WEEKLY FIT NEWS: March 30, 2017
Hot baths, hip-looseners, meditation retreats, and more
Every athlete knows that education is a crucial part of performance. Sport and exercise research, insight from top trainers, science, and technology help you to better understand your body so you can craft a healthier lifestyle, workouts, and recovery plan.
In this installment of the weekly news series, Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, addresses some of the week’s fitness research and news stories.
What’s the best way to incorporate baths into my fitness routine?
The science: Researchers at Loughborough University found that soaking in a steamy tub for an hour produced positive effects on blood sugar and burned as many calories as a half-hour walk.
Expert EQX insight: “Though not a replacement for a workout, by sitting in the warm water, we are naturally increasing our core body temperature. As a result, our blood vessels get bigger allowing for less resistance to blood flow. For the heart, this decreases blood pressure and increases circulation, allowing for more oxygen to reach stressed tissues and a reduction of inflammation. This relaxing activity can also help reduce stress by calming the nervous system; as a result, this reduces cortisol production. All of this means that hot baths should be a staple of your recovery strategy. Given the increased body temperature, your muscles and connective tissues also become more pliable and relaxed. This can allow you to engage in deeper stretches (while in the bath) with less strain. Make it even more effective by adding Epsom salts. The salts break down into magnesium and sulfate which can be absorbed through the skin and lead to a further decrease in inflammation and increased muscle function. Though they are likely not needed after every workout, Epsom salts are a good option if you finished a particularly tough workout and want to manage the soreness for the next day.”
What’s the easiest way to loosen my hips?
The science: A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that, in Division I linemen, foam rolling was effective in increasing hip flexibility. Rolling didn’t, however, impact strength or power.
Expert EQX insight: “The better you can move, the better (and longer) you are able to train in a safe and efficient manner. An essential part of moving better is finding ways to increase your flexibility or range of motion around the various joint systems. This study showed that both foam rolling and stretching, used independently, were effective means of increasing flexibility around the hips as measured through hip flexion. A great strategy is using them together by first rolling the limited area and following that up with targeted stretches. By rolling first, provided the intensity isn’t too high, you are facilitating the process of reducing neuromuscular tone (essentially cuing the muscles to relax) and creating a very subtle stretch to the tissue through pressure. If you follow that up with stretches, like a hamstring or hip flexor stretch, you are now taking advantage of the newfound range of motion. A third strategy you can use to help loosen hips is to focus on trunk stability through moves like planks, bird dog, crawling, half kneeling kettlebell halos, or farmers carries. Many times, the hips are ‘tight’ because they are making up for lacking stability elsewhere (often in the low back or torso). By regaining your stability through these exercises, you will find your hips become more mobile on their own.”
Can meditation change my brain and my fitness levels?
The science: Research out of Thomas Jefferson University discovered that people who participated in meditation retreats experienced changes in the dopamine and serotonin systems of their brains. Dopamine is an important brain chemical that plays a role in our emotions and movements and serotonin impacts mood.
Expert EQX insight: “These effects of meditation are not only good for brain and mental health, they can also have a positive influence on fitness, or more specifically the pursuit of fitness. When you feel better emotionally and mentally, you are more apt to maintain a healthy routine. You have a higher sense of ability to be successful and achieve the goals that you set out to accomplish. This also turns into a positive feedback loop as exercise and movement provide similar results to meditation. To reap these benefits from meditation, there needs to be a big focus on consistency over the long term. By setting a daily habit of meditating for five to 10 minutes, you can see very similar results to those in the study and make it work for your lifestyle (and it doesn’t require attending a retreat). As you start, one thing to keep in mind is that meditative practice is not easy but, like all other training, the more you stick with it and practice the better you will become.”
How important is training for bone strength when you're young and fit?
The science: Statistics show that osteoporosis impacts 200 million-plus people across the globe. But according to a study out of the University of Missouri-Columbia done on men, weight-bearing exercises can lead to changes that increase bone density, keeping the condition at bay.
Expert EQX insight: “Just as muscles adapt to exercise by getting stronger, so do your bones. Often not thought of until later in life, osteoporosis is something that both young and old, men and women should keep in mind as a function of health. With that said, a key element to acknowledge from this research is that not all forms of training will provide the bone-building response. You need exercises that provide a significant stressor either through applying a heavy load to the entire body or requiring your body to respond to impact. Both stimuli trigger the body to adapt so it can better manage the next time it encounters a similar stress. This is the same reason why our muscles get stronger. In the study, this was achieved with a program using squats or lunges under load and jumping (or plyometric) exercises. By focusing on this at a younger age, you are building a higher reserve of bone mass to rely on later. As it is with all things health, the check we ‘write’ now, through how we take care of our bodies, gets cashed later in life.”
How can I push my limits?
The science: Research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at the effectiveness of deception on pushing one’s self in a workout. People competed against an avatar that was keeping pace at either 100 percent, 102 percent, or 105 percent of their best 5K time trial. (The deception was that regardless of intensity, the cyclist thought they were keeping pace at 100 percent—their previous best—even if the avatar was going faster.) The results: At a moderate increase (102 percent), cyclists pushed past their previous best, staved off fatigue, and kept pace with the avatar.
Expert EQX insight: “Our ability to perform at a certain intensity or for a specific length of time can be as much mental as it is physical. However, there is a limit to the deception. When the increase was large (105 percent), fatigue took over quickly and performance declined, potentially due to too fast a pace from the start. The outcome of this study lends some potential insight to how we can structure our training to improve performance. To get better, we should spend some time (note: some time, not every time) pushing toward our limits so we can adapt and overcome. Using methods that can help trick us into pushing harder, such as programming the treadmill to increase speed subtly on its own and covering the numbers with a towel, can allow us to tap into performance levels that we previously thought not possible or would have avoided. If used sparingly and with a targeted recovery strategy, since you are significantly taxing the body, these strategies could be an important part of any training program.”