I was never sporty, always wagging off to the shops in the middle of the cross county run and coming in last. I was briefly in a hocky team, but I was a fullback so I stood around a lot pulling down my short skirt and adjusting my shin pads. I once played tennis but more time was spent retrieving tennis balls from over the fence than any actual contact between my racket and ball.
I guess I made up for my early deficiencies by overcompensating later in life. From 2005 to 2009 I pursued a brutal, relentless schedule of lifting weights and cardio. After waking up at 5am, I was either in the gym or on the streets for at least an hour, six sometimes seven days a week. My goal was fat loss and exercise was the methodology . My mantra when running was “100 grams is melting away … 100 grams is melting away”. I never really enjoyed doing the exercise, and instead of feeling energised afterwards, I usually just felt exhausted.
After I crashed at the end of 2009 I realised I couldn’t keep it up anymore and gave up going to the gym. Not exercising was part of my healing. I still did a little yoga, a little walking and the occasional weights session but the obsessiveness was gone. After that thing happened in April last year, I gave up exercising entirely.
One of the reasons I stopped was that just before he died, J. had gone on this health kick and had started working out. I had run with him on my usual routes and had let him borrow my dumbbells. It felt like he had moved in on territory that had always been exclusively mine and I didn’t like it. The last time I saw him he was walking up the other side of the street at the beginning of his run, and when I found him, he had shorts, singlet and running shoes on. The whole exercise concept had even more negative associations.
So in the past year, although I know I should be moving, I haven’t been doing anything more than incidental walking between trains/ferries and work/uni. Being “fit” doesn’t seem a compelling enough reason when I have plenty of things to do I enjoy more (shagging). [tangent: there is a stunning article by Scott Abel called the Definition of Fitness – it may not be what we think].
But this week I am back into practicing yoga and I am loving it. I am motivated to resume my practice because of this
We should all be concerned about the health and fitness of our brains. We are living longer these days, but long life, unfortunately, can be associated with reduced mental capacity if we don’t take care of our brains throughout our lives. However, there are many things we can do while we’re younger to improve our brain function, helping to ensure that our brains stay fit and strong just as long as our bodies.
Exercise is, of course, important to brain health. And, it seems that yoga is one of the best exercises for both body fitness and brain fitness. Yoga is actually a system of exercise designed to improve both the body and the mind through a system of eight limbs. The limbs of yoga practice include asana (posture), pranayama (breathwork), dhyana (meditation), (restraints) and niyamas (observances.) The practice of yoga is designed to help the body and mind work together for the benefit of both.
Yoga helps the body be more flexible and improves muscle strength and increases relaxation. However, yoga also offers the following benefits in terms of brain health:
* Decreases anxiety and depression – Research has shown that regular practice of yoga increases the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Insufficient levels of GABA in the brain have been associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression, so it appears that yoga may help prevent these problems, which are very prevalent in older adults.
* Regulates dopamine in the brain – Dopamine is a neuro-transmitter in the brain. Regular practice of yoga has been shown to increase dopamine levels. Parkinson’s disease, as well as addiction and anxiety disorders have all been associated with insufficient levels of dopamine. Therefore, it appears that proper dopamine regulation may prevent, or possibly even treat, these disorders.
* Increases endorphin release – Endorphins are natural mood enhancers, secreted by the brain. Studies have shown an increase in dopamine levels during intense yoga breath work (pranayama). Therefore, those who practice yoga breath work may feel more relaxed; less stressed and report a higher general feeling of well-being.
* Reduces stress – The regular release and regulation of endorphins can also reduce stress. In addition, yoga teaches the practices of relaxation, helping yoga aficionados have the ability to recognize when they’re feeling stressed out and do something about it. Such coping mechanisms are beneficial to helping us manage stress throughout our lives. Since studies show that severe or chronic stress can actually damage the brain, we’d all do well to have a mechanism for coping with stress that works as well as yoga.
* Increases brain activity – Yoga’s breath work has also been shown to increase beta activity in the brain. Increased beta activity has been associated with increased brain focus and awareness.
So, as you can see, practicing yoga can provide benefits to the body and the brain. After a few months of regular yoga, you should be far more flexible, which helps ward off the stiffness and decreased mobility that so often accompanies aging. In addition, you may also find that you are more focused and relaxed. These are all qualities that help improve body and brain health and fitness as we age.
I love, love, love my brain, and it is working pretty well at the moment.
It may be that we reach our intellectual prime in the middle of our lives.
Over the past few years, neuroscientists have begun to zero in on the brain’s changes in middle age, and what they’ve found is encouraging. Results of long-term studies show that — contrary to stereotypes — we actually grow smarter in key areas in middle age which, with longer life spans, now stretches from our mid 40s to our mid to late 60s.
So I am going to do everything I can to stay mentally fit and healthy. I don’t really care if I get blobby when I get old but I don’t want to get daft. I’m on a mission to have a wonderful mind up until the day I die and yoga is perfect for me because it is one thing I do enjoy while I’m doing it.