Saturday, November 28, 2009

Who says holidays are hard to swallow?

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

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

Just remember, don't try this at home!

Friday, November 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, helmets are a lot warmer than hats.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, but don't be a turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Could this be the next fitness fad?

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fear factor: The culture of gyms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Words to live by

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

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

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

— Arthur Ashe

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Field of screams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Trash talk and table tennis

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Media myths, muscles and men

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

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

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

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

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

and him:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Poll: Fitness satisfaction lacking

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

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

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

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

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

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