Routing Out of the Rut

2014-06-20_21-14-17_949 Routing Out of the Rut

Routines have value, as they can protect good habits and their associated benefits. However, sometimes schedules get disrupted, and it is like battling ocean tides to pull effective practices back in line. This is what has happened since we’ve had two children graduate from college, another one is living at another campus, and our youngest is on summer break keeping busy with tennis and video games before summer school reins him into a schedule around mid-July.

Somehow, we just can’t seem to get back to a proper sleep-workout-dinner schedule, and the commencement of Ramadan this evening will certainly bring its own need for disciplined planning. However, I have no right to complain, as Muslims in the UK will only have 5 non-fasting hours to rehydrate, infuse their bodies with nutrition, manage to pray, and sleep within those few hours as well. We expect to begin fasting after a light suhoor about 3:30 a.m. and break the fast with iftar about 8:30 p.m., with about a minute shaved off each day until the end of it which is predicted to be July 28th.

Perplexed by inertia and a general lack of life’s energy, I found that my Chi igniting routines have fallen aside, and they have been displaced by chores and responsibilities that suck time without adequate payback. Granted, I have deliberately chosen to invest time in some things related to supporting my family bonds, but enough! That is why I greedily had to read about Olga Kotelko, the subject of What Makes Olga Run: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives by Bruce Grierson.

Apparently, Bruce was having his own issues with feeling crappy and losing vitality, and that prompted him to take a personal interest in the marvelous Olga. It this reading, I found familiar researcher John J. Ratey, author of Spark-The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain (and he has a new book Go Wild-Free Your Body and Mind From the Afflictions of Civilization), offering more tidbits of the bonus that exercise brings to the brain’s performance.

It seems that even if you exercise though at a very high level, your muscle mass will degenerate precipitously in your late 70’s, yet Olga seems to be still making progress in performance. The book shares current research and possible reasons, as Olga is examined from many perspectives.

The reader obviously assumes that Olga must have superior genes, and that is part of the formula, for most long-lived people have had long-lived parents. Yet, others do too, but they don’t all exhibit the same trends in performance. Olga has some advantage from some of her genes, but not in others. What she does possess though is a hallmark of most long-lived people, and that is a correlation between having experienced and survived life struggles and developed resilience.

One researcher commented that between late teens and early thirties, if one had not experienced such trials, then one might be weaker or disadvantaged when challenges arise again later. Olga and many people of advanced age have this in common.
Curiously, as my daughter is experiencing a post-grad adventure teaching English to children in Turkey, close to the Syrian border, she has had a few stressful encounters, but seemingly has found her inner strength. In discussing this with my youngest, whom we dispatched to live with relatives in Jordan for a couple months the year he was home-schooled for 8th grade, he recollected that he came to find how he “grew up” when he had to travel alone and switch planes on his own along the way. The fact that he was immersed in a significant amount of Arabic, which was relatively unknown to him previously, added to his sense of empowerment.

What is it about hardship that helps us? I imagine that through it we learn that we are psychologically strong, and we realize that we can dig deep if we have to in order to become resourceful. We grow a carapace of protection and may even utilize a support network to weather the storms of life. Therein lies the cliché “If is doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”

Back to Ramadan; besides detoxification honing the efficiency of my metabolism, there should be the benefit of further refining self-discipline and mental fortitude. Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting have benefits too. My eldest son, who lives for building muscles in the gym, used to balk at fasting because he bought into the belief that more protein, calories, and lifting weights would build bulky muscles and make him resemble Wolverine from X-Men. The paradox is that calorie restriction actually forces the body toward efficiency. He found that fasting elicited a rebound in lean muscle mass, giving him the desirable “cut” physique.

The stress of cold may also discipline the body to suffer some shock then stabilize. Similar to the cycles of hardship and resuming homeostasis, or interval training that we’ll mention in a bit. Perhaps this is also why folks who live in northerly, colder climates have generally better longevity too.

Chronic stress though is another matter. It’s important to have a sense of control and some autonomy, and that is why research has indicated that managers fare better than workers. Olga, as a career school science teacher, rarely had a boss. She called the shots, tackled her life on her terms raising two children as a single parent, and it was not easy.

Body and mind seem to complement each other. Arthur Kramer, cognitive psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, studied Olga. He found that sedentary elders could be placed on an exercise protocol over 6 months, and they literally grew brains while improving their decision making 15-20 percent. Kramer changes the way he drives to work occasionally and even uses his left hand just to utilize different parts of his brain. Olga regularly challenges her brain with Suduko.

Analysis of Olga’s brain left observers awestruck. Between vigorous exercise, travel, and Suduko, her MRI revealed a marvel of preservation. Additionally, researchers have found other significant correlations that hail the benefits for college education, the teaching profession, the ultra-stimulating joy of world travel and studying foreign languages as having favorable effects on avoiding dementia and improved longevity. Contrast that with two factors known to erode life, namely sleep deprivation and poor diet.

Yet, between exercise and novel brain enriching experiences, exercise—using the body—keeps brain mass, plasticity, and processing speed. I know from my own biking excursions too that putting time and energy into fitness calms the mind, helps put all life’s chaos in order, and even new creative ideas bloom. It lifts mood and makes life’s difficulties seem less threatening.

Comparison between aerobic exercise and resistance training–like weight lifting–is revealing value in both. Even dancers are the focus of a current study at the Beckman Institute. Like Olga, who competes in eleven Olympic track and field sports, they move in a variety of planes, thereby utilizing more of their bodies than most.

This too reflects my observation that yoga and the movement in Muslim prayers yield mental and physical benefits. I’d heard that prayer to a Muslim is exercise, and the prostration position was suggested to me from my obstetrician years ago as a way to relieve pressure when I was pregnant. Even my mother mentioned that when I was a toddler, she knew I was not feeling well because I would go into that position intuitively. Furthermore, the motions inherent to yoga have benefits to circulate the lymph, and supposedly benefit the joints and connective tissue. A hospice worker, my husband met, expressed his commitment for yoga and cited that it has anti-cancer benefits.

Intensity in exercise and interval training challenge the body by throwing it into short-term stress, and then allowing the body and mind to recover. This seems to set up the capacity to handle this cycle repeatedly in life situations. Doing so actually increases the youth-enhancing human growth hormone (HGH), improves insulin responsiveness, and increases testosterone. Some say that one hour of exercise adds two hours to your life, and it’s a bit of a motivator to psych one’s self to push harder.

Reading how Olga has joie de vie helped me want to fight for the benefits it can deliver, because I hope to go long n’ strong to touch my dreams and fill my heart’s purpose.

Wishing you well this Ramadan!