Physical exercise is essential for an easeful body. Conversely, the onset of disease is often due to the fact that our priorities in daily life have not included the development and maintenance of an easeful body. In this chapter you are challenged to determine what your current attitude to the physical body is, attune to the body and its needs, and then leam how to safely improve your physical fitness, and establish a routine that is both practical and enjoyable for you to follow.
To what extent has your awareness of your physical condition been in response to a deterioration of fitness (e.g. restrictions in your ability to move in ways you once were capable of)? Have you engaged in a dynamic process of actively maintaining or improving your overall level of fitness in the absence of any impairments? For most people who are suffering dis-ease of the body, the message they are being sent is one that has existed on a more subtle level for some time. Because they pay so little attention to the body, the message has to be amplified to a level of dis-ability before it attracts their notice.
The process of disease is similar to a situation in which someone is so busy trying to get somewhere that they take no notice of the last time they put fuel in their car. They ignore the gauge on the dashboard because their priorities and mental orientation are elsewhere, and the car still seems to be going. It is only when the car begins to choke, splutter, lurch, and slow down that the message comes through, by which time the car will not take them anywhere until it receives what it needs. Your body has an instruction manual very similar to that of a vehicle, and requires inspection, service, and tuning to prevent it being disabled and out of action. Unfortunately, the stress and distractions of modem life often lead us to toss this manual on a bookshelf somewhere, with good intentions of getting to it once life makes time for it. What choice does the body have in the face of such neglect but to refuse to take us where we want to go unless we attune to its needs?
As a result of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, as we get older we become more susceptible to arthritis, rheumatism, heart disease, strokes, hypertension, diabetes, persistent or sudden episodes of back pain, and depression. People who have an active fitness plan, combined with the other elements of HELP, can help to reverse this process. You need not be an athlete or to experience the benefits of physical activity; a regular program of stretching, walking, and attunement will help you to improve your health without the need for extensive equipment and elaborate training.
The benefits that you will experience include:
Take a moment to reflect now on what your attitude has been in recent years to the maintenance and care for your physical fitness. Answer the following questions in your journal and refer back to them as they come up time and again in other chapters:
Now, in examining the factors that you have listed as taking precedence over physical fitness, can you find any item on the list that you can do well if you are sick? Of course not! It becomes clear immediately when going through this approach that there really are no excuses not to incorporate an active plan for physical exercise, if only so that you are able to carry out your other priorities in life. You cannot attend to the more “pressing matters” of life and ignore your physical fitness, for if you do become ill, you will be unable to attend at all to these matters.
It is time to reacquaint yourself with your body and learn to respect it. Whatever your current state of health, the body has a remarkable capacity to repair and restore itself when you take the time to nurture it. This does require sensitivity to the needs of the body. A consistent and disciplined approach will complement that sensitivity without you becoming self-absorbed.
Now take time to attune to the body. In order to develop this sensitivity the following procedure is recommended as a regular practice.
Find a quiet and peaceful place in your home and choose a relaxed time of the day, perhaps early morning before the household or neighbors become active, or in the evening after the day’s activities have concluded. Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position, close your eyes, and take in a full and deep breath, following it with a long and relaxed exhalation. Now allow your breathing to follow a deep but relaxed rhythm, and the body to relax with it. Let the mind settle and just be with the breath for a moment.
Ask yourself mentally how the body is feeling at this moment, and scan the body as you visualize the different areas and organs of the body. Is there any part of the body that is sending you subtle signals of tiredness, sluggishness, fatigue, tension, or pain? Take your time to go over the body thoroughly, from the respiratory and digestive systems to the joints and muscles. Experience the body rather than actively thinking about or analyzing it.
Once you have concluded this inner attunement, take a moment to write down any subtle messages you became aware of-both positive and negative. Keep this information as a record in your journal. Record the date and time of each attunement so that you can refer back to it as your body becomes more involved in a disciplined routine, and your awareness is heightened. Record anything and everything that comes up, even if you perceive no signals, either good or bad. This attunement exercise can be done regularly to allow yourself to experience just “being”, as well as monitoring the impact of what you are doing.
Next, you can use this awareness to develop a routine of physical movement that will enhance your overall health. Before embarking on a rigorous program to gain these benefits, you must evaluate your current level of fitness. If you are currently suffering from specific physical ailments such as heart disease, arthritis, respiratory problems, or any major disability, it is always a good idea to clear your proposed fitness program with your health professional. They will be able to evaluate the extent to which the program suits your needs and abilities at this stage.
There are several factors that you should be aware of when developing and carrying out your physical fitness program. The first is the length of time since you last had a regular schedule of physical activity. Keep this in mind when developing your schedule, and build up your capacity slowly if it has been quite some time since you had regular exercise. Always be aware that a gradual daily program which builds up over time as your level of fitness improves is the proper course of action. Avoid intensive programs which once a week tax your system.
Once you have designed an appropriate program, self-monitoring, the second factor, is very important. Begin by discovering your resting pulse rate. To do this follow these steps:
A normal pulse rate, depending on age and disease process, will usually fall between 70 and 80 beats per minute. Athletes will have a much slower rate, possibly being as low as 40. The pulse is a very good indicator of the strength of the heart. As you improve your level of fitness, the slower pulse rate will be a sign of a stronger and more efficient heart.
It is important to determine your target heart rate. The maximum heart rate is about 220 beats per minute, but this decreases with age and lack of fitness. Subtract your age from 220 to find your maximum heart rate. When exercising, your pulse should fall in the range of 60 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. So, if you are 60 years old, your maximum heart rate is 220-60, or 160. Now multiply 160 by 0.6, which equals 96, and 160 by 0.75, which equals 120. If your pulse rate goes above 120, you are pushing yourself too hard; if it falls below 96, you can exercise more vigorously.
The formula is:
Checking your pulse is but one of several indicators which you should keep in mind when working to improve your physical well-being. Evaluate yourself during and after exercise and stretching by asking how the body feels:
Finally, do not hesitate to reduce your routine to one that is challenging but does not go over the fine line into strain and pain. These indicators are there for a reason; do not overrule them hoping they will go away. A slow, enjoyable, regular, and gradual build-up in your capacity is the path to take.
Recent research by Dr Steven Blair confirms that in terms of prolonging life and reducing the chances of disease, a moderate amount of exercise each day, such as walking for 30 minutes per day, will bring almost as much benefit as running 30 to 40 miles (50 to 60 kilometers) a week, when compared to those leading a sedentary lifestyle. So, set realistic and achievable targets that will allow you to keep up a regular practice. Remember, you do not have to run marathons to benefit.
Given the focus on sensitivity to the body and moderation in exercise, your exercise routine should have the following four components: attunement, warm-up phase, continuous rhythmic exercise within your heart range, and cooling-down phase. All four components are equally important and none should be neglected or rushed.
The attunement exercise is the beginning of the routine and involves two minutes of withdrawing your awareness from external distractions such as sounds, other people, smells, and visual objects. Just close the eyes and focus on the breath. Then scan the body and alert yourself to any subtle signals the body may be trying to communicate to you before you engage in your exercise routine. By doing this practice regularly, you can develop your awareness of the internal intelligence of the body and trigger a greater sensitivity to it in order to avoid strain or injury. If a symptom comes up, do not dismiss it but keep it in your awareness so as not to overtax that part of the body during your routine. Mentally try to visualize that part of the body and release any tension or stiffness by relaxing the area and breathing in slowly and deeply. If the symptom persists or gets worse, it will be necessary to explore what may be causing it more actively and perhaps seek the advice of a health professional. By attuning to these signals on a subtle level, we can often avoid injury.
The warm-up phase of activity is an essential part of your routine and should last for about 10 minutes. The benefits include:
The ideal sequence is to warm the body up and then do some gentle stretching to avoid injuring cold muscles. Your warm-up can be as simple as slowly jogging in place, using a stationary cycle, or a gentle rehearsal of the sport or exercise you’re about to perform.
Next begin to stretch the muscles and move the joints slowly. A series of stretches that are suitable for both the warm-up and cool-down phases follow. Also feel free to incorporate any of the yoga postures included in the easeful body chapter that you may find useful. The yoga postures are excellent for both warm-up and cool-down stretches as they involve:
Stretching the joints of the body is a great place to begin, and with all movement the awareness should be with the stretch and the breathing, keeping that inner attunement as you move.
Begin by sitting down on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Bring your awareness to the toes of each foot and begin moving the toes backward and forward, first with the right foot and then with the left, for 20 seconds each foot.
Begin to stretch and loosen the ankles by rotating one foot at a time in a circular clockwise direction for 10 seconds, then anticlockwise for 10 seconds.
Next, keeping the left leg stretched out, bend the right leg and place the right foot on top of the left knee or thigh (or, if not possible, on the inside of the left leg). Begin to lift up the right knee, and then slowly lower it as far as you can without straining. You may want to use the right hand to help the knee come down further. Continue raising and lowering for 20 seconds. Now release the right leg and reverse sides, bending the left knee and placing the left foot in position on the right leg, and again raising up and lowering down for 20 seconds.
With the soles of the feet together, bring the feet as close to the groin area as is comfortable and slowly raise the knees up and dawn, feeling free to use the hands or the elbows to help the knees go down in the direction of the floor without straining. Continue for 30 seconds.
Continue sitting on the floor. Extend your right arm out in front of you, splay out the fingers of the right hand, then make a fist.
Continue expanding and contracting the hand for 20 seconds, then begin with the left hand.
Now stretch the right wrist by rotating the hand in a clockwise direction for 20 seconds, then anticlockwise for 20 seconds. Follow with the left wrist and hand.
For the elbow, upper arm and shoulder joints, stretch the right arm high above the head, reaching up toward the sky and splaying the fingers as you stretch upward. Now bend the elbow and lower the hand down to the top of the shoulder. Repeat 10 times, then relax the right arm and begin with the left.
Lie on your back, with your arms extending above your head on the floor and your legs stretched out in front of you. Extend your limbs out in opposite directions, stretching the arms past the head, and the legs and feet in the opposite direction. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax for a few seconds and stretch out once more.
Next bend the right leg and, keeping the left leg straight, clasp your hands just below the right knee and help the right knee down to the chest area as you compress the abdomen muscles. Hold while you slowly raise your head toward the right knee. Hold for a count of three, then lower the head down, release the hands, lower the right leg down and relax for 10 seconds.Reverse the process with the left leg.
After resting, bring up both knees toward the chest, wrap your arms just below the knees and bring the knees down toward the chest. Hold for 3 seconds with the option of lifting up the head in the direction of the knees.
Remember never to strain the neck muscles–always start slowly. Come up to a standing position with the feet about shoulder width apart and the arms stretched out to the sides in a T shape. Slowly swing from side to side, rotating from the waist. When you rotate to the left, swing the right hand toward the left shoulder giving yourself a pat on the back; and on the other side, swing the left hand toward the right shoulder. Continue for 30 seconds increasing the speed moderately. Allow the head and neck to swing gently further and further back, looking over the shoulder you are swinging to, but without straining the neck. Feel the spine and back area loosen up with the stretch. When concluding, slow down the movements gently, returning to the standing position, and allow the breath to return to normal.
Next, raise the shoulders toward the ears and hold to a count of 5, then exhale and allow the shoulders to lower. Continue with shoulder shrugs for three rounds. Then, keeping the head facing forward lower the head in the direction of the right shoulder, hold for 10 seconds, then slowly raise the head back up to center. Lower the head down to the left shoulder and hold for 10 seconds. Center the head and relax. Remember always to be gentle with the neck.
Have the feet together and the knees slightly bent in a standing position as you slowly bend forward from the hips, keeping the back straight. Allow your arms to stretch down toward the floor until you feel your hamstrings and back muscles stretch. Keep the knees bent, and do not bounce or use force to try to reach the floor. Hold for 20 seconds, then slowly come up and relax.
Once the body is loose and warmed up, it is appropriate to begin the aerobic portion of the fitness routine, with the type of activity being governed by your:
When previously engaged in physical activity years ago you might have been a marathon runner, but of course it would be dangerous to go back to that immediately after years of a sedentary lifestyle. Similarly, you may choose cross-country skiing as the activity you would most like to do, but unless you have access to it regularly you will need to find other activities to incorporate. Finally, if you choose an activity such as swimming but you do not enjoy it, there is little chance that your fitness program will be successful. Remember the three A‘s of aerobic exercise: Appropriate, Accessible, Agreeable.
The distinction between aerobic exercise and anaerobic exercise is an important one to remember. Anaerobic exercise, such as weight lifting and sit-ups, involves short bursts of activity, and burns glucose (sugar) stored within the muscle for fuel. It helps to build muscular strength but has limited benefits for the cardiorespiratory system and does not lead to fat loss.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, and jogging, involves continuous rhythmic movement over an extended period of time, and uses oxygen for fuel. Aerobic exercise benefits the cardiorespiratory system and leads to fat loss, as the muscles burn a percentage of fat for fuel. While both activities are beneficial, it is important to ensure that you incorporate aerobic exercise into your routine.
To determine whether your aerobic activities are appropriate, they should meet the following criteria:
The importance of accessibility should not be minimized, as it will have a great deal of impact on the success of your program. To determine the accessibility of your chosen activity, answer the following questions:
By answering these questions honestly, you will be able to choose an activity or two, which are likely to work for you.
Once you have one or more activities that meet the first two requirements of being appropriate and accessible, choose activities that are agreeable to you and that you will enjoy. In terms of motivating yourself to exercise regularly, this last factor is particularly important, as you will not stick to a fitness regimen that you dislike. You may prefer:
Once you have chosen the activities that you feel satisfy the three A’s, follow these suggestions in order to make a commitment to your exercise routine:
When concluding your aerobic activity, it is essential to allow the body time to cool down for a period of five to ten minutes. By developing a routine for cooling down after exertion, you can avoid muscle soreness, allow your pulse to slowly return to the resting rate, and enjoy the winding-down process after your workout. If you just stopped moving after exercising, the heart would still be beating rapidly without sufficient blood returning to it.
The cooling-down approach should first consist of reducing the speed gradually of the aerobic activity you are engaged in, slowing it right down. This can then be followed by some of the warm-up stretches illustrated previously, which are suitable for both limbering up the body and cooling it down. Just take them slowly and with awareness, letting the muscles relax into them and the heart slow down. These stretches as well as some of the yoga postures in Cultivating An Easeful Body will provide a good transition for the muscles and joints to adjust to the decline of physical exertion, and reduce the chances of musculoskeletal injury.
When planning your weekly schedule take into consideration the following factors:
American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM Fitness Book, Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL, 1992.
Anderson, Bob. Stretching, Shelter Publications, Bolinas, CA, 1980.
Blair, SN et al. “Physical Fitness and All Cause Mortality”, Journal of American Medical Association, 262, 1989,2395-2401.
Tobias, Maxine & Sullivan, John Patrick. Complete Stretching, Knopf, New York, 1992.
Wicks, John. Guide to Exercise, National Heart Foundation of Australia, Melbourne, 1983.