How do we get fat? You ask. 

Today I revert to my beginnings. I want talk on health, nutrition and wellbeing more broadly than yoga. After a few chats this week surrounding losing weight/fat, getting fitter postnatally after the new born phase is over, I thought it was a good time to bring up some basic physiological underpinnings of getting fat.

Almost everyone you know can tell you a million ways to lose body fat. From the 1950s’ advocacy for smoking cigarettes to yesterday’s newspaper there is a weight loss article to read. But if you understood how we get fat (no, not the simplistic idea of calories in and out), and how the body works to store excess energy, then hopefully despite all the faddy diets and exercise regimes you can reverse-engineer your body composition to a more healthy level. That has been my premise for twenty years now in maintaining healthy body fat levels, despite having a strong familial predisposition to be obese. So, in this post I am going back to basics. But before I start let me just say, once you know something that is only the beginning; the big prize goes to those who act on the knowledge. Remember the post on habit forming?

In this story of fatal attraction, there are two suitors and one princess. The handsome hunk is called muscle tissue and the ugly ogre is called fat tissue. The princess is sweet and delicious (even a slice of wholemeal toast eventually breaks down to sugar!). The princess secretly likes muscle, but muscle is such a Casanova, he is always hanging out with many girls. So the princess has no choice but to cosy up with fat. The End.

You see, our muscle tissue is the storage pot for all energy we eat. The size of the pot depends on the amount of muscle you have. The more muscle you carry, the more energy you can store as valuable ‘glycogen’ (the only way a body can store carbohydrates). Any excess energy is then converted to fat and stored as fat tissue. Every time you use your muscles the glycogen in them reduces, and every time you eat it gets replenished. However, if you eat when the muscle glycogen levels are not low, then it has no choice but to get stored as fat.

So, if you use this simple principle of making sure you have depleted your glycogen before meals (physical activity) you are less likely to store the energy as fat. Another time the glycogen is low is after your overnight sleep, when the glycogen is used up to repair the body as you sleep. So the simple principle here is to exercise first and eat after.

How does this food energy get into the muscles? There is a master controller in this game of storing energy, and his name is ‘Insulin’. Every time you eat carbohydrates, insulin is sent in to mop it out from the blood (the carbohydrates break down as sugar and come into your blood through the intestines) and store it in the muscles as glycogen. The amount of insulin sent in is generally well matched with the amount of sugar from the food in your blood. Especially if you have eaten complex carbohydrates (e.g. wholemeal bread) and their breakdown has taken some time for the sugar to drip feed into your blood, giving your brains plenty of time to calculate the amount of insulin to be produced (by your pancreas). However, if you eat (or drink) simple sugars (e.g. white bread/sweets) then its panic time! Since there is nothing to digest, all the sugars rush into your blood almost at the same time, leaving your brain very little scope to calculate the right amount of insulin needed.

It is very dangerous for you to have excess sugars floating in your blood, so the brain deploys as much insulin as it can in this rush to clear the excess sugars from the blood. Invariably you are left with more insulin than what was needed, and the blood sugars drop below the optimum levels. This is the cue for the other master controller to come in – ‘Glucagon’; he is the restorer of sugar in the blood. Mostly, this is done by giving you food cravings (particularly carbohydrate) and so the see-saw starts. Eat simple sugars, and after a while you will want to eat some more. See how that bag of sweets disappears despite all the will to eat only one?! This is how you end up eating more than you need to store the energy in your muscles. The overflow then gets stored as fat instead, as we are not programmed to let go of any spare energy (in case of a famine).

The other problem with this see-saw effect is that it also plays havoc with your energy storage system, as I explained earlier, and in the long run this perfectly calculated ‘insulin-glucagon’ synergy breaks down, leading to type 2 diabetes. Once you have reached this stage, your attempts for general weight loss will also be an uphill struggle.

So, here are my top five tips on working with your body rather than against it to maintain a lifelong healthy levels of body fat:

  1. Exercise – it fine-tunes the insulin-glucagon system, especially resistance exercise.
  2. Do aerobic/endurance exercise on an empty stomach (to accentuate the effect, exercise early in the morning when your glycogen stores are low anyway, forcing you to use stored fat as energy).
  3. Eat a mixed meal after exercise, not a high-sugar drink. Meals containing protein and fat reduce the rate at which the sugars come into your blood. If you want to drink something instead of eat, try milk.
  4. Control portions, and don’t eat too often – spiking insulin levels all the time will continually keep you in the energy-storage mode, and if you don’t have space in your muscles (which you won’t if you eat all the time) then that energy will get stored as body fat.
  5. If you must eat sugar, eat it first thing in the morning or after an intense exercise session, so the insulin can drive it into the muscles.
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Sounds and Emotions

#MummyMonday

Dear Rehana,

One of the things I learnt from your yoga classes is the jaw release technique when I am stressed. I cannot believe how much that has slowly helped me with my anxiety. What I have also found is that I didn’t even know how much I used to clench my jaws till I started paying attention when you mention it in class.

The jaw release technique is amazing and instant. I keep talking about it to everyone.

Thank you.

Dear xxx,

I know! I too was so impressed with it when I first started using it. I found that I recognised my stress as soon as I payed attention to what my jaws where doing! Well done for using the valuable technique outside of our class environment. This is exactly how I hope our classes can impact our lives, not just our pregnancy journey. Let me explain some science behind it all.

But first, here is a bathroom experiment for you to try. Scream at the top of your lungs as if you have seen a scary monster.Where did you ‘feel’ that sound? The pitch of the sound, did it reverberate through your head?

Ok.

Here is another, what happens when a dear friend shares something unfortunate with you? That sound that comes out of you when you hear the bad news? Where do you feel the ‘aaw’?

And the last sound. You come back home after a long day. You finally sink into the sofa and kick off your heels… that sound you make as you sink in, where did you feel that?

I would highly recommend you try these three different sounds. It is quite an amazing experience to ‘feel’ sound in your body. The vibrations your vocal cords make are not restricted to your throat.

High pitched sounds rattle your brains and make you alert, flood your system with adrenaline and you have to mostly clench your jaws to make a really high-pitched sound. The kind our ancestors would have used to alert their companions of an oncoming cheetah.

The sound you feel when you connect with a loved one is the pitch that you can feel in your chest, thoracic cavity and upper back, I guess that’s why people use the term “heart connection”

And that deep guttural sound that comes from slacking our jaws and letting go of muscular tension as you sink into your sofa can be felt in the pit of your belly. That’s a deep low octave sigh. That’s the feeling of calm, relaxation and letting go.

These different sounds are an information source of our emotional states and our hormones respond accordingly. When you hear another high-pitched sound from somewhere, you get agitated. When you can hear the compassion and empathy in the heart sound you feel connected and when you release your muscular tension with deep guttural sounds you feel relaxed.

Using the power of your sound during birth is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It’s so old that we do it instinctively. When left alone women make deep sounds while giving birth. Unlike what television may have you believe women don’t actually choose to scream during birth.

There are many cultures where women collectively sing to encourage the birthing mother to sign along. Guess what singing does? It allows you to slacken your jaws and when you do that the brain interprets the message as relaxation, induces relaxation hormones, particularly the ever-important oxytocin (the hormone that flourishes in times of love, safety and comfort). More oxytocin levels also mean less cortisol and adrenaline (less stress).

The sounds we feel is not just for when we birth our babies, it’s the very calming tool we can use whilst mothering. Our simple humming and low-pitched sounds we make to put our babies to sleep is another example of how our brains perceive sounds as proxy for emotional states.

Use your sound to change or regulate your emotions which will help you regulate your hormonal environment too and thus manage stress and anxiety.

That sacred space you can call your own.

#MummyMonday question:

Hi Rehana,

Your pregnancy yoga classes were a godsend when I felt anxious due to my past history of miscarriages. I got hooked on to that calm feeling after class. I also managed to get some home practice in when I finished work for maternity leave.

Now with an almost 7 week baby, I don’t feel I can get any time to do some yoga apart from your once weekly sessions. I love how yoga makes me feel calm and relaxed and more patient as a mum. Please can you give me any tips on how I can do a bit more in between your classes?

Xx


Dear Xx,

I often wonder what would people think if they saw my home yoga practice space? As a mum our priorities are so stretched that self care including yoga is hard to justify. The days when I have a million things tugging at me, is the day I need a bit of space the most. You are not the only one struggling to squeeze in a home practice, I do too!

When you aim for a home practice, the major hurdle I find is the contrast between what your available space can be and that imaginary ideal space. Despite a lot of #reallife images slowly emerging, our social media streams are still full of unattainable, unrealistic ideals that serve no one.

Here is the corrupted, narcissistic, egotistical instagram version we are pressured into believing is the only way to practice… that beautiful empty space where the outer space helps us reconnect with our inner peace.

How I wish this is what my own practice looked like too! Instead, I am going to dare to share with you #myrealyoga space.

Here is a photo of what my practice space can look like!!!! This is a typical day when I feel like the chores around me will slowly swallow me like a boa constrictor eating it’s prey. But at times like this, as my baby goes down for a nap, I make a choice…I let go… and sweep things to a side till I can just about squeeze a mat on the floor.

I try and find any physical space and convert it into a haven with my breath, a few drops of my favourite smell and my playlist and I am ready!

My mat becomes this wonderful physical boundary between my inner world and my outer world, that sacred space that no one can enter without permission. Some days I inhabit this space only for a couple of minutes before a sleeping baby wakes and some days I have the luxury of a good length of time. I tend not to count the minutes, just my breath.

Come to your practice without any expectation, see what it can give you without demanding from it.

Do you fear meditation? 

When you think of the word meditation, what pops up in your mind? A big banyan tree with cascading roots and a saffron robed, crossed-legged, bald guy feeling at one with the universe? Ha ha or this poised image of me whilst pregnant with Alice-Ateyka imitating the social media hysteria of meditation! This image was taken to prove the point that I would never ever mediate if this is what I would aspire to.

Meditation mostly happens while everything around you is melting in hoards of chores, screaming kids, washing-up and blog posts to write, you gently start to focus on and notice your breath. The more you focus, the less shallow it gets and the spinning world around you slows down and in the following moments, you rediscover your priorities and options?

It’s this vast chasm between the supposed look of meditation and the actual way it works that creates the biggest barriers to start your meditation practice, in my view. Rationalising our fear that stems from not being able to commit to the bald guy version of meditation, is what we do well. We have no time, no space, no flexibility to sit in the lotus posture…perhaps even the lack of dreadlocks is sometimes a good enough hideaway.

On average, 70% of adults when polled to see if they would like to do more meditation answer yes, but approximately only 6% of them actually find the time and inclination to engage in it. If you fall outside of this minority of people and think meditation is either hard, needs special mindset, is for a certain demographic, requires commitment to a place, time or clothing…then you simply need to stop going to these elitist sources of information that pretend to help you but simply make things less achievable if you don’t follow the rules. Unfortunately, the internet has made everything into a competition these days. If you fold your pizza the wrong way there are social media repercussions. It’s so easy then to feel that, unless you sit in absolute stillness like this celebrity who clearly finds it effortless, any of your feeble efforts can’t be the real thing.

My first advice to anyone who asks me about meditation practice, is to not make it into a “thing”. By this I mean, it’s not like the habit of brushing your teeth, that without the right room and the right equipment it’s not possible. Meditation is already a part of you. You take it along wherever you go, even when you are totally oblivious of its existence inside of you. It’s with you in the shower, it’s with you at the supermarket, it’s with you when your child lies down on the pavement and rolls on his white shirt… more like your hands are with you all the time. If you need to carry something, do you have to remember to take your hands along? The reason you don’t think about the use of your hands is because you are an expert at using them. You have got that way as a result of constant use and exploration of this tool/equipment from infancy. By the time you are a two-year-old, using your hands is a breeze. Just as a thought experiment, think of that infant/child who would be exposed to meditation techniques the same way – would they think twice before employing this powerful stress diffuser when they need it most?

So, just like that infant who is exploring their hands, don’t wait for the right cot mobile to get started; get started now! So, stop reading for the next few minutes, look away from the screen once you have finished reading the instructions, and get started right here in the middle of this blog post along with tens of others.

Close your eyes

Start to notice how your belly sways with your breath

Ignore that little voice that says your breath is not long enough or deep enough

Notice your belly rise and fall

Start a count — one for every time your belly rises

Stop at 10 counts

If you didn’t get to 10 without your mind starting to wonder what’s for lunch, then thats fine. Go back to it again in a few hours, even minutes, and see if you can get to 10. Once you get to 10, don’t increase the count; just increase the frequency of your practice. Doing three sessions of 10 counts will achieve more than one session of 30 counts. The longer you stay with 10, doing it more frequently, the better your foundations of meditation will be.

When you get started, try to set the stage for your mind by practising your count in a low-stress situation. Once the mind consolidates the low-stress connection with your breath count, then every time it hears your counting it responds to the situation as if it were low-stress. A perfect trick to use at the supermarket meltdown situation – your brain will not know the difference.

So you see, despite all the jazz about nirvana and eternal bliss, at the core of meditation lies a tool for everyday situations: simply teaching your brain to respond to something with the same calmness that you would need to apply when you are building a house of cards. If you are a Poirot fan then you know this life lesson already. Whenever he began doubting his capabilities or was lost for inspiration (which, by the way, is so easily blocked by stress), he would calm his nerves by building his card tower. It’s the same breath control for both activities. It’s the same technique of training your mind to respond calmly and not react as you would in the adrenaline-filled, stressful conditions.

If you have been postponing trying meditation, and this post has encouraged you to try, I would love to hear your experiences. Let me know what happened when you tried it for the first time, let me know what happened the tenth time, let me know where it takes you.

Prepare for the biggest event of your life…

I have been a sports nutritionist for over 15 years now and have worked with a variety of athletes over the years. I have also consulted on programmes that involve getting people doing more physical activity in their day-to-day life and have seen some fabulous transformations.

People who led sedentary lives being inspired to train for big physical challenges have come to me to plan their journey. Sometimes they have been unrealistic in that planning, and sometimes more modest than they needed to be. Whatever the scenario, even in the most ambitious of people I haven’t come across a single person wanting to run a marathon the following day without any prior training. Why is that? Clearly, because even a suggestion of the sort is ludicrous – how can you? The effort required by the body to run 26.2 miles is not something you can take lightly. The adaptations that the body needs to go through in order to sustain this level of activity takes months of training. Your muscles adapt to the sheer repetitive pounding; your blood vessels and other tissues respond by increasing their capacity to do more work; your lungs need to get more efficient, and most, importantly your mind needs to be prepared for the event by being able to assimilate all the physical experience of training and projecting a positive outcome for race day, so that you don’t feel incompetent and experience failure, dejection or even depression when the training gets hard.

People don’t enter marathons without understanding that this will require preparation and months of sacrifice in terms of eating right and training hard.

Yet we expect pregnant mums to ‘run the marathon of their lives’ without any systematic and goal-oriented training. They turn up at labour wards needing to exert the same level of physical exertions (if not more), with much higher levels of mental anxieties and the added emotional rollercoaster that they are perpetually on whilst being pregnant. Is it any surprise then, that we ask for pain relief and other interventions when our bodies are going through the most physically challenging moment of our entire lives? I am not for once suggesting that pain relief doesn’t have its place during childbirth; what I am arguing instead is that perhaps the need for them would drastically reduce if we put into place the preparation that is required to physically birth a human baby.

Epidural anaesthetic use is now at almost at 36% in our country, with almost double that in the US, and even higher in some other countries such as Mexico. This does not merely speak of medical advances in helping women manage their labour, but a generation of mothers now scared of childbirth.

I see these anxious mums on a weekly basis. They have all the right intentions for their birthing journey but very little guidance on how to convert the anxiety of childbirth and fear of unknown into something powerful. We start off with mums wanting to come and relax and reduce anxiety of their high emotional journey of pregnancy. But, somewhere along the way, they get physically strong; the deep squats, the planks, the downward dogs and the balancing postures – they all add up. I start off conversations in the early weeks with terrified women who fear childbirth, but end up with birth stories of wonderful resilience, of grace, of valour and of that true and deep emerging wisdom that comes from knowing yourself, your body and your capabilities.

Being an integral part of this transformation of women has made me a passionate advocate of talking about ‘training for childbirth’; just like we do for marathons, just like we do for climbing the Everest. It bothers me that we can’t see the parallels, and it bothers me even more when people celebrate their race achievements, but we as a society completely ignore and overlook the issues, the obstacles and the need to appreciate what women go through during childbirth.

In fact, it’s only recently we are even talking about physical activity during pregnancy. We do so now, even in 2017, with trepidation. If we are to bring down the rates for C-sections, epidural anesthetic and other pain relief medication use during childbirth, then addition of sensible and appropriate physical and mental preparation should be part of routine antenatal care. Simply saying it’s okay to exercise during pregnancy is like saying it’s okay to train for a marathon. The message needs to be louder, clearer, directed and more goal-oriented. It is not just okay to exercise; it is important to do so to prepare for the ultimate physical event of a woman’s life. Just like any other race, we need to get to the finishing line knowing we did the best we could for ourselves and our babies and, in turn, setting that positive example for our daughters.

This is the only way we can come out at the other side beaming with self-confidence and that strength of character that defines our demographic group.

There is a wealth of information and preparation materials here on MummyYoga. Start your journey of motherhood with the right information, slowly assimilating the positive knowhow of past generations and weave it into your birth story. Your birth belongs to you… your baby…your body and above all how you respond to your unique journey.

Making a healthy habit.

#MummyMonday question:

Hi Rehana, 

I used to be so fit before I got pregnant. Your yoga classes throughout my pregnancy kept me aware of the changes I was going through my body. But since my baby has arrived, I have found it very hard to exercise and eat healthily. I have now gained more weight and I am feeling a bit down about it all. Nothing I can’t hide when I am in the presence of others, but when I am on my own the dark clouds of my lack of healthy habits start to crowd in on me. 

How can I find some time to be healthy, eat well and exercise with so many things demanding my attention all the time? 

(Via personal chat, the above is a gist of that conversation).

—————————

My answer:

Hello xxx,

Please don’t be so harsh on yourself. I can talk about all the healthy foods you can eat or the perfect exercise session that will help you lose your mummy wobble and achieve that elusive six-pack. That post will look and read so inspiring, and as you read it you will want to just get up and get going. But you know by past experience that it doesn’t work like that…if only. Such inspiring posts are everywhere. You probably just finished reading one if you are on a health-seeking journey. Then what stops us? 

The cornerstone for any permanent change has three elements – patience, discipline and compassion.

 The most important thing about starting a new habit is that it takes time to incorporate it into your daily life. Be patient. Be ready to fail. Don’t count the times you fail, just get up and restart. The number of times you fail has nothing to do with when and how you will succeed. And remember; success doesn’t always look like you imagined it to be before you started. Be open.

The interesting thing of incorporating healthy choices into one’s life is that once you familiarise yourself with its principles, you realise it’s everywhere. Opportunities to live a balanced life are ever-present. It is this initial appreciation that is crucial. Mindfulness of your activities is thus key. When you are then presented with an option to do something in a healthy way as opposed to not, choose the former (for example: walking on the street and deciding to pay attention to your breathing as opposed to walking in a mindless manner).

 If regular meditative walks become your priority (this should happen almost organically) then try to fulfil this high priority task earlier in the day. The earlier, the better. Do the most important, not the most urgent jobs of the day first. You will be able to tap into your determination with maximum will-power as it has not yet been eroded by all of your daily demands.

 But be easy on yourself when you can’t get to the gym or have a salad lunch. This will allow you to come back without dread or judgement. Judgement is our deepest fear and thus, if you judge yourself for not fulfilling your intention, you will dread coming back to your habit. Simply move on to the next day. There will come a time, slowly but surely, when the number of times you succeed will overrun the times your fail. Funnily, by the time a practice truly becomes habit, you will have stopped noticing it. This is indeed the true nature of “habit”. So, don’t obsess over “achieving”; just concentrate on the day-to-day.

 Facilitate a few things towards your intention. Don’t make things hard for yourself. If you have a spare room/area then mark it for your exercise, and this sense of physical space will not only allow you to cut time in finding an ideal spot but will also strengthen your resolve to come to the exercise daily. Don’t underestimate the power of physical space over your mental space. When you have the physical space to do something, it is more likely you will do it. But remember, there is no such thing as a perfect space, so don’t get too bogged down with what it looks like and how it sits with the rest of your lifestyle. This idea of an ideal “exercise space” will constantly change as you get more and more involved with your practice. Allow room for this change, otherwise you risk resisting the physical space when you have mentally outgrown it. You are unlikely to know when this will happen and, more importantly, these two aspects may not always neatly align themselves with each other.

 Also, don’t tie down your intention to form a good habit with other unnecessary hooks and shackles, such as the length of time or the intensity of the exercise. Appreciate that a sprint to catch the bus is as powerful as a 90 minute session at the gym when it comes to forming a habit. It is showing up that counts. Keep showing up. Be grateful for each and every session that you achieve, and don’t dwell in the success of it, just as you should not dwell in the failure of yesterday’s lack of show.

 This journey lasts longer than we do…we pass these habits to our children by living examples, not by dictation.

Hyper mobility and pregnancy

Every now and then I get questions from MummyYoga attendees that are perhaps relevant to many of you. So I thought sharing these conversations as blog posts might have a wider appeal. 

This morning, a lady sent me an email after her visit to her physiotherapist. 

She said,

Hi Rehana,

I wondered if you might help me out a bit??? 

I had a physio appointment a couple of weeks ago because my lower back and hips are very sore and I’m starting to cease up after activity i.e. after walking home, after the relaxation element in yoga – there’s been a few times I thought I might need to ask for help getting off the mat for example. I’m hyper-mobile, which I new already, but with pregnancy this has started to impact my hip joints, as I’m sure you can imagine. My physio has suggested less walking and that I give up the yoga. I really don’t want to give the yoga up, as I think the breathing exercises and the core body strength poses we do are really good for me. I also really benefit from the upper body and hamstring stretches etc. So basically, I’m asking for a second opinion from you if possible? I’m happy to take direction during in class to ease off, don’t try this etc. but would much rather do that than give up completely.

Any guidance on this would be much appreciated!

-——————

Soreness that comes from hyper mobile joints is not uncommon and my suggestion in this scenario would definitely be a lot less dramatic than giving up the very things that keep you physically, mentally and emotionally well. 

This is what I said…

Hello XXX

I am glad you asked before giving up yoga. My opinion would differ from your physiotherapist. 

You are right about increasing strength with your practice. A lot of people are unaware of how yoga builds strength as well as flexibility. One of the first things people say to me when they join the classes is, “I am not flexible”. Now, they never say, “I am not very strong, and I don’t know if I will be able to do this practice!”. It doesn’t occur to them that they will also require and build strength with yoga. 

I hate this misconception. After years of being in the weight training/body building world, I can tell you yoga indeed makes you very strong. More importantly, unlike “weights at the gym” it makes you functionally and dynamically strong (like bendy grass) rather than simple muscular hypertrophy (like a big tree trunk). 

The issue with hyper mobility is partly exaggerated by lack of muscular strength. If your tendons/cartilages and muscles can stretch beyond the normal range of motion then it will need to be strong to counter that stretch. If you can’t “reign” them in with strong muscles you are in danger of injuring yourself. That injury does not always occur at the hyper mobile joint. It occurs at your weakest link in that movement. 
So, your gut feeling of continuing your practice is probably the better option, both for your pregnancy weight load distribution and postnatal joint health (pregnancy and postnatal hormones can have quite a destructive impact on joint health if not taken care of). 
There are plenty of variations we can try in class to limit the joint pain, particularly at the pelvis. One of the first things I would suggest as a blanket care is to not go too deep into postures simply because you can. We will work on foot positions and stance to build strength through the load bearing joints and muscles. 
The one other thing you can do is also not be static for long particularly after the practice. Use a seated position for the meditation element at the end. 
We can do a lot to manage your hyper mobility and ceased muscles without having to take drastic measures such as simply cut out one of the most beneficial things you can do in a pregnant state.
——

So if you suffer from your muscles ceasing up after physical activity, don’t just give up. See where the issues lie and if there are simple modifications you can make to improve management.