Yoga, t’ai chi, pilates, and the specific goals of exercise
The last two blog posts were about a few relatively easy and natural forms of exercise (dancing, walking, swimming, gardening). What they have in common is that they’re all forms you can practise on your own. Let’s look at three other forms today, that are organized forms of exercise.
But first, remember that whatever form you choose, the medical recommendation is typically summarized as needing 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, preferably spread through the week and not all at once. Or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity, but if you’re into strenuous activity you’ll already be more advanced than the readers at whom I’m directing this. (Or, if you’re a numbers person, any combination for which your moderate activity plus twice your high-intensity activity adds up to 150 minutes.)
A good program involves four types of exercise or activity. Let’s identify them separately, with some examples for each; but in fact many forms of activity are not really focused on one, but involve two or more.
- Endurance: Aerobic activities that get your heart pumping, like brisk walking or jogging, climbing stairs, swimming, dancing, riding a bike, yard work.
- Strength: Lift weights, stretch bands, carry groceries, grip a tennis ball. By the way: breathe out as you lift or stretch or push, breathe in as you relax.
- Balance: Stand on one foot. The heel-to-toe walk. Stand from a seated position.
- Flexibility: Stretch various muscles (but not until after you’ve warmed up).
OK, now to the three specific group forms I mentioned.
Yoga is a combination of strength and flexibility exercises, balance, breathing and meditation. It practices slow dynamic movements, rather than rapid forceful movements. It focuses on breathing in a controlled way, rather than taxing your breath. It relaxes you and relieves stress, rather than tires you out, as aerobic exercise does. It’s typically not strenuous enough to count toward your regime of moderate activity. But it’s particularly appropriate for older adults at risk of falls, and for those who seek a combination of strength, pain reduction and mental awareness.
T’ai chi involves gentle physical exercises and stretches, combining deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements. It’s different from yoga. It uses slow, flowing motions with natural breathing rather than yoga’s more static postures and explicit breathing techniques. It’s generally performed standing, where yoga can involve standing, sitting, kneeling and lying down. It’s even more focused on balance than yoga is. Like yoga, t’ai chi typically does not count toward your regime of moderate activity.
Which might you prefer? Try them both and find out! Both can be adapted for your ability, so it’s important to find an instructor who is aware of your limitations.
Because of their mental benefits, practitioners of yoga and t’ai chi may choose to add explicitly aerobic activities to complement the benefits they get from yoga and t’ai chi.
Pilates uses mats and special apparatus, and aims to strengthen the whole body in an even way, with particular emphasis on core strength, low impact flexibility, balance and endurance. Unlike yoga and t’ai chi, but like traditional aerobic exercise, pilates uses resistance and is draining, and counts as aerobic activity.
You’ll notice that there are many overlaps across these forms of exercises. I encourage you to dig deeper, if one of these initial brief descriptions intrigues you. You’ll find a lot more depth, as I’ve only skimmed the surface.
For example, let me go a little bit more deeply into yoga. Its physical movements (called asanas) were essentially started to get the restlessness out of your body, so that you can get ready to sit still and meditate – that’s why people think of yoga as calming. The breathing exercises are called pranayama, prana meaning energy. Many yoga practices link breathing and movement, to help control your energy in a particular direction. For example, some breathing exercises focus on inhaling vigorously, to stimulate your energy (the way you inhale vigorously when you’re startled); others focus on exhaling in a long, slow, steady way, to soothe and calm you. Other breathing exercises simply involve noticing how you breathe (like “my exhales are naturally longer than my inhales”) but in a non-judgmental way (so you don’t think: “Oh, I’m exhaling too long, that must be why I don’t feel energetic”) – in fact, that leads to acceptance. And the idea behind acceptance is that you can then work with whatever situation you’re in as it is, rather than rejecting it and trying to change it, which will generally cause additional frustration or anger or resentment.
So all of this helps your brain to calm down. (See this blog post for more about the brain.)
Dig even deeper into yoga, and you’ll find that these days there are many kinds of yoga. The idea that yoga is slow and not aerobic has led to the creation of power yoga, rocket yoga, and who knows what other forms of sweatier yoga: new ones form all the time. So check what’s available near you.
Anyway, you see what I mean. All of these organized forms of exercise are far more interesting than this quick overview suggests.
Takeaway (for the last 3 blog posts together)
Dancing brings many joys and benefits. But if you don’t like it, there are many other forms of exercise to choose from, for example walking, swimming, gardening, in addition to organized exercises like yoga, t’ai chi and pilates. The overall physical benefits are endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.
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I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.