Everything inside your body is moving. Your heart pumps, blood flows, lungs expand and contract, eyes roll, eardrums vibrate, atoms dance, and neurons fire. As a result, you walk, reach out and touch the world around you, stretch yourself, and dance. Movement is a sign of life. Seriously inhibit the movement of limbs and organs, and you encourage illness. Stop motion altogether and you are dead. Allow yourself to move as fully as possible both within and without, and you realize wellness.
Since the Industrial Revolution, life has changed dramatically. People no longer chop wood and carry water. Earning a livelihood generally involves sitting for long hours at a computer terminal or in an automobile, or standing behind a counter or at an assembly line. With rare exception, people’s requirements to move vigorously are few. Cars, buses, trains, planes, telephones, computers, overnight parcels, and fax machines do it for them.
Is the U.S. leading the Western world into an international culture of overweight couch potatoes?
“The labor of the human body is rapidly being engineered out of working life.”
John F. Kennedy
Statistics indicate that the average eighth grader in the U.S. can’t pass a minimal fitness test, and many people think nothing about driving their car to a destination a few blocks away instead of walking. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in most developed countries, and lack of exercise is one of its primary risk factors.
Without exercise at all, as happens when you are confined to bed, the muscles lose 15 percent of their strength for every week of inactivity. So if you lead a sedentary life, chances are that your muscles are weak and therefore more injury prone. But the good news is that this strength can be regained, and the heart can be reconditioned. The body is amazingly resilient. Even years of neglect can be compensated for by a regular program of aerobic physical exercise.
Not Just Jogging
Aerobics is any system of conditioning exercises that increases heart and breathing rates for a sustained period and thus increases the flow of oxygen and blood to all parts of the body. To be effective, the exercise must raise the pulse rate to a certain level (see the following chart) and keep it at that level for not less than twenty minutes. (Note: People who are not in good physical condition should start out with ten minutes at the minimum heart rate and build to twenty minutes at the maximum heart rate.)
Aerobic conditioning benefits the body in many ways. It will decrease intramuscular fat and increase lean muscle, leading to a firmer, stronger body. Aerobic exercise improves circulation; a trained heart is a more efficient pump and therefore doesn’t have to work so hard. This lowered heart rate preserves the heart and lessens its chance of fatiguing prematurely. Aerobics improves absorption and utilization of food; provides overall increases in energy and stamina; encourages more restful sleep; and decreases dependence on addictive substances such as alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Most exercisers report a decrease in nervous tension and depression. And it is now known that exercise causes the release of certain brain chemicals (endorphins and enkephalins) that increase an overall sense of wellbeing.
If you are not in the habit of exercising regularly, you may hear the word “aerobics,” and immediately see visions of thin, tight bodies in coordinated workout gear, or think with dread about running. Don’t be discouraged. A wellness approach to exercise is not that limited.
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Design Your Own Program
Every body is different, and every psyche is different too. If you have resisted exercise in the past but know that it’s time for a change, it is especially important that you design a program you can live with and stay with—a gentle, step-by-step program that will appeal to your fun-loving inner child or provide companionship or quiet time alone, depending on your needs and desires. Jogging or running are definitely not the only ways to move your body. Consider these other forms of aerobic exercise:
- dancing of all kinds (even ballroom dancing can elevate
- swimming and other water programs, including
aerobics for nonswimmers
- walking, walking, walking, walking, walking
- hiking and climbing<
- skipping, jumping rope, or jumping on a trampoline
- calisthenics and weight training
- tennis and other ball sports
- using indoor equipment like stationary bikes,
treadmills, or rowing machines
But if the dance of the run isn’t fun then discover another dance because without fun the good of the run is undone and a suffering runner always quits sooner or later.
Choose one or more forms of aerobic exercise that you think you will enjoy and try them out. You know which exercise form you are more likely to stay with. Avoid setting yourself up for failure and disappointment by forcing yourself to be brave or strong about your exercise. Taking a vigorous walk around your block every day is infinitely more beneficial than dreaming about doing a triathlon.
- Don’t be in a hurry. It takes time to recondition your heart. Before starting a program, we recommend a physical exam and an EKG, especially if you are over forty. Make realistic goals for yourself and reward every effort. Promise yourself small, healthy treats for accomplishing, or even approximating, your goals.
- Regular exercise is imperative. Three times a week, your exercise should maintain your training pulse rate for at least fifteen minutes. (See the preceding chart.) Block out exercise time in your weekly calendar. Call a friend and exercise together. Keep a daily log of your progress. Do anything and everything that will keep you moving.
- Always start your exercise with warm-ups, and complete it with a cooling-down period that includes some stretching.
- Avoid imitation. Learn from the pros but don’t hold yourself back by comparing yourself with them. Treasure your own uniqueness. And deal cautiously with competition—even if it’s with yourself. Let yourself lose, or win, graciously.
- Follow spontaneous impulses and use every means available to stay inspired. When the urge to move arises, seize it. Close the office door and jump rope, or hang up the phone and run around the house.
- Breathe. Inhale as your movements expand, exhale as they contract or move back to center. You are overexerting if you can’t talk comfortably as you exercise, or if your heart rate is not back to 120, or less, five minutes after completing your exercise. Normal breathing should return within ten minutes after exertion.
- If pain starts, stop. Honor your body’s natural warning system, especially in the beginning. Danger signs that you should stop exercising include faintness, dizziness, nausea, tightness or pain in the chest, severe shortness of breath, or loss of muscle control.
- Whatever you’re doing—dance it. Practice moving from the inside out, smoothly, as if you were dancing, and the sense of rightness and connectedness that follows will make exercising a pleasant experience.
When exercising outdoors, dance with the earth as you move on it.
Two Exercise Breaks
- Take a walk. Walk briskly for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Start out at the rate of approximately three miles (five kilometers) per hour. Move your whole body. Don’t be embarrassed to swing your arms as you walk; this will create a massaging action on the lymph glands in your armpits and stimulate the natural detoxifying function of these glands. Enjoy looking around at your environment as you walk along. Listen to the birds and smell the flowers.
- Join the dance. You may be surprised at how easy and joyful movement can be. The following exercise gets you dancing in a way that is energizing and fun. Read the directions over once or twice before you begin so you won’t have to stop once the movement starts. Here’s what to do:
Build up the length of time you spend walking. Increase it by five minutes a week until you can easily walk two miles in thirty-five minutes if you are a woman, and in twenty-eight minutes if you are a man. What could be a simpler way to start your aerobic conditioning than to do something you’ve been doing all your life? People are increasingly turning to walking as their preferred form of exercise because it is so much easier on the legs than running, and because there is no need for special equipment except a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
- Play a recording of a slow, gentle piece of music, or tune your radio to a classical or easy listening station. Then close your eyes and simply listen to the music for a few minutes. Breathe it in.
- Begin to move by directing your attention to your right hand, and start to tap or stretch those fingers in any way that the music suggests. Allow the movement to extend, encompassing your wrist as well. Keep doing this simple movement for a while. Then direct your attention to the left hand and do the same. Imagine that you are directing an orchestra, or splashing in water, or molding a piece of clay to represent what you are hearing. Play with the sound. Next, engage your right arm, and then your left, allowing yourself to move from your shoulders to the tips of your fingers. How many different ways can you find to bend them, to position them, to move them in unison or in opposition?
- Keep your arms and hands going, doing whatever they want to, as you now pay attention to your head. Let the music direct it. Conduct the symphony with a baton that extends from the center of your forehead, from the crown, from your chin.
- Your upper body now wants to get into the act. Concentrate on your middle section. Allow yourself to bend and sway from the waist in any way that feels good. Pretend that your whole body consists of the area from your waist to your head; forget the rest. Let your hips and pelvis join in the movement only when you are ready for them. Careful here; they will want to take over.
- Imagine yourself as a tree in the wind. Your roots are firm. Only your branches and upper trunk sway. Be a fettered bird wanting to escape, but restrained by a silver thread. Fantasize that you are a belly dancer, write your name with an imaginary pencil that extends from your left hip. Write “I love you” with the imaginary pencil.
- Unlock your knees and move your legs without lifting your feet. Challenge yourself with how many ways you can direct your legs, ways that you never tried before. Pretend that you are scientifically cataloguing all the
possible combinations of movement that legs can make. Keep your feet still until you can’t stand it a minute longer. Go within yourself and note what every part of your body feels like. Imagine your blood cells dancing, your oxygen dancing, and your energy dancing.
- Now let go completely and allow yourself to move totally—head, arms, belly, pelvis, legs, feet. Surprise!
Want another exercise? Try a different, perhaps more active, piece of music.
Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.
The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.