This article will explore the following weight loss and exercise approaches as they relate to health and nutrition and the mind/body connection:
- physical cues of stress;
- ways to release physical tension;
- developing a memory of a relaxed mind/body state;
- using awareness of muscle tension and relaxation along with postures to alter thoughts and feelings;
- monitoring a fitness program, distinguishing stretching from straining or forcing muscles; and
- using mindful stretching exercises to elicit the relaxation response.
The mind and body are interconnected. As thoughts affect the body, so too changes in the body have been shown to shape thoughts, feelings, and even body chemistry. A change in mood may haave triggered feelings, emotions, and alterations in body chemistry. The posture of facial muscles, a smile, can intiate a cascade of linked reactions and demonstrate the utility of being aware of the body and and the phenomenon of the mind/body connection.
Awareness contributes to survival. For example, Eskimos have many diferent words to describe snow, making fine distinctions between, say, old granulated snow and very old granulated snow. Because they understand subtle characteristics of snow and ice, the Eskimo can survive in an environment hostile to those less aware. Your hostile envirnment is not snow, but it demands a similar alertness from the person. They need to understand the subtle characteristics of the internal and external environment. The internal environment has to do with how the body reacts–where for example, the person feels tension in their body, or what their stressful automatic thoughts are. Their external environment involves the particular trigger for stress–a traffic jam, long lines at the supermarket, or seeing the mess in a family member’s room.
Awareness of Body Feedback
High-tech devices called biofeedback monitors measure the various physical effects that stress and relaxation have on the body (heart rate, skin temperature, or blood pressure). However, the body has an innate biofeedback system. The first step in learning to use it is to become aware of the body.
The body constantly responds to natural feedback. Consider messages (biofeedback) regarding hunger and fatigue: when a person feels hungry they seek out food; when a person is tired, they rest. There are, also, times when someone may choose to disregard these physical cues. For example, someone may choose not to go to bed, despite exhaustion, in order to finish a project and meet a deadline. A person constantly receives messages from their body which they interpret and respond to, choosing the course of action based on internal and external demands.
Unfortunately, many people never have been trained to pay close attention to their bodies, or have learned to ignore many of its cues. For example, people commonly try to cope with pain by ignoring it. Although ignoring andeven denying bodily signals can be a useful coping strategy in the short run, the result of not being aware of your body is limiting and can be harmful. Recalling times when someone has injured themselves because they did not attend to their body’s messages to rest a sore muscle or to get more sleep brings this certain analogy into a modern focus on physical fitness and wellness.
In a personal trainer program, often the trainer finds that people feel disconnected from their bodies. They identify with their mind and its intellectual processes, but have little awareness of their body and the messages it is feeding back to them. One participant in a behavioral medicine clinic said that until coming to work with a personal trainer, he thought his body was a pedastal for his head. Little wonder he had physical symptoms of illness.
By developing an awareness of the body, a person can become their own biofeedback monitor. The choices regarding the day-to-day necessities of eating and sleeping will become clearer, and the person will, also, attain an understanding of the more subtle signals of their body. They can then better interpret and respond to them, choosing the most appropriate course of action.
Training in body awareness, as well as in stretching and exercises to elicit the relaxation response, are important tools for gaining understanding and influence in fitness and well-being. Just as radios, violins, and cars must be tuned to perform well, so too the body and mind require and benefit from attention and refinement.
In asking the person to pay attention to their body in a new way, we seek to develop distinctions which will increase their understanding of their body and the messages it sends to them. Another name for this awareness is presence.
The Present of Presence
Some young children at play are completely absorbed, enthusiastic, and energetic; they have an astonishing ability to focus wareness on tasks. This power of undistracted observation allows them to learn quickly and easily, and it exemplifies presence, or awareness of what is happening in the moment. The practice of mindfullness (or eliciting the relaxation response) is a way of practicing being present in the moment. Being present with one’s mind/body is, also, an effective tool in weight loss and nutrition and becoming aware of how your body responds and operates.
Learning by Doing: The Body as a Laboratory
Physical activity is a good way to increase awareness. There is wisdom in the Chinese proverb:
I hear, and I forget.
I see, and I remember.
I do, and I understand.
When focusing on the body, the person may have become aware of the discomfort that muscle tension can cause. Less obvious but nonetheless harmful effects of excessive muscle tension include wasted energy, which may lead to fatigue and other symptoms for disease. In addition, stimulation of specific muscles has been shown to have specific and potentially harmful results. In one interesting experiment, subjects were asked to produce facial expressions that resembled a number of emotions. When the individuals shaped their face to resemble negative emotions, their heart and breathing rates increased.
Not all muscle tension is undesirable. The muscles tense naturally as a part of movement. The difficulty occurs when we accumulate excessive muscle tension and retain it for long periods of time. Working with muscle-tension awareness and release is only one part of understanding the connection between your mind and body. There are strong linkages between movement and meaning.
Educating the Mind/Body
Remember that the patterns of tension are not who someone is, but rather how they have learned to hold their body. Even if the person has held patterns of tension for forty years or more, they are not that tension. Patterns of tension are something the person has learned, and, therefore, they are something the person can relearn. Even bones reshape and realign themselves based on the patterns of use. Such a fixed part of the body can and does change, and the habits of tension can change, also.
In the 1900′s, the pioneering experts on relaxation techniques stressed the value of identifying muscle tension in order to release it and improve both physical and emotional conditions. Famous for developing the techniques of progressive muscle relaxation, medical experts did a great deal of research and clinical work showing that thoughts and imagination stimulate affiliated muscles. Special techniques for relaxation can ease this muscular tension. For example, when a subject is asked to imagine lifting an arm, corresponding muscle stimulation occurred which subsequently subsided with thoughts of relaxation. In other research, experimenters found that when muscles relaxed, emotions subsided. In the 1950′s, researchers used electromyographic equipment to measure the motor portion of the nervous system. The scientists found a correlation between muscle tension and mood; for example, depressed patients have increased muscle activity, but when these tense muscles relax, depression decreases. Further research identified on guard behavior patterns which can be deactivated by relaxation techniques. Many emerging forms of therapy utilizing body massage, breathing, and movement are based on the understanding that decreasing muscle tension changes mental states, thoughts, and even behavior patterns.
Move into Fitness
The following are recommendations to promote a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition:
- the benefits of fitness and an active lifestyle;
- motivation to incorporate physical activity into a daily life;
- guidelines for a successful fitness program;
- how to develop a safe fitness program; and
- using aerobic fitness to elicit the relaxation response.
The simple truth about fitness provides guidelines for healthy people to promote fitness and prevent disease by incorporating physical activity into their lifestyle. The importance of exercise has been recognized for centuries. Numerous studies over the past twenty years confirm that physical activity is associated with an increased risk of disease and disability. Much of this information has been gathered from studying the activity levels of various populations. Heart studies, which included a broad spectrum of people, was instrumental in linking a sedentary lifestyle to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.
The long list of disorders linked to a sedentary lifestyle includes other cardiovascular diseases, obesity, osteoporosis (brittle bones), and back problems. A sedentary lifestyle is, also, associated with the inability to cope effectively with stress, increased risk of depression, decreased work productivity, and increased absenteeism from work. Generally speaking, people who focus on fitness regularly, or who naturally include physical activity in their daily routine, feel better mentally and physically, and positively influence the quality and length of their lives.
The problem is that modern, mechanized lifestyles have become too sedentary for our physiology, which evolved to prepare us for physical exertion. Until recently, our daily survival depended on a fair amount of physical fitness. Today, however, one need not be physically fit to drive a car, ride an elevator, hire someone to cut the grass or rake leaves, or go to the supermarket to forage for dinner. Today more people who do not focus on fitness have many excuses that overpower their intent and motivation. Familiar excuses include the following:
- do not have time;
- do not like discomfort;
- do not like to sweat;
- look bad in shorts;
- procrastinating until tomorrow;
- the weather is bad;
- it is too much like work; and
- it is boring.
People, also, shy away from fitness because of certain basic misconceptions such as the following:
- makes one tired;
- takes too much time to make a difference;
- no pain, no gain;
- have to be athletic;
- the older one is, the less fitness the person needs; and
- all types of fitness programs result in the same benefit.
Focusing regularly on fitness can help one embrace a more active lifestyle as the person begins to feel better, physically and emotionally. The good news is that the person’s regular, scheduled fitness program need only be of moderate intensity. For example, a brisk walk of thirty-to-sixty minutes three-to-five times a week is a level of fitness attainable by most adults and sufficient to produce the fitness standard that promotes health and decreases risk of disease. No pain, no gain is not really the best approach because pain carries with it the potention for actual injury; if one experiences pain or extreme discomfort, they are exerting too much. Health-promoting gains come with moderation, enjoyment, and consistency.
Thus, inactivity puts one at risk for disease, while physical activity can serve as an essential protective mechanism for fitness. An active lifestyle means incorporating a variety of activities into the person’s daily schedule that ultimately extend the capacity for handling the rigors of daily life.
A complete approach to physical fitness includes activities and programs that improve endurance, strength, and flexibility, as well as body awareness. Using this approach, ne can increase the ability to work for longer periods of time without undue fatigue, and with less muscular stress and strain, and, also, develop an awareness of activity-tolerance that helps one prevent potential injury.
Improved appearance is probably one of the greatest rewards and pleasant side effects of an fitness program. The body is gradually reshaped as the person tones muscle and burns fat. As they increase the percentage of lean body mass (muscle and bone) and decrease the percentage of body fat, their muscles elongate and strengthen while fatty buldges diminish. As one begins to notice and feel good about the changes, their friends’ compliments will further enhance their self-esteem.
When trying to lose weight, the person should be losing fat weight. Approximately 50 percent of modern adults are overweight, or, more accurately, over-fat. Most have failed to lose weight and keep it off. Most have not committed themselves to exercise in their weight-lossprogram. With fitness planning, the person not only burns calories (and fat), but they, also, raise their metabolism for extended periods of time after their fitness program is completed. This means they burn more calories (store less fat) than ever before with regular daily activities.
The best way to lose fat weight and keep it off is to combine nutritious eating with an fitness program that emphasizes prolonged duration, increased frequency, and moderate intensity. Add to this calisthenics and moderate weight training that tone major muscle groups and the person will have an excellent formula for increasing their potential to burn calories and lose fat. The key to normalizing body fatness is long-term adherence and permanent lifestyle changes; it cannot be achieved by crash dieting or short-term, high-intensity fitness trials.
Aerobic and Anaerobic Fitness
Now that the person has gained some of the benefits of regular physical activity, the next step is to plan a realistic and attainable fitness program. There are two basic types of exertion: aerobic (requires oxygen) and anaerobic (does not require oxygen). Aerobic exertion (jogging) elevates the heart rate through sustained activity of moderate intensity. Anaerobic exertion (push-ups) is quick or of very high intensity. Both offer signficant benefits.
The key difference between these two types of fitness programs are the following:
- fuel source, and
- intensity and duration.
Any exertion that lasts only a short period of time or is of very high intensity is anaerobic and burns mostly glucose (sugar) stored in your muscles and liver. The initial burst of activity that begins all exertion is anaerobic. As exertion increases in duration and becomes moderate in intensity, aerobic metabolism dominates and a greater percentage of the fuel used comes from fat (fat being what one most wants to lose for weight loss).
Most forms of exertion are some combination of aerobic and anaerobic. Circuit training–circulating among different fitness machines and stations (Nautilus) doing high-frequency repetitions against low-resistance weights–is a good example of exertion with both aerobic and anaerobic components. Sports such as tennis, basketball, and racquetball are, also, examples of activities with both aerobic and anaerobic components. Marathon running is a good example of exertion that is close to 100 percent aerobic, and running the hundred-yard dash is close to 100 percent anaerobic.
The following are some good choices for each kind of exertion:
- aerobics; and
- cross-country skiing.
- weight lifting;
- sprinting (running or swimming); and
- calisthenics (push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups).
A well-balanced fitness program (cross training) involves doing various types of exertion throughout the week. For example, during one week one could bicycle twice, swim once, and do calisthenics followed by a brisk walk. One may want to add in a game of tennis or go for a hike with friends. A cross-training program increases total body fitness, decreases risk of injury from exertion, and improves long-term compliance by alleviating boredom and maintaining challenge. (Cross-training is different from circuit training. Circuit training is a particular type of exertion that allows one to train different muscle groups in the same way, thus increasing overall muscle strength and endurance. One can use circuit training as part of their cross-training experience.)
The key to aerobic exertion is raising your heart rate to a calculated target level and keeping it there with moderate exertion. It does not mean exercising as hard as possible for as long as possible, nor does it mean hours of time. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week, at a comfortable pace is the minimum one needs to do, and it is a good place to start.
Aerobic exertion brings cardiovascular benefits that decrease the risk of heart disease, such as lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure, losing fat, and increasing circulation to one’s heart and muscles. Anaerobic exertion improves and maintains strength, flexibility, and speed, but by itself it cannot produce the desired cardiovascular benefits. Fitness specialists recommend that for a complete approach to fitness, 70-to-80 percent of one’s total fitness time be devoted to aerobic fitness, with the remaining 20-to-30 percent spent on anaerobic fitness.
Your intensity of exertion is monitored by two key parameters: heart rate and perceived exertion. If the person is healthy, with no history of cardiovascular disease or other medical illness, and has no physical disability such as a bad back or knee problems, the person can use these parameters to gauge their own fitness program. However, if the person has known cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal problems, they should consult with a physician or fitness specialist before developing a fitness program. A comfortable, moderate intensity level balances the two.