Being Me at 57: Reflections on Exercise and Getting Older

I have been in the exercise business my whole life. I guess I must have an aptitude for it. I have a degree in dance because sitting still in class and studying was an issue. When my kids were young, I got up before dawn to practice yoga so that I could be a calm parent. It meant living with a lot of muscle and joint pain that started in my late teens. It meant that I often used my exercise to deal with my emotions: which is good - until it is over done - and then, like any addiction, it has its downside - like more injuries that might not heal. I became over critical of my body even when others told me that I looked good.

And…It also meant adjusting my food so that I can be physical, letting go of drugs and alcohol so that it was easier to get up in the morning. Because I supported my family by teaching physical arts and exercise, I was very aware of my fitness levels even during times when I would have like to slack off. Of course this had it’s upsides!

Now at 57, I am not as physical as I used to be but I take care of how and when I work out more than ever. I spend more time at my computer than I do teaching these days. I have to figure out where exercise fits into my schedule. I don’t keep muscle tone like I used to, I have lost my tolerance for pain, and like everything else in my life, I have an accumulation of experiences that I don’t need to repeat again! My choices for health are more clear-cut. Helping my clients to find a path to valuing exercise is often more challenging than the exercises that I teach them.

For some people, exercise has not been presented in a way that is accessible to them, and negative experiences in their past may have led them to believe that no exercise could be enjoyable.  Working past a dislike of exercise can be very challenging, and may require thinking “outside the box.”  For some, even those whose lives will be shortened by diabetes or heart disease, exercise is so distasteful that they resist it, even if they know that it will improve their health. Some might find that exercising alone at home with a DVD works better for them, while some will enjoy the companionship of a class situation. I have been teaching a kick-ass chair yoga class with group of 60-90 year olds for the past 8 years and they swear by it! I push them in balance and strengthening. We get into every joint to bring it through full range of motion. Some clients have made a change from no exercise to walking around the block or five minutes of stretching in their bed.  For clients who haven’t been exercising at all, these changes can be big first steps. Working up to a 20-minute a day fast paced walk can change someone’s trajectory of aging!

My exercise routine now is very different than it was when I was younger. I do my cardio in the late afternoon or evening at home or at a fitness center. I find that it helps get rid of the stress I accumulated during the day. I also do an upper body routine a couple of times a week that elevates my heart while building muscle tone around my shoulder girdle. I do core and leg exercises before I go to bed to help me sleep. I do yoga stretches a few times a week and I try to get out dancing a couple of times a month. 

So at 57, I work harder and smarter at staying fit. I know that at any age or physical condition, we feel better by adding elevated activity into our lives. I have to remember that being busy or not having enough money is no excuse. Being sick, tired and deconditioned will take up a lot more of my time and finances. What are the ways that you motivate yourself to exercise or include elevated activity into your life? Is it time for something new?

 

Healing My Mind from Depression: What I have packed in my emotional first aid kit

It has become very clear to me that I know what is going on in my mind when I recognize sensations in my body. When my stomach grips, I know that I am nervous about something.  When my jaw grips, I am usually feeling anger.  When my physical energy feels hyped up and I talk excessively or can’t relax, I feel out of control.  When my body feels like lead and I can’t find any words, I feel depressed.  When my chest feels tight and I can’t breathe deeply, I feel anxious. 

 

Physical sensations like these have the power to draw us away from feeling in balance or at peace.  We can’t access the present moment; the sensations in our body are too distracting.  We become drawn to regrets about the past or fear of the future.  Just as our minor aches and pains may offer clues that we are developing a physical illness or an over-use injury, so our tight muscles and lapses in energy may signal the presence of a challenge to our mental health. 

 

Some of us have predispositions, in the form of hormonal imbalances or wiring in our brains, that make it more difficult for us to feel at ease with our thoughts.  We may seek relief from negative feelings through substance abuse, eating disorders or other behaviors that make us feel balanced for a time but are destructive in the long run.  These negative behaviors do not have their roots in love or self-care.  Often there are long-term consequences to these destructive behaviors, not only for us but also for others.  It would change the dynamics of our society if the skills of mindfulness that draw us over and over again, throughout the day, to recognizing our body’s search for homeostasis were taught at a young age. 

 

If we have a predisposition to mental health issues or just occasionally feel anxiety or depression, taking care of ourselves holistically can ease the flow of our day to day living, even when we are taking prescription medication. I have proven this to myself over and over again. I can 90% of the time trace depression or anxiety to how I took care of myself the day before: #1 on the list is dehydration. It always tops the charts. The #2 culprit comes from my list of “usual suspects”: lack of sleep, brain fatigue from too much work, poor food choices, too much screen time, lack of vigorous exercise or being around toxic negative people for too long.

 

Aside from these day-to-day self-care challenges, I can also get caught up in “default” negative thinking patterns from my past. When I feel unworthy or unloveable, I know that I need to reach out to friends who encourage me to find myself again. Or, sometimes, I turn to affirmations, guided meditations, or an inspiring book to change my unproductive thinking process.

 

Getting my mind back in a good place can be challenging. I find inspiration in the work of these neuroscientists:

 

 

·      Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, concluded that ten minutes of focused breathing improves the functioning of the prefrontal cortex.  He reached this conclusion with no prior knowledge of yoga or meditation.  He states that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to feel compassion and empathy.  It also helps us to feel “tuned-in” to our feelings and to the feelings of others.[i]

·      Dr. Adrian Raine, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Neurocriminologist, has shown that negative emotions, violence, and neglect affect the wiring of the brain.  In his book The Anatomy of Violence, he notes that meditation can permanently heal the brain in a way that reduces violent tendencies.[ii]

·      Dr. Willoughby Britton, a Neuroscientist and Professor at Brown University, has shown in her research that the focus and non-judgment that we learn from meditation helps us to become happier.[iii]

·      Dr. Sara Lazar, a Neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has done research that shows meditating 40 minutes a day increases the grey matter in the hippocampus.  The hippocampus has less grey matter in people who are depressed or have PTS.[iv]

 

These are some of the things in my “emotional first aid kit” What are some of yours? Please let me know if any of these ideas resonated with you. Comments Here


[i] Dr. Dan Siegel - Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://drdansiegel.com/

[ii] Department of Criminology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://crim.sas.upenn.edu/people/faculty/adrian-raine

[iii] Department of Criminology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://crim.sas.upenn.edu/people/faculty/adrian-raine

[iv] Sara Lazar, Ph.D. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Eating Well: You are what you digest

When I look back over my life, my challenges in my relationship with food have taken up many hours.  I grew up in a meat-potatoes-and-lotsa-butter kind of family where vegetables, other than potatoes, took up a very small part of the dinner plate.  As teens, my sisters and I were constantly yo-yoing on diets and obsessing in our quest to be thin.  I was an active bulimic from ages 15 to 25.  In those years, much of my brain space was taken up with thinking about the shape of my body and wanting to get a “fix” from overeating and vomiting, at least when I wasn’t smoking or popping “something,” or drinking.  When I was finally able to abstain from these behaviors, abstinence took the form of eating three meals a day.  I strove to spend my brain time on nutrition, aesthetic presentation of food and feeling great after I ate.  This emphasis on nutritious food and learning about Ayurveda and the importance of digestion has changed my relationship with food from one that was negative for my head and body to one that is creative, curious and beneficial for my health. Eating well - eating mostly unprocessed foods, adding in digestive herbs and teas and noticing how these make me feel - is one of my cornerstones of living well.

Eating well is about more than just the food that we put into our bodies.  It’s not just about selecting foods that are nutritious.  It’s also about creating digestive juices and absorbing nutrients.  One of the biggest benefits of my studies of Ayurveda is that I now understand the importance of digestion.  Central to Ayurveda is the concept that our vitality begins with a healthy digestive process - or that our demise begins in the intestines.  This makes a lot of sense to me. 

Mindful Eating and Digestion

Another vital component of healthy eating is mindfulness. We can be entrenched in unhealthy eating patterns – and a way for us to unwind this negative behavior is to become more aware of what we eat and how it makes us feel. All of us have experienced the phenomenon of the “disappearing food” – “Suddenly the whole box was gone!” – and it often happens when we eat while focusing on other things. Whether we eat while watching TV or completing a vital email, multitasking may stand in the way of positive change.

In order for our nutrition choices and mindfulness to be of the greatest benefit to us, we need to care for our digestion.  In Ayurveda, the term for our digestive energy is agi– the fire to turn what we eat into nutrients for our cells.  Ama is the congestion that comes from undigested food; it zaps our energy and vitality.  Sometimes we might need to cut out certain foods altogether; sometimes we might need to eat smaller quantities with more vegetables.  Adding herbs and spices that are known to aid in digestion might also be part of the answer.

Digestive herbs and spices

Caution:  Some herbs shouldn’t be mixed with pharmaceutical drugs.  If you are on medications, make sure to check whether there are any contraindications with herbs.  Make sure that you start slowly with these herbs in your diet, unless they have been prescribed by your Ayurvedic practitioner, allopathic doctor or naturopathic physician. 

One way we can get out of our digestive ruts is to add spices into our cooking, or to drink herbal teas.  I think that this is one of the greatest practical everyday gifts that we get from studying Ayurveda. Many of my friends and clients from ethnic backgrounds already have knowledge of many spices that have been lost in standard American cooking. In keeping with the spirit of mindfulness, we - and our clients - need to be mindful of how we feel after we add these herbs and spices into our diet.  Quantity can make a difference.  For instance, too much ginger, instead of relieving nausea, can exacerbate it.  I am careful to take some of the warming herbs early in the day because if I eat them later in the day, I find that they make me too hot at night.  Someone who is regularly cold at night, though, might feel better if they had some ginger tea before they went to bed.  “Cold wet” foods like dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk, ice cream) and tofu feel better in me if I add some warming spices like ginger or cardamom. 

So on these last warm days of summer, I am enjoying raw salads, cold lemonade and refreshing iced peppermint tea, and cooling fruit desserts. As the crisp fall days approach, my diet will change to ginger tea to warm me up in the morning, cooked root vegetables and squashes, chai tea in warm almond milk for an afternoon pick-me-up, and desserts like gingerbread and pumpkin pie. I love it all!