Now that summer's upon us, many of us are putting on our running shoes. Running is both revered and respected and has great aerobic benefits; however, running also has a considerable downside when it comes to wear and tear on the body and runners should take steps to guard themselves against its hazards.
Since the late 60s when Dr. Kenneth Cooper discovered that running produces a beneficial "training effect" - mainly it strengthens runners' hearts -- the popularity of the sport has exploded. In 2003 almost 22 million Americans ran or jogged at least 6 days during the year. Unfortunately once running and jogging became fashionable, more training effects turned up, these ones not so beneficial. There are many positive results to be had from running. I'd like also to list its considerable downsides:
• Impact on your joints: When you run, every step you take sends 1 ½ to 5 times your body weight into your joints. This is why almost half of runners or joggers are injured due to their sport every year. Knees are the most likely body part to suffer, followed by feet, hips, legs and lower backs. Ligaments and tendons can also fray from overuse.
• Impact on your heart: In 2001 Arthur Siegel, M.D. reported in The American Journal of Cardiology that marathon running "can...increase the risk for acute cardiac events." He and other researchers studied the hearts of marathoners who'd just run 26 miles and found irregularities that could lead to a heart attack. This and other similar studies have generated debate among serious runners. Even so, as august a group as the American Running Association took the findings seriously. Running that is "coupled with poor or improper training," said the Association's president Charles Schulman, M.D., "could lead to consequences much more serious than just the usual running injury." Some studies have also pointed to an increased risk of cancer from unstable molecules known as free-radicals, which the intense, high-impact aerobic exercise tends to generate. The causal link between aerobics and cancer, though, has not been proved.
• Impact on your skin: All high-impact/high-repetition exercise jars your skin and cause it to sag before its time. This plus the damaging effect of the sun causes runners' skin wrinkle, and worse. Jogging eventually causes premature degeneration of the elastin in your skin as well as loss of subcutaneous fat in your face, giving you a haggard appearance. What's more, the November of 2006 Dermatology News reported that the skin of runners ran a higher than average risk of having moles, lesions and melanoma. The skin in runners' arms, legs and rears also gets pounded down over time, one reason not to jog if you're going for a perkier backside.
• Impact on your strength and flexibility: In the mid-80s I took to running twice around a body of water in New York City's Central Park called The Reservoir. After a few invigorating months of making this three-mile trek, I dropped into one of the many ballet studios on at city's Upper West Side. To my dismay, I found that my legs felt like led when I tried to lift them. They seemed to have lost their ability to separate from one another. I quickly made my choice and gave up running. Un-airconditioned dance studios got me sweating enough anyway. One reason my cross-training effort failed is that running and other purely aerobic activities reduce the portion of strength-type fibers in your muscles. Runners get great endurance, but they often lose power. The other reason for my loss of grace, of course, is that running tightens your muscles, especially those around your hips.
Nowadays most runners add strengthening and stretching to their exercise programs. Still the idea of dedicating yourself to an exercise form that requires you to constantly correct the imbalances it inflicts on your body makes little since if you're just doing it for the exercise alone. On a cellular level, research studies have found that high-stress aerobic exercise reduces your body's ability to synthesize protein. Running, therefore is limited in how much it can spike up your level of fitness beyond a certain level of intensity. As reverential as runners are about the virtues of their sport, are they - are all of us -- really bred to be long-distance runners in the first place?
Our human ancestors probably used their newly evolved running skills to stalk their prey until they could sprint in at the last moment for the kill. We certainly didn't acquire our fleet-footedness to flee predators, most of whom could easily have run us down. More probably our bodies adapted themselves to execute lightening-quick joint efforts that are remarkably similar to those we love to re-enact today in games like football, basketball and soccer.
Even with these facts before them, most serious runners will find the sport and all its glories worth the risks. If, however, you're running not because you love it but to lose five pounds before a wedding, I strongly urge you consider other, less problematic, exercise options.
At the heart of the Bar Method's technique, you'll find, of course, a ballet bar. The class could not produce its manifold results without it. The simple act of balancing over gravity as you exercise, for one thing, mimics sports activities more so than does sitting on a bunch of exercise machines. Studies conducted over the past decade in the UK, the US and Sweden support this idea. When their subjects trained in free-standing exercise, they had better results than when they sat at machines. Inspired by these findings, the sports world dubbed its new-found, now fashionable form of fitness "functional exercise." As defined by former Olympic coast John Philbin functional exercise "improve(s) sports performance" by teaching you to "use multiple muscles and joints" and to "stay balanced." Add a bar to this concept and you've got a way to work simultaneously on balance, coordination and strength. To put it another way, you've got functional exercise on steroids. In the Bar Method's thigh-work, for example, students use their thighs, hamstrings, glutes, calves and back muscles all in one exercise. In flat-back they use their pecs, deltoids, abs, hip-flexors and thighs. This multi-tasking format changes the body much more quickly than other currently popular exercises.
The bar has many other powers beyond that of making you a better athlete. Here are six more reasons the bar - or an equivalent horizontal stabilizer -- has the unequaled ability to whip you into shape.
The bar makes it possible to keep your leg muscles working for minutes without a break by prolonging your balance over gravity, during thigh-work, for example. This unbroken holding forces more muscle fibers into service than you get while running -- or even in spinning -- by never giving the legs a chance to recover. The result is firm, tight muscle mass, a leaner look and more joint stability.
The bar also works your largest, most calorie-hungry muscles, namely the ones in your thighs, glutes, and hamstrings. With those babies burning, you're knocking off a lot of calories and are doing so with impact on your joints. Pilates by contrast works smaller muscle groups. In this way bar exercises keep your heart rate up by forcing many muscle groups into service at once unlike conventional weight training.
The bar's use in muscle isolations is perhaps what makes the most visible change in your body. Its lateral stability works like no other exercise tool by giving you a base from which to push hard into specific muscle groups. During "glute-work" for example, the bar enables you to balance on one leg while keeping the glutes of your other leg contracted for minutes at a time. Both your legs get worked to the limit, while the rest of your body has to concentrate on holding you upright.
One important and much neglected muscle, the gluteus medius, is so hard to isolate that it probably gets missed in just about every other system. The gluteus medius gives our bodies lateral stability and also, if toned, an adorable "sexy back." The bar is the most effective tool I know to make this stubborn piece of our anatomy sit up and say "Uncle." When students declare after their first class that, "I just worked muscles I never knew I had," they're usually referring to this one. The bar became the means to this end by enabling these students to lock their hips in place while pressing one leg diagonally upward and outward, as shown above.
Similarly, the bar improves your posture by requiring you to keep your spine vertical while working. This act seems simple - until you try it. The result is a straighter, sexier carriage and stronger postural muscles (abs, back and seat).
Add to this the bar's capacity for firing up your aerobic system while strengthening your core. In an exercise that can only be described as "aerobic abdominals", students sit under the bar with their backs flat against the wall while they lift their legs off the floor. (This move requires, by the way, a bar that's firmly fixed to the wall or an all-inclusive bar.) Right away they feel their pecs, shoulder muscles, abs, hip-flexors and thighs all engage. Almost instantly they're breathing hard and fast to keep all these muscle groups in play.
Finally, the bar has special appeal to most students because it makes the workout both intense and easy to do. I get emails from all over the country from students thanking me for the intensity of the workout offering in the Bar Method DVDs.
Granted, the bar is a piece of exercise equipment every home should not be without. But ballet bars have been around for a long time. How then is the Bar Method different from any other bar-based exercise systems? Ballet, the NYC Ballet Workout and other bar-based techniques use dance as a foundation for their moves. The Bar Method instead uses an interval training format. Though it retains graceful dance elements, the Bar Method has moved away from dance and towards sports training. Bar Method students who try other bar workouts are often disappointed by their complex choreography and lack of intensity.
What about using a pole a la pole dancing? Does it make a difference which you use? Absolutely! While pole dancing is indeed challenging, the pole itself can never provide the lateral stability needed to isolate muscles. The bar gives students a three-point base, two on the bar, one of the floor, with which the body still swings free.
By wedding the tough, athletic principles of interval training with the graceful elements of bar-work, the Bar Method has created a powerful hybrid with unique properties of its own.
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