Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And don't forget to cool down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's cool to warm up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The "I" and the Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reining in my fears — or not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The power of simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't get carried away with lawn chores

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Words to live by

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I had a bloody good day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Who says girls can't compete with boys?

If I were a horse, I'd want to be Rachel Alexandra. Wait, that sounded a little strange, didn't it? Oh well, it's Saturday and Saturdays, at least here at Rhode to Fitness, are meant to be a little strange.

My point, if it can be called a point, is that I admire strong women. So here's a clip of Rachel Alexandra, the beautiful filly whose victory in the Preakness Stakes in May stunned the horse-racing world, tearing it up with the boys again last week and becoming the first filly to win the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. I especially love it that she edged out a horse named Macho Again.

Come to think of it, maybe I wouldn't want to be Rachel Alexandra, running in circles with Calvin Borel on my back, whipping my behind. No, I think I'd rather be some anonymous filly running free in a beautiful pasture.

And as for that announcer, does anyone have a tranquilizer gun?

Friday, September 11, 2009


It's no longer possible to wake up on Sept. 11 and view it as just another day, so I won't be writing about health or fitness today.

For eight years now, at least for those of us who live in the Northeast, it has been hard to trust a beautiful September morning. That Tuesday dawned so crisp, clear and promising.

It was my day off, and I was in my car, on my way to go mountain biking, when I heard the reports on the radio that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were no more. I at first thought it was a hoax, a modern-day version of a War of the Worlds broadcast, until I heard the voice of the late Peter Jennings. He was someone I trusted, at a time when I trusted few.

I went ahead and rode my bike, because I didn't know what else to do.

When I returned home and turned on the TV, I couldn't bear to watch for long. To continue would be to endure an endless loop of horror — of flames and smoke and falling bodies and buildings collapsing into dust — so I shut off the TV, and my phone, and spent the rest of the day and evening in a state of disconnect.

The days immediately afterward seemed equally unreal. The skies fell eerily silent, as the nation's air traffic came to a halt.

I also remember the unusually good manners on the road — so many cars with American flags fluttering from their antennas, their drivers letting me merge with a friendly wave instead of cutting me off and using gestures of another sort. Everywhere, there seemed to be a sense of solidarity, of community, like I've never felt before.

Neither the silent skies nor the return to civility lasted for long.

It is hard to trust a beautiful September morning. I'm relieved that here in the Northeast today, it is gray and rainy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Are personal trainers intimidating?

I recently received an e-mail from a friend who had been considering working with a personal trainer and wanted to know what she could expect. She had some hesitations and concerns, all of them valid, but one of her questions took me by surprise.

"My perception is that personal trainers only want to work with younger, already fit, size-12-and-unders who are serious athletes," she wrote. "I am none of those. Are personal trainers willing to work with a wide range of body types, fitness levels and physical challenges as long as the client has a doctor's OK, clear goals and is willing to put in the work?"

The answer to that question is a resounding YES! A good personal trainer should have the skills and desire to work with a variety of clients.

Her question, though, got me to thinking about the image that personal trainers present. Like everyone else, personal trainers come in different shapes and sizes, and to generalize would be a disservice to all.

But there's a saying in the personal-training business that your body is your best advertisement, and clearly there are plenty of trainers out there who flaunt what they have. My friend's question made me wonder whether it's truly a good business move. Could some of those rippling muscles be turning off more would-be clients than attracting them?

The answer to that is impossible to know, but I do think people who are trying to make changes in their lives and behavior might be more likely to succeed if they have as a role model someone who has, to some extent, been through what they've been through. One of the reasons I decided to get into personal training at the age of 51 is because I sense a lack of older trainers, at least in the gyms, who might better serve that "aging boomer" population we keep hearing so much about.

This is not to say, certainly, that a young trainer could not work quite well with older clients, or that an older trainer could not serve younger clients well, or that a trainer with a Mr. Universe physique could not inspire and help a client who is obese. Like any other profession, there are good trainers and bad, whether young or old, "ripped" or "average."

I suppose it is ultimately up to each person who seeks the services of a trainer to find one he or she can work and communicate well with and achieve positive results. It might not always happen on the first try.

To those of you who, like my friend, might feel a bit intimidated, I would offer this advice: Keep in mind that you are seeking a service, and trainers are there to provide that service. They are beholden to you. Make sure that they live up to your expectations and treat you with respect, whatever your goals and current state of fitness.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Testing, 1, 2, 3 ...

I figure one of the advantages of having a blog is that I can occasionally use it to toot my own horn, so if you don't like that kind of self-generated noise, please cover your ears, because I have an announcement to make.

I passed the American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification exam on Friday! Hooray for me!

I took the computer-based version of the exam at TechComm partners, a proctored testing center in Smithfield, R.I. The exam was divided into two sections — 150 multiple-choice questions and a two-part training simulation involving two different client scenarios.

The exam took me 3 hours and 20 minutes to complete. By the end of it, I had no idea whether I'd passed, nor did I care at that particular moment. My head was spinning, my stomach was growling, and I just wanted to go home.

Maybe I'm just out of practice at taking tests — let's just say it's been, ahem, a while — but I found the experience grueling.

So I hit the "submit" button and then held my breath while filling out a brief survey about the testing experience. I guess I had expected a screen with fireworks to come up if I passed, so when the survey was over and I saw a sentence that began, "The test scores you achieved on the comprehensive ACE Personal Trainer Certification Examination ..., " my heart sank.

But then I read on: "... appear below. Congratulations! You passed the test!"

So does this mean I can now call myself a personal trainer? No, not exactly. In a few weeks I will receive my certificate from ACE, a respected organization in the fitness industry, attesting to the fact that I possess a good base of knowledge that I can use to safely and effectively train clients and to promote health and fitness.

I do hope to start doing some training in the near future, but that will require setting up a business structure, obtaining insurance and taking care of a few legal matters. I'll keep you posted on those developments, and I'd love to hear from any of you who already are personal trainers if you have any advice on getting started.

In the meantime, I plan to savor having completed that first step toward reaching my goal, and to continue learning. We must never stop learning, whatever our interests and passions are.

I take the responsibility of personal training very seriously. I want future clients to know that I will hold the trust you have placed in me with care, gratitude and respect. I look forward to meeting you and working with you, and sharing in the joy of your success.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Walking the walk

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I'd post this video showing the farmer's walk, which supposedly derives its name from the heavy buckets of milk that farmers used to lug around. The event has now become a staple of strongman competitions.

So remember, don't try this at home, kids! Well, unless you happen to be this kid.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's time to think about skiing!

With that title, I'd better start boarding up the windows in our house to protect ourselves against the mob of brick-hurling summer-lovers who regard any mention of winter before Thanksgiving as a form of seasonal blasphemy.

Sorry, but now that there's a chill in the evening air in New England, I can't help myself. As you can see, I can get pretty excited about skiing. That's me in 2005 upon reaching one of my dream ski destinations: Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada. Like so many things we might dream about and plan extensively for, reality didn't quite measure up to my expectations, but I'll save that story for another post.

Anyway, the point I was going to make is that if you're planning to go skiing this winter, NOW is the time to start preparing your body for it. There's an old saying in the sport: You have to get in shape to ski, you can't ski yourself into shape. I've always been a firm believer in that.

Skiing is a dynamic sport that uses a lot of muscles throughout the body. Many people make the mistake of regarding it as primarily a leg sport, but think about the effort it takes to pole and skate your way along a flat surface to get to the chairlift, before you even start to ski. If you haven't been preparing your entire body, you're going to feel that in your shoulders, arms and back the next day.

And not to be grim, but I think preparation for skiing demands to be taken a little more seriously than, say, golf or bowling. People do sometimes die skiing. Fortunately, it doesn't happen often, despite what my non-skiing friends seem to think, but with its speed and obstacles and weather-related challenges, it is a higher-risk sport than most in which the weekend athlete typically participates.

"You have to get in shape to ski, you can't ski yourself into shape."

I like to keep risk in perspective, and I've always considered driving to work on I-95 a far riskier activity than skiing. In the 25 years that I've been skiing, I've suffered only three injuries that required medical attention — a sprained thumb, a broken rib and a concussion (in my pre-helmet days). I think that's a pretty good record considering the many hundreds of times I've skied, including participation in recreational races and race leagues. I've always made a pre-season ski-specific workout a priority, and I think it has served me well.

Getting in shape beforehand — for any sport, really – will help you avoid injury.

Ski magazine has some excellent suggestions to help you get ready for the slopes this winter, which you can find here. In case you're tempted to not even touch that link because you think it's going to be another one of those grueling regimens involving lunges, plyometric jumps and wall-sits, think again. No, this is FUN stuff that you can do outdoors, while it's still warm and sunny, such as trail running and mountain biking.

I've always been partial to mountain biking to help me prepare for the skiing season, and for the sheer joy of it even when I'm not thinking about skiing. Mountain biking may be done on two in-line wheels instead of two parallel boards, but the similarities with skiing in movement, balance and mindset are amazing.

So there's no reason for you occasional skiers to be mad at me for mentioning winter so early (the hard-core skiers will completely understand). Get out there and play this fall, whether on a mountain bike or in your sneakers.

Trust me — you'll have fun, and without even knowing it, your body and mind will be ready when those first flakes start to fall.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The latest poll results are in

Congratulations — you readers once again passed one of my highly unscientific and perpetually flawed polls with flying colors!

With a massive turnout this time of 11 voters, you showed that you're a well-rounded group when it comes to your motivation for exercise. Six respondents, or 54 percent, said they exercise mainly to improve their overall health, and two, or 18 percent, said their chief motivation was to gain strength. The other three reasons, weighing in with one vote, or 9 percent, each were: to lose weight, to improve physique and to improve cardiovascular endurance.

You obviously recognize that exercise can play an important role in enhancing the overall quality of your life and your health. I sometimes get a little annoyed at the way exercise is sold to the public primarily as a weight-loss vehicle. Sure, maintaining a healthy body composition is a big part of overall health, but exercise has so many more benefits than just reducing body fat.

So keep up the good work, and maybe someday I'll get a poll response that's big enough to be meaningful. In the meantime, I'm having fun trying — and fun can go a long way toward improving one's overall health, too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A bare-bones lesson on calcium

The other morning I came downstairs to find Marge stirring her liquid calcium supplement into her calcium-fortified orange juice that would accompany her bowl of calcium-rich Total cereal, which was, of course, swimming in milk.

"Whoa, hold on there, my little buckaroo," I said. Well, not really — I just thought that sounded kind of cute.

No, what I actually said was something more boring and harsh, like: "I hope you don't think you've just taken care of your day's calcium needs." Yes, the sad truth is that when it comes to calcium, a little at a time goes a long way, but a lot all at once goes pretty much nowhere.

I'm not a dietitian or nutritionist, but I've read enough to know that our bodies absorb calcium best when it is taken in amounts of 500 milligrams or less. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that adults under age 50 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day and those over 50, 1,200 milligrams daily, in conjunction with appropriate amounts of vitamin D.

So if you're hoping to get the recommended amount of calcium but trying to do it all at once, whether through food or supplements, you've just wasted 500 to 700 milligrams of calcium, not to mention a lot of money over the course of a year in the case of supplements. Your body will better absorb calcium if it is consumed in smaller amounts spread throughout the day.

If you'd like to know more about the role of calcium and your health, the National Institutes of Health has a comprehensive fact sheet here.