Mindful awareness

Monday, January 24, 2011

Maintaining “Resolve”

This is the last full week of January; how are you doing with your new year resolutions? People have usually begun to drop off their intensity and interest for the goals they set for themselves a month ago. It might be because their resolutions were too vague to maintain such as “I resolve to be a better person.” It might be because their resolutions were not reasonable such as “I will lose 10 pounds a month until summer swimsuit season.” Human behavior requires that goals be measurable and attainable for us to stay interested, such as “I will add two servings of vegetables to my meals each day” or “I will park at the far end of the lot to get a brisk walk each morning and evening.”

A clear difference between those last two “resolutions” and the first two is that the latter are set as intended habits. We can schedule our activities and plan our meals in a way that adjusts our habits. We can track our success in adjusting our habits by reviewing our calendars or activity logs. Scheduling, planning, and tracking activities make them more obvious and easier for us to maintain interest. For instance, I could decide on a healthy habit to omit sodas, alcohol and juices from my diet, drinking unsweetened water, tea and coffee instead. It would mean planning to bring a water bottle or an insulated flask of tea with me when I leave the house in the morning. I could track my success by marking days on a calendar indicating the days I did not drink calories. I would be healthier because I would have ingested less sugar and salt, reducing my risk for certain cancers, heart disease, and diabetes.

Oh, and by the way, I would have reduced my caloric intake by about 200 calories a day per drink if I omitted sodas, alcohol and juices from my diet, drinking unsweetened water, tea or coffee instead. It takes about 3500 calories to burn a pound of fat. So by cutting out sodas, alcohol, and juices I could eliminate at least 200 calories from my diet a day and lose nearly two pounds a month. And that is by doing nothing else! If my second new habit is to use stairs rather than elevators each day or to take a brisk walk during lunch hour then I would be conditioning my heart and lungs and burn even more calories.

If our new year resolutions are really ways to improve our health then we don’t need to become frustrated by setting resolutions to “lose weight” or to “get healthy”. Weight loss and healthy hearts will become welcomed secondary benefits to developing new healthy habits.

Think of a healthy habit you can adopt for the month of February. Make your resolution to change your habit, not to achieve a goal. Plan your day to include that habit and track daily whether you maintained your commitment. If you miss a day, just start over the next day without looking back.

Chances are you will have maintained that resolve longer than a traditional new year “resolution.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Resolve to Improve Wellness

I spent some time looking out at the cardio room in the gym last week. It was more crowded than usual, a reflection of the annual mid-January rush to sign up for gym memberships in support of people’s new year resolutions. I was encouraged to see people I hadn’t seen before, committed to treating their bodies well. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t realize that they were really wasting their time. I wanted them all to better understand how to use exercise to improve their health.

One woman walked on the treadmill for about 12 minutes. Sounds fine, but she was walking at a speed slower than I can imagine her walking in the mall. I watched a gentleman on the stationary bicycle. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have been able to keep it balanced if he were pedaling that slowly on a real bicycle. I’m concerned that these people will not continue their new exercise programs for long if they don’t see benefit however they define benefit. I also love efficiency and one thing that bugs me is wasting time. So I am an advocate of getting the most out of one’s time in the gym. As long as you are putting in the time on the machines, then I say make it worthwhile!

Aerobic exercise is necessary for good heart health. Aerobic exercise increases heart rate and can be any enjoyable activity that maintains an elevated heart rate, including bicycling, swimming, brisk walking, dancing, jogging, running, and cross-country skiing. Aerobic activity burns calories, conditions the heart and lungs to reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, increases good cholesterol, reduces risk for type 2 diabetes, reduces depression, lowers risk of premature death, and helps to tone the body by reducing the fat layer that lies over muscles. To benefit, however, requires at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. The 30 minutes can be distributed in three 10-minute segments over a day, but the activity must be moderately intense. Moderate intensity is usually interpreted to mean that the body is working hard enough that the person can talk but not sing. Or on a scale of 0 (sitting in a chair) to 10 (highest level of effort possible), the person judges her intensity at a 5 or 6.

Any increase in intensity and amount of exercise will enhance the benefits noted from the bare minimum criteria above. Increasing aerobic activity to 5 hours a week also reduces risk of colon and breast cancers and prevents weight gain.

Perhaps I just didn’t see the higher intensity work by the people I watched in the gym last week. Sadly, I am not optimistic that is so. Any enjoyable aerobic activity will be beneficial as long as people exercise long enough and at adequate intensity. Usually committing to exercise with a friend will help sustain the program. For many people activity that requires least equipment and financial investment such as brisk walking or dancing is best. For others, structured time such as basketball games and tennis matches are motivating.  It doesn’t matter what the activity is as long as it is sustained at a moderate intensity level.

I encourage everyone to exercise and as long as they are spending their time doing the activity, may it be most beneficial. The reward will be a longer, healthier life. That is a resolution worth maintaining!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Practicing with Patience

Mindful attention to things around us and a regular yoga practice are effective tools to learn lessons that serve us well off the mat. This week my students and I are working on practicing with patience. We have practiced challenging standing poses such as bird of paradise, arm balances such as astavakrasana (8-angle pose), and forward folds such as parivrtta janu sirsasana (revolved head-to-knee pose). None of these is easy but a beautiful thing about yoga is that every beginning student can take some expression of the pose and that every advanced student will be challenged by some expression of the pose.

So, this week my students with more and with less experience with yoga poses have tried these challenging standing poses, arm balances, and folds this week. Advanced students have fallen out of some of the poses and beginning students have used props to approximate some semblance of the poses. But everyone has tried them – and it appeared as though most of the students had fun trying! They might as well try - holding astavakrasana for five breaths is not going to reduce world hunger, so the risks are relatively minimal although the benefits are substantial. These challenges afford an opportunity to strengthen muscles in new ways and to stretch muscles in other ways. More importantly, challenges on the mat teach patience. No one I know has ever come straight into a beautiful bird of paradise pose the first try. It takes time, practice, and patience to finally succeed. I remind students to use the breath to transition from one pose to the next and to observe their reactions when they don’t quite end up where they wanted to be. Getting into the final expression of the pose is much less important than being patient with the process of getting there. Practicing with patience means allowing ourselves time to develop the strength, balance, and flexibility to get into and sustain the pose. Practicing with patience means accepting our current limitations that prevent a full expression of the pose. Practicing with patience means breathing in the moment without forcing and controlling the outcome. Practicing with patience makes practicing challenging poses more fun.

The trick is to bring the patience we learn on the mat out into the world when class is over. Any challenge daily life throws our way can be practiced with patience, observing our reactions, accepting our current limitations, breathing in the moment, and letting go of controlling the outcome. Practicing with patience might just make life’s challenges more fun.