When you feel really worried about something you’ve probably experienced tunnel vision – when your brain can only focus on one threat even your vision narrows. The opposite is also true. When we’re in a relaxed state our peripheral vision (PV) widens because it’s connected to our parasympathetic nervous system. When we’re calm, we can take in a bigger picture and absorb more of what’s around us. That’s why athletes hone their Peripheral Vision to gain a competitive advantage in fast paced sports. So by tuning into our peripheral vision we slow the world around us and create calm and a broader perspective.
Not only that, as we age we loseabout 1–3 degrees from the edges of our visual field every 10 years. By 70–80 years of age, most of us have lost 20–30 degrees from the edges of our visual field. This is partly why we fall more as we get older. It’s seen as ‘part of the ageing process’ but there are lots of exercises we can do to improve our peripheral vision.
Here’s a couple of exercises to try:
Stand or sit comfortably and take three deep breaths, relax into the exhale, do a body scan and release any tight muscles.
Pick a target to look at – a picture, something you can look at clearly. Now imagine that’s the centre of a clock face, without moving your eyes what can you see at 12 – take in the shapes and colours for a moment, now without moving your eyes what can you see at 3, take a breath, now 6, breathe and now 12. Finally what can you see at both 3 and 9 simultaneously?
Maintain focus on that same spot from above, again keeping your head still, bring your fingers up to your sides.
Move your arms up and down forward and back while you wiggle your fingers until they go out of your vision range then come back in.
The idea is that you tune into your peripheral range and train the brain to make the field wider with practice.
When you next take a break incorporate a few deep breaths and a peripheral vision exercise and just notice how you feel before and after.
Further reading: This is a good article on PV along some more exercises to try and for the science take a look here
Stress Awareness Month has been held in the UK every April, since 1992 to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. According to the Mental health Foundation 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
The relationship between mental health challenges such as stress and the impact on our physical health is becoming more widely understood. For example stress has been directly linked to health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems.
Understanding what causes us stress, recognising the signs that we’re feeling stressed and putting in place effective steps to avoid or counter stress in our lives is something that can take years to develop. For me discovering the mindful movement and breathing techniques of Pilates was an essential part of my stress management when I worked in the Corporate world but we all have to find our stress management techniques for ourselves.
The Stress Management Society has loads of incredible resources on their website including this 30 Day Challenge Hints, Links and Tips guide to help navigate this journey. Of course some stress is useful – warning us of danger etc but ongoing chronic stress can have devastating and debilitating consequences, so be reassured there’s loads of resources out there and remember it’s a really common issue that many of us experience.
Sports documentaries have been a revelation of lockdown life. They’ve exposed me (not someone that plays or watches sport despite being a Pilates teacher) to what being a sports person is really all about. It’s not always the most naturally able or biggest and strongest who win, it’s not always the shiny prize that drives the most determined and Pilates, mindfulness and psychology play a huge role in gaining a competitive edge.
The two standout documentaries to me have been Drive to Survive which takes you behind-the-scenes of the Formula 1 World Championship and The Last Dance about the rise of Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Beyond the fascinating politics, power play, glamour and testosterone of Drive to Survive, you’re shown glimpses of what it takes to build a mind and body that can cope with putting your life at risk every week in a Formula 1 car. Pilates features heavily. For the driver they use it to keep a strong and supple body that can cope with the G force of the drive but also the whole pit crew do it together before the race so they’re ready to go from sitting watching the race to an all systems go ultra-fast tyre change. Off grid you see the drivers escape the adrenaline of the drive by connecting regularly with nature, quiet and stillness and spending time with family and friends who keep them grounded and help them retain a sense of humour even in dark times.
In The Last Dance the focus is mostly on Michael Jordan’s journey to super stardom but one of the most fascinating characters is Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls. He’s considered one of the best and most successful coaches of all time, so it was fascinating to see the techniques he used. He talks about how he was influenced by Zen Buddhism and Native American culture as a child. Before games you see him doing Pilates style exercises with the team, encouraging them to ‘centre and breathe’. You can see how these techniques help the players shut out the chaos of the court so they can bring their A-game.
“Michael [Jordan’s] a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.” —Mark Vancil, “Rare Air”
So don’t be put off ‘sports documentaries’ if you don’t consider yourself ‘sporty’ or a fan of the sport being profiled. They’re really an exposé on how mere mortals can build powerful and resilient minds and bodies to withstand and overcome unimaginable pressures and challenges.
I met Bob a couple of years ago when he kindly invited me onto his station Wycombe Sound 106.6FM to talk all things well-being. I invited him to join me for a Pilates session and finally 2 years later we managed to make it happen. Since January Bob has been doing regular 1:to:1 sessions with me and on the show today we talked about his experiences – what he’s learned, whether he enjoys it and whether he’ll keep it up!
Improved flexibility is a common goal for many Pilates students, especially for my 40+ clients. They know that staying flexible in their muscles and mobile in their joints will bring about numerous benefits; improved posture, ease of movement, competitive advantage, reduced chance of injury and physical independence as we age.
I often get asked for stretches to target specific areas such as ‘how do I stretch my tight hamstrings?’. I’m always happy to share stretches like this but that’s not often the real issue. Many factors influence your flexibility and mobility (this article explains the difference between flexibility and mobility if you want to understand more)
Your posture – an anterior pelvic tilt will cause hamstring issues as they attach to the pelvis and will be permanently lengthened
Your bio mechanics and the natural limits of your range of movement
Strength of your muscles and joints – weak muscles and joints will cause others to become over active and tight
The quality (hydration, elasticity) of your fascia – the connective tissue that wraps like a web around your muscles, bones, organs etc
Beyond formal exercise – what you spend your time doing for the other hours a day that you’re not formally exercising (NEAT)
Regularity of your stretching & strengthening – to counter any sedentary behaviours
So bearing in mind the above, my top tips for becoming more flexible and mobile are:
Set realistic goals – do you really want to do the splits or is it about improving and maintaining a comfortable level of flexibility and mobility that enables you to do the things you love
Understand your posture and bio mechanics – do you have any postural imbalances or deviations you’ve picked up over the years that might be causing an imbalance or limit to your movement – I recommend you see a Level 3+ Pilates instructor or physio for this. Work on improving this first before incorporating stretch and mobility drills.
Strengthen and stretch – Everything in our bodies is connected so focus on full body stretching and strengthening to enable your body to operate in harmony rather than fixating on one part of your body that is ‘tight’. Ensure that you have an exercise style in your workout programme that doesn’t just strengthen but stretches as well for example Pilates or Yoga.
Myofascia – you may be experiencing limitations to your quality of movement if your fascia needs attention. A sudden increase in movement, trauma, or lack of movement can all impact your fascia. Think stretching and gliding on spiky balls and foam rollers to improve the quality of your fascia.
Move regularly – Can you build daily stretch breaks and more incidental movement into your daily routine so that your muscles and joints don’t get ‘stuck’ in set movement patterns. A couple of exercise classes a week can’t undo hours and hours of sitting at a desk where as regular 5 minute stretch breaks every hour can really help.
Hydrate and eat well for good muscle and joint care. Think Calcium, Vitamin D, Protein, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and H20
And when you do stretch…….
Be in the movement & in the moment – work to your end range of movement so that you can seek gradual improvements week on week (without pushing beyond your limits). You need a good neuromuscular connection to ensure you’re maximising the quality of the movement, staying in control of the exercise, so stretch and strengthen mindfully.
Breathe – by breathing calmly and steadily you’ll shift into your parasympathetic nervous system where your body is more relaxed and able to work with you deeper into the stretch
Break out of set movement habits by incorporating variety into your stretches your body doesn’t get used to the same patterns and remember consistency is key. It takes time and consistency to increase your range safely and effectively.
Enjoy the release but stay safe – finding stretches that unlock tension and new movement patterns is intensely rewarding. Remember though it is possible to overstretch so listen to your body, work within your limits, explore and have fun.