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What is your Spark?

9 May

Twice a year, all of our staff get together to read and dissect a book; these are usually not directly related to fitness, but instead subjects that will get us thinking.  At the end of the day, though, we DO become better trainers and coaches because the topics help us improve our skills as: goal managers, psychologists, motivators, and health promotors.  Last month we discussed the book, “SPARK: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

 

Generally speaking, Dr. Ratey discusses the connection between physical activity and cognition.  While very science forward, this is an approachable book that should be required reading for anyone who wants to think and reason clearly, and stave off the mental decay brought on by aging, mental disorders, and inactivity.

 

The biggest take-aways:

1 – All stress is not bad.  Proper stress – even at the cellular level – is actually beneficial.  It is what helps to stimulate the body.  Judicious and properly applied stressor will make us healthier and more able to handle dangerous and debilitating circumstances in our futures.  Miniscule amounts of toxins in the foods we eat actually make us more capable of fending off disease.

 

2 – Age is not a deterrent.  We can improve at the cellular level and increase brain size at any age.  Aging really at its most basic view is the body’s cessation of regeneration and growth.  By exercising, we are not only improving our muscular and cardiovascular systems, but increasing neural connections and positive hormonal and neurotransmitter levels in our brains.

 

3 – The same general principles apply to most of everything we do and how we can change, correct, or influence our circumstance and environment to improve our lives.  Whether it’s dementia, anxiety, depression, or addiction, exercise, both physical and mental, can help ameliorate and control these problems.

 

4 – Inactivity is the ultimate killer.  Lack of physical activity will rot not only our bodies, but also our brains and cognitive abilities.  Just like slowing aging, physical activity helps to (re)build pathways in our brains that make us more productive and improve focus and attention.

 

5 – Exercise is a great way to bolster our mental faculties, regardless of the task at hand.  The hormonal and neurotransmitter cascades that occur after exercise help to “grow” our brains and leave them in an environment more capable of learning and retaining information.

 

Now before you get intimidated by thinking that this means that you have to go out and train for a marathon or throw 1,000 pounds over your head, know this: a little is better than nothing, and every little bit more is beneficial.  Taking your current state, adding just 30 minutes of brisk walking daily is enough exercise to make improvements – in your physical health, but also in your thinking and mood.  Try a new sport, add an after-dinner walk with your spouse, or come in for an additional 30 minute session each week.  These will all help you on your path to improving your life and vitality.

Score one for the Paleo Diet

6 Mar

Gluten-Free, Casein-Free Diet May Help Some Children With Autism, Research Suggests

Research recently out of Penn State University provides more support for some of the therapeutic effects of a Paleo Diet – exclusion of gluten and casein (wheat and dairy protein, respectively).

It seems that exclusion of gluten and casein may be beneficial for individuals on the Autism Spectrum.  The authors also noted that there might NOT be outward symptoms of allergies or food intolerances, but that the negative interactions from these foods still exists.

 

And some general information from WebMD about gluten/casein-free diets for ASD

What Do You Value

20 Jun

I was listening to a discussion between two strength coaches the other day talking about the excuses they hear from people regarding exercise and nutrition, and it got me thinking.

What are your priorities in life and where do exercise and nutrition fit in all that?

One of the most often used excuses is, “I don’t have time”.  But this raises an interesting counter-question in my mind: don’t have time for what?  Everyone is dealt the same 24 hours in the day, and it is really a matter of how your prioritize those hours.  Some will tell you that family comes first, or that work must be a priority, and those things are ok.

But everyone also has to eat.  Why not make those meals good ones?  Food has taken on almost mythical properties in our culture, purported to assist in any and all that ails you: Ice cream heals a broken heart, wings and beer make watching the game more fun, vegetables cure cancer, rice and sprite calm an upset stomach, chocolates and oysters help to set the mood.  I think you get my point.

In reality though, food’s primary role is to fuel your body and mind from day to day.  That is not to say that there aren’t better (and worse options).  My approach to food has always been to eat foods that are either of the earth or on the earth, and as close to their natural state as possible.  Examples you ask…

Vegetables, fruits, tubers are all OF the earth.  Animals, of course, are ON the earth.

The question I used to get from the high schoolers I worked with was about the natural-state clause: Grilled chicken thighs with the skin on are much closer to nature than those deep-fried and breaded wings you just gobbled down.

So what foods are the better ones?  In a recent nutrition seminar I attended, I heard the most succinct qualifier for which foods one should eat – those that move you closer to optimal health.  While there are health claims made about almost any food under the sun (twinkie diet anyone?) there are obviously more nutritious and healthful foods out there; there are foods that while superficially benign, are actually responsible for all sorts of negative consequences under the surface.

Shouldn’t we all be trying to provide our bodies (and brains) with the best foods we can?  Maybe that means forgoing the pizza because it’s quick, and instead spending the extra time to grill the steaks and veggies you have sitting in the fridge?  It might take a little bit of planning on the front end, but the benefits will be much more long-lasting (UC-Berkeley journalism professor and food writer, Michael Pollan, has spoken at length about the hidden costs – medical, environmental, etc. – of quick processed foods, and that spending more time and money preparing healthy foods will actually be cheaper in the long run).


So I bring you back to the earlier question: where do you place your priorities?  I know for myself, a good meal is only a great meal if it actually makes me healthier for eating it.

The Science of Healing

8 Apr

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. – John Muir


Last weekend I watched The Science of Healing a PBS special from 2009 that followed Dr. Esther Sternberg to a tiny village in Greece where she experienced, first hand, the healing power of nature.  This experience had a profound effect on Dr. Sternberg and sparked an exploration into the science behind environment, emotions and healing.

A variety of interesting research was introduced on visual stimuli, built environments, aromas, social connections, exercise, music, and meditation.  Stress was the common characteristic among these studies.  It seems that environments that reduce stress contribute to healing.  One of the benchmark studies presented in this program was from 1984.  The researchers examined the restorative effects of natural views on patient surgery recovery.  Between the years 1972 and 1981 cholecystectomy patients in a Pennsylvania hospital were assigned to either a room with a window over looking a nature scene or a brick wall.  The patients with the tree view had shorter postoperative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluation comments in the nurses’ notes, took fewer pain relieving medications, and had slightly less minor postoperative complications.  Although the researchers recognized that the results could not be generalized to all surgeries or all built environments (the brick wall was a less than stimulating view) the results implied that hospital design should consider the quality of the patients views for restorative benefits (Ulrich et al., 1984).

Here are some additional research tidbits presented in this program:

  • Good smells. Aromas, such as clean mountain air, are associated with good memories and positive emotions.  This results in a reduced stress response and promotes feelings of calm and relaxation.
  • Become fit. Physically fit individuals have a better stress response. Regular exercise promotes acute stress, which prepares our bodies to handle higher levels of stress more effectively and strengthens the immune system.
  • Feel the beat. Music provides a stress buffer and increases heart rate variability (the beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate).  Low heart rate variability is associated with depression, poor health, and high stress.  High heart rate variability is associated with better emotional and physical health, and reduced risk of stress-related disease.
  • Think yourself well.  The placebo effect is the brains own healing mechanism.  Believing in the positive effects of the treatment produces chemical changes in the brain that allow the body to heal.
  • Take 10. Meditation or breathing awareness produces a reduced stress response and boosts the immune system.  Even as little as 10 minutes a day has positive health benefits.

Dr. Sternberg concluded her exploration with some personal insight into the effects of slowing down and embracing the rhythm of life in the Greek village.  She resolved to include more time in nature and exercise into her daily life and to embrace more stress reducing activities, such as listen to music and socializing with friends.  Sometimes we need to step away from our life to see how we can live more fully.

Reference:
Ulrich et al., 1984.  View through a window may influence recovery from surgery.  Science, 224. DOI: 10.1126/science.6143402

Balance Your Exercise with Play

9 Mar

Sometimes the activities that we ask our clients here at FIT to engage in can heighten self-consciousness.  For most people, going to a gym at all can be intimidating, let alone being asked to perform a complex movement such as a clean and jerk or being pushed to the point of physical discomfort for the sake of goal attainment.  As a team of trainers, we frequently discuss how best to appreciate what we ask of our clients.  For this reason, we opted to videotape ourselves in a Zumba class taught by a colleague, Sehin Belew.  The thought was to experience feeling uncoordinated and mildly self-consciousness in a physical pursuit.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQfHZMMN5fo&feature=email

As I’m sure you too can note, some of us were a bit more inhibited than others, but the more notable observation would be how much fun everyone had.  Too often exercise is associated with work or something that has to be done.  How different would exercise feel if the mental association was fun and play instead of work?

Last year, we had the opportunity to spend time with Wes Walker, a young, Olympic-caliber runner. Wes was returning from studying the Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico who are renowned for their long-distance running ability.  While coaching us during a run, he continually asked us to think, “how can I make this easier?  What would make me more comfortable?”  I’d always viewed running as an opportunity to literally pound out my frustrations; I enjoyed punishing myself by pushing to go faster and longer.  Never once, since I began running 12 years ago, had I ever considered how to make running easier, and thereby possibly more fun.

Mark Sisson, author of http://www.marksdailyapple.com and the book, Primal Blueprint, emphasizes the importance of play in a way that resonates with me.  He discusses how play has become a bit of a guilty pleasure rather than a necessity.  For reasons that are unclear, or possibly different for everyone, ‘real life’ seems to get in the way as the drive for ‘success’ takes precedence.  In contrast, Sisson goes on to note, “Besides its stress-reducing and social qualities, play has other quantifiable benefits.”  The vacation gap study performed in 2006 showed that workers were 25% more productive following a vacation, and their sleep habits improved: averaging 20 more minutes per night and three times as much deep sleep.  The New York Times recently covered a study showing that increasing leisure activities improves immune function faster than stress can suppress it.  Although it has long been theorized that the more relaxed you are, the easier task seems, and the better you feel.  Now there is research to support it.  Couple that with the sheer pleasure that is inherent to play or the benefit of the laughter that often accompanies play, and a significant increase to quality of life is inevitable. 

While Zumba may or may not be the fun you are looking for, something is.  Finding it within yourself to laugh at yourself in place of being self critical, seeking opportunities to play with others, and, most importantly, making play a priority will not only be fun but will be as (if not more) beneficial to your health than the extra time spent at work, running errands or doing whatever else gets in the way.  This month we are speaking of balance, which means something different to all of us.  I’m not looking to define balance but I am suggesting that as you consider your social and physical engagements, prioritize those that involve laughter and fun, or consider approaching the activities you are engaging in with a playful spirit.  Fun has always been an important component of how we design and implement programs at FIT but it is a team effort.  We can’t make you have fun – that’s up to you.  Not everything in life can or should be fun, but for the activities that can be, try to let them.

Balance your “yang” workout with Yin Yoga

9 Mar

Thom has been balancing his “yang” workout routine with a weekly  “yin” yoga class.  Join him Tuesdays at 11:00AM at FIT’s fitness partner Yoga of Los Altos.

Yin Yoga tends to be very meditative and emphasize body and breath awareness. 
The poses, primarily seated postures, are held for a long period of time (3-5 minutes per pose).  The goal of Yin Yoga is to work the connective tissue in the body allowing for deep long stretches to increase the flow of energy in the body.  Janya’s classes are gentle yet challenging and a great compliment to a more active workout routine.

Tuesdays 11:00am – Yin Yoga with Janya

Fridays 5:30pm – Yin Yoga with Janya

Yoga of Los Altos | 377 First St. | Los Altos, CA 94022 | www.yogaoflosaltos.com | 650.941.9642

Brain and Brawn

10 Feb

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone who was excited at the prospect of getting older.  People fear different things, but it’s safe to say most concerns surround declining physical and/or mental well-being.  For years, the medical community has promoted cardiovascular exercise as the best for the prevention and intervention of disability and disease.  Aerobic exercise was said to keep the heart and lungs strong as well as aid in neurogenesis, or the creation of new neuronal cells in the brain, especially in those portions of the brain associated with memory and thinking.  While this recommendation still holds true, recent studies are showing that resistance training is as effective, if not more, at stimulating neurogenesis in the same areas of the brain.

Recently, a few studies examining the effects of exercise on the stimulation of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience in November.  BDNF is part of a family of proteins responsible for the growth, survival and differentiation of nerve cells, and maybe the underlining factor responsible for exercise induced effects on cognition and mental well-being.  In one study, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb ladders for five sessions a week.  This study, which measured the levels of BDNF, found that the weight lifting rats compared favorably to the rats that ran on a wheel.  The sedentary rats showed very low levels of BDNF.  The other study presented studied rats that ran on a weighted wheel (resistance being equivalent to 30% of the rats body weight) compared to rats that ran on an un-weighted wheel.  Not only did the rats moving the loaded wheel pack on muscle mass but they also showed significantly greater gene activity and levels of BDNF within their brains.  Although these results are not definitive proof, it is, at very least, an indication that further study is warranted.

One such study is underway at the University of British Columbia where principal investigator, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, has found that older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes.  Ms. Liu-Ambrose has hypothesized that the beneficial effect of strength training on cardiovascular health accounts for some of the improvement in function, but also stated “resistance training at first requires an upsurge in brain usage.”  She goes on to mention the involvement and stimulation of the brain during exercise using proper form and technique could contribute to greater cognitive functioning.  In addition to increased cognitive demand, the brain is responsible for activating the appropriate muscles, the necessary type and quantity of muscle fibers (efficiency) and activating the various energy systems that need to be involved.

One word to the wise, conventional wisdom often suggests that if some thing is good, more is better.  When it comes to exercise, this is not always the case.  Another study recently published showed that excessive exercise in postmenopausal women was linked to lower cognitive function.  Although this study was assessed by questionnaire, not known for their reliability, we do know that overtraining stimulates the release of cortisol.  Cortisol in excess has been linked to depression and lower levels of neurogenesis.

Sharon Begley’s January 3, 2011 Newsweek article “Can You Build a Better Brain?”  presented a review of what neuroscience has learned, and has yet to learn, about improving cognitive function. Supporting additional research regarding strength training and the brain is a statement by Columbia University’s Yaakov Stern that “the research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks.”  Stern’s input begs the question, if training cognition doesn’t help, what does?  In answer to that, Begley quotes Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studied the effect of aerobic exercise.  Kramer found that “A year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking… fitness training [stimulates] the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills.  It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision-making.”

In relation to anti-aging, the adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is a good guide for the maintenance of movement and cognitive function, and it appears these are no longer unrelated.  These studies suggest that you can engage both the brain and the body by learning and practicing new or complex movements under a safely prescribed load.  My recommendation would be to start with body weight exercises and focus on learning how to move properly and then progress to greater loads.  The other implication of this study is that checking out during your exercise routine and simply going through the motions to just  ‘get it done’ may not be as beneficial.  Practicing movements with the intent of getting better not only improves your physical health, but also may contribute to your mental well-being