How to Age Backwards

Ask middle-aged men and women about their parents’ health and well-being, and their answers will be all over the map. Some will boast about parents in their 80s and occasionally 90s who still live independently, travel, and exercise daily. Others will describe parents in their 70s and even 60s who live in nursing homes and suffer from debilitating chronic illnesses, memory loss, and limited mobility. One thing is certain: The rate at which human beings age varies widely.

Researchers aren’t in agreement about why this is true. Some believe that our genes are programmed to deteriorate. Some believe that accumulated cellular damage is the root cause. Others posit that a combination of several factors is to blame.

Kripalu presenter Miranda Esmonde-White, creator of Essentrics, a full-body stretching, strengthening, and rebalancing program, has her own ideas about aging and well-being. “We’ll all die, yes,” she says. “We have a due date, but we’re not meant to die 20 years before our due date. We can stay vital and vibrant into our 90s with a healthy musculoskeletal system. We can slow the aging process for sure, but we can also reverse it.”

The former ballet dancer believes that all 650 muscles of the body need to be exercised to ensure that they don’t degenerate prematurely. “A muscle is only a pile of cells,” she says. “If 50 percent of those cells start to atrophy, you’ve got a big problem. As long as a muscle cell isn’t dead, though—as long as there’s life in it—you can rebuild that cell. A muscle cell is like a plant. If it’s not dead, it can grow back.”

Author of Forever Painless and Aging Backwards, Miranda—who practices the fitness regime she created 25 years ago for 20 to 30 minutes each day—swears that she’s strong, fit, and pain-free at age 69 because of Essentrics. “I can move faster than kids in their teens and 20s,” she says, describing the musculoskeletal system she’s committed to keeping strong. “It’s made of muscles, bones, and connective tissue, and each is a system unto itself. Bones support our body; muscles move our body, and connective tissue—fascia, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, even the blood—connects everything together. All three systems have to be healthy, so you need an overall, full-body approach.”

What makes practicing Essentrics different from most fitness regimens, Miranda explains, is that people lengthen their muscles while strengthening them. In concentric training, like running and weight training (and even in some yoga and Pilates moves), we shorten our muscles while strengthening them, which can sometimes lead to injury.

“If you lift weights or hold a pose,” Miranda explains, “you have to contract the muscles, which shortens the joints. Hip pain, knee pain, back pain—they come from compressing the joints. With Essentrics, there’s no compressing of the muscles as they’re being strengthened.”

That doesn’t mean the longtime fitness instructor isn’t a fan of yoga. “I believe in yoga and high-level Pilates,” she says. “I think people should do all their activities.  Do 20 minutes of Essentrics first and then go do yoga. It’s a simple program that lets you do whatever you want to do without getting injured.”

Here are some of Miranda’s favorite Essentrics exercises.

Ceiling Reaches: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Reach one arm as high as you can towards the ceiling. Then inhale slowly and deeply. As you exhale, relax your shoulders and reach as high as you can again. The combination of breathing and relaxing as you move should permit you to reach considerably higher, which gives your entire trunk, particularly your side extensors and spine, a wonderful stretch. Repeat this three times on each side. “This exercise is excellent for posture and slenderizes the torso,” Miranda notes.

Connective Tissue Exercise: Make two fists. Then open your fingers as wide as you can. Hold your palms open for two seconds. Then open the fingers more. Now make a fist again, open your fingers as wide as you can, hold them open, and then open your fingers even wider. Repeat this several times to increase ligament pliability. “This is a miracle exercise for arthritis,” says Miranda, “and it’s great for carpal tunnel syndrome, too.”

Waist Rotations: Imagine you’re standing up to your neck in the ocean. Lift your arms to shoulder height. Twist your spine, rotating as far as you can behind you. Then return to the front and twist in the other direction, gently sweeping the arms around your body as you twist. The image of being neck-high in water should automatically slow your movements to an even, safe tempo while keeping the body somewhat relaxed. “Rotational core exercises stimulate the organs, while liberating congealed fascia and other connective tissue that stiffens the trunk,” Miranda explains.

Practicing Essentrics can improve osteoporosis, arthritis, joint pain, posture, and mobility, Miranda says. “You can stop the aging process in its path,” she insists. “When people do Essentrics, they can use their feet; they’re out of pain; they can get in and out of their cars with ease.”

While some people shrink as they age, those who practice Essentrics sometimes grow. “Actually,” Miranda clarifies, “they return to their original height. We don’t make people taller, but we help reverse the aging process by pulling the bones apart instead of squeezing them together, by lengthening the distance between the joints.”

According to Miranda, Essentrics can serve as your sole fitness regimen. “It’s all you need to do every day,” she promises. “It maintains the muscles. You don’t have to sweat like a dog and kill yourself to stay healthy.”

Miranda believes most people can strengthen their muscles without weight training by using the resistance of their own bodies. And she thoroughly disapproves of the adage “No pain, no gain.”

“It’s a delinquent message,” she says. “Pain is a signal there’s something wrong. The human body is like the human heart—it doesn’t need to be abused. We thrive on love, care, gentleness, and wise exercise with the full body. Treat the body with respect and wisdom, and it will stay young.”

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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