Author Archives: sarah

Start Small, Start Now

I’m doing some business training at the moment and its all about five year plans and dreaming big…. I’ve been finding it very difficult as my business has really grown organically and I’ve never really had a big plan in mind.

Sarah Parker Fitness has just turned twelve and when I started out 12 years ago I certainly didn’t envisage where I am now. Especially as I only became a fitness instructor to supplement my acting “career”! But I’d left teaching classes at various gyms to have my first child and hadn’t really started back again when I was approached to set up some community classes. So I started my two classes and it was really just to keep my hand in before I got back to the gyms. Who knew that it would grow to 18 sessions a week (those two classes still going strong!), expand to specialise in pre and post natal, become my sole income and that I would never return to work in the gyms!

I think if you’d told me that then I wouldn’t have thought it was possible!

But it’s been gradual changes. I’ve learnt things and implemented them. I’ve changed things that didn’t work. And I’ve responded to what people want.

A Tim Minchin graduation speech came up on my Facebook feed recently and it really helped me with my planning. He’s not a fan of big dreams – “I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short term goals. Be micro ambitious. Work with pride on whatever is in front of you – you never know where you might end up.”

So I’m approaching my future business plans in the same way. Small steps, done to the best of my ability, seeing where it leads me.

And I’ve been thinking about this health wise too. It’s coming up to that time where people let their health take a back seat to the big Christmas to do list they have. Then when New Year comes round it will be all about massive changes that are almost unattainable.

But why wait? Start small but start now. Don’t make big plans that are hard to accomplish and frustrate or disappoint you. Start with a small goal, celebrate your small wins, and keep going. Add some protein to your breakfast. Cut out one caffeinated drink a day. Walk a bit more. Go to bed a bit earlier. Choose something that is a stretch for you but only just. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

This time last year I put on some special relaxation based Pilates classes. Someone came along for a trial session and then signed up for a month. This led her to attending weekly for the year. Which inspired her to make small changes to her food habits. Which has led to her losing a significant amount of weight. All from one small step.

Start small, start now, see where it takes you!

Dealing with DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

I was at Blush dance studios on Friday for a taster session of aerial hoops and pole dancing. It was great fun, I was pleased with all that I could do (may not have been effortless but at least I could do it!!) and I loved trying something completely new.

I really expected to be covered in bruises the next day as I could feel them forming but what I didn’t expect was just how much I would ache!

This is the known as DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness – and is usually experienced when:

  • trying out a new activity
  • upping the intensity in your normal routine – heavier weights, longer runs
  • getting back into exercise after a long break

What causes DOMS?

When I first trained as a fitness instructor I was taught that DOMS was caused by a build up of lactic acid in the muscles but now that’s not thought to be the case.  Instead causes are:

  • Tiny tears in the muscle fibres
  • Changes in the balance of enzymes in the muscle

It’s worth keeping in mind what activities you will have to do afterwards – soreness is usually worse the 24-72 hours after the exercise. I had a weekend to recover but driving was painful as my biceps hurt so much it was hard to pull the handbrake on!!

So if you’re looking after a baby for example, you don’t want to push it too far your first time back and find you can’t cope with lifting a car seat, bending to change nappies or getting up off the floor! And it doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard enough if you don’t feel it – DOMS is an extreme response and can be avoided by building up slowly.

If you do feel sore, best ways to deal with it:

  1. hydration – drink plenty of water
  2. warm bath/shower
  3. massage – by hand, massage stick or foam roller
  4. sauna (yes please!)
  5. magnesium – can use a spray direct onto area, Epsom salts in the bath (see number 2) or take orally
  6. low intensity exercise – for example gentle walking or swimming

Stretching has not been shown to be effective for DOMS. It is fine to exercise the next day though – it can temporarily alleviate the soreness and won’t make things worse.

The good news is that one bout of DOMS is supposed to protect you for the future. So next time won’t be as bad – so don’t let DOMS put you off!!

abdominals in pregnancy

Should you work your abdominals in pregnancy?

What do you think?  Should you work your abdominals in pregnancy?  Or are they a no-go area?  And if so, what exercises are appropriate.

When I polled people about this recently I had a varied response but most tended towards yes you should, but gently.

My answer is… it depends.

It depends what you think of as the abdominal muscles.  For most people, it’s the ones you can see – the six pack muscles. The guidelines for these muscles (the rectus abdominis) is there should be no direct work on them after you reach the 12 weeks mark.

So that’s a no to these abdominals in pregnancy.  No crunches, sit ups, hanging knee lifts, or lying on your back with both legs lifted etc.

But the abdominals actually comprise of four sets of muscles and as a unit are essential in pregnancy as they support the spine, keeping it moving well, helping to maintain a good posture and minimising back pain.

The innermost set of muscles is the transverse abdominis. This is just one part of your core along with the pelvic floor, the back muscles and the diaphragm. So proper breathing, tied in with pelvic floor work, is also an essential part of core work – it’s never about the abdominals in isolation.

The best way to work the core in pregnancy – and postnatal and beyond – is with whole body, functional exercises.  The core should be stabilising the spine as you move your body.  So look at your posture when exercising.  Look at how you’re breathing (and if you’re breathing!)  Also look at how the exercise will serve you.  What’s the point of it?  Is a plank useful?  Or are there exercises that work your core in a functional way that also prepares you for your day-to-day activities?

For example, the exercise below uses a single heavy weight on one side to challenge the core to keep the spine stable by not leaning one way or the other.  Ideally ribs and hips should stay in alignment as you walk.  You should be breathing normally throughout the exercise.

It’s also great practice for when carrying a car seat or heavy shopping bags!

Farmers carry in pregnancy

A pill to replace exercise

So we’re a step closer to a pill that can replace exercise.

I know that there is an obesity crisis and things need to be done but this makes me sad, as if exercise is a thing to be avoided.

This news came out the same day as my car broke down.  I had to cancel a class and then arrange a lift to my evening classes – I was particularly stressed by the time I got to the church ready to teach!!   But a healthy dose of exercise later I felt much better.

Benefits of exercise

From those three classes I:

  • reduced stress,
  • got stronger,
  • worked my cardiovascular system,
  • burned calories,
  • increased my metabolic rate,
  • downtrained my sympathetic nervous system,
  • connected with other women,
  • felt happy,
  • mobilised my joints,
  • kept my bones healthy and
  • stimulated my brain.

Amongst other things. Will a pill do all that?

JERF, CRAP and Clean Eating!

I had a request from one of my email subscribers to write about clean eating. Now those of you who know me will know that I’m not averse to eating cake or having a drink. To my mind, it’s just food – there is no point in labelling things good or bad.


But I do try to eat as healthily as possible – following the JERF principle of Just Eat Real Food.  I cook from scratch every day and avoid ready-meals – anything with a huge ingredient list is out!  I also try to avoid artificial sugars and manufactured sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. This often means that my best choice if I want something sweet is to make it myself!

The balance of food is worth looking at too – breakfast traditionally is very sugar and refined carbohydrate heavy. I never liked cereal but did love toast. Now I have egg most days and never get hungry mid-morning.
My evening meal also has a different balance – probably half the plate is vegetables and the rest is protein. It may not be necessary  to cut out carbohydrates but the portion size is important and also not relying on refined carbs such as pasta and white rice.
The other key element is drinking plenty of water – I have water on the go throughout the day and will get through a litre when I’m exercising.  When you think you want food it’s worth having a drink first as you may just be thirsty. And keeping a water diary can help if you’re not sure how much water you have – the advice is 6-8 glasses a day, just over a litre. Bear in mind if you’re breastfeeding or exercising you will need more.
If you want to go further with clean eating though an easy way to remember it is to cut the CRAP

  • Caffeine
  • Refined sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Processed food

The other things to bear in mind when it comes to health and fat loss though are all the non-food things that also have an affect. So instead of just focusing on food also bear in mind your stress levels and your sleep patterns.  I think if changing your food habits too much stresses you out not only will it be unsustainable but it may make you feel worse. Be kind to yourselves.


Further reading

Heal your diastasis with food!

Nutrition for the postnatal period

How you can help your pelvic floor

I was asked by someone this week about rehabbing the pelvic floor post birth, in preparation for getting back to running.  I was so pleased that she was aware of the importance of taking her time – things keep popping up in my timeline about postnatal classes where people are running with buggies, skipping and even doing jumping jacks! All of this can have a deleterious effect on the pelvic floor and continuing to overstress a weakened pelvic floor can lead to prolapse.

However taking your time, making a few lifestyle changes and building up core strength can mean that even if you’re currently experiencing pelvic floor dysfunction (any leaking, back pain, heaviness in the pelvis) you may be able to get back to your previous exercise routine.

I prolapsed after my first child and was given very little advice about it other than being told I would probably need a hysterectomy when I go through menopause.  Because of this experience I have spent my time learning more and applying it to my own life as well as in my work with others.

First thing I implemented was no impact.

As someone who wasn’t a runner, this wasn’t a big change.  But I did have to stop jumping around in my aerobics classes and also give my trampette a wide berth…!  I can now run for the bus without worrying and I played rounders in the summer where I was sprinting for quite a while with no effect.  So I could probably run now if I wanted to but I’m still choosing to stay low impact most of the time.

Second thing was no crunches

The downward pressure created by crunches/sit-ups will push on the pelvic floor.  Full planks and press-ups and exercises with both legs lifted also creates a lot of pressure and so I avoided them.  However there are alternatives – for example in press-ups performing them on an incline, plus incorporating crunchless core exercises – so there is no reason to stop exercising, just make a few changes.  Bear in mind that sitting straight up in bed is also a crunch (and how many times do you do that a night?) – I roll over to get out of bed instead.

It’s not all about what you shouldn’t do though. There are things that I needed to start doing:

  • alignment/posture

particularly the with respect to the pelvis.  Try tucking your tailbone under and bringing your hips towards your ribs.  Lift the pelvic floor now.  Then take your hips away from your ribs, allowing your lower back to arch more, then lift the pelvic floor.  Then bring yourself to a neutral pelvis where your level through the front and the back of the pelvis (think of it like a bowl) – the pelvic floor lift should feel easier in this position.  Pelvic floor works best when we are in alignment, with the head, shoulders, rib cage, pelvis and heels all stacked up in line

  • breathing

both looking at how you breathe during exercise and from day to day.  During exercises you need to breathe out on the effort and lift pelvic floor at the same time.  This also applies when you are lifting a weight – baby, shopping etc. – and also when you go from seated to standing (The knack – as you go from sit to stand but vice versa too).  The other aspect of breathing is to stop breath holding and sucking your stomach in.  When you breathe in your stomach should actually swell not suck in.  I see so many people who’s stomachs stay still when breathing and instead their shoulders lift.  Try lying on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.  Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.  As you breathe in you should feel your chest move first then your stomach.  Your stomach lowers as you breathe out and then your chest.

All these changes I’ve made have meant that my prolapse has improved and I’m hoping to avoid that hysterectomy!  I know that there’s still work to do and I’m currently learning more about another part of the puzzle:

  • relaxation

stress can affect the pelvic floor, there’s also some evidence that lower limb injuries and back injuries will impact the pelvic floor too, even years after healing or the pain has stopped. There may also be scar tissue from episiotomies or tears.  I’ve just learnt some trigger point release for that – sitting on one of the spiky balls!  It’s uncomfortable but definitely has an effect – I will let you know how that goes!  And it’s also helped to introduce deep breathing, mindfulness and relaxation practices into my daily life.


So when looking at rehabbing the pelvic floor, it’s not just about a list of exercises to do – we need to think of the body as a whole and the pelvis at the centre of that, and looking at improving in all these areas

Happy New Year/You?!

I’m not really into New Years resolutions. And I’m definitely not into the the new year new you thing – there’s nothing wrong with the ‘old’ you!

But I am into goal setting.

I’ve just bought myself a shiny new business planner and right at the front is a blank page to fill in hopes and dreams for 2017. Most of mine are tied up with family life as I feel that’s the area that needs the most work done right now!

But there’s also some goals for me and my work too…

Now from the business coaching I’ve done the advice when goal setting is to make a plan and then break it into small manageable chunks. This way you’re less likely to get overwhelmed and more likely to see a result – this in turn will motivate you and keep you going on the next step.

Resolutions tend to be all or nothing.

And from the fitness world, we were taught to make sure we made SMART goals:

  • Specific – so not just “I’ll get healthy” but how? Doing what? Break it down
  • Measurable – can you track how you’re doing? Put numbers to your goals
  • Achievable – is the goal feasible
  • Relevant – important to you, not because everyone else is doing the same. The reason you make the goal may be the only motivating factor to keep going when things get hard
  • Time based – when will you do it by? Too far away and you’ll not work towards it, too soon and you’ll not get the chance to get it done.

So here’s my 5 top tips if you have made exercise part of your new year resolutions/goals:

  1. Add new things one at a time – don’t try to change everything at once. Go for somethings easy to start with that will encourage you to continue – eg drink more water, stand up every 20min, walk at lunchtime
  2. Put your exercise into your daily diary – block it out as your time so that it doesn’t always get left down to whether you have time left or not
  3. Combine exercise with something else – meet up with friends, walk to shops/school run
  4. Don’t feel you have to start on a Monday/ January 1st. Start as soon as you can

And don’t worry if things don’t go to plan. You haven’t failed. It’s just another day You’re not having to start from scratch.
Have a great start to 2017! And let me know if there’s any ways I can help you hit your goals

Is postnatal exercise just for YOU?

I saw an advert for a postnatal exercise class the other day that had a line about how mums were deciding to be selfish and take time for themselves.  Now I’m all for me-time as an essential part of a mums postnatal recovery and don’t see that as being selfish at all – in fact, if anything, mums aren’t selfish enough and always seem to put themselves at the bottom of the to do list.

But in addition to mums deserving to do something that benefits them, I also see so much benefit to the babies coming along to exercise classes too.

The NHS states that babies should be encouraged to be active throughout the day and avoid being sedentary for long periods of time – in car seats, pushchairs, bouncers etc.  This is why in my buggy class we tend to exercise in one area so that the babies can be let out on to the floor whenever possible!  And in Pilates, unless they’re sleeping, babies can get over an hour of play on the mat – giving them loads of room to roll, rock or for tummy time.

Babies getting the chance to be active along with their mums is good for two reasons:  first, they’ll see exercise as a normal and fun thing to do and secondly, they learn by copying.  Being active also helps the brain to develop.

There is some degree of sensory play in class as well – the balls, bands, mats and dumbbells are all a source of fascination.  One baby’s first crawl was because she wanted to get to the dumbbells!!  Outdoors the leaves and grass give vital feedback about their surroundings – and help their immune system too.  The fresh air is good for them and as an added bonus may help them sleep better!

The social aspect of the classes is also key – I know my daughter first started walking because she clocked an older child doing so.  I watched her watching him and as soon as she got home she grabbed hold of the high chair and off she went!!  There is also a lot of enjoyment in just watching their mums – I’ve a few video clips of babies laughing at the exercise!  And in Pilates there is often a very chilled feeling to the start of the class as the babies watch the flowing movement – they sometimes seem mesmerised!!

There have been lots of developmental firsts in my classes, from first rolling and crawling to first standing unaided and first steps.  Given time and space and a great example from mum gives the babies lots of opportunity to develop – so turns out class is as good for them as it is for you!!

Click here for a great pdf on physical activity guidelines for under 5s from the NHS

Heal your diastasis with food!

I really enjoyed listening to a webinar from Jessica Drummond of the Integrative Women’s Health Institute last week.

One of the sections that I was particularly interested in was on postnatal soft tissue and wound recovery – applicable particularly for those with diastasis or a c-section and perineum wound.

My advice nutritionally has always been to use bone broth either in soups or gravies but her information will give you a few more tools to use!

Eating foods that are high in collagen can help to repair and build damaged tissues – this includes wounded and strained core and pelvic floor muscles.

Good sources of lysine and proline, the amino acids that build collagen, are meat, chicken, fish and egg whites. For vegetarians – peanuts and wheat germ.

But there are other nutrients necessary. Vitamin C is destroyed when collagen is made so your intake of citrus fruits, strawberries and dark leafy greens, for example, will need to increase.

Hyaluronic acid is needed to create bundles using collagen. It can be found in sweet potatoes, avocado, mango and bone soup – using bone broth or whole fish.

The final nutrient she mentioned is zinc. This can be found in sesame seeds, cashews, dates, linseed, cocoa, beef, blue cheese and eggs. The healthy treats we have after postnatal Pilates should take care of that!

Looking at the list, an all-encompassing recipe would be a Chinese style soup of bone broth, chicken pieces, kale or pak choy, sprinkled with sesame seeds or cashew nuts.

Perfect for the summer we’re having!!

5 tips for preventing back pain when caring for children

As I was walking home from class yesterday a father and his toddler walked past me.  The dad was taking tiny baby steps in time with his son, was crouching in a squat position to be at his son’s level and was leaning over to one side in order to hold his hand.  This reminded me of how Becky used to love to hold my finger as she walked – up until her hand was big enough to hold mine.  And how it hurt my back let alone nearly dislocated my finger!!!

The trouble with having bad posture when you’re caring for children is that you’re going to repeat that same position over and over again each day and this will take it’s toll on your body.  And because of the interconnectedness of our body parts, that pain could show up anywhere, with the back often being the prime suspect.

Here’s my 5 top positions to be aware of your posture:

  1. Bending over to change nappies and other jobs at waist height – stay in close, hinge from the hips and keep the upper back in alignment. You’re trying not to just round your shoulders and hang from your ribs.  If the task is lower down, bend at the knees into a squat or lunge
  2. Getting out of bed – roll over onto your side and push yourself up. Try not to just sit straight up – this causes pressure through your stomach and could prevent diastasis from improving as well affecting your pelvic floor and back.  I demonstrate this on video here
  3. Pushing the pushchair/shopping trolley – stand upright, not too far away, with your arms slightly bent and think of powering through your legs, it’s a great bum work out!  Don’t rest your weight on the pushchair and don’t think of it as pushing with your arms – your whole body is doing the job.  Applies even more so when going uphill!!
  4. Picking baby up from the floor – bend at the knees into a squat or lunge keeping your back in alignment, pull baby in close, exhale as stand up (using the knack).   The same with car seats – and it’s better if you can carry them close with both hands when baby is small.  Picking up from the cot you need to stay in close and again bend at the knees and hips
  5. Carrying baby – try not to lean back to rest baby on your chest.  Drop your ribs down and keep them in alignment with your hips – you will feel your core tire quicker but that will just remind you to change positions.  Try and keep baby high and in the centre.  If you carry to one side keep them high and let their head rest on your shoulder – try not to push your hip out and try to vary sides rather than always favouring one

Bear in mind that any continuing pregnancy conditions need to be assessed – pelvic girdle pain, piriformis/sciatica, diastasis, pelvic floor dysfunction.  These can all contribute to back pain as well.