Spring Tune- Up!

The way to successfully navigate a lifetime of fitness and activity is to keep at least a minimum level of strength and endurance at all times and then to prepare, or ramp up, efforts before significant events, seasons or occasions.  This means that some preparation should go into effect before golf or ski season, before day tripping cruises and also before each season, which bring unique challenges into our lives.

Preparing the body for spring activities make them safer and more pleasurable.

The challenges that spring presents to us can be related to activities that many of us pursue when the weather starts getting warmer and more pleasant after a winter of being cooped up in the house.  This is typically the time of year when regular people start working on their properties, gardening, hiking, cycling and playing sports like golf and softball.  Although everything is going to be delayed somewhat this year, there is no reason not to prepare for the inevitable return to normal.

As I was thinking about the activities mentioned above, I identified 5 types of movements that are necessary to perform them safely and efficiently.  They are as follows; Bending and pulling, twisting and rotating, carrying and stabilizing.  I’ve also identified 5 exercises that could easily be added to a daily fitness regimen for the next several weeks and would like to outline them here.

  • Sumo squat. The sumo squat is like a regular squat, performed with the feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and the toes turned out slightly.  Begin with your hands clasped in front of the chest while bending at the knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor (less if you have knee pain or arthritis).  Complete 2- 3 sets of 15- 20 repetitions while keeping your eyes and chin up and chest high.

As you get stronger, hold a weight between your legs to increase the challenge.

This move simulates some of the demands on the inner thighs and back of the legs that you would experience while gardening.

  • Bentover rowing. The bentover row is performed by bending forward and bracing yourself with one hand on your thigh, just above the knee.  Hold a weight in your other hand and let it hang to the floor (you can use a dumbbell or bag filled with cans of food or bottles of water).  In one smooth motion, drive your elbow upwards, pulling the weight up and drawing your shoulder blade back, without standing up. Lower the weight to the floor and repeat for 2- 3 sets of 15- 20 repetitions.

Note: When you are in the bentover position, avoid rounding your lower back and do not hold your breath.


  • Diagonal chopping. The “wood chopper” is a tremendous compound exercise that uses muscles throughout the body in one seamless move.  Stand with feet about shoulder width apart with a 5lb weight in your hands (a dumbbell, medicine ball or bottle of water) and then bring the weight to the outside of one knee.  In one smooth motion, swing the weight over the shoulder on the opposite side of the body while standing upright.  The movement is not unlike throwing a pail of water over the shoulder!  Repeat for 2- 3 sets of 10- 15 repetitions and repeat with the other side of the body.

This move has direct carryover to the lifting and moving that happens in yard work as well as in the act of swinging a club or bat.

  • Farmer’s walk. This exercise is performed by holding weights in both hands and… walking.  It is a loaded carry exercise that targets the upper and lower body as well as the core muscles of the abdomen all at the same time.  It builds gripping strength and when performed with enough effort can build endurance as well.

If you don’t have dumbbells to hold to provide the load, you can carry grocery bags or even fill pails of water or sand!  Get creative when putting deciding on what to carry.

Start out light so that you can maintain good posture throughout and breathe naturally while completing 2- 3 sets of 30 seconds.  Increase the load over time.


  • Bird Dog exercise. The “Bird Dog” is an exercise that can build strength, endurance and stability in the muscles up and down the back.  Get down on the floor on your hands and knees.  Assume a position where your lower back is in a “neutral” position with no rounding or arching.  Slowly raise your right hand straight out front of you while your left leg rises to the rear.  Hold for one second and then lower before repeating with the other arm/ leg.  Complete 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions per side.


To see a video demonstrating all of these exercises… click HERE

If you are new to exercise or are managing a medical condition, seek the approval of your physician before attempting this routine.

Counting up small victories can keep you on track

As the month of August wraps up, I’ve been taking stock of how my clients are doing and noting their progress. It’s been quite a rewarding experience as people have been telling me about their successes. One of my clients has never (ever) seen his blood pressure reading lower than 140/ 90 … until last week when his doctor recorded it as 127/70! A woman I have been working with just told me she has delayed her quarterly cortisone injection for shoulder pain because she just doesn’t feel like she needs it. You might also remember the guitarist that I mentioned several columns ago. He sent me a text to let me know that he is now practicing for the first time in years without being in agony following the session. You can imagine how gratifying it is to get this kind of feedback.

On the other hand, I’ve also been noticing clients who are feeling frustrated by what they feel is a lack of improvement to their pain or dysfunction levels. When someone decides to start building their strength and endurance to help manage a medical condition, it isn’t something that is undertaken lightly. Some of the people I see have been dealing with their problems for years and have, finally, built up the courage to try to make things better. When improvement isn’t immediate, or consistent, it can be very frustrating.

I’ve been in an interesting position in 2016 to be able to really empathize with the clients I work with. In April, I had shoulder surgery to address multiple rotator cuff tears, bursitis and arthritis. That meant I have been going through a rehabilitation process of my own at the same time as I’ve been guiding my clients through their workouts. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that while progress does happen it is very rarely, if ever, linear. Things get better for a while … and then they don’t! I can think of specific times when I felt like I was actually in MORE pain than before surgery. During these times, I was able to stay motivated and focused on my recovery plan by taking stock of some of the accomplishments that I’d experienced in the weeks since my operation.

In the book “The Dip,” author Seth Godin characterizes “dips” in enthusiasm, momentum or success as temporary setbacks that can be overcome. The dips I experienced in physiotherapy were always followed by a week of noticeable improvement. The same goes for the clients I outlined above. Like everyone, they started their fitness journey with enthusiasm and energy. After initial success, the first dip appeared as lack of progress, pain or undue fatigue. Recognizing that these are all normal and to be expected over the long term, we made adjustments and reassessed their plan until they started to move in a positive direction.

The real challenge then is to be able to recognize if you are in a dip and should persevere, or if you are facing a dead end where quitting is the best option.

I’ve found that the best way to understand if you should keep going through a dip is to take stock to see how far you’ve come. Knowing that you’re moving in a positive direction goes a long way in keeping you on task.

When I first meet with a client, I ask them “What would you like to be able to do, that you can’t do now?” If you can answer this, in very specific terms, you’ll be able to come up with milestones along the way to let you know you are “getting there.” For me, the answer was “I want to be able to throw a baseball again.”

Here are five milestones that I noted when I was frustrated by pain and what I thought was lack of progress;

• I slept through the night

• I was able to sleep on my shoulder.

• I was able to shave with my right hand.

• I could play a game of darts.

• I rode my mountain bike 50k.

Although I haven’t thrown a ball yet, looking at my list of accomplishments makes it clear that I am moving in the right direction.

If you are trying to manage a painful or limiting medical condition, ask yourself these two questions;

“What would I like to be able to do that I can’t do now?” and “How will I know that my plan is working and I am getting closer to my goal?” Be as specific as you can and you’ll have a powerful tool for getting through the inevitable “dips” you’ll face as you work on your health and fitness.

Getting ready for the fifth season

It’s been said that in Canada, we don’t just have four seasons, we actually have five. Winter, spring, summer, fall and … “hockey season.”

We are a country that thrives despite long, cold winters. We win big at the Winter Olympics every four years and many of us learn how to skate before we can run. For millions of Canadians, playing hockey is a given. It’s a rite of passage and for many of us; it is something that we never willingly give up. There might be a time where your “bad back” just won’t let you play anymore or when your “old knees” protest every time you try to rush the puck, but, for those who play, the game is never given up easily.

Now that the season is nearly upon us, it seemed the right time to address some of the specific needs for older players who are about to return to the ice within the next 4 to 8 weeks.

When I design fitness plans for sports, I break things down into three areas. The exercises that I choose for athletes help them to perform at a higher level as well as help to protect them from injury and the demands of the game. These exercises can also be worked into a plan to help an athlete lose body fat or gain muscle based on their need.

For the mature, adult league player, I’ve highlighted three areas of the body that are susceptible to injury and need to be strong to play hockey at a high level:

• The lower body, specifically the knees and the hips

• The core (the lower back and abdomen)

• The upper thoracic area that includes the chest, shoulders and upper back.

From years of working with adult hockey players (I hate the term “Old Timers”) and from my own pre-season preparation, I’ve come up with a routine that features only 6 movements and can be used by someone who hasn’t been physical since last season or added to the routine of a regular exerciser. All you’ll need to complete the routine is a medium-to-heavy resistance band with handles. You can find a band like this at any department store that sells fitness equipment.

Here is the workout:

Warm up with 5 minutes of rhythmic movement such as marching, treadmill walking, stair climbing, stationary biking, jumping jacks or skipping and then get right into the routine. Perform each of the exercises for 15 repetitions and repeat the entire routine 3 to 5 times, 3 times per week.

1. Single Arm Band Pull. Wrap the resistance band around a banister and hold both handles in one hand. Extend your hand in front of you to start. Slowly pull the band back toward you and bring your hand to the bottom of your ribs. Your abdominals should be tight at this point. Pause for 2 seconds and then return the band to the starting position. Repeat for 15 repetitions and then continue with your other hand.

2. Single Leg Floor Touch. Balance on one foot and bend at the knee while reaching to the floor with the opposite hand to your working leg. Complete 15 repetitions and then repeat with your other hand and leg.

3. Resistance Band Core Rotations. Loop one handle of the band through the other and attach the band to your banister. While standing perpendicular to the attachment point on the railing, grab a single handle with both hands and extend them in front of you. Move away from the attachment point until you feel your abdominals contract. While keeping them tight, move your straight arms back and forth in front of you. The width of the movement should only be from one shoulder to the other. After doing 15 repetitions, repeat facing the other direction.

4. Pushups. Next, you’ll be doing a classic pushup, from your toes, with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Attempt to bring your chest to the floor before pushing back up to straighten your arms.

5. Plank. Following the pushups, stay on the floor and balance on your forearms and your toes. Hold this “plank” position for 30 to 60 seconds, keeping your abdomen tight and while breathing easily. This move is very important in developing core “stiffness,” which translates into a much stronger shot in hockey.

6. Elevated Hip Bridge. After the plank, roll onto your back and place your heels on a chair. With your hands down at your sides by your hips for stability, thrust your hips upward while contracting your hamstrings and the muscles in your buttocks.

If you want to create more of an endurance workout, perform up to 3 minutes of cardio exercise between each round and complete your workout with up to 12 more minutes of endurance work such as treadmill walking, stationary biking or stair climbing. You will be a much stronger, fitter athlete and will decrease your risk of energy when you perform this routine and develop your “hockey muscles.”

Exercise yourself to better cholesterol numbers

If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you’ve probably wondered what you can do to improve your numbers.

Part of your regimen might include medication that your doctor prescribes as well as changes to your diet. A less obvious tactic is to add an exercise routine if you aren’t currently involved in one. If you are already working out, then there might be some value in changing things up and adding intensity to what you are normally doing.

When I work with clients, I like to provide insight or education about the process of working out and how it affects the body. I don’t like just giving people exercises to do without some real understanding of what’s going on internally.

In the case of cholesterol, there are three numbers that are measured with a blood test that is referred to as a lipid profile or lipid panel. Lipid is another word for fat. The three numbers that make up the panel are; “good” cholesterol or high density lipoprotein (HDL), “bad” cholesterol or low density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides, which are a type of fat that is stored within cells. Besides measuring these three things, a lipid profile will also give a number for total cholesterol (both good and bad) and the ratio of your HDL (“good” fat) as compared to your overall total.

LDL cholesterol is called bad because it has been shown to increase the build up of plaque (or cholesterol deposits) within the arteries, increasing the chance of a heart attack or stroke. My favourite description of how this process works is to imagine that you were pouring oatmeal through a drinking straw. Some of the oatmeal will stick to the side of the straw and build up will occur over time. The opening of the straw will become smaller and eventually will close up completely. To get anything through the straw will require great pressure. LDL is low in density and sludgy … like oatmeal.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, HDL cholesterol may help to prevent the clogging of arteries that occurs with excess LDL levels, by helping to transport bad cholesterol to the liver to be disposed of by the body. If you think back to the “oatmeal in a straw” example, HDL is more like a marble rolling through that drinking straw. It passes through without leaving “guck” to build up on the walls.

High triglyceride levels are linked to low HDL levels, excess body weight and poorly controlled diabetes.

The good news is that there is evidence that one of the ways that you can raise your levels of good cholesterol as well as decrease potentially harmful triglyceride levels is by exercising on a regular basis. In this case, the “right” kind of exercise is a combination of aerobic and strength training to decrease your body fat and increase your body’s lean muscle tissue. Being overweight or obese increases the level of bad fat in your body while it lowers your level of HDL and increases your risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

Here are three things that can help you to build a leaner, fitter, more efficient body over time.

1. “Cycle” your workouts around a muscle building phase. This is crucial as the amount of skeletal muscle on your body will play a large role in the efficiency of your metabolism.

Plan to focus on general conditioning for 4 weeks doing calisthenics, body weight exercises, yoga, Pilates, walking, etc … before focusing for 4 weeks on weight lifting exercises that challenge your body at a higher level. During the muscle building phase, do full body exercise routines where you are only able to complete 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise. After the 4 week muscle building phase, return to the lower intensity conditioning routines and repeat the cycle throughout the year.

2. When combining aerobic and strength exercise, the sequence in which you do them is important. If your goal is to burn body fat, do your strength training first. When you do this, your body will use stored sugar (or glycogen) to power your muscles through their workout, leaving stored body fat for fuel during the aerobic exercise part of your training.

3. Become more active outside of your exercise program. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that everyone should be active up to 150 minutes per week. While this might seem like a lot, the activity can be broken into smaller segments, as little as 10 minutes at a time.

While formal aerobic and muscle building exercise are vital to building a lean, fit body, it is just as important to make your life as active as possible. Park far from the mall door, take the stairs, rake your leaves instead of using a blower, go for a walk after dinner … all of these consistent, little things add up to big changes over a lifetime.

Like most of the challenges that I’ve been writing about over the past several months, the take-home lesson should be that you do have some control over how well you manage your condition.

Listen to your health care provider and do what he or she recommends, and then decide to take charge of the things that are within your control.

Balance exercises will put you on a proper footing

Last week I wrote about how important it is to be able to walk with comfort and with confidence. As we move through life from childhood to our senior years, this ability will have a large bearing on how independent we are.

I also outlined some of the things that can have an impact on the ability to walk. Neurological disorders like MS and Parkinson’s syndrome, arthritis, joint injuries and cerebrovascular accidents (strokes) all pose challenges to individuals who want to keep walking and stay fit, healthy and active.

From a fitness perspective, I highlighted the importance of proper posture and the need for adequate strength as well as how important it is to remain flexible while maintaining full range of motion in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Finally, I wrote about how walking is a single leg activity (you only ever have one foot on the ground when you are walking) so good balance becomes important when you are trying to walk around or over obstacles.

In this week’s column, I’ll be identifying some exercises that can help you improve your walking by addressing your posture, strength, flexibility and balance.

The first exercise might not look like it has much to do with walking, but, it is my favourite for working the “rear chain” and core muscles that help you build and maintain great posture. Remember, when you stand up straighter it becomes easier to lift your feet and avoid shuffling along.

The Bird Dog: Assume a kneeling position on the floor with your hands on the ground (the “all fours” position). Slowly lift your right arm and left leg until they are parallel to the floor. Hold for a 3 count. Repeat with the other arm and leg. Perform 5 repetitions with each side every other day. If you can’t do this exercise on the floor, stand with your hands balanced on a counter and do the move standing, lifting your right arm and left leg to the rear, hold for 3 seconds and then repeat with the other side.

Step Ups: Start with your right foot on the bottom step of a staircase. Use the handrail for balance, if necessary. Step up to place your left foot on the step and then step back down with the same foot. Perform 10 repetitions with your right foot staying in place. Repeat with the left leg and when you feel confident, move the working leg up to the second step. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions every other day.

Hamstring and Hip Stretch Progression: You can do these stretches using the same bottom stair immediately following the step ups. Place your right heel on the bottom stair and stretch your torso forward over your extended right leg, sliding your hands down toward your shin. Imagine that you are trying to touch your stomach to your thigh, while keeping your leg straight. Hold for 20 seconds and then bend your leg while you place your foot flat on the step. Push your hips forward. You should feel a gentle stretch in the left hip flexor as well as in your left calf at this point. Hold for 20 seconds and then repeat both stretches with the other leg. It is important that you keep your eyes and chin up throughout both moves to prevent rounding the shoulders.

Walking Balance Series: Find an area where you can walk for about 20 feet and mark off a starting and ending point. You will be doing a series of 5 moves designed to help you walk with more comfort and confidence. Do them as a series with as little break in between as possible and use any assisted devices that you might need or hold someone’s hand, if necessary, for safety.

The five moves are:

1. Stand tall and “walk the plank” along an imaginary line on the floor, heel to toe, placing one foot in front of the other along the line.

2. Next, return to your starting point by walking sideways, moving one leg out to the side and dragging the back leg. Side step in the other direction back another 20 feet.

3. The third move is to strengthen the muscles around your shin that lift your toes and your foot when you are walking. Lift yourself up onto your heels and “heel walk” 20 feet.

4. Turn around and “toe walk” back to build strength in your calves.

5. The final move to do is to simply walk naturally back and forth in between the 20 foot markers. While you are doing this, slowly rotate your head and look from side to side to shift your focus. (If this causes you to lose balance, hold someone’s hand or hold on to a wall as you walk).

You can repeat the walking moves as often as you’d like and can do them along with the other postural, strength and flexibility moves outlined above. These are only a few of the hundreds of exercises and drills that can help build your confidence in your ability to walk. Like all exercises they can be modified to become easier or harder.

Simple outdoor exercise can help you manage feelings of anxiety

Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry. For many people, it can be overwhelming. It can also be unpredictable, and when it flares up can bring with it an array of physical and emotional problems including inability to focus, sleep disturbances, racing heart rate, headache, digestive problems and feelings of unease. Anxiety disorders should be treated by a qualified health professional and should be taken seriously. Luckily, treatments do exist that can help people manage their lives around anxiety. One important way people can start to manage the way they feel is to participate in an exercise program.

Exercise by itself cannot cure anxiety or depression. It can, however, bring many physical, emotional and psychological benefits to those who do get involved in a consistent, regular fitness program. Knowing this, the real challenge is for someone who feels they are “barely holding on” to find the motivation and wherewithal to actually start exercising and then keep going. The good news is that a program does not have to be overly time consuming, physically taxing or complicated to make a difference in someone’s life.

From my experience, the best way to get someone to stick to a regular fitness regimen, when they aren’t in the habit, is to have them first focus on the frequency with which they exercise.

A workout plan is built around four separate principles that make up what is called the FITT formula: Frequency (how many times per week you are exercising), intensity (how hard you are working out), type (the choice of what exercise to do) and time (per workout session).

In the case of anxiety and exercise, the frequency is more important than how hard and how long someone does a certain activity. I would recommend starting with three times per week and building up to five. Research has shown that even small bouts of exercise of 10 minutes, spread over the week, produces positive outcomes. As the habit takes hold, the exerciser can increase their duration to 20 or 30 minutes per session and get even more benefit.

While frequency is critical, the second principle to be concerned with is the type of exercise. Most fitness activities can help to diminish anxiety-related symptoms, but the most significant is aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate for a period of time. The most common symptom of an anxiety or panic attack is a racing heart. When someone performs aerobic exercise, their heart rate speeds up and their heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient over time resulting in a lower resting heart rate between exercise sessions. The feelings that come along with the benefits of an improved cardiovascular system include an overall feeling of well-being and improved self-esteem. This alone can help to offset anxious feelings.

Many of my clients have told me that when they do an aerobic workout like hiking, biking, swimming or jogging, they almost feel like they are meditating. Problems seem to work themselves out as they go about their activity and they feel refreshed and have more mental clarity when they are done.

No matter which activity they do, it seems that the rhythmic nature of the workout, along with faster breathing and elevated heart rate relaxes them, leaving them feeling positive, able to concentrate better and proud of what they’ve accomplished. Many times, I have measured a client’s blood pressure before and after a workout and their high blood pressure will be in the normal/ healthy range when they are finished. The stress of the workout has an immediate relaxing effect on the cardiovascular system.

While all aerobic exercise can be good for you, there is an additional bonus if you do your exercise outdoors. Being in nature provides a distraction and a shift of focus for someone who is having trouble focusing due to an anxiety. While treadmills and stationary bikes are great tools, there is just something about being in the sunshine, navigating the earth that makes people feel more alive.

Here, then, is the perfect way to exercise for someone who is trying to manage anxiety.

1. Plan to do some aerobic exercise, three times per week to start. After three consecutive weeks of three sessions per week, add a fourth workout. After four consecutive weeks of four sessions, add a fifth day.

2. Decide on an activity you can do with little thought or planning. It should be something that you could do spontaneously with no travel time needed to start. Hiking, walking/jogging, swimming and cycling are your best options.

3. Move at an intensity that increases your heart rate and your breathing. You are at the right intensity if you can only speak three or four words before having to take a breath. If you can speak in an endless monologue, you aren’t working hard enough.

4. Whenever possible, take your workout outdoors and into nature as much as possible. In Hamilton, we are blessed with seemingly endless shared cycling and pedestrian trails through forests and along waterfronts.

When you are faced with a condition like an anxiety disorder, many things are out of your control. Take the initiative to control what you can; get regular aerobic exercise, outdoors and see how much better you feel because of it.

How to look out for number 1

As I was brainstorming subjects for my Fitness Solutions column, there was one item that popped up more than once. Because of what I do and the types of people that I see, many of my interactions are with a client’s family, friends and support staff, all working to help a loved one access the services I offer. For lack of a better term, you could say that I speak with many people in the role of “caregiver.” These include parents who juggle jobs and the seemingly endless demands of their children as well as caring for aging parents.

While the caregivers I work with are heroic in their selflessness, many of them are exhausted, stressed out and so focused on helping others that their own health and fitness is compromised. At the very least, many of them are on the verge of burn out and are barely holding on. As a business owner, a husband of someone living with MS, and the father of a teen and a tween, I speak from experience. The rewards of helping someone that truly needs you are immeasurable, but … it ain’t always easy!

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve sat through the demonstration of how to apply your oxygen mask in the case of emergency. The most important instruction is to apply your own mask before attempting to aid someone else. Simply put, if you have passed out because you can’t breathe, you can’t help anyone else and then you’re all in big trouble. The analogy holds true for caregivers who don’t get enough sleep, go hours without eating and skip daily exercise because they just “don’t have the time.”

Eventually, they become the ones who need to be helped as they struggle with high blood pressure, back pain, obesity, diabetes or some other chronic condition. At this point, they start to suffer along with their loved ones.

Taking care of yourself while helping others doesn’t lessen your ability to look after them, it actually enhances it. Having energy and physical stamina allows you to focus better, be more creative and to be more productive for longer. There is also a very good chance the your quality of care you give will improve as your fitness level increases.

From my own experience and from observing successful parents, guardians and allied health professionals over the past 25 years, I’ve come up with some strategies that can help you to put yourself first … so you can take even better care of your loved ones who depend on you.

1. Do not skip meals. There’s nothing worse than trying to focus on something important when your blood sugar is dropping. It leads to rushed work that is less than stellar.

When you cook healthy meals, make extra. Store your leftovers in plastic containers or freeze them for later use. With a bunch of meals already prepared and ready to go, you won’t have the excuse of “I didn’t have time” when you’re heading out the door.

If you’re in the habit of packing lunches, set up one extra lunch bag for yourself and fill it so it’s ready to grab when you need it the next day. Even if you’re eating at home, there’s nothing better than looking in the fridge and seeing a complete, packed meal for you when you’re hungry.

2. Schedule exercise time for yourself that is an unbreakable appointment.

If you use a day planner, schedule three workout sessions per week for you and you alone. You’ll decide what exactly to do on those days after you’ve made the appointment.

My family knows that unless the house is burning down or someone is in the Emergency Room, I am going cycling on Sunday mornings! It is MY time for rejuvenating and making me feel like I actually matter.

3. Multi-task. Get your workout by running to the bank to make a deposit, write a meal plan while your kids are swimming, steam some brown rice while you fold laundry or do a core workout while you watch TV. Figure out how to do more than one thing at a time to “find” more time.

4. Forget the “All or Nothing” mentality. If you think it takes huge effort and time to get great results, you are wrong. Just 10 minutes of focused, efficient exercise is often enough to get you moving in a new direction (and always better than doing nothing). As you get stronger and “find” more time, you can expand on this and continue to improve.

I know that it’s a hard concept to embrace when you feel like you’re the one holding so many lives together, but, once you start taking the time to make YOU better, you’ll be amazed at the positive spillover effect it has on those in your care.

Fit at 40, 50, 60 … and beyond

Two weeks ago, my mother phoned me. She asked, “Do you know that it’s your birthday in two weeks?” I said, “Yes, Mom, I know my birthday is coming up.” Then she added … “Do you know that you’re turning 50? … FIFTY … Wow!”

Part of my practice, since 1993, has been helping clients manage the effects of aging. People call me all the time when they reach a milestone “0” Birthday. It usually starts at 40, picks up momentum at 50, reaches a fever pitch at 60 and then settles into acceptance at 70 and beyond.

I’m not sure if reaching 50 is supposed to make me feel old or if it should make my mother feel old. It does, however, make me pause and think “Wow, I’m 50!” A small part of me feels like there must be some mistake while a much bigger part couldn’t care less. I hadn’t thought of it for a second until my Mom called. I guess that’s a good thing!

Last night at midnight, it happened. I officially left my 40s. This morning, the sun rose, the cat wanted food and I went off to work. Aside from the phone calls, Facebook greetings and birthday emails, today is just another day.

While a “zero” birthday might be a wake-up call that you are aging, it can also provide clarity and focus to help you thrive in the next decade. Too many people live in denial trying to do the things they did when they were younger and then getting depressed because “things aren’t like they used to be.” That’s life, change is inevitable. The sooner you get over it and accept your new reality, the sooner you’ll be loving life and looking forward to new challenges.

For the purpose of this article, I want to address three physical characteristics we need to monitor as we age; bone health, cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. Ignore these three and mid-life might not be so kind to you. Maximize them and the sky’s the limit!

With age, bones tend to shrink in size and density. In some cases, this can lead to osteoporosis, making you more susceptible to fractures and less able to maintain an active life. While there is a strong genetic link to osteoporosis along with a relationship to hormonal changes and deficiencies in the diet, lifestyle can play a major role in offsetting bone loss.

In considering cardiovascular fitness, there is a good news/bad news scenario that comes with aging. The good news is that regular exercisers who challenge themselves are able to slow the inevitable decline of aerobic capacity. The bad news is that the decline is inevitable and starts around 45. When it comes to the health of your heart and lungs, the ball really is in your court.

Finally, unless we do something to offset the effects of getting older, our muscles will start to shrink and lose flexibility somewhere between 30 and 50 years of age. You’ll look less toned and your performance in everyday activities and in sporting pursuits will start to diminish. Luckily, there is evidence that working to build and keep the muscles you have can slow the process and keep you at peak fitness far into your senior years.

From my own experience and from observing many clients who are successfully navigating their “zero” birthdays, here are three keys that I’ve come up with to keep your bones, your heart and your muscles fit and strong.

1. Challenge your muscles and bones with resistance exercises such as weight lifting, body weight moves and functional movements that mimic your daily activities: lifting, carrying uneven loads or hitting a golf ball. The strength of your bones will especially benefit from exercises that require you to stand on your feet. Bearing weight on your feet requires your bones to work hard against gravity, making them stronger.

2. Do aerobic exercise sessions 3 to 5 times per week and base your intensity level on an honest assessment of how hard you are working. Let’s be real, you know when you are slacking and you know when you’re working too hard. When you are walking, cycling or doing other endurance activities, find a pace that you can maintain for up to 30 minutes that lands somewhere between “comfortable” and “challenging.”

3. Recognize that while you can still do lots of activity at your age, you probably can’t do the same things you did when you were 20, 30 or 40. If you can, it will at least take more out of you and require more recovery. As you get older, place as much importance on recovering between workouts as you do on pushing yourself when you exercise. This means taking full days off from activity and focusing on sound nutrition.

I am pleased to say that I am looking forward to the next 10 years of my life and the challenges that they bring. In the meantime, people have been telling me that I should do something special to mark the occasion of turning 50, so this past weekend, I completed a 50 km mountain bike ride to celebrate! I paced myself and took the next day off to recover.

Getting back in the game

Over the last few months, I’ve written about how I help clients manage their medical conditions with exercise. Professionally, it’s been a great way to educate and bring hope to those feeling overwhelmed by their circumstances. The majority of people that contact me do so with a certain level of frustration. We have more health and fitness information available than at any other time in history, but people are more confused than ever.

On a personal level, my experience with fitness solutions has been deeply satisfying. In this short time, I’ve had people cry, laugh and celebrate with me as they’ve begun to take back their lives. When someone is finally able to shift their mindset from overwhelm to clarity and then to focus, something magical happens. As hard as it is to “just get going,” it’s even harder to stop when you start noticing changes and sense that you are moving in a new direction.

All of this has been happening at an interesting time for me. I’ve been managing torn rotator cuffs and shoulder pain for a few years and decided to have surgery in 2016. On April 12, I underwent a pretty extensive operation for my right shoulder. Torn rotator cuffs were sutured, my “frayed” bicep tendon was reattached, the damaged bursa was removed and the joint itself was cleaned out of arthritic changes. A lifetime of contact sports and heavy weight training had really taken its toll on my shoulder.

Leading up to the operation, I considered my situation just like I would any client with this challenge. There were many times when I felt overwhelmed and frustrated. Pain and disability can lead to fatigue and depression, and I definitely had my moments. My tipping point came when I had to throw the ball underhand at the annual parent/kid baseball game in our park. I knew things had to change!

Setting a surgery date gave me the clarity I needed to develop a plan of action to get things moving just like I would do with anyone who came to see me. “>The program that I came up with consisted of four parts and would take me far beyond the date of my operation. Here are the phases that I created for myself.


Most people have heard of doing rehabilitation after an injury or operation. There is evidence, however, that doing strength and conditioning exercise before undergoing a procedure can improve the odds of a favourable outcome and reduce the time it takes to recover following surgery. It’s important to note that this is different than working on the injury itself. In my case, this meant working around my injured shoulder to build as much supportive muscle as possible to stabilize the joint. I worked with rubber resistance bands and free weights to strengthen my upper back around the shoulder blades and the rotator cuffs. A big part of this phase is to enhance posture which can help decrease pain and minimize further damage to the joint.


The goal of rehab is to bring the repaired area back to full function as efficiently as possible. For me, this meant doing a range of motion exercises less than 24 hours after leaving the operating room. It’s no small feat to raise your arm when it is sore and swollen and you’re just starting to come out of the fog of anesthetic! Hats off to my surgeon who urged me to get moving as quickly as possible. It helped me to feel like I had some control over my situation. Currently, I am working with a physiotherapist on strengthening exercises that she designs for me. This phase can last up to 16 weeks and I am at the 10-week mark.


Rehab and physiotherapy last for 16 weeks and reconditioning picks up at that point. Once my shoulder is back to full function, it will be weak and lacking in endurance. The goal of the reconditioning period is to build the strength and endurance that I’ve lost throughout my entire body. I haven’t had a proper workout in months! Another common side-effect of surgery is weight gain. The combination of no exercise and “comfort eating” have resulted in me gaining 12 pounds of unwanted body fat that I am determined to lose as soon as possible.


To keep people really engaged throughout this process, I would suggest that “possibility” might be the most important phase of all. Rather than simply “getting better” and then working on maintenance, possibility explores what exactly you’d like to do once you are no longer in pain and injured. For me, it means that I will be mountain biking in the fall and playing hockey in the winter. My full return to sport should be in October, which is the six-month mark post-surgery.

Obviously, a plan like this would be modified depending on someone’s personal situation, but, the point is that clarity, focus and planning are the best tools for getting beyond overwhelm and frustration and moving on to rehabilitation and possibility.

Finding your balance, part 2

In last week’s Fitness Solutions Column, I wrote about the importance of balance and how to assess it. (Visit thespec.com and search “Schramayr” if you missed it.) This week, I’d like to give you an idea of how you can improve your balance and include some of the exercises and tips that have most benefitted my clients.

To recap; I wrote about how balance and stability are related to your “functional capacity.” This is your ability to do different things such as housework, yard work, child care and the demands of your job. It also determines how and what you can do in the way of recreation, travel, hobbies and sports. As we age, maintaining our functional capacity also becomes a matter of safety. Falls are a very serious problem among the older population and improved balance, stability and co-ordination can decrease the risk of serious falls.

The 6 assessments that I described last week were broken down into two areas. The first measured whether you could hold yourself stable while balancing and the second was more active, where clients were not only balancing, but also moving their bodies in a variety of ways.

Once you have a good baseline score from the assessments, it’s time to get to work. After a few weeks of incorporating these moves into your fitness plan, I would recommend retesting yourself to see if you’ve improved and by how much. As your scores improve, you can move onto the more challenging assessments that I described.

Here are 5 of my favourite balance building moves to add to your weekly regimen.

1. Single leg hold during active rest. When you exercise, there are natural breaks after sets or at the end of a round of circuit exercises. Rather than resting, get up on your feet and do a 30 second Single Leg Hold while you recover. Experiment with different leg positions. You can simply lift one foot off of the ground, or raise your knee up to waist height for a more dynamic move. You can also hold the “floating” leg straight out to the side of your body for an added challenge.

2. Use resistance bands and experiment with different foot positions. I love incorporating resistance bands into client’s workouts for exercises like chest presses or for rowing moves. As you move further away from the spot where the band is anchored, there will be more resistance and your core will have to flex to stabilize your body. You can alter your foot position from wide to narrow and from staggered to parallel for a variety of balance and stability challenges. An added bonus is that these moves really work your core muscles.

3. Uneven weight distribution. My favourite way to do this is to hold a dumbbell in one hand only while doing squats. With an uneven load, your body will have to work hard to stabilize itself and to co-ordinate movement. Imagine the effort it takes to hold a bag of groceries or a baby in one arm while bending to pick up a dropped set of keys.

4. Do single leg hold exercises progressing from very stable to very unstable. You can do this by wearing shoes on a hard floor, progressing to no shoes, then moving to a soft surface, like a carpet or a lawn, and finally to a very unstable surface like a pillow or on sand. Always make sure you have a chair or partner nearby who can help you if you stumble during this exercise.

5. Walk the Plank! Find a line on the floor or stick a piece of masking tape on the ground. Walk the length of the line “heel to toe” with your arms out if you are unsteady. With my clients, I have them progress to “Walking the Plank” along a 2 X 4 on the floor. It’s challenging to say the least.

My favourite thing about these 5 moves is that they can be modified for all fitness levels. They can be super easy or made to challenge even the most elite athletes. Start slowly and make sure you always have something you can grab onto if you feel uneasy or awkward.

This past weekend was a milestone for me in my return to health and fitness since having shoulder surgery 9 weeks ago. I had a great Father’s Day on Sunday that included my first bicycle ride of the year. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and I rode 30 kilometres from Hamilton over to the lift bridge in Burlington and back. Today, it’s back to physiotherapy and more strengthening and stretching exercises.