Changes that Matter

By JiJi Russell

Want to feel good about yourself? Do something new. When we do new things, we can access a new level of confidence. We see it in children as they acquire skills like learning to swim or ride a bike; or perhaps tackling a difficult math concept and finally “getting it.”

Something happens in the brain when we put ourselves to a test and prevail. The concept of “neuro plasticity” holds the key to this phenomenon. I appreciate the way Dr. Michael Merzenich describes brain plasticity in his many forums.

Merzenich, a professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity for more than 30 years, says the brain actually “changes physically, functionally, and chemically,” as one acquires an ability or improves an ability. These kinds of activities actually create a new system of connectivity in the brain that did not formerly exist. This change is known as “plasticity.”

Cool, huh?


“More” Is Not Equal to “Better”

Many people I encounter in my wellness travels wish for, and often work for, greater energy, more endurance, loss of an increasing waistline, greater strength, and so forth. As I’m learning from both helping and observing others, as well as having to work harder personally for change as the years add up, one common tactic is to go “harder” or even “more frequently” with a practice, especially when it comes to physical endeavors. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily yield results in the form of change.

One the first conversations I had with Paula Barnes, a skilled and quite intuitive personal trainer, went something like this: “But I walk/run three or more times a week,” I said. “I eat well—lots of fruits and veggies, hardly any bread or sugar. I do yoga. I don’t know why I’ve gained weight, slowly but surely.”

To which she replied simply, “You can’t expect to keep doing the same thing you’ve always done and see changes.”

This reminded me of something I’ve heard told: The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing but expecting to get different results. To avoid the possibility of going insane, I listened further. “Besides,” Paula said. “If you just do a bunch of cardio [my go-to routine], you’ll only become a smaller version of yourself. It’s the strength-training that changes your metabolism and your overall shape.”

That was it. When a straight-shooting girl from Brooklyn tells me what’s what, I listen.


Strong for the Long Haul

In my personal trajectory of fitness change-making, Paula has motivated me to do some ridiculously difficult strength and balance training. It always makes me chuckle when she says: “Okay, first you do 40 of these [absurdly hard] weight/lunge/balance moves; then you’ll hop over here and do 20 pushups in perfect form; then you’ll stand on one leg and . . .”

Usually I wobble all over the place the first time; then I laugh, focus, and try harder. Before I know it, I’m moving in some completely new way, which gives me one of the greatest joys of my life, having been a mover of all sorts for as long as I could walk. My brain loves having some new feat to work out. It loves promoting that plasticity effect, I suppose.

I think it’s easy for anyone to get stuck in a comfort zone, even if that zone is mostly a healthy one. It takes some motivation to thrust oneself into a new mode of doing, but it could open you up to welcome changes.

While each one of us has a different prescription for healthy eating and exercise, surely each of us can stand refinement at the least; improvement at best. Or, maybe a complete overhaul is in order.

What part of your physical well-being might you want to change? Would you be willing to change up your routine in order to get there?


JiJi’s Short List of Fitness Change-Makers

Paula Barnes, personal trainer;

6-lb or 8-lb medicine ball

2-lb or 3-lb hand weights

Add one of these strength tools to a yoga move, or simply squat or lunge with weight to bring up the burn:

Nike+ Training Club app: A free app with “tabata” –inspired workouts for all levels

Interval walking (still love it): Every few minutes, stop and do some power moves: lunge, squat, or do pushups or other strength-training moves while your heart rate is up. Then resume your walk.

JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and integrative nutrition health coach, manages the corporate wellness program for American Public University System in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at