Monday, March 21, 2011

A New Way to Think About Exercise

Before my exercise class last Friday morning, Caroline Duncan called me into her office, shut the door (triggering the automatic “bad news is coming” fear reaction!), and read aloud today’s feature article, The Elegance of Exercise. I was blown away, and not out of relief that I hadn’t been reprimanded or dismissed. I was blown away by the brilliance of the article. After zipping around in the mental stratosphere for a while, I grabbed onto the flimsy string that anchors me to earth and settled down to do some serious thinking about what Caroline had said in her own elegant fashion. I’ll try not to steal her thunder and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about her ideas, but before you read her article, I want to tell you this.

I’m one of the people she mentions in the first paragraph, the ones who moan and groan at the very thought of exercise. About seven months after my band surgery, I somehow felt compelled to increase and diversify my exercise, which until then I had been doing out of dreary obligation to my surgeon, who had made me promise to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. I was exercising out of duty, the way my mom swallowed castor oil as a child – because it was good for me and an authority figure (in Mom’s case, her loving tyrant of a mother) insisted that I do it. A few months later, I was amazed to find myself disappointed one day when I had to skip an aerobics class in order to keep a band fill appointment. Wouldn’t you be amazed at that, too? For a bandster, a fill is of such primary importance that everything else pales by comparison. I got my fill that day but I sorely missed my exercise class.

I tell you this because if you’re one of the moaners and groaners, I don’t want you to skip reading Caroline’s article. It’s not just another “do it because it’s good for you” lecture. It speaks to a very basic truth: weight loss surgery helps you lose weight, but you’re going to need more than weight loss to improve your health, appearance and quality of life. Those missing components don’t come in a bottle. They don’t fly like magic out of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel. They don’t come from an exercise expert, be it Jillian Michaels or the far-superior Caroline Duncan. They come from you and the work you do to help yourself. As a kid, I used to beg my mother for notes excusing me from gym class (which she refused to write even though she hated gym class too). Well, listen up, folks. We’ll be accepting NO MORE EXERCISE EXCUSES from this day forward!

The Elegance of Exercise
Caroline Duncan, BSc, CFI, CPFT
ADBC INC. Fitness Studio, Troy, TN

Most people tend to think of exercise as an activity they know they should be doing, yet most will verify they have little time to exercise. Just the thought of exercising brings agony, groans, and complaining. If we could package exercise in a bottle, market it, and sell it with a guarantee of magic benefits such as lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose; improved sleep, stronger bones, cancer prevention, more energy; and a more youthful image and physique, we would all be wealthy. Instead, exercise is all about personal participation to gain those benefits.

Smart exercising encompasses a diverse array of fitness components such as cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, agility, and flexibility. Cardio exercising improves the cardiovascular system, strength conditioning tones and tightens the assets – both physical and spiritual, agility improves balance, and flexibility helps to elongate and make the musculoskeletal system more responsive and pliable. Without these diverse fitness components, what good does it do to involve one component without the other? These components create the balance the body needs just for daily living activities and benefit the body enormously for body functioning. By incorporating these components, exercise bathes the body with a sense of equilibrium, strength, and elegance. Simply put, the human body was meant to move.

Meaningful, smart exercise and nutrition can result in a new body transformation without intrusive scars. By incorporating exercise in one’s daily menu, it truly staves off the ageing process. Where on earth can one get a toned body that possesses more energy and a more youthful physique than from what exercise and nutrition can produce? While surgery does benefit some individuals, others continue the yo-yo cycle of weight loss and weight gain. The yo-yo cycle has negative impact on the human body. Quit kidding yourself! People that depend on a strict diet without exercise activity need to be aware that the skin quickly loses its elasticity, has greater collagen breakdown, and muscle atrophy takes on a different form, almost like that of excess flab waving in the wind. In fact, Professor Stuart Warden, Director of Physical Therapy Research at Indiana University, informed the New York Times last week that “the stresses of exercise activate a particular molecular pathway that increases collagen,” which leads to stronger connective tissues in the dermis, and thus, fewer wrinkles and younger-looking skin. With the combination of diverse exercise and good nutrition, the body responds and creates a beautiful body – all built from the brilliance and elegance of exercising.

So, get off your duff, put your best foot forward, and do something that incorporates all the fitness components and smarter nutrition. Your heart will get stronger, your muscles will become more toned, your skin will thank you, and above all your body will be more responsive with energy.

Jean comments:
I’m not accustomed to thinking of exercise and elegance in the same thought bubble. In fact, I often feel the opposite of elegant when I’m exercising. I’m hot, damp and panting; I have a severe case of bed head and a sweat-soaked headband a la Bruce Springsteen; I’m usually wearing an outfit I wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead in, I’m wearing clunky athletic shoes; and I’m stepping on my left foot when everyone else is stepping on their right foot while my internal audience screams, “No, no, Jean! Not that right foot, the other right foot!” Not much elegance in any of that, is there?

Or maybe there is.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “elegant” thusly:
(1) having dignified richness and grace, as of manner, design, dress, etc. (I call this the Grace Kelly definition.)
(2) cleverly apt and simple, as in “an elegant solution.” (I call this the Friedrich Hansen definition, for the reason you’ll see below.)

As I think Caroline’s article demonstrates, exercising your body encompasses both definitions of elegant. When I was in my teens and understood only the Grace Kelly definition of elegant, I overheard my father (an inventor) discussing a problem with his business partner, a German scientist named Friedrich, about their project using microwaves to find impurities (like oil) in the earth (many years later, my mother complained bitterly, “Why couldn’t they have been the ones to figure out you can cook with microwaves?”).

Although I often typed patent applications for Dad and Uncle Fred (as we called Friedrich), I understood perhaps one word out of 20 that they spoke. Eventually they worked their way through this particular problem, and I was startled to hear Fred exclaim, “An elegant solution, Edward! Elegant!” The two men, both of them about as elegant in appearance as Albert Einstein having a bad hair day about a week after he should have done some laundry, were tickled pink with their solution because of its mind-boggling cleverness and wondrous simplicity.

Still not getting it? Let’s look at an example that’s more likely to happen in your own everyday life. Let’s say you’re a manager with four employees who, all working together, need five days to accomplish an extremely important task. The job gets done every week, but at the dollar cost of 200 man-hours (or woman-hours) and the business cost of two other departments who can’t do their job until yours is done, plus the frustration all this expense and delay causes not only the Big Boss but the Big Client #1 who’s impatiently waiting for his/her widget to arrive at his desk or receiving dock so that all his own employees can get to work making their own clients happy. After thinking about all this for a while, you realize that if your team uses a different technique or procedure or material or machine, the job can be done by only two employees, in two days instead of five. Now the other two employees are available to spend two days doing a similar task for Big Client #2. As a result of your bright idea, the organization cuts its operating costs, improves its product and customer service, and makes it possible to bring in new clients and therefore more income, while everyone gets to take Friday off. That, my dear Watson, is an elegant solution.

Now let’s apply the word elegance to the human body. Are you thinking something like, “I’m fat and 50, what’s elegant about that?” Please dismiss that thought. You don’t have to be a human who looks like Grace Kelly. If I were a professor of medicine (which sadly, I am not), I could prove to you that your body is in fact very rich and graceful in its manner, design, and problem-solving abilities. I’m Miss Jean, not Dr. Jean, so let’s not try to decipher something as complicated as the nervous system. Let’s just think about the miracle of autonomous breathing. It is a simple enough function – breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out – that you probably take for granted unless you suffer from something like asthma or COPD. Your breathing brings in the oxygen you must have to stay alive, and it works in a graceful, rhythmic, continuous fashion so efficient that it doesn’t require any conscious effort on your part. If we say that the problem is that you’ll die without enough oxygen, your rich and complex body has solved that problem in a wonderfully elegant way.

Finally, let’s think about elegance as applied to exercise. In exercise class last Friday, I panted and sweated and thought for a moment that I would have to stop and rest and that I would never figure out how to avoiding stepping with my left foot when I was supposed to be stepping with my right foot. But my pride wouldn’t let me stop, so I admonished myself (“Stop thinking about it and just do it!”) and carried on, and a few seconds later this short, sweaty, droopy, myopic 57-year-old body of mine suddenly got it. My mind, my lungs, my heart, my feet and the music all came into alignment – a very elegant alignment indeed. In that moment, I felt like Superwoman – that I could do anything, any physical or mental task that a situation demanded, and that I could do it well.

That kind of alignment – the sense of equilibrium, strength, and elegance that Caroline describes in her article – really does seem superhuman to me. But it isn’t superhuman. The potential for it in inside every single cell in your body, because as Caroline said, your human body was meant to move. God, or evolution, or your Higher Power, designed it that way for a reason. Movement is essential to almost everything good and worthwhile to which you might aspire. Of course a paralyzed or disabled person can accomplish good and worthwhile things…with help from someone able-bodied like you. And (to me, anyway) the best way to teach your body to obey your commands and take you wherever you want to go is through daily exercise and purposeful movement. Yes, a ballerina performing a pirouette is beautiful and elegant, but you don’t need a swan neck, long legs, and a pink tutu to achieve beauty and elegance. Walking to the mailbox is also beautiful and elegant, especially if that was once a task too enormous to even contemplate.

If you’re like me, you’ve spent years thinking of yourself as fat and unattractive, graceless and clumsy, inept and unmotivated. You wished for a magic potion like the one Caroline describes in her article. You may have hoped that bariatric surgery could substitute for that potion. In truth, you’re already equipped with everything you need to live a useful, satisfying, healthy and even joyful life. It’s your birthright: you were born with it. And now’s the time to train yourself to use it.

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