Sunday, July 22, 2012

Doing P90X: My Variations

Giant Rubber Bands
I bought P90X almost three years ago but didn’t try the whole program right away.  At the time I was doing a mixed workout of strength ball training, using stability balls and weights in strength and balance exercises, plus some stretching and cardio.  I used P90X to vary the regular routine, doing one or two workouts a week.  Over many months I went through all of P90X Lean, the more cardio-oriented version of the program.  During this period of gradually working into P90X I received two important benefits:  learning Ab Ripper X and deciding that I needed to be doing at least some plyo.

This summer I decided to do P90X Classic, the basic version of the program.  The strength workout I had been doing had gotten too easy and the three sessions of intense cardio seemed to be too much.  I had already done each of the P90X workouts before so I knew what to expect.  I had also read many of the reviews of P90X on, which can give you valuable pointers about how to fine-tune the workouts to suit your needs, as well as advice about whether you should be doing it at all.  If you haven’t exercised in years or were never in very good shape P90X is not the place to start.  But for people who want to take it to the next level it’s a truly great program.

When I first did P90X I couldn’t even finish all of the warm-up.  It had been years since I had done jumping jacks and some of the workouts include seventy or eighty of those before you even start the real exercise!  So I struggled through as many as I could and, over several months, got to the point where I could keep up with Tony Horton and the rest of the group, for that part at least.  With the five strength workouts, which are really the heart of the program, I could do most of the moves, somewhat.  One that I still can’t do is pull-ups and a couple of these routines have lots of them.  My trainer Greg Simmons introduced me to giant rubber bands which can offset part of your weight so you can do an assisted pull-up.  You hang the band from a bar, use a chair or short ladder to step into it, and voilĂ  – pull-ups!  The strength workouts also include many variations of push-ups so I’m getting better at those.  When I was younger I couldn’t even do one push-up except the on-your-knees kind.  In the yoga routine I can’t really do the sequences with Warrior 3 and Half Moon because my balance is poor, but I keep trying anyway.  Plyo is the toughest part of P90X for me because jumping and hopping take a lot of explosive energy, but they're hard for the people in the class too.

Ab Ripper X is the shortest of the routines – 16 minutes and you can get it down to 12 if you do it on your own­ ­– and the only one you do three times a week.  Less than that doesn’t get you good enough results, as I found out by trying it.  At first I couldn’t do some of the moves; Crunchy Frog was pretty tough, as was Roll Up/V Up, and Oblique V-Ups were almost impossible.  I did 25 reps of the ones I could do and at least tried the others.  Eventually I got to the point where the whole thing was too easy so, following a tip I found online, I used ankle weights and small dumbbells for some of the exercises.  I also use knee and ankle weight for Kenpo X, the martial arts workout.

I feel that these workouts have improved my strength, especially in the shoulders, arms, and back, totally reshaped my midsection, and helped my flexibility and balance somewhat.  I haven’t lost much weight, only a couple of pounds over eight weeks.  I also find that I’m not getting enough of a cardio workout, even in Plyometrics and Kenpo X.  My metabolism is very slow, about 1100 RMR, and I’m in good shape so my heart rate gets up to around 120 and then goes right back down to below 100.  This is true even when I keep up with the group on the DVD.  After about six weeks of this, I added back a couple of half-hour sessions of cardio at the Y in order to keep up my condition in that area.

The exercises in these workouts are varied and challenging but what keeps me coming back is the ambience.  These sessions combine playfulness and hard work.  Tony Horton clowns around but also gives plenty of direction and serious advice.  I also like the fact that Beachbody didn't over-edit the tapes to remove some unintentionally funny moments, like when the handles of Sophia's bands hit Tony in the face.   It’s a comfortable atmosphere, perhaps partly because what we’re seeing is Tony working out with his friends.  Dreya Weber is the wife of P90X’s Creative Director Ned Farr; Joe Bovino and Tony are longtime friends; some of the other guys work out with Tony at the beach on Sundays.  The often-repeated motto “Do your best and forget the rest.” epitomizes the combination of effort and self-acceptance that are at the heart of this program.

Related Posts: "Room for Improvement:  the Wisdom of Tony Horton,"
                        "Ab Ripper X - Argh!,"

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Statins - Whoops!

In the late 1990’s my cholesterol was high and my doctor wanted me to take a statin to lower it with the idea of reducing my risk of a heart attack.  I was uneasy about this suggestion - in the past I had been put on drugs that were later un-recommended or taken off the market entirely.  (See “Statistics and the Twenty Year Rule” and “Stilbestrol and Me.”) – so I said, “Let me try diet and exercise instead.”  That is how I got started on a long-term health and fitness project and the creation of this blog.  My cholesterol is now low enough that no doctor would recommend a statin anymore.  In the meantime, the thinking about statins is changing: for people with high cholesterol but no heart disease statins have no benefit and some worrisome risks.

Late Sunday’s “Sound Medicine” featured an interview with science writer Sharon Begley in which she reviewed the latest research in this area. There was so much good information in that short segment that I went back and located the article on which Begley’s remarks were based, “The Cholesterol Conundrum.”  Statins are one of the most widely prescribed – and most profitable – groups of drugs sold in this country.  One-quarter of American adults over 45 take a statin and sales in 2009 were $14.3 billion.  In the case of patients who already have heart disease or have had a first heart attack there is no question that these medications reduce the risk of dying, having a second heart attack, or needing heart surgery.   

But medical practice made a logical leap from this situation, called “secondary prevention,” to the notion that, in healthy people with high cholesterol, statins could prevent a first heart attack.  Unfortunately, this turns out not to be true.  Begley cites recent research indicating that 60 healthy people would have to take a statin for five years to prevent one heart attack and 268 would have to take a statin for five years to prevent one stroke, not much of a return on the financial investment.  But it gets worse.  Statins may increase blood sugar levels and raise the risk of type 2 diabetes.  This group of medications can also cause muscle weakness and a recent animal study indicates that it may make it more difficult to exercise.  In addition, statins can cause cognitive changes, such as confusion and memory loss.  Some patients believe they are getting Alzheimer’s, when it is actually the statins that have caused the symptoms.  Fortunately, these normally go away when the drug is discontinued.

Given the new information, I feel fortunate that I stayed away from statins.  If I ever do get heart disease, that will be another story.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Brain Games

In the fall of 2007 WTIU, our local television station was running a fund drive and offered as a premium the Brain Fitness Program, a brain training program based on a series of games.  Created by Posit Science, the BFB, grew out of the research of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and others exploring neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is constantly changing, adapting, and reinventing itself throughout life.  Before the 1970’s it was generally thought that each individual was born with a particular brain which changed only as it declined as part of the process of aging.  Merzenich and others demonstrated that the brain, even that of an older person, is capable of renewing itself and learning new skills.  (It also used to be thought that after childhood we could no longer make new brain cells, just lose them.  That turns out to be wrong too! Some research indicates that exercise helps the brain produce new cells.)

My copy of the BFP shipped with a CD of the public television show on the research and a copy of The Brain That Changes Itself, a terrific book by Norman Doidge,MD, which recounts some of the main events in the development of this new idea.  The training program itself consisted of six games and emphasized auditory processing.  You would move through a series of activities in which you distinguished first individual sounds, then syllables, followed by short sentences and finally narratives.  There were evaluation components so you could see how you were progressing in each area.  According to these, I made lots of progress though I wasn’t much aware of a difference in my everyday thinking.  Oddly, my sense of smell improved, not necessarily a good thing!

Posit Science now has a new auditory processing program which I haven’t tried.  I did purchase and complete Cortex With InSight, which I liked better than the BFP:  less time per training session, sleeker graphics and functionality.  I also thought the program improved my useful field of view (helpful for driving) and my divided attention.  It did not do much to help either my visual precision or speed of visual processing.  Also, a point not mentioned by the accompanying materials, if your acuity is affected by cataracts or some other condition that will limit how far you can go with these games.  After I had cataract surgery my performance in the program improved dramatically.
The Posit Science training programs have a sterling scientific pedigree but they are expensive and somewhat time-consuming.  A practical alternative for people who don’t want to spend the money or time is Lumosity, a brain training website with a variety of short games covering different types of mental processing, such as memory, spatial sense, and problem solving.  You can try the games free but with an annual subscription you can track your results and compare them with those of people in your age group.  I tend to dip into these for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.  Lumosity is in the process of bringing out some new games with good graphics and more variety so I’m using them more lately.  I like to work on speed and arithmetic calculations, which are two of my weaker areas.

Heartbreaking Choices

Today’s Wall Street Journal included an important article, “The Crushing Cost of Care,”
by Janet Adamy and Tom McGinty that should be required reading for anyone concerned about the cost of health care in this country.  It tells the story of Scott Crawford, who developed heart disease in his twenties and had a heart transplant at 41.  The heart transplant was a success but a series of medical crises ensued, resulting in an extended hospital stay, increasing physical suffering, and his death less than a year later.  The article is primarily about choices, mostly by people other than Scott himself:  his parents, his surgeon Dr. Ashish Shah, and critical care specialist Peter Pronovost.