Yoga Cures for 5 Common Health Woes

Yoga is popular for its body-toning and mind-calming benefits. But beyond these obvious pluses, it’s also an ideal way to cure what ails you. From alleviating allergies to soothing PMS symptoms, the practice can ease a number of common health woes. What’s more, you don’t have to be a pretzel-twisting yogi to take advantage of it: People of all fitness levels can find relief.

Here, then, are five simple yoga poses to combat common health problems. In general, you’ll want to hold each pose between 30 seconds to one minute and focus on breathing deeply throughout each movement.

The problem: Allergies
The pose: Plow pose. This pose helps to open the upper respiratory tract and drain the nose so you can breathe easier.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Using your abdominal muscles, slowly lift your legs straight up and over your head. Place your feet on the floor behind you. (If you can’t reach that far, rest them on a yoga block.) Roll your shoulders beneath and keep your head and neck still. To come out of the pose, slowly roll back down, one vertebra at a time.

The problem: Sleep issues
The pose:
Forward bend. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that after two months of daily yoga, insomniacs fell asleep 15 minutes faster -- and snoozed for an hour longer each night. Can’t make it to the studio? Try the forward bend. This move releases tension by relaxing the large muscles of your back, shoulders and neck.
How to do it: From standing, bend forward from your hips. Keeping your legs straight and knees soft, rest your hands on the floor or the back of your ankles. If you can’t reach that far, bend your arms and grab opposite elbows. To come out of the pose, place your hands on your hips and keep your torso long and extended as you return back to standing.

The Problem: Stress
The pose: Cat-cow. According to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, participants who engaged in yoga at least once a week released 41 percent less cytokine, a protein linked to fatigue and moodiness. The cat-cow pose opens your chest, which allows for deeper and more soothing breathing.
How to do it: Get on all fours, with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and back flat. Keeping your head neutral and gaze toward the floor, slowly arch your spine upward to the ceiling while allowing your head to move toward your chest. Slowly return to the starting position. Then begin to drop your belly towards the floor while lifting your head to look forward. Complete 10 to 20 full cycles.

The problem: PMS
The pose: Wind relieving. This move works on the digestive system, eliminating excess gas and uncomfortable bloating.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms at your side and legs extended. Lift your head off the floor, moving your chin to your chest, while you lift one leg, drawing your knee toward your chest. Keep your low back pressed to the floor and place your hands around your leg, below your knee, and hold. Release, roll back down and repeat with the other leg.

The problem: Headache

The pose: Happy baby. Besides soothing your aching head, this pose can alleviate anxiety and stress. It helps you to open your hips and release tension in the shoulders and neck.

How to do it: Lie on your back and bring your knees toward your chest. Grasp the outside of your feet with your hands. (If this is too difficult, use a belt or strap to help you reach.) Open your knees slightly wider than your torso. Flex your feet, move your knees toward your armpits, keeping them at a 90-degree angle to the floor. Hold before slowly releasing.

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Should You Work Out When You're Sick?

When you wake up feeling the symptoms of a cold or flu, most of the time you just want to stay in bed and rest. But if you're a fitness buff, it's not that simple. When you take a few days off, you risk losing your hard-earned momentum and might even fall short of your fitness goals.

It's a tough choice: When you're sick, can you still do your usual workout -- your power walk, gym class or exercise video?

The answer depends on your symptoms, says Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and the author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu.

Here's how to know if you should lace up your sneaks or stay in bed.

Skip your workout if: Your symptoms are below the neck.
“Coughing, body aches, exhaustion, gastrointestinal problems and fever indicate a widespread infection -- one that needs rest and could be made worse by the stress of a workout," says Schachter. Even an easy bike ride or jog could fatigue you and slow down your immune system -- and make your symptoms last longer.

Do your workout if: Your symptoms are above the neck.
Mild to moderate exercise is usually fine if you have a cold -- marked by a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, watery eyes and a sore throat. And getting your heart pumping might even make you feel better."Activity can help mobilize secretions in your sinuses and relieve congestion, possibly shortening the duration of your symptoms," says Schachter.

But if you have enough energy to exercise, try not to overdo it by jumping right into your usual challenging routine. Follow these three rules:

Rule No. 1: Take your workout indoors.
Exercise at home or at the gym to avoid cold weather, which can aggravate your symptoms. Chilly temperatures kick congestion up a notch because your body pumps extra blood to the nose to help it warm the freezing air you breathe in. The tissues in your nasal passages swell, resulting in congestion. To make things worse, cold air triggers an increase in mucus production.

Frigid weather can also worsen a sore throat because you breathe through your mouth when congested."When cold, dry air hits your sore throat directly, it will make it more inflamed," says Schachter.

If you exercise in a gym, be considerate of other members and take care not to spread your germs. Be sure to sanitize and thoroughly wipe down any equipment you use. It's also a good idea to carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your gym bag to use after you cough or sneeze.

Rule No. 2: Go easy on yourself.
When you're under the weather, even just mildly, toxins circulating in your system make you weaker. So take your usual exercise regimen down a notch or you could make your cold worse. For example, if you typically take a daily 30-minute run, alternate jogging and walking instead.

Or instead of cardio, practice yoga. "Certain poses can improve breathing, which can be very helpful when you're congested," says Schachter. One basic move to try is the Downward-facing Dog:

1.      Start on your hands and knees, with feet hip-width apart and hands shoulder-width apart (fingers spread out).

2.      Curl toes under and push back, raising the hips and straightening your legs.

3.      Let your head hang, keeping shoulder blades away from the ears.

Rule No. 3: Know when to stop.
Listen to your body and accept your limitations. If you feel tired or if your symptoms start to worsen, it's time to end your workout. Here are a few specific red-flag symptoms that signal you should call it quits:

  • You start to cough.
  • You feel exhausted.
  • You experience shortness of breath.

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Create an At-Home Gym: Essential Fitness Supplies

What’s keeping you from the gym? Whether it’s job or family obligations, there are plenty of things that can derail your exercise goals. To make workouts as convenient as possible -- and increase your chances of getting them in -- it’s helpful to have some basic and inexpensive exercise equipment on hand at home.

The Essentials
Remember that your workout should include both cardio and strength training. The key to an effective cardio workout is simply getting your heart rate up. Understandably, not everyone has it in their budget to spring for a treadmill or an elliptical machine. Some good options for getting a cardio workout without any major equipment include jogging, jump rope or an exercise video that provides a good cardio workout.

For at-home strength training, pick up these two practical tools:

At-home fitness tool No. 1: Dumbbells. You’ll want a set of heavier ones you can use when working larger muscle groups (like your legs during dead lifts or weighted squats or lunges) and some lighter weights for working smaller muscles (like your shoulders during an overhead press).

At-home fitness tool No. 2: Resistance bands. Look for a stretchy band with a handle at both ends, which can be looped around a secure point or placed beneath your feet. It can be used for a variety of toning exercises.

For example, to do an overhead should press, place one or both feet in the center of the band. Holding a handle in each hand, bring your hands up beside your shoulders and press up, straightening your arms. The amount of resistance you’re working against depends on the tightness of the band: he greater the tension, the harder the exercise.

At-home fitness tool No. 3: A mat. If your workout area isn’t carpeted, you’ll need a mat to provide cushioning for exercises that involve lying or kneeling on the floor, such as sit-ups, crunches and push-ups.

Bonus Equipment
Here are a few of my other favorite tools that can help you add variety to your workouts and challenge your muscles in new ways:

  • Stability Ball: These inflatable balls are great for strengthening your abs and core muscles. You can use them to make basic core exercises, like crunches and planks more challenging because of the instability: Try holding a plank with your forearms on top of the ball and extend your legs straight out behind you. Challenge your core muscles to stabilize you while you work your shoulders by sitting on the ball and doing an overhead press with dumbbells.
  • Sponge Ball: Like a mini stability ball, these smaller inflatable balls are about nine inches in diameter. Want to tighten and tone your inner thighs? Place the ball between your thighs just above your knees and squeeze it tightly as you do squats. For extra burn, hold the squat and pulse your knees together.
  • Medicine Ball: Available in a variety of weights, medicine balls can be used to add resistance to body weight exercises, like weighted sit-ups or lunges with torso rotation. You can also use them to build upper body power and strength by throwing and catching them -- either straight up in the air or back and forth with a partner.
  • Foam Roller: Like getting massages? This is a much cheaper alternative that provides similar benefits for your muscles. Place this firm foam cylinder underneath a tight muscle or muscle group (like your hamstrings), placing as much of your weight on the roller as possible to add as much pressure as you can tolerate. Roll back and forth over the cylinder to work out knots within tight muscles.
  • TRX: If you’re looking to splurge, this suspension training system costs around $200 and consists of two long straps that you attach to a stable surface, like a doorframe. Using your own body weight and gravity as resistance, you can do hundreds of different exercises by holding the handles or placing your feet in the foot cradles. These exercises work your entire body and great for building strength (especially in your core) and improving balance and flexibility.

Don’t have any equipment at home right now? Try this quick and effective equipment-free workout.

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6 New Fun Exercise Trends to Try Now

When it comes to getting fit, there are two things I believe in: taking classes and trying new things. This was exactly the approach I took to get -- and stay -- in white-dress shape for my wedding. In the six months leading up to my big day, I tried as many different classes as I could. I had a ton of fun, and it kept me incredibly active.

What about you? Need a time out from the treadmill? Are you tired of that spin bike? Introducing a new type of exercise to your usual routine can kick-start your resolve. Consider the following classes, which are taking studios and gyms by storm, and prepare to get excited to sweat again!

1. If you like ... competition
Try … CrossFit

What it is: In a word: Intense! CrossFit workouts are fast-paced --you continuously move from one high-intensity exercise to the next. The exercises mostly involve fundamental actions, like running (more like sprinting!), throwing, jumping, squatting, pushing, pulling and swinging. There’s a variety of equipment, including barbells, kettlebells and sandbags. The goal is to complete a certain number of reps of each exercise within a given amount of time. In many classes, participants compete against one another. Because of its high intensity, you’re sure to torch a ton of calories!

One warning: Because of the explosive nature of many CrossFit exercises, it’s crucial to have good form before ramping up the intensity, to avoid injury. If you’re just starting to get in shape, jumping right in may not be your best option. Consider working with a personal trainer to learn the basics first.

Check it out: Watch these videos for demos of CrossFit exercises and click here to find CrossFit facilities in your area.

2. If you like … bodyweight exercises
Try … TRX

What it is: This suspension-training system contains two long straps that attach to a stable surface, like a door frame, weight rack or tree. Using your own body weight and gravity as resistance, you can do hundreds of different exercises by holding the handles or placing your feet in the foot cradles.

Instead of isolating a specific area, these exercises work your entire body. It’s great for building strength (particularly the core), and improving balance and flexibility.

Check it out: Find a trainer or a facility in your area that offers TRX training. You can also purchase your own suspension training system to use at home.

3. If you like … dance parties
Try … Zumba

What it is: The Zumba brand calls itself "a calorie-burning dance-fitness party." I’d say that’s about right. This high-energy workout incorporates dance moves and fun music. In addition to the standard Zumba fitness classes, several other courses are available, including Zumba Toning, which incorporates resistance training using special toning sticks, and Aqua Zumba (a pool party workout!).

Check it out: Click here to find a class near you or consider buying a workout DVD to do at home.

4. If you like … ballet
Try … The Bar Method

What it is:
This non-impact workout is dance conditioning with a variety of exercises -- some done with free weights, some at the bar and some on a mat -- to tighten and tone your entire body.

It also involves lots of stretching to help elongate muscles and improve posture. Many of the exercises are isometric, which involves holding a position and making small range-of-motion movements (say, pulsing up and down in a squat). 

Check it out: Find a studio location near you, see examples of exercises or check out these DVDs you can do at home. Pure Barre and Fluidity are different but similar brands of ballet-inspired fitness you could also check out.

5. If you like … high-intensity classes
Try … boot camp

What it is: Boot camp workouts aren’t brand-new type of exercise, but their growing popularity has led to more options and offerings. Inspired by military workouts, these high-intensity classes involve both cardio and strength training. They often move quickly, without a lot of rest, and incorporate interval training and explosive plyometric moves (like burpees).

Check it out: Depending on the season, you may be able to find outdoor classes offered in your area. (I think the fresh-air ramps up those endorphins even more!) You can also check out local gyms for boot-camp-style classes. Barry’s Bootcamp is a popular chain that has facilities in select cities and DVDs you can do at home.

6. If you like … yoga
Try … aerial yoga

What it is: Want to kick your yoga up a notch? In an aerial yoga class, you do many traditional poses ... in a special fabric hammock that hangs a few feet off of the floor. Depending on the pose, the hammock supports some or all of your weight. This may help you achieve more advanced poses and deepen your stretches. Just make sure to listen to your body during your first class. Most of us aren’t used to being upside down very often (or for any length of time), so you may need to take more breaks. I know I did!

How to check it out: Unnata Aerial Yoga has studio locations around the country but not in all states. You may also be able to find a class in your area at a facility that offers acrobatics classes.

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Rev Up Your Workout Routine!

Now that swimsuit and sundress season is on its way out, is your desire to exercise also starting to feel like a distant memory? It’s normal for your motivation to wane at certain times throughout the year. But skip too many workouts, and you may find yourself in a full-on fitness slump. To the rescue: These tips will ramp up your workout routine, so you can get back on track -- and finally achieve the results you want. 

Rev-up Tip No. 1: Buddy up

I’m a huge believer of group exercise, whether it’s with one partner or in a group. And research backs me up: According to a recent Michigan State University study, women worked out longer -- and harder -- when they were matched with an exercise partner than when they went it alone.

Why is two better than one? First off, working out with someone else is engaging: The social interactions are refreshing and the group energy is contagious. Plus, it’s harder to quit or slack off when everyone else is going strong. Try changing up your workout routine by attending a new class or pairing up with a friend. If you need an extra boost, consider splitting the cost of a personal training session with a friend -- or two.

Rev-up Tip No. 2: Look past your pants size
Most people hit the gym because they want to slim down or tone up. That’s fine, but you also need to look at the bigger picture. In fact, one study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity showed that women who use exercise to improve their day-to-day life (such as feeling happier, getting more energy and easing stress) were more motivated to work out than those who wanted to lose weight.

If you haven’t thought about it much before, jot down some ways your life and health is better when you’re following a regular workout routine. Some possible examples: You sleep better, feel more confident or have more control over stress. You’ll quickly see it’s worth the effort!

Rev-up Tip No. 3: Re-evaluate your goals
If you’re losing your mojo, it may be time to stop and think what you want to get out of your workout routine. Set a personal challenge: You may want to lose a certain number of pounds or feel more energized. Or you could set your sights on a new physical feat, like running a 10K or completing 15 push-ups. Just be realistic about how much time it will take, and set both short- and long-term goals. The small successes (jogging 15 minutes straight, going to the gym three times in a week) will help you stay motivated for the end goal.

Rev-up Tip No. 4: Shake up your workout routine
Too much of the same of anything (food, workout routines, reality TV) leads to boredom and burnout. That’s why I recommend trying new types of exercise to discover other enjoyable options. Bored of biking? Tired of the treadmill? Sign up for a new Pilates fusion or kickboxing class. One place to look: Daily deal sites, such as Groupon, often offer exercise classes at local studios and gyms at a fraction of the cost. I’ve tried tons of cool classes (without straining my wallet) this way!

Rev-up Tip No. 5: Pat yourself on the back
Be sure to give yourself credit for any progress you make on your workout routines or goals you achieve. The satisfaction of even small accomplishments will help propel you toward larger goals.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a reward system in place. Just keep in mind that the best treats are those that give you a boost (a spa treatment or cute new workout clothes) instead of setting you back (a 1,000-calorie dessert).

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