An Osteopath's View
Thoughts on leading a healthier life from Helena Greenwood at Jurassic Coast Osteopathy, Weymouth, Dorset
Keeping the routine & the motivation going..
A few weeks ago, I wrote that I was enjoying my walks so much that I was thinking of adding in a 3rd walk in the week as between Monday and Friday felt too long. Then I was up in London working for a week, so although I kept physically active by walking up & down the stairs to the 5th floor several times every day, I was away from all the beautiful sights & sounds of my seaside home - you’d think I’d be raring to get back to it on my return - I certainly thought I would be!
What I hadn’t realised is that having got out of my routine (get up around sunrise on Mondays & Fridays, go out, walk for 50 minutes including 10 minutes meditation, have breakfast & then get on with my day) is how hard it would be to get back into it, to motivate myself to get back into that routine. It took me at least another 10 days (that’s 3 walks) to get myself out of bed & get going but the minute I did, it felt amazing. I had a wonderful time, I went places I hadn’t been on the walk before, heard the birds singing & found lots of lovely wild flowers out (all of which you can see on my Facebook, Instagram & Google pages).
One of the things that helped me find my motivation & get back into routine was having something specific to do, a ‘purpose’ for the walk other than just the walk itself. I had to pick a car up from someone, so I arranged my walk to end at their house so I could drive back. I had also been down to a particular beach with my husband a few days earlier but we didn’t have time to visit another area (as part of identifying good fishing spots) so I wanted to recce that. Having specific things that I wanted/needed to do were really helpful, so if you are struggling with getting back into a routine after a break, maybe that strategy might help you. Perhaps combine it with meeting a friend nearby after or maybe there’s a shop you want to get to that’s on the way if you’re walking/cycling. Next week I’ve organised my walk around low tide time on the beach so I can go foraging for seaweeds & other things (food for free being another of my interests!).
The other thing that helps me with routine is, ironically, changing things.. walking the same route every time could be a bit boring (although it isn’t so much in nature given that everything changes every day!) - but it might feel a bit the same and I like novelty. So I am starting to vary my routes a lot more and explore different paths that I’ve never taken before so there’s almost a ‘puzzle’ element to the walk for mental stimulation (although that can be a bit risky, as you’ll find out if you read my blogs about ‘walking the labyrinth’).
Finally, although I’d like to walk more than twice a week, currently it just doesn’t fit with my working times to walk another morning on work days plus at weekends, my focus is more on shared activities at home so that’s not an option either. However, what I have done is extended my walks - I walk for twice as long and there are now 2 steep hills in each walk, not just the 150 steps up from Church Ope beach. The possibility to pick up a walk on another day still remains, but I feel better doing more already. So I guess my hint on that is, if you’re struggling find a way to up your activity, be open-minded & flexible about how you might to that, don’t get fixed on a single idea, think whether there are other ways that might not be so ideal but might work towards what you want to achieve.
Walking the Labyrinth - Part II
Having read a bit of what walking a labyrinth was about and having contacted the person who built it (who I had seen walking round it a few days earlier so I just thought it would be polite to ask permission, even though it is in a publicly-accessible area), I entered the labyrinth about 7.30am. The photographs don’t really do it justice as the sun was just coming over a rocky ridge (catching the tops of some large stones a bit like it does at Stonehenge at solstices), there was birdsong, lovely green moss and little flat growing plants. As you can see, the builder has chosen a great space for it in a natural ‘bowl’.
It’s a very peaceful time of the morning, but the ‘bowl’ surrounding the labyrinth and the gentle concentration not to trip over the stones that it’s built with, particularly where the path switches direction unexpectedly (it’s not just a simple spiral like a snail shell) meant that I had to walk quite slowly & carefully.
As I’ve mentioned before (’Taking Pleasure in Small Things’), walking really helps me notice what’s around me and expands my senses - I find that walking & noticing & concentrating on my senses in nature calming even when it’s in a straight line, so that experience was intensified by walking the labyrinth.
Some of the information I’d read on labyrinths talks about the symbolism of the path as lessons for life .. sometimes it takes you towards where you’re trying to get to, at other times the direction is less direct and the centre seems out of reach, but you get there in the end - it just might take a bit longer and involve some twists & turns you hadn’t planned for…
The centre of this particular labyrinth has a structure that reminds me of a dolmen (not sure if that was the builder’s intention) which for me, as a child brought up on Salisbury Plains, climbing on Stonehenge and surrounded by barrows in the fields near my home, it had a very familiar feel, like (coming) home.
In fact, the Neolithic history of the area of Dorset that I live in (Portland, Weymouth, Dorchester) is one of the things that I feel very drawn to - there are hill forts, barrows, stone circles, trackways and other land features that are part of my childhood memories but part of a much older, deeper shared human ancestral memory.
When I walked the labyrinth, I stopped at one point on the path; I stopped in the middle (and thought about what a great sundial it makes). And after I had finished, instead of taking the main route off that bit of the cliffs, I took a small track that I didn’t recall taking before as a bit of an adventure. It lead me (in a different way from usual) to another ‘bowl’ where there are lots of sloes in the autumn so I carried on following small tracks, which became quite a challenge.
This area of the Portland cliffs was quarried in the 17th century with open pit quarries dotted around, which has left a landscape of bowls, ridges and walls all close together but with chasms & ridges between. As I found, there are quite a lot of tracks.. but not all of them led anywhere useful for my purpose (getting back to the main path).. some lead to shelters (huge overhanging rocks with a place to sit underneath); some lead to lookout points.. and some lead pretty much nowhere, in fact I began to wonder if they were animal trackways rather than human ones!
So after the labyrinth, I was definitely in a maze - and it was one that might not have had a solution. But what was really interesting was my approach to it.. trusting that I would find a way out; finding higher ground to look for new paths; not being afraid to go back to a previous route fork & take a different decision; not being afraid to push myself a bit physically but at the same time being sensible (given that I was scrambling over loose rocks and vegetation).
Eventually, I rounded a corner and found myself on a route back onto the main path where I continued on to find a friend doing her ‘sun salutation’ on a grassy cliff edge - what a great way to start her working day (she’s a yoga teacher).
So lots of transferable life lessons in the experience & I can’t help feeling the calm and grounded/centered feel I left the labyrinth with helped me find my way through the quarry ‘maze’. If you walk a labyrinth, let me know what you get from it. I’ll definitely be doing it again!
Walking the Labyrinth - part I
So if you’ve been following this blog & some of my social media sites (Facebook, Youtube, Instagram etc), you’ll know that I’ve taken the advice that I’m always giving patients about getting active in a way that suits them so I’ve started walking for health twice a week to a local beach, meditating for a bit and then walking back up the very steep flight of steps. On one of these walks I noticed a labyrinth laid out in stones on a flat place on the cliffs, so when I got back to the clinic, I put the search terms ‘labyrinth walking’ into Google and was really astounded with what I got back as I hadn’t realised that labyrinth walking is a practice that has been going on for centuries PLUS it combines my 2 most favourite activities.. walking & meditation.. in one! So the next time I did my walk, instead of going to the beach I walked the labyrinth and I’ll talk about my experiences of doing that in Part II of this blog.
However I thought it might be worthwhile telling you a little about ‘labyrinth walking’ if like me you’ve never heard of it before and the benefits it is supposed to give.
Labyrinths are ancient structures.. there are pictures of them on Greek coins & vases over 3000 years, there’s one in the Christian cathedral of Chartres that was built over 800 years ago and they’re also found in Asian Indian & American Indian culture (and no doubt other cultures also). A labyrinth is not like a maze - there are no dead ends, there’s no working out a route to a hidden centre, just a single path that leads you in to the centre and which you follow out again, although sometimes the path is not a direct one - you may approach the centre but then be taken to the outside again.
Labyrinths can be built as permanent or temporary structures - you can even build one with sticks or cut grass in your garden if you want and there are books on how to do and what to consider when designing your labyrinth.
So what is the purpose of a labyrinth? Probably not physical exercise, since the walking is quite slow- certainly it requires a bit of concentration to follow the path and tends to create a fairly slow, steady step. It’s an aid for contemplation or meditation or mindfulness and there is some evidence to suggest walking a labyrinth can have a calming & relaxing effect and reduce anxiety (some have been built in hospitals & prisons in the USA).
For other people there’s a spiritual element, as a way of centering themselves, carrying an intention or question into the labyrinth that they want clarity on or experiencing a spiritual ‘journey’ symbolised by the journey through the labyrinth.
You can find a good overall description of labyrinths and a link to some other resources, including where to find labyrinths, here https://www.verywellfit.com/walking-the-labyrinth-3435825
Taking pleasure in small things
I’ve started walking for health recently and as you will know if you’ve seen my ‘walk reports’ on my YouTube channel (link) I’m achieving some of the small physical goals that I’ve set myself, such as being able to reach the top of the flight of 150 steps at Church Ope Cove on Portland without stopping on the way up and in faster times.
In my videos I also talk about the mental health benefits which being in nature gives me; I feel calmer in nature and I find the peace and solitude (since I walk early in the morning and rarely meet people) a great antidote to the hectic pace of modern life and the demands that family, patients & professional obligations make of me. I include a few minutes of meditation on the beach in the middle of every walk, regardless of the weather (I’ve been lucky that the worst it has been so far has been a bit foggy!) which also adds to my feeling of mental wellbeing.
I’m very happy that my new regime is working for me and really enjoying what I get from it - so much so that I’m thinking of adding an extra walk in my schedule as the gap from the first on Monday to the second on Friday seems awfully large.
However, what I didn’t realise before I started was how much that I hadn’t anticipated (or planned on) would come out of walking; I’ve been trying to think about how to capture that in the title of today’s blog, although I’m not sure that I’ve quite managed it, so I’ll try to explain.
What I’m finding is that the pace of walking (compared with running or cycling) and being outside (as opposed to being in a gym or a class) allows me to notice, enjoy and be interested in all sorts of ‘small things’.
For example, I live on Portland and there are still some working quarries left here (not as many as in the Island’s past) but because I used to walk at weekends, even the active quarries seemed a bit abandoned and sad as nothing was happening. However early in the morning, there’s quite a lot of activity and I really enjoy seeing the giant ‘Tonka Toy’ tractors, lorries etc trundling up and down the quarry roads, because I never see that at weekends - so I get a different perspective walking in the week.
Another example is the sunrise - usually that happens while I’m doing other things at home, preparing to go to the clinic or driving to work; but on walk days (if I get up early enough), I can get down to Church Ope and on most days I can see the sun rise - different every time but always spectacular and something that I wouldn’t pay attention to on a ‘non-walking’ day (maybe that’s why I want to walk on more days!).
On the way down to the beach, I walk past quite a few buildings, the other day I caught the sunrise behind Pennsylvania Castle and Rufus Castle on the way down with the sea in the background which I’d not really noticed before (although sadly my photographs were rubbish so I can’t post them with this blog as I’d intended!), probably because I usually walk in the summer when all the leaves are on the trees so that view isn’t available.
And on the way back, for the first time as I walked up towards Portland Museum, I noticed how one of the houses had been extended by building on to an old house and you can still see the outline of the old house (which hopefully you can see too in the photograph).
It’s not just what I can see that I notice, it’s what I can hear as well - the birds are shouting their heads off at that time in the morning. There are lots of wrens at Church Ope, there are ravens and on the path I met a robin that was so tame I thought it might take cheese from my hand (if I had had cheese with me!). Portland is also well-known as a landing & take-off location for migrant birds and so (if I remember to take binoculars) I might start to see more unusual birds - at the moment I can hear them & see them in the trees, but not see what they are and that’s only going to get more challenging as we move towards springtime.
So it’s not just the physical exercise, or the calm & peace but it’s the sense of being ‘immersed’ in my surroundings & my senses being heightened by that immersion, having the time & space to notice ‘small things’ I’d never noticed before and take pleasure in them (& the noticing). Can’t wait to see how that develops as my walks go on.
Activity & exercise - what’s the difference and how to make ‘exercise’ work for you.
As an osteopath, I’m interested in how my patients use their body both at work & at home so that I can better understand how what they do, how they move, how they hold themselves, what they lift etc may be contributing to whatever it is they have come to see me about. It’s as important for me to know if you do knitting, watch-making, DIY or cleaning, gardening, hours of computer use, lots of sitting etc as it is to know that you go the gym daily or compete in triathlons.
Often in a consultation when I ask a patient what ‘activity’ they do, they think I mean ‘exercise’ ie “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness” and many obviously feel awkward when they say they don’t do any! So that’s often the first area to explore in detail - it’s not about what you don’t do, it’s what you do, do repetitively and find difficult to do because of pain or restriction that will help me to help you with your problem.
Knowing what ‘activity’ you do guides my assessment of the way your body works - I may ask you to sit if your pain is with sitting or getting up from a chair, or walk or stand or bend, or replicate any other position where the pain occurs to give me and idea of what may be contributing to it - whether that’s a local problem or perhaps something elsewhere in the body (eg a limitation of movement in another joint, muscular tension from repetitive use or emotional tension affecting the way you breathe or hold yourself).
Often patients I treat are people that are ‘inactive’ - they don’t do much in the way of ‘exercise’ as defined above and they may not do much general activity either for various reasons - time poor due to a busy life (work, children, caring responsibilities); not in the habit of exercising or not confident or keen on going to the gym for example; concerned about the impact of exercise on their pain (anyone). So there can be lots of reasons why people find it difficult to get more active, but there are also lots of important reasons to do so, not least that the evidence is that the more active you are, the less pain you’ll be in and the lower your risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimers & many others.
So one of the key things I focus on as an osteopath when encouraging patients to be more active (because osteopathy is not just about giving physical treatment, but about supporting patients to be healthy) is that it’s really important to find an exercise that ‘works for you’. To show you what I mean, it’s probably easiest to give you an illustration using myself as the example!
My motivation is that I’d like to be fitter - I have a few health reasons for wanting to increase my physical fitness particularly my cardio-vascular fitness and also I like to have strategies to manage the stresses in my life and keep my mental fitness good too. In fact, as an osteopath I’m professionally obliged to make sure that I take care of myself and if I consider my physical or mental health potentially impacts on my ability to see and treat patients, to report myself to my regulator, the General Osteopathic Council.
My reasons for finding it difficult to get fitter are both practical and mental - for example, II find going to the gym really difficult to sustain because I find it boring; I don’t like swimming (poor swimmer, hate chlorine). I like Pilates & Yoga and they’re fantastic exercises but most of the classes I would like to go to are at a time of day that doesn’t work for me (mostly during the day when I’m working or in the evening when I like to be at home to eat dinner) or a they’re at a location that means too much time travelling or that cuts across work or family commitments. I’ve done a lot of Tai Chi & Chi Qong in the past, but there’s only one class locally and again, it’s not at a time that suits my routine.
I do one class a week which is Bellydance, which is fantastic - it works for me physically (I get a lot of what I’ve got before from Yoga & Chi Qong from it) and it works for me mentally - it’s great fun and social with a group of lovely ladies; there’s a memory element to it (learning the dances our teacher choreographs) and there’s a creative element to it (I’ve done a couple of dances with a friend in our end of term shows and I plan to do a solo this year). It’s at a difficult time for me (it takes a big chunk out of one of my working days) but I get so much from it that it’s worth me making the effort to go.
However one class a week is not really enough for me to get fitter, so I had to think about how I could fit an activity in that would give me ‘exercise’ physically but meet what I need mentally and be practical. The solution I’ve come up with is to walk twice a week (early on a Monday morning, so starting work a bit later) and early on a Friday (my day off).
The walk is from my house on the Isle of Portland out to the cliffs and the sea, down a flight of 150 steps (the down bit is easy!) then back up again - about 30 minutes in total with the steps back up being a higher intensity cardiovascular exercise. It’s never boring - the sky, the sea, the beach, the birds, the people I say hello to on the way are always different. I love being in nature, I’m always happiest there (and again, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that being ‘in nature’ or ‘greenbathing’ enhances our mental wellbeing, so it’s something we all should be doing).
I can vary the walk if I want to - there are lots of alternative paths so I can for example do a ‘scramble’ to get back up to give some upper body workout as well as legs; or I can take a different route. But I can also measure progress by timing how long it takes me to come up the 150 steps every couple of weeks or so - I’ve cut about 20s off my time and I can do it in one go, compared with one stop on the way up when I started 4 weeks ago.
As an extra bit of mental health ‘exercise’, between the down & the up, I sit for 5 to 10 minutes on the beach, just breathing & listening to the sea with my eyes shut as a form of meditation/mindfulness/being in the moment - wonderfully calming & it sets me up for the whole day. So on every level, this walk exercise ‘works’ for me - mentally first & physically second; so much so that I’m think to try to add in another day on Wednesday, because it feels like such a long time between Monday & Friday!
I periodically video my walks (or a part of them) & I also record my meditation time which gives different video/soundscapes which I use in the clinic as my screensaver & which you can use if you would like to, in order to give yourself a bit of ‘time out’ or stress reduction - you can find my videos on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC2Bp–qQoZs58AgTAyyIrg and some of my photographs on my Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/jurassiccoastosteopathy/.
So if you come to me as a patient, firstly you’ll understand that when I’m asking about activity, I don’t just mean exercise; and if we do talk about how you want to get more active by doing exercise, I’ll work with you to find something that suits you both mentally & physically so you can sustain it and really reap the benefits.