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Numbers vs Your Body

Numbers vs Your Body

Fitness today is all about numbers—or “metrics” to use the current word. Doctors have long measured our height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate. More recently, they’ve added BMI (Body Mass Index), glucose levels, bone density, and more. Patients leave the office with a bundle of statistics.

Numbers vs Your Body

Meanwhile, the old-school diet industry classically adds up calories in/calories out, while Atkins, the Zone, and keto plan and measure carb/protein ratios

Food Pyramid

Amateur and professional athletes compete for measurable numbers: times and distances, batting averages, touchdowns, baskets.

Swimmer

Modern technology has evolved a battery of devices to monitor our own stats, starting with wearable heart-rate monitors and spawning the whole Fitbit/smart-watch industry. I know people who constantly check their heart rate, blood pressure, BMI, calories consumed and burned, steps walked, miles run, laps swum, etc. It occurs to me that these DYI tools are designed for solitary workouts, and I’m also wondering if we are trending away from group activities and team sports to more solo fitness: Think the rise of marathons/half-marathons/Iron Mans, triathlons, paddleboarding, open-water swimming, spinning, jogging, and walking. (Shout out to pickleball, a notoriously social sport, for bucking this trend! Tho my friends who pickle frequently check their apps to update their status and vie for partners). Hopefully, we’re just more active in general and more conscious of why we’re working out, of our physical goals and how successfully we reach them.

While I gave away my Fitbit and eschew bean counting as much as possible (more below on why), I do see the value in watching the numbers. I get bone-density scans annually and do a prescribed amount of time weekly on a Power Plate to boost my numbers. My Fitbit went to a friend who was doing an office weight-loss challenge (she won!). Being aware of her daily footsteps led her to commute on foot daily for the first time in her life (she was in her seventies).

Footsteps

Diabetics should absolutely check their blood-sugar levels, and anyone with hypertension needs to keep an eye on blood pressure.

But what’s missing in this preoccupation with numbers is how our bodies feel—the inner wisdom of what we truly need at any given moment. Our bodies change from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Some days we are sick, or tired, or stressed out. Hormonal shifts take their toll. The weather fluctuates: Cold and hot temps, gusty winds, strong currents, high or low humidity, and seasonal shifts in daylight all affect how we feel and how we function. And of course we are all aging. . . .

Lifelong fitness adapts to these changes, the highs and the lows. It seems to me, for instance, that if your energy is low on a given day, and it’s a day marked for a long pre-marathon run, you would be wise to alter your program and ease up. If you can’t get in 10,000 steps because of a 14-hour overseas light or a long car trip, so be it!

I released the Fitbit when I found I was competing with myself, berating myself if yesterday’s count was higher than today’s. Like Bridget Jones I was turning my self-esteem over the power of numbers. Here’s a daily tally from her diary, with her requisite excuses and rationalizations:

129 lbs. (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5424.

In addition to a battered ego, I’ve learned the hard way that working out when depleted is a shortcut to injuries. Plus it’s just no fun forcing activity on a body that needs rest. This is a form of obsessive-compulsive disease: tuning out reality in favor of rigid thinking and behavior.

Workout rigidity also takes its toll on our lives. Back in my Ashtanga yoga days, I was in the studio and on the mat by 6:45am, six days a week, including weekends and holidays. Sometimes practice was so hard that I felt drained throughout the day and had to force myself to stay upbeat and attentive with my own students. I went to bed so early that I stopped making evening plans with friends, and my social life dwindled. My practice advanced, but my life plateaued and then shrank.

Ashtanga

Yoga, paradoxically, introduces its own array of numbers. Pranayama, or breathwork, imposes artificial lengths on inhales, exhales, and retentions. Many of us count how long we hold poses. Ashtanga yoga has six series, and students advance through them progressively; many yoga studios offer level 1, 2, and 3 classes.

But at the core of yoga is svadhyaya, or self-study. What contemporary Buddhism calls mindfulness. Yoga encourages us to turn within and get to know ourselves on all levels: psychic, emotional, mental, and physical. The practices developed through centuries of yogis experimenting with different physical and respiratory exercises and noting their effects on their energy, minds, and bodies.

In the Yoga Sutra, svadhyaya is framed by two other qualities of successful practice: tapas and ishvara pranidhana. Tapas is the effort we must put in to do anything, and anyone dedicated to physical fitness knows that some days are easier than others. Without tapas we wouldn’t get out of bed most mornings, much less train for a triathlon or compete against our fellow spinners. Ishvara pranidhana is surrender, softening, humbling ourselves, decoupling from the ego and egotistical. Effort without surrender or humility grows harsh; surrender without effort engenders complacency.

A little moment-by-moment, breath-by-breath self-study is the humane and intelligent way to move through life—and to ensure that you can move through life in the best way possible!

Life is way more than a numbers game! The bonus: When you tune into yourself, you also tune into the world around you. You can feel the wind on your face, the water floating you, the ground supporting you. You may notice the marvelous evidence of natural and human creation in surrounding fields and trees and sunsets and skyscrapers and roadways; notice the people and creatures who share your space.  Every moment you check a screen, submit to a number, is a moment lost. And you can’t get time back!

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