Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday exercise: bench dips

The amazing Stickie greatly admires Mrs. Obama and Madonna because they have beautiful triceps.  Stickie wants her own beautiful triceps, so she is doing bench dips today.

To get into position, Stickie sits on the bench with her hands gripping the bench on either side of her body.  She extends her legs out in front of her with her heels on the ground.  Then, keeping her elbows back behind her as much as possible, she scoots her behind forward off the bench and lowers it toward the floor by bending her arms.  She exhales to push herself back up to a straight-armed position.  After about ten repetitions, she allows herself to take a seat on the bench again to rest before the next set.

On days when Stickie needs less of a challenge, she bends her knees, but does not cheat and use her strong legs to lift her body back up.  Stickie knows that she can also do this exercise on other surfaces, like the kitchen counter, that are higher and provide less of a challenge, or on a stability ball or parallel bars at the playground with her body suspended for more of one.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Anatomy Trains

Anatomy Trains by Thomas W. Myers is directed at “manual and movement therapists,” but has plenty to offer other readers as well.  It focuses on what Myers describes as myofascial meridians that run from place to place throughout the body, a shift in focus from seeing muscles and their connecting tissues in isolation, or “Though some preliminary dissective evidence is presented in this edition, it is too early in the research process to claim an objective reality for these lines… the… concept is presented merely as a potentially useful alternative map, a systems view…” (p.2)

The philosophy, then, of the book is more holistic and less reductionist.  It asserts, like the old song, that the knee bone is connected to the shin bone, but as part of an interconnected web of tissue in which dysfunction at one point may show up somewhere else along the line. (I admit, that version would be harder to sing.)

If nothing else, the book has great illustrations, including photographs from dissections, clear drawings, and “case study” samples.  It is fascinating for anyone who wants to know what’s going on under the skin.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Also, Duck wants to know: why cabbage soup?

We all have things that scare the pants off of us:  spiders, midterms, vampires, romance novels, long conversations with our odder relatives with extreme views.  “Diets” are one of those things for me.

I admit, I am scarred.  I recently tried grapefruit again for the first time since I was a kid.  It is not going to be my favorite fruit, but I also know that it doesn’t taste like I remembered.  I think that is because I remember it in the context of my mom and my grandmother doing a grapefruit diet one summer.  Half a grapefruit with artificial sweetener and a cup of black coffee in the morning does not make for the happiest mom in the world.  It was best to steer clear until the lunchtime cottage cheese came out.  I am sure that both ladies lost plenty of weight over the time they stuck to the program, but I also know they gained it all back. 

What we need is to build a healthy relationship with our food.  Some of that means meeting our foods for real, not in their boxed-up, salty, sexy marketing versions.  This may take some adjustment, but it also may be joyful for those of us who grew up on canned peas and instant mashed potatoes and fish sticks and who survived college on ramen soup and popcorn.  Some of us may never have considered what the greens in our salads actually taste like because what we taste is creamy, fatty, processed dressing.  I learned a lot when I stopped dressing my salads, and most of it was good.  There are lots of greens out there, so I don’t have to eat the ones I don’t like (that means you, radicchio, even though you are purple and not green, and you, frisée, even if you are pretty).

Another big part of our relationship with food that may need adjusting is quantity.  We can love our whole grain organic macaroni with cheese made from free-range fair-trade shade-grown cows without eating an entire vat of it.  In fact, if it is made with real ingredients and love, a smaller portion might be even more satisfying than a vat, especially since we will still be able to move after dinner.

Also, savoring is important.  There are times when we must eat all of the food in the world right now because we just finished carrying a team of sled dogs on our backs over the Iditarod route, but most of the time we can pause to enjoy and taste.  We may discover that when we slow down, we don’t need to eat as much.

Short version:  let’s eat good food that treats us well and enjoy it rather than making food into an unsustainable, harmful torture, with or without grapefruit.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It might turn out good, like green eggs and ham

I like circuit workouts.  They are efficient, flexible, and challenging.  But if that is all I ever do, my body will get bored.  Bored bodies, like bored children, tune out and stop learning; they may even start whining about how they want to watch television or eat more cookies.

Sometimes I need to choose yoga to calm my mind, stretch my muscles, and challenge my balance.  Sometimes I need to lift the heaviest weights I can to increase my maximum strength.  Sometimes I need to go as fast as possible and sometimes as long as possible.  Sometimes I need to try something totally new to shock the system, allow myself to be bad at something, and laugh.

Routine is a very powerful motivator and I would not want to suggest that anyone give up their Tuesday golf game if that is what gets them moving.  If the habit is to go to the gym on Wednesday nights, maybe a date with the treadmill instead of the bike could spice things up, or the weights instead of the usual zumba.

When I switch it up, I get to grow.  And sometimes I get a great story about that time I fell off that new piece of equipment and got a Superman bandage, too.

Monday, January 25, 2016

There is no comparison

There will always be someone better than we are:  someone who is stronger, faster, cooler, leaner, sleeker, and more flexible.  There will always also be someone who is worse than we are due to genetics, illness, injury, and lack of practice.  Here is the thing.  We are not those people.  We are who we are and, ultimately, even in the middle of a huge class, we are working out alone because no one has our exact body.

This means we have incredible freedom.  We just get to play and exercise and sweat and chill out.  It doesn’t matter that the person next to us is squatting with a piano on her back (although it would be nifty to see, I’m sure) or struggling to bend her knees at all.  It is not relevant.  We are doing our work, chosen for our bodies on one particular day to the best of our ability.

We can tell our catty inner voices to stuff it when they remark that the guy over there has abs like an Abercrombie and Fitch model (you know, they don’t actually sell those naked men in the stores.  False advertising!) and we feel like someone’s Before picture.  We can also remind it to be nice when we remark to ourselves that at least we don’t look like that woman over there with the uncomfortably tight workout pants.  Those people don’t matter to what we are doing.  They are doing the best they can right now and deserve our respect for doing it.  And we deserve to give ourselves the respect we deserve by not wasting our time in needless comparisons.

It’s about you and the work.  That is all.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Inclined to press some more?

Last week, Stickie demonstrated the bench press.  This week, she has decided to work slightly different muscles, so she chose to model incline presses.  It may not be apparent in the picture, but she, like many people, finds that she needs to use slightly lighter weights when doing incline presses.

Before sitting down, Stickie adjusts the back of the bench to an appropriate angle.  Some benches have lots of choices and some have one or two.  Either way, it is very difficult to adjust the bench once one is sitting on it.

As always, Stickie uses her best posture.  Her lower back retains its natural curve, neither smashing itself into the bench nor creating a tunnel for the transcontinental railroad.  Her shoulders are relaxed away from her ears and her head is centered between her shoulders, not tilted to one side or the other.  She begins the movement with her arms at her shoulders.  As she exhales, she presses the weights straight up in the air by straightening her elbows.  On the inhale, she lowers them slowly back to her chest.

As with the bench press, she does not let the dumbbells touch at the top of the movement because she is all about getting the most out of her workout.  She often does three sets of ten repetitions at a weight that is heavy enough that the last rep of each set is challenging to complete.  (Sometimes she is not sure what that weight is, so she may adjust the weight between sets to keep to the rubric.)

Between sets, she drinks water, gives herself a hug stretch, or extends her arms out to the sides of the bench to stretch her chest.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Nourish

Nourish, by Amber Rose, Sadie Frost, and Holly Davidson, is lovely.  And that is just about the pictures and design of the book.  The content is also pretty amazing.

The book has three sections, one about food with recipes, one about mindfulness, and one about exercise.  I’ve cooked several things from the food section and they have all been delicious.  I expect to cook many more of them.  All of them involve fresh, healthy food prepared with love and attention.  The resulting dishes are also beautiful to look at, an aspect of food that I tend to forget is important but which does add something important to the experience.

The mindfulness section provides lots of information about breathing, yoga, mediation, and the like.  We all can use more mindfulness and this is a good jumping off point.

I felt right at home in the exercise section because the focus is on doing what is fun.  There are clear directions for various exercises (I learned a new kind of jack!  Beware!) and some interesting workouts.  Most exercises require nothing more than the body.

While the book is focused and directed toward women, men should not be afraid to use it (except maybe for the beauty aids, but those scare me, too).  After all, we all need to eat and breathe and move.

Ultimately, I did find the book to be nourishing, in many senses of the word.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Truly, you are wonderful

Fitness, like any other discipline, compels us to tell the truth if we really want to follow its ways.  We learn at a very deep level that we do, in fact, love brownies more than bikinis, or that we love swimming more than television marathons, or that if fitness has to involve burpees, we would rather just buy bigger clothes.  It cuts both ways:  sometimes we find out things that help us and sometimes we want to stick our fingers in our ears and scream Green Day lyrics.

If we want to be healthy, we have to be honest about it.  We have to be willing to look at the scale.  We have to face the fear that we will no longer have an excuse to be weak or small or puny; then there is the deeper fear that we may not have all that much potential to live up to after all.

Decluttering, tidying, getting rid of things have become cultural themes.  Let’s throw out the lies we tell ourselves, whether it is as small as “It didn’t do much damage to eat those seven cookies” or as big as “I will never be strong.”  It is amazing how spacious our heads and our jeans become when we tell the truth about things.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In and Out (No Burger)

When we do Pilates or yoga or tai chi, we find mindfulness built into the process as we breathe and pay careful attention to the placement of our bodies.  Sometimes we feel like we have way too many body parts with minds of their own in the process!  Remembering to breathe helps us along.

Cardio has its own kind of mindfulness.  Most cardio exercises take on a rhythm that can help to focus our thoughts.  (Focusing on the mantra “Is it over yet?” might not have the appropriate effect, but we can try it out to see.)  The repetitive nature of most cardio can help still the crazy whirl of our thoughts.

In strength training, a focus on the breath can improve performance as it increases mindfulness.  When we do the “hardest” part of the exercise (getting up from the squat, pressing the barbell away from the chest on a bench press, etc.), we can exhale to help the movement along.  Inhaling during the other portion of the exercise allows us to reset and gather our forces for the next repetition.

No matter what, we have to keep breathing.

Monday, January 18, 2016


I worked on a television cooking show once (not as a cook).  I learned a lot about food styling, which is all the stuff that makes the food beautiful in pictures.  It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was all that important.  I care about what food tastes like.

The thing is, taking the time to make the food look pretty does add something.  The combination of colors on a plate or in a bowl can feed the eyes (which are not ever bigger than the stomach, no matter what my grandmother used to say to confuse me when I was small).  The effort involved in arranging food on the plate rather than just plopping it there gives a sense of love to the experience.

Sure, we can all just eat pizza straight out of the delivery box, or dump our eggs on a paper plate to save clean up, but maybe we will be a little more fed if we don’t.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Exercise: Bench Press

Bench press is one of the most popular exercises to brag about.  Somehow, how much someone can bench has become a measure of her general strength.  While I don’t think it is the best benchmark (ha!), bench press does have a lot to offer for all of us.

Stickie is demonstrating a dumbbell bench press.  She has her feet up on the bench to make the exercise easier on her lower back, but people with no lower back issues can feel free to keep their feet on the floor.  Stickie prefers the dumbbell version of the exercise to the barbell version because it is more challenging; the barbell allows the stronger side to help out the weaker side, while the dumbbells make both sides work equally.

To begin, Stickie holds the weights at chest level.  This means, ladies and gentlemen, that the weights line up with one’s nipples, which, generally, are not located just below one’s neck.  On an exhale, Stickie presses the weights straight up into the air so that they are still aligned with her chest, not floating over her face or belly.  The weights do not touch each other at the top of the motion:  that would be cheating.  As she inhales, Stickie slowly lowers the weights until they are nearly but not quite touching her chest.

She chooses a weight heavy enough that completing 8 to 10 reps is the most she can do in a set.  She likes to do three sets, unless she is working up to her maximum weight.  In that case, she increases weight each set until she can only complete a single, good-looking rep.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thursday book notes: Functional Movement

Functional Movement in Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, edited by Bruce Brownstein and Shaw Bronner may go into more detail than the general reader might want.  I read these things so others don’t have to, but I would not dissuade anyone from going for it.

In the Preface, Mark Morris is quoted on the subject of whether grace can be taught.  He says, “…It’s not just a physical thing; it’s a mental thing—to know what one part is doing while the other part is happening, to have that happen seamlessly and efficiently.  I think efficiency has to do with grace, in employing the most direct action to accomplish a task.  Like picking up a pen, or folding a piece of paper, or talking on the phone, or tying your shoe, or putting groceries in a sack:  functional things.”  That relationship between body and mind, between movement and function, is what amazes me about fitness in all its forms.

The book goes on to discuss topics such as biomechanics, neuroscience, and functional outcomes.  There are chapters on various body parts (shoulder, spine, etc.).  I found the chapters on sports, dance, and geriatrics to be particularly interesting.

Again, not exactly a page-turner, but an engrossing read with lots of useful information and food for thought.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fun, fun, fun

Sometimes all we need to make exercise fun is a new toy or game.  For those of us who enjoy the thrill of victory or who seek to avoid the agony of defeat, any kind of contest can do the trick:  who can do more pushups with proper form?  Who can get to the corner fastest?  Betcha I can ride my bike farther than last week…

For some of us, it’s all about something out of the ordinary.  Tired of looking at the dumbbells?  Say hi to the TRX!  All zumba-ed out?  Spin class!  Snoring too much during savasana?  Try Pilates instead.

Sometimes it helps to go outside if we always work out inside, or vice versa.  Sometimes we need to jump on the box instead of thinking outside it.  Maybe all we really need is a new soundtrack.

And, bonus points:  our bodies like novelty!  We learn more from doing what is unfamiliar, even if we are bad at it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Also, if Daddy takes away the T-Bird, we get to walk...

When I was a kid, I never thought about getting exercise.  When I wanted to go faster, I ran.  When my mom insisted that we had to go outside in order to survive, my brother and I would ride bikes or big wheels, climb on our play fort, or jump around on the big log sections in our yard.  When she could watch us, we swam.  I took dance lessons.  My brother played Little League.  We played kick the can and tag and kickball with the other kids on our street.  It was just part of what we did.

The trouble with being a grown-up is that for many of us, exercise is not an automatic part of what we do.  We schedule it.  We have to squeeze it in.  We often dread it because we might end up sweaty, smelly, tired, sore.  I object.  It is time for exercise to be play again.  For some of us, that might mean finding a soccer team (or asking the neighbors if they want to play kickball?).  It might mean going salsa dancing.  Maybe we want to try paddle boarding or skiing or mountain biking.  Maybe we just need a friend to go lift weights with us to make it fun.

Find the fun and health will follow.

Monday, January 11, 2016


Getting back into the groove of exercise always feels great.  Except when it doesn’t.  Hi, Soreness!  Haven’t seen you in a while!

Soreness comes from work we aren’t used to doing.  The muscles we use doing an unfamiliar or neglected workout get tiny bits of damage; as those bits heal, we get stronger.  What that means is that when we feel sore, we are doing something right.

This does not make soreness more fun.  However, there are some things we can do to make it go away quicker:

Rest.  Don’t work out the same muscle group two days running; give the muscles a break.  Also, make sure you are getting enough sleep.

Drink Water.  Dehydration makes almost everything worse.  The water helps us flush out the lactic acid buildup in our bodies.

Move.  I know.  I just said rest.  But if we neglect stretching and moving our sore muscles entirely, they get stiffer and more sore.  We can focus on cardio while our muscles heal.  We can lengthen the muscles with myofascial release, massage, stretching.  We can relax our brains at the same time in yoga or Pilates.

Advil.  We don’t want to take it all the time because we want healthy livers into our very very active old age.  However, there are no bonus points for suffering. 

And when the soreness eases up, we can get back to work!  Hooray!

(The photo is some art I saw when I was in Wisconsin...)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday Exercise: Overhead Press

The Amazing Stickie is demonstrating the Overhead Press, an excellent exercise for upper body strength.

Stickie begins by standing with correct posture.  Her ears are aligned with her shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.  Her abdominals are engaged.  She is remembering to breathe.

She has weights in her hands and her hands are held up at her shoulders.  As she exhales, she presses the weights up until her elbows are straight but not locked and the weights are overhead.  It is hard to tell in the picture, but Stickie is maintaining excellent shoulder stability by using her back muscles to keep her shoulder blades down as her arms rise up.  When it is time to inhale, Stickie lowers the weights back to her shoulders.

Three sets of ten repetitions at a weight that is barely tolerable with good form would be a great choice.  Start with lighter weights than you think you can do because you can always add more. Also, it is always allowed to change weights either up or down; you are the boss of your workout.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Thursday book review: The Roll Model

Fitness, in a larger sense, is about taking care of ourselves.  While we may love exercise for its own sake (hi, skiing!), or tolerate it because it is good for us (burpees?  Again?), the point of it all is to increase our ability to enjoy life.  At times, our daily lives and even our play at the gym can leave us sore, tight, and achy.  Reading a book won’t fix that, but following the directions in Jill Miller’s The Roll Model will go a long way.

Miller has created some very spiffy tools for myofascial release, the yoga therapy balls and the coregeous ball.  The book lays out the nitty gritty of using the balls to make happiness in your body.  I love my balls and the exercises she has created around them.

I have a high tolerance for puns.  This comes in useful reading the book because every single thing has some kind of punning clever name.  I have a low tolerance for glowing testimonials, which means I skipped a lot of the stories of successful users who have been transformed.

I took my book to have the regular binding cut off and a spiral binding put on to increase the usefulness of it; now it lies flat while I am rolling and referring to it.  It was cheap and totally worth it.

I highly recommend the content of this book for anyone looking for increased flexibility, mobility, and happiness in the body.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

No, it isn't a torture device...

Pilates can seem very odd at first.  The equipment looks weird and maybe a little scary, what with all the springs and straps.  The exercises seem so simple, except they turn out to be a lot more challenging than expected.

We come to Pilates for a variety of reasons.  Maybe we find we need balance.  Maybe we want to achieve good posture.  Maybe we would like to connect with our breathing.  Or, you know, look tall and thin and hot.

The beauty of Pilates is that it meets us where we are.  We get to focus on the small stuff that makes big differences, whether we are coming back from injury or looking for a new kind of challenge to add to our exercise repertoire.

If nothing else, Pilates provides a space to move on purpose and with art.  We can shape our minds along with our bodies.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I just like flamingos

Sometimes it seems like exercise takes too long.  There are so many body parts that could use some work.  We get in our cardio, but then there isn’t time for weights.  Almost everyone seems to skip the stretching and rolling because it doesn’t seem worth the time it takes.

It doesn’t have to take that long.

The secret weapon is interval training.  Half an hour of cardio is plenty if we make sure to mix in some maximal intensity intervals.  We can even add cardio intervals to our weight workouts to squeeze more benefit into less time.  We have bought into the idea that more is better.  Unless we have professional athlete aspirations, it isn’t necessary to move in at the gym, marry the treadmill, and know the deep personal details of every single dumbbell.

We can even save enough time to stretch and roll.  Our muscles deserve it after working so hard.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Dashing, darting, diving...

Monday morning is such a nice time to think about exercise.  It is also a pretty good time to get some!  I like to begin my Mondays with cardio.

Cardio exercise prepares the brain for the day ahead.  It wakes us up, clears out the clouds, and helps us concentrate later in the day.  When we push through some intervals as well, we get bonus points for our metabolisms.  Intervals also train our hearts and lungs to recover more quickly and help us burn more calories in less time.

Let’s find our music and pick an activity:  walking, running, skipping, jumping, skating, ellipting (okay, that’s probably not a word…), skiing, biking, unicycling, hiking, zumba-ing, dancing, competitive hopscotch, chasing dogs/boys/girls, or anything else that gets our hearts pumping and our lungs panting.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  We made it through another holiday season full of adventure, food, family, friends, and wrapping paper!  It was great!

Right about now, it would be traditional for us to jump on some new, super-difficult, self-punishing, sugar-free, kale-infested, burpee-intensive program for “detoxing” or “getting serious” or something.  Let’s not.  We will just jump right back off, slightly stiffer and grumpier.

Bulletin: we do not need something awful to turn us awesome; we are already awesome.  What we do need, to increase our awesomeness, is a plan.

Let’s take five minutes off from watching parades/football/reruns to think about what we actually want for our health this year.  It might be a bikini.  Or it might be a surfboard.  We may want to stop carrying around an invisible 20 pound backpack.  We may want to jump out of bed in the morning instead of holding our own personal towing party.  We may just want to release the tension.  Whatever it is that we want, we need to choose activities that enhance our chances of getting it.

As always, don’t forget to breathe.