Here’s a poster (via Andrew Sullivan) that gives yet more reasons why sitting is hazardous to your health:
Imagine you could lose weight… have control over your anxiety and depression… prevent dementia and other debilitating side effects of aging… improve your brain power at any age… all without taking meds or making trips to the doctor.
Well, you can, says John J. Ratey, M. D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
Yep, you guessed it. Exercise is the best medicine.
If an inexpensive pill came out on the market that could do all that, with no negative side effects, we’d probably be all over it.
But the word “exercise” can tend to make one recoil. It’s work, after all.
I spent most of my adults years thinking exercise was good for cardiovascular health, maybe losing a few pounds or at least preventing future weight gain, replacing fat with muscle, and that’s about it.
As it turns out, those are probably the least of the reasons you should exercise.
The Mind-Body Connection
Dr. Ratey says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” This is based on hundreds and hundreds of research papers published within the last decade.
He has chapters devoted to how exercise helps with learning, stress, anxiety, depression, ADD, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. I’ll focus on just three of these in this post.
Anxiety: Nothing To Panic About
A group of cardiologists took psychiatrists to task in a 2004 New England Journal of Medicine article for failing to note that exercise is an additional means of treating anxiety.
These doctors said: “Exercise training has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety.”
Dr. Ratey says there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine, but if you can achieve the same effects through exercise, you build confidence in your own ability to cope. “Teaching the brain that we can survive is crucial to overcoming anxiety.”
Depression: Move Your Mood
A landmark study in 1999 at Duke University found that exercise worked even better than medicine over the long term.
Dr. Ratey says:
Unlike many anti-depressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything – it adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling.
It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression. It also serves as proof that we can take the initiative to change something.
Aging The Wise Way
Getting old is unavoidable, but falling apart is not. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging. According to Dr. Ratey:
The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging.
Here’s how exercise helps keep you going when you’re old:
1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.
2. It regulates fuel (keeps glucose levels from skyrocketing).
3. It reduces obesity.
4. It elevates your stress threshold (i.e. combats the effects of too much cortisol, which brings on depression and dementia).
5. It lifts your mood.
6. It boosts the immune system.
7. It fortifies your bones. Did you know more women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer? Eek.
8. It boosts motivation by increasing dopamine, which in turn guards against Parkinson’s.
9. It fosters neuroplasticity, which improves your brain’s ability to learn, remember and execute higher thought processes.
Mental exercise is just as important for the elderly. Dr. Ratey mentions an ongoing study of several hundred nuns over the years in Mankato, MN. These nuns challenge their minds constantly with mental puzzles, public debates about issues, keep teaching long past retirement age, etc. Many of them live to be one hundred or more. They all donate their brains to science after they die. Here’s what Dr. Ratey says about one of the nuns:
The interesting thing about Sister Bernadette is that she scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died, but when her brain was examined postmortem, it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease… In other words, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet despite the damage in her brain, she remained mentally sharp.
So what types of exercises are the best medicine according to all these studies? I’ll write a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the whole book and find out.
As I indicated before, I’ve been afraid of running since I was a child, so five weeks ago I started using the 9 week Couch to 5K plan to see if I could finally run 12 minutes without stopping, something I was unable to do as a child.
Today was the day in the program where you run one 20 minute interval without stopping.
This was a big jump from Wednesday, when it was two 8 minute intervals with a 5 minute walking break in between. That wasn’t an easy time and the above toon is an accurate reflection of what it was like.
So since Wednesday I was dreading today, fearing I wouldn’t even make it the 12 minutes, let alone 20. I slept poorly last night and had a stressful dream about going to the gym this morning and forgetting to use the treadmill. Ha.
I went to the Milwaukee art museum with my oldest daughter yesterday and I became a bit winded after climbing the stairs to the third floor, so I said to myself, “Dammit, I can’t even climb three flights of stairs without getting winded, how the hell am I going to run 20 minutes tomorrow?”
I internally yelled at myself some more this morning: “What am I doing setting running deadlines for myself when I have enough deadlines in my life? If I couldn’t run 12 minutes as a child when it’s logical I should have had the energy to do it then, then why do I think I can do it now all these years later?” As you can see, I was still in the throes of my running complex, even as I stepped on the treadmill this morning.
I had planned to listen to part of a Janelle Monae song, three U2 songs and Madonna’s Celebration song (I figured if I was still running by that point I deserved to listen to a song with the word celebration in it) and guessed that those would add up to roughly 20 minutes. I didn’t dare look at the clock on the treadmill. I fussed with the TV occasionally for a diversion, switching back and forth from Today Show and Good Morning America.
What happened was nothing short of astonishing to me. The 3 U2 songs rolled by effortlessly and I felt no strain. I thought to myself, “Wow, now I finally see what they mean when they call running ‘moving meditation.'”
During the Celebration song I worried slightly that maybe these songs were falling short of the 20 minutes, but at the end of the song there was only 10 seconds left of the 20 minutes. After I hit the 20 minute mark I had the overwhelming urge to cry with happiness.
Coincidentally, earlier in my run Good Morning America had a segment on crying at work, and they concluded it was OK to cry at work but I wasn’t so sure it would be OK to cry at the gym. Ironically they also said by the time women reach their 40s they are pretty good at regulating emotions. Hahaha
I couldn’t completely suppress my tears so I went and sat in a corner on the BOSU ball where no one could see me, hid my face in my arms, and let myself cry for a while, but not as much as I wanted to. I wasn’t at all expecting I’d react that way, as I always reserve these types of tears for the achievements of my children and other people I know, and even strangers, when I read/hear their stories, but I can’t remember the last time I cried because of something I achieved.
I know, I know. Who gives a crap that I ran for 20 minutes, it doesn’t solve any world problems, people a lot older than me can run for so much longer than that, yadda yadda.
But here’s the thing: ultimately this had nothing to do with running, it had everything to do with deconstructing a fear and then overcoming it. Now that I’ve succeeded in doing this with one fear maybe I’ll be able to do it with others. And, more importantly, you can too.
Most people say “have a seat” when they have bad news to tell you. Today’s post has bad news that’ll make you not want to take a seat.
Although you’d never guess it from the type of stuff I write about here, my favorite thing to write about when I’m getting paid to write by a client is fitness.
So this means I do a lot of reading and writing about fitness. One of my favorite blogs is Obesity Panacea. The posts are written by two researchers who specialize in obesity.
Not long ago I came across a five part series on sedentary physiology on their blog (part 1 is here and the studies I reference in this post can be found in that series).
This series shows how even people who exercise regularly are still just as much at risk of being sedentary as someone who exercises. Of course I read this shortly after joining a gym and said to myself, “Oh great, now I have to worry about being a sedentary exerciser.” Oops.
Here are some of the rather alarming findings:
* A survey of 5700 Americans found that the average sedentary time per day is just over eight hours.
* It’s almost as bad for kids, with 6 hours of sedentary time per day, and 70% of their class time (including PE) spent in a sedentary state.
* A study in Canada revealed that individuals who sat the most were roughly 50% more likely to die during the follow up period than individuals who sat the least, even after controlling for age, smoking and physical activity levels.
* A study in Australia says each hour of daily television viewing is associated with an 11% increase in the risk of all-cause mortality, regardless of age, sex, waist circumference, and physical activity level. Yikes! So even if you’re thin and exercise, you’re toast if you watch TV.
Fortunately there’s hope. Another study in Australia shows that those that took frequent breaks from sitting were less obese and had better metabolic health. In other words, sitting at a desk for four hours but getting up every hour for a break is better than four continuous hours or sitting.
The take away from this is that we shouldn’t view exercise as that segment of time at the gym or the daily constitutional. It can be too easy to view exercise as something to check off the To Do list rather than merely a starting point.
Getting out of the chair regularly, using the stairs instead of elevators, walking if your destination is less than a mile, getting up frequently when watching a TV show, etc. should become normal.
If only I could do this while writing on the laptop:
I read Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner this weekend and could hardly put it down. I’m always drawn to stories about running, probably because I’ve always been scared of running.
I suppose that fear originated in elementary school, where we had to do 12 minute runs every year. Even though we worked up to the 12 minutes gradually in the preceding weeks, I never had the stamina to run 12 minutes without stopping. That, plus having to do it in the gym, crowded by other students, many of whom seemed to run effortlessly, made it the opposite of fun, as did the switch the teacher would flick at us if she saw we were being sluggish.
After one of those 12 minute runs my teacher the next period was so alarmed by my flushed cheeks she wondered if I should go to the nurse’s office and possibly be sent home. From that point on I believed that I just wasn’t cut out for running, that maybe something was wrong with my body in that regard.
Then came junior high and the basketball team. I loved basketball but the brutally long stair lap workouts dehydrated me to such a point that it damaged my body and I had to quit the team.
I had to confront my running fear yet again in high school as the track coach approached me every year and asked me to join the team because he thought I had the right physique for hurdles. When I found out the practices included long grueling runs, I had flashbacks to the 12 minute run and the basketball stair laps and declined.
I happily never had to confront running again, until last summer when I discovered barefoot running. Although I only ran short sprints, I found it very energizing – and painless – to run in bare feet on grass. But I still wasn’t convinced my body could handle anything more than sprints.
In UltraMarathon, Dean Karnazes said his high school cross country coach told him after he won a big race, “If it feels good, you’re doing something wrong. It’s supposed to hurt like hell.” In the middle of a 100 mile ultramarthon a few decades later, an Indian chief told him, “Pain is the body’s way of ridding itself of weakness.”
This reminded of what author and Jungian analyst James Hollis says: “Surely one of the most telling tests of our lives is whether we are living in a way which is driven more by challenge than by comfort, one which asks more of us than we had planned to offer.”
So I’m going to try to run my own “ultramarthon” – a 12 minute run. Following this 9 week guide, and using a treadmill, I should be able to run 12 consecutive minutes in five weeks. We’ll see.