Strength, beyond your muscles. 

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As we discussed with cardio, we often talk about strength training in terms of the long-term benefits. Yet your brain really cares about the instant rewards of doing something. But what if the instant ‘reward’ you get from lifting weights is muscle soreness and fatigue? Sure, you could tell yourself ‘no pain, no gain’ and convince yourself that it is a ‘good sore’ and all that discomfort means you got a ‘good workout’. Your brain, though, is most concerned with you feeling good now and it’s designed to avoid things that are painful or uncomfortable. When your willpower to endure the discomfort runs out, your brain will start to plant excuses in your head about why you need to skip strength training today (and the next day, and the next).

Eighty percent of people are not doing strength training. Like you, they probably know the benefits—stronger bones, better aging, stronger metabolism—but the brain has some concerns—injury, weight gain, getting ‘too muscular’, or looking like a weakling at the gym. This keeps many people living in the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training.

Are you ready to get out of the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training? Ready to reassure your brain that it is all good, because you are going to work with how your body is designed to be strong? Let’s cut through the marketing- and myth-based ‘facts’ and clear the path to your strongest possible muscles, bones, and metabolism now and every decade going forward.

What is strength training? Strength training is also known as weight training, weight lifting, and resistance training. Basically, it’s when you challenge your body to be able to move your body or objects more easily against gravity. If you are thinking the things you do in your daily life like housework, child care, and yard work mean you don’t need strength training, click here to see why these physical activities are different than exercise.

Making your brain want to strength train. From the very first time you do a strength exercise, you set into motion a cascade of events that produce unique and powerful events in your whole body. Yet, most of the effects of doing or not doing strength training are not noticeable right away, so it’s easy to forget why it is so important. In the next few blogs, I’ll show you the Real-time Results of each strength training session, and why pain and discomfort are not necessary. This way, your brain will be more confident that doing strength training will help you feel and function better now, without having to first endure pain, discomfort, or embarrassment.

Why strength is not from your muscles. Although we most equate strength with big muscles, that is not where strength comes from. Before you even move, something very important happens. Your brain is activated and ‘plans’ what muscles will be needed to create the intended movement. It estimates how many muscle fibers are needed to create the force you need to move against gravity. Then your brain sends a signal through your spinal cord to the muscles you need to do that movement. Without this nervous system signal, muscles can’t move. This pre-planning of movement makes it much smoother and more efficient.

The pathway to strength: Just like the first time you take a trip somewhere, the first time you perform a movement, your brain has to work harder to find the most efficient pathway. Over time, it becomes easier as your brain remembers the pathway. Think about how your body learned to walk, ride a bike, tie your shoes, swim, or play sports. All of these are examples of this process we call muscle memory. This building of muscle memory is what makes movements more automatic, so you can gain coordination, balance, agility, and strength.

Confusion about muscle memory: There is some talk that muscle memory is bad, because you burn fewer calories as your body gets used to an exercise and that you need muscle confusion to keep your body burning more calories. Honestly, the calorie-burning difference is minimal and probably won’t add up to any change on the scale. Muscle memory is what allows you to function. If you are exercising to lose weight so you can feel and function better, muscle memory is your friend.

The strength of your brain. Since the brain and nerves are what tell your muscles how to move, strength originates in your brain and nervous system, not in your muscles. That means you need your brain for building strength. You can see why present moment awareness is so important to get the most from strength training. It ensures you are creating the nerve pathways you want, the ones that allow you to access your strength by positioning your body in the right way, and creating nerve pathways so that strong movement becomes more automatic (more on that later). If your brain is distracted by a TV show, or other people around you, it won’t have as much ability to put into building your strength.  If finding the time for strength training is a concern, choose high-quality strength training by focusing your attention on your body rather than trying to save time by multitasking and doing it while watching TV

Bottom line: Your full mindful attention is your best strength training tool!

In the next blog, we’ll look at what happens in your muscles when you strength train that continues the cascade of events that leads to you feeling and functioning better.

The fine bottom line of cardio intensity

Rethink Exercsise

 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.

How to drop the ‘should’ in exercise

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If we know we should exercise, why do we struggle with it? The answer is complex, but as I said in my last blog series there is one word in that statement that changes everything. ‘Should’ makes exercise an externally-imposed activity with future results. Why does that matter so much? Your brain’s job is to pay attention to what is most important to you right now, what will keep you well right now.

Yet those of us in the healthy-person business keep telling you all the great reasons why you should get more exercise.

Exercise regularly to reduce your risk of

  • colon cancer by over 60%
  • recurrent breast cancer by approximately 50%
  • Alzheimer’s disease by approximately 40%
  • heart disease by approximately 40%
  • type II diabetes by 50%
  • death from any cause (overall mortality) by 40% 1

No matter how powerful these statements are, they are not enough to keep you motivated now. When you are feeling tired at the end of a long day or overwhelmed by too many things on your to do list or comfortable in your bed when the alarm goes off, what you ‘should’ do does not hold much power. What is ‘good for you’ at some point in the future just does not get top billing compared to these more immediate challenges to your well-being.

In the last blog, I simplified all the science-based factors for self-motivation into the Exercise Motivation Equation.

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What is important right now and doable right now will be most motivating right now. The trick is keeping exercise important and doable in the present moment.

Step one: Importance. When businesses are clear about the company’s core values, know their ‘why’, and communicate it well, they are more successful at motivating you to buy what they are selling.2  This not only works for successful companies, it works for successful individuals. This is why a personal coaching call is the first step in my Exercising WELL program. When we use a coaching conversation to clarify your well-being Vision and uncover your most value-driven Why for exercise, you’ll find your self-motivation for exercise ramps up.  In the coaching conversation, we transform exercise from a ‘should’ to a ‘want to’.

Once you know your Why for exercise, you are ready to discover what is most doable for your body and life now.

Step two: Doable. When your brain knows exercise will leave you feeling better now, it will want to do it. But knowing how to exercise in the way that is right for your body right now, rather than for the body you want in the future is not so easy. Many of the marketable future-based results like melting fat, having long lean muscles, and enjoying toned arms are not even doable because they ignore the natural laws of the body. Other results like six pack abs, reaching a goal weight, or completing a fitness challenge only distract from your Why.

Once you know how to move in the way your body was designed and are focused on what you can do now, exercise will immediately make you feel better right now.

In my next blog series, I’ll talk about the Real-time Results of exercise. When you know what is happening in your body with exercise now, you have the best chance of knowing how to get the results that are most important for you now, and leave you feeling better now.

Rethink this Week: Take a moment to explore your Why for exercise. Ask yourself ‘why is exercise important to me?’ Now, ask yourself ‘why is that important to me right now’ four more times. This seems a bit silly—repeating the question—but it is based on the well-established process of Motivational Interviewing3. Asking the question repeatedly, and answering it thoughtfully, will get you closer to the most value-driven reason for exercising. This is your Why. It is the deepest source of energy for your motivation in the present moment. With this motivation energy, you will be ready to use the Real-time Results of exercise that are most important to you to stay out of the ‘shoulds’ and in the ‘want tos’ for exercise. This process is more effective in a coaching conversation but doing this for yourself is a great way to get started with getting to your Why.

Enjoy Exercising WELL,

Janet

 

  1. Exercise is Medicine 
  2. Simon Sinek TED talk
  3. Instant Influence, by Michael Pantelon, PhD 

Does your exercise motivation burn out too easily?

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As I wrap up this series on building self-motivation for exercise, I hope you have learned some things about motivation and why you may have struggled in the past to keep exercising.

To review:

  • Motivation from external sources, (the scale, activity monitors, trainers, groups, exercise partners, challenges), are like the flame when you strike a match. It starts strong, but burns out quickly. When that flame connects with ingredients like the wick and wax of a candle, that flame will be sustained. You have the ingredients for motivation, but they are found only on the inside.
  • Neuroscience has found in the Habit Loop that our brain gravitates toward positive experiences like a magnet. Exercise science gives us simple solutions to making exercise a consistently positive experience.

But because we have become so skilled at outsourcing our motivation, building confidence in your internal motivation takes a new way of thinking about motivation.  And making exercise a consistently positive experience in today’s world is not simple at all. Between conflicting messages about exercise, the constant weight of guilt about not doing ‘enough’, and the ever-changing nature of your body and your life, positive experiences with exercise are like a carnival game where you try to hit a fast-moving target. Avoiding exercise can easily become a more positive experience than actually doing it!

So how do you make exercise a consistently positive and internally motivating experience? Let’s look at the two key ingredients from brain and body science covered in this blog series.

Importance:

  • When something is important to you, you will find the energy and a way to do it. What is most important to you about exercise is the flame that makes it a rewarding experience. However, when your reasons for exercising are too ‘surface’, like losing weight, or getting in shape, or being healthy, they lack that sustaining energy. Taking time to get below the surface to your Why is at the heart of making exercise a personally rewarding experience for you.
  • When exercise connects you with others, especially the people who are most important to you, it is a hugely positive experience. However, this can backfire when
    • you rely solely on groups or teams to keep you motivated
    • you are exercising because someone said you ‘should’
    • you are embarrassed about how your body looks
    • you can’t keep up with others and feel more isolated than connected

Do-ability:

  • Knowing you can get the results you want from exercise makes it a positive experience. The way to do this is to combine mindfulness—being aware of your body as it is right now—and knowledge of how to work with the natural laws of the body. This is tricky because the natural laws of the body are not very marketable. Fitness marketing often ignores them to make exercise appealing, and in the end, those fabricated results leave you less confident you can get what you really want from exercise.
  • Instant gratification makes something a positive experience (e.g., comfort foods). Exercising in a way that instantly makes you feel better, and being aware of that feeling, helps your brain learn and remember that exercise is a positive, not a negative. Yet, all of our ‘no pain no gain’, ‘just do it’, go-for-the-gold-type messages about exercise promote the delayed rewards of exercise. Delayed rewards take more energy and thus are a negative experience for your brain. Only when you focus on the Real-time Rewards of exercise is it going to be a consistently positive experience.

Importance plus Do-ability is what I call the Exercise Motivation Equation™. Using this equation gives you what you need to make exercise motivating amid the noise and confusion in the media and the dynamic nature of life.

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The next step is to learn how to exercise in a way that puts you in control of getting the results that are most important to you, that make you feel better now, and that give what you want from exercise in the future.

All of these ingredients are integrated into my coaching program, Exercising WELL. From our initial coaching call, throughout the online programs and our weekly coaching emails, you gain a working knowledge of how to put this all into action in your own life.

In the next blog series, I will share excerpts from Exercising WELL, so you can see how user-friendly, positive, and motivating this information is. With this real-life integration of exercise and motivation science, you gain confidence in your ability to keep your flame of motivation alive.

Enjoy Exercising WELL,

Janet