01.16.13: I (finally) Joined a Gym.

This sentence feels good to type: I joined a gym!

Well, it doesn’t exactly “feel” good, as such, because typing requires that I hold my arms up and my arms are not so much interested in being held up.  They are sore.  They would prefer to flop pitifully down by my sides or to receive a nice massage.  The soreness – not just my arms, but all over, you should see me try to climb stairs, it’s a right hoot – is amusing in a masochistic way.  It’s a memory come back to life, and a sign of good things to come and a good road I’m on.

Important note: pain does not equal gain.  That’s just silly.  Hard work equals gain.  Commitment, focus, preparation, and ambition equal gain.  Pain is an occasional byproduct that quickly fades as one gains.

I guess the timing of my join-up puts me in the category of cattle that stream to health clubs every January and are, generally, fated to be ghosts by March.  Well, maybe the first half of that category.  I should hope I know better by now.  It took time for the pieces to fall into place so I that I could make a commitment to a facility, and I’m ready for the long haul.

The new year is a great time to make positive changes.  I openly and shamelessly poke fun at resolutions, but any milestone – be it a flip of the calendar, an anniversary, or a big change like a graduation or starting a new job – is an opportune time to reflect, set new goals, and improve.  Every day is a good time to reflect, set new goals, and improve, of course; milestones tend to bring us face-to-face with the past, present, and future in a way that sets us up for real action as opposed to contemplation and navel-gazing.  If you can find your navel.  If you can’t, then the time for contemplation is officially O-VER.  The time for acting is now.

Lots of people join gyms (or health clubs, or whatever you want to call them – I actually favor “health club” because “gym” takes me back to sweaty humiliation in middle school, but “gym” is the more frequently-used term, I think) every January.  Not a very high percentage of them succeed.  By “succeed” I mean, “make healthy changes that stick.”  How can I, and you, avoid the cliché?

People with support systems have a higher probability of succeeding than those who go it alone.  Support systems take on many forms – fitness classes at churches, walking buddies in neighborhoods or at work, and so on.  I know people who have found great support systems online.  It’s a matter of finding the right support system for you, at the right time.  A good gym that’s also the right gym for you can provide much of what you need: a place to go, something to do when you get there, and people who can guide you directly or just by example.  Everyone does not need a gym, but the right gym is an invaluable asset in your healthy endeavors.

So … what’s the right gym?  That’s a topic for multiple entries, and I’ll share my thoughts based on my experience belonging to a bunch of gyms and seeing zero results; ultimately belonging to two gyms in two different cities that were the right ones at the right time and seeing great results; and on my experience as a personal trainer and director at a health club.  And on now, of course.  Square One.

I have seen it all, y’all.  Been there, done that, got a T-shirt, went back there, T-shirt is too small now, doing it again.  That’s what Square One is all about.  Welcome.

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11.15.12: Exercise Won’t Make You Skinny.

A few years ago, Time Magazine published an interesting piece on exercise and weight management.  It crossed my mind as I’ve been contemplating joining a health club again – the Wee One being a little older, and me being more than a little tired of trying (unsuccessfully) to motivate myself to gyrate in front of a DVD at home.  The article caused quite a tizzy at the time:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1914974,00.html

If you just read the title, or if you skim the article, or even if you read the whole thing and take it solely at face value, you’ll conclude that there’s no real benefit to exercising if you’re trying to lose weight.  In fact, you may conclude that exercise will make you GAIN weight, and you really shouldn’t do it … even though exercise has a constellation of other health benefits, from reducing stress to preventing many of the chronic diseases and conditions that plague our population.

And now, the truth, which people so rarely want to hear: the title of the article is not a complete and total lie.  Exercise won’t make you thin.  Whoa, whoa – stick with me, here.  Physical activity is a critical piece of any weight-loss and health-improvement journey.  But it’s not the only piece.  Diet (meaning simply “what you put in your mouth,” not “a restrictive and ultimately unlivable eating regimen that somebody made up and for which you must at least buy a book, if not a bunch of products”) must go hand-in-hand with exercise if you’re trying to lose weight and live longer and healthier.

If you work out for two hours a day and then fill your body with junk, then guess what?  You are what you eat, and you’ll get junk for results.  Vigorous exercise can indeed make you feel more hungry.  It should!  You’re burning a lot of calories, and your body needs fuel.  Therefore, you must never starve yourself; rather, you must “eat smarter.”  Your “reward” for a good workout is NOT a fast-food burger, jumbo fries, and a shake.  You’ve worked hard, which is its own reward.  Why would you want to mess that up by dumping sugar and salt into your tank?  When you’re hungry, eat good foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains.  Then you’ll have strength and energy to attack the next workout, and you’ll see the results you’re looking for on the scale and in the mirror.

Try this concept on for size: if you work out for two hours a day and starve yourself, you’ll see some cosmetic changes – call them “improvements” if you like – but the changes won’t last, and you’ll see other aspects of your life deteriorate.  Or this: if you work out for two hours a day and fill your guts with processed, synthetic foods that boast reduced calories, lower fat, increased (but artificial) fiber, you will reach a point at which your workouts will begin to suffer.  Your digestive system will grow impatient with the plastic you’re pushing through it.  Your enjoyment of food will nosedive, and who knows what all of those chemicals and artificial weirdness are doing to you in the long term?

A wise friend of mine in the wellness business used to say that physical activity is not about weight loss – it’s about living.  I really like that perspective.  Sure, exercise burns calories – and weight loss, ultimately, is about burning more calories than you take in – but it’s so much more than that.  Think of physical activity as your stress relief, your life insurance policy, your Fountain of Youth.  It’s the way you maintain your weight loss.  Make it as important as brushing your teeth.  Stop thinking of your workouts as your ticket to a smaller size, and start thinking of what they’re doing for your bones, brain, muscles, heart, lungs, and joints.  Become a total package of wellness.

As you might expect, many researchers and practitioners flipped out and composed responses to the Time article.  At my health club, we used the article as a springboard for some great conversations and teachable moments.  The American Council on Exercise (ACE) published this one: http://www.acefitness.org/article/2804/

Ultimately, we all know that a life of wellness includes eating right, staying active, and getting enough rest and time for yourself so that you can feel strong, productive, and healthy.  Today is square one, friends.  Be the total package.

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08.09.12 Excuses, Excuses.

I’ve heard them all, as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, and even as Wellness Director. A client of mine years ago said she couldn’t work out anymore because she got a puppy and she was too busy. O-kay. Another couldn’t follow a smart nutrition plan because he refused to eat any fruits or vegetables. Ever. Seriously. His mom used to force him to eat them when he was a kid, and now that he’s a grownup, by God, he’s going to eat what he wants. Breakfast? Sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit from Hardee’s. Lunch? Five-piece chicken bucket from KFC (extra crispy) with mashed potatoes and gravy. And two or three biscuits. Dinner? Pizza. It made me want to say, what exactly do you expect me to do for you, bud?

I’ve heard them all coming out of my own mouth, too. I used my asthma and excess weight as an excuse for years. Couldn’t run because I’d wheeze and because I was so heavy I jiggled everywhere and it hurt. Couldn’t do any other exercise because I was too busy with work; too broke to join a gym; didn’t know where to start. I’ll do it next month after this one really tough deadline; it’s Thursday already so what’s the point, I’ll start Monday; can’t start now because it’s almost my birthday/someone else’s birthday/the holidays/Superbowl Sunday; I have to visit my grandmother, and on and on.

What would my now-self say to my then-self, there in the not-too-distant past, spouting out these excuses while looking in the mirror and saying, “hey, I don’t look too bad, I can still see my cheekbones, kinda sorta if I turn my head just like this and tilt it down and make a fish-face?” Honestly, I don’t know. I truly believe that you can’t force someone to make a change. Conviction, commitment, and strength have to come from within. Those elements, paired with education and support, turn into positive change. It’s true for lots of things beyond adopting a healthy lifestyle – going back to school, raising children, even reorganizing the office (ugh). If you don’t want to do something, and I try to “make” you do it, you either won’t succeed, your success will be short-lived, or you’ll end up resenting me and/or the activity. Or some combination of those things. Hence my friend from the first paragraph who won’t eat anything plant-ish.

Maybe my now-self would say to my then-self, so you can’t run? Walk. You don’t have time? Get up a few minutes earlier in the morning, take a walk at lunchtime, do crunches and push-ups while you’re watching the television that you seem to be able to make time for. Too broke to join a gym? Quit buying pairs of new shoes that you don’t need because shoes are the only thing you can shop for and not feel self-conscious, since your shoe size is “normal;” quit spending so much at Starbucks; cancel the premium cable. Borrow DVDs from your friends or the library or go online, and do something, anything. Don’t know where to start? Ask. And for heaven’s sake, quit eating hotdogs and steak fries at midnight when you’re out with your buddies. Just. Do. It.

Hindsight is 20/20, and that kind of “tough love” and bold talk would only have made me furious then. But it sure is interesting to think about my excuses, which I called “reasons.”

Today is Square One, my friends, and excuses are nothing but fear and uncertainty driving your thoughts and actions. Banish them!

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08.07.12: Portion Sizes, Politics, and Indignation

Serving sizes and the regulation thereof have sparked several flaps of late. Most prominent among said flaps is the proposal to ban sales of massive soda pops in New York City.

This entry is not about that particular flap – although I’ll briefly say that I find many elements of it to be hilarious. The hubbub is less about the sodas themselves, and more about whether one believes that one of the government’s roles is to keep us from killing our fool selves, or whether one believes that the government should get out of the way while we proceed to kill our fool selves, as is our right. The arguments are tangled, complicated, and fraught. What’s interesting is that nobody is pretending that 40 ounces of sweet soda (480 calories, more than 30 teaspoons of sugar) is good for you. The question is whether it’s anyone’s business that we suck it down. The same arguments could be applied to seatbelt laws, ordinances that restrict smoking, banking regulations … and so forth. My blog is about wellness, and so I’ll stick to wellness.

I ran across this article from 2010:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/06/business/06portion.html?pagewanted=all

Apparently, the FDA realized that the serving sizes on labels of packaged foods are … let’s say they’re “problematic.” Or we could go ahead and say that they’re inconsistent, confusing, unrealistic, all over the map, and not the slightest bit helpful.

Current serving size “standards” are based on old data which don’t reflect the way foods are marketed, packaged, and consumed today. So the serving sizes aren’t relevant. Plus, they vary from product to product – a serving of regular Cheerios is a cup and a quarter, a serving of granola is a quarter of a cup, a serving of Kashi Go Lean Crunch is three-quarters of a cup. Not user-friendly! Food labels are supposed to make things easier for consumers, providing information so we can make good decisions. Most of the time, the labeling falls substantially short of that goal. We’re therefore confused and a little annoyed at the grocery store. It’s difficult to make comparisons and good decisions unless you can carve out upwards of two hours to grocery shop and you are unafraid to look like Rain Main in the aisles, counting on your fingers and perhaps muttering to yourself. And that’s before I start in with the coupons. Oh, I’ve said too much.

An interesting point as the FDA considers revisions is this: should the serving size rules reflect what (and how) people are really eating? Or what (and how) we should be eating? A reasonable serving size of cereal is one cup. A reasonable serving of chips is about a handful – maybe half a cup or so. But that’s rarely the serving size we end up with. Because we dump cereal into an oversized bowl or scoop chips into two fists, should the serving sizes mirror our overindulgent ways? And – as many people have asked in the wake of requirements that restaurants prominently post calorie counts – will it matter?

If you read that a serving size of something, anything, had 500 calories in it, would that give you pause? Would you eat less? Or, to the horror of food manufacturers, would you not eat it at all? What’s been the effect of label changes on bottles of soda, which now list the “official” serving size of 8 ounces alongside the statistics for the entire 20-ounce bottle – are you drinking fewer sugary drinks, or less of the ones you have? Will any of this make a difference in the battle against obesity, and the many chronic diseases that are its friends?

Not to get political again, but I must mention that a search (admittedly cursory) for updates since 2010 on the FDA’s serving size changes comes up empty. They are, however, hard at work to approve a revolutionary weight-loss drug, though, so … yeah. I would never be so cynical as to suggest that corporations and special interests influence the decisions of our government agencies. Heavens, no. But it’s hard not to point out that regulating serving sizes will piss off food manufacturers, and approving a new drug will delight the drug companies. This way, we’ll take a pill to get skinny and keep eating crap! Yay! Money in everyone’s pockets!

My cynicism is also fueled by industry’s outraged response when the Secretary of Agriculture said in an internal memo to USDA employees that “Meatless Monday” is a neat-o idea that’s worth trying out.  Here’s the scoop on it — an opinion piece, but with the pertinent information:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/02/opinion/grossman-cohen-meatless-monday/index.html

The meat folks didn’t like that, not one small bit. As if they’re going to go out of business. As if “agriculture” doesn’t also include plants. As if study after study doesn’t demonstrate that when we back off of meat a little and eat more plant-based foods, we lose weight and feel better. But plants don’t have corporate machines behind them, or puppet Congressmen to squawk their bidding. So the Secretary got his hand slapped by the hand that feeds it. I’ll go off on this issue another time … I can only fit so much indignation in one entry.

Today is Square One, friends. Let’s shake off the cynicism and do what we have to do to stay aware, educate ourselves, and make good decisions.

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07.26.12: What Makes Us Fat? Laziness … I Mean, Convenience.

I like this article.  I like that it’s going to irritate some people and force them to look in the mirror.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2012/07/17/its-convenience-not-cost-that-makes-us-fat/

“Middle income people are the most overweight and eat fast food more regularly than anyone else. In contrast, 80 percent of those with low incomes cook at home at least five times a week.”

The problem of obesity is complicated.  I don’t think there’s just one cause any more than I think there’s just one solution – not to the American/Western Civilization obesity crisis, not to an individual’s struggle with weight and wellness.  But based on the data in this study, it’s safe to say that we can’t blame obesity entirely on a lack of education, lack of funds, lack of access, et cetera, as we have in the past.  Our nation’s obesity is also a problem of too much convenience.  I’m going to say it: too much laziness.

Poverty and a generally uneven playing field are huge problems in this country.  There are “food deserts” everywhere; communities where the only fruit you can find is in a cellophane-wrapped “apple” pie at the Kwik-E-Mart.  Food insecurity plagues swaths of the US population[1].  Access and cost are huge barriers to healthful eating for many people.  But not for everyone, eh?

I spent a lot of years in the fitness and wellness industry, ultimately in corporate wellness.  I gave seminars and talks about lifestyle change, mostly to what you’d call middle- and upper-income audiences in a workplace context.  Talking back was encouraged, and we’d often discuss how dang busy and tired we all were and how the drive-thru felt like our only option.  And then, invariably, we could all name the winner of Dancing With The Stars (or who won the Heisman in 2007, or whatever) [2].  So … how busy are we, really?  And we all talk about being broke, about these tough economic times.  But we have smart phones and new shoes, and our pets get their shots and tags (I have that one on the brain because holy crap that was a big bill, that dog needs to get a job), and we have air-conditioned cars and cable television.

So … I get that we’re overwhelmed, because I live in Overwhelmed-Ville.  But I don’t really buy the “too busy” thing.  If something is important enough, we’ll find a way to make it happen.  Eating right and moving around should be as important as all the other things we make room for in our lives.  Yes, it’s as important as church and family.  It’s as important as sleep.

We middle-income folks are the lucky ones.  We have kitchens with appliances that work.  We have Tupperware.  We live near grocery stores … multiple grocery stores, so we can pick and choose based on price, selection, or convenience (which I’m not making into a dirty word – it can just get out of hand).  I live within reasonable distance of 2 Super Targets, 2 Super Wal-Marts, 2 Krogers, 3 Publixes (Publices?), a handful of roadside vegetable stands, 2 Trader Joe’ses (these plurals are tricky), a medium-sized Whole Foods, and a ginormous Whole Foods[3].  There are 5 farmer’s markets in the general area to choose from on the weekend.  So why on earth, except out of sheer laziness and/or poor planning (or pressure from a toddler who likes lemonade from a certain place, let’s not leave out that formidable force), should I ever go through a drive-thru?

Food is expensive, and it’s only going to get more expensive, it appears.[4]  I’m not implying that middle income families have unlimited funds or that we’re not all cutting back, sometimes painfully.  But wouldn’t you rather choose between the strawberries and the grapes because you can’t afford both this week, than between the Doritos and the Fritos?  If we have access to good things and if we know better, then it is incumbent upon us to make good choices most of the time.  Not all of the time, because we’re all still human, and cheeseburgers are still pretty delicious.  But most of the time.

I’m also not implying that we should feel guilty that we have so much opportunity and we squander it on fast food and piles of buffalo wings.  Don’t feel guilty about it – just don’t fall for the tired old messages that say you deserve a break today, celebrate yourself by sucking frozen sugary caffeinated goo through a straw, you’re just so busy you have no option but to stop on the way home and buy a disk of cheese and grease that’s been sitting under a heat lamp! heat lamp!  These messages tell us what we want to hear and let us off the hook when we’re simply too lazy to chop some damn lettuce.

It’s natural to take the easy way out.  Lots of things are hard, man, and it wears on you after a while.  Easy feels good because it’s as if the decision has been made for you, and you’re just along for the ride.  There’s where the trouble starts.  Are you going to go along for the ride, or are you going to be brave and honest enough to make hard decisions that you may not want to make?  Hell no, I don’t want to chop the damn lettuce, I’ve been working all day and my wrists hurt, I want someone to bring me food and drink and clean up after I devour it all.  I deserve it.  Or – do I deserve something good, that I made, that won’t make me feel ashamed of myself later, that deep down I know is worth the effort that I think I don’t have left in my body?

It’s true that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  We should make the most of the ones we have.  There aren’t enough breaths or heartbeats, either.  I want the ones that I get to be FREAKING AWESOME.  I don’t want to waste another hour, minute, breath, or dollar on something that isn’t good for me and my family.

Okay, I think I’m coming down from the pulpit now.  Maybe I’m rabid about excuses and rationalizations because I leaned on mine for so long, and I continue to catch myself leaning on them even now.  Now, when I not only know better, but have lived better.  It’s the beauty and the terror of Square One.


[1] “Food security” is a household’s consistent access to decent food.  The term includes availability, access, and use.  It’s a global as well as a domestic concern.  http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=FOOD_SECURITY

[2] Tim Tebow.

[3] I live within driving distance of these establishments.  The issue of walkability is a whole separate rant.

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PS …

Here’s what the Crow looks like.  Credit to menshealth.com for the picture.  See what I mean?!

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07.25.12: My Experience with P90X

Short version: I like it.

Longer version: I like it, with a couple of reservations.

Unabridged version: I got the P90X system for my husband for Christmas.  His schedule can be wonky, he travels a lot, and he often tucks workouts in wherever and however he can.  I doubted that he would go through the program as prescribed – and I was right – but I thought that between the two of us, we’d get some use out of it.

He’s cherry-picked from the workouts, and I did the program for about 4 weeks.  I chose not to pursue the full 90 days for a couple of reasons, but my overall feelings about the system are still positive.

I like Tony Horton as a host/guide/leader.  He’s in stellar shape, but he’s still got a “normal guy” aura.  His chatter and patter are not particularly grating (at least not to my ears; to each his own), and he strikes an appropriate balance between encouraging and challenging.  The DVDs do a good job of making you feel like you’re in the room with Tony and his helper-exercisers.  They also do a good job of not making you feel like a gigantic moron, sweating and falling all over yourself in your rec room, and of motivating without having the benefit of personal contact.

I generally like the variety of the workouts.  The system focuses on the concept of “muscle confusion,” which means that you’re changing things up constantly, not allowing your muscles to adapt or to get too comfortable.  That’s cool, and it works, and I’m on board with the concept – but more practically and importantly, sticking with a workout often hinges on whether you’re bored, and boredom is less of a problem with P90X than with other, similar at-home programs.

I generally like the workouts themselves.  Good variations are demonstrated for beginners, or for different equipment.  I liked the kickboxing the best – once I got the hang of it.  The first couple of times I tried that one, I swear to God I grew three extra feet and two extra arms, and I didn’t know what to do with any of them.  Whoo-ee, I was pissed off.

P90X offers options for programs, which are different combinations of the 12 workout DVDs.  I went with “P90X Lean,” which focuses on cardio.  It’s like the AAA version of the full P90X: not quite the big leagues, but still plenty challenging.  Lean was a better choice for me, as I was essentially coming straight from the couch.  That said, I took the “Are You Ready For P90X” pre-test, a series of exercises intended to make sure you have enough baseline fitness for the program, and I met or exceeded all of the marks, even coming from the couch.  All of the marks except for the pull-ups, and I’m not going to lose sleep over those.

I did see results from the program, and I was pleased.  Why didn’t I stick with it beyond the first four weeks?

I got several big freelance writing jobs back to back (to back to back).  I was leaving the house at 6:30 in the morning, and I often got home after 6 in the evening.  On a Yoga day, I’d have had to get up at 3:45, do Yoga from 4 until 5:30, and then shower up and eat and hit the road.  Not.  Bloody.  Likely.  Alternatively, I could have done Yoga from 9 until 10:30 pm, and then gone to bed.  Also not.  Bloody.  Likely.

So I had a break from the program, and when my head got above water, I decided I would be happier and more focused if I had a more tangible goal: training for a 10K.  I can still use the P90X workouts for cross-training days, and later I may decide to set a goal to do the entire 90 days.  For now, for me, pounding the pavement is more rewarding.

The program doesn’t provide flexibility for situations like mine, or for sick days.  What’s the best way to swap workouts if a Yoga day falls on a long workday?  What if you miss a couple – do you pick up where you left off, or repeat the last one you did before you keep going?  One could answer these questions instinctively (I am a certified personal trainer (expired), after all), and it honestly probably doesn’t matter much.  Just do something, as long as you’re doing something.  But because the program hammers on strict adherence, it can feel somewhat unrealistic and unforgiving.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had 90 predictable days in a row in a long, long time.  I control what I can, when I can – and I need to be able to adapt accordingly.  P90X doesn’t feel real-world in that aspect.

I freely admit that I didn’t consult the extensive online resources that P90X supports and recommends.  When I had questions, I found it cumbersome to sift through message boards to find the answers, and I wasn’t convinced that the folks providing the “answers” were qualified.  A lot of the responses on the boards seemed to bemoan that the same questions were being asked over and over again … naturally, I didn’t feel welcome to jump in.  So P90X may have helpful strategies to cope with Life, but I didn’t find them.

I wish that there were more than one Yoga workout.  The Lean program has 2 days a week of Yoga, and I love me some Yoga, but I quickly tired of the 90-minute Yoga X, and even began to dread it a little, which is the death knell of a solo workout program.  If you’re working out with a trainer, in a group setting, or with a buddy, you may dread a workout or two (or all of them, if you worked with me, ha!), but you’re more likely to get off your duffer and go anyway because you’ve got other people to support you, or to jab you with sticks and make you do it.  When you’re by yourself in the basement, persistent dread can really derail you.

I also had concerns about a couple of the poses in Yoga X.  When I was firing on all my cylinders, I did Yoga several times a week – for years.  Even then I couldn’t do The Crow.  I worry about a first-timer trying that pose, and some others in the routine, like the Plough, without supervision.  Even though you’re warned not to do more than you can or should, and even though you’re reminded to take it easy, don’t turn your head in this pose, et cetera – it still makes me nervous.

I don’t love the eating plan, which is an equal partner with the workouts.  When 50% of your caloric intake comes from protein, that’s a hell of a lot of protein.  As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages (and will likely say again and again), a body needs more of other things.

So there you have it.  I found P90X to be a useful tool in the health and fitness arsenal.  Whatever physical activity you choose to pursue, keep an open mind, and stay focused.  Today is Square One, my friends.  Do something about it!

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