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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What I’ve Been Reading

- Anyone wanting to sample the full range of opinion (and emotion) about health care in this country need look no further than Jerome Groopman’s review of Paul A. Offit’s book, The Quackish Cult of Alternative Medicine, and the comments, 81 in all, that appeared in a recent New Republic: Dr. Groopman, who is Chair of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of many articles and books, seems to be generally in agreement with Offit in dismissing most forms of alternative medicine, though he also points out the need for greater transparency in the medical profession, especially with respect to conflicts of interest.

      - Noreena Hertz’s frightening ordeal with a mystery illness led her to ponder the decision-making process in “Why We Make Bad Decisions,” Here are a couple of salient quotes:

“If we are to control our own destinies, we have to switch our brains back on and come to our medical consultations with plenty of research done, able to use the relevant jargon.”

“One study of radiologists, for example, reveals that those who perform poorly on diagnostic tests are also those most confident in their diagnostic prowess.”

      - When it comes to staying healthy, which is more important, diet or exercise? This question is addressed in a short but useful article:, it depends on your goal: if you want to drop a dress size or increase your energy, diet is the way to go; if you’d like to reduce your risk of heart disease, keep your mind sharp, or increase your libido, exercise is the better choice. The article includes specific recommendations in connection with each objective.

- These days there are a lot of doctor/bloggers. The stories they tell are often poignant and eloquently expressed. One that I just started reading is “In My Humble Opinion” by Dr. Jordan Grumet, an internist who practices in the Chicago area:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Searching for Healing 2000 Years Ago

On a recent trip my husband and I went to Bath, a lovely small city in the south of England. The place is name for the hot spring that has been an attraction for millennia. Bath was founded in 860. Legend tells that Prince Bladud became afflicted with leprosy. He was banished from court and made to look after pigs. The pigs too had a skin condition; Bladud noticed that, when they rolled in the hot mud, they were healed. He tried it himself and was cured of his disease. He went on to found Bath and become the father of King Lear. 

Centuries earlier, the Romans had been interested in the healing properties of the spring. In 50 AD they built a temple to Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing, and the Celtic god Sul. They also constructed a bath complex, with water supplied by the hot spring. Around these a settlement grew up known as Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sul. Today the remains of the temple and the baths are displayed in a wonderful museum, which includes sculpture, inscriptions, items lost when they were dropped in the water, and a skeleton of an ancient Roman with a reconstruction to show how he looked in life.

Some of the inscriptions are gravestones, a couple of them of Roman soldiers. These were young men by today’s standards, men in their twenties to mid-forties who died far from home. Roman soldiers formed cooperative associations that would pay for gravestones when one of them died so we now know their names, sometimes their ages, and places of birth. Did they come here hoping to find a remedy for war injuries or illnesses? I came away with a sense of how difficult life must have been for these people.

Today leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and immunosuppressants.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Good News 2 – But Are Doctors Following the Recommended Protocols for Tests?

My doctor was concerned about the high BUN/creatinine ratio that showed up on my annual blood work. After looking back at a couple of years’ previous blood work results, she concluded that the number was going up. I looked back eight years in my own records and found that it had actually bounced around, although it was generally higher starting in 2008, when I amped up my exercise routines with interval work on the cross trainer. The original reading, taken on 7/19/13 was 36; a second reading, on 8/21/13 was lower but still high, 32. 

After the second high reading, I wanted to know what factors other than kidney disease could affect the test. My doctor’s office always tells me to fast before checking my cholesterol or blood glucose but does not give me any particular instructions relating to the BUN test. Yet it turns out that both exercise and diet the day before can affect its results. One website suggests not doing either cardio or weightlifting the day before. WebMD recommends not eating a lot of protein for 24 hours before the test. The day before the third test I heeded this advice; I did no exercise and ate virtually no protein. The third test showed a BUN/creatinine ratio of 19, within the normal range. Within the space of two weeks the number had dropped by one-third. If the BUN is so sensitive to extraneous factors, should it really be considered a reliable indicator of kidney health?

I’ve read that cholesterol tests too can be affected by what you eat the day before but no doctor’s office has ever cautioned me about this. Speaking of not following recommended protocols, both WebMD and Medline Plus say that, before your blood pressure is taken, you should sit quietly for at least five minutes. The medical staff I have dealt with recently never do this. Instead they take it while I am in the middle of a conversation with them. Then they tell me I have high blood pressure, which I know is not true because I take it myself at home; it’s about 105 over 60. I wonder how many people receive unnecessary treatment because medical tests are being improperly administered.
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