Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Also, there is the recycling carry...

A few holiday exercises:

Laugh:  If you laugh until your abs hurt, you are doing it correctly.  Repeat as many times as possible.  For some of us, this will also be a pelvic floor exercise.  Crossing your legs is an acceptable variation.

Smile:  The studies I have just made up prove that this exercise reduces unpleasant wrinkles by encouraging the release of endorphins and training the wrinkles into happy grandparent patterns.  Under certain circumstances, it can also build your character muscles, but only if you avoid the clenched teeth version.

Water curls:  Place a glass of water in your hand.  Lift to your mouth and drink.  Repeat until glass is empty.  Do the next set with your other hand.  This exercise is not recommended for other liquids.

(After today, I will be on blog recess until the new year, some of the time on skis!  Enjoy as many holidays as possible!)

Monday, December 22, 2014

They were used lint roller sheets, by the way.

I know everyone else has an absolutely perfect family and the holidays are a blissful, peaceful time for all.  I adore my family, but somehow blissful and peaceful are not words I tend to associate with holidays.  This is why I make a plan.

In case your family happens to lose that Hallmark sparkle, you might want one, too, for emergencies.

Here it is:

1.     Go outside.  Walk the dog.  Borrow a dog.  Steal one.  Walk the cat.  Ride a bike.  Develop a burning need to take up running right this very minute because you are dying to see what the corner of your street looks like at high speed, even if the feeling goes away as soon as you reach the other side of the door.  This works because moving reduces stress.  Distance can also help, since it is more difficult to strangle people from far away, whether you are destined to be a strangler or a victim.

2.   Watch out for the cookies.  They are out to get you.  That may be extreme. One cookie is harmless; you have to watch out when they travel in packs.  They will beat you up and give you a sugar hangover that will have you haunting the cookie jar for weeks.  While you eat your one cookie, you can savor the sweetness of the moment, or imagine that you are chewing up and destroying stress with every bite.

3.      Breathe.  So the kids wrapped the dog?  It will make a good story later.  So will your crazy uncle’s diatribe on the mind control aspects of the space program.  Also, the kids will grow up and your uncle will go home.

4.      Smile.  Or better, laugh.  I have an extremely sincere ornament on my tree made out of lint roller tape, glitter, feathers, and string, made by a formerly small child who will remain nameless lest I have to enter a witness protection program.  If all else fails, I can smile remembering that kid’s proud face, having made something all by himself.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Series of Unpleasant Exercises?

Yes, lunges are evil.  I once invented an entire song about how much I hate them while I was doing what felt like an infinite number of walking lunges.  The thing is, they are really useful.

Lunges work both your quads and glutes.  They challenge your balance.  They even give you a stretch!  You can do them almost anywhere, with or without weights.  If you want cardio, too, you can do them as jumps.

Here’s how to do them.  Start standing.  (Digression:  standing in this context, as Lemony Snicket would say, means your feet are hip distance apart and parallel to each other.  Your abdominals are engaged.  You could connect your ears, shoulders, hip bones, knees, and ankle bones with a straight line—if you weren’t standing still and all—this is what friends are for, among other things.)  Take a giant step forward.  It is important that the step really is pretty giant to protect your knees.  Bend both knees until the front shin is perpendicular to the floor (not any further forward over your foot!) and the back thigh is perpendicular to the floor.  Your torso may try to sneak forward; do not let it.  You will know you are doing something right if you feel a good pulling sensation in your back thigh.  Straighten both knees and return to your initial standing position.

You can continue doing one side until the end of your set, or you can alternate sides.  If you need more challenge, you can walk your lunges, add weight, or step back into the lunge position rather than forward.

As always, pay attention to your body.  If lunges hurt your knees, don’t do them.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Well, then...

Sometimes life presents more challenges than we would like to deal with.  We (or some of we, speaking for myself…) get tired, crabby, hungry, lazy, and even depressed.  It happens.  Now, during the short days, the long nights, and the zillion holiday pressures, is often one of those times.  In this season of lists, I would like to offer one more:  the wellness list.

We make sure to do all the responsibility things, like feed the dogs and children, clean the bathrooms when we really have to, do the laundry, go to work.  It’s the good-for-us things that tend to fall through the cracks.  We all know there are things we can do that will make us happier, healthier, and better.  The wellness list is for those things.

Be careful not to make the wellness list a long document of guilt.  Guilt does not promote wellness.  Keep the list short and include at least one thing that is super easy to cross off, like brushing your teeth.

I like crossing things off, so I write my own wellness list on paper.  I make it on Sunday night, but any time that works is good.  I stick it on the wall over my laptop so I have to look at it when I check my email, write my blog, read Facebook, plan workouts, play too many games of Freecell… It helps get me back on track.  I also share my list with a friend, who keeps me honest about the list.

My list this week has 6 things on it that I strive to do every day, Monday through Friday:

1.     Cardio
2.     Pilates
3.     Healthy food
4.     In bed by 10
5.     Meditate/write
6.     Something fun

That last item is key.  One day this week it was having (healthy!) lunch with a friend.  Another day it was listening to silly music in the car.

Sunday night, I will look at what wellness things I managed to do this week.  I will pat myself on the back.  Unchecked items are not failures.  They show me that I can take better care of myself next week.

What would make you feel good?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Pers and Cons of Istency

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”  Among other things, I believe he meant that continuing to do something stupid just to be consistent may not be the best choice.  However, he was talking about minds.  When it comes to bodies, a fair amount of consistency is good for us.

Our bodies don’t like to be ambushed.  If we hang out on the couch for three months and then decide we are going to exercise for three hours in one day, we are not going to be happy.  If we want to exercise for three hours on a particular day, our bodies will like us better if we exercise for half an hour or an hour almost every day before that day.  Then the three hours feel like a welcome surprise, something our bodies can step up and grow from.

A wise person I met at the gym said that a wise person told her that on days when she didn’t feel like working out she should just go look at the weights.  She didn’t have to lift them, but often, by the time she got to looking at them, she did.  Consistency gives us that little nudge.  Showing up is more than half the work.

So, no need to persist in silly thinking lest we end up with little minds, but some consistency in exercise will give us powerful bodies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The bucket goes under the pump...

While breathing is not optional, we do have choices about how we choose to breathe.  Admittedly, most of the time, choosing to breathe in and then out with as little thought as possible is the most practical choice.  Our wonderful bodies will do this automatically.

There are times, however, when different kinds of breathing can assist different kinds of motion.  I promise to limit my discussion to two kinds, known to biomechanics as pump handle and bucket handle breathing.  Feel free to make up a better name if you so desire.

Pump handle breathing describes the movement of the upper ribs and sternum.  When we inhale high in our chests, our sternums lift like a pump handle, increasing the space in our chests from front to back.  This kind of breathing can be useful when we want to curve our upper backs backwards (technical term:  thoracic extension) while swimming, for example, without losing control of our abdominals.

Bucket handle breathing applies more to the lower ribs.  The ribs are curved and at rest have the shape of a bucket handle resting on the side of a bucket, thus the clever name.  When we inhale, we can lift the handle up toward the lip of the bucket, which increases the space in our thoraxes from side to side.  A variation of this breathing pattern is extremely useful in finding our connection to our lower abdominals.  If we breathe our side ribs out wide and then leave them wide while we exhale, we can feel our lower abdominals engage, giving us a handy focusing spot for flattening out our abdominals during exercise.

We like flat abs.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Report Monday: What to Eat

Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat is a fascinating book.  She explores the supermarket through multiple lenses, providing clarity to the unbelievably perplexing issues that face us multiple times a day as we decide what to put in our mouths.

She covers the nutritional issues.  She unravels the links between healthy food and the environment.  She exposes the marketing pushes that encourage us to make choices against our best interests.  Best of all, she does all this while writing intelligent, clear, non-condescending, and entertaining prose.

I read the whole book, but I think it would also serve as a useful reference if you felt the sudden need to evaluate your choices around fish, for example.  I can always use more motivation to eat better and facts are useful, so I will keep it on my shelf.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Friends in shiny places

Meet our new friend:  the mirror.  The mirror is a particularly good friend when we take off the fun-house eyes we often use when we look at it.  I think women are particularly prone to this problem, but plenty of men have body image issues as well.  We see our reflections and our fun-house eyes see the most enormous thighs ever, the rest of our beauty eclipsed by our faulty perception.  Or maybe we see that we are not as tall as we would like to be, or as strong, or as lithe.

Toss out the funny eyeballs with me.  We all have amazing bodies.  Our bodies breathe, circulate our blood, hold us up, nourish our amazing brains, protect us from disease, and more, without even needing us to pay attention.  When we treat them well, they give us a sense of wellbeing.  They expand their capabilities so we can play harder and longer, love our family and friends for more years, create our own particular life’s work.

From a fitness perspective, the mirror is an ally.  While we are moving, the mirror gives us another way to check in with our body position to make sure that everything is in alignment.  Over time, the mirror gives us feedback on our progress.  It also gives us practice at loving ourselves, right now, just the way we are.

So next time you look in the mirror, you can certainly fix your hair or check your knee alignment, but don’t forget to smile at the mirror.  It has your back.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

No, it doesn't count when you're dead

What do you do when you have overdone it?


This answer works equally well for having overdone cardio, strength training, or cookie jar visits.  Sometimes we need to rest from our exertions.  Sometimes we need to rest from our vices.

If your hamstrings hurt, resting might mean taking a couple of Advil, doing a few gentle stretches, and taking a hot bath.

If your stomach hurts, it might mean taking a break from cheeseburgers or fries or milkshakes.  Also watch out for the cookie-pushers disguised as elves or Girl Scouts.

Whatever you are overdoing, you now officially have permission to rest from it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Skiing like a moose is fun

Sometimes we need to remember what the goal is.

With fitness, it is easy to get distracted into thinking that the goal is something other than what it really is.  The goal is not to be thin.  It’s not to work out for a certain number of minutes a day or week.  It’s not to be lean or toned or strong or even plain healthy, even though those are all good things.

The goal is to be happy.

Yes, I know that being healthy is a major component of being happy.  Lifting that previously-impossible weight, finishing that marathon, buying those smaller clothes—all good things that can contribute to happiness.  They are not the goal.

So please, when you choose your fitness activity for the day, pick one that will give you joy, either in the moment or in the long term.  Lift weights because you want those muscles to turn your kids upside down as long as possible, even when they keep growing.  Ski because you like to go fast.  Dance because the music moves you.  That is a goal worth meeting.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Unfold like a flower...

You did your cardio workout.  You did your strength training.  All done, right?  Nope.  One more thing.  Time to stretch.

But you have places to be!  Stretching is boring!  It hurts!  You don’t want to waste your time sitting around trying to reach your toes.

Do it anyway.

Maybe you are already perfectly long and lean.  You may have the most gorgeous definition in your muscles ever.  If you can’t move, it doesn’t do you a lot of good.  You are a person, not a sculpture!  Flexibility creates lots of possibilities for movement.  Remaining flexible allows for greater range of motion as you get older, which, in practical terms, means more independence for longer.

Bribe yourself, distract yourself, nudge yourself gently—whatever it takes to spend five minutes lengthening the muscles you are working so hard to build.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday exercise: chest lift

I love abs.  I may not love ab exercises, at least not in the moment, but abs are wonderful.

The basic ab exercise is the crunch.  In Pilates, it is called the Chest Lift, which is actually a better name because we really shouldn’t be crunching while exercising, unless we are eating popcorn, which is best done in front of a movie rather than while trying to work.  (Persistence is key when you fall into a sentence like that!)

The exercise begins Lying Down.  Everyone loves lying down!  Even lying down, form is important.  You will want to bend your knees and place your feet in line with your sit bones.  Your spine should feel relaxed, not smooshed into the floor.  Leave a little tunnel under your lower back for passing ladybugs.  If the tunnel is big enough for an iguana, you will need to lower the ceiling.  You will want to support your big heavy head with your hands, keeping your elbows where you can see them; those elbows get up to no good when unsupervised.


Now we are ready to work.  As you exhale, use those abdominals to pull your breastbone down toward your toes.  This will, as a side effect, lift your head off the floor.  Thinking about the exercise this way will help keep your chest safe from evil chin incursions, which will keep your neck safe from excessive flexing.  Since you are a wonderful multi-tasker, you can also think about keeping your abdominals flat and spread out across your body to avoid that little bubble that tends to pop up like an alien fetus.

Curl back down.  Breathe more.

There are lots of variations on this theme, but this is the basic place to start.  Sets of 10 are good, but you know your body; do what works for you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

And the finger flexibility gain from flossing!

Want a good five minute exercise that may contribute to your overall health?  Go brush your teeth.

I am the possessor of a new silver toothbrush, courtesy of my dentist.  That dental visit yesterday may have been as good a contribution to my health as the spin class I took.  It was certainly less sweaty!

Here is a link to the Mayo Clinic’s information on the topic.  It’s not a long article, but for the truly impatient, here is the summary.  Good oral hygiene may prevent a whole bunch of bad stuff from happening to you, ranging from Alzheimer’s to osteoporosis.  Worst case, you get fresher breath, which is not bad for your social relationships, mood, and state of wakefulness.

So:  up, down, side-to-side.  Give me about 100 reps.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mmmm... bacon!

This week I learned how to use my hamstrings for pedaling a bike.  It was a major epiphany, maybe not as major as figuring out how to create world peace or to eliminate traffic, but major.

Hamstrings are the muscles in the backs of your thighs that complain when you bend over to touch your toes.  They have plenty of reasons to complain.  They get tight from sitting, since they are responsible for flexing your knees, and bored because they help unbend your legs at the hips, which you don’t do much when you are stuck at your desk.  We all love our quadriceps more and tend to focus on working them instead.  Hamstrings feel like Clark Kent to the quadriceps’s Superman.

Strengthening the hamstrings helps with posture.  Strong hamstrings keep your knees safe.  And, when biking for long distances, hamstrings save your quadriceps’ bacon, so to speak; those front-of-the-thigh muscles get awfully worn out and appreciate any other muscle group that might be willing to take over for a while.

Even more important than what I learned was that I learned it.  Fitness is about the brain, too.  Conscious movement strengthens your body’s ability to understand where it is in space.  Your muscles work better when the connections between your nervous system and your muscles are active and quick.  This is why I love to take classes and get personal training sessions—I learn stuff that makes me a better mover.

(And, for those of you who have not already figured out how to use hamstrings in bike pedaling, the key, for me, was thinking about pulling the pedals down from the back of my thighs rather than pushing them down from the front.  Some people find that thinking about leading with their heels or focusing on pulling backwards works the same way.  Go try it out!)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ukelele optional

I spend a lot of time thinking about abdominal muscles.  (You are now feeling incredibly grateful that you don’t have to live in my brain!)  I also spend more time than most people talking about abdominal muscles.  This is because they are important and because I don’t know that many people who want to talk about football, comic books, poetry, and food.  Almost everyone is willing to talk about abdominals in the same way that everyone loves to discuss stress.  And the two are related!

I’m not talking about stressing out about what our abs look like.  That’s not useful.  Let’s agree not to do it.  We are where we are, we can do amazing things, and we can always improve.

Stress, in life and in the body, often occurs as a result of lack of balance.  It comes from Too Much:  too much work, too much food, too much debt, too much of everything.  Sometimes it comes from Too Little:  too little sleep, too little whiskey… (ok, maybe that one is all right…).  When we lose our center of gravity, we spin out of balance and can crash.  That’s where the abdominals come in.

The abdominals are some of the most important core muscles of the body.  They are responsible for stability.  Keeping them on the job keeps us centered and powerful, able to meet whatever weird stuff comes flying at us.

How to engage them?  Of course there are the usual suspects:  crunches and their cohorts.  Tired of those?  Try hula, swimming, ballet, boxing, or Pilates.  Jump up on the Bosu for your arm work.  Skateboard!  Rollerblade!  Even just let go of the handles on the elliptical trainer or treadmill and notice that you need to keep those abs working.

Also, don’t forget to breathe!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remember to take the bulb out first...

Weight lifting can be fun.  Maybe not wearing-a-lampshade-on-your-head fun, although I suppose that keeping the lampshade balanced would improve posture while lifting weights, but fun.  Here’s why:

You get to feel like a superhero. Wonder Woman has to practice with that magic lasso to develop the muscle memory to throw it accurately.  Spiderman needs strength as well as sticky feet to climb up those skyscrapers.  It would be a pretty poor rescue if Superman swooped up to catch Lois and didn’t have the arm strength to hold her.  (And maybe if Lois had worked out a bit more, she would have been able to pull herself back over the parapet of that tall building, preventing the need for rescue entirely!)

So your regular life may not require those superhero skills, but you may need to carry the 35-pound sewing box your son made you or a giant pile of packages or the 15 bags of groceries required to feed the family.  If you happen to be getting older (hey, every day we all do!) and you want to be independent, making sure you can squat and stand will allow you to maintain that superhero independence far longer.  I think we would all prefer to be self-rescuing.

You get to look good in your jeans.  Or out of your jeans!  There are a couple of reasons for this.  Weight training increases your lean body mass.  That lean mass burns more calories and takes up less space.  Even thin people can be flabby; training the muscles gives the body the beautiful toned shape we admire in art, fashion, and posters of scantily clad rock stars/models/etc.

You get to try lots of things.  Because we have so many muscles, we get to do lots of different exercises to target the various groups.  If you have a short attention span—hey!  What’s that?—you don’t have to worry because pretty soon you can stop doing squats and move on to hammer curls (or, as I call them, Drumming Monkeys).  There is always something new to try, which is good for your brain as well as your body.

And if the lampshade helps, by all means use it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It makes you look thinner, too

We are heading into party season, so it is time to talk about… posture.  Next to avoiding weird relatives and exercising care with the potent libations, maintaining good posture may be the one of the best strategies for feeling well the morning after the party.  Good posture helps prevent fatigue, low back pain, and shoulder tension.  It’s also free and easy to practice.

Good posture means standing with your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in a line.  For many of us, this entails rolling our shoulders back (without puffing the chest forward like a pigeon!).  We are good at shoulders-forward because we do it all day at our desks.  We also need to bring our heads back over our shoulders—no more peering at screens when they aren’t there!

Next, a lot of us allow our lower backs to arch too much.  Engaging our abdominals to pull in our bellies and using our butt muscles to tuck our behinds a little help alleviate low back pain.  If you find that your abs have forgotten how to contract, it is time to remind them with some crunches (good form:  keep abs flat across your body as you curl up so you don’t train your abs too pooch out!).  Leg lifts to the back while keeping your hips forward and square will awaken your rear.  Consider it part of getting ready for the party.

Monday, November 24, 2014

...and sweet potatoes...

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The directions are simple:  be grateful and eat food.

This is not actually bad advice for fitness, either.  We all have wonderful bodies.  They carry us around, regulate all the processes of life, provide constant messages about the state of the exterior and interior world, and generally enable us to experience all the joys of existence.  Taking a moment to appreciate that wonder can inspire us to give our bodies what they need: good nutrition, enough sleep, plenty of exercise, and love.

Food is not the enemy.  Without food, we die.  Worse, we get crabby.  Good food feeds the soul as well as the body.  Meals build community.  Cooking with real ingredients subverts the dominant paradigm, improves the environment (both immediate and local and global), and enables healthy eating.  Sure, we can overdo the food.  I don’t recommend that for lots of reasons.  But a little pumpkin pie between friends is just fine.

I am grateful for life, for family, friends, turkey, bikes, and light-up shoes.  Make your own list while you walk around the block between turkey bastings!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why treadmills are better than horror movies

In theory, the point of cardio exercise is to strengthen your heart and improve your ability to oxygenate your cells.  To accomplish this, you have to get your heart rate up.  Lots of things raise heart rates, including the bad guy sneaking up on the blonde in the scary movie, the extra cup of coffee, the ride with your learning-to-drive kid.  We don’t choose those things as cardio exercise for at least one good reason:  no endorphins.

We all have that sense that, yeah, we probably should get out and exercise.  The doctor might make some remarks.  The jeans might be a little tighter than can be plausibly explained by a trip through the dryer.  Obligation and even guilt and shame can be motivators.

But isn’t happiness a better one?

Endorphins make you feel good.  When you get your heart rate up, when you start to breathe more heavily, you begin to tap into your body’s own supply of mood-enhancing chemicals.  Legal high!  Sure, it’s addictive, but unlike many other addictive substances, the cardio endorphin high is actually good for you.

Cardio reduces stress, ameliorates depression, and burns calories, so it has many of the same effects as chocolate without the weight gain and expense.  Go play!  Because it is fun!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pilates for poets...

(I wrote this essay for my Pilates training.  It gives an overview of why I say all those crazy things about frogs, zombies, and the like during workouts.)

A new Pilates student enters a foreign world, one in which actions normally oriented vertically become horizontal, in which small movements can be more exhausting than large ones, in which words like “reformer,” “table,” and “chair” take on new connotations and functions.  Imagery functions like an interpreter.  The strange phenomena of the Pilates world translate into more familiar things through images.  The student can then begin to learn the customs and habits of Pilates without extreme homesickness for the everyday gym world of barbells, dumbbells, and cardio equipment.

The “Feet in Straps” exercise puts the student in a vulnerable position, supine, half suspended, legs akimbo.  Imagery, by bringing reassurance, comfort, and intelligibility to the experience, enables better performance.  Three aspects of the exercise can particularly benefit from the application of imagery: core awareness, disassociation of the hips, and efficient organization and alignment of the lower extremities.

Core awareness is such a central concept that the importance of grasping it cannot be overstated.  It is key.  One way to begin developing core awareness in this exercise is to picture some of the underlying anatomy.  A student can begin by picturing the familiar six-pack of the rectus abdominis and its orientation from top to bottom along the torso.  The tendency of this muscle to bulge pops into mind easily from there.  Then the student can learn about the transversus abdominis and its orientation across the torso.  Picturing this muscle stretched out from side to side, smoothing the surface and containing the underlying tissues and organs enables a connection between the feeling of flatness and the thing itself. On a metaphorical level, the student can imagine the abdominals as a rubber band stretched from hip bone to hip bone, continuing the theme of activity across the abdomen rather than up and down the abdomen.  A third imagery approach, sensory imagery, can draw on the previous two images.  As the student uses imagery to guide movement, the instructor can suggest the student pay attention to the sensations in the body during the movement.  Implanting the sensory data related to the movement allows the student to increase proprioception.  In other words, as the student pictures his or her transversus abdominis spread out across the abdomen, the instructor can indicate with touch or with words the location of the activity so the student can make the connection between the body and the mind.
Similarly, when it comes to disassociation of the hips, the same kinds of imagery can improve dynamic alignment in this exercise.  Visualizing the pelvis with its paired crests and spines and the balls of the femurs planted in the hip sockets serves to orient the student to the body territory.  Adding the metaphorical image of the pelvis floating on femur balls made of balloons or the familiar image of the bowl of water tipping as the pelvis moves in each direction activates the connection between the body and mind.  Sensory imagery, including, perhaps, the student finding the body landmarks with his or her hands or concentrating on the relations of those landmarks to each other in space at the different phases of the motion, can further  increase the understanding and performance of proper alignment during the movement.
Finally, imagery can facilitate the organization and alignment of the lower extremities.  A quick imagery tour of the leg bones and their spiral motion due to their structure in particular can open the understanding of what happens as the legs internally and externally rotate during leg circles, for example.  The metaphorical image of the legs zipping together provides a way to encourage the legs to stay in touch with the center of the body.  The sensory imagery of smooth circles rather than jerky polygons experienced both kinesthetically and visually adds another layer to the connection between the body and the mind’s dynamic awareness of alignment.

These are only a handful of possibilities for using imagery to facilitate aspects of this exercise.  Different instructors and different students create and benefit from their own unique imagery blends, all working toward the same ideal dynamic alignment.

(The picture is Amelia Bloomer, the reformer for whom I have named my Pilates reformer.  Hooray for pants for women!)