Saturday, February 25, 2006

DF Tip #8: Don't be a Cardio Zombie!

Next time you're in the gym, take a stroll by the folks working out on the cardio machines and conduct a little informal worker-effectiveness survey. Your boss does it to you all the time, might as well get a little of your own back.

treadIf your gym is like most of the health clubs I know, what you'll see is a handful of exercisers sweating themselves silly, many more than that going doggedly but disconnectedly through the motions, and a full half of them barely moving. Their legs might be lazily turning the pedals of some machine, but their focus is elsewhere: they're reading the paper, they're watching TV, they're talking on their cell phones, for Pete’s sake.

You'd think you'd encounter a different vibe in the free weight room, where the hardcore gym elite supposedly toils, scoffing at the efforts of mortals, admiring their crustacean physiques in the mirror. But the cross-section there is no different. Sure, there's more grunting and preening, but anyone who's really pushing their limits, subjecting themselves to a new stimulus which will make their bodies stronger, leaner, faster, more flexible will stand out like Pee-Wee Herman at a biker bar. And, incidentally, such people are often just about as welcome: a gym manager yelled at me once for sweating too much. Not on the equipment, mind you: on the floor.

Oh, the irony.

Look, I applaud anyone’s efforts to get fit. I recognize that the cell-phone stationary biker might have nothing else to give that day. I also recognize that not everyone enjoys pushing his body's limits till he’s a quivering mass of semi-organic goo on a daily basis like I do. I also know that there are people out there who are reasonably happy with how they look and feel and just go to the gym to maintain where they're at, unwind, chat with friends, maybe sit in a steam room and relax a little. Different goals, different personalities.

So why don't I just clam up, do my own frantic, heart-attack-inducing workouts, and keep my judgments to myself, Fitness-Obsesso-Boy?

I really should.

But here's this week's wouldn’t-it-be-nice sentiment: Most people are in the gym to affect change, and very few of the workouts I see people doing are effective in this regard. I can live with that -- begrudgingly. But what baffles me to my core is this: if people are paying good money for gym memberships and then taking valuable time to work out, why in Sam Hill don’t they at least pay attention to the workout itself? Such workouts are like placeholders for the workout that you think you'll have the energy and inclination to do someday…but not today.

In our busy lives, a few stolen hours a week to exercise are golden, friends. Even if you're going to creep like snail unwillingly to fitness-school on the treadmill, even if you're going to keep your weights perpetually light because you "don't want to bulk up!" at least pay attention to what you're doing. At least enjoy moving, enjoy breathing a little harder than usual, at least spend some time appreciating what Fiona Apple calls the "extraordinary machine" we live in. It may be the most rewarding part of exercise.

Long after the days of 250-pound bench presses, I hope I’ll be like the trim, energetic man I met doing laps at the pool the other day, who swims for an hour a day, seven days a week, rain or shine. He looks to be about 15 years younger than his 72 years.

What I'm talking about here is mindfulness, folks. Paying attention, showing up, being in the moment. Our busy lives threaten at every turn to transform our bodies into brain-housing devices, troublesome and demanding mechanisms useful only in moving us around so we can hook up to another machine and perform more income-generating work. For many of us, the only chance we get to remedy this mind-body schism is during those few hours we set aside to exercise. But the cardio- and weight- zombies described above are doing quite the opposite: they're doing one thing with their bodies (exercising) and quite another with their minds (cell phone, TV, chatting with friends), thus widening the very mind-body gap that focused exercise can help to close.

taiSo what's to be done?

Well, working out hard is one solution, and, by now, you can probably guess is the solution that works for me. It's tough to space out too much when you've got hundreds of pounds of iron slung across your shoulders, or when you're staring down the business end of hill number seventeen on Mulholland Drive.

And that’s not the only way: T'ai Chi practitioners are the picture of mindfulness, and their workouts aren't of the sweat-buckets variety. Most martial artists are as well, but I don't think you have to go to the Far East to find mindfulness: check out a spinning class and chances are you'll find the same focused intention I'm talking about.

But really, and I've said this before, the activity itself isn't important. As the 2-man luge and the curling competitors in the Olympics have shown us these last few nights on TV, you can be mindful doing anything — even your same old workout. Give it a try next time — it takes no more time and only marginally more effort. Go ahead and do the same thing you always do, just pay a little more attention: be aware of the space around you, of the way your body feels, of the feel of the weight or the road beneath you. At the end of your workout, whether your pushed your limits or not, you'll feel focused and alert instead of distracted and rushed.

String enough of those workouts together and pretty soon you have a form of practice, something that complements and supports your daily activities rather than serves as yet another distracting obligation. And that's a pretty good feeling.

Have a great week,

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

DF Tip #7: Pointing Up the Pointlessness

Zoologist-turned-poet/raconteur David Whyte tells the following story about an early midlife career crisis. Whyte was working for nonprofit conservation organization, putting in long hours, volunteering at every turn for one worthy but thankless job after another, desperately spinning his wheels in the name of altruism. Exhausted, he consulted a wise friend over a pint of Guinness, who listened to Whyte's account of his predicament and said, "David, the solution to exhaustion is not necessarily rest."

Whyte, who felt that a vacation was more than deserved, bristled.

"The solution to exhaustion," the friend continued, "is wholeheartedness."

hikeI may be cutting off my nose to spite my face here, but the fact is that you don't necessarily need weight training and aerobics, as we normally think of them, to achieve optimum fitness. The bodybuilding and fitness magazines would like to you believe otherwise, with their "Great Thighs In Three Moves!" articles, but as I've said before, you can skin the fitness cat just about any way you want. The key is finding the "want" part--that activity you can be wholehearted about.

Let's face it. Or rather, I'm going to have to face it, and you can come along with me on this or not, as you please. Not everyone loves weight training, and not everyone loves running on the treadmill or riding on a stationary bike. Personally--newsflash--I'm something of a fitness geek, so the idea of clanging as much weight as I can handle onto a barbell and trying to figure out a way to get that thing aloft on my own steam holds a kind of masochistic joy for me. It's pointless, of course--I'm not really getting "healthier" in any meaningful sense, and it's not going to make me look much different--but as Justice Antonin Scalia once told a courtroom of golfers asking him to settle some pressing matter about the rules of the game, the point of sports is that they're pointless.

Heretical to say, I suppose, with the Olympic Games raging along in full force, young hopefuls hurtling themselves at alarming speeds along various configurations of frozen water. But I think that's part of the appeal of sports. As with the appeal of drama, we get to watch and engage with an event wherein the stakes appear enormously high, all the while knowing that there are really no stakes at all. The enjoyment is metaphorical. Watch humans invest every fiber of their physical, emotional, and spiritual fortitude in some contrived but enjoyable endeavor, and perhaps we will be inspired to invest just as much force of will into whatever endeavors happen to be taking up time and energy in our own lives.scuba

All this is to defend my personal preference for weight training, running, cycling, and swimming endless miles, even getting on an elliptical machine from time to time and sweating my brains out to get through 20 minutes at level 15. Curse you, elliptical trainer! Spurred on by the exploits of Bode Miller and Apolo Anton Ohno, I WILL conquer you someday. Oh yes, I will, all the while knowing that the rewards of reaching that goal are almost entirely symbolic.

But just because those are the activities I like to do doesn't mean they'll light your fire. There are lots of reasons that weight training and cardio activity are great ways to spend your limited recreation time, but if you don't like doing those things, none of my arguments will convince you otherwise.

So look down on us treadmill-runners as the human gerbils we are if you wish. Scoff at your swimming-obsessed co-worker's crispy, chlorinated coif every time you spy it over her cubicle wall. And yes, as much as he brags about it, you can even think that your marathoner brother-in-law is a blowhard who will have no knee cartilage in another 18 months. He probably is.

jai-alaiJust remember this: there’s nothing inherently noble or ridiculous about ANY athletic endeavor. They're all silly, and they’re all great--in part, arguably, because they ARE silly. Like your ma told you, it's how you play the game. Find something YOU can invest in, something that makes YOU excited, and you're golden. Then you'll never hear yourself say, "Oh my god, another 20 minutes of cardio" again. You'll say, "Hey it's Saturday, time for my softball game!" Or "In two weeks I get to SCUBA dive." Or go on a hike, or play jai-alai, or whatever it may be.

It takes a little more effort, granted, to find the thing that gets you fired up. The fitness industry has made it awfully convenient to walk into one of their emporia of sweat and burn off a few hundred calories. But if you hate those Palaces of Pain, for the love of God, don't go. Find another way. There are too many fitness options out there for ALL of us--and I speak to you as a living cautionary tale--to be forever lost in the health-club labyrinth. The energy you invest in finding something you enjoy is energy you will save down the road once you have found an activity you can be wholehearted about.

Happy Hunting, and have a great week--


P.S.: Aside from agreeing with him on the appealing pointlessness of sports--which is a true story, by the way--I share few if any opinions in common with Antonin Scalia.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

DF Tip #6: Eyes on the Prize

God bless my hardworking fitness clients: they sweat buckets, they do gut-busting sets of Bulgarian split squats, they do all the hoisting and twisting and jumping and skipping I ask of them, the whole time looking wistfully across the gym at other folks doing forearm curls and machine glute squeezes, wishing they had it so easy. Though they occasionally complain about it, my clients work as hard as anyone in the gym, and it makes me happy to see them losing fat, getting stronger, feeling and looking better. And if they’re being consistent and watching their diet and resting adequately, they bound to keep making progress.

But occasionally, inevitably, they hit a wall: a plateau of some kind, or even a backslide of a pound or two. And that’s frustrating for both of us, of course. I mean, if they’re not getting better, surely it means we’re doing something wrong! Right?

Well, maybe.

I’m not infallible, and I can’t police my clients 24-7. But the reality is that for all the sweat you put in, for all the careful measuring of food intake and calories burned, sometimes you just have to be patient, hang in there through a plateau while the body makes the internal changes necessary while prepping for the next surge in progress.

graphI’ve seen again and again that linear progress—absolutely rock-solid, straight-up-the-mountain improvement with no plateaus and no switchbacking—is a myth. It doesn’t really happen. We like to believe it can and does, not only in fitness but in all aspects of our lives: career, finances, living situation, family. On some level we believe that everything should be constantly improving, and that those trends just go on and on until we DIE, fabulously rich and famous, running 3-minute miles and benching 1500 pounds, surrounded by beautiful supplicants, a trunkload of Most Improved Player awards in the back of our each one of our seventeen Ferraris.

Far be it from me to critique anyone’s ambitions. Some people want to get in shape to get back at their exes, or so they can intimidate a guy at work, or to flaunt their new fitness to someone they can’t stand. I’ll work with anyone, because hopefully at some point along the way they start to enjoy the process and their gradual progress towards these goals becomes a by-product rather than the driving force behind their new fitness habit. And if their ex ever does encounter them and sees the newly radiant glow of fitness in their skin and the sleek, trim physique they’ve build for themselves, and suddenly regrets leaving them, well, so be it, but hopefully it doesn’t spell the end of exercise for them (…Martha.)

The point is this: long-term goals are essential. Without them, few of us would ever get to gym.

When I started training for triathlons last year, I was so terrified of not making it through the swim portion of the race that I always made my early morning workouts, despite having to get up before 5:00 AM sometimes. My long-term goal got me out of bed, but once in the pool or on the road, my enjoyment of the activity took over, and I just enjoyed whatever swimming, biking, or running workout I had planned for myself that day. By keeping a ‘soft eye’ on my long-term goals while enjoying the day-to-day ‘nothing special’-ness of working out, I had a great time, met some great friends, and even managed to pull off fairly decent rookie season as a triathlete.

Now I’m no psychologist, sports or otherwise, but I’ve recognized that everything I’ve accomplished that’s worthwhile in my life has been the result of a balancing act between a long-term goal and a day-to-day commitment. On one hand, you’ve got to choose a goal that fires you up; on the other hand, you’ve got to have the stomach for the day-to-day work as well.

It’s the everyday thing that sabotages so many fitness promises. Now that we’re into February, lots of people will find themselves flagging on their programs a bit. You may have hit a frustrating plateau and decided maybe this isn’t your year to get in shape. Or maybe your life is busier than you thought it would be and there’s not as much time or energy as you thought there would be way back in December.

Don’t waste any energy beating yourself up for these lapses. Just ease yourself back onto the horse and get yourself moving again. Add up enough days when you choose to exercise instead of watching TV, where you choose to eat well instead of poorly, where you choose to drink water instead of soda, and pretty soon your long-term goals will be well within reach.

Best of luck, and have a great week—