Life gets busy! No matter what season we are in, it’s easy for our schedules to get out of control. During this time of year it can be even more challenging to carve out time to care for our body and mind. Sometimes we just give up on this idea until January but it shouldn’t be that way!
There are many simple ways to care for yourself and decrease stress even when you don’t have much time to spare. Most of these tips can be incorporated without taking time from your day, and others take a just few minutes. I use these tactics to help me give myself some love even on non-stop days when I don’t have good chunks of time to exercise.
I usually host Thanksgiving, then my middle son’s birthday is early December, followed by Christmas and finally my oldest son’s birthday in January! This streak of events, combined with the cold weather, seems to trigger me to carry tension in my body which often ends up in my right psoas. This actually just happened to me, my right psoas went into spasm on the day before Thanksgiving. You may tend to carry tension in other muscles, it is helpful to be aware of where you tend to hold your stress. It’s also very beneficial to know what to do once you recognize this tension, and even better to avoid it. I hope these tips help!
1. Improve Your Posture
The basis for good movement starts with healthy alignment. Rarely do I spy someone sitting or standing with upright posture, and I “people watch” all the time! I correct posture at both of my jobs as a physical therapist and Yoga Tune Up® Instructor, yet I still need to correct my own posture countless times each day. It is one of those things that takes a lot of awareness and effort, but it is totally worth it.
Your head is heavy and can weigh an average of 8 to 12 pounds. If you don’t stack your head over your shoulders this causes strain on your neck and upper back. And if you slouch this restricts your breath and compresses your vertebrae. Simply improving your posture helps you to feel and breathe better!
When sitting in a chair, sit at the base of your ischial tuberosities (the bony prominences from your pelvis that you feel in the seat of your pants when you sit on a firm chair, some people call them your “sit bones”). Most of us tend to sit on the back of these bony protusions, or on our sacrum (tailbone) instead, but this base of support leads to a slumped posture. Get to know what it feels like to sit on the very base of your tuberosities, then stack your head over your shoulders, shoulders over your hips. Imagine that your head is a helium balloon floating over your shoulders, this can help to achieve proper alignment and decompress your spine without using any special equipment! Now take a few deep breaths….don’t you feel better already?
Standing and walking with upright posture is also important. Practice standing with your feet straight (not turned out or in), stack your head over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over ankles. Pay special attention to your rib cage, stacking it directly over your pelvis. Most of us need to shift our weight back to get into this stacked position. It may feel like you are actually tipping back a bit but you are probably finally standing up straight! Some people need to do the opposite and shift their weight forward because they tend to shift their trunk posteriorly, but this is not a common correction that I have to give.
2. Breathe Fully
Many people habitually take shallow breaths into their upper chest only. Instead, sit or stand with tall posture as described in #1, or lay on the floor in ardha savasana with your knees bent and feet hip distance apart. Now practice abdomino-thoracic breathing by filling your abdomen with air, followed by breathing into your rib cage in all directions, then exhale.
Breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system that we can control voluntarily. If we slow our respiration rate and breathe more fully this has many benefits including stress reduction and helping to relieve the tension you carry in your body. Every line of fascia ties into the diaphragm so exercising your diaphragm has a body-wide effect! If you feel restriction in your torso when trying to take full breaths I recommend learning how to massage your abdomen with the Coregeous® ball, this can free up restrictions and allow fuller breaths.
If you are beginning to let the busy-ness of the holidays stress you out, pause and breathe this way to down-regulate and feel great!
3. Roll With It
Bring your Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls with you when you’re on-the-go! They are super portable and easy to use almost anywhere! Some of the techniques add no time to your busy day, you simply massage while doing another necessary task. For example, place a ball between your shoulder blades while driving and breathe into the ball, or place a ball under your feet and massage while making a phone call or brushing your teeth.
Using the Coregeous® ball on your midsection is a terrific way to reduce stress, I am pretty much hooked on this one because it also helps to relax my pesky psoas muscle which is found deep in my core. I recommend that you have your Roll Model™ balls available in the places you are most likely to use them to make it more likely to happen!
Give yourself permission to take 5 minute massage breaks when baking cookies, writing out cards, or wrapping presents to avoid turning into “the Grinch”. You will feel more jolly as you continue to attack your checklist! By massaging with these pliable, grippy balls you can release trigger points in your muscles and loosen up restrictions in your fascia. This is one of my favorite ways to self-treat my aches and pains any time of year!
4. Sit Less
Did you ever add up all the time you spend sitting? The human body was not designed to sit in a chair for hours and hours each day, it causes us to become stiffer and weaker. Try to decrease your sitting and you will likely notice that you start to feel better! Standing uses your legs and core muscles more, and burns more calories than sitting. So even if you don’t have time to work out as much during this time of year, standing is much better for your frame and is way better than sitting and slouching all day!
You can convert your desk at home or work to a standing work station. It doesn’t have to be expensive, at our house we use a simple end table to place our monitor on, and a box beneath it for the keyboard. While standing at your desk you can challenge your body even more by standing on a balance disk, a box of stones, or stretching on a half foam roller. When using my laptop I mix it up, sometimes using it while standing at my kitchen counter, or placing it on my coffee table and sitting or squatting on a block or pillow. Sitting on a low cushion or the floor is much more beneficial than in a chair because you are using more strength and range of motion in your hips, knees and ankles.
While attending multiple music concerts at school (we usually have a few between our three boys) I can usually be found standing at the back of the auditorium. Same for watching sporting events, I despise portable slouchy sling chairs and prefer to stand and watch, and usually sneak in a few posture and breathing exercises too. Another tip for parents that have kids involved in lots of sports and activities is to reduce the time you spend sitting in the car driving them all over the place by taking some time to set up car pooling. It’s a great way to steal back some time for yourself!
If you commonly spend down time in the evenings on the couch, try swapping this for laying or sitting on the floor. While hanging out on the floor you can practice taking full breaths, rolling, or doing some simple corrective exercises.
5. Don’t Make Life Too Convenient
There seems to be endless novel convenience devices coming out to make our lives easier, but most of them are robbing us of movement! Don’t purchase pedestals to stack your washer and dryer on so they are at waist height, instead do some squat and lunge type movements while loading and unloading. Ditch remote controls and drive thru lanes to add more steps to your day.
Try not to store everything at waist height. I ran out of shelf space in my shower and keep my shampoo and conditioner on the floor. I was thinking about adding an extra shelf but realized that this inconvenience actually gives me the opportunity to squat each time I pick up and put down the shampoo.
Another way to add more movement is to squat down, or practice balancing on one leg, while you put each sock and shoe on rather than sitting in a chair to complete the task. You can modify this task by holding onto a piece of furniture for support if you need to.
Keep items you use frequently in the bottom drawer to allow more movement as you reach down for them. This is opposite to conventional thinking, but if you start thinking of other ways to make life more challenging and you will start appreciating the extra strength and flexibility you gain without stepping foot in the gym!
And of course, this recommendation will only help if you move your body properly. You would not want to reach for objects low to the ground all day if you are flexing and straining your spine to do it! Which leads us to…
6. Move Well
Learn what it feels like to find and maintain a neutral spine, hinge from your hips, and use the larger muscles in your legs and hips when living life. This will help to protect your spine from aching if you get caught up in hours of baking, wrapping, decorating or cooking & cleaning as you prepare to have guests over. And using the larger muscles of your hips and legs properly will burn more calories, so you feel better and get a little workout in if you move the right way!
7. Squeeze in Quick Walks Whenever You Can
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a 30 or 60 minute block of time to exercise. Even if you have just a few minutes you can walk around the block. I live in Buffalo and have the tendency to hibernate once the cold weather settles in. But I am challenging myself to bundle up and walk more this winter. Instead of worrying about being cold just dress properly and make some of your own heat, this is what I tell myself! If you walk in good alignment, extend your leg behind you, and use your toe off, this gives you a stretch of your hip flexors (including psoas) which helps to unwind from lots of sitting and stress!
8. Sprinkle Quick Exercises Throughout Your Day
In addition to decreasing the amount of “convenience” in your life you can ADD opportunities for fun movement and corrective exercises throughout your day! There are endless ways to add a quick stretch, awaken your core or challenge your balance throughout your day. No need to do them all in one block of time, get used to doing these exercises throughout each day whenever you have a minute! If you don’t know many corrective exercises I encourage you to find a local Yoga Tune Up® class, you are sure to add lots of fun techniques to your self-care tool box!
One of my favorites is tubular core because I can practice this any time. Simply take a full abdomino-thoracic breath, pause at the top of the breath while turning on your tubular core (imagine a blood pressure cuff wrapped around your torso applying pressure, you want to contract the muscles around your entire trunk and even in between your ribs). On the exhale you can continue to contract your core in a “shrink-wrap” fashion. Repeat about 5 times, several times a day!
It’s also a good idea to place tools around your home to facilitate movement such as a pullup bar in a doorway (I hang and swing on mine more than I actually do pull ups) or a BOSU in your family room. Keep a chunk of a half roller around to stretch your calves on and sit on, mine is one of my favorite seats in the house! Each time I sit and stand from it adds an extra squat to my day (can you tell I like squats?!).
9. Unwind Before Bedtime
Before going to bed, unplug from all screens. Lay on the floor. Elevate your hips on a yoga block or book. You can bend your knees and place your feet on the floor in ardha savasana, place your legs up on a wall, or learn a variety of poses which elevate your hips on a block. If this is not comfortable for you simply lay in ardha savasana (contructive rest position) or your favorite pose to rest in.
Next, practice taking full breaths like we talked about in tip #2, and make your exhale longer than your inhale. Having your pelvis on the block above your heart is an inversion which helps to calm your nervous system. Making your exhale longer than your inhale is also a down-regulating technique. These will help you to get your mind off your to-do list and be more relaxed so you can “sleep in heavenly peace.” Rolling your abdomen on the Coregeous® ball is also great promote relaxation at bedtime. Better sleep makes for a happier you the next day and can help decrease pain.
Learn how to say “no” to tasks that add no joy to your holiday season. Some of us are known to try to please everyone by adding gift and cookie exchanges to our list when we really don’t need the extra stress, gifts and cookies! Instead say a meaningful “yes” to help others who really need and appreciate it.
One of my favorite ways to celebrate Christmas in my family is to send shoe boxes overseas to children in needy countries. These gifts are given with a Christian message and materials. This helps to spread love in a way that we feel strongly about because it lines up with our beliefs. It also helps our kids to think about others and realize how blessed they are. I encourage you to find a way to express what the holiday season means to you and act on it too. This will help you to focus on what this time of year is all about instead of stressing over things that, in the big picture, don’t really matter!
As you can see, most of these suggestions are a form of multi-tasking, adding no extra time to your day. Others add a bit of time, and they all take some awareness and effort. In just a few minutes a day you can learn how to “Live Better In Your Body.” Don’t be overwhelmed by this list, choose one item every few days to work on and your effort will pay off. When you care for yourself and are more present in the moment you, your family and friends can all have a more joyful holiday season!