This month I have been focusing on wellness, and trying to build some healthy habits into my life. One thing that I had been longing for in the last several months is a stronger body. I had always been very active (if not athletic) through my childhood and most of adulthood. Even through the first year that I became a mom, I was still enjoying exercise and continually learning new ways of moving.
When Amelia was two, I was diagnosed with adrenal exhaustion, and was under strict orders to refrain from exercise. My job was to rest, rest, rest and avoid all sorts of stress. Gradually, I was back to long walks, yoga and even brief bouts of running. But since that time I have not felt strong like I did before.
Moving my body has always been one of the purest sources of joy for me, and I miss that rush of power and exuberance I felt when I could do a long string of cartwheels or sustain a long, controlled hold of a really challenging balance pose in my yoga sessions. I miss feeling a natural ease when I challenge my muscles.
I have a few excuses, naturally. I have a wonky knee– the ACL has been “reconstructed” twice, once with some of my patellar tendon, and once with some of my hamstring tendon. And I need another ACL surgery (not sure where the graft will come from this time!) I have been tired, under stress, and confined by lousy weather for most of the year. I haven’t found a yoga class I liked (not for lack of trying) and can’t seem to talk any of the lady friends I have here into exercising with me– even just going for walks! But it still comes down to me. And I am ready to move in the other direction, away from my steady decline.
I have found that it’s all about making new habits. If you do something on purpose for long enough, you can develop a habit that is easy to maintain. Right now, I have to set alarms on my phone to remind me to do these things, but I expect that they will naturally become part of my daily life, without too much thought or effort.
Three Daily Habits for a Stronger Body
1. Bodyweight exercise– especially squats. This is the first thing I started with, when I decided I wanted more for my body. At 11 a.m. every day, my phone rings to remind me to do squats. I started at 25 deep squats, and am now up to 50. This one exercise uses so many muscles and makes a big difference in keeping up lower body strength and mobility. (Here’s a great tutorial on doing a proper squat exercise, and here’s some great info on why we should be doing them.) Rather than doing squats every single day, I alternate them with either planks or another upper body exercise. There are a lot of great books out there full of good bodyweight exercises– what I love about this is that you don’t need equipment (the fewer obstacles or excuses, the better!) Plus, just five minutes gets the job done (again, no excuses!) This kindle book of bodyweight exercises looks great, and is free at the moment.
2. Daily Walking. The best part of my day is usually when Jeff and Amelia come home, and we go for a walk. I do my best to arrange all of our afternoon/ evening commitments to allow as much time as possible for this. Walking is the best exercise for everyone. It’s what our bodies are designed to do! Yes, I love to run, swim, do yoga, dance and do yard work. But I can’t easily do those daily, and it’s hard to beat the benefits of walking. So I make time for it. Not having a car makes that easier, but I still have to make it happen. Of course, the benefits of walking go far beyond the mechanical sort– it’s so relaxing, you get more oxygen into your body, and if you can go someplace green, then there is a whole new layer of therapy going on.
3. Foam Rolling. I learned about using a foam roller when I worked for two years in a physical therapy outpatient clinic. We introduced pretty much all patients to it, as it’s a great way to promote body-awareness, improve postural alignment, do some deep tissue massage on yourself, and a gentle way to stretch and exercise– and you can build up easily to more challenging uses. Using a foam roller is something that I have introduced many of my bodywork clients to, with a great response. I had used mine for years, but when we moved overseas, I got rid of my foam roller and didn’t replace it– until a couple of weeks ago! Now I have been using mine for back massage/ stretches before bed every night, and it’s been fantastic. I can work out my own knots in my back and shoulders, use it to strengthen my core muscles, and do some powerful upper-body stretching with it. There are a ton of youtube videos out there on using a foam roller, from doing a pilates workout, to stretching, to workout recovery, to massage. So, if there’s something you’d like to work on just enter the right search terms, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find the instructions you need.
Of course, I could make this list much longer… But I think these are the three things that are really making a difference for me. As I’ve been working toward strengthening my body, I have been so encouraged by Real Fit at Every Age, by Julie Lagarde. It’s not your average fitness book– she combines her experience as a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner with her experience as an athlete as well as someone who had lost her joy of movement for a number of years, to show the way back into the joy of movement and health. That really resonated with me. I believe we’re made to move and find deep delight and health through taking our bodies through their paces in a healthy way. There was one personal story in her book that moved me:
One of the most memorable moments – and pivotal ones – in my past year was in the summer of 2012. My 18 month-old daughter suffered a severe injury and my husband and I were rattled to our bones. It was a pretty dark and stormy time for us during her healing process. So dark for me that I had to do something to manage the stress, panic, trauma, grief, and rage. I started swimming in the local pool. The first couple of times I went I would put on my suit and make myself stay in the water for 5 minutes at least. I would panic and think about my phone (not in the water with me) and wonder if my daughter was all right without me or if someone was trying to get a hold of me with another piece of bad news. Then, within a few weeks, as I grew more comfortable having a piece of time to myself, I googled some swim workouts. I found a great site – 100swimmingworkouts.com. I started with the #1 workout for beginners. If I was too tired, I cut it short. If there were strokes I didn’t know how to do I skipped them or subbed in the ones I knew.
Very quickly something started to happen. Beneath the water, in the quiet of being fully submerged, I found my childhood joy. I felt peace. I actually felt how often I was living in a panic since the accident. I felt physical pain in my sternum from clenching in fear all of the time. I felt fluid, smooth, and supported. When you push against water, it pushes back. It connects with you. It reassures. The more I swam the more I realized the good in life, the miracles. As my daughter healed, I healed.
I loved this part because I feel like I can relate. Having a strong body that really moves brings me life. Exercise is supposed to feel good, to be a way to relieve stress and enjoy being human. She addresses all the issues that may arise– adrenal fatigue, age, injury, inertia are just a few– and has such a refreshing attitude about getting strong again and enjoying the fact that we are made to move. If you are wanting to strengthen your body and move more, I would definitely encourage you to pick up her book— it’s great.
I am sharing some of my own process with you, in hopes that some of you are also wishing for more strength and physical activity in your lives, and need a little inspiration for making some steps in the right direction. I would love to hear from you– what was your favorite activity as a kid, and do you still do it now? Do you have some fitness goals you are working toward?