This article was first published in The Hindu on March 31, 2013.
All workouts involve the mind-body connection, says DR. SHEELA NAMBIAR.
The new buzzword in the fitness industry is ‘Mind-Body’ exercise. This primarily refers to Yoga, Pilates and T’ai Chi where the Mind-Body connection is unmistakably evident. The instructions are directed to the breath and a very obvious connection is made between the breath and the movement. When taught properly, it can produce several health benefits like relief from and management of stress besides a certain inward thinking, body awareness and mindfulness.
This false differentiation, however, makes it appear as if any other form of fitness (running, aerobic dance, strength training) somehow does not involve the mind!
It is my belief, however, that every single exercise modality needs to be a mind-body activity. It is well known that applying the focus of concentration to anything one does makes the endeavour that much more rewarding.
A major part of fitness is about the mind. Determination, perseverance, understanding and dedication… these are qualities without which one cannot hope to persist with a fitness routine day after day. It may seem as if physical fitness is just that; a “physical” enterprise. It is not really completely physical. There may have been times when the body is reluctant to get on the treadmill or pick up the weights or go through a yoga routine. It is one’s mind that is responsible for persisting with it.
Take strength training, for instance. One cannot have an animated conversation with a buddy in the gym while working with weights. There has to be total focus on the weight being used, the rhythm and pattern of breathing, the muscles being worked, the accessory muscles being worked, the correct ‘form’ of the exercise and so on. How can it not be a mind-body exercise then? If one is not mindful while training with weights, the chances of injury are very high.
Breathing is the essence of life, obviously, but I often see the gym rat going blue in the face as he/she tries to force a movement while simultaneously holding his/her breath. Even experienced exercisers and trainers seem to need constant reminders about their breathing pattern while training with weights. So, the next time, instead of keeping an eye on your neighbour to see if he is watching you perform a seemingly Herculean dead lift, focus on your own breath instead; on which muscles are working to lift the weight; on keeping your core stable, spine aligned and your body weight balanced evenly. Continuing through those last few reps when your muscles are begging you to stop is possible only with the right mental attitude. Weight training can be as much a Zen-like activity as a breathing-and-relaxation routine.
Although some people enjoy their cardio, others find it extremely dreary or difficult. Here is a situation where one can attempt to trick one’s mind into enjoying it. If you cannot go for a run or use the cross trainer, try one of the new cardio classes with music, some entertainment, and other exercisers that add to the thrill making one forget (to some extent at least) the actual work done. Some people need that distraction while others are able to go through their daily workout without external motivation. These are just personality types. Some people are self-motivated while others are not. Identify your personality type and figure out what works best for you, the prime objective being to help you stay with your exercise routine.
The mind is called upon to focus, learn and commit to memory during a complicated aerobic/step/zumba/kick-boxing class with choreography and music. Your mind is working. There is no question about it. There are students who will swear they have two left feet. They are tone deaf and have no clue about music. Somehow, with practice, their body learns to adapt to a new kind of movement. It learns to listen to and understand rhythm. Even if you don’t necessarily participate in an exercise activity that requires your memory to be actively involved, the mere increase in oxygenation to the brain is one of the most important stimuli for improvement in brain function.
Researchers (Kramer, Erickson and Colcombe, 2006, and Hillman and Van Prag 2008) found that regular exercise creates new pathways, new cells (neurogenesis) and improved blood flow (vascularity) in the brain thereby improving cognition, working memory and multi-tasking. These are the very functions that normally decline with age. Regular exercise could, therefore, prevent this decline, paving the way for a better quality of life.
It works both ways. The mind is used to exercise, which in turn improves brain function. All fitness activities have a mind-body connection. This is more palpable and manifests clearly when one focuses on the activity at hand. When one is open to learning and understanding. When one is conscious and mindful.
This article was first published in The Hindu on August 06, 2018.
How I discovered the joys of exercise and self-awareness.
Way back in 1994, when I came back to Ooty from Chennai, after my post-graduation to join my mother’s obstetric practice, I didn’t quite realise what I had bargained for. In those days, Ooty was a small town with almost nothing going on. My life revolved around work. The isolation, frenzied work schedule, with a complete lack of friends, stimulus, entertainment or creative outlet, was nearly unbearable. I needed a coping strategy. For me, that came in the form of exercise.
I had always loved fitness even as a child, but now I was using it almost as a refuge. My long morning walks, aerobics in front of the TV (those days there was an Australian show on), and yoga, were not just about staying fit or losing weight. The endorphins kept my moods from plummeting.
From there was born my renewed respect for what exercise could do for me, not just physically but emotionally. Looking back, I may have been using exercise almost like a drug, to survive. Did I go into over-training? Perhaps at times I did, those initial few years. Today, I am wiser for it. I am very mindful of just how I use it, very aware that everything, however good, can be detrimental, if over-indulged.
Soon I started to recognise that my patients could also benefit from exercise. Many of their problems resulted from a lack of fitness or strength, being overweight or too frail. This was the beginning of my foray into fitness, as an extension of my medical practice.
How do I teach women to include fitness in their lives? How do I help them enjoy exercise? I certified to be a Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant from the National Association for Fitness Certification (NAFC) in the US in 2000, and started teaching exercise to women in Ooty.
My first and second books, Get Size Wise and Gain to Lose, were products of my experiences, and talk of the basics of exercise with plenty of real-life stories that I had encountered with women every day in the context of them trying to lose weight or get fit.
By the time I was ready to write my third book, Fit After 40, I had taken an extended course in positive psychology. I am very mindful of the fact that ‘fitness’ and ‘wellness’ never deal with only the physical self. The mind and body are so intricately connected that one can never truly be ‘fit’ without addressing our inner well-being.
Positive psychology is a fascinating field. I’ve always been interested in the workings of the human mind. In fact, my first choice for post-graduation was Psychiatry. Eventually, however, I changed my mind and chose ObGyn as it was a much ‘cheerier’ field with new beginnings and mostly happy endings. Psychiatry seemed rather gloomy and depressing.
Positive psychology deals with flourishing. How does someone who is doing okay, do even better? How do you thrive instead of just survive? This interested me greatly. Why do some people flourish while others languish? Positive psychology gave me an insight into all the above questions and a way to approach growing older, in my book. It also helped me personally, more than I can express. I realised, it all starts with self-awareness.
Self-awareness is not only knowing your preferences, weaknesses, strengths or even understanding your inner world, though of course, that’s a large part of it. It also deals with recognising just how we monitor and negotiate our inner world, and what we notice or understand regarding ourselves. So for instance, do we often admonish ourselves with ‘I should/shouldn’t have done that’? What is that self-talk that goes on 24/7 inside our heads? What are our preconceptions, biases and conditioning, and where do they come from? Identifying all this in a non-judgemental manner is the path to self-awareness. The key word is non-judgemental.
My own self-narrative had a lot of editing to be done! I learned that I was far too self-critical. While it may have helped drive me to work harder or be better, it couldn’t have been too good for me. We are taught to be compassionate towards our patients; self-compassion, however, is not always easy. I had to learn to take a step back to a better vantage point and just observe instead of jumping in with my own disapproval and/or guilt. I had to ask myself some very hard questions, and sometimes I didn’t like the answers! I’ve learnt that it’s okay to be vulnerable sometimes, to refuse sometimes, or to agree to disagree (without feeling guilty about it!). Being self-aware relieves you of the burden of trying to explain yourself, to fit in, or for that matter, to stand out!
The most important and longest relationship we will ever have is with ourselves. Writing the book helped me explore some fascinating aspects of my own self. It’s a journey well worth spending time on and being truly mindful of.
I was in my 50s when I joined TFL in 2014 with the intention of losing weight, becoming strong, agile and more flexible. Little did I know how much it would become an integral, inseparable cog of my life; how it would change my life.
Fitness means different things to different people. For me it means being able to keep up with a younger crowd when on a tour, walk long distances, see my toes and polish them effortlessly, lift and move pots around in my garden, correct an almost congenital slouch – some of the many things that we all take for granted and do without much thought. I could go on and on about the numerous physical changes that exercising with TFL has wrought, of the number of compliments that have come my way, of how energetic I have become. More importantly, it is about how it has made me feel about myself and my body. I have come to love my body and marvel at its adaptability, its ability to rise to every challenge whether it is trying out 6kg weights or a HIIT class.
Of course, a fit body without a fit mind is self-defeating. Dr. Sheela Nambiar’s workshops on positive psychology and frequent counseling sessions have helped to give my mind the required workout. Meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness and management of one’s thought processes are certain strategies that I have learned to use to not only cope with the stresses of daily life but also to enrich it.
No words are adequate enough to express my thanks to Dr. Nambiar who initiated my journey of self-discovery and has motivated me to remain on this path even when the going got tough.
– Jalaja Pillai