Rest – The Other Fitness Requirement

The majority of these blog posts are focussed on the benefits of movement and the many problems associated with lack thereof.  This weekend as the powers that be attempt (futilely, I might add)  to control the universe by getting us all to adjust our clocks, it has occurred to me that sleep and rest are often overlooked aspects of fitness that can be just as important as exercise.  Recently I listened to an interview with Dr. Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL and current sleep guru, about how chronic sleep deprivation is leading Americans to all kinds of illness.  Dr. Parsley speaks about the pervasive myths in our culture that sleep is for the weak.  He emphasizes what he calls the “four pillars of health: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control”.  If any one of the four is ignored or minimized our health will suffer.  Despite this, we continue to celebrate people who claim to sleep 4 hours per night and still achieve what appears to be success.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.   In addition to nodding off while driving, “persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”  Yikes!  For those of us – myself included – who take pains to eat right and exercise regularly, it can be a huge wake-up call to realize that short-changing sleep might be just as detrimental to health as eating lots of donuts.

A related connection that comes to mind is the additional need for simple rest.  Those of us who exercise regularly may not realize that muscle gains are made during rest periods, not work periods.  That’s why strength trainers advise their practitioners to work different muscles each day instead of doing the same routine daily.   We are also told to limit particularly stressful workouts to once or twice per week.  Some stress is good as it trains the body to handle the load.  But muscles need time to adapt to the changes.  Many of us make the mistake of overtaxing our muscles without allowing them sufficient time to recover.  Even when advised to start slowly and increase gradually, we think this advice doesn’t apply to us.  I’m the first to admit to being guilty on that count.  It has taken many years and lots of mistakes to learn that it isn’t worth pushing the envelope too strongly.   Injury or illness is a high price to pay.  Still it takes practice and constant reminders to keep that message up front.

Some time ago I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor.  Dr. Taylor is a brain research scientist who suffered a stroke.  Due to her knowledge of how the brain works, she was able to retain a memory of what was transpiring as she experienced the stroke.  The book is about what she learned during that time and her subsequent recovery.  There are many lessons learned from this book, but among them was her emphasis on how important sleep was to her recovery.  Throughout the book she emphasizes the healing powers of sleep.  During my health challenges over the past few years I’ve recalled her words and agree that sleep and rest are as important to healing as any medication.

It’s not easy to keep that thought up front, though.  I’m also well aware that many people have all kinds of trouble sleeping well.  A huge pharmaceutical industry has arisen to address the problem.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting more sleep is not as simple as it sounds.  Our 24/7 culture is no help either.  Recently I heard the term “time-bullied” referring to how most of us feel like the there is never enough time to do all the things we feel the need to do.  But we sacrifice sleep at our peril.  Like the other 3 “pillars of health”, we need to find a balance, a way to give each of the pillars its due.  Maybe it means a bit more moderation in all things.  Hmmm. . . Where have we heard that concept before?  Simple advice yet so hard to achieve.

Still anyone who has experienced any kind of health challenge knows that life is short.  No matter how well we try to care for ourselves, its length is uncertain.  The tendency to want to maximize our time on earth can be overwhelming.  But there are benefits to being the best we can be for as long as we can manage that.  Quality of life is just as important as length, if not moreso. This weekend we were given an extra hour.  Of course, it will be taken away from us in the Spring, but we can deal with that when we get there.  For now, I hope you all used that extra hour to get a little more sleep.  I know I did.  And I still feel like I need a nap.  So I think I’ll stop here and take one!

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Keeping What’s Right From Going Wrong

Our bodies are made up of so many parts and systems that it’s almost impossible to think about all of them at once.  There are numerous muscles, bones and nerves, but also fluids like blood, lymphatic and spinal.  Then there are the energetic systems that enable all of those parts and systems to interact with each other.  At the cellular level, there is an entire universe within each of us.   If you think about the precision with which everything needs to interact in order to move us, it’s no surprise that sometimes things go wrong.  In fact, it’s often more of a wonder that things go right!

Among the goals of both yoga and Pilates is to help us get to know our bodies and really start to pay attention to how the different elements of mind and body work together for optimal movement.  “Optimal” is a subjective terms and may mean different things for different bodies, but the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can move toward optimization.

This week I read a great little book  called “The RBG Workout”.  What is “RBG” you ask?  It’s the initials for our Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an inspiration to all of us at any age.  Tag line for the book is “How she stays strong and you can too!”  Of course, I’m sure she is also blessed with good genes, but she has certainly had physical challenges including two bouts with cancer.  The book was written by Bryant Johnson, who has been her personal trainer of almost 20 years.  Throughout the book he talks about how tough and strong she is, but also how she progressed during those years.  The workout described in the book seems pretty challenging, but Mr. Johnson takes pains to remind readers that it took time and persistence to get her to the point where she can now do the whole workout.

One of the quotes in the book that I especially like is this:  “. . . exercise is a great equalizer.  A push-up, a squat , a lunge, or a plank doesn’t care who you support or . . . about your race, religion, color, gender or national origin.  You may have a powerful job . . . but your body will still have veto power over you.  . . . If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”  One more reminder that we are mutually dependent on all of those systems described above.   We need them, but they need us, too.  Taking care of our bodies is no guarantee that things won’t go wrong, but it will certainly improve the odds.  And if things go wrong, you’ll be better able to deal with the problems if you’ve made that effort to stay strong, flexible and mobile.

The message here is that it’s never too late to start moving and no matter where you start, you can improve.  It might take some time – maybe longer than you thought it would – and there may be moves that will continue to elude you, but if you stick with it you will make progress.   As I’ve often said throughout these blog posts, the hard part is starting.  Once you start you’re already making progress.  After that, the only obstacle standing in your way is you.  In her foreword to the book, Justice Ginsburg talks about the demands of her job.  Yet she prioritizes her workout.  When the time comes, she sets everything aside and maintains her commitment to her body and, ultimately, her health.

As Mr. Johnson says, if Justice Ginsburg can do it so can you!  Maybe not in the same way that she does, but if you can move and breathe there is still a level of exercise that each of us can manage.   The terms “balance”, “strength” and “flexibility” have multiple meanings.  Balance is not just about standing on one foot, but also about maintaining a balance in your life.  If one aspect of your life starts to overwhelm all the others, stress will result and your body will react.  Exerting strength will help you maintain the discipline you need to take care of yourself.  And flexibility will help you to go with the flow when life takes a turn you hadn’t planned on.  All of these qualities are part of what you will build when you commit to movement.

So next time you’re tempted to blow off your workout because you think something else is more important, remember that all the systems in your body are depending on you to keep them running.  All the important things in your life need you to be functioning at your best.  You’re no good to anyone if you can’t function.  Help yourself to be the best that you can be!