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IU Health & Wellness: Foam rollers, over-exercising and core work for seniors

Research and insights from Indiana University

April 21, 2011

IU Health and Wellness for April discusses the following topics:

Self-massage at the office, after runs
Over-exercising: When workouts cross the line
Core exercises: Never too old to start

A massage at work? Wouldn't it be nice to have a masseuse on hand after runs or at the office to smooth out aches and pains from sitting so much? A foam roller, a firm cylinder of varying dimensions, could be a useful and cheaper alternative, particularly for runners and others coping with pesky IT band soreness and office workers who have sore back muscles because of poor posture. Foam rollers, said Amy Bayliss, assistant clinical professor of physical therapy, combine traditional stretching and massage. Used properly, they can help increase muscle length and massage the fascia, the soft yet strong connective tissue throughout the body that surrounds muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Massaging the fascia, often called myofascial release, may help muscles function better, decrease muscle fatigue from over-exercising, increase range of motion and reduce soreness.

Bayliss, with the Department of Physical Therapy in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, recommends these two moves:

  • For iliotibial band syndrome, often called IT band syndrome: Massage the outside of the thigh, where the strong, fibrous IT band is located, by placing the foam roller on the floor and rolling the outside of the thigh briefly over the roller, from just below the pelvis to just above the knee. All of one's weight can be balanced on the roller or the foot on the opposite leg can be placed on the floor to reduce some of the pressure. IT band syndrome is caused by the inflammation of the IT band, a thick band of tissue that runs from the hip to the outside of the tibia, or shin bone, just below the knee. The IT band works with other leg muscles to stabilize the knees and is a common cause of knee and hip pain in runners, cyclists and other athletes.
  • For aches in the mid to upper back: Massage the thoracic region of the back by lying back onto the roller so that it is perpendicular to the body and placed roughly where a woman's bra strap would cross her back. Lift the hips off the ground and arch backwards slightly, but keep the head and shoulders off the ground. Roll just a few inches above and below the bra strap line. If the foam roller feels too firm, a pool noodle can be helpful. Bayliss said sitting too much at work can often result in tight chest muscles, which also can contribute to back pain. This move helps stretch and loosen chest muscles, as well.

Bayliss said the self-massage should not last more than three minutes on any one spot and she cautions against rolling over bony parts, such as the knees, because this could put too much pressure on nerves, such as the common peroneal nerve that runs around the outside of the knee and fibula. She also said big bruises, sprains and strains should be avoided because the self-massage could make them worse. Is it supposed to hurt? "Yes, there will be some discomfort," Bayliss said, "but you don't want to go above 5 on a scale of 1-10. You can adjust your body weight to ease the discomfort." Foam rollers come in different lengths, firmness and diameters and can be purchased at popular retailers and sporting good stores. The firmer a roller, the more aggressive the massage.

Bayliss can be reached at 317-278-1017 and Top

Weight Training

When workouts cross the line. Public health messages about obesity and Americans' need for more physical activity can be hard to avoid yet for a small but growing number of people, too much exercise is the problem. Over-exercising, or compulsive exercising, can cause insomnia, bone fractures and other problems and is an increasingly prevalent issue hitting college campuses. Generally considered an issue related to eating disorders, over-exercising involves exercising for an extreme length of time, often through illness or injury. "Curing eating and exercise disorders has proven costly and difficult; prevention is where we should be focusing our attention," said Andy Fry, assistant director of fitness and wellness for Campus Recreational Sports at Indiana University Bloomington. Fitness clubs and college campuses nationwide are beginning to pay more attention to conditions surrounding body image issues, but this poses a challenging paradox. With business interests and national guidelines that encourage Americans to exercise more, the concept of gym facilities limiting patrons' exercise habits seems contradictory. "Fitness professionals and gym employees need to be conscientious enough to know when our product transitions from being beneficial to being detrimental to our participant's health," Fry said. IU has incorporated programs to address body image and protocols for addressing over-exercising, which can be distressing to people nearby, not just the person with the condition. "Allowing people to continue to endanger themselves in our facilities sends a message that it is an acceptable practice and that is the exact opposite of our mission at Campus Recreational Sports," Fry said. "We connect, inform and inspire people to lead active, healthy lifestyles."

More about over-exercising:

  • The physical and mental health consequences of over-exercising can include depression, insomnia, bone fractures and arthritis.
  • Behaviors include exercising through illness or injury; exercising for more than two hours a day, most days of the week; and excessive exercising coupled with an additional body-image issue
  • Treatment should address physical and mental health concerns. If you suspect someone you know is suffering from over-exercising, managers at your gym facility or a physician can refer you to a specialist who can help with mental health or body image issues.

Fry can be reached at 812-855-9653 and Top

Never too late to tone up your guy wire. With core muscles, those all-important muscles surrounding the back, front, hips and pelvis, it's a classic case of "use 'em or lose 'em," said Michelle Miller, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. The good news, Miller said, is that core muscles can always be improved, regardless of one's age, and the exercises involved can be as simple as sitting at the edge of a chair and engaging correct posture. The payoff is worth the effort. "Core stability and postural alignment ultimately define our presence. That's pretty profound, but it expresses our poise and confidence and most importantly it determines whether we can move efficiently and effectively," Miller said. "Every move that we make is initiated through the core of the body." A strong core is key to good posture and for doing most day-to-day activities with ease, such as getting in or out of a car, walking up and down stairs or reaching for a book from a shelf. It can give people confidence, more options for activities. It's the "guy wire to stability and mobility," said Miller. Weak core muscles can result in poor posture, increased susceptibility to back injuries, poor balance, lack of range of motion, and an altered walking stride. "You don't start having poor gait because you get older," Miller said. "It happens because we stop moving properly or we're not moving efficiently."

Try Miller's one-word cues:

  • Press heels into the surface and sit bones into the chair and then extend up and through the hips, as if pulled up by belt loops
  • Zip by lifting through the belly button and extending the spine upward
  • Open through the shoulders and chest and continue to lift
  • Depress shoulder blades down and into the center of the back, as if putting shoulders in back pockets
  • Extend the neck up as if being lifted up by your ears, head shouldn't be tipped down
  • Draw the chin back and slightly in, ears should line up over shoulders, eyes look straight ahead
  • Breathe

How to get started

First, see how it feels to turn on core muscles -- this takes less than a minute. Sit on the edge of a firm chair with feet and legs at a 90 degree angle and place both hands on the front of the body. Remember, said Miller, with every action there is a reaction. Now draw the bellybutton or midsection toward the center and pretend to lift at the same time to feel contracted and lengthened throughout the middle the body -- but not so much you hold your breath. Miller often tells clients to imagine putting on a tight jacket and then zipping it up. When doing this, the front and back of the body should contract at the same time.

Finding the neutral position of the hips is important for proper posture. The hips should not be tipped forward or backward. Miller encourages people to "think of your pelvis as a bucket of water -- tipping means spilling."

Now, for the shoulders and head. The head should not jut forward, nor the shoulders round in -- have them face straight ahead, chest high and sit tall.

"If you can hold this position sitting, you can hold it when you walk, drive, do household chores or other leisure time activities," Miller said. "There's no down time for the core -- it always has to hold you upright, so it needs to be strong, ready and willing."

Here are some tips about core work:

  • Reality check. Don't underestimate the power of core muscles or overestimate their ability -- they are muscles and as such should be respected for what they do by turning them on and using them correctly.
  • Don't worry about high-tech gear or fancy machines. What you have is all you need -- your body. Core exercises also don't require lots of sweating, push-ups and sit-ups -- they can be performed in street clothes and can be done while sitting, standing or lying down.
  • Don't waste time and energy doing this incorrectly. You need to understand how to maintain proper alignment of the trunk, which automatically makes the core do its job all day long. Core exercises miss the mark if the person doing them is using the wrong muscles. Miller encourages people to feel their muscles "turn on" with their hands to become aware of how they feel when they are called upon and when they are at rest. Technique is key to getting the most out of core exercises so Miller recommends that people seek help from fitness specialists who are familiar with anatomy and posture mechanics.
  • Don't push it. Core exercises progress in difficulty, Miller said, so people should begin at a level that is appropriate for their bodies. Plank exercises, for example, are considered an advanced exercise. Follow the cues given above -- this will be a good start to improving your core and your posture.

In recent years, more attention has been given to the need for seniors to be more physically active. Miller says core exercises should become part of any exercise regimen but they also should be integrated with daily activities. The core is not a separate entity in the body, she says, "it is the foundation." She said learning to use the core effectively throughout the day will help people be more productive and energetic.

She encourages people to remind themselves to practice turning on core muscles during common activities, such as brushing one's teeth, standing in line, or sitting in traffic at a red light. Repetition, she says, turns core strengthening into a habit and then ultimately into a healthy behavior. Information about core exercises can be found online at such sites as American Council on Exercise,, and,

Miller can be reached at 812-855-8167 and Top

For additional assistance with these news items, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 and