women

How to assess your current exercise program (part 2)

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4. QUANTITY VERSUS QUALITY

The study of human motion—quantifying the human body by measuring how much and how many times people can move—emerged as the industrial age took hold and virtually all bodies began to move in harmony with assembly lines and other machinery or equipment.

At this time, exercise as a formal discipline began to be studied as something quantifiable. Whether health-related or work-related, the key issues became how much, how many times, how far, how fast, how big, and how strong.

As research into the human body and exercise continued, it became more and more necessary for researchers to focus their studies on the quantification of movement. The question of how far or how long a person should run was researched endlessly, but how a person runs—the quality of the running—was not investigated. When we watch wide receivers on football teams who are famously graceful; or sleek, long-limbed guards in the NBA; or runners whose stride is beautifully smooth; the quality of their movement or their grace may attract our attention and capture our hearts. But today many people don’t value the same grace of movement in their own exercise: They focus on the quantity of their movement (“How far did I walk?” “Did I exercise enough?”) rather than the quality.

Aiming to achieve goals that are easy to quantify can create excessive tension in the effort to achieve those goals, which ends up being counterproductive. In the Change Your Age Program, I won’t emphasize the number of repetitions you need to do, but rather the quality of your movements and your awareness of them. Evaluate the role that quantity and quality of motion play in your current exercise routines.

• Are measurable quantities—repetitions, time, weight, speed—more important to you than your quality of motion?
• Can you assess your typical workout’s success to include your gracefulness in performing the movement?
• When you move, do you feel you move more like a machine or an animal? What image of a graceful animal could you bring to your workout?

5. THE PATH OF MOST RESISTANCE

Many forms of exercise use increasing resistance as the only path to building strength. Thousands of repetitions against greater and greater resistance eventually increases the strength and size of our muscles.

Some people lift weights or spend hours on machines that exercise the same muscle group in the same fashion over and over again. The very feeling of intramuscular stress or tired muscles is considered an indication of a good workout.

This approach, however, can result in more problems than benefits: When our muscles can contract more powerfully, any existing muscular-skeletal imbalance or faulty movement habit becomes exaggerated and amplified. If you haven’t learned to lift properly, you are at greater risk for stress-related pain and damage to your ligaments and tendons with strong muscles than with weak ones. If you use too much effort in getting up, standing, running, and so on, stronger muscles only mask the problem. These sorts of ineffective movement habits overwork certain muscles and joints while neglecting or ignoring the use of others, thus leading to a limited range of movement and gross inefficiency. The brain might be engaging far more muscle cells to perform simple activities like sitting in a chair than are necessary to perform the action required.
For example, some people can sit in a chair engaging 20 percent or more of the muscle fibers in their back, while other people can sit in the same posture using as little as 2 percent of these brain-to-muscle connections (called motor units). This disparity in effort obviously leads to tremendous differences in how long people can sit comfortably without compressing their spine and overworking their back muscles.

In the long run, limitations in awareness and coordination can lead to severe physical difficulties and prematurely age us. Parts of our articulations or joints can fill with fibrous tissues, especially between vertebrae, where there is little movement in general. Ligaments shorten or become hyper-elastic. Some muscle fibers become too strong, while others in the same muscle group atrophy. In time, deformation sets in. Without body awareness, we exercise our worst habits.

Strength is not simply a function of our muscles. We can strengthen all of our muscles, but if we don’t use our brain to improve their organization and coordination, we do not significantly improve our posture, deftness, performance, or stability.

Consider the amount of resistance in your current exercise routine.
• Does your exercise routine value strength over mobility or flexibility?
• Do you pay attention to your posture while either doing resistance exercises or running and cycling?

6. WORK VERSUS EFFORT

A major goal in life could be to accomplish the same amount of work with less effort. The distinction between work and the amount of effort required to produce the work needs to be felt in our body. Lifting your weight out of a chair and lifting your handbag from the floor are both actions that involve measurable amounts of work depending on your weight and on what’s in the handbag. The amount of effort required to get out of a chair or to lift a handbag can vary from person to person tremendously. Some people strain, hold their breath, and grunt when picking up almost anything, while others are so efficient and relaxed while performing the same work that they display little effort.
In all movements, groups of agonist muscles and antagonist muscles are at work. Agonist muscles are the primary muscles—the ones doing the contracting—in movement. When you lift something in front of yourself with your arms, the biceps are the main actors, the agonist muscles. Antagonist muscles oppose the agonists. They are the muscle fibers on the other side of the joint, and they work opposite to the action. When lifting something in front of yourself with your arms, the triceps are the antagonists.
If you operate with 10 percent of the antagonists opposing the action of the agonists, your muscles have to work harder and exert more effort, owing to this internal resistance. You may not feel the tug-of-war between the muscle groups, how hard your antagonist muscle groups are contradicting your intended direction of motion. Ideally, you want to reduce the internal resistance of your antagonist muscles so that more force can be available for your daily actions through your agonist muscles.
If you lack the ability to reduce your internal resistance, you will always feel the need to be stronger and will feel less effective at exerting mechanical force on the outside world, such as when you lift objects, open doors, climb stairs, or dance.

Injuries and the resulting pain often create neuromuscular inefficiency that increases resistance in the area that hurts. One of the best strategies is to learn to move the painful area easily, lightly, and slowly so that the brain can learn comfort in relation to the intended movement. Doing less is actually more! This is one goal of the lessons of the Change Your Age Program.

You could race through the entire Change Your Age Program, get a workout, build up a sweat, and feel quite good in that familiar way, maybe even proud of yourself for having accomplished all of the movements quickly. However, if you never learn to do these movements slowly and comfortably, if you do not decrease your internal resistance, and if you do not increase your felt sense of the movements—your body awareness—then you will finish the program having learned absolutely nothing. Your brain will probably make no changes, and so your body, as if it had no brain, will get no benefit from the program beyond the one workout.

Consider the amount of effort required to accomplish your usual workout routine as well as ordinary activities of daily life like walking up stairs and carrying groceries from the car.

• Do you catch yourself straining or grunting to accomplish a task?
• Can you feel your antagonist muscles at work? For example, do you feel strain in your triceps when you are using your biceps to lift something?
• Pick several of your normal daily activities and think about how much work is required to carry them out. Can you imagine performing the same amount of work doing these activities with less effort?

7. CREATING MORE VITAL HABITS

So far, I have asked you to reflect on whether you are susceptible to any of the dangers of exercise described here. Now I’d like to introduce you to some possibly unfamiliar movement concepts that are central to the Change Your Age Program. These ideas can help you mitigate the dangers and damaging habits of your current exercise routine by helping you develop a sensory tool that enables you to feel what you are doing and to discern what might be dangerous or simply too difficult for you. With this sensory tool, called human awareness, you’ll fall away from dull, repetitive, and harmful routines and engage in more youthful movement.

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