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

Seven Exercises from Heaven

October 3, 2014

Tags: movement, order, aging, arm flab, arthritis, ashtanga, athletics, back, back - upper, barbell, bedridden, bench, bench pressing, bending backward, cancer, childhood, dairy, death, decline, diabetes, diet, dumbbell, Exercises from Heaven, expander, flexibility, foam roller, gluten, gym, half-cylinder, head, heart disease, immobility, inward looking, Iyengar - B.K.S. (1918-2014), kettlebell, knee, laptop computer, leg, lotus position, muscle, muscle-building muscle weakness, musculature, neck, Nelson – Carol, pelvis, philosophy, posture, pressing, push-up, relaxing, rotator cuff, rubber band exercise, sleeplessness, spine spirituality, sports, sports medicine, sports team, strength, strength training, The Diabetes Cure, Theraband, traveling, walking, wall, wall pressing, weights workout, yoga, yoga ball, yoga teacher, youth, zazen cushion

As I have mentioned too often, I never have been athletic – in school, I was the proverbial girl that nobody wanted on their sports team. But as I cleaned up my diet (starting with gluten and dairy), my muscle weakness and arthritis improved.

Movement is important. And the older you get, the more urgent it becomes. People generally think that heart disease and cancer are about the worst conditions leading to final demise. Immobility is worse. Not moving – either by choice, or because of illness – is the clear beginning of the end.

Every evening after dinner my husband and I go out for a walk, down the hill, and up the hill. Often I run uphill – slowly, but without pause. That alone is not enough, I fear, to keep old age at bay. Obviously, you can’t stave off death forever – decline is inevitable. But you can give it your best effort.

When B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-20140, the revered teacher of my yoga teacher Carol Nelson, recently died, a picture of him in old age went around the world. It showed him in lotus position but with barely any muscles that I could discern. Now, he was really old when the photo was taken, but looking at him it dawned on my that in yoga we need three accomplishments:

• Spirituality - I’d translate that as inward looking
• Flexibility - yoga certainly accomplishes that)
• Strength – more muscles.

The last one, strength, can be trained in some of the more vigorous forms of yoga like ashtanga, but I prefer the deep, gentle yoga Carol Nelson teaches. That leaves me with strength training for homework. Since I am still not fond of gyms and strenuous workouts, I do a routine of seven small muscle-building exercises at home. They take less than ten minutes – actually, less than seven minutes! You can do them all together in one setting, or interspersed during the day.

1. Bending backward over a zazen cushion or a half-cylinder
2. Bench pressing
3. Wall pressing (a modification of push-ups)
4. Rubber band exercises
5. Yoga ball
6. Kettlebell
7. Dumbbells.

As you might have read in my book The Diabetes Cure, my philosophy is that exercise should never be overdone – we have sports medicine because we have sports, is my constant saying. Every exercise will be repeated twenty-one times, never more. If initially you can’t do an exercise twenty-one times, do as many as you can do without undue force, and slowly build up to twenty-one.

More information about each exercise:

1. Bending backward over a zazen cushion or a half-cylinder

This is not a strength training. But I start with opening my back because my worst problem is upper back posture (in childhood and youth, I spent much time bedridden). – Slowly count to 21, while you wiggle your back in place and bend it backward over the cushion. – When I travel, I replace this with bending downward from the hotel bed.

2. Bench pressing

Since I don’t own a bench, this is not exactly bench-pressing. But it is similar. I use a bar with two five-pound weights – including the bar, it’s 14 pounds. The point is not to use heavy weights, but to use light weights slowly, and regular – every day. Position the barbell over your lap, and bring your body in position: Stand knees up, and pull your arms backward, and make a hollow with your thoracic spine: If you lie too straight and heavy on your shoulder blades, there is potential of hurting your rotator cuffs. Do 21 slow repetitions. Push directly upward with your arms – and never over your face. There are several deaths each year of people who have dropped the barbells on their faces …


3. Wall pressing (a modification of push-ups)

Stand a bit away from a wall or a kitchen counter or anything stable, and push up with your hands 21 times. Be careful not to slip when you stand away from the wall. - If you can do real push-ups on the floor: Good for you! But, like lotus position, I am unlikely to get proficient at push-ups in this life.

4. Rubber band exercises

Use an expander-like rubber band over a bar (or from a hook). Use it twice 21 times to pull your arms down and back. This is the exercise that makes arm flab a thing of the past. Occasionally, sleepless in bed, I add this exercise: Lying on your back with elbows at my sides, I push into the bed, arching my upper back, holding the position for 21 counts. The relaxing of the muscles afterward is a good sleeping aid. - When I travel, I take Therabands.

5. Yoga ball

Lie belly-down over a yoga ball. Secure your feet at a floorboard or under a sofa. Lift your back from the hips 21 times without overarching your neck – it is better to let your head hang down a bit, and instead lift your arms. Gives wonderful strength in the lower back area, and will eventually strengthen your whole spinal musculature. – When traveling, one can do this exercise across a chair.

6. Kettlebell

Swing a small (5 pounds) kettlebell back between your legs and up to horizontal with your eyes 21 counts. Have a give in your knees. This exercise strengthens legs, pelvic musculature and arms. This is the one that always makes me pant. – I fear there is no good substitute for this when I travel as lugging around a kettlebell in my suitcase is not an option. I try to walk as many stairs in the hotels as possible – which has led to hilarious situations as we have from time to time ended up in the kitchen quarters or other off-limits work spaces.

7. Dumbbells.

Have a pair of small (5 pounds) dumbbells (or bottles filled with water or books). Push them up 21 times, high up over your head, and slightly backward – without creating pressure in your lower back area. This one took me the longest before I could do all 21 repetitions. – When traveling, I use my laptop as weight, and try not to drop it.

Lately, at yoga class, I notice how much easier the yoga postures are now that I own some muscles. The three goals – looking inward, flexibility and muscles – inform one on the other: They spread out through our bodies to keep us alive, healthy and, well, younger.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

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

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