Local | Senior Lifestyle

Tucson exercise physiologist advocates ‘return to senses’

Stephen Stone (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Tucsonan Stephen Stone, 70, conducted what may have been one of the first studies of obesity in American children, a precursor to First Lady Michelle Obama’s current childhood health mission. “Childhood Obesity: Identification, Management and Prevention,” his research project that began in 1985 at the University of Maryland, identified cardiovascular risk factors, says Stone, and discovered that heart disease in adults may have its onset in childhood obesity and lack of exercise. Stone holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Texas A & M University.

Prior to moving to Tucson in 1989 from Richmond, Va., Stone was on the pediatric cardiology and psychology faculty at the Medical College of Virginia. Stone started a private practice in cardiac rehabilitation that same year at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, where he has taught Pilates classes for the past 10 years. He is also director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Fit Center on River, part of the Pima Heart group of cardiologists and investors, who, says Stone, “support medically credible exercise” for people with cardiovascular conditions.

The childhood research project that Stone conducted from 1985 to 1990 showed that “fourth grade children we worked with already experienced tightness in their joints and were unable to touch their toes,” he told the AJP. “Cardiovascular disease and other health effects of inactivity and obesity have their roots in childhood and evolve into middle age. Working with these children over five years, we could see the de-evolution of their well-being.”

Stone originally came to Tucson as part of Sierra Tucson’s clinical psychology team, to help patients with eating disorders get more out of therapy. The traditional medical view is that the mind and body are separate, but “that’s a misconception,” says Stone. “I was taught that the brain affects the body and the body affects the brain. The body and the mind are the same thing.

“What I found out was that patients were not able to feel their bodies. Most were physically or sexually abused,” he says. “They had disassociated from their bodies. I taught them to come to their senses and feel physical sensations” by developing a series of movements that slowly coordinated with their breathing.

Feeling physical sensations allows us to connect with our emotions, notes Stone, who describes the case of an anorexic patient. Three months after being raped, she was unable to experience the feelings connected to the event. “It was scary and horrifying but once her body could feel the rape, the patient gained the ability to externalize it,” he says, “allowing her some freedom emotionally. The cure was to find a place in her thinking where she could cope with the rape and at the same time not deny that it happened.”

When people deal with their emotions they can have more stability in their lives, says Stone, “like a [boat] keel that’s the connection to yourself, which is the basis for the whole enchilada.” People then have more confidence to take better care of themselves. “As people age their joints age faster than they do. People begin to fall apart in their late 50s and 60s from the inside out,” he says. “They need hip replacements, knee replacements, rotator cuff surgery that result from inactivity.”

But there is good news. Slow, deliberate exercise such as Pilates or yoga, which involves stretching, breathing and lengthening can strengthen the body at any age, notes Stone, adding, “Regardless of their physical condition when they start, almost everyone can reverse problem joints, weakness in their muscles, tightness and lack of energy. You can remodel your joints.”

By the late 1990s, Stone’s cardiac rehabilitation practice had grown to include patients referred by around 30 physicians, and he left Sierra Tucson. Stone also realized that he was teaching mindfulness, or focused breathing for stress management — part of “an 8,000-year-old Buddhist practice I was doing instinctively without knowing how to do it.” He subsequently trained with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass.

“The important goal is to use movement that’s slow and deliberate, while focusing on your breath and the sensations in your body in order to slow down internally,” says Stone.

“In a way,” he says, “all of the major forces in our society today draw us away from our bodies and draw us to superficial things like cell phones and the Internet, which contribute to taking us out of our senses. That’s unhealthy.”