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A mindful approach to cardiovascular exercise

Mindfulness in cardio exerciseIn addition to battling RSI in my forearms, I struggle with other ailments including problematic knees. Along with yoga, cardiovascular exercise is a means of retaining the fitness needed to allow me to keep on top of these physical issues. The exercise equipment that I use most often is the static bicycle (actually a regular mountain bike with a Cycleops trainer attached), and I try to aim for a minimum of two one-hour workouts on this per week. This is usually enough to keep the quadricep muscles strong and to hold the knee joints together sufficiently tightly so as to feel normal.

I have recently been using the excellent “The Sufferfest”  downloadable cycling workout videos to train with. These are played on a screen placed in front of the training bike. The workouts are varied in style and target different aspects of cycling, such as sprinting, climbing, endurance, interval etc, and they are a much used and well recommended tool in helping me stay fit.

As any of you who are used to doing cardiovascular  exercise know, however, sometimes it can become a slog. What triggers this feeling?  Is it a busy life? Clock watching? Tiredness? Maxing out? Mind games?

I always wondered what caused time to drag during workouts, and using the Sufferfest video programmes certainly offers you plenty of visual (cycling road races and humour) as well as audio (pumping soundtracks and audio cues) distractions. This serves to help immerse yourself in the workout and avoid dwelling on the time remaining.  Regardless, I was finding that I’d still be clock-watching. Additionally, for a long time, I have used a heart rate monitor when doing cardio exercise. (This stems from 10 years ago when I did a 2000 feet climb on my bike each weekend, and needed to monitor heart rate to ensure that I didn’t spend too much time in the red zone). During my static bike workouts, I was finding that I would reach higher levels of  heart rate too quickly. This generally is not what you want to experience in a workout, ie gritting your teeth and suffering (despite the name!) for the whole one hour or longer. It is certainly not conducive  to establishing a regular exercise routine if you know you are likely to struggle both mentally and physically.

With all this in mind, I started experimenting with mindfulness during exercise. It’s actually easy to do, especially on a static bike. I shut my eyes for periods of high intensity exercise and flip the brain switch to “off” (you know the one that says, “I’m hot”, “I’m suffering” and “Is this done yet?” 60 times a minute!). You don’t actually have to switch your brain off,  just close your eyes, block out any thoughts of the workout, and think of very little (or if you can’t, then think of something nice like a river flowing). Your lungs and heart can cope with the workout quite happily without  your brain being over-active. Just be  aware that your legs are spinning and your lungs are breathing, but let go of the mental stress of the struggle.

Now the interesting thing about this approach is that, not only do you stop looking at the clock, but your heart rate drops too. I have done this on a regular basis for a while now, with consistent results. As a 46 year old, I have a maximum theoretical heart rate of  220-46 = 174 beats per minute.  When I exercise non-meditatively, I will rapidly climb to 170 bpm(ish) during high intensity parts of the workout (ie 80-100% effort), while dropping to 140 bpm during reduced intensity (30% effort) intervals. When I introduce meditation during workouts, these figures drop on average somewhere between 8 and 15 bpm, which is highly significant. Why is my heart having a lighter load when outputting the same energy in the workout? It is the brain activity that accounts for the difference. When you listen to a pumping soundtrack and watch stimulating images and clocks, your mind is extremely active. In order for the mind to be this active, it’s requesting more and more blood supply to support it. It can be argued that this is wasted energy which could be conserved for the parts of the body that need it later on in the workout.

This is a major breakthrough in workouts for me. I can now synchronise mind and body, conserving energy for my legs whilst keeping my heart rate well below the theoretical maximum.  The technique also has the advantage that the perceived duration of the workouts is now much shorter. Time seems a whole lot more compressed in the meditative zone.

This could be very useful in all kinds of athletic training, as meditation can be done with your eyes open (with practice), and can help athletes improve performance. How many athletes would like to have the ability to conserve 10% of their energy output for when it’s needed? No doubt this is part of the reason why increasing numbers of athletes and teams are engaging mindfulness advisers and experts.

I also ponder the power of mindful meditation and how it could help with issues such as RSI conditions, where we have a tendency to let our minds race to the worst places. “I’m at work, I’m using the computer, my arms hurt, is it 5 pm yet ?” etc. Again, it’s little wonder that programmes such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are becoming increasingly popular in the workplace.


TMS a mindbody approach to RSI

mindbody prescriptionLet me first start out by saying that I have long been a skeptic of the assertion that RSI is a condition solely controlled by the mind. I can attest to the fact that it’s certainly not just imaginary pain. So it was with a somewhat critical eye that I started reading the book, ‘The Mindbody Prescription’ by Dr John E. Sarno. The book has been available for a while, from 1998, but is nonetheless relevant today.

What drew me to finally read it was the one or two comments on this blog referencing it as having helped in dealing with RSI, coupled with a previous awareness of the book a few years ago.

The book is about a condition that Dr Sarno calls TMS (Tension Myositis Syndrome) which describes how there exists an ability in one’s mind (unconcious) to restrict the flow of blood (causing mild oxygen deprivation) to tired or injured areas which in turn causes those areas to stay continually sore, weak and painful (although not permanently damaged). The author states that the mind wants to create the pain as a distraction from other emotional/psychological conflicts or trauma that exist in the unconscious and have been repressed, perhaps things that happened a long time ago (eg as a child). If the issues in the unconscious mind were allowed to come forth, there would be an emotional mess in the concious mind. The unconscious mind therefore keeps a lid on these issues, and diverts one’s attention with pain which is focused on the body as opposed to the mind.  “The role of pain was to divert attention from frightening feelings” , as he puts it.  He states that it is only after confronting these issues, and accepting that you have emotional issues (“inner rage”, as he calls it) that need to be brought into your conscious and dealt with, that you can finally get over the masking symptoms, ie your pain. He attributes this process to causing all kinds of pain including back, neck and shoulder pain, as well as RSI conditions, other myofascial pain type conditions, back pain, and many others ranging from sciatica to tennis elbow and even cancer.

Dr Sarno also claims that the experience of continual pain can lead to the creation of an ‘inner rage’ which can be self-fulfilling, causing more pain. In his experience, the people who are more susceptible to this are the more conscientious workers who always strive to do their best in their jobs and life (ie perfectionists). This compounds their inner rage because it is impossible to live up to their own expectations of themselves. I can also admit to somewhat fitting this psychological profile.

He claims that treating this type of condition  physically (eg via physiotherapy) is a waste of time and that  any benefit is purely a placebo effect.

He recommends that firstly you need to accept that there is a psychological basis for your pain, that your body is not abnormal but is just being unconsciously made to feel abnormal . You should then identify all pressures in your life (old and current) that could contribute to ‘inner rage’ and deal with them consciously to reduce their possible negative effect in the unconscious. He says that accepting that your pain can be caused by the unconscious, and that it is nothing more than a distraction to your inner rage, can lead you to actually allowing your unconscious to release more blood flow to the injured (or painful) parts of your body and allow healing to take place and the pain to subside. This process can actually take place very quickly once you have established and realised the  psychological basis of your pain.

He does acknowledge that his views are far removed from mainstream medicine and clearly states that, “… mainstream medicine has yet to acknowledge the process whereby strong unconscious emotions can induce physical reactions”.

So where do I stand with this view? Well let me start by saying that Dr Sarno’s work is very well researched with lots of examples in his book and I certainly have no reason to doubt his findings. Indeed I have long stated that RSI is partially a psychological issue (but primarily a physical one). He does, however, flip this viewpoint around, albeit pointing out a psychological mechanism for creation of  the physical pain (restricted blood flow to injured areas, controlled by the unconscious) as opposed to just purely imagining you are in pain.

It has certainly led me to reassess my condition and review it from all angles and not to rule out the possibility of having inner stresses causing the restriction of blood flow into my injured arms. I am convinced that the human mind (both conscious and unconscious) does work in many mysterious ways, and wouldn’t rule it out as a potential cause. You certainly have to be prepared to open your mind to any possibilities with RSI, especially as I can concur that addressing the symptoms physically has done no long term good for me.

I do recognise, however, that we as humans are all made differently and, as a result, we will respond to a (TMS) mindbody approach differently. In the case of RSI, whatever you find that works is indeed the best solution for you and, let’s face it, the (TMS) mindbody option costs a whole lot less than endless physical treatments. If I achieve any results with this approach you will be the first to hear about it, in the mean time, it may be worth giving it a try…..