By Ayren Jackson-Cannady
Whether you’re breaking a sweat at the gym or just walking down the street on a scorching day (Guilty!), you may be giving your health a huge boost. Here, experts dish on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of a little perspiration.
Sweat Side Effect #1: Eases Pain
Got a kink in your neck that won’t quit (and no one around to massage it out)? Working up a sweat just might soothe the soreness, experts say. “Exercise stimulates neurochemical pathways in the brain, resulting in the production of endorphins that act as natural painkillers,” says James Ting, MD, a sports medicine physician at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California.
Sweat Side Effect #2: Blasts Zits
“When you sweat, your pores open and release the grit and grime that has built up inside of them,” says Whitney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Caveat: Don’t just sweat and go. All of that dirt from your pores accumulates on the surface of your skin, so aim to wash your face three times a day, especially if you are constantly playing sports or working out.
Sweat Side Effect #3: Rids the Body of Toxins
Not feeling the whole post-weekend juice detox plan? Hit the mat for a super sweat session instead. Some experts believe that sweating can flush the body of system-clogging substances like alcohol, cholesterol, and salt. Get the most bang for your bod with indoor cycling or circuit training — two of the sweatiest workouts, according to Melissa Morin, an exercise physiologist and Senior Director of Group Exercise at New York Sports Club.
Sweat Side Effect #4: Controls Mood Swings
Maybe you’ve already noticed — before a workout you’re Ms. Crabby Pants. But afterward you feel like giving everyone hugs and high fives. It seems natural that we associate feeling warm with a sense of well-being and relaxation, but there may in fact be a scientific explanation for this feeling, says Dr. Ting. “Research has suggested that temperature-sensitive neural circuits to specific regions in the brain exist and may play a significant role in controlling mood.” So the next time you sense yourself being short, take a break for a Bikram yoga session or a run for a get-happy fix.
Sweat Side Effect #5: Prevents Colds and Other Infections
If you’ve ever wished you could walk around dousing everything in sanitizer wipes to prevent illness, you might be in luck. A study from Eberhard Karls University Tubingen in Germany suggests that human perspiration contains a naturally occurring antimicrobial peptide called dermcidin, which has been proven to fight tuberculosis germs and other dangerous pathogens, says Dr. Bowe. It’s like an invisible force field against germs!
Sweat Side Effect #6: Regulates Body Temperature
The evaporation of sweat off of the skin prevents us from overheating during an intense workout, says Dr. Bowe. So, what would happen if you didn’t sweat? “In extreme cases, the lack of sweat during a seemingly strenuous workout could be due to a condition called anhidrosis that can lead to dizziness, a skin rash, or loss of consciousness during exercise,” says Morin.
Sweat Side Effect #7: Lowers Kidney Stone Risk
Yes, really! Research from the University of Washington found that regular exercisers sweat out salt and tend to retain calcium in their bones, rather than having them — salt and calcium — go into the kidneys and urine where stones form. Frequent sweaters also tend to drink more water and fluids, which is another stone prevention mechanism.
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During the long, cold days of winter, we long for summer exercise: soccer in the park, a bike ride along the river, a hike in the mountains, or just a day in the garden. But when the dog days of summer actually arrive, it’s important to be prepared. Exercising in the heat can be risky if you aren’t careful.
Personal trainer and marathoner Carla Branch saw the danger of heat and dehydration while running a marathon in Tupelo, Miss., in August a few years back. It was the weekend before Labor Day, Branch recalls.
“It was a hot, humid day, and we were running on country roads, and the aid stations were about five miles apart,” she says. “There just wasn’t enough support.”
Because she planned ahead and placed extra water along the route, Branch was fine. But many racers weren’t so lucky. “My friend started getting dizzy and staggering, and another guy had to be put on IV [fluid] because of dehydration,” she says.
A large percentage of people couldn’t finish the race, says Branch.
For you, exercising in the heat may not mean running 26.2 miles. But even if you’re not planning to run a marathon, you want to be smart before embarking on a summer workout.
When taking on summer exercise outdoors, says Argyle, Texas, exercise physiologist Jaime Roberts, “we need to be aware of the increase in heat and humidity.”
Typically, says Roberts, our bodies are warmer than the environment. When that begins to change, our muscles regulate heat by releasing sweat, which allows the body to cool itself. But when the body is sweating, it’s losing fluid, she says.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke, dangerous side effects of overdoing summer exercise, come when the body can no longer sustain the pace, the heat, the humidity, or the loss of fluid.
“The body cools off by sweating,” says Roberts, “and as long as you remain hydrated, the body is able to cool itself off.”
When you become dehydrated, the problems start.
Signs of heat exhaustion include general fatigue, weakness, nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps, and an increase in body temperature. Temperatures above 104, an inability to sweat, acute respiratory distress, and loss of consciousness can be signs of heat stroke, which is much more severe and can lead to death.
This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your quest for a great summer workout. Just follow these nine guidelines to exercise smart in the heat. But make sure to talk to your doctor about starting an exercise regimen and issues about heat and hydration.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 1: Acclimate Yourself
“When the weather warms, you need to be acclimated to the temperature change,” says William O. Roberts, MD, FACSM, a family medicine and sports medicine doctor at the University of Minnesota’s Phalen Village Clinic. “Expose yourself regularly.”
Branch tells her clients it can take up to 14 days to adjust to temperature changes. When clients are preparing for an event that will take place in the heat of the day, Branch coaches them to be active in the heat ahead of time: “They have to try to get out in the middle of the day when it’s hot and exercise in order to acclimate to the conditions for the event.”
But remember, if you are just doing routine exercise, it is better to exercise outside when it is cooler, such as the early morning or evening. (See more about this in tip No. 5.)
Summer Exercise Tip No. 2: Stay Hydrated
When it comes to summer exercise, all our experts agree that the biggest concern is hydration.
Suzanne Girard Eberle, author and sports dietitian in Portland, Ore., says that if you come back from a summer workout 1 to 2 pounds lighter, you’ve got to do a better job keeping up with hydration. You lose 2 1/2 cups of water per pound of body weight lost, she says.
“If you’re going four to six hours without eliminating, you’re not hydrated enough,” adds Eberle, a former elite runner and author of Endurance Sports Nutrition.
To maintain good hydration for a moderate summer workout, Roberts recommends drinking 20 ounces of water two hours before exercise, at least 8 ounces of water shortly before getting out in the heat, and then a gulp every 15 to 20 minutes during exercise. Make sure to talk to your doctor about specific fluid intake when you exercise.
To stay better hydrated, says Eberle, drink fluids with food throughout the day.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 3: Slow Down
When the temperature hits the 90s, don’t expect to go out and set a personal record, says Roberts.
“If it’s hotter than you’re used to, cut the pace back or cut the exposure back,” he says. “Don’t try to do the same pace you did the day before.”
Be careful about trying to keep up with friends who are more fit or have a higher tolerance for heat as well, says Eberle.
“Just realize you are going to be slower,” says Eberle, “and particularly on humid days, it’s going to take you longer to finish.”
Summer Exercise Tip No. 4: Wear Light, Breathable Clothing
Lightweight fabrics that wick away sweat are best for exercising in the heat, says Eberle. Clothes should also be light in color in order to reflect the sun.
“One common problem is people overdress,” she says. “They cover up the working muscles in the legs, which generates a lot of heat.”
Sunscreen is also important when you exercise outdoors.
“A well-ventilated hat with a brim and some lightweight sunglasses can [protect your face] and help prevent headaches,” says Eberle.
If your summer workout involves wearing a protective helmet, adds Roberts, remove it during rest periods to allow your head to breathe and cool off.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 5: Exercise Early or Late
If possible, get out before 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m. to exercise in the summer months, says Roberts. This will add length to your day, and energy to your summer workout. Inevitably, heat and humidity will slow you down.
“In the worst part of summer, especially if you just want to exercise for health, do it in the gym if you can. Or get out early in the day or late in the evening,” says Branch.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 6: Assess the Previous Day
It’s not enough to know how you feel right before going out to exercise in the heat, says Roberts.
“It’s very important with those who exercise regularly to take into account the physical activity, fluid ingestion, and diet of the previous day,” she says. “You could be dehydrated or fatigued even prior to exercising,” which could get you into trouble faster on a hot day, she says.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 7: Know the Route and Climate
It’s important to know your route and your climate, says Roberts.
“Make sure that there’s some shade along the way and that you’re not exposed to constant direct sunlight,” she says.
Check the heat index for the relative humidity that day and plan accordingly, she says. Contain your summer exercise to the least hot and humid part of the day.
If you live in a dry climate, like the desert Southwest, says Roberts, remember that sweat evaporates quickly. You’re going to lose a lot more fluid exercising in the heat in Phoenix than Portland. And because it’s drying almost before you can see it, you don’t know how much fluid you’re losing.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 8: Consult Your Doctor or Pharmacist
Many medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — can intensify the effects of heat-related illnesses, says Roberts. Decongestants, appetite suppressants, antihistamines, antihypertensives, and antidepressants can hasten dehydration and decrease the body’s ability to recognize danger.
Even diuretics like caffeine and alcohol, when consumed before exercising in the heat, can accelerate the effects of dehydration, says Roberts.
Summer Exercise Tip No. 9: Use Common Sense
Don’t choose a hot summer day to try your hand at rock climbing or in-line skating for the first time.
“You shouldn’t start doing something brand new if it’s really hot,” says Roberts, “even if it’s just for a half an hour.”
When you don’t know what to expect or how your body will take to the activity, it’s best to save it for a cooler, more forgiving day, he says.
“The biggest thing with heat and exercise,” says Branch, “is common sense. If you’re feeling bad, you need to get inside, get your core temperature down. Even if you are in an event, it’s just not worth it. You want to live to run another day.”
You’re considering a new exercise program but history may have shown you how difficult it is for you to stick with it. For all of your enthusiasm and know how, you can’t seem to make it past the first two weeks without losing your motivation.
Immediately signing up for daily workouts may seem a logical way to jump-start your wellness goals. After all, that’s what bootcamps are built upon. However, the absence of a personal trainer who is typically responsible for keeping you motivated and on your schedule could make it impossible for you to reach your goals particularly if you are currently inactive. Chances are after a few weeks of attempting to do this on your own, you will experience extreme exercise burnout and give up.
In my observation as a movement studio owner, new exercisers who stick with it, resist the urge to jump in like gangbusters. They start slow, take BABY-STEPS and begin with EXERCISE THEY ENJOY. It is human nature to move towards pleasure and away from pain, so starting this way is ideal. The pleasure you experience will keep you motivated and coming back for more.
How to Stick with It
- Set long term goals for your exercise routine. A year from now, how many days per week do you want to exercise (frequency)? How long do you want to exercise (duration)? And how hard you want to work (intensity)?
- Commit to one workout per week at a specific date and time.
- Select a second, optional workout for whenever you like.
- Under no circumstances do you miss the one workout you are committed to during this initial phase.
- When the single workout becomes routine, commit to a second workout session on a different day.
- Once the second workout session is added, you may miss/skip one of each session in a month if needed.
- Keep building in more workout sessions in this fashion until you reach your goal activity level.
- Increase the duration and intensity of your workout in the same manner.
Incorporate visualization. Daily visualization of what you aim to achieve is a powerful motivator; perhaps you as an active, healthy, vibrant person. The image may be from your imagination, a magazine, or a vision board you create in advance. A vision board is a drawing, painting, or collage of images that represent your goal.
- Spend a few moments morning and night contemplating the image. If from your imagination, do this with your eyes closed.
- For the next step if your eyes are open, close them.
- See yourself embodying the image you created.
- Feel how good it feels to be that person and connect to it emotionally.
- Then set out to take action on your intention.
- Repeat daily.
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Yoga enthusiasts link the practice to a long list of health benefits, including greater flexibility and range of motion, stronger muscles, better posture and balance, reduced emotional and physical stress, and increased self-awareness and self-esteem.
But definitively proving these benefits is challenging, requiring years of costly research. A pharmaceutical company is unlikely to fund a study that doesn’t involve a drug, and in any event, the research requires a large group of volunteers tracked over a very long time.
The subjects must provide health measurements at the outset, learn the proper poses, continue to do them regularly for years and be regularly evaluated.
No one knows these challenges better than Dr. Loren M. Fishman, a physiatrist at Columbia University who specializes in rehabilitative medicine. For years, he has been gathering evidence on yoga and bone health, hoping to determine whether yoga might be an effective therapy for osteoporosis.
The idea is not widely accepted in the medical community, but then, researchers know comparatively little about complementary medicine in general. So in 2005, Dr. Fishman began a small pilot study of yoga moves that turned up some encouraging results. Eleven practitioners had increased bone density in their spine and hips, he reported in 2009, compared with seven controls who did not practice yoga.
Knowing that more than 700,000 spinal fractures and more than 300,000 hip fractures occur annually in the United States, Dr. Fishman hoped that similar findings from a much larger study might convince doctors that this low-cost and less dangerous alternative to bone-loss drugs is worth pursuing.
Those medications can produce adverse side effects like gastrointestinal distress and fractures of the femur. Indeed, a recent study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that among 126,188 women found to have osteoporosis, all of whom had Medicare Part D drug coverage, only 28 percent started bone drug therapy within a year of diagnosis.
Many of those who avoided drugs were trying to avoid gastrointestinal problems.
On the other hand, yoga’s “side effects,” Dr. Fishman and colleagues wrote recently, “include better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety and better gait.”
Weight-bearing activity is often recommended to patients with bone loss, and Dr. Fishman argues that certain yoga positions fit the bill.
“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does,” he said in an interview. “By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.”
Most experts argue that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, for adults to gain significant bone mass. Undeterred, Dr. Fishman invested a chunk of his own money and with three collaborators — Yi-Hsueh Lu of The Rockefeller University, Bernard Rosner of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Dr. Gregory Chang of New York University — solicited volunteers worldwide via the Internet for a follow-up to his small pilot study.
Of the 741 people who joined his experiment from 2005 to 2015, 227 (202 of them women) followed through with doing the 12 assigned yoga poses daily or at least every other day. The average age of the 227 participants upon joining the study was 68, and 83 percent had osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia.
The 12 poses, by their English names, were tree, triangle, warrior II, side-angle, twisted triangle, locust, bridge, supine hand-to-foot I, supine hand-to-foot II, straight-legged twist, bent-knee twist and corpse pose. Each pose was held for 30 seconds. The daily regimen, once learned, took 12 minutes to complete.
The researchers collected data at the start of the study on the participants’ bone density measurements, blood and urine chemistry and X-rays of their spines and hips. They were each given a DVD of the 12 yoga poses used in the pilot study and an online program in which to record what they did and how often.
A decade after the start of the study, bone density measurements were again taken and emailed to the researchers; many participants also had repeat X-rays done. The findings, as reported last month in Topics of Geriatric Rehabilitation, showed improved bone density in the spine and femur of the 227 participants who were moderately or fully compliant with the assigned yoga exercises.
Improvements were seen in bone density in the hip as well, but they were not statistically significant.
Before the study, the participants had had 109 fractures, reported by them or found on X-rays.
At the time the study was submitted for publication, “with more than 90,000 hours of yoga practiced largely by people with osteoporosis or osteopenia, there have been no reported or X-ray detected fractures or serious injuries of any kind related to the practice of yoga in any of the 741 participants,” Dr. Fishman and his colleagues wrote.
“Yoga looks like it’s safe, even for people who have suffered significant bone loss,” Dr. Fishman said in an interview.
Furthermore, a special study of bone quality done on 18 of the participants showed that they had “better internal support of their bones, which is not measured by a bone density scan but is important to resisting fractures,” Dr. Fishman said.
The study has many limitations, including the use of self-selected volunteers and the lack of a control group. But all told, the team concluded, the results may lend support to Dr. Fishman’s long-held belief that yoga can help reverse bone loss.
Even if bone density did not increase, improvements in posture and balance that can accrue from the practice of yoga can be protective, Dr. Fishman said.
“Spinal fractures can result from poor posture, and there’s no medication for that, but yoga is helpful,” he said.
In addition, “Yoga is good for range of motion, strength, coordination and reduced anxiety,” he said, “all of which contribute to the ability to stay upright and not fall. If you don’t fall, you greatly reduce your risk of a serious fracture.”
by Julie Kailus
Dieters who keep a food diary lose twice as much weight as those who kept no records, according to a recent study by Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research. But while keeping a journal holds you more accountable for how you treat your body, sticking to a fitness routine is different from sticking to a healthy eating routine. Personal trainers we talked to recommend these tactics to keep you motivated and inspired to work out.
1. Change your perspective
Shift your thinking from couch potato mentality to thinking like an athlete. This may sound like a big challenge, but it’s not as big a leap as you think. Essex, Massachusetts mom April Bowling, 33, stopped using her busy life as an excuse not to exercise. After the birth of her children (now ages 5 and 3), Bowling started viewing exercise as a way to set a strong example for her kids.
“At first I looked at it as time away from them, but I realized kids do what they see you doing,” she says. “Now both kids are very physically active.”
Bowling started thinking about her workouts at odd hours as a blessing rather than a sacrifice. She also found inspiration in others—looking outward for extra motivation. “Take inspiration from everyone you meet—even people who can’t be physically active,” she says. “It reinforces why I’m lucky.” Whether you need to hang an “I’m lucky” sticky note on the mirror, or you can see the power of health in your children’s eyes, committing to a fitness routine begins in your head.
2. Set a goal
There’s nothing more motivating — sometimes even scary — than that first 5K looming in bold letters on the calendar. Register early and commit to an exercise program that will get you in shape by race day.
“Set realistic goals that include clear milestones, and as you progress toward your goal, you’ll find a ripple effect occurs and things fall into place in your work, home life and health,” says Stacy Fowler, a Denver-based personal trainer and life coach.
The goal doesn’t even have to be an organized race. Maybe it’s a mission to fit into that bikini by the annual beach vacation or that old pair of jeans buried in your closet. Whatever it is is, define it, write it down and revisit it daily.
Make sure it’s realistic and you can actually adapt your life around meeting the goal, says Philip Haberstro, executive director of the National Association for Health and Fitness in Buffalo, N.Y. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. Bowling started with a mini triathlon in 2006 (250 yard swim, 10 mile bike ride and 3.5 mile run). This year she completed Ironman Wisconsin (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run).
3. Schedule a regular workout time
Some of the most committed exercisers do it every day before the sun comes up or late at night when the kids are in bed. Sit down with your weekly schedule and try to build in an hour each day to be good to your body.
Tamira Cole, 24, a graduate student in Clarksville,Tenn., was motivated to exercise regularly by the energy boost it brought to her day. “It’s easy to stay in bed. But you have to set an alarm and take the extra initiative,” she says. “Then you’ll find you have more energy and can be more efficient throughout the day.”
If you convince yourself you’ll fit in a workout some time after that last meeting, once the kids go down for a nap or when your spouse arrives home on time, failure is certain. Chances are a last-minute invitation will come along; weather will foil a bike ride; or the kids won’t nap. Write your workout on your calendar, set up daycare, and rearrange things around this one hour as if were any other important appointment you have to keep. Or use technology like daily e-mail reminders, workout journaling websites or iPhone applications to keep you on task, says Haberstro.
4. Think fun and variety
By nature, humans need change and variety to stay motivated. We also need to have fun — even while we’re working hard. Do both!
Whether it’s a toning and sculpting class that changes choreography every week or a trail run that changes scenery every season, design your exercise routine around a variety of exercise methods. Make sure you include activities you truly enjoy and look forward to doing. Think movement that’s more like recreation and makes you forget you’re working out — like dancing, hula hooping or playing sports with family and friends.
Listen to your inner voice when choosing the best workout for you, says Fowler. Cole found a hip-hop class that satisfied her passion for dance. “I had more energy from dancing than I did from running,” she says.
Workout variety also challenges your body in unique ways, which may introduce you to new muscle groups you didn’t even know you had. Consider disciplines that give you more bang for your buck, suggests Haberstro. Ta’i chi and yoga, for example, serve dual purposes as mental therapy and physical activity. Or try a workout DVD to help you shake up your routine.)
5. Reach out to others for support
In America, some tend to have trouble asking for help, says Bowling. Yet in order to stick to a fitness program, we need buy-in and encouragement from other people.
“Exercising is built into our family life,” Bowling adds. “We view it as a necessity. Sometimes it takes the place of watching TV together.”
For others, it’s finding a friend with a shared zest for running, and planning scheduled workouts together. It’s easy to hit the snooze button when it’s just you, but much harder to leave a friend waiting at the track.
Consider joining a social networking site or online community with fitness trainers and nutrition experts — and support from other people trying to lose weight and maintain healthy eating and exercise routines. People who get this kind of online support are proven to lose three times more weight than people going it alone.
Lobbying your workplace to offer on-site fitness, yoga or Pilates classes will also support your mission for a healthy lifestyle, Haberstro points out.
So start thinking of yourself as an athlete, and not a spectator. Set a goal, enlist a friend, mark it on your calendar and have some fun. You’ll be setting yourself up for a lifetime of better health, more happiness, and more energy for everything else in your life.
The title of this article may be a bit misleading. To say that I wish I knew earlier what I know now, regarding any aspect of life, sort of defeats the purpose of the learning process. And yoga can provide quite the steep learning curve. Yet had I known earlier what I’m about to share with you, my former yoga-self would probably have had fewer expectations about yoga in general. Fewer expectations, as we all know, can lead to fewer disappointments.
To say that I wish I knew earlier what I know now, regarding any aspect of life, sort of defeats the purpose of the learning process.
But I’m not necessarily sharing this list of things I wish I’d known because any of this stuff should be avoided. Everything we experience “along the way” should be honored; it’s what’s led us to become who we are, as we know ourselves today. But perhaps you can relate to a few of these points, or maybe you’d simply like to add a few things to this “wish I knew that” list. I encourage you to share your reflections on this topic in the comment section below.
Here’s my list:
1. Asana isn’t about athleticism.
Growing up, it felt like some people were just born with a seamless mind-body connection. And I equated that flawless sense of embodiment with athleticism. During my teenage years, I all at once admired, and was jealous of, the kids on the track team, soccer team, and cheerleading squad. It seemed to me, their bodies were their allies. Their friends. Sources of empowerment. On the other hand, I never felt safe or okay in my body. Probably because I was bullied constantly by my peers during formative years about my body’s shape, size, and form.
Years later, when I was 26, I found yoga. And while I’d often heard that asana was a lot of fun, to me a yoga mat felt more like a bed of hot coals than a place for curious play. This was probably the first time I’d ever (ever!) really slowed down and paid attention to my physicality, and it was uncomfortable, and sometimes it hurt.
Practicing alongside the super-athletic people who’d show up to the all-levels classes I attended also didn’t help. (I’m talking about the kind of practitioners who will take the full splits, headstand, and one-leg-lifted in wheel pose options in class.) More often than not, I felt like the lone yogi who’d shake and sweat in even the gentlest, most basic of poses. And it wasn’t necessarily because I thought those poses were super difficult—it was just so uncomfortable, so triggering, to be in my own skin.
It wasn’t until I actually started listening to what my teachers were saying (like “If you’re breathing, you’re doing yoga,” and “You don’t have to practice the ‘full expression’ of any pose”) that I began to realize that embodiment doesn’t necessarily have to take the shape of athletic feats. That I don’t have to do anything particular with my body to be in my body. Awareness is enough.
I can lie in savasana, and even if that’s the only pose I do all day, if I am breathing deeply, and aware of my feelings, I’m progressing toward embodiment. As far as I’m concerned, I’m also progressing in yoga: a practice that, traditionally, is considered a means to help unify body, breath, and mind.
2. What my teachers could offer me, and what they couldn’t.
Years before I found asana, I was lucky enough to study yoga philosophy (self-inquiry, to be exact) with a master teacher. And I’ve been blessed to meet quite a few master teachers since. But perhaps I could have gotten more from their tutelage if I didn’t so consistently freeze up like a popsicle in their presence—unable to speak. They made me nervous, and I was also pretty sure that all of them could read my mind, which wasn’t cool. (I’m human, after all, and my thoughts can be pretty, well, human. I didn’t want them to hear me thinking about any of the four primal urges: food, sleep, self-preservation, and definitely not sex.)
When I look back, I see there was a fair amount of idealization going on—though I have compassion for my former yoga self, because it can be easy to put people who speak of paths toward enlightenment on pedestals. Now that I’ve met and worked with quite a few yoga teachers, I’ve come to realize that they’re all just like you and me: ordinary folks who strive to be good, though not perfect, people.
Master teachers and your everyday yoga teachers, they are all divine beings—just as divine as a flower, just as divine as you and me. They are also human. And most of them will admit this.
In fact, one of my favorite lessons along the way (from a master teacher I studied with, actually) is this: Don’t look toward the teacher, look toward the teaching. Furthermore, develop and follow your own instincts, because any teacher could offer advice that is wrong, or at least wrong for you. Master teachers and your everyday yoga teachers, they are all divine beings—just as divine as a flower, just as divine as you and me. They are also human. And most of them will admit this.
If I could, I would have referenced the Buddha and told my former yoga self: “Light thine own lamp.”
3. I didn’t have to worry too much about what I didn’t know.
Speaking of the non-asana-related aspects of yoga, the esoteric side of practice can be a bit confusing for beginner practitioners—and it certainly was for me. Even in gym settings I’ve heard terms like “pratyahara,” “shakti,” and “kundalini.” After all, it’s not uncommon for sequences to be described in terms of their energetic or spiritual benefits—flows, even individual poses, that will “balance your chakras,” “release your inner goddess,” and yes, “awaken your kundalini.”
One of the most befuddling yoga-moments for me was the first time I heard this prana (life force) inspired cue: “Breathe into your little toe.” I began to wonder how I could, and then put all of my mental attention into why a teacher would ask me to do something physiologically impossible. Turns out this cue wasn’t meant to be taken quite so literally. But unfortunately, the experience left me with the initial feeling that time-tested yoga concepts (such as prana) were no more than fairy tales.
While my current yoga-self really enjoys discussing yoga philosophy (including concepts like pratyahara, shakti, and kundalini), my former yoga-newbie self couldn’t comprehend it. If I were to have a one-on-one conversation with this budding yoga-self, I’d say: Don’t worry too much about what you don’t know. Don’t try to understand things you can’t relate to just yet. Your kundalini probably won’t rise during your first yoga class anyway (and it might never), and it’s very okay if you don’t feel like a goddess after practice is over.
There will be so much that you just don’t get yet, not until you’ve covered more ground. Then you can connect the dots as you look back.
Your practice won’t suffer because you don’t understand everything your teacher is talking about right away. Too much analysis can slow you down. There will be so much that you just don’t get yet, not until you’ve covered more ground. Then you can connect the dots as you look back.
How about you? When you look back, what experiences come up for you? What would you like to share—what would you lovingly tell your former yoga self?
This is where dancers with The Washington Ballet go to practice their pliés, pirouettes and arabesques. But these students aren’t ballet pros – they’re adults ranging from their early 20s to mid-60s in search of a more graceful workout.
Dance and Workout
With a background in competitive youth swimming, followed up with running, tennis and cycling to stay fit, James Farmer, 33, is an athlete. But when life grew busier, he let himself go, he says, and he wanted to regain peak form.
Not much of a ballet aficionado then, Farmer, a strategy consultant with IBM, was invited to an open rehearsal of The Washington Ballet three years ago and found himself “inspired.”
“I was really blown away by the grace, power and flexibility of the dancers – not the least their physiques,” he says. “[The] next weekend I was at the barre, and I’ve been there since.”
His first lesson, he says, was “the most embarrassing,” but “humbling,” experience of his adult life. “I was not familiar with the language. I found myself at the barre in a foreign land – completely out of my comfort zone.” But fellow students were supportive, he recalls, and the instructor “gracious” when he made a faux pas.
“At the end of each class, I’m exhausted,” Farmer says. “This class demands a lot of you.” With the intense focus required, “it’s not just a good physical workout – it’s also a mental workout.”
Ballet classes and barre workouts are “excellent” for non-dancers, says Rebeccah Rodriguez, once a professional dancer and now a physician at the San Diego Sports Medicine and Family Health Center.
Upper-body strength, core strength improved flexibility and posture are among the benefits of ballet, she says. For older adults, having a stronger core – which promotes balance – reduces their risk of falls, and classes offer the security of having the barre to hold.
Some classes incorporate resistance training with balls or light weights, which is helpful for students striving for the long, lean muscles of a dancer’s physique.
With an hourlong class two or three times a week, it might take students about four to six wefeks to notice changes in their body, Rodriguez says. For example, their muscles might be more toned, or they could “notice a smaller waistline – like their pants fitting a little bit looser or fitting a little bit different in the buttocks area.”
If you’re unfamiliar with ballet terms, she says barre instructors “do a pretty good job of saying ‘this is a plié’ and ‘now we’re going to move with your legs apart and turned out: This is second position.’”
She advises adults just starting out to “get a little bit of extra instruction from the teacher to keep good posture and technique, especially if they haven’t been familiar with the different positions.”
Exercise With a Flair
“All together: plié. Arms in fifth, sous-sus,” instructor Stephen Baranovics calls out as the soloist plays “My Favorite Things” at the grand piano in the corner. “Don’t tip at the hip; don’t change the shape of your foot.”
From a mile away, you’d pick Baranovics out as a lifelong dancer, with his arched back, exquisite posture and lower body in permanent turnout. Years ago he trained at The Washington School of Ballet, moving on to an international career onstage before returning as an instructor.
This evening, Baranovics has students’ complete concentration as they memorize movement sequences or make subtle adjustments. “Tilt your head to a 45-degree access; maybe lift the chin,” he says. “A little arrogance looks good … and a little narcissism.”
Just as with professionals who share the studio, “I teach a full-form ballet class, every exercise we do building on top of each other,” Baranovics says. “I train the brain; I train them to think – it’s all about coordination.”
Yearning for the Dance
Although classes weren’t available to her as a child, ballet was always a dream for Rita Ragsdale, 66, a retired Foreign Service officer and a regular in the school’s advanced beginner class.
Ragsdale believes that for most people, the motivation to do ballet is both getting a good workout and love of the artistic form. “You see these graceful dancers on stage,” she says, “and it gives you that illusion.” But for her, she’s drawn to the discipline of ballet and the structure of the class.
“I wouldn’t trade my classes for anything, even though my knees are creaking and my back is quirky,” she says. “When I’m in ballet class, all the troubles in the world disappear, and I feel invigorated, as if I have more energy when I leave the class than when I went in.”
Not a Competition
The popularity of ballet for non-dancers is growing, whether it’s classes linked to performing art academies or local professional companies or ballet-based workouts like Pure Barre and others. There are even mommy-and-me classes.
While professional dancers make it look easy to the audience, the challenge becomes clear when non-dancer students step up to the barre, says Hope Davis, an athletic trainer at The Ohio State University’s Sports Medicine and Performing Arts Program.
Classes can help stave off changes that come with aging, she says, when “muscles get really tight and inflexible, and we lose our balance – and those are really the key to ballet.”
For all its pluses, Davis says traditional ballet class alone may not be aerobic enough to maintain cardiovascular fitness, because of the frequent stops and starts as students learn and practice new moves. She says other dance styles like hip-hop may be a better choice for days you’re looking for a cardio workout.
Regardless of their level, students should avoid competing with or comparing themselves to their peers at the barre, she says: “Everyone’s body and anatomy is different.”
Rodriguez agrees. “It’s just having the confidence that you have your own goals,” she says. “You’re not trying to get a part in the ballet – this is purely for you to gain the appreciation of the art and have a good way to exercise, to improve your own strength and flexibility.”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2013/11/20/physical-activity-guidelines-how-much-exercise-do-you-need/
Physical activity guidelines: How much exercise do you need?
For general good health, the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. (37) Yet many people may need more than 2-1/2 hours of moderate intensity activity a week to stay at a stable weight. (37)
- The Women’s Health Study, for example, followed 34,000 middle-aged women for 13 years to see just how much physical activity they needed to stay within 5 pounds of their weight at the start of the study. Researchers found that women who were in the normal weight range at the start of the study needed the equivalent of an hour a day of physical activity to stay at a steady weight.(43)
- If you are exercising mainly to lose weight, 30 minutes or so a day may be effective in conjunction with a healthy diet. (44)
If you currently don’t exercise and aren’t very active during the day, any increase in exercise or physical activity is good for you.
- Aerobic physical activity—any activity that causes a noticeable increase in your heart rate—is especially beneficial for disease prevention.
- Some studies show that walking briskly for even one to two hours a week (15 to 20 minutes a day) starts to decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, developing diabetes, or dying prematurely.
- You can combine moderate and vigorous exercise over the course of the week, and it’s fine to break up your activity into smaller bursts as long as you sustain the activity for at least 10 minutes.
- Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is any activity that causes a slight but noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate. One way to gauge moderate activity is with the “talk test”—exercising hard enough to break a sweat but not so hard you can’t comfortably carry on a conversation.
- Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity causes more rapid breathing and a greater increase in heart rate, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation—with shorter sentences.
Here is a summary of the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. More information is available on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans website.
Children and adolescents should get at least 1 hour or more a day of physical activity in age-appropriate activities, spending most of that engaged in moderate- or vigorous–intensity aerobic activities. They should partake in vigorous-intensity aerobic activity on at least three days of the week, and include muscle-strengthening and bone strengthening activities on at least three days of the week.
Healthy adults should get a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or a minimum of 1-1/4 hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. That could mean a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week; a high-intensity spinning class one day for 45 minutes, plus a half hour jog another day; or some other combination of moderate and vigorous activity. Doubling the amount of activity (5 hours moderate- or 2-1/2 hours vigorous-intensity aerobic activity) provides even more health benefits. Adults should also aim to do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
Healthy older Adults should follow the guidelines for healthy adults. Older adults who cannot meet the guidelines for healthy adults because of chronic conditions should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow. People who have chronic conditions such as arthritis and type 2 diabetes should talk to a healthcare provider about the amount and type of activity that is best. Physical activity can help people manage chronic conditions, as long as the activities that individuals choose match their fitness level and abilities. Even just an hour a week of activity has health benefits. Older adults who are at risk of falling should include activities that promote balance. (37)
Strength training for all ages
Studies have shown strength training to increase lean body mass, decrease fat mass, and increase resting metabolic rate (a measurement of the amount of calories burned per day) in adults. (59, 60) While strength training on its own typically does not lead to weight loss, (61) its beneficial effects on body composition may make it easier to manage one’s weight and ultimately reduce the risk of disease, by slowing the gain of fat—especially abdominal fat. (62)
- Muscle is metabolically active tissue; it utilizes calories to work, repair, and refuel itself. Fat, on the other hand, doesn’t use as much energy. We slowly lose muscle as part of the natural aging process, which means that the amount of calories we need each day starts to decrease, and it becomes easier to gain weight.
- Strength training regularly helps preserve lean muscle tissue and can even rebuild some that has been lost already.
- Weight training has also been shown to help fight osteoporosis. For example, a study in postmenopausal women examined whether regular strength training and high-impact aerobics sessions would help prevent osteoporosis. Researchers found that the women who participated in at least two sessions a week for three years were able to preserve bone mineral density at the spine and hip; over the same time period, a sedentary control group showed bone mineral density losses of 2 to 8 percent. (63)
- In older populations, resistance training can help maintain the ability to perform functional tasks such as walking, rising from a chair, climbing stairs, and even carrying one’s own groceries. An emerging area of research suggests that muscular strength and fitness may also be important to reducing the risk of chronic disease and mortality, but more research is needed. (64-68)
- A systematic review of 8 studies examining the effects of weight-bearing and resistance-based exercises on the bone mineral density (BMD) in older men found resistance training to be an effective strategy for preventing osteoporosis in this population. Resistance training was found to have more positive effects on BMD than walking, which has a lower impact. (69)
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that muscle strengthening activities be done at least two days a week. (37) Different types of strength training activities are best for different age groups.
- When talking about the benefits of exercise, keeping the heart and blood vessels healthy usually gets most of the attention. For many individuals, though, stretching and strength training exercises may be just as important.
- Strength training, also known as resistance training, weight training, or muscle-strengthening activity, is one of the most beneficial components of a fitness program.
Children and Adolescents: Choose unstructured activities rather than weight lifting exercises. (37)
- Playing on playground equipment
- Climbing trees
- Playing tug-of-war
Active Adults: Weight training is a familiar example, but there are other options: (37)
- Calisthenics that use body weight for resistance (such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups)
- Carrying heavy loads
- Heavy gardening (such as digging or hoeing)
Older Adults: The guidelines for older adults are similar to those for adults; older adults who have chronic conditions should consult with a health care provider to set their activity goals. (37) Muscle strengthening activities in this age group include the following:
- Digging, lifting, and carrying as part of gardening
- Carrying groceries
- Some yoga and tai chi exercises
- Strength exercises done as part of a rehab program or physical therapy
Flexibility training or stretching exercise is another important part of overall fitness. It may help older adults preserve the range of motion they need to perform daily tasks and other physical activities. (70, 71)
- The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults engage in flexibility training two to three days per week, stretching major muscle and tendon groups. (60)
- For older adults, the American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine recommend two days a week of flexibility training, in sessions at least 10 minutes long. (70) Older adults who are at risk of falling should also do exercises to improve their balance.
37. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, U.S.D.o.H.a.H. Services, Editor. 2008.
43. Lee, I.M., et al., Physical activity and weight gain prevention. JAMA, 2010. 303(12): p. 1173-9.
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49. Sesso, H.D., R.S. Paffenbarger, Jr., and I.M. Lee, Physical activity and coronary heart disease in men: The Harvard Alumni Health Study. Circulation, 2000. 102(9): p. 975-80.
59. Hunter, G.R., J.P. McCarthy, and M.M. Bamman, Effects of resistance training on older adults. Sports Med, 2004. 34(5): p. 329-48.
60. Williams, M.A., et al., Resistance exercise in individuals with and without cardiovascular disease: 2007 update: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council on Clinical Cardiology and Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism. Circulation, 2007. 116(5): p. 572-84.
61. Committee, P.A.G.A., Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. Washington, D.C.(2008).
62. Schmitz, K.H., et al., Strength training and adiposity in premenopausal women: strong, healthy, and empowered study. Am J Clin Nutr, 2007. 86(3): p. 566-72.
63. Engelke, K., et al., Exercise maintains bone density at spine and hip EFOPS: a 3-year longitudinal study in early postmenopausal women. Osteoporos Int, 2006. 17(1): p. 133-42.
64. Katzmarzyk, P.T. and C.L. Craig, Musculoskeletal fitness and risk of mortality.Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2002. 34(5): p. 740-4.
65. Gale, C.R., et al., Grip strength, body composition, and mortality. Int J Epidemiol, 2007. 36(1): p. 228-35.
66. Bohannon, R.W., Hand-grip dynamometry predicts future outcomes in aging adults. J Geriatr Phys Ther, 2008. 31(1): p. 3-10.
67. Ling, C.H., et al., Handgrip strength and mortality in the oldest old population: the Leiden 85-plus study. CMAJ, 2010. 182(5): p. 429-35.
68. Ruiz, J.R., et al., Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 2008. 337: p. a439.
69. Bolam, K.A., J.G. van Uffelen, and D.R. Taaffe, The effect of physical exercise on bone density in middle-aged and older men: A systematic review.Osteoporos Int, 2013.
70. Nelson, M.E., et al., Physical activity and public health in older adults: recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 2007. 116(9): p. 1094-105.