<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=424649934352787&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

NIFS Healthy Living Blog

Lauren Zakrajsek

Recent Posts by Lauren Zakrajsek:

Shiny Penny! How Band Distraction Can Improve Your Mobility

Band StretchWhether you’re a competitive athlete, a weekend warrior, or the casual gym-goer, addressing mobility concerns can go a long way toward performance enhancement and injury prevention. If a joint is unable to move through a complete range of motion unloaded, then it’s going to be “bad news bears” when it comes to putting that same joint under any external load. Eventually, limited mobility could lead to muscular imbalances and compensation patterns, which could ultimately lead to the onset of injury. In other words, you can’t look to build strength on top of dysfunction.

How Band Distraction Works

There are numerous ways to tackle mobility, and it’s a heck of a lot more than just lying on a mat, hitting some static stretches for 10 minutes, and calling it a day. One such technique, band or joint distraction, involves using resistance bands to specifically isolate and improve the way bones glide over each other within a joint. This is accomplished by separating the articulating surfaces to allow for synovial fluid (the body’s homemade version of WD-40) to fill the joint and allow for less friction and (hopefully) increased motion. In other words, it creates “space” inside the joint complex. Band distraction can be used with nearly any joint in the body; however, the usual suspects are typically the ankle, hip, and shoulder.

Examples of Mobility Drills Using Band Distraction

Screen Shot 2021-01-07 at 12.35.58 PMHere are a few specific examples of band-distracted mobility drills:

  1. World’s Greatest Stretch
  2. Pigeon Stretch
  3. Half-Kneeling Ankle
  4. Shoulder Girdle (2 versions)

Important Tips

A few things to keep in mind when utilizing band distraction on a joint:

  • Be sure to anchor the resistance band to an immovable post, squat rack, etc.
  • Position matters! Be sure the band is placed over the correct structures, usually the crux of the joint or as close to it as possible.
  • This is one piece of the mobility puzzle. Pair this technique with soft-tissue work (foam rolling, trigger-point therapy, etc.) as well as a thorough dynamic warmup to encourage adequate blood flow and maximize readiness.
  • You don’t need to stretch each area for an eternity. Try 30 seconds to start on each structure.

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: shoulders injury prevention resistance exercises mobility joints hip mobility ankle mobility exercise bands band distraction

My 4 Takeaways from the Squatober Weightlifting Challenge

GettyImages-1148247238Fall is hands-down one of my favorite times of the year. There’s a crispness in the air, the leaves begin to change, there’s pumpkin-flavored everything, football season is in full swing, and there’s the return of a little phenomenon known as Squatober!

Yes, you read that correctly: SQUATober. Squatober is known as “the world’s largest knee-bending party,” and consists of squatting 5–6 times per week for the entirety of the month of October. Crazy, right? Crazy awesome! The program is written and was originally created by Aaron Ausmus, NCAA D1 shot put champion and strength and conditioning coach. It culminates in a PR party sometime around Halloween (“personal record” for those of you playing at home), and all proceeds from shirts and merchandise are ultimately donated to outfitting a high school weight room in need of some upgrades.

I can almost hear the confusion, apprehension, or flat-out scoffs through the screen. Squatting, and squatting heavy no less, five days a week, every week for a month—why would anyone want to embark on something so outlandish? Well, a lot of strength coaches, fitness professionals, and gym junkies have taken the plunge into Squatober since its inception.

And while I understand that it’s not for everyone, there’s something about stepping up to the plate (or under the bar, I should say) that really appealed to me. It was a "challenge accepted” moment that took me back to the days of being a competitive athlete. Plus, I wanted to be a part of a larger, worldwide phenomenon that ultimately ended in giving back to communities and those in need. There have also been numerous stories of other coaches citing Squatober as the reason they overcame personal struggles such as addiction, mental health struggles, and much more.

After completing the sometimes grueling squat party for the first time last year, I came away with a little more than soreness. Here are my four biggest takeaways after completing Squatober.   

Our bodies are capable of some incredible feats.

Now, I’m not saying I broke the female world record for the back squat. But after squatting for 27 days, my estimated 1-rep max increased by over 10 percent! This definitely exceeded my expectations (seeing as all I wanted to do was make it to the end). And I understand that picking up things and putting them down might not be everyone’s favorite pastime. But if you’ve been debating signing up for that triathlon, or that Spartan race, or picking up trail running, or training to hike to the top of Pike’s Peak, my advice? Just start! It’s never too late, and our bodies are able to do some pretty cool stuff; you may surprise yourself with what you’re able to handle.

Coaches need coaches, too.

I’ve always been more of a nerd when it comes to training. I want to know the ins and outs when it comes to physiology, how certain periodization schemes affect the body’s ability to adapt. I view programming as a puzzle: trying to piece together the optimal exercises, at the correct dose, in the right order, in order to achieve the desired result. But when you do that for numerous clients, athletes, and friends, for hours at a time, week after week, I’ll be honest: I feel a little brain-dead when it comes to my own programming. Having another coach be in charge of the plan, so all I had to do was open my phone, see the workout, and get down to business? That was a huge weight lifted (pun intended). Since completing Squatober, I’ve reached out to colleagues multiple times to get not only their advice but also their take on my programming. I’ve found that this leaves me fresh, more motivated, and honestly more accountable.

If you want to improve a skill, do it every day (or close to it).

I’ll be honest, the first 6–7 days were a little rough. I was waddling around like I was learning to walk for the first time (hello soreness!). But once I progressed into week two and beyond, I noticed a few things. My depth was consistently better. I wasn’t compensating as much (toes turning out, trunk lean). And my bar path remained more constant (not moving forward or back). By addressing my ankle mobility each day, and my hip stability before each lift, the pieces started to come together. This premise holds true for any habit you want to start or any skill you want to learn. Even if you address it for only a minute a day, making your mission constant improvement, even if it’s only 1 percent each session, it can lead to profound results over time.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This message was echoed from many of my coaches growing up. Similar sentiments float around the fitness industry fairly regularly. “Comfort is the enemy of achievement,” for example. And Squatober was a nice reminder of that. Again, going into week two, knowing that I had another heavy load that would literally be placed on my back, I started to shift my mentality. I began to look forward to the challenge. I wasn’t worried about any soreness that might ensue. I had begun to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Now, I’m not saying we have to be uncomfortable 24/7, 365 in order to achieve results. But rather, what was once uncomfortable became the new normal. We adapt, we overcome. And we ultimately change for the better!

I admittedly was only able to complete some of the workouts this year due to scheduling. And I do want to reiterate that I understand this is not for everyone. Would I program this way for athletes? No. Is this the end-all be-all in terms of workout plans? No. Was it fun? For me it absolutely was. I loved the camaraderie it offered. I loved checking in with former colleagues and coaches as we all progressed from week to week. I loved that I could look back and say, “Yeah, I did that. I made it.”

So, if you are interested in hopping into Squatober next year, you can check out @sorinex or @penandpaperstrengthapp on Instagram for workouts. Don’t be afraid to modify when you need to, either. And at the end of the day? Just have some fun with it while accepting the challenge! Happy lifting!

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Assistant Fitness Center Manager, Health Fitness Instructor, and Personal Trainer. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: workouts challenge weightlifting coaching squat

What Happens in Vagus: Jump-start Recovery by Increasing Vagal Tone

GettyImages-1182821901Raise your hand if you’ve been here before: You get to the end of a great workout. You’re spent, fatigued, but in a good way. In a way that you know you’ve put in some quality work. But you look down at your watch and realize you’ve run a bit over your time. So you grab your things and rush out of the gym. You don’t have time for a cool-down, right? You’ve got to get to the car and rush to the next thing on the docket.

Without realizing it, you’ve kept up that same stimulus from your workout: that amped-up, fight-or-flight response. Only now it’s been hours since its conclusion. In short, your body has never left that stress response behind. Instead, it’s been carried around perhaps all day, and your body has not had time to transition into a rest, digest, and recovery mode. In other words, you’ve never shifted from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest, recovery). This may sound like a “so what?” problem. But if left unchecked, this can not only stall out your workouts, but can also eventually lead to chronic issues with inflammation, sleep problems, or altered hormonal responses.

Appropriately managing your stress response isn’t something that only applies to workouts. We all face stressors on a daily, weekly, or hourly basis (perhaps in today’s world now more than ever!). If it starts to get out of hand, numerous aspects of our health and well-being are affected. Learning to mitigate and manage chronic stress can have positive effects on both physical and mental health. One way to do this is to address your vagal tone.

What Is Vagal Tone?

The longest nerve in the human body is the vagus nerve. It innervates numerous organs such as the intestines, stomach, heart, liver, and lungs (fun fact: “vagus” translates to “wanderer” in Latin; because it wanders around the body). The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and vagal tone refers to the activity of this nerve. If it is impaired, low vagal tone results, which is a contributor to stress and increased anxiety, a pro-inflammatory response, and a disruptor of normal gut functioning.

What Are the Benefits of Increased Vagal Tone?

A high vagal tone is associated with lower blood pressure, improved blood-sugar regulation, improved digestion, better mood, reduced anxiety, and reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps one of the largest benefits of a higher vagal tone is the ability to relax faster after stress. So whether you’re talking physical stress from a workout or mental stress from everyday life, having an increased vagal tone can help you navigate the stressors of everyday life and be better prepared for the next one!

Additionally, researchers have discovered a positive feedback loop involving increased vagal tone, positive emotion responses, and physical and mental well-being. In short, the vagal response, or parasympathetic drive, actually works to mitigate stress and foster positive emotions. Definitely a win-win!

How Can You Increase Vagal Tone?

Okay great, now how the heck can I start working to stimulate the vagus nerve? Here are a few quick hitters that you can do today to improve your vagal tone.

Deep or Diaphragmatic Breathing

If you have virtually no time to cool down after a workout, a few deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths can help quickly shift you toward more of a parasympathetic state. Lying on your back, elevating your legs so that your knees are at 90 degrees (on a box or bench), and taking 10–20 slow, deep breaths helps to gradually lower the heart rate and reduce blood pressure, all while stimulating the vagus nerve. Try having one hand on your upper chest and one hand over your belly button, and as you inhale try to see if your lower hand (belly) is moving upward. If you notice that only your upper hand is moving upon inhaling, take a few reps to practice filling your belly with air. This is a skill just like any other; it takes a bit of practice. But if you’re short on time, this technique is a bit of a cheat code. You can even try it before bed to help relax!

Singing, Humming, or Gargling

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the branches of the vagus nerve, the superior laryngeal nerve, actually innervates the vocal cords. As a result, we can mechanically stimulate it by singing, humming, gargling, chanting, etc. So belt out those tunes for car karaoke, hum that song that’s stuck in your head at work, and increase that vagal tone in the process!

Cold Exposure

For all us Midwesterners, we should have this one covered for about 7–8 months of the year! In all seriousness, gradually increasing your exposure to cold, and eventually becoming more habituated, causes a shift to greater parasympathetic activity. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and run two miles barefoot in the snow. You can start by splashing cold water (and I mean cold) on your face 10–20 times. Or going out to get the mail in December in a t-shirt and shorts. Or finishing off your shower with a quick 10-second blast of cold. Overall, try small interventions first to get the ball rolling. And if you’re looking for a laugh, check out my previous blog, when I put myself through hot-cold contrast showers for a week!

Omega-3s

The body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids naturally, so they must come from the diet. They are found readily in fish (especially cold-water fish like wild-caught salmon), extra virgin olive oil, avocados, walnuts, and flaxseed, among other foods. Their benefits are wide-ranging: they positively affect brain and mental health, mitigate inflammation, and aid in improving cardiovascular health. Studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids also increase heart rate variability (a good thing!) and stimulate vagal activity.

Social Interaction

We are social creatures. As humans, we are hardwired to find and belong to a community. So it should come as no surprise that social connection, laughter, and having a stable support system improves our mental and physical health. While this may have been more difficult or a bit unorthodox with COVID-19, its importance has never been greater. Research has shown that laughter increases heart rate variability, and that even reminiscing about positive social connections and prior engagements improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. So even if you can’t physically be near those you love and appreciate, making that effort to continue to reach out and connect goes a long way in your recovery from stress.

Jump-Start Your Recovery

We all face stressors on a daily basis. Whether it’s the low-level background noise of the news, or a large deadline looming in the future, learning to navigate and respond appropriately to stress is a must for maintaining physical and mental well-being. By increasing your vagal tone, you can help jump-start your recovery so that you’re more ready to tackle the next thing on your to-do list, be it a work project or a workout!

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Assistant Fitness Center Manager, Health Fitness Instructor, and Personal Trainer. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: stress workout recovery nervous system

Build a Bigger Engine with Aerobic Training (Part 2 of 2)

GettyImages-1217027916-1Last time, I covered a few of the benefits of building your aerobic base:

  • Ability to recover more quickly between bouts of high-intensity exercise
  • Ability to sustain higher-threshold movements for longer (think being able to hit more heavy singles on bench or deadlift with the same rest)
  • Ability to handle more acute rises in training volume
  • More efficiency, as you’re able to remain in an aerobic state for energy for longer periods (before resorting to another system like anaerobic/glycolytic)

Cool, Lauren! Now, how the heck do I train my aerobic system? How do I start to build that base? Here are a few examples of ways to incorporate aerobic training into your fitness plan.

Contralateral Circuits

As the name implies, a contralateral circuit involves working opposite sides of the body while performing a two-part, compound movement—for example, a step-up with the right leg followed by an overhead press with the left arm. Each movement is performed for time, typically 20–30 seconds, followed by a short period of rest while you switch to the opposite side to perform the movement.

By cycling between exercises that work opposite limbs and opposite sides of the body (think diagonally across), we are taxing the cardiovascular system in a relatively novel way. Specifically, as blood is pumped and pools in working limbs for 20–30 seconds (right leg/left arm), the heart has to work slightly harder to then switch to pumping blood to ensure that the next group of contralateral limbs is adequately supplied (left leg/right arm). Heavy weights aren’t involved; typically it’s a combination of bodyweight exercises, bands, or light weights. But after 20–30 minutes of near continuous movement, chances are you’ll see that some sweat has appeared!

Here’s a quick example of exercises that can be linked together for a contralateral circuit:

  • Reverse Lunge Right + Band Row Left x 0:25/0:30 rest and transition
  • Reverse Lunge Left + Band Row Right x 0:25/0:30 rest and transition
  • Step-Up Right + DB Overhead Press Left x 0:25/0:30 rest and transition
  • Step-Up Left + DB Overhead Press Right x 0:25/0:30 rest and transition
  • Single-leg RDL Left + DB Row Left (Right stance leg) x 0:25/0:30 rest and transition
  • Single-leg RDL Right + DB Row Right (Left stance leg) x 0:25/0:30 rest and start over

Escalating Density Training (EDT)

This type of training not only trains your aerobic system, but also allows you to gradually build up volume on particular lifts. So if you in any way resemble me and aren’t the number-one fan of running, this might be for you! Escalating Density Training involves working for 5-minute blocks continuously. You alternate between two lifts, usually opposite in nature (upper vs. lower body), and complete only 1–2 reps of each before returning to the other movement.

For example, you can pair a Kettlebell Goblet Squat with a DB Bench Press. So, for 5 minutes you complete one rep of a Goblet Squat, followed by one rep of DB Bench Press. You can keep a tally of how many rounds you complete in 5 minutes and compare for future sessions to see whether you’re able to do more work in the same period of time. Typically, you can complete three blocks of EDT in one training session, separated by 3–4 minutes of rest. All in all, you’re completing 15 minutes of high-quality work.

Here’s an example of an EDT session:

  • Block 1: KB RDL/DB Overhead Press x 5:00 --> 3:00 rest post round
  • Block 2: Sandbag Clean & Squat/TRX Row x 5:00 --> 3:00 rest post round
  • Block 3: DB Incline Press/Goblet Reverse Lunge x 5:00 --> cooldown

A Long Walk or Hike, Focusing on Nasal Breathing

This one is pretty simple, but surprisingly effective. Getting used to nasal breathing, as opposed to mouth breathing, has more than a few benefits. One of them is that it allows our body to become better adapted to handling CO2 as we produce it during exercise and movement in general. Why does this matter? This has been shown to lower resting heart rate, improve pH regulation, and improve our body’s ability to cycle and filter out metabolites.

So, the next time you head out for a hike at a state park or a stroll through your neighborhood, see if you can maintain a moderate pace while only nasal breathing. If you feel the need to breathe out of your mouth, that’s fine! Each time you go out, simply see how much you can do with nasal breathing, trying to push that time or distance bit by bit each session. Bonus? You get to enjoy the great outdoors.

Low-intensity Modalities + Breath Holds

I came across this method after listening to Cal Dietz, Strength & Conditioning Coach at the University of Minnesota, at multiple conferences and clinics. He’s worked with numerous Big Ten Champions, NCAA National Champions, and Olympians throughout his career. When working with athletes as they return from a hiatus in training (i.e. post summer semester), he has employed a 2-week period focusing primarily on aerobic training.

One method he’s used is 10-second exhalation and breath holds while performing light aerobic exercise. For example, while on a Concept2 Rower, he’ll have his athletes find an easy, maintainable pace for 1–2 minutes. For the next 10–15 minutes while maintaining that pace, athletes will exhale at the beginning of every minute and hold their breath following that exhale. They will attempt to hold their breath until the 10-second mark of that minute. So, if it takes 4 seconds to exhale, they’ll then try to hold their breath for 6 more seconds. Once you start breathing again, the goal is to stabilize the breath as quickly as possible.

After trying this myself, it was surprisingly difficult. There was a sense of being uncomfortable, obviously the urge to breathe, some slight tinging, followed by immense relief after the 10-second mark. I’m listing this last because it’s something I would work up to. Can you try it right off the bat? Absolutely. But don’t feel that you need to continue the breath hold for the full 10 seconds. Maybe its only for 5–6 seconds while you acclimate to the training.

***

All in all, there are various ways to train the aerobic system, and there isn’t one that fits all. But if you’re looking to sprinkle some variety into your routine, one of these modalities might be for you. As always, the goal with these workouts isn’t to leave you running for the trash can. If it does, take it down a notch.

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: walking workouts training weight lifting high intensity aerobic breathing

Build a Bigger Engine with Aerobic Training (Part 1)

GettyImages-605772224For whatever reason, there seems to be this notion in the fitness industry that if the workout doesn’t leave you on the ground gasping for air, it really wasn’t a good one. Or maybe that you didn’t work hard enough because you didn’t go running to the nearest trash can by the end. This could not be further from the truth; but unfortunately this way of thinking still seems to run rampant.

Not Every Workout Has to Be a Gut-Buster

One of my favorite quotes when it comes to strength and conditioning comes from Yuri Verkhoshansky, Russian professor, coach, and author who is credited as being the father of plyometrics. He suggests that “any idiot can make another idiot tired.” Now, I’m not calling anyone out. But this brings up a fantastic and often forgotten premise: that we should not judge the quality of a training session simply by how exhausted we feel.

Yes, we should challenge ourselves. Yes, there should be times when a workout feels more difficult. But here’s the key: not every workout should feel like a gut-busting knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. If it does, it might be time to reevaluate.

A Quick Exercise Physiology Lesson: The Aerobic System

Our bodies rely on three energy systems to get us through everything from a tough workout session to washing the dishes, as well as basic organ function around the clock. They are all operating in some capacity all of the time, just in varying degrees based on the activity we’re doing. It’s not like a light switch, just on/off. Here are our players:

  • The ATP-PCr or phosphagen system (immediate)
  • The anaerobic or lactic system (short term; remember glycolysis?)
  • The aerobic system (long term)

Now, this isn’t intended to be a full-blown Bill Nye-esque science lesson. But I do want to focus on one of those energy systems for just a moment because it plays a massive role in how we are able to recover from task to task. And that is the aerobic system. It has the capacity to produce a great deal of energy, ATP—our body’s form of energy currency. The only problem is that is takes a little while longer to do compared to the other two. As a result, the aerobic system is responsible for replenishing and producing energy during rest periods or downtime between bouts of high-intensity exercise.

Much like any facet of fitness, this system can be trained directly. It typically comes in the form of slightly lower-intensity exercise (examples to come in a future post). So, while the exercise session might not feel like a back-breaker, the benefits that arise from it can come back twofold when looking at future training sessions. Essentially, what you’re doing when you are working on bolstering your aerobic system is building a bigger, more efficient engine.

Reap the Benefits of Faster Recovery

So, those high-intensity classes you take a couple times per week? Think about being able to sustain the same power and strength from round to round because you can recover more effectively during your rest periods. Or maybe you like to hop under the bar for some strength training in the form of squat or bench press. Well imagine being able to hit more of those heavy singles because you recover more proficiently between sets. That’s when the aerobic system really kicks into high gear: during rest. Yes, it is always contributing to some degree when it comes to ATP production (remember energy currency?). But its benefits really come to light during the downtime.

Building your fitness profile really requires a 360-degree approach. Some sessions may focus on strength. Some sessions may focus on high-intensity training. And some should take the time to address the aerobic system. Not only do they provide the body some much-needed recovery time; these sessions can also allow you to get more out of those strength and high-intensity workouts as well.

Next time, I’ll cover specific examples of how you can train your aerobic system. Until then, stay strong, my friends!

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: strength recovery high intensity energy aerobic

10 Emotional Wellness Insights from the Pandemic

GettyImages-1247301039It’s safe to say that 2020 has been one a heck of a year (and it’s barely half over!)—the good, the bad, the ugly. At times, it’s felt as if an entire decade has passed. No matter how you slice it, the fact that we’ve experienced something as novel as a global pandemic still feels weird to say, think about, and sometimes fully appreciate. It has been a tumultuous time outside of COVID-19 as well, and every person has had a unique experience, a unique perception, and unique challenges along the way.

We’ve all probably learned a thing or two about ourselves. We’ve had time to reevaluate what is important to us, and maybe find a few things that aren’t. Here are just a few things I’ve left quarantine with, in no particular order:

My Quarantine Takeaways

  • I needed to uncouple productivity from self-worth. In working from home, I found that I accomplished most tasks in spurts. I’d work for 2 hours straight, then go for a walk, then jot down ideas for projects for 30 minutes, then get in a lift, then eat while watching a show, and on and on. Other days I just wouldn’t have it—no juice, no gas in the tank. Responding to emails felt like a win. And then the eventual guilt would sink in. Why didn’t I do more? How is this all that I got done today, this week? After a few weeks of this cycle, I finally told myself, “STOP.” It’s okay that there are things left on your to-do list. Its okay that you’re not motivated every second of every day. What we lived through, and are still living through, is something that we have literally never seen or experienced (at least I haven’t!). So give yourself some slack, be a little more forgiving, and start each day fresh.
  • My “best days” involved some semblance of structure. Don’t get me wrong, I love a little bit of spontaneity. But for much of quarantine, I found that my good days involved a level of consistency. When I woke up gradually with coffee and water, got a little bit of work done first thing, cleaned up the bedroom/loft, got in a workout, completed any errands like grocery shopping, blocked off time for reading, and got outside for some vitamin D, I felt energized. I felt accomplished. Obviously, there were variations. But blocking off time, working through chores and work intermittently, taking time for myself with activity and self-care—more often than not these days fell into the “good” category. On days where I had no schedule, stayed up too late and slept in too long, binged a TV show, or had little activity, I felt like garbage by the end. I can still hear my high school statistics teacher saying, “correlation does not imply causation,” but at least my chances for a good day skyrocketed with a little routine.
  • The importance of “idle time.” Full disclosure: I’m not sure that working from home always meshed with my personality or temperament. I would check my email every five seconds, even though I just cleared my queue seconds before. I would write down three sentences, hear the ping of a new email dropping into my inbox, and lose my complete train of thought. I would sometimes go for a walk and feel myself getting tempted to check in. Like many of us, I’m already addicted to my phone, feeling incomplete if I leave a room without it (unhealthy, I know; I’m working on it). But I found that literally scheduling in time to do nothing did wonders for my focus. I wasn’t scatterbrained when I returned to writing or working on a project. In fact, just sitting doing nothing, or having a casual conversation with my housemates, seemed to just calm my nerves and anxious thoughts in general. Just 5-minutes of unplugged silence was powerfully calming as well. Moral of the story? Sometimes doing nothing is more productive than trying to do 42 things at once.
  • The power of connection. I’m sure by this point, most of us have come to a conclusion similar to this, so I’ll keep it brief. You don’t need to be in close proximity to be close to those you love and appreciate. Some of my simplest joys came from FaceTimeing with family or having a quick phone call with a friend. It’s a quick recharge for the mental and emotional batteries.
  • It feels great to make your bed first thing. It’s simple. It’s quick. It sets your day in motion on the right foot. And at the very least, you have a tidy place to come home to when you’re ready to hit the sack for the night. It just feels good.
  • My mood is correlated to the amount of news and social media I consume. See #3 from above, and you’ll get the idea. A little news is okay. Knowing what is going on in the world around us is crucial in my mind. But the constant onslaught of “breaking news” hour after hour, minute to minute, is completely exhausting. When I limited my consumption to short periods, one stint in the morning (after coffee of course) and one in the evening, I found that my day’s trajectory was a lot more positive overall.
  • Whether good or bad, this too shall pass. No matter how large my to-do list was, no matter how much uncertainty and worry crept into my thoughts, and no matter how cathartic a workout I had, every day came to an end eventually. Sometimes I found myself muttering “this too shall pass” under my breath when I would be feeling a particular amount of anxiety or stress. And you know what? It actually did help put things in perspective. Take the good with the bad, because it’ll all be over eventually one way or another.
  • It's okay if you binged that show or played that video game. Hey, we’re all human. Don’t beat yourself up for indulging a little bit here and there! (Refer to #1 as well!)
  • Take advantage of the sunny days. Growing up in Michigan, the second most cloudy state in the US (for real!), I had a bit of a head start on this lesson. But the pandemic sure as heck hammered it home. When it was a beautiful, sunny day, I made sure to get outside for some amount of time, even if it was only 20 minutes on the back deck in between meetings. It boosted my mood, calmed me down, and made me take a second to just have a little gratitude for the simple things.
  • There is a feeling of zen I have when lifting. I know: this is an obvious one coming from a coach. But that’s also why I left it until the other insights had their time to shine. Everyone has their own interests, their own ways to unwind, and for me that is under a barbell or with a couple of dumbbells in hand. My brain shuts off, the music blares, and I can just get lost in it. If you haven’t found something, some activity that brings you a sense of calm, I highly encourage you to start exploring! Hobbies and interests shouldn’t be left by the wayside just because they’re not your main hustle.

Lessons We Will Take with Us

I’m sure that everyone will leave quarantine changed in some way, shape, or form. And the lessons you’ll leave with will be completely unique to your experience. Whether positive or negative, try to carry these into your life post-pandemic. Because more often than not, they’ll help you in the long run moving forward.

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: attitude outdoors wellness vitamin D emotional self-care quarantine covid-19

7 Things You Can Do to Avoid Cabin Fever

GettyImages-1185186125It goes without saying; we’re living through some pretty odd times. With the onset of COVID-19, many of our lives have been flipped on their heads. For some, there has been less structure, and maybe a little more downtime, and that has the potential to make even the sanest of them all go a little stir-crazy.

Here are a few things that you can do today to help break the monotony (or break that Netflix binge) and add some flavor to your day.

Learn to play a new card or board game.

Remember that time your friends from Michigan asked if you wanted to play Euchre, and you responded with a shrug and said, “I’ve never played, can you teach me?” But they were too competitive to have the patience to do so? Is this oddly specific? Yes. But now is a perfect time to pick up a new game to play around the kitchen table. Whether its Euchre (I’m still working on it), Catan, or even perfecting your Poker face, take a break from professional development and instead work on learning a new game.

Play a round of Chopped: Home Pantry Edition.

For those of you who don’t frequent the Food Network, Chopped is a show in which four chefs compete against each other. In each round there are four “basket ingredients.” These basket ingredients must be used in some way, shape, or form, and typically end up being some off-the-wall, unexpected item that must then be used to create an appetizer, entrée, or dessert. After you’ve reorganized your pantry (because goodness knows there’s time now), take that flavored olive oil, an overly ripe banana, a packet of oatmeal, and a can of tuna and see what you come up with! Okay, maybe use some more tasty items, but you get the idea. Now, grab that apron and get cooking!

Reorganize your living room furniture.

This has the built-in benefit of killing two birds with one stone. Not only do you try your hand at being Joanna Gaines (you know, from Fixer Upper), but you also engineer a little extra movement into your day. Sometimes just a quick rearrangement can make that space you’ve been spending a lot more time in feel brand new. Just make sure you don’t take it a step too far and channel your inner Chip Gaines for a demo-day. (Jokes!)

Make a scrapbook of that awesome vacation from 3 years ago.

We all know you probably took a bajillion pictures when you were out West on that road trip, many of which didn’t make the Instagram cut. So break out the scissors, cardboard, stickers from all the places you explored, and of course all the goofy photos you snapped, and get down to business!

Finally finish that book that’s been sitting on your bedside table.

We’ve all seen those articles, right? Something along the lines of “How CEOs Read 247 Books a Week.” Well now’s a great chance to pick up that half-read book and finish the darn thing! Even if you’re not a bonafide bookworm, maybe check out something like a history of your favorite sports team, a biography from a standup comedian you love, or the book version of one of your favorite movies or shows to see how they compare.

Call a loved one or a friend you want to reconnect with.

While we’re adjusting to this new normal and practicing social distancing, that doesn’t mean that social isolation has to be part of the equation. As humans, we are social creatures by nature. So, that quick phone call to check in on your mom or dad, your good friend from college, or that coworker you really miss can go a long way in lifting your spirits, as well as theirs.

If you’re restless, get up and move!

As a blog writer for a fitness center, this one may seem like “duh, Lauren, we get it.” And I know most of us have probably had our Facebook page, Instagram timeline, and Twitter feed bombarded with versions of at-home workouts. But I think there is a lot of truth behind the notion that movement is medicine. If you’re restless, do a one-minute workout. If the weather’s nice where you are, get outside for a breath of literal fresh air. If you have a makeshift garage gym, blast some “Eye of the Tiger” and duplicate a Rocky training montage. However you choose to move, chances are you’ll come out in a better mood on the other side.

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: attitude mindset illness prevention mental health quarantine covid-19 coronavirus

My 7-Day Experiment with Hot/Cold Contrast Showers for Recovery

GettyImages-533891978Nowadays, it seems that many people are trying to find that next great gadget to help put them over the top. Whether it’s the fitness world, life at home, or the day-to-day grind at the office, people seem to be peddling some kind of shortcut or cheat code to help aid performance in some way, shape, or form. I know I can’t go a day without scrolling through Instagram and seeing an ad for some new, expensive toy guaranteed to solve whatever problem I seem to be having that day.

While sometimes it can be tempting to explore those avenues, I usually tend to stay the course and preach the basics when it comes to performance and recovery. Have I slept 8 hours? Have I eaten whole foods? Did I have a sip of water that day, or was it an IV of caffeine instead? Despite all this, recently I found myself continuing to run across the concept of cold showers, or contrast showers, and how they can be used to aid recovery.

I saw articles about athletes like LeBron James using them for recovery. I read articles from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning examining their benefits, both physically and psychologically. I saw them pop-up as topics on a few podcasts that I listen to frequently. So finally I decided, “Why not? I’m going to do a 7-day experiment on myself and give these contrast showers a try!”

What Is a Contrast Shower and How Can It Help?

First, a little background. A contrast shower alternates between bouts of hot and cold water for a total time of anywhere between five and ten minutes. Some of the purported benefits of this cold thermogenesis include the following:

  • Improves blood flow and nitric oxide delivery, especially within the brain.
  • Reduces systemic inflammation.
  • Supports the connection between the brain and the digestive system by strengthening vagal tone.
  • Improves appetite regulation.
  • Improves insulin sensitivity.
  • Improves mood, focus, and attention.

What Happened When I Tried It

In my case, I chose the 10 seconds of hot, 20 seconds of cold version. I alternated between these 30-second segments 10 times for a total of five minutes. Here’s the breakdown of what ensued:

Day 1

I was terrified. I was starting my early morning with a cold shower. However, I cheated a bit and started with 30 seconds of lukewarm water before flipping it straight to hypothermia-inducing temperatures. And it took my breath away when I finally did. I used my arms as a shield. I think I actually screamed at one point (haha). Once I was through two or three cycles, though, it was a lot less shocking. Still not fun, but definitely more manageable.

Day 2

The first two or three rounds were still brutal. My breathing accelerated and I’m pretty sure I was making weird noises too. By round four, I started turning around, 360 degrees, during the cold portion. It helped a bit, purely from a distraction standpoint. The last two rounds I stood stock-still, focusing on my breathing. When I got out, and even 5, 10, and 15 minutes afterward, my mind felt very clear. I felt a little more energized. But maybe that was because I was grateful it was over!

Day 3

This time I rocked it out at the end of my day. Similar to the first two days, the first two rounds were a struggle. However, finding two really good songs to jam to was extremely helpful. I didn’t have to focus as much on how many rounds were left; instead, I just waited for the songs to end. Also, dancing in the shower, albeit somewhat risky, was a heck of a good distraction!

Day 4

I’m probably losing it by day 4, because I was actually looking forward to it today! I liked the clarity it seemed to bring. I liked the way I felt physically afterward. And as alluded to before, picking a killer playlist is key!

Day 5

I almost ditched my 7-day experiment today. Mentally, I was not feeling up to it. But afterward, I’m glad I stuck with it because I felt very refreshed. I could stand under the cold water while staying still and not screaming, even on round one!

Day 6

Today I focused on making sure some of the more temperature-sensitive areas, like the top of the head, underarm, and chest, were hit throughout. This was quite the curveball! That take-your-breath-away temperature hit me like a tidal wave. I was so alert afterward, though, that I almost forgot to make my morning cup of coffee. I was wired and ready to go at 4am!

Day 7

Mama I made it! I went into this one hoping to alleviate some soreness I had from a workout the preceding day. Afterward I still had some stiffness, but it was markedly different. This was at the end of my day, and transitioning from the contrast shower to holding a warm cup of tea and reading a book was incredibly relaxing. While I was alert, I wasn’t amped up. I felt refreshed and focused. And it sure didn’t stop me from falling asleep the second my head hit the pillow about an hour later.

Final Thoughts

By the end of the seven-day experiment, I was oddly “hooked” on the whole contrast shower concept. Although this is anecdotal evidence, I felt calm, focused, and alert after each shower. I noticed small improvements in self-reported soreness as well. And if nothing else, it was a heck of a wake-up call at 4am before work!

It remains to be seen just how much cold thermogenesis can aid in recovery post-exercise, as the current research (and here) is equivocal. But as with many recovery methods, there is something to be said for the perceived improvements in soreness or pain management. In other words, if you think that it’s working for you, then it will. If you think that it’s a waste, then it probably is.

As of today though, I’m currently riding a 17-day streak of contrast showers! Stay cool, everybody!

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: recovery contrast showers inflammation blood flow mood cold thermogenesis

Just Hanging Out for Shoulder Health and Pain Relief

GettyImages-172901773How many times have you looked around a room full of people and seen nearly everyone buried in their phones? Their shoulders are slumped forward and their head is hung low. Or maybe you’re at work, and everyone’s busy composing emails with that same forward head position? Chances are, it won’t be long before you notice this posture elsewhere, and it can wreak havoc when it comes to the health of your shoulders.

Although it varies from year to year, research has found that the prevalence of reported chronic shoulder pain in the United States ranges anywhere from 23% in 18–24-year-olds to just over 50% in those 55 to 64 years old. This can be the result of a variety of factors such as previous acute injury, musculoskeletal imbalances, or dysfunctional movement patterns and compensations that over time accumulate to cause pain.

What Does the Good Doctor Say?

Dr. John M. Kirsch is a practicing orthopedic surgeon with over 30 years of experience in treating patients with wide-ranging issues when it comes to the shoulder girdle. He is the author of Shoulder Pain? The Solution & Prevention, in which he details exercise and rehabilitative exercise protocols to help alleviate or eliminate shoulder pain. He found that in 90% of his patient population who were expected to have shoulder surgery, prescribing one movement as an alternative actually eliminated their pain altogether. And this movement is the brachial dead hang.

What Is a Brachial Dead Hang?

A brachial hang describes a vertical hanging pattern from a fixed point. Think back to when you were a kid on the playground. We climbed up and down structures and swung from the monkey bars during recess. This was routine. This hanging movement acts to positively change the structure of the shoulder girdle itself. Evolutionarily speaking, we were literally built to hang; it goes hand in hand with our physiology. However, when we spend years and years hunched over, gravity, along with lifestyle changes, makes it easier for the shoulder to be chronically stuck in an anterior, rolled-forward position. This can not only exacerbate any underlying shoulder injury, but can also cause dysfunction of its own, leading to potential impingements and pain.

The act of hanging works to reverse this shackled pattern that arises over time. It also aids in spinal decompression, encouraging appropriate space between the ribs, and allowing for more effective breathing mechanics as well.

How Do You Build Hanging into Your Routine?

If you’ve never hung from a pull-up bar before, the goal is to start small and gradually work your way up to supporting your full body weight. Specifically, start with a box underneath you so that you will have your feet touching the ground. Gradually let your body weight carry you down while keeping your feet on the ground, and support as much of your weight on the bar as you can tolerate. Hold this position for 10 seconds, resting for as long as needed, before trying another 10-second hang.

Dr. Kirsch has recommended hanging for up to 1.5 minutes per day, in whatever increments you can tolerate. This could be bouts of 10, 15, or 30 seconds depending on your grip strength. So the next time you’re in the gym or passing your local park, try giving a dead hang a shot. It could help quiet down some of those cranky shoulders.

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: shoulders stretching pain exercises posture spine

Go With the Flow: Spice Up your Warm-ups Using Flow Circuits

With the winter months settling in, and maybe traveling becoming part of your routine, it may become harder to carve out time for workouts. Limited access to equipment may also throw a wrench into your plan for a quick training session. But by incorporating bodyweight movements into a flow circuit, you can bypass the excuses and be workout ready any time, any place.

What Is a Bodyweight Flow?

Flow circuits typically include bodyweight movements that are linked in succession one after another with minimal or no rest in between. They can be used as a dynamic warmup, a low-intensity recovery circuit, or an entire workout in and of itself. They can also be a great way to sprinkle some physical activity into your day, especially if time and equipment are lacking.

How to Implement a Flow Circuit

If you’re looking to spice up your standard dynamic warm-up (or add one in general), a simple two-minute flow circuit fits perfectly. You can perform each movement three to five times, and when the movements are linked together in succession, they help increase blood flow, improve mobility, and increase your overall core body temperature to prep you for the workout ahead. Bodyweight flow circuits also allow you to hit large, compound movements that address stability at multiple joints in a shorter amount of time. Overall, they are a great bang for your buck. Examples of movements include bear crawls, cross-under lunges, inchworms, and rocking patterns.

Here are a couple of bodyweight flow options that you can take for a spin next time you’re at the gym in need of a warm-up.

  • Video 1 (Hip Flow Series)

Screen Shot 2020-01-28 at 2.36.48 PM

  • Video 2 (Crawling/Rolling Patterns)

Screen Shot 2020-01-28 at 2.34.31 PM

If you’re interested in learning more about how to use bodyweight movements and flows for warm-ups, circuits, cool-downs, or recovery routines, check us out down in the Fitness Center. You can also reach out to me via email to lzakrajsek@nifs.org for any and all questions. Happy lifting!

Like what you've just read? Click here to subscribe to our blog!

This blog was written by Lauren Zakrajsek, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Internship Coordinator. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: fitness center circuit workout videos recovery warmups bodyweight flow bodyweight flow flow circuits low-intensity