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Tai Chi for post-traumatic stress

Filed under: Exercise, PTSD, Tai Chi
Learn how this Asian form of exercise can be used to reduce the symptoms of PTS.

Tai Chi is a form of exercise and mind-body practice that can provide many physical, psychological, and social benefits. It can also be used to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS, formerly referred to as PTS). Tai Chi involves slow, gentle movements and controlled breathing. It can improve sleep, pain management, strength, and flexibility for many individuals. Practicing Tai Chi can also reduce depression, stress, and anger, which are often symptoms of PTS. The mental focus, relaxation and breathing techniques, and physical health benefits associated with Tai Chi might explain this reduction in depression and improvement in overall mood.

This Chinese form of exercise promotes relaxation and enhances alertness and attentiveness. Hyperarousal (that is, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tense muscles, and sweating) is a common symptom of PTS, and Tai Chi can help individuals regulate their arousal levels. Tai Chi and other mind-body practices such as yoga and mindfulness can help individuals cope with chronic pain and health ailments that commonly accompany symptoms of PTS.

You don’t have to be diagnosed with PTS to experience the benefits of Tai Chi, though. It is a low-impact workout for anyone who would like to sweat a little and relax the mind. Also, it is offered at many MWR facilities on military bases around the world. If you would like to try it first in the comfort of your own home, there are videos online you can watch to get an idea of the practice and what it involves. Look at your gym schedule to see if Tai Chi is available to try out too!

Winter-workout tips

Make sure you’re prepared for exercising in the cold weather. Learn more.

It can be extra challenging to get outdoors and exercise in the winter. But don’t let cold temperatures freeze your exercise routine. Use these tips to help you “weather” the winter weather!

  • Dress in layers. Choose synthetic materials such as polyester or polypropylene that stay close to the skin. Avoid cotton since it soaks up sweat! You always can remove layers as you get warmer.
  • Warm up. Take a few minutes and do a dynamic warm up before you head outdoors. This will help warm up your muscles and body, so it might feel like less of a shock when you step outside.
  • Protect your extremities—especially your fingers, toes, and ears. Circulation to these areas decreases in cold weather. Chemical heat warmers also can help keep your hands and feet warm.
  • Check the forecast. Wind chill, snow, and rain can make your body more vulnerable to the outside temperatures. Plan an indoor workout when the wind chill is extreme (negative numbers) or the temperature drops below 0°F. You’re at risk of hypothermia and frostbite if you’re not properly prepared.
  • Be visible. With fewer hours of sunlight in the winter months, you might be walking or running when it’s dark out—even at dusk and dawn. Wear reflective gear or a headlamp to stay visible to oncoming traffic.
  • Apply sunblock. You can still get sunburned in the winter, so don’t forget the sunscreen!
  • Stay hydrated. When exercising in cold climates, don’t rely on thirst to indicate hydration since you usually don’t feel as thirsty in cold temperatures. You need to stay just as hydrated in cold weather as you do when it’s hot outside.
  • Ask your doctor. Certain symptoms might worsen in cold weather if you have asthma, heart issues, or Raynaud’s disease (when specific body parts feel numb due to cold temperatures or stress). Talk to a healthcare professional about your concerns before heading outside for your cold-weather workout.

5 tips for sticking to your goals

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Body, Total Force Fitness
New Year’s Day is behind us, but it’s never too late to revisit your resolutions or make new ones. These simple strategies can help you reach your performance goals.

Whatever you want to accomplish in 2017, those New Year’s resolutions are a good thing. Setting goals can help you achieve optimal performance. Use the tips below (based on recommendations from the American Psychological Association) to help you actually achieve those goals.

  1. One at a time. Trying to do everything at once can lead to burnout. Tackle one issue at a time instead: Break your goals into pieces you can build on.
  2. Start small. Pace yourself to go the distance. You might be eager to get started, but begin with the more manageable goals and build up to the really challenging ones.
  3. Share. Talk about your goals and progress with your family and friends. They can be your biggest supporters. It might help them understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and it even might interest them enough to join you.
  4. Ask your buddies. Getting help is a sign of strength. It can help reduce the stress of trying to reach your goals. If you’re struggling with one aspect of a goal, seek out advice and support. You also can get help from HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills, with evidence-based information that can help you progress towards your goals.
  5. Don’t strive for perfection. Perfection is an ever-moving—if not impossible—target, so don’t waste your time chasing it. Performance optimization is about being your best, not perfect. If you make mistakes, recover and get back on track—don’t abandon your goals. Learn from your mistakes instead, and you might find it brings your goals even closer.

For more information on how to become your best, check out HPRC’s Ten Rules of Engagement for performance enhancement.

Busting the “fat-burning zone” myth

What’s a “fat-burning zone”? Is it based on actual science?

You’ve probably seen those colorful charts on exercise machines at the gym, showing your ideal heart rate zone for optimal fat burn. Is this “zone” the best way to burn fat?

The concept of the “fat-burning zone” might not be entirely true. Many people assume that in order to burn fat, they must keep their heart rate within the defined range. This can be misleading for a few reasons. First, people’s heart rates are very different, making it difficult to generalize recommendations from a fixed chart. Second, your body burns two main sources of energy during exercise: fats and carbohydrates. (Protein is an energy source, but it’s only used in very small amounts.) For any given heart rate, your body will burn both carbohydrates and fats; however, the proportion of each will vary. Low-intensity exercises (lower heart rate) with a longer duration (30 minutes or more) mostly rely on fat for energy. So, there’s a zone in which a higher proportion of fat is being used for energy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more fat is being burned. Your body actually gets most of its energy from fat during rest. In theory, your ultimate “fat-burning zone” is in your living room: you lying on your couch, binge-watching your favorite new series.

So, how do you burn more fat? High-intensity exercises actually burn the most fat due to the higher overall energy (caloric) expenditure. Interval training is a great way to boost the intensity of your workout, and you get that “afterburn” effect. Fitness level also is a factor. Fitter people’s bodies tend to utilize more fats than carbohydrates.

If you’re training for endurance activities, the “fat-burning zone” on the exercise machines might be the “right zone” for you. To burn even more fat, you ultimately need to burn more overall calories. High-intensity workouts are a challenging and efficient way to help reach your goal.

Stop shin splints

Shin splints—sharp, sore, and/or throbbing pain that runs down the front of your shin—are common among those who exercise regularly. But how can you prevent them?

Shin splints can sideline you from your regular workouts, but there are things you can do to help relieve the pain and quickly resume your exercise routine. Shin splints—a common injury among athletes, particularly runners—refers to pain in the leg below the knee, usually on the medial (inside) part of your shin. This pain can be caused by micro-tears at the bone tissue, possibly caused by overuse or repetitive stress. The best way to prevent shin splints is: Don’t do too much, too soon.

Shin splints usually occur after sudden changes in exercise or physical activity, such as rapidly increasing your running mileage, boosting your workout frequency or intensity, or even varying changes in surface, such as running more hills. To help reduce your risk for shin splints, you can follow the 10% rule: Increase your workout no more than 10% per week. That applies to the number of miles you run and how often and how hard you work out.

Other factors that can influence your risk include worn-out shoes, over-pronation, and excessive stress on one leg from running on a cambered road (the curved, downward slope from the middle of a road to the edge for drainage). If you run an out-and-back route, while not always safest in street traffic, you can run on the same side of the road each way. Or use the sidewalk instead. If you often run on a track, switch the direction you run.

Shin splints will usually heal themselves with proper rest. Consider taking a break from your regular workout routine and cross train with lower-impact workouts such as swimming, pool running, or biking instead. Basic self-care treatments such as stretching, ice, and anti-inflammatories can help relieve pain. If the pain doesn’t improve with rest, or if the skin is hot and inflamed, see your doctor to make sure you don’t have a more serious injury such as a stress fracture or tendonitis.

Can exercise relieve chronic pain?

If you struggle with chronic pain, you might ask, “How can I exercise if I’m in pain?” or “Won’t exercise make it worse?” Read about exercising to reduce pain.

If you struggle with chronic pain, you might feel that exercise is futile: It hurts when you don't exercise and it hurts when you do. However, a properly structured exercise routine might help reduce some kinds of pain and keep other kinds from worsening.

It’s important to know the difference between chronic pain and injury-related pain. Acute pain—the body’s normal response to physical injury—usually can’t be relieved through exercise. In fact, exercise can worsen your acute pain, so it’s not recommended. But if injury has been ruled out and your pain lasts for more than 3 months, you might be able to partially manage or even reduce your chronic pain through exercise.

Still, exercise can help reduce pain in several ways. It mostly increases endorphins—the body's natural painkillers — which help block pain, enabling you to relax. Exercise also helps boost serotonin—a brain chemical partly responsible for mood and the perception of pain—reducing stress and improving mood. Pain increases stress, which then reduces serotonin. Since exercise increases serotonin, it also might bring relief from pain-induced depression.

If you’re thinking of adding exercise to your pain management plan, consider the following types: aerobic, strength, and flexibility. But make sure your exercise program is specifically tailored to your needs. Some exercises might be easier or more difficult to complete depending upon the type and location of your pain.

Visit HPRC’s Physical Fitness section for information about training, exercise, and injury prevention. And consult your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise routine and if you experience pain during or after exercise. 

Vertical core training

Get off the floor and strengthen that core!

Your core is more than just your abs: It includes lots of other muscles that stabilize your shoulders, hips, and pelvis. Strengthening all of your core muscles can be difficult with traditional “ab routines” done on the ground. Crunches aren’t the only way to strengthen your core. So, get up off the floor and add something new to your core-workout routine.

HPRC offers a video series on vertical core training. These routines are not only good for your six-pack, but improve strength in your back, hips, legs, and shoulders—all critical components of core strength. Whether it’s lifting ammo cans or loading a truck, a strong core will help you move safely and efficiently.

Visit HPRC’s Muscular Fitness and Flexibility page to learn more. Use these videos to guide you through various exercises that will help improve total core strength, flexibility, and stability for everyday activities and optimal performance too.

Fit kids for life

September is National Childhood Obesity Month. Learn how to help your kids get active and stay healthy.

There’s an obesity epidemic in this country, and it’s not just affecting adults. Childhood obesity impacts more than 23 million children and teenagers in the U.S., putting them at risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol.

More recently, the U.S. military has taken action because it considers childhood obesity a threat to our national security. Many young adults aren’t fit to fight. Now’s the time to instill healthy exercise habits in your kids to help them become healthy adults.

Regular exercise can build strong muscles and bones and promote overall health. It’s especially important that children exercise and learn healthy habits early on. Exercise also can boost kids’ self-esteem, improve sleep, and stimulate learning in school.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, including:

  • Aerobic exercise for most of the 60 minutes. On most days, this can include either vigorous-intensity activities (such as running, swimming, and jumping rope) or moderate-intensity activities (such as walking or skateboarding). Make sure to include some vigorous-intensity exercise at least 3 days each week. Check out Let’s Move! for ideas on how to get active as a family.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities. These can include playing tug-of-war, exercising with resistance bands, or climbing on playground equipment. Strengthening exercises should be done at least 3 times a week.
  • Bone-strengthening (impact) activities. These can include running, jumping rope, basketball, tennis, and hopscotch. Impact activities, which strengthen bones and promote healthy growth, also should be done at least 3 times a week.

Learn more about DoD's efforts to help keep your kids active and healthy. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page for resources and tips to help raise awareness about National Childhood Obesity Month too. And visit HPRC’s Staying Active section for ideas on how to boost your family’s fitness.

Best time to exercise

Is there an ideal time of day for exercise?

The best time of day to exercise is the time when you can maintain a consistent exercise routine—not necessarily the same time for everyone. You also might experience better training adaptations when you exercise consistently at a regular time. For example, if you work out at noon every day, your body will adapt to perform at its best at noon.

Above all, exercise should be enjoyable. After all, if you don’t enjoy it, you’re less likely to keep up with it. So here are a few things to keep in mind about making exercise fit into your schedule.

Morning. It might be easiest to maintain a consistent exercise regimen by starting your day with a workout. Other things that come up during the day can affect your plans to work out later in the day, and motivation often fades as the day progresses. However, since your body and muscle temperatures are lower in the morning, it’s especially important in the morning to warm up properly before exercise.

Afternoon. Optimal adaptations to weight training seem to occur in late afternoon. Levels of hormones such as testosterone (important for muscle growth in men and women) and cortisol (important for regulating metabolism and controlling blood pressure) seem to be at optimal ratio later in the day. For some people—because hormone levels vary from person to person—lifting later also might be more beneficial because their testosterone can respond better to resistance exercises. 

Evening. The biggest caveat about exercising in the evening is how it will affect your sleep. Everyone is a little different. Some people can exercise right before bed and have no trouble sleeping. For others, it can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. There are lots of factors that can affect your sleep. Experiment to see what works for you.

Remember that other factors such as your work schedule, fitness goals, current diet, and sleep habits also affect your workout routine and physical performance. But whether at the end of the day (or in the morning or afternoon), a consistent exercise routine is the best routine.

Fueling your adolescent athlete

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
Heat, humidity, and tough workouts can all be a part of your adolescent’s sports training program. Learn how proper nutrition and hydration help them play well.

School still might be out for some, but many teen athletes are already busy with fall sports practices. And knowing what and when to eat and drink can help them be on top of their game. Your teen’s schedule might seem more like a pro athlete’s workout schedule with two-a-days, strength-training programs, and speed training. However, these are often building blocks of teen athletes’ training for sports. Fueling the Adolescent Athlete contains useful information on how they can fuel their bodies before, during, and after practice.

Fueling comes in two forms: what teen athletes eat to provide energy and what they drink to help stay hydrated. Eating nutrient-packed meals and snacks before, after, and even during practices and games is essential for optimal performance. The right balance of carbohydrates and protein work together to fuel and build muscles.

Staying hydrated goes hand in hand with peak performance. It’s often difficult for adolescent athletes to stay hydrated in heat and humidity, but drinking regularly and keeping an eye on their urine color can be helpful.

For more adolescent and family nutrition information, check out HPRC’s Family Nutrition section.

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