By Cate Reade, MS, RD, SFS ~
In a few short months, our world has turned upside down. Each day we find ourselves navigating an unfamiliar landscape filled with novel stressors that can throw us and our self-care routines out of balance. Our physical and mental resilience has never been more important as the life-threatening virus, SARS-CoV-2 circulates around the globe. The time is right to put health promoting strategies into action because our life depends on it.
Mind-body practices that integrate breath with movement like yoga, tai chi and qigong can build a sense of calm while also improving body function and performance (1). These ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese practices have been used for thousands of years and have stood the test of time because they work as self-healing techniques (1). Anyone can benefit from these practices that are easy on the joints; from beginners with arthritis to athletes looking to improve flexibility, balance and muscle control (2).
These practices move joints and muscles in all different directions, boosting circulation and preparing us to move freely and safely through our myriad of activities. Each day we find ourselves rising up, walking forward, back and sideways; starting, stopping and changing directions; twisting, turning, reaching, carrying and bending; stepping up and down and squatting to sit.
We don’t think about it much, but all of these multi-directional movements require healthy joint range of motion and muscle function. Practicing the three-dimensional movements of yoga, tai chi and qigong helps settle the mind while also increasing joint flexibility, balance and muscle strength, effectively upgrading our mobility and longevity (3, 4).
Vagus Nerve Activation
Science is just beginning to reveal what the Indian and Chinese ancients intuitively understood. Focusing on breathing with movement, activates our vagus nerve, moving us out of the “fight or flight” stress response and into the parasympathetic state, the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for resting, digesting, healing and repairing. When practicing mindful movement, our body’s nervous, hormonal and immune systems are positively impacted (1, 4). This is where rejuvenation and health happens; it can be thought of as “thrive mode.”
Stress = Survival Mode
When we experience chronic stress, we are living in survival mode. An inordinate amount of our body’s resources is tied up in an effort to keep us alive because the body senses that we are fighting or running from a grizzly bear. To survive, our body responds by hiking up the stress hormone cortisol to produce more blood sugar for energy; increasing breathing to take in more oxygen and raises blood pressure and heart rate to pump more blood to our muscles. Digestion is not needed for imminent survival, so it slows down. Blood flows away from our organs and the prefrontal cortex, the higher thinking part of our brain, moving to the reactive, impulsive amygdala.
Chronic stress causes our body to marinate in chemicals that damage cells, and our health spirals downward because it doesn’t have the resources for repair and healing. It’s like we are always pressing down the accelerator pedal on our car without pumping on the brakes. We can only go so far before our car runs out of gas. Without any rest or time for maintenance, our vehicle breaks down. The same thing happens to us. Attentive breathing gently taps the brakes on the stress response by activating the vagus nerve and the relaxation response (5).
Stressed or Relaxed?
When was the last time you consciously focused on your breathing? Perform a quick test to see if you are in a stressed or relaxed state by placing one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Pause here and inhale and exhale two times; notice which hand is moving.
Shallow chest breathing is a sign of stress. Belly breathing is an indication you are calm. Breathing deeply into your belly, up into your ribcage and heart is an easy way to move into thrive mode, any place at any time. Focus on breathing deeply before rising out of bed, stepping into activities like cooking and cleaning and before going to bed. Combining breath with daily activities will help you experience a greater sense of calm, energy and well-being throughout your day.
Boosting Balance, Strength & Mobility
Breathing with intention while moving gently in all directions improves blood flow, nourishes and increases flexibility of joints and muscles to help relieve pain, build better balance and strength while reducing fall risk. YouTube and Gaia.com are great places to explore mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi or qigong to find one that’s right for you.
If you are looking for a simple seated exercise option, I invite you to experience our, “Calm, Steady & Strong” MoveMor™ class. The focus is on breathing deeply while gently moving ankles, knees and hips through a comfortable pain-free range of motion. Please join us here at the class link: https://youtu.be/5ppwpDo_3-s
Maria B. participated in last month’s live exercise classes without using a MoveMor™ board and shared, “Thank you for this exercise class. It is something I dearly needed.” Maria was amazed by how much better she felt after performing the breathing and mobility exercises, and you can too! With your socks on, sit on a stable chair (hips aligned with or slightly higher than knees) paste the class link into your computer browser, click on the video and gently move to build a greater sense of calm, balance and strength.
Now is the right time to explore breath and movement practices that build resilience so we can stay calm, steady and strong while weathering this crazy storm.
Cate Reade, MS, RD, SFS is a Registered Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist on a mission to help you improve functional mobility and health span utilizing the power of lifestyle medicine. She has been teaching, writing and prescribing healthy eating and exercise programs for over 25 years. Today, as CEO of Resistance Dynamics and inventor of the MoveMor™ Mobility Trainer, she develops programs that target joint flexibility, strength and balance deficits to help older adults fall less and live more. Cate instructs MoveMor™ exercise classes, consults and speaks with people locally and nationally about mobility, lifestyle and fall prevention solutions so you can live a longer, healthier and happier life. Contact Cate at 303.515.7070 or Cate@MoveMor.com.