Health and Fitness

Balance

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I think balance ranks just above stretching in terms of important elements of the fitness equation that don't get their due. We spend an awful lot of time talking about the importance of cardiovascular and resistance exercise--and for good reason. But walking, going up and down stairs, getting up and down out of a chair, bending over to pick something up off of the floor--each of these activities relies on your body's ability to balance itself in space and through varying degrees of movement.

In addition to making the activities of daily living easier, practicing balance and engaging in regular stretching makes you less likely to trip and fall. Tripping and falling can be embarrassing. But more importantly, you can injure yourself with a fall. And badly. The consequences of a fall for seniors are especially frightening. So, the more we do at any age to improve and maintain our balance and flexibility, the better.

There are pieces of exercise equipment you can purchase, designed specifically to help improve balance. But there are also loads of free ways you can incorporate balance work into your daily life and your regular exercise routine. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stand on one foot. When that becomes easy, practice raising your lifted leg out behind you or out to the side. You can do this throughout your day. Waiting for something to heat up in the microwave? Stand on one foot while you wait.
  • Do some of your normal strength-training exercises on one foot. Try one-legged biceps curls, or try combining a lateral raise with a side-leg lift of the opposite leg.
  • Practice sitting down into, and getting up from, a chair without using your arms.
  • Walk while alternating high knee lifts.
  • Do walking lunges up and down your hallway at home.
  • Sit on a stability ball instead of a chair. (If you are particularly unstable, have someone there to spot you.) Once you can sit on it easily, practice doing hip circles or shifting side-to-side on it. The idea is to improve your ability to adjust to the dynamic surface and maintain your balance. Then practice rolling down so that the ball is under your shoulder blades and rolling back up to sitting again. (Only do this when you feel confident in your ability to maintain your balance.)
  • Walk a tightrope. Not literally. I just mean walk on the floor like you would walk if you were on a tightrope. One foot directly in front of the other. Why? Well, the closer your feet are to one another width-wise, the harder it is to balance. The most stable position is having your feet underneath your hips, as they are when you walk normally. Narrowing that distance increases the balance challenge.

The cool thing about balance challenges is that you get to see the connection between your brain and your body get stronger almost immediately. You can attempt a balance exercise at the beginning of your workout, and almost without exception, if you try it again later in the workout it will be easier and/or you'll be able to maintain your balance longer. Your brain is so amazing that even when you're working on other exercises, its figuring out what you need to do differently to balance better. Try it. You'll have a whole new level of appreciation for your body.

February-in-Review

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Well, we are at the end of the shortest month of the year. I'm heading out of town for a Lean Body Lifestyles management retreat--our first of many more, I hope. We're going to be planning for the next year of the life of the studio, and probably the blog too. In case you missed any posts this month, here's what we talked about. See you in March!

I confessed that I don't own a scale and told you why. We somehow connected a romantic comedy from the late 1990s to health and fitness. We told the concept of spot-training to take a hike. Nikki and I chatted about  her new body image class. I told you why rest days are so important. We shared more of our favorite things. And I told you how I motivate myself to exercise.

 

The Problem with Numbers

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I don't own a scale. Haven't for years. And the reason I don't is because the number has too much influence over my happiness. It's not something I’m proud of.

I was especially reluctant to write a post about it.

I wish it were different.

But it's not.

That number, whatever it’s been over the years (and it has been many things) has never just been an objective fact. It has always been tied to emotions of shame, if I thought the number was too high; or tied to pride, if I managed to get the number low enough.

I remember clearly the moment I became aware that it mattered how much I weighed. I was fifteen and a doctor looked at my chart, said my weight out loud and then said, “well, you’re a big, strapping girl, aren’t you?”

And I knew it wasn’t a compliment. Not the way he said it. I knew he wasn’t saying it in a good-for-you-you’re-so-strong-kind of way. He was saying I was too big.

He was saying I was fat.

And so began my obsession with weight. Not an obsession with getting healthy, mind you. Those are two very different things.

It was an obsession with making sure that the number on the scale was something I deemed acceptable.

And how did I figure out what was acceptable? Well, I turned to the media. Where else should a teenage girl go for perspective on a healthy weight, if not to women’s magazines and television?

The answer is: almost anywhere else. Truly. The acceptable numbers I came away with were low. Really low. Too low for my height and body type. Too low to achieve through healthy diet and exercise.

I have been real close to that weight over the years. I’ve also been many tens of pounds more than that. And here’s what I can tell you.

There were times when I weighed that little and felt physically weak and sick.

There have been times, like now, when I’ve weighed more than that and felt strong and healthy.

I have also been lighter than I am now and still felt good, and I’ve been heavier than I am now and felt physically awful.

So, the truth is that my weight at any given time is not the best indicator of my health. It just isn't. And weight loss has never brought me long-term, soul-deep happiness. Ever.

I know this intellectually.

But knowledge can be easily overtaken by emotion. Numbers can become more than numbers—they can become measures of your value as a person. Women are especially vulnerable to this false association.

I am.

And so, I don't expose myself to it. Because as long as I have an emotional reaction of any kind to the number on the scale. As long as it is anything more than an objective fact. As long as it would become the metric of my health, over and above how strong I am and how good I feel. As long as all of the healthy things I do for my body would be forgotten in the seconds it took for the scale to do its calculations.

It's not worth it.

While the scale is bad for me, it is not bad to want to gauge my health or to be aware of the state of my body. So, I check it in other ways--in ways that don't have the same emotional resonance.

To any of you who relate to my disordered relationship with the scale, here’s my advice: break up with it. Seriously. Setting a specific weight as a goal is a recipe for frustration, because you are tying your achievement to a result—to something over which you do not have control.

I could pick any weight I wanted and my body might never get there no matter how many healthy (or unhealthy) things I did. And if that number is my goal and I don’t reach it, then I tell myself I’m a failure.

But…

If my goal is to increase the amount of weight I can lift. Or if my goal is to hold a plank for ten seconds longer 30 days from now than I can today. If my goal is to exercise for 30 minutes, five times this week. I can reach those goals. I know how to do that. That’s about things I do. Choices I make. There are proven paths to success I can follow. Those things are about getting stronger. Healthier. Those things can happen if my weight never changes.

See the difference?

love

The theme for this month is loving your body as it is now. So, we are going to spend the next several weeks talking about variations on that theme, and later this month I’ll have an announcement of something new happening at the studio. Nikki’s going to make an appearance on the blog for that. So stay tuned and I’ll see you back here next week.

 

January In Review

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Nikki and I have been working on a new project, which we are hoping to launch in the next couple of months. In the process of getting some feedback on that project, I've been talking to people a lot about their experiences working with personal trainers. I've heard stories, from people I know well, that they hadn't shared with me before. Stories about not being understood.

Stories about being asked to do exercises that were doable for their fit trainer, but frightening for them.

Stories about doing lunges across a crowded gym and feeling like everyone was watching.

Stories that, to them, might have felt like stories of failing, or of not measuring up. But to me, they were stories of bravery. It's hard to walk into a new experience; like going to a gym; like hiring a trainer. It takes guts to do something that you don't think you're good at and to keep trying until it gets easier. It takes honesty and self-reflection to notice that something in your life isn't working and it takes courage to make changes.

So, for this last post of January--of this month where we've focused on adding good things into our lives--I want to give you all a virtual high-five. If you did one new thing this month. If you focused on taking good care of yourself. If you did your healthy activity points journal. If you gave yourself permission to say no; to say yes; to sleep more; to move more; to stretch more; to eat good food; to go at your own pace.

If you did any of those things you should be proud.

And if you missed any of the posts that explain why all of those things are good, you can find links to them below. Take care and I'll see you in February!

We kicked off 2017 with our Healthy Activity Points Journal project. I gave you my Rules of Stretching. Sleep took its place as our first Healthy Activity of the month. I advocated for water. My three favorite stretches for the leg muscles got their time in the spotlight. I shared my monthly list of favorite things. And we brought it all home with a post about how to make friends with exercise. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water

water-title Okay, so week two of the healthy activity points journal is under our belts! How did it go? Did 25 points seem difficult or did you smash through that goal and set a higher one for yourself this week? I tied one of my healthy activities to another and bought myself some new music on iTunes to listen to during my workouts.

Last week I wrote about sleep. Wrote many, many words about sleep. I am going to write far, far fewer words on the why and how of this next healthy activity: drinking water. But it is no less important.

Ready for the 4-1-1 on water? Here we go.

Our bodies are about 60% water and every part of your body needs that fluid in order to do what it does. Water gets rid of the toxins that build up in your organs. It is the conduit for bringing nutrients to your cells, including those muscles you target during exercise. Water keeps the parts of your body that need moisture (ears, nose and throat) hydrated. It's a multi-tasking powerhouse.

As you deplete your internal fluid reservoir through activities like breathing and perspiring, you need to replenish those fluids to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is not good. Dehydration is bad times. Dehydration = tired and sick.

So how much is enough? Well, how much you need depends on many factors. The Mayo Clinic has an article about recommended fluid intake, which you can read here.

I wanted to focus more on the “how” of getting your recommended fluid intake in this post, than on the "how much." So here are my tips and tricks for happy hydrating:

  • Invest in a stainless-steel water bottle like this one, or this one, designed to keep water cold for long periods of time. Cold water just tastes better to me than room temperature water. I keep a bottle at work and at home—basically I have one in sight all the time to remind me to drink but also to make it really easy to do so.
  • Notice that the recommendations now are for “fluids” not “water.” This means that not just plain tap water counts. You can count tea, sparkling water, soda, coffee, juice, etc. for some of it. But be careful about how much added sugar and caffeine you’re ingesting. Oh, and you'll get some fluids from the foods you eat too.
  • Add some flavor. I like plain water. I especially like it during and after a workout. But sometimes I get bored. So if you’re tired of plain water, add a slice of lemon or lime to your glass of ice water. You get the flavor of it in the water, but you also smell that fresh citrus-y smell every time you take a drink. It’s kind of a nice pampering thing to do for yourself. You’ll feel like you’re in a fancy restaurant.
  • You can use an infused water bottle like this one. These are water bottles that contain little internal baskets into which you can place slices of citrus, sprigs of mint, or berries. As you refill the bottle with water throughout the day, whatever you put in the infuser will add a bit of flavor to your water.

The goal for this week is to figure out your daily fluid goal and reach it. Make a plan for success (i.e. buying some reusable water bottles to keep in the places you spend the most time, slicing up some lemons or limes, or keeping some sparkling water in the fridge to reach for when you need some variety).

Let's bump up our healthy activity points goal to 30 this week. Add a couple of new healthy activities to your list if you want some more things to choose from. Take good care of yourselves this week and I'll see you back here Thursday!

Oh, I need to add that none of the companies whose products I linked to above have paid us to promote their products. Just wanted to give you some examples to get you started.

Healthy Activity 1: Sleep

sleep-title How did your first week of the Healthy Activity Points Journal project go? Did you find yourself struggling to reach your points goal? Were there activities that felt especially relaxing, joyful, or empowering? Did you think of new activities to add to your menu of options? Take a moment to evaluate how this first week went for you.

Remember that I asked you to include the following four things on your list: exercise, stretching, water and sleep? I think of those four things as the foundation of good health.

Historically those things have been a struggle for me to incorporate into my own life. That was especially true in the year before I became a trainer and started working for Lean Body Lifestyles. I was under a ton of financial stress; I had a job that drained me and left me exhausted at the end of the day; I had no time or energy for exercise; I rarely got more than 5 hours of sleep a night; and I was gaining weight and couldn't stop.

I didn’t feel well.

I probably wasn’t very nice to other people.

I know I wasn’t very nice to myself.

I was overwhelmed by how far I was from how I wanted to feel—from my idea of what a healthy, balanced and happy life looked like. I didn’t know how to even begin to get there. But then…

…I went in to see my doctor. I told her how frustrated I was with how I felt and how much I weighed and how impossible it seemed to do the things I knew I needed to do to fix it. I told her all of the things I just told you. And I waited for her to say the doctor version of “suck it up.”

But she didn’t. You know what she told me to do?

Sleep. She told me my only job right now was to make sure I got 7-9 hours of sleep every night. That’s it. I didn’t need to worry about changing my diet. Or getting up at the crack of dawn to exercise.

Just sleep.

And when I had done that consistently for a few weeks, I could add in one other healthy activity. Kind of like what we’re doing here with the journal project.

She gave me a tremendous gift in that moment—the permission to be kind to myself. I am telling you, when she said “just sleep” I felt like crying, I was so happy. And relieved.

Sleep? Sleep I could do. Take everything else off the list for now and just focus on sleep? Yes. Yes, please.

I had to trust that if I did that one thing, that I would know when I was ready to add more.

And I did. One day I woke up and felt like trying to exercise again.

I had to reset a couple of times. I tried to do too much, too fast. But I caught myself each time and went back to the basics. Back to sleep. Then adding one thing at a time.

There are good reasons why my doctor had me focus on sleep first. There is not a single function of the body that does not rely, in large or small part, upon getting adequate sleep. Here are just a few:

  • Sleep helps to regulate your hormones, including the hormone that generates feelings of hunger (ghrelin) and the one that gives you the signal of being satiated (leptin). If you don’t get enough sleep, the former goes up and the latter goes down. So, you feel hungry more often and have trouble feeling full, both of which can lead you to eat more.
  • Your body repairs itself during sleep. Your muscles, blood vessels, heart and other major organs use the time when you are asleep to fix damage and (in the case of your muscles) increase mass. If you exercise, sleep is when that microscopic damage you did to your muscles during your workout gets repaired and additional muscle fibers are generated.
  • Your immune system relies on sleep to function at its optimal level. Inadequate rest leaves you vulnerable to infections like the common cold, but also to chronic disease. Studies have found a relationship between insufficient sleep and an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
  • Your ability to complete basic and complex tasks at work, school or at home is compromised. Things can take longer, and you are more prone to making mistakes when sleep deficient. The National Institutes of Health reports that, “after several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two.” Your memory, athletic performance, creative powers and the ability to learn new things are all improved with adequate sleep.

Okay, so how much sleep is enough and how do we make sure we are consistently getting enough sleep? For adults ages 18-64, the National Sleep Foundation (yes, sleep is so important there are research foundations dedicated to it!), recommends between 7-9 hours per night. For adults 65 and older, the recommended range is 7-8 hours. They have a sleep duration recommendations chart, which you can access here.

The foundation also has tips for ensuring a good night’s sleep, including: sticking to a sleep schedule (even on the weekends); exercising regularly; avoiding caffeine, alcohol and using electronics in the hours before bedtime; and making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and not too warm or too cold.

The healthy activity points task for this week is to find your ideal number of hours of sleep in that 7-9-hour range and make sure you are getting that much each night. Come up with your own bedtime ritual to follow. Maybe you light your favorite scented candle and read for an hour before sleep. Maybe you do some yoga (there are some great evening yoga dvds out there). Maybe you meditate, or journal or just sit and think about your day.

And let’s bump up our points goal to 25 this week. I know you can do it!!

Making Friends With Exercise DVDs

Okay, so I love working out to exercise DVDs. Always have. The Kathy Ireland Total Fitness tape, in all its 1990s glory, was my first introduction to exercise and it retains a special place in my heart twenty-plus years later. Not kidding.

I know that thing backward and forward.  When VHS became obsolete, I bought it on DVD. It’s like my workout comfort food.

Familiar.

Safe.

Beautiful in its straightforward choreography—perfect for someone with my general lack of grace and coordination.

I was working out this morning to one of my current favorites, modifying it to compensate for pain from a knee injury. And it occurred to me that I always, always modify a workout when following along to a DVD.

No matter how good a workout is, no matter how much I might love it, I never complete it exactly as directed. I do this because no DVD is perfect and it is impossible to make one that works for everybody.

So, I change it to make it safer. To make it more effective. To increase or decrease the intensity. To compensate for current injuries, pain or limitations.

And I encourage you to do the same. So, below are some tips for getting the most out of your DVD workouts.

Tip #1: Watch it Once & Make a Plan

Seriously. Please do this.  Just sit down and watch it.

Remember how I said earlier that no workout is a perfect fit for everyone? Well, this is where you assess the parts of the workout that aren’t a good match for you and make a plan to modify it.

Come up with a couple of exercises you can use to replace the ones that seem intimidating, or too difficult, or that might be painful. Because of my knee injury, certain exercises are out.  If I see lunges or plie squats in a workout, I know I have to come up with alternatives.

There are lots of ways to work a muscle, so there is no reason to do an exercise you hate or that is painful. Research alternatives. Or, meet with a personal trainer once a month. Ask them to help you learn some new exercises to incorporate into your workouts, or tell them about the exercises on your favorite DVD and have them go through those exercises with you. They can coach you on proper form and give you some ideas for modifications.

You can also just repeat other exercises from the DVD that you like better. Try to pick something that works the same muscle group, but you can really replace it with anything you want.

And if all else fails, march in place. It will keep you moving until the DVD moves on to something else.

Tip #2: Slow It Down

Almost without exception I think the pace of strength training DVDs is too fast. I generally take 4-6 seconds to complete one repetition of any exercise. One tip to help you slow down is to pause for a second at the most challenging part of the exercise before returning to your starting position. For a squat or lunge that would be at the bottom of the movement; for a biceps curl or lateral raise it would be at the top of the movement. Pay attention to the return phase of the exercise and move slowly and with control. Work is happening in the muscle during that return phase too!

Tip #3: Take Breaks

Rarely, if ever, do I come across DVDs that include breaks in the workout. But the great thing is that you have a built-in break system—the pause button on your remote. Take breaks when you want to. Have some water. Walk around a bit. You don’t want to take a break that’s so long that your muscles get cold, but taking a minute or two as needed is important.

Tip #4: Leave Out the Weights

If the DVD includes exercises with hand weights or resistance bands, do not use them the first several times you do the workout. Focus on mastering the form for the exercise before adding weights into the equation.

Tip #5: Skip the Plyometrics (For Now)

Plyometrics, also known as jump training, is an example of advanced exercise. You should be very careful with incorporating it into your workouts. I would have to have a very good sense of a client’s fitness level before I even considered including plyometrics in a workout, and then I would be keeping an eagle eye on their form as they did them. A simple way to modify a plyometric exercise is to do the exercise they are asking you to do, but without the jumping part. So basic squats as opposed to jump squats, for example.

Tip #6: They Are Not the Boss of You

Just because someone made an exercise DVD does not mean that you must do everything they tell you to do. You know your body better than anyone. If something doesn’t feel right for your body, don’t do it. If something is painful, stop. There is a difference between the discomfort that goes along with exercise, and pain that indicates something is wrong. Trust yourself and listen to your body.

 Tip #7: Do Not Skip the Warm-Up or the Cool-Down

Often these are separate chapters on the DVD, so it’s easy to skip them. However, they are both important elements of a safe workout. The warm-up will typically include movements that work the same muscles you are about to train, but with a smaller range of motion. The cool-down will be designed to bring your heart rate back down to a resting pace and to stretch the muscles that you just trained. Muscles shorten and tighten during exercise. Stretching helps to elongate the muscles and restore them to their normal length. Stretching should feel good! You should never force a stretch. You should allow your muscles to relax into a stretch, but not to the point of pain.

 

 

 

 

Fitness Tip of the Month

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Quick check-in for me today. Every month I’ll be sharing a fun little piece of information or a new exercise, designed to help you along in your fitness journey. I learned this a couple of months ago, from a barre instructor and thought it was a cool little tip.

You know how when someone is instructing you on proper form for squats, they say “feet underneath your hips,” or “feet hip distance apart”? Well, it’s hard to know what that is since you can’t really see yourself, right?

So, the tip of the month is this: if you hop up and down three times, wherever your feet land after that third jump will be the proper distance for squats. It will be your natural “hip distance apart” stance. You don’t need to jump very high at all for this to work.

I do it all the time now before squats.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing that I don’t care at all about looking cool anymore, because I’m pretty sure I do not.

But I do look like I’m having fun.

And I am.

Things Change

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Several years ago I was OBSESSED with Pilates. The kind you do on those crazy-looking machines.

I loved how it felt.

My favorite thing was when we got to put the jump boards on the bottom and hop around.

It was a tough workout, but…

…You got to work out lying down. And that was all kinds of awesome.

The only thing I didn’t like was how expensive it was. Ultimately, I had to give it up for budget reasons. So, when I could afford Pilates again last year, I was so excited. I booked a whole bunch of sessions and headed in for my triumphant return. And…

…I HATED it. Like really hated it.

I hated how it felt.

It was tough in all the wrong ways.

I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

There was about a half a minute where I thought maybe I could talk myself into liking it again, but here’s the thing: my body was telling me that this form of exercise did not work for it right now. That’s all.

I hadn’t failed. There was nothing wrong with me or my body because I didn’t like it. I didn’t need to talk myself into anything. I just needed to move on.

It simply was not the right match for me anymore. And while I have some theories, it doesn’t really matter why. And that’s my message to you. Whether you’ve never worked out before, or are returning after a break, or are a regular exerciser who’s looking for a new kind of workout—if you try one form of exercise and it doesn’t feel right, try something else.

There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with your body. The simple truth is that you haven’t found the right method yet. A form of exercise can be wrong for your body. Your body is not wrong.

Don’t give up. Keep trying. Go to a class that sounds interesting. Put that Amazon Prime membership to work trying out different exercise DVDs. Call a personal trainer and try working out with him or her. One of the great things about personal training is right there in the name—it’s personal. Trainers have an exercise library in their brains and can help you try different kinds of movement until you find something you like.

Depending on the demands being placed on your body, or the kind of workout program you’ve been following lately, certain kinds of movement will feel better than others at a given time. Pay attention to how you feel and to what your body is trying to tell you. Don’t force it to bend to your will. Give it the opportunity to exercise in a way that makes you feel strong and healthy.