Get Fitter By Mary Jaksch Do you feel that exercise is punishment? That’s what I used to think growing up every time that my Mom tried to send me in for sports. I used to think, ‘How can a person enjoy all that sweating, pain and discomfort?’ Instead, I loved to dive into the fictitious world of novels, exercise your brain by learning something new or get creative with some crafts. I enjoyed building my mental muscles and absolutely despised everything that had to do with athletic performance. Fast forward about 15 years and you are now reading the thoughts of a Pilates instructor, an avid runner and an Insanity/T-25 junkie who can’t imagine her life without exercise. What has changed? And most importantly, how does this change relate to you? A very brief “how I got here” story When I was a teenager I started having weight issues so I naturally got trapped in the cycle of yo-yo dieting and decided to give my all time enemy (fitness) a go. Due to a very fortunate series of events in my life, I have discovered Pilates. Wow, that was a game changer for me! Finally, I found a form of exercise that used my brain to gain mastery over my body (exactly as Joseph Pilates, the creator of the method, intended it.) The part where you see how this whole thing relates to you Did you ever think that … you are not made for exercise, cleaning a toilet feels like a more appealing activity than going for a run, your strength is in your intellect and not in your muscle mass? If you answered “yes” to at least one of the statements above, you and I just might be apples that fell off the same tree. As intelligent people, we know about the importance of exercise but we still can’t get into the habit of torturing ourselves on a daily basis.The truth is that we can’t stick to a healthy habit of exercise if we don’t like it. The Brainy Exercise One of the biggest discoveries that I made after starting Pilates was finally finding the connection between my body and my mind. Before I was introduced to Pilates I thought about exercise as a brute force that was supposed to chisel my body and punish me for that bowl of ice-cream and an extra slice of pizza that I eaten the night before. There was nothing sophisticated about fitness. It was sweaty, painful and unpleasant, just like a punishment was supposed to feel. I was literally working against my body, my entire being screaming inside because of the huge imbalance between my mind and body. The first thing that we did during my first-ever Pilates class was lie down, breathe and listen to our body. Is there pain or discomfort? Does one side feel heavier than the other? Does the body feel aligned? We spent about 5 minutes breathing and thinking and then slowly started building a mental connection between the brain and the muscles. Before lifting up into a basic crunch (a precursor to the famous Pilates Hundred) we checked the position of the body, took a deep breath in and through vivid imagery found “The Core” where all the movements originate from. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel my neck pulling or tension in my shoulders. I could actually feel my muscles engaging in a balanced way. The most amazing thing, I was finally enjoying the exercise! What I felt in my body almost 10 years ago is now proven by research. 1. Redirecting your focus to your core during every exercise results in a deeper activation of distant muscles during every exercise. In plain English, it means that if you actively focus on alignment and engaging your core muscles while doing even a simple bicep curl you will achieve greater results with fewer repetitions. 2. Mindful exercise that uses imagery and positive feedback improves cognitive flexibility (finding creative solutions to everyday problems) as discussed by Dr. Michael Merzenich whose research has been featured in the New York Times bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself. 3. Pilates improves memory performance and cognitive functions according to a small study conducted in China. The Do-It-Right-Now Plan The biggest benefit of the Pilates method is that you can take it anywhere with you. But that isn’t everything. The biggest benefit that sets Pilates apart from any other form of exercise is the focus on 6 Pilates principles. Learning them and taking them to every activity during the day (driving, washing dishes, running and even resting) is what makes it intelligent movement for smart people. Whether you are ready to look up a Pilates studio in your area or aren’t really sold on the benefits of the method yet (click here for 12 scientifically proven benefits of Pilates for your mind ), take some time to explore the effects of Pilates principles on your body and your mind right now. 1. Concentration on the activity that you are doing lets you focus completely on the task at hand. Learning to concentrate on a certain group of muscles in your body lets you move efficiently. It also teaches you to find the same concentration in managing your daily projects. 2. Centering. Every movement of the body starts from the core where your center of gravity is located. This focus on the center is important to maintain proper alignment during every activity. Working from your physical core is as important as building your life on your core beliefs. You need to have a strong foundation to withstand life’s challenges and to be stronger (physically, mentally and emotionally) every day. 3. Control. Every exercise is done with full muscular control, no body part is left to its own devices. If we would maintain the same level of control during each type of physical activity that we do then the number of injuries that we have had or could get would decrease by at least 60%. Finding control over one’s body promotes body awareness and body confidence. 4. Precision in Pilates is maintained throughout every movement. It is keeping awareness of the position of each body part during each phase of the exercise. Think about it as mindfulness training for your body. The best part is that by learning mindfulness in your body you can also use it in other areas of your life. As a result you become more creative and are able to release emotional tension easily. 5. Flow. The order of exercises in Pilates flows gracefully from one to the other, each consecutive exercise building up from the previous one. It is the same flow that we want to achieve in our work where creative ideas are born effortlessly. Flowing through a workout that challenges our body prepares us to flow through the tasks that challenge our mind. 6. Breathing. Joseph Pilates (the creator of the method) emphasized the importance of deep breathing during every exercise. Today most of us are shallow breathers which means that we fill up only the top part of our lungs with air leaving our body chronically oxygen-deprived. This type of breathing is also the indicator of chronic stress in the body. Learning to breathe deeply is the single most important thing that anyone can take from a Pilates class. Do this right now to feel relaxed … Put your hands on the sides of your ribs with your fingers open like hand fans and pointing at one another. Inhale slowly through your nose trying to fill up the lowest pockets of your lungs with air. Feel your fingers slowly separating as you inflate the bottom part of your ribcage. Open your mouth a little bit and exhale making a soft “Haaaa” sound. Feel your fingertips coming closer together as if you were closing the hand fans on your sides. Repeat until you feel more balanced and relaxed. Take these principles to any workout that you are doing and you will start reaping the benefits of exercise both for your mind and your body. What are your thoughts on exercise? About the author: Anastasiya Goers is following her passion for Pilates and balanced living by teaching in-person and virtual Pilates classes and running a community-based Pilates website, PilatesBridge.com.