You Bet!

Fitness can be defined as the ability to respond to environmental and personal challenges in a proactive, not a reactive manner.  Being a biological organism, we are governed by  Circadian Rhythms,  the sun rises and we become active and the sun sets and we become more sedate.  Or do we?  In this age of artificial light and devices that keep us connected and tuned in 24/7 it behooves us to tune into our own personal rhythms.

In the landmark 20 year study conducted by the University of London, “unmanaged reactions to stress” were deemed a more dangerous risk factor for cancer and heart disease than cigarette smoking or eating high cholesterol foods.  I love this quote from Larry Dossey, MD in his book, Space Time and Medicine, “Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate inappropriately, we have learned to hurry inappropriately.  Our bells have become the watch, the alarm clocks, the morning coffee and the hundreds of self-inflicted expectations we build into our daily routine.  The subliminal message is…TIME IS RUNNING OUT, PLEASE HURRY!”  This book was written before the advent of the internet and smart phones; I wonder what he would say now!!!  The good news is there is an antidote to stress, relaxation.

How do you define ‘fitness’?  Does fitness simply equate to tight abs and lean body composition? Each of us probably has his/her unique definition.  For an older adult fitness may mean continuing to walk without the aid of a “walker” or the ability to walk up a flight of stairs.  For an aspiring tri-athlete it may be finishing the race in the desired time period.

Getting back to my initial definition of fitness, what is the difference between reaction and response in any given situation?  In our sports activities we want quick reactions and response time.  However, if every little traffic incident, a light turning red as we approach an intersection or someone cutting in front of our car on the freeway induces a stress reaction, a release of cortisol and related stress hormones, we could be weakening our systems or worse making ourselves ill.

Stress Hardy:

A study was done on rats in which Rat A was placed in a cage and was given periodic shocks.  Rat A did have a button it could push to stop the shocks.  Rat B was in a cage and like Rat A was given shocks; Rat B did not have a button to stop the shocks.  Rat C was in a cage but received no shocks and of course did not have a button to push.  Which was the healthiest rat?  Go ahead guess before you read the answer.  Rat C, Rat A….

Rat A  was termed, “Stress Hardy”.  We like Rat A get shocked in life; learning to turn off the negative stimulus is one key to a healthy lifestyle.  And, it isn’t just about turning off the negative stimulus;  being proactive is the goal.

Psychologist, Kobasa and Maddi, did a study of 200 business executives at Illinois Bell.  The organization was going through a difficult time, so much so that half of the executives became ill.  The researchers looked for differentiating characteristics in the group that stayed well.  They found strong differences, which they termed “Hardiness”:  Challenge, Commitment and Control.  These characteristics allow us to be proactive.  By viewing the shock(s) as challenge(s) and by committing ourselves to meeting the challenge(s) we can gain control.  This is what I mean by being proactive.

Ralph La Forge, MS, a physiologist, is the managing director of the Duke Lipid Disorder Physician Education Program at Duke University Medical Center, defines the scientific reasons for exercise as:

reduced body fat

reduced blood pressure

increased insulin sensitivity

reduced stress hormones

displacement of unhealthy behaviors

reduced stress reactivity

We all know the feeling of the “endorphin rush”, post exercise increases in the production of endorphins, which are feel-good hormones.  Reduced stress reactivity can be viewed as a necessary part of fitness and health.  Learning how to relax is a necessary skill.

How do we define relaxation?

There are various studies showing that relaxation does not mean tuning out, unresponsiveness or going to sleep.  Active imagination and relaxation are components of fitness.  Fitness and relaxation are synonymous!  The combination of these tools equates wellness.

Herbert Benson, MD coined a term, “The Relaxation Response“.  He discovered that during relaxation several positive physiological responses occur:

Heart rate decreases

Respiratory rate decreases,

Tight muscles ease,

Blood pressure falls,

Brain waves become slower and more synchronized.

Benson and others, including James Gordon who wrote, Manifesto for a New Medicine, have found that regular relaxation not only decreases levels of stress hormones, but also improves immune functioning, diminishes chronic pain, improves mood and even enhances fertility.

We have a built in mechanism to elicit the Relaxation Response, the Breath.  By breathing consciously, by fully exhaling we can RELAX.

Whispers of the Breath Diva:

Notice that as you  – inhale – you activate.  Feel your chest widening and broadening as you inhale.  Breathe in Filling with Energy!  Exhale and let go, give back.  Notice every nuance of your Breath.