Set an Example and Improve Your Health

From the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at health.gov, here are just a few proven health benefits of physical activity:

  • lower risk of a wide range of chronic conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes;
  • prevention of falls; and
  • improved cognitive function among others.

Some more good news:  the health benefits of physical activity are independent of body weight.  So it doesn’t matter if you perceive yourself as overweight or underweight. You will still benefit from exercise even if your weight doesn’t change. Frequently I hear people say “I need to lose some weight before I can come to your class”.  My advice – come to class whatever your weight, size or physical limitations.  There will be a way to adapt the exercise to your physical status whatever that is and your health will benefit.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that if you keep the effort consistent over a period of weeks you will notice changes in your physical abilities and the way your body feels even if you don’t lose weight.  You may notice, for example, that your clothes fit better or you may see other changes in your appearance.  For many years there has been an ongoing discussion in the fitness industry as to whether it is better to be physically fit and overweight or unfit and thin.  My own opinion is that fitness and good health comes in all shapes and sizes.  Despite the physical form that our culture may revere as ideal, good health is far more important than measuring up to some myth of perfection.  Through the ages and in different cultural contexts there have been many variations in what is viewed as an ideal appearance.  Regardless of these fickle and changing perceptions, good health is indisputable.  We have all heard the expression “without good health we have nothing.”  All you need to do is get sick and you will see the wisdom in that sentiment.

Turns out, too, that you don’t need great amounts of high-intensity activity to experience these benefits.  Also, according to studies, the benefits of physical exercise outweigh the risk of injury.  It is not necessary to run a marathon or climb Mt. Everest to be healthy.  The importance of avoiding inactivity is so critical that even small amounts of exercise can yield significant benefits.  Reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease become evident with as little as 150 minutes of physical activity weekly.  Two classes per week will give you that much. And even better results can be seen with 200 minutes per week.  So add 50 minutes of walking per week (which can be broken down into two 25-minute segments, for example) and you are well on your way to better health, improved mood, reduced stress, enhanced endurance and numerous other improvements in quality of life in general.  If you commit to 6 weeks of consistent activity you may find that you actually begin to like it!  Make it a part of your life.  The benefits will continue to accrue and you may begin to notice a difference in how you feel about yourself.  In addition, you will experience improvements in your ability to perform everyday tasks like putting the groceries away and keeping up with your children or grandchildren. The strength, flexibility and balance training provided by yoga and Pilates will also help prevent falls, keep your bones strong, improve your posture and keep your muscles and joints pliable and functioning.

We have so little control over most of the events and circumstances that impact our lives.  So it becomes more important than ever to take control of what we can control while we can control it.  From that point of view it should be a no brainer to do what you can to improve your health, especially when that involves something as simple as adding more movement to your life.  It does involve a daily decision to make that choice.  But if you can’t do it for your own benefit, do it for those around you.  There lives will also improve by the example you set.

Exercise to Minimize Back Pain

A recent piece on National Public Radio (NPR) proclaims “Forget the Gizmos: Exercise Works Best for Low Back Pain”.  This is a common ailment and, as the article states, “it is very democratic in the people it strikes”.  The medical profession has been plagued with complaints that often have a non-specific origin.  When cause is not obvious, treatment can be equally elusive.  Interestingly, even when some cause seems present intervention can remain a mystery.  In fact, according to studies done by Dr. John Sarno (“Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”) “some people with back pain had similar X-ray and CAT Scan findings as people who did not have back pain.”  This demonstrates that even physical evidence may not be the actual cause of the pain.

 

A recent review of studies done with over 30,000 patients from all over the world showed that exercise is actually the most effective treatment for chronic low back pain.  The findings were published in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) along with commentary by Dr. Tim Carey of the University of North Carolina.  Surprisingly, however, few health care providers actually prescribe exercise for their patients.  Other passive interventions are more commonly recommended.  This review also found that most of those recommendations actually had little effect on relieving the pain.  Dr. Carey writes, “we don’t think of exercise as being a treatment the way a tablet or a procedure or a physical therapy treatment might.”  And yet it is cheap and effective.

Fear of pain can be an important impediment to moving the area that hurts.  However, gentle movement is essential to helping our muscles learn how to work together again.  Our body is a series of systems rather than individual components working alone.  Avoiding movement can keep our muscles tense and at risk of further injury.  It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy:  the less we move, the less we want to move and the more difficult it becomes to get moving again.  Learning to gradually relax our muscles helps keep them pliable and better able to accommodate functional movement.

Using the mindfulness that accompanies yoga and Pilates, practitioners can learn to relax tense muscles and progressively re-establish functional movement.  It won’t happen all at once so patience is required along with attention.  But consistent practice will begin to help participants regain pain-free strength, endurance, coordination and self-confidence.  Sometimes all it takes is overcoming the fear of trying and being willing to explore.

So even if you’ve been plagued with a painful condition, it’s never too late to try and get moving again.  Any movement is better than none and you may be surprised to find what you actually can do just by making an effort and paying attention.

Adventures in Learning

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Photo: Peg Ryan

There are few certainties in life.  No matter how much knowledge we’ve accumulated, it’s still safe to say that life is about learning.  One of my favorite song lines comes from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock song: “I don’t know who I am, but life is for learning”.  So if you’re afraid to come to a class because you think you won’t know what to do, try to remember that none of us (myself included!) knew what to do when we first started.  Everything I do now is a result of trying, adapting and practicing.  There was no innate ability or talent.  Just a desire to learn and consistent effort.  Often in the beginning, and certainly as my body as changed through the years, I have had to accept the realities of my abilities and adapt my practice accordingly.  Surprisingly it is not that difficult.  I’ve been able to continue to benefit from my practice even though my movement may not look the same as someone with a different body type or capabilities.

For the past few weeks I’ve been suggesting that we reframe some of our approaches in order to let go of what has become the default reaction and allow ourselves a different experience simply by thinking differently.  So here is another opportunity:  instead of approaching a new activity with fear and insecurity, try thinking of it as an adventure in learning.  When we were children everything was new and unknown.  The only way to learn was to take that leap without knowing what to expect. Meditation teachers often use the term “beginner’s mind”.  This refers to one’s initial experiences with the practice when everything is new.  No preconceived notions.  No judgments.  No right or wrong. No expectations. Try thinking of your movement practice this way.  Start slow and simple and give it some time.  Stay with the experience rather than focusing on outcomes or even goals.  If something seems difficult, instead of saying “I can’t do that” try instead thinking “Maybe I can find a different way to do that.”  Make the movement smaller or slower or do fewer repetitions.  Try different approaches like bending your knees. Use your fists or forearms instead of your wrists.  Incorporate props like pillows or blankets.  There are so many different ways to make your practice your own.  Each day your experience may be different. Approach each effort with a “beginner’s mind” and allow it to be a new experience.

The bodies we inhabit are miraculous.  Each of us is a precise collection of muscles, bones, veins and nerves with systems that keep it all working together. Work with your systems and let them work for you. We have the incredible senses of sight, taste, touch, hearing and smell.  Instead of lamenting what you can’t do, remember all the things you can do and adapt what you want to do accordingly.  Celebrate your ability to move and breathe and treat these profound capacities with the reverence they deserve.  It’s never too late to try something new.

Changing the Rules

 

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Photo Credit: Peg Ryan

It’s still January so the new year is still a work in progress.  Perhaps you’ve already seen some decline in your resolve.  No problem.  That’s not a signal that you’re a failure or that you should give up.  It may simply mean that you need to adjust your expectations.

When you start something new or return to something after an absence, you usually don’t know what to expect.  You observe and listen and work at mastering skills.  But once you’ve become a bit more experienced, you may find that you begin to establish rules.  Your mind tells you that things need to be done a certain way.  Perhaps you’ve read or heard other people suggest methods deemed as “correct” by some standard.  Or maybe you look around and see others performing in ways that seem beyond your capacity.  Instead of concluding that you’ll never be any good at whatever it is your pursuing, try changing the rules.  Adjust your expectations.  Do what works for you.  It may look different from someone else’s version but it will still be “right” and you will still benefit.  Best of all, you will stay on track and continue working toward your goals.

When it comes to diet and exercise, most rules are just guidelines.  Each of us is an experiment of one.  Regardless of what you may read or hear in popular media, there is no such thing as the perfect answer. What works for one person may not be appropriate for someone else.  Moreover what works one day may not work the next.  And vice versa.  Change is constant.  It is one of the only certainties in this life.  Even though we waste a lot of energy resisting change, it is always happening.  As difficult as it is sometimes, in the long run we are much better off if we can just go with the flow.

So if what you’re trying to do today just isn’t working the way you want it to, instead of beating yourself up because you’re not “doing it right”, try doing it differently.  March to your own drummer.  It may seem like it’s not the same as what you’ve been told or what you’ve observed, but so what?  That doesn’t make it “wrong”.  It just makes it different.

There is substantial evidence that exercise is an important way to keep your muscles working and your bones strong. But it is the exercise you actually do that matters.  The key is consistency.  Developing habits helps you to maintain that consistency, but adjusting to daily circumstances is equally important. If you stop doing something because you’re not living up to your concept of perfection, then you’re not getting any benefit at all.  Try allowing yourself to be who you are right now in this moment and move from there.  You may surprise yourself by eventually noticing that you still experience positive changes.

Unless you’re ill, it is far better to show up, go easy and just do what you can than it is to not show up at all.  Intention is more about process than outcomes.  Adjust your rules, let go of expectations, participate in the process and be grateful for what you can do.  You won’t be sorry.

Committing to Change

Some version of the following statistic has shown up in so many posts and articles over the past couple of weeks it has almost become a meme: of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% actually see them through to the end of the year.  The most recent attribution I found for this statistic is a University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.  If that sounds discouraging, take heart by noting that these researchers also found that those who bothered to make a resolution still fared twice as well as those who did not.

We’ve all seen the standard advice for sticking to your resolves – taking small steps, rewarding yourself, building your plan into your schedule, etc.  All those are good. But if you are still having trouble, a recent article in Yoga Journal titled Make This Your Year by Elizabeth Marglin suggests a novel approach. Instead of thinking of your resolutions as something specifically for yourself, try thinking of them as “bigger-than-self” goals.  Think of your goals as compassionate.  For example, if your intention is to physically move more think about how this will benefit the other important players in your life.  This will require you to be clear about your motivation. Why is this intention important to you?  The article poses a series of questions to help you clarify your intentions including “What do I want to experience more of in my life and what can I do to create that?”.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to do and why you want to do it, the next step is to commit. Create a new habit.  You’ve got plenty of experience creating habits, some good – some that make you unhappy. Take that experience and use it to your benefit. It may take a few weeks but the more you persevere, the more your brain will adapt. Research shows that we are capable of creating new neural pathways in our brains throughout our lives.  Build your intention into your life. When you struggle with following your plan, just let the habit take over and keep you on course. Remember that your plan is not just for your own benefit but has a larger purpose. Then don’t think “should I or shouldn’t I?”. Just do it. You will never regret following through even if it turns out in the end that the path you chose needs to be adjusted. No matter what happens you will learn alot.  Be open to that and enjoy the learning process.

The final step suggested in the article is to “Envision Success”.  What does that look like? If more movement is your intention maybe success means being able to hike with your grandchildren.  Or ride your horse comfortably and with confidence. Maybe there is a particular bicycle ride you’ve always wanted to try. Or a walk-a-thon that benefits a cause you support.  Perhaps you want to volunteer for an organization that means something to you. Keep that vision right up front. But be kind to yourself.  A compassionate intention requires self-compassion. Don’t let a day off derail your plans. Just take a breath and let it go. Don’t beat yourself up. Just put your schedule back together at the next opportunity.

Eliminating Obstacles

We’re 3 days into the new year so perhaps you’ve already begun to implement your new year’s resolutions.  Of course, the odds are against you, but I’m sure you know that.  No need to be negative, though.  Most of us have been here before so we know that setting the intention helps, but all those good intentions tend to get derailed as soon as some inevitable obstacle gets in the way.  Goal-setting can be good, but it might be a better idea to take a look at some of those obstacles and see if there is a way to circumvent them.  Example:  don’t like getting up early for an 8:00 AM class?  Try reminding yourself that you don’t have to do it every day.  Start with one day a week.  When you struggle to get out of bed that day, remember that you don’t have to do it again for another week.  Tell yourself that you will only go for a little while.  Set a time limit:  “I’ll try it for 15 minutes and if I don’t feel better I’ll stop.” Or tell yourself you’ll take a nap as soon as you get home.  As I’ve often said, getting out of bed is half the battle. Perhaps even more than half.  Once you’re up, you’re already there.  

Years ago I taught a 6:00 AM aerobics class.  Everyone who came was very dedicated, but also half asleep when they showed up.  No one talked at the beginning of class.  Also no one paid attention to what anyone else was doing because it was all they could do to get themselves moving.  So no one cared what anyone else was wearing.  Or whether or not they were keeping the beat or making the same move as everyone else.  But move they did in whatever way worked for each person.  By the end of the class everyone was relaxed, smiling and ready to meet the day.  Sound good?  You, too, can feel that way.  

How about trying a short-term resolution?  Commit to one day a week for 6 weeks. When you complete that, you can make that same resolution all over again.  Or perhaps expand it to a couple of days a week or a longer time frame.  And if your resolve falls apart, make a new beginning.  Here’s a quote from Carl Bard that I’ve always liked:

“Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”

Bite off small chunks and set yourself up for success instead of failure.  Then you can pat yourself on the back and even reward yourself when you achieve that success.  If timing is not your obstacle, take a look at what makes you stumble.  Explore alternatives.  Enlist the help of a friend.  Take it slow.  Let go of expectations and outcomes. The process is what counts.  What you actually accomplish is likely to be totally different from what you expected.  Make your health and well-being a priority.  You won’t be sorry.

New You for a New Year

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. It was certainly a nice long weekend.
So now we turn to the New Year. Since this is a time of year when many people decide to make a new beginning, here is one more reason to include yoga and pilates in your list of resolutions.
It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that approximately 85% of Americans experience low back pain at some point in their lives.  How to deal with low back pain?  The solution may be a bit more of a surprise. According to Harvard Medical School, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Mayo Clinic, exercise is listed as the number one solution for low back pain prevention.  The most important goals when exercising for this purpose are stretching the back and legs and strengthening the core (abdominal) muscles. And now for some really good news:  yoga and pilates both include exercises that do exactly that and more.
If you want more information, check out this article on exercising to beat back pain. And remember – there are no requirements in any class. If any move is too difficult or challenging, don’t do it.  Simple as that.  Just do what you can. No matter what that is it’s better than doing nothing.  The more you move, the easier it gets.  And, conversely, the less you move the more difficult it gets.  So start where you are and go from there.  We are all an experiment of one.  Pilates and yoga are designed to strengthen the connection between your mind and your body.  Focus on your own body and your own needs. You may be surprised to find out how much you actually can do and how much better you feel when you do it.
There are always caveats and all practioners should check with a health care professional before starting any exercise program.  Also, a private session with an experienced teacher may be a better choice than a class for anyone with specific concerns.  But most people can do more than they think they can.  And it is my firm belief that if you can move, there is a movement program that can be designed to help you maintain or even improve your abilities.
So before you say “I can’t”, give it a try.  There will never be a better time than now.
Happy New Year to all.  It is my fervent hope that we find a way to experience peace on our planet.  Peace and non-violence begin with each individual.  May you each find your own peace this year.