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NIFS Healthy Living Blog

The Hidden Wellness and Fitness Benefits of Yoga

Yoga3.jpgMany of us know that yoga serves as a form of physical activity that increases flexibility for participants. Yoga focuses on putting the individuals in body poses that elongate muscles from head to toe. While this is very true, and I encourage anyone looking to improve their flexibility to incorporate yoga into their weekly workout routine, yoga has so much more to offer than just improvements in flexibility. In fact, the original context of yoga had very little to do with improving flexibility at all.

Originally the purpose of yoga was spiritual development practices to improve mind-body awareness. Over the years, however, many have begun to focus more on the physical benefits of yoga than the mental and spiritual benefits, which has led the practice of yoga to take on newly defined purposes. However, it is important to understand the mind-body awareness benefits of yoga, as they can be just as if not more beneficial than the physical attributes. Let’s take a look at what some of those hidden benefits are.

Nervous System and Digestive System

One major focus of yoga is to become more aware of and to control your breathing patterns. By learning to control breathing, you can move from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system almost instantaneously. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, or the part of your nervous system designed to respond to stress. When the sympathetic nervous system is in control, heart rate and blood pressure rise as a response to fight a possible threat. You want to limit the activity of this side of the autonomic nervous system. This is important because when the parasympathetic nervous system (or rest and digest) is in majority of control, your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels lower while your digestion rate increases. Once your body reaches this relaxed state, anxiety becomes something of the past. A faster digestive system helps your body make the most of nutrients found in the food you consume while regulating regular bodily function.

Focus and Creativity

If you ask an experienced yogi what the hardest part of yoga is, you might be surprised by their answer. Typically, one might assume that holding the different yoga poses would be the most challenging aspect; however, there is an even bigger challenge, which includes focusing—on nothing. Meditation is another crucial component of a successful yoga session. Experienced yogis are able to focus their attention on nothing but their inner self; all outside distractions are eliminated, at least temporarily. This may sound very simple, but if you have ever tried to completely clear your mind of all inner thoughts besides what you are feeling at that exact moment, you may be able to grasp how difficult a task this is to successfully complete.

However, once one is able to control their center of attention, they will find their ability to stay focused on one particular task (especially those that require attention to detail) becomes better and better. In a 2012 study published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers were able to determine those who practiced meditation for at least 10 minutes a day for up to 16 weeks performed better with divergent-thinking tasks than those who did not participate in meditation at all.

Strength and Muscle Definition

Just in case you are not fascinated by the mind-body awareness benefits of yoga, there is a less discussed muscle defining and strengthening benefit as well, for those who are solemnly interested in the physical benefits. Who knew that yoga is actually great for improving muscle definition, and in rare cases even muscle hypertrophy? Because yoga focuses on moving and upholding your own body weight in various positions, it serves as a great strength workout in addition to flexibility and mind-body training.

Unlike traditional resistance training, which focuses primarily on the concentric contraction (the muscle contracts as it shortens) of a muscle, yoga focuses primarily on the eccentric contraction (the muscle contracts as it stretches) of a muscle. The eccentric contraction component gives muscles a more elongated look, while concentric contractions give muscles a shorter, more bulgy, look. If you have ever seen an experienced yogi’s physique, it may resemble that of a gymnast, basketball player, or even a track athlete versus those who participate in more traditional forms of resistance training, who might resemble a football player or bodybuilder with more muscle hypertrophy.

Yoga tends to train small and large muscles all over the body due to its high demand for muscles to work in conjunction with each other to perform the different body movements in various planes of movement. This is good for the reason that you often tend to work smaller muscle groups that may get little to no attention when practicing machine-oriented resistance training. With a machine that focuses on a one-dimensional plane of movement, it’s often impossible to train multiple muscle groups at the same time. Therefore, yoga tends to be a better option for improving overall body strength along with achieving a more proportional muscular physique.

Other Wellness Benefits

Some additional notable benefits of yoga also include (but are not limited to) immune system boost, pain management, increase in gray brain matter and increase in balance, and function ability. As noted above, the mental and nervous system benefits of yoga must begin to take back priority. Although improving flexibility can be a great thing, many have found that these additional benefits are what separate this form of physical activity from any other form.

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This blog was written by Darius Felix, Health Fitness Instructor. To find out more about NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: yoga muscles focus flexibility digestion wellness nervous system mind-body

Choose Foods That Naturally Detox for Healthy Eating

I’m sure you have seen or read about celebrities doing detox diets and cleanses before awards shows. Maybe you have thought about trying one of these crazy and wacky things yourself. Most of these diets are very low-calorie and can be dangerous if followed for an extended period of time.

Some foods that you probably already have at home, however, can help to naturally detox your body. These foods, along with a balanced-nutrition diet and exercise, can help you feel energized and refreshed again!

Lemon water: Lemons are high in vitamin C, which helps the body detox and burn fat. Also, citrus fruits are rich in the antioxidant d-limonene, a powerful compound found in the peel that stimulates liver enzymes to help flush toxins from the body and gives sluggish bowels a kickstart.

Cruciferous veggies like cabbage and Brussels sprouts: Due to the high amounts of fiber in these veggies, they help with gut health, kidney health, and liver health by keeping the body regular and removing toxins and waste. These foods also contain the phytochemical sulforaphane, which studies suggest may keep pre-carcinogenic cells from negatively affecting other cells in the body, so it supports healthy functions of all of your organs.

Artichokes: These green guys are high in inulin, which is a prebiotic that helps to form the probiotics (good bacteria) in your gut. This allows more nutrients to be metabolized and takes some of the work off of the liver. They are also high in cynarin, an acid that helps the liver to break down fatty foods.

Beets: This red root veggie is full of betacyanin, which has cancer-fighting properties, along with magnesium, iron, zinc, and calcium to help flush out toxins. This antioxidant also helps the liver and gallbladder eliminate bile from the body.

Ginger: Ginger is great for the liver because it helps to get rid of free radicals that have built up in the body. It also has been found to spike your metabolism and keeps your appetite in check.   

Green tea: Drinking liquids is always a wonderful and natural detox, and adding green tea to your water is extra helpful. It is high in catechin, a flavonoid, which speeds up liver activity and increases the production of detoxification enzymes.

Whole grains such as oats: Anytime you choose whole grains over refined grains you are certain to increase your amount of fiber, and oats are loaded with soluble fiber, which slows the rate of food absorption. This helps to promote healthy gut functioning and stimulates bile excretion by the liver. Also, the insoluble fiber helps to keep you regular, and which can then help you avoid bloating or constipation.

Skip the starvation detox diets and try some of these options the next time you feel like your body needs a cleanse!

What did you eat today? Don’t underestimate the role that proper nutrition plays in your health and fitness. Contact Angie Scheetz ascheetz@nifs.org for a nutrition coaching session.

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This blog was written by Angie Scheetz, RD, Wellness Coordinator. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: nutrition healthy eating digestion clean eating fiber gut health

The Nutrition Pros of Probiotics

yogurtProbiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, specifically your digestive system. These “good” types of bacteria help to keep your gut working properly.

Lately the nutrition benefits of probiotics have been everywhere, which means they are popping up in all types of food. So, what foods should you be choosing as a way to get in probiotics, and what exactly are they doing to keep you healthy?

What Probiotics Can Do for You

Probiotics help move food through your gut. They also help with diarrhea and lactose intolerance, for those people who have trouble digesting lactose, or milk sugar. Probiotics have also been found to help with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease

More recent research has been going beyond stomach-related problems. Researchers have found probiotics can help with skin eczema, preventing allergies and colds, and oral health.

Which Foods Have Probiotics?

Most people think of yogurt as a food with probiotics, and this is by far the most common food choice. Yogurt would be an excellent addition to your diet not only because it’s a more gut-friendly food, but also because it is high in protein, calcium, and Vitamin D. Choose a yogurt that states it has live and active cultures. Other dairy foods that are a good choice for probiotics are buttermilk, kefir, and soft cheeses. 

If you want more options, consider these foods:

  • Miso soup: This popular Japanese starter has more than 160 bacteria strains and can keep your digestive system moving.
  • Sourdough bread: This type of bread is full of gut-protective probiotics. 
  • Sour pickles: Choose naturally fermented kinds, where vinegar wasn’t used in the pickling. Without the vinegar, more good bacteria can grow and increase the digestive benefits.
  • Tempeh: Made from fermented soybeans, this product can be used as a replacement for meat in meals. It is high in protein and is described as having a smoky and nutty flavor. 

Try incorporating some or all of these foods into your diet to start reaping the benefits of probiotics. 

This blog was written by Angie Scheetz, Registered Dietitian and Wellness Coordinator. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

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Topics: nutrition digestion