Monday, June 06, 2005

Using Your Biofeedback System

Balancing on a bench is an activity that uses the innate capacity of the nervous system to sense itself. How do we catch ourselves before we fall? Sensory and motor nerves run back and forth continuously correcting, assessing, readjusting... Posted by Hello

I was so excited to hear about a new trend in the fitness industry: it's the concept of measuring how hard your heart is working during exercise by using your senses. It's call the Rate of Perceived Exertion (or RPE). You measure your exercise intensity on a scale from one to ten. One to two levels of exertion would be equivalent to sitting at your desk, four to five would be a light jog wherein you can still talk but are breathing a bit more rapidly than at rest, ten would be gasping for breath at which point your heart rate is acelerated past the point that is desirable for a basic aerobic workout.

The goal of an aerobic workout is to keep the heart rate above normal, but not so fast that you are straining, for at least 20 minutes. You can feel how fast your heart is beating. Using an RPE to judge the appropriate level of your workout is taking advantage of the most sophisticated biofeedback system known to humankind: the nervous system. Everybody has one.

What amazes me is that although everyone has the ability to notice if something feels like a strain or not, most people seem to completely disregard their own ability in this area. Many of my clients over the years have been people who were working with a physical trainer and injured themselves by pushing past what felt good to them. I have heard the same story over and over again, 'I had a feeling I shouldn't do that last set, but I did it anyway and the next day, I couldn't move my arm...' This is not meant to discount fitness trainers. It's not their fault that people ignore their own internal cues. And frankly, perhaps it is a confusing thing for someone just beginning to workout. I can envision that it is possible to be so set on the external goal of fitting into that bathing suit or running that marathon, that the 'no pain, no gain' mentality becomes a mantra that guides all decisions about whether or not to quit at any given time.

Actually, I have done it myself. I remember training for a hunter/jumper show. It was the last session with my trainer before the show and it was very windy. We talked about whether to ride or not, but I wanted to get in as much practice as I could get and we went ahead. My horse and I got over the first few jumps okay. Tia, my horse, was spooky, but that was to be expected with so much wind. On the next jump, a white gate, a gust of wind pushed the bottom of the gate forward just as we were on the last few strides of the approach. Tia planted her feet and stood her ground going from an easy canter to a dead halt in point two nanoseconds. I didn't come off, but my forehead slammed into her neck and I was stunned. It turned out I had given myself a slight concussion and yet another whiplash injury. Not only did I not compete in the horse show, but I had to spend a day or two in bed as well. At that point the entry fees were a wash, but that was the least of my problems. So, when there is a lot 'riding' on a workout, it's easy to get disconnected from oneself.

There is also cultural support for the common disconnect that happens with people and their own bodies. We live in a society that has evolved into an era of specialisation. If you have legal problems, it is well known that it isn't wise to represent yourself. If you need a house, you almost can't buy one without a realtor, because houses for-sale-by-owner aren't allowed on the listings. The Food and Drug Administration issues proclamations about what it is safe to eat. But the greatest disconnect of all is probably initiated by pharmaceutical companies that give away free samples of pills. Pills that deaden the discomfort of common symptoms that are clues to more serious problems with digestion, repressed emotion or an unwillingness to change one's habits.

They say that seven years after you quit smoking, your lungs finally rid themselves of the black deterioration that smoking causes in the bronchioles. Seven years after I had quit smoking, I decided I wanted to ride horses again. I had ridden most of my life but took a hiatus as a young adult. Not only did I want to ride, but I wanted to learn how to compete in the sport of combined training. I wanted to experience the exhileration of flying over a cross country course over solid fences at a gallop. I wanted to learn how to dance with my horse in the centuries-old tradition of graceful gymnastic performance in the dressage arena. I wanted to know what it was like to have the skill required to be precise about distances and stride lengths in the staduim phase of this three phase sport. I remember walking along in the desert, trying to run at the ripe age of 35 or so and realizing I had no wind.

Fat chance that I would ever be able to ride a horse, let alone compete in that condition. I had no money, I had no trainer, I had no horse either, for that matter. But I had what we have all been graced with but often completely discount: this amazing capacity to sense ourselves. I did not think of it in those terms, I just began, slowly, to jog until my breath became labored. Then I would walk until my breath returned to normal and I would jog again. I would quickly loose my breath and I would walk. And so it went for twenty minutes the first day. For twenty minutes the next day. For twenty minutes the third day. By the fourth day, I was happy to be able to increase my time by five minutes. A month later, I could keep it up for an hour at a time and I was able to breathe in a way I had not experienced for years. I was also experiencing the power of making conscious decisions about what was right for me rather than abdicating my own authority over my behavior.

So it seems, inadvertently, I stumbled on this technique of using RPE to rate my exertion level all by myself, long before it was an accepted way of assessing a workout in the fitness industry. I stumbled on it long before I did the FELDENKRAIS training. I had, however, gone to a series of five AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT classes a few years earlier. It was there, I am sure, that I first came to honor this amazing capacity of the human nervous system to sense itself. It was there that I learned how to direct my consciousness to take advantage of my own biofeedback system.

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