Pro Tip: How To Learn It All For Yourself!

George Sheehan, doctor, author, philosopher, and the first 50 year old to run a sub 5 mile!

George Sheehan, doctor, author, philosopher, and the first fifty-year-old to run a sub 5 mile!

“Each of us is an experiment of one – observer and subject – making choices, living with them, recording the effects.”  The wisdom in these words from the late George Sheehan can be applied equally well to diet, relationships, or any other area of one’s life.  And they are particularly apt in describing how to learn the best use and care of one’s body.

The process is simple.  By taking on new postures and self-care routines as considered experiments, anyone can learn firsthand what works best for them in any scenario, at any time – even as the body ages, is injured, or as goals and other circumstances change.  This is entirely different than being told how to sit, stand, move, and exercise.  No one can really know for sure how any particular strategy or approach will work for someone else, much less as that someone-else’s body changes over time.  My fervent wish is that this idea would be taught in physical education to young people everywhere.

A few more tips.  It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of accurate and skillful body-awareness.  Folks who don’t really know much about what their bodies below their brains are doing will undoubtedly experience false-positives and false-negatives.  Also, the process of learning by trial and error can be painfully protracted without knowing where to start; a little guidance by an expert can save a lot of time.  This need not be in the form of personal consultation – YouTube videos and books can be just as helpful for getting an idea of what you want to try first.

All that is needed to get started in any such experiment is a clear idea of what one wants to achieve, what intervention is going to be tried and for how long, where one is beginning from (the experience to be changed), and the ability to track changes.  If all goes well and one experiences changes for the better, they then can decide if they wish to stay the course or experiment with finding the minimum effective dose to maintain or sustain progress.  If the experiment fails, then they can make a new experiment guided by the experience of knowing what doesn’t work – they also will have earned some valuable information to take to an expert, should they decide in the future to consult with one.

Let’s take the example of weight loss.  Actually, this is too vague – not a clear idea of what one wants to do, in most cases.  So let’s say fitting into an article of clothing that hasn’t been a realistic wardrobe option for some time.  And let’s say that the intervention that will be tried is burning a couple hundred more calories per day by using a standing desk at one’s office and watching TV and using the internet at home from a mini stair stepper.  (Both excellent ideas for this sort of goal.) Let’s decide to try a month of this before saying whether or not it works.  Knowing what one’s present size is in such an article of clothing will be our starting point.  Then check every couple of days to notice when/if it begins to feel looser, or when the target article is becoming easier to wear and move about in.

If, at the end of the month, the original clothing size feels lose, or the target article is fitting better, then we can say that the experiment was a success.  We can continue with the intervention to obtain further results; or we can experiment with a little less stair stepping at home, say, or go back to a traditional desk, and see if we maintain progress.  If the experiment failed and no progress in clothing size was realized, then we can choose to add another dimension, such as a dietary change, or weekly bootcamp class.  You get the idea.

Here’s another example: chronic neck and shoulder discomfort, and the desire for it to go away.  For the intervention, let’s try the twice daily practice of an exercise which develops the skill of regulating muscular tension for a month and see what happens.  But first we should take care to note how often and when (in which activities) we experience this discomfort.  If, at the end of the month, there is less or no discomfort in those activities, then we know it worked!

And now, if I may leave you with a sentence that I was told is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Experiment often.”  Happy experimenting :-)

UPDATED 2/4/15

Exercise. Not too much. Mostly Walking.

James H O'Keefe, MD, cardiologist and Medical Director of the Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute.

James H O’Keefe, MD, cardiologist and medical researcher.

Are we exercising for health, fitness, or longevity?  I must have watched this TED Talk by Dr. James O’Keefe Jr. about a dozen times, and it hasn’t gotten old!  His message is extremely and immediately important to every exerciser; and it is counterculture to the direction that exercise has gone in this country – towards excess and extremism.

In my practice I frequently advise folks on their exercise habits and I find that many mistakenly associate the approaches that lead to cardiorespiratory fitness and athletic strength with their goals of feeling better in their bodies and maintaining health and physical independence as they age.  To my mind, the goals of improving both health and fitness are compatible, and health and longevity are as well, but fitness and longevity may not be.  I know this may be tough to chew for fitness enthusiasts and professionals alike, but wouldn’t most anyone agree that ‘too much exercise’ is a bad thing?  I suspect so, and I also suspect that watching the video below will present quite a surprise when O’Keefe presents research on just how much exercise constitutes too much exercise… at least, with regards to living longer.

To my mind this video should be shown to all who are taking up exercise, and serve as informed consent for those who are seeking athletic heights of fitness.  O’Keefe made a very important point that I think should give pause to all exercisers: we’ve only been doing this exercise thing for a few decades – lifelong results are just now coming in.  To sum it up, as he said towards the end: regular exercise is like alcohol consumption – don’t abstain from exercise and don’t frequently binge-exercise (January gym joiners and crossfitters take note).

Hippocrates, who also said "Foolish, the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients."

Hippocrates, also accredited with saying “Foolish, the doctor who despises knowledge acquired by the ancients.”

Again, this isn’t surprising advice; two and a half millennia ago, Hippocrates said “The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little, not too much, is the safest way to health.”  The surprise for me when I first watched the above video was at what point plenty of exercise becomes too much exercise.

And now, just in case everything has been pretty straight-forward and crystal clear up to this point, I would like to point out that exercise is synonymous with physical activity – it’s just that exercise is physical activity undertaken with the intention to improve or sustain health and fitness.  When O’Keefe presented some information from the impressively large Chinese study, he briefly mentioned that the “moderate exercise” was just walking, housework, being off one’s duff.  Including more physical activity in one’s life is what Drs. Mike Evans and James Levine are all about. These folks aren’t talking about tri-athletics; following their advice need not entail a gym membership.  Deciding to pace about while being on the phone or during commercials has helped my dad hit over 5,000 steps a day – doing the exact same things he would have done from a chair.  I’ll climb off my soap box before I get revved up, but I hope that you will have seen that exercise need not be frequent, long, and intense, and that walking shouldn’t be overlooked.  After all, Hippocrates also named walking as man’s best medicine.

By the way, has anyone caught the subtle tribute in the titling of this post :-)

UPDATED 2/2/15

The Most Important Posture Changing Exercise In The Universe!

… or “Rejuvenation Through Relaxation”
… or “Teach Yourself How To Monitor And Regulate Muscle Tension In Your Body”

So I have had a rather difficult time titling this post in a manner that satisfies my internet-savvy friends :-)  The exercise contained herein is everything as advertised above, however, and for those who have been practicing it regularly it has become much much more.

Let me open by saying that we are the only diurnal mammals who do not lie down in the middle of the day.  (To my mind – please let me know if I am misinformed!)  Lying down and resting from time to time is beneficial for all the reasons you are probably thinking off the top of your head, and if only we would take a break on our back from time to time I suspect that many nagging neck, shoulder, and lower back problems would “magically” disappear.  But I digress.

The purpose of this exercise, as I teach it to beginners, is to develop an awareness and control of muscular tension.  These are learnable skills that can be strengthened and honed with regular practice (and all the while you have an excuse to lie down on the floor and rest – win win).  Most folks seem to think they have to outsource this experience to massage therapists, or Yoga classes, or hot baths; but in all of these scenarios it is they that are relaxing in response to touch, or environment, or expectations.  Allow me to assert this point more strongly – there is a synapse at the fingertips of even the most skillful bodyworker across which relaxation cannot be transmitted to the client.  It is the client’s response to touch that leads to the release of muscular holding.

Frankly, I am still not 100% sure why this exercise has the effect on folks’ posture that I see daily in my practice.  I hypothesize that when one develops a sophisticated awareness of real-time muscle tension and becomes familiar with what it feels like when a muscle releases tension, then one becomes intolerant to inefficient posture and movement patterns.  When the folks I teach have this sensory world opened to them they begin experimenting with how they use their bodies based on a highly accurate sense of what “feels right” in the muscles, and this invariably leads them away from slouching, or hunching, or military-type postures that require lots of effort.  They guide themselves into the easiest postures they can, without being told to sit or stand any differently.  It’s so exciting for me when I see this process unfold!

Of course, the willful and intentional release of muscular tension might sound fantastical, but those who begin practicing this exercise find that it is in fact quite fantastic :-)  I could go on and on, but let me present the exercise in its most basic form, from two viewpoints:


Rachel Bernsen, who teaches the Alexander Technique right here in New Haven

Rachel Bernsen, who teaches the Alexander Technique right here in New Haven

Before taking Alexander Technique lessons from the incomparable Rachel Bernsen, I was totally unaware of the potential for creating an exercise to develop these important skills.  I wasn’t even aware of the surprisingly significant difference between the verbs ‘relax’ and ‘release’ :-) I am very grateful for having studied with Rachel, and I recommend her with enthusiasm.

The origins of these concepts in the West can be traced to about a hundred years ago, in two parts of the world that are about as far apart from each other as could be, two individuals recognized the importance of learning how to regulate muscular tension and began to teach and write to the public.  Their names were Professor Edmund Jacobson of Chicago, Illinois and F.M. Alexander of Wynyard, Tasmania, and their work has had a profound impact on my own.

The "Father of Progressive Relaxation," Professor Edmund Jacobson

The “Father of Progressive Relaxation,” Professor Edmund Jacobson

Interestingly, the approaches of these two couldn’t be more different, and in my private practice I use a bit of a blend of the two.  Professor Jacobson taught a method that involved deliberately tensing and then untensing muscles, after which the subject would get the hang of releasing unwanted and previously subconscious tension.  In the Yin-Yang spectrum, his method would be on the Yang side, which is self-evident in the title of his book You Must Relax.  But he may have been writing to the denizens of the City Of Broad Shoulders, whereas Mr. Alexander was in a starkly different world (he was a professional Shakespearian reciter).

Frederick Mathias Alexander

Frederick Mathias Alexander

Mr. Alexander’s approach, by comparison, is much more subtle and certainly more broadly encompassing.  Habitual use of the mind and body, and how to change the same, is the subject of his work.  For the interested reader, I highly recommend his short book Use of the Self and a course of Alexander Technique lessons from Rachel Bernsen.  You could take the book to your first lesson with Rachel and ask her how to best organize your body whilst reading it :-)


UPDATED 1/23/15




Stretch Your Whole Body In 60 Seconds Or Less

I am happy to share with you my Natural Movement Stretching Routine – a mouthful, I know!  It’s a simple, easy, and time-effective way to stretch the entire human body in the most natural, archetypical human movements.  I initially intended it for clients on the go who don’t always have the time or floorspace for conventional stretches; this routine can be done in small spaces and requires no equipment or special clothing.  But it soon became apparent that there are multiple applications of the Natural Movement Stretching Routine – to maintain flexibility and mobility, as a warm-up before exercise, as a cool-down after exercise, even as an assessment for basic movement capability.  And did I mention it takes less than 60 seconds :-)

The easiest way to remember the routine and make the movements full and smooth is to imagine two scenarios.  In the first, You are reaching up with both hands to take a box from someone above you and place it on the ground at your feet.  You then squat down like you will be investigating its contents.  Then you stand and reach up again to grab a second box, but this one you pass to one side to the person standing behind you.  Then stand and reach up a third time to take a third box and pass it to another person standing behind you from the other side.

For the second part of the routine, imagine you are standing in an orchard and reaching as high as you can to pick an apple.  Then you try to sneak it into your pocket, but you are discovered by my four year old daughter.  So you raise the apple up and reach back in the air as if you are pretending to throw it, and then step forward and pretend to throw the apple to divert her attention long enough for you to sneak the apple into your other pocket :-)

Below is a video of my Natural Movement Stretching Routine being performed by my friend Josh Nunn, a bodyworker and health and fitness expert in Perth, Australia.  I recommend Josh without hesitation, and his partner Kathy Menon as well; the pair work together at Structural Integration Perth.

UPDATED 1/21/15

Book Review: Move A Little, Lose A Lot

Move A Little, Lose A LotI am so excited to share with you this book by James Levine and Selene Yeager!  This is the book that inspired me to make a workstation out of my treadmill – from which I am presently writing this book review :-)  It is an informative and inspiring read brimming with recommendations for how to get more physical activity into one’s daily life.  Dr. James Levine, MD, PhD, is a world authority on preventing and treating the global obesity epidemic and director of the NEAT Center at the Mayo Clinic, and Selene Yeager, is a prolific health, fitness, and cycling author and blogger.

Reading this book has given me a new appreciation for physical activity of all types and a sober understanding of the implications of frequent and long-duration sitting.  While I would previously have agreed that anyone would be better off standing and moving over sitting, I was quite surprised to learn just how beneficial – and surprisingly easy – a little daily physical activity could be.  And I’m not talking about taking daily walks, though that matters quite a bit; the innovative ideas in this book are geared towards incorporating physical activity into the daily routines that people already have.  This is very different than carving out time to go for walks or get to the gym, and in some ways it is superior.

James Levine

Dr. James Levine

As a thought exercise, let’s suppose I successfully get three vigorous gym workouts in a week at about a 550 calories burned per workout (quite a vigorous effort, given that I only weight 155lbs!)  At the end of that week I will have burned about 1,650 calories. And let’s add the highly acclaimed Excess Post-exercise Oxogen Consumption factor (referred to as ‘EPOC’) and – somewhat ambitiously – increase this number by 13%, giving us about 1865 calories burned over the week.  Now let’s compare this to two hours daily of using my treadmill desk at 2 miles per hour (a very easy pace for typing, reading, using my smartphone, and watching videos); I will have burned 2,100 calories by the end of my week!  Not only is this significantly more calories, but it’s much easier to keep this pace up; if I skipped day because I wasn’t feeling well or too busy or any other instance, I still would have burned 1800 calories.  And I could easily make it up over the next few days..

Me on my treadmill desk

Me on my treadmill desk, writing this post!

But this book is about so much more than just calories in versus calories out; it is about living a life that is closer to nature than modern day, inactive lifestyles. I highly recommend it for all of the tips and related benefits of being more physically active.  Depriving oneself of foods and vigorously exerting oneself needlessly are arguably unnatural endeavors, but gentle, all-day physical activity may be much natural.  Maybe even more beneficial.

And so now I am obligated by book reviewing tradition to make at least one critical point, and for me it would have to be the disorganized and incomplete citations of the studies and research that are mentioned in this book.  Most of them are easy to find by how Evans describes the research (when he mentions where it was done or on what date in addition to what was discovered), but not infrequently he will vaguely mention that there is research backing up one point or another that he is making.  But let me be clear: I am in complete agreement with his most important points about daily physical activity, how we need more of it, and how detrimental it is to be missing out on it.  Join me and dozens of my clients and stop sitting on the problem :-)

UPDATED 1/21/15

A Little Daily Walking Can Do A Lot

Dr. Mike Evans

Dr. Mike Evans – internet video lecturer sensation

A few years back Dr. Mike Evans created this informative, inspiring, and highly entertaining video lecture on what he believes is the single most effective effort we can make in improving our health.  I have shared this with my family, friends, and for over three years, and now I am excited to share it with y’all!  Here’s the video description from Dr. Evans’ YouTube page:

“A Doctor-Professor answers the old question “What is the single best thing we can do for our health” in a completely new way. Dr. Mike Evans is founder of the Health Design Lab at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto, and a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital.”

What jumped to the forefront of my mind while watching this video is that the potentially most effective health intervention is also immediately available to every one of us – old and young, rich and poor.  Walking is 100% natural and 100% free, and while some of us may live in areas where outdoor walking isn’t safe or convenient we can easily pace about our homes for a purposeful thirty minutes a day.  My dad and mom have been trying this out this winter, and they have been surprised by how many steps they rack up just getting up and walking during commercials and half times.  And anyone could even walk in place in front of the television during commercials and rack up about thirty minutes and over 2,000 steps in just one hour of TV watching, according to this study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Dr. David Katz

Dr. David Katz

And while I was intrigued by Evans’ statement that “obesity + exercise” ameliorated much of the negative health consequences with obesity (found in the fourth minute of his video) I wish to direct the interested reader to this article titled The Myth of Healthy Obesity from the Annals of Internal Medicine; and here’s a Health Day post on the same article, which is a lighter read and contains commentary from our own local authority, Dr. David Katz.  I want to be clear that the content of these articles doesn’t change my enthusiasm for daily walking for folks of all shapes and sizes; indeed, it turns out that not walking is worse for one’s health and longevity than being obese! and for those who are interested in going further with their daily walking I recommend Move A Little, Lose A Lot by James Levine.  (“Going further” need not be a pun – Levine created the first treadmill desk!)

BTW: I highly recommend visiting Evans’ home page,  Click the link to his “Whiteboard Med School” to see more of his video lectures on a variety of topics.

UPDATED 1/21/15