We all know our feet are important. They are our foundation and help keep everything above them safe. But weak feet can lead to aches, pains, and injury. So, here are 6 exercises you can do using a rolled up yoga mat (I use a 1/2 roller in the videos). That’s it! That is all you need to help strengthen your feet and simultaneously improve your balance, strengthen your hips, and take stress off your spine.
With the days getting longer and the temperatures getting a bit warmer, Spring has invited to me to start walking more. I am a person who loves to stack things, so I have started walking to my weekly Yoga class. I have to leave only about 15 minutes earlier than I usually do, and I get a nice 25 min walk there and back through my local parks.
Last week, I walked to class and it was fairly pleasant outside, but after class, the temps had fallen a bit. I mention this because this lead me to put my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. I noticed about 15 minutes into my walk that my mid-back was getting stiff and my neck and shoulders were a little achy. I tried to think about what we had done in class that would have caused this to happen. I thought “I just took a Yoga class. I should feel awesome!” when I realized my hands had been in my pockets this whole time.
With my hands tucked into my coat pockets, my arms were unable to swing in their natural movement.
No swinging = no natural rotation of the spine = pain in my mid-back and shoulders.
When we don’t swing our arms when walking, we lose the subtle rotation of the spine that needs to happen for proper movement. That rotational force needs to go somewhere, meaning we rotate too much at other places, including the low-back. In my case, not only was I putting extra force through my low-back, but my mid-back and neck were also bracing against the rotational force that should have been happening. Hence, the tight back and shoulders.
So the quick lesson of the day is Swing Your Arms! And make sure you are swinging them with a whole-body movement. None of this moving from the elbow BS (more on this later).
The great debate – treadmill walking and running versus outside. Well, you can tell by the title, I have my own clear winner. But, if you are still reading past the headline, I bet you want to know more…you want to know the WHY.
In a nutshell, when you run or walk outside, the muscles of the leg have to propel you forward. When you run or walk on a treadmill, the muscles of your leg have to catch you as you fall forward. So even though it looks like the same exercise, they are actually two different exercises using different muscles.
When you are on a treadmill, the floor is moving under your feet. With each stride your body is hitting this moving surface and getting pushed into a forward motion. Your opposite leg then has to get out in front of you and hit the treadmill before you fall forward. So with each stride you are literally just catching yourself from falling instead of running forward.
Outside, the ground is stable, so your foot has to push against that stable surface and push you forward. For one, this takes a lot more strength and muscle activation to do than running on a treadmill so you will actually burn more calories and get a better workout. Secondly, and my favorite part, is that it is safer on your body. By pushing yourself forward, you are using your body the way it was designed to be used, as well as using all the muscles of the back of the leg to help counteract the effects from all your sitting time. Total win.
When we go around catching ourselves from falling instead of propelling ourselves forward, we put a lot of stress on our hip, knee, and ankle joints. Not to mention the load we put on our feet. This extra load leads to some of the most common aches and pains among runners – plantar fasciitis, hamstring tendinopathy, and runner’s knee just to mention a few. Where as running (correctly, more on that below) outside can actually help strengthen some of the most commonly weak postural muscles in the body.
So you are now convinced to take your run outside. Fantastic! Just a quick word…It is also possible to do the “fall and catch” outside as well. This usually occurs because the mobility in our hips and ankles restricts our body’s ability to move our legs in the appropriate way. So make sure you spend time opening up your hips (try these hip openers) and your calves. In fact, you can start right now with the exercise below!
I know I know. You are probably sick of me talking about the thoracic spine, but I can’t help myself. A few months back, I talked about the thoracic spine in my post “Exercises for a Tight Neck and Shoulders“. Today, I want to dive a little deeper and talk about the whole spine and the importance of movement and fluidity especially in the thoracic spine.
For an array of reasons, your spine needs to move fluidly. Proper movement in your spine not only allows you to move properly and avoid injury, but it also helps nourish the discs in your spine and move cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to and from your brain. Today, due to high levels of stress, constant sitting, and working on computers, our spines do not get a lot of chances to move forward, back, side-to-side, and in rotation. The place this shows up the most, is in the thoracic spine.
The thoracic spine is the the middle portion of your spine. The spine should move like a snake – flexible but strong. Imagine you are holding a snake (I know it’s gross, but it’s just pretend), if you hold onto the center of the snake, his head and tail are going to move like crazy! The same thing happens to your back. When we lose movement in our thoracic spines, our necks and low backs become hyper-mobile. This excess of movement puts huge forces on our vulnerable discs and vertebrae and can lead to muscle soreness, nerve pain, and bulging discs.
So, now that I have scared you into moving your spine (I am totally proud of that by the way), let’s give you something you can actually use to help yourself. Below you will find videos to move your thoracic spine in 3 different ways – flexion and extension, lateral movement, and rotation. Do the whole set or pick one from each movement and get your mid-back moving!
Thoracic Mobilization – Flexion/Extension
Thoracic Mobilization – Lateral Shift
Thoracic Mobilization – Rotation
The Squat – it is the epitome of a gym exercise, the king move amongst gym rats, the foundational move for all athletes. Anyone can do a squat. It should be a no-brainer, right? Sorry, not so fast.
When we were kids, squatting was a part of life (think of the kid in the diaper who you know is doing his business because of the squat position he is holding). As we get older and we spend more time sitting and working and trying to squeeze in a workout here or there, the tighter our hips become, the more our squat goes awry. Once our hips have become off-kilter, the squat work we were hoping would sculpt our hammy’s and glutes is actually putting pressure into our low back, knees, and other vulnerable joints.
Focusing on the position of your pelvis and hips during a squat, can not only help you get stronger in the areas your are trying to target, but it can also help you retrain your hips into a balanced position. Watch this short video and learn how to squat to help you balance your pelvis, remain injury-free, and get the most out of your squat.
Knee pain. It has happened to most of us. 1/3 of Americans will experience knee pain at some point in their lives. It is the 2nd most common cause of chronic pain and new reports show it is affecting more people each year. So, if you are experiencing a “twinge” or maybe a “tweak” in your knees, it is time to take some action before bigger issues occur.
The greatest cause of knee pain is, by far, poor body mechanics and poor mechanics are typically caused by a lack of mobility which leads to a lack of strength. For example, due to prolonged sitting, a lot of people experience a tightness in the front of their hips. This tightness in the front of the hips leads to decreased strength in the back of the leg (glutes and hamstrings), which decreases the support in the back of the knee. Without the support and strength in the back of the knee (posterior), force traveling through the knee joint is pushed into the front of the knee (anterior) and causes pain across the front of the kneecap (commonly called “Runner’s Knee”). This is not the only cause of knee soreness, but it is definitely one of the most common.
The knee joint is where the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone) come together. All 4 muscles of the quadriceps come together to form the patellar tendon which starts at the top of the knee joint, adheres to the patella as it crosses the anterior (front) of the joint until in attaches at the tibia below. The patellar tendon lies within a grooved-out notch the allows you to bend and straighten your knee without irritation. A lot of knee pain is caused when the alignment of the patellar tendon and this specially made notch go out of whack.
The inside of your knees is referred to as the medial side and the outside of your knees is known as the lateral side. Imbalances between these two sides can cause the patellar tendon the shift towards the stronger side. For instance, if you have had an injury to your knee in the past, you may remember your therapist trying to get the inner-most muscle of the quadriceps to fire. This needs to be strong, so that your patella does not start to track to the lateral side of the knee joint and cause you more pain. If this imbalance continues, a person can start to feel tightness in the IT band and other soft tissue on the lateral side of the knee while also experiencing sharp pain on the medial side of the joint. The knee has to be balanced side-to-side (medial to lateral) to stay pain-free and happy.
Imbalances front-to-back (anterior to posterior) are the usual cause of pain in the first example of our Runner’s Knee. However, we also see in the example above, that imbalances medially to laterally can cause different, but equally annoying pain. The routine below starts with releases of the most commonly tight areas of the hip and lower limb that may cause imbalances at the knee joint. They are followed by exercises that strengthen the muscles that are commonly weak in people with knee pain. This routine will not help everyone with knee soreness, but if you have been experiencing sore knees after activity or “tweaks” and “twinges”, this is a great place to start. Even if you have not had knee pain, this routine will help your knees stay happy, healthy and pain-free.
How many times have you said or heard this sentence?
“I tweaked my (back, knee, shoulder, wrist, etc), but I’ll just give it a few days rest and it should be fine.”
I am here to be the bearer of bad news, it will not be fine.
Yes, in your twenties and maybe even early thirties, rest was a good go-to move. You really did feel like you would rebound from an injury with a few (sometimes just 24 hours) days of rest. Unfortunately, that is not the whole picture. Without proper care, that injury from your twenties will come back to bite you in your forties. I am not saying you should go out for a 5 mile run on your newly sprained ankle, I am just saying you need more than a binge watch on Netflix to help your body heal properly and to prevent future injury and pain from occurring.
When the body experiences trauma, whether it is a torn ligament like an ACL in the knee or maybe just a bad bruise from a hard fall, there is a repair process that immediately turns on and gets down to business. Swelling occurs to help bring nutrients to the area to help speed up recovery of the tissue, bruising may occur as the blood starts to pool in the area, muscles and nerves may start to slightly shut down to help protect the area, and scar tissue starts to build to help make the area tough and resilient against future injury. This is a fantastic auto response to injury. We do absolutely nothing and our bodies just start healing.
Now there is much debate out there right now about the best way to “manage” our response system. R.I.C.E. and Ibuprofen are now being replaced by a more “hands-off” method of letting the body swell and heal itself. I don’t want to dive too deep into this discussion, but it is worth noting that there is some good research coming out that says we need to put the ice pack down and let our bodies do what they do.
What I want to focus on, is after the first 48 hours. When your joint starts moving a little more, the pain has decreased a bit, and the swelling is starting to go down. During this time, it is easy to “take time off” and give your joint a rest, but that will eventually lead you down a path of more injury.
Let’s use the ankle and the following scenario as an example. Let’s say I was out hiking and I rolled my right ankle. It hurts, but not so bad that I can’t get myself back to my car. As I drive home, I can feel it throbbing a little, but I think a day on the couch will cost me less than a few hours at the ER. I head home, prop it up, and let it “rest”. As I am resting, my body is starting the repair process, supplying the injured area with nutrients and building my joint back up. After a few days, I can walk pretty well, I still “feel it a little”, but I am going to work and probably go for another hike within the next few days.
First let’s talk about the joint itself. My body’s repair system is going to try to “toughen up” the ankle joint. While strength is great and can help that specific area from being re-injured, it is also going to inhibit the range of motion I have in my ankle. I may not be able to flex or point my toes to the same degree I could before. Some of my skeletal structure may have shifted when I injured the joint and is now being held in an inaccurate place by this new strength. The rocking motion, side-to-side that my heel normally has is now limited, adding stress to the other soft tissue within the ankle joint and making the muscles, ligaments, and tendons more susceptible to injury.
Now, let’s move away from the joint and look at the impact this is having above and below the ankle. Without proper range of motion in the heel, we will not have proper motion in the foot. That’s 33 joints and over 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons that now have to change their “normal” to something that compensates for the new ankle range. As we go above the ankle, we find that the knee, a hinge joint, now has a rotational force on it that was normally absorbed by the ankle, but can’t be any longer. This new stress on the knee, puts new stress on the hip, which affects the back, and on, and on, and on.
Due to the “ankle bone is connected to the knee bone” feature of our bodies, it is important to not only rest our injuries, but rehab them to gain range of motion, proper alignment, and level strength. We can start doing this pretty soon after injury, using pain as our guide. Gentle movement or isometrics of the muscles surrounding the joint can help us start activating our nervous system and wake up our muscles. It can also encourage blood flow to the area which will aide in healing.
So going back to the example of my sprained ankle, after the initial rest period of 24-48 hours, I could start moving it by just gently pointing and flexing my foot. Then maybe I cautiously wander into some ankle circles. I could use a band or even a wall to start turning on the muscles by moving my ankle in different motions. This early intervention will not only speed up my healing, but also gives me the best chance of getting my joint back to “normal” and decreasing my chances of pain or injury in another part of the body due to compensation.
The point of the story is that if you have an injury, not acknowledging it or just leaving it alone, will not heal it. You must be proactive in your care and start moving and activating the injured area as soon as you are able. If you are not sure how to begin, find a physical therapist in your area that can help guide you.
Do me a quick favor. If you are reading this on your computer or your phone, take a quick second and press the top of your head towards to sky, make yourself as tall as possible, and level your chin. Ok, now keep reading. I would hate for my blog post about sore, cranky necks actually cause sore necks. Nobody needs more pains in the neck. Ok, I’ll stop…
In all seriousness, chronic stiff and sore necks and shoulders seems to be a thing people are just “putting up with” these days. That feeling that you want to “pop” your neck or stretch it, or move it to release some tension. We have all had it at one time. If jobs and responsibilities allowed us to move more, allowed us to turn our heads to look at different things, allowed us to view things both up close and at a distance, allowed us to MOVE more, we could probably avoid it, but most of us don’t have that luxury.
So first, let’s understand your neck and shoulder pain. For most people, the issue may not even start at the neck. So all that pulling and popping and stretching you are doing up there, stop for a minute. Most people’s necks are already hyper-mobile, the problem is not that they don’t move, but that they move too much. You have probably heard of “Forward Head Posture”. If you have it, your neck has moved a lot! It is suppose to be sitting right on top of your shoulders, but you are able to move it way out in front! Yes, that is sarcasm.
The position of your head sitting out in front of your shoulders acts as a big ol’ ball and chain on the muscles of the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back. If you would like to understand it more, pick up something that weighs about 20lbs (kids, dogs, and bowling balls all work). Now hold the weight close to your belly and feel the strain on your shoulder and back. Not bad right? Now straighten your arms and press it out in front of you about chest level. Now we are talking. Feel that pull on your shoulders, maybe a little twinge in your low back? You neck pain is a product of the same mechanism.
There is a network of muscles that equally pull your neck forward, backward, and side-to-side. When your head is forward, those muscles become off-balanced. The muscles normally used to pull your head forward and down tend to get short and tight. The muscles that normally pull your head back and up become long and stiff. The side-to-side muscles don’t even know what to do, they are like children watching their parents argue.
The stiffness you normally feel in your neck and shoulders come from those muscles in the back that would normally pull your head back and up. The most common response to these long, stiff muscles is to stretch them. Here is the thing, they are already LONG. They have been stretched day-in and day-out since your forward head posture started. Stretching them will give you temporary relief, but it will not bring you any long-term benefits. What we need to do is lengthen the deep muscles in the front of the neck as we strengthen the posterior muscles.
Ok, but why is your cervical spine moving so much? Well, it is most likely because your thoracic spine is not moving at all. Lack of fluidity in this mid-area of your back tends to make the segments above (neck) and below (low back pain anyone?) move too much. This area tends to get stuck for a few reasons – excessive sitting, lack of core strength, tightness through the chest and diaphragm – all of these can lead to stiffness in the thoracic spine.
So, when you start to address your neck pain, it is important for you to address the stiffness in your thoracic spine first. If you only address your neck pain at the neck, it will come back time and time again. The spine must move fluidly together, that is the basis of all good movement.
Below is a short exercise and stretching routine that will help you relieve your achy neck and shoulders.
*Please note – The exercises above are not medically prescribed. Please check with your physician to check if the exercises are appropriate for you.
Try this quick and easy at-home exercises to strengthen your hips, knees, and ankles. Help support the knee joint and prevent injury by bringing more mobility and stability to your hips. Start with these 3 foam roller releases to get the legs moving correctly and then move into the 5 strength moves below to help bring stability to the knee joint and the lower kinetic chain.
IT Band Rolling
TFL/Hip Flexor Release
Bridge with Leg Raise
Long Lunge to Balance