Stretch for Better Flexibility

This article was first published in The Hindu on 2nd October 2010.

unnamedI see people completing their workout routines and rushing through a few cursory stretches; mainly to appease the trainer, mind elsewhere, in a hurry to get going. Their flexibility does not get any better; they can still barely bend forward to reach for their thighs leave alone their toes, but they see no reason to waste time toiling with “stretches’. They have more important things to do, their cardio, so they can burn an indecent number of calories, push as much weight as they can to gain that well sculpted physique. Flexibility? Yes, well, let’s be done with it as quickly as possible!

One couldn’t be more mistaken. An inflexible muscle is more prone to injury and cannot perform as well as it should. Good quality muscle is supple, strong AND flexible.


Flexibility is the corner stone of fitness along with Cardio and Strength. For some reason however, it has always been treated with some disdain, considered an annoying waste of time. “I am just NOT flexible” is the lament that is often heard. Of course not, you have delegated flexibility to a disrespectable distance in the far recesses of your armoire of fitness. Perhaps because it somehow seems a redundant activity that doesn’t appear to really DO anything. The effects of improved flexibility however are subtle and enviable. Better posture, greater and more fluid mobility, grace of movement, symmetry and aesthetics.

Muscle imbalance

The management of muscle imbalances has to take into account the inflexibility of certain muscles and excess tightness of antagonists. For instance the tight, obstinate chest muscles in conjunction with the over stretched and weak upper back muscles lead to the ungainly slouch of the upper back – the ‘head and neck forward syndrome’. The internal rotators of the shoulders may be tighter than the eternal rotators, drawing in the shoulders causing one to appear stooped (and lacking in confidence). The simple act of stretching the chest muscles, strengthening the back and the Abductors, while stretching the Adductors of the shoulders enhances one’s appearance and bearing beyond belief.


Runners suffer from tight hamstrings, hip flexors and deep muscles of the pelvis known as the pyriformis. These have to be consciously and meticulously worked on over a period of time using a series of stretches thereby improving their run. Hamstring injury is also common when the muscle is tight as it often is, and of course this sets one back months before one can get back to training again.

If you are accustomed to repeating a particular kind of activity all the time, a step class, incline walking, or Kick boxing for instance, you can be sure of developing muscle imbalances unless checked early with extensive balanced stretching and strengthening routines. So what do you do?

Don’t relegate flexibility to the back burner and promise yourself you will stretch over the weekend. It has to be done everyday. Allot a couple of days a week to a longer, more extensive stretch routine. Over a period of time your flexibility will improve. You will be consciously better balanced and have more elegant posture. On the rest of the days a few minutes of stretching after a warm up and after the cool down will help keep the muscles flexible.

Don’t stretch cold muscles. Perform some dynamic stretches after a warm up. Avoid bouncing (ballistic) movements while stretching. A dynamic stretch on the other hand is a smooth flowing move taken to the completion of the stretch and repeated several times keeping the muscles warm and heart rate slightly elevated. Proceed with the rest of the workout and follow up with extensive static stretches after your workout.

Each muscle can be stretched using a specific movement. Learn these moves and ensure that they are done properly once again to avoid injury with ‘over stretching’. A stretch has to be carried out to a point of the sensation of the stretch and not pain. More is not always better.

Assisted stretches with a trainer or partner need to be performed with caution as sometimes the partner has no way of determining how much is too much and may injure the muscle. Assisted stretching is helpful however so if you have a friend or knowledgeable trainer, he/she can help you with your stretches.


Aging muscle

One of the most important benefits of regular stretching is the capacity to remain flexible with age. Certain muscles like the hamstrings and low back muscles tend to become tight and may lead to back ache and discomfort that so commonly plagues older people. As one ages, muscles become less elastic. This inflexibility can lead to difficulty in performing simple tasks like turning around, reaching up for something on high shelf and so on. Continuing to stretch daily will prevent this unfortunate turn of events, keeping you independent, self-confident and agile.

Most of us rush through a frenzied workout after a comparably stressful day. There is no time to stretch. You jump off the treadmill, hit the ground running, go through the motions of a weight routine and then rush home to attend to dinner. Anyone who has done a good stretch workout will tell you just how good it feels. The tensions release, a sense of lightness and warmth prevail, a deep sense of calm envelops you. One can even fall asleep after a stretch, relaxation and breathing routine.


Sitting is the New Smoking

This article was first published in Rotary News in January 2017.


Image Source: Trish Allan

Are you seated as you read this article? How long have you been sitting? Have you taken a break and stepped out? Have you stood up and stretched?

If you haven’t, put this article down, stand up and walk around your room, up and down the stairs or in your garden as briskly as you can for three to five minutes. Then, clasp your hands and stretch them high above your head. Push your clasped hands back as far as possible feeling the stretch in your chest, particularly at the point where your arms meet the chest. Go up on your toes and reach for the ceiling. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

There’s something about movement that makes one ‘feel’ better… more invigorated.

Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.
– Dr David Levine — Mayo Clinic — Obesity Prevention Initiative.

This is a relatively new theory but one that has withstood research. Several studies have shown the importance of ‘not sitting’ for prolonged periods of time.

  • Risk of cancers like colon, breast and uterus were found to be increased in a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
  • Risk of heart disease increased in those individuals who sat more than six hours a day. They died earlier than their counterparts who sat for less than three hours a day. Something as simple as ‘not sitting for long periods of time’ appears to increase longevity. In another study men who spent six hours or more a day sitting, had an increased death rate, about 20 per cent more than those who sat less than three hours a day.
  • The risk of obesity goes up several times when seated for prolonged periods of time.
  • Risk of diabetes is increased with prolonged sitting in a day — the sensitivity of insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar, is decreased with continuous sitting. A study, in the journal Diabetologia, found that out of 80,000 participants, those who sat the most were twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
  • Sitting interferes with Lipo Protein Lipase (LPL), an enzyme that breaks down our fat. LPL activity is directly related to movement; lying down and sitting still drops levels of LPL to an abysmal low and leads to accumulation of fat.
  • Depression — those who sat for more than 7 hours a day had a 47 per cent higher chance of developing depression.
  • The very act of moving increases the endorphines in the brain and makes one feel better.

The truth is,  however good  your chair, it  is killing you!

The seated position

  • The seated position itself is such that it decreases not only the blood flow to the lower limbs but also the neuromuscular stimulation to the leg muscles, causing them to literally go dead.
  • When continued through life, prolonged sitting causes poor mobility and balance, increasing incidence of falls that we see so often in older people.
  • The position of sitting, especially in our modern chairs, the 90 degree or more flexion at the hip and knee joints, encourages deep vein thrombosis, or clotting of blood in the veins of the lower limbs, as a result of prolonged immobility.
  • —This is irrelevant of great sitting posture. Even if you have your back aligned perfectly, shoulders dropped, core tightened and so on, this still doesn’t help the blood flow to the legs. Good posture may protect your back, but will not circumvent the other negative effects of prolonged sitting.

Your chair

It was only in the 18th century that the ‘chair’ made its appearance. Prior to that we managed with perhaps stools and benches, which frankly don’t encourage sitting for long, as the lack of the backrest will prevent you from even wanting to do so. Nowadays, however, companies vie with each other to make a more comfortable chair than ever before. You have chairs for bad backs, chairs that rotate, slide, swing, massage you, have great quality foam, arm rests, and other features, making it very difficult to get off your back and move once you are seated. The truth is, however good your chair, it is killing you!

In 1992, Dr Levine asked the question: Why do some people not gain weight even when they eat more, and don’t exercise? He then went on to perform an experiment where a group of people were given 1,000 calories a day over their usual diet and were told not to exercise but to continue with their routine work. They were observed for two months.

Some gained weight as expected, while others didn’t. What was the difference? Those who didn’t put on weight, moved more — not exercised, but just moved more. Their bodies inherently understood that they were consuming more than required and to compensate, they just moved more at work and at home. They may have climbed more stairs, stood instead of staying seated, done more housework, and so on.

Just moving increases productivity; improves creativity; ushers in more innovation, improved memory and a better mood.

The very act of moving increases the endorphins in the brain and makes one feel better.

NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is the calories burnt from activities other than structured exercise, which we commonly disregard. NEAT can be increased by fidgeting; moving more; taking the stairs; moving the limbs as much as possible; standing instead of sitting; and doing simple things around the house such as laundry and cleaning.

TV & computer: malaise of the modern world

In a study done in Australia, for every increased hour of television or internet, the risk of dying rose by 11 per cent. Watching a lot of TV causes depression. This, I believe, is partly due to the sitting and perhaps partly the result of the kind of channels you watch!

So, what do you do? Small changes.

  • —Stand up when you watch TV. At least stand 50 per cent of the time, or better still, watch less TV!
  • Watch the news on your treadmill or stationary bike
  • Walk around at every commercial break. There are lots of them. You are missing nothing if you take a walk down the hall during a commercial break
  • Do squats, calf raises or ab crunches during commercial breaks
  • Don’t eat sitting in front of the TV
  • Use a standing desk
  • Move every 30 minutes
  • Slip off the shoes and move your feet and toes
  • Stand up every time someone comes in to see you
  • Stand up every time you answer the phone
  • Stand up and talk
  • Walk the stairs
  • Exercise at your desk

The minimum exercise requirement a day as per WHO recommendation is 150 minutes of accumulated exercise a week. An hour or two of ‘exercise’ does not entitle one to a sedentary lifestyle for the rest of the day. Prolonged physical inertia is not negated with exercise!

Runners are as susceptible to the setbacks of prolonged sitting as much as obese people who don’t exercise. For instance, if you complete your one hour run and then go to your work place and sit for the next eight hours, you are at as much of a risk of developing the problems previously listed as someone who is overweight and not exercising regularly. The hour of exercise does not negate the ill-effects of sitting.

This is why sitting is compared to smoking. Smoking a pack a day and then exercising for an hour will not contradict the detrimental effects of smoking just as an hour of exercise cannot compensate for an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.

How Old Are You Really?

This article was first published in Rotary News in April 2018.

There are two aspects to ageing. Your chronological age is the calculated number of years you have lived. Your biological or “real” age  refers to the current condition of your physiological body at its very basic cellular level. These two are not necessarily one and the same. An individual may be chronologically 30,  but might have the body and mind of a 55-year-old. He could be overweight, lethargic, with poorly conditioned muscles, poor memory, productivity and low stamina. He may be stressed, depressed, with a laundry list of medical conditions and pills to manage them.

On the contrary, someone could be 50 years old chronologically but have an actual age of a 35-year-old in terms of energy, stamina, strength, and pure joi de vivre. 

Factors that ascertain your Real or Biological age

These are blood pressure, heart rate and other metabolic parameters such as  blood sugar and cholesterol, eyesight, lungs, heart, vocal cords, skin turgor, energy levels, physical appearance, condition and tone of your muscles, mental acuity, memory, level of independence, fat percentage, lean body mass and fitness levels (cardio vascular endurance, flexibility, strength, agility, reflexes, balance, coordination and so on).

Your ‘real’ or biological age

Of course genes set the stage for a good or poor quality body. But lifestyle choices are the ultimate predictors of the ageing process. However good your genes, if you subject your body to stressors such as tobacco, alcohol, drugs, poor lifestyle choices on a daily basis like unhealthy food and lack of proper exercise, rapid ageing is imperative. It is said that your genes load the gun but your lifestyle pulls the trigger.

Here are some lifestyle measures that can arrest and even reverse the ageing process:

  • Eat right – Eat food rich in anti-oxidants, minerals, vitamins and fibre. Fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds and pulses provide protein and good quality fats. Avoid processed and refined food, tobacco and excessive alcohol.
  • Exercise the right way – A well designed fitness routine should include cardio vascular activity such as running, speed walking, cycling or aerobic sessions. It should be balanced with a strength training routine to build muscle and a stretch routine to maintain flexibility of the muscles. Muscles being critical for movement need to be worked against resistance (either an external weight or one’s own body weight) to be maintained at an optimum or improved. They also need to be stretched to maintain elasticity.

Muscle atrophy (decrease) and frailty with age and disuse is the primary cause for lack of mobility. It affects performing even the most rudimentary tasks. Modalities like yoga and total body stretches keep the body limber, prevent pain and addresses poor posture due to muscle imbalance.

Exercise is most definitely the closest we have ever come to an anti-ageing pill. Expensive skin creams that promise wrinkle-free skin, cosmetic surgery, laser ablation, Botox etc. are only solutions to the superficial signs of ageing. They cannot come close to the benefits obtained from a regular heart pumping, well-planned exercise routine.

  • Maintain your body weight – Weight gain with age is not inevitable. With the right nutrition and exercise, it is possible to maintain your body weight and in fact even improve the quality of your body.
  • Manage stress – Stress is very much a part our everyday lives. Eliminating it altogether is of course too much to expect. Managing stress effectively however is possible with meditation, relaxing techniques, time management and training the mind to handle situations and stress differently.
  • Nurture a hobby/passion – Simple things like developing a hobby or even working on something you love and are passionate about can change one’s perspective to ageing.
  • Maintain strong relationships – Strong ties with family or close friends can be enormously rewarding experiences that add meaning to life.
  • Sleep well – Sleep is not only restive but also restorative. Long-term sleep deprivation has been known to be associated with an increase in Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression and even memory and attention problems. Work related sleep dysfunction (such as in shift workers, doctors and nurses), poor sleep hygiene, stress, obesity, overeating near bedtime, can all lead to poor sleep. Good quality sleep is closely related to a good quality, productive life.

To evaluate your Real age, ask the following questions 

  • Do you enjoy life? Do you look forward to the new day?
  • Do you have strong, nurturing relationships?
  • Do you enjoy the work you do?
  • Do you exercise regularly, sleep well and eat healthy?
  • Are you excited to get out of bed in the morning? (Granted that sometimes some of us are too fatigued to register excitement and just wish for a few more moments of blissful sleep, but that is a different discussion altogether!)
  • Do you feel you have purpose and meaning in life or are you drifting along wondering what to do?
  • Are you passionate about some cause or hobby?

Evaluate your fitness 

  • Can you run or even walk up a flight of stairs and not feel like you are dying at the end (or middle) of it?
  • Can you touch the floor standing up without bending your knees?
  • How fast can you walk a mile and how quickly do you recover from the exertion? (Called the One Mile Walk test, this can be evaluated in a gym setting).
  • What is your weight, fat percentage and your waist circumference?
  • How many proper pushups and squats can you do?
  • How much medication, besides basic supplements, sit on your table waiting to be consumed every day?

Ageing is the most natural process of the human body and certainly cannot be arrested altogether. It can however be done gracefully with every attempt made to remain independent and productive, even if only to oneself.  

How to Begin Strength Training

This article was first published in The Hindu on March 12, 2018.

12mpsheelaARTGAQ3IFB1H3jpgjpgMyths debunked, questions answered and doubts cleared, here

Strength, like stamina and flexibility, is one of the primary pillars of fitness. It helps retain and build muscle mass, increase strength and even aid fat loss.

Know the means

There are two ways of increasing strength and muscle mass. You could perform exercises using your own body weight (pushups, squats, lunges), or you could use external weights like dumbbells, barbells or machines. I recommend that a beginner start with using lightweights with dumbbells or machines, and gradually build strength in order to be able to handle their own body weight. Once you build enough strength by using external weights, you could move on to using your own body weight to challenge your muscles further, and proceed to do a combination of own-body-weight exercises and those with external weights. All the exercises need to be learnt from a professional so that risk of injury is minimised. Before starting a strength-training programme, do get a clearance from your physician.

Begin right

A couple of pairs of dumbbells (about 2-4 kg each), a mat, weight training gloves, water and proper (fitted) attire is all that is required. How much weight you lift for each exercise will vary. Typically, the larger muscles of the body like the chest, back, shoulders and glutes will be able to lift a heavier weight than the smaller peripheral muscles like the arms and calves.

Know the terminology

A routine typically consists of a series of exercises addressing different muscles or groups of muscles.

Each exercise is repeated several times (repetitions or reps) until the muscle tires. After a short period of rest, the next set is attempted and the exercise is repeated again until the muscle tires once more. Ideally, for muscle growth, you should not be able to perform more than 6-10 repetitions of the given exercise in one set. This means that after about eight reps, your muscle begins to protest, and by rep 10, it is so fatigued that you cannot push for more reps. Only you can decide what weight to use for each exercise. The weight you use will also differ from exercise to exercise. In time, you need to be able to push yourself gradually to increase the weight you use for each.

Performing each exercise with perfect ‘form’ is important if you want to prevent injury. Each exercise has dos and don’ts. These need to be adhered to meticulously. Understanding and remembering all the instructions for each and every exercise, (such as breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you lift, keep the back flat, keep the core engaged, keep the head lifted, spine aligned and so on), takes time and effort. While the exercise may appear simple, many get injured, especially as weight increases. This is one of the reasons why it is always preferable to have a trainer guide you to correct mistakes during the first few months of your initiation into weight training. Make sure the same muscle is not worked within 48 hours. So for instance, if you perform all the upper body exercises on a Monday, you should rest those body parts and aim to work them again only on a Thursday. You could then perform all the lower body exercises on a Tuesday and a Friday.

A Change In Attitude

So you want to lose weight. Half the world does. Obesity is a worldwide epidemic so it’s only natural that every second person you meet is keenly seeking the holy grail of weight loss. Dinner conversations invariably return to feelings of guilt over indulgences. The Internet is flooded with clever advertising to lure vulnerable individuals into buying some product or the other with the promise of ‘losing ten kilos in ten days’ or similar fantastic claims.
You may not be thrilled with your body right now, in fact, you may view it with a good deal of distaste. Let’s ask ourselves a question, how did we get this way? How did we pile on the pounds? Where is that slender teenager? No doubt there are some who struggle with obesity all their lives. Over weight as children and teenagers, they are often faced with ridicule and marginalized. A large percentage of the population however, grows obese with age. A certain amount of weight gain with age is acceptable. But to become obese and as a result develop various obesity related complications like pain and discomfort, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, indigestion and so on, is not.
Take stock of your lifestyle.
– Are you physically active all day or does your job entail a lot of sitting behind a desk?
– Do you exercise regularly?
– Do you stay home and watch a lot of television and do little physical labor?
– Do you deal with an inordinate amount of stress? More importantly, are you one of those people who does not handle stress well? Do you develop acidity, anxiety or insomnia as a result of your stress? Do your work and relationships suffer? Do you become an insufferable boss or mother?
– Do you go on eating or drinking binges?
– Do you starve yourself often with the hope of losing weight only to go back to binge eating?
– Do you get enough sleep? (Six to eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep is recommended.)
– Do you eat well-balanced meals with plenty of vegetables, fruit nuts, protein and healthy fats or are you loading up on the bread/cereal group (rice, rotis, bread, etc.), refined, processed, packaged food with additives and sugars out of packets as is common and convenient?
– Do you eat home cooked meals or depend on canteens and hotels and takeaways?
– Do you travel a lot, subjecting yourself to different time zones, food, lack of sleep and stress?
– Does your life involve a lot of socializing with indiscriminate eating and drinking?
– Are you addicted to sugar and need to eat something sweet ever so often?
The list of poor lifestyle habits is endless. These are some of the reasons you could be steadily gaining weight. Each problem has to be addressed independently with a combination of life skills, dietary advise and regular exercise. There is no way around it. Whatever the reason for the weight gain, the solution is to eat better, exercise and change your lifestyle.
Here’s the problem – most people think an hour of exercise alone will solve everything. It takes more than that, although that’s a good place to start. Your lifestyle (as shown above) is important. What you do for the rest of the twenty-three hours counts far more than one hour of working out. This means change. A change in attitude towards your lifestyle and not just one aspect of it.
A new mind set and not just a new menu is what is required.
The real secret to losing weight and more importantly, keeping it off is your attitude. The ability to look at your lifestyle with a certain amount of objectivity and a critical eye and then take the necessary steps to change what needs to change. The ability to get the necessary professional help when required. It’s not easy to change a whole lifestyle. There are other people involved – family, friends, colleagues and boss who are probably helping you preserve the current lifestyle. Change may involve others and this is not always welcome. For change to be sustainable however, it has to be holistic.
Adopt a slow and steady approach. Help your body and mind gradually learn to eat better, exercise more, live healthier, sleep earlier, relax and breathe. Most importantly, learn to appreciate yourself and your efforts. Learn to respect yourself and your body.
Dr. Sheela Nambiar MD Obgyn
Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant, NAFC
Author – Get Size Wise & Gain To Lose (Published by Rupa)