Monday, August 31, 2009

Skip the drama and just act!

I've always had mixed feelings about that popular self-help expression "fake it till you make it." While I'm sure that approach can help some people, it has always struck me as too trite to be of real value to those who are trying to make big changes in their lives.

But I'm rethinking the matter, particularly as it relates to exercise. A few days ago, while studying my American Council on Exercise personal trainer manual, I came across a variation of that maxim: "It is easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling rather than feel yourself into a new way of acting."

The section of the manual in which this sentence appeared had to do with the principles of behavior change. According to one model of lifestyle change, we go through five distinct stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

When it comes to regular exercise, a lot of people seem to get to the contemplation stage, but never make it to action. One of the most frequently cited reasons for not working out is lack of time. I've always believed, however, that people will manage to make time for the things they truly want to do.

I also often hear people say — and I've been guilty of it, too — that after a day at work, they're too tired to work out.

But what if you just went and did it anyway, regardless of whether you felt like you had the time or energy? As any veteran exerciser knows, regular exercise is more likely to be a source of energy than fatigue.

So next time you find yourself contemplating exercise, but coming up with a host of reasons why you won't, just get up and go. If you stick with that strategy, you just might, over time, find yourself looking forward to exercise because you know it will make you feel better. Your actions, then, will have changed the way you feel about exercise.

Suddenly you'll have time for exercise, and arriving home from work tired will be a reason to go to the gym or take a walk in the park instead of parking yourself on the sofa.

Well, it's just a thought ...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Surf's up!

Tropical storm Danny is upon us this weekend, threatening heavy rain. Last weekend Hurricane Bill churned up some unusually heavy surf along the coast of New England. That, naturally, thrilled the surfers, who were out in full force.

Here's a short clip of professional surfer Ian Walsh, of Maui, Hawaii, riding the waves off Newport, Rhode Island. Isn't that deliciously ironic?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Words to live by

Just a little quotation to get your day started, as you do whatever it is you do, and dream whatever it is you dream:

"You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare."

— Georgia O'Keeffe

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bird brains and fear

Yesterday afternoon I was relaxing outside on our patio, just content to look out at the woods and the sky. At some point a female cardinal swooped in, low under the bird feeder, and landed in the grass below. She sat motionless for a minute, looking at me, sizing me up.

She soon began to crane her neck every which way, turning perhaps 10 or 15 times before occasionally ducking into the grass for a peck at the seed that had spilled from the freshly filled feeder. I wondered why she didn't just fly up onto the feeder, which would seem a much safer perch from which to eat, but then I remembered that I had been so remiss lately in filling it that her expectations were probably pretty low.

I watched her for maybe two minutes, amazed at the amount of energy it must have taken for her to consume just a few morsels. I started thinking about stress, and the toll it can take on our lives. I have no idea what the life span of a cardinal is, but I'm guessing it isn't very long.

She left as abruptly as she had arrived, and a male cardinal swiftly took her place. Her mate, perhaps? He, however, perched immediately on the feeder, though his nervous gyrations were much the same.

Stress in our lives can take many forms, but watching these two birds made me think of fear in particular. I had just read an excellent post about positive thinking by Jack Canfield in the Huffington Post. Canfield had summarized fear so simply that I found it brilliant: "Fear is self-created by focusing on something in the future that hasn't happened yet." And, more to the point, will very likely never happen.

I once read a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, and although I don't remember much of the book, I do remember the author making the claim that 90 percent of all of our fears never come to pass. I don't recall what kind of research she had to back up that claim, but if it's even half true, it's still pretty comforting.

Oh sure, there will be those doomsayers who say, "Well what about the 10 percent?" But think about it: If you thought you had a 9-in-10 chance of winning the lottery, you'd be rushing to buy a ticket, right? Yet how often do we shy away from trying something based on our 1-in-10 chance of whatever it is we fear?

"Without risk, there can be no reward." I came across that sentence recently in a horoscope. I generally don't read horoscopes and this particular one wasn't even mine, but that line caught my eye. Again, it was one of those simplistic but insightful statements.

I smiled as I watched the cardinals, thinking of the things I wouldn't have today if I had succumbed to my fears: a loving relationship, a nice home, and memories of trips taken to beautiful and interesting places and friendships made along the way.

The pair of cardinals in our backyard may or may not have had only a 1-in-10 chance of being snagged by our neighbor's cat, a hunting machine if there ever was one, but their hypervigilance has no doubt evolved because it has served the species well over time.

But what about our own vigilance, our own caution? What are we so afraid of?

Are we ourselves the potential enemy we fear?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Home-state pride, KFC style

Just when you think the American diet can't get any worse, along comes this ...

As the report notes, it's being sold only in Rhode Island and Nebraska for now. Why? Who knows, but it sure makes me proud. Yes, little Rhody is for once in the vanguard of ... something.

I don't think I've visited a Kentucky Fried Chicken in 20 years, but I might just have to go soon to see who, if anyone, is ordering this concoction. I'm hoping it's all a hoax or a misunderstanding. It wouldn't be the first time that Fox News has — horrors! — reported something inaccurately.

The term "double down" has its roots in gambling. When you consider the extent of obesity and heart disease in this country, it seems a pretty appropriate name for this sandwich.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Julie & Julia & Me

Over the weekend Marge and I went to the theater to cool off, and to see Julie & Julia. Yes, I think our priorities were in that order.

The film, for those who might not be familiar with it, is writer-director Nora Ephron's adaptation of Julie Powell's memoir of the year in which she decided to cook and blog her way through every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Marge and I both enjoyed the film, in large part because Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child was so entertaining and endearing, and because the film featured two strong women who decided they wanted to do something and did it, despite the obstacles and skepticism they met along the way. Both of them had very supportive husbands, and we also found it refreshing to see male characters who were portrayed as something other than clueless or contemptible.

I'm not familiar with French cooking, and although I remember Dan Akroyd's Saturday Night Live parodies of Julia Child — one of which was included in the film — I never watched Child's show. But I could find plenty to relate to in the character of Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams. When Powell began cooking and blogging her way to fame in 2002, she was a 30-year-old low-level New York City bureaucrat who yearned to be a writer.

I think every blogger can relate to this movie: the moments in the beginning of her project when Julie questioned whether anyone was even reading her blog, the thrill of receiving her first comment, the responsibility of knowing that her words were being read, and the frustration of producing worthy material day after day.

It is that last point that is prompting me to write this. At one point in the movie Julie's husband, seeing her obvious frustration over the demands of her self-imposed deadline, suggests that she back off the project. She responds by saying that she can't, that there are hundreds of people who read her blog daily and count on her to post.

I have no illusions that there are hundreds of people hanging on my every word each day. Truth is, a typical day for my blog is 20 visitors and on a really good day, 40 to 60. Only a handful visit every day.

My initial goal was to post six days a week, preferably something informative or entertaining or thought-provoking. The time required to do this, however, is getting to be too much. I do have a full-time job, and several other things on my plate at the moment, and lately I have been struggling to make time for all of them.

And guess which one has suffered the most? My workouts!

More important, I don't want to get to the point where my desire to post something daily leads to my posting just anything. Nor do I want this to become more chore than fun, because I have been having a lot of fun with it.

So beginning today, I'm abandoning my commitment to posting daily. Some weeks I might end up posting every day, and some weeks I might post only a couple of times. Routines can often be helpful, but I don't want to become a prisoner to one.

I hope those of you who have visited regularly will understand, and will continue to return. I appreciate your interest, and your comments.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A video tribute

I'm not usually afraid of heights, but watching this climb, even on video, is absolutely dizzying.

It is all the more amazing because Dan Osman, a climbing legend in his day, swiftly scaled this 400-foot-plus cliff without ropes or any other kind of safety mechanism. Whatever you think of the wisdom of doing something like this, you have to admire the sheer athleticism of Osman's feat.

Sadly, like so many other practitioners of extreme sports, Osman met an early death, in 1998 at the age of 35, while practicing his extraordinary version of fun. Ironically, he died while "rope jumping," in which one jumps from a cliff and is caught by a safety rope.

It was, in the end, a failure of a rope that did him in.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Carbo unloading

If you thought that title was a clever way for me to announce that I was ridding my diet of most carbs, you're going to be disappointed. No, this is a good old-fashioned rant about one of my pet peeves: the vilification of carbohydrates.

I figured today is as good a day as any for a rant. Rants are, after all, much easier to write than a well-thought-out post about some journey of self-discovery or a well-reasoned response to some poorly designed health study. I'm just plain tired at the end of this long week, so a rant it is!

Let's face it, carbs are like people: there are good ones, and there are bad ones. But somehow carbs seem to have all been lumped together in the collective public mind, if there even is such a thing (see, with a rant you don't need to fact-check or even consider whether you're making sense!). Well I'm a carb-eating, potato-lovin' gal who's fed up!

Recently at my gym I overheard a woman boast that she NEVER eats ANY carbs. Hello? Has not a fruit or vegetable passed through her carb-virgin lips? And if so, what, exactly, is she eating?

Her statement was so shocking that a trainer who overheard it felt compelled to insert himself into the conversation and warn her that she was jeopardizing her health. She waved off his concerns like a plate full of pancakes and home fries.

Carbohydrates are the body's chief energy source. Leave them out of your tank and you'll be running on empty soon enough.

So back to those potatoes I love. Are they good for you or bad for you? Well, it mainly depends on how they're prepared. French fries — not so good for you. Baked — and served without a ladle of sour cream and a half-cup of bacon bits — pretty good for you, especially if you eat the skin, too. Potatoes are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

I'll be sure to think of that woman at the gym the next time I bake a potato: this spud's for you!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gender and sports

I was wondering what I was going to write about today, because I was fresh out of ideas and energy, thanks to a bizarre work schedule this week. And then I came across this story about questions concerning the gender of a competitor in the IAAF World Championship in Athletics in Berlin, Germany.

Actually, I don't follow sports all that much, and were it not for my friend Kerstin in Meiningen, Germany, I wouldn't have even known that this competition was happening.

Anyway, the story about Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old South African who won the gold medal in the 800-meter race Wednesday, made me cringe for two reasons. First, the basis for the allegation that she might really be male seems to be an almost knee-jerk reaction: if a woman performs in a spectacular fashion, perhaps she is not really a woman, particularly if she has more muscle than the average woman. And second, if the allegation is true, then sports have been further diminished by yet another episode of cheating. Either way, it would seem to be a black eye for sports.

But the issue might not be as clear-cut as it appears at first glance. The story quotes IAAF spokesman Nick Davies as saying that it is a "medical issue, not an issue of cheating," and that "extremely complex" testing is under way. I can only imagine where this may be going, and if it's going where I think it might be, I feel for Caster Semenya.

It brings to mind the controversy that surrounded the late Babe Didrikson, one of the greatest female American athletes of all time, who was plagued by questions about her "femininity." Or, more recently, the controversy surrounding Sarah Gronert, a 22-year-old German whose presence on the women's tennis tour has sparked controversy.

I don't know what more to say other than that I hope Semenya keeps her medal, and that she and the sports world can move on.

By the way, I apologize for using news links that included some vile comments by readers. But such ignorance, sadly, is a big part of these types of stories.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ticktock, ticktock

For better or worse, this is going to be one of those random-thought posts, in this case about time.

I've always been fascinated with time — not in a Stephen Hawking, black-hole kind of way, but more in the way that we mark it. It all seems so arbitrary, yet so important to our daily lives.

Yesterday I was reminded of the passage of time not by the hands of a clock or the pages of a calendar, but by the appearance of purple loosestrife. Though considered an invasive weed, I've always found it beautiful. But its appearance, usually in August here in Rhode Island, makes me a bit melancholy.

It signals that the summer is nearing an end, often at about the same time that I realize the summer has begun. It always triggers that where-has-the-time-gone feeling that makes me just a bit sad. Not sad because I've mismanaged or wasted my time, but sad because I realize how quickly it all goes by.

Fall is my favorite season, yet fall often makes me think of aging, or even dying. Think about the overused metaphors we read and hear: people are usually either in the spring of their lives, or their autumn. Autumn, in this context, is generally not considered a good thing, even though autumn in nature offers us some of the finest weather and the most spectacular scenery. I hope it will be so, too, in my life metaphorically.

As I noticed the purple loosestrife yesterday on a riverbank near our house, I was reminded of that late September, ten years ago, when I decided to spend a week in a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, all by myself. Now this cabin had propane-generated electricity, but was pretty primitive compared with what I'm used to. My friends and coworkers thought, in a word, that I was "crazy" to spend my hard-earned vacation time there.

But there was something appealing to me about the idea of a week of solitude, if not entirely off the grid, certainly off the clock. I was determined to not look at a clock the entire week. But at the last minute, I did pack a wristwatch, and that concession to habit should have told me right then and there that my experiment was destined to fail.

So there I sat, all alone in my cabin that could have easily accommodated six people, with my stack of good books and some good food and wine, hoping to enjoy my time in the absence of it as we normally experience it. The sunrise would be my alarm clock, darkness my cue to call it a day. I would just go with the natural rhythms of my body and nature, not forcing anything like I am so often forced to do.

I made it only two days before I peeked at that watch I brought along. I don't know why it was so important to me, but I just HAD to know what time it was.

Throughout my life I've periodically kept journals, and one of my entries, many years ago, read: Would we live our lives any differently if we knew precisely how much time we had?

What do you think?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mind your peas and cukes

Yesterday I wrote about the difficulty of paying full attention to the present moment. One area where a lot of us could probably stand to be a little more mindful is our eating habits.

Between meals grabbed on the run at fast-food restaurants and meals consumed in front of the TV, is anyone truly enjoying their food?

How often have we stuck another forkful of food into our mouths while still chewing the last bite? Did we stop to think about the sight, smell, texture or temperature of the food? Do we know how much we've actually eaten?

I am so guilty of doing other things while eating. Unless my partner and I have invited company for dinner, we almost always eat — and I hate to admit this — in front of the TV, our plates on the coffee table. It's cozy and familiar, but not conducive to good eating habits.

Sometimes I find myself regarding food as a necessary evil, wishing I could spend my time doing things other than cooking and preparing meals. I've never really appreciated food the way some of my friends seem to.

There are reasons to eat mindfully other than enhanced enjoyment of food. Health experts agree that mindless or distracted eating contributes to overeating, which leads to weight gain and sometimes even digestive problems. So if you want to lose weight, mindful eating sounds like an easy and sensible approach to help you on your way.

A lot of helpful information about mindful eating can be found on the Internet. I was surprised to find that there's even a Center for Mindful Eating, dedicated to promoting the concept.

So what exactly is meant by mindful eating? It means turning off the TV or putting aside that book or newspaper during meals and focusing your senses on the food before you. It means taking one bite at a time, paying attention to the taste, texture and temperature of the food, and the sensation of it in your mouth. It means chewing each bite slowly and noticing the transition from chewing to swallowing.

OK, it sounded good to me, so I decided to try a mindful-eating exercise, but I made the mistake of trying it with one of my favorite snacks: sardines. Now I can safely put sardines on my list of former favorite snacks. What was I thinking?

I'm sorry, mindful-eating proponents, but some things are better eaten with distraction.

The beauty of the moment

I have been to Utah twice now, once in 2001 by myself and again in 2006 with my partner, Marge. It is a place of captivating beauty that left its mark on both of us.

Our favorite stop was Arches National Park, not only because one of our favorite movies (Thelma and Louise) was filmed in part there, but also because the park contains some of the most amazing scenery either of us has ever seen. Views such as this:

And this:

And this (Delicate Arch, at left, is the arch featured on Utah license plates):

Oddly enough, though, of the hundreds of beautiful photos of arches and bridges, hoodoos, and mountains from our vacation, one of my favorites has always been this close-up I took of an ant making its way along the sun-baked earth of Arches with a chunk of a tourist's Doritos chip:

This moment fascinated me not only because the ant's seemingly endless struggle stirred feelings of existential empathy, but also because I had even noticed the ant in an environment in which it would have been entirely easy to miss.

I don't always observe what is around me in great detail. I will freely admit that my mind is often a mad dash of thoughts: thoughts about the past and the future, about things I shouldn't have done and things I should do, about why things are the way they are instead of the way they could be. I am not someone who easily occupies the "now."

But in Utah, amid the stunning beauty and free of my daily stresses, real or imagined, I was wholly present in the moment. My photo of the ant, I suppose, was a product of the macrofocus of both my camera and my mind.

It shouldn't require a vacation to have such moments, although we sometimes have to make the time for them. Lately I have been feeling stretched a little too thin, and realize that I need to slow down a bit.

I plan to try to set aside some time each day to sit quietly, clear my mind and just see, hear, smell, touch and taste the life around me at that particular moment.

Our culture doesn't always make it easy to be present in the moment. At our local Stop & Shop on Saturday, the Halloween decorations were already on the shelves.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whiplash doesn't always require a collar

Three weeks ago I featured rats playing basketball, so this week I thought it was time to let the dogs have their day. Or at least one cute Jack Russell terrier named Whiplash. If this doesn't make you feel happy and energized, nothing will.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Health care and us

Watching the recent debate over health-care reform in this country has been something akin to rubbernecking at a grisly car wreck: it's disturbing, but I can't seem to turn away. So there I was yesterday watching a TV report that featured the usual angry mob at a town hall meeting hurling insults and outlandish rumors at one hapless congressman or congresswoman or another.

And it struck me: Many of these people who were angrily expressing fear over losing their beloved health care, whatever it may be at the moment, were part of the problem. Many of them were either overweight or obese, mostly preventable conditions that can lead to a host of physical problems that further feed the health-care juggernaut. It just seemed so tragically ironic.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the noted alternative-medicine guru, wrote in the Huffington Post on Sunday that our system is "not a health care system at all; it's a disease management system." Americans, he wrote, spent "an astonishing $2.3 trillion" on medicine in 2007.

Dr. Dean Ornish, known for his work in using lifestyle approaches to treat coronary artery disease, also weighed in on the Huffington Post, writing that 95 cents of every dollar spent on medical care "were spent to treat disease after it had already occurred." He cited heart disease, in particular, as an expensive burden on the system that could largely be prevented.

"Many people tend to think of breakthroughs in medicine as a new drug, laser, or high-tech surgical procedure," Ornish wrote. "They often have a hard time believing that the simple choices that we make in our lifestyle — what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much exercise we get, and the quality of our relationships and social support — can be as powerful as drugs and surgery, but they often are. Often, even better."

Not too long ago I overheard a conversation in which a woman was telling her friend that she had been diagnosed with mild hypertension, and was planning to take medication for it. "Exercise and dieting are too much work," she said. "I'd rather just take a pill."

In my town of Richmond, with a population of just over 7,000, the only commercial strip contains three pharmacies — a Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS — all within a half-mile of one another.

The status quo is clearly working for some.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Focus: Triathlete Diana Lajoie

Diana Lajoie admits to having a competitive streak so fierce that she usually declines to participate in anything she knows she can't win. She's even quick to end her favorite computer game of Yahtzee when it looks like it's not going well, opting instead to start a new game.

So it surprised the 38-year-old resident of Seekonk, Mass., as much as anyone when in 2004, at the urging of a couple of triathletes in the yoga class she taught, she decided to enter her first triathlon in Ashland, Mass., an Olympic-distance event that consisted of a swim of just under a mile, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.

"I was delighted just to finish, and I got the bug," Lajoie said last week over dinner in Providence.

"Bug" might be a bit of an understatement. Since then, Lajoie estimates, she has competed in 10 Olympic triathlons, 4 sprints (consisting of a half-mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run), 2 "70.3s" or half-triathlons (a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run) and 3 Ironmans, the granddaddy of all triathlons, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

In her last Ironman, in Lake Placid, N.Y., on July 26, Lajoie placed 17th out of 104 in her division with a personal-best time of 12 hours, 1 minute and 21 seconds. (All of these photos, incidentally, are from the Lake Placid event.)

While happy to have posted her best time in Lake Placid, Lajoie felt she could have done better were it not for some issues that arose related to her race-day intake of food and liquids.

"Nutrition is everything," she said.

The problem began with a minor cramp in her right calf during the swim, she said. She fared very well during that portion of the event, finishing 10th in her division. The cramps escalated during the bike ride, Lajoie said, so she began drinking a lot of water at every aid station and dipping into all the nutrition she carried in her Fuel Belt, "just like in training." She managed to finish strong in the bike ride, at ninth place in her division. But her troubles were just beginning.

"By the time I got to the run, the leg cramps were gone, but my stomach was upset," she said. "Thank God for Porta Johns. It was very challenging."

When such unforeseen troubles arise on the course, Lajoie said, "It becomes more of a mental race than a physical race."

Running has always been her weakest link in the event, Lajoie said, which is why she's planning to emphasize running in her training from October through February, perhaps participating in some 5Ks and 10Ks to work on her speed. But that will be for training purposes only.

"I love triathlon," she said. "I could never see myself just swimming, biking or running."

Her goal is to be invited to the most famous of all triathlons, the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. "I think it is [the goal] for everyone," she said. Only the top three finishers in each division of an Ironman are invited to the Hawaii race, though the top 20 are kept on a list of potential invitees in case some cannot make it.

Because Lajoie finished 17th in her division at Lake Placid, she was honored to have her name on that list.

Lajoie said one of the most difficult things about running an Ironman, aside from the countless hours of training, is learning to pace herself. Being so competitive, it's hard, she said, to watch people pass her, but she has to resist the urge to try to keep up.

"The whole point is to find a pace that will be comfortable without burning yourself out," she said. "So many people leave themselves for dead on the run."

If there's one thing Lajoie hopes others will take from her story, it is that she has accomplished what she has as an ordinary woman. She did not have parents who pushed her along the way, she did not have a high-paid coach. She is truly self-motivated, having trained herself using plans downloaded from the Internet.

"I'm just a normal person," said Lajoie, who works as a CAT-scan technologist at Rhode Island Medical Imaging. "Anybody can do this, whether running their first 5K, or doing the first one-mile walk that they've never done before."

There is a price to pay for the training required for Ironmans, though. Lajoie talks almost ruefully of the pre-dawn hours spent training alone, and the fact that she can never seem to find the time to go camping under the stars on a weekend with her husband.

"So you envy other people," she said. "The only time I sit still is when I hit the wall."

I'm thankful Diana took the time to sit still with me for a couple of hours, and I didn't get the sense that there was a wall anywhere in sight.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trip report: Carolina in my mind

Not that Carolina, although I have enjoyed visits to the beautiful Outer Banks and the refreshingly liberal oasis of Asheville, N.C.

No, the Carolina of which I write today is here in Richmond, R.I., practically in my backyard — the Carolina Management Area, a 2,359-acre expanse of woodlands, wetlands, fields and fun. This past weekend was a real beauty, the kind we haven't seen too many of in these parts this summer, so Marge and I loaded up the mountain bikes and headed over to the management area to ride.

Like the Great Swamp Management Area that I wrote about last month, the Carolina Management Area doesn't offer much in the way of technical riding, though I would rate it as more difficult than the swamp. There are a few places where the trails narrow and become rocky, and as Marge discovered, there are some hidden hazards for those who decide to ride over things despite not being able to see what's on the other side. That's her at right, picking herself up after nearly going over the handlebars after her front wheel fell into a hidden hole on the other side of a fallen tree. (Not to worry: she was startled, but fine.)

But mostly you'll find wide, smooth, pine-covered trails through the woods, and some doubletrack through meadows and cornfields. A word of warning about those meadows: if riding through high grass creeps you out, you probably won't like it here. There were moments when, with Marge leading the way, all I could see was her head amid fields of wildflowers and grass, the trail barely discernible.

One of our favorite parts of the ride is an old cemetery that is in danger of being claimed by overgrowth. If you're not looking for it, it's pretty easy to miss. It seems like it's in the middle of nowhere, until you realize that years ago, this was somewhere.

We always like to stop and poke around the gravestones, many of which are practically illegible by now. I know it might sound a little macabre, but sometimes nothing makes me feel more alive than being surrounded by the dead.

We had to laugh toward the end of our ride when, as Marge set up to take a photo of me entering a cornfield, I was nearly blown off my bike by two shirtless teenage boys on bikes who came screaming around the corner out of nowhere. We were laughing both because we hardly ever see anyone riding here, and also because of the contrast in our ages. As Marge said, "How many women our age do this kind of thing?" We wish there were more, because it is a lot of fun.

The management area is bordered on the south by Route 91 and the north by Kenyon Hill Trail. It's bisected by Pine Hill Road, and there's good riding on either side. Parking can be found in two small lots on Pine Hill Road, including one by the hunter check station. On the north side, you can also park at the Carolina Trout Pond, whose entrance is off Switch Road on the west side of the management area.

I wish I could provide you with detailed directions for riding in the management area, but I've always been one to just wing it. Fortunately, I have a good internal compass. Unlike the Great Swamp, Carolina is a vast area that has been known to be the scene of search operations when hikers have been lost (this usually occurs, I might add by way of reassurance, when people set out on their hikes late in the afternoon or early evening and are surprised at how quickly it can become dark).

You can find some rudimentary Department of Environmental Management trail maps here. But if you're still a little hesitant, detailed maps can be purchased at places like Agway on South County Trail in Exeter and URE Outfitters in Hopkinton.

And one last warning: If you decide to ride in the fall after Oct. 1, just be sure to wear 200 square inches of blaze orange. It seems like there's always some kind of hunting season going on in this state.

Although I know there are some hikers and equestrians who would like to see an open season on mountain bikers, I've never understood that mindset.

This land belongs to all of us. Why can't we respect one another and get along? There's plenty of room for all of us.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Success stories: A casting call

I'd like to try a little experiment and occasionally run stories about people whose accomplishments can inspire us.

I plan to kick off this experiment Thursday with a profile of Diana Lajoie, a Massachusetts resident who somewhat hesitantly entered her first triathlon in 2004 and has been swimming, biking and running her way to personal achievement ever since. Last month she finished an Ironman in Lake Placid, N.Y., in just over 12 hours, a personal best.

I hope you'll enjoy Diana's story and help provide me with material for other such stories. I'd love to hear from you if you or someone you know has an inspiring story and would like to share it with me.

The accomplishments don't necessarily have to be of the athletic variety. They could be about weight loss, or finding happiness, or overcoming a physical problem. Just something that reminds us that ordinary people are capable of some pretty extraordinary things when they tap the power within.

You can e-mail me with story suggestions at

Monday, August 10, 2009

The polling station is open again!

Yes, it's time to cast your vote in another scientifically unsound, but fun, Rhode to Fitness poll. When I last opened up this blog to an exercise in democracy, I learned that the vast majority of Rhode to Fitness readers (or, more accurately, all 18 of you who responded) were already a pretty active group. No surprise there, really.

This time I'm interested in hearing from you about why you exercise regularly. I'm sure there are some potential reasons I didn't include in the poll, such as that the guy or gal you've been chasing belongs to the gym, so therefore you must go, too. But I think I've included most of the reasons people usually cite for spending good time and money to work themselves into a disgusting sweat.

So have fun, and remember to vote early and often — oh wait, that isn't right, at least not in this precinct. No, you can only vote once, but please do stroll on over to the "booth" at top left.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

On the ropes

Lately I've been noticing more than a few people at my gym jumping rope to get warmed up before starting their workouts, or to keep limber between sets of whatever it is they happen to be doing.

I can't really remember jumping rope much as a child, when a lot of other girls were doing it, and the thought of beginning to do it at age 51 kind of scares me. So I have to admire the girls in this video, who take jumping rope to a whole new level.

This is the team known as The Firecrackers, a dedicated group of fourth- to eighth-graders from Ohio who practice two hours five to six days a week.

Look at their smiles and their enthusiasm. I find their performance so refreshing in this age of overpaid, overdrugged professional athletes whose boorish behavior lands them in the headlines more often than their athletic accomplishments.

Friday, August 7, 2009

If you're stalled, shift into "overload"

A couple of days ago I mentioned the principle of specificity, which says that physiological adaptations to exercise are specific to the system or part of the body being worked. Today I might as well toss out another principle of exercise science for your consideration, and that is the principle of overload.

This principle states that in order for the system or part of the body being exercised to adapt to training and make progress, a greater-than-normal stress must be placed on it. In other words, your workout should tax you a bit.

If you want to improve your cardiovascular endurance, a moderately paced half-hour walk around the local track every day won't cut it. Or, if you want to build leg strength, squats with an Olympic bar minus weight plates are not going to do it.

I mention this because over the years I've heard a number of friends bemoan the fact that they were not getting faster or stronger, or whatever it was they hoped to achieve, despite working out regularly.

But upon further questioning, it usually turned out that they were still doing the same old exercises at the same intensity as when they first began working out. Their muscles, heart and lungs were probably crying out: "Help! We're bored! We need a challenge!"

Now "overload" does not mean "overdo." When adding weight to a lift, or distance to a run, you want to challenge yourself, but within safe limits. I won't speak about running, because I think I've spent enough time this week documenting the fact that I'm not a runner.

And although I'm not a personal trainer — at least not yet — I have spent 20 years engaging in regular weight-training, so I'll limit my comments to that subject.

With weight-training, the best way to judge whether a weight load is appropriate for any given exercise is by the number of reps you can do until fatigue (fatigue meaning you could probably do only one or two more reps before your form would be compromised). In general, 8 to 12 reps is considered a safe range for experienced exercisers (if you're just starting out, 12 to 15 is a better bet).

So if you're easily banging out 15 reps while whistling and mentally composing your grocery list, and feel like you could still do a whole bunch more, that's probably a good sign you can go heavier.

Why spend all that time at the gym without getting results?

Sadly, a lot of people who end up asking themselves that question give up without understanding why success is eluding them. Just remember: at the gym, "heavier" is a good word.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Phys ed class can be a real pain

Another one of those "study" stories that I love (not!) came out earlier this week, this one sounding an alarm over the rising number of injuries among children participating in phys ed classes.

The study, being published in the September edition of Pediatrics and reported this week by a number of news outlets, found a 150 percent increase from 1997 to 2007 in injuries suffered among children ages 5 to 18 during gym classes. Extrapolating from the data they collected from 100 representative U.S. hospitals, researchers estimated that such injuries had risen from fewer than 30,000 in 1997 to more than 60,000 a year by 2007.

What was most interesting was that the researchers attributed to the rise in gym-class injuries to a lack of appropriate supervision. They pointed out that in some school districts, phys ed teachers don't even have to be certified.

Of the injuries documented during the study, strains and sprains were more common among girls while boys suffered more cuts and broken bones. Isn't some of that just normal kid stuff?

The study is worth considering, particularly as it applies to the supervision that children receive. Children should be properly supervised at school, whether it be on the playground, in the gymnasium or in the science lab.

But I certainly hope the fear of possible injuries and resultant litigation doesn't prompt schools to cut back on gym classes even more than many already have. Children need to be encouraged to be more active.

A cut or sprain is nothing compared with the potential toll of obesity, heart disease or diabetes on that child later in life.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A footnote to my road race adventure

It occurred to me after posting my report yesterday about participating in the Run 4 Kerri that perhaps some readers might be thinking, "I can't believe this woman who wants to be a personal trainer can't jog four miles!"

So in my defense, I just wanted to mention the "principle of specificity," a principle of exercise science that says physiological adaptations to exercise are specific to the system or part of the body being worked. Or, in simpler terms, if you want to get better at an activity, you have to actually do it.

I've never liked to run. This puts me at odds with many of my friends and acquaintances, who daily log the kinds of mileage that would kill me. They run through the rain and snow, through heat and bitter cold, through injury, and sometimes right out of the lives of their significant others. They are, in a word, addicted.

In my younger days I tried running, but it never did much for me. All that pounding on the joints wasn't pleasant, and I found it kind of boring. For a while I switched to trail running, which was more interesting, but as a solo activity was also unnerving. I would find myself running from imagined dangers lurking in the woods and I would emerge with a heart rate elevated from anxiety more than anything else.

So I eventually abandoned running altogether and turned to kinder, gentler forms of cardio exercise, such as fast walking, hiking and biking. Those things I can do well, and do for hours and long distances without fatigue. And more importantly, I enjoy them. It's hard to stay motivated when you're forcing yourself to do an activity you don't like simply because you think it'll be good for you.

I consider myself to have a relatively good level of cardiovascular fitness, but all those things I've done to achieve it did not translate to the road race on Sunday. Our bodies are funny that way.

For instance, although I regularly do biceps curls with 20-pound dumbbells, I know that when my fall bowling league begins next month, I'll be feeling sore the day after picking my 14-pound ball up for the first time in months. It doesn't seem like it should be that different, but it is.

As I mentioned yesterday, in spite of my limitations, the Run 4 Kerri was a fun experience and inspired me to consider participating in some more races, if for no other reason than I like a challenge. Clearly, running is a sport in which I have a lot of room for improvement.

I'll be running in the future with the principle of specificity in mind: I'm planning to further train my sense of humor.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I pretend to be a runner for Kerri

On Sunday, my partner, Marge, and I participated in the 8th annual Run 4 Kerri, a 4-mile road race in South Kingstown to benefit a scholarship fund in memory of Kerri Bessette, whose story touched both of us.

I'll put this out there right now: I AM NOT A RUNNER — NEVER HAVE BEEN, NEVER WILL BE. I could easily improve my endurance if I chose to work on it, but as for speed, I am SLOW — ALWAYS HAVE BEEN, ALWAYS WILL BE.

But that said, Marge and I were looking forward to the race, which organizers said had drawn 980 participants on that sunny, muggy morning. Marge, due to a foot problem, had decided to walk the whole thing, and had set a goal for herself of finishing in under an hour. I had no goal, really, other than to jog as much as I could and not completely disgrace myself or end up having to be hauled away in a rescue truck.

We felt a little intimidated as we sat in a line of traffic on Matunuck Beach Road, waiting to get into the parking area before the 9 a.m. race. There were already people in low-numbered bibs running up and down the road, warming up. Warming up? I couldn't imagine it — I would need to save every once of energy for that four miles, which, by the way, would be the longest distance I've ever "run." I've participated in a few 5Ks (3.1 miles), having been goaded into them by friends, but that's been the extent of my running experience.

We managed to find a parking space, register for the race and arrive at the starting line with 10 minutes to spare. A pretty good crowd was assembled, and I wondered what Kerri would think of the turnout she inspired.

We bumped into a friend of ours, Dot Zullo, who is a racewalker (and Rhode to Fitness follower), and chatted briefly with her and did a few obligatory stretches before the gun sounded. And then we were off!

Dot walks so fast that I decided she would be a good pacesetter for me, even though I was jogging. I managed to keep Dot in sight until a little past the two-mile mark when suddenly — voilĂ ! — I turned into Gumby. So I stopped jogging and began walking, using the break to take some photos along the way. After all, I knew you'd want photos, too!

By now the sun was beating down on us pretty ferociously, and even though the course looped past Matunuck Beach, there was no cooling ocean breeze on this day.

I never saw Dot again until the finish area, and for the rest of the distance I alternated between jogging and walking. I just had fun with it, and enjoyed the banter of the other runners and the neighborhood residents who sat on their front lawns ringing cowbells, shouting encouragement and directing their sprinklers onto the street for our benefit.

I ramped it up a little as I neared the finish, so that I could at least look like a runner, even though the clock revealed me as a fraud. As I entered the finish corral, I ran past a man who was lying on the ground being tended to, ice packs on one knee and an arm. I don't know what happened to him, but I didn't get the impression it was terribly serious, even though the rescue had been summoned. I was thankful that it wasn't me.

I crossed the finish line in 44 minutes and 27 seconds, four minutes and 27 seconds behind Dot. Marge (at bottom right, looking strong and happy at the end) met her goal by finishing in 58:50. We all felt a feeling of accomplishment, although probably nothing compared with what Patrick Tarpy of Providence must have been feeling. He finished first with a time of 19:23.

I was even more excited when I found out that my bib number had been drawn in a raffle. I lined up to collect my prize, watching as those ahead of me got such things as gift certificates to restaurants and theater tickets. So what did I win? A $15 gift certificate toward the purchase of a medical ID bracelet or necklace. Ha! Were they trying to tell me something?

And one last little indignity. Later that day I went to check the results on the Cool Running Web site and couldn't find my name. That's because I was listed as Kathy Farmous. I had to laugh. But I did finish 17th out of 55 in my division, so maybe there's a little hope for me after all.

I have to admit, as Marge and I drove away at the end of the race, we were already talking about "the next one."

Monday, August 3, 2009

And the winner of the poll is ... everyone!

The results are in from my highly unscientific poll intended to gauge whether my readers are gym rats or couch potatoes. Thanks to its poor design, I'll never know.

With a whopping 18 respondents, the breakdown was as follows: 8 people, or 44.5 percent, reported that they exercise daily, another 8 people (also 44.5 percent, for the math-impaired) reported exercising at least once a week, and 2 people, or 11 percent, said they exercise once a week. No one reported exercising only rarely.

Now I didn't define exercise for purposes of this poll, so for all I know, a half-hour of gardening was given as much weight by the respondents as a 60-minute sweat-fest on the elliptical trainer. But it really doesn't matter, because the point is, those of you who responded are active in some way, and that already puts you ahead of an estimated 40 percent of Americans who live a sedentary lifestyle.

In 1995, the American College of Sports Medicine released its "exercise lite" recommendations for adults. The guidelines were intended to educate the public about the health benefits of even moderate exercise, in recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach to exercise does not work. It turns out that for basic health benefits, you don't have to practically kill yourself at the gym for hours every day (if your goal is weight loss, however, you will have to work a little harder).

The guidelines were updated in 2007, in conjunction with the American Heart Association, and can be found in detail here.

For healthy adults under 65, the guidelines call for "moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week, and 8 to 10 strength-training exercises, with 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise, twice a week." For adults over 65, the cardio recommendations are the same, but the strength-training recommendations are adjusted slightly.

The cardio activity can be accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes each — not a huge time commitment when you think about it.

A study published in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion found that 67.5 percent of all adults reported watching TV or videos an average of two hours or more a day within the previous month, and 25.2 percent of adults reported using a computer outside of work an average of two hours or more a day. Cleary, Americans have some extra time, but prefer to sit on it.

A sedentary lifestyle has been shown to be a risk factor for obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health problems. So let's get up and move!

Oh, and be on the lookout for further polls. They may not be scientific, but I think they're fun.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The agony of ... victory?

A couple of weeks ago while writing about the deadlift, I made the point that strength can help us avoid situations we'd prefer not to be in. Perhaps you thought I meant escaping the occasional parking-garage mugger, but I really had dicey sports moments in mind when I wrote that.

And as this video shows, strength can also help us emerge uninjured from situations we didn't want to be in, but ended up in anyway. (I apologize that the sound and graphics are in Japanese, but it was the best of the video that I could find.)

For those of you who don't follow skiing, this is Hermann Maier of Austria having an epic crash in the 1998 Olympic downhill in Nagano, Japan. Not only did "The Hermannator," as he was called, get up and brush himself off, but he came back a few days later and won Gold medals in the giant slalom and super giant slalom.

And one other thing: the Austrians take their skiing very, very seriously, and the national team had once told a young Maier that there wasn't a future for him on the team because he wasn't strong enough. So what did he do to build that strength that would help make him almost unbeatable in later years? He went to work as a bricklayer.

Just goes to show you, you don't need a fancy gym to get strong.