How to have a happy body

00:05, May 17 2012

With sitting down on the rise, it's no wonder we have unhappy bodies. Scarily, many of us sit for close to 80 per cent of our waking hours.

Apart from increasing the risk of developing chronic disease and affecting our circulation and metabolism, being sedentary means back and neck pain are pandemic.

This is  not news to Anna-Louise Bouvier, an Australian physiotherapist.  In fact, she says our sedentary lifestyle means more and more of the problems she sees are in people who are younger and younger.

"Thirty-five to 55 is the peak age for back problems. But, now ... I see people in their 20s with chronic back pain, which is a dull ache," she says. "And over the last ten years I've started to see kids at 10 and 12 with the same problems that their mothers and their grandmothers came in for."

Despite an increase of unhappy bodies, having a happy body doesn't have to be hard, she says. Small, simple shifts in what we do and how we do it can make a big difference.

"It can be pretty straight-forward, you just have to know what to do."

It was the desire to help people understand what to do that lead her to develop Physiocise 16 years ago. Physiocise are functional movement classes targeting bad backs and bad habits.

They also teach people the mechanics of their body so they understand why they are experiencing pain. "It's about giving people ideas on what they can do when they do get aches and pains - how to release it," she says.

"It's not rocket science but, it's helping people understand how their bodies work ... Many people are dying to know [how to feel better] but, don't quite know what to do."

Over 1400 people per week now attend the Sydney classes, from kids right through to those in their 80s. But, with the number of pain problems and a demand for education ever-increasing, Bouvier decided it was time to take the teachings to a broader audience.

So she has created the Happy Bodies series of DVDs. Broken down into easily digestible bite-size segments of seven minutes or less, each episode is designed to address age-specific issues including posture, pelvic floor, core strength and cardio.

"I think of it as Grand Designs for your body," she says. "How do we rebuild our bodies from the ground up?"

Building from the ground up essentially means learning new habits, she says. "I wanted to create simple, sticky messages that sit nicely in research, but are also accessible. People have to be able to fit it into their lives otherwise they're not going to do it.

"There's got to be a positive trade-off. It's got to make you look better and feel better. Vanity is actually a good motivation."
Of the habits to cultivate, she says: "We need to take action on three levels. Sit less, move more  - with incidental activity - and we also need to fire up the engines: challenge equals change.

"The big thing is you want to balance out the amount of sedentary stuff you're doing with the amount of active. It's easy to think you're too tired to do stuff, but you need to make energy to have energy."

Her other top tips for minimising back pain and creating a happy body are:

 - Good posture is basic but big. "Your neck gets stronger, your core switches on and you look younger and happier," she says. "Eighty per cent of communication is non-verbal - poor posture gives off this 'I'm stressed, I'm exhausted'. Bad posture can also lead to digestive problems."

 A simple way to become aware of your posture is to imagine a light shining from your chest.  "When you slump, the light shines down to the floor, you just need to lift it so it shines up."

- Quick bursts of exercise are good, she says. "People often walk, but it's not hard enough. I like the talking test - when you're walking, if you can talk, but can't sing then you're doing moderate to vigorous exercise. I get [people] to walk along singing, 'Row, row row your boat' and if they gasp [then that's good]."


Slumpy kids
To prevent kids from getting banana backs she suggests making sure they sit with their elbows off the table. "Good old-fashioned nagging needs to make a come-back," Bouvier says. "[Tell them to ] shine your light, not 'shoulders back'... It's a life-time proposition with kids."

20s 30s
Bouvier is most concerned about people who are now in their 20s and 30s. "They're not just working sitting, they're sitting all night too," she says. "They're working long hours and they're stressed. To me, this is the scariest generation - when they get older [because] it's so hard [for them] to move."

She is in the process of making a corporate series geared to this age group, but in the mean time she says simple stretches at your desk and restructuring the way you work to increase incidental exercise can help. "Get a standing desk, set up the printer so it's further away, walk to meetings. All those kinds of things."

40s - 50s
"The forties and 50s episodes were geared at myself and my friends," she says. "What's going on at this age is a combination of age, gravity and hormones."

She says many women start to complain about having a lava belly, arms that have changed and thighs that wobble. "Women wonder 'what's happening to me?' ... but, once you understand, there's lots you can do to change it."

The primary things are working on building muscle, stimulating bone density and doing cardio.

"We start to lose muscle [at this age] and because of hormonal changes we start to develop a tyre around the waist and get generalised weakness."

"You've got to build muscle - it's not enough to walk - that surprised me the most," she says. "Remember, challenge equals change. Keep doing what you've always done and the equation rebalances and you get weight gain. You need to drive extra metabolism which will affect the way you look."

60s plus
Bouvier says this series was written for her mum who lives in country and doesn't have access to Physiocise.

"The single biggest thing, for this age group, is the need to prevent falls," she says. "Building bone density and straightening posture [are also key], so you don't get the slump of old age and aches and pains."

Worrying and grumpiness also come into play now "because their back is sore and they have bad knees, so can't play with the grandkids. Because people are living longer, they worry that if I'm like this now, what'll I be like when I'm 90."

But, going back to basics with simple functional movement exercises will improve stability, agility and bone density for years to come. "The series is about how to get your confidence back ... [which we] lose when we experience pain," she says. "And [feeling] more positive will reflect physically. You can't consider one without the other."

- Sydney Morning Herald