Saturday, November 2, 2013

Your Body: Chapter 1 Feeling Fine

The following is a summary of the first chapter of the paperback Your Body: The Science of Keeping It Healthy published in 2013 by Time books. If you would like more information on this book, please see my previous post from September 2013 entitled "What I'm Working On for My Next Post."
As always, I urge you to read the whole book. This is just a quick synopsis touching on the major points of the articles featured in the book.

Chapter 1: Feeling Fine
Chapter 1 is divided into four parts: "The Power of Mood," "A Primer for Pessimists," "Just Say Om," and "Can Posture Change Your Mind?"

In "The Power of Mood," author Michael D. Lemonick explains that doctors and other health experts are beginning to realize that the brain and body affect each other profoundly. "Physical illness often leads to mental imbalance, and patients suffering from psychological ills seem especially vulnerable to serious physical disorders. But the spiral doesn't go only in a negative direction: a state of optimism and mental health can make the body healthier, and a healthy body can elevate the mind." The best example of this may be depression and its correlation to heart disease. One doctor says that depression may be as bad as cholesterol for putting one at risk of heart disease. Those with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and osteoporosis all appear to run a higher risk of disability or premature death when they are clinically depressed.
The good news is, just as research has shown a negative outlook can make you sick, a positive outlook can make you healthier. A study published in Psychological Science which used a meditation technique to help generate positive emotions, implies that "experiencing a steady diet of positive emotions in daily life tunes up our cardiovascular system in ways that make us physically healthier."
Some people can experience positive emotions side by side with their negative emotions, and those who can't can learn to develop that skill. Meditation is quickly becoming a popular way to do it, but one study suggests that you can improve your mood just by eating better. The study discovered a strong relationship between a diet high in fruits and vegetables and a positive mood. Though they haven't figured out why just yet, they believe it could boost serotonin levels. It could be because these foods are high in antioxidants, which have a calming effect on bodily systems.
Finally, Lemonick reminds us that, while there is still a lot of work to be done to unravel the links between mental and physical health, it doesn't matter which is cause and which is effect. "Whether you can stave off emotional problems by helping the body or stave off physical ills by addressing the mind, the whole person is bound to be better off."

There is a short piece entitled, "Mood Boosting Remedies" which is a summary of the newer treatments available to help relieve negative moods and boost positive ones. These include alternative therapies, electrical and magnetic, talk therapy, and drugs.

"A Primer for Pessimists" by Alice Park illustrates the benefits of being an optimist and how to be one if you're not already. This is a quick article that gives three ways we can learn to be positive. The first is to be an "optimalist," which is a realistic optimist who is able to make the best of things that happen. "Studies suggest that people who are able to focus on the positive fallout from a negative event can protect themselves from the physical toll of stress and anxiety."
Second is to accept pain and sadness. Martin Seligman launched the field of positive psychology in 1998 after realizing, through work with his patients, that getting rid of the sadness, anxiety, or anger wasn't enough. They also had to learn how to build their strengths through constructive skills like Professor Tal Ben-Shahar's PRP. PRP is an optimalist exercise in which the patient allows him or herself permission to feel down, reconstruct by learning from what's happened, and finally gain perspective on the situation. Ultimately these patients will get to a positive state because they are able to tolerate the negative.
Third is to try "catching" happiness by surrounding yourself with happy people.
Studies say that only about 25% of a person's optimism may be in their genes, which suggests that the greater part of an optimistic outlook can be acquired with the right instruction. Being optimistic is an active process through which you force yourself to see your life in a certain way. And although it's work, the payoff seems to be a healthier mind and body, which leads to not only a longer life but a better quality life as well.

The third article, "Just Say Om" by Joel Stein, shows just how widespread meditation has become among all walks of life. Google has a class for its employees, the Marines use meditation to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, and celebrities are not only practicing it but starting programs to teach adults and children the benefits of meditation.
The article shows the results of many studies that prove just how beneficial mediation can be. For example, it can help people deal with chronic pain and anxiety. It also seems to enhance the immune system. More recent studies show that eight weeks of meditation thickens parts of the brain used in learning, memory, executive decision making, and perspective taking. Another study suggests that meditation might reduce the risk of dementia. With so many published results, it is no wonder that about 6.3 million Americans have been told by doctors to practice meditation or similar activities.
A short article entitled, "The Art of Mindfulness Meditation" follows this, which instructs us how to begin meditation and what to do when problems, such as distractions or boredom, arise. "Meditation is not about getting anywhere else-it's about being where you are and knowing it," says Jon Kabat-Zinn. A long time ambassador of mindfulness, and an MIT-trained biologist, he adds that meditation can improve "both physical and mental health, no matter what your circumstances."

The final article of this section is entitled, "Can Posture Change Your Mind?" Written by Regina Nuzzo, it explores the mind-body connection between your physical actions and psychological emotions.
Studies are showing that posture can affect what your brain thinks, feels, and believes. It's called "embodied cognition" which says how you move controls your mood, your behavior, and the way you think. The article offers a few tips on how your body can affect your mind. One tip is to smile in order to feel happy, instead of the other way around. Psychologists say that the connection between the smiling-muscles parts of the brain and the feeling-happy parts of the brain has been reinforced so many times that it doesn't matter whether you have a real reason to feel happy. "Fake it and you'll make it."
Another tip is to adopt a "power pose," such as the one seen on Don Draper. "Power is displayed through large, expansive postures. And if you engage in those postures, you can trick your mind a little bit into feeling like it has power." These postures result in relaxed, confident, and dominant people who, according to recent studies, have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of confidence-inducing testosterone.
Embodied cognition is a booming field in psychology, and researchers are hard at work figuring out all the ways that our bodies can lead our minds.

As a trainer, I sometimes feel that the only thing getting in the way of my clients' success is themselves. I hear a lot of negativity in the beginning or when we hit a plateau, which is an inevitable part of a long-term workout regimen. I'm hoping I can apply the techniques here to my clients when we come across these obstacles. 

After reading this, which do you feel strikes you as most surprising? Mood affecting health? The ability to learn to be more optimistic? The popularity of meditation on the rise? Posture affecting your confidence?

Please leave me a comment and let me know.

My next post will summarize Chapter 2: Staying Healthy, which has five sections having to do with Mediterranean diet, minimizing inflammation (heart disease, cancer, etc.), the various types of personal monitors available, the issues Angelina Jolie's preventive mastectomy has raised, and living agelessly.