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Monday, December 21, 2009

New Year's resolutions... why wait?

As 2010 approaches, many of us are ready to make New Year’s resolutions. Some of the most popular resolutions have been to make a commitment to fitness, stop smoking, and lose weight. But times are changing, and so do the resolutions. Now, despite economic difficulties, and may be because of them, more people are resolving to change their lifestyle, enjoy life more, and devote more quality time to their family. In short, many people are deciding to have a less stressful life, and also that less is more.

In reality, 50% of those who start an exercise program drop out within 6 months (or much less...) and their treadmills become dust collectors; too many lost pounds are rapidly regained, and cigarettes continue to be a big seller. And soon after you enjoy a few days of the rest, daily stresses resurface. So how do you succeed?

Don’t try to make too many changes. Identify the issues most important to you, and concentrate on the top two. For many, this translates into increasing exercise, and managing stress.

Exercise: For beginners, it is extremely important to make realistic goals. Trying for a six minute mile on the first day is not realistic and potentially dangerous. Cardiovascular exercise is the most important, with stretching and moderate muscle strengthening next.

Start exercising slowly. Gradually increase the intensity and duration in small increments until a relatively high level of exercise can be tolerated. Even if you are a regular exerciser and took a “holiday break,” restart at a lower level, and progressively return to your usual level. If you’re sedentary or over 35 years old, or are not known to be in excellent health, see your health care provider before strenuous exercise.

Stress: What is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Stress is best defined as a situation which requires a behavioral adjustment (Dr. Herbert Benson, Mind/Body Medical Institute). Stress increases the body's adrenalin production, and with it physiologic changes occur, including a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. This was the flight-or-fight response of the cave man, frequently unsuitable for dealing with “modern” stress. Some stress is important as a motivator for daily function and long-term achievement, but excess stress takes away from life’s enjoyment and productivity, and can make hypertension and other medical conditions permanent.

The Relaxation Response is an effective antidote to stress, which can be learned and practiced by almost anyone. It can be elicited by many techniques, including meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation. All techniques involve a brief, intense focusing of attention, and the passive disregard of everyday thoughts. For a good example look at the blog Stress, Relaxation and the Mind-Body Connection, on the left hand column (September 2009).

There is a wonderful synergism between exercise and stress management. With regular exercise, the body produces its “relaxation hormones,” endorphins; and with relaxation management, the likelihood to succeed in exercise increases remarkably.

People who exercise regularly and practice stress management say that, to them, these habits have become an addiction. What a great “addiction” to have…

Twitter / Dr. Staw