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Master a Handstand in 3 Simple Steps

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Handstands may seem like a move best left to gymnasts and super-yogis. But really, you don't have to have Olympian genes or spend all your free time in a yoga studio to learn how to do them. In fact, hitting the mat every day might not even get you there. "Someone who has a very advanced yoga practice will not be able to do a handstand unless they have specifically worked on it," says Sarra Morton, a yoga instructor at Equinox in New York City. "Conversely, someone who does not have a strong yoga practice might be able to do handstands because they have dedicated a lot of time to doing so. It's all about practice, practice, practice."

Many people mistakenly think this move is all about having crazy-strong arms. Arm strength helps, but that's not all it takes. To stay upright, you need great balance—which is impossible without strong muscles in your abs, back, and butt. "Balancing in a handstand is really about core strength; that plays a big role in your ability to stack the joints of your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in one line so you can hold yourself up as straight as a pillar," says Morton. "A pillar defies gravity because it is perfectly straight, and that's exactly the position you're trying to create with your body."

Got a solid core and upper body? You're still only two-thirds of the way there: Your lower half gets in on the action when you're doing this inversion move, too, says Morton. "Even your hip flexors, hamstrings, and inner thighs need to be strong! Because a handstand requires you to keep your legs perfectly in line with the rest of your body, all of the leg muscles are engaged to 'zip' them up and keep them together."

And one last, often overlooked necessity: flexible wrists. Without them, you can do a handstand but might not be able to hold it very long without pain. (If your wrists start to ache easily, do lots of downward-facing dog; it helps with flexibility in this joint, says Morton.)

If the closest you've ever come to nailing a handstand is doing one in the pool, well, that's a start—but read on for three simple steps that'll help you master the real deal. All you need is a wall and a mat, plus the commitment to keep practicing.

1.GET YOUR KICKS

Practicing a move called "donkey kicks" can set you on the fast track to conquering the handstand. To do them, start in a downward dog position (with hands and feet on the floor and hips in the air, so your body forms an upside-down V). Shift your weight forward by kicking your legs up and pulling your knees in toward your chest, moving your shoulders over your wrists as you do so, says Morton. But don't kick your legs all the way up, she warns, or you'll risk losing your balance and falling over. "Doing this move will give you an idea of the core strength and leverage needed to stand on your hands," she says.

2. TO L WITH IT

Stand about a leg's length away from the wall, facing away from it. Plant your hands on the floor and walk your feet up the wall so they're in line with your hips; your body should form an upside-down L shape. "This pose allows you to practice without all of the body weight of a regular handstand," notes Morton.

3. GO FOR IT—WITH A BACKUP PLAN

Do a downward dog with your hands about six inches away from a wall (fingers pointing toward the wall). Shift your shoulders forward over your wrists and try to lift one leg and then the other up the wall into a handstand. "Try not to kick, as this makes it harder to get away from the wall," advises Morton. "Instead, feel like you are lifting your legs from your core so that they gently find the wall. At this point, try bringing the legs away from the wall, knowing it is there for you to fall back on when you need it."

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Smiling Could Improve Your Athletic Performance—But Your Grins Can't Be Fake
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Athletes obviously enjoy breaking a sweat, but it’s not often that you’ll see one break into a smile while in the throes of competition. Yet that’s exactly what many coaches instruct them to do: Grinning mid-race has been said to relax muscles and boost physical performance. Recently, a group of researchers put this theory to the test, according to The New York Times. Their findings were published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

Researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales instructed a group of 24 non-professional runners—both men and women—to shift between smiles and scowls while running on a treadmill. The volunteers were told that the experiment would measure how certain factors affected the amount of oxygen they used while jogging at various running speeds.

For the experiment’s first stage, runners wore face masks that measured their breathing. As they exercised until fatigue, researchers asked them to rate how they felt and report their coping strategies—for example, whether were they ignoring their pain or embracing it.

The study’s second segment required volunteers to engage in four individual runs, each lasting for six minutes. Mid-run, they were told to smile both genuinely and continuously, to scowl, to relax their torsos using a visualization technique, or to simply fall back on their usual endurance mindsets.

Smiles didn’t always improve runners’ performances. A few subjects picked up the pace while grimacing, possibly because these “game faces” made them ultra-determined to beat their personal records. But overall, runners with smiles were nearly 3 percent more efficient than normal. While seemingly insignificant, this difference is large enough to affect someone’s race performance, experts say.

Keeping in mind the study’s small size, the authors conclude that exercising while smiling might reduce muscular tension and thus amp up performance. But in order to gain this positive effect, athletes must beam genuinely. Fake smiles, like the kind you’ll see in school pictures, don’t work as many facial muscles, and therefore result in lower levels of relaxation.

Since it’s hard for anyone (let alone a focused athlete) to maintain an authentic smile during prolonged periods of strenuous activity, scientists suggest smiling near a race’s end, in 30-second intervals.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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