Why Christians Should Practice Meditation

MeditationWhy should Christians meditate? Up until a few decades ago it was understood that our brains become relatively unchangeable sometime after adolescence, but new studies continue to reveal the brain’s remarkable ability to change and “rewire” even into adulthood. This suggests that the traits we assumed to be fixed, such as our attitudes, moods, and even personality, are not permanent and can be changed throughout our entire lives.

As Christians we understand that Christ can affect great change – bad habits can be dropped, good ones picked up. Now science is helping us understand some of the “hows”, and there is overwhelming evidence that meditation can have a positive effect on how we feel and how our brains function.

The Science

The touted benefits of meditation are staggering. Research has shown that meditation:

  • Changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain. (1)
  • Strengthens the neural circuitry responsible for concentration, memory, and insight. (2)
  • Shrinks the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with stress and fear, and enlarges the hippocampus, a part of the brain that controls memory. (3)
  • Provides measurable increases in memory. (4)
  • Reduces loneliness and boosts the immune system. (5)
  • Provides chronic pain and stress relief by “turning down the volume.” (6)
  • The benefits obtained during meditation extend into our normal lives. (7)

Even the marines are expanding their use of meditation due to the exceptional results it’s provided. (8)

With modern meditation emerging from eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, many Christians understandably wonder if they can benefit from meditation or if it’s even compatible with the Bible. Good news, it is! But to understand how, we must understand what meditation is.

What is meditation?

In a broad sense meditation is a state of extreme focus or mindfulness. While there are many types of meditation, not all of which are compatible with Christianity, all attempt to limit distraction and obtain a state of single-mindedness. Meditation is a routine or practice that one commits to for a small segment of time but that has positive effects on activities throughout the day. Heightened mindfulness is often associated with spiritual practices, in part because of the calm, confidence, joy, and gratitude it can bring. If you’ve ever gotten anxious or stressed and found relief in a moment to yourself, a deep breath, or a prayer to God, imagine how meditation can help sustain that peace even further. Meditation is a practice that can and should be used when communing with our Creator.

Most types of meditation have four elements in common:

  • A quiet location. Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. This can be particularly helpful for beginners.
  • A specific, comfortable posture. Meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking, or in other positions.
  • A focus of attention. The meditator may focus on a mantra (a specially chosen word or set of words, such as a portion of scripture), an object, or the sensations of the breath. Some forms of meditation involve paying attention to whatever is the dominant content of consciousness.
  • An open attitude. Having an open attitude during meditation means letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them. When the attention goes to distracting or wandering thoughts, they are not suppressed; instead, the meditator gently brings attention back to the focus. The emphasis is a positive one. In some types of meditation, the meditator learns to “observe” thoughts and emotions while meditating. (9)

The subject of your focus is up to you. The marine’s meditation program uses a completely secular type of mediation where the participants sit and simply focus their attention on the point of contact between their feet and the ground. You can focus your attention on any sensation, whether your breath or the great awe you feel during watching a sunset. Research has revealed that slight differences in meditation strengthen different areas of the mind.

Varying types of mediation are distinguished primarily by the subject of thought. Compassion mediation, which is a Tibetan Buddhist practice, has been shown to substantially increase the feelings of love, compassion, and empathy of the meditator more than generic meditations. Though traditionally a Buddhist practice, thinking compassionate thoughts lines up with admonitions in the Bible to think about what is good, noble, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Also, meditation on God’s word and works is written about all throughout the Psalms.

Meditation in the Bible

There is moderate discussion as to whether Jesus meditated. The practice was common in his day and he would have come in contact with it. If he did practice it, however, he doesn’t call it meditation. Some speculate that his 40-day fast and long prayers spent with God included meditating. Many who view prayer as speaking directly to God view meditation as the listening half of the conversation. At the very least, meditation quiets the anxious activity of our human minds and allows more room for insight into what God may be saying.

The meditation that’s repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament is usually some type of reflection on God and his beauty – almost as an act of worship. Joshua was commanded to meditate on Moses’ book of law “day and night” (Joshua 1:8), much like we are commanded to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In Genesis 24:63, Isaac “went out to the field to meditate” suggesting it was a deliberate activity. Then, in Psalms, David repeatedly references “a meditation of my heart” (19:14) and meditation as a source of insight (119:99). Thus the Bible provides us many examples of how meditation can play an important role in the believer’s life.

To relate my personal experiences as a Christian who meditates, I feel that the worry, stress, and anxiety of life, the desires of the flesh, and the voices that make sin so tempting, have become quieter with practice. Meditation helps me hear God’s truth and voice in my life. I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to follow God’s voice when I can hear it more clearly!

How can I begin to meditate?

Meditation works best when practiced regularly as a part of a daily routine. You can meditate with varying frequency throughout the day or varying lengths of time, but the more you meditate the more effects you’ll see. Early morning or late at night work best for me, but sometimes even meditating during a 10 min break can quickly relieve stress at work. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

Set aside 10 minutes to an hour, and set a timer.

  • A quiet location free of distraction is key when beginning, as your mind will provide plenty of distraction.
  • Choose a comfortable position that’s not too comfortable — you don’t want to fall asleep. I like sitting somewhere with an upright posture. Find a position that helps keep your mind alert.
  • Choose the focus of your attention. To begin I would recommend an easy, specific sensation: a part of your body, your breath, a point on a wall. Your mind has the momentum of a freight train and slowing it becomes easier when the focus is simple. Choosing a Bible verse right away might foster wandering thoughts and can make the initial focusing even more difficult. Start with something simple.
  • As you focus your mind, other thoughts, sensations, and feeling will interject (as they always do). How you handle them is key. Treat unwanted thoughts as Jesus treats the sinful – with acknowledgement, understanding, and forgiveness. You don’t want to fight them, as the conflict will only create more difficulty. Simply return your focus to your meditation. Interjecting thoughts or pains will gradually diminish, focus will become easier, and you will experience greater control over your mind.
  • When your timer goes off gracefully return yourself to your situation.

Some sessions seem impossibly frustrating and you may wonder if you’re doing it right. Some will impress you with peace. As with any training or rehabilitation, progress takes time. Eventually you can bring the focus acquired during meditation with you and meditate “all day” as David proclaims. Be patient with yourself. As you grow in confidence you can tackle greater meditative challenges and truly reflect on God’s will in your life with greater clarity.

Note: We were pleased to feature this article by Thomas Fitch, a guest blogger.

References:

Originally posted 2013-02-13 22:52:33.

Wilderness Time for Whole Health

“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – Luke 3:2
“…Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness..” Luke 4:1

Without reading too much into or over-spiritualizing the matter, I believe there’s a lot of truth and evidence to substantiate the idea that time in the wilderness is important for whole health (spirit, soul, and body).  In modern and ancient times, the wilderness has been both an alluring and frightening place for civilized people.  Lack of human presence and technological manipulation make the wilderness simultaneously a place of freedom and unpredictability, of rich abundance and lack.  In the Bible, trust in God typically goes hand-in-hand with less trust in civilization (the works of man) and more trust in the generosity of God as evidenced in his creation.  Today more people than ever in the history of the world are living in cities (with 81% of its citizens living in cities or suburbs, the U.S. has one of the largest urban populations in the world) which makes spending time in the wilderness more important than ever.  

The Mental and Spiritual Benefits of Time in the Wilderness: Adam, Enoch, Elijah, Elisha, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus – all spent time in the wilderness to clearly hear the voice of God.  God reveals his truth to us through his spoken word.  In order to receive his living word we have to listen, but the constant sights and sounds of civilization make that difficult to do.  Unless we very intentionally make space and set boundaries, we are almost constantly bombarded by television, internet, radio, billboards, magazines, imposing architecture, pictures/paintings, i-phones and more.  These sights and sounds are incredibly intrusive and almost inescapable, making it difficult to listen for or hear the still small voice of God.  Even when we go to church on Sunday, there’s often loud music, flashy powerpoint slides, and monologue-style sermons that don’t give us the chance to dialogue and reflect on the truth.  Making the time to get away from it all, with a day-trip to the woods or even to a quiet park, can help provide the space needed to hear from God (you might want to leave your smart phone at home or in the car). Time in the wilderness can also provide the opportunity to meditate, listen to your heart, and gather your own thoughts.  Meditation (thoughtful and peaceful reflection) is scientifically shown to help reduce stress levels and can help to more fully and thoughtfully engage the world.

The Physical Health Benefits of Time in the Wilderness:  Time spent outdoors, away from the city, is less toxic, less busy, and provides the opportunity to re-connect to life.  The evidence that spending time in the wilderness (or outdoors in general) is good for health is growing:  

  • Sunshine causes the skin to produce tons of vitamin D which helps protect against cancer and ensures proper cell function.  With over 81% of us living in cities, working indoors, it’s not surprising that about 50% of Americans are vitamin D deficient and that cancer rates are on the rise.  More time in the sun is also connected with lower rates of depression.
  • Fresh air is good for the lungs and cellular health, but breathing forest air is even healthier.  Several recent studies found that participants who spent several days in densely forested wilderness areas had an enhanced immune system and lower stress levels.  These benefits lasted for about a month. 
  • Connecting to the earth’s surface on sand, grass, or dirt may lower stress levels, thin the blood, and provide a unique source of anti-oxidants.  When we’re indoors and in civilization, however, we’re rarely grounded.
  • The wilderness or outdoors also provide the best places to get exercise.  Running and performing other exercises on varying terrain activates more muscles than what’s activated by monotonous exercise machines. The changing scenery experienced outside also helps take one’s mind off the pain of exercise and makes exercise more like play.

If you want better health, start by getting out where the wild things are (the word wilderness comes from the Old English words wild (animal) and ness (place).  In the beginning God said that it was all good!  We were made to depend on the good gifts in God’s creation.  We shouldn’t be surprised that our health is slipping when we’ve increasingly cut ourselves off from what is living.  Most importantly, how can we have true life when we don’t provide ourselves opportunities to hear the voice of God? “Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Originally posted 2013-01-15 04:34:00.

Connect to the Earth for Healing Energy…?!

If you opened this blog out of pure curiosity or skepticism about the title, that’s understandable. Connecting to the earth for “healing energy” sounds more like a belief from a New Age religion, than something that belongs to the realm of scientific discovery or that glorifies God as creator. When I first heard about the earth’s healing energy,  I too was skeptical, but it turns out that there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to support the idea that the earth’s electrical charge is important for the normal functioning of the human body (check out the references below).  As a result of society’s “advancements,” however, we’ve almost completely disconnected ourselves from this energy source and possibly damaged our health as a result.

Here’s how it’s thought to work: the earth’s surface is a vast source of free electrons, which have a negative electric charge. When we come into direct contact with the earth, such as by walking barefoot, those free electrons transfer to our bodies.  Once in our bodies, the electrons serve as anti-oxidants and blood thinners.  They serve as anti-oxidants by neutralizing excess positively charged Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that cause inflammation in the body.  Chronic inflammation is responsible or contributes to a number of health problems, including slow recovery time, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and aging.  The discovery of the role of inflammation and free radicals in the aging process is what prompted the recent anti-oxidant craze, and it turns out that simply being connected to the earth might be one of the best and more affordable sources of anti-oxidants.

Connecting to the earth, or what’s been called “grounding” or “earthing,” also attenuates the viscosity of the blood, or thins it.  It does so by decreasing the coagulation of red blood cells (RBC) through electric charge.  Pilot studies have found that when the body is grounded, the Zeta potential of red blood cells increases.  In other words, the number of negative charges on each RBC is increased, which causes the RBCs to separate from one another and flow in the blood stream individually and more freely.

Based on a growing number of studies, the other benefits of grounding may include: improved sleep, stress reduction, improved heart rate variability (an important status for cardiovascular health), reduction of symptoms of arthritis, and improved glucose regulation.

While I think it’s important to avoid targeting any one environmental factor as the primary cause of our society’s health problems, it seems that not connecting to the earth is one more way that we’ve cut ourselves off from the life-giving properties of God’s creation.  Thanks to rubber soles, modern construction practices, and the automobile, we almost entirely cut ourselves off from the earth’s supply of free electrons.  Have you ever walked barefoot in the grass or on the beach and obtained an amazing sense of relaxation and peaceful energy?  Perhaps those feelings have to do with the positive physiological effects of being grounded to the earth.  At this point in the research it isn’t known how much grounding is needed to obtain the benefits listed above, but it’s thought that even half an hour can help (but the more the better).  On your next walk, consider taking your rubber-soled shoes off and walking barefooted, or look into getting some shoes with leather soles (which nearly all soles used be made of 100 years ago) – they won’t block the flow of electricity like rubber soles will.

It turns out that God’s creation is beautifully complex, and we’re part of it.  We’ve tried to control it and manipulate it for our own purposes but doing so usually only results in more problems.  Like other creatures, we depend on light, air, food, sleep, movement, and electricity for health.  Our bodies contain a vast electrical system, from our brain and nervous system to the electrical charges on our Red Blood Cells.  If we want to have optimum health we have to discover how we’ve cut ourselves off from the gifts in God’s creation, whether it be from healthy food, sunlight, or the earth’s free electrons, and RECONNECT!

References: Earthing: The Health Implications of Reconnection the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface ElectronsEarthing, The Most Important Health Discovery Ever?

Originally posted 2012-11-07 20:16:00.

Backpacking for fitness, weight-loss, and stress relief

Backpacking is probably one of the best things you can do for your health. After going on an epic weekend backpacking trip in the Castle Crags Wilderness with some great friends, I was motivated to write this post. If you’ve never been backpacking before, a weekend trip is a great way to start out: It’s a short enough trip to easily pack for; most people can get the time off work, and it’s not too difficult to set a challenging, yet obtainable distance goal. Even if you don’t have all the gear, there’s likely an outdoor gear shop near you that rents everything you need. If you just haven’t been in a while, maybe it’s time to pull your backpack out of the garage and plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before.

While backpacking can be an extremely strenuous form of exercise, the scenery is so beautiful and the air so fresh that carrying a 30lb pack up thousands of feet can actually be fun. During my trek through the Castle Crags Wilderness with some friends, we came across a couple that was hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail extends from Mexico all the way to Canada, through the varied terrain of the West Coast. According to them, the first few days of their journey were the most difficult, but soon they stopped even noticing their packs were there. They quickly developed the strength and endurance needed to carry the extra weight. Actually, the greatest factor in the strenuousness of backpacking and the amount of energy expended is body weight. The great news for those packing a little extra weight around the mid section, however, is that backpacking requires a tremendous expenditure of calories, therefore causing weight loss. Depending on terrain, distance, and body weight, a backpacker will burn from 4,000 to 8,000 calories in a single day! If you add the calories burned from backpacking to those burned during activities around camp and by the body’s basic functions, a backpacker can easily lose two or more pounds of body fat in one day! Even more important than losing fat however, backpacking builds strength in the largest muscle group in the body, in the core, and in the upper-body.

While there are definitely anaerobic components of backpacking, which occur primarily during steep ascents, backpacking is mostly an aerobic activity that prompts the body to access fat stores for energy rather than glucose. As an aerobic activity, backpacking elevates the heart rate, strengthening the hearth and lungs, and promoting overall cardiovascular health. The advantage of backpacking over some other forms of cardiovascular exercise is that when you’re breathing a little harder and your lungs are expanding, you won’t be sucking smog; instead, every breath is filled entirely with fresh mountain air and the rejuvenating scent of the woods (Unless you’re at the end of the line hiking with a bunch of buddies, then it’s dust and body odor you’ll be smelling. But hey, that’s just more motivation to be in front!). Recent research even suggests that breathing forest air for several days can result in tremendous health benefits that last for up to a month (for more info, read my previous blog on “forest bathing”).

Besides the immediate fitness benefits of backpacking, there is nothing like sitting around the campfire after a successful day’s hike, visiting with good friends or family, then winding down for a well-earned night’s sleep. Relationships are the true building blocks of life, and what better way to get healthy – spirit, soul, and body – than to get outside with friends on a backpacking trip? Backpacking can also be a great time to mediate, pray, or reflect with nothing in the background but the sounds of birds chirping, the wind blowing through tall trees, or the nearby stream cascading over granite rocks. God made everything you need to be healthy, but most of it’s out your front door! For my backpacking trip check list and preparations tips click here.

Originally posted 2011-08-23 07:16:00.

Peace – healthy for your heart and mind

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” –Philippians 4:6-7

In Western culture we have a tendency to make sharp distinctions between the physical and spiritual world; yet, God’s word and experience teach that body, soul, and spirit are uniquely intertwined. Often the spiritual world has a greater impact on our physical reality than we realize. Our level of trust on God can have a direct effect on our health. Recent research has confirmed what people have always known, that psychological stressors affect physical health in a drastic way. Psychological stress can result from major life events such as a divorce or a loss in the family, repeated daily stressors (like work or school), and negative interpersonal relationships. What is stressful to one person, however, may or may not be stressful to another, because stress is largely based on individual perceptions.

While stressors don’t necessarily have spiritual causes, they often can: unforgiveness, hate, fear, and pride are a few examples. Yet, no matter the stressor, it can and should be dealt with in a spiritual way (physical coping methods like exercise, adequate rest, and healthy eating play important but secondary roles). According to Philippians 4:6-7, if we take our stressful situations to God, he will give us peace. The one condition is that we do it with thanksgiving. Thankfulness requires faith that God is good despite the circumstances, it also promotes a positive focus on the good things God is doing or has already done, rather than on what is causing anxiety in the moment. If we approach our Father with this attitude, he promises that his peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus!

The protection of our hearts and minds with God’s peace becomes especially important when we consider the researched consequences of anxiety and stress. One study looked at daily stressors experienced in the work place and found a direct correlation, independent of other factors, between long-term workplace stress and metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, obesity, and cardiovascular disease). [1] Another meta-study found that stress greatly weakens the immune system, significantly lowering blood levels of important T and B Cells (cells that fight against viruses, toxins, and cancer). [2] Also, multiple studies have demonstrated correlations between long-term stress and psychological disorders.[3] Looking at these studies as a whole, it becomes clear that stress may be one of the most significant factors of poor health.

So, while exercise and good nutrition are important components of vitality, a healthy heart and mind depend on the peace of God. The spiritual laws of his kingdom have the greatest bearing on reality, and according to God’s word, “…the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

[1] British Medical Journal
[2] Psychosomatic Medicine
[3] American Journal of Community Psychology

Originally posted 2011-03-29 15:28:00.

Re-Perceive Stress to Lower Risk of Disease and Death

The Perception of Stress as a Factor of Disease

perception of stress disease factor mortality cuaseIncorrect knowledge is often worse than no-knowledge at all, but it’s the risk we take in the pursuit of better living. This axiom couldn’t be more clearly demonstrated than by the insight I’ve recently gained that’s completely changed my way of thinking about stress and how it affects the human body. You see, I bought into the mainstream idea that mental stress is inherently unhealthy for the body. Well, I didn’t think mental stress was completely bad, all the time (I recognized it serves a purpose and is a normal part of life), but I was convinced that good health depends on eliminating as much stress as possible. I was shocked to learn that current research strongly indicates that it’s precisely the belief that stress is unhealthy for the body that makes stress so unhealthy!

Two Types of Responses to Stress: Threat or Challenge

Here I’ve been trying to be part of the solution to disease by telling people that stress causes disease (and therefore it should be avoided), but this advice was most likely just making things worse. It turns out, stress, in and of itself, isn’t harmful to our bodies. There are two primary ways that we can experience stress physiologically — psychologist call these two responses, threat or challenge responses. While there are overlaps in the way our body responds to what we perceive as a threat or challenge, there are also significant differences that can have a direct impact on our health.  

The primary difference between the two response types is that during a threat, the body begins to shutdown in order to protect itself: the blood vessels constrict, cutting off blood flow, and the heart becomes less efficient. By contrast, during a challenge response the blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles. Whether the mind solicits a threat or challenge response is determined by one’s beliefs, experiences, and perceptions relative to a given situation. 

The Harvard Social Stress Test and the 30,000 Person National Health Interview Analysis

At this point you might be thinking, “What’s new? We already knew that perception affects stress.” The difference is that the effects of perception on stress were previously always studied in regards to external conditions, not to the perception of stress itself. Two recent studies provide compelling evidence that how we think about stress can cause an automatic trigger of the threat or challenge response, regardless of the external circumstances.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard and UC San Francisco performed a social stress test comparing a test group to a control group of volunteer participants. As part of the study, all of the participants in both groups were required to submit to a simulated stressful interview situation, in which they performed a 5-minute presentation while two evaluators provided negative feedback. After giving the presentation, participants were required to complete a series of analytical questions. Before the interview, the test group was told that stress was not harmful and that it would actually help them perform the presentation. The control group wasn’t given any instructions. When the mental and physical responses of both groups were assessed after the interview, the test group had a significantly healthier cardiovascular response and a more positive perception of their completion of their presentation than the control group.  

In another study, researchers analyzed survey answers and fatality rates from about 30,000 people over 8-years.  Unfortunately, stress had a significant affect on the health of a large percentage of the population but only for those who believed it would! The analysis found that those who experienced stress in the previous year and answered the questioned, “Do you believe stress has a negative impact on health?” with a “yes,” had a 43% increase in the risk for early mortality! By contrast, there was no correlation between stress levels and early mortality among those who did not believe that stress has a negative impact on health!

The Take Away: What we see from these studies is that believing stress is bad for health can promote an automatic physiological response that negatively affects cardiovascular health and can even lead to early death. While the implications of this study are tragic for many, they are also exciting. It’s amazing to see how well God designed our bodies. So much of the disease we face as humans is merely “user error.” Our bodies are designed with a built in mechanism to help us rise to the challenge and overcome difficult situations. If we maintain this positive, faith-filled attitude and believe that physiological stress can actually be a good thing, then many of us will be well on our way to better health!

References: “Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and
Cognitive Responses to Stress;”
Harvard University; Kelly McGonigal: “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” TedTalk; “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality,” Health Psychology; “The Upside of Stress,” Kelly McGonigal.
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Originally posted 2013-10-03 13:15:58.

Take Control of Your Mornings

“The early bird gets the worm.” “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Although sayings about mornings have become cliché, for the most part they are true. For many people the morning is the worst time of the day. They hit the snooze multiple times, they realize they’re late, they run into the shower, and take off for work with no breakfast. Realizing they have missed breakfast leaves two options: go hungry until lunch or grab fast food on the way to work. These habits breed more bad habits and lead to poor health. Here are my tips to help you take control of your morning:

  • Get quality sleep. This is the most important piece to creating your perfect morning, because it determines how you perform as soon as you wake-up. For detailed information about creating the perfect sleep environment, check out Amanda DeWitt’s articles on sleep. They’re informative and will give you the tools to become a sleep ninja!
  • Use a wake-up light. A wake-up light doesn’t guarantee a great morning, but my personal experience is that using one provides a great jump-start to the day. After reading about wakeup lights and being fascinated about their benefits, my beautiful girlfriend Jenny got me one for Christmas. To many people, a wake-up light is just an overpriced alarm clock. To me, it is much, much more. Different brands vary in details, but all wake-up lights use light to wake you up instead of abrupt, loud noise.  Light alarm clocks help reproduce the effects of waking up to the sunrise every morning. My wake up light by Philips begins with a very dimly lit light 30 minutes before my alarm time. The light slowly gets brighter until the clock reaches the time I’ve set my alarm for.  The light then becomes fully lit and the sound of birds chirping begins to play. It is a true bliss to wake-up to every morning.
  • Wake up at the same time every day. Your circadian rhythm, also known as your biological clock, doesn’t understand a five-day work week or workout programs. It wants to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If you workout Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, wake up at the same time on Tuesday and Thursday instead of sleeping in. Use that time in the morning to read, plan meals for the week or cook healthy meals in bulk.
  • Drink a big glass of water. There’s really nothing magical about drinking water in the morning. I recommend it because most people are chronically under-hydrated, and starting your day off with a big glass of water helps meet your hydration requirement for the day. Make sure you drink half your body weight in ounces per day – if you weight 180 lbs., drink at least 90 ounces of water a day; if you weigh 200, drink 100. Easy math for hydration success!
  • EAT BREAKFAST! I doubt I have to tout the importance of eating breakfast; everyone has heard the benefits over and over again. Eat breakfast every day; no exceptions. If you find it hard to cook a healthy breakfast every day, use your rest days to cook in bulk and simply heat up your leftovers on workout days.  Breakfast provides the crucial energy you need for optimal brain function!  And, as always, avoid the sugar cereals and fast food.  
  • Eat breakfast standing. This may be my most unique tip. While you sleep, the discs in your spine absorb water and swell. This is great for decompression, but can set you up for injury if you undergo strenuous exercise first thing in the morning. Standing while you are eating breakfast or reading the paper helps bring your discs back to normal size much faster than sitting. According to the legendary low-back expert Stuart McGill, it takes the average person an hour to lose excess water in their discs in the morning. Standing as opposed to sitting can cut that time in half to 30 minutes.
  • Practice gratefulness. While you are getting ready for your day, think about all the wonderful things in your life. I have a practice of writing a list of 10 things I am grateful for every night before I go to sleep. This helps me relax and rid my mind of anything negative I encountered that day. While I’m getting ready in the morning I go through things I am grateful for in my mind. Try thinking about how blessed you are to have your family, house, food and car. Prime your day with gratitude.

Hopefully these tips help you maximize your mornings. Take control of your mornings; don’t let them control you.

Reference: Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Stuart McGill

Originally posted 2013-09-16 15:07:54.

Exercise and Stress Reduction

paddleboardersWith anxiety and depression cases reaching record numbers, society has an exploding mental health problem. Although an alarming amount of medications are prescribed to counter this problem, physicians overwhelmingly agree that a consistent exercise routine can be remarkably effective, significantly lowering feelings of anxiousness and despondency. If you suffer from chronic or periodic anxiety and depression, exercise can be a boon to your mental health.

If you consider fitness activity to be an exclusively physical endeavor, you may need to reconsider the mental benefits of exercise. Fitness is not only about your physique but is a holistic endeavor in which the physical and psychological components are inseparable. A body and mind working together in concert harmonize to bring about total health. A bout of exercise should ideally engage and stimulate your mind and body. So the next time you skip a workout, consider what your mind may be missing.

Depression and Anxiety Alleviation

If you suffer from depression and anxiety, exercise can provide significant relief. Consider the specifics of how exercise can help you feel better:

  • Activating key neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters such as Serotonin and Norepinephrine are activated and released, increasing neural communication and facilitating the building of new pathways. These newly-formed avenues allow your mind to break away from cyclical thinking patterns.
  • Increasing blood circulation and oxygenation. An augmented flow of blood to the brain provides it with more oxygen, bolstering cognitive function and stability. Mental processes become more efficient and require less energy.
  • Promoting relaxation. Muscle fibers enter exercise sessions with tightness and inflexibility. Exercise warms the muscle fiber, increasing elasticity and allowing the muscle to stretch. This increase in length decreases the amount of tension and contributes to muscle comfort. This relaxation has an isolated effect on the muscle, but also has a generalized effect on the body, causing the mind itself to feel relief.
  • Regaining psychological and emotional control. Anxiety and depression can throttle you and make you feel helpless and ravaged. A vortex of worry can take your mind by force, ravaging it and leaving you weak and vulnerable. Exercise provides you the opportunity to take charge of something, namely your fitness level. You can set goals, work toward them, see progress, and ultimately capture the objective. With this success you can regain your confidence, ultimately taking back your mind and thoughts. Your command of this area will bring with it a sense of accomplishment, improving your confidence and overall well-being.

Making Your Workout Therapeutic

Here are some suggestions for gleaning mental benefit from your workout routine:

  • Get outside. Fresh air, scenic views, and sunshine can be refreshing to the body and the mind.
  • Integrate basic movements. Fluid and simple motions can relax the mind and soothe the emotions, so choose to incorporate basic activities that involve movements that repeat themselves. Some ideas include biking, hiking, walking, running, kayaking, paddle boarding, and swimming.
  • Dig deep. Bringing a high degree of intensity to your workout will give you a sense of accomplishment and help you feel confident.

References: Health Fitness Instructor’s HandbookNSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training

Originally posted 2013-08-29 09:00:54.