Be active without back pain

We all strive for healthy aging, and that includes a healthy back. But so many of us are plagued with back pain as we get older. At the grocery store I see people who I think are about my age hunched over their cart and taking very slow steps, possibly because they’re in so much pain. And I see heartbreaking posts from friends on social media who are forced to cancel fun plans because of their back pain. For me, back pain comes and goes – and fortunately it’s mostly gone these days. So, how can we be active without back pain?

Bend the right way

We all know to not use our backs when we lift heavy objects. Bend your knees, squat and pick it up. Use the strength in your thighs, not your back. Keep your back straight when you lift. And when something is absolutely too heavy to lift, ask for help. I know that’s hard…

Suck it in!

Healthy aging involves a strong core. And that helps you to Be active without back pain.
The side plank – yet another plank variation – helps you get a strong core so you can be active without back pain.

I’ve been saying to tighten your core quite a bit these days. But, it’s the safest way to carry something. And when you’re straightening up from a squat or a crouch, suck it in. It really helps. Having a strong core leads to a strong back! I’ve been making an effort to focus more on my core for the last couple of years and have (knock on wood!) experienced hardly any back pain lately. I used to be the poster child for having a heating pad on my lower back. And that would be real torture this summer with the heat and humidity we’ve had. My hip bursitis would combine with sciatica in years past and it was so painful that I could hardly move. 

Equalize the load

If you carry a heavy shoulder bag, you could be contributing to your back pain. Switch sides every once in a while, or use a backpack. (I’ve tried to carry my bag on my right shoulder but it just feels wrong.)

Healthy mind leads to a healthy back

The experts at Advocate Aurora Health say that a healthy mind also leads to a healthy back. When people with an optimistic outlook get back pain, they tend to feel better sooner. “A positive mental attitude can help in handling back pain so that you bounce back fast and don’t let it turn into a chronic condition. Meditation can reduce stress and muscle tightness.” While it may not seem possible to achieve a positive outlook when you have back pain, there are things you can do to become more optimistic. And even a short guided meditation (like the “Garden Walk Guided Meditation” that you can download) will help reduce stress.

A healthy back for healthy aging

Living life pain-free is certainly the goal for those of us over 50. And while most people under 50 probably don’t think of back pain, they should probably pay attention to ways to maintain a healthy back too. Just keep a few things in mind: suck it in, and be careful how you lift and carry things.

Turn your rough day around

Lately it seems I’ve been having a series of rough days. Days when hardly anything goes right. I’ve learned that you can’t change the outside world, so when important banking software crashes, you really can’t do anything about it. When it’s pouring and you have to make 5 stops after work, put your raincoat on. What you can change, though, is your mindset to turn your rough day around.

Change what you can for the positive

The first thing is to figure out if you can change anything that you previously thought you couldn’t. Can you postpone any of your errands to a day when it’s not raining? If your banking task is crucial, can you do it in person? If you can’t change things, give a mental sigh, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “Oh well. I’d better get changed, then.” If it were me having to run errands on a sopping wet day, I’d reward myself with a refreshing beverage. 

Change your immediate mindset

If, when you get home, things are still so rough that you’re having a hard time concentrating, it may be time to close your eyes for a few minutes and clear your mind. Listen to a short guided meditation or just let your brain clear out. This is what Dr. Donna Williams, a family medicine physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, recommends. Or if you’re feeling antsy, take a brief walk.

More long-term change for your mindset

Exercise - and my dog - turn my rough day around. Releasing endorphins and a dose of instant happiness.
Exercise – and my dog – turn my rough day around.

When I go to bed in a bad mood, I have trouble sleeping, so I try to change my mood before bedtime. Most days I exercise in the late afternoon which makes me feel more positive about my world. Dr. Kiran Bojedla, a family medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center, agrees. “On days I feel tired or overworked, I often find the endorphin release from a run or short workout made my day better. It doesn’t have to be much – even a short 20-minute walk around your neighborhood can give you a feeling of accomplishment and boost your mood.”

On days when I don’t feel like exercising (most days), but do it anyway, I feel completely virtuous after a workout and the world certainly looks better. And that endorphin release that Dr. Bojedla mentions lasts for hours.

You’ll increase your resilience too

Consciously improving your mindset will make you happier. Happiness increases optimism, which increases your resilience. Improve your mindset, get happy and more resilient. You know that there will be tough days in the future. It happens that way for everyone. With increased resilience you’ll be able to face those tough days with more equanimity.

Keeping track of everything is impossible

Keeping track of everything is impossible. Stuff that you think you should know, like the size and brand of your favorite pair of jeans, you just can’t pull out of your brain. Or the title of the next book in the series you’re reading. And the albums you already own by your favorite music group (is that a thing with streaming any more???) What was the name of that new Thai restaurant you want to try? The web sites you want to check out. 

Keeping track of everything is impossible. Eliminate the mental clutter to focus on more important things.
Eliminate the mental clutter to focus on more important things.

And yet we all try to hold this stuff in our heads. The mental clutter just increases our anxiety, plays havoc with our peace of mind and with our health. All the random thoughts running through our brains distract us from the things we should be focusing on. So, if we get rid of all that mental junk, we’ll be able to focus on those more important things. Like improving our mindset and our physical health. When we’re able to focus on these important facets of our life, we’re happier too.

I tried to put all of this stuff on pieces of paper, but, needless to say, I couldn’t find the one I wanted when I needed it, and I had little pieces of paper all over the place, contributing to the masses of paper clutter.

A low-tech solution

One way I’ve found to keep all this on hand is on paper, yes, but in a notebook. In one of those multi-ringed binders or notebooks with the card-sized inserts. One card per item so that when you don’t need the reminder any longer, or if your size or preferences change, you can discard the old card and insert the new one.

Productivity expert Laura Stack advocates the use of “category lists” in a small binder: “’It’s not like you’re constantly reviewing these lists,’ she says, but they need to be with you (in a small binder, maybe) so that when you do unexpectedly find 15 minutes to run into a bookstore or pop into the hardware store, you’re ready.”

This will help in keeping track of everything, but it can take time to record everything and to find the pertinent item. So, I don’t believe that this is an ideal solution.

Digital solution

I use Google Keep – a free list tool. It’s pretty basic, but it’s searchable. So it’s perfect to keep track of random things. If I have to run to the store to pick up a few items. I make a new Keep list and open it when I’m at the store. I can check on the books I haven’t read by my favorite authors when I’m at a used bookshop. And I can check and see if any of the books I want to read are at that used bookshop.

Another nice thing about Google Keep is that my lists are synchronized among my devices. And when I no longer need one of these lists, I can simply delete or archive it. That keeps my head clear and my desk (relatively) clear too. So while I can’t keep track of everything, I can keep track of the things that are important to me – with a little help.

Too close to home

It happened here

Everyone always says, “It can’t happen here.” Well, it happened here – or just a few miles down the road. The shooting at the Highland Park, IL Independence Day parade, just a few days ago, just a few miles away took our collective breath away. Nowhere is safe. Expect it anywhere, anytime. So, how do you shift your mindset to a place of peace following tragedy?

Dealing with tragic news

Even if a tragedy like a mass shooting incident does not involve you directly, when it’s physically close to home it hits people hard. I first learned of the shooting from a post by a friend and my brain just stopped working. I was with my sister and we turned on the TV. Of course all the local stations were covering the story but it was too early to learn any details – just that it happened. 

Our friends in Highland Park

By then we’re thinking of all our friends who live in Highland Park. And of course it’s a natural thing to go to the parade on the 4th of July. Immediately we texted and messaged those friends to make sure they were OK. But we were in shock. My mindset was spiraling down, and I could feel the anxiety start.

Our friends were fine – a couple had started to head to the parade, but they were late and the roads were already closed. Knowing that our friends were not involved did not make the anxiety go away. This happened, and it was bad. It’s natural to ask, “How will I ever be safe again?”

Methods for coping

The first step in processing a tragedy like this is just to accept that it happened. You can’t lie to yourself and make it go away. But obsessing over the news coverage is also not helping to shift your mindset.

Stick to your normal routine

Sticking to your routine will help shift your mindset away from anxiety and get you back to "normal" sooner
Sticking to your routine will help shift your mindset away from anxiety and get you back to “normal” sooner.

Keeping to your normal routine is an important way to process a tragedy, according to Dr. Munther Barakat, Director of Behavioral Therapy at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Wauwatosa, Wis. By maintaining our regular schedule, we can shift our mindset back to our normal happier one in less time. It’s important not to neglect basic self-care – keep to your normal sleep routine, eat healthy meals, schedule your workouts as usual. Maintaining your regular routines will strengthen your resilience and make you more able to face the future.

Exercise works

Exercise helps me cope with my anxiety. I have to focus on what I’m doing so I don’t trip over my own feet or kick the dogs, so exercise helps shift my mindset. And that shift lasts after the workout as well.

Walk in nature

If you don’t feel up to an intense workout, just taking a walk helps to improve your mindset as well. Fifteen to twenty minutes or so of deep breathing and looking at trees helps enormously. Of course, if these coping techniques aren’t working for you – if your anxiety grows, if you’re losing sleep and productivity at work, you may want to talk to a professional about it.

Bad people are still out there

Bad people will always be in the world. But we don’t have to dwell on their existence. Shift your mindset. Be happier with yourself and your corner of the world.

Achieving goals is one route to happiness

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal?

Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.
Achieving goals is one route to happiness. A kiss from Booker is another.

What’s your pie-in-the-sky goal? Mine is to get an Agility Championship with my dog. I can’t do it in one, two or five trials. And there’s a lot of training to get done before that goal is even approachable. And that’s the key. Achieving smaller, intermediate goals is the route to happiness.

Of course, life is multi-faceted. There’s work, family, home, hobbies. I advocate setting goals for every facet of life. Last year one of my goals was to make chocolate macarons. I’m not the best baker in the family (that’s my sister) but I did my research and made a batch of really good chocolate macarons. That’s another key to achieving your goals. After you think of something you want to do, figure out if you have the skill sets you need to accomplish it. If you don’t have the skills – right now – then figure out the skills you need and how to go about learning them.

Goals that are just the right size

You know that setting goals is the first step to getting stuff done. (As I wrote in “Set goals – big and little.”) And achieving a goal will certainly give you a sense of satisfaction. Without goals your life can seem directionless. Goals can indeed give your life purpose and direction, but goals that are too strict can be rigid and confining. Similarly, goals that don’t challenge you will leave you feeling incomplete. And setting goals that are too huge can be overwhelming. So, the secret is to set a series of smaller goals that set you on the path to the big goal you really want to attain. Achieving the goals that really matter to you and clarify your path will surely set you on the road to happiness.

Set your intermediate goals

Finding direction for every aspect of your life is the way to a life with purpose. I don’t specifically look for a purpose to my life, but at the same time I don’t want to just drift along aimlessly either. A recent study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that more internally motivated workers felt more satisfaction in their roles. We can extrapolate that to everyday life. People who are motivated to do things are probably happier than those who drift along aimlessly. 

Once you have your big goals, set those intermediate goals that will put you on the path to that pie in the sky. Happiness is on that road.

How to motivate yourself to exercise

You know you should exercise (for your healthy aging if no other reason) but can’t find your motivation. You’ve changed into your workout clothes and everything, but you’re still not feeling inspired. Sound familiar? You’re getting frustrated because you feel like you should know what to do, but just can’t get to it. Or you’re at the gym and are bored just looking at the row of treadmills. You’re at that motivation crossroads. You can exercise and feel great – improve your mindset and increase your endorphins, or not exercise and feel guilty that you didn’t. Here’s how to motivate yourself to exercise.

Are you bored with the prospect?

Motivate yourself to exercise with different moves.
Motivate yourself to exercise with different moves.

Business motivation expert Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, has identified three reasons you may be procrastinating. The first may be that you fear boredom. Like dreading that time on the treadmill because you’re afraid you’ll be bored out of your mind. I dislike running too, but get on that treadmill twice a week like clockwork.

Dr. Markman advocates a little distraction when you’re tackling boring tasks. I plug in my earphones and listen to an audiobook. Not a business book, but one with lots of action to take my mind off the running. Not even a steamy romance would help you motivate yourself to exercise. Nope – it’s got to have lots of action! That keeps my legs pumping.

Or do you think exercise is too difficult?

The second reason Dr. Markman says we might be procrastinating is because we could dread dealing with complex tasks. Exercise does not have to be complex. In fact, exercise should be the  easiest thing in the world so that we will do it. If an exercise is too difficult – like a complex step pattern, for instance, practice it again so that you can do it without stumbling. Or find a different workout that’s not as complex. At a gym, for an in-person class, ask your instructor if she teaches a more basic class.

When you’re working out at home, try a modification for the complex exercise. If you’re not strong enough, you’ll get there. When choreography is hard, rewind and practice the sequence again. You’ll get there. If the music is good, and you like the instructor, you’ll motivate yourself to exercise. As I always say, “There’s always a modification.”

Or perhaps you don’t know where to start?

The third reason your motivation to exercise may be lacking is because you don’t know where to start, or you feel that it’s beyond you. Know this: there’s an exercise for everyone. If you can move any part of your body, you can exercise it. As a beginner, suffering from chronic conditions, or recovering from an injury, if you can’t be on your feet for an extended period, there are chair exercises. If you can’t run, then walk, as I said earlier. Do arm circles if you can raise your arms. 

So, you can move and walk and even run – but if you don’t know what to do, do what you feel like doing. Like to dance? Put some music on. If you want something more structured, take a half hour and search YouTube for “beginner strength exercises for seniors,” as an example. I do a combination of aerobics and strength, which mixes moves up nicely. Search for that if it sounds appealing. As you’re doing your search, note down the instructors and programs that look interesting. 

Then, make a date with yourself a few times a week and go exercise. Look forward to that date as a way to figure out how you want to work out for the next few weeks. Keep that date. And reassess. Did you enjoy the workout? Did you wish it was longer? Shorter? Harder? Did you like the instructor’s style? If you look forward to spending time with your favorite exercise instructor, or if you like the music used, it will be easier to motivate yourself to exercise.

Exercise helps depression

We’ve all experienced depressive episodes – perhaps too many in the last couple of years. It’s natural to feel sad or depressed when we hear about all the horrible things going on in the world, and some of these hit us harder than others. In fact, “according to the National Institutes of Health, 17.3 million adults in the U.S. have experienced a depressive episode in the last year.” Major depression is considered a mental disorder, but minor depression, like what we feel on occasion, can even affect how our bodies respond. But all the experts agree that exercise can help depression.

How depression can affect us

At first depression can affect our focus and memory, and can even interfere with our sleep. Depression can cause headaches. And if our depression continues untreated, it can interfere with our ability to fight off disease. 

Happy people don’t catch as many colds.

 A study by a Carnegie Mellon psychologist found that “people who are happy, lively, calm or exhibit other positive emotions are less likely to become ill when they are exposed to a cold virus than those who report few of these emotions.” And when these happy people did catch a cold, they complained of fewer symptoms.

How to fight off depression

I'm always happier after I exercise than before. Exercise helps depression.
I’m always happier after I exercise than before.

So, we see that it’s beneficial to be happy – I don’t like being sick, and if I can fight off illness, I’m all for it. Keeping in mind that those with severe depression should seek professional help for it, those of us who have mild depression can improve their mood while improving their mental health, according to Dr. Munther Barakat, a psychologist at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital. Number one on Dr. Barakat’s list of ways to improve your mood and your mindset is to get physical exercise. “Exercise is a natural treatment for depression, and in some cases, is as effective as anti-depressant medication.”

Feel good about exercising

When I’m feeling down, I keep my date with myself and exercise. Inevitably, I feel better afterward. It’s not just running that produces endorphins, it’s exercise in general. Sometimes I just put my favorite tunes on and dance! Exercise helps depression. So, go ahead – turn on that music and move!

You – be nice to you!

Eliminate negative self-talk

No more negative self-talk!
No more negative self-talk

Do you avoid looking in the mirror? Are you critical of your appearance? Your abilities (or, as you see them, lack of abilities)? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good for anything? Are you uncomfortable receiving compliments? Stop it! You – be nice to yourself! Eliminate that negative self-talk!

Effects of prolonged negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is not just a bad idea, it can have a severe effect on your health. “Having a negative outlook on life can lead to decreased motivation, increased stress, and greater feelings of helplessness,” says Dr. Rhiannon Jauer, psychologist from Aurora Behavioral Health Center. “Prolonged negative self-talk can increase one’s risk of mental health problems, physical health issues, as well as sleeplessness.”

Dr. Jauer encourages us to reconfigure our brains, to avoid rousing stress that can result in a damaging impact on our bodies. First of all, recognize the negative thoughts you’re having about yourself. By recognizing it, you’re on your way to changing it. But recognizing and identifying that negative self-talk is uncomfortable, because you may start out believing it. It seems real to you, and true, and therefore difficult to change. 

A couple of easy ways to eliminate negative self-talk

But, pretend that you’re talking to a friend when you hear yourself saying those awful things. You’d encourage your friend, tell her that those negative things are not true. So, the same thing holds for yourself. That top looks great on you. Well, perhaps your hair does need a style, but it’s a good length for you. You work wonders with a spreadsheet. Will you come and organize my kitchen cabinets? 

See – wasn’t that easy? “For some reason, we humans seem to save our worst words for ourselves, and that isn’t going to help” with eliminating negative self-talk and boosting our optimism, Dr. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, executive director of Innovation360, said. 

Acknowledge your negative self-talk. Recognize that you’re putting yourself down. And then consciously decide that it’s not true. Dismiss that thought. Send it away.

Replace that thought with a positive one. “Well, I may not like my hair style, but at least I’ve got a lot of it.” Or, “my files are totally disorganized but no one creates a better spreadsheet than I do.”

Practice daily

In order to eliminate that negative self-talk and have a lasting effect, practice being kind to yourself every day. Just like any other habit that you want to cultivate, being kind to yourself requires practice. Use a journal to remind yourself, perhaps, and reward your successes! I’ve written about maintaining positivity before, and in your daily self-kindness practice you should utilize these techniques. 

Make contributions to your “Amazing Box”

And every time you turn that negative self-talk around, make an entry to your Amazing Box. I talked about this concept a few weeks ago. It might be one of the most important tools in your toolkit of positivity techniques. It’s an instant motivator when you feel down. Whenever you recognize a negative thought about yourself and can’t immediately think of something positive, read an entry in your Amazing Box. Instant pick-me-up. You’ll be on your way to positivity, optimism, and happiness.

So next time you have a negative thought about yourself, I’m talking to you: “You! Be nice to you!”

How do a mental block and exercise link?

A mental block can stop exercise

How does a mental block stop you from exercising?
You want to exercise but that mental block gets in the way.

Is a mental block the thing that’s stopping you from exercising? You know that you need to exercise for your healthy aging. And you have every intention of starting an exercise program. You’ve made a mental note of the exercises you want to do, or the workout video you want to try, but something keeps getting in the way. Every day. For two weeks. Your mindset just isn’t right, and you can’t figure out why it’s so hard. But how does a mental block and exercise link up?

You may even have changed into your exercise clothes, laced up your sneakers, but then you find something else to do. And then it’s time to start dinner. Or get ready for an appointment. And the opportunity to exercise is lost.

How does a mental block happen?

“When talking specifically about exercising — mental blocks are often associated with a lack of motivation that is in turn associated with a lack of vision,” says Dr. Munther Barakat, director of Behavioral Health Therapy at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital, Wauwatosa, WI. “The vision of what it means to exercise and how you measure success has to be clear. This makes it naturally reinforcing.”

Dr. Barakat seems to mean that deep down, you really don’t want to exercise. And I get that. I really, really dislike the act of exercising. I don’t like being sweaty or breathing hard. And when my muscles are shaky, like at the end of an intense aerobic workout, it almost feels like something is wrong. But I work out. I exercise. I push play on my DVD player, cueing up a workout video four or five times a week. Even though I don’t like to do it.

Because I do like the results. I like being able to do things I want to do, when I want to do them – without waiting for help. I like being able to walk anywhere I want. I like being able to train my dogs every day.

Your “measure of success” may be different than mine. And that’s great. Your next step, then, is to picture yourself on the way to that success. Formulate your goals and a path to get there. (I’ve written about goals, how to make them, and how to follow through, before.)

Other causes of mental blocks

Experts at the Sage Neuroscience Center say that another cause of mental blocks can include anxiety. I’ve felt this, certainly. If you’re anxious about something that’s going on in the world – either close to you or on the other side of the globe – this can cause massive indecision. Anxiety can paralyze you into indecision, making it impossible for you to actually do anything.

Another cause can be decision fatigue. You’ve had to make a lot of decisions lately, and making one more – like which exercise program to do – is just one too many. So you don’t make any decision. 

Remedies for an exercise mental block

Again, one solution can be to decide on a goal – like exercise four days this week for a half hour, walking and doing a workout video on alternating days. Schedule those workouts for the week. Keep to your calendar – when your exercise appointment comes up, keep that appointment! And on Sunday, schedule next week’s workouts.

If you want to go a bit deeper, get out your journal and write down the things you think are keeping you from exercising. Write down the things you’re anxious about. Sometimes the act of writing helps your brain to process, and helps you think of a solution to your blocks.

Set your happiness to music

From cognitive to physical benefits in healthy aging, set your happiness to music.
Set your happiness to music – I will!

I’ve written frequently about ways to get happier (most recently in “Five Ways to Maintain Positivity”) and I’ve mentioned music as a way to motivate yourself to exercise. But music also has a close link to other brain benefits! Your happiness and music are linked!

Tunes for healthy aging

One thing that all of us are concerned with is our healthy aging. And if something can keep our brain healthy, and that something is as wonderful as music – it should be a no-brainer to put some tunes on. Studies in both healthy older adults and stroke patients have shown that making music has a positive effect on cognitive status in healthy aging.

Improved mental health

In fact, a study by the Global Council of Brain Health showed improvements in cognitive function and mental health of those who actively listen to music. Similarly, those who listened to music regularly also reported lower levels of anxiety and depression. Another study showed that upbeat background music can improve our processing speed and memory improves with either upbeat or downbeat background music.

So, music will help you feel happier and also can help you remember things. Calm me down and increase my optimism? All good reasons to set your happiness to music. Use music for your body and your brain: your exercise and your emotions. 

Music instead of white noise

I had been putting on my white noise machine instead of music. Where I work gets impossibly still and quiet, which makes me crazy – listening to the noises in my head (tinnitus). But I think I’ll be putting my favorite Pandora station into my earphones, and only put the white noise on when I need to write. But if having background music on will help me process things faster and improve my memory, I’m all for it. 

What’s your favorite kind of music to have in the background?