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Blog: On Health. On Writing. On Life. On Everything.

Minimal Exercise Program

December 5, 2011

Tags: movement, anti-aging, arm exercise, back exercise, balance, ball – weighted, barefoot walking, bedridden, Black Beach, body pampering, bone mass, boredom, Boston, bowels - massaging, brushing teeth, cello, California, Chinese, constipation, daily exercise program, death, double chin, elderly, exercise program, exercises en-passant, falls in the elderly, family, fire, Five Tibetans, friends, garden, gentle exercise, German, gluten intolerance, gym machine, hip fracture, hypothermia, imbalance, immune-stimulating, immune system, injury, jogging, Kegel exercises, knee bends, leg strengthening, lower back pain, marathon, marriage, mindfulness, mindless exercise, minimal, Minimal Exercise Program, muscles, neck strengthening, osteopenia, osteoporosis, overexertion, painting, pelvic muscles, pinyin, pneumonia, pool, posture, reading, ruptured muscles, San Diego, sex, shadow boxing, soul pampering, spine, sports medicine, squeezing of shoulder blades, standing on one leg, swimming on dry, tai chi, tai ji, talking, tongue exercise, toning, traveling, triathlon, TV, upper back muscles, walking, warmth, writing, yoga

Reasons why I keep my exercise program as minimal as possible:

1. Exercise is boring.
2. Too much exercise may easily lead to injuries: We now have a medical specialty called “sports medicine”. If we didn’t overdo exercises, we would not need sports medicine. Using those modern gym machines while watching TV is a mindless enterprise. And as things go around, they come around – you could end up hurting yourself.
3. Definitely, there are more interesting things to do – playing cello, writing a book, reading tons of books, dabble with colors and brushes, being with family and friends, learning Chinese – to name a few.

On the other hand, I do have bad posture – inborn (many years of unrecognized gluten intolerance that weakened my muscles), and from years of being bedridden as a young person. Movement creates fire and warmth inside, without which we would not be alive. We need to move yes, but nowhere is it written that we need to jog or overexert ourselves in bad ways.

My exercise program changes all the time – I am always on the lookout for something faster and better. You might remember how much I liked the Five Tibetans – until I developed lower back pain. Recently I had to abandon my laps in the unheated Californian pool; the temperature got too low. I still jump in from time to time, just to get the immune-stimulating jolt of the cold water. But I can’t get my exercise that way anymore - danger of hypothermia and ruptured muscles.

Of course, back in Boston, I work in the garden and go to yoga classes, and have a house to tend to. Here, in this tiny apartment, I had nothing comparable – so far. Until last week , when I joined tai chi classes – or as it is called in proper pinyin Chinese: tai ji. In German, tai chi is called “shadow boxing” – and that describes well those flowing, artful movements I now try to learn. Emphasis on “try”: This is not my first time; in the past, I always had trouble remembering the sequence of movements. This time around, I will not even try to learn the sequence; I will just mimic my teacher and lose myself in the flow of gestures. Because, in the two more months we will stay in San Diego, how much can I really learn? Not much.

But in the first lesson, I already learned an important movement, which I now practice every time I pass by a mirror and notice how bent I have gotten up from my studies. Which makes two little exercises which I do in en-passant, not putting in extra time:

1. This squeezing of my shoulder blades that immediately makes me more upright. Firstly, it is a simple reminder; secondly, the squeezing loosens the muscles of the upper back and prevents that my head slowly vanishes between my shoulders like the head of a turtle in its shell.
2. Standing on one leg – especially while brushing my teeth, or waiting and whiling time away. This is good for balance, and for strengthening leg and pelvic muscles. Imbalance is what kills the elderly: Imbalance – fall – hip fracture – pneumonia – death; we physicians see it all the time. This exercise also increases bone mass in legs and spine, thus counteracting osteopenia and osteoporosis, thus preventing those nasty hip fractures. Standing on one leg is far more interesting and effective than Kegel exercises! Keeps your sex alive!

Not everything can be done on the go. So, I have this daily program – and don’t hold your breath! - each of these exercises takes less than a minute, and presently, I am doing six of them, each of them repeated 21 times. Twenty-one: That is the number of repetitions I have kept from the Five Tibetans. You can’t overdo much in twenty-one times, and twenty-one brings me just to the border of utter boredom.

1. Knee bends: Done wrongly, knee bends can hurt your knees. Therefore make sure that you are doing them right: Keep feet and knees together, keep knee caps over your toes, and don’t go deeper than you can easily do, but challenge yourself to go deeper with time. 21 times. Or, in the beginning, you might want to do this by holding on to something stable.
2. Arm exercise: Done with a small heavy ball. I have one of those weighted exercise balls – six pounds. When traveling, I am using my whale of a laptop – has nearly six pounds, too. Fill a plastic bottle with water (this is lighter), or find a heavy book. Slowly lift the ball (or whatever) with both hands and arms out-stretched, and bring it up above your head. Then bend your arms backward and down. Bring up your arms again, over your head and then down in front. Repeat this 21 times. It is good against arm flab, and strengthens the muscles of your upper back.
3. Back exercise: Stand tall. Take the ball in both hands behind you back and lift it upward 21 times. That will squeeze your shoulder blades and improves posture.
4. Swimming on dry: I started this after I had to leave the pool, because I missed the exercise that built up my upper back muscles. Come down on the floor on your belly, lift arms and legs slightly from the ground, and make swimming movements 21 times. A boon is that you are massaging your bowels in this position, which is good against constipation. Getting down on the floor daily acts also anti-aging.
5. Neck strengthening: This I do mornings and evenings in bed: Dig your heels and the lower part of your back head into the mattress. It feels like you arch your back in this position. Breathe in and out. It strengthens all back muscles, especially the upper back. It also works like a charm against a double chin.
6. Tongue exercise: This also helps to eliminate a double chin. Stretch out your tongue, 21 times.

One would think that a program this trifling would do nothing for the health of your body. On the contrary – I was never as toned and nimble as I am now, on this program. If however you are already doing triathlons or marathons: Stick with it, don’t listen to me … at least not until you come home injured. Then turn to my gentler method.

A big part of why this works is the mindfulness you practice all day: You stand on one leg while waiting for the bus. You get up from the computer and squeeze your shoulder blades. You are in the bathroom and stick out your tongue a few extra times. This program keeps you aware that you have a body, and your body needs attention and pampering, too. Moving your body gently pampers it. Lying down and doing nothing pampers your soul. There needs to be a balance between the two!

The other activity we do as often as we can, is walking. Here in San Diego, we have the beautiful Black Beach. If one removes shoes and socks and walks at the water line, in and out of the waves, it is great fun, and another great provocation to the immune system! And by walking and talking we keep our marriage afresh and alive.

Listen To Your Body

October 29, 2011

Tags: water, movement, food, herbs, order, acupuncturist, addiction, advertisement, alcoholic, all-you-can-eat, arthritis, aspartame, asthma, beans, body, brain, breakfast, Brussels sprouts, buffet, caffeine, cereal, chocolate, cleansing, coconut oil, cold shower, craving, deli, dairy, deficiency, diet, diet coke, dinner, doctor, drinking booze, East Coast, exercise - moderate, fast meal, fat, fate, friend, GAIA, gut feeling, gym, hankering, health hype, health news, herbalist, herbs - women's, herbs - fresh or dried, homeopathy, hunch, hunch skills, husband, information maze, joint ache, junk food, left-overs, Listen To Your Body, lobster, M&Ms, marshmallow, meal - freshly cooked, meat, medical wisdom, medicine - conventional, mood, müsli, museum, natural, newspaper, nutmeg, official line, olive oil, onions, osteoarthritis, Own Your Health, passion, patients, pepper, phytogen, placebo effect, pool, pregnant, raisins, salt, scale, scientific breakthrough, sixth sense, sleep, soul, super-food, supplement, sweets, triathlon, thyroid, thyroidectomy, turkey, unscientific, vegan, veteran - homeless, vitamins, weight, Western diet, Weisman - Roanne, wine

A stalk of Brussels sprouts survived in my fridge while we were traveling to the East Coast. Last night, I suddenly had the vision that I would like to eat those green little roses – and of all things with raisins!

No clue where it came from. The sixth sense? But I knew I had to get up a bit earlier this morning to actually cook this strange breakfast for myself. Since the nearly twenty years I don’t indulge anymore in the ubiquitous müsli or cereal breakfast, I usually eat dinner left-overs or open a can of beans, throw in a handful of fresh or dried herbs, pepper and salt, and some olive oil – it is a fast meal, but no junk food.

At this point in my life, I take my gut feelings seriously. So I browned two large onions in coconut oil before I added the Brussels sprouts rosettes and a cup full of raisins. I let it simmer with some pepper and salt, until the rosettes were soft and the raisins plump. It was delicious – why had I never thought of adding raisins to this dish? The taste mingled the sharp black pepper and the sweet raisins to a new experience. Usually I serve Brussels sprouts with a good sprinkling of nutmeg.

Why do I take my hunches seriously? Because I figure my body wants to tell me about a slight deficiency. Of course I don’t follow hunches for marshmallows and M&Ms, because they are not natural – although I might turn to dark chocolate if I had a craving for something sweet.

Nearly thirty years ago I followed a hunch to visit a certain museum – five hundred miles away. And through that museum, I met my future (and now) husband … but that is a different story!

Why do I bring up something as unscientific as hunches?

Because daily we are bombarded by health news and scientific breakthroughs and advertisements for new super-foods – it is hard to find our way through this maze of information. I early on decided that I need to see – and feel – the difference in my body, my mood, my soul before I believe any new health hype.

For instance, I always craved more fat in my diet than medical wisdom allowed me to eat. It always seemed that my brain did not function well without enough fat – and I am talking good fats here, mostly olive oil. At that time, I was still timid and told my patients to stick to the official line in conventional medicine, namely to cut out fat. But secretly, I bathed my vegetables in all the fat I desired.

And interestingly, it was me who kept her weight since age twelve, not the people who had been advised differently. I was the one who weighed herself every day on a scale – contrary to what medicine was teaching at that time.

So, now, when you take a new supplement: Do you take it because your doctor/your herbalist/your acupuncturist/your friend/your newspaper told you so? Or because you feel suddenly so much better than before?

Over the years I found out that rarely do I feel better with ANY supplements. Exception are the phytogens (female herbs) by GAIA which I gave been taking for many years now. But I do feel better when I take my daily cold shower (or my daily laps across the pool), when I eat less at dinner and nothing thereafter, when I do moderate exercise throughout the day but feel miserable in the gym. I feel good about myself when I drop a small coin into the hand of a homeless veteran, but feel shabby when I argue to myself that he probably is an alcoholic who deserves his fate (nobody deserves that fate!!).

Over the years I found out that vitamins and homeopathy don’t do anything for me, but freshly cooked meals do. That leaving out dairy cured my asthma, and improved my osteoarthritis vastly. That I need about double as much sleep as my husband, and that I definitely need my small thyroid pill after half of my thyroid was taken out years ago. Without that tiny pill I turn into a nagging bitch (as my husband found out!).

Mind you, I don’t give in to silly cravings like drinking a ton of booze. But the occasional glass of wine seems to be fine. And when I was pregnant, I took very seriously my sudden hankering after lobster, and made my husband drive to a seafood restaurant late at night!

When one turns vegan, most people feel wonderful, initially. Because it is a cleansing diet, after the overload on meats, delis and dairy products of the Western diet. But do you still feel wonderful after a few years on this diet? Or do you believe the vegan ideology more than what your body tells you? Do you feel great after an all-you-can-eat buffet, or do you feel like a stuffed turkey? Do you feel great after a diet coke, or do you have the lingering suspicion you might be addicted to the aspartame and caffeine? Do you feel good after a triathlon, or do all your joints scream?

The big problem of course is that our brain can make us believe what we want to believe, deceivingly. It takes years of practicing your hunch skills before you can trust those wild notions coming out of nowhere. After all, there is something like the placebo effect, which may make you feel good erroneously – at least for a time.

But nobody else can answer the question “How are you?” – except you. Because every body is different, and only you can feel how you are. As my friend Roanne Weisman puts it: Own Your Health!

And, hey, I feel perfect today after Brussels sprouts with raisins!
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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