Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday Book Report: The Female Pelvis

As I have mentioned before, I really love Blandine Calais-Germain’s books.  The Female Pelvis is no exception.  She brings her formidable knowledge and skill to the task of analyzing a complex body system that undergoes incredible change over the course of a lifetime.  Everything is explained clearly and illustrated beautifully.  The exercises included are given in detail.

I wish I had read this book before the whole pregnancy and delivery thing, but I am glad to have it now.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Snake, rattle, and roll

Remember, toward the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones, having overcome giant rolling boulders, poison darts, and tarantulas, has one more obstacle between him and victory?  He says, “It had to be snakes.”  The one thing he really doesn’t want to face remains to be conquered. 

Sometimes when we deal with our bodies, it seems like it always has to be snakes.  We have one movement we just can’t beat.  We have one exercise that always remains too challenging.  We have that bum ankle/hip/knee that acts up and keeps us from the prize.  We become frustrated, discouraged, even scared.  We dread the inevitable time when the snakes have to turn up in our workouts.

One thing that can help is remembering all the things that are not snakes.  Indy did make it through all the aforementioned boulders, darts, and spiders, after all, just as we may easily survive the squats, presses, and curls that may accompany the terrible lunges or burpees or whatever Jabberwock-like exercise becomes our nemesis.

Another is to keep in mind that Indy beat the snakes.  It took time and courage.  He needed to call on all his boulder/dart/spider experience to find the inner resources to do it, but he did.  And we can, too.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

I detect...

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would not nominate him for any fitness awards, as heavy lifting with the little grey cells does not count.  His love of cuisine, dislike of outdoor sports, and fondness for spotless outfits also do not speak in his favor.  However, when we look at the mystery of our shrinking clothes, he may have some key training points.

For example, he collects the data.  What did we do?  Who was there?  What did we notice?  How did we feel?  What were the results?  He does not ask what we were supposed to be doing, or what we intended to do, but what we actually did.  Recalcitrant witnesses eventually admit that they did, in fact, go back for the second piece of cheesecake, or that they saw Granny do it, but denied it because they weren’t supposed to be in the hall surreptitiously texting that cute boy from down the street, the one with the motorcycle and the unfortunate haircut.

Then he looks at the patterns.  What little thing that was so ordinary that no one bothered to notice it made all the difference?  (Besides the fact that someone substituted poisoned mushrooms for chanterelles on the pizza…)  Was it that we no longer walked to the village to get our newspaper and so missed out on some healthful exercise?  Was it that we got extra excitement searching for the missing jewels?

Finally, he puts everything together into a plan.  Some time spent reflecting on all he has learned allows him to create a solution.  And soon the offending desserts can be locked away where they can’t do any harm.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fitness grows on trees?

The Easter feast is behind us.  Maybe we resisted and left the chocolate bunnies and Peeps to the small people, or maybe we have our own little cache of foil wrappers hidden among the strands of plastic grass in our baskets.  This is not a lecture about candy.

Nope.  This is about renewal.  We have made it to spring, to Easter, to new life.  We have made it through winter to strawberries, sunshine, asparagus, and new flip flops.

We don’t have to be the same.  This is the season for growing.  Where would we like to flower?  What fruit will we produce?  If we cultivate endurance, strength, flexibility, beauty, that is what we can harvest.

Let’s go dig the garden.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Exercise: Band Walks

The Amazing Stickie likes to protect her knees.  She knows that the best way to do that is to strengthen the muscles around her knees.  Band walking helps create knee stability from side to side.

There are lots of kinds of exercise bands.  In the picture, Stickie is using the kind that looks like a tube with handles on the end.  She stands with her feet on the tube and holds the handles to put tension on the band.  It is also possible to do this exercise with the kinds that look like giant rubber bands.  In that case, Stickie would put both ankles inside the rubber band (carefully, so as not to lose her balance!).

Stickie lines her toes up with a line on the floor.  She works out in my gym, so she picks one of the lines between the floor tiles and uses that.  This is not necessary, but it is instructive because many people doing this exercise find that they creep backwards at an angle as they proceed.

Of course, Stickie is standing with amazing posture.  She steps one foot to the side and then brings the other foot to meet it.  Simple enough.  The thing is, she does this with control, not allowing the band to snap her second foot over to her first foot.  She walks about ten steps in one direction and then returns in the other direction, working both sides.  For those who really want to know what muscles are working, the step out works the abductors and the step together works the adductors.

Three sets is usually sufficient.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Albinus on Anatomy

There is not much text in Albinus on Anatomy by Robert Beverly Hale and Terence Coyle.  They present the plates as studies for art students.  For fitness people and people who like pictures, the book is all about cool drawings.  Who doesn’t need to see a skeleton, partially muscled, standing in front of a young rhino?

Albinus, for the record, was an anatomist (1697-1770), not the guy who drew the pictures.  That was Jan Wandelaar.  The account of how they worked together is both fascinating and creepy.  I mean, what could go wrong with a naked model and a fresh corpse in winter?

My kids would have found it absorbing and it is definitely going on display at my house in October with the rest of the Halloween things.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

About 1:10 on that last question

It’s not that hard.  Just go play.

Sure, there are better and worse ways to work out.  Let’s pick the ones where we don’t get hurt and the ones that are fun and life giving.  Let’s skip the obsessing over the perfect ratio of work to rest, cardio to strength, spandex to cotton.

Get out there!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Are we there yet? And other important journey questions

Most of the time I wear my Fitbit.  I don’t have the fanciest version.  I don’t even use all the features mine has.   A week or so ago, I took it off to charge and didn’t put it back on for days.  And that is a good thing.

A Fitbit or other tracker (I happen to have a Fitbit, but I have no strong opinion on which kinds of trackers are best, as will be evident by what I’m about to say…) is a tool, not a goal.  Ten thousand steps a day will not perfect me.  A few more, a few less, and I will still be fine.  It is important to remember who is boss.  Hint:  it is not the little rubber and plastic thing on the wrist.

The tracker’s job is to remind.  We need mindfulness.  If our inner Lao Tse of the ten thousand mile journey needs a little help counting the steps after the first one, no problem.  But the number of steps does not measure the quality of the journey.

What do we see on the way?  How do we feel?  Where are we going?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Guest Post: How to evaluate a mass-media health article by Syd Salsman

I was thinking about all the information that bombards us on the news and in magazines and all over the internet.  As you may know, my son is studying to be a librarian and information professional, so rather than ask him and paraphrase, I asked him to write a post.  This is what he says.  Syd wanted me to use a photo of Melvil Dewey, the decimal system guy, but I am lame and couldn't get it to work. Instead, because I am his mom and can do it, here is a picture of him with his mouth full - js

The first step is to read the article critically and thoughtfully, looking for exaggerated claims and sales pitches. Many otherwise sensible articles have exaggerated headlines. A headline claiming a miracle cure isn’t necessarily a sign the article isn’t reliable, but if the article itself makes claims of a miracle cure or outrageously effective weight loss method, be suspicious. There are no shortcuts and a reputable health article will not claim there are.

Look for specifics of the scientific study or studies the article is based on. Is this a report on one study, or a pattern that scientists have identified across studies? Who did the studies? Look for MDs and PhDs, not vague claims of expertise. What organization are they affiliated with? If you’re not familiar with the organization, Googling it can give you a good quick impression of whether they are a reputable medical center like the Mayo Clinic or a fly-by-night snake oil outfit. As a general rule, if the organization’s website focuses on selling a product rather than facilitating access to information and services, suspect snake oil.

If you’re satisfied that the article is reporting on a study done by real doctors working with  a reputable organization, and the article has quoted from the study extensively and provided clear context, the article is likely reliable. If you’re still not sure how reliable the article is, the quickest route to certainty is to find the study itself.

To find a study, pull as much information on the study as you can from the article itself, and plug it into Google. This will usually work, but if it doesn’t try plugging the same information into Pubmed ( Once you’ve found the study, skim the summary, chapter headings, and conclusion. Do they seem to reflect what the article says? Do they suggest anything useful for you as a health-conscious person? Many studies are done on rats or with very small, non-representative samples of people, so even a solid study can fail to offer much to incorporate into your own life. This doesn’t mean it’s bad information, but it may not have the implications for human lifestyle choices a mass media health article might suggest.

In general, regard mass media health information with skepticism. Some good sources for health information on the Internet are Pubmed Health (, and The Mayo Clinic ( Pubmed Health has a specific search option for consumer information, and the Mayo Clinic website allows you to search  a library of symptoms, tests, procedures, and diseases. Both of these are far more reliable than say, The Huffington Post. Most of all remember, before you apply health information to your own life, consult with your doctor!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday Exercise: Kettle Bell Swings

The Amazing Stickie likes kettle bells.  This may be because they look like really powerful handbags with which to whack bad guys who try to mug you in dark alleys.  For those of us who do not have kettle bells (essentially a metal ball with a handle), this exercise can be done using a dumbbell.

Form is important no matter what exercise we are doing, but even more important in this exercise because no one wants to throw out a back.  As you may have guessed, Stickie begins standing with excellent posture and maintains control of her abdominals throughout the exercise to protect her back.

She swings the kettle bell down between her legs, bending her knees into a slightl squat.  Then she swings it up to shoulder level in front of her, keeping her arms straight the whole time.  Her legs straighten, her glutes contract, and her hips thrust ever so slightly forward.  Because Stickie has practiced a lot, she tends to do swings in sets of 20 or 30, but they are surprisingly aerobic, so don’t feel compelled to begin with that many repetitions and be sure to allow yourself time to recover between sets.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Trail Guide to Movement

Trail Guide to Movement by Andrew Biel is a companion to Trail Guide to the Body, which I wrote about a while back.  Over the course of the book, we “build” a body in motion.

The excellent information comes packaged with humor.  The illustrations are both entertaining and informative.  Unlike many other movement books, this one goes into detail about the neurological aspects of the process.  I’ll be keeping the book close by for reference.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Try (some of) this at home

Sometimes balance work seems silly.  It’s not like we are going to have to get out of bed and walk a tightrope or anything (most days, anyway…).  But then there is that thing on the top shelf in the kitchen and suddenly we are perched on our toes on the counter and it doesn’t seem that silly after all.  (Don’t tell Brent that I sometimes do that…)

Admittedly, standing on the counter might not be the best place to start working on balance.  Standing next to the counter, however, is a great place.  We can rise up on our toes with the support of the counter top, or with our hands hovering over the counter once we have mastered the first part.  We can shift our weight to one leg and lift the other and then reverse it.  We can see if we can load the top rack of the dishwasher on one foot, or transfer dishes from the drainer to the cabinet that way.

Small, easy, everyday actions can build into great things.  But I probably won’t install a tightrope from my bed to the closet any time soon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The weight of years...

I went to visit my parents over the weekend to help them pack some things in advance of moving.  It was thought-provoking.

My parents are both in their seventies and reasonably healthy.  They are dealing with some age-related issues in their knees and backs.  They are not as strong as they used to be.  They do not have the same stamina.  Like many of us, they could lose a few pounds and make better food choices.  They are living out the results of their life choices; some are good, some less so.  They count their blessings, and I count them as blessings.

Sometimes it is easier to see in other people what we need to see in ourselves.  I want to be a healthy and strong septuagenarian.  That means I need to work now to be healthy and active because I will never be younger!

The other provoked thought was about stuff.  They have a lot of it, like all of us.  I packed things that they hadn’t used in a long time and may never use.  They are carrying a lot of extra pounds.  A few of them got shed while I was there and maybe more will get lost before the move is over.  Moving the extra pounds around, putting them in boxes, was hard on their bodies. 

Let’s lighten up.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Even though it is pi(e) day...

Rewards work.  Sometimes.

When we want to build a habit or achieve a fitness goal, it can help to promise ourselves a treat for our accomplishment.  However, there are a couple of risks to the technique.

For instance, if we choose a reward that isn’t that compelling, we can decide, moment to moment, that it isn’t worth it.  Maybe, in a general way, we want a new gizmo or outfit or thingie, but not enough to motivate ourselves not to eat the cake or to do more pushups or to spend the extra ten minutes of cardio.  That can be useful information, of course, but it doesn’t get us closer to our goal.

Alternatively, we can choose something small that we do want, like maybe a car wash or a pedicure (two of my favorite fairly inexpensive, inedible indulgences).  Then, when we screw up, we think we don’t deserve any of those things ever.  That, in some cases, can throw us into the whirlwind of self-doubt, self-hatred, and even self-punishment.  Not helpful.

In order to make rewards work for us, we need to choose carefully.  With a big goal, giving ourselves incremental rewards can help us feel special and empowered along the way.  If, say, we get some new workout clothes halfway to our goal, we might make better, faster progress toward the ultimate goal and the big reward, which might be something like a weekend away, or a better bike, or a fancy makeover.

Just watch out for the ice cream rewards.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Exercise: Reverse Flies

Last week, Stickie had so much fun doing flies that she decided to do reverse flies this week.  This balances the work she did on the front side of her body by giving the back muscles a turn.

The starting position is lying face down on a bench.  Most people prefer to have their heads sticking out over the end of the bench, and many women may find that putting the end of the bench just at the bra line is more comfortable.  Stickie has a dumbbell in each hand.  This exercise is challenging enough that she uses much smaller weights than she does for flies; do not feel bad if you need to use what seems like a silly light weight.

Keeping her arms in a slightly curved shape, Stickie lifts the weights out to her sides.  It looks like she is flapping her wings.  She thinks about drawing her shoulder blades toward the center of her back.  While it is tempting to bend her elbows more as she lifts the weights as if she were doing a row, she resists because she knows this is cheating.  Three sets of 10-12 reps is sufficient.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thursday Book Report: We Have the Technology

So We Have the Technology by Kara Platoni is not really about fitness.  Don’t tell anyone, but it is perhaps more of a philosophy book than a technology book.  Why am I writing about it?  (Besides that I finished it and needed to write a post, of course…)  Well, because the book is about human perception and how technology is changing it.

The chapters on each of our senses trace out the biologic mechanisms as far as we know them.  They explore prosthetics and investigate our innate filtering and sorting systems.  Underlying that whole discussion is our whole definition of “normal” functioning.

Other issues that arise include who is creating the technology, who controls it, and how much is too much.  A fitness example cites my beloved Fitbit.  I choose to wear it and track various things.  But what if my company (not MY company, but my company if I worked for someone else) asked me to wear one and track my data for health premium calculations?  What if my Fitbit evolved to track other things, like my medications or my cholesterol level?

Then there are the people who are trying to add superpowers.  Who doesn’t want superpowers?  But maybe not magnets implanted in our hands, or a camera installed in our eye sockets.  Issues abound.

When I was done reading, I was not particularly freaked out.  Technology has always changed the world and culture has evolved to deal with it.  What I did think was that each of us might want to think about what and how we perceive things, about why we want various perceptions, and about how that might influence all of our decisions, including our fitness choices.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Spinal Tap approves this message

I like the number 10.  It is nice and round in the zero part and pleasantly upright in the 1 part.  Also, it does not exceed my number of fingers for counting.

However, ten can be so comfortable that I get stuck there.  Ten squats, ten pushups, no problem. 

Sometimes we need to go to 11 or 19.  Sometimes we need to choose a weight that makes 7 the most we can complete.

Let’s pick a new lucky number today.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

I was just thinking...

What do we think about when we exercise?

“Ow, ow, ow!”

“I wonder if I remembered to send that email…”

“How will Perry Mason get his client out of it this time?”

“Only 29 minutes and 50 seconds to go…”

None of those are bad thoughts.  It is not that there is some magic batch of thoughts that are supposed to fill our heads while we are working out.  I would simply like to suggest a couple more kinds to add to the mix.

“What are my abs doing right now?”

“What happens if I do the movement more slowly?  More quickly?”

“Are my shoulders level?”

“Am I staring at my feet?”

Checking in with our bodies to see what and how they are doing every once in a while can help us maintain good form.  That good form will eventually translate into less  “Ow!” and more “I did it!”

Monday, March 7, 2016

Shiny happy people holding weights...

Sometimes reading about fitness can make us crazy.  Well, me, anyway.  Exercise articles tend toward a couple of themes:  back to the basics or new revolutionary technique, all of them equipped with enough exclamation points to weigh down all but the strongest stick figures.  What is a body to do?

Shockingly, the answer is:  both.  Some basic exercises are crucial.  Squats, lunges, pushups or bench presses, and rows make my list.  We need to do some kind of cardio and everyone has a favorite basic, whether it is walking, running, biking, swimming, or the like.

However, doing the same routines over and over again forever does not serve us.  Personally, my brain gets bored before my body does, but the boredom is a real problem, whichever kind comes first.  Our bodies learn what we do; we grow from new movement patterns.

Yes:  do the squats and run the miles.  But also, every once in a while, do a heavy weight workout, a Tabata routine, or a jump rope session.  Happy bodies are engaged bodies.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Friday Exercise: Flies

Stickie really likes flies because they not only make her strong but also give her a great stretch at the same time.  Also, she gets to do them lying down.

To begin, she lies on her back on a bench.  She holds a dumbbell in each hand with her arms extended over her chest (not her face!).  She keeps a slight curve in her elbows, as you can see from the picture on the right, in which you are looking at her from the head end of the bench and her arms look like parentheses.  Stickie prefers to leave her feet on the bench because it feels better for her lower back, but it would be just as correct for her to place her feet on the floor.

On an inhale, she lowers the weights out to her sides, maintaining the curve of her arms (as in the lower right side picture).  As she exhales, she lifts the weights back to the starting position.  Depending on the weight she chooses, she will do a set of 10 to 12 reps. She usually does three sets.

At the end of the set, Stickie will lower the weights to her chest close to the sides of her body by bending her elbows.  Keeping the weights at her sides, she will lower them toward the floor and drop them.  Under normal circumstances, she does not need to drop them, but she is practicing for the time when the weights might be too heavy.  It is unsafe to open her arms wide and then drop the weights; she could easily tear a rotator cuff muscle in her shoulder that way.

On days when Stickie wants an extra challenge, she can perform this exercise using a stability ball.  In that case, she rolls out on the ball until her head and neck are supported by the ball and she needs to use her abdominals and gluteals to keep her body in a bench-like position.  Then she proceeds to do the flies from there.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Pilates Anatomy

Obsessed with anatomy?  Me?  Yeah, ok.  This week’s book is called Pilates Anatomy, by Rael Isacowitz and Karen Clippinger.  As one would expect from the title, the book covers anatomical issues relative to the traditional Pilates mat exercises as well as some more fundamental ones used to prepare for Joe’s series.

This book focuses on the muscles involved in each exercise.  There is only incidental discussion of how the bones move.  For some people this will be a good thing, for others a defect.  Both ways of thinking about the movements work, but in slightly different ways.  (I did read a book that suggested moving from the synovial fluid, the blood, the lymph, and other surprising body parts.  I’ll save that one for another day…)

I liked the analysis of the mat exercises and anyone wanting to improve technique could find plenty to work with in this book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Inside Out, Upside Down, Round and Round

Working out in the gym is awesome.  It is rarely too hot or too cold.  The cardio machines let us control all kinds of factors and may even let us watch television.  The dumbbells and barbells are easily gripped, if not easily lifted.  The weather doesn’t matter.  We don’t even have to be entirely awake to work out.

Unfortunately, heavy things in real life are rarely shaped like dumbbells and barbells.  The desk that needs to go from one room to another may not have anything resembling a good place to grip for lifting and holding.  Real life running and biking and skiing involve actual hills on which we cannot change the incline and the tracks are not always smooth.

I love the gym, but it is not an end in itself.  It is a tool that gives us what we need to tackle the real world, the one out there with the sunshine and wind and pebbles, the one where we need to lug laundry and library books and awkward computer bags.

Play inside, but don’t forget to play outside, too!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Backups are important

A lot of us have back pain.  If we are injured, we just have to suck it up until it is healed, but the daily, free-range, garden variety back pain we can minimize with good habits.

What does our workspace look like?  Do we constantly have to slump forward to see our computer screens?  Do our chairs allow us to sit comfortably on our sit bones?  Do we still hold the phone between our shoulders and ears?  Many people pay attention to how keyboards affect wrists and hands, but all that other stuff is important, too.  Good sitting posture involves having our ears lined up over our shoulders, which are lined up over our hips, but most of us end up sitting with our heads jutting forward, our shoulders rounded, and our lower backs looking more Quasimodo than we would probably prefer.

Our cars aren’t much better.  Taking the time to figure out where the headrest should be to keep our necks in good alignment is worth it.  Consciously choosing to sit up straight helps.  Also, having a ball like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball or yoga ball to slide under a hip or roll on a thigh or stick between the seat back and the space between our shoulder blades can transform commute torture into something bearable for the body at least.

Finally, we need to remember our core.  We spend plenty of time, culturally, talking about abdominals for good reason:  they are a crucial part of our core.  However, the muscles of the back are also important.  Strengthening the erector spinae and the deep back muscles via exercises like back extensions and deadlifts will complete the core circle.

The posture exercises with the books on our heads are optional.