follow through, finding myself on the other side of having fulfilled the need to move my body.  Approaching each day individually with unique DIPA goals have made it easier to say yes to today. I will intentionally move my body for the betterment of my current health and future quality of life. Onward and upward!

Essentrics with Andrea