Exercise! A Little Goes a Long Way

Easy Does It.

This blog has been touting the benefits of exercise since its inception.  Any of you who have ever been involved in marketing know that repetition is the key to getting your message to penetrate.  As a movement evangelist I agree with the importance of driving that message home.  So here is another round of research that not only reinforces how important it is to keep moving but also shows that even a little can have significant results.

For those of you who are concerned that exercise might be dangerous, a clinical perspective published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates that “even small amounts of physical activity are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease”. “The evidence with regard to exercise continues to unfold and educate the cardiovascular clinical community,” said JACC Editor-in-Chief Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D. “The greatest benefit is to simply exercise, regardless of the intensity . . .”.  The article does make mention of the problems that can occur when trying to be too intense too soon without proper preparation.  So often I see people who try to go from zero to maximum in an effort to make up for lost time.  Perhaps they are thinking of what they “should” be able to do instead of accepting where they are right now.   Then they wonder why they get injured or worse decide that they can’t exercise after all.  Unfortunately, we can’t change the past.  What used to be is gone.  But we can start today to change the way we feel right now.

It turns out that it is not necessary to run a marathon or climb Mt. Everest to experience health improvements.  Recent studies show that exercise in lower intensities still significantly lowers disease risk.  So the best advice is still to start slow and gradually increase, especially if it has been a while since you’ve done any regular moving at all. Increases can be made in a variety of ways:  time spent moving or movement intensity such as distance, speed or difficulty.  Only one of these factors should be increased at any one time. Then the body needs time to adjust to each increase before adding anything new.  If you keep this moderate movement in mind and continue to remind yourself that any movement is better than no movement, perhaps you can control the urge to do too much too soon.  This applies to all forms of movement including yoga and Pilates.  There are modifications for all moves so that new participants can start slow.  The trick is to listen to your own body, focus on your own needs and ignore what you see anyone else doing.  Regular practice will enable your body to adapt and at your own pace you will begin to notice improvements.

In addition to the heart health benefits, the mind-body connection is also increasingly demonstrating how important physical movement is for brain health.  Contrary to long held beliefs, our brains are capable of forming new pathways throughout our lives – even as we age.  In an article from Boston University Medical Center researchers found “that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with enhanced brain structure in older adults. . .”  Corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the associate director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System, noted that “physical activities that enhance cardiorespiratory fitness such as walking, are inexpensive, accessible and could potentially improve quality of life by delaying cognitive decline and prolonging independent function.”  Another study, also dealing with physical activity and brain health, further reinforces these findings.  “Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that fitness in an older adult population can have substantial benefits to brain health in terms of the functional connections of different regions of the brain,” said Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer.  Michelle Voss, who led that study while a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, further noted that “the benefits of fitness seem to occur within the low-to-moderate range of endurance, suggesting that the benefits of fitness for the brain may not depend on being extremely fit.”  More evidence that a little movement is all you need.

The best news is that the medical profession is finally beginning to get the message.  A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal provides a “How-to Guide for Prescribing Exercise for Chronic Health Conditions”.  The article notes that “Exercise helps to alleviate the symptoms of many chronic health conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, low back pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, heart disease and more, yet it is often overlooked as a treatment.”  “Many doctors and their patients aren’t aware that exercise is a treatment for these chronic conditions and can provide as much benefit as drugs or surgery, and typically with fewer harms,” states lead author Dr. Tammy Hoffmann, Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice, Bond University, Robina, Australia.  Some examples of the chronic conditions that can benefit from exercise include osteoarthritis of the knee and hip, low back pain and prevention of falls.  In particular, movements that aid in improving muscle strength, range of motion, coordination, and balance are mentioned as some of the interventions that can help with these and other conditions.

As you know, Pilates and yoga specialize in practicing these types of movements.  So doesn’t it make sense to give movement a try?  It costs less than doctors visits, medication or surgery.  All it takes is an investment of time and a commitment to practice.  As noted above, you don’t need to be an expert or even an athlete to get started.  You can start where ever you are.  If you can move at all, there is something you can do. Make a decision to be kind to yourself and take it slow.  If you are already following a medical protocol you should, of course, check with your medical professional before starting any program.  But try asking before you assume that you are incapable of exercise or that it won’t help you.  You’ll never know until you try.


Time for a Change

Time For a Change

This week I attended a seminar on Successful Behavior Change presented by Mary Ann Hodorowicz.  Although this talk was primarily aimed at clinical educators much of it was applicable to anyone attempting to change behavior for one reason or another.  For example, suppose you recognize that you need to exercise more.  Perhaps your doctor has suggested that this is necessary to improve your health.  Or maybe you used to exercise regularly but got out of the habit due to illness, injury or just life interferences.  You know you felt better when exercise was part of your life but you’ve been away so long and so much has changed that you lack the confidence to jump back in.

Whatever the reason and regardless of your good intentions, changing one’s behavior can be difficult.  There are so many obstacles along the path. Family or job obligations, weather, time constraints, physical limitations, fatique, depression or just plain inertia – all of these and more can conspire to keep you from moving forward.  You end up telling yourself that you just can’t change and it’s pointless to try.  Sound familiar?  Here are some ideas that might help you break this negative cycle.

The first step toward making any kind of change in your life is accepting that the change is important to you.  This means making a decision. Changing anything necessarily means letting go of something and replacing it with something else.  This involves a loss of some type.  Loss is difficult so a choice needs to be made.  The thing you’re giving up might be time, for example, or an extra half-hour of sleep.  Maybe you will need to ask someone else for help so that you can make the time.  Sometimes that’s a tricky proposition requiring some risk of rejection.  Or maybe you just don’t like having to ask for help so the loss is your pride.  You already know what’s standing in your way, now look at the reasons why you want to make the change. How much do you value the thing you’re giving up?  What are the benefits of the new behavior? For example, regular exercise has to potential to improve your mood, reduce your stress levels, give you more energy so you can accomplish more, make mobility and simple tasks easier, reduce pain, etc.  In fact, the benefits may extend beyond yourself.  You might actually find that those around you experience benefits as well.  When your quality of life improves, everyone around you benefits.  Try making a list of potentially positive results and weighing it against whatever you might think you’re losing.  See if this helps to motivate you.

Making the decision is a big step, but then you have to follow through.  This can be tough, too.  One thing that might help is to ease into it. In the years when I was running ultramarathons there were many slogans we used to stay motivated.  One was “start slow and back off”.  This was an acknowledgement that we all start off too fast.  In order to complete an ultramarathon one needs to have the stamina and endurance to go the distance.  It helps to have a long term mind set for the long range process.  In many ways, behavior change is like a marathon.  It is a lifetime process.  If you try to do too much at once, you will likely get discouraged and burn out or quit.  Just like the proverbial tortoise and hare, slow and steady wins the race.  Remember – you did not get where you are overnight.  It will take a consistent committment to get you back on track.

At this point it helps to let go of expectations.  Forget what you used to do or think you should be able to do.  In fact, drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. There is no “should do” there is only “can do”.  That means celebrate what you can do right now in this moment.  If it means you can walk for 5 minutes or you try the first few movements of an exercise in a class before taking a rest, that’s fine!  It’s a start. Everyone has to start somewhere.  Starting is the important part.  This is a process that you want to be able to maintain long term.  The outcomes will become apparent over time and they may be totally different from what you initially thought.  You may find additional benefits that were not in your original list.  For example, if you decide to try classes you may discover the social benefits of exercising with a group.  As you begin to gain skill you may even surprise yourself by finding out that you actually like exercising.  At that point you will find that keeping the change in our life is not so difficult anymore. Even if you don’t like every movement, you will enjoy the benefits.  When obstacles arise, resistance will be easier to overcome.

If you are still grappling with how to implement changes you know you need to make in your life, a reality check may be necessary. You can stay in denial, refusing to accept that the change is important to your quality of life. You can also waste alot of time waiting for the right moment.  So many times I hear people say, “As soon as (fill in the blank) is over I will start exercising.” Or “I need to get in shape first and then I’ll come to a class”.  These are all excuses.  When you run out of excuses it can actually be a relief to simply accept reality and make the effort of choose change.  It will require some thought and planning, but showing up is half the battle.  Once you’ve made the decision take that first scary step.  Then add another step and another.  Before you know it, you will be on your way to implementing that change and making it a part of your life.  That’s something you can really feel good about!