Free your motivation to stretch

This is number eight in a series on the Real-time Results of exercise, the ones that will make your brain want to exercise. We have covered cardio and strength training. Today we start to look at stretching.  

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Stretching is one of those forms of exercise that many of us aren’t sure about. All the conflicting information and changing recommendations about stretching, and the fact that it doesn’t burn a lot of calories, can make it seem not worth putting in the time and effort to stretch. Even if you know stretching would help your stiff body, it’s not easy to do when it’s uncomfortable or even painful. Getting up and down off the floor can be a challenge and those old stretches we did in high school are not as easy as they once were.

Motivation for stretching can get tangled up on all the conflicting information and challenges with actually doing stretching.  Let’s free your motivation to stretch with an updated look at stretching.  

With all we don’t know about stretching, we do know it’s not:

  • weakening or damaging muscles (when you do it right)
  • about being able to touch your toes
  • making your muscles longer
  • only for the super flexible
  • a waste of time

Interestingly, yoga has gained in popularity over the past decade. When people are asked why they do yoga, the biggest reason is flexibility. Why do so many people want to be more flexible? 

Flexibility is defined by the range of motion of a joint or in other words, how much a joint can move. While this is important, I often hear people wanting to be flexible because they think it will make their stiff muscles feel better. But does being super bendy mean you feel and function better in daily life? Dancers may look beautiful, but they live with daily pain.

Flexibility does not guarantee comfort in your body. A person could be very flexible but still feel stiff and sore. They could even have a greater risk of injury because a very flexible joint is not a stable joint.

When flexibility leads to mobility, which is defined as freedom of movement, it does make you feel and function better. Mobility means your body can move in a wide variety of ways without resisting or fatiguing.   So how can stretching make you more mobile?

Trying to answer that by looking at the research on stretching is tricky. There is not as much research on this type of exercise as on other types like cardio. Most of the stretching research is about improving sports performance and as we know, training for sports performance and training for well-being are quite different. We need to consider carefully where we get our advice about stretching; is it geared toward athletes or fitness for health and well-being? The handful of research studies that show stretching leads to injury are talking about athletes, and even then, the research is not conclusive, the injury risk is low and specific for certain sports.

What actually happens in the body with stretching has not been possible to document until only a decade ago. Before then, stretching studies measured how stretching improved range of motion of individual joints. Fortunately, recent technology allows researchers to understand stretching on a cellular level so future research will tell us more. One thing we have learned is that stretching is about much more than muscles. (more about that in the next blog)

Bottom Line:  The truth about stretching is we just don’t have a lot of definite answers about why it’s good for us, but stretching does appear to be a greatly untapped way to feel comfortable in your body now, as well healthy in the future.   

In the next blog, we’ll look at the Real-time Results of stretching, to help your brain stay motivated to give your body more comfort and freedom of movement.  

Three reasons you are not motivated for strength training

This is number seven in a series on the Real-time Results* of exercise,

the ones that will make your brain want to exercise.

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What made you click on this blog? What makes you eat breakfast? Have a cup of coffee? Phone a friend? It’s the same instinct that makes a bird build a nest and a beaver build a dam. What makes us take action on something is the desire to be well. This is where the word motivation comes from: “motive: a need or desire that causes one to act”.   

You’ve probably heard that strength training has many great benefits for bones, balance, and metabolism. Who wouldn’t want to stay healthy and age well and keep weight in check?  From the statistics, though, it looks like 80% of us don’t really care about those things. But if you ask anyone, they would say, “Yes, of course I want to keep my bones and body and metabolism strong!” What gives? Why is it so difficult to motivate for strength training?  

Here are three main reasons:

1) It doesn’t ‘work’. Let’s say you see an exercise on social media that promises to slim your thighs or tone your arms or flatten your stomach. You start doing it diligently every day for a month. But nothing seems to happen. Your body, no matter how much you do, just does not look like the body of the person doing that exercise. You decide it’s not working and continue your search for an exercise that will ‘fix your body’. The problem is not that strength training doesn’t work, it that your body doesn’t work that way. Targeting, toning, slimming, sculpting—all are terms invented by marketing science, not exercise science. Strength exercises do not cause you to lose more fat in a specific area. Maybe your muscles will tighten (or just feel tighter), but you cannot target fat loss in certain areas.

The fact is strength training, done correctly, will work. Really! It instantly activates your metabolism in your whole body, helping you with weight loss and more importantly, maintaining weight loss. But the promise that exercise works like Michelangelo creating the statue of David is honestly just there to make you buy an exercise program. When there is a mismatch between what your brain expects from exercise and how your body responds to exercise, staying motivated for strength training is very challenging.

2) It’s painful. The no pain, no gain phrase is so catchy and believable. Yet your brain is hardwired to AVOID what is painful. Suffering through pain and telling yourself it is a ‘good sore’ might work for a while, but over time, it comes up against your brain’s instinct to avoid pain. Eventually it will create all kinds of excuses why you can’t do strength training today, and the next day, and the next day.  

The fact is there is no gain in pain when exercising for health and well-being. Really! There is no such thing as a good sore. If you are an athlete, pain is part of the package. It’s the consequence of pushing your body to gain a competitive edge. But if you are strength training for the great health benefits, pain is a sign something needs to change. It means you did too much too soon and your body is letting you know it cannot adapt that quickly. When you learn to work with the natural rate of growth for your body, it will thank you by staying strong because your brain will stay motivated to strength train this week and each week going forward.  

3) It’s complicated. Walk into most  gyms and you will see a gazillion weight machines, racks of dumbbells, and people looking like they are being tortured. If you get past that intimidation, then there are all the choices of what to do for strength training. Is it better to use machines or free weights? Is it better to do lower weight and higher reps or the opposite (and what is a set and a rep, again? I always get them confused)?  Let’s face it, even if you want to strength train, figuring out how to do it is enough to make you turn around and just go for a walk instead. Cardio is so much simpler, which is why 80% of people skip strength training.   

The fact is the way your body moves to be strong, and keep your metabolism strong, is not all that complicated. Really! What makes it complicated are programs that are offshoots from bodybuilding or sports training. For feeling and functioning better, aging well, and activating metabolism, it can be simple. When you strip away all the marketing-based exercises and focus on exercises that keep you functioning the way you want to now, and each day going forward, it is not only simple, it is motivating.  Your body feels good right away, strong because it is moving well, and your brain sees the value in what you are doing. Strength training becomes time efficient, energizing, and motivating.

Why not do strength training in the way that works with your body and brain?

It starts with giving strength training an upgrade for those of us who just want to feel better now and be confident we can move to keep feeling better in the future.   

As an Exercising WELL member, you learn how to do strength training in the way that eliminates these drains on your body and your motivation. The combination of coaching and online videos makes it easy to keep you simply strong and your brain simply motivated.

 

*With so many healthy reasons to exercise, motivation should be easier! The fact is, your brain is most easily motivated to do what makes you feel better now, not what might make you feel better in the future. The problem is we mostly talk about exercise in terms of the long-term results.

How strength training activates your well-being

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In the last blog, I highlighted how your strength is not from your muscles, but from your brain and nerves that connect it to your muscles.  It turns out, that ‘waking up’ of nerve fibers activates your whole body and your well-being in very unique ways.   Let’s take a look.

Your muscles. Your muscles are made up of lots of muscle fibers. Imagine each of those fibers like rowers on a boat; the more people rowing, the more strength and power the boat has. If the exercise is with light resistance, only a small amount of muscle fibers is activated. If the weight is heavy, more muscle fibers are called into action. As your muscles get fatigued during an exercise, your nervous system will call upon more muscle fibers to help out.

Your bones. Every day your body is both making and losing bone cells. Around age thirty we seem to start losing more bone cells than we are making. The rate at which that happens depends on how often you are telling your bones to make new cells. When muscles contract, they tug on your bones. When that tug happens, it’s like your muscles are tapping on the shoulder of your bones, saying, ‘hey, stay strong, I need you!’ This sets in motion the immediate signal to your bones telling them to make new cells. Your muscle contraction is what slows the loss of bone. The stronger the contraction, the greater the trigger for new bone cells.

The catalyst:  How often do you hear advice to get enough calcium for your bones and protein for muscles? Well, if you put all the ingredients for a cake into a bowl, but never put it into the oven, would you end up with a cake? No. Those ingredients need a catalyst, heat, to make them work together to produce a cake. Getting enough of the right nutrients is only part of building strong muscles and bones. Strength training is the catalyst that makes the nutrients work for your bones and muscles! 

Your metabolism. When you challenge your muscle fibers, they go through changes like tiny tears in the fibers and use of the fuel stored right in muscles. It takes them about 24-48 hours to repair and refuel after that use. As they repair from those small tears, they gain strength. While they are refueling and repairing, they are more ‘metabolically active’. That means they are burning more calories for a day or two after you do strength training—up to about 15% more!

Your blood sugars. When your muscles contract, they use fuel stored in your muscle fibers and in your blood system. The fuel is glucose (sugar) and fats from your blood system. Each time you contract your muscles, they are ‘soaking up’ blood sugar and using it. That means that sugar is not hanging out in your blood, affecting every other cell in your body. Because strength training causes the longer-term repairs I mentioned, it also causes longer-term use of blood sugars for hours after you finish. This is why strength training is one of the best ways to manage high blood sugar levels.

And more… There are many more cascades of real-time changes that happen each time you perform strength-training exercises that are similar to those that happen with cardio. For example, brain chemicals are released that improve a sense of optimism, focus, and calm. Nitric oxide is released which helps keep blood vessels relaxed, regulating blood pressure and reducing strain on blood vessel walls that could lead to cardiovascular disease.

Unique benefits, unique barriers. These are just the highlights of the unique and powerful Real-time Results of strength training. So why are 80% of people not doing it regularly? If you are one of them, stay tuned.  Next week we will look at the specific road blocks to motivation to strength train.

Bottom Line: Your brain signals your muscles to contract, pulling on bones, and creating movement.  This simple progression of events, when done in a way that is challenging for each one of the steps in the process, creates the catalyst for strengthening and maintaining your bone, muscle, and metabolism.

How can you start this domino effect of health and well-being for yourself today? 

B-WELL

Janet

 

 

The fine bottom line of cardio intensity

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 In the last blog, I talked about why cardio is so much more than just getting your heart rate up. With all the advice about the intensity of cardiovascular exercise lately, let’s take a look at what happens when you exercise at different intensities so you can make a choice about the right level for your body.

Oxygen: Remember that when your body has the equipment to use oxygen, it can fuel your muscles in a more sustainable way. The more equipment, the wider the range of exercise intensities your body can handle without getting tired and needing to stop. If the equipment that uses oxygen to produce energy is lacking, your body will have to go back to using the short-acting, non-oxygen-requiring system for producing energy. So, when you reach a level of exercise where your body cannot keep up with the demand for more oxygen to produce energy, your body will shift to the energy-producing system that runs out quickly.

What you practice gets stronger: This is why someone who does not move for extended periods of time will very often get tired faster, whereas a regular exerciser who has built up the equipment needed to use that aerobic system can last for a long time. Your body is a use it to keep it system.  Like any good system, when one part is not working well, another part will pick up the slack in order to keep the system working. When it comes to the cardiovascular system, even if you have a disease that limits one part of that system, other parts will adapt—as long as they get the signals to do so. Cardiovascular exercise signals the whole system to get stronger in any way it can. This is why someone with lung disease or heart disease is especially in need of cardiovascular exercise, to signal the rest of the system to pick up the slack. When the heart or lungs don’t work as well, the muscles will compensate by building more equipment so they can use oxygen more effectively.

Carbon dioxide: If, during a cardiovascular exercise, you kick it up to a higher intensity, your breathing will reach an uncomfortable level. This is not your body wanting more oxygen—it is your body trying to get rid of carbon dioxide, the byproduct of the non-oxygen-using fuel system. That uncomfortable shortness of breath is called the ‘anaerobic threshold’. It is a sure sign your body won’t last much longer unless you lower the intensity.

Breathing vs. heart rate: This is why your breathing gives you a better idea about the function of your cardiovascular system than heart rate does. You can sense it, without having to measure it.  Plus, without taking a special test to measure your maximal heart rate, your exercise heart rate range can only be predicted (and not very accurately).  Your breathing level, however, is a real-time measure of what is happening in your body. The ‘comfort’ of your breathing lets you know if you have the equipment needed keep fueling muscles. When you are breathing uncomfortably, it is a sign the system is not prepared to keep up and your body is relying more on the non-oxygen, short-lasting fuel system.

Building stamina is possible for any body: For someone who is very fit, this happens at a much higher intensity. For someone who has not built up the oxygen-using system equipment, this happens at a much lower level. For anyone, though, when you exercise regularly, your body adapts by building more equipment for the oxygen-using fuel system, because it is a much more efficient way to fuel your muscles.

“Cardio” or “weight loss”: If you are looking to burn more calories and fat because you want to lose weight, don’t get side-tracked by trying to decide if you should do the cardio program or the weight loss program on your treadmill. Yes, your body uses more carbs at high intensity and fats at lower intensity, but in the end it really does not matter. Your body will break down fats to replace the carbohydrate (glucose) stores when you are resting after exercise. You don’t need to choose between getting more cardio or burning more fat. It’s all good.

The fine bottom line: What is more important for weight loss as well as overall fitness and health is how consistently you do cardio. Remember, after about three days of not doing cardio, the ‘equipment’ starts to get rusty. That’s why it’s important to consider how your brain perceives the exercise too.  Your brain is hardwired to avoid what is uncomfortable.  If you push the intensity to ‘get a better workout’ and are wishing every minute away, your brain is much less likely to want to go back and do that again—and there goes consistency.

motivating intensity

That, my friends, is the fine bottom line of cardio. Do cardio at a moderate to motivating challenge for your breathing. Each time be sure it is the intensity level that feels good physically and mentally, so your brain wants to exercise again. Some days the motivating challenge is just getting started and enjoying a moderate intensity. Some days it could be a higher intensity because it feels good to push a bit harder. But on all days, if you are going to get the health and well-being benefits, it needs to feel motivating, not uncomfortable.     

Next week, I’ll list all the amazing Real-time Results you get from doing cardio in a way that benefits your whole person.

Cardio: beyond your heart

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In abbreviating the name used for cardiovascular exercise to just cardio, some confusion has arisen about what cardiovascular exercise is. Because the word cardio means heart, and heart rate is used during cardiovascular exercise, the common thought is that cardio is about strengthening your heart. We often refer to good cardio as ‘getting your heart rate up’.

Let’s take a little stroll through what happens in your body when you do cardio and see if there is more to cardio than its name implies.

The start of movement: When you start moving, your brain initiates the action by sending messages to your muscles to move. Therefore, cardio starts in, depends on, and changes your brain and nervous system.

The fuels: As your muscles start to move, they need fuel. There are two main systems for producing fuel for muscles: a long-acting, with-oxygen (aerobic) system and a short-acting, without-oxygen (anaerobic) system.

Since oxygen is carried by the blood, and at rest, only about 20% of your blood flow goes to your muscles,  when you start to move your body has to shift your blood flow to those muscles. It takes a few minutes for your muscles to get enough oxygen to use the longer-lasting system for fuel production. So for about the first three minutes of movement, your muscles get their fuel from carbohydrates stored right in the muscles.

Once your body redirects more blood to your muscles, your body can use the longer-lasting, with-oxygen system to keep you moving. This system uses mainly a combination of fats and carbohydrates to fuel muscles. But to do that, it needs the oxygen sent to it from the lungs, pumped through the heart, and transported through your blood vessels.

The equipment: Once your muscles are using the aerobic system for fueling your muscles, you are able to sustain that movement as long as that system has the equipment and fuels it needs. The equipment includes enzymes, mitochondria in cells, glucose, and blood supply, just to name just a few.

Use it to keep it: This equipment is kept sharp by use. If it is not used regularly, it starts to fade. In fact, this starts to happen after just three days of not doing a cardiovascular-type exercise. (If you are on bedrest, it happens even sooner.) This is why cardiovascular exercise is recommended at least three days a week to keep this equipment sharp and working well.

The heart: When the muscles are moving, they are contracting and pressing against your veins. This continuous, rhythmic movement helps the blood travel back to your heart after your muscles have used the oxygen and nutrients they need for that activity. When that blood comes back to the heart, it causes a little stretch in the heart muscle. Think about a balloon filled up with air without tying it. If that balloon has a little bit of air and you let it go, it does not go very far. But if that balloon is filled with a lot of air, and you let it go, it has power to go all over the room. When your heart fills with more blood, that stretch causes it to contract harder. Just like the balloon filled with air, the more blood that returns to your heart, the stronger that contraction.

A stronger heart: This stronger contraction is what is making your heart muscle stronger. The more muscles that are moving, the more blood gets sent back to your heart for that little stretch and stronger contraction. Moving your fingers continuously would send just a very small amount of blood back to your heart. Dancing using your arms and legs sends a much greater volume of blood to strengthen your heart.

Way beyond heart rate: Many things get your heart rate up—stress, caffeine, medications, even just thinking about exercise—but that does not make your heart and cardiovascular system stronger. What makes something good cardio is this challenge to your whole cardiovascular system. Every part of that system gets stronger when you do continuous movement using a large amount of muscles at a level you can sustain.

That sustainably of movement is what makes something cardio. There is much information about how hard you should push your body when doing cardio. I’ll talk about this aspect of cardio in the next blog.