Get back to fitness—one day at a time

September 18, 2021 | FF Daily #478: FF Recommends a simple routine that, followed with discipline, will get you there

Founding Fuel

[Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay]

Back pain. Knee pain. Stiffness. Covid-19 made us homebound, sedentary and left our bodies slower and achy.

In this FF Recommends Dr Rajat Chauhan, who specialize in Sports – Exercise Medicine and is an ultra marathon runner, provides a set of basic exercises to fight pain and regain fitness. 

Charles Assisi, who’s stuck with Dr Chauhan’s plan for about two years now, talks about the turnaround he’s experienced.  

The secret ingredient

By Dr Rajat Chauhan

Founder, Back2Fitness

Everyone is always looking for that magical formula, whether it be to get into top shape for wealth or health. But as the movie Kung Fu Panda reminded us, ‘there is no secret ingredient, it’s just you.’ If you have your basics in place and then follow them with discipline, soon magic will happen. You’ll slowly transform into a new you. No, it won’t happen overnight.

Over the last two decades back and knee patients have come to see me from far and near, whether it was in London, Bangalore or Delhi. The ones who lived close by didn’t necessarily do better than those coming from hours away. What mattered was those who decided to proactively take charge of their own health and do the basic exercises with discipline for life showed better results, as compared to those who did complicated in-fashion exercises but without any discipline and expected others to find a cure for them. 

I had been prescribing these basic exercises all these years but three years ago, I decided to structure them in a way which became easier for people to follow. These exercises slowly become a bit tougher so you can get the best returns from the time spent doing them. To begin with, repeat all these exercises 11 times and do 3 sets. Increase the number of repetitions every week by 2-3. Spread out the exercises three times a day if you can, else do it in one go. 

1. Breathing: Breathing keeps us alive and yet we take it for granted. Sit tall and focus on long deep slow breathing. Take a long deep breath in over 4 seconds, hold it in the lungs for 2 seconds and over next 4-7 seconds, slowly breathe out. While you do that, focus on reverse counting from 99 to zero. This will help you calm down and do mindful breathing. 

2. Heel Raises: Take off your shoes and socks. Stand tall, facing a wall a foot away. Take the support of the wall using your hands. Now slowly raise your heels off the ground. Hold for a second, and slowly come down. Go as much up and down as is comfortable. Over time you’ll notice you’ll be able to go further up and down.

3. Toe Curl Walk: Take off your shoes and socks and stand on grass. One foot at a time, starting with the right foot, curl all your toes downwards and move forward. Now repeat the same with the left foot.

4. Skipping (With or Without a Rope): Skip in the same spot, barely lifting your feet off the ground, the way you would have done as a child. Focus on landing softly. This works as a warm-up before your walk or run as it engages the three joints involved in these activities—your ankles, knees and hips. 

5. Pelvic Tilt Sitting: Sit tall like a puppet. Relax your shoulders. Now slump down fully, adopting a C-shape posture for the spine. From there, form an exaggerated S-shape spine, increasing the arch in the lower back and pushing your chest out. Now go back to your slump C-shape posture again.

6. Chair Squats: All of us sit down on a chair and then get up. That’s exactly what a chair-squat is. Stand tall six inches in front of your chair. Now slowly sit down, and as soon as your butt touches the chair, slowly get up again. If you struggle going all the way, that’s okay too.

7. Orange Back Squeeze: Sit tall with relaxed shoulders. Now raise both your arms with a 90-degree angle at the elbows and shoulders. Imagine there is an orange between your shoulder blades. Now slowly bring your elbows back, feeling the muscles between your shoulder blades. Squeeze that imaginary orange for a second or two, taking juice out from it and then raise your arms again.

8. Anne’s Alphabets: This exercise helps in increasing the mobility of the upper and middle back which gets compromised because we sit in a slouched position for long hours and spend too much time on smartphones and laptops. Sit tall. Interlock your fingers and place them behind your neck, holding your neck firmly. Bring your elbows together. Imagine there is a large, thick pencil between your elbows that you can’t let fall. Now start writing lowercase letters of the English alphabet with the imaginary pencil with enhanced movement of the elbows. This has nothing to do with English or any other language, just that lowercase English letters are rounded figures and will get your upper and middle back moving well, which otherwise is difficult to do.

9. Push-Ups (With Wall Support): Most people do push-ups incorrectly. This results in the muscle imbalance getting worse with a gorilla-like posture becoming even more pronounced. Doing the Orange Squeeze and Anne’s Alphabets before this exercise will prime your body to act more naturally. Stand tall facing a wall, a foot away from it. Relax your shoulders. Put your palms on the wall at shoulder level and shoulder width apart or slightly more. Imagine there is a plank-board on your back, touching your upper back, lower back, knees and ankles. While doing the push-up, all need to move together so that they continue to touch the plank board. Also remember that orange from the previous exercises, orange back squeeze. Push-ups work the muscles where that imaginary orange would be.

Slowly bend your elbows and lean forward, towards the wall. Then slowly straighten your elbows and come back to your starting position.

This image card demonstrates many of these exercises. And you can also follow the videos here.

The Plan in Action: After two years on Dr Chauhan’s plan

By Charles Assisi

Co-founder, Founding Fuel 

Two weeks ago, when I went to Kochi to visit mum, she was as surprised as some of my uncles. This was my first visit there after the lockdown was first imposed and most people there were seeing me after two years. I was told I look younger and fitter. My mum looked happy and my fitness freak uncles were delighted. In the past, all of them had articulated their concerns about my health. They had their reasons. 

I had shot past 100 kg on the scale, my waist size was close to 40 inches (but I’d lie and and insist it was 38 inches) and I needed oversized clothes. Add junk food, too many late nights, and I was a ticking time bomb. But I wasn’t listening because keeping pace with maniacal deadlines in the newsroom took precedence over all else. An earlier attempt to clean up my act had petered out after a brief dalliance with fitness. “I’ll get to it later,” a voice in the head would mutter often. 

But life has its way to bust all swagger and likes to serve wake up calls every once a while. In my case, it came by way of a shooting pain at the back of the neck a little over two years ago. The pain made it practically impossible to turn my head, attempt to write on my laptop, or even sleep well. Painkillers helped, but only so much. And so, very sheepishly, I knocked on Rajat’s doors after having exited it after my first dalliance with fitness. He wasn’t surprised. The both of us have been friends for a long while and the sports medicine doctor was waiting. 

He suggested I begin by starting out on a routine he had thought up and crafted meticulously. It appears ridiculously simple. “Baby Steps,” I recall him telling me then. “One day at a time.”

And so, I had to start all over again. 

I thought I knew how to breathe. We do it all the time. But as I started to follow the instructions, I realised I had forgotten how to breathe right. I was inhaling through the nose and mouth to get in the air I need to keep me going.

Heel raises and toe curls sounded silly when I first saw the video. But how was I to know that when I first did 11 repetitions of the heel raise, I could tell how stiff my calves had become. This exercise was getting my muscles to move. And toe curls? “That’s for sissies!” I muttered in my head. 

On trying it though, I felt my feet cramp. That’s when he broke the news to me. Both our feet have 52 bones and most of us don’t move them, ever. That’s why the feet start to get stiff and people develop problems in the lower body. 

Then there were the chair squats to do. I didn’t have to squat all the way down, but just squat 90 degrees. Simple! He suggested I stick to just 11 to begin with. I laughed. The next morning, my thighs hurt. I can go on and on about how foolish I felt at the end of the first day. 

But to cut the story short, I stayed at it. Over time, Rajat asked me to increase the intensity and number of repetitions of each exercise. I now use a three-ball spirometer to do my breathing exercises. When I’m rested, I can inhale and hold all the three balls for over 1:30 to 2:00 minutes. I’ve come a long way from the 30-45 seconds I started with.

The heel raises used to be done with both legs. But now, I can manage on one leg. It’s much the same story with squats. A double-leg squat feels easy. The body has adapted. The orange squeeze that once felt impossible is now easy as are the toe curls. And on most days, I need to do a little over 100 repetitions of each exercise to feel good. It doesn’t take too long. 

After the lockdown lifted and we were allowed to move around, I started to walk. I haven’t taken up running yet. But pretty much every day, the body insists on walking for at least an hour. Else, my head begins to feel batty.

The reason mum and my uncles were happy when I landed in Kochi was because I now wear medium-sized tees and fit into 34-inch trousers. Because I work out, I sleep deeper and longer. While I haven’t lost significant weight, I appear lean. Rajat tells me that’s because I’ve lost fat and gained muscle. I’m unsure if he’s joking. 

Without prodding from anybody, eating habits have changed. The workouts make me hungry and I need a heavy breakfast. Greasy lunches are out because that makes me sluggish through the day. And dinners are early affairs unlike in the past.

What I can say with certainty is that on days that I don’t follow this routine, I feel slow, mentally and physically. What I’m uncertain about is if the bloated feeling that accompanies me on days I skip the routine is for real or a trick the mind plays on me to keep me going. 

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