The first article in my series on exercise (September 2009 Newsletter) focused on the nutritional needs of people who exercise. Contrary to current recommendations on exercise, weight loss, and diet, I urge people to avoid any strenuous physical activities unless the resulting increase in free radical damage, or exercise-induced oxidative stress, is being offset by consuming plenty of antioxidants from whole foods.
But let’s say you are balancing exercise-induced oxidative stress with enough fruit and vegetable nutrition in your diet: you’re eating a wide variety of organic vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and you’re supplementing with a product like Juice Plus. What’s next? What’s the best way to exercise?
In terms of weight training, most personal trainers and exercise manuals would have you focus on the large and visible muscle groups in your arms, legs, chest, butt, and abdomen. Building these muscles will give you peripheral strength and may help you look good, but they won’t provide much in the way of deep strength and true health. The most important muscles to build and train are the ones that you can’t see, but you can feel, which are referred to as core muscles. Core strength is the most important aspect of a healthy physique, and focusing on these critical muscles will not only give you strength and stamina, over time it will help you to tone and highlight the muscles that we all want to show off in our arms, legs, bellies, and butts. But you have to do the deep, inner work first. As with a building or a sculpture, you’ve got to build from the inside out; when the foundation is strong, the upper floors and extremities are strengthened as well.
Gravity takes a huge toll on the spine, and the only thing that can offset this is core strength. Even though I eat well and am very physically active, my spine still has problems and is compressed. Most people are in the same boat as I am, or a boat that’s even less sea-worthy. If you don’t believe me, go get an x-ray: if you’re over 40, you have discs that are starting to degenerate, which can be very serious.
Rule #1 when it comes to exercise and moving your body is: learn how to walk straight. If you can support your weight and hold yourself up using core strength, your spine will thank you, and many aspects of health will be positively affected.
Another mistake that fitness trainers and do-it-yourself-exercisers make is that instead of focusing on core strength and posture, they focus on cardiovascular fitness. Cardiovascular activity is excellent for someone who is eating well, and there are great benefits to huffing and puffing while exercising (especially outdoors), but most people don’t do enough strength training. While most of us desire a six-pack, there are more important muscles to strengthen and build than the rectus abdominal muscles that you can see. It may look good, but won’t actually contribute to your health and longevity. What you really want to focus on and engage are the big transverse abdominal muscles that start under the ribcage and go all the way down your abdomen. I think it’s valuable for anyone interested in exercise to get an anatomy book and learn about the small muscles that hold up the spine, as well as all of the other muscle groups in the body.
Pilates and yoga classes are excellent places to learn about core muscles and to begin to work on deep muscle strength. As a certified yoga instructor I’m often asked about Bikram, or “hot” yoga. I don’t generally recommend hot yoga because I believe that the body needs a great deal of airflow, ideally found outside. In an over-heated room, it’s easy to overstretch and injure yourself without knowing it. Instead, I prefer to do yoga in a comfortably warm room, so that the body heats from the inside out, rather than jacking up the temperature in a room and making you feel hot on the outside before your muscles are actually warmed up.
Finally, it’s important to remember that it’s hard to have that six-pack, or those slim, toned arms, if you don’t eat right. A plant-based, whole-food diet will get you there faster than traditional stomach crunches or bicep curls. Animal products contribute to that beer-gut that most men dread, and cutting them out is the first place to start when attempting to exercise and gain health.