Thursday, March 17, 2011

Muscle Your Way Into Lifelong Brain Health

Move over, Mr. Tiny Pants!
     (5/17/12) Let's all drag out our inner Schwarzeneggers and say to ourselves, affectionately but sternly:
"I am going to pump you up!"    
     Weight training doesn't just give you a toned, shapely body. It also offers powerful protection against Alzheimer's, according to a new study.
     The recently released MRI evidence is too dazzling to ignore: Strength training vividly lights up areas of the brain responsible for problem-solving, decision-making and memory. It can can prevent or delay cognitive decline, and even reverse it. Plus: You'll feel like Wonder Woman!

There's a "pressing" need for resistance training.
       Believe me, working out with weights doesn't have to be a chore. Once you get into it, you can almost feel your body chemistry changing. Your awareness seems to blossom. Everything just feels right, as if you had been totally realigned. Don't picture a grunting, grimacing, screaming-with-pain situation, if that's not your style (usually it is my style). If you choose, it can be relaxing, almost like a meditation. You emerge from your workout in a shimmer. Suddenly, everything seems more manageable. You feel kind of sexy, too.
Staring down your enemy (flabby brain) is kind of sexy.
     In my experience, weight training is a very effective outlet for anxiety and anger, and an antidote to feeling generally tired, overwhelmed or unwell. I consciously use negative feelings as fuel: I push, pull, yank and scream out my rage or pain. Very cleansing.
    Weight training helps protect you from osteoporosis, preserves your muscle mass, (which will otherwise decline steadily as you get older), aids in maintaining your desired weight, and gives you an overall sense of confidence and well-being.


    More than 30 years ago, my mother gave me a set of three-pound dumbbells. She says she didn't even know what they were, but thought they looked interesting. I had recently begun jogging, but I was having trouble sustaining my motivation. I desperately needed something to help with my mood.
    Poor Mamacita never dreamed she was unleashing a weight-lifting maniac. Before long, I was dancing around the house day and night (wearing the radio headset she had also given me), flinging those dumbbells around. 
The weights made me aware of each muscle. They felt so good!
     I was doing it to lash back at my unhappiness, for catharsis, for diversion and because it felt good. The music made me do it! 
    I did it until it hurt, and then I kept on doing it. Pretty soon, the pain became pleasure. It was the first time in years that that anything besides alcohol had energized me.
    (An Oct. 23, 2013, article documents how music increases workout intensity, decreases oxygen utilization and enhances enjoyment.

    The next thing I knew, I had killer arms, a flat stomach and a strong back. It seemed to happen so suddenly -- like magic. A man I used to date said, "You look like Robocop's girlfriend."
I'll be right there, honey!
    Guys half my age at Blockbuster Music were staring at my arms, saying "Whoa!" and flexing their own biceps so we could compare sizes. ("Ha, ha, you little twerp!")
    This was way before I embarked on anything so formalized as "weight training" (and it was when guys half my age were teenagers...the good old days. Now, guys half my age have a wife and five kids). (But they're still twerps in the bicep department.)
    We've known for years that cardiovascular exercise -- such as jogging, brisk walking and biking -- is arguably the best thing you can do to maintain good brain function.

    The weight-lifting study released late last month, which corroborates the findings of  research completed in 2010, suggests that resistance training might have benefits that are just as important. 

    Frankly, I didn't believe it until I saw the actual MRI photos, which clearly show increased activity in three areas of the cerebral cortex that involve cognitive behavior and what is known as executive function. 
Have you ever had a sparkling brain? 
    “Executive function involves complex thinking,” explains study coordinator Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, who is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “It’s your ability to make decisions, multi-task and to plan.” 
    ( An earlier study led by Liu-Ambrose showed a once-weekly, hour-long program of resistance training resulted in fewer doctors visits, less medication and a lower overall health care costs for women aged 65 to 75. There's no reason to think that it would do any less for younger women -- and men.)
    When I'm jogging, I have a perception that my brain is being both enlivened and challenged. I haven't felt that sort of brain involvement with weights -- what I feel is an intense and quite thrilling sensation that my muscles are doing what they were Born to Do. But the study showing cognitive enhancement is impossible to ignore.
I prefer the cute, little weights -- the pastel, girly-man variety!
     So now I have one more reason to keep doing my weight workouts. As always, I am using visualization: I imagine, as I experience the "resistance" in resistance training, that my brain is being flooded with protective chemicals. Close your eyes and see the sparkle.
    In the early 1980s, when I got involved, weight training wasn't a part of the culture the way it is now. I had no guidance, and it never occurred to me that I needed any. The first time I picked up the weights my mother gave me, they felt good. It just felt right -- I was surprised -- to raise and lower them, to swing them from side to side, to push and pull them at various angles.  I had a chart of the body's muscles, and it helped me to visualize which ones I was developing.


    I highly recommend having access to something like this, or even putting it on the wall. Our musculature is beautiful. When you see what you look like under your skin, it illuminates your exercise experience.
    For  a few years, even as I was getting fully entrenched into a jogging routine, I also danced around with those three-pound dumbbells to some good '80s alternative music (Oingo Boingo, David Bowie, INXS, Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran, The Clash, etc.). I rocked the Casbah, and I rocked it good. It did wonders for my physique.
    Then, in about 1985, I saw an ad for one of those weight machines that are so common now. The "home gym" was a new concept.  I was blown away by the idea that I could have my very own workout room.
I love this machine.

   The Weider weight "system" was the best $258 I have ever spent. It is not a flimsy piece of junk -- it is heavy, solid cast iron, firmly bolted into place. It came with an exercise guide that included photos and instructions (now that we have this newfangled "Internet" thing, you can find much more detailed training instructions and videos online). 
    The knowledge that I had a "200-pound weight stack" at my disposal gave me a mind-boggling new sense of my potential. Maybe I would become Miss Bodybuilding Universe! In the past, I had harbored fantasies that were more outrageous (like having YOU reading my blog), and some of them had come true.
Yank out all your anxiety and build up your beauty!
    In my big old house, I had a large, well-lit dining room that I didn't use. My boyfriend assembled the weight machine in the center of that room. I put up a mirror, laid out my free weights on a long, low table (by then, I'd gotten five- and ten-pound dumbells as well) and also brought in a radio/cassette player. I later bought some resistance tubing with comfortable handles, which provided an enjoyable, meditative way to wind down. (Perhaps the tubing is a less-intimidating way to launch a resistance-training regimen,  and it does give you quick, gratifying results.) Unlike the woman pictured below, I stand up, so I can pull back farther.
The tubing works your arms, chest and back. Turn on some music!
     I  fell in love with my machine. Just owning it was a very cool feeling. I was sure that even if for some reason I could never use it again, I'd keep it as a piece of sculpture. Its mere presence made me feel like a BadAss Woman!

    I was ecstatic that I could work out whenever I wanted. If I had ten minutes while the rotini cooked, or until I had to leave for my mammogram, I'd jump onto that baby and do a few sets of bench presses. The girl below looks pretty serene, but I prefer to add some weight and scream my brains out:
With the bench press, you can forcefully KILL negative feelings.
     I could do it in privacy (no fear of looking stupid, sweaty or ugly). No need to wear the "proper clothes," or any clothes at all.  No need to drive anywhere. I was in charge of the temperature and the music. I removed a stunning antique chandelier and installed a ceiling fan. I had wooden shutters that allowed me to look out at the lovely sky without anyone being able to see inside. My kitchen and bathroom were right there. Perfecto!
    It gave me a feeling of liberation that was probably way out of proportion to its real import, but I feel the same way all these years later.
I was never this hot, but I did pretty well.
    A concept soon evolved in me that my body is a "project." It is mine, and I can do whatever I want with it. It is a work in progress, which is a reflection of the beautiful foods I choose to eat, the nutritional supplements I take, plus my jogging, weight training and stretching. I was, and still am, captivated by this feeling of autonomy.
   Take ownership of your body, and make it into your own work of art! It is your right to choose what "style" of art it will be, of course. But when we become more conscious of our power to mold ourselves, it's easier to take control of our choices.
The shoulder press builds formidable deltoids.
     Working with weights, or "resistance training," is gaining in prominence as a key to physical and brain health.

    It probably appears either very intimidating or horribly boring to those who have never tried it. My advice, as with jogging, is to start slowly and have low expectations. I think you will soon begin to feel a flood of endorphins in your bloodstream, and you'll sense the golden glow in your muscles, and you'll develop a clear concept of how they all work in concert. We are such ravishing machines!

The leg press is a magical booty booster!
    It helps to have a good role model when you launch into such a challenging project. I bought an excellent book by professional bodybuilder Anja Langer, "Body Flex-Body Magic," which is filled with clear instructions and gorgeous pictures of her. It is still in print, and I highly recommend it.
     In this large, thick book, Anja gives thoughtful, detailed tips for every level of fitness and includes directions for using either free weights or a weight machine. The photos of this lovely girl -- ranging from her extremely bulked-up competitive days to her exquisitely toned post-professional life -- are really inspiring.
Isn't she pretty?
She was very ripped during her competitive era.
    You can put a lot of time into weight training, but you can get excellent benefits from 30-minute workouts just two or three times a week. The changes you will experience in your body and mood are reward enough, but now that we know how much it helps our brains, the motivation is greater than ever.
    Just don't get carried away!!!
Carried away.
    Do this after your workouts. It's a treat. It relaxes everything, and hits those trigger points. I am obsessed with my Rumble Roller. I got the longer blue one. The black one made me scream so much, the neighbors called the police. But I'm a bony old lady, so men shouldn't be deterred from the more macho (pure, delicious hell!) model.

Jogging is my favorite thing. It has saved my life, such as it is.

But first, there were the eating disorders and alcoholism, which were a colorful phase. 

Now, I'm addicted to vitamins. I take more than Oz and Weil combined.