“A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
Stopping at the Right Point
The most important factor in improving and maintaining performance of any kind is recovery. This includes both physical and mental improvement and maintenance. Ernest Hemingway said that when he was writing, he would continue until he reached a creative peak, then he would stop. Years of experience taught him when that moment arrived. He knew that he had stopped at the right point when he sat down the next day to write again and found that his writing was effortless. In between, his mind had processed new images and new situations automatically, both when he was awake and when he was asleep and dreaming. Hemingway understood the process of recovery. He would stop writing before burning out so he could face the blank page.
This same principle applies to artists of all kinds, to athletes, and, in fact, to anyone who works. Artists have more difficulty in seeing this than, let’s say athletes, because they cannot so easily measure their results. But an athlete such as a sprinter can see precisely how he or she is speeding up or slowing down. The better the athlete, the more intense the training, and therefore, the shorter the training time. On the other hand, he will need more time to recover because his performance is more intense and so uses up more energy, muscles, hormones, and nutrients. In fact, his whole body, including his brain, will be exhausted at the end of the training session, even though his performance may take only 100 seconds of his 40-minute workout. The rest is rest. For example, a sprinter whose personal best record is 10 seconds for the 100 meter dash runs more intensely than a runner whose personal best record is 11 seconds. The faster runner will need more time to recover between runs and will perform fewer runs per day. However, if in any particular run, both of them finish the 100 meter dash in 11 seconds, the one who is capable of running faster will require less time to recover, since, unlike the other one, he will not expend 100% of his energy to accomplish the task.
Most athletes are driven to work harder than they should to achieve their goals. Therefore, they burn themselves out or injure themselves and never achieve their goals. Athletic coaches have to adjust on a daily basis the amount of work and recovery their athletes require to improve. The whole point of having a good coach is to have someone who stops you from overworking and sees to it that you get enough recovery.
Like athletes, most people are driven to perform well in their work, whatever it is, but they are unaware of the importance of recovery. They just know that there is something wrong with their way of living. They may be tired all the time, sore, or in pain. When these problems affect their livelihood or their lifestyle, they start to look around for solutions. Most people will start by seeing a doctor, chiropractor, dietician, massage therapist, life coach, or psychotherapist. These people may help them to some degree, but the underlying problem of insufficient recovery still needs to be addressed.
For ordinary people, their jobs are their primary contest. For example, worker A, who uses 100% of her energy to do her job, will go home totally exhausted. Then she will probably overeat, thinking that this will restore her energy, but just the opposite happens. She becomes even more tired, does no exercise, and either passively watches TV or goes to sleep. Over time, she is likely to develop chronic pains, become prone to injuries or illness, develop a food addiction, gain weight, and miss workdays. Her 100% gradually declines to 90%, and then to 80%, and so on, until her life is inefficient drudgery.
On the other hand, worker B, who only uses 60% of her energy to do the same job, will recover as she goes along and will always be fresh. In fact, she will have the option of working harder and thereby earning more money or a promotion, or both. When she goes home, she has energy for exercise, is refreshed by eating, and wants to spend active quality time with her family and friends. Clearly, B is stronger than A, recovers faster and more completely, and has a more rewarding life. Over time, she will become even stronger and then she will be able to perform her job with only 50% of her energy, or perhaps even 40%, and her life will be effortless.
During the part of the day when we are not running or working, we recover in three basic ways: proper exercise, proper nutrition, and relaxation. Proper exercise makes us stronger and more youthful. Proper nutrition replenishes all the nutrients and hormones we have used up. Finally, meditation, massage, and hot baths help us to relax during the day and to get a good night’s sleep.
If you want to improve your performance of any kind, you must control your rest as well as your work. On the other hand, if you rest too much, you will not have done enough work to improve your performance. So to find the right balance between your performance and your recovery, you must observe your accomplishments on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, and determine at which points your performance failed to improve. Those failures are the result of either too much work and not enough recovery or too little work and too much recovery.
We see both of these problems when our clients first come to us. Take for example, Michael, a 55-year-old urological surgeon, who came to us complaining of fatigue. He was performing two surgeries a day. Whereas he used to be able to do this without a problem, now he was completely exhausted at the end of the day. He attributed this decline to aging, however we immediately saw that he had poor posture; was at least 50 pounds overweight; was breathing heavily, and looked intense but tired. He also spoke very quickly, almost nonstop. In talking to him, we discovered that he jogged or swam an hour a day; his diet was full of fat and sugar; his meals were sporadic, and he was not sleeping well. While he was performing surgery, he said, his lower back and shoulders hurt. Since he often had to make life-and-death decisions, he was concerned that his physical problems might ultimately reduce his mental clarity.
The first thing we told him was that he needed to become stronger, because everything he was doing was making him weaker. To begin with, he should stop jogging and swimming, because they were only reducing his muscle mass. He insisted that swimming was his only source of relaxation and asked if there was any way he could keep doing it. We suggested that he mostly swim for pleasure, but that if he really wanted to use it for occasional exercise, he should alternate swimming every lap with two minutes of rest, and that he do no more than ten laps in a session. Next, we put him on The Happy Body exercise and nutrition program to increase his strength, muscle size, and flexibility, and to improve his posture, and to reduce his weight. Finally, we taught him several relaxation techniques.
After six months, Michael lost 45 pounds of fat, gained 15 pounds of muscle, doubled his strength, became pain-free, slept soundly, and woke up fully refreshed. His posture improved, even when he was performing surgery, so he expended less energy on each operation and could now easily perform two a day again. Susan, another client, is a part-time college teacher. She works too little and recovers too much. When she first came to us, at the age of 42, our first impression of her was that she was depressed. She told us that she never liked to exercise, and even the idea of exercise was repugnant to her. What she loved to do was go to concerts and museums, read books, meditate, and go to fine restaurants. As her dress size got bigger and bigger, she became weaker, and her life gradually became more passive. She stayed home more and went out less. Worst of all, she was constantly feeling exhausted, which she blamed on her weight. When we measured her, we found that, at 5’5″ and 129 pounds, 39% (50.3 pounds) was fat and 61% (78.7 pounds) was lean mass. At her height, her Ideal Body Weight should have been 119 pounds with 13% (15.5 pounds) body fat and 87% (103.5 pounds) lean mass. Thus, she needed to lose 34.8 pounds of fat and gain 24.8 pounds of lean mass.
We told her that because she didn’t exercise, she was losing muscle mass, and that was the cause of her exhaustion, not the excess pounds of fat. In other words, her lack of strength did not allow her to recover properly even from her minimum expenditure of energy. She was like a big car with a small engine. To get stronger, she would need to become more muscular, and for that she would need to do proper exercise. We explained to Susan that, because it is more difficult to gain muscle mass than to lose fat, it takes more time, and we would have to work with her in two stages. The first stage would be for her to lose 10 pounds overall to bring her down to her Ideal Body Weight. At a weekly loss of 1% of her Ideal Body Weight, that would take her approximately nine weeks (10 ‘ 1.19 = 8.4).
Then, in the second stage, we would work to get her to her Ideal Body Weight Proportions. This second stage would last at least two years, because people can gain, at best, 10% of their Ideal Body Weight in muscle every year. In Susan’s case, that would be 12 pounds per year (119 x .1 = 11.9). Once, after nine weeks, she got down to 119 pounds overall, she would adjust her diet so that she stayed at that weight, with her fat decreasing and her muscle increasing by the same amount.
Susan’s problem was more extreme than Michael’s. He had two options, whereas she only had one. That is, he could have chosen to do only one surgery a day, which would have left him with enough strength and time to recover for the next day. However, that would have cut his income in half, and so was not a realistic option for him. He had to become stronger. Susan, on the other hand, had no energy reserves whatsoever, so she would not have been able to recover even if she spent the whole day in bed. Her only choice was to become stronger.
After years of training clients, we observed with dismay that some of them, even though they exercised and ate properly, were losing muscle instead of fat. We experimented with different approaches to exercising and dieting, but nothing solved the problem. How to reverse this mysterious dynamic occurred to us while we were preparing for the World Weightlifting Championship in 1996.
Because serious weightlifting training causes many fine tears in the muscles, as well as depleting the nervous and hormonal systems, we always followed a training session by sitting in a hot tub to repair those muscles and restore those systems. Nevertheless, although we relaxed our bodies in this way, we were still stressed mentally as we thought about the upcoming competition, and that stress prevented us from recovering fully. Searching for ways to relax our minds, we found that meditation relaxed us the most. At the same time, over a period of weeks, as we studied our daily journals, where we recorded our own measurements, we noticed that we were losing fat while gaining muscle mass. Since the only change in our routines was the addition of meditation, we concluded that meditation must have something to do with the loss of fat.
In analyzing this phenomenon, we thought it might be related to the parasympathetic nervous system. The body has two nervous systems: the sympathetic, which controls action, and the parasympathetic, which controls recovery from action. The first system uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as energy, which helps one to lift; the second system uses fat as energy, which helps one to recover. Therefore, the more relaxed we are after we exercise, the more fat we burn. Athletes use ATP during explosive movements because it is the fastest energy fuel provided by the body. When ATP is depleted, the body burns sugar for energy, then muscle, and finally fat.
Thus, the body burns fat when it is either exhausted or relaxed. We didn’t want to exhaust our clients, but to relax them. In the context of exercise, there are many ways to relax, such as getting a massage or spending time in a sauna, hot tub, or steam room. But these relax the body without necessarily relaxing the mind. To relax both the body and the mind, without the help of other people or complicated equipment, one need only practice daily meditation. We have found, after much experimentation, that this works best combined with aroma therapy and meditative music. For these, a bottle of essential oil and an iPod’ or CD player are all one needs. In The Happy Body program, we use lavender oil and Jules Massenet’s ‘Thai Meditation’ (specifically, the version performed by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra) to relax our clients after they have completed their exercise routines (Figure 5.1). When they have used aroma therapy and music for several weeks, our clients not only lose fat and gain muscle, but they also become calmer, more rational, and more pleasant. Thus, in any exercise program, mental relaxation is just as important as the physical activity. Furthermore, relaxation is just as important outside the context of exercise. We have found, for example, that whenever our clients are nervous or tense, they only have to play the Massenet piece and, like a mantra, it immediately relaxes them.
Rejuvenation is the other essential element of recovery. But it can only make you as youthful as you were yesterday. You cannot improve your youthfulness without knowing when and how to rest. The more work you do, and the more intense it is, the more time you need to take to rejuvenate. For example, sprinters who run 100 meters in 10 seconds may need 8 minutes to fully recover for the next race, whereas the same runners, warming up and completing 100 meters in 15 seconds, may need only 3 minutes to fully recover. This principle applies to performers of any kind. Pianists, for instance, cannot practice indefinitely for a recital. They need to know when to rest and for how long. In fact, everyone is a performer. To be alive is to perform. But if we work too much and rest too little, we exhaust ourselves, and if we work too little and rest too much, we deteriorate.
The question is, how do you know how much to perform and how much to rest? The easiest way is to observe how you feel when you wake up in the morning. If you get out of bed feeling excited about the day and eager to accomplish things, you are fine. But if you get out of bed without enthusiasm and energy for the day, your life is out of balance. So the key to rejuvenation is how you feel first thing in the morning.
Recovery and Relaxation During Exercise
Up to now, we have been talking about recovery and relaxation after exercise. However, in The Happy Body program, we also recover and relax while we exercise. That is, every repetition in the program has three parts: 1. inhaling, 2. moving while holding the breath, and 3. exhaling. It is during this third part that we recover and relax. As we exhale, we are letting go mentally of the previous repetition and releasing the tension we created and developed during the movement. The mental release during exhalation can be thought of as a moment of micro-meditation. This breathing technique, which we adapted from Olympic weightlifting, improves the quality of each repetition by incorporating rest into the activity.
In fact, this breathing technique, which is not used by any other fitness program, helps people to simultaneously achieve all six Standards of Youthfulness. For example, with the exhalation that follows every movement, our clients completely relax every muscle fiber in their bodies. Over time, this elongates the muscles and makes our clients more limber, so that they ultimately achieve The Happy Body Standard of Flexibility. While performing The Happy Body exercises, our clients create an inner observer, especially as they exhale. Like dancers or gymnasts, they develop a heightened awareness of where they are in space and time and of which parts of their bodies are in or out of balance. Gradually, this awareness contributes to achieving The Happy Body Standard of Good Posture.
When our clients are working to achieve The Happy Body Standard of Ideal Body Weight, they want to lose fat, not muscle. Endurance programs, which involve continuous training, cause the loss of muscle because they do not provide for rest between repetitions. Our program, on the other hand, which is a form of interval training, promotes the loss of fat precisely because it provides for rest between repetitions.
Most of our clients – more than 99% of them, in fact – come to us not only needing to lose fat but to gain muscle. The relaxation and the rest that we incorporate into every repetition in the exercises allow muscles to recover and repair themselves, which stimulates them to increase in size. Thus, our interval training promotes The Happy Body Standard of Leanness by correcting the proportion of muscle to fat.
With their bigger muscles, our clients become stronger, but they have not yet fully achieved The Happy Body Standard of Strength. To do that, they must increase the production of the hormones in the brain that stimulate muscle fibers. During every exhalation, the brain has a moment to restore the level of those hormones. Over time, as our clients lift heavier and heavier weights, they elevate the level of those hormones as they relax.
Finally, our clients can have big, strong muscles that have not yet achieved The Happy Body Standard of Speed. To do that, they must accelerate the production and delivery of those hormones that stimulate muscle fibers. Over time, as our clients lift their weights faster and faster, they accelerate the production and delivery of those hormones as they relax.