Tag Archives: fatigue

Exercise and the Brain: Tricks, Treats and Truth

So I came across yet another study last week about exercise and the brain.  I’m frankly more than a little annoyed about the premise of this one, but I think it still has much to teach us about the way we perceive and experience exercise.

The study indicates, that when people think about exercise as “exercise”–an activity that they “should” do, they are more likely to consume a dessert after lunch, than if they think about exercise as a fun and and enjoyable activity.  Here’s how the study worked.  The women were split into two groups.  One group was told they were going out to exercise and were given a card with a 1 mile walking route they were to follow.  This group had six stopping points marked  on the walk where they were to rate their energy level.  The other group was given the same route but were told the purpose of their walk was “fun”, and they were to listen to an MP3 player and evaluate the sound quality at six different points along the walk.  Both groups were told that a lunch would be served after the walk.

After the walk (and before the lunch) the participants were given questionnaires rating their experience as fun and as a form of exercise.  Then the participants went off to eat.  The scientists weighed how much food each participant ate and whether they chose the “hedonistic” option of drink (cola vs. water) or dessert (chocolate pudding vs. applesauce).

Here’s what I found really interesting about the study.  The researchers were determined to find a difference in eating patterns among these exercisers.  They did, but it was really, really small.  If I understand the table correctly the differences among the fun exercisers and the utility exercisers was mostly a difference in how much chocolate pudding they ate.  And from what I see we’re talking about a very small difference in calories.  This finding got the scientists all excited, as they postulated that those who perceived their exercise as exercise (work) felt that they needed to “reward” themselves with food.  Now best I can tell we’re talking about less than 50 calories more of chocolate pudding, which is like an extra spoonful or two.  This is hardly what I would call hedonistic binging, but I digress.

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More interesting to me were the results of the surveys that the participants filled out.  These results were sort of buried within the paper, but seemed the most significant to me.  The surveys indicated that those participants who perceived the exercise as work were more tired than those who perceived it as fun.  And the “fun” group ended the activity in a better mood than the “work” group.  Now, I feel, we’re getting somewhere.  Saying that the “work” group enjoyed two extra spoonfuls of chocolate pudding than the “fun” group and were thus rewarding their 1 mile trek with gluttonous behavior undoubtedly makes better headlines than saying that exercisers who have fun are less tired and in a better mood than those who don’t.  But I’m not sure I’m really all that worked up about 20 calories worth of chocolate pudding.  I am very interested in how people feel after they exercise because I’m pretty sure, based on my years of experience, that if they feel energized and uplifted after their Tuesday workout, they are a lot more likely to return for the Thursday class.

Because this is part of a growing group of studies that indicate that how people think about exercise has a significant effect on what they get out of it.  A walk is not just a walk and a sit up is not just a sit up.  The way people feel as they exercise has a significant effect on what they get out of it.  This brings to mind another important study conducted with hotel staff.  The hotel workers all clearly met or exceeded the Surgeon General’s recommendation for weekly exercise.  However, some of the workers perceived that work as exercise and some didn’t.  Even though both groups got the same amount of exercise, those who thought of themselves as exercisers were considerably healthier than those who didn’t.  And as the study progressed and those who thought their work didn’t “count” as exercise started to see their daily work as fitness, these participants began to experience significant health improvements.

So what do we take from this?  Those who think of themselves as “fit” are likely to have better outcomes than those who don’t.  But thinking of your work as exercise might make you more tired and in a more lousy mood than those who think of their activity as fun?  In the end, my hypothesis is that you should tell people they are exercising and that it has value, while at the same time making it as much fun as humanly possible.  That’s where I aim my classes.  And I think, that’s why students come back year after year.

But however you slice it, I think it’s important to remember that one of your most important fitness tools is the one you carry between your ears.

Love, Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)

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How do I know when I’m exercising hard enough?

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This question can be a bit difficult for beginners to navigate.  Given all the mixed messages we’ve heard about exercise from the notion that working out feels like being kissed by angels to the notion that all real exercise is accompanied by excruciating pain, it’s a little tough to know just how you should feel while working out.

As with most things,the truth is somewhere in the middle.  You should feel like you are expending some energy as you exercise.  At the same time, you should not be experiencing pain as you exercise either.  And the way you feel during exercise will also be impacted by what type of exercise you are doing, how familiar you are with that form of exercise and what fitness goals you are trying to achieve.  Let me give you a basic rundown based on exercise type.

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Aerobic Exercise:  During this form of exercise, the goal is to raise  your heart rate and sustain it at a slightly elevated level during your workout.  There’s lots of information available about what heart rate you should reach and not exceed.  But I find for most people, it is more helpful to use the “Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RPE to determine their appropriate exercise levels.  I like to use a tool I call the “sweat scale” to determine your RPE.  If you imagine a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being how you feel when you are sitting on the sofa watching TV and eating cheezy poofs and 10 being how you feel when you are working out so hard you feel like somebody better call 911 because you are having a heart attack, we generally want to work out at between 6 and 8 on this scale to achieve maximum benefit from your workout.  This generally feels like you are working moderately hard.  You are breathing more deeply than usual, but not gasping for air.  You should be able to speak in short sentences, but you probably can’t sing while you are working at this level.  You are usually pretty sure you can keep exercising another 5 minutes at this level, but not sure you can work out another half hour or more.  Now you don’t have to work out at this level to be aerobic.  Any level over your normal resting level can count towards aerobic exercise.  But you generally don’t want to work out over this level for any sustained level of time.

One thing you’ll want to be very aware of as you exercise are any “warning signs” or what I call “dashboard indicators” from your body that let you know that something is wrong.  If you are unfamiliar with exercise “warning signs” please go here on my website and read the “Five Things You Should Know Before You Work Out” article.  It is really important to know this stuff, and it can save your life.

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Flexibility Training: This very important, but often overlooked type of exercise encompasses such practices as yoga and stretching.  Flexibility training not only makes it easier to move around, but also helps you avoid falls and prevent injuries in everyday life.  The key to flexibility exercise is to move your body to a point of gentle tension but not pain.  A good stretch feels a little bit like a yawn.  Your body reaches and expands, you feel a pleasant sense that you are moving your body a bit beyond it’s average range and you feel a gentle tug in your muscles.  Once again, this should not feel painful.  With this form of exercise, it’s particularly important to tune in and pay attention to the messages your body is giving you.  You may even wish to keep a journal and write down how various stretches feel to you, so you can get a sense of what works well for you in your practice.  Remember that in general you want to do static stretches, where you move your body into position and hold the stretch for ten to fifteen seconds.  Bouncing as you stretch or “ballistic stretching” can easily move your body outside of a good range of motion and lead to injury.

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Strength Training: Also called resistance training, this is where you use some sort of resistance to help build muscle mass and make you stronger.  This resistance can come in the form of weights (everything from dumbbells to water bottles), elastic bands (also called resistance bands), weight machines (including nautilus, and other cable systems) or even just the pull of gravity against your body (including things like crunches and squats).  Strength training is also a time when it is particularly important to tune into your body’s messages.  Good strength training should make you feel a gentle burn or warmth in your muscle.  It should be clear that your body is doing extra work, but you should not feel pain.  You also shouldn’t feel a sense of impending loss of muscle control.  If you are exercising alone and without a trainer, you probably don’t want to work your muscle to exhaustion, where your muscles begin to shake and it’s clear you can’t do one more rep.  That said, it’s quite normal for your muscles to feel tired after a certain number of reps.  Remember to check out that document on my website, and familiarize yourself with the exercise warning signs.

When you are first starting out, it’s pretty normal to feel some confusion about how hard you should be exercising.  This is a place where working with a personal trainer or group exercise instructor can really help.  Even if you can’t afford to work with a trainer for months on end, you could meet with a trainer for a few sessions, just to learn what your body can do and make sure you’ve gotten off to a good start.

But no matter how you approach it, remember to listen to your body and do what feels best for you.

Love, Jeanette (AKA The Fat Chick)

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Loving Your Body by Listening to Your Body

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I’ve been married for nearly 20 years, and that’s quite a while.  If I’ve learned anything over this past 20 years about relationships, it’s this–if you love somebody you have to take time to listen to them.  Sure, it’s important to buy each other presents, and show affection.  And yeah, sex is pretty important too.  But few things are as important as taking time to really hear what your partner has to say.

Today is Love Your Body Day, and I think that’s wonderful.  It’s a day which encourages us to celebrate the bodies we have as they are.  It’s a day which encourages us to put diets aside and to spend at least 24 hours not comparing ourselves to unrealistic media ideals of bodies and not beating ourselves up for failing to “measure up”.

But I think we can take this relationship with our bodies a little further than failing to beat ourselves up.  And I think one of the most important things we can do to show our bodies love is to learn to listen to them.

Our bodies are mysterious and magical and wondrous.  So much of it works without our having to think consciously about it at all.  Our hearts beat, and breathing happens.  Our stomachs digest food and our bodies break it into nutrients that fuel movements both conscious and unconscious.  But for things that we need to do consciously like find food and move our limbs, and lay down to sleep our bodies have a very sophisticated built-in wiring system intricately connected with our brains.  And if we become attuned to that wiring system, we can learn so much about what our bodies need.

So many of us have learned to be frustrated by the fact that our bodies get hungry.  But I for one, am deeply grateful for it.  I am a busy person who is easily distracted.  Were it not for hunger, I think I might find myself stranded on the side of the road somewhere completely out of fuel and without roadside assistance.  Luckily, I get hungry often and in no uncertain terms.  So even if I find it really annoying, I find that I have to take the time to find food on the regular.  What’s more, I find that if I take the time to listen, my body is pretty specific about what food it wants.  The more carefully I listen to my body, the more attuned I am to what nutrients I am lacking and what foods might best top off my nutritional tank.  Sometimes my body craves carrots and sometimes (well most of the time) it craves chocolate.  And it seems the more carefully that I follow my body’s menu choices (rather than my brain’s dictates about what I should eat) the better I feel.  And when I really listen to what my body wants to eat, and give in by eating precisely as much of those things as my body wants, I am rewarded.  My body feels warm, wonderful and satisfied.

Another area where I’m learning to finally listen to my loud-talking body is in movement.  Our bodies are capable of amazing abilities to move through space.  Not only can we walk across a room or catch a ball without thinking about it, but we can also hike and swim in the ocean and dance.  And this is another place where the highly sophisticated wiring in our bodies has a lot to tell us.  If I sit too long, my body protests.  My back and knees stiffen.  I feel pain in my head and neck.  On the other hand, if I move too much or too long or in a way that is too intense for my current fitness level, my body sends me messages of pain and fatigue.  Now just like hunger, pain and fatigue can be deeply annoying.  My schedule may convince my conscious mind that it does not want to get up and move or it may not want to stop moving or it may find it extremely inconvenient to sleep.  Thankfully, my body sends signals that are difficult to ignore and I try to find ways to meet my body’s demands by moving or resting or sleeping.  And when I get this right, my body rewards me.  I feel a lightness in my limbs and a glowing sense of energy when I am well-exercised and well rested.

Our bodies strive for something that is so difficult for us to achieve in modern life–balance.  Our bodies tell us when we are eating more food than we need or not enough.  Our bodies tell us when we need more broccoli, and when we need buns.  Our bodies tell us when to leap and when to laugh and when to rest and when to run.  And when I listen, truly listen, to my body, it sings.  The energy flows through me and I feel a hum that runs from my toes to the top of my head.  That’s what it feels like to be in a loving relationship with my body.  It feels wonderful. It’s enough to make me strive to make every day love my body day.

Love,

Jeanette (AKA The Fat Chick)

Women’s Wednesday: Exercise as Medicine for Perimenopause

The Fat Chick leads a group of laughing and dancing menopausal and perimenopausal women in a Hot Flash Mob in Manhattan.

Are you perimenopausal?  Many of us have come to think of menopause as something that happens to “older women”.  Many of us don’t believe that we are old enough to be experiencing perimenopausal symptoms.  But denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, ladies.  As my Mom once told me, “I had been talking about ‘those old ladies’ as if it was a group that didn’t include me.  I had kind of a rough day when I realized I needed to start saying ‘we old ladies’!”  But denial aside, this condition can begin long before the moniker of old lady could reasonably apply.  Perimenopause is the segment in your life between when your periods start to change and up to a year after they have ended completely.  This process typically begins in your 40s, but may begin in your thirties.  It typically lasts five to fifteen years.  Some women have significant symptoms and some women have no symptoms at all.

Some typical symptoms of perimenopause include:

  • Vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats and simply sweating more.
  • Psychosocial symptoms like anxiety, impatience, poor memory and depression.
  • And physical symptoms like body aches, fatigue, and insomnia.

There is a lot of debate about treatment for menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms.  While some doctors suggest hormone replacement therapy (HRT), there may be significant risks associated with that approach.  Some studies indicate that HRT is effective for treating the vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. However, other studies indicate that HRT may increase risk for breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.  And HRT hasn’t proved very effective at coping with psychosocial or physical symptoms like body aches, fatigue, weight gain or insomnia.

But do not despair.  There is significant and growing evidence that regular, moderate exercise can be extremely effective in improving Quality of Life (QOL) and relieving perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms.  Regular fitness activities have been show to increase brain function and offer relief from depression and anxiety.  Exercise can improve overall mood even 24 hours after the original exercise session.  A recent study indicates that women who engaged in moderate physical activity had significantly reduced hot flashes, sweating, weight gain, bloating and issues with intimacy.

Menopause and perimenopause can be a difficult time in a woman’s life, but it doesn’t have to be.  This time can also be a time of great creativity, strength and power.  And, as the women who have participated in The Hot Flash Mob Movement (created with partner Dr. Eve Agee) have learned, it can also be a lot of fun.  And whether you are pre-menopausal, perimenopausal, menopausal or post-menopausal, exercise is a safe, effective, inexpensive and fun way to have a better quality of life.  So ladies, why not gather up some girlfriends, lace up your sneakers and get to it!  You’ll be so glad you did!
Love,

The Fat Chick