Friday, July 31, 2009

Patch-work memories

This week, for whatever reason, I've found myself taking quite a few strolls down memory lane (I have no idea how many calories that burns). A couple of days ago I was thinking back to junior high school gym class. Now I know the words "gym" and "class" in succession strike terror into a lot of people, but I rather enjoyed those classes.

I'm sure academics were stressed, too, at the junior high I attended in Indiana, but what I remember most was the gleaming new fieldhouse where our gym classes were held. It was a place of activity and excitement. Walkers, joggers and runners vied for position on the track; the trampolines at the center erupted with tumbling bodies; and thick ropes dangled from the ceiling, holding climbers in various states of ascent.

I also remember a girl named Linda, who was sort of the female Bruce Jenner of our class: you name it, and she could perform it, catch it, throw it or lift it better than anyone else.

All of us had to wear one-piece, navy-blue gym suits that weren't very attractive, but Linda always looked sharp in hers. That's because her suit contained a lot of those patches from the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Remember those?

I think I managed to earn one or two of the patches, but my navy-blue gym suit was still largely a sea of blue.

Anyway, while thinking about Linda and her patches, I got to wondering whether that program still existed. I have no children, but my understanding is that many cash-strapped schools have cut out physical education programs entirely.

To my surprise, I found out that the program does still exist, and you don't need to be a 13-year-old in a hideous gym suit to participate.

Called the President's Challenge, the program lets you register, pick an activity, and track your progress in that activity as you work your way toward an award. You can challenge friends or family, or just yourself. You can find the details here.

I don't know about you, but I love challenges and rewards, and think they can be powerful motivators. Of course feeling fit and healthy is the best reward of all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

CPR is not just for dummies

Heart disease is the number-one killer of men and women in the United States. In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, 652,091 Americans died of heart disease, and 50.5 percent of them were women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of all cardiac deaths occur before emergency services arrive or before the victim reaches a hospital, the CDC says.

If you witnessed someone having a heart attack, would you know what to do?

I'm now better prepared to respond should I find myself in such unfortunate circumstances. Last week I became certified in CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) by taking a 3-hour class at the Rhode Island Red Cross headquarters in Providence.

Why did I do it? The short answer is that I had to, because I need that little certification card before I can even take the American Council on Exercise personal trainer exam.

But after having taken the class, I'd like to think that even if things don't work out for me as a personal trainer, I will maintain my CPR/AED certification. The class was completely painless — no embarrassing moments pretending to be a victim while the rest of the class watches — and easily worth a few hours of my time and $45.

There were about a dozen of us in the class, and we paired off to practice such skills as aiding a choking victim, but had our own mannequins on which to practice the rescue breaths and chest compressions of CPR. We went through the CPR steps as a group, following along with an instructional video, and the instructor made the rounds to make sure each of us was doing it correctly.

I was impressed that a few people had attended the class not because certification was a job requirement, but because they wanted to be prepared in an emergency. One young's man story was particularly touching: He said his grandfather had started choking on some food a few weeks before, and he wished he had known how to help.

The instructor, Keith Choquette, who said he spent 10 years as an emergency medical technician before becoming an instructor with the Red Cross, was very candid about the chances of reviving someone with CPR alone: about 5 percent. CPR in combination with the use of an AED brings those chances up to 10 percent, he said.

But he made a point that had never occurred to me, which was that even if the heart attack victim does not survive, CPR can greatly improve the odds that the victim's organs can still be donated. So a bystander who performs CPR might not be saving the heart attack victim's life, but could be saving the lives of many others.

And though those odds of survival are terribly slim, think about how they would sound if you or someone you loved were the victim. As Choquette said, "A chance is a chance."

To find a CPR course near you, contact the American Red Cross.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jethro Tull and that sinking feeling

Do you have one of those songs that's so closely associated with a memorable event in your life that hearing it again, no matter how many years later, mentally transports you back in time?

For me that song, aptly titled, is Jethro Tull's "Living in the Past." I heard it the other day, and the emotions poured forth as raw as the day when I first became aware of the song, more than three decades before.

The year was 1972, and my family had just moved from Indiana to Delaware. I had begun the new school year — ninth grade — far from the friends I had grown up with and loved. I wanted desperately to fit in, but, as so often happens at that awkward age, I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I thought that I could perhaps make some inroads through sports. After all, I had been something of a neighborhood jock back in Indiana. So I tried out for the basketball team.

Football had really been my sport, but of course there was no girls' football team. Nevertheless, I was a halfway decent basketball player, or so I thought. I was stunned the first day of tryouts to find that what had passed for good in the old neighborhood was merely mediocre among my new Delaware peers. Those girls could play.

Still, I worked hard during the tryouts, and although I might not have stood out as the best shooter or defensive player, I felt like I put 110 percent into it, and hoped my spirit counted for something with the coach.

The results of who made the cut were to be posted on a certain day — I do not remember the day of the week, only that I happened to be sick on that day and had stayed home from school. So my mother, ever the good sport, went over to the school to check the list, which was taped to the drab cinder-block walls of the gymnasium off whose walls I had hoped to hear the cheers echo.

I remember hearing Tull's "Living in the Past" on the radio just before my mother returned home. I was curled up on the sofa, a mix of anticipation, excitement and dread fighting for control of my body. I heard the front door open, and then my mother entered the room where I lay, the look on her face saying it all. "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head ever so slightly sideways.

There are plenty of worse things in life than not making the junior high school basketball team, but on that particular day, you would have had a hard time convincing me of it. The weight of defeat was crushing, just before the numbness set in — a state that I managed to maintain for the better part of my freshman year in my new school.

I offer this story not for pity's sake because, as I noted, it was no big deal in the grand scheme of things. I bring it up only because I'm curious about the impact that failures or defeats or setbacks have on others. Somehow to me they loom so much larger than the successes along the way.

In my basement is a whole case full of skiing trophies that I've earned in giant slalom races over the years. Funny, but I don't recall any of the songs that were playing on the radio as I drove home from the slopes, basking in the thrill of victory.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A little light housekeeping

Just a few odds and ends today. First, a reminder that there are only three days left to cast your vote in my highly unscientific poll on exercise frequency, which can be found somewhere over on the left-hand side of this page. I'm happy to see that no one has reported that they exercise only rarely, but then I wouldn't expect to see such people at a blog that has the word fitness in its name.

Second, my partner, Marge, and I are planning to take part in a four-mile road race this Sunday, primarily as walkers/joggers, since neither of us runs regularly and we have not been training for it. The race supports a scholarship fund set up in memory of Kerri Bessette, a South Kingstown High School graduate and athlete who died of bacterial meningitis in April 2001 while in her freshman year at LaSalle University.

Although we knew neither Kerri nor her family, her story moved both of us. The course is a paved loop near Matunuck Beach, and the race starts at 9 a.m. Registration and other information can be found at

And in the putting-us-to-shame department is Diana Lajoie, a colleague of Marge, who finished 17th in her division in Sunday's Ford Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y. The 38-year-old resident of Seekonk, Mass., finished the event — which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — in 12 hours, 1 minute and 21 seconds. It's hard for me to comprehend being able to finish it in any amount of time. Way to go, Diana!

Finally, I promised I'd report back on my progress with the deadlift, which I began doing about a month ago. I started with an easy 65 pounds to get the form right, and am now lifting 125 pounds (three sets of six reps). My short-term goal was to be able to lift my body weight, so I have another 10 pounds to go. I think I should be able to reach that, and then some, in pretty short order.

Aside from feeling like I'm building strength rapidly, I love the fact that the deadlift is a time-saver. Because it is a compound exercise that involves so many different muscles, I've been able to eliminate leg extensions and curls, and back extensions from my exercise routine. And who among us couldn't use a little more free time these days?

And a footnote to the story of my interest in the deadlift, which was sparked by seeing a video of Nia Shanks deadlifting 300 pounds: it seems Nia's mother has caught the bug, too. At 49, Nia's mother is just two years younger than I am, and she deadlifted 235 pounds in her first powerlifting competition.

Who says getting older is tough? Bring it on!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sizing up the surgeon general nominee

Looks like another storm is brewing in Washington, this one over the girth of Dr. Regina Benjamin, President Obama's nominee for surgeon general. This storm, like so many before it, began forming in that tornado alley of popular opinion: talk radio, the blogosphere, and, of course, Fox News.

No one is questioning the credentials of Dr. Benjamin, whose career in medicine has been marked by philanthropy, and numerous achievements and accolades. What her critics are focusing on is Dr. Benjamin's weight: they say she is "too fat" to be surgeon general.

There was this priceless moment, for instance, when Fox's Neil Cavuto interviewed a critic who appeared on camera sporting a "No Chubbies" T-shirt. Talking Points Memo, which posted the video, went on to point out that Cavuto's guest was Michael Karolchyk, owner of an outfit in Denver called the Anti-Gym, a "fitness club" that promotes getting in shape for sex.

Bloggers were busy speculating about Dr. Benjamin's weight, guessing that she was 40 to 50 pounds overweight and probably a size 18 or 20. Some agreed with the likes of Karolchyk that her weight would send the wrong message, while others defended her and hinted that the criticism of her nomination had undercurrents of racism and sexism.

So what, exactly, does the surgeon general do that would make being overweight a disqualifier? According to the office's Web site, the U.S. surgeon general "serves as America's chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury."

So Dr. Benjamin's role would be that of an educator, not an aerobics instructor.

In that role, perhaps Dr. Benjamin's weight might prove an asset, allowing her to better connect with the American public as the surgeon general takes on the problem of obesity. That, I suppose, would all depend on how she approached the issue.

Meanwhile, I have to think that a lot of the criticism over her weight is just so much mean-spirited blather.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

If it's Saturday, this must be silly

I suppose one could make the argument that many of my posts are silly, Saturday or otherwise, but I do strive for a certain regularity when it comes to silly videos.

Anyway, who says you can't teach an old gym rat new tricks?

This video kind of sums up my view of real basketball. As I've admitted before, I'm not much of a fan, but when I do manage to catch part of a game, particularly the end, I'm always reminded of that old joke about how all they really need to play are the last 30 seconds.

What do you suppose the rat was thinking on that last shot, when he or she drove to the basket, then hesitated, perched atop the rim: I'm full? This is stupid? Why are all these kids looking at me?

Or maybe the rat was simply trash-chattering his or her opponent, who clearly had forsaken Big D in favor of chow.

In any case, I hope your weekend is filled with rewards as well.

Friday, July 24, 2009

What do you want in a personal trainer?

As those of you who tuned in yesterday know, I took a break from blogging in order to do some more studying in my quest to become a certified personal trainer. Later, I started thinking about what sort of trainer I hope to be, and remembering some of the trainers I've had in the past.

Although I've been frequenting gyms on and off for twenty-some years, I've used the services of only three personal trainers. I have to laugh now when I think about my some of my experiences with them and how naive I was as a fitness consumer. Never once did I ask for references or credentials, because at the time, it simply didn't occur to me.

I know that one of the three trainers was certified through a well-known organization, because she advertised that fact on her business cards, but I'm pretty sure the other two had no certifications or exercise-related degrees.

These days, I would definitely ask a potential trainer about his or her certifications or degrees, as well as experience. Some certifications are completely bogus, as in you take a 15-minute online "test," pay your fee, and voilà!, you can call yourself a certified personal trainer, if you can keep a straight face at the same time. Among various sources that I've consulted in trying to determine the most respected certifications, three names consistently appear: the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Council on Exercise. I'm sure there are some other good certifications out there, too.

Anyway, back to my experiences with trainers. The first one I had, who shall remain unnamed for obvious reasons (actually, they will all be unnamed, for a variety of reasons), used to occasionally show up for appointments with alcohol on his breath — and I'm talking late-morning appointments.

I'm not saying he was drunk. In fact, he was known to be the hard-partying type, so perhaps those odors I detected were the remnants of his previous night's activities. In any case, not very professional. But then he never claimed to be a professional, just a "personal trainer."

This trainer spent our sessions barking commands at me as I made the rounds of the usual equipment, counting my reps, and trying to sell me supplements of dubious value. A complete waste of money, in other words. We had maybe six or seven sessions together before I decided to go it on my own.

The second trainer I worked with, a couple of years later, was a woman whose body I admired. There's a saying in the business that your body is your best advertisement, and she definitely sported a bodybuilder's body, though not the "freakish" kind.

We had a few sessions that were productive, but I was completely turned off one day when I approached her in the gym with a question. Now she was not with a client at the time, but responded with something to the effect that if I didn't have an appointment, I shouldn't be asking a question.

In all fairness, she did apologize several days later, telling me that she sometimes gets a little "bitchy." Well, sorry, but I don't tolerate bitchiness very well, particularly when I'm paying good money for it. I may be a lot of things, but a masochist isn't one of them.

Now on to my last, and best, trainer, a man I worked with about ten years ago. He was, at the time, a fifty-something bodybuilder. When I look back, I'm kind of amazed that I trained with him, because he was one of those guys who, for no apparent reason, kind of gave me the creeps.

So what prompted me to hire him? I had seen him training other women in the gym, and was impressed with their strength and the innovative workouts he created for them. No rote repetitions at the usual machines for these women; they obviously wanted to improve their athletic performance at one sport or another, and he clearly was listening to them.

In my own sessions with this last trainer, he truly challenged me and seemed to genuinely share in my joy at my achievements. He was funny and energetic, definitely not bitchy, and he taught me some wonderful exercise tips that I remember to this day.

But I think the best lesson I learned from him is that truly good personal trainers listen to and respect their clients and do not try to push their own agendas. And there's really no certification or degree program that can teach you that.

So I'm curious, have any of you had experiences with personal trainers, good or bad, that you'd like to share? For those of you who have never had a personal trainer, would you ever consider hiring one? If so, or if not, why?

If you're shy about responding in the comments section below, you can e-mail me at

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time to crack open the books

I've decided to take a break of sorts today because I really need to get some studying in. My goal is to take — and pass — the American Council on Exercise's personal trainer certification exam by the end of the summer. But a funny thing happened along the way: I discovered blogging.

Yes, it seems an hour or two of my day just disappears. Imagine!

So today I'm going to sit down for a few hours and study, so that when it comes time to take the exam, I'll know my gluteus maximus from my olecranon process. Or, in layman's terms, my — oh, never mind.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"If it ain't broke, don't Fixx it"

An awful lot of people out there seem to take great joy in deriding the efforts of those who work hard to get or stay in shape. They're the people who will mock your midafternoon snack of an apple and carrots while they eat a couple of doughnuts, laugh at the fact that you get up early to run before work, or dismiss you as a musclehead if you like to lift weights.

But my all-time favorite refrain from such people is: "Keith Richards is still alive, Jim Fixx isn't."

Monday was the 25th anniversary of the death of Jim Fixx, who has been credited with starting the running and jogging craze in the 1970s with the publication of his best-seller The Complete Book of Running. According to Wikipedia, Fixx weighed 240 pounds and smoked when he began running at age 35. Ten years later, he weighed 180 and no longer smoked.

Fixx died at 52 of a massive heart attack after his daily run near his home in Vermont.

That his death would give fodder to those who make no effort to improve their own health is sad, but entirely understandable. I suppose all of us are constantly on the lookout, either consciously or unconsciously, for evidence that supports our beliefs.

But in using the death of athletes such as Fixx to sustain their own inaction, people are overlooking quality-of-life issues.

I've known people who would scornfully dismiss exercise, but then couldn't walk ten steps without sounding like they needed oxygen. Maybe they were perfectly happy in that state, but I have to think they could have been happier, and certainly healthier, with a little effort.

And it's true, they could well outlive me, because so much of our health is determined by genetic factors. Fixx's father, for instance, had died of a heart attack at age 42.

I'd just like to ask you exercise critics out there to do me a favor and stop making ridiculous comments in an effort to belittle my healthy habits or justify your unhealthy ways.

If anyone really believed that Keith Richards had the answer to health and longevity, by now we certainly would have seen a best-seller on the shelves touting the benefits of an alcohol and heroin diet.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What's this: I'm being carded!

I've always believed that we shouldn't worry about getting older, as long as we're healthy. I mean what's not to like about being older and, hopefully, wiser? Sure, maybe there are a few more aches when we get up in the morning, but, in general, we're more financially secure, more likely to be in a happy relationship, and more free of the worries that held us back when we were younger (But what will my friends think? What if I fail? What if I look like a jerk?).

Would many people really want to turn back the clock to their teens or twenties? If so, they obviously didn't attend the same high school and college that I did.

Anyway, having said all that, I have to admit that I started feeling a little freaked out two summers ago when the AARP cards in my name started arriving in the mail. I turned 50 only last year, but I guess the American Association of Retired Persons likes to get a jump on things. I can respect that.

But what is it about seeing those four letters in combination with my name that gives me pause? After all: A) I am an American; A) association is good, right? Otherwise, we're just destined to be odd loners; R) I'm not retired, but boy would I love to be! However, thanks to the Lehman Brothers and Bernie Madoffs of the world, that might have to be postponed a bit; and P) I am a person.

Am I just being another one of those hypocrites who says one thing and does another? Has anyone else had this reaction to those cards?

The first couple of times the cards came, I cut them up, as if someone stumbling upon the fact that I qualified for one might compromise my identity. This year, though, I'm thinking of joining the group. With the economy the way it is, why not save a few bucks with my AARP discount, right? I certainly don't feel "old," so it shouldn't even be an issue.

I've always thought that age is largely a state of mind. I've known people in their twenties who might as well have been 90, the way they moped around, complaining about their joyless lives. And I've known people in their seventies and eighties who embraced life with the wide-eyed wonder and energy of a child.

I remember a funny line I once came across, in a newspaper story about men who raced competitively on riding lawn mowers. The line was offered by one of the participants as a sort of motto for living: "You're only young once, but you can always be immature."

I'm sure his wife was mighty proud when she picked up that newspaper! Still, he has a point.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Semi-deep thought, by me

Anybody remember those Saturday Night Live spots called Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey? I used to love those, because they were deeply absurd, but also sometimes absurdly deep.

In case you don't remember or are not familiar with them, here's an example. It's a little bit crude, but happens to fit in exactly with where I was going with my thinking today.

If you'll indulge me now, I'm going to offer a sort of semi-deep thought of my own:

What if we had no access to visual cues about what we looked like, other than what we could see with our own eyes — no mirrors, no photos, no video, no reflections in a pond. How would we feel about our bodies?

This thought came to me after reading a story in Slate about a woman who thought she was too short and took the extraordinary step of having both of her legs surgically broken so she could be "stretched." It seems she had been taunted at school — hey, who wasn't? — and in adulthood felt that people didn't take her seriously because of her stature. You can read the story here.

The surgery — which increased the woman's height from 5'1" to 5'4"— could have resulted in a host of debilitating complications. But it didn't, and the woman went on to become a city councilwoman.

Now even without being able to catch a glimpse of herself, this woman would have been able to surmise that she was perhaps a bit shorter than "average." But would it have mattered so much to her? Would it have mattered — or in reality, did it matter — to anyone else?

I think a lot of us think too critically about our appearances, but what is it that we're comparing ourselves with when we wish our hair were straighter or curlier or fuller, our bodies thinner or more muscular, our height taller or shorter?

Is it our friends? Our coworkers? Strangers we see on the street? I doubt that. Think about that the next time you're at the supermarket or gas station, or just about any public place. Take a good look around.

No, I have to believe we're constantly sizing ourselves up against something more insidious and damaging, that notion of the "perfect" or "desirable" that's foisted on us daily by advertisers and Hollywood and has become so ingrained we're not even aware of its impact on our self-image.

So we find ourselves coming up short, so to speak, when we compare ourselves with this unattainable ideal.

And in assessing our looks, the mirror is our co-conspirator in negative self-talk.

In a recent post I shared my favorite quotation, from Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." It's a great line that I've used quite successfully to deflect the criticism of others.

But what happens when we are our own tormentors?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Taking bowling to a gutter level

For as long as I can remember, I've liked to bowl. For the last three years, I've even bowled on a league, at Alley Katz in Westerly. But I'll be the first to admit that bowling, while a fun and sociable activity, isn't exactly action-packed. Check out this old commercial, and just imagine the possibilities ...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The driving range kicked my ass!

As all you faithful readers of my blog (Hi Marge! Hi Dad! Hi Mickey!) now know, I love strength training. Although I push myself hard, I don't often experience muscle soreness as a result.

So imagine my surprise when I woke up yesterday, kind of stiff and achy all over. What had done me in? A medium-size bucket of golf balls the day before, that's what!

Thanks to bad weather, injured golf partners and other assorted reasons, it's been about a year since I've played golf. I got to feeling a little bad about that, so I headed for the driving range, just to make sure I hadn't lost it (not that I ever really had it).

Although I could still hit the ball pretty well, I had apparently lost something, because the next day just about everything was sore: my neck, my shoulders, my hips, even my ankles. I mean c'mon, my ankles? What the ... ?

I'm going to just chalk it up to one of those I-guess-I-haven't-used-those-muscles-in-a-while moments. Our bodies supposedly have more than 600 skeletal muscles, so it would be unrealistic to expect all of them to be ready for action at any given time.

I guess this is a good argument for engaging in a lot of different sports and activities. Still, it's hard to figure how swinging my driver could do more of a number on me than those 35-pound dumbbells. But then my relationship with golf always has been a little complicated.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My gym life needed a lift

There are some people who, when they reach that restless midlife stage, have an affair or buy a sports car. Me? I decided to learn how to perform a deadlift. (Full Disclosure: At 50, I suppose I'm technically past midlife, and I'm also happily married and don't like to drive fast.)

I became intrigued with the deadlift several weeks ago after stumbling upon a video of a woman named Nia Shanks, at 122 pounds, deadlifting 300 pounds in her first powerlifting competition, where she ended up setting a national push/pull record in her division by also bench-pressing 145 pounds. You can see for yourselves here.

I love watching as Nia steps up to the bar and casually and confidently hoists that 300 pounds with barely a grimace. Nia, by the way, also happens to be a fat-loss expert who posts some very insightful information on strength training and nutrition over at The Fat Solutions.

After watching that video and thinking, "How can she do that?" (no disrespect intended, Nia), I became curious about the deadlift, and as I often do when I'm curious about something, I started reading about it — a lot. What an eye-opener!

It turns out that the deadlift is THE core exercise, along with squats, for building overall strength. Where have I been for the last 20 years? Oh right, working out with dumbbells and machines of questionable value.

So I set out to learn how to do a deadlift, and to do it properly. That's very important when it comes to strength training: that old saying "fake it till you make it" might work in self-help circles, but in the weight room it can too easily turn into "fake it till you break it."

I headed to my friendly neighborhood gym, Anytime Fitness in Richmond, and had Joe Penrose, one of the gym's owners, demonstrate the deadlift for me. That's Joe at left, deadlifting 225 pounds just to humor me (Joe's the modest sort, and I'm pretty sure that was just a warm-up load for him).

A word of caution: I'm not intending here to show you or tell you how to do a deadlift, or even encourage you to try (all right, my internal lie-detector just went off on that last one). This is simply an account of my introduction to the deadlift.

I've always liked the idea of strength, and the deadlift is one of three events that form the sport of powerlifting, along with the squat and the bench press.

While I have no intention of getting into powerlifting, I think building strength is a good idea, regardless of one's age or gender, and I've never understood why so many women seem to fear it. To me, strength is freedom, and I don't mean that in the way a military recruiter might utter the phrase. What I mean is that strength can help you accomplish whatever it is you want to do.

Oh, I understand that many women don't want to get big and bulky, but our lack of the necessary levels of testosterone pretty much makes that a false worry. As Nia ably demonstrates, it's entirely possible for a woman to be exceptionally strong without the bulk.

So what's not to like about strength? It's a very relative term, when you think about it.

Strength to an elderly man might mean being able to pick up his grandchild without back pain. To a teenager, it might mean being able to safely and comfortably hike a 14,000-foot peak. To a middle-age woman, it might mean being able to pull that 40-pound bag of decorative stone from the shelf at Home Depot without asking for assistance.

Strength is freedom — freedom from limitation, freedom from unnecessary injury. Strength gives us the freedom to get into situations we want to be in, and the freedom to get out of situations we don't want to be in.

My first couple of deadlift sessions were challenging and interesting. I started with a mere 65 pounds, just to get the technique right. The move felt awkward at first, and I was a little self-conscious, since I've rarely seen anyone — man or woman — doing deadlifts at any gym I've ever belonged to. But soon the deadlift felt just plain good.

I'm now lifting 105 pounds, and will keep you posted on my progress. Maybe someday I'll even post a video of me deadlifting when I get to what I consider a "respectable" weight. Not that there's any shame in starting light. Egos have led to an awful lot of injuries, in the gym and elsewhere.

So thanks Nia and Joe, for giving me a much-needed lift.

And as for midlife? What's with all that "crisis" stuff anyway? Midlife is only halftime, and I plan to be a strong second-half finisher.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Size apparently does matter to some

There was a story a few days ago on CNN's Web site about people's perceptions of weight and how what many now consider a "normal" weight is heavier than it used to be. You can read the story here, although I was a little disappointed in it because I thought it veered all over the place.

But what intrigued me most was the beginning of it, in which the author mentions that the fashion industry and retailers have apparently been engaging in a little subterfuge to soothe our egos (and sell more clothes) by adjusting clothing sizes downward. So, according to the story, what was once a size 14 might now be labeled a size 10.

Now this was news to me, because I'm not much of a shopper. I've never paid that much attention to sizes, except as a starting point for the quick trip to the fitting room and what I always hope will be the equally hasty retreat from the store.

I had to wonder, does size deflation really make anyone feel better? I mean, really? Are people that out of touch with their bodies that they're going to put on a deceptively labeled size and feel better about themselves?

Maybe I'm odd (don't say it!), but when I put on a pair of jeans, I want them to fit well and feel comfortable, and it wouldn't matter to me whether the label said it was a size 2 or 22. I wish we weren't as a culture so obsessed with numbers-driven ideals.

OK, that's my rant for today. Carry on.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The more you know, the less you 'd'oh!'

That sounds like a good motto for someone like me, who's had her share of Homer Simpson-type moments over the years while pursuing a higher level of fitness. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I didn't have a clue what I was doing.

So in an effort to help others avoid one of the rookie mistakes I used to make, I'm offering a little quiz that I made up myself (as if you couldn't tell).

Now that summer is truly upon us, I'm sure some of you weekend warriors are hitting the tracks, trails and sidewalks for some good old-fashioned aerobic exercise. But do you know at what intensity you should be walking/jogging/running?
I know I'm having a good aerobic workout when:
A) My lungs are burning and I'm hyperventilating
B) I'm coughing up blood and/or vomiting
C) I feel like I'm exercising at a moderate to strong intensity, but can still carry on a conversation
D) I walk to the liquor store for my Bud Light and scratch tickets
If you answered D, get outta here, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

If you answered B, please make an appointment with a cardiologist immediately.

Now A is incorrect, but maybe not as obvious. I think a lot of people have the idea — in many areas of life, not just fitness — that if a little of something is good, then more must be even better. So if a little exertion is good for us, then we must be doing really well if we're "feeling the burn" and gasping for air during our workouts.

But in one of those weird paradoxes of life, the truth is that if you're breathing so heavily during an aerobic workout that you can't comfortably converse, then your heart rate has probably exceeded the range needed for cardiovascular benefits. You're sucking wind — for nothing!

Therefore, C is the correct answer.

There — the more you know, the less you 'd'oh!' And if you're not familiar with The Simpsons or those "more you know" public service announcements, well, never mind ... Guess I'll have to jog on back to the drawing board, at a moderate intensity, of course.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Look, up in the sky, it's ... an idiot?

I'm not usually one to diminish anyone's pursuit of happiness, but this just strikes me as bizarre, not to mention insanely dangerous. Still, it made me laugh, and I love to laugh. I hope it will help get your weekend off to a soaring start.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wir brauchen mehr Fahrräder*

Or, in English, We need more bicycles

Sorry, it's just that I've been attempting to learn German for the last three years and ever since I started this blog, I haven't been studying as much as I'd like to. So please pardon my slip of the tongue, so to speak, as well as this week's obsession with bicycling as a topic.

But there was a point here somewhere. Oh, yes, here it is: Germans eat what most of us would consider an obscene amount of meats and starches, and drink lots and lots of beer, but as a nation, they seem quite a bit trimmer than we Americans and I think bicycles are a big reason why.

I've been to Germany twice within the past year, and among the aspects of life there that I envied was that Germans seem to travel everywhere by bicycle. City sidewalks have bicycle lanes painted on them (I learned this the hard way), train stations have parking areas for bicycling commuters, and even out in the countryside, I noticed that running parallel to the highways were bicycle paths full of happy, active Germans, on their way to who-knows-where. Well, all right, I have no idea whether they were happy, but they sure did look fit.

I only wish we had it so easy here. Sure, we have bike paths here and there, but not really much of a practical network that lets us ride from Point A to Point B. We often have to drive to get to the bike path. And bicycling in our cities? Well, just make sure your life insurance policy is paid up.

I suppose it's not really fair to compare the two countries in this respect. Our country is vast, our sprawling cities have ample parking, and our public transportation system is lacking. Our infrastructure encourages people to drive and Americans have always had a love affair with the automobile — you'll have to pry that steering wheel out of our cold, dead hands.

Germany, by contrast, is small, its cities compact and parking-deficient, and its public transportation system highly efficient. It would be quite easy to live there without a car. So many Germans bicycle and walk, and stay fit and trim without even thinking about it.

OK, maybe not so trim. It seems that German waistlines have been expanding over the years, too, but obesity is still not the problem that it is here. According to a 2005 comparison of nations, 30.6 percent of U.S. residents were obese (defined as a body mass index of greater than 30), compared with only 12.9% of Germans.

Those clever Germans have even managed to combine bicycling with their love of beer, as seen at left on the streets of Bamberg in May. Yes, that's a pedal-powered bar. The "riders" were casually drinking their beer while pedaling away (the driver was not drinking).

Now that's German engineering at its finest!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Look, Ma — no bones!"

There was another one of those headlines last week that stopped me in my tracks: "Is Bicycling Bad for Your Bones?" Naturally, I wanted to know the answer, since I do a fair amount of mountain biking, so I read on.

The story by Gretchen Reynolds, reported in the New York Times online, discusses some surprising — or perhaps not — findings involving competitive cyclists and bone density. Those cyclists, evidence suggests, may be compromising their bone health.

In one study, the spinal bone density of 32 male competitive riders was found to be significantly less than that of the control-group subjects, who were active but not competitive athletes. Some of the riders even had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. The researcher behind the study, Aaron Smathers, was quoted as saying: "To find guys in their twenties with osteopenia was surprising and pretty disturbing."

The story goes on to explain that those findings and similar ones from other studies were maybe not all that surprising considering the unique demands placed on the body by competitive cycling. We're talking Lance Armstrong types here — athletes who ride tremendous distances at high intensities and burn far more calories than they consume in a day.

Furthermore, bicycling is not a weight-bearing exercise, so it doesn't help build and maintain bone density like running or walking does. Bones need a certain amount of stress to keep them strong, and cycling doesn't provide it.

The findings were interesting to me because I tend to think of osteoporosis primarily as a disease of elderly women. That young, elite male athletes were also at risk was intriguing.

But the findings aren't particularly relevant to most people's lives, and the story so much as said so: "Even more encouraging, most recreational cyclists probably don't need to worry too much about their bones."

I'd be curious to find out whether any bone-density studies have been conducted on mountain bikers. Mountain biking, with its impact forces, would seem to be more of a weight-bearing exercise than road biking.

Information about osteoporosis, and what you can do to help prevent it, is available from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I've got some swampland to sell you

Have you ever been curious about the sport of mountain biking, but were afraid to try it because you thought it would be like this? Mountain biking doesn't have to be a testosterone-laden sport, though I wouldn't mount that pink basket on the front of your bike just yet.

Rhode Island has a lot of wonderful physical features, but mountains are not among them, so fear not — the state has some excellent places to use your off-road training wheels.

One of my favorite easy rides is the Great Swamp Management Area, in South Kingstown. You won't find any technical riding here, but you will find an abundance of beauty and wildlife. A ride at the Great Swamp is like being part of a living postcard.

My partner, Marge, and I headed to the swamp on Sunday to burn off some of those Fourth of July cookout calories and to take some photos.

The swamp features mostly double-track dirt and gravel roads with just a few tiny pitches. Some sandy stretches provide the toughest challenge (a tip for beginners: switch to a really low gear, keep the front wheel absolutely straight, and pedal like mad through the sand).

There aren't a lot of roads or trails, so it's not the kind of place where you need to worry about getting lost. There are basically two routes: one spur will take you to Worden Pond, the largest freshwater pond in Rhode Island, and the other circles around the swamp. I typically can ride the whole thing, at a moderate pace, in about an hour.

I took up mountain biking nine years ago to help alleviate the withdrawal symptoms when ski season ended, and it turned out to be the perfect compliment to skiing. Not only does it offer some of the same exhilaration when riding downhill, but it also uses many of the same muscles and movements, helps develop balance, and helps train your mind and eyes to "pick a line" (tip #2 for beginners: try to look where you WANT to go, not where you DON'T want to go, because you WILL go wherever it is you're looking).

I've never been too keen on road biking, mainly because I have a deep-seated fear of that wild beast known as the Rhode Island Driver. But I've also found it a little boring, like being on auto pilot.

Sure, it's a great cardiovascular workout, but not much else when you're riding mostly flat terrain (note to Lycra-clad cyclists: please don't start hurling your water bottles at me — I obviously know nothing about logging the kind of miles that you do).

With mountain biking, I'm using all of my body, and it's impossible to get lulled into that steady-state rhythm. It's engaging, fun and physical.

If you're still not convinced that two wheels are the way to see the Great Swamp, it's also a nice place for a walk. Just remember to bring some insect repellent, or you might find yourself going for a run instead.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Resting in peace

Not to worry — I'm still among the living! And feeling even more lively than usual, I might add.

I had planned to write today about mountain biking, but instead I'm going to write about ... slacking! I don't actually like that word, because I think it gets tossed around a little too casually.

You see, yesterday I woke up with every intention of going to the gym, was even looking forward to it, but then something unusual happened: I suddenly didn't feel like going. Now that might be the norm for a lot of people, but not for me — I'm someone who genuinely enjoys her time at the gym.

But when I looked out at that cloudless blue sky, I knew immediately that yesterday was to be a beach day, not a gym day. Maybe I felt so driven to go to the beach because we seem to have finally emerged from the monsoon season that was June. More likely, I think it was because as I get older, I try to be a better listener when my body is speaking.

I have a high energy level, which is usually a good thing, but can sometimes feel like a curse. I don't sit well for long periods, or sometimes even short periods. I like to be in motion — a lot. For me, relaxation is painting a room or building a patio.

So as I was driving along Route 1, on my way to East Beach in Charlestown, I found myself feeling slightly guilty about not going to the gym, and engaging in a sort of mental bargaining: I told myself I'd take a long, brisk walk on the beach, and that would be my exercise for the day.

But again, things didn't work out as planned. When I got there, I set up my chair in a nice little spot up against the beach grass, far away from most everyone else, and just sat. And I enjoyed it.

So was I slacking? I don't think so. I prefer to think of it as replenishing.

It's easy to be so driven in our pursuits or occupied by the demands of our daily lives that we neglect rest. It sounds counterintuitive, but rest and recovery periods should be key components of every exercise program. It's during rest that our bodies build and rebuild.

Yeah, replenishing — I like that term. Today I'm ready to hit the gym hard.

Monday, July 6, 2009

True friends usually 'have your back'

I was touched last Monday when my friend Esther at Gratuitous Violins gave me a nice big shout-out in her theater blog. Esther enjoys her trips to New York's theater district as much as I enjoy my trips to the gym.

Now I didn't know how many of Esther's readers might be the least bit interested in the fact that her friend was starting a health and fitness blog — and I suspect there weren't many — so I thought it very nice of her to write about my new venture.

Her willingness to do it, unsolicited, got me to thinking about how important social support is when we undertake something new, such as getting in shape, eating more healthfully, quitting smoking, losing weight, or whatever it is we hope to do more or less of or just simply do.

I 'm sure we've all encountered negativity at some time in our lives, but there are some people out there who have elevated it to a lifestyle. You know the type — the ones who, after you've shared a dream or plan, let loose with comments like: "You'll never be able to finish that race." "What do you mean you're going to backpack through Europe? You'll probably be killed." "Nobody's hiring in that field anymore."

They reflexively stomp on ambition as if it were a cockroach.

I have a theory about why such people are that way: they're either lazy or afraid. Too lazy to better their own lives, or too afraid they'll fail trying.

So they become missionaries of misery, preaching the gospel of pain. If they can win enough converts to their view that the world is an uncaring, unjust and hopeless place, then none of us ever has to risk anything, because we're all screwed anyway.

When you think about it, it's really quite easy to be miserable. It's happiness that sometimes takes hard work.

So what can you do if you find your ambitions under constant assault from such people? Try to insert some distance if you can, and if that's not possible, just cover your ears and listen to your heart.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

It took me a while to learn that, but I get it now.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Free to work on weekends — or not

I don't want to "work" on weekends any more than the next person, but then I felt guilty thinking that someone — you, I guess — might end up here today, either by design or accident, expecting to find a fresh entry. So I've decided to aim for a Monday through Friday schedule of regular posts, with some "light" stuff on Saturday, such as videos or quotations.

Today I'll start with a quotation I've always liked.

"It is never too late to be what you might have been."

Those words have been attributed to George Eliot, a female English novelist who apparently thought she had a better chance of being who she wanted to be by writing under a man's name.

Now I'm not sure that quotation rings 100 percent true. In my what-if-I-had-my-life-to-live-over-again musings, for instance, I dream of being an airline pilot. Well sorry, George, uh, I mean Mary Anne, but it truly is too late for that.

Nevertheless, I like the basic sentiment behind it: We can always strive to improve ourselves, and please, whatever you do, don't use age as an excuse to not even try.

Happy Fourth of July.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Badminton, anyone?

As we begin this holiday weekend, some of you are no doubt dusting off the croquet set or badminton equipment for the big cookout.

For those of you whose competitive spirit is stoked by beer and family rivalries, I offer this inspirational video.

Enjoy your holiday, and be safe. Those shuttlecocks could put an eye out, you know.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Oh, to be a Carrot

So what's the point of having a blog if you can't post gratuitous photos of your pet?

Meet Carrot, a 15-year-old bundle of playful energy and love who belongs to my partner and me. All right, Carrot, I stand corrected — we belong to you. Carrot is with us today to illustrate a point, so I suppose his photo is not gratuitous after all.

Like most cats, Carrot is extremely flexible. Now our joints aren't built in such a way that we could ever hope to emulate Carrot and his ilk, but we could learn a few tips from them.

Carrot stretches — a lot. Each morning, the first thing he does when he jumps out of the wooden crate in which he likes to sleep is to hit the floor with a big, long, slow, sustained stretch, just the way we should do it, too. Atta boy, Carrot!

But he doesn't stop there. He stretches after breakfast, before naps, after naps, before and after lunch and dinner — basically all throughout the day.

No doubt about it, flexibility is a key component of fitness, but I think too often it gets short shrift in exercise programs. Oh sure, we might toss in that obligatory three minutes of stretching before we hit the weights or the treadmill, but we don't really concentrate on it. And how many of us bother to stretch after a workout?

Just as we can improve our strength or cardiovascular endurance, we can improve our flexibility through regular stretching. Plus, it just feels good.

I've decided to start stretching throughout the day, as part of my daily activities, just like my buddy Carrot. OK, so maybe I'll never be able to leap gracefully onto the top of the desk like he does, but working at that desk for hours just became a whole lot more bearable.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sometimes you have to move the goalpost

A friend told me the other day that my blog had inspired her to "get real" about the 40 pounds she had promised herself she would lose this year. Now I'm a big fan of anyone who tries to make positive changes in his or her life, but I was concerned that my friend might be setting the bar too high.

Goals are strange creatures. They can be powerful motivators or potential saboteurs. The latter occurs when they're unrealistic.

The world of fitness plans, programs and facilities seems a breeding ground for unrealistic expectations. The cycle plays out annually at gyms everywhere. In January, they're like little cities, bustling with the activity of their enthusiastic inhabitants. By March, they're mere villages, and by April, ghost towns.

I have to believe a big part of the reason for the dropout rate is frustration — the frustration of unmet goals.

Take Mr. Average Guy, who walks into the gym and sees Mr. Personal Trainer, with his massive chest and arms rippling with muscle. Mr. Average Guy thinks, "Yeah, I wanna look like that," and signs up for a membership and some training sessions.

That would be all fine and good, as long as he understood that Mr. Personal Trainer probably spends 12 hours a day at the gym, weighs every ounce of food he eats, and eats on a schedule as precise as a German train. Mr. Average Guy, lacking such single-minded drive, will most likely become frustrated at some point when, despite all of his efforts, he realizes he still looks, by comparison, average.

Or say I wanted to start running, which is unlikely, because I've always detested running, but stranger things have happened. Do you think I'd be more likely to succeed if I plunged right in and started training for a marathon, or by training first for a 5K?

There's no doubt in my mind that my friend could lose those 40 pounds, eventually. But instead of "promising" herself she'd do it this year, why not set an initial goal of 10 to 15 pounds, and when successful, follow it up with a goal of an additional 10 to 15 pounds, and so on?

A series of small goals can get us where we want to go, too. It just might require a little more time and patience, but we're more likely to reach our destination.

You know, I think I've just inspired myself. I'm going to go check out some listings of upcoming 5Ks.