Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Trampling their fans' hopes

It's hard, as a New England Patriots fan, to express sympathy for Indianapolis Colts fans. After all, we haven't liked each other much over the years.

But after the Colts lost to the New York Jets on Sunday, I could understand the venom being spewed on the various Colts forums, although much of it was over the top, as it often is in such places.

The Colts were looking like they had a very good chance at tying the Patriots' record for an undefeated regular season (16-0) and then going on to win the Super Bowl, which the Patriots were unable to do after their stellar 2007 season.

Instead, on Sunday the Colts chose to pull some of their starters, including quarterback Peyton Manning, with 5:36 left to go in the third quarter, in what was up until then a close game. The Jets ended up winning, 29-15.

The coach's rationale was that he didn't want his key players to get injured before the playoffs in what was essentially a meaningless regular-season game. Try telling the Colts fans who had paid good money to watch a piece of history being made, or at least to watch a shot at history in the making, that the game was meaningless. I don't blame them for being angry. Now they are left to wonder what might have been, had Manning and the others who have made so many improbable comebacks before been left in the game.

At any elite level of sport, games and events should be played to win. Holding back goes against the spirit of sport.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Words to live by

Now that the gifts are opened and the stampede of store returns begins, perhaps it's time to put things in perspective.

I've always loved stories about people who triumph over the most impossible of odds, so the story of Helen Keller was one that always moved me. Sometimes the pressures and commercialism of this season overshadow the things that truly matter, like good health, family, friendships and love.

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart."

Helen Keller

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It's time to drink up!

No, I don't mean alcohol, even though it does seem to be the season for that sort of thing.

It's also the season for a friendly reminder about the importance of staying hydrated during winter activities.

Not surprisingly, it's much easier to keep proper hydration in mind when it's 90 degrees and we're sweating up a storm while playing tennis or going for a run than when we're skiing or snowshoeing in the subfreezing cold.

But body fluids can be lost during exercise in the cold just as easily as in the heat. You know those vaporous exhalations that are a trademark of winter breathing? That's water being lost. Cold weather also makes us urinate more frequently, promoting dehydration.

It's always a good idea to drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, before and during any vigorous cold-weather activity. Remember, if you wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking, it's too late — you're already dehydrated.

Cheers, and have a merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This snowwoman is not abominable

I know this puts me at odds with most of my friends and acquaintances, but I love snow. So I'm pretty excited that the National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for southern Rhode Island for late this afternoon and tonight.

Call me overly optimistic, but I'm dreaming of going out tomorrow and playing in the snow like a child again.

Now if I could just round up a few hundred friends, borrow some heavy equipment, and take a few days off from work, I might have a shot at challenging the residents of Bethel, Maine, who in 2008 built the world's tallest snowwoman. Olympia, as she was named, stood 122 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed an estimated 13 million pounds. She melted in July 2008, but her legacy lives on.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A treadmill tip

Now that the weather has turned cold, some of you regular walkers have probably resorted to using a treadmill, either at the gym or in your home.

That's all well and good, and you probably think it's pretty much the same thing as walking outdoors, minus the good scenery, right? But if that's the case, why do I see so many people at my gym grasping the bar at the front while walking on the treadmill?

When you walk naturally, your arms swing freely, right? And that's how it should be on the treadmill as well. Holding onto the bar at the front puts the body in a forward-leaning position that compromises proper body mechanics for walking.

Good posture and spinal alignment are important when walking, whether outdoors or on a treadmill. If you find you do not have the balance to walk on a treadmill without holding onto the bar, you might want to consider another vehicle for your aerobic exercise, such as a stationary bicycle.

As with all activities in the gym, good form is everything.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Words to live by

I'll be the first to admit that I can be a little too competitive for my own good, sometimes even making a contest out of something that has no rightful place in competition. So I had to laugh when I came across this quote from one of my sports idols, tennis great Martina Navratilova.

It's funny because it's so true. Who doesn't want to be a winner?

"Whoever said, 'It's not whether you win or lose that counts,' probably lost."

— Martina Navratilova

Friday, December 11, 2009

My head trumps the heart-rate monitor

I've long wondered about the accuracy of those heart-rate monitors on treadmills, elliptical trainers and stationary bicycles — you know, the kind where you wrap your hands around a metal bar and a few seconds later your heart rate is displayed.

This past weekend, while doing a blast of cardio on one of the Expresso bicycles at my gym, the bicycle showed my heart rate to be 181 at one point, as I navigated a rather difficult video course. Now this might have been a cause for concern, seeing as how a heart rate of 181 is 12 beats above what my maximum heart rate should be if I follow the standard formula (220 minus age). But I wasn't concerned at all, because I've gotten into the habit of monitoring my intensity during aerobic activity by using something known as the Borg Scale.

The Borg Scale enables you to rate your level of exercise intensity based on your perception of how hard you're working.

The original Borg scale goes from 6 to 20, with 7 representing "very, very light" intensity, 13 being "somewhat hard," 15 being "hard" and 19 being "very, very hard." A revised Borg Scale with ratings from 1 to 10 was also developed, but I prefer the original because it roughly corresponds to heart rate when multiplied by 10. In other words, a rating of 13 on the original Borg scale would correspond to a heart rate of 130 beats per minute, a rating of 15 would represent a heart rate of about 150, and so on.

For the average person engaging in aerobic activity, a range of 12 to 16 on the original Borg Scale represents an appropriate exercise intensity, according to the American Council on Exercise.

During my aforementioned ride, when the bike put my heart rate at 181, I would have rated my level of exertion on the original Borg scale at 15, which is why I wasn't concerned about the heart-rate information displayed on the bike. Conversely, there have been times when I've been on the treadmill or elliptical trainer and it's displayed a low heart rate, about 115 or so, even though I was sweating and feeling like I was working pretty hard. Given a choice, I'll listen to what my head has to say over the heart-rate monitors on such machines.

Now I'm not recommending that anyone disregard the information displayed by any heart-rate monitor. I'm just saying that it's often helpful to supplement that information with a reality check of your own. Using the Borg Scale is an easy way to do that. And if you're still concerned that your heart rate might be too high, I would recommend simply stopping your activity briefly and checking your heart rate by palpating the pulse at your neck or at your wrist.

The more information you have, the better the decision you will be able to make. That's true of many of life's situations, both inside and outside the gym.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Looking for some weighty advice?

Sorry, but you won't find any here, at least not today. But I did do a little guest blogging over the weekend at projo.com, where I wrote about how fitting resistance training into our lives becomes even more important as we reach midlife and beyond. You can read all about it here.

So what are you waiting for? Please move along folks, there's nothing to see here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Holding the line against conformity

A game between Florida State University and the University of Florida last week produced one of the more bizarre moments I've even seen in football. Maybe Florida State right tackle Zebrie Sanders has been flagged a few too many times for false starts, or maybe he's catching up on that sleep he missed while studying for exams. In any case, he seems momentarily oblivious to the world around him.

Friday, December 4, 2009

When dreams and reality collide

Back here I promised that I'd someday tell the story of what happened on a ski trip to Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada. I figured what better time to do it than today, as the resort prepares to host two women's World Cup downhills and a Super G this weekend.

Like other trip-down-memory-lane posts that I've done, I suppose you could say this one has a moral, of sorts. For now let's just file it under the heading of "be careful what you wish for."

For years, Lake Louise had been my dream ski destination, in large part because of its reputation for having the most beautiful lift-served scenery in North America. In those reader polls that ski magazines like to run every year, Lake Louise was rated number one for scenery almost without fail. One reader even went so far as to describe Lake Louise as "burst-into-tears beautiful." I liked that description.

As it would turn out, I did burst into tears during my trip there, but my outburst was triggered not by the rugged beauty of the Canadian Rockies, but rather by an overwhelming sense of fear, failure and disappointment. This is an embarrassing story for me to tell, so maybe it should be cross-referenced under "the ability to laugh at oneself is healthy."

Marge and I traveled to Banff, Alberta, in February 2005 with nearly her entire family — parents, sisters and their husbands, and their children — hard-core skiers all of them. Though I had been skiing for 21 years, I had never skied outside of New England. I was primed for my first taste of powder, above-treeline skiing and wide open spaces.

We stayed at the Banff Springs Hotel, where we would have our choice of three nearby ski areas: Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay. I was a little disappointed on that first ski day when almost everyone except me voted to go to Sunshine. I was so close to my dream, but it would have to wait another day.

On Day Two we headed to Louise. I was so excited as the shuttle bus neared the resort and the ski trails came into view. This was it, the place I had dreamed of, the very place where some of my skiing heroes — Picabo Street of the U.S., Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden and Katja Seizinger of Germany — had raced. It was almost as if I could feel their energy.

Unfortunately, the day got off to a bad start when a member of our party (who shall remain nameless to avoid embarrassment) had an accident involving a chairlift. Things didn't improve much as the morning wore on, for reasons that I needn't go into here. In any case, I was enjoying the scenery, which was every bit as beautiful as the magazines had promised.

After lunch Marge and I split off from the rest of the group. Lake Louise is pretty vast, and late in the afternoon we found ourselves somewhere that we couldn't locate on the trail map. We were, in a word, lost. We're both good skiers, so we weren't too worried, and we soon found a trail that looked promising. But what started out as a wide, groomed trail soon became wild and narrow and dropped us into a steep gladed area from which there was no escape.

Up until this point, because the Canadian Rockies had been experiencing a lean snow year, the conditions had been about what we would have expected back home — hard and icy. But deep among the trees, protected from the wind, it's a different story, as I found out the hard way.

Having found myself in a situation that I wasn't at all comfortable skiing in, I made the ill-fated decision to take my skis off and try walking a bit. I took my right ski off first, and my right leg immediately plunged through the top crust and into the snow, which was quite deep. I was now twisted around in an awkward position, and the ski I had just removed slid away from my reach. I felt helpless and afraid, and the panic set in much earlier than I'd like to admit.

Marge had had the good sense to stick it out with her skis on, and she was now pretty far ahead of me. I yelled down to her. She tried to coax me into getting up and putting my other ski back on, but every time I tried to stand up, I slid a little more toward a steep drop-off into a tight grouping of trees. I was in full-blown panic mode now, envisioning myself in a free fall, bouncing off trees like a pinball.

Marge patiently sidestepped her way back up to where I was, helped me get back into my ski, and then we continued on our way, slowly and sloppily picking our way down through the trees. By the time we made it out of the trees and onto a tamer part of the mountain, I was exhausted and my feet were in pain. We made our way over to a mid-mountain lodge that wasn't even open and sat on a picnic table to regroup. It was there that the tears started flowing, first a trickle, then a river. I was upset with myself for having been so afraid, upset with myself for not having had more confidence in myself, and most of all, upset that my dream had turned into a nightmare.

That's sometimes the problem with dreams — reality gets in the way.

On the last day of our ski week, Marge told me I could pick the area that we would go to. It would be just the two of us, because once again everyone else wanted to go back to Sunshine. She was certain, knowing how stubborn I can be at times, that I would pick Louise, if for no other reason than to try to salvage my dream. She was shocked when I whispered in her ear "Norquay," the area everyone else had derided as too small and too easy, the area that I had never even heard of before our trip.

Maybe another cross-referencing is in order here: "bigger is not necessarily better." Marge and I ended up having a glorious day at Norquay. It was sunny and mild there — while the others reported clouds and chill at Sunshine — and, perhaps because so many other skiers were chasing their big-time dreams, we had the mountain to ourselves:

It was the best ski day of my life.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Midweek odds and ends

Who's afraid of the big, bad gym?

Well you've weighed in on another poll question — five of you did, anyway — and here's the news: three out of the five said they feel comfortable in a gym.

Not that it's a good sample on which to base any kind of conclusion, but I'm glad to hear that more of you felt comfortable than not. People already manage to come up with enough reasons to skip exercise, and feeling intimidated or alienated at a gym should not be among them. There are plenty of gyms out there. If you're thinking about joining one, see if you can get a week's trial before signing any papers. Talk to other members. If you don't like what you see or feel, move on.

Thanksgiving update

My better half wasn't especially pleased with what I wrote here. It was my first post that she hasn't liked. Marge likes holidays a little better than I do, and she also thought I was being unfair to those who work hard to make a nice dinner for everyone else. That certainly wasn't my intention.

So, I just wanted to say thanks to my wonderful sister-in-law Mary. I really do appreciate all that you do. Your home is lovely and welcoming, and I'm thankful that there's a place for me at your table.

I had a good time this year, and for once I left the table feeling satisfied, but not stuffed.

The things women do

Another model has joined the long and sad list of casualties of the pursuit of physical "perfection." Solange Magnano, 38, a former Miss Argentina, died Sunday from complications experienced while she was undergoing elective cosmetic surgery to make her buttocks firmer. She leaves behind 7-year-old twins.

"A woman who had everything lost her life to have a slightly firmer behind," a friend, Roberto Piazza, told the Associated Press.

How sad indeed.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Who says holidays are hard to swallow?

What better way to wrap up a week in which I railed about the excesses of the holidays than by celebrating that most underrated of "sports," competitive eating. Until I went searching for a wacky video for today, I had never heard of Sonya Thomas, who according to Wikipedia is currently ranked sixth in the world in competitive eating. Who knew there were even world rankings in this event?

Much as I find the whole idea of competitive eating a bit distasteful, after listening to what Thomas had to say about competing against men who are many times her size, I have to admit, I think she's pretty cool.

Just remember, don't try this at home!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Why the helmet debate? Just put a lid on it!

It's getting to be that time of year when I eagerly await the start of ski season, devouring each new issue of Ski magazine and fantasizing about making those first turns on the snow. Unfortunately for you non-skiers, that means I'll be writing more about skiing for the next five months or so. You see, skiing is my sports passion, so I can't help myself. But I hope you'll stay with me, because I like to think that many of the lessons learned on the mountain can apply to off-piste situations as well.

Anyway, the November issue of Ski arrived in our mailbox a few days ago, and I was happy to see an article about the use of helmets on the slopes and the debate over whether they should be mandatory. As the author pointed out, this is an issue that comes to the fore every so often, usually as a result of a high-profile skiing death, such as that last year of actress Natasha Richardson. Richardson, who was not wearing a helmet, died the day after striking her head in what seemed to be a mild fall at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Quebec, Canada.

The article went on to assert that the debate over mandating helmets has become the skiing equivalent of the debate over seat-belt laws. I think all skiers should wear helmets, as a matter of common sense, but rather than wade into the debate over personal choice versus safety here, I'm going to simply offer my own cautionary tale, for whatever it's worth.

I have been happily wearing a ski helmet for 13 seasons now. It did not take a law or resort rule for me to realize the value of a helmet, it took a concussion.

In what was one of the most bizarre days of my life, I found myself getting a ski patrol-assisted toboggan ride down Stratton Mountain, Vermont. I will never forget the date — April 11, 1995 — even though I am unable to recall the events that made it so memorable.

I was skiing at Stratton on a Tuesday just days before the mountain was scheduled to close for the season and although it was a beautiful day and the snow still abundant, there were very few skiers. I was skiing alone — a classic no-no, but it was either that or not ski at all, and I've never been one to shy away from doing things because I lack a companion.

I'm a very good skier, and I like to ski fast, but always in control. On that day, because I had the trails practically to myself, I was perhaps opening up the throttle a little more than usual. In any case, I was having a great time, enjoying sport, nature and life to its fullest.

The last thing I remembered was riding up on a chairlift, thinking about which trail I was going to take next. The next thing I remembered was looking up into the concerned faces of several men who were clad in bright red parkas. One of them was asking me if I knew which month it was. He put an emphasis on the word that made it all too clear that I had just flunked the quiz about which day it was. I was confused and terrified.

I then zoned out for a few minutes more, and my next memory was of looking up at the bright blue sky as I lay tucked into a toboggan, some of those same men I had seen earlier steering it gingerly down the mountain while occasionally asking me how I was doing.

If there was any fortune to be found in my misfortune, it was that the medical services available at Stratton are top-notch. It is one of the few ski areas that has a fully equipped medical clinic at its base. Within minutes of being brought down the mountain and into the Carlos Otis Clinic, I was being examined by a doctor and a nurse.

I was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and was kept at the clinic for three hours for observation. One of the ski patrollers involved stopped by later to check on my condition. He told me that he had found me lying face-down, my equipment scattered about. He said I was able to tell patrollers my name, and nothing more.

They had found no witnesses to my accident, but surmised that I had struck no object, just the snow. The back of my head was sore and tender, and my face, where I had eventually come to rest, was scraped from the abrasive spring snow.

I will never forget the professionalism and genuine concern of the ski patrol and clinic staff.

By the start of the next season, I had bought a helmet and hit the slopes confident that my strange day would not be repeated. I was a bit self-conscious at first, because back then helmets were still a rarity among adult skiers, though common among children. My helmet was a great conversation piece that season, and every time I got on a chairlift or stepped into the gondola, someone would invariably ask me why I wore it. I would tell them my story, and almost without fail they would listen raptly, shake their heads and say that maybe they ought to look into buying one, too. No skier ever wants to find himself or herself in a horizontal position, looking up at this:

I'd like to think that my story persuaded at least a few more adults to wear ski helmets. Clearly, there has been a shift in thinking over the past decade. According to the Ski magazine article, nearly half of all adult skiers and riders in the U.S. wore helmets last season.

But wearing a helmet does not make one immune to serious injury or death. As the article noted, while the use of helmets has increased about 5 percent each year over the last 10 years, the number of skiing fatalities — about 40 a year in the U.S. — has remained unchanged.

I have always recognized that a helmet will not help me much should I slam into a tree at 30 or 40 mph. But it most likely will help prevent a recurrence of the type of confusion and fear that I experienced on that bizarre day — April 11, 1995 — at Stratton Mountain, Vermont.

Besides, helmets are a lot warmer than hats.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, but don't be a turkey

The holiday season is not my favorite time. There, I've said it. While those words will border on the blasphemous to some, others will no doubt nod in familiar agreement. Maybe I just approach the holidays the wrong way, but for me they have come to represent excess and stress. Much of the stress, I think, comes from the excess: too much eating and drinking, too many parties, too many worries about gifts, and too many Christmas songs played in public places.

But yesterday, as I thought about tomorrow's Thanksgiving dinner with my in-laws, I had an epiphany, at least as far as the excessive eating is concerned. I DON'T HAVE TO eat so much that I just want to curl up on the sofa after dinner and take a nap. I CAN SAY NO to that giant helping of something-or-other that some well-meaning person is trying to drop onto my plate. I DON'T NEED dessert.

It struck me as almost funny when I thought about this annual ritual of giving thanks for our good fortunes by gorging ourselves on turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and green beans and buttered rolls and pumpkin pie. Obesity is a real problem in this country, with nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults considered overweight or obese. It seems to me that we do a pretty good job of giving thanks throughout the year.

This yearly license we seem to give ourselves to ratchet up our already poor habits a notch or two can outlast the holidays. While the typical holiday weight gain is not as high as you might think, about a pound, the problem is that the extra weight tends to stay on. Add that up over the course of a lifetime of Thanksgivings and Christmases and it's not a pretty picture.

I don't mean to be a killjoy, I just think maybe it's time to "lighten up" on the holidays. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow spent in the company of the people or activities with whom you find the greatest joy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Could this be the next fitness fad?

I've always been fascinated with people because humans are such amazing and contradictory creatures. We have the potential to do so much good for our world and others, yet often inflict so much harm. We are capable of great intelligence, but can act so stupidly. We can, as the following video clip illustrates, be just plain bizarre.

According to a Reuters story this week, a hotel has opened in France in which guests can live like hamsters for a night (the hamster hats are optional), sleeping on hay, eating seeds and running in a giant wheel. Now I'm not sure who might want to pay the equivalent of $148 to do this sort of thing, but who am I to judge?

My biggest fear is that the hamster wheel will someday find a place in the gym alongside the treadmills and elliptical trainers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fear factor: The culture of gyms

It's time for another Rhode to Fitness poll because I'd like to hear what you think about gyms.

I have been a member of several different gyms for the better part of the last 20 years. For the most part, I have enjoyed my experiences at them. They have given me access to equipment that I don't have at home, their collective energy has been a great motivator, they have allowed me to learn from others, and I have met some truly nice and interesting people at them.

But there have also been times when I've found the whole gym culture a bit alienating. They can be cliquish places, and the rampant narcissism within them is maddening at times.

I started wondering about others' experiences in gyms a few days ago when I found myself lifting weights amid a group of bulky men who would finish their sets by dropping their 80- or 100-pound dumbbells to the floor with a loud grunt and a resounding thud. I wasn't the least bit intimidated to work out among them, but I wondered whether maybe other women, or even men, might have been.

Or what about someone who is trying to lose weight and has some body-image issues. How might he or she feel walking into a place where rippling muscles and low body fat are the predominant bodily features?

These questions were going through my mind as I contemplated the type of personal trainer I want to be, and the type of clients I think I can best serve.

So, my question is: In general, do you feel comfortable in a gym?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Words to live by

With all the boorish behavior among athletes these days, like that exhibited by the subject of my post earlier this week, it's sometimes easy to forget that there have been, and still are, some real class acts in the world of sports. One such gentleman was the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, who gracefully won battles both on and off the court.

I think what he had to say here speaks to the noblest aspects of competition.

"You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy."

— Arthur Ashe

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Field of screams

This video showing University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert flinging an opponent to the ground by her ponytail has been getting a lot of exposure since Thursday's Mountain West Conference semifinal playoff game, in which Lambert's team lost to Brigham Young University.

Lambert has since been suspended from the team indefinitely and has apologized for her actions. What has been intriguing is the amount of attention this video has received, as if we are still capable of being shocked that women can behave every bit as badly as men at times. We've seen plenty of cheap shots bordering on the felonious in the NFL and NHL, but those don't usually involve ponytails.

I have to believe it's an almost prurient interest in watching a "cat fight" that has garnered the Lambert video so much attention. Some newscasters I saw even used that term, giggling as they introduced it. Would they have laughed had Lambert's victim suffered a spinal injury? I see no humor in the situation, neither for those directly involved, nor for those who watched it.

Unbelievably, reaction on the Internet to the video has been mixed. Many of those commenting on Web sites that posted it have been supportive of Lambert, saying that she only retaliated after a Brigham Young player threw an elbow into her chest. Apparently they didn't see some of the other footage from the game, in which Lambert blatantly tripped, kicked and struck opponents with impunity.

I don't know whether Lambert will, or even should, be allowed to play again. While it might be tempting to forgive such behavior as a momentary lapse of judgment during an emotionally charged situation, this was not merely an overzealous act by Lambert in the course of play — it was a vicious assault.

We need only take notice of the frequent overlap between the sports and police news in our newspapers to realize that our sports-culture worship of "the big hit," our celebration of aggression on the field, sometimes comes with a hefty price off it. A thug in a uniform is still a thug.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Trash talk and table tennis

One of my friends and fellow league bowler likes to trash-talk me on the lanes (hi Cindy!), usually with little effect. Of course it's all done with humor, and since I like competition as much as she does, I welcome the challenge to rise above it all.

Lately the talk turned to table tennis, a sport she claims she's very good at. Well I'm not too shabby myself, so the gauntlet was thrown down. Now all we need to do is find a table. How about this one at Mohegan Sun, Cindy? Think we're good enough? I know I'm ready!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Media myths, muscles and men

I have complained before, in posts such as this one and this one, about the images of women in advertising and popular culture and the harmful effects they can have on the self-esteem and body image of girls and women. I hadn't really given much thought to what men experience as a result of the Madison Avenue portrayal of their gender until this past week, when I watched the film "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*."

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" is an intriguing documentary in which director Christopher Bell turns the camera on himself and his two brothers, who used anabolic steroids in an attempt to look more like their childhood heroes — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan. The asterisk in the title refers to the sports records that have come under suspicion as a result of the use of anabolic steroids by athletes.

The film, which premiered last year, drags on a bit too long and almost self-consciously strives too hard to appear balanced in its look at the use of steroids in sports, but it does offer a thought-provoking look at the dissatisfaction that many men have with their bodies and the frightening ends to which they'll go to change their appearance.

While women have bought into the notion that to be smaller is to be sexier and more attractive, men have become convinced that they must become bigger. Taken to extremes, the results are the same: an unhealthy obsession with becoming what is essentially a caricature.

There really isn't a world of difference between her:

and him:

This is Gregg Valentino, who appeared in "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" and whose claim to fame is having the world's biggest biceps. At 28 inches, they are one inch larger than my waist. Valentino admitted in the film that women do not find this attractive, but it seems he just couldn't stop himself once he started using anabolic steroids.

I was surprised to learn from the film that just as Barbie has become impossibly thinner and more voluptuous over the years, G.I. Joe has undergone a transformation, becoming much more muscular than when the action figure debuted in 1964. I have to wonder if G.I. Joe hasn't secretly been waging war on boys' healthy attitudes about their own bodies.

Clearly, most people do not go to the extremes of the fashion models who live on salads and diet sodas or the bodybuilders and other competitive athletes who use anabolic steroids and lift massive amounts of weight. So why do we continue to regard their images in advertising, films and TV shows as the norm?

The purpose of advertising, of course, is to sell us things — things that we think we need to correct some perceived deficiency in our bodies or in our lives. But before we can be sold on that notion, advertisers first have to sell us self-loathing and discontent.

I think it's time we as consumers take back our lives, our bodies and our health.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Poll: Fitness satisfaction lacking

Another Rhode to Fitness poll has concluded, and with 13 people responding, here's the verdict: 9 of you, or 69 percent, said that overall, you are not satisfied with your current level of fitness. The rest of you said you are satisfied.

When I first posted this poll, I mentioned that self-assessment can be a tricky thing. People are notoriously hard on themselves. I said, too, that satisfaction with one's state of fitness is highly dependent upon one's physical needs and goals. The couch potato isn't going to care about boosting his or her maximal oxygen uptake, and the marathon runner will never be satisfied until he or she crosses the finish line first.

For the sake of keeping this discussion focused, let's just assume that those of you who responded to the poll are neither hopelessly sedentary nor driven to perfection. For those of you who said you are not satisfied, my question is: Are you currently working to become fitter?

If you are not, what is stopping you? Lack of time is the reason most people give for not sticking with exercise, but I don't really buy that one. A mere half-hour a day of exercise can improve the health of previously sedentary individuals. Who among us couldn't find a "wasted" half-hour in every day that could be put to better use?

For those of you who are exercising, but are finding satisfaction with the results elusive, can you identify a reason for your plateau? Have you been doing the same exercise routine over and over for months or even years on end? Variety is crucial to maintaining interest and making progress. Have you been doing too much exercise? Exercising too hard and too frequently denies our bodies the rest they need to heal and rebuild, and can lead to overuse injuries that prevent us from exercising.

For those of you who are satisfied with your fitness level, congratulations and keep up the good work.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

33 years later, Klammer's run still exciting

Once again I'm in danger of angering people who dislike winter by writing about my favorite sport — even before the all the leaves have fallen — but I have a good reason for my early enthusiasm about skiing. You see, Marge and I just booked a ski vacation, so we're psyched about the upcoming winter.

I can almost hear the roar of the snow guns at night, and can see the rime in the trees sparkling in the morning sunlight. I can almost feel the wind in my face as I swoop down the mountain, leaving my cares far behind. For me, winter brings clarity to life like no other season. It is a time when everything seems in sharp focus, a time when every breath offers a visible affirmation of life.

So today I'm posting one of the most electrifying ski runs of all time, Austrian Franz Klammer's gold medal-winning performance in the 1976 Olympic downhill in Innsbruck, Austria. I know people who don't even ski who remember Klammer's run.

Compared with what today's powerfully built racers can do on modern equipment, Klammer's 1 minute and 45 second journey looks almost primitive. Yet it remains a let-it-all-hang-out pursuit of victory for the ages that begs a question:

How much are you willing to risk to achieve your goals?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prodigy or parody?

A friend sent me the following story, about a 5-year-old Romanian boy who is already making a name for himself on the Internet and in the world of bodybuilding. It's so bizarre that I'm at a loss for words, for once. If you'd prefer to skip the story and cut right to the video, here it is:

I wish Giuliano only the best. Something tells me he'll need all the help he can get.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lack of seat belt use is driving me mad

I don't usually put much stock in those geographical Top Ten lists that periodically get published — you know, the ones with such headlines as Best Cities in Which to Live, Best Places to Retire, Best Party Colleges! Nevertheless, they can make for a fun read.

Self magazine recently came out with "The 10 Healthiest Cities for Women," which caught my attention because my first thought was, what would make a city healthy for women but not for men, too? Well it turns out that some of the criteria were women-specific, such as having a large selection of ob-gyn doctors and low rates of violent crime and rape. (Yikes! I find it disturbing that this latter statistic can make or break a city.)

Burlington, Vt., topped the list, and Fargo, N.D., rounded out the top ten. In general, the healthiest cities were those in which women had lower disease rates, were less likely to be victims of crime, had access to good medical care, ate well, exercised and got adequate sleep.

The Self survey of 100 cities encompassed all 50 states. Naturally, I was curious to see how Rhode Island fared. The Providence, R.I./New Bedford, Mass. metro area ranked 48 out of 100. While women here were found to be less likely to die of breast cancer and were cited for their diligence with clinical exams, I was angered to read this: "Among the places where women are least likely to wear a seat belt."

We here in New England pride ourselves on our fine universities, our intellectual curiosity and our open-mindedness. So how can it be that women here — or anyone, anywhere, for that matter — are still not buckling up? Yet Massachusetts ranks dead last in seat-belt use in the United States, with only 66.8 percent of drivers and passengers wearing them, and Rhode Island isn't too far ahead at 72 percent.

I was never a particularly good student of science, but even I understand that if you're hurtling along and your car should come to a sudden stop due to impact, your body will continue to hurtle along at pretty much the same speed as it was traveling before.

This British TV ad sums up the role of physics in a crash quite well:

It's too bad, but we'll never see such ads on this side of the Atlantic — it seems they're too graphic and disturbing for our sensibilities. Kind of ironic, isn't it, when you consider the violence we see on TV every day, both real and fictional?

When it comes to seat-belt use, apparently we'd rather be treated in a more gentle manner, with inane slogans like "click it or ticket." I'm sure the threat of a small fine isn't going to prompt the denizens of denial to buckle up, and maybe I'm naive to think that jarring ads like the one above would have a better chance of success.

I just don't get it. What's so hard to understand about the importance of wearing seat belts?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soaring with the Angels

Now that it's Saturday, it's time to unwind and have some fun. And what better way to do it than flying with the Navy's Blue Angels?

OK, maybe some of you won't agree with me. Let's face it, when it comes to flying, people usually fall into one of two very different camps: those who love it (me!) and those who dread it (hi Kerstin!). The Rhode Island Air National Guard Open House and Air Show may be a good eight months away, but for those of you like me, it's never too soon to start getting psyched up.

Here's some beautiful video from the cockpit of one of the Blue Angels' F/A-18 Hornets that'll make you feel so much like you're up there with them that you might want to have a paper bag handy.

So strap yourselves in, hit the full-screen icon, and enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not feeling motivated? Get SMART

Dropout rates in exercise programs are notoriously high, as much as 50 percent, according to some estimates. So what keeps some people pushing onward, long after others have permanently racked the dumbbells? In a word, success.

How many people want to commit to long hours of hard work — in any endeavor — when they do not see any progress as a result of their efforts?

In some instances, it may be the very goals we set for ourselves that undermine our ability to succeed. Perhaps we have reached too far in envisioning what we want to accomplish, or set our sights on something that cannot be measured, making progress seem elusive.

There's a model for setting goals that goes by the acronym SMART. Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

Without SMART goals, planning can be difficult, feedback missing, and motivation lacking.

Say I show up at the gym one day, seeking the services of a personal trainer, and I tell her, "My goal is to get really strong." That's more of a nebulous wish than a goal.

It would then be difficult for my trainer to design a program that will keep me engaged, and difficult to determine whether I've succeeded, because I never defined what I meant by strong, and I never set a deadline for accomplishing my goal.

Instead, it would be better to reframe my goal in this way: "I'd like to increase the amount of weight I can bench-press by 5 percent every month until I can bench-press and lift my bodyweight in 12 to 16 months. " I now have a clearly defined and attainable goal whose progress can easily be measured.

Having a defined set of steps to reach your goal can help keep you focused and motivated. It is much easier, for example, to think about losing 2 pounds a week than to think about having to lose 50 pounds.

The SMART principle need not be confined to fitness matters. It can be applied to any goal you might have, whether it's earning a college degree, learning a foreign language, or finding a new job.

So go ahead and "get SMART." If you fall a bit short of your goals, at least you can say, to quote secret agent Maxwell Smart from the old TV show of the same name, "Missed it by that much."

Monday, October 19, 2009

A word of caution about exercise

Some sad news from the running world this past weekend: Three men died while competing in a marathon in Detroit on Sunday. The men collapsed within 16 minutes of one another between the 11-mile and 13.1-mile markers. The causes of their deaths have not yet been determined.

I mention this incident because exercise, while having the potential to benefit nearly everyone, is not without its dangers, particularly for those with undetected heart disease. An estimated 75,000 heart attacks occur in the U.S. each year after heavy exertion.

That's why it is always a good idea to confer with your doctor before beginning a program of strenuous exercise, especially if you have two or more risk factors for coronary heart disease.

Deaths in marathons and other road races are relatively uncommon. The Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon last had a fatality in 1994, when a 42-year-old man suffered a heart attack, according to the Associated Press. More than 19,000 people had registered for Sunday's race, and presumably most of them finished safely.

A thorough physical examination and exercise stress test might seem unnecessary or inconvenient should you ever be asked to undergo them before beginning an exercise program, but they are for your own protection and benefit.

Coronary heart disease is the number-one cause of death in the United States, and there's an old saying that explains why it has achieved that dubious status:

Often, the first symptom of heart disease is death.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Words to live by

I had been hoping today to offer a video of a great motivational sports speech, either from real life or the movies, because I'm planning to write about motivation next week. Sadly, though, most of the videos I found in that category were too full of profanities to post here.

Why a verbal thrashing of players that borders on abuse is considered motivational, I'll never understand. Maybe it's effective in getting the adrenaline pumping, but I think at the root of it is instilling a fear of failure, and I don't think that's a viable approach for long-term motivation.

I'll leave it to basketball great Michael Jordan to explain why.

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

— Michael Jordan

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Models of what?

In case you missed it, there's been a bizarre controversy involving designer Ralph Lauren and one of the company's models playing out in the blogosphere and mainstream media. It all started with a poorly Photoshopped ad in which model Filippa Hamilton's face appeared atop a body that was, well, let's just say physically impossible. As the blog Boing Boing so delightfully put it when it first posted the photo: "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis."

Ralph Lauren's legal team then went after the blog, claiming copyright infringement. The blog responded by mocking Ralph Lauren even further. The company eventually admitted that it had altered the photo, apologized and pulled the ad, which had run only in Japan.

Now, according to Hamilton, the company has fired her for being too heavy. Ralph Lauren acknowledged that it had ended its relationship with the model, citing her inability to meet contractual obligations.

Hamilton, 23, expressed her disappointment at the message that the ad sent to young women about weight. Hamilton told the New York Daily News, "I'm very proud of what I look like, and I think a role model should look healthy." However, Hamilton is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds, which means that she would be classified as "underweight" by most accepted standards.

I've long been disturbed by the images that advertisers try to pass off as "normal" or "desirable" female bodies. One need only look at the number of young girls on diets, at a time when proper nutrition is so crucial, to realize that the advertising world is damaging our youth. The 13-year-old daughter of a family friend recently told me that she does 300 sit-ups a day. She is a perfectly healthy-looking teen, but thinks she is fat.

The feminist in me has to believe the trend toward smaller sizes is about power: It is as though women are held in higher esteem by practically disappearing. Keep them thin, weak and vulnerable.

A group in San Francisco called About-Face is fighting back against what it calls "the media circus" using some pretty interesting tactics, such as putting decals with positive messages about body image on fitting-room mirrors. On its Web site, About-Face says its mission "is to imbue girls and women with the power to free themselves from the burden of body-image problems so they will be capable of fulfilling their varied and wondrous potentials."

We can all do our part by thinking critically about just what it is advertisers are trying to sell us. I, for one, am not buying it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't let your back down

Back pain is the second-most-common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, after respiratory infections, and Americans spend at least $50 billion each year to treat back pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association.

Lately it seems like I'm surrounded by people hobbled by back pain, and I count myself as fortunate for never having been likewise debilitated. And I'd like to keep it that way.

The editors at Prevention magazine have published a 14-item list of "Worst Habits That Hurt Your Back." Whether you've already experienced back problems or are hoping to prevent them, it's worth a read.

Some of the bad habits were fairly obvious, such as sitting at a desk or in front of the TV for hours on end, toting around a ridiculously heavy handbag, or walking long distances in high heels. But the list contained some information that surprised me, including that very firm mattresses can worsen back pain, as can holding a grudge and doing too many sit-ups or crunches.

Correcting some of these bad habits should be fairly effortless. Prevention is always easier than rehabilitation.

The full article can be found here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pumpkins are a blast

October has always been one of my favorite months, and among the reasons is the prevalence of pumpkins.

I love just about any kind of food with pumpkin in it. I was delighted the other day when I went to Starbucks for coffee and saw the pumpkin bread, pumpkin scones and pumpkin muffins beckoning from behind the glass.

Pumpkins also evoke fond childhood memories of bountiful harvests of candy on Halloween and that classic Peanuts TV special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Even at 51, I still enjoy going to the pumpkin patch, picking out the "perfect" one, and then waiting until just before dusk on Halloween to carve it.

I love this time of year, when pumpkins large and small appear on doorsteps and in yards everywhere, providing that last splash of color before the faded palette of autumn yields to the starkness of winter.

So, in tribute to the great pumpkin, here's a time-lapse video showing the growth of one of the giants in its field. And what do you do with a pumpkin that weighs nearly 1,000 pounds after it's won you a ribbon at the county fair? Well, I wouldn't know firsthand, since as I have mentioned, I'm incapable of growing anything, but apparently it's nothing that a half-pound of TNT can't solve.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Seeds and earth do not a farmer make

Over the years, I've had a list of "dream" jobs that I would pursue if I had my life to live over again — airline pilot, National Transportation Safety Board investigator, and detective among them. But there's another one that, while in theory is something it's not too late for me to do, I've had to accept that it is as improbable as the others, and that's being a farmer.

Why farming? I love the outdoors, hard physical labor, early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise hours, and the thought of providing such a basic and essential commodity as food.

One summer I volunteered at Casey Farm, a historical farm in Saunderstown, R.I., that promotes community-supported agriculture. The caretakers once let me hop onto a tractor and plow a field. I was in heaven that afternoon.

So why couldn't I be a farmer, even on a small scale?

Because I can't grow ANYTHING! This spring I planted squash, lettuce and carrots. The squash was a no-show, the lettuce took what seemed like an eternity to mature and in the end provided all of two salads, and the carrots, well, you can see for yourselves:

Yes, I waited all summer for these! I realize it was a bad year in New England for a lot of crops, because of all the rain early on, but still. Seriously, how hard can it be to grow a few vegetables? And now it's all coming back to me: the number of houseplants I've killed in pretty short order over the years, the wildflowers I planted one year that bloomed beautifully for a few short weeks, never to be seen again.

I just don't have a green thumb, so I'm officially throwing in the towel. Which is too bad, because the thought of plucking fresh fruits and vegetables right from the backyard is pretty appealing to me. Fresh is so much better. But farmstands and the supermarket produce aisle are so much easier.

I would like to take this opportunity, though, to salute local farmers everywhere: Thank you. Without you, I would definitely starve.

Maybe I could try my hand at dairy farming. I've always liked cows ...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's a beautiful day for a poll

I figured it's about time for another poll, if for no other reason than I don't have a single witty or incisive thing to say this morning about health or fitness. I think the fumes from my weekend room-painting project got to me.

So, here's the question: Overall, are you satisfied with your level of fitness?

Seems like a pretty straightforward question, doesn't it? But sometimes reality and self-assessment don't mix too well. For instance, I know some people who are incredibly fit, but because they are also incredibly driven, they are never satisfied with their level of fitness. On the other hand, I know some people who would not meet anyone's definition of fit, yet because their lifestyle is such that it doesn't require a lot of endurance or strength, they are perfectly satisfied with their level of fitness. See what I'm getting at? Good, because I'm not sure I do.

So, you know the drill by now. Just line up over there at left, remain orderly, don't try to sway anyone else, and cast your vote.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Frightful demonstration

I've always been intrigued by birds. They're fun to watch, and despite the commonly used derogatory expression "bird brain," they're really very intelligent creatures.

Although I knew they were capable of some pretty amazing feats, I had no idea that at least one type of bird can legitimately challenge the cheetah for the title of fastest animal on the planet — at least not until I watched this video of a peregrine falcon named Frightful, who was clocked executing dives at speeds between 183 mph and 242 mph.

One could probably question some of the methods used in the following experiment, and the claims made as a result of it, but it nevertheless leaves no doubt that the peregrine falcon is one fast and focused bird.

I think my favorite part of this video, though, is when her handlers take Frightful up in a plane, and she has this sort of panicked look, almost as though she was thinking, "What the ...? You call this flying?"

Friday, October 2, 2009

Be safe at home and the gym

Since I've been something of a nag all week — Be sure to warm up! And don't forget to cool down! — I might as well continue.

For some reason, October always makes me think of safety. Maybe it's because of those public-service reminders to replace the batteries in our smoke detectors when we turn back the clocks. Or maybe it's because that first chill makes me think of stocking up on supplies for the inevitable power outages when the first heavy snow falls.

But there's a safety-related aspect of my daily life that I recently realized I haven't been paying as much attention to as I should, and that's the fitness equipment I use. I started thinking about this after reading about a recall earlier this year of stability balls. Somehow I managed to miss the story at the time, but more than 3 million balls were recalled after reports of injuries that occurred when the balls burst. Some 47 broken bones and bruises were attributed to this phenomenon, in which the stability balls burst like balloons, sending their users crashing to the floor, in some cases with dumbbells in their hands.

I started thinking about how many times I've used stability balls and other fitness equipment without giving them so much as a cursory inspection. It's been a longstanding bad practice that I've put a quick end to.

It's always a good idea to give the equipment you're about to use a quick inspection. Even at my gym, where the equipment is new and start-of-the-art, safety cannot be assured. I once watched a woman jump off a machine where a cable had just come off a cam, without telling anyone about the problem.

In the case of stability balls and resistance tubing, check them before each use for obvious signs of wear or cuts. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for inflation of stability balls, and recognize that they have weight limits. Check fitness machines for any loose parts, frayed cables or seat problems. If you have equipment at home such as a stair-stepper or treadmill, follow the manufacturer's recommendations for maintenance.

Anytime your body is moving, there's a chance for injury. Take nothing for granted, and be your own advocate for safety. Being fit does you no good if you're hurt.

Oh, and be sure to change your smoke-detector batteries this fall.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And don't forget to cool down

On Monday, I wrote about the importance of a warm-up period before aerobic exercise. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the end of your workout, when it's just as important to gradually slow yourself down.

Just as many people skip the warm-up to save time, the cool-down period also sometimes gets short shrift in our hectic lives. But as I mentioned on Monday, we're only talking five to ten extra minutes. Surely you can spare that to treat your body with the care and respect that it deserves.

So big deal, you say, what could possibly happen by skipping the cool-down? Well, let's say you've been running at a pretty good pace on the treadmill for a half-hour, and then, suddenly, you just hop off and head for the shower. For the last 30 minutes, your heart and lungs and blood vessels have been working like the efficient machines they are to pump oxygenated blood to your exercising muscles. Then — bam! — without warning you're done. All that blood that's been flowing to your extremities is left sitting there, suddenly puzzled about its mission.

OK, obviously I'm not a doctor, but this sudden change in activity can cause a drop in blood pressure and pooling of blood in the veins that can lead to dizziness or fainting. So you might think you're headed for the shower, but in extreme cases you could instead be headed straight for the floor.

When you're ready to wrap up your aerobic session, just plan to add another five minutes in which to gradually reduce your intensity.

And when you're done with your cool-down, that's an excellent time to add some stretches to your workout, while your muscles are still warm and therefore more pliable. Some research has shown that post-workout stretching is more likely to result in greater gains in flexibility than stretching before a workout.

Warm-up, cool-down, stretching — it's all good stuff worthy of our attention. It's all part of the big picture here: better health, better living, better times.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's cool to warm up

Today I have a couple of questions. First, how many of you would take your car out of the garage on a cold morning and immediately accelerate to 60 mph? Right, I didn't think you'd do that.

Now, how many of you would go to the gym and plunge right into a workout without first warming up? Aha! Just as I suspected!

I can't tell you the number of times I've been at my gym and watched through the big front windows as someone gets out of his or her car, walks across the parking lot and into the gym, jumps on the treadmill and promptly punches it up to an oxygen-gulping, heart-pounding speed. Their cardiorespiratory systems are probably screaming, "What the ... ?"

Skipping the warm-up before aerobic exercise can be an unhealthy or even dangerous practice. Just as our cars benefit from a gradual transition between idling and hurtling along in fith gear, so, too, do our bodies.

One of the important physiological benefits of a warm-up is that it helps gradually redistribute the blood flow to exercising muscles. Plunge immediately into intense aerobic exercise and it's unlikely that your heart and lungs will be able to keep up with the muscles' demand for oxygen. You could end up hyperventilating or quickly fatiguing.

Regardless of the type of aerobic exercise you do, it's always a good idea to spend the first five minutes of the activity gradually elevating your heart rate until it reaches the target range.

I'm guessing that for most people who skip the warm-up, time is the issue. But what's an extra five minutes when you're already planning to spend 30 or 40 minutes or even more at an activity? A warm-up is a pretty small investment that can pay big dividends.

A cool-down at the other end of the workout is equally important, but I'll save that discussion for Wednesday.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The "I" and the Tiger

Yesterday I played golf for the first time in well over a year. I was very pleased with how I was driving and hitting from the fairway, but anytime I got within 25 yards of the green ... well, let's just say my short game comes up short.

I've enjoyed golf on and off for most of my life, primarily for the scenery, fresh air and camaraderie it offers. I've never found it an exciting game, and haven't really put too much effort into getting better at it. I have too many other pursuits that I care far more about, such as skiing, tennis and bowling.

I'm not horrible at golf and I'm not good, I just am.

Golf is not an easy sport, and like any other, it has its share of participants who are naturally gifted at it. If you need any proof of that, take a look at this video of a 2-year-old Tiger Woods demonstrating his early prowess at the game.

Even then he had a swing more technically sound than that of the average weekend hacker — before he even could even talk!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reining in my fears — or not

I've always believed that if we want to overcome our fears, it's sometimes helpful to confront them head-on, to test our limits and push the envelope a bit.

If I had to list my three biggest fears in life, they would be, in order from most anxiety-provoking to least: public speaking, skydiving, horseback riding. I decided last week that it was time to tackle fear number 3, horseback riding.

This decision occurred on vacation in California when, after a wine tasting in Sonoma, Marge and I were lured into signing up for what looked like a beautiful horseback ride through a vineyard. As I mentioned the other day, our trip did not turn out exactly as planned, and this little adventure was no exception.

I will freely admit that I'm terrified of horses. They are beautiful animals from a distance, but up close, I find them scary and unpredictable. Think Christopher Reeve. I really don't want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, so it was with trepidation that I even agreed to this ride.

Things started to go awry from the beginning. When we arrived at the vineyard, we found out that the guide we had been expecting was unable to take us. Instead, we got Javier, who while amiable didn't seem to understand that I was a novice rider who wanted to go as slowly as possible. No, it seemed that Javier, confident atop his racing-retired thoroughbred, wanted to show me what my horse could do.

I'm embarrassed to say that at one point, I think I was actually screaming. That was at about the time that my horse, Finbar, was running straight toward Marge's horse, Gabriel, and there wasn't a lot of space left between me and a barbed-wire fence ahead.

Maybe the terror was playing tricks on my mind, but I swear that Javier was laughing as I screamed. Or maybe I wasn't imagining it at all. Maybe he found it amusing that someone as clueless as I would go in such short order from a wine tasting to signing a liability waiver and into the saddle.

And to think I had expected it to be a growth experience in which I would overcome my fear of horses.

Instead, the whole scene brought to mind one of those steadfast childhood memories: I was about 7 years old, standing at the edge of a low diving board in a YMCA swimming class, crying my eyes out. The instructor was badgering me to jump — you know, in one of those you're-going-to-sink-or-learn-how-to-swim moments — but I wasn't having any of it. I was frozen with fear, and have since regarded any body of water other than a hot tub with suspicion.

Sadly enough, I think it will be a long time, if ever, before I get on a horse again. As some consolation, I got the distinct impression that Finbar was just as eager to part ways with me at the end of the ride. I can't say I blame him. Why would anyone want to tote a screaming fool around on his back when the sun was high and the temperature was flirting with 100?

Even though the experience wasn't what I had hoped it would be, I learned something from it. I still believe that pushing our limits can be a healthy thing, but now realize that if we stray too far from our comfort zones, the desire to test ourselves can be counterproductive.

When it comes to conquering fears, it can be a long way from Point A to Point B, and a slow trot might ultimately be faster than a gallop.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The power of simplicity

No, I'm not here to give you that kind of advice. That would be highly irresponsible and even illegal.

I do, however, have some advice for those of you who would like to become more physically active but have trouble embracing the concept of working out: Keep it simple.

This occurred to me while Marge and I were on vacation in California last week. As with many of our vacations, I had planned this one for months. And like so many things we might plan for, it didn't turn out quite according to plan. It started with a very unplanned seven-hour layover at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Fortunately, it came to a close with an unplanned trip to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. I hadn't even been aware there was such a museum, but while plotting our course from Glen Ellen to Bodega Bay on the last day of our trip, I happened to see it on the map. Like most people of our ages, Peanuts comic strips were a staple of our childhoods, so we set out for the museum.

As I made the rounds of exhibits there, I realized why I found the Peanuts characters so appealing. It was not the dialogue of the strips, which to be honest I never found all that funny, but rather the simplicity of the drawings. Schulz managed to capture a range of emotions and situations with a simple black line.

That got me to thinking about working out, as many things often do, and about how we do not need lots of fancy equipment or gym memberships to get in better shape. For some people who are trying to break out of a sedentary lifestyle, more might even be less, since exercise is often viewed as a chore.

How many people want to go directly from sitting on the couch to highly structured, multi-set routines at the gym? Probably not too many.

So why not start out simply, with a walk outdoors instead of on a treadmill, or climb some stairs instead of using a stair-stepper, or do some basic push-ups instead of the bench press? It doesn't take any equipment to work all of the major muscle groups, just a little imagination and ingenuity.

This idea is so simple, you're probably saying, "Good grief!"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't get carried away with lawn chores

I usually try to find the positive side of things that might not immediately seem so positive. So for all of you who are bemoaning the end of summer, here's a thought: at least you won't have to mow the lawn for a while.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Words to live by

What's this old dude from a century long ago doing on a fitness blog, you ask? That's William James, an American psychologist and philosopher. While I have no idea whether he was a fitness buff or not, he did have something to say that I know I'll remember the next time I face a physical challenge that tests my will to continue.

"Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they've got a second."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I had a bloody good day

I've been a regular blood donor for a while, and last Wednesday I hit the three-gallon mark at the Rhode Island Blood Center's Narragansett office. Now before you start admiring the selflessness of my act, let me say that I've never believed wholeheartedly in the concept of altruism. Even Mother Teresa probably derived some joy from helping others, no?

When it comes to donating blood, I don't think it matters if your motives are a bit self-centered, so long as you get out there and just do it. There's almost always a shortage of blood of one type or another, especially in the summer months when people get all crazy on sunshine and fresh air and do stupid and injurious things to themselves and others.

Yes, I want to do my part to help out, but I also have to say, donating blood just makes me feel good.

Whenever I see those Rhode Island Blood Center commercials on TV, in which a teenage girl thanks blood donors for having saved her life, and calls them her heroes, I get all choked up. I think, "Hey, she's talking about me!" and then I feel all proud and happy.

Usually it takes a brave, larger-than-life deed to be labeled a hero. But giving blood? Ha! It's quick, painless and easy. It takes only about 45 minutes in all, including the interview, prep and post-donation snacks (the donation part itself lasts about 15 minutes). It hardly feels worthy of a thank-you, never mind the cookies and juice, and sometimes even pizza, posters and coffee mugs that they give you.

The Rhode Island Blood Center workers and volunteers are incredibly nice people, and they seem grateful and amazed that anyone would want to do this. And I'm amazed that anyone wouldn't want to!

There is so much suffering in the world that we can't do much about, but the chronic shortage of blood is a problem that all healthy people can easily do something about. Oh sure, I've heard all the excuses: I don't like needles, the sight of blood makes me sick (so don't look!), I know someone who knows someone who once had a bad experience — blah, blah, blah.

If you've ever uttered any of those words, I'm here to assure you that your fears, while I respect them, are overblown. It's truly no big deal. Look at me in that chair: Do I look like I'm suffering? Nope, I was kickin' back, watching a Rachel Ray cooking show and having some interesting conversations.

So why not call your local Red Cross or blood center and make an appointment to donate? Trust me, you'll feel great afterward — and somewhere a person in need might have a chance because you were willing to set aside your fears and spare 45 minutes of your time.