Monday, February 29, 2016

Yelling "Argh!" also engages the abdominals

Frustration can be a useful tool.  Not a pleasant one, but useful.  Frustration with how tired we are, or how chubby we look in photos, or how hard it is to run for the bus can motivate us to get started on a fitness program.  The exercise burns away the frustration, reduces stress, and begins to address the problems that were frustrating us.

But there are other kinds of frustration that we can use.  When we get injured and can’t do our usual activities, frustration can help us try something new that we can do.  The frustrating process of rehabilitation can allow us to develop more mindfulness and more precise form so we don’t have to repeat the process after another injury.

Then there is the kind of frustration that comes from other sources entirely, like maybe the kid who takes 45 minutes to put on clean underwear, pants, and a shirt, or the person in the car ahead of you who does not appear to have passed driver’s training, or the family member who left us without toilet paper in the bathroom.  Frustration does generate energy and there is no better way to get rid of it than by taking it out on the treadmill, the weight rack, or the yoga mat.

It’s all fuel.  Use it!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Exercise: Side Plank

Having mastered the plank last week, Stickie has progressed to the side plank, which will strengthen her obliques.  She begins lying on her side on the mat with her lower hand underneath her shoulder.  She can choose whether she prefers to have her feet one in front of the other or stacked on top of each other.  Either way, she will end up resting on the sides of her feet when she presses away from the ground by straightening her lower elbow.  She keeps her shoulder stacked over her wrist on the weight-bearing side and her body in a nice straight line from the top of her head to the soles of her feet.  Like the plank, the side plank is an endurance exercise:  she will stay up in the position as long as she can keep good form and then repeat on the other side.

As a variation, Stickie can raise herself up with her forearm on the mat perpendicular to her body if her wrist prefers that position.  When Stickie wishes to make the pose more difficult, she extends her upper arm and/or upper leg toward the ceiling.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Centered

Centered by Madeline Black offers a wealth of detail for those obsessed with anatomy and movement.  For the less-obsessed, there are interesting discussions, exercises, and pictures.

This book manages to do something difficult:  it breaks down the body into manageable chunks (analysis) and discusses how it works coherently (synthesis).  Many books do one or the other very well, but this one, like Deion Sanders, does both.

I found plenty of things to explore in my own function and many points to observe in how my clients move.  I expect it to be a great reference over time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Children on all extremities optional

Culturally, we talk a lot about balance in the metaphorical sense.  How do we balance our careers and our families?  Our needs and those of others?  Our budgets? 

Let’s talk about balance in the literal sense.  The statistics are pretty grim on mortality following hip fractures, many of which are caused by falls.  For many of us, the difference between living independently into our old age and living in a nursing home will come down to whether or not we can maintain enough balance and strength to use the bathroom by ourselves.  In a more immediate way, good balance can keep us from turning our ankles, torquing our knees, and throwing out our backs.

It isn’t hard to work on balance.  I suggest brushing teeth while standing on one leg.  Waiting in line is also a great place to practice.  If you don’t embarrass easily, you can pretend the lines on the sidewalk are tightropes or you can return your books to the library on the top of your head.  Those are just regular life examples.

In workouts, we can improve balance by doing exercises on stability balls or BOSU balls (those things that look like half a stability ball, or maybe a turtle).  We can do single leg squats and deadlifts.  We can play one-legged catch.  And, of course, we can work on our core musculature.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Polonius says...

While it is entirely possible to roll out of bed in one’s jammies and work out and while it seems silly to get all dressed up to go to the gym and get sweaty and while the focus of exercise should be on form not fashion, it is useful to pay a certain amount of attention to what to wear to work out.

I was a late convert, myself, to workout fabrics.  I had several zillion cotton t-shirts and didn’t see the need to buy something else just to get disgusting and smelly.  Then I learned that some of the disgusting and smelly came from the fact that cotton holds on to all that sweat.  The fancy workout fabrics can keep us all cooler and more comfortable and, in some cases, less chafed.

The most essential thing about workout shoes is that they should be comfortable.  That pair that creates blisters every time?  Time to get rid of them.  Some people prefer the barefoot shoes and some like more support.  Choose what is best for your body, what makes you feel most capable.

All of us need to think about proper support, although men and women may want it in different locations.  I can’t speak to manly support from experience, so I will simply recommend that good judgment be used.  For women, it is worth it to pay for the right kind of sports bras for our various body types.  Some of us are lucky and can get away with less support; some of us are lucky and can’t.  Take a little time and figure out what really works.

And yes, while we are shopping, boys and girls, we can choose workout clothes that look good and make us happy.

(The quote from Polonius is:  "Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,/ But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy,/ For the apparel oft proclaims the man..." Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii, lines 70-72)

(Polonius was also the name of my dad's teddy bear.  He wore no clothes.)

Monday, February 22, 2016


Sometimes we just don’t feel like it.  We wake up, put on the exercise clothes, and realize that we have no inclination to do what comes next.  No, not drink coffee and eat pancakes.  Move.

We need to do it anyway.  If motivation is lacking, spend five minutes watching this entertaining and informative video and then do it.

(Thanks to Kam for turning me on to this!)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Exercise: Plank!

The amazing Stickie likes to keep her abdominals strong.  She knows lots of ways to do this, but today has chosen to do a plank.  This is one of the most effective exercises for building core strength.  It has the advantage of requiring no equipment; it also requires no movement!

Stickie likes to begin lying on her belly on the floor with her toes curled under and her hands under her shoulders, allowing her to press up into position.  However, many alternative ways of getting into position are possible and useful.  In the actual position, her shoulders are directly over her hands.  She does not stick her behind up into the air.  She does not let her belly sag down toward the floor.  She keeps her head in line with the rest of her spine, neither dropping it down nor cocking it up.  She holds herself straight and strong from feet to head.  That is all.  She stays as long as she can manage.  Thirty seconds is a good start; with practice, a hold of a minute or more is doable.

This exercise has variations.  If holding the plank position is too challenging, holding a knee plank is a good alternative.  In that case, the body is a straight line from knees to head, as in a modified pushup position.  The plank can also be done against a higher surface, hands on a chair, bench, counter, or wall.  People with wrist issues or whose upper body strength isn’t up for the basic position can rest on elbows instead of hands, but it is important to keep the hands apart because that is cheating!  The elbow position also provides more challenge to the core for many people, so it may enhance the experience.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Anatomy of Breathing

Blandine Calais-Germain is an extremely talented person.  As part of my Pilates training, I read her Anatomyof Movement, which is an excellent, informative book with beautiful illustrations she did using dancers as models.  Anatomy of Breathing explores the structures and functions of one of our basic activities with the same thoroughness and grace.

In addition to the explanations of which bones and muscles are involved, she provides discussions of why different kinds of breathing are useful in different situations and exercises that allow the reader to explore those options.

Whether one is interested in anatomy, mindfulness, or performance, this book is a valuable resource.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why, yes, my feet do like to read...

Last week I got a couple of new body bars for the gym because I needed ones that were heavier than the 15-pound one I already had and lighter than my 45-pound Olympic bars.  That would be a first-world trainer problem, for those keeping score.  Because I am inherently silly, I carried them out to the gym across my back as if I were going to do squats with them, very funny looking squats that needed to move sideways to get through the kitchen and its obstacles.

As I walked across the back yard, I noticed the difference in my feet.  On one trip, I had an extra 24 pounds pressing down on them and, on the second, thirty.  (Yes, I attempted to be sensible and didn’t do both bars at once.  Also, the 30-pound one is longer than the 24-pounder and that would have been extra awkward.)  What a relief to take the extra weight off!

How much better will my feet feel when I lose a few pounds?  How about my spine?  I am newly motivated to take off that extra body bar I’ve installed on myself.  Anybody else?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

No, we can't go all Keith Moon on the hotel and those are land carrots

Our bodies let us live there.  In return, sometimes we trash the place and then complain about what a dump it is.

Today is a great day to say thanks to our bodies.  Our feet hold us up and carry us around.  Our legs propel us through space.  Our pelvises let us pretend we are Elvis.  Our spines ensure that we are not sea cucumbers (even if some days we would like to live the simple, invertebrate life deep under the sea).  The same kind of good things are true about all the rest of our body parts all the way up to the tops of our nice big round heads protecting our nice big wrinkly brains.

Thank each part.  Sincerely.  No side snarky remarks about bulges or anything.  It’s the least we can do.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Rah: And this photo is of disorganized team sports in 2002

I admit I found organized team sports kind of mysterious.  I am not a naturally gifted athlete.  Also, I always seemed to miss the moments when the in-jokes were born.  Then there was the terror of letting down the team at a crucial moment.  (Another terror I had was very specific:  the girl one of the middle school teams who played opposite me in basketball was four times my size and left tire tracks on my whole body.)

However, fitness is still a team sport for me.  On my team I have people who train me, teach me, give me classes, answer my questions, adjust my joints, work out my tensions, rehabilitate my injuries, and just work out with me.  We need leaders, colleagues, experts, and friends to help us grow.

We are all lucky because we can all be part of other people’s teams.  We can encourage each other, suggest new motivating music (however you want to interpret that… I prefer silly stuff that makes me laugh!), or bring the ice and Advil.

Go team!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Exercise: Unicorn Kicks/Hamstring Curls

The amazing Stickie understands that we often neglect the back sides of our bodies.  Because she wants the back of her legs to be as strong and shapely as the fronts, she does hamstring curls (sometimes known around here as Unicorn Kicks, thanks to Gennie…).  This exercise does not feel good; Stickie understands that no matter how much she practices, this will never be the most fun exercise ever.  However, she loves keeping her knees safe, so she does it anyway.  Also, the big ball helps her pretend it is fun, even when it isn’t.

She begins lying on her back with her heels on the stability ball.  With her arms pressing into the ground, she bridges up so that she is a straight line between her shoulders and her knees.  Staying stable in this position requires plenty of abdominal and glute work.  If Stickie wants additional challenge, she lifts her arms off the floor and holds them over her shoulders.  Then, on an exhale, she extends her knees, rolling the ball away from her until she is a straight line from shoulders to feet.  When she inhales, she draws her heels back toward her behind.  Two sets of ten repetitions is usually plenty.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Thursday Book Report: The Deerholme Vegetable Cookbook

I don’t really have a problem with eating vegetables, but I am always interested in more ways to make tasty food.  The Deerholme Vegetable Cookbook by Bill Jones makes vegetables look even better.  The recipes all look delicious.  I was particularly impressed with the informational sections about various veggies, their names, family histories, general nutrient content, and usual preparations.  There are also tips about varieties to grow at home, although those are somewhat skewed toward what will grow in Vancouver, where the Deerholme farm and restaurant are.

Whether you are interested in eating entirely vegetarian or in finding better sides to go with your meaty fare, there are lots of options here, including a whole bunch of pickles and preserves.  The photos are also lovely and nourishing to the eyes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Hahahahaha!" --God

You know the saying about how to make God laugh, right?  I wrote on Monday about planning.  Sometimes plans don’t work out.  Like maybe the washer decides to blow a gasket.  Suddenly, the time set aside for working out becomes time to make phone calls, wait for the repairman, visit the Laundromat, and feel thankful that the dryer at least still works.

That is okay.  Stuff happens.  It was just one day.  There are lots of days in a week and missing a workout on one of them means there are six more chances to get in those reps.

Don’t panic; take that stress to the gym and burn it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Take the long way home?

Shortcuts have so much allure in our busy times.  Some of them are worth it (prewashed greens, you rock!), some not so much (see:  frozen pizza).  Many of us would love the equivalent of a multivitamin for exercise:  take one a day and relax because we have the RDA of all our essential cardio, weight training, and flexibility.  (I, on the other hand, would be sad and out of a job!)

I am not talking about efficiency.  I love interval training because it does more with less time.  That is a total win because we get in the necessary work more quickly.

I am talking about things like crash diets, caffeine, and sugar dependency.  Severely restricting calories does more than take off pounds.  It deprives the body of needed nutrients.  It inhibits the body’s ability to heal.  It also may cause irritability and lethargy.  Finally, it is not sustainable.  Eventually, we need to return to normal eating and may in fact binge.

I am the very last person to tell someone to forgo a morning cup of coffee or tea, because my recurring besetting sin is Coke, diet or regular (presently in remission).  However, relying on caffeine to replace sufficient sleep for long periods of time causes problems.  Sleep is not a luxury; we need it.  Maybe the process of weaning ourselves from overuse of caffeine is nasty:  well, actually, there is no maybe about it.  It is also worth it because when it is over we are less irritable, more relaxed, and more in tune with what our bodies actually need.

Then there is sugar.  We love the high it gives us, the instant burst of energy.  I’ve written before about the dark side, the energy crash, the empty calories, its role in obesity, and even its role in environmental destruction.  We can choose naturally sweet things and skip all the added sugar in processed food.  It’s not as easy as grabbing a candy bar, but it is worth it.

Take the long way; the view is better.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A woman, a plan, but no canal

On the weekend, I try to get everything organized for the week ahead.  There are two things that particularly help me with my fitness:  meal planning and workout planning.

I have been planning meals for a long time, at least in part because I don’t enjoy going to the grocery store.  If I plan the week’s meals, I usually only have to go once.  Also, I work in the evenings, so planning ahead means I can grab dinner quickly and easily without resorting to junk food.  Making the decisions about what to eat when I am not already hungry and cranky means I can choose foods that are good for the family.  I can do the time-consuming parts of the cooking ahead of time, like roasting squash for soup or poaching fish for lunches.  It helps me eat with intention rather than from extreme hunger and desire for chocolate.  I have a flexible framework in which to choose wisely.

Similarly, when I plan my workouts for the week, I take into account what is on my schedule, whether the weather is likely to be friendly, and what my body seems to need.  My general plan is to ensure at least two weight workouts and two Pilates workouts, one or two yoga sessions, and cardio every day.  I think through the weight workouts and the Pilates ahead of time based on how the week before went.  (I don’t have to think about my yoga, because I go to class and the lovely Hilary has already figured out what I am going to do.)

I may not complete everything in my plans.  Sometimes I get lunch with friends instead of the salad I was thinking of eating.  Sometimes I cheat and eat popcorn for dinner.  The plan, however, reminds me that I do have goals and I can take steps to reach them.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Exercise: Single Leg Squat

Today the amazing Stickie is demonstrating a single leg squat.  She starts standing on one foot with her other leg bent.  She is tucking her lifted leg’s toes behind her other calf, but she could also extend the lifted leg out to the front.  She is gazing forward and choosing to focus on something on the wall opposite her (like perhaps the drawing of Wolverine on my studio wall); this helps her to maintain her balance.  Her engaged abdominals also help her to balance.  She has chosen to put her hands on her hips, but she could also clasp her hands in front of her, extend her arms out to the side, or even pretend to grab an imaginary pole (that last technique can work wonders on her balance on wobbly days).

After inhaling to lengthen her spine, Stickie bends the knee of her standing leg.  Note that we employed amazing Post-It technology to pan around to a side view of Stickie.  She is choosing to focus on keeping her back upright as if she were sliding down a wall.  She could also hinge a bit at the hips as if she were sitting back in a chair.  Both options are good; they just work the body slightly differently.

Stickie exhales to return to her starting position.

At first, sets of five reps on each leg are appropriately challenging.  Stickie has worked up to sets of ten and will complete three sets.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Trail Guide to the Body

I admit it:  I like muscles.  A lot.  Bones are also cool because without them we’d all be kind of squishy.  Given that, it is no surprise that I really liked Andrew Biel’s book Trail Guide to the Body.  It is full of useful illustrations, informative text, and opportunities for hands-on exploration with a partner or alone (some parts are easier to explore one way or the other…).

For those even more inspired, there are online resources to pursue for anyone who buys the book.

I happened to read the whole thing, but I will keep it handy in a reference sort of way.  Both anatomy nerds and the generally curious will find fun things to expand understanding and increase knowledge.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I am not a pretzel and I am ok with that

I get to go to yoga twice this week.  Notice:  I do not HAVE to go to yoga.  I am not simply going to yoga.  I GET to go.

As I have said many times before, yoga is not exactly my strong point.  The odds are against my ever achieving a lovely lotus, a perfect pigeon, or an other than mangy mutt of a downward dog.  I love it anyway.

Of course, I also love biking and skiing and other things that come more naturally to me, but learning to take joy in activities at which I do not excel has been transformative for my head.  I can carry that transformation into all of my activities, even the ones I am good at, because I learn more when I release attachment to my own performance and its rating relative to perfect.

What else do we get to do this week to create health in our bodies?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gimme one reason...

One of the things I used to do to annoy my parents was to ask, “Why?”  I’m not talking about when I was a little kid learning about the world, but when I was older and doing it out of boredom.  My mom might ask me to pick up my room and I would ask why.  She would tell me her reason and I would ask why that was the reason and then query the reply until we got to the point where she would, understandably, snap.  I always ended up having to do it, but consciously or not I decided to spread the pain around.  I do not recommend this course of action.

However, I do think it can be very useful to annoy ourselves the same way.  When we set goals, we can spend some time asking why we want to accomplish that particular goal, which can give insight in times when it is hard to remain motivated.  For example, I, like many people, would like to lose some weight.  Why?  One reason would be for my health.  Why do I want to be healthy?  Because I want to be able to do fun things no matter how old I get.  Because I might someday have grandchildren to play with.  Because I might decide to take up mountaineering. 

That batch of reasons is pretty easy to deal with.  There is nothing awkward or weird about any of those things.  It does get harder, though, when I explore another reason:  because I want to look cute.  When I ask myself why I want to look cute, I have to confront stuff like insecurity, societal bias, personal shallowness, and the like.  It is uncomfortable.  And it is useful to have told the truth to myself about those reasons when I am feeling like skipping a workout.  I may not be motivated by my health reasons at that point, but I might do it to look good at the next fancy event I attend.

The more reasons we analyze for why we want to do something, the more likely we are to find one to light a fire underneath ourselves to get to it.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Dibs on the swings...

Monday is a great day for a workout.  We can wake up energized from the weekend, anxious about the day and week ahead, tired from too much fun, but no matter how we feel, a workout is a good idea.

For one thing, our metabolisms can use the boost.  Interval training and weight work can stoke our inner fires and help us burn more calories, even when we have to sit at our desks later.

Working out stimulates our brains to work better and smarter.  It decreases anxiety and depression while increasing positive moods.  That part is science.  The part where we can take out our aggression by slamming medicine balls or kick-boxing at imaginary targets is anecdotal, but satisfying.

Then there is that sitting at a desk part.  Our bodies are not designed for long periods of inactivity.  Giving them a recess from all that stillness is good for our health.

Go play!