Exercise really delivers what comfort food only promises

When you feel bad—just normal stress, or perhaps another kind of emotional distress—physical activity helps. Here are some of the benefits:

Unlike trying to find comfort in comfort food, moving the body actually does provide a real distraction—and real relief—from discomfort, and depending on what you’re doing, physical effort can relax the mind as well as the body.

Studies confirm the reports that exercise makes people feel better; one 10 minute exercise session improves mood (if it’s not more strenuous than you’re used to–an important caveat). After exercising, people react less severely to stressors, and the effect is cumulative: that is, people become less reactive to stress as they make a regular habit of exercise. This applies as well to people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, and depression.

Long-term benefits of exercise include better memory and cognitive function, and more creativity. (The creativity study tested problem solving while walking vs. standing still.) Another benefit is the association with better sleep, as long as you make sure you allow time to relax before bed.

As we age, there’s a host of particularly important benefits—whether or not we’ve been life-long couch potatoes. Take sleep, for example: after 4 months of regular exercise, previously sedentary adults were falling asleep faster, and sleeping better and longer.

Other benefits important to older adults include healthier aging, meaning it helps prevent chronic disease, depression, disability, and memory loss. And it can reverse age-related declines in muscle mass and strength.

But do remember that, while we can visualize ourselves as the gazelles floating around the track, we still need to start where we are, not where we wish we were. I’m a great walker, but if I wanted to become a runner, I’d have to start at ground zero, with the easy stuff.

If that’s you, too, there’s lots of info online (just Google beginning runner) and there are communities of runners (check running shoe stores). If you are in Whatcom County, like me, I can pass on a recommendation from a long-time runner for checking out the Fit School in Bellingham. And, whether you’re that ambitious or not at all, don’t forget Parkscriptions, especially if you’d like to combine exercise with meeting other health-minded people.

Stealth exercise: how to sneak it into the day

If you’re one of those rare people whose workday includes a lot of physical activity, this post may not apply to you–unless, like me, you have some aches and pains you have to be careful with.

It’s about an interesting article I just read—a reprint from Outside Magazine—with a new spin on the often-quoted advice that desk workers should regularly get up and move. What was new to me is the claim that being active outside of work hours doesn’t compensate for long sedentary hours during the workday.

First I apologize for not including a link to the article. (I confess I’m a little peeved that the site is not easy to search.) But I’m writing about it anyway because after I’d read it online, I realized that it presented a solution to a problem I’m dealing with—and I wanted to share.

The article was about the writer’s attempts to incorporate physical activity during his workday. He used an app (Move, perhaps) that gave him a task—walk, lunges, etc.—every 45 minutes he was at work. He became adept at stealth exercising: linking his computer to a printer at the other end of the building, walking with files to give the impression that he was on his way somewhere, doing lunges or a wall press out of sight of the door, etc. I loved it, having worked in places where the need to move would not be considered a good reason to leave my desk.

But since I am now self-employed, I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks about my restless progress through my workdays—I get up and move frequently, just because it feels good, and because it helps my mind work. The bonus for me was realizing I can use these mini-breaks during the day to do the specific exercises I know I need to do to help me stay—or get—stronger: plank pose is one, for example. Like everyone I know who’s over 40, I have some back issues, or shoulder issues, or hip issues—let’s face it, after a certain point, there are always issues.

I’m fortunate to have found a wonderful physical therapist, and the exercises he suggests really work, but unfortunately the results only show up when I actually do the exercises. (I know I’m not the only one!) Right after a painful episode, it’s easy to find the motivation and the time to do the exercises all at once. But when the urgency fades, it’s much harder—I think it will be easier to do them one at a time, as breaks in my workday, than trying to find time to do all of them at once. (Okay, 400+ words written—time for a plank pose.)

Notes: it seems to be working—I am finding it easier to get most if not all of the prescribed exercises into my day. Also, the PT I mentioned is Ed Deboo, who has a useful series of videos on YouTube about dealing with common aches, pains, or injuries. Check it out.

Ten years of working with clients and students on hypnosis for weight control . . . time flies . . .

Another weight control class at Whatcom Community College has just ended, and as usual I am thinking over what we covered, and thinking too about other ideas and information that students and clients might find useful. Specifically, I’m wondering about adding more information on the newer research that challenges common assumptions about weight loss and weight control.

My first experience with hypnosis for weight loss was driven by my own experience of the problem; as you might expect, that’s pretty common for folks in this field. I set up the first class based on hypnosis to support what the conventional wisdom said was the path to change—balancing calories in and calories out, for example, and too much fat is bad and the same goes for processed food. (Now I now think good fat is good and bad fat is bad, and I think processed food is not only bad, but also seriously harmful when eaten daily.)

The very first class was the last time I followed that particular part of the lesson plan. The class participants were almost unanimous in telling me that they didn’t need nutritional advice—and it was clear that they knew as much as I did about the calorie balance theory, and they were still struggling.

So I dug deeper—again, learning from students but also from my own yo-yo pattern of weight loss-gain-loss, etc. I started reading research on habit change; I discovered the National Weight Control Registry; I started reading about neuroscience and stress and cognition and motivation, and all the other places my reading took me. I’ve never stopped. It’s led me to a different understanding of the problem, and along the way I have also lost weight. Best of all, I’m not alone. Many students and clients have lost weight too.

What I discovered, in the end, is that the problem is not really about the weight. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not only about the weight. Instead, it’s about all the things that happen to cause us to override our bodies’ natural sense of what we need for—or from—nourishment. That realization started my shift away from conventional advice on weight loss, both for the classes and my work with individual clients.

I started this post thinking about what we know now about weight control, and what we thought we knew way back when. I was wondering if I should add information about the research I’ve read that explains why I don’t care about calories, and I do care about nutrients from real food.

I think I’ve answered my own question: yes, there is so much recent scientifically validated information that directly affects any of us who’s concerned about nutrition, health, or weight control. So much of what we thought we knew (fat is bad, etc.) is wrong—no wonder we have such a hard time sorting through all the static.

As a start, I’ll put together a list of resources—food for thought—and when I do I’ll post it here on the website as well as sharing it with students and clients.

We’re so fortunate to have beautiful parks

Bellingham, where I live, is blessed with great parks, thanks to good leadership and voters willing to pay the freight—wonderful, popular, well-used and well-cared for parks. I’ve used at least one of these parks more or less on a daily basis for years. I was out today, just for a short time, for the welcome chance to connect with the landscape—paths through trees and green hills, the sight of the glittering reflections on water.

The parks are especially glorious on a summer day—the parade of people, or people and their dog-friends, all elevated by the summer sun, the beckoning lake, the trails—dry for once this time of year . . . .

But I love the experience of being on the trails anytime—watching the progress of the seasons. And I also like the sense of being part of a community of the regular walkers. We see each other so many days, for years at a time, and though I have very few personal connections with the other regulars outside the park, we recognize in each other the shared love of this experience, of being in touch with nature in this place.

I love watching runners, too. It’s like watching a dance—I don’t mean choreographed professionals, but just the raw personality that shows through as people let themselves out, let their bodies stretch and move. The people I see at the parks are obviously running for the joy of it, their bodies remembering what it is to be a kid, with kid energy, and the physical resilience of youth.

Okay, it’s also true that while I see a lot of joyful runners, I also see some who don’t look quite so joyful, including some who look as though they wish they were anywhere else.

Watching as I do makes me remember that our bodies are designed to move in so many ways—many more than the linear patterns of walking a path, or bending forward or back—we were born with built-in flexibility and the ability to balance. But as the years go by, we don’t tend to move the way we could as kids.

One of the nice things about movement classes is the opportunity they give to rediscover some of the many ways our bodies can move, especially if we haven’t been active in a while. I mean classes like Tai Chi, yoga, dance, to name just a few. In the last few years, I find that yoga classes are no longer about trying for the perfect form, but more about discovering the benefits of simple stretching and using muscles that otherwise don’t get much of a workout in the course of a day. It’s humbling, I confess, but I’ll take that. After all, that’s another thing I recognize that I need more of.

What’s new this Fall

Fall has definitely arrived in the ’Ham. We had such a long run of summer’s hot dry days it’s been a shock to return to normal weather: clouds, soft rain, the greening grass, ready for one last burst of growth before winter.

It’s also time for me to prepare for the next round of classes on using hypnosis to support weight control. I started these classes ten years ago, and each fall I am rethinking the classes, and re-organizing material, adding new information, finding new strategies, etc. So much of that first class has evolved beyond recognition, except the use of hypnosis to support healthy changes. This time I’m emphasizing the focus on using hypnosis to strengthen self-compassion, so essential to progress in this area.

One topic that I am glad to see getting attention in the press these days is a critique of the ways the medicalization of obesity has affected the medical community and those who inevitably suffer from the blame game—internalizing the shame of being overweight. We really need to stop focusing on the weight and focus instead on healthy behaviors, on helping people figure out for themselves what helps them stay healthy and strong—and the answer is never on a chart filled in with numbers.

If you are interested, or know anyone else who may be interested, in the class or how I work with the issue, please do send them my contact info. I’m always happy to talk about what’s possible with hypnosis.

Poor Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease

I’ve decided to offer classes in using hypnosis to get better sleep–the first is scheduled for March 24 at 10 am. It’s nearly full, so I’ve scheduled a second on April 21, also at 10 am. If you’re interested, contact me, and I’ll send you the details.

Today’s post is about just one of many reasons this topic concerns me.

An article by sleep scientist Matthew Walker* in the October 2017 issue of New Scientist describes a mechanism through which Alzheimer’s disease disrupts memory consolidation—and the mechanism has to do with the poor sleep experienced by people with the disease. The cause itself is not clear, but the connection is clearly established, and it’s a compelling reason for us to address any poor sleep habits we may have.

The connection has to do with the effect of the buildup of toxic amyloid proteins characteristic in the disease, which over time reduces the amount of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) slow wave sleep we typically get during the night. And although it’s common to get less NREM sleep as we age, normal aging doesn’t usually affect the slow wave sleep we get.

Slow wave sleep is responsible for saved memories; in other words it’s involved in the process of shifting memories from short-term to long-term storage. The research shows that more toxic amyloid buildup is correlated with more disruption of slow wave sleep, and more loss of memory consolidation.

It turns out that the area of the brain that is predominantly affected by the disease is the frontal lobe, which is also the part of the brain that is responsible for starting our slow wave sleep phases. The research has confirmed that it’s not just a coincidence that people with Alzheimer’s disease have poor sleep—their poor sleep is qualitatively different from normal sleep changes associated with healthy aging.

Here’s a weird bit of the Alzheimer’s puzzle: how do the toxic plaques cause memory loss?

It’s puzzling because even though amyloid deposits only accumulate in some parts of the brain, they don’t accumulate in the areas of the brain associated with memory. So what is the connection between the disease and memory loss?

It took a sleep scientist to come up with an answer. Here’s his theory, in his own words:

We already knew that in young healthy adults, the slow brainwaves of deep NREM sleep effectively hit the “save” button on new memories, helping us retain what we have recently learned. Sleep also helps us access and thus remember past experiences.

If amyloid was blocking deep NREM sleep in Alzheimer’s disease, then perhaps this loss of youthful deep sleep prevents older adults from being able to save new memories and hold on to experiences past?

He designed a study to test this theory, giving patients new information at night and then testing their recollection the next morning, after monitoring their sleep. The results? Patients with more amyloid deposits in the middle frontal regions of the brain had the most severe loss of deep sleep, and they were unable to remember the new material.

The connection is there—disrupted deep NREM sleep is the missing link between amyloid and memory loss. So far, studies of older adults with sleep disorders confirat treating sleep problems slows the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by up to 10 years.

Again, although the research does not show a causal relationship between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, clearly getting better sleep now can reduce our risk significantly. And further, since the symptoms so disrupt quality of life, it makes sense to me that we choose to do whatever we can to protect our sleep, and our memory.

By the way, the studies also showed that just as prescription medications for sleep do not work beyond a small placebo effect in helping people fall asleep, they do nothing to mitigate the loss of slow wave sleep.

Sleep well tonight. Do contact me if you’re interested in exploring hypnosis to help you get healthy sleep, either one-on-one, or as part of a group.

* This post is a summary of part of Dr. Walker’s article, and any errors are mine.  Do check out his article–he’s a good writer.

How’s your sleep?

I ask this question of all my clients now, because I found that so many people I saw individually and in workshops mentioned poor sleep during the course of discussing other issues, from weight to anxiety, or anger, or chronic pain, etc. I now know that most of my clients have problems getting good sleep, whether or not that’s the issue they come to work on.

I’ve just had a fabulous week of great sleep!

Okay, I think this is an opportunity for one of those “There are two kinds of people . . . .” statements:  There are people who, on reading this, will feel a rush of emotions—envy, happy-for-you, irritation, or despair of ever experiencing that feeling of true rest. And there are people who are puzzled and wondering what all the fuss is about.

I suspect more people are in the first group, based on what I hear from clients, and from the CDC’s findings that 50-70% of people suffer from a sleep disorder.

I’ve had a long time to wrestle with getting enough sleep, and along the way I’ve learned a great deal about the kinds of things that can affect my sleep positively or negatively. And of course I’ve read pretty widely on the topic. Most of what I read is in the category of sleep hygiene—the things we can do to ourselves to get better sleep. Here’s a great list from the NIH, by the way.

But I recently read a great article in Scientific American online “The Secret to a Better Night’s Sleep: A sense of purpose?  The article refers to a study done at Northwestern University School of Medicine.  Here’s a statement from the study report’s conclusion: “a higher level of meaning and purpose in life among older adults is related to better sleep quality and appears to be protective against symptoms of sleep apnea and RLS.” 

How cool is that?

In my practice, I’ve been incorporating a focus on values with every client, initially because of studies like this one—studies confirming that when we focus on our values, we are more likely to experience positive progress toward the changes we want to see in our lives. And it’s truly transformative, I’m finding.

We can learn how to get better sleep, one step at a time, as we make simple changes to our environment, our behavior, and how we think about ourselves. It doesn’t sound simple, but I assure you, it doesn’t have to be hard.

I’m excited about this topic, and about what I’ve been learning about the science of sleep. One of my current projects is putting together a hypnosis workshop about how to craft your own great sleep experience. Stay tuned for more info. 

And Happy New Year! I wish you great sleep in the coming year.