"Know that you are capable. You can move forward."

Deborah Robinson with Dr. Barb

Deborah RobinsonDeborah Robinson is president and CEO of Fitness Choice Enterprises, as well as program director for The Foundation for Sports Conditioning. Her interest bloomed from athletic and dance engagement in high school and college, leading to a practice in helping teams and individuals to improve overall strength, dynamic flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, balance, and trunk stability, all of which enhance health and quality of life.

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Barb: Joining me for conversation today is Deborah Robinson. Deborah has been an expert in fitness and sports training for many years. Early in her career, she was an aerobics instructor at Jane Fonda Workout Studios, and appeared in several of her workout videos. You may have seen her. She’s worked with a number of professional and academic sports teams. The company she now leads, Fitness Choice Enterprises, offers personal fitness training in southern California for people aged 13 to 93. Welcome! Thanks for joining me!

Deborah: Hi there Barbara. How are you doing?

Barb: I wanted to start out by talking about what obviously you know best. In my area I have a lot of conversations with women about fitness and wellness, and what I’ve read about your work describes a very comprehensive approach to fitness; that you’re focusing on strength, flexibility, balance, cardiovascular health. I obviously admire and value that comprehensive approach. I’m just wondering about how you bring this to your client, and how you incorporate such a broad approach to this.

The goal is physical literacy.Deborah: Well, I let the body of the client tell me exactly what it needs through evaluation and just talking to the client to see what they can tolerate. My oldest client is actually 97, and I’ve been with her since she was 81 years old. She is pushing up, she is doing agility ladder; if you know anything about that, that’s the square things that professional athletes use to make their feet a little faster. She’s doing that at 97 years old. I clap my hands every time I see her because [laughs] if I’m allowed to live that long, I’d want to be as mobile as she is. And also, Barb, the goal in my practice is to help a person with physical literacy; teaching them how to manage their body in space as they move around in everyday life.

Barb: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term, physical literacy, but it’s a great way of communicating, again, what you are trying to do: that more broad sense of being.

Deborah: Yes. Exactly.

Barb: What are some of the things you do with an individual when you talk about initial assessments?

Deborah: Well, I’m looking at their balance. For instance, can they stand on one leg, can they maintain that for a count of ten? Which leg is weaker? I also have them close their eyes and do the same balance test. Then I go into a dynamic test where they are moving from side to side and holding that balance for again a count of ten. Mobility in the shoulder joint, trying to understand what that’s about. Can they sit down and stand comfortably and with control? And can they do it ten times without being out of breath?

So you do an assessment, especially with a 90-plus year old, that’s easy, but if you know after two repetitions they’re having trouble, obviously you don’t go to ten. The assessments would again depend on the person. Now I have a person 58 years old, I just started with her maybe 3 months ago. We went through a series of assessments. You know, what was her core strength, what was her flexibility, what was her extensor muscles in her back, what were they like? Then you make a decision whether or not should I train her or should she go to the physical therapist first? In her case, it was the physical therapist because she had movement patterns that weren’t quite right. So if we move with a movement pattern that isn’t quite right, it’s best to have a physical therapist look at them first so that you lower your risk of injury. So that’s kind of how I do it.

Barb: Yes, that’s fascinating because for so many women who I interact with, remaining active becomes somewhat of an obstacle because they are working with plantar fasciitis or a sore hip or a bad shoulder, and so in the midst of my day it’s hard for me to necessarily recommend what kind of a fitness routine they might be able to do and it’s certainly not my expertise, so I can’t make that recommendation.

So, having them see a physical therapist is oftentimes a good place to start if people are working around an injury or are most trainers pretty well trained to make those assessments?

Deborah: One has to do it case by case, more or less.  If it’s something that they have already gone through a physical therapist with, then the best choice is for the coach, the trainer, to call the PT and say, “What’s the deal? What was the end result, and how can I help them based on what you know about them?” Because, remember, you are seeing this person for the first time. It’s not like you’ve known them. You got to get a history, and an assessment, and an understanding after you’ve watched how they move, too. And if it’s to go back to the physical therapist, then the coach should go with the person, so you both have an idea and you work as a team in a collaborative experience rather than, you know, me knowing everything, because I don’t know everything. But, I can know more as I get more information.

Barb: Do you refer to yourself as a trainer or a coach?

Deborah: I actually like “fitness professional” because I’ve worked with teams. You can’t really call me a personal trainer. You can’t call me a trainer; really I’m more of a strength and conditioning specialist in that venue. I call myself a fitness professional. I do a lot of things with a lot of people if the situation presents itself.

Barb: What areas do you find especially valuable to women as they grow older? Do you have a couple of general recommendations for women to keep in the forefront of their awareness just to try to improve the aging process?

Deborah: Keep moving correctly. Keep moving with good mechanics… feet straight, pushing off of your feet.  Feet are very, very important and somehow or another, we forget that they are attached to us! You know? [laughs]

I know they are in shoes, we don’t see them a lot, we go to get our pedicures, but doggone, those feet need to be massaged, you need the balls on them, they need to be alive, the blood needs to circulate, you need to separate your toes because you need to push off of them. If you start to walk like a duck, there’s a problem. [laughs]

Barb: [Laughs] Interesting!

Deborah: You need to keep the feet straight so you can turn on your buttocks. If your buttocks is flat, then that’s a problem. Your back doesn’t have much support. There is a reason why all these muscles in our bodies exist. It’s not just for the pretty pants, it’s not just for the shape we want to look at. It is absolutely there for a purpose to maintain mobility in our bodies.

Barb: As you are talking about some of this, and as a gynecologist and thinking about the dynamic of the connectedness, I’m wondering if you have awareness or speak into pelvic floor and the importance of pelvic floor health for women as well.

Deborah: Let me share! [laughs]

Barb: Please do! [laughs]

Deborah: Okay, I have to admit, I just had my first experience with a pelvic floor practitioner. Wow! What an education that was. My 97-year old has a problem with incontinence. Her urologist told her to go to a pelvic floor practitioner, and I went with her. What a wonderful experience we had together!

By learning and understanding what Kegels mean–I don’t think we really understand what they mean. I don’t think we are teaching it properly, in my profession, because we don’t spend enough time on that. But that pelvic floor is extremely important to know how to do the Kegels, and to do them well.

One of the exercises was to stop your urine. You know, you stop your urine, you urinate, stop your urine, urinate. That gives you ideas of how you can control your urine–and that’s just one of them. That was a good experience, and if anyone can find a pelvic floor practitioner, and if you teach it, Doctor, they should definitely understand what that means because it will definitely help them and keep them away from Depends.

Barb: Yes, and I would agree. Pelvic floor therapists are great people to have on our teams. And I think it extends sometimes to posture and back pain, and even things even beyond bladder and bowel function. As you mention, the feet and not always having awareness of their critical path in how we function. I think pelvic floor can be one of the sneaky areas too that we tend to ignore and maybe don’t put enough emphasis or importance on its function.

Deborah: And you brought up another critical: core. You know you hear the word core all the time. Core exercise. Core exercise. What is that all about?

We are all athletes, actually, at different levels of intensity.The core exercises transfer into performance. It’s not just an exercise. It is to teach you how to maintain core strength. Dr. Stewart McGill said, “It’s a brace.” You brace yourself when you pick up your child. You brace yourself when you pick up a bucket of water, and knowing that that exercise transfers into their everyday life. We don’t emphasize that enough. Because it does. We are performers. We have to perform because we are all athletes, actually, on different levels – different levels of intensity. But we are still athletes because we have to get up and perform, just like your professional athlete has to perform. We just perform differently, right?

Barb: Exactly.

Deborah: We need to understand what those exercises are and how they transfer into making the bed, how they transfer into reaching for something. And those shoulder blades! Man, if I could glue them onto somebody’s back, I would glue them down! Because that’s part of posture. Those shoulder blades need to be down. Not necessarily squeezed together, but at least down and with the chest so you can breathe better. You know all of these things go into moving.

Barb: Yes, interesting.

I recently published a blog post about menopausal weight gain and how women often approach and go through menopause, and weight gain, not always, but often is a part of that. I think it’s not always well understood or anticipated, and many women do find themselves 10 to 20 pounds heavier at age 55 or 65 than they were when they were 45. I’m just wondering if your professional experience would have any insight into that or what you might recommend. Is part of your expertise also around weight and nutrition?

Deborah: You know what I do in terms of nutrition? I have a wonderful friend that has published about four books, and she’s a nutritionist. Her name is Susan Dopart, and she is my go-to for nutrition because she can sit down, and she can talk to the client. And then what I do, I just do simple “let’s talk about it.” Are you being clean? And then in terms of intensity, we work as hard as they can.

Keep moving.The encouragement is to keep moving because we get more inactive as we get older. We don’t get more active. When we were younger, we were more active. Whether that was with kids, or things to do, or work or whatever, we’re kind of retired and we’re not moving. So the encouragement to move, to walk, to push, to pull, to move side to side, move in your house – you know, watch TV and march in place. You know things that you’ve got to do to help with that weight gain, you know to just increase the movement patterns. Just increase; increase your movement.

That’s about what happens when I meet a 58-year old person that is 20 pounds overweight. Listening to her, her kids are older, she’s not moving enough. And then also, if there’s hormone therapy they need, then that’s another referral. Because, again, I don’t know everything, but I do know some things. [laughs]

Barb: Yes, so that 58-year old who is probably going to be in my office tomorrow. [laughs]

What sorts of things do you use to encourage people to just move more? I think our culture has incorporated being sedentary in such a huge way, and I’m just wondering if you have phrases or ways to communicate encouragement or simple things, you know something other than going to the gym for 45 minutes?

We have choices... we have a choice to be active.Deborah: You know what’s interesting? I just left that 58-year old, and she did an incredible job. We’ve been together for a short period of time. Okay, what has helped her? I can only talk about her. What has helped her is her body awareness. Understanding where her body is in place in space, and understanding where to put herself. Secondly, to understand that she can move, she can be more active. It’s a choice. We have choices. We have a choice not to be active, and we have a choice to be active. And then decide what intensity that is at the right time. You’ve got choices.

You have to encourage yourself. You have to sit down and say, “I can do this, and I have the will to do this.” “I’m able to do this.” “I may have to do it slower, and that is okay.” Be okay with where you are. Be okay with where you are because where you are is okay! Again, it’s okay! Just start. They just have to start. Step out of the bed and begin to walk. And walk up and down the hall more times than you did yesterday.

Barb: So, it’s never too late to start.

Deborah: Absolutely, never. The 81-year old, if she would have given it up, she never had exercised before when she was 81, and it was all about taking it slow. Having her get the confidence in herself, not in me. In herself, knowing she’s able to do something. And at 97, she’s still exercising! Like I said, pushing on the edge of the desk, doing agility ladder, if you know anything about a TRX–look it up–she is pulling her own body weight, she’s pulling tubing, she sits and stands for 12, with 5-pound weights in each hand. She can pick up her dog, Polly! [laughs]

Barb: Right! When you think about the importance of bending over and picking up a dog, and how that enriches a person’s life! The mechanics required to do that really are pretty remarkable! It doesn’t take long to imagine how it’s important to keep up some of that function.

Deborah: Yes, and progression is the key. You don’t go somewhere and they start you out at 100 – no! You go from zero to 1 . You know, start off slow because then you keep exercise adherence. You will exercise longer, you will want to exercise because you won’t get discouraged. The key is not to be discouraged.

If you walk into a gym and you don’t want to take that evaluation because you don’t want to hear it, talk to the person and see if they can figure out something else so you can start to exercise. I mean, you’ve got to be your own boss. This is your body. Don’t be a victim of anything because that’s the other thing. You know, you can’t be a victim of the gym, or any coach or anybody. You are in control here. It’s your body.

Barb: And for those women who might feel intimidated by a gym or a trainer, or the affordability of a gym or a trainer, is it possible? Do you have any resources that you can direct individuals to as far as online or apps? Do you have a couple of favorites that you utilize in your populations?

Deborah: You know, I really can’t say I use an app. Walking to me is the easiest thing to do. Just start walking, drinking more water and eating as clean as you can. Get away from some of those processed foods. And just start walking and then think about going to a gym in your area, stand there and watch a class, or talk with someone and see if you want to be there.

But just start walking. There’s nothing wrong with walking, even if it’s the mall. Walk in the mall. Go up the stairs. Walk around. Don’t stop and look in the stores [laughs], just keep walking.

Okay, today I’m going to walk five minutes, and then if I have to sit down, I will. And then I’ll get up and walk another five minutes. And just do that until you begin to get stronger. Everyone has a mall everywhere. I just totally know this! [laughs] Because they want to sell things. The malls are safe and they are easy.

Barb: Yes, yes, good!

I’ve heard that you have recently taken up competitive power lifting! Is that factual?

Deborah: Ah, yeah… let me tell you about that!

Barb: Yes, please do!

Deborah: [laughs] Okay, I’m 66, so I’m not a kid. I dance professionally and I ran track, I high-jumped, you know – in dirt – it’s so easy. It was definitely not those beautiful little rubber things, you know padded things that they do now, and I did what is called a roll. I like high intensity, and I’m a little crazy. Okay, as long as I’m crazy by myself, I’m good.

[Deborah and Barb laugh]

Deborah: I am a competitive weight lifter. I do Olympic lifts. I snatch, clean, and jerk in competition, in my age group. My next meet is August sixth . I’m excited. I’m always “can’t wait to get to the gym.” This is not something you do at home, by the way, and I wouldn’t advise it if you’re not really into heavy weights.

Now in terms of bones… can I tell you about bones and heavy weight?

Barb: Yes please!

Deborah: My bone density increased tremendously when I started to snatch, clean, and jerk, when I started Olympic lifting. Yah!

Barb: Yeah, we do talk about that resistance work and, while it doesn’t have to be Olympic style, it can be something less than that. I think again, we forget about our upper bodies, don’t we, and the importance of doing something with some resistance.

Deborah: Yes. And in order for the bones to really respond, you can’t do high repetitions with 5 weights/5 pounds. You have to have a little weight on that so that 12 reps, 11-12 should be difficult.

Barb: How much training does it take in your average week to be able to continue to compete at the level you are competing?

Deborah: I’m in the gym three days a week for about an hour and a half. But, understand this is not like the gym. If I am getting 80 pounds over my head, I’ve got to say I’ve got to sit down for a minute! [laughs with Barb]

Barb: I’ve only said that this is audio only and not video because I’d love to see a demonstration and see you at it!  [laughs with Deborah]

Deborah: If someone is there on August 6, maybe I can send you a video of the competition.

Barb: That would be great! Are there other women – you’ve disclosed your age – are there other women near your age doing this sport, or do they have to put you in a category with much younger women because there aren’t other mature women, so to speak, doing this?

Deborah: No! I’m a master’s athlete in weightlifting. There is a whole bunch of us!

Barb: Cool!

Deborah: My teammate is 71! My goal is to beat Laurie. She can’t beat me! [laughs]

Barb: That’s great! Well, you are certainly an inspiration to hear about possibilities and that incentive to just push a little bit more. Like you said, just always progress. Just always a little bit more. I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as well.

What are some of the rewards in the work you’ve been doing in fitness? Can you summarize it in a couple of points?

Deborah: Some of my rewards is to watch the teenage athletes that I’ve trained – I trained a girls’ basketball team for eight seasons here in California – and to watch those little girls – if I can say little, they are short. Now you know basketball is typically a tall-person sport. But they had so much conditioning that they out ran the taller girl and would out shoot them – in the fourth quarter. That was exciting! To me that was absolutely one of those “cry-able” moments.

All my children, oh my God! And to watch my 97-year old still have the will to move and to appreciate her body that she has. That’s another “cry-able” moment, you know. Where you go, “Wow! That’s so awesome!” And to watch another person fight through some of their own physical stuff and embrace themselves as they are. That’s another physical moment that I’ve had with people – not a physical but an emotional moment – I’ve had with people. I think those are some of my big points.

Barb: It is! It’s remarkable changes that are occurring with you, I’m sure. And I just go back to in health care what we understand is that a body in motion stays in motion, and that, like you mentioned early on, going from sitting to standing, how important that is in remaining in your own home and able to do some of your own things. Again, I think we forget that we are aging, and someday we are going to be aged. Hopefully live that long and the necessity to remain independent depends on the functionality. It’s great to hear your words of encouragement to kind of keep moving forward for women.

Do you have any other important points that you’d like to share with the audience today, Deborah?

Know that you are capable. You can move forward.Deborah: I think I’ve covered most everything, other than just saying that you have to know that you are capable. You can move forward. It doesn’t matter where you are. Just start doing something, even if that means clapping your hands more. It’s still moving. Even if that means you’re reaching up and down while you are sitting down. It’s still moving. And I was reading an article about, in the car being fidgety, in the car – it’s still moving. You don’t have to sit there and just be still, especially when you are in LA with the 405 – oh my God – [laughs] – you’re going start dancing otherwise you’re going to start screaming! [laughs]

So just move. And it doesn’t matter how small. You just have to start.

Barb: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate your work and your insights and what you were willing to share with our listeners.

Deborah: Thank you Barb. It’s been a pleasure.  

After her competition on August 6, Deborah did provide a video! Watch and marvel:



August 29, 2017


aging ›   exercise ›   gravity ›   health ›   movement ›  

“The body is designed to move all day long.”

Dr. Joan Vernikos with Dr. Barb 

Dr. Joan VernikosDr. Joan Vernikos retired in 2000 as director of Life Sciences at NASA, where she was both a researcher and an administrator. Initially recruited by NASA because of her expertise in stress, she pioneered research on how living without gravity affected the health and post-flight recovery of astronauts. She’s published several books on gravity, aging, and stress, including The G Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging, Stress Fitness for Seniors, and Sitting Kills, Moving Heals. When she isn’t writing or keeping herself in motion, Dr. Joan consults with organizations on product development and whole workplace design, and serves as chair of the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine’s Institute for Space, Health, and Aging.

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Barb: Our guest for conversation today is Dr Joan Vernikos, who inspires me in so many ways. Joan has been a leading researcher in health, retiring from NASA as the director of Life Sciences. She has continued to work as an author, health coach, and speaker, sharing what she learned through the study of stress and gravity and how they work on our bodies. She published Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, which continues to get well-deserved attention, and Stress Fitness for Seniors as well. Welcome, Joan, thank you for joining me today.

Joan: Thank you very much for inviting me. I look forward to it.

Barb: I think that we share a passion for science, both of us having had our backgrounds primarily in science. For me it was the science of medicine. For you it was probably a bit more broad than that. One of your books is called, Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging. Certainly the idea of reversing aging is probably a topic that Americans could be consumed by, but I’m interested if you could expand to your today knowledge and help me understand more about: What role does gravity play? And what do you mean by this idea of reversing aging?

Joan: Well, the studies I did at NASA involved the question of how does gravity, or living with minimum gravity—which is 10 to the minus 5 in space, not absolute zero, people call it zero-gravity, but it isn’t—we call it micro gravity. And the studies that we did, there were of course very few astronauts who flew, so we had good data, but few data.

So we had to do something about expanding our knowledge on ground research. When we are on the ground we have gravity around us all the time, pulling in one direction, only towards the center of the earth. But, some German and Russian scientists had developed a model—simulation model—for studying the effects of reduced gravity. By lying in bed, for example, when you lie in bed, when you stand up, gravity pulls through your body in a head-to-toe direction. When you lie in bed, it pulls across your chest. So the vertical influence of gravity is diminished to a very low level. And the changes that accompanied lying in bed for example 24 hours a day, mind you—you don’t get up at all—are very similar to those we see in astronauts. Granted, maybe a little less intense.

So we used that model, I certainly introduced it from the Russians, we used that model extensively to study the effects of lying in bed for long periods of time. In fact, you don’t need to lie in bed too long, in as little as four days, well even one day, but four days you get very significant changes and my early studies were seven days and went on to thirty days. With where we could do both provocative and monitoring observation of work, on fluid metabolism, on metabolic cardiovascular changes and responses to stress, hormonal… Whatever we could do and wherever we could get collaboration from our colleagues in the broad science community, to join us to get expertise, to join us.

That’s the studies I really did. And during one of the early studies, I happened to visit a friend’s mother in a nursing home. She happened to be Greek, didn’t speak any English, ended up in a nursing home and, of course, didn’t budge from bed and she was terrified to get up. And she declined rapidly, as you can imagine. And since I was doing these studies I went in the evenings to see her. And I looked around and many of the changes were very similar to what I was seeing in my volunteers. And that got me thinking, and I thought, well, yeah, these are age-like changes, the loss of muscle, loss in bones, the orthostatic hypertension—the loss of pressure when you stand up, balance problems when you stand up again, and coordination. For starters, reduced plasma volume of 10 to 20 percent reduction in blood volume.

I was intrigued, well, yes, fine, but obviously my subjects are not getting old in bed. Because, after all when they do say, get up and move about they recover, as do astronauts when they return from short missions in the shuttle, which in those days was four to seven days. And of course, what’s happened, to cut a very long story short, astronauts now don’t recover in many areas. After six months—we have a lot of astronauts now who have been in space for six months—one in fact lost 30 percent bone in six months—bone density.

Barb: Whoa, that’s amazing.

Joan: That is amazing. But there are a couple who haven’t lost very much at all. So it is a very interesting phenomenon and I’ve been trying to encourage my colleagues to look at their genetic code—their DNA. Because obviously, there must be a predisposition somewhere. But that hasn’t been done yet as far as I know.

Barb: So, in summary, gravity really is our friend.

Gravity is our friend. Joan: Gravity is our friend. So, the conclusion I came to was, okay, in space you have minimum gravity. In lying in bed you have reduced the influence of gravity. But what about the rest of us as we get older? Well the only way I could explain it is, we use gravity less and less and less. From 20 on, when perhaps, we have peak development, to whenever we reach what I call “the risk zone,” when you start breaking bones and falling over, which, in the early days, used to be around 80, and now, unfortunately, it’s getting earlier and earlier.

So, this trajectory from age 20 to age 60, 50 or 80 or 90, when you reach the risk zone, I attribute to a great extent to reduced activity. What I call moving. It’s not exercise. We can jump to that topic in a while.

Barb: Yes, I think that’s a really, really important message you just shared. I think now, moving into that discussion, as a health care provider, as a physician for women’s health, most of my days, most of my patients, I’m trying to encourage them to improve their health and wellness, and much of my message is around exercise and trying to get them to move more. You indicate that there’s a difference between movement and exercise and I’m not sure I’ve appreciated that there’s a difference, and maybe I need to change the message I’m giving my patients. I’d be interested in having you share a little bit more about how you see the difference between movement and exercise, and how we can better inform our listeners and people like me who are interacting with individuals and trying to improve their lifestyle and therefore, wellness.

Joan: I’m delighted to have the opportunity to do it.

I discovered this as I went along, really looking back at the data and thinking it through. What became obvious to me is that the earth goes around, and as the earth goes around we have night and we have day. During the night we go lay down to sleep. And when we lie down, it’s like my bed is subject to gravity, and the effect is reduced, but it hasn’t changed, but our orientation to gravity is such that the influence of gravity is reduced. And then we have day, we have light, and we have day. And what do we do? Well what do you do when it is daylight? I’m asking you.

Barb: I start my day, and I get up, and I spend my day in motion, mostly.

Joan: Ah, you said the key word—you get up. And it is amazing how difficult it is to get audience members to come up with that simple thing. [laughs]

The first thing you do is you open your eyes, and pretty soon you stand up. And then you go to the bathroom and you make your coffee and all the other things. But from the moment you get up until you go back to bed when it’s dark again, or it’s night—you move.

Our parents and grandparents used to move all day long.And certainly our parents and grandparents used to move all day long, as a consequence of living. Because they had to move, they bent over and reached up and made beds and cleaned and washed and gardened. And went and bought groceries and walked home or rode a bicycle, or whatever. But they moved all day long and did it until it was time again to go back to bed. Our ancestors just, they didn’t have chairs, but they squatted and they stood, and they squatted and they stood and they went searching for food, or whatever they did. Once in awhile they would chase or were chased by a wild animal. But, they would build and cook and get wood to do it and so on.

So, the body is designed to move all day long. Not to sit and not just stand. Now, the literature when I wrote my Sitting Kills book, there was no research that was cause and effect with sitting and consequences. There was research that looked at diabetic predisposition and how sitting worsened diabetic predisposition. That, in fact within thirty minutes you can get an increase in triglycerides in a non-diabetic person. Which is fascinating to me, because it takes thirty minutes to see a doctor most of the time and you're sitting in that time. Or you’ve driven an hour to get there—that’s a difference subject.

The body is designed to move all day long, not to just sit or just stand.You then, gradually between 2011 when that book came out and now, there have been a fantastical number of studies—mostly meta-analysis and I have my reservations about them, but they do serve a purpose. That absolutely—that sitting makes worse absolutely everything. Whether you’re talking about cancer—prostate, breast cancer, cardiovascular conditions, stroke, metabolic conditions, diabetes, obesity—you name it, it makes it worse.

Now, as an interesting bit of information, what has become even more interesting, because I used to talk about moving as the foundation of activity. Then you can add onto that exercise up to becoming an elite athlete where you really do all kinds of exercise-specific programs. But, you can’t exercise without the foundation. Studies have come out, clinical studies, showing that when you have people sitting for a long period of time, that most of us do these days, unfortunately. You might exercise once a day, but exercising once a day does not counteract the effect of sitting these hours of sitting, okay?

Even there is a study showing no exercise, mild exercise, slightly more than moderate exercise and vigorous exercise. And lo and behold, the mild-to-more-than-mild exercise is the best and vigorous exercise is not as good.

Sitting makes worse absolutely everything.Now, it still is early days, because the studies I would like to see designed and done don’t ask specifically that question. Because one of the things I then went on to postulate, coming at it from space side, is it’s a change in posture rather than just a metabolic consequence that is the key factor. And it is the neurovestibular mechanism that is involved every time you stand up. Because you only burn 12 calories every time you stand up. And okay, those can add up if you stand up often enough. And you probably need to stand up about 36 times a day from a sitting position.

The last study I did at NASA, took volunteers, they laid in bed for four days. That way I know the plasma volume is reduced, the O2 maximum is reduced, you get insulin resistance and orthostatic hypertension, you can see all that—and you increase your calcium excretion—presumably coming from both. All that happens rapidly, within four days and probably sooner. So, I had the subjects (it was a randomized test) either stand up every hour on the hour, and that time I had them stand up for 15 minutes (which is way too much, they don’t need that) or stand up and walk. I was not, frankly, looking at the walking, how the walking would prevent the changes we saw lying in bed 24 hours continuously.

And the standing up without the walking was my control, because after all, to walk you had to stand up. Well, this fancy statistician-biased statistician who worked with me, when the results were in and the randomized results were sorted out, he said to me, “You’re not going to like this.” I said, what do you mean, I’m not going to like this? He said, “The standing is better than the walking.”

Barb: Fascinating.

Joan: So I scratched my head and I thought, oh Joan, not again. How do you come up with these unusual observations? So when we published that paper it got all kinds of awards. But I still didn’t think it really got the implication of that, because we’re so used to having to move. But the movement can just be standing up. And the standing up is fundamental. And when you stop and think about it what are we? We’ve got circulation, we’ve got neuro and metabolic changes that are going on all the time, and, yes, energy management.

The whole integrated system [of our body] needs to be looked at.So that’s what our body is made of and the water that everything sloshes around in. So you can’t look at one thing, unfortunately you just can’t. Not just bone, or just muscle atrophy or just circulation. The whole integrated system has to be looked at. And it’s amazing to me that just the mere act of standing up, for, people say, how long? You just stand up, a minute, you wave your arms around if you like, you can do whatever you want, but it’s the postural signal.

So I started looking at it as a signal, as a tuning mechanism if you will, in a sort of wild way. That the body, when it is inactive, when it is lying down or sitting down for hours, is not stimulated. And gravity was responsible for our evolution and our health, our development and our health.

So, it makes a sort of fundamental sense that if you do not provide that stimulation, what is the consequence? Well, the consequence is lose what we seek after so many years of doing that. And now we’re seeing these consequences showing up in children with strokes and diabetes and younger people and it’s tragic.

Barb: I had so many questions that we let the interview run beyond its allotted time. Look for part two to learn more about the science of health, gravity, and movement.

July 06, 2017


antidepressant ›   health ›   stress ›   yoga ›  

"Get on your mat every day."

Deborah Cioffi with Dr. Barb

Deborah CioffiA yoga practitioner for over 20 years, Deborah Cioffi found solace and transformation through times of stress and anxiety. She became a certified Hatha Yoga instructor, specializing in Vinyasa Flow, to share her experiences with others. In her own studio, Peace Now Yoga & Wellness, she “aims to nourish the mind, body, and heart through breath awareness, strong alignment, and philosophy.”

Listen now.


Barb: Today’s guest is Deborah Cioffi. She’s been a yoga practitioner for several decades and, in full transparency, she has been my yoga instructor here in Michigan for the last two years. So welcome, Deborah.

Deborah: Thank you.

Barb: Tell me about your path into yoga and how it is you discovered yoga and then ultimately became an instructor.

Deborah: Yes, I’ve been practicing yoga most of my adult life. Back in 2009, I was working a full time corporate job and found myself practicing two to three times a week. Much to my dismay, our whole creative department was laid off, and I found myself without work—unable to find work at this time. So at this point, I increased my practice to almost five days a week, sometimes twice a day. It was a difficult time in my life because I was also encountering many other emotional difficulties at the same time. So finding myself on my mat, realizing as I was plummeting into somewhat of a depression and experiencing a lot of anxiety, my practice was giving me much more than I had ever experienced before, which was mostly on a physical level. On an emotional level, I was able to find peace, and was able to cope with the uncertainty of my future.

I was able to find peace and cope with the uncertainty of my future.So I threw myself into my practice. At this time my teacher expressed to me that they were going to be hosting a 200-hour teacher training in the fall, and this might be a good time for me to consider the training. I thought, well, this would be good for me emotionally while I’m going through this difficult time, not really considering my future as a yoga teacher. At the end of the 200-hour training, I went through my hour-and-a-half final teach, and my teacher offered me a position in the studio to teach a few days a week… and much to my surprise…. {laughs}

But, I guess what came through was my passion and love for the practice. I actually had fun teaching yoga. It was such a great outlet for me. And to share my personal experience of what I had gone through that previous year and how I was able to move out of that darkness and into the light through a consistent yoga practice with, let me emphasize—a large emphasis placed on breathing. That was how I was able to handle the anxiety that I was experiencing.

Barb: And I know in your classes you remind us about breathing. So tell me a little bit more about how that plays such an important role in the value of what yoga can bring to individuals. Because for those of us who go throughout our day, we don’t think about breathing. But, it’s obviously a critical part of the yoga practice. So just enlighten me a little bit more about why that is; why that brings that centeredness or the calm it brings.

Bringing attention to you breath brings you into the moment.Deborah: Well, by bringing attention to your breath it number 1—first and foremost—brings you into the moment. When you are focused on the breath, you are able to let the busyness of the mind kind of subside because you have a focus. When you normally breathe, we inhale very shallow and very short. We have more of an emphasis on the exhale. By inhaling very slowly, matching it to your exhale, it actually lowers the blood pressure and brings you into the moment. It brings a sense of calm throughout the body and the central nervous system.

It also is a great segue into a meditation practice. By focusing on the breath, you are able to quiet the mind and sit and just be with the sensations that are in the body and the sensations that surround you. It’s a great segue into meditation.

Barb: So do you apply that outside of the yoga studio? As you move through your day are you brought into awareness of breathing?

Deborah: Yes, I try to be. I try to have awareness of my breath. Because there’s many times throughout the day that I don’t even realize that I’m holding my breath. Sometimes we actually hold our breath when we are in stressful situations. So yes, I’m aware of it. I stop, I take three long smooth breaths and then continue what I was doing. This is a great practice to do once an hour if you set your timer on your phone to just stop and breathe for five minutes and then resume whatever work activity you were doing.

Barb: Can you tell me a little bit about the styles of yoga that are practiced and your preferred instruction style?

Deborah: Yes, there’s many different practices in yoga today, with the Bikram Yoga, the Hot Yoga, Iyengar, Ashtanga Yoga; and there’s Vinyasa Flow, which is what I teach. The style of yoga that I teach is all about breath and movement. And the way I see it is that if you’re just moving through the yoga poses and you’re not focusing on your inhale and exhale, it becomes more of an exercise. It’s not really yoga. I feel there is no yoga without the breath and movement connection.

So Vinyasa Flow is where you connect poses together to create sequencing and build momentum and breathe and heat in the body. I usually start out with the warm up, then move into a more active practice, then move into a cool down. I like to include inversions and backbends. It is more of a challenging practice, but it keeps you motivated and interested, I think, in your yoga practice. But it depends on the individual what they are looking for. I encourage them to really do their research and see what’s in their area and what’s available for them.

There’s also Yin Yoga which I also teach. I teach a Yin Flow practice which begins with an hour of seated positions that are held for three to five minutes, which stretches the connective tissue around the joints. This is truly beneficial as we age. The synovial fluid around our joints tends to dry up. You may hear that as you ascend or descend stairs, and the knees get a little creaky. So this Yin practice works as a lubricant for the joints. It is very beneficial and it also becomes a meditative practice, as you’re holding these positions for three to five minutes, sometimes up to seven. You focus on the breath, and it becomes a very quiet, peaceful time. Then we end with a half hour of flow; soft, smooth flow, nothing too intense. Just to incorporate the space that we just created in our body into a more active, responsive practice.

Barb: So for those individuals who haven’t tried yoga, discovered yoga, how would you suggest someone find a practice that they might be drawn into?

Deborah: Well most yoga studios offer a beginner series; some offer beginner classes. The beginner series is great because you can sign up for six weeks or six classes and begin from the beginning, start from the beginning, learning the poses, learning how to breath correctly, maybe learning some of the philosophy of yoga. All these things incorporated into a beginning practice to see how your body responds to it.

It's really important to stretch every day.I offer private and semi-private classes. I really like that because I get to evaluate my students, see if they have any disabilities or anything that may compromise their practice, and then evaluate from there, move them through the poses, there’s a standing series of poses. Often the teacher may speak in Sanskrit, and that can be quite confusing to the students, so it’s good to speak in Sanskrit and in English so the student understands exactly where you’re going—and the benefit of a backbend, the benefit of an inversion. And as they move through the practice, especially if it’s practiced every day, or at least two or three times a week, they will see the results.

You know if you’re coming to yoga once a week, and think you’re going to see changes in your body, you probably will always feel like a beginner coming back to that class. So I always encourage my students to come at least once or twice. So the benefit of a private class is the teacher able to evaluate you, and you gaining a better understanding of what yoga means to you and what it is you want to receive from your practice and what type of style of yoga you want to incorporate into your life.

Barb: So in my practice I see women with limitations, physical limitations… shoulders, hips, feet; is it fair to say that most people could enter a yoga practice with some muscular/skeletal limitation, and you could modify the practice to accommodate them?

Deborah: Absolutely. Absolutely, I like to offer many different modifications for my students. Because each and every student has different capabilities. Some may be really flexible and able to forward fold and touch the floor, and others their hands may come to their knees. So yes, we use props, we use different styles to get the student to feel confident—most importantly confident—to move into a posture so that they can still get the same benefits, maybe using a prop—a block, or a blanket, or a strap even—to experience the pose. So they don’t feel like they’re not able to do this.

Barb: I was a bit intrigued by your comment about finding yoga as your anti-depressant, I will say; not sure you said exactly that word…

Deborah: I think I did… {laughs}

Barb: Ok, good. So I’m curious, again, as a women’s health practitioner who talks to women about mood disruption disorders especially, at any times in their lives, it hasn’t necessarily occurred to me to suggest yoga as a therapeutic approach to mood. But I’m intrigued by that option or the opportunity that it might bring women. Do you feel like most instructors are aware of that and try to address that mental health?

Deborah: Well, I think that most instructors, as myself, are careful in what we say. I like to emphasize the fact that in a yoga practice, it uplifts your mood. And I believe that happens with the attention on the breath. I believe conscious breathing can create a shift in your consciousness. I also believe in self-care. I believe in creating a yoga practice is creating space in your life, and attention on self-care. I believe in self-healing, that if there is an issue within you that you should acknowledge it first, accept it, and then find a way, whether it’s taking a walk along the lake, or attending a yoga class, or just sitting quiet on a park bench, bringing attention to it. To me that is self-care. It is bringing awareness to what it is that’s going on in your body today and acknowledge it and embrace it.

Crafting space in the body creates space in the mind.I find often when we feel uncomfortable—whether it’s contributing to anxiety or depression—that it has this negative connotation to it and we tend to push it away. When we push away those feelings, and deny what is going on in our body and on an emotional and physical level, I feel like we are doing ourselves a disservice. If we can just sit for moment and acknowledge what it is that we are feeling, and then bring attention to the breath and then move the body, move the body in a healthy way... stretching, creating space in the body I feel creates space in the mind, which gives you an opportunity to breathe and start again. So you can start over at any time throughout your day. That emotional, physical connection is huge in yoga. I believe in the energy body and creating a time on your mat every day to just stretch your body and feel your yoga. As opposed to just moving through your poses, actually feel what it is, feel where you’re holding the stress in your body and then focus your attention on that area, and breathe.

Barb: I will say I have come to appreciate yoga starting the day, a couple days of the week I do as early in the day and, in the normal course of life, there just isn’t an hour that is carved out. I don’t do it otherwise to quiet my brain. You often share some meditative thoughts and words and, again, throughout the practice it’s quieting, it’s focusing, it’s thinking about breathing. Recently it was an inversion, literally standing on our head, and talking about how great that felt afterwards because it’s a position, obviously, it would never happen unless you were in a yoga practice. So I just feel like it’s brought a unique dimension to my life that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered. So I see the value and, as a health care provider, it makes me aware that I probably should be more actively encouraging others to seek a yoga practice as part of a therapeutic approach to wellness.

Deborah: Yes. Therapeutic, and it keeps you young. You are moving in a very healthy way. The Yogis are known to say, “you are as young as your spine is flexible.” So I think it’s really important to stretch every single day, whether you’re a beginner, whether you’ve never done yoga in your life, or you did yoga years ago and you want to jump start your practice again. I just think it’s really important. If you wake up in the morning, you go downstairs, you take your supplements, you have your smoothie, you do your yoga… it should just be part of your daily living.

Barb: Deborah, are there any other closing ideas or thoughts you’d like to share with the audience today? I appreciate what you’ve been able to tell us about the value of yoga.

Get on your mat every day.Deborah: A lot of people that I’ve spoken to over the years, when I speak about yoga, I get excited about it, I have this passion and everyone seems so intrigued about the yoga practice itself and how much they know they need to do yoga or they’d love to do yoga, but there’s always something preventing them from taking that first step. And it’s usually fear. And I encourage them to step beyond their fear and seek out a practitioner, a teacher, that they can actually have a rapport with. Someone that they can open up, become vulnerable around the issues that are preventing them from their practice.

I encourage you to do a private practice, whether it’s one or whether it’s six, but step into it slowly. And then continue. Just continue to practice every day, whether it’s in a studio, at home with a video, but get on your mat every day. Spend twenty minutes to a half hour or an hour and notice what happens. Just notice every day the changes that happen in your life from your yoga practice. I can guarantee you will see change, and it’s all for the good.

Barb: I would agree. That’s been my experience. Thank you Deborah.

Deborah: Thank you.