Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Things to love

Over the weekend, I did my first hill ride in a long time.  I was worried.  I wasn’t sure I could still do it.  I was afraid my hands and forearms would fail.  I wondered if the hills would have me back.

I lived.  It was not my easiest ride ever and I was even slower than usual.  I got sore and tired.  But I remembered some things I had forgotten.

One was the joy.  Sometimes it was about glorious downhill speed.  At my favorite view spot, it was the joy of coming home to a place of my heart.  And then there was the deer browsing at the edge of the road who let me come within six feet before retreating just a little farther away.

Another was flow.  There were plenty of hot and sweaty moments with inner swearing (outer swearing takes too much breath sometimes), but there were the times that I found the place of just enough effort to do the job with none wasted. 

May we all find joy and flow in what we do.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Things to remember

Happy Memorial Day.  We give thanks for our freedoms and take time to remember those who came before us and their work to ensure our civil rights and domestic tranquility. 

As we celebrate, let’s also ensure that we remain in good health.

Imbibe in moderation, and never in conjunction with driving.  We cannot be healthy and dead at the same time.  We cannot risk other people’s lives because we knocked back a few too many in remembrance of anyone or anything.

Step away from the brownies.  Let’s celebrate with carrot sticks and dancing, hikes and yodeling, or anything else that moves us away from the dessert table.

Go outside.  We have a beautiful country.  Let’s look at it!

Hug people.  It is good for the soul.  If we don’t get enough hugs, our faces will fall off.  Well, maybe not, but why take chances?  Also, making connections contributes to general wellbeing and resistance to disease.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

I think...

Mindfulness does not have to involve sitting in a lotus position in a white room decorated with a single flower in a bowl of clear water.  It can, of course.  But for those of us meditationally challenged, I offer some other ideas for stilling the monkey mind.

Repetitive cardio.  The rhythmic motion of swimming, biking, running can have the same effect as a rocking chair on a baby.  We settle.  We breathe.  We relax.

Coloring.  There is a reason this has become trendy.  We give our brains just enough to do that the monkey mind slows down and rests in the moment.  Drawing, knitting, and some kinds of writing also fit into this space.

Singing.  Mindfulness has an intimate relationship with breath.  It is challenging to sing without breathing deeply.  Bonus points for doing it in the shower.  Extra bonus points for crazy dancing, falsetto, or costumes.

Cleaning.  Creating beauty and space outside ourselves can often create the same inside.  Clutter in our heads keeps us from focusing on the essentials.  Clutter on our desks can do the same.  Also, life is better with less dog hair.

Cooking.  Tactile practices like cooking bring us into the body.  The colors and scents and textures of cooking feed us before we even eat a bite.  Best results in cooking come from paying attention to the details, which is another way of saying focus.

Do what works.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Exercise: Skullcrushers

Everyone likes sexy triceps, especially as the weather gets warmer and our arms come out of their sweater hiding places.  The Amazing Stickie is no exception, so she enjoys adding skullcrushers to her routine.  She also likes to say “skullcrushers.”

Despite the name, there is no actual crushing of skulls involved in the exercise.  Stickie lies on her back on a bench (in bench position on a stability ball is also a good version that adds more challenge) with a weight in her hands.  Barbells work well for this.  A single dumbbell held at the ends or goblet-style also works.  She raises her arms directly over her shoulders.  This is the start position.  As she inhales, she lowers the weight toward her skull by bending her elbows.  She lifts the weight back up over her shoulders on the exhale.

It is tempting to do this exercise by moving at the shoulder joints, but that is cheating.  The goal is to get the triceps to do the work, so Stickie ensures that she uses only her elbows to move the weight.  She usually does three sets of ten to fifteen repetitions.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Rolfing

Rolfing: Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being by Ida P. Rolf presents an interesting take on the question of body and mind.  She invokes the “sound mind in a sound body, “ essentially insisting that the mind cannot be sound when the body is out of whack.

What I wanted out of the book I found:  close observation of alignment and discussion of underlying structure.  She states the problems of current culture as expressed in our bodies well:  forward heads, rounded shoulders, aching backs, dysfunctional hips and feet.  Whether her plan for correcting the issues is correct, I do not know, but the discussion is interesting.

Also, if it takes an entire chapter to answer the question of whether the process if painful, the answer is yes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Count to Four...

Four reasons to do Pilates:

It sweats the small stuff.  When we do big movements with heavy weights, we are paying attention to the big muscles.  Pilates doesn’t ignore them, but it brings the attention deeper, to the stabilizers, the balance muscles, the little shifts that create symmetry and grace.  Taking those Pilates lessons back to the weight room can transform a workout when it is time to commune with the barbells.

It creates space.  We spend so much of our lives crammed.  We are stuck in cars.  Our shoes pinch our toes.  Our pants are too tight.  There is not enough time.  Pilates works to lengthen our bodies, to tease out the compression.  We can move with flow and find there is plenty of space after all.

It is harder than it looks.  We can rise to the challenge and find that our bodies like it!

It is about breathing.  We breathe or we die.  Pilates makes the not dying work better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Shower the people...

Who loves you?  Who is there for you?  Who makes you tell the truth and sticks around to hear it, no matter what it is?

Maybe those seem like strange questions for a fitness post, but they are important.  We can’t do it all alone.  Sometimes this is obvious, like when we try to bench press more than we can and we are stuck there, pinned under a heavy barbell (Public Service Announcement:  Do Not Do Heavy Lifting Alone.).  Sometimes it is less obvious at first, like when we are eating an entire carton of ice cream because no one else is home and it has been one of those days.

Figure out who your people are.  Spend some time taking care of them.  They are crucial to your health.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Run, run away

In a perfect world, I would never be grumpy.  Until the world becomes perfect, I have cardio.

I know a lot of people who tell me that they are too tired to walk or run or bike or otherwise move.  I understand.  I am sometimes one of those people.  The thing is, I do it anyway.

I may bitch and moan about how tired I am, but almost always by the time I’ve been walking or riding or swimming for five minutes, I am smiling again.  Some of it is chemical, no doubt.  I love endorphins.  But there is also the psychological benefit of Doing Something instead of hanging around just letting things fester.  Bonus points for going outside.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Exercise: Medicine ball slams

The Amazing Stickie likes exercises that serve multiple purposes.  Medicine ball slams work the whole back of the body, demand coordination, and raise heart rate, all at the same time.  For bonus points, on days when Stickie feels frustrated, she can imagine that the things that are frustrating her are in front of her on the floor and smash the heck out of them.

She begins holding the medicine ball over her head.  Because medicine balls are not all that bouncy by nature, it requires a pretty good slam to get it to hit the floor and bounce back up to where it can be caught.  Stickie uses her arms and back to slam the ball down and her knees to get low enough to catch it as it rebounds.  She will often do thirty slams at a time, or, for a switch, slam the ball for a minute at a time between other exercises for a cardio burst.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thursday Book Report: The Boys in the Boat

I didn’t really need another reason to like Andrew Luck.  He’s smart, talented, and a good sport.  Now that he has started a book club, I am a real fan.  I wrote about the book he chose for kids a couple of weeks ago.  His first selection for adults (although, depending on your kids, I can see them getting into it also) is The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

What a great story.  A bunch of mostly poor kids from Washington overcome all kinds of struggle from dysfunctional families to financial disaster against the background of the Great Depression.  They learn to pull together and win gold in Hitler’s Berlin.

It would have been very easy for this to have been just a sports book.  The athletic achievement of the group has enough heft all by itself, what with guys jackhammering on the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in the summer to raise money for school in the fall and incidentally get even stronger and other similar tales.  What makes it more is that Brown has a sense of history.  He puts all the grit and brawn and inherent struggle to achieve in the context of the Dust Bowl on one hand and the Nazi rise to power on the other. 

Go read it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert in Dune

What are we afraid of, when we head to the gym?  (Heading to the gym is not more scary than heading anywhere else, by nature.  I find that what is true about heading to the gym tends to be true about pretty much every other place.  This may be because I am a metaphor junkie.)

Sometimes we are afraid of failure.  Maybe we go to the gym and we don’t end up suddenly fit and wonderful.  Maybe we keep going and we don’t get the results we want and we become sure that it is because we suck and nothing can ever fix it and we should really just go get ice cream instead.

Sometimes we are afraid of success.  If we go to the gym and get stronger and fitter and cuter and smarter, suddenly we might feel able to transform in other ways and in other areas of life.

I think that really it comes down to fear of change.  We are used to How Things Are.  Except that things are always changing.  The question is whether we want to be agents or victims.  I vote for agents.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

We can do it

Sometimes we forget.  Life gets busy and we spend our time zooming from one thing to another and we lose track.

We are strong.  We are powerful.  We can change the world.

Let’s remember that today as we work through what is in front of us.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Note to self

Almost everything out there about weight loss suggests that keeping a food journal helps.  Recommendations sometimes include writing down not only what was eaten, but how much, when, and in what emotional state.  There are many theories about why this works.

Of course, keeping data allows tracking.  If we don’t know what we are eating, how can we adjust?  The act of writing down each bite also creates mindfulness.  We may not want to record for posterity that midnight cookie, so we might skip it.  Patterns can emerge:  we overeat at those Sunday brunches with Grandma and on Mondays after that stressful staff meeting; we eat no vegetables on Thursdays because we do the shopping on Fridays and we are already out by Thursday.

Yes, writing down all the foods is a pain in the patella (as my son used to say when he was little).  Some people find the millions of software programs out there helpful.  Others like fancy notebooks.  All I can manage is a series of daily post-it notes.  I won’t do it if it is complicated.  As usual, the take-away is do what works.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday Exercise: Upright Row

The Amazing Stickie enjoys working the muscles of her back and arms to keep her posture lovely.  The upright row helps with this goal.

Today, Stickie is using a barbell, but dumbbells also work for this exercise.  She begins holding the bar with an overhand grip with her arms straight at her sides.  As she inhales, she makes sure that her body is aligned in good posture.  When she exhales, she lifts the barbell up toward her shoulders by bending her elbows.  The next inhale returns her to the starting position.

Depending on the weight she is using, she will do about three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Sweetness and Power

Sidney W. Mintz’s book Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History is not, at first glance, anything to do with fitness.  That said, I can find fitness principles almost everywhere and it is easier than usual in a book about the evolution of our society around a food.

Anyone with interest in history, anthropology, or food can find something fascinating in the book.  There are questions of social justice inherent in the historical consumption of sugar and other “drug foods”—tea, coffee, chocolate, and rum as well as in our current consumption.

The book traces how the convenience and cheapness of sugar transformed meals by emphasizing convenience and quick calories.  The stimulant properties of sugar, especially combined with tea and/or coffee, kept the emerging proletarians working.  The once-exclusive luxury became the opiate of the people, so to speak.

It does not take a lot of imagination to apply the history of sugar to all the other convenient, mass-produced foods that surround us.  The place of sugar in our diets exists because of concerted effort to make it so.  We have the opportunity to question whether we want all those processed foods, to subvert the dominant paradigm, to return to fresh whole foods and the process of cooking, to create social meaning through eating together.

If we are what we eat, perhaps we should choose wisely and with the perspective of history.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Easy Peasy

We all know we are supposed to exercise, but what the heck are we supposed to do?  We can go look at what other people at the gym are doing, we can ask the internet, we can replicate those hazy memories from back when we were on the football team.  Ideas are all around us.  Some of them are better than others, but it isn’t that hard.

We all need three kinds of exercise:  cardio, weights, and flexibility.  Cardio works the heart and lungs, improves mood, burns calories, and increases endurance.  Walk, run, bike, dance, swim, roller skate, etc.

Weights make us stronger.  They change our body composition, fire up our metabolism, empower us, and make our butts look cute.  Lift stuff.  Maybe even yourself!

Flexibility keeps us mobile.  It may help prevent injury.  It also, many times, ties in with mindfulness practice.  Stretch.  Go to yoga.  Do some Pilates.  Spend a few minutes on the foam roller.

Go play.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I love you three sets of twenty

A lot of the rhetoric around exercise is about suffering and compulsion.  No pain, no gain.  Trainers are drill sergeants, torturers, dominatrixes, punishers.  Gym time is penance for the sins of the table.


At base, exercise is about love.  It is about life and wanting to be around for it.  It’s about growth and victory and power.  We exercise because we matter.  That special thing that we are, that crazy, wonderful human who wants to climb trees or solve world hunger or balance the checkbook just once is worth preserving and cherishing.  That is why we run and lift and sweat and stretch.

Love yourself today and maybe take a walk.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Just Right

News flash:  we are all different.  What this means is that it is difficult to say how much exercise we each need.  Our government suggests we get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days a week.  That is not a bad place to start, but most of us could use more.

This does not mean that we should spend more time at the gym than, say, sleeping.  People who are not into endurance sports, who are not professional athletes, who hold actual jobs don’t need to spend hours and hours a day working out.  Do some cardio.  Lift some weights.  Stretch.  Find the amount of exercise (more than zero!) that makes you feel best.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday Exercise: Femur Arcs

The Amazing Stickie works her lower abdominals by doing femur arcs.  The movement is simple, but a few form details make all the difference.

She begins lying in tabletop position, which is on her back with her thighs pointing toward the ceiling and her shins parallel to the floor.  For those of us who remember geometry, we recognize that the two segments of her legs make a 90 degree angle.  This angle is important because she needs to maintain it throughout the exercise.

Stickie inhales as she lowers one leg toward the ground using ONLY her hip.  It is extremely tempting to touch the foot to the ground by bending the knee, but that is much, much easier and does not give the abdominals the challenge they need and want.  As she exhales, she brings the leg back up to meet the other leg.  As she moves, she works to keep her abdominals flat; they will want to poof up, but that just trains them to stick out, which is not our goal.  She alternates legs until she has completed a set of ten.  After a rest, she does a couple more sets.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli is the inaugural selection for kids from Andrew Luck’s book club.  If all his selections are this good, we all need to join his club.

While there are sports in the book, they are not the focus.  Maniac has incredible athletic talent.  It does not even come close to his talent for living under extremely difficult circumstances.  One way he copes with those circumstances is by running. 

Fitness is not an end in itself.  This book acknowledges the importance of sports for character development while pointing out that we develop character to do things with our lives.

The writing is spectacular, funny and touching.  What is not to like about a book with an incidental mention of a tricycle gang of little kids called Heck’s Angels?

Read it, share it, give it to a kid or grown-up you know who needs to be inspired.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It's simple, except when it isn't

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life."

This quote was mentioned in something I was reading recently.  I have always liked it because it neatly sums up a very messy process:  change.  So many times, as we think about changing, we decide all we need to do is simple: do it.  Then reality sets in and we have to deal with obstacles ranging from uncomfortable shoes to unwilling family members to poor nights’ sleep.  If we persevere, we eventually find that new habit becomes simple again.

Embrace the mess and we can make it to the simplicity beyond.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Not even a new toothbrush adds much to the experience

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that very few people probably find brushing their teeth all that exciting.  We all, I hope, do it, but it is most likely not the high point of the day.  Sometimes exercise falls into that tooth-brushing spot:  boring, habitual, and useful.

I love what is habitual and useful.  If our fitness routines are both of those things, great!

It’s the boring that gets me.  Unfortunately, boring also tends to undermine the habitual and useful part.  When we always do the same exercise, we don’t have to think about it.  Our bodies go through the motions and our brains check out rather than connect with what we are doing.  We work the same muscles in the same way over and over.

Let’s shake it up a bit.  If we’ve been doing all circuits, let’s throw in a heavy lifting day.  If it has been treadmill for months, let’s go outside.  The new muscle movements will wake up body and mind and reinvigorate the practice.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The video has no picnic baskets, but it is smarter than average...

By happy accident, I ended up with a yoga personal training session.  Which is to say, the other people who normally show up for the yoga class I take didn’t make it and I was the only student.  It has happened to me once before, but I forgot how different it is.

For background, I am not a particularly gifted yogi.  I’m more like Yogi (“hand over the picnic basket!).  I take yoga not because I’m good at it, but because I am bad at it.  I need to spend conscious time on flexibility and I need to unplug the whirring fan of my brain.  I tend to be a back-of-the-class student so I can see what to do and mostly not be seen as I try to figure out exactly how I’m supposed to get my foot over there with all those other body parts in the way.

When I am the only student, there is no incognito.

What that meant, in the moment, was that I got to learn things that were directly relevant to me.  When class is large, a teacher’s recommendation to lengthen one side of the body or lower shoulders or level hips may or may not apply to me.  That day, it was my movement compensations that were on view and under scrutiny.

It made me realize, again, why personal training is both important and scary.  I learned a lot about how to move my body, my particular, history-laden body that struggles more to do things on the left, that probably shouldn’t interlace fingers anymore, that needs to keep an eye on knee alignment.  I learned about what I was doing wrong.  I also learned about what I was doing right.  The instructor encouraged as she corrected, gave me a feeling of safety by recognizing where I was and gently moving me toward where I should go.

I am grateful for the good example of that teacher.  May I do likewise!