Exercise: Achieve Good Health

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Fitness

Many women have had negative experiences regarding exercise, either as a result of school sports programs or our culture, which both tend to place emphasis on athletic skills rather than fitness. But what young girls often do not understand (and often are not taught) is that being good at batting a ball and being physically fit are not necessarily related.

John Douillard, author of Body, Mind and Sport is a pioneer in the field of fitness and consciousness. In his book he points out that more than 50 percent of women experience their first major failure while participating in organized physical activity such as gym class. Because of this, many girls begin to feel that they are not good at sports. And this sense of being a “physical loser” can stay with you the rest of your life. (It may help to know that one of the reasons many girls don’t develop the skills to succeed in sports is that no one teaches them. A friend of mine, who was a pro baseball player, told me that when young boys learn how to throw a baseball, they throw the same way girls do. Boys learn how to throw like boys from practicing with those who are more skilled than they are. It’s part of their cultural heritage. But girls have the ability to do so, too!)

In order to find a fitness regime you can enjoy and stick with, you need to heal your exercise past. I know this first-hand because I had my own “unfinished business” around sports and fitness. Start by asking yourself: “Do I really want to continue to limit my health and happiness because of something that happened to me in the eighth grade, or something my parents said?” The answer is most likely, “No.” Write your thoughts about exercise in your journal. What do you remember about physical activity and sports from your childhood? What did you love? What felt good? What are your memories of gym class? What is your family legacy around fitness and sports? What are your beliefs about the physical capabilities of women your age and older? When you walk into a gym, what happens? How do you feel? You may also want to write down everything you know about the benefits of exercise to help you start a fitness program.

Healing Alternatives

The benefits of regular, moderate exercise are almost innumerable and include physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Studies show that women who are physically active enjoy better health than women who are sedentary.

  • Better immune system functioning and increased levels of immunoglobulins
  • Lower overall cancer rate
  • Decreased risk of heart disease
  • Decreased risk of breast cancer
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Less depression and anxiety, better mental efficiency and speed
  • More relaxation, more assertiveness, more spontaneity and enthusiasm
  • Stronger bones
  • More restful sleep
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Decreased insulin sensitivity
  • More energy
  • Decreased PMS symptoms
  • Weight control

Studies also show that repetitive movement increases the alpha waves in the brain — and the alpha state is associated with enhanced intuition. The mind pervades the body, and I find that when I move my body repetitively and rhythmically, more of my mind’s power becomes available to me, and insights often arise during my work-outs.

The Four Fundamentals of Exercise

There are four aspects of exercise that are important for achieving health. They are: aerobic exercise, strength training, stretching and breathing. Including all four of these in your fitness plan will ensure you reap the benefits of exercise for years to come. Here is a short primer to help you understand these four components.

  1. Aerobic Training.Exercising aerobically keeps your heart and lungs in good condition. It is also a great way to burn excess fat. Aerobic exercise is defined as activity during which the heart rate is elevated to your “target zone” for 15 to 20 consecutive minutes. You can calculate your target zone using the following formula:
    – A: Subtract your age from 220.
    – B: Subtract your resting heart rate (beats per minute) from this figure.
    – C: Multiply the remainder by your “exercise quotient” — this is .06 for beginners and .08 for advanced exercisers.
    – D: Add your resting heart rate to the figure from Step 3.
    This is your target heart rate in beats per minute. You can divide the number by 6 to find out your heart rate for a ten-second count. Using a heart rate monitor is a good way to ascertain the level at which you are exercising, and can help prevent you from surpassing your target heart rate. Many runners and people who take spinning classes use these to keep track of how hard they are working. One caveat to the target zone numbers is nose breathing. Your target heart rate may need to be lower for a while until you learn how to do aerobic exercise while breathing in and out through your nose!
  2. Strength Training. Studies show that as we age, we create about 1.5 pounds of fat per year. We also lose about a half-pound of muscle per year if we don’t exercise. In other words, muscle loss results in fat gain. Weight-bearing exercises help you to increase the amount of muscle mass in the body relative to fat. Strength training also helps you build and maintain strong bones because strengthening the major muscle groups in your body puts stress on your bones, which helps keep them strong, too. The great thing about strength training is that the more you lift, the easier everything gets. Having strong muscles and strong bones allows you to move more easily, so you can enjoy whatever activities you participate in. Working opposing muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps or quadriceps and hamstrings, helps improve balance, which many women start to lose in their forties. Strengthening core muscles is also important for your posture. Yoga and Pilates are two good ways to strengthen the muscles deep in your hips, stomach and back.
  3. Stretching. Stretching before and especially after exercise helps prevent injury and allows for greater freedom of movement because it increases blood flow to the muscles and helps to remove lactic acid, preventing soreness after exercise. Stretching also promotes flexibility and helps you to relax. Good times to stretch include before and after aerobic exercise, in-between strength training sets, and any time you feel your muscles begin to tighten, such as when you are sitting at your desk and you feel your shoulders moving up around your ears. Being flexible will help you do everything — from changing a light bulb to sleeping better.
  4. Breathing. I truly believe that breathing is the most important part of any exercise routine. I know that a lot of the cardiovascular machines have heart rate training ranges. But, unless you have a heart rate monitor and a strong interest or really need to keep track of your heart rate, these can be confusing. And, the heart rate readings on cardio machines are also inaccurate much of the time. A better way to gauge your intensity level is by breathing correctly through your nose and monitoring your breathing.
    When you breathe properly through your nose rather than gulping air through your mouth you can progress through your work-outs at a much slower heart rate and breath rate than might otherwise be expected. It is also more comfortable to breathe this way when you are exercising. Have you ever seen a racehorse breathe through its mouth? In fact, all warm-blooded animals breathe through their noses. Nose breathing is associated with parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system balance. Mouth breathing is a sign of stress. Since I discovered John Douillard’s work I have approached all sports and exercise this way and it has enhanced my enjoyment of physical activity immeasurably. You can compare the different ways of breathing right now. First, take three full deep breaths through your mouth. When you are finished, take three full, deep breaths through your nose. Notice how the air goes all the way down to the lower lobes of your lungs when you nose breathe. If you breathe through your nose while you exercise, your lungs will become more efficient and you will achieve higher levels of fitness with much less effort.
    Note: If you are in the habit of mouth breathing, it may take a while for you to develop the chest wall flexibility necessary to nose breathe easily while working out. You may have to slow your pace for several months, but the increased oxygenation and decreased oxidative stress to the body are worth it. You will always feel energized, not depleted, when you work out this way.

Learn More — Additional Resources

  • Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D. See Chapter 18.
  • Body, Mind and Sport, by John Douillard, director of the Invincible Athlete program in Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Douillard has found that the target heart rate zone and many other “fitness truths” do not apply when you are nose breathing and tuning in to your body.
Last Updated: October 13, 2006

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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  1. Chrissy
    11 months ago

    Thank you! I am struggling with exercise addiction. I am 49 years old and have a variety of body aches from over use. Trying to find the balance between movement and rest. I have put myself on adrenal rest this week, kundalini yoga, slow walks and bike rides. I want to be fit and strong, but my body is telling me to slow down. Despite all the vigorous exercise I am holding onto fat- could this be a cortisol issue? All information is appreciated!

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