Saturday, October 31, 2009

33 years later, Klammer's run still exciting

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prodigy or parody?

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lack of seat belt use is driving me mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soaring with the Angels

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not feeling motivated? Get SMART

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

A word of caution about exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Often, the first symptom of heart disease is death.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Words to live by

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

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

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

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

— Michael Jordan

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Models of what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't let your back down

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

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

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

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

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

The full article can be found here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pumpkins are a blast

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Seeds and earth do not a farmer make

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's a beautiful day for a poll

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Frightful demonstration

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2009

Be safe at home and the gym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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