Thursday, August 14, 2014

If Exercise Isn’t Working For You…

1. Change the program.

After you’ve been doing the same routine for a few months your body adapts to it and you don’t make any further progress. This is true even with varied, ambitious programs like P90X; sooner or later you stall out. Find new exercises in books and magazines, on TV or on the Internet. Reviews of DVDs on Amazon can show you where to look. Some are written by trainers and serious fitness buffs and describe in detail their own experiences with a particular DVD.

2.  Increase the frequency.

When I was doing Ab Ripper X once a week I saw no change at all. Once I got up to three times a week the results were so impressive that my husband wanted to learn too. For general fitness, the trainers I follow recommend an hour a day five or six days a week, doing different routines on different days.

3.  Increase the intensity and measure with a heart rate monitor.

For years I listened to the people who said that moderate exercise is enough. I spent hours walking at a brisk clip and never saw any benefits. It wasn’t until I bought a heart rate monitor and got my heart rate up high enough for about 30 minutes twice a week that I reduced my body fat percentage and resting heart rate. For me, “high enough” means intervals averaging 85% of resting heart rate. Other people may get good results with less exertion – you just have to see what works for you.

4.  Assess your strengths and weaknesses; work more on your weaknesses.

I used to have a very sedentary lifestyle and spent much of my day bent over a book. I arrived in my fifties with not much upper body strength and was getting little pains in my shoulders and arms. When I started lifting weights the pain went away and my posture improved. I even think upper body work may be good for the heart because it brings circulation to that part of the body.

If your abs, for example, are already strong, you may not get any benefit from doing crunches, even hundreds of crunches. You need to find other exercises that feel hard and will work the muscles in different ways. For abs, my current favorite is the Brook Benten core workout that came with a contoured kettlebell I bought recently.

5.  Do all types of exercise.

Exercise isn’t just workouts with weights and cardio; it also includes stretching, work on balance, plyometrics or explosive movement, and isometric exercise. A good exercise program includes all of these areas. Over time you will find that one type of training helps you with another. For example,, stronger abs mean better balance.

6.  Pursue a sport you enjoy.

Once you’re in better shape you’ll be able to get back to activities you may not have been able to do for years. For me, that was roller skating, actually rollerblading. I like to go out on some of the paved trails in different parts of town. Linking exercise with fun makes it more likely that you will stick with the program.

7.  Know when you need a break.

An essential part of improving fitness is getting enough rest. This includes getting enough sleep, but it also means taking time off for a day or two when you feel you’ve been working too hard. Step back, take a breather, then get right back to it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Could a Simple Neck Exercise Improve Circulation to the Brain?
Someone Should Check It Out.

Recently I started doing exercises to strengthen the muscles in my neck. I lie on a flat surface, lift my head an inch or two, and count. My initial goal was a count of thirty but over a period of weeks I’ve made it up to a hundred. Then I rest for a few seconds and repeat.

After that, I do a variation. I lift my head as before but this time I turn my face from side to side in a smooth steady movement and count the number of reps; my current goal is thirty side-to-side turns. This one helps when you’re driving and need to look into your blind spot.

All exercise brings circulation to the area being worked. It makes sense that neck exercises would increase blood flow to that part of the body, but could it also have a beneficial effect on the brain? Somebody should really research this; it would be easy and not too expensive and the consequences could be significant.

Bonus Features: 
  • Improves the appearance of the front of the neck and jawline.
  • Strengthens the abs.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

If More Doctors Believed in Diet and Exercise, Maybe Patients Would Too

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have profound respect for doctors. That said, I find it disheartening when I encounter large ads for hospitals and medical practices that feature photos of very overweight doctors. I am sure that these individuals have impossible schedules, lots of stress, and little opportunity to exercise or seek out healthy food options. On the other hand, there is such a thing as leading by example. If the intelligent, well educated, highly respected doctor believes it’s OK to live this way, she or he is unlikely to succeed at persuading patients to do otherwise – and, in many cases, doctors don’t even try.

How much do medical schools teach doctors about diet and exercise? Not much, is my impression. Do medical schools ever talk to their students about how they should take care of themselves? I doubt it. So doctors who weren’t already a fitness buffs (not too many of those) are left in the position of trying to coach patients in areas where they are quite ignorant themselves. Most doctors don’t understand how exercise works and the way exercise works goes against the grain of the way doctors are taught to approach patients. Because their time with individual patients is quite limited, doctors tend to group patients by category, lumping people together by age, sex, and so forth. Yet each individual body is unique; what works well for some may be useless or even harmful for others. This is especially true with diet and exercise. If you want to get into shape you may have to try a number of different approaches until you find what works for you. And what works for you for a while may eventually stop working, so you have to start looking all over again.

Doctors don’t have the time – and often not the educational background – to supervise this sort of longtime, unpredictable process. Instead, they take shortcuts. Rather than broach the awkward subject of the patient’s obesity and poor living habits, they prescribe medication. Controlling your diet and pursuing a successful exercise program take planning, persistence, and hard work. After talking to their doctors, patients are likely to come away with the idea that all this effort is really unnecessary because a pill will produce the same results. For example, individuals who take statins may think of the medication as a license to overeat. In a study recently reported in JAMA, statin users increased their fat and caloric intake over eleven years, while nonusers saw no such increases. Prescribing medication for conditions that could and should be treated with diet and exercise may actually steer people away from making healthy lifestyle choices. Medications do not produce the same results as diet and exercise. In addition, they are costly and may have harmful side effects.

It is time to bring accurate, individualized information about diet and exercise into doctors’ offices. Some hospitals and medical practices have started using health coaches to work with individual patients and support their efforts to improve their fitness. With the help of a coach, patients can gain a better understanding of their particular strengths and weaknesses and their individual needs. This, in turn, will improve their ability to communicate and work with their doctor.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spot Reducing, My Experience

I’ve already written a blog post on this subject (“The Truth About Spot Reducing”) but I keep reading articles debunking the “myth” of spot reducing, the latest one in the Huffington Post (from, so I thought I’d try again.

In the first few months after I started rollerblading I lost four inches off my upper thighs. At that point I was skating very slowly so there wasn’t much cardio involved. Instead I was doing a complex, high intensity strength workout that affected a part of my body that was in relatively poor shape after decades of sedentary living.

When I started doing P90X I worked my way in slowly, doing one or two workouts a week, along with other routines I was already doing. In the program, Ab Ripper X is the eleven-move workout that targets your midsection. When I was doing Ab Ripper X once a week I saw little improvement in my abs but once I worked up to three times per week the results were dramatic. I had to start wearing belts with all my formerly tight jeans.

I agree with one of the basic points made by the article; cardio will help you lose body fat. Even there, though, the cardio has to be for a long enough time, at a high enough intensity. I spent years doing brisk walking and saw no benefits at all either to my weight or to my overall fitness. It wasn’t until I had my metabolism measured and had workouts designed for me with the New Leaf program that I was able to get my body fat down from the low 20s to around 13.

Here are my conclusions. No, you can’t trim your waist (or any part of your body) by doing a single exercise but strength training, either a complex exercise or a set of exercises at high intensity, does seem to reduce fat in the adjacent body part if they’re done often enough. There’s an interesting twist, though. For me, there was a limit to how many inches I could lose by this method. After I lost the initial four inches, even though I kept rollerblading I didn’t lose any more. Eventually, with other workouts, another inch came off but that seems to be it. If I’m going to lose more than that I’ll probably have to take off pounds.

People go to the gym and lift weights partly because they know it will improve the appearance of the body parts they are working. If it were really impossible to reshape your arms or chest or abs, would there even be such a sport as bodybuilding?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Cat Haters Don't Know About Cats

Cats are interested in their environment. The late John Hollander once wrote, “The problem with cats is that they are always watching you.” It’s almost as though they are here on this earth to study and compile a scientific report on the people and things around them. When she was young, our cat Sadie Pearl used to follow me around the house observing every detail of what I was doing. Although her vision was quite poor, she liked to go outdoors sit quietly on the front steps taking in the sounds of the birds and the aromas of the trees and growing plants. Even now, on a snowy morning in January, she wants to go outside just for a minute to see what’s going on; she feels the 10-degree cold on her nose and comes right back in. Presto, now gone alas, was especially interested in whatever food we were eating. If I had some soup or a cracker, he always wanted to sample it. He became especially fond of peanut butter, which we sometimes used to give him pills.

Cats choose the games and toys that amuse them and learn the tricks they want to learn. Rowan, now seven, is bored with the many toys we have bought him over the years but he will be enthralled by a stray piece of plastic or cardboard from an unwrapped package. He also likes to play “Funny Monster,” a game that little kids enjoy too. I pretend to be the funny monster and go after him stomping my feet and growling “WHERE is that cat?” He runs away at top speed and hides, waiting for me to come and find him so he can run again. Cats that perform in movies are trained to do tricks; other cats can learn them too. When Sadie was a kitten, I taught her several of these but she didn’t enjoy doing them. I think she thought they were dumb. We still have one routine from that period, though. When she is going upstairs, I sit on a middle step and say, “Give us a kiss.” She walks along the landing and bumps her forehead against mine the way lions do in nature films. Presto invented a way of letting us know when he wanted to be let in from outside. He would jump up to a little window beside the front door so we could see him from the living room. I tried to teach Sadie how to do this but she wasn’t interested.

Cats are creatures of the emotions and they choose their own friends. Although they have a reputation for being standoffish loners, cats can form powerful bonds with people they care about; but they don’t like just anyone. A former housekeeper of ours once complained that Sadie was unfriendly. I thought, but didn’t say, “She just doesn’t like you.” They don’t call them queens for nothing! When I’m sick the cats immediately notice the change in the routine. They cuddle up against me in bed as if they were trying to give me some of their energy. When I was a child we had Pussywillow, a wonderful female cat that my mother and I adored. She was a great companion but a terrible traveler and invariably escaped from whatever box she was in, creating havoc in the car. Having given up on that approach, my parents left her at the vet while we went on a month-long vacation. We arrived home to find that she had starved herself to death; she thought we had abandoned her.

Cats show generosity toward their friends but they express it in individual ways. Keepers of cats are familiar with the gifts of dead creatures that are sometimes left on the doorstep. The hotel cat where we stay in the Bonaire once presented us with the corpse of a large rat, an impressive feat for an older lady cat. Rowan expresses affection by licking. If I have a few drops of water on my hand, he likes to clean them off for me. He and Sadie Pearl have a relationship that should be called détente rather than friendship but occasionally he will show good will by licking her ears and the top of her head. It’s not clear whether she appreciates this or not.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My Current Playlist

One of the ways I motivate myself to do cardio workouts is music. I have an obsolete smart phone that still plays MP3s just fine and I’ve set it up with playlists downloaded from my CD collection or purchased online. I use these playlists only at the Y to reward myself for doing a hard routine. 

“Still the Same”                            Bob Seger

“Bump in the Road”                     Jonny Lang

“Lie to Me”                                   Jonny Lang

“100 Days, 100 Nights”               Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

“It’s My Life”                                 Bon Jovi

“We Are Young”                           Fun featuring Janelle Monáe

“Just the Way You Are”                Bruno Mars
“Without You”                               David Guetta featuring Usher

“I Will Wait for You”                      Mumford & Sons

“Good Life”                                  One Republic

Congratulations to Sharon Jones, who has a new album out with the Dap-Kings (“Give the People What They Want”) after undergoing cancer surgery last year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Motivation, Finding Your Inner Coach

My junior high school math teacher Mr. Lyons decorated his classroom with an assortment of inspirational messages; “Well Begun Is Half Done” is one I remember. We, sophisticated eighth graders, thought it was pretty silly. These days, in my mid-sixties, I can see that he was onto something. When I first attempt a task that is difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, a voice in my brain tries to talk me out of it. “This workout is too hard – let’s read a book instead.” “Cardio makes my quads hurt – let’s skip it this time.” I think of this voice as my Inner Five-Year-Old and I deal with it in much the same way that parents negotiate with little children, encouraging, prodding, sometimes even bribing, as a last resort.  I do DVD workouts featuring Tony Horton, Erik Owings, and Bob Harper, all of them excellent trainers. I’ve tried to analyze what they do and use the same strategies to encourage myself to do challenging workouts. Here are some examples:

  • I start from where I am. Maybe I’ve put on a couple of pounds in the past month but I don’t agonize about that. I focus on what I can do right now.
  • I observe what I can do easily and what gives me trouble. It’s fun to do the easy moves but the hard stuff is where the money is, as Tony would say. Endurance exercises like chair pose are not that hard for me, but plyo is tough. When I started P90X a few years ago I could hardly do five jumping jacks, much less the seventy or so in the warm-ups, but I kept doing a few more and a few more and now I can keep up with the DVD.
  • I concentrate on maintaining good form. With weight lifting, correct form is essential for safety. With other exercises, it can help you avoid wasting your time because you’re not really getting into the muscle.
  • I don’t worry about what or how well anyone else is doing. Everybody’s different.
  • When I see progress, I pat myself on the back (sometimes literally) but I don’t beat myself up about things I still can’t do.

The two thirty-three minutes cardio intervals I do each week are tough. I get through them by keeping up a running line of encouraging chat. The first fifteen minutes are the hardest because I have to get my heart rate up from the fifty-something beats per minute, where it normally is, to about 125, which is the lowest worthwhile starting place if I’m going to get the results I want. I say, “This part is hard, but I can do it. Fifteen minutes isn’t that long.” After a three-minute fast interval I say, “More than halfway through, almost done.” After a four-minute, slower interval I say, “Only two more fast ones, hang in there!” At thirty minutes I’m really tired but I say, “Only three more minutes – anybody could do three minutes.” After that I’m done.

Some people who don’t exercise a lot believe that those of us who do have some special magic that enables us to do what they can’t, or don’t want to, do. Speaking only for myself, when I get done with a hard workout, I don’t experience any rush of endorphins or runner’s high; I feel only relief that I won’t have to do this again for another few days. It’s not easy, but the practical rewards are enormous. I have the energy to pursue my interests during the day; I sleep well at night; I don’t worry about injuring myself; and I feel completely comfortable in my body.
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