Mental Gymnastics

Mental Gymnastics

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – Most of us already know that exercise can contribute to improved physical health.  Studies continue to demonstrate that even small amounts of moderate exercise can reduce or delay the risk of a variety of diseases and disease precursors including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.  Exercise can also help sufferers manage back pain and depression.  Balance, flexibility and postural training can help prevent falls.

According to an article  from the National Center for Biotechnology Information although “compromised bone strength (osteoporosis) and falling, alone, or more frequently in combination, are the two independent and immediate risk factors of elderly people’s fractures . . .  of these two, falling, not osteoporosis, is the strongest single risk factor for a fracture.”  The article goes on to say that “in fall prevention, regular strength and balance training, reducing psychotropic medication, and diet supplementation with vitamin D and calcium have been shown to be effective.”  Another article from the British Journal of Sports Medicine echoes this finding:  “Exercise is effective in lowering falls risk in selected groups and should form part of falls prevention programmes.”

Exercise is not only an important to our physical well-being but it contributes to our mental health as well.  Recent studies , including one published in the Archives of Neurology, show a link between physical exercise and cognitive function.  ” ‘Our findings contribute to the growing body of literature that indicates the potentially beneficial relationship between physical exercise and cognition,’ Yonas E. Geda, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and colleagues concluded.”  Another article  asserts that exercise may even reduce the risk of dementia in people aged 65 and older. According to these researchers:  “Regular physical exercise is an important element in overall health promotion and might also be an effective strategy to delay onset of dementia.”  Exercise in this case was defined as a physical activity in which the subject engaged for a minimum of 15 minutes at least 3 times per week. Seems like a small price to pay for a potentially big benefit.

The importance of exercise to the physical body should come as no surprise, especially to regular exercisers.  The bonus of improved mental health is similarly not unexpected among those who recognize that all systems in the human body are related and interconnected.  (And, yes, that means our teeth, eyes and feet are all contributors to our overall health despite the fact that our health care system considers them separate.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

What may be less well-studied, but no less apparent to active people, is that the converse is also true.  Lack of movement contributes to decline of many physical and mental functions.  Recently a participant in one of my classes was lamenting the fact that the decline seems to accelerate with aging and become that much more difficult to overcome.  This means that if we stop moving, it becomes that much harder to get moving again.  The less we move, the less we want to move so lack of movement ends up contributing to further lack of movement.  Nobody really knows why this happens, but one thing is certain.  It takes mental as well as physical strength to get back in gear.  This is the function of the Warrior in yoga.  It’s not about destruction or revenge, it’s about exercising courage and overcoming obstacles.

Most of the time, we create our own obstacles.  We are really good at making excuses for not doing the things we want to do.  Of course, we are only hurting ourselves by constructing these fences, but sometimes that gives us another rationale. We fall into a self-pity trap that begins “if only . . . ”  You can fill in your own blank here.  Examples, “if only I hadn’t gotten injured” or “if only I wasn’t overweight” or “if only the weather was better”, etc. etc.  You get the idea.

Here is one of the most common obstacles I find when people are trying to get back into moving:  “if only I could still do what I used to be able to do.”  This is simply imposing unrealistic expectations on ourselves.  The way things were will always be part of the past and unless someone invents some kind of time machine, we can never go back there.  All the lamenting and nostalgia in the world won’t make that possible.  Our old frenemy change will always come back to haunt us.  Nothing stays the same.  Change is constant regardless of how fervently we resist it.

So the best we can do is use the present to pave the way for the future.  There are no guarantees.  We can’t go back, but we also can’t see into the future.  Stuff happens and despite the pronouncements of various pundits and so-called experts there is no way to tell what will happen tomorrow.  But we can do the best we can to deal with what we are presented with today.  If you’re trying to start or get back into a regular movement practice, there is no better time than right now.  But you may need to get out of your own way to do it.  Instead of making excuses for why it is not possible, try to make it a priority.  Carve out the time just as you would if you were making an important appointment.  After all, what good are you without your health?  You can’t help anyone else unless you first help yourself. If you’ve ever flown in a commercial airplane you might remember the admonishment of the safety instructions:  put on your own oxygen mask first.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  And we all have much to give.  Instead of fixating on what you can’t do, try focusing on what you can do and move from there.  Start with a small does and move from there.  Get up and walk around the house.  Stand up and stretch.  You can do it!

Getting started is hard.  That’s true.  But call on your inner Warrior.  Take baby steps.  Start with 5 minutes.  Like we used to say in ultrarunning, start slow and back off.  If you want to take a class, just go.  Let go of vanity.  We all look funny moving around in a class.  A sense of humor is a great ally.  Remind yourself that you can stop any time.  There are no class police.  No one will arrest you for doing something different from what other people are doing. You don’t have to force anything.  Just stop when you need to.  Any movement is better than no movement at all.  Once you get started, it becomes that much easier to keep going.

The simple act of moving will help reduce your stress levels and improve your overall health.  It is almost guaranteed that you will feel better after you’re done than you did before you started.  And once you have the experience of knowing you can do it, draw on that strength to keep at it.  Changes can be subtle and sometimes we don’t notice them right way.  Don’t let that discourage you.  Just keep moving.  If you keep at it you will see a difference.

Need More Reasons to Exercise?

There have been several recent studies linking physical exercise to reduced risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.  For this week’s tip, here are links to just a few articles which give summaries of these studies.

NY Times – Daily Activity Linked toLower Alzheimer’s Risk

USAToday – Any Kind of Physical Activity Lowers Alzheimer’s Risk

Senior Fitness: Muscle Strength May Stave Off Alzheimer’s And Other Health Issues

Regular Exercise and Resistance Training Are Good for the Brain

Being Physically Active May Protect the Brain from Alzheimer’s Disease

Notice that it is overall physical activity that is beneficial.  Certain activities, such as strength training, seem to have specific benefits, but in general just moving is the best thing you can do to prevent mental decline.

How often have you heard someone say, “Now that I’ve hit _____ (age – fill in the blank) everything seems to be falling apart!”  In my opinion, maintaining muscle tone and movement with as much of your body as possible is the most important thing you can do to stave off that “falling apart” feeling.  It’s not inevitable and you don’t have to give in to it.  I see many elderly people every day who are managing to move pretty well regardless of their age.  Granted, some of it is good genes, but I am still a firm believer that there is a level of movement that is possible and appropriate for almost every body.  And it is never too late to start.  Or to improve.  As I always say, starting is the hard part.  Once you start there is no way to go but forward.   My mantra is this:  move while you can move because you never know when something might change to prevent you from moving the way you would like.

You don’t need any particular skill or ability, but you do need patience.  When you start, take baby steps.  It may have been some time since you’ve done any moving at all.   Perhaps you are recovering from an illness or injury.  Or maybe you’re trying to overcome the debilitating effects of a chronic condition.  As you get older, it takes more time to recover.  You may not ever get back to the way you were before you stopped.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.  If you can move at all, then there is a level from which you can begin and a goal that you can reach.  Just be gentle with yourself and accept where you are at right now.  You may need to actively repeat that acceptance process each day.  And some days will be better than others.  Accept that, too.  After all, fighting it won’t make it better.  It can be frustrating, but if you keep trying, you will improve.

And when you have a good day, celebrate!  Pat yourself on the back.  Give yourself a reward.  Mark the day on your calendar so next time you’re feeling down you can remember your accomplishments.

Just as a reminder:  both Yoga and Pilates focus on strength and flexibility training as well as mindful movement.  So either of these disciplines can be a great way to add more movement to your life.