Monday, November 28, 2011

The Family Hero

Our handyman was standing in our upstairs hallway talking on his cell phone.  He had been interrupted in the middle of a job he was doing for us to answer a call from his sister, something about financing on the family farm.  The call went on and on.  “What’s she calling him for,” I wondered grumpily.  Then it clicked.  “Family Hero,” I thought.

The Family Hero is a child, sometimes, but not always, the eldest, whom the parents designate as a special helper.  This individual may be chosen because he or she is particularly mature or simply because the parents feel they need the extra help.  For a child, it can be flattering to be selected for this important role; it defines your place in the family and enhances your self-esteem.  My handyman said, “I like being the Family Hero.”  It may also create a closer bond with the parents.  Family Heroes often help to care for their siblings or participate in the parents’ discussions and plans, almost like another adult.    

There are some down sides to this situation, however.  Giving too much responsibility to one child may discourage initiative on the part of the others.  If the Family Hero is always there to help, why should anyone else bother? For the Heroic child, a sense of obligation to family may limit other lifetime options.  She or he may be uncertain about career choices; when you already have a job there is less incentive to look for another.   Whenever there is a family crisis the Family Hero is expected to be on the scene; if this means leaving a job, a spouse, or children, those others will just have to get by on their own; family comes first.   In many situations the Family Hero may not actually be able to do anything, but his or her presence is felt to be reassuring.

 In childhood, the parents tended to forget that the Family Hero was still a child who deserved nurturing and protection.  In adulthood, they think of him or her as still being part of their family and not as an independent person with a separate life.  Even after the parents are gone, adult siblings may continue to treat the Hero as a surrogate parent who can be expected to provide moral and financial support when they are needed.  Then there is old age:  after everyone else’s needs have been met, who is there to take care of the Family Hero?
The financial problems with our handyman’s family farm were resolved; the job at our house was completed.  Life went on – until the next phone call.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Foam Rollers: Help for Sore Muscles

One of the more discouraging parts of clothes shopping used to be looking in the mirror at my back and seeing the rolls of flesh around the band and straps of my bra.   People tend to exercise the parts of the body they see every day in the mirror; this means that back muscles are often neglected.  Trainers Anne Tierney and Steve Sierra first pointed out that my “posterior chain” needed work, so I starting focusing more on my back and shoulders.  For this part of the body, some of the best exercises are the old fashioned ones:  push-ups (on your knees if you can’t do a regular one) and pull-ups.  I still can’t do a real pull-up but I have a device like a large rubber band that lets me do an assisted one.

Anne also suggested that I start using a foam roller, a styrofoam cylinder that can be rolled under the body.   The most helpful discussion I’ve found on foam rollers is “FoamRoller Exercises for Easing Tight Muscles” by Elizabeth Quinn.  Here is a summary statement from that article.  “The foam roller not only stretches muscles and tendons but it also breaks down soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue. By using your own body weight and a cylindrical foam roller you can perform a self-massage or myofascial release, break up trigger points, and soothe tight fascia while increasing blood flow and circulation to the soft tissues.”  On any day when I do a workout I spend some time in the evening stretching and using a foam roller.  If I do that, I avoid the muscle soreness that can interfere with my sleep and bother me the next day.  Using a foam roller was uncomfortable for me at first because some areas, like the inner and outer thigh, were very sensitive, but with continued used use the soreness gradually diminished

An interesting thing happened after I started using the foam roller.  I noticed it one time when we went to Italy.  Italian people have many wonderful ideas and a few bad ones.  One of the bad ones is that hard beds are healthy for the back.  In Italy it is virtually impossible to find a bed that is not rock-hard.  I normally sleep on my back and, when I slept on one of these beds, would wake up in excruciating pain.  This was not arthritis but pain in the soft tissue, more like muscle soreness, and it would gradually dissipate during the day.  We made a trip to Italy at some point after I started using the foam roller and I had little or no trouble with the hard beds.  Perhaps there had been soft tissue adhesions and scar tissue that the roller broke down; perhaps it simply improved the circulation in my back.  Either way, I appreciate the change.   The rolls of flesh around my bra are pretty much gone too, possibly a combination of working the back muscles more and using the roller.

Update 9/12/2014:
It's always good to learn that there is scientific support for something I'm doing already, as in this article in the Wall Street Journal, "Can Foam Rollers Help Relieve Muscle Pain?" "Foam-roller therapy at home, often called self-myofascial release, has been shown in several small recent studies to improve range of motion in the knee and hip, and to ease muscle soreness after exercise." According to an article published in The Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, using a roller increases the effectiveness of stretching.

The Truth About Spot Reducing

“It’s impossible to spot reduce; you can’t lose fat from your stomach by doing sit-ups or crunches.”  Kinesiologists have been saying this with great assurance for years.  The second part of the statement is true but the first part, fortunately, is false.  When I started rollerblading in 2001 I lost 4 inches off each of my thighs within the first few months.  I know what I lost was really fat because I have body fat measurements for various body parts going back decades. 

I think of body fat as an arrow pointing to parts of the body where there are either weak muscles or inflammation or both.  In order to reduce body fat in a specific area you have to work the underlying muscles hard, using a complex exercise like rollerblading that works different parts of the muscle group or a combination of exercises like the 11-move Ab Ripper X.  You also have to do the exercise often enough.  After a month of doing Ab Ripper X three times a week (only fifteen minutes per time) I definitely saw results.  Now my husband’s doing it too!

Friday, November 18, 2011

New Leaf: Teaching Your Body to Burn More Fat

Starting in 2007, I made a series of changes in my workout routine, adding stability ball exercises, then interval training, plyometrics, and more core work.  At first, I lost a few pounds but after that, things leveled off and there was no further progress.  At 153 pounds I still wanted to get my weight down a bit more and lose body fat rather than hard-earned muscle.  Greg Simmons, my trainer here in Bloomington, suggested the New Leaf program.

Produced by St. Paul-based Angeion Corporation, New Leaf uses proprietary hardware and software to assess the individual’s metabolism and design a customized diet and exercise program to improve its efficiency.  This assessment is based on a measurement of how the individual’s body uses oxygen to burn fuel.   In practical terms, a mask was placed over my nose and mouth with a tube connecting it to a computer.  I then walked on a treadmill (in later tests on a cross trainer) at increasing speeds and inclines.  The computer then produced the following graph.

The horizontal axis shows my heart rate in beats per minute; the vertical numbers denote the percentage of fat calories being burned; and the wavy line shows my actual course.  On 3/16/2010 my aerobic base, the maximum heart rate at which I burned fat as the primary fuel, was 111 bpm; my anaerobic threshold, the fastest I could go, was 139.  A major objective of the program is to build your aerobic base, increasing the range of exercise intensities at which the body will burn mostly fat.  Co-trainer Susan Simmons produced an exercise program based on the assessment results plus what I was already doing.  I did not use the diet component of New Leaf because my own diet was already healthy.  I did cut out a protein shake on days when I wasn’t exercising.

At the time of my most recent re-assessment, 1/17/2017, my aerobic base was up to 132, my anaerobic threshold 146.    During the year or so I followed the program I lost eight pounds and about 5% of my body fat.  Clearly, the program works. 

Now the bad news.  “Building your aerobic base” can be a boring, time-consuming process.  Initially, it involved long workouts at slower speeds than I was used to doing. On the other hand, after following the workouts consistently, I really did gain stamina so I can now exercise at a higher intensity than before I started New Leaf.   Part of the problem is with the program protocols, which can set you up with an aerobic base that looks lower than it actually is so that you start off with workouts that are too slow.  I found that the short, easy-going warm-up recommended by the program was not enough to show what my heart could really do.  I learned to warm up longer and at a faster pace. 

All in all, a useful tool to add to the inventory of diet and exercise resources.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Should I Be Taking This? 4

People with stomach ulcers or conditions that cause bleeding should not use PLAVIX. Taking PLAVIX alone or with some other medicines, including aspirin, may increase bleeding risk which can potentially be life-threatening. So tell your doctor when planning surgery. Tell your doctor all medicines you take, including aspirin, especially if you’ve had a stroke. If fever, unexplained weakness or confusion develops, tell your doctor promptly. These may be signs of TTP, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, reported sometimes less than 2 weeks after starting PLAVIX.

In most cases, a heart attack or stroke is caused by a blood clot that reduces or blocks the flow of blood through an artery. PLAVIX helps keep platelets in the blood from sticking together and forming blood clots. By keeping your blood flowing, PLAVIX helps reduce your risk of a future heart attack or stroke.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Unproven Theories: Fear of Drains

The sight of water flowing out of a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet provokes anxiety in some very young children.  At our local Y, the self-flushing toilets in the locker room proved so intimidating to two- and three-year-olds that they were taken out and replaced with manual flush fixtures.  Sometimes children actually express the idea that they might go down the drain themselves.  Usually this is just written off as one of many childhood anxieties, but I think there may be more to it than that.

Let’s imagine that you have always lived in a warm dark place where you were absolutely secure and all of your physical needs were met.  Suddenly one day you were squeezed out through an impossibly narrow passageway into an alien world where you were blinded by light, gasping for breath, and utterly vulnerable.  This is the experience of birth and for a two-year-old it is only a couple of years back.  Perhaps the fear of being sucked down a drain is based on a dim memory of a time when something like that really did happen.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


In 2008 the German free diver Tom Seitas was able to suspend his breath for 17 minutes while submerged in a tank of water, a world record.  Most of us would only last a minute or two under those conditions.  People trapped by an earthquake sometimes go for days without food or water but a constant supply of air is essential for human life. 

The importance of breathing is recognized by practitioners of yoga; the Sanskrit word prana means “breath” or “life force.”  Breathing techniques called pranayama are a staple in hatha yoga classes.  In Western culture, however, the importance of breathing properly is largely ignored.  One exception to this rule is Dr. Andrew Weil, who recommends taking lots of long, deep, slow breaths and provides breathing exercises on his web site. 

Older people sometimes have shortness of breath or congestion in the lungs.  Individuals who smoke, suffer from allergies, or live in areas where there are pollutants in the air are more susceptible to these problems.  The inability to breathe is a potential threat to all physiological functions that depend on getting enough oxygen.   Even otherwise healthy people, like Jack LaLanne, have died of pneumonia.  One strategy to enhance oxygen intake is to use a decongestant, such as Mucinex and its clones.  For those who prefer a non-pharmaceutical approach, there are inhalers; the one I use is called POWER-Breathe.

Invented in the UK by physiology professor Alison McConnell, the POWER-Breathe is designed to strengthen the muscles that control breathing.  Its original intent was to improve exercise tolerance in patients with respiratory illness but it was soon shown to improve the performance of athletes as well.  To use the POWER-Breathe you inhale against resistance and exhale freely.  An adjustable knob allows you to increase resistance as your muscles get stronger.   I bought mine from Creative Health Products, which also services my heart rate monitor.  I can’t be sure that it has improved my athletic condition, though a lot of runners are swear by it, but I haven’t had a chest cold since I started using it.