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!)

Friday, November 14, 2014

What do you call a bodybuilding hairy legendary creature? Sasquat! Groan!

We all do squats.  Sit down.  Stand up.  Voila!  A squat!  Now we just need to work on form a little.

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, or a little wider.  Take a moment to think about posture.  Is your head right over your shoulders?  Are your shoulders right over your hips?  What are your abs doing?  Is your weight balanced evenly on both feet?

Now sit back as if you were going to land on the edge of an imaginary chair.  Unfortunately, it is a chilly imaginary chair, so you don’t want to stay sitting on it.  Engage those behind muscles and stand back up, making sure that your hips end up in line with your shoulders again at the top.

On the way down, you should feel work happening in the front of your thighs.  On the way up, your behind has to kick in, especially to get the pelvis back in line.  Your upper body will tilt forward as you sit back, but don’t let it go too far; think about keeping your back parallel to your shins (you can see this in my extremely lovely drawing, right?).

Squats are pretty much the ultimate in practical exercise.  We need to use our squat skills every day, more often if we are drinking enough water, ladies, and if we are getting enough fiber, gents.  As we get older, the ability to squat is a major factor in how long we get to live independently.  Before that, squatting is also good for improving how we look in our jeans.  It challenges our balance, strengthens our lower body, and improves our connection with our abdominals.  Again, no equipment required!

Thursday, November 13, 2014


I’m from Berkeley.  That’s both a credential and a disclaimer.  I don’t have a tinfoil hat.  T. and I laughed like maniacs about the person we met on the ski lift who wouldn’t drink milk because of the lactic acid in it.  Fluoridation doesn’t scare me.  However, I don’t believe that The Powers have my best interests in mind, particularly when it comes to the way food works in this country.

We all have to eat.  Choosing what to eat, how much, when, where, and with whom consumes plenty of our time.  It should be simple, but industry has spent a lot of effort working to deceive us with things that look like food but aren’t.  I’m not talking about cheese puffs, which don’t actually really look like food at all, but about the sugar-laden breads, the salt-infused snacks, and the rest.

Michael Pollan is a voice of sanity in the chaos.  His latest book, Cooked, describes his journey toward preparing more of his own food.  He discovered that by cooking he could improve his and his family’s health and wellbeing, spend time with his son, achieve some independence from the food industrial complex (I made that phrase up; blame me, not him), and generally improve the world.

Lest you think this is some boring do-gooder book, let me say that he is a hilarious writer.  His description of the taste of his first batch of home-brewed beer will crack you up.  He has adventures in pickling.  If you like his writing style, it is also worth checking out The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the section in which he goes boar hunting; I laughed until I cried and also learned things.

Also, he is realistic.  The man has a full-time job as a professor.  He writes books, which takes an enormous amount of time.  He doesn’t expect us to all go Mrs. Cleaver or Martha Stewart.  He talks about practical ways to make cooking work.

This is an essential part of fitness.  Consider reading it on one of your rest days.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

(It's mostly cotton, with a little lycra...)

Boredom can be a good motivator.  No, I don’t mean that it is a good idea to wait around to exercise until you are so bored that it’s a question of working out or cataloguing the various different fabrics contributing to your dryer lint.  Bodies respond best to variety.  If your workout is always the same, you can move through it on autopilot and your body won’t continue to grow new skills.

Sometimes we need to forego our trusty elliptical trainer and try the stair-climber instead.  Go outside and try actual stairs, even.  The seasonal ice rink has opened at South Shore; ice skating can be aerobic with a side of balance training.

Beyond switching up the cardio choices, boredom can encourage us to do other types of healthy fitness activities.  We need more than cardio to thrive.  Choose a weight workout to build more lean muscle mass and increase your metabolism.  Spend some time in yoga to improve your flexibility and challenge your balance.  Try Pilates to become stronger, longer, and leaner.

We all need a balance of cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility.  Too much emphasis on any one aspect will compromise optimal fitness and bore the workout pants off of us.  Let’s make things interesting!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I do not swim like Leviathan

Let’s talk about pain.  Cheerful subject, right?  I am sure I will sound both vaguely Puritan and vaguely Buddhist when I say that pain has a lot to teach us, but it is true.  There are lots of kinds of pain.  For my current purpose, I will ignore heartache, grief, and hangnails. 

In a fitness context, the first kind of pain to pay attention to is the kind that attends injury.  It has one lesson:  stop what you are doing right now.  Working through a broken leg or a sprained wrist or a torn rotator cuff does nothing but make things worse.  We are not, for the most part, professional athletes; there is nothing to be won by continuing after injury.  In fact, it just means that it takes longer to get back to doing fun fitness stuff.  Don’t do it.  See your doctor and follow her or his instructions.

The second kind of pain is soreness.  Soreness is fascinating!  This morning, for example, my lower back is a little sore.  That means that there was an issue with my form when I was swimming yesterday, probably that I did not sufficiently engage my abdominals.  I now have a mandate for my next swimming session, courtesy of pain.  (And it is almost always a good idea to pay attention to what one’s abs are doing!)

My triceps are also sore from swimming.  Woohoo!  I worked them!  Thank you, pain, for providing feedback on the muscles that needed to exert themselves.  I will have to pay attention to my triceps to see if they continue sore past a reasonable time to make sure I challenge them enough to build strength without overtaxing them and creating injury.

Then there is the kind of pain that we actually do have to work through.  That’s the kind where you get off the couch for the first time since football season started and discover that walking around the block leaves you uncomfortably breathless.  That pain says that life is going to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger).  Your body wants you to know that if you don’t get moving, a dirt nap is going to be your lot in life sooner than you’d like.  This small pain is a warning to avoid greater pain.

Let me be clear:  I do not belong to the Church of No Pain No Gain.  I’m more of a Tune-Into-What-Your-Body-Is-Telling-You kind of believer.  Sometimes what your body tells you is that it hurts.  Pay attention; you could learn something!

(The photo is from an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum a long time ago.  I wish I could remember the artist's name.  I did a bunch of poking around to try to figure it out to no avail.  The artist changed my way of looking at the world.  The particular piece in question is a skeleton in a glass case with a label reading "Somebody's sister."  I have not been all right with seeing human remains displayed in museums since.)

Monday, November 10, 2014


I have read a bewildering amount of material about goal-setting in my life.  I’ve read about the six most efficient strategies and the four simple tricks, the eight tips for better everything, and the nine ways to tailor my goals to my learning style, personality, astrological sign, dominant hand, and current biorhythm.  I only made some of that up.  Some of that reading turned out to be useful, but I couldn’t tell until I tried stuff out.  I am big on experimentation and real life experience.  This is what works for me.

I don’t get too specific on the big stuff.  Lots of advice-givers suggest that the best goals are quantifiable and have deadlines.  I think that’s great for what I want to accomplish today.  For example, today I am going to do an hour of Pilates practice and either ride my bike or go swimming. 

I have a general idea of what my long-term fitness goals are, but I don’t have a goal of running a marathon by April 12, 2015 with a time of 2 hours while weighing in at 107 pounds.  Not just because that is a totally unrealistic goal (I don’t like running, at least not yet.).  If I did want to run a marathon, I would have to learn a whole bunch about what that entails.  I don’t know enough right now to make a realistic marathon-running goal.  I do know what I can do today that is both realistic and good for me, in line with my overarching principles.

On a slightly longer scale, I know that I will be a happier, healthier, more fit person if I make sure to do cardio every day this week, if I eat food that is good for me, and if I go outside.  I know that I will need to get enough rest, do something with heavy objects, and practice Pilates.  I will probably make a list with boxes to tick for each of those things because I like ticking boxes, but I know that I can’t get hung up on the boxes or I won’t do anything.

So the important question is:  what are you going to do today?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Drop and give me a few

I love pushups.  Interestingly, when you do an image search for pushups, you get a lot of bras, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I decided to draw my own pushup.  Now you know why I am not an artist.

Back to the point:  pushups are great.  I love exercises that do multiple things at once because I am lazy and want to be done quickly.  Pushups work the upper body and the abdominals at the same time!

Even better, they don’t require any equipment, so none of us has any excuse for not doing them.

How to do them?  The basic version is this:  lie on your belly on the floor.  Sadly, there is more after that.  Bend your arms and put your hands on the floor under your shoulders.  Flex your feet so that the balls of your feet are on the floor.  Hold your body straight from top of your head to ankles.  This is the part where your abs get involved.  Push up from the floor until your arms are straight.  Lower.  Raise.  Repeat until you have had enough.  Don’t forget to breathe; it is easier if you breathe out as you press away from the floor.  Also, you don’t pass out.

I love pushups so much that I will be writing more about variations in the future.  For now, consider the basics.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Just Breathe

(Today's post is taken from a paper I wrote for Pilates training.)

The Pilates experience, by design, goes beyond exercises to create a holistic experience.  A Pilates student does not simply wave body parts around in space or move heavy objects, but instead thoughtfully engages multiple body systems in a cooperative process of movement.  Because of this, Pilates exercises offer a unique pathway to communicate with the body.

Perhaps the most basic way in which Pilates exercises create a new relationship in the body is through the breath.  Ample evidence for the influence of breath on body systems practically bombards anyone who reads about body and fitness issues.  Not only do the Pilates exercises use breath to facilitate the actual motions (exhaling, for example, to encourage abdominal concentric contraction), but also as an actual element of the experience (as in the pulsing breaths of the Hundred).  The conscious use of the breath informs the bodymind that the work is not all about muscles, but about an entire system, or even system of systems.

That same breath links the respiratory system with the cardiovascular.  Efficient use of breath enables the cardiovascular system to promote traffic and communication throughout the body.  Obviously, oxygen needs to be moved through the body and carbon dioxide needs to be expelled, but the circulatory system moves more than the blood cells that carry that particular cargo. 

The same channels that carry the oxygen carry the white blood cells, the body’s first line of defense against pathogens.  Proper breathing influences how well the body can react to disease generators; the better the circulatory system works, the more effectively the defenses work.  In other words, breath promotes proper immune function.

Further, the breath plays an important role in managing stress in the body.  Of course breathing becomes more shallow and rapid under stress—anyone who has had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident knows this.  That accelerated breath correlates to an accelerated heart rate and a rush of stress hormones.  In a crisis, that is what is needed.  However, in our stress-junkie culture, it is useful to use the breath to relax the heart rate and stem the flow (overflow, really) of stress hormones, freeing up body energy for other uses.

The Pilates instructor has tremendous influence on how the breath works in the exercises.  Cuing breathing helps link the movement of muscle and bone to the flow of breath and blood, engaging the nervous system in a conscious dance.  Further, the intention of the instructor and his or her energy interact with the same elements of the client, allowing the client to synchronize his or her rhythms with the instructor.  The breath links each system within the body into a more coherent, larger system.  Then the breath of one individual links him or her to another into yet another larger, more coherent system of relationship.

Breathing, of course, is only one of the Pilates principles.  Each of the other principles has similar unifying effects on the body systems starting from its own unique space.  Pilates exercises, then, offer a multitude of ways to build something more wonderful from the already wonderful systems of the body.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn it up!

I won’t lie; some parts of fitness aren’t that inherently fun.  Almost no one loves doing lunges.  On my personal list of hated exercises, I also include plyojacks, hamstring curls, and YTA.  I get it.   Sometimes you have to do exercises you don’t like.  How do you make that fun?

Loud music.  I like lots of different kinds of music, so my workout mix can go from Elvis to Eminem to The Clash.  Pop music, disco, heavy metal, a smattering of country, alternative, punk, rap, whatever.  I even have carousel music.  The point is, if I am singing along, I won’t care too much what the rest of my body is doing.  If I’m working too hard to sing, I can still hum or pant to the beat.

Friends.  Having someone to talk with while getting through the worst stuff helps.  You can’t quit with someone Right There.  Your buddy will encourage you or at least distract you from the worst of it.

Rewards.  I believe in rewards.  Finish the workout and take a hot shower.  Indulge in a banana.  Steal fifteen minutes to read or nap or stare into space.

Some people find that watching TV or reading help them get their cardio done.  If it works for you, do it.  For me, I get caught up in the plot of shows and don’t put in enough effort when I watch TV.  If I’m doing my cardio hard enough to be a real workout, I’m moving too much for my eyes to track properly on a book or magazine.  But do what works!

Creativity isn’t all about painting or writing or music:  use yours to have a good time working out, even in the less fun bits.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everybody in the pool!

Maybe the most obvious, if ignored, part of making fitness fun is choosing activities you enjoy.  Please note:  not activities that you are necessarily good at, but ones that make you smile.

I am a terrible swimmer.  I’m probably not going to drown any time soon, but I’m no risk to escape from Alcatraz.  The thing is, once I put my body in the water, I feel fabulous.  My favorite aromatherapy scent is chlorine with a side of suntan lotion.  I am not kidding.

My form is doubtless embarrassing.  I can only breathe on my left side.  I splash.  I have never attempted a flip turn.  But when I swim, my heart beats, my muscles work, and I grin inside; grinning outside ends up with sputtering and is not recommended.  Of course, I can work on my technique and I will.  The point is that I will swim more because I like swimming.  If I look funny doing it, extra bonus points because laughter is good for all of us.

Exercise heals because it treats body and mind.  My body may be panting and flailing, but my brain feels like I am nine years old and may get to have grape soda later when I dry off on the hot pavement.  (Grape soda, also a favorite aromatherapy scent, although I can’t actually drink it anymore.)

Go play!  Grab friends and play football.  Put on your dancing shoes.  Play hopscotch.  Ride your bike and ring that bike bell.  The only rule is that you have to have fun.

(The photos are of me when I was six in 1974 and of my grandma and great grandma in 1961.  I was trying to find one of my grandma in one of her notorious bathing caps, but settled on bathing beauty instead.)

Monday, November 3, 2014


Even though I liked school, recess was always a treat.  Admittedly, I was as likely to stick my nose in a book as play handball, but the freedom to choose what to do elated me. 

Fitness, too often, seems to end up like school.  The teacher tells you what to do, you groan, and you do it.  What if it felt like a treat?  What if fitness was something you got to do, something you chose?  That’s what I want fitness to be, both for myself and for my clients.

With that in mind, I will be writing here about topics that may help make fitness more fun, more useful, and more peaceful.