7 Yoga Stretches That Improve Your Health

Looking for an easy way to decompress, get more energy and fend off winter colds -- without leaving the house? Just say "Om." A recent study in Psychosomatic Medicine shows that women who regularly practice yoga have lower levels of inflammation and exhibit reduced physical responses to stress. What's more, researchers in India found that the practice of yoga also helps the body resist the damaging impact that stress has on the immune system. Translation: Practicing the exercise regularly may fend off sniffles and sneezes. Meanwhile, another study from Boston University shows that yoga can raise levels of a mood-boosting brain chemical called GABA.

Yoga's deep breathing and deliberate postures calm the nervous system and stimulate immunity, explain researchers. But you don't have to twist into a pretzel to reap these benefits. Just 15 minutes a day of light stretching and focused breathing can do your body good, says Terra Gold, co-director of the Yoga and the Healing Sciences yoga teacher training program at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder of the wellness group Yoga Doctors in Los Angeles.

We asked Gold to put together an immunity-boosting daily routine for yogis and non-yogis of all levels."These postures are designed to stimulate key points for the lungs, kidneys and digestive tract," she says."They'll assist in lowering stress hormones that compromise the immune system, stimulate the lymphatic system to help rid toxins from the body and help bring oxygenated blood to various organs to ensure optimal function." What's more, certain poses can relieve an accumulation of mucus in the sinuses or respiratory system, says Gold, which eases sniffles and helps you breathe better. All you need to do the workout is a few blankets and a belt.

Extended Side Easy Pose
Sit with your spine in a neutral position and both sit bones on the floor. Extend your right hand to the right as you raise the left arm toward the sky. Stretch the spine, reaching through the fingertips. Keep your torso facing forward -- without twisting the spine -- and maintain a natural, steady breath. Repeat on the other side. Gold says this activates immunity points in the arm, hand and torso.

Lying with your face up, knees bent and arms at your sides, keep the legs hip-distance apart and the ankles under the knees. On an inhale, lift arms overhead and press firmly into the floor with your feet, raising your hips. On an exhale, lower arms and hips back down. Repeat 8 to 10 times, slowly. On the last repetition, hold in the upward position and breathe deeply for one minute (or as long as you can).

Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Sit in front of a folded blanket, knees bent and feet together. Loop a belt around your lower back, over the legs, and under your feet. Exhale and recline, lengthening the buttocks, sacrum and tailbone toward the heels. Rest arms at your sides. Hold for up to 10 minutes. Gold says this expands the chest, assists lymphatic drainage and stimulates immune points for the lungs, spine and low back.

Plow Pose
Lie with two blankets folded evenly under your upper back. Press down firmly, using leverage to slowly kick your legs overhead. Lower your legs one at a time, ensuring that your neck is comfortable. Roll onto your shoulder blades and interlock your fingers. Touch the floor with your feet and press to lift your hips higher. (If you can't touch your feet down, bend your knees by your ears to distribute weight away from your neck.)

Warrior 2 Pose
Step your feet about 4 feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and turn your left foot in slightly and your right foot out to the right. Align the right heel with the center arch of the left foot. Exhale and bend your right knee over the right ankle, so the shin is perpendicular to the floor. Inhale and straighten. Repeat six to eight times, holding the last bend for up to a minute. Reverse feet and repeat.

Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Sitting on a blanket, slide your right foot under your left leg. Cross your left knee over your right. Press your left hand on the floor behind you, and your right arm on the outside of your left thigh. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and twist to the left, hooking the right elbow against the outer left thigh. Twist and lengthen for 30 seconds to a minute. Repeat to the right.

Skull Brightener Breath
This practice alternates short, explosive exhalations with longer, passive inhalations. Start by focusing on your lower belly, between the pelvis and the belly button. Quickly contract the belly, pushing a burst of air out of the lungs. Then release the contraction so the belly "rebounds" to suck air in. Do eight to 10 times, slowly at first. Begin with 25 cycles per practice and work up to 100 or more.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Best Type of Exercise for Your Personality

Have trouble sticking to a regular workout routine? Chances are you haven’t found your calling yet. Turns out, exercise isn’t so difference from food or fashion: What works for someone else may not be the right fit for you.

Finding the right type of exercise that best suits you, your personality, interests, needs and goals can be the key to getting the habit to stick. In fact, a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people were more likely to workout if they considered it fun.

To discover the right type of exercise for you, consider the following guide. Find the statement that reflects your personality, and you’ll get a potentially perfect new workout.

1. You say: “Exercise is boring.”
Try: Zumba. It’s impossible to zone out during this aerobic dance class: You have to pay close attention to the steps to follow along. The combined high energy of the music and group will get you moving and grooving -- not to mention wiping your brow! (So bring a few tissues with you.) You’ll be done with your workout before you know it. Boredom fixed!

2. You say: “I love a good competition.”
Try: CrossFit.
These classes involve a variety of high-intensity exercises like running, sprinting, throwing, jumping, squatting and pushing-and-pulling type of movements. The goal is to complete a certain number of reps of each exercise within a given amount of time and in many classes, participants compete against one another.

Got a certain sport you love? Then consider joining an adult sports league. If you like running or biking, consider training for a race.

3. You say: “Workouts are my time to decompress.”
Try: Yoga.
Science backs up what yogis have known for centuries: This mind-body practice promotes relaxation. According to researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, doing less than 15 minutes of yoga a day can significantly lower stress markers in the body.

But does chanting om make you feel more antsy than calm? If you like to blow off steam in a more aggressive way, kickboxing will give you that outlet, as well as a great cardio and sculpting workout.

4. You say: “I want to get my blood -- and adrenaline -- pumping!”
Try: A challenging class, like Spinning, boot camp or CrossFit. These high-intensity classes encourage you to press your limits. Their fast pace will also appeal to your adventure-seeking side.

5. You say: “Socializing while exercising? That’s a win-win!”
Try: An adult sports league or training team. You can make new friends while getting in great shape by playing a sport or preparing for a race or other athletic event. Or simply recruit some friends to form a running club or head to the gym together. You’ll not only make the workout more enjoyable, but you’ll also hold each other accountable.

6. You say: “I don’t have time for exercise -- what I need is some ‘me time.’”
Try: Swimming.
Plan to get your “me time” at the gym. Underwater is probably the most peaceful place to exercise -- and talk about a total body workout too! If you haven’t been swimming in a while you may be surprised by how wiped you feel after your first (or seventh!) time back in the pool. But it gets easier -- and it’s a sure way to score a total body cardio workout and some much needed peace of mind.

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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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Strength Training for Women: 5 Exercises to Look Lean & Toned

You’ve done the cardio and counted calories, but you still haven’t seen the results you want. What gives? It may be a lack of iron -- that is, of the dumbbell variety. As it turns out, dieting and cardio alone won’t change your shape. Chances are you’ll lose muscle, slowing down your metabolism. That’s why strength training for women is so important.

When you gain muscle, you gain a lot -- more benefits, that is. Not only does hitting the weight room fend off flab, but it also protects against a variety of diseases, like heart disease and osteoporosis. And just 30 minutes of lifting of day can slash the risk of diabetes by as much as 34 percent, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Other added bonuses include decreased blood pressure, improved sleep and enhanced balance and coordination.

More muscle mass also translates into a faster resting metabolism (the baseline number of calories you burn throughout the day). So even at rest, you’re incinerating extra fat.

In spite all of the benefits, many women still avoid weight room. Intimidated or not sure where to start? I’ve got you covered. The following basic, effective routine is simple and easy to learn. Plus, it only takes 20 to 30 minutes from start to finish.

Worried about getting too pumped? Don’t be. Women lack the testosterone levels necessary for building bulky muscles. Instead, look forward to looking toned and lean.

Strength Training for Women: The Workout

After warming up with five to 10 minutes of light cardio, do 10 to 12 reps of each exercise -- this counts as one set. Rest for 30 seconds, and repeat for a second set. Aim to do the workout two or three times a week.

I recommend using 5- to 8-pound dumbbells. (If that’s too hard, use just your body weight to start.) Reach for heavier weights as you get stronger.

1. Step Up
Start: With dumbbells in hand and arms at the side of your body, face a bench or step.

Movement: Lift your right knee and place your foot on the bench. Push your body up. Your left leg will hang straight behind you and won’t touch the bench. Pause at the top while squeezing your glutes. Lower down to starting position. Finish your reps before switching to your left leg.

2. Forward Lunge
Start: With dumbbells in hand and arms at the side of your body, stand with feet hip-width apart.

Movement: Step forward with your right leg and slowly lower your body until your right knee is bent at least 90 degrees. Be careful not to let your right knee extend past your toes. Push back to starting. Complete all reps and then repeat with the left leg.

3. Dumbbell Row
Start: Hold dumbbells with your arms in front of your body, palms facing toward you. With feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent, bend forward at your hips and lower your torso until it's nearly parallel to the floor. Allow your arms to hang from your shoulders, palms facing your legs.

Movement: Bend your elbows and pull the weights up toward the sides of your torso. Pause and pull your shoulder blades together. Lower the weights back to start and repeat for all reps.

4. Dumbbell Chest Press

Start: Lie on a bench with your feet flat on the floor (or on the bench if you can’t reach). Hold a dumbbell in each hand on either side of your chest. Keep your elbows out to the side and upper arms parallel to the floor.

Movement: Push the weight up till arms are extended. Pause and lower back to start.

5. Plank
Start: Starting from a pushup position, bend your elbows and lower down until you are resting on your forearms. Your body should form a straight line.

Movement: Engage your abs (think of pulling your belly button towards the ceiling) and hold your body in a straight line for 30 to 60 seconds. Don’t allow your hips to drop or your butt to rise up. Rest and then repeat for a second set.

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