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Muscles & Mindfulness

Learn how important your mindset can be when it comes to your training and overall health, and what you can do to improve yours.

Muscles & Mindfulness

Over the years I’ve given out tons of advice on training just about every muscle in the body. But what about the mind? No, I’m not suggesting the mind is a muscle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need exercising. For optimal health, a sound mind is just as important as a strong body—in fact, research suggests that mindfulness can actually improve your health!

By now most of you are familiar with the saying "You can't out-train a bad diet." What few people consider is that you can't out-train or out-diet a poor mindset. These days, many struggle to maintain a positive outlook, but the fact is stress can take a serious toll on the body and potentially impede results. In this article, I'm going to break down the science of stress, how alleviating it can promote better progress, and ways you can improve your outlook to benefit your overall health.

Optimism Improves Heart Health

Sure, regular exercise and a smart nutrition plan will make a huge impact on your heart health. Yet something as simple as your attitude toward life can also influence the health of your body's most critical muscle—the heart—according to new research from the University of Illinois.

The researchers used the following seven metrics used by the American Heart Association (AHA) to define heart health in male and female subjects ages 45-84: blood pressure, body-mass index (BMI), fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use. Each of the seven health metrics were allocated 0, 1 or 2 points to represent poor, intermediate and ideal scores, respectively. These seven scores were then tallied to arrive at a total cardiovascular health score that ranged from 0 to 14, with a higher total score indicative of better heart health. The researchers also gave the participants surveys that assessed their mental health, levels of optimism and physical health. They further factored in socio-demographic characteristics such as age, race and ethnicity, income and education status.

In a 2015 issue of the journal Health Behavior and Policy Review, the researchers showed that the participants' total health scores increased with their level of optimism. They also found that people who were the most optimistic were twice as likely (that's a 100% increase) to have ideal cardiovascular health and 55% more likely to have a total health score in the intermediate range, compared to those who were the least optimistic.

This study goes to show just how much your emotional state can influence your overall health and well-being. It's not enough to address only the physical aspect; you must also focus on your mental state.

Luckily, exercise is well known to be a powerful antidepressant. Following a healthy nutrition program can also give a huge boost to your emotional health. But if you find that exercise and nutrition are falling short in terms of helping you reach your overall goals—not just in fitness, but in life as well—you need to consider other avenues. Meditation and/or yoga or therapy could be useful. Taking care of your head will not only help you lead a happier life, but a healthier one as well.

Reference

Hernandez, R., et al. Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Health Behavior and Policy Review, 2 (1):62-73, 2015.

Positive Emotions Reduce Inflammation

There’s no doubt that taking in sights like the Grand Canyon, visiting the Taj Mahal in India, or looking at a famous painting (say, the Mona Lisa) can make you feel good. But did you ever imagine that such pleasures could actually benefit your overall health? According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, experiencing emotions like amusement, awe and joy can have a positive impact on your health.

The Berkeley team asked 200 young adults to what extent, on a given day, they experienced, amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love, and pride. In a 2015 issue of the journal Emotions, the team reported that those who experienced more of these positive emotions—especially awe (aka, “wonder and amazement”)—had lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6. Having elevated levels of IL-6 (and therefore greater inflammation) can increase the risk for numerous diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and obesity, so keeping it in check is critical for maintaining optimal health.

While staying active with exercise and maintaining a healthy diet will help you fight off disease, having positive experiences that induce pleasure (awe, joy, amusement, etc.) can also help. Do your best to live a well-rounded life. Enjoy travel, arts, music, nature and the companionship of others who make you laugh. Love a lot and do your best to live a fulfilling life. If you can do that, it will likely be a longer, healthier life.

Reference

Steallar, J. E. et al. Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines.. Emotion, 2015.

Meditation for Muscle

Rest periods are critical in any training program. You can manipulate them to help produce greater strength gains, or muscle mass development, or muscle endurance. But one of the most crucial rest periods in your day should be for your mind and nervous system.

The rest I’m talking about is meditation. Meditation is essentially a rest period for the mind, a necessary break from our busy and stressful lives.

Meditation Benefits Both Mind and Body

If you think meditation is just some trendy feelgood practice with no tangible benefits, think again. Research studies confirm that it’s a great way to combat stress, prep the body for physical performance, and help cool the body down after exercise.

Martial artists, just to highlight one group of athletes, have been harnessing the performance-boosting power of meditation, as well as it’s mindfulness benefits, for literally centuries. I've done martial arts myself for many years, and in all the disciplines I've practiced—including Kempo, judo, and jiu jitsu—class and sparring sessions always start and finish with meditation focused on the breath.

The true benefit of meditation comes from the ability to ignore other external cues, such as your foot itching, the dog barking, that report for work that's hanging over your head. This gives the body’s nervous system a bit of a break. And an occasional break—a rest period, if you will—is essential for any system in the body. Giving yours a break daily with meditation for at least 2 minutes a day could bring profound and unexpected benefits to your body, your mind, your performance, and your life.

Meditation may sound difficult and mentally straining, but this shouldn't be the case. It just takes a bit of practice. In fact, the majority of people get it right, more or less, the first time.

The key is to just focus on your breathing. That’s it! Focus on inhaling and exhaling, and nothing else. Ignore that itchy toe. Don’t even think about today’s workout. And don’t you dare think about your work or family stress. Just breath and focus on each and every breath.

Meditation Reduces Stress

Get in a comfortable position. Set a timer for at least 2 minutes, but go as long as you like. Close your eyes. Tune out your ears. And think ONLY about your breath going in and out. It doesn’t matter if you breathe through your nose or mouth, or if you breath in through one and out through the other. Just breath in and out as you normally do with the least amount of effort. That way, you can focus more on the the flow of the breath versus controlling the breath.

Don’t worry if your mind wanders. When it does, just bring your focus back to your breathing. You may find it wandering multiple times during a single meditation session. That's fine. Just bring it back your breathing each time.

That’s really as complex as meditation has to be to reap the benefits of giving your nervous system a few minutes of rest. You can use devices like MUSE to help you determine how successful you are at focusing ONLY on your breath. Or you can use one of the many meditation apps on your smartphone or tablet—ones that don’t require a device for biofeedback, but rather just guide you though different types of meditations.

Try Active Meditation

Meditation doesn't have to be sedentary either. One of the latest forms of meditation gaining popularity is called "active meditation." With this style, you focus on your breath, your body working, and/or muscles contracting. And truth be told, this is essentially what you should be doing if you’re lifting weights properly (as I’ll explain in a bit).

As an example, let’s use walking meditation as the form of active meditation. All you do is start walking. It could be a familiar path outdoors or on a treadmill. Start by focusing on your breath. Notice how it starts to increase as you get moving. Don’t think much about this; just notice it. Then, notice how your feet feel as each one strikes the ground. Then, notice how your calves contract with each step.

Anytime your mind wanders from thinking about walking, or whatever the activity is, calmly bring your focus back to your breath and start over again.

Mindfulness Meets Training

Anytime you lift weights, you should really be doing active meditation. It’s that mind-muscle connection that both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Weider often talked about back in the 1960s and '70s as being hugely beneficial to results. Today, there's research that proves Arnold and Joe were right all along. One study showed that when subjects focused on the contraction of the muscle during a biceps curl, they recruited 20% more muscle fibers in the biceps; whereas, when the same subjects focused on moving the weight, they were only able to lift about 10% more weight.

So, active meditation isn’t anything new—savvy bodybuilders and other strength athletes have used it for years. And, arguably, martial artists have used it even longer, since fighting is the ultimate active meditation. When fighting an opponent, even in a controlled situation such as sparring, the mind is forced to focus only on defending itself. That's essentially a rest from your typical life stressors.

You can use numerous pastimes to practice active meditation, so long as the activity forces your mind to focus solely on it. Even video games can be a form of active meditation, since your focus is so centered on the game you're playing. Racing motorcycles, cars, bicycles, etc., are also great ways to give your mind a rest from the your "real world" problems. And of course, yoga is a very common form of active meditation.

Reduce Stress in Just Two Minutes

Although active meditation is providing your nervous system a break from “life,” taking two minutes of quiet (non-active) meditation should still be done at least a few times per week. Why would martial artists, who spar and therefore practice a lot of active meditation, start and end every practice and every fight with quiet meditation?  Because it’s as true a rest as possible for the nervous system. Plus, it’s easy to do and doesn’t cost a cent!

Give meditation a try, and be sure to let me know how it’s benefiting your training, your results, your stress levels, and your life in general.

References

Travis, C., et al. Effect of meditation on psychological distress and brain functioning: A randomized controlled study. Brain Cogn 125: 100-105, 2018.

Tolahunase, M. R., et al. Yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Restor Neurol Neurosci 36(3):423-442, 2018.

Merchant, D. C., et al. Attentional focusing instructions influence force production and muscular activity during isokinetic elbow flexions. JSCR 23(8):2358-2366, 2009.

Balance is Key to Overall Health

We commonly toast and hope for health for ourselves, family and friends, yet what does health mean and how do you get it in your life?

The word health is defined in Webster’s as, “The state of being hale, sound, or whole, in body, mind, or soul; especially, the state of being free from physical disease or pain." (FYI, the word "hale" means "strong and healthy," in case you're not familiar with that term.)

And while it's clearly essential for life, few JYM Army members actually look to me for improving their health. Most come to me for RESULTS in muscle mass, strength, fat loss, speed, etc. Yet what's nice is that by following my advice, they not only get the RESULTS they were looking for, but also the fringe benefit of HEALTH.

No matter what your goals are when it comes to fitness, letting the “health” just happen isn't good enough. It's certainly possible to look healthy on the outside yet not actually be healthy on the inside. And while following my training, nutrition and supplement programs will enhance your health, the sooner you start taking full control of your own health, the better.

Research shows that the younger you are when you adopt a healthy diet, the better your health will be later in life, and that some damage from unhealthy eating early in life can't be undone by adopting a healthy diet later on. In one study, young animals who were fed a “healthy” diet providing all the micronutrients and macronutrients needed, then switched to an “unhealthy” diet later in life, had significantly better health and lived longer than animals fed an unhealthy diet early in life and then switched to a healthy diet later on.

The take-home message is to take your health serious as soon as possible. Even if you can't undo some of the damage done early in life, the sooner you catch up, the better for your overall health and well being.

What Health Means to Me

I have my own version of the definition of HEALTH, which is: “The state of being hale, sound, or whole, in body, mind, and soul; especially, the state of having balance in life and being free from physical disease or pain."

My definition is very similar to Webster’s, but I add the importance of having BALANCE in all areas of life. That means, don't focus on just looking healthy on the outside; also strive to be truly healthy on the inside. Don't just work on improving your body; work on improving your mind as well. Don't focus only on your career; focus on enjoying life. Balance means not following a strict diet plan all the time, but fitting in the fun foods you crave.

Without balance, no matter how healthy you feel you are, you won't have true health and true happiness. In fact, this concept means so much to me that my entire tattoo body suit represents balance:

The left side of my bodysuit is the FIRE and WIND side; the Japanese kanji on the left side of my neck represent FIRE and WIND.

The right side of my body is the WATER and EARTH side, and the the kanji on the right side of my neck represent WATER and EARTH.

The kanji on the back on my neck represents SKY, as do the clouds on my neck and head.

FIRE, WIND, WATER, EARTH and SKY are the five elements of Japanese philosophy, which together also represent BALANCE.

To go a step further, the majority of my tattoos are dragons. I have nine dragons in total. In Kung Fu, the dragon is a culmination of all the animals. It isn't the best at any one quality, like each of the other individual animals; rather, it's a “jack of all trades” with a balance of all the animals' qualities. The dragon represents BALANCE.

How to Achieve Balance in Life

So how do I achieve balance? Well, for starters, it's hard to measure balance or know if you've achieved it perfectly. The real goal you should have in mind is to be cognizant or mindful of trying to keep balance.

And how do I attempt to keep balance? By making sure to enjoy every day possible. The day I wrote this, I was in the rainforest in Guatemala. Seeing the Mayan ruins of Tikal was an awe-inspiring moment I will never forget. In fact, research concludes that having awe-inspiring moments like this is good for our health. It makes sense when you consider the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Laughter and awe-inspiring moments are potent stress relievers.

Stress relievers like laughter, awe, thrill, exercise and meditation free our brain from the worry of the many stresses most of us have in life. And they work directly to prevent the damage that these stresses impose on our bodies. From a mechanistic point, it's stress that makes us unhealthy—stress from toxins in the environment and food, stress from microorganisms like bacteria and viruses, stress from worry and the demands of life.

These stresses attack such body systems as the immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system and metabolic system. And daily attacks over time build up and result in metabolic disorders, immune problems, cardiovascular health issues, cold and flu, and general degeneration of the entire body.

Unfortunately, going to the gym once a day, a few days a week, or even many days each week, is not enough to reach true health. Exercise is our cheapest, easiest, and most direct way to relieve stress, but one workout a day won't cut it. My 30/60 Rule ensures that you move for 60 seconds after every 30 minutes of inactivity (i.e. sitting at your desk or on your couch).

Research has shown that sitting sedentary, like at your desk or on the couch, for periods of 30 minutes or longer shuts down genes that keep fat-burning and metabolic rate up, while simultaneously turning on genes that increase fat storage and lull metabolism. Here, the stress is being sedentary. While exercise is a stress on the body that actually relieves stress when done properly, being sedentary is a stress that hinders our health when we do it chronically and adapt to it, resulting in metabolic disorders like type II diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other inflammatory disorders, as well as a faster rate of senility and greater rate of depression.

So no matter your situation, you can always work on seeking balance. One workout a day is great, but adopt my 30/60 Rule, or exercise periodically throughout your day. Meditate, do yoga, practice martial arts, travel, visit a museum, volunteer, etc. Bottom line: Keep active, stay mindful, maintain balance, and you’ll be healthier for it.

 





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