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Miranda Esmonde-White, host of PBS’s Classical Stretch, has developed Essentrics: a stretchy, “anti-aerobic” exercise technique geared toward lengthening and strengthening muscles. In her book Aging Backwards, she argues that a daily 30-minute Essentrics routine—giving a workout to the entire body through movements like side bends, pliés, leg lifts and sit-ups—can not only slow the effects of aging but also actually reverse the process.
What inspired you to write Aging Backwards?
I wanted to bring awareness to people. We haven’t been educated in what causes us to age. The book explains how we can grow younger: We don’t have to age the way we have been letting ourselves age.
What’s the corollary between exercise and staying young?
The body has 620 muscles, and you have to move every one to stop it from atrophying. We’re given a free ride when we’re younger. But if you’re sedentary, by the time you’re 40, you can’t move as easily. You’re losing muscle cells and losing the mitochondria—the “power plants”—within your cells. That process even affects your thinking. You have to keep moving to keep the messages going to your brain. If we start using all our muscles, you can rebuild those atrophied cells—give them a reboot. Your whole body will change shape and loosen up as those muscle cells expand through movement.
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How has Essentrics affected your own activities?
I used to be a ballet dancer, and of course I can’t do that anymore. But I’m in shape, and full of energy. I have the power and endurance to do what I want with my life. I run a major company, and I travel about three weeks a month. I teach three to four hours a day. I’m in my mid-60s, but I’ve got the cardiovascular system of a 30-year-old and the muscles of a 20-year-old. And all I do is zero-impact exercise.
But you’ve been active your whole life. What about people who are sedentary. Is there any way to get them moving?
It’s their choice not to exercise. If you drink two bottles of wine, you can’t complain that you’re nauseous the next day. And actually, the exercise is fun. A lot of people hate exercise programs; they hate getting on a treadmill. They’ve had negative experiences in gyms, or in phys ed in school. But you can start to do it gently. Just walk around the room for two minutes, then later for five minutes. Then lift your arm over your head. Fold over your legs; then lift your body up again. When people start to realize that movement itself is OK, they reprogram their idea of what movement is. They realize their body is the gift of their life and they start liking exercise. And they don’t have to do more than 30 minutes a day, ever.
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In Aging Backwards, you argue that some types of exercise—the kind that many people do in the gym, on the playing field or on the yoga mat—can be as unhealthy as no exercise at all. How so?
Well doing nothing is very, very bad. A sedentary person has an unbalanced body. But doing the wrong type of exercise will also unbalance your body. If you do a lot of weights, you’ll compress the joints—that’s why so many athletes have joint problems. If only 400 of your 620 muscles are really fit, you’re out of balance. If you push too hard, the muscles have to contract. The circulation can’t get into the muscle cells. I worked with an Olympic athlete: He was 26, and he lookedlike a god, but he had the pain of a 65-year-old man. He had a wonderful career, so there was a payoff. But I wouldn’t tell an average person to train like that. What would be the objective? If you’re throwing a dinner party for six people, you don’t bake 50 cakes. Why train like an Olympian if you just want to live? My method is about loving your body.
Vanity is a big motivator for a lot of people who exercise. Does Essentrics bring results you can see?
Your muscles give your body a shape. When they’re flexible and strong, they’ll go to their intended form. We don’t all look like Tom Brady or Gisele Bündchen. But we have an attractive shape that’s right for us. People who do this program find their bodies change rapidly.
Is this something you can do into your old age?
Movement is for everybody who has a body. A University of Florida study showed that people who do large, complex body movements can hold off dementia. You can get smarter as you age. If you have a body—move it!