A German exercise programme designed to mobilise as well as stabilise the stomach and back muscles can help improve breathing and posture, as well as benefit those with spinal conditions and muscle injuries, writes TEE SHIAO EEK.
AS stress builds up in our daily lives, we become more and more tense. We rush around frantically, we do not know how to relax and we do not stop to think about how we use our muscles.
“Over time, these conditions create tension in the body, which builds up until you suddenly have pain in your neck, shoulders, back, hips, knees or feet,” says Claudia Binder, a personal health and fitness trainer who runs a health programme called Health First.
Sitting in her home studio in Bukit Damansara, Binder explains that training in body awareness and the right way to do exercise can prevent these problems.
The former sports enthusiast, who has a certificate in Preventive Health Coaching from the German Health Academy (Gesundheits Academie) in Berlin, conducts one-on-one sessions to teach an exercise programme which focuses on static movements that develop the corset of muscles around the spine.
This programme was developed by the Sports University in Bayreuth, Germany, and is recognised by the Gesundheits Academie, as well as many other German universities and institutes.
The exercises are designed to mobilise as well as stabilise the stomach and back muscles. This is important because it improves your breathing and posture, which builds the right habits for you to perform other exercises and daily activities.
This exercise programme also benefits those with spinal conditions and muscle injuries. Dinesh Ramalingan, who suffered from scoliosis at the age of 17, has been doing twice weekly sessions with Binder for the past two months.
“I could feel the improvement even after the first session. Here, I am taught all the techniques, so when I go back home, I can do it continuously,” says the 24-year-old student who was bed-ridden for two years and has not done any activity for the past seven years.
“(These exercises) are not a replacement for medical intervention, but it adds value, especially for people who go for disc replacement and rehabilitation,” Binder explains.
The three main principles of the exercise regime are to “get the balance right, build the muscles and get rid of wrong posture.”
Posture, balance and breathing
Binder wants to talk about the importance of adopting the right body posture, as it affects how you behave in your daily life.
“How people bend down, get up or lift things ? I want to make them aware of what they do wrong. Then I tell them ‘You have to change this, and change it for the rest of your life’.”
Bad posture also arises when people have an injury or spinal condition. “Many people who have injuries or problems try to compensate with their other muscles,” she says, scrunching up one shoulder to demonstrate the posture that someone with a shoulder or back injury may adopt.
“In the long run, when you are older and your muscles get weaker, you may have disc problems. Then you will not be active, you will not want to exercise and you will gain weight.”
With posture comes better balance. “The first few times Dinesh came, he couldn’t balance (while doing the exercises), he was always tipping over. I always had to hold him on one side,” she smiles.
Now, Dinesh steadily moves from one exercise to the next on his own. Binder also focuses on the right breathing techniques for the muscles to work better.
“Every time you move your muscle, what it needs is oxygen. Make sure you breathe out when the muscle is squeezing (working hard). When you relax, breathe in and the muscle will get oxygen.
“Many people don’t know how to breathe because they are always rushing,” she laments. “They never take their time.”
A full workout
Binder starts each session with a cardio workout on the cross-trainer or the bicycle to work the muscles.
Then she moves on to the mobilisation exercises, where she and Dinesh perform what look like slow warm-up movements for the neck, shoulders and waist.
All these are to “mobilise the spine from top to toe and strengthen the muscles that connect each disc (of the vertebrae),” explains Binder.
These are followed by the strengthening and stretching exercises, most of which are done on the floor.
Again, these are slow, deliberate movements that work specific muscles in the back, stomach, chest and sides.
At a glance, all this lying on the floor and lifting legs looks like child’s play. However, it is quite tiring and Dinesh is usually sweating by the time he finishes.
One of the exercises involves stomach crunches. With one hand below Dinesh’s shoulders and one resting lightly on his stomach, Binder instructs him: “Your lower back stays on the floor. Look after the diagonal. Breathe out when you go up.”
When she is satisfied that he is doing it right, she blithely tells him to “do a hundred”. She explains that people do crunches every day, but if they don’t do it right, they could really hurt themselves.
The last 15 minutes of the session are spent on relaxation exercises.
“Squeeze your muscles, then relax them. Tension, relaxation, tension, relaxation,” she intones. This is done for every muscle, from the forehead to the toes.
“People who are suffering back injuries need to do this. They need to know how to let go. If the tension goes away, the pain goes away as well.”
Binder tailors the exercise programme to suit people with different conditions and injuries, such as Dinesh.
She looks forward to building a network where related health professionals can work together to benefit patients with such injuries. “In Germany, I work hand-in-hand with the doctor, physiotherapist, orthopaedic surgeon, and even the insurance provider.”
She emphasises that this is not a gym where people have to come for the rest of their lives. “I want people to come ? until they get an idea of what they need to do at home.”
These static movement exercises can be done at home because no equipment is needed. Most of the techniques that Binder teaches are done on the floor, although she occasionally adds in exercises with a gymnastic ball or “terraband tubes” to tone the upper body muscles.
This programme is suitable for people of any age group, particularly the elderly who cannot do strenuous exercises.
Most importantly, she says, these exercises can help everyone build stronger muscles, develop good posture and move with greater flexibility.
“People have to do it right, build the habits right from the beginning.”
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