Strength training supports healthy weight loss at any age

According to a recent Harvard Medical School bulletin:

If you’re trying to lose weight by cutting calories, you’re likely losing muscle, too. But strength training can counteract this effect. According to a research review in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, on average, 27% of the weight lost by dieting is muscle. Those who combined dieting with cardio exercise cut muscle loss in half. But when participants combined dieting and resistance training (strength training), all of the pounds lost were fat. What’s more, the more muscle you have and the stronger your muscles are—the more benefits you’ll get beyond weight loss. You’ll develop a slimmer, firmer figure and have the energy to be more active. And, you’ll get more from cardio workouts because you’ll be able to go faster and last longer.

This quote is from an email about the Harvard Medical School’s publication, Strength and Power Training for All Ages.

I’m really not a gym rat. I like being outside; I love being present in nature, up close and personal. I feel relaxed and nourished by the fresh air, in touch with the seasons, and just plain grateful to be able to listen to birds as I walk at my own pace, while my mind wanders.

I’m really not a gym rat, although as the resident of a rainy state, I also appreciate knowing that when it gets too much (winter!), I can go inside and get most of the benefits that in better weather, I’d prefer to get outside.

The thing is, since I don’t love the gym, I need these reminders that strength training matters, so I’ll make an effort to get the strength training I need to stay strong. I’ll remind myself to keep up the daily plank pose. And 20 minutes or so, one or two days a week, at the gym for a few more weight exercises is well worth it–after all, we’re in this for the long haul, right?

Magic wands for change

I start a new series of hypnosis workshops in October, and it’s been fun to prepare the new classes and get ready for the ones I’ve been doing for years.  In fact, I’ve been working with people who struggle with weight issues for 10 years now, and I have learned so much from the people who have chosen to share their process with me. It’s a complex issue—so personal, and yet affected by so many family, or social, or cultural, or economic influences. I have so much gratitude for the years of learning from this work, and so much respect for the people involved.

Because it is such a complex issue, many people find themselves hopeless or overwhelmed, even though they would like to be able to do something to help themselves. And it’s hard to pick out the 1 thing that could help everyone who wants to do something about the problem. Everyone is different, and my personal magic wand might be just an ugly old twig to the next person.

But I do have a few magic wands to recommend, nonetheless. There’s a selection process, of course, since we are each unique, and when it comes to magic, it’s not one size fits all. It’s more like this: which one makes us feel strong, and helps us accept ourselves, just as we are—because that’s what it takes to fight the forces (personal, family, social, etc.) that contribute to feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.

It’s a tall order, but fortunately we don’t have to make the choice blindly. A little bit of self-reflection can point us in the right direction. When we know what truly matters to us—our values—it’s easier to make the right choice. Besides, these are simple things; if you can’t decide, you could try them all and see what feels good.

Here are the magic wands I recommend—and by magic wand, I mean one thing—one small thing—that just about anyone can do just about any time, to start making progress on the path to a more healthy way of spending our days. The 3 magic wands below are listed in an order that matters to me, but the first one would not necessarily be the right first one for you.

Magic wand 1: Moving more.

Maybe that’s a goal of walking 10 minutes a day to start. (Or depending where you’re starting from, walking 20 minutes each day or more.) Maybe it’s dancing at the sink while you’re doing dishes. Maybe it’s stretching every time you get out of a chair. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class, or doing chair tai chi at the library. You get the drift: whatever you can reliably do and feel good doing.

Magic wand 2: Practicing gratitude.

This is about looking for something to be grateful for, maybe just one thing every day. Maybe you keep a journal or maybe you just stop and think about it at least once a day. Maybe you get more creative and decide it has to be something new and different every day, or set timers during the day.

Magic wand 3: Meditation.

Maybe you start with a 10-minute guided meditation from the internet, or maybe take a class or join a group, working up to your own daily practice. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, but there are lots of options out there.

Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with doing all three, or more. In fact, for some folks, at certain times, diving into a completely new lifestyle can be exhilarating and ultimately the right first step. (Perhaps this approach should be magic wand number 4.)

These sound like small things (except #4). And they are small, and they are simple, but they are also powerful. Somehow—and this is why I call them magic, because I don’t know how it works—these small things can each lead us to recognize that we do have the power to affect how we live our lives, and that is the true beginning of making change. 

Right now I’m grateful that I get to do this work, and looking forward to new classes, and people on the path to change.

New classes: on transforming stress, and dealing with pain

Two new classes this Fall quarter at Whatcom Community College, one on the new science of stress, and another on dealing with pain. 

Want to transform your relationship with stress? The new science on stress validates the power of our minds over the way we experience stressful events. On Thursday October 12th, I’ll present some of the myths and the new science about stress, and we’ll discuss the ways we typically react when we experience stress. We’ll also learn some simple ways to mitigate the harmful effects and boost the positives—and contrary to what we’ve been told, there are many positives that come out of stressful times.

Occasional or chronic pain is a reality for most of us at one time or another, and yet most pain medicines are problematic when used regularly—in fact, there is no cure for chronic pain. Typical common causes for pain include headaches, low back pain, nerve damage, recovery from surgery or other medical treatment, and other disabilities. Any of these can affect quality of life, including things like getting the sleep or activity we need to stay positive and healthy.

Hypnosis is a proven method for mitigating or reducing pain, and hypnosis has no side effects other than relaxation. In this class on October 26th, you’ll learn how, by practicing at home, you can use hypnosis to get more control over pain and its effects.

Register for either class at Whatcom Community College, by email, or by phone at 360-383-3200.

And by all means contact me with any questions about either of these new classes.

A brand new study about inflammation, heart disease, and cancer

I just this morning read an article in the Guardian about a major study of inflammation and heart disease–a four year study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital of 10,000 heart attack survivors. The results showed a 15% reduction in complications for participants who took the anti-inflammatory drug canakinumab–a breakthrough confirming the theory that inflammation contributes to heart disease.

This is great news in itself, but there’s more: what was unusual about this study is that, knowing the inflammation pathway the drug targeted was also known to be involved in cancer risk, the researchers ensured that patients with risk factors for cancer were evenly distributed among the study groups.

The results are in: for patients taking a low dose of the anti-inflammatory drug, lung cancer rates were reduced 26%. In patients with a medium dose, the rate dropped 39%. Patients with the highest dose showed a 67% drop, and their overall cancer death rate was about half that of the placebo group.

It’s early days, of course. There will be lots more research to come before this translates to new cancer treatments. But how great to be able to see the beginnings of a promising line of research. Go science!

Learning patience and persistence from a large pile of heavy rocks

Last week I mentioned the adventures with heavy rocks that resulted in me spending too much sedentary time contemplating the effects of inflammation. (I’m doing well now, and I’m learning good stuff from a wonderful PT, so the outlook is much much brighter.)

Now I have a routine for strengthening my back and getting more flexible, so that I can get back to the yard project I wanted to do this summer—which leads me to the subject of motivation.

I’m the kind who does the exercises until I don’t hurt anymore, which has always seemed like a reasonable way to deal with aches and pains. But now I’m seeing that it really isn’t that simple—or at least not so simple as it seemed when I was much younger.

The reality is that if I want to do the yard project, I need a greater level of fitness than I’ve enjoyed in a long time. I won’t be able to finish it unless I get stronger, and getting stronger before the summer’s gone means I need to raise the priority—the exercises  and stretches need to happen every day. I know myself well enough to admit that won’t happen unless I make a routine, linking the physical therapy exercises with something I’m already reliably doing.

Although I say “every day,” and mean it, I also know it’s not a realistic expectation. Life regularly gets in the way of my plans, so I have to recognize and prepare for interruptions—that way I’m more likely to relax and enjoy the distractions, knowing I’ll be able to get back to the routine next day. In this case, my plan is, if I can’t do all the exercises, I will at least do the stretches—and it doesn’t matter when during the day I do them. And since I know life will interfere, I’m more focused on getting the work done on the days it’s easy to keep to the schedule. 

Here’s an outline of the basic idea:

  • Have a goal:  Get fit for yard project
  • Have a plan for daily work: Right now that’s about 25 minutes of exercises and stretches
  • Have a plan for when I can’t (or choose not to) do the work: Do the stretches and skip the harder stuff
  • Have a plan for getting back into the work after a day off: Raise it in the priorities for the day, and/or Enlist helpers to remind me, and/or Use a calendar to mark each day’s effort for a visual reminder 

This last one is more detailed, I think because at this stage I’m still fighting my tendency to see yesterday’s decision not to do the hard stuff as a failure on my part. Even though I know this tendency isn’t helpful, it’s a hard thought-habit to break. So I don’t want to feed it; instead I want the alternative of a reasonable response to those normal days when Plan A doesn’t work.

Another effect of this approach is that by recognizing the obstacles (including the emotional one of feeling shame when I miss a day), and making a plan for dealing with them, it’s easier to follow through. As a result, I become more patient with myself, and thereby more confident that I can make good progress toward my goal.

When I do my early morning routine self-hypnosis, my plan for the day includes doing the PT exercises, too. It all helps.

Fighting inflammation

In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.

Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation:  what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.

The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.

However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn. 

The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.

Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”

But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle. (Of course, the first step should include talking to your doctor about this information and how it may affect you.)

We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:

  • Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if your doctor agrees it’s a good fit for you. It could protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one over-the-counter anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
  • Stretch—this doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair during the day?
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
  • Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
  • Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.

What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health.  And it’s motivation to keep on that path. 

If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day.  Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?

Positivity opens up possibilities–after we overcome the limits of our own negative thinking

Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.

HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)

The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.

Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.

Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.

However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers.  It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.

I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to  compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).

But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them. 

In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as from Village Books (Fairhaven and Lynden) and Amazon, of course. 

Using mindfulness with difficult emotions

When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.

(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)

Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.

I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the  negative impact of the difficult ones.

I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.

Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available. 

Go outside! Don’t read this–just go outside and enjoy moving around on a beautiful day

I’m a big fan of green exercise; I’d much rather go out in the woods than go into a gym, even though I know there are great benefits to the kind of workout I’d get at the gym. But the walk in the woods has its own benefits, and they go beyond the physical. A walk in the woods is good for the mind and the spirit as well as the body.

It turns out it’s good for the brain as well. A study used ultrasound to measure blood flow through the carotid artery, and found that our steps cause a pressure wave that affects blood flow and diffusion in the brain.

We’ve obviously always known on some level that walking is good for us, but I’ve never identified the clarity of mind that comes with a good walk as a side effect of the increase in blood flow through the brain. How fascinating!

But here we are—on a holiday weekend, and the warmest, prettiest pre-summer day of the year! Let’s go outside! It’s a bike-ride day if I ever saw one. Enjoy!