Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Exercise: Over Yets

Stickie enjoys working with kettle bells.  There may be another name for this exercise, but she likes to call it Over Yets (as in “Are they over yet?”).

She begins with a kettle bell in one hand, raised over her head.  The kettle bell will stay in this position throughout the exercise.  Stickie bends her knees, keeping her torso upright, placing one knee and then the other on the floor.  (She uses a squishy mat or towel for padding if necessary.)  Then she stands back up straight, coming through the position that could be described as “will you marry me?”

This is a challenging exercise and has to be done on both sides, so five repetitions per side is a good place to start.  A couple of sets is usually plenty.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Resilience

Bad things happen.  How we choose to cope with those bad things is the subject of Steven Southwick’s and Dennis Charney’s book Resilience:  The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.  The authors reviewed existing studies on the topic, conducted their own research, and interviewed highly resilient people, including former Vietnam POWs, Special Forces instructors, and regular people who overcame many different kinds of horrible circumstances.

Ten resilience factors emerged from their research:  optimism, facing fear, having a moral compass, religion and/or spirituality, social support, role models, physical training, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and a sense of meaning.  They explore each factor in a separate chapter while recognizing that all the factors are interrelated and often build on each other.

Resilience, they argue, is a skill that can be learned.  They outline specific actions that we can take to increase our resilience.  Even better, we can start anywhere; an increase in skill in any of the ten areas will help us with resilience in general and will give us leverage in learning the other skills.

The fitness takeaway message here is that not only do we get more fit when we engage in physical training, we improve our ability to deal with whatever life chooses to deal out to us.  Fitness is a survival skill.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Being Core-teous

Core strength underlies everything we do.  Without it, our cardio work and our other strength work comes to very little.  We need it to stand, to balance, to control our movements, and to protect us.

We all know about crunches (I hope).  Here are a few other exercises to try when you are bored with them:

Pushups and Pullups
Planks, Straight and Side
Medicine ball overhead slams and oblique slams
Quadruped/Bird Dog
Kettle Bell Twists
Straight Leg Lowers
Femur Arcs

Anything with the TRX

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Strong is beautiful

Some people gravitate more naturally toward weight training than others.  Those who instinctively enjoy moving heavy objects need no convincing that it is a good idea.  For everyone else, here are some good reasons to do it:

1.     Bone health.  Weight training builds bones as well as muscles, reducing the risk of fracture as we age.
2.     Increased metabolism.  Our muscles are more demanding than our fatty tissues, burning more calories and making weight loss or weight maintenance easier.
3.    Strength.  This one is obvious, but maybe not as obvious as it first seems.  Yes, lifting heavy objects makes it easier to lift more heavy objects.  It also makes it easier to shift furniture, play with kids, and use crutches if necessary.
4.     Vanity.  Muscles that are used look prettier than muscles that watch TV all day. 

5.     Challenge.  There is nothing like meeting a challenge to build self-esteem.  When we crank out a new personal record, we earn a new sense of our own awesomeness.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The boas turned out to be nonfunctional, but I get tiger arm pads tomorrow!

I’ve written about injury before, but the time has come to do it again because—hey!—I am injured.  We all try not to get injured.  This is why we pay attention to form and take reasonable precautions when doing semi-dangerous things.  Even so, sometimes we end up hurt.

Our doctors and other practitioners do an excellent job of telling us how to take care of whatever body part is non-functional.  We all know about ice and ibuprofen and rest and the other useful advice.  What is harder, I think, is coping with our brains.

When we find ourselves more helpless than usual, there are two contradictory things we have to do to cope:  fight it and embrace it.

Fight it is the one I prefer.  That is the part where we ask the doctor what parts of our current fitness practices we can still do.  Maybe feeding the dog while balancing on one foot is challenging, but it can be done.  Look!  Someone kindly transformed my house into an obstacle course!  I am going to master that sucker.

The embrace it part is more challenging.  It is not antifeminist to allow people to hold the door for us when we have crutches.  It is okay for your family to bring you things and fuss with your pillows.  This is a great excuse for binge-watching crime shows and catching up on all that reading.

The point is:  healing is faster when we remain sane.  Let’s remember our independence and also celebrate our interdependence.  Also:  fancy crutches.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Exercise: Russian Twist

Stickie enjoys having a trim waistline.  She knows that working her oblique abdominals contributes to that trimness, so she often chooses to do Russian twists.  (Stickie is a fan of Lemony Snicket, who would point out that “Russian” in this context means “horrible, challenging, or painful, but effective.”)

She begins seated on the floor with her knees bent, feet flat on the floor.  She holds a medicine ball (a dumbbell will also work just fine).  Her torso is slightly leaned back, her abs drawn in.  Keeping both hips firmly planted on the ground, she twists her upper body to one side, touching the medicine ball to the floor next to her hip.  She quickly twists to the other side and does the same.  A touch on both sides makes a single repetition.  Sets of ten repetitions are good.  Stickie does two or three sets.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Play

Play:  How It Shapes The Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown is a book after my own heart.  After all, I am a person whose company is named Recess and I’ve been told my inner child is not very inner at all.  I believe in play.  It is nice to have someone provide handy evidence that what I believe turns out to be a good thing.

Consider the sea squirt.  In its early life, it has a rudimentary brain and swims around exploring.  However, “The adult sea squirt becomes the couch potato of the sea.  In a surprisingly macabre twist, the sea squirt digests its own brain.  Without a need to explore or find its sustenance, the creature devours its own cerebral ganglia.  It’s like something out of a Stephen King book:  ‘All work and no play make sea squirt a brain-eating zombie’” (p. 48). We need to play and we need to play actively lest we all turn into brain-eating zombies.

The book describes the various kinds of play, the ways play develops our brains and our social structures, and provides some ideas about how to start playing again if we have, unfortunately, stopped.  It is written in an accessible but smart way—a playful book with much to offer.

Doing things we love or doing things we don’t love with a playful heart helps us grow and thrive and connect and give.  It replenishes our souls.

Go play.  It’s good for you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

It can also improve our moonwalking

Over the weekend, I tried a virtual reality program.  There were goggles and headphones.  I took a tour of Pluto.  It was a gorgeous seven minutes in space, except I was really in a friend’s living room.  Because I was in virtual reality, what I saw changed with how I moved.  That is to say, when I turned my actual body, what I saw in the goggles turned as if I were really standing in space. 

What was interesting was that I felt like I was turning in place from the virtual reality perspective.  In real life, I ended up moving across the floor and butting up against a chair.  What I was seeing affected my sense of where my body was.  The fancy word for our ability to know where our bodies are and what they are doing is proprioception.

One of the reasons we exercise, whether we know it or not, is to improve our proprioception.  That sense of where we are in space allows us to coordinate complex movements.  Pilates is particularly good for developing proprioception because of its emphasis on form and placement.  We learn how to feel where we are, to inhabit our bodies more fully, and, by extension, avoid encounters with chairs when we do spacewalks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Step (and keep stepping) away from the fridge

I am a stress eater.  I know I am not the only one who heads straight for the fridge when the day gets tough.  I am, when under pressure, sure there is no problem that won’t be made better by ice cream.  I forget that eating too much ice cream is a problem in itself.

We (because, as I said, I am not alone in this pattern) are going to attack this issue.  I have a plan.

Step One:  Don’t buy ice cream.  Or cookies or chips or vodka or chocolate or whatever it is that we crave under adverse circumstances.  If it isn’t in the fridge or freezer or cabinet, we have at least one more obstacle between us and less than ideal behavior.  We might not eat the ice cream if we have to go through the process of finding the car keys to go to the store to get some first.

Step Two:  Move the body.  This step has both a long-term and an immediate phase.  If we are moving our bodies regularly in the long-term sense, we are attacking the stress problem.  And if we choose to walk around the block instead of open the fridge in the moment, we have substituted a better behavior for snacking.  (If we end up walking to the store to get the ice cream, at least we have walked first…  Nobody’s perfect.)  There are very few excuses about why we can’t move instead of snack.  Snacking takes time and involves mess, too.

Step Three:  Don’t be mean.  Maybe we won’t always avoid the ice cream.  Maybe we really want it.  Maybe we are too darn tired to walk another step.  Maybe we blow it.  Let it go.  Let’s give ourselves a hug instead.  We will do better the next time.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Body weight to reduce body weight

It turns out that I should write about burpees more often, apparently, since we all have opinions about them!

Burpees, in their classic form, are a body weight exercise, a type of exercise that should be dear to all of our hearts because there are no excuses for not doing them.  We all have bodies; all our bodies have weight; we can work with that!  Keeping things simple often helps us to achieve what we want.

Other examples of no-excuses body weight exercises are squats, lunges, pushups, and planks.  Dips and pull-ups or chin-ups are also body weight exercises, but do require a bench or bar.

If we throw our weight around, we may end up with less of it.  All good.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday Exercise: Burpees

Pretty much everyone dislikes burpees.  Stickie, to tell the truth, does not enjoy the process of doing them, but she likes the results in her body.  There are many variations of the exercise, but Stickie is sticking to the basic version for now.

She begins standing with good posture.  She raises her hands over her head and jumps into the air.  Upon landing, she jumps her feet out behind her into a plank position and does a pushup.  Then she jumps back to a standing position.

Someone doing burpees for the first time may find that sets of five are perfectly sufficient.  Stickie usually does sets of ten.  People who want to use an interval training or tabata style can go for as many as possible in a minute.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thursday Reading: Time's Special Edition on The Science of Happiness

Time has a special edition out right now on the science of happiness.  It’s not a book, but I did read it and find it useful.

Much of the content of the magazine will not surprise anyone.  I think we all pretty much know that health and happiness enable each other.  We have learned that exercise, mindfulness, human connection, spiritual growth, and meaningful work make us happy.

That said, it is always nice to have data to back up what we know.  Also, I personally appreciate it when lists include new-to-me tips for how to apply the principles.  Finally, as a reader, I love learning about new books I can search out to deepen my understanding, and there are several mentioned in the text that I will be diving into soon.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mind, now...

I am, so far, bad at meditation.  I’m working on it.  In the meantime, it is a good thing that there are other paths to mindfulness.  Here are a few:

• Cardio:  walk, run, swim, dance.  Anything rhythmic and breathless will encourage the monkey mind to chill out.

• Yoga and Pilates:  They build in the breathing!  It’s right there!  Also the focus that gets us out of our repetitive thoughts!

• Journaling:  This includes not only writing, but drawing and coloring as well.  Another variation is to create a commonplace book in which we copy down meaningful poems, passages, sayings, or verses.

• Going outside:  Sun and air can cure an awful lot of brain-fuzz.  Add water and we are golden!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Yes, yes I do love this song.

I don’t pretend to have good taste in music.  I can’t.  As soon as I play stuff without earphones, I am outed as a novelty-song, power-ballad, goofy-dancing, shower-singing nut.  But boy, do I have a good time.

It is entirely worth the time to make a playlist (or mix tape, for those of us old people who remember) for working out.  We need to find the songs that make us want to dance, that rev up our energy, that lead us to do embarrassing things in the supermarket when they come on the radio.  Sure, if we are working really hard we won’t have the breath to sing along, but the desire to do so can create miracles of motivation.

Let’s dance!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Have you heard the song?

What scares us?  I don’t mean in the monster-under-the-bed way, or in the obvious serial-killers-are-terrifying way.  I mean the everyday fears that actually hold us back from things.

Take, for example, bathing suits.  Many of us find them to be at least somewhat anxiety-provoking.  We fear the exposure.  We fear the social pressure.  We fear the mirror.  We fear some kind of referendum on our characters based on the evidence of our bodies.  We cannot let this fear keep us from splashing in the waves and playing with our kids and enjoying waterskiing, boating, tubing, sliding, surfing, or paddleboarding.  Heck, we can’t let it keep us from building sand castles.

Or maybe the issue is competition.  We hesitate to join the team because no one has ever let us out of right field before.  What if we strike out?  What if we lose?  We are grown ups:  we can go out to pizza afterwards anyway if we want.  Are we really playing for the trophy?  I doubt it.  It’s about friends and running around and dirt and sweat and, be honest, Otter Pops.  Winning is fun, sure, but so is learning to play better, to learn the strategies, to cheer and encourage even when things go wrong.

Let’s do just a little bit of what scares us—go a little farther, a little faster, a little more out there than we have before.  That’s where the growth happens, the excitement, the good story.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Friday Exercise: The Hundred

The hundred is a classic Pilates exercise.  Stickie enjoys it because it builds core endurance, among other things.

To begin, Stickie lies on her back with her legs in a tabletop position.  She can have her arms either down along her sides or raised toward the ceiling.  She inhales deeply to lengthen her spine.  On an exhale, she lifts her chest, extends her arms toward her feet, and straightens her legs.  Her body will have more or less the shape of a V.  Once in this position, she will pulse her arms up and down along with her breath, five exhales followed by five inhales, until she has completed one hundred pulses.  Then, with control, she will lower her body back to the starting position.

During the entire exercise, Stickie concentrates on keeping her abdominals spread out across her body.  She does not want to train her abdominals to poke out when she contracts them.

Some people find this exercise problematic for their lower backs.  In that case, it is best to choose a different abdominal exercise until the lower back issues are resolved. 

The exercise can be modified by increasing or decreasing the number of pulses (most people do not want to start with a full hundred pulses).  How high the chest lifts and how low the legs lower toward the floor also influence the level of challenge.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Thursday Book Report: Capture

Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering by David A. Kessler is a tough book to read.  Perhaps this is not surprising in a book about mental suffering.  However, the piling up of varieties and instances of suicide, murder, addiction, and the like creates, for me, a crushing sort of bulk.

Aside from the many, many examples, the book offers a little bit of framework.  Kessler writes, “The theory of capture is composed of three basic elements:  Narrowing of attention, perceived lack of control, and change in affect, or emotional state.  Sometimes these elements are accompanied by an urge to act.  When something commands our attention in a way that feels uncontrollable and, in turn, influences our behavior, we experience capture” (p. 7).

He briefly discusses the ways in which we have to filter our experience in order to function; capture is essentially a particularly compelling filter.  Most of the rest of the book, as mentioned above, is examples of various kinds of capture.  Only in the last few pages does Kessler attempt to draw out any sort of coherent theory of how to extricate oneself from the morass of unhealthy capture.

One possibility is to substitute a healthy form of capture for the unhealthy one.  He suggests that programs like AA tend to work on this model.  He also suggests mindfulness work.  Ultimately, he concludes that, given our need for filtering, at best we can understand that we are captured and we can hope to reduce our vulnerability to the worst aspects of it.

I did not come away feeling encouraged.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Know thyself...

Bodies are wise as well as smart.  We notice the smart parts more often, like when we still remember how to ride a bike after all those years or when we manage to catch the toddler’s ice cream cone before it hits the floor without thinking too much about it.

The wise parts require a little more patience.  Our bodies do, in fact, tell us what we need.  This does not mean that when we open the fridge and see leftover pie it is our body’s wisdom that makes us take it out and eat it.  Sure, our body reacts to the idea of pie, wants pie, loves pie.  The body also knows that too much pie means misery later.

The wisdom of the body speaks slowly.  Those first five minutes of exercise can feel like a new terrorist interrogation program.  We can spend all of high school having a Coke and a donut for breakfast and get only minor warnings from the body about that not being the best possible idea.

Listen in.  Listen deep.  Listen long.  We may find that we exercise longer and eat less.  We may realize that, really, our body would rather go to zumba than yoga, or lift weights in the morning rather than the evening.  We may discover that blueberries are the food of the gods and that we can live without eating kale ever again.

What do our bodies know?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Independence, day two

The long weekend is over.  We’ve watched the relatives explode and the fireworks blossom, or the other way around.  We have returned to our roots, cooking things over fire and eating onion dip.  We might be slightly sunburned and we were up too late.

What do we do next?

It’s tempting just to roll over and push the snooze alarm.  We can have leftover brownies for breakfast.  We don’t need to work out; we walked thousands of steps cleaning up after the barbecue, after all.


Put on those tennies.  Get in the cardio.  Lift something that isn’t a beer.  Eat the leftover fruit salad instead.  Declare your independence from the post-holiday blues.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Celebrate American heroes

It’s a holiday.  Go celebrate freedom and exercise your civil rights.

(Real blog post tomorrow, as usual…)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday Exercise: Bench Rows

Bench rows are a great exercise for the back of the body.  Stickie also likes that she has to use her core for stability since she has to work one arm at a time.

To begin, she puts one knee and one hand on a bench.  She ensures that her spine is long and her head is in line with the rest of her spine as if she were doing a plank or pushup.  Her other foot remains on the ground.  In her working hand, she holds a dumbbell.  Taking care to keep her shoulders level (the working shoulder tends to drop when the dumbbell is at the bottom of the movement and tends to hike up at the top), Stickie exhales to lift the dumbbell up toward her armpit.  She feels like her shoulder blades are sliding toward each other.  Then she lowers the weight back toward the floor.

As usual, two to three sets of ten to fifteen repetitions should do it.