How Thinking Like a Kid Can Improve Your Health and Fitness

Kid Playing Bball

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I have the pleasure of training some awesome clients at a boutique gym in Jersey City, Hamilton Health and Fitness (HHF), that has an on-site pool. Pools are coveted in urban areas, so there are a lot of swimming programs at HHF – including many for kids. As a result, these kids briefly walk near the training floor on their way to the pool. I’m always amused at how they look at all of the weights and machines in wonder. Sometimes they’ll just stare and other times they ask their parents, “What are those people doing?” We are, of course, training and exercising. And every so often a kid will start imitating a movement or climbing on a piece of exercise equipment (to the behest of their parents).

One time I watched a young boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, walk over to a 90 pound dumbbell, squat down (in perfect form, I might add) and try to pick it up. Unsurprisingly, the weight won. But still, I was intrigued at how this kid just saddled up to a huge weight most adults wouldn’t go near (and a weight that was definitely heavier than him) and just “give it a go.” While some may view this boy’s attempt as foolish or unrealistic, I found a few lessons to be learned that adults can use to improve their chances of success when making positive changes to their eating and physical activity habits:

Kids Explore Possibilities

As adults it’s way too easy to get stuck in a rut or routine. And sometimes that routine is what leads us to an unhealthy lifestyle. We need to break that status quo. Kids’ minds, on the other hand, are a blank slate looking to explore; they look at everything with wonder and curiosity. They seek to interact with and understand the world around them, regardless of whether they go to a new country on vacation or are adventuring in their friends’ backyards for the 1,000th time. They notice changes in their environment and come up with lots of ideas of what they can try in a particular situation (can I pick this up? can I go there? can I climb on that?). Similarly, you can take a curious approach to eating better or becoming more active.

See your “old” surroundings with “new” eyes and build awareness about ways to live healthier. You’ll start to notice things you never knew existed, but in fact may have been right under your nose the entire time, such as a new area to go for a run near your house or an area of a kids’ jungle gym that you can use for an outdoor workout space. Or you could decide to take a walk around your workplace or neighborhood and stumble across a new place to grab a healthy meal or snack. Maybe you’ll see a new fruit or vegetable in the produce aisle that you want to try.

Kids Are Optimistic

Kids don’t know no and can’t; they assume yes and success. They smile much more than they cry. They want to be baseball players and astronauts regardless of whether they can swing a bat or breathe in space. They imagine what could be and then work towards it, assuming they will achieve it. They don’t have “baggage” that negatively influences their future pursuits. Similarly, no matter what you’ve done or tried before, approach each new health or fitness opportunity with the belief: if I put in the effort, success is inevitable.

Unlike kids, however, you may have to deal with baggage from previous experiences. But remember, with experience comes wisdom. Consider what’s worked for you in similar situations in the past and learn from what hasn’t. As I always say, “there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.” Take your wisdom and leave your baggage; it makes for a much lighter, and easier journey.

Kids Are Persistent

Kids experiment. That’s how we learn to ride a bike or play a sport/instrument. If a kid falls down (or misses a note or fly ball), they don’t just throw their hands up in the air in exasperation and say it’s impossible. They get back up and try, try, try again. And eventually, they get better at it. Eating better and becoming more active is no different.

To get the results you want, you will likely need to develop new skills such as running, lifting weights, cooking, reducing how often you indulge or ordering different menu items when you’re at restaurants. And if the skill is new, you’ll probably mess up a few times. But rather than just give up and stay down after one slip up (i.e. oh no I ate dessert tonight, my diet is ruined, I’ll just eat whatever I want the rest of the weekend), accept what happened, get back up, dust yourself and keep moving forward. Think of each mistake you make as a missed note when playing the piano; one or two off-notes rarely ruin the entire performance, especially if we get back on key as soon as we realize it. However running away from the piano after our first mistake will.

Successful businessman Marshall Thurber once said, “Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first.” I agree, because living a healthy lifestyle is undoubtedly worth doing well.

Take Action & Respond: Live life and “think like a kid” for a week, or even a day – explore your surroundings, think like you can do anything and be persistent…then tell me what changed about your “usual” actions and habits.

What’s Your Why?

What's Your Why?

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The New Year is rapidly approaching. Reflections on the year passed, looking forward to new beginnings and a big shiny ball falling from the sky. While discussions about New Years’ Resolutions are overplayed, the underlying drive that creates them, year after year, remains of great interest to me. Everyone knows that a resolution made on New Years’ technically has no greater chance of sticking than one made on May 27th, but for some reason our minds like neat definitions when starting change – 1st of the year, beginning of the month, on Monday.

I dare say starting major habit changes on these “convenient days” lower your chances of sticking with them. If you attempt to make positive changes at the same times over-and-over, without success, your mind could subconsciously be pre-disposed to the routine of: set intention to change on Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Set intention for the following Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Your brain gets good at executing routines…including bad ones.

Even more insidious in this routine is the lost reason of WHY you’re making the change to begin with. Why do you want to lose weight, get more toned, healthier or stronger? Why are you trying to eat better or be more active? Is it because the calendar says Monday, or January 1st? That doesn’t seem like a very compelling reason to maintain your habits beyond Monday, or January 1st!

Why Change?

I devote an entire chapter in Death of the Diet (get the first two chapters free here) to answering this question. Distilled from that chapter and other areas of the book, I pose to you the following three questions and activity to reflect upon and answer this holiday season. If these questions lead you to start making changes, do me one favor. Start them the day you feel ready to change, regardless of the day of the week or the date on the calendar.

Question 1: Are you satisfied with your current health, fitness or weight?

If yes, then keep doing what you’re doing and no need to continue reading. If no, answer question #2.

Question 2: Why Change?

Your current results (health, fitness, weight, etc.) are the result of your current habits. To change your results, you need to change your habits. However, habits are there for a reason – they are the path of least resistance based on the circumstances in your life right now. You may have had other priorities in the past, but right now this is what you’re starting with. Use the activity below to determine why you would be willing to put in the effort to change those habits:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in six to twelve months. On a piece of paper write down one to three weight, fitness or health results that you want to accomplish based on making positive changes to your eating and/or physical activity habits. Some common results include losing weight, being more toned or having more energy – but of course, what matters here is what’s important to you. Then, rank how motivating each of them is to you on a scale of zero (no motivation to change) to ten (the largest motivating factor in my life, above all other commitments).

Now look at each result again and ask yourself: “Why do I want to achieve these changes? How will achieving this allow me to live a better life or do things I’m currently not able to do?” Dig deep…usually your initial desires have deeper reasons. Weight loss, strength, energy, toning are means to an end – what’s your end? What are you going to use this new-found slimmer weight, stronger body, greater energy for? That’s your Why.

Physical health is only one aspect of wellness. Consider how making improvements can improve other aspects of your life and wellness (based on Anspaugh’s Seven Dimensions of Wellness): social (relationships), emotional (feeling about self/others), occupational (work/career), intellectual (improving knowledge/skills), spiritual (morals/values) and environmental (sustainability/impact on nature).

If you find a deeper Why than the result you initially listed, draw an arrow at the end of the original reason and write down the new one. Rate the motivation gained from this new reason. It will likely be higher than the original reason. Repeat this process for all of your desired health, fitness or weight results so each one has tangible life improvements associated with it. These are your true Whys. You can use the space provided below or if you used a piece of paper, write them next to the original Whys.

If I initially decided I wanted to lose 30 pounds, here are two examples of potential deeper Whys:

  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I no longer want to get winded doing everyday activities like going up stairs and walking a few blocks. (Motivation: 7)
  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I want to look great in all of my old clothes that no longer fit (a particular dress or pants size?) (Motivation: 6) –> I want to feel confident in myself and my body. (Motivation: 8)

Write down your Whys on a few index cards and put them in places where you can see them often (at work, in your wallet/purse, at home, etc.).

Question #3: What is one action I can take today or this week to get me one step closer to my Whys?

Once you know where you want to go and why, the next step is determining how you’re going to get there. There are many paths to living healthier, much like there are many ways to get from New York to San Francisco (different roads, airplane, train, etc.). The key is determining which path works best for your needs, preferences, priorities and schedule and then taking consistent action to travel along that path.

Changing your habits can be generalized into three main “buckets”:

Physical Activity: Working out, playing sports, taking the stairs more often, gardening, going for more walks, dancing, hiking, etc.

Eating Habits: Eating more fruits and veggies, drinking more water, eating smaller portions, less alcohol, etc.

Lifestyle Habits: Getting more sleep, reducing stress levels, quit smoking, making more time for physical activity and eating habits (your schedule), get regular medical/dental checkups, etc.

The key to making successful, lasting change is choosing new actions that are as easy as possible for you to do on a regular basis and work on just that action for a few weeks until it kicks out the old habit. Research shows it usually takes at least three weeks of consistent action to form a new habit.

Getting from where you are to where you want to be is rarely a straight shot to the top; it’s more like two steps forward and one step back. Which is still one step forward. There will be mistakes made, lessons learned, obstacles, frustrations and most of all, progress. Give yourself credit for your successes while taking responsibilities for the mishaps. Which can be summarized by a quote I strive to live my life by: There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback™.

TELL US: What’s your Why?  and get support from 75+ daily readers at Death of the Diet!

Why I Love…and Hate Yoga, Part 2

Keeping Yoga Safe

Image: sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past couple weeks I’ve received a few responses and inquiries as to what aspects of yoga I dislike – it seems that more people have gotten hurt performing yoga than I thought. I hope this post sheds some light on the dangers of improperly performed yoga so you can take steps to minimize your injury risk while still enjoying a practice that you love. Take a breath…this is a long post.

What Looks Right is not Always Right

When properly performed, yoga can be great for promoting body awareness. But the problem is, whom or what are we listening to when in class? All too often we look at the people to the right, to the left and in front of us (the instructor) as our sole sources of guidance rather than listening to our own body. Many times instructors give great cues such as “feel a lengthening, stretching sensation through the chest/spine”, but instead we look at what they are doing (curving up into a full upward dog) rather than what they are saying. So we contort ourselves to look like them, all the while forgetting what we are supposed to be feeling. And as a result we often crunch our lower backs in a vain attempt to lengthen through the chest or spine. The key to doing things right is making sure you feel them in the places you are supposed to feel them!

The two most common issues of improper movement are lack of mobility and lack of stability.

Lacking Mobility – Many of us are tight from sitting and typing at a computer all day and then come to a yoga class to “stretch out”. Then we see that really flexible, hypermobile (to be discussed) person next to you doing all sorts of unstable crazy movements and think, “I should do that too!” See where I’m headed with this?

The issue for tight individuals (including myself) is that we do not necessarily have the mobility yet to get ourselves into these poses and positions. In other words, our muscles and connective tissue are pretty tight so making ourselves look “flexible” requires an extraordinary amount of effort…usually from muscles and joints that were not designed to move us in that particular way. And when the wrong muscles and joints do the work, you can bet that discomfort and pain will follow in due time.

Well respected yoga instructor Leslie Kaminoff depicts the situation well when discussing the spine: “Spinal extension is not necessarily the same thing as bending backward and spinal flexion is not necessarily the same thing as bending forward.” In other words, our chronic postures and positions can make it harder for us to move properly in space using the right muscles and joints, so we must make sure we only move until we get the sensation we are supposed to feel in a particular pose rather than pushing ourselves to look like the person next to us.

A great example is one of the most basic poses: Volcano Pose (standing back bend). Many people will start here and bend backward to “open up” the front of their body. The problem is most people are very tight in their chest and hips due to sitting all day, so they end up going way too far back and rather than feeling the stretch in their chest, abdomen and hips, they get a big ‘ol crunch in their lower back. This situation happens in many other poses as well such as cobra and upward dog.

Another example is that many people will use their lower back muscles when bridging rather than engaging their glutes and abdominals. Most of us put enough strain on our lower back throughout the day that we don’t need to add more during yoga practice.

Lacking Stability – Why is it that so many of the people that take yoga are really flexible? Or at least seem that way. Probably because we like to do what we are good at. But what if all of that “flexibility” comes at a price: our ligaments and tendons. Those who have hypermobility (aka double jointed-ness) at particular joints can probably move and contort their bodies into all sorts of positions that can make a veteran yogi jealous. But should they be in those positions?

The answer lies with one word: stability. Stabilizing means being able to move and hold a yoga pose due to engaging your muscles to create support, rather than just hanging in our tendons or ligaments. Hypermobility means that the ligaments and tendons are more pliable, so they can be forced further, even if they don’t really want to be there. So if you are constantly using your mobility (flexibility) to get into positions that you can’t stabilize, odds are it’s only a matter of time before you start feeling discomfort or pain in those joints.

Or consider if you are hypermobile in one joint (i.e. the shoulder) but tight in another (the upper back/thoracic spine). Odds are you are going to make up for tightness in one area by moving excessively through the other. See the discussion on lacking mobility above.

So what to do? Focus on feeling what muscles should be engaged to move and stabilize you as you move into and hold a pose. For example, when doing any sort of arm bind, make sure the shoulders are firmly down in their sockets by engaging the muscles underneath the armpits. If engaging those muscles means you can no longer perform the bind, then you may not have the stability yet to go there safely. For trunk movements (i.e. cobra, up-dog, etc.) make sure the abdominals stay engaged and for lower body movements, the glutes are usually a good idea.

So forget what looks right…do what FEELS right.

A great tip: Ask yourself three questions in any pose:

  • 1. Do I feel the movement/relaxation where I am supposed to feel it?
  • 2. Do I feel discomfort anywhere else?
  • 3. Can I breathe normally?

The answers should be Yes, No, Yes. If you don’t answer the questions this way, adjust yourself until you do. Usually it means easing up on the intensity of the pose so you stop forcing the wrong muscle to work.

Yoga is not a “Workout”

I’m not a big fan of the recent wave of using yoga as an intense, sweat-inducing workout. Yoga was designed thousands of years ago to allow practitioners to get better in touch with their emotions (meditation) and controlling movement in their body…not how many calories they burned in a session. If you want to raise your heart rate and rock your body, do some cardio intervals or lift some weights.

I consider the new fad of “Power” yoga to be a bit of an oxymoron. Don’t get me wrong, advanced yogis are amazingly powerful and balanced…you need it when suspending your entire body on your forearms! But they didn’t get there by doing sun salutation or another Vinyasa flow as fast and intensely as possible. If they did, they probably would have injured their lower backs long before mastering their practice.

Another style of yoga that I must discuss in this section is Bikram (aka hot yoga). In my opinion, Bikram yoga is not ideal for the vast majority of the American population. The purported benefits of Bikram yoga exist, but the complications of straining our muscles or bodies in a 110 degree room for 60 to 90 minutes creates more risk than reward.

Bikram yoga practitioners often cite three aspects of why they feel that heat helps them practice better (though I am sure I’m missing a few):

  • 1. The warmth will help the muscles warm up quicker and move better
  • 2. Sweat helps remove toxins from the body
  • 3. The heat helps them “deepen” their practice

Here’s my response:

  • 1. A well-structured gradual yoga progression can be just as effective at warming up the body. And once the muscles are “warm”, they do not need to be warmer. Our internal body temperature is a balmy 98.6 degrees and muscles don’t get much hotter when exercising.
  • 2. Sweat is not the only way to remove toxins from the body. The whole point of blood flow is to transport nutrients and remove waste. And how do we promote blood flow to an area? We move it. You don’t need to be in a sauna to move your muscles.
  • 3. Sweating profusely can lead to an increased risk of dehydration. And a few times I’ve heard that Bikram instructors do not want people to drink water because it lets them practice better or get a better connection with the sutras. That’s positively insane. I do not find being dehydrated to the point of passing out or deliriousness to be a way to deepen your practice…it’s a way to lose focus and increase risk of injury.

Take yoga to build body awareness, mobility, stability and balance. Don’t take it to get your “sweat on”.

Over-Zealous, Under-Educated Instructors

There are many fantastic yoga instructors out there and this section is not designed for you. But unless you intricately understand how the human body works (muscles, joints, connective tissue, organs, etc.) and how each of your poses impacts people with different medical and orthopedic conditions and restrictions along with ways to regress and correct them, then you may want to consider getting your “learning on”. Face it, we are living in a society where being injured or having a constant ache/pain is the NORM, not the exception. We need to step up our game as practitioners to meet the increased needs of our clientele.

If I could provide three pieces of advice to yoga teachers that will serve you well no matter how much you know:

  • 1. First do no harm: If someone tells you a pose hurts, back them out of it until it no longer hurts or learn modifications and regressions to get them a similar effect without pain.
  • 2. Never place force onto a person’s body: I have heard too many stories of yoga teachers that SEVERELY injured students because they pushed down on them when they were in a pose. Never, ever, ever place force on someone’s body. You can touch them, but the touch should be designed to bring awareness to a part of the body, not added strain. A great example, if someone is sagging in plank pose, place your hand in the small of their lower back and ask them to engage their abdominals to push their back into your hand. You gave them something to focus on, but you did not put pressure ON them.
  • 3. Don’t stop learning: The most frustrating thing I hear when someone asks a yoga teacher why they chose a particular pose or why a particular pose hurts, they say, “I don’t know…it’s just what I learned from my teacher.” I’m sorry, I think that’s a bullcrap response. When someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer say, “That’s a great question, and I’ll find out for you.” Get the answer, learn it, and store it away in the memory bank. I’m sure someone else will have the same issue down the road. The more you know, the better you will be.

This is why I have greatly enjoyed teaching aspiring yoga practitioners. I want them to be able to answer the question, “Why?” Both for their students and for themselves.

Why I Love…and Hate Yoga, Part 1

Keeping Yoga Safe

Image: sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Inspired by the NY Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, I took a moment and began to reflect on my experiences with yoga: as a class attendee, an exercise physiologist working with clients and as an anatomy and physiology instructor, training groups of soon-to-be yoga teachers in Jersey City.

My gut instinct is one of thankfulness that I have learned enough about the human body to have a basic understanding about what it can…and cannot do. I translate that knowledge into my own practice. However not everyone has this built in awareness and unfortunately most yoga instructors, even seasoned veterans, may lack the background in anatomy and physiology to understand the subtle compensations that people can make during yoga practice that can lead to joint and muscle problems down the road.

I will be breaking down this topic into two posts. The goal of this first discussion is to provide insights into why yoga can be beneficial for many people when performed correctly. In Part 2 I’ll be discussing some of the common reasons why people end up getting injured performing a practice that is designed to make us move better, not worse!

Yoga Can Develop Range of Motion and Flexibility

When performed properly, yoga is one of the best ways to develop range of motion and flexibility primarily due to the fact that most poses are designed to take you to the limits of your range of motion. Our body learns and improves by a principle called “progressive overload,” which states that the body improves by small, incremental challenges. So in the case of yoga, we challenge our body to engage certain muscles and move into poses which then take us to the end range of motion in other muscles. Holding those poses teaches the body that those muscles must gain range of motion for subsequent classes/practice. Performing progressive overload consistently is what leads to results.

Note that range of motion is not just stretching; you also develop range of motion through engaging muscles. Most muscles in the body come paired with another muscle, usually on the exact opposite side of the body. The key to good movement is the balance that exists between the strength and flexibility of each muscle pair. However, excessive sitting, staring at computer screens all day and poor exercise form can create chronic compensations that lead to imbalances and potentially injury.

Yoga can help us reclaim this balance by re-educating our tight muscles to become flexible while strengthening our weakened muscles. The key of course, is knowing which muscles tend to be tight and which tend to be weak. A perfect example is a common yoga pose and exercise: the bridge. Sitting all day can make our hip flexors tight and our glutes (a.k.a. our butt) weak. A bridge allows for the opposite movements: the glutes engage and the hip flexors must stretch.

Yoga Can Build Body Awareness and Balance

When performed at a steady, controlled pace yoga allows the student/attendee to become aware of their muscles, their movements and their breathing. Coming into a pose and holding it for a number of seconds (but not minutes), can allow someone to take stock of what muscles are engaged and how they are breathing. Good yoga instructors should be giving cues on proper alignment, what muscles should be active and ideally, which muscles should not be active. Listen to them and then listen to your body. Do you feel what they are describing? Or are you feeling uncomfortable somewhere that “doesn’t feel right”? If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. You may not have the flexibility to get into the pose (or the depth that you’ve moved) or you may not have the strength to stabilize the body in the pose.

The best way to know if you are actually stable in a pose is to check your face, neck and breathing. Your breathing should not be forced or strained nor should you be holding your breath. Your neck and face muscles should be toned, but relaxed…not on overdrive. If anything, make sure your chin is slightly tucked down and back. If you can’t relax your neck, face or breath, then you need to probably ease out of the pose a bit, modify the pose or skip it for now.

I’m on-board with sensible levels of barefoot balance training for most people that do not have significant foot issues. Many have flat feet due to functional (a.k.a. movement compensation) rather than structural (a.k.a. genetic bone deformities or long term dysfunction) problems. Most of this comes from wearing shoes all day which deprive our feet from its natural interaction with the ground. Since yoga is typically performed barefoot, it provides a low-impact, safer introduction to teaching the foot to stabilize the body compared to other popular, high-impact barefoot training modalities like running or jumping. Remember it’s progressive, not extreme, overload.

Yoga has Benefits beyond Flexibility: Stress Management

Physical activity has been shown to have stress-reducing effects. While most yoga classes are not the same as sessions of cardio intervals or strength training, there is significant engagement of muscles over an extended period of time, usually about an hour. In addition, there are periods of higher intensity during the session, such as a sustained pose that can increase muscular engagement and cardiovascular demand. So for many, yoga may fall under the category of “moderate” activity, which can reduce stress levels.

Beyond movement, spending an hour focusing on breathing, movement and posture can take our mind off of the 10,000 stressors and worries that we are dealing with for the other 23 hours of the day. From a purely substitution perspective, giving your stress-system an hour “off” can slowly help turn the tide from being constantly stressed to being…well, moderately stressed. And any reduction in stress levels is good, because stress can impact everything from our social interactions (how well do you get along with others when you’re stressed?) to our eating habits (ever hear of stress eating?).

If this article has sold you on yoga, then great! But be careful, start slowly, be mindful, don’t push it too hard too fast, and if it hurts, stop. Remember progressive overload. If you are interested but want to wait until my next article which discusses why I hate yoga, then you’re probably not alone.

Don’t you just hate cliffhangers? 🙂

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