07.22.14: One Thing At A Time

I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with work lately. It’s good in the grand scheme of things, like when the paycheck finally arrives (the life of a freelancer), but it’s a little rough in the short term. When my house is a wreck and I’m hopelessly behind on things like thank-you notes and returned phone calls and emails. And sleep. And has anybody seen my kid lately?

I notice that when I get overwhelmed – and perhaps I should stop and reflect on why it happens frequently enough for me to study it – I tend to shut down. I go all Hamlet on the situation and do nothing [1] and suddenly the gravitational pull of the couch is tripled.

My good girlfriend (with/for whom I work) has a neat approach to overcoming this inertia-with-a-dash-of-depression-and-hopelessness.   When you feel like you can’t do anything, do just one thing. One thing, and then you can sit back down again and wallow or play Sudoku or whatever. Then, after a while, do one more thing. Just one. No biggy. Just one thing. And sit back down. Rinse and repeat. She got her whole house clean this way and didn’t feel like the world was smooshing down on her.

So let’s apply this idea to your health and wellness. If you’ve got extra pounds, if you get winded walking up the stairs, if you’re on a bunch of meds, if you can’t find your sneakers and might get winded trying to tie them anyway, if your pantry is full of boxed and processed junky foods, if you’re not sleeping well, if your blood pressure/cholesterol/lipids are high, if you have zits, if you drink too much wine/beer/Coke/Gatorade … (a) you’re not a bad person, (b) I know the road seems long and daunting but you can do it, (c) why not start with Just One Thing.

Some folks do well with a cold-turkey approach. Shut it all down at once and wipe the slate clean. I married one of those folks, and huzzah that it works for them. As a personal trainer and wellness program administrator, I found that more people do better with the Just One Thing, or incremental, approach that chips away at situations that can seem breathtakingly impossible to change.

Choose your One Thing. It can be an add or a take-away.   Take away late-night snacking or alcohol, or add vegetables at two meals. Take away television or your tablet/phone after 8 pm, or add a ten-minute walk. After a couple of days and Total Mastery of your One Thing, build on your Total Mastery and add (or take away) One More Thing. You’re adding a good breakfast every day, or taking away highly processed food. You’re adding an earlier bedtime and rise time, or upping your walk to 15 minutes, or 30. If you’re already on a good path, then challenge yourself with your One Thing – add a new exercise class or more leafy greens, or take away protein bars. And so on and so forth as you build an Awesome Tower Of Things.

We all know that bad habits sneak up on us – good habits can too, if we’re mindful. Over time, you’ll be in a much better place. You’ll look back down the mountain at all the discarded bad habits and be as happy as my friend was when she realized the kitchen was swept and the laundry was folded.

Today is Square One, friends. What’s your One Thing?

 

[1] I’m well aware of the plenty of cogent arguments that Hamlet was not, actually, a victim of over-thought and inaction, because he did plenty: acted all crazy, directed a “gotcha” play, killed some folks, and so on. That’s fodder for a different blog. Right now I’m going with the common perception of Hamlet as an indecisive, procrastinating non-hero. Roll with it, MFAs. Roll with it.

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06.09.14: On Starting, Stopping, Backsliding, Cheating, and Forgiving

Based on that title, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that this piece was about a relationship. And in a way, I am writing about a relationship – my relationship with myself, or My Self.

My daughter just turned four (delightful!); the last four years have been characterized by brain-melting change. Now, though, we have found a rhythm for our days … sort of … at least to the extent we can control our days.

Over the past four years, I’ve started and stopped my Weight Loss Journey, Round Two, many times – much as I’ve started and stopped this blog thingie many times. I’ve used every excuse I’ve helped other people overcome and even scripted a few new doozies. I have to be honest about the last four years and how I’ve managed, or haven’t managed, to get on with things.

The uncertainty and stress of my circumstances have made me feel like a bystander to my own life. Any ground I gained I promptly lost, and then lost some more for good measure. I’ve stood by, feeling foolishly helpless, as nearly every habit from “Old Me” has come home to roost. In many ways, it’s been comforting and easy to return to “Old Me,” because I know her better. I lived with her longer. Today, none of my clothes fit and I barely recognize myself – not in recent pictures, I recognize myself in those because they’re how I always remember myself looking and feeling. It’s the skinny “New Me” pictures from the recent-but-gone-past that I no longer recognize and of which I’m slightly ashamed because I don’t know who that ghost girl is and I suspect she was never really real in the first place.

Wow, I sound mad and despondent, eh? Here’s the thing: I’m not. I’m not depressed, and I don’t hate myself. That’s how I know I’m really ready to fix things and find the new, “New Me.”

I’ve written in other places that when I first got a grip on my lifestyle lo these several years ago, my motivation came from a hopeful and positive place. I wanted to lose a few pounds to audition to be the next Sportscenter anchor. I wasn’t mad, despondent, depressed, et cetera. I was excited. That mindset made all the difference and set me on the right path, in the right way.

As I look back on the last four years, even though I’m disappointed that I haven’t achieved my weight and lifestyle goals, I’m proud of many other accomplishments – our home, my child’s development and health and sense of humor, my work, my relationships with family and with old and new friends. Instead of beating myself up over what I didn’t do, I’m going to smile and be proud of what I did do – and build on that relieved feeling of success as I move ahead. Dwelling on my screw-ups sure isn’t going to motivate me. It hasn’t the past four years, it won’t start now.

Forgiveness is a significant element of lifestyle change and in life. Look at your past transgressions, name and acknowledge them, and move on, not repeating your mistakes. There’s plenty that I would change if I could – for instance, I’d have gotten exponentially less drunk at my high school reunion – but I can’t change anything. Wallow in regret, or learn from experience. Your choice. I’m 40 now, I’m grown, I choose to learn.

I have now confirmed what I had come to suspect: that my grip on “New Me” was rather tenuous. “Old Me” was in charge for 30 years, and she’s not going to evaporate overnight, or even over a few years. Plus, the new, “New Me” isn’t going to be the same “New Me” that I crowned in 2004. My job now is to get back on the horse and head for the horizon, today.

 

Today is square one, my friends. Let’s be patient and persistent.

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08.09.13: Don’t Make Any Big Decisions on Bananas and Skim Milk Day

We went on vacation.  It was a wonderful vacation.  It had been four years since we went on a real vacation, and it was well-deserved.  We spent time with good friends and we enjoyed ourselves.  Then, we went on a little road trip – a mini-vacation, if you will.  We saw friends we hadn’t seen in a year and we enjoyed ourselves.  Then, we went to a party.  It was a really big party.  We saw friends we hadn’t seen in years and years and years and we enjoyed ourselves.

Then, we got up on Sunday morning.  Late morning.  And we looked in the mirror and saw bloated, funhouse-mirror versions of ourselves staring back.  And we realized our sins were not victimless – they had, in fact, compounded and fed off of each other (pun intended) and we were far, far from where we had been.

So what now, we asked?  Get right back on the horse and in the gym.  Steam up some broccoli and grill up some salmon.  Of course – but what NOW?  Now, when we hate ourselves a teeny bit (a lot) and need to be shaken until our teeth rattle?

We needed something drastic and radical to jolt us back on track, in large part because we didn’t really trust ourselves to get back on track.  We’d go for a while, a week or more, and then there would be an occasion or a night out.  And then another.  And although we would keep exercising and eating right most of the time but not as often as we should, our progress would slow to a crawl.  We would shrug and say, well, whatever.  Carpe diem.  YOLO.  Yes, I’ll have another.

And that, friends, is why I am typing with one hand and eating cabbage soup with the other on today, Day Four, Bananas and Skim Milk Day.

We needed a kick in the backside, or “kick start” or “cleanse” or “wake-up call.”  Mister suggested a fast.  I am newly fascinated by the concept of periodic and judicious near-fasting after seeing Michael Mosley’s special on PBS (link to information about the show is here – it’s really interesting: http://video.pbs.org/video/2354483548/), but I need to do more reading and thinking before I plunge into a lifestyle change like that.  Plus, the radical nature of a temporary, insane crash diet is oddly appealing to me.  Something off-the-wall that, in B-movie parlance, is “just crazy enough to work!”  So we turned to the granddaddy: The Cabbage Soup Diet.

Put down the torches, people.  Don’t take away my Champion For Healthy and Balanced Living card.  Hear me out.

Part of what I learned from Atkins – which I followed at the very beginning of my Weight Loss Journey, chronicled elsewhere on this blog – was how to say NO.  Cutting out an entire food group is not sustainable and not supportive of actual life, obviously, but for a short time it served to rewire my brain and put me in the habit of thinking before I ate.  Making good food choices most of the time and controlling portions are the ultimate secrets of lasting weight loss, but I’m not very good at having just a taste/bite/glass of something decadent.  I can do it, of course.  I’m an adult and I’m the boss of me, the food is not the boss of me.  So there.  But I respond, at least initially and for a brief, finite period, to severe restriction.  It takes out the guesswork.  Like boot camp.

No bread or alcohol for a week?  Fine.  Nothing but bananas, skim milk, and cabbage soup on a Friday in August?  Insane, but fine.  This week of Extreme Restraint will bring me back to my groove.  At this point, give me an inch and I’ll take a mile, despite being fully cognizant of how much I’ll hate myself the next day, how much I’ll have set myself back, and so on and so forth.

If you’re not familiar with the Cabbage Soup Diet, it’s out there on Google and on recipe websites.  As you might infer, the seven-day plan relies on a cabbage soup that one eats several times per day, every day.  Each day designates certain other foods that one is “allowed” to eat as well.  Nothing else.  No alcohol, of course, and no added fats, oils, sugars, or salt.  Dairy is allowed on one day.  Herbs and such are welcome.  Drink a ton of water, and stay away from artificial sweeteners.  One day is fruit only, but no bananas (and soup); another is fruit and vegetables but no corn and no potatoes (and soup); another is vegetables only with one baked potato (and soup) … and so on.  The looniest day is Day Four, Bananas and Skim Milk (and soup) day.  Protein emerges toward the end of the week, as does brown rice on the last day.  The original iteration of the diet calls for “beef” on Days Five and Six, but in these more enlightened times, we allow as how one can have chicken or fish or whatever.  Probably not a kielbasa.  Although it would jazz up that damn soup … Another “modernization” – and I hesitate to use that word – is that while any fruit or vegetable is permitted, other than the couple of noted no-no’s, one is encouraged to minimize the super-high-glycemic-index ones.

All it is, is an extremely low-calorie diet.  That’s the point.  Not many calories, and a ton of fiber.  I told Mister that the different stuff you’re “allowed” to eat each day is, at least in my mind, a gimmick.  I read on one site that the banana/milk day is meant to curb cravings for sweets, and that there’s more method to the madness – but I am not convinced.  The diet is about slashing calories for one week, and no more.  If it’s to be repeated (then you are a MASOCHIST), then it should be repeated only after two “normal” weeks.  On a serious note, if you are considering repeating the diet that soon, then you might benefit from some soul-searching regarding why you feel the need to crash diet once a month.  I’m not qualified to give counsel on these things, but I can say: don’t hurt your body or break your mind.  Nothing is worth that.

It’s the Cabbage Soup Diet, not the Cabbage Soup Lifestyle Plan.  Nobody thinks it’s a long-term solution.  It’s ridiculous in so many ways: you shouldn’t exercise much when you’re on it (too few calories); it’s a crash diet that relies on cabbage soup, for God’s sake; a lot of the weight lost is water weight; and some of it will come back.  But if we don’t return to our Bacchanalian ways and use it as a springboard for getting back on track, then the weight won’t all come back, and we’ll be on our way.

I also don’t mind the diet because the soup and other foods are real foods that you cook yourself, as opposed to powdered food that you buy (I’ve done that, too).  There’s nothing processed this week, no danger-zone carbohydrates (pasta, bread, cereals), nothing from a box or a can – unless you add onion soup mix to the soup, which is in some of the recipes but isn’t critical.  The soup can be high in sodium, but leave out the soup mix, use no-salt-added canned tomatoes (or fresh if it’s that time of year, which it is at the moment), and use low-sodium V8.  Don’t smother your stir-fried (in broth) vegetables on Day Seven in soy sauce.  Hell, don’t do that anyway.

So there you have it.  Me, on the Cabbage Soup.  Updates to come when the week is over … assuming I don’t flip out.

Even though it’s Day Four, today is still Square One, my friends … make it count!

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02.26.13: Why I Took Last Friday Off

I’m fully aware of, and okay with, the fact that even though this journey to better health is a rerun (of sorts) for me, I’ll still make mistakes.  My goals have been (a) not to make the same mistakes I made “the first time;” and (b) not to injure myself.

I have been especially careful  not to fall into the “too much, too soon” trap as I return to running.  It’s common – you get going, you feel good, you feel better, you push more, you do more, you feel powerful, and then – OUCH – you overdo, and you’re sidelined.  The road to Ice Pack-ville and Ibuprofen-land is paved with good intentions.  Because I love running above all other physical endeavors, I’ve been pathologically careful not to do too many miles, or to do them too fast.  I’m doing walk/run intervals on the treadmill no more than 3 days a week.  I long to head outside, and I will after I build up my strength and confidence in the nice, controlled gym environment.  At this stage, I either run extremely slowly for no more than 3 minutes at a time, or slightly less slowly for no more than 1 minute.  And then a walk break until I can even consider running again.  Not quite a fartlek[1], but close.  I do the elliptical trainer on days that I don’t run.  I’m careful to stretch after I work out and at other periods throughout the day.  My bunion has thus far been silent, and my hips and knees feel just fine.  My feet feel fine, too, ever since I figured out that my toes and soles were tightening up in a most uncomfortable fashion because I was lacing my shoes too tightly.  I know, I’m a genius.

I’ve also been careful with my lifting routine.  I lift a total of three times a week, and I only do each body part (except abs) once a week.  One day for chest and triceps, one for legs, and one for back and biceps.  I don’t lift for more than half an hour.  I do three sets of 15 reps with light weights – sometimes I throw in a super-set to keep myself entertained, but I’m certainly far, far from going at it to the levels of grunting and strutting that I’ve achieved in the past.  No protein powder in a shaker bottle, either.  There’s no point, at this point, in me wearing myself out to a point where I can’t pick up my child, or where I am so fatigued that I do something dumb in the gym or elsewhere.  The moment you can’t maintain form, whether you’re hoisting a dumbbell or a small human or a laptop, is the moment you’re in trouble.

I’ve purposely not taken any of the neat-o classes that my gym offers, save yoga.  I need yoga.  I think everyone needs yoga.  I’ve stayed away from Power, Kickboxing, etc., so far because I’m focused on getting used to being back in the swing of things, not rushing to keep a schedule, and getting my daughter into the swing of going.  She’s a great partner so far.  She was instantly in love with the childcare room and staff at the gym and is disappointed if she doesn’t get to go.  I’ve made a long-term commitment on both of our behalves, so it’s important to set the right foundation.

Don’t I sound so reasonable and measured?  Well … I guess that even though I’ve been careful with the parts, I have been less careful with the sum.  Hence my decision to take a day off.

What were my clues?  How about sleeping for upwards of nine hours a night and being hungry all the time?  [No, I’m not pregnant.]  Seriously, y’all – I’ve woken up every morning for the past three mornings really, really hungry.  You’re supposed to wake up ready to eat, but not ready to eat YOUR LEFT ARM RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  You’re supposed to sleep better, but not fall asleep while you’re washing the dishes.

Thusly the same genius who figured out that her shoes were laced too tightly figured out that the five-day-a-week workout schedule was a bit much.  Even though I was being careful not to do too much of any one thing, it turned out that I was doing too much of everything – and probably not eating enough on top of that.

So I finally listened to my body and took a day off.  I once heard the phrase, “listen to your body when it whispers and you will never have to hear it scream.”  I don’t think I clued into the messages when they were whispers – they had progressed to whimpers before I got wise – but at least I listened before the screaming started.  The lesson here is, stay flexible.  Be ready to make adjustments as your body, or your life, suggests.  Or demands.  And don’t spend your day off of the gym on the patio at a Mexican restaurant.

Today is Square One, friends.  Listen to your body!


[1] Stop that giggling, it’s a word.  Swedish for “speed play” (and keep your Ikea jokes to yourself), fartlek refers to a type of training which incorporates speed intervals that aren’t particularly structured.  Instead, the runner does intervals at his/her pleasure/discretion, challenging the aerobic and anaerobic systems to build strength and endurance.  They’re fun.

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02.01.13: The Mystery of Willpower

Willpower.  If we only had it, we wouldn’t struggle with our weight.  We wouldn’t have any bad habits, and we’d live moderate, measured, Zen, perfectly peaceful lives.  Ah, willpower.  How I hate people who have it.

I’ve written about willpower on this blog before and gone into detail about my theory that it’s not so much the strength to say “no” to something that tempts you, but that it’s a stronger “yes” in a different direction.  You’d rather feel good on the scale tomorrow than eat that donut today, that sort of thing.  Maybe that’s self-control, maybe it’s discipline, I don’t know.  I do know, however, that it’s HARD.

I heard a fascinating  interview on The Splendid Table (from American Public Media, it’s the radio show for people who love to eat … oh yes, it’s completely awesome) about Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a new book by research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science columnist John Tierney.

http://www.splendidtable.org/story/the-dieters-catch-22-to-have-willpower-you-need-to-eat

Turns out, willpower (or self-control) is not only real, it’s powerful.  And it’s a “source of mental energy” that relies on glucose in your bloodstream for fuel.  So … eat!  We all instinctively know that when we’re super-hungry, we tend to make bad food decisions.  It’s because we feel like we are starving and we want whatever we can get our hands on, as fast as possible – but it’s also because a lack of blood glucose makes us more apt to fall prey to temptation.

Success in life, including making positive lifestyle changes that stick, is associated with intelligence and self-control.  They’re both pretty squishy concepts, and somewhat subjective – like, I can quote obscure lines of Shakespeare but can’t remember who fought in the Spanish-American War, am I still intelligent? – but the theories surrounding self-control and willpower, and our ability to strengthen them, are incredibly valuable to anyone who’s trying to live better and healthier.

Self-control is associated with better grades, higher salaries, lower body mass indices, stronger relationships, more empathy and emotional stability, and not going to jail.  Here’s the great news: if you were that kid who gobbled up the marshmallow at age four (read the article to learn about the experiment to which I’m referring), there’s still hope.  You can cultivate your self-control.  You aren’t overweight because you have no willpower, but stronger willpower can help you achieve your goals – weight-related and otherwise.

“ … Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise.”

I love this.  Love it.  If you spend all day resisting temptation, you feel worn down, don’t you?  By evening time, you’re thinking, “ah, screw it, I’ve been good all day,” and minutes later you’re surrounded by wadded-up candy wrappers, wondering what just happened.  At the same time, you get better at saying “no, thank you” the more times you do it.  The more times you stand with your back to the buffet table at a party, the easier it gets.  You learn how to handle yourself, you learn to remind yourself that it’s just not worth it to eat two more mini-quiches when you’re not even hungry.  You recognize your negative cues and triggers, and you learn to move away.  Saying “no, thank you” becomes empowering rather than depleting.

We’re trying to succeed in the post-“if it feels good, do it” era.  Our self-control is challenged at every turn.  What’s the best way to strengthen your willpower without spraining it?  How about not putting yourself in harm’s way in the first place?  Save your stores of willpower for when you need them.  Don’t keep junk food in the house.  Don’t walk down the chips aisle at the grocery store, and give the bakery with their damn free cookies a wide berth.  Don’t deprive yourself entirely of delicious and naughty things, but save the good stuff for when it’s really good, and it really matters.

We don’t keep junk food in the house, but we do keep wine and beer.  And I have found that if the wine bottle isn’t open, and if the beer is ugh, all the way downstairs in the downstairs fridge, I just don’t have any.  It’s true.  In this one case, lazy is good.  It’s silly, but I’ll take it, and it gets easier and easier to say “no, thank you.”

The full introduction to Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is here:

http://www.splendidtable.org/story/willpower-rediscovering-greatest-human-strength

Today is Square One, my friends.  A new day to get stronger and healthier!

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01.19.13: Joining a Gym, Part Two: On Paper, Including Paper Money and Contracts

Generally in life, you get what you pay for.  That adage is only sometimes true in the health club world.  Many times I’ve gotten more than I was paying for – and just as many times, I’ve gotten less.  It all depends on what the place has and what you’ll use.

Pricing structures can vary and are sometimes confusing.  At most places, you’ll pay an up-front “initiation fee” or “enrollment fee.”  Sometimes it’s a month’s dues, sometimes it’s a seemingly-made-up number.  Sometimes clubs will run specials that reduce or eliminate it; sometimes if you’re joining on the basis of a referral, the club will reduce or eliminate it; sometimes you can negotiate it down.

Some clubs charge extra for extra services, and some include everything in your monthly dues.  Assess what you need and what you’ll use and decide whether you care that the towel service is an extra 5 bucks a month (see previous post re: bring your own, but please don’t keep forgetting as I have for the past 3 visits.  See that lady with a paper towel stuffed in her hatband?  Yeah, that’s me).  Most clubs charge extra for childcare, if they have it.  Other extras are tanning, massage, personal training, group activities like a “Biggest Loser”-esque program, classes, or even access to the club itself.  You could pay a lower rate if you go at off times, for instance.  It just depends on the club.

Some clubs include a fitness assessment when you join.  I think every club should offer these sit-downs with a personal trainer to talk about where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there safely, efficiently, and realistically.  At my previous club, this assessment was a chance for the personal trainers to get clients, yes – but more important to the club’s mission, it was a way to keep new folks from being one of those statistics that joins a gym, shows up for a while, and never darkens the door again.  Everyone doesn’t need that initial, personal contact: the SWAT team, for instance, pretty much had their routine down.  But most people really benefited from the time to talk and fashion a game plan to make the best use of their time.  You can go to the gym for an hour and get a whole lot accomplished, or that time can be wasted on things you don’t need (like that dumb hip adductor/abductor machine.  Honestly, anything that looks like it should be at the OB-GYN’s office has no place in my workout.  I can think of 4 better ways to strengthen your thighs and hips right now, and I’ve only just started my second cup of coffee and I’m still in my pajamas.  But people LOVE that thing because they think it’s going to shrink their thighs.  Anyway.  I digress.).

What can you afford?  Well, how much is too much to pay to save your life?  Uh, since you put it that way … the thing is, anything is too much if you don’t use the membership.  So make sure you’re committed before you commit.  Look honestly at your budget.  If you have 3 lattes a week, that’s 60 dollars a month you could free up pretty easily.  It’s also 1560 calories a month if they’re Grande nonfat lattes, and 5000 calories a month if they’re Grande Vanilla Frappucinos.  But I digress.

Gyms get a sometimes-deserved bad rap for their membership agreement structures.  The beloved consumer adviser Clark Howard has pointed words about the whole situation: http://www.clarkhoward.com/videos/clark-howard/scams-rip-offs/fitness-club-scams-to-watch-out-for/vHSW6/.  And: http://www.clarkhoward.com/news/clark-howard/uncategorized/contract-gyms-more-interested-in-your-wallet-than/nD8M/.  He’s not afraid to name names.  I am, so I’ll let him do the talking.

It’s logical to conclude that a club that has you in a long-term contract isn’t likely to care whether you come in or not since they already have your money.  I snicker a little bit, however, at the facilities that advertise “However-many dollars a month!  No commitment!”  If you’re not going to commit, then why sign up?  I appreciate the need for a financial “out,” and most clubs will let you out of a contract within 7 days of signing it if you get buyer’s remorse (or find a better deal someplace else).  But I don’t like going into a relationship knowing that you can jump ship at any time.  One of the most important components of an exercise program is accountability, and accountability through your wallet is one layer of that.  Plenty of people sign a 12-month contract and evaporate after six weeks, sure.  That money is going down the drain.  But a few more think, man, I’m paying for this, I need to go – and they go.

I’ve also found that the “no-contract” clubs tend to have fewer services, or more paid services.  That’s fine if you’re the person who only needs some machines, a water fountain, and a bathroom – not so great if you want a range of classes or childcare.  It’s up to you.  The no-contract clubs also are less likely to have certified trainers on staff, although there are exceptions, of course.  Many of them have arrangements with independent trainers who work in the facility, which can be fine.  You’ll just need to make sure they’re appropriately screened and certified.

If you’re ready to commit and confident that you’ve chosen the right place, then a long-term contract may be A-OK.  In some cases, you can get a lower monthly rate by signing up for a longer term or by paying in full (if that’s an option for you, moneybags).  You might be able to get the initiation fee waived or reduced, or get some added services.  Some facilities have more flexibility than others in this area.

Make sure you understand the cancellation policy.  You may have to move a certain distance away in order to cancel without penalty before the term is over.  Some places have a clause for sudden financial stress or illness in which your membership can be cancelled or suspended.  No matter what, you’ll probably have to submit notice of cancellation 30 days in advance and via certified letter, even if your contract has gone month-to-month after the initial term.  That requirement may seem onerous, but I think it’s for the best.  The gym can’t pretend they didn’t receive your letter or email, or your verbal tirade ending in “YOU SUCK I QUIT!!”  You can’t pretend that you sent the letter in plenty of time.

No matter what, ask questions so that you fully understand what you’re getting into.  If you’re at all uncomfortable, walk away.  You should never feel pressured.  You should feel supported from the minute you walk in the door.

Today is Square One. Onward!

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01.17.13: Choosing a Gym, Part One: Should You Join a Gym?

It became very clear to me, very quickly, that I needed to join a gym.  Sure, I could walk/run in my neighborhood (and I still will, if it ever stops raining), do P90X in my rumpus room, do crunches during commercial breaks, whatever … but bottom line, I do better at a health club than I do at home.  That is to say, I do pretty much nothing at home, and when I go to a health club, I work out.  Huh.  Go figure.

Gyms aren’t for everyone, and every gym is different.  One enters into a relationship with a gym with expectations, hopes, and battle scars from previous bad encounters.  It’s important to enter with as much information and self-awareness as you can, and also to be ready to give as much as you get and more – and to adapt.  Told you it was a relationship.

If you are brand-new to exercising, you’ll have different needs from someone who’s coming back after a hiatus, and different needs from someone who’s a regular exerciser and is looking for something new.  Health concerns (arthritis, recovering from surgery, needing surgery and trying to put it off, diabetes, asthma …) bring another set of needs.  A good start can be to take a single class somewhere, like a community center or a church.  Sign up for Zumba twice a week for a couple of months and commit to attending every session.  Feel your confidence and cardiovascular capacity grow.  Enjoy the camaraderie.  And keep going.

You could try this approach with a trainer, too.  Seek out options like small “Boot Camp” classes that meet in local parks – and don’t be scared of the name, they’re rarely material for a reality show on the Military Channel, and a good trainer will help you modify the program to suit your fitness level and goals.  Spend some time in a smaller, more personal setting, and then decide if you want to join a health club and expand your options.

Or, you could just join a gym.  But ugh – where?  How?

Start by looking around and asking around.  What’s close to your home or work, or other places you frequent (other than the ice cream shop (or liquor store))?  If you have friends who belong to clubs, are they happy with them?  Why?  As you’re gathering feedback, think about whether the things that matter to them are the same things that matter to you.  If, for instance, your friend loves a club because it has unlimited tanning but doesn’t like that you have to bring your own towel, think about whether you want unlimited tanning (I hope not) and whether you might bring your own towel anyway.  [Word to the wise: bring your own towel anyway.]  Some people just want access to some well-maintained machines and a water fountain; others want a sauna and TVs on every cardio machine.  Do you need childcare ?  A smoothie bar?  A pool?  Yoga?  Pilates?  Yogilates?  Whatever floats your boat, wherever you’re comfortable, and whatever keeps you coming in the door.

Do some internet research, but please take what you find with a grain of salt.  Are those scathing comments from disgruntled former customers who thought the color scheme was offensive or didn’t lose the weight they wanted to and are blaming the facility (I could tell some stories, hoo boy)?  Or who wanted to get out of their contracts and couldn’t?  PS, I’ll address contracts in another post – it’s a big topic.  Online as with your friends, look for thoughtful comments about the quality of the group fitness instructors, the feel of the place, the state of the equipment, the clientele, and other things that matter to you.

Think about your past experience with gyms, if you have any.  What worked and what didn’t?  If you quit going, why?  Here we need some real honesty.  Separate your reasons for not staying into two categories: the reasons that had to do with the facility, and the reasons that had to do with you.  Maybe on your first pass, every reason is in the first category.  It was too far from home; you always had to wait for a cardio machine; the Kickboxing instructor was mean; the music was annoying; the people looked at you funny.

Now look at those “reasons” and see how they were “excuses.”  Was the gym too far from home, but close to work, and maybe you should have been going straight to the gym from work, or straight from work to the gym?  Maybe you could have adjusted your schedule to come at a less-busy time and not have to wait for a machine.  If you didn’t jibe with an instructor, you could have tried a different class, or hired a personal trainer (trainers will often group-train, so you and a friend or two could split a package of sessions or train together).  Get headphones.  It’s doubtful that people looked at you funny, unless you’re really funny-looking.  It’s a gym.  Everyone is sweaty – or should be.

Don’t get defensive with me, now.  Maybe those gyms weren’t a good fit for you.  Or maybe they were crappy.  Just remember that even though you’re technically the customer, your relationship with your gym is still a two-way street.  The gym will not do the work for you; rather, you need to find a place that’s most conducive to you getting your work done.

No place will be perfect.  The music may bug you, and the color scheme in the locker room may be questionable, and there may be too many spandex-clad hotties, soccer moms, meatheads, scary people who look like they exercise for a living, et cetera.  Decide what is a deal-breaker for you, and then think, “is that really a deal-breaker, or am I just scared?”

More to follow on contracts, getting started, and staying with it.  Today is Square One, friends – take that first step, willya?

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