As the March winds begin to blow and the days become longer, we are reminded that spring will soon be here, bringing us out of our winter hibernation and into a more active lifestyle. Unlike our ancestors who had to be physically active in order to survive, many people now spend most of their day sitting at a desk, in a car or on a couch with a majority of their energy directed towards mental pursuits. How wonderful to be able to enjoy the comforts of technology, however one might wonder how a comparatively sedentary lifestyle would affect a body that was designed to move.
The human body was created for the purpose of living on the earth and accomplishing the tasks of survival. Since the beginning of human existence, our bodies have enabled us to hunt and gather food, traverse rugged terrain, swim turbulent waters, climb mountains and trees, and run from predators. Our bodies are capable of harnessing tremendous power and speed when necessary, and engaging in activities that require agility and flexibility. When in optimum form, we can perform these feats with amazing grace.
A strong body is inherently more capable of coping with the stresses of daily life. When physically fit, we naturally feel more present in our bodies and more confident in our ability to handle our physical environment. We have the energy and vitality to actively participate in life, and to move forward in our lives with flexibility and ease.
It is important to realize that, though we are born with great physical potential, this potential can only be achieved through the commitment to use our bodies as they were intended. The proverbial “use it or lose it” is relevant to physical performance, in that exercise is the catalyst our bodies need to build and maintain strength, endurance, and with proper diet and nutrition, overall fitness.
There are many forms of exercise that can be performed both inside and out in our natural environment. Outdoor sports and activities such as gardening, swimming and hiking afford us an opportunity to exercise while engaging in fun activities. However, depending upon the weather, we may not always feel like going outside. Yoga and Tai Chi offer disciplined forms of movement that exercise the body and mind either indoors or out. Then of course there is the gym, where one can experience a total body workout no matter what the weather conditions are outside.
Though I have always been a proponent of physical exercise, over the years I had developed weakness in my lower back and as I entered my forties, I noticed that I did not have the muscle tone or physical strength I once had. With each passing winter I seemed to have less tolerance for the cold, and I had reached a point where I knew it was time for a change. Last fall I made the intention to strengthen my body, and joined a local athletic club. As I entered this strange new world of cardiovascular equipment and weights, I knew I had a lot to learn, but with the expert advice of staff personnel and a commitment to improve my level of fitness, I embraced the experience with enthusiasm. Since that time, I have experienced benefits that have surpassed my expectations, reinforcing my desire to continue working out regularly.
There are basically two forms of exercise that develop body fitness: aerobic exercise that strengthens the heart and circulation (cardiovascular system), and strength training which uses resistance in the form of weights to strengthen muscles.
Brisk walking, running, swimming and dancing are aerobic activities that stimulate the heart to pump faster and harder, thus causing the heart to enlarge and pump oxygenated blood to the extremities at increasing amounts. During aerobic exercise heat radiates from the heart sending cleansing steam down the limbs releasing toxins from the lymphatic system out the pores of the skin. As cardiovascular fitness improves, the heart becomes stronger, and its capacity to pump blood increases. This lowers the resting heart rate, since the heart does not have to pump as much oxygen during periods of rest. The resting heart rate for a person with average health is 70 to 80 beats per minute. Some marathon runners have a resting heart rate as low as 40 beats per minute. Cardiologist Dr. Paul Dudley once said, “Every heart is programmed at birth for a certain number of beats. The question is, do you want to take them at 50 beats per minute or 80 beats per minute?”
As cardiovascular fitness improves, the muscles become more efficient. Muscle cells contain structures called mitochondria, which serve as miniature power packs that are responsible for combining oxygen with glucose to produce energy. As you become more fit, your muscles develop more mitochondria allowing the muscles to pull oxygen out of the blood more efficiently. This gives your body more energy for every metabolic function it performs.
The increased oxygen levels derived from aerobic exercise feed the brain resulting in elevated mood and mental alertness. Exercise also has a calming affect, and can stimulate the release of endorphins creating the euphoria experienced by many runners. For this reason, exercise is a natural antidote for depression and stress. Most sources recommend 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, at least three times a week at an intensity of 60% to 80% of your maximum capacity (determined by age and maximum heart rate). It is important to begin a fitness program slowly and work up, and to incorporate stretching, warm-up and cool-down periods so as not to stress the system. If you have had heart disease or a recent illness of a serious nature, be sure to check with a qualified health care professional before beginning a workout program.
For many, the idea of strength training recalls visions of body builders with steroid-induced muscles pumped up beyond belief. In actuality, a strong body has sleek, attractively defined muscles that enhance the body’s natural alignment and posture. Since we no longer have to lift heavy rocks, climb trees, or plow fields to survive, we can use weights to strengthen lean muscle tissue, which enhances overall health.
The body interprets inactivity as a state requiring smaller muscles and responds accordingly. Studies show that after the age of 30, an inactive person loses about a half-pound of lean muscle tissue every year. In ten years, that amounts to five pounds of lost lean muscle tissue. Since lean muscle tissue has the greatest ability to burn calories, loss of this tissue inevitably results in excess fat and weight gain. Building muscle decreases the risk of developing fat-dependent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Muscles that have grown weak and stiff from disuse leave the body more prone to injuries. In women, in particular, muscle strength adds density to the bones, reducing the incidence of osteoporosis and broken bones from falls.
Strength training causes the muscles to adapt to weight-bearing loads that require the muscles to go into recovery over a two-day period of rest in which they repair themselves and come back stronger. Strong muscles support the spine, therefore when muscles become stronger our posture improves. Protruding abdominal muscles can cause swayback, lower back weakness and pain. Weak upper back muscles create a sunken chest and the dowager hump of old age.
A strength-training program enables our bodies to recover their natural beauty and definition. Over time the muscles continue to strengthen, even for those who begin training in their eighties. Aches and pains dissipate as we stand taller and straighter and become more balanced in our bodies.
The path of physical fitness is a journey into the body where our soul resides. Exercise gives us the strength and flexibility to transform our lives just as we have transformed our bodies. For me this journey has been quite profound. I was noticeably warmer this past winter. My back is stronger, my body is firmer, and I feel more grounded and centered. I have more energy, and the feeling of upliftment I experience from working out stays with me the entire day. Perhaps if we give our bodies the attention they crave, we can reclaim the levels of vitality our ancestors once enjoyed in a time when physical fitness was essential to life itself.