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Chronic Pain, Health, Fat Loss, & SO MUCH MORE!

ultimate sandbag exercises

I have a confession, in the past 5 years or so, I’ve researched fitness protocols less and less. How could someone who sees themselves as a fitness educator do such a thing? For almost the first 25 years of my career I was laser focused on learning as much about how the body functions and how to build solutions for issues most couldn’t solve. That was greatly beneficial, but I realized time and time again there were those I was just unable to help in the way I had hoped.

It wasn’t until having my own health issues, an aggressive spinal degenerative disease, really took hold that my focus started to shift. The disease was BRUTAL destroying so much of my spine leading to 7 surgeries in a 8 year time frame. One of the most difficult was my neck surgery that resulted in rods being put in and having C3-T2 completely fused.

shoulder mobility

The physical pain was immense, it was so intense that one night in the hospital I went into full body spasms that required a whole hospital team to calm down. A couple of days I remember laying in bed still in the early recovery phase and wondering, “can I do this?”

What’s “this”? Life that could be this way.

I started to question literally everything…

“What would I do if I couldn’t do my job anymore?”

“How would I enjoy life if I was barely able to do anything?”

“How would this impact my family life is I became dependent upon Jessica for the most basic things?”

It went on and on and on. People told me I would “get better” but no one could tell me exactly what that would mean. To take my mind off things I started going online and trying to find anything I could related to dealing with the challenges chronic pain causes. Most people think of chronic pain as only being about the physical pain, but the mental pain that is caused can often be more severe.

That is a BIG reason that 80% of people with chronic pain have depression and almost 10% of people who commit suicide are chronic pain individuals. This number is doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you put in context for you…A study examined 123,181 suicide deaths from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System. Records for more than 10,000 of the deaths included evidence that the person had chronic pain. I don’t know about you, but that’s A LOT of people!

What is probably more mind blowing is Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard T.H. Chan School, said “there aren’t any medications that seem to be particularly effective for chronic pain.” I can personally attest to this as some may help episodes but have so many issues in actually addressing the issue.

What kept coming up on the internet though was the concept of mind-body practices. As the national cancer institute explains, mind-body practices are, “A health practice that combines mental focus, controlled breathing, and body movements to help relax the body and mind.” Common examples are yoga, tai chi, and so forth.

Sounds kinda cheesy new age thing right? Well, think about this, if you look up on Pubmed (a popular online resource to find research studies) “cold immersion therapy” (related to the popular idea of cold plunging) about 1348 papers related come up. If we look up “mind-body therapies” we get almost 52,000 papers! In other words, mind-body practices are REALLY well researched, especially compared to other popular modalities.

The government is now heavily funding research on the impact of whole person health and the strategies and methods that support it. 

As Harvard Medical School explains, “Our ability to feel pain and react to it is both a boon and a curse, simultaneously. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.” This means that pain is highly subjective, and it is informed by a mix of past experiences, our current emotional state, and future expectations. Since pain is an emotional and sensory experience it affects our quality of life immensely, and treatment is complex.

There is increased perception and awareness with mindfulness practices, and meditation addresses both the sensory and emotional components of pain. The interoception center in the brain increases and the amygdala shrinks in size with regular mindfulness practices, which explains better emotional regulation and pain control. The brain’s ability to react to painful stimuli with an emotional response decreases, and a person is more likely to respond calmly to a stimulus instead of having a hasty emotional reaction (hurt, pain, anger, etc.). The increased perception and awareness with regular mediation will make a person feel every sensation, including pain; however, they may choose not to react to it, so practicing meditation can help you better manage pain.”

Let me make sure to say that mind-body practices may not solve all experiences of pain! I will be the FIRST to admit that I still have pain, but my suffering and disability is far less. In fact, I am on NO pain killers and help manage my pain with these practices. As the old buddhist saying goes, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” (while they weren’t talking about chronic pain, the expression works well).

Now, you might be thinking, “Josh, I have a little nagging this and that, but I don’t have massive surgeries done. Should I do these practices?”

My answer would be a resounding YES! These practices are NOT just for chronic aches and pains either.

The European Cardiology Review states, “mind-body therapies may be novel low-cost approaches to reduce morbidity and mortality in cardiovascular disease.”

A 2023 study found that mind-body practices also help with diabetes, “Mind and body practices are strongly associated with improvement in glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes.”

Mind-body practices have also been shown to help with depression, anxiety, arthritis, and help those that are going through cancer treatment. You might be thinking, “okay, but I already exercise, is this still something that helps me?”

100%!!! Mind-body practices have been shown to also help with balance, mobility, have cardiovascular benefits, low back pain, fibromyalgia, issues like myofascial pain, fat loss, and even heart rate variability (HRV)! A lot of people in fitness have gotten into HRV lately, but they are confusing what it is and how to optimize it for their health.

Fat loss may shock people because these are not crazy sweat angel type of trainings. However, the late Charles Poliquin’s group explains how such practices help with fat loss when it isn’t just about blasting calories, “Mind-body activities lower stress, reducing release of cortisol, a hormone that deposits dangerous fat in the abdominal area. Mindfulness helps mitigate anxiety and reduces inflammation that impairs restful sleep. Mindfulness improves self-efficacy and reduces negative emotions that are linked to stress eating.”

HRV relates to the health of your nervous system. A very simple explanation is that by look at time between heart beats we can see the how your body handles stress. Those that have unhealthy HRV numbers are more at risk for things like cardiovascular issues. So, a good HRV is a good thing, but people have misunderstood this as to relate to cardiovascular training. This isn’t the case! Research has shown even a 10-day mindfulness course that people participate in has very positive benefits to HRV.

breath work

So, what does a mind-body practice look like? It can a number of practices, but I wanted to teach strategies that could be use by anyone in a wide variety of settings. You can use these movements prior to your training to help warm-up, get more mobile, stretch the tissues, and get your mind focused. These ideas can be used for a brief 5-10 minute “movement snack” when you are feeling tight and stiff. Such drills are helpful if you are feeling sluggish and you need to get re-energized (it really works!). You can also use such movements for an entire training session that could be part of recovery from training, helping post-rehab, and just general enjoyment of movement.

Such training doesn’t require any equipment, a lot of time, or space, but being focused (that might be the hardest part for some!). My goal though is to continue to bring strategies that really make an impact not on just people’s fitness, but their health and well-being too!

This week you can save 30% on all our DVRT online programs and Ultimate Sandbags with code “heart30” HERE. That includes courses like our Science Of Breathing Course (which covers myofascial stretches to go along with the breath work) HERE, mobility programs you can find HERE, and ourDVRT Rx courses.