Warming-up and Cooling Down

Winter is officially upon us.  January 1 has come and gone.  You’ve finally managed to drag yourself to the gym.  Now faced with the realization of how much time has passed since you last tried to work out you try to make up for that lost time by diving in with both feet.  And both arms.  And your back and shoulders.  You remember what you used to be able to do and think “I can do that.”  But, before you know it you’ve overdone, possibly even injured yourself, and your resolve to “get in shape” gets relegated to some mythical future date when you’ll somehow be better able to manage it.  Like when you’ve lost weight or your knee gets better or you find a better pair of shoes, etc. etc.  You know the drill.  There is a litany of excuses you can draw upon for this purpose.  But no matter how much you wish for a better version of yourself, wishing will not make it happen.

Time to come up with a better plan.  If you’ve showed up at the gym or on that walking trail or in that exercise class, then you’ve already taken the most difficult and important step.  That is, you’ve made the decision that you really want to do this.  You’ve also set the time aside and made the commitment to follow through.  Bravo!  Now is not the time to get discouraged.  But perhaps it is time to rethink your strategy.

It’s always difficult to remind yourself that whatever shape you’re in didn’t happen overnight.  If you’re in good shape, it’s probably because you’ve made a regular effort to maintain it.  If that’s not the case, then your best approach is to start slow and give your body some time to adjust.  This provides the perfect opportunity to tout the benefits of a good warm-up.

According to the American Heart Association,

“warming up and cooling down are good for your exercise performance . . .  A good warm-up before a workout dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen. It also raises your muscles’ temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly raising your heart rate, the warm-up also helps minimize stress on your heart.”

A warm-up generally consists of performing an activity at a slower pace.  Although most sources usually advise warming up for 5 to 10 minutes prior to planned activity, the Sports Medicine Information website advises that a good warm-up can last anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour.  In my opinion, longer warm-ups are a good thing, especially as we age.  In fact, if you are new to exercise or returning after an absence, you might want to consider doing your first few workouts entirely at warm-up pace.  Just take your planned activity slower and with less intensity.  When you’re ready to increase the pace and/or intensity you won’t have to force yourself.  It will just naturally feel right and you’ll know you’re ready.  Just have a little patience.  Starting slow now will mean more success in the long run.  Remind yourself of that every time you’re tempted to push too hard.

Your warm-up can include some gentle stretching of your muscles towards the end.  Most experts agree that muscles should be warm before you stretch them.  Quoting again from the American Heart Association : “Stretching allows for greater range of motion and eases the stress on the joints and tendons, which could potentially prevent injury.”  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Warming up may also help reduce muscle soreness and lessen your risk of injury.”  It’s well worth the extra time if might take.  Those extra minutes might save you from days or even weeks of inactivity from soreness or injury caused by overdoing too much too soon.

If you do manage to move from a warm-up to a more intense form of movement, then cooling down is equally important.  Our friends at the American Heart Association have thoughts on this subject, too.  They advise that

“After physical activity, your heart is still beating faster than normal, your body temperature is higher and your blood vessels are dilated. This means if you stop too fast, you could pass out or feel sick.  A cool-down after physical activity allows a gradual decrease at the end of the episode.”

Cooling down is similar to warming up in that you perform your activity at a slower pace for an additional 5 or 10 minutes following your main activity.  This is especially important, and often overlooked, when your activity is a sport such as basketball or tennis.  But it is just as critical after brisk walking or jogging.  If you’ve been lifting weights, try walking around the gym and doing some slow stretching following your workout.  If possible, a good way to warm up for and cool down from a gym workout is to walk to and from the gym.  What a concept!  O

The goal here is not to add yet another layer to your “to do” list, but rather to encourage you to keep your movement intentions on that list.  Don’t let your resolve drop off because of unrealistic expectations.  Although any activity you choose is better than none and the best activity is the one you’ll do and stick to, this is a good time to put in a plug for classes.  Most classes allow for warm-up and cool-down periods.  This is certainly true of my classes.  Even if you prefer some other type of activity, trying a class can give you an idea of how to warm-up and cool down so that you can do it on your own if that suits your needs.  Find what works for you, take it slow and keep at it.  Practice is the key to improvement.


Coming Back

At some point we all find ourselves in a place that forces us to change our perspectives and view life through a new lens.  Sometimes this transformation is sudden, as in the case of an accident, illness or loss of something or someone important to us.  In other examples the change is more gradual, such as the process of aging or accepting chronic conditions that may never completely disappear.  We find ourselves faced with “the new normal”.  Despite the fact that everything in life is always changing, most of us are wary or even downright afraid of what is unknown.  This causes us to cling to the familiar even if we are not completely happy with it.  We’ve all heard the expression, “the devil you know . . .” which is often used as a rationale for avoiding change.

We each have different ways of handling change.  Some of us resist the reality of change by resorting to denial.  We might think, “This isn’t really happening.  I will just keep on moving through life in the same way that I always have.” Others get angry and look for someone or something external to blame, as in “if it wasn’t for _____  (fill in the blank) everything would still be the same as it used to be.”  That may or may not be true, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  Others despair, focusing on the loss rather than anything positive that remains and sometimes find themselves dissolving into depression.  Some consider themselves victims and wonder “why me?” Still others will accept the new normal and try to make the best of it.

It has long been a question among social scientists as to why some people can move through changes with relative equanimity, while others resist sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own health and well-being.  Most agree that the quality that sets the victims apart from the survivors is resilience.  The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  .  . It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  Furthermore, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” So this is not some innate quality that is part of our DNA, it is something that we can all develop.  It just takes practice.

No one escapes hardship in life.  We may think there are people who have it all together.  But deeper inspection often reveals hidden truths. Many years ago when I was dealing with a  particular set of changes in my life I met a woman who captured my admiration.  I thought, “If I could only be like her all my problems would be solved.”  Later I learned that beneath the appearance of perfection there was a deeply troubled sole who had a host of characteristics I was so grateful I didn’t have.  It was a simple but major lesson for me – nobody’s perfect.   Whatever someone else has that you think you want often accompanies many things that you’re better off without.

Getting back to resilience, I used to teach a class to prospective entrepreneurs about how to build a viable business.  It turns out resilience is also a key to successful entrepreneurship.  One might think that having lots of money is an important factor.  And, yes, having sufficient resources to survive good and bad times is necessary, especially during the start-up phase which often lasts several years.  Also important is a complete understanding of market conditions.  But being able make it through tough times and respond to changes as they become evident without clinging to some ideal image of the way things “should” be is right up there at the top of the list.  Followers of this blog might recognize this characteristic as something we cultivate in yoga and Pilates – namely, flexibility – being able to go with the flow without breaking.

So what does all this have to do with coming back?   That title could refer to many things, but, as you might have guessed, I am referring in particular to coming back from illness, injury or other forms of loss.  By loss I mean those related to changes in our ability to do the same things we’ve always done in the way we used to do them.  It also might mean loss of the illusion that we will ever be able to be like that other person who looks a certain way or who can do certain things that are unavailable to us in this moment.  In particular, each physical set-back I have reminds me of my limitations.  Regardless of how I feel or how I view myself, I am not the same person physically that I was 20 years ago.  This is not bad or good.  It just is what it is.  Knowing that, I can choose to lament the fact that I will probably never again run a marathon, or I can find joy in the fact that I can still hike in our beautiful outdoors on legs that not only work but are mostly pain-free.  So certain human frailties may be revealed, but also amazing strength.  I’ve had set-backs, but I’m still here and still moving.  How incredible is that!  Some days may be slower than others but that’s OK.  It is wonderfully liberating not to have to live up to anyone else’s standards.  Also I can still practice yoga and Pilates, both of which have contributed greatly to my physical capacity.  These are all disciplines that can be modified to meet my needs.  Some days I can do poses that are difficult on other days.  There is no rule that says I have to power through the difficult moves when they are not working for me.  I can modify or even skip them altogether and try again tomorrow.

Change may be constant, but sometimes it can’t be forced.  When you can’t change a situation, you can always change your attitude.  Here is a link to another article on “How to Build Resilience”.  The suggestion is given to “Reframe Your Interpretation”.  This is another way of saying find a different point of view.  Remember the old song that advised “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”?  You could almost use that for a mantra.  No matter how bad things seem, there is always something positive that is still available if you look for it. Even if it’s something really small, it’s worth focusing on until something better becomes visible. This isn’t necessarily easy and it won’t change reality, but it might help you get through it.  You may be losing something precious, but I would venture a guess that meaningful things in your life still exist.  Just like physical activity, this requires practice.  It may take many reminders throughout the day, but as neuroscientists are increasingly learning, we can create new pathways in our brains at any age.

So even if you think you have always been a certain way and can’t possibly change, train yourself to think as my favorite astrologer/philosopher Caroline Casey advises and add the words “until now!”.  You can change.  You just need to practice.  Accept what is and focus on what you can do right now. If it gets better, great!  If not, it’s still worthy of celebration.