“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
A Never-ending Cycle of Failure
Most people think of exercise as a way of burning calories. If they eat too much on the weekend, they figure they can burn it off on Monday. This belief about exercise is a total misconception. First of all, it could take one to two hours just to burn off the calories from one bagel, someone might never catch up with their bad eating habits. The more they eat, the more they exercise, in a never-ending cycle of failure. They cannot succeed in this way any more than they could if they practiced the piano to burn off calories. The fact is that you will never lose weight through exercise. Only after you surrender to this truth can you begin the real work of exercise, which is to make your body as efficient and youthful as possible. Thus, the first step to exercising properly is to give up popular but false beliefs about it and understand its true purpose.
In making our bodies as efficient and youthful as possible, proper exercise helps the body resist the ravages of aging, both mental and physical. What do people think of when they think of aging? We have talked over the years with athletes, health professionals, and clients about this, and almost everyone has pointed to hardening-hardening of the body as we get older: of the skin, the muscles, and the bones. The skin becomes less elastic; the muscles become tight, and the bones become brittle. We are born soft and die hard.
This aging process begins as early as the school years, when children are made to sit quietly at desks for many hours at a time. Many of them round their backs when they sit, which places great stress on their spines and starts to deteriorate their posture. The exceptions to this are those kids who take ballet lessons, horseback riding, or gymnastics. After school, most children continue sitting to do their homework, to play computer games, to play musical instruments, to watch TV, and to eat dinner a whole day of sitting!
The first signs of aging for most people are mild physical discomforts of some kind. They will say they have a knot in their back, or a stiff neck, or a sore shoulder, or tight hamstrings. Or perhaps they cannot straighten their arms, knees, or elbows. These are all variations of the same phenomenon: some part of the body is hardening.
To seek relief, they get massages to have their tension knots released in their muscles; they get acupuncture to unblock energy channels, or they go to chiropractors to have their joints realigned. When the problems persist or worsen, they may visit a physician to obtain medicines to alleviate their musculoskeletal pains. They may even undergo surgery to have calcium deposits removed, disks repaired, or joints smoothed or replaced. Sometimes these procedures help. But if our lifestyles are out of balance, most of these conditions will become recurrent. Even worse, the hardening can become internal. Our bodies can age in subtle and more dangerous ways, often without pain or obvious symptoms, as in arteriosclerosis and osteoporosis. For these conditions, modern medicine offers hormonal and other drug treatments.
To correct this steady decline, or to prevent it in the first place, people try out all kinds of exercise. The problem is that some forms of exercise make us better, and some make us worse. For example, compare sprinting and marathon running. Sprinters are the fastest of runners and use the widest range of motion in their legs. Marathon runners, at the other extreme, are the slowest of runners and use the narrowest range of motion in their legs. While they are running, sprinters' bodies are as hard as possible during the moment of impact with the ground, and then as soft as possible when they fly through the air between strides. The gap between the hardness and softness of the sprinters' muscles is extreme, as is the speed with which they go from one to the other. In contrast, marathon runners' bodies are far less hard at impact and far less soft during flight. These principles carry over to when the runners are not racing. At rest, sprinters have the most flexible bodies of all runners and the softest of all muscles, whereas marathon runners have the least flexible bodies and the hardest of all muscles. Similar contrasts could be made between divers and long-distance swimmers, ski jumpers and cross-country skiers, or bicycle sprinters and long-distance road cyclists. Thus, all interval exercises make us better by increasing our youthfulness, and all endurance exercises make us worse by contributing to our hardening and aging process.
The common misconception, among doctors as well as the general public, is that only endurance exercises have cardiovascular benefits. The truth is that both interval and endurance exercises have cardiovascular benefits, but the former has them without the side effects of exhaustion, inflammation, and musculoskeletal degeneration. In fact, interval exercises are better for the heart than endurance exercises because the range between the highest and the lowest number of heartbeats is far greater, and therefore the muscles of the heart are made stronger.
SLOWING DOWN THE AGING PROCESS
The whole purpose of The Happy Body program is to slow down the aging process by retaining the body's softness when it is relaxed while simultaneously developing its hardness for action. The bigger the gap between a body's hardness and softness, the better; and the faster one can go from one to the other, the healthier, more elastic, and more powerful the body. A weak, brittle body is like a solid glass ball. Throw it against a wall and it will shatter. A strong, elastic body is like a rubber ball. Throw it against a wall and it will bounce back with force.
The Happy Body exercises are designed to have multiple purposes, each one geared to one of the Standards of Youthfulness. For example, when people seek to be lean and strong and to attain their Ideal Body Weight, it is important that they lose fat, not muscle. The Happy Body program achieves this by using resistance exercises that strengthen and build the muscles, making it impossible to burn them for energy. Furthermore, every exercise repetition is preceded by inhalation and followed by exhalation, during both of which the body achieves complete relaxation. During these intervals, the body burns fat for its fuel. Endurance programs, on the other hand, cause muscle loss because people continuously exercise without any periods of relaxation. The Happy Body program promotes flexibility by using exercises that are based on four primary movements: pressing, pulling, squatting, and bending, which we all do in our everyday lives. In order to allow people to increase their flexibility gradually without injuring themselves, every exercise has five levels of difficulty from poor to excellent. At each level, our clients conclude each exercise by attempting to go slightly beyond their current limits, which we call extension. By extending themselves gradually in this way, they progress up the levels of difficulty until they achieve full range of motion in every joint of the body.
The Happy Body program promotes good posture by requiring exercisers to curl up their toes and raise their chests for all lifting exercises. This shifts the weight to the heels, forcing the body into a more upright position. Then, by tightening their abdominal and buttock muscles, Happy Body exercisers align their spines in a neutral position, which eliminates the need for awkward bodily compensations. At the end of the lifts, the exercisers extend themselves slightly further, which increases the body's vertical alignment.
After the exercisers have attained full range of motion in every joint, The Happy Body program promotes speed by having them spend less time on the movement of every repetition and more time on rest and relaxation.
Finally, there is a spiritual component to The Happy Body program, which is essential to slowing down the aging process. As our clients perform the exercises on a daily basis, their lives develop a rhythm in which they start to become calmer, more meditative, more relaxed, and more mindful. Having previously hated exercise, they now look forward to it. Their fitness and well-being are now totally within their own control and they know it.