Posted on by Teri Cochrane
Throughout history, societal norms have dictated the body beauty ideal for women – whether soft and rounded, model-skinny or strong and chiseled. This “ideal” is ever-changing and is both geographically and culturally driven. Many women have taken extreme and unhealthy steps to meet someone else’s idea of a perfect body. Bowing to societal pressure, women continue to restrict calories beyond what is healthy, undergo dangerous cosmetic procedures, wear uncomfortable undergarments, and engage in excessive exercise, all in the name of attaining that elusive perfect body. Young girls, unable to reach someone else’s ideal, are becoming stressed, dysregulating their hormones, and occasionally even engaging in self-harm.
Let’s put an end to this unhealthy imbalance. Our bodies are the physical manifestations of our whole selves. We are unique beings – mind, body and soul. Every one of us has to discern the physical body qualities that work for our unique lives.
Genetic traits play a huge role in how the body works. Some may be predisposed to be lean and strong, while others are less likely to build muscle. Some women may be able to withstand the stress of a daily run, while others may have a connective tissue type which cannot repair itself, making your joints less resilient. Some may be able to handle dietary slip-ups while others will react to even a tiniest cheat. And while genes are only a predisposition, they do matter. There are different dietary programs that take into account genetic tendencies and your current state of health to recommend which foods are best for your body.
The same should be true for exercise. What works for me will not work for you. What worked yesterday may not work today. Here are some thoughts on how to shift the way you think about keeping your body strong and fit.
Think MOVEMENT, not EXERCISE.
This simple reframing can make a huge difference. Lack of movement promotes stagnation in the body; it means you can’t detoxify as well, and you build up extraneous deposits in tissues and joints. Make an effort to move. You have heard this before. Park further away. Get up and stretch often if you are an office worker. Walk at lunch. Garden. Clean house. Organize. Any opportunity to move should not be lost.
Choose what’s appropriate for you at this moment.
What’s appropriate when you are healthy may not be right for those times when you are “under the weather.” If you are struggling with a health issue, you should avoid extreme exercise of long duration. If you are on your monthly cycle, maybe do a yoga class instead of that 60 minutes of spinning. If you are stressed at work, a gentle stretching class may serve you better than that intense CrossFit workout. Nursing an injury? Now is not the time to push your exercise routine. Having trouble sleeping? Perhaps you should move your exercise to earlier in the day.
Moderate your routine in times of stress.
Exercise creates free radicals in the body, promoting inflammation and increasing oxidative stress. A little is good for us, but a lot may not be. Stress does the same. Both affect the adrenals, the endocrine glands that are responsible for secreting cortisol and epinephrine – the body’s stress hormones. If you are going through a high-stress time, do not add to your body’s burdens by engaging in high-stress exercise. Choose more gentle disciplines such as restorative yoga, Pilates or stretching. Lower the amount of weights you use. Shorten your cardio routine. Allow your body to shift out of its stress physiology and into rest and repair – its “safe” mode.
More is not always better for weight loss.
Many clients are frustrated when increasing the amount and intensity of exercise does not result in weight loss, and instead, brings on a plateau. The reason is related to the stress discussion above. Rising levels of cortisol can dysregulate leptin and ghrelin, the hunger and satiety hormones – and increase Insulin, the hormone involved in fat storage. Choose something less stressful. Forego the spinning, Crossfit or hot yoga and do a 20 minute H.I.I.T (High Intensity Interval Training) routine instead. Take a Vinyasa flow class which combines periods of high and low intensity. The idea is to reassure your body that it can relax and get out of its stress mode. A yoga mat is the perfect thing to keep in your home for the days you know you just won’t make it to that intense class.
Weight bearing is always important.
I see a lot of clients who focus on cardio to maximize the calories burned and forget to worry about their muscles and bones. Scientists know that muscle burns more calories than fat. They know that strong muscles protect joints and support our bone health as we age. And each one of us loses muscle tone with age. If you are one of the people who thinks that intense cardio workouts of long duration are the best form of exercise – take another look. Studies show that a 20-minute H.I.I.T workout, while burning less calories at the time of exercise, actually increases the body’s resting metabolic rate for 24 hours afterward. So lift weights or do functional training – planks, squats, lunges, wall sits, push-ups and others. Anything that will strengthen your muscles. Spend less time on cardio and more on building strong muscles and bones.
Shift the mindset about your body.
While not related to actual physical activity, this may be the most important piece of advice I can offer you. Change the way you perceive your body and the body will follow. I have written before about the work of Dr. Bruce Lipton who showed that our thoughts affect form and function. Think strong and fit and your body will aim to be strong and fit. Thank your body for the work it does providing a physical frame for your daily life. Bodies are beautiful when they work for our lives. Big and small, tall and short, soft and muscular – every body type can be strong and fit. Say NO to societal expectations of the “perfect” physique and say yes to loving your body as a vessel through which your life’s purpose may be manifested.
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