Category Archives: Physical Fitness

My Home Gym

As noted in an earlier post, my exercise habit took a substantive hit when we all went into COVID-19 lockdown. I got back on the wagon though the purchase of an inexpensive mini-stepper device, resistance bands, and some good advice from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. I’ve since made a substantive addition to my home gym.

PelotonMy husband and I purchased a Peloton exercise cycle a year ago with money from my mother’s estate. The unit was installed on her birthday, and I think about her every time I use it! My nephew got us excited about Peloton through the witness of he experience with it. He lost 40 pounds and got in the best shape of his life! Cycling classes are available from a variety of instructors for all skill levels. If those classes float your boat, you can take virtual cycling rides all over the world while listening to music. In both cases, the rider sets the amount of time for the workout. I can also use my monthly membership for strength training, pilates, stretching, yoga, meditation, and other classes.

resistance bandsI’ve had great success with resistance bands for strength training. (I’d been concerned that they wouldn’t be all that effective.) I’ve got the perfect door jambs in which to anchor the bands when doing upper and lower body strength training. The bands enable me to add resistance flexibly when a particular exercise becomes too easy. Friends and family have taken note of the positive changes in my body. And it all came with a very modest investment and the convenience of working out at home.

I still miss the gym – the range of equipment offered and the fellowship of classmates. But I’ve come to really appreciate the value of my home gym.

For one thing, it’s much easier to combat the loud and persistent voice inside my head that doesn’t feel like working out. I hear it every single day. And every single day I have to tell it to be quiet and just get on with the day’s fitness routine. Once I get going, it pretty much shuts up absent the occasional thought: “Do we really have to do all of the exercises? Having a home gym makes things easier. I don’t have the added hurdle of driving to a gym, thereby taking a weapon away from the devil on my shoulder. Everything is right here. I just have to do it.

I can choose the time of day when I exercise without worrying about how busy the gym might be or how much traffic there might be getting there. And it’s easy to break up an hour long strength training set into two pieces if my schedule makes it convenient to do so. Sometimes, it’s what I do to appease the part of me that doesn’t want to do it: “Just get half done now and will do the rest later!”

I have several options at the house to keep me entertained while doing my workout. The lively music and commentary on the Peloton spin classes make the time go fast. But if I’m not in the mood, I can just ride while reading a book in my delightfully quiet exercise room. For stretch and strength training, I generally listen to music on my Echo Dot or stream a podcast. My favorite podcasts these days include The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos, Choiceology with Dr. Katy Milkman, and A Slight Change of Plans with Dr. Maya Shankar.

I’ve still got my little stepper in case I feel like staying a bit active while watching TV. It’s really handy when I’m feeling a little sleepy and need a short workout to get the juices flowing.

Skeletal Alignment Matters

I have a cranky right knee. I’ve had it for years. On occasion, the left knee gets in on the pain action, but it pales in comparison to the right. My right shoulder gets a little cranky now and then, too. In times past, when the pain reached a level that impaired normal activities, I’d head to the doctor or physical therapist to get some help. I’d pursue the recommended course of action until the pain subsided and then go back to business as usual.

Though I’ve tried to exercise throughout my adult life, time spent sitting at a desk or conference room table and watching TV or reading at day’s end far outpaced time spent in motion. The temptation to veg out after a hard day often won out over the better angels encouraging a trip to the gym. I wasn’t alone. The CDC estimates that fewer than 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 18 meets the Physical Activity Guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. Along with other health-related maladies, a general lack of activity combined with poor posture can cause the body’s skeletal frame to get out of alignment.

skeletal alignmentThe spine and joints provide the infrastructure on which soft tissues hang. They also enable us to perform a range of motion – bending, twisting, turning to the right or left, lifting legs and arms, etc. The optimal frame envisions a spine that stands perpendicular to the ground and shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle joints parallel to the ground. It also contemplates flexible joints that support a full range of motion. Our Western lifestyles renders many of us bent out of shape:

  • Shoulders and/or hips hitched forward
  • Back swayed with belly forward
  • Twisted with one shoulder and/or hip forward and lower than the other
  • Stiff jointed

My brother put me on to The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion by Pete Egoscue. As an anatomical functionalist, Pete conducted the research and developed the exercises to transform our “bent and broken” bodies back to their natural state of health. He says:

“We must learn to recognize that the pain we feel, the stiffness, lack of energy, the poor balance, the erratic concentration, or the inability to hit the long ball or short putt aren’t caused by the passing years, a second-rate golf club, or a bad day at the office. These are symptoms of dysfunction brought on by lack of motion.”

To that end, his book provides a brief education on skeletal alignment, discusses the common ways in which we become unhinged, and provides exercises to ameliorate our maladies. It also provides a testimonial by famed golfer Jack Nicklaus.

After reading the book, I opted to get a detailed evaluation by an Egoscue Specialist 6 years ago. He took photos of my front, back, and sides and overlayed markers showing what optimal alignment looks like. I was shocked by how twisty my frame had become! We also also discovered that my joints were quite stiff. My right hip was especially troublesome which explained the extra force placed on my right knee. He sent me home with an array of exercises that worked on my whole body, not just the parts that were achy.

We worked together for nearly three years as I gradually got my good old bones back into alignment. Visits were frequent at the start and tapered off as I got into better and better shape. I was also able to add aerobic and strength training activities without fear of pain or pulling my frame out of shape again. It has made a world of difference. I rarely miss my daily Egoscue exercises. My success prompted my husband to get on board with similarly good results.

I still have vulnerable body parts that are the product of nonreversible wear and tear. But I rarely have moments where pain intrudes on the activities I’ve planned. And, as I’ll cover in a later post, I make sure to incorporate lots of movement in my daily activities!

Why We’ve Taken Up Square Dancing

My opening post on Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Neuroscience was intended to inspire readers to become lifelong learners for the sake of sustaining healthy brains. Having witnessed firsthand my father’s struggle with dementia and my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, I’m quite serious about cognitive exercise. My husband is on that bandwagon, too. Square dancing has become our latest adventure.

Square dancing came to America with European settlers and originally took the form of memorized sequences of steps. When African slaves provided music for dances, they began calling out the steps, a practice that became commonplace by the early 1900s. Beginning in the 1930s, an educator by the name of Lloyd Shaw codified the steps and calls to make the dance more accessible to new dancers. It gained in popularity between the 1940s and 1960s, gaining a boost with the folk music revolution.

Here’s how it works:

A square dance involves four couples arranged in a square facing the middle of the square with one couple on each side. A caller provides instructions from a standard collection of roughly 70 moves to which the dancers respond. The moves have variations that can be invoked from a variety of formations. Most calls take between 4 and 32 beats. The caller may provide the instructions as an overlay to a lively instrumental piece or may work them into a vocal performance of a given tune. In either case, dancers must be on alert to hear the calls, watch their fellow dancers, and execute the correct steps.

square dancingMy husband and I had some exposure to square dancing as grammar school students, but that was a LONG time ago. Fortunately, the local area’s square dancing clubs offer a series of 10 lessons covering the basics. Their members volunteer as “angels” to help the newbies get acquainted with the calls and moves. These experienced dancers model the correct form and provide gentle nudges and tugs to help us get in the right places at the right times.

Even though I’ve had a fair bit of dance training and am a reasonably quick study, I really have to pay attention to figure out what’s coming next and remember what I’m supposed to do. I’ve also found that I need to do a little bit of homework between classes to reinforce what I have learned. Fortunately, there’s a great on-line tool called “Taminations” that provides written instructions and animations to help me visualize the steps and my parts in them. Hats off to my husband for whom this exercise is a lot more challenging!

So why do I think square dancing is good for cognitive health?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta identified five key factors that contribute to a healthy brain: exercise, learning, sleep, diet, and socialization. Square dancing ticks off three of the five boxes. Dancing in any form involves movement, and square dancing is no exception. Classes and scheduled dances generally last 2 hours with just a few short breaks to catch a breath and chat. As noted earlier, this particular form of dance demands careful attention to receive and act on the latest instruction. While particularly challenging for newbies, it continues to demand concentration even for those who’ve been dancing for years. And we’ve found the square dancing community to be warm and welcoming – a very good resource for social connection!

Top 10 Reasons to Exercise

The weather in Beaverton has been glorious these past few weeks – albeit a bit on the hot side. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to work in a daily 45 minute vigorous walk using my portable stair master as a back-up when things are less hospitable outdoors. So, as inspiration for myself and others, I thought I’d list the Top 10 reasons why exercise is so important for good health.

jogger#1: Exercise supports brain health. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a regular fitness routine is the single most important lifestyle factor for a healthy brain. Exercise promotes cerebral blood flow which delivers vital nutrients to our brain cells while reducing inflammation. It encourages the release of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that supports the health of new neurons, the recruitment of blood vessels for neural activity, and the survival of all neurons. Exercise also accelerates repair mechanisms for damaged brain cells, speeding up recovery after injury, stroke, or significant emotional stress.

#2: Exercise enhances brain function. Physically fit individuals manifest healthier white matter – i.e., the bundles of nerve fibers through which messages pass between different areas of gray matter. Healthy white matter correlates with sharper minds, better memory, improved reasoning, and increased efficiency in consolidating new information.

#3: Exercise improves cardiovascular function. Regular cardio-based physical activity trains the heart to push out more blood per beat, thereby functioning more efficiently. It encourages the heart to improve blood flow to the small vessels around it which, in turn, discourages build-up of fatty deposits. And with consistent workouts, the heart performs better under stress and recovers more quickly after exercise.

#4 Exercise keeps the blood healthy. When we’re sedentary, our blood circulation slows and our cells use less fuel (i.e., blood sugar). Elevated blood sugar may give rise to insulin resistance, a condition associated with elevated risk of stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and other potentially lethal conditions. When motionless, our bodies shut down production of the lipoprotein lipase which breaks down circulating fat molecules in the blood. They also do a poor job of regulating the satiety hormone leptin, thereby confounding the biological signal that tells us to stop eating.

#5 Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and increases muscle mass. For most of us, bone density peaks in our thirties. Absent intervention, it ebbs away progressively thereafter. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise (e.g., walking, jogging, stair climbing) can inhibit bone loss. Site-specific strength training and high impact endurance training increase bone density. Exercising also improves muscle strength, coordination, and balance which guard against falls and related fractures. These findings should be of particular interest for older adults!

#6: Exercise improves immune function. The body’s lymphatic system takes responsibility for removing bacteria, viruses, toxins, and abnormal cells. Lymphatic fluid transports waste in the lymphatic vessels and carries it to the lymph nodes to be neutralized by immune cells. The resulting waste enters the blood stream where it heads for the kidneys and elimination through urine. When we move our muscles and get our heart rates up, we stimulate the lymphatic system and increase the speed at which it removes waste. This action helps prevent infection and disease.

#7: Exercise promotes healthy bowels. It increases contractions of the intestinal lining and colon, leading to shorter transit times for processed waste. Exercise has also been associated with elevated microbiome diversity and reduced intestinal wall permeability.

#8: Exercise reduces stress. It increases serum beta-endorphin concentrations which exert positive effects on mood, pain perception, and the stress response. Exercise helps us relax and gain a fresh perspective on whatever is going on with our lives.

#9: Exercise promotes restorative sleep. It tires us out physically and increases the drive for sleep. We gain a similar effect through sustained movement in the course of daily activities – e.g., housework, cooking, gardening, standing while working at a desk, and walking/biking as modes of transportation. (I’ve demonstrated this effect repeatedly and reveled in the good night’s sleep!)

#10: Exercise encourages maintenance of a healthy weight. Exercise increases the rate at which we burn calories in the moment. It also amps up our metabolism which helps us burn calories at a faster rate even when the body is at rest. And when we feel better about ourselves and our bodies, we’re far more likely to make nutritious food choices and far less likely to overeat.

How I Jump-Started My Exercise Habit

Although I’ve been fairly consistent with exercise most of my life, I fell off the bandwagon during the COVID quarantine. My gym closed which disrupted my weekly routine. My yoga studio switched to virtual classes which just didn’t float my boat. An old knee injury flared up and put the brakes on vigorous walks in the hills. And, quite frankly, I just got bummed out and lost my drive to do anything.

I started finding my way back to healthy habits when reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits a few months ago. (Read my blog post.) Based on the author’s three layers of behavioral change, I declared the following:

  1. Goals: I will commit to 20 minutes of daily stretching, 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise, and strength training for upper and lower body on alternating days
  2. Process: I will attend to my stretching routine as soon as I get out of bed. I will use home-based equipment to address my aerobic and strength training needs.
  3. Identity: I am a health conscious person for whom proper diet and exercise are cornerstones of my life.

portable stair-stepperOut of an abundance of caution, I decided to work my way up to 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise. I didn’t want my knee to get cranky again, and I wanted to remove barriers to getting back into a daily routine. I purchased a portable stair-stepper and tasked myself with a 10 minute workout the first week. I added 2 minutes to the daily workout with each passing week. As of next week, I’ll be up to the full 30 minutes!

For strength training, I’ve combined floor exercises with exercise bands. My current regimen clearly does not rise to the level of weight training at the gym, but it’s getting me back in the habit of working my muscles daily. Once I’m immunocompetent (thank you COVID vaccine!), I may reactivate my gym membership.

I’ve also adopted the Atomic Habits’ advice for establishing good habits:

  • Make it obvious: My home gym equipment sits on the coffee table in our living room. Because I walk through that room multiple times a day, I get repeated visual reminders that I need to log my time. Admittedly, it disrupts the aesthetic appeal of the room, but it’s not like we’re doing much entertaining these days!
  • Make it attractive: I listen to podcasts while doing my morning stretch. I watch TV while taking care of my aerobic and strength training exercises. I find that when I’m entertained, the time flies.
  • Make it easy: I have everything I need to fulfill my daily exercise requirements right under my own roof. I don’t have to drive anywhere to take care of it. I don’t have to coordinate my time with anyone else. I just gotta do it.
  • Make it satisfying: I keep a daily log on my desktop to record progress. I am happy to report that I have stuck to my plan without exception for 65 days and counting. It’s gratifying to see all those checked boxes, and I’m motivated to maintain an unbroken chain.

I’ll continue to modify my exercise program to ratchet up my overall fitness. However, I’ll make sure that I can and will sustain whatever I add to the menu. As the tortoise showed the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

Yep… We Really Need to Exercise

“Regular exercise of the type that elevates heart rate is the single most useful thing you can do to maintain your cognitive ability as you age.”
– Drs. Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

All of my life, I’ve heard the diet-and-exercise mantra for weight loss. I’ve been told that dieting alone isn’t a good idea. It makes the body think there’s a famine, so it automatically dials down its metabolic requirements to adjust for the reduced caloric intake. Exercise provides the counterbalance that forces the body to keep its metabolic fires burning. But how exactly does that work?

joggingDigital readouts on aerobic equipment draw our attention to the number of calories burned during workouts. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Exercise increases cellular mitochondria. These microscopic organelles generate energy by metabolizing sugars, fats, and other chemical fuels. They’re certainly on the job when I’m expending energy at the gym. But they’re also working hard in my behalf while I’m at rest. By increasing their strength and numbers, I’m burning extra calories 24 hours a day. Once I reach my ideal body mass, they give me the freedom to add healthy food to my daily diet.

Unfortunately, the bathroom scale may not reward the diet-and-exercise regimen. Lean muscle weighs more than fat. So I could easily drop inches while maintaining (or even gaining) a bit of weight. Fluid retention also confounds the readout from the bathroom scale. That’s why I like to get a full body scan on a fancy-schmancy scale periodically to get a better sense of changes in my lean muscle mass, body fat, and water weight.

Of course, my panel of experts (listed below) would be quick to remind me that diet is about weight, and exercise is about health. There are many more reasons to exercise than just slimming down:

Exercise is heart healthy. It strengthens the heart muscle while lowering plaque-forming cholesterol.

Exercise improves digestion. It puts the lid on overeating through improved leptin signaling. (Leptin tells the brain when the body is full.) It increases the liver’s Krebs cycle to help it burn energy cleaner. It improves insulin sensitivity to support fuel storage in the cells.

Exercise improves lymphatic flow. The lymphatic system disposes of cellular waste, fights infections, and helps maintain body fluids. Because it lacks its own pump (a la the heart for the circulatory system), it needs physical activity to help move things along.

Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain and fortifies neural networks. It expands the size of the memory center, spurs the generation of new brain cells, makes neurons more nimble, and supports multi-tasking abilities. Exercise is essential for healthy aging. In one study, elderly people who exercised 20 minutes per day for 24 weeks demonstrated substantially better memory, language ability, and attention than their sedentary counterparts.

Exercise reduces stress and releases endorphins. It calms the fight-or-flight response (if present) and elevates mood. It can be an effective antidote to anxiety and/or depression.

Exercise activates genes linked to longevity. It is associated with a significant uptick in telomerase, the enzymes that repair damage and stimulate growth in our telomeres. Telomeres reside at the end of our chromosomes and make sure that our DNA strands remain intact. They shorten with age and other stressors. Cells cannot reproduce when their telomeres become unsustainably short.

The experts tell us that exercise must be consistent to confer benefit. Most suggest a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous effort several times per week. Variety improves effectiveness. For example, cross-training and high intensity interval training have been associated with greater mitochondrial production and longer telomeres. Some benefits also accrue to those who regularly participate in actions of daily living – e.g., cooking, doing dishes, cleaning, gardening.

I’m not fond of exercise, but it sure does the body, mind, and spirit good!

 

Panel of Experts:

  • Sandra Aamodt, PhD and Sam Wang, PhD – Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, ©2008
  • Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and Elissa Epel, PhD – The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, ©2017
  • Jeffrey S. Bland, MD – The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, Happier Life, ©2014
  • Robert H. Lustig, MD – Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, ©2012
  • David Perlmutter, MD – Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brian’s Silent Killers, ©2013

Why Exercise is Good for the Brain

Most of us can recite the reasons why exercise is good for our bodies. Aerobic exercise strengthens our cardiovascular system and raises our metabolic rates. An elevated metabolism burns more calories which helps us maintain a healthy weight. Load-bearing exercise (a.k.a. “pumping iron”) builds muscles and strengthens bones. And a daily dose of vigorous exercise can help us sleep better at night. In SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John J. Ratey, MD gives us yet another reason to move. Exercise gets our brains to function at peak efficiency.

ready to learnTwo innovative school districts served as “demonstration plots” for the mind-body connection in active fitness programs. Teachers reported that when students in the Naperville IL or Titusville PA school districts completed a mile run:

  • They went to class alert, focused, and ready to learn.
  • They were less fidgety, tense, and moody.
  • They felt more motivated and invigorated.
  • They outperformed peers who did not participate in a fitness regimen.

The last point merits special attention. Naperville’s District 203 students placed among the highest echelons of students academically in the U.S. and abroad. Some dismissed these results given Naperville’s favorable socioeconomic standing (although District 203 compared favorably to schools with comparable demographics). Titusville serves an underprivileged population. Their students went from below average performance statewide to 17% above average in reading and 18% above average in math. Moreover, they experienced a near absence of fist fights. Both districts also reported very low rates of childhood obesity.

For the record, Physical Education (PE) at Naperville and Titusville isn’t the “stand around and wait your turn to bat a ball” kind of fitness. Nor is it a one-size-fits-all program. Kids are encouraged to find an activity they enjoy with the right level of effort to elevate their heart rates to their target zones. If kids like wall climbing, they climb walls (and enjoy their classmates’ cheers and encouragement while doing it). If they’re slow runners but manage to get their heart rates up, they’ll receive praise for working at their own paces.

The other end of the age spectrum also provides “demonstration plots.” Among elderly populations, those who are educated, confident in their ability to effect positive change (a.k.a. “self-efficacious”), and exercised exhibit the least cognition decline.

From this launching pad, Dr. Ratey’s book dives into the neuroscience behind the beneficial impact of exercise. Here’s a high-level summary:

  • Exercise elevates neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) responsible for attention, perception, motivation, arousal, and mood.
  • Exercise elevates brain derived neurotropic factors (BDNF) that build and maintain brain circuitry. It strengthens our cellular machinery for learning.
  • Cells sprouted during exercise increase the attraction between neurons and their likelihood to “spark” (a.k.a., long term potentiation or LTP).
  • The most effective form of aerobic exercise calls upon the brain to acquire skills while we move. For example, partner dancing forces the brain to take another person into account. Aerobic classes that change up the patterns of movements also encourage “skill” development.
  • The mild stress of exercise activates genes that produce proteins to protect our brain cells against damage and disease.
  • The heart muscle secrets ANP during exercise which travels through the blood-brain barrier to create a calming effect. It’s an antidote for anxiety and panic attacks.
  • exercise is good for the brainWhile exercise and medication are both effective at treating depression, consistent exercise works better over the long run. In fact, a Duke University study found that every 50-minute installment of weekly exercise reduces the odds of being depressed by 50%.
  • Exercise tricks the brain into maintaining itself for survival despite the hormonal cues that it is aging.

Dr. Ratey’s anti-aging prescription for exercise: 60 minutes of aerobic exercise at least 4x per week; strength training at least 2x per week to build strong bones and ward off osteoporosis; and, 30 minutes of flexibility and balance exercise 2x per week. It may seem rather daunting, but your body and your brain will love you for it!