Be Your Fittest . Exercise is essential for optimal health. If body parts don’t move appropriately, how can we possibly function normally? Our body needs to be like a flowing river and not a stagnant pond. Do you feel stiff? Here are some tips from Guy Ashburner (on behalf of the osteopathic profession) to help you feel good instead!

We humans are the most static of the mammals. We could learn a lot from them, and let movement of the body drive our health. Let exercise be your drug, and get high on those feel-good endorphins!

It’s important to remember that exercise needs to be appropriate to one’s age, state of health and goals in life. As we age, the body tissues become less flexible. It’s therefore best to begin exercising gradually, increasing to a level that does not overstrain the heart and lungs. Middle-aged or older persons are advised to see a medical doctor or osteopath before starting an exercise programme.

If you don’t like the idea of exercise, try one of the following to kick-start your physiology. All involve minimal effort!

SOME WAYS TO START OFF

Buy a stationary bike. Cycle 5 minutes every day, 7 days a week, for a month. Then increase to 10 minutes on the second month. By the end of month 2 your biking will have become a habit – and once exercise becomes a habit, the battle is all but won! Now increase by 5 minutes every month until you are doing between 15 and 40 minutes (or more) a day. You will feel great! Cycling is like sprinting, but without the impact on your joints. It will build strength and flexibility in all the lower limb muscles and help prevent wear and tear on the knee and hip joints. It will also loosen up your spine and shoulders – all this in the comfort of your own home, and it’s cheaper than gym membership. Watch TV or listen to some motivational music as you pedal. You don’t have to worry about the weather, and because it is so quick and easy it won’t interfere with your work or social commitments. Initially it’s more important to build up the duration of the exercise than the intensity. You are not in training for the Argus! But keep it up and who knows, you may decide to progress into the great outdoors eventually.

Walking is a good gentle exercise. If you have time pressures, say to yourself: ‘I am going to make time once a week, say on a Friday morning, for myself.’ Walk consistently every week, even if it’s only once a week, and you will soon feel the benefit. This may well increase your desire to walk on another day.

Running is great exercise. Invest in a good pair of running shoes – these make all the difference. Start slowly, with a maximum frequency of twice a week, and on non-consecutive days. (I think it’s important to pick days that offer the least social excuses – so let’s make Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday our running days!) Never run on consecutive days, no matter how fit you are – it’s counter-productive. Your body needs time to recover and then build new muscle tissue from the exercise stimulus. You will gradually become stronger and fitter every time you run.

POSTURE

Poor posture can result in poor circulation and weak muscles, leading to backache, headache and many other distressing symptoms. Good posture includes knowing the best way to stand, walk, sit and rise from a chair, how to lift heavy objects, the best work positions for different jobs, and how to relax. For instance, the most relaxed and least pressured position for the spine is lying down on your back with your feet raised on a cushion or stool with the knees at 90o. Do this for 10 minutes every day, after strenuous activity, or when you feel stiff and sore.

One of the best posture training programmes is the Alexander technique. Many actors, actresses, dancers and musicians do this training to enable them to maintain more relaxed control of their bodies while performing what is very demanding work. Learning the Alexander technique involves one-to-one teaching. Posture training is also available as part of yoga training, Tai Chi, and the Feldenkrais method.

DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING

The diaphragm is the large muscle that separates the abdomen from the thorax (chest) and is the primary muscle used in breathing. It is also the main engine of the low-pressure system of the body – in other words, it aids in setting up a pressure gradient between the abdominal and chest cavity, and helps drainage of blood and lymph back to the chest cavity from the legs and abdomen. Diaphragmatic breathing (stomach breathing) also massages and pumps your internal organs such as the heart, liver, spleen and digestive organs (including the colon), keeping them toned and ensuring they get a healthy blood supply and drainage. Diaphragmatic breathing is also known to reduce stress and anxiety, and is necessary to maintain good posture.

As it’s the most natural way to breathe, we automatically breathe through our diaphragm when we are born. As we grow older many of us change our pattern of breathing and start breathing through our chest.

Lie on your back. Place one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your chest. Then breathe and observe how your hands move. Only the hand on your abdomen should move. Take shallow breaths and don’t try and push your tummy out. Practice for 10 minutes every night for two months and your nervous system will adopt the new breathing.

STRETCHES

Why do you need to stretch?
Today’s lifestyle is much less active than the lifestyles of the past. We have become a very sedentary species! Sitting has become the most commonly performed action. When we sit with our knees bent, the hamstring muscles relax. These are in essence postural muscles responsible for controlling the strong quadriceps on the front of our legs. They need to remain in a state of constant readiness, called resting tone. If they are shortened for any length of time, receptors in the muscles called ‘muscle spindles’ send messages via the spine to reduce the resting tone length.

This is why it’s difficult to stand up after you have been seated for any length of time – at a desk or in a car, plane, train or sofa. The muscles have become shortened, and stretching helps to re-set the resting tone to be longer.

Stretching is a great way to limit pain by keeping the muscles flexible and relaxed. If done regularly it can prevent the build-up of muscle tension that leads to pain, postural problems and joint restriction. Don’t attempt stretches if you suffer from significant pain or disc injury. If you are concerned about this seek advice from an osteopath, biokinetisist or physiotherapist.

SLEEP

Never violate Mother Nature’s laws, or your health will pay the price sooner or later. This applies to exercise, sleep, diet and life in general.

Aim to get 7 – 9 hours of refreshing sleep a night without feeling ‘hung over’. Sleep is an essential part of healing. Many of the body’s restorative processes take place at night. Without adequate sleep, it is difficult to achieve normal physiology. Eliminate caffeine and alcohol, both of which interfere with sleep. Get up at the same time every morning to promote healthy circadian rhythms.

DIET

I recommend organic food sources to my patients and suggest that they avoid soy, milk, sugar and processed foods.

Eat organic food so that your body isn’t poisoned by the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides being pumped into conventionally produced meat and vegetables.

‘Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine your food.’ Hippocrates
As an osteopath I take a keen interest in what my patients eat. Frequently symptoms can be linked to diet, and sound nutritional advice can improve health, stamina and well-being.

SUPPLEMENTS

There is no substitute for a good diet – there is no point in taking supplements if you haven’t got the basic diet right! Avoid synthetic supplements, as they can be harmful to your health. I recommend omega-3 fish oils and probiotics , together with a non-synthetic multivitamin with a strong vitamin B complex. These will be more than sufficient for a basic foundation for good health.

What investment will help you fight disease better than any drug, enable you to think more clearly, give you energy, help you sleep better, lengthen your lifespan, and cost you virtually nothing? Think about it … exercise. Now there’s a good deal!