"I can’t change,” people tell me. “I want to. I can’t.”
Yet the research landscape is changing. And now it’s arguing that small shifts, little changes bit by bit, are more than effective. When interspersed among times of rest, when cells and tissues remake and regenerate themselves, they can make more effective contributions to your health – physical, mental, social and spiritual.
Behavioral change is challenging. For many who feel ill, they may appear insuperable. The example of interval exercise training is just one example of how human body programming can be rewritten, quickly and expeditiously. Exercise is just the start – food and rest can also be redone in small yet significant ways.
You don't just run long. You run short distances. Fast.
To win the distance races you needed to sprint. The body then redeveloped. Muscles quickly changed, joints reconfigured. Most importantly, the brain changed, and all the interconnections thereof. The body as information system was reintegrated and rebuilt, making it faster for the long and short haul.
Today, short fast intervals, of ten to sixty seconds at a time, are thought by researchers to reset insulin sensitivity. If people moving fast just two to four minutes total a day can markedly decrease their risk of diabetes, that would be a huge public health success. Some researchers are starting to argue that one minute's exercise a day, done absolutely flat out, may produce major improvements in sedentary folk's physical health.
Fortunately such fast intervals can be tried almost anywhere. You can walk up and down stairs as fast as you can. Do squats. Walk fifty seconds at your standard pace, then ten seconds racewalking, shifting back and forth on your way to work.
One great advantage of interval training's is that it can be performed as part of humdrum, ordinary activity. Telemarketers wired into headsets still need to go to the lavatory. If you have a stairs, you have a ready made workout place.
How does interval training work biologically? Short bursts may – may – turn on hundreds of muscle relatively quiescent muscle genes. Muscle cells may create proteins that reach the brain and lead to new brain cell growth. Heart muscle cells may change their configuration and integration.
It remains unclear what truly happens. But it’s a lot. And interval training can be used by someone with only seconds at a time, applied throughout the day. That gives the body a chance to rest, to remake and repair itself before the next burst.
It’s already becoming clear three ten minute walking bouts are better for overall conditioning than thirty minutes at a time.
The science behind interval training has a long way to go. But behind all interval training’s helpfulness lies rest – the time the body uses to intelligently remake itself.
Several years ago an editor told me no one would be interested in rest unless it could “be done quickly.” What if, I asked her, I provided dozens of techniques that could be performed in a minute or less?
That might work, she said.
So I wrote “The Power of Rest.” Personally, my favorite daily technique is Paradoxical Relaxation. What better way to engage rest than by not relaxing? Paradoxical relaxation uses attention as the way to bring the body to Herb Benson’s relaxation response in a matter of seconds.
Though many wish to rest and restore anyplace and anywhere, more are interested in a surprisingly rare commodity – sleep. Today, people don’t get enough sleep.
That’s why there are naps.
Before industrialization, humans napped routinely. Now many Fortune 500 companies will fine or fire people found napping on the job.
Naps as short as six minutes have been found to help people recharge. Naps longer than a half hour often move us into “deeper” phases of sleep that leave us with “sleep inertia,” the awful leaden feeling of rising out of sleep prematurely and semi-consciously.
So ten or fifteen minute naps can greatly help people feel more alert and alive throughout the rest of the day. It can make them more capable of getting work done more effectively, and having the time and energy for interval exercise training.
How can you learn to nap? If worksites are impossible (and many people can quickly adjust to napping in chairs) you start nap training on non-work days.
Find a comfortable place to lie down or sit. Put a nightmask over your eyes to cut light exposure and behaviorally tell your brain it’s sleeptime. Set your cellphone or watch to chime at ten or fifteen minutes.
Then let your mind wander. To the dreams you'd like to have that night. To tropical seas brimming with spectacular species. To the best hike or walk you ever had.
If your chime wakes you before you think you've slept, do not despair. You will still have some useful rest. About half of people who get into stage 1 sleep, even for ten minutes, don’t think they slept at all (we are often quite poor at knowing when we’re in slumber, a major problem on the roads.)
Little bits count. They count in exercise, in resting, in eating. Choosing vegetables rather than bread can start a major shift in one’s diet and weight. And continuing activity, even for short intervals, reshapes body and brain.
The body is intelligent. Treat it as smart and it gets smarter. Balancing activity with rest has worked for thousands of years.
Why don’t you try it?