Monday, June 26, 2006

DF Tip #17: The Fitness Secret The Pros Won't Tell You

A few weeks ago, my family and I moved from our apartment in Hollywood to a house in the suburbs. Aside from a few 3:00 a.m. "This is Not My Beautiful House" moments, it's been great, and I can hardly complain.

trafStill, the fact that I'd be joining the legions of Angelenos who commute to work every day caused me a little anxiety. I spent the last year or so building up a clientele at a gym just minutes from where I live, which was terribly convenient except that now I don't live there any more. I live 9.91 miles away, which in LA miles is about 41.

Hang in there, I'm getting to my fitness tip.

For the first couple of weeks, I reluctantly got in the car at 8:40 to get there by 9:30, and felt my blood pressure rise as time ticked away, despite the best efforts of my soothing NPR commentating companions. Every day I'd arrive at work drained and angry. I filled my tank with $3.50 per gallon gas so many times that the owner of my local Chevron bought himself a yacht.

There appeared to be no way out... until I discovered my bike.

My bike had been sitting in the garage, patiently waiting for me to remember that it's not just a frivolous exercise device but is also a highly practical means of transportation. So one day last week, fed up to the back teeth with driving, I became a bike-commuter and my life changed.

Riding my bike to work has so many advantages it's almost unfair. You save money on the gas. You do your part to clean up the environment. You very often beat traffic because you can zip to the front of the line at traffic lights. And if your commute is the right length, cycling to and from work becomes your workout for the day. So, hey, even if your bike commute takes you a little longer than the ride by car, you’re probably saving time on the average day because your commute IS your workout.

And finally, what bike commuter can deny the subtle but undeniable feeling of superiority that comes over you as you fly past the gridlocked Ford Expeditions and Cadillac Esplanades on your $500 two-wheeled steed? I may be staring implacably forward, helmet and sunglasses obscuring my smug countenance, but there's no denying what I'm thinking:


I know, I know, bike-commuting isn't for everyone. Some people hate riding their bikes. Some people would die before they show up sweaty to work. Some people's commute would be prohibitively long or difficult (though using public transportation for part of the way might be an option). Some people might think it's too dangerous, though I find eight m.p.h. traffic pretty negotiable. And I suppose it's possible that some people actually enjoy their car-commutes. They listen to great music on their great stereos, they call their friends, they settle into their all-leather bucket seats of their BMW 7-series, stare out the window at the poor cyclist plodding along beside them and think: Sucker.

kilimSo even if you'd sooner die than miss NPR and a cup of Starbucks in the car every morning, I want to make a larger point that applies to everyone: the dirty little secret of the fitness industry that no commercial gym, no purveyor of Fat-Be-Gone skin cream or the "Zap Your Abs Electronic Exercise Kit" wants you to know about is that exercise can be useful. It doesn't have to be done in a gym. You don't have to pay someone to get you to do it. You don't have to join a club, or rent a boat, or fly to Indonesia, or get heli-dropped onto Mount Kilimanjaro to break a sweat. With a little ingenuity, your workout can be something that needs doing anyway. Like getting to work. Or gardening. Or moving boxes. I got a great workout the day we moved into our house because I helped the furniture schleppers unload the moving truck. And by speeding up their labors, I saved myself a few bucks in the process.

One of my strongest and most focused female clients did things on her first day that many male clients still struggle with: pushups, weighted lunges, fast-paced, full-body movements, one after another, no breaks. How had she gotten in such great shape, I wondered? Remodeling a house. Pounding nails, hauling lumber, re-piping the plumbing. Talk about saving money. And now she's got muscles and a great house to show for it.

leadLook, I like the convenience and control of structured exercise as much as the next person. I like knowing that last week I benched this much and this many reps, and now I'm doing more. I like knowing how fast I can run or bike or how many meters I swam. It helps me stay on track with my fitness and ensure that I'm improving and not backsliding or just treading water. But the thing to remember is that your body isn't there just to be fed and walked around the block periodically like some tiresome, needy pet. It's there to help you get stuff done, too.

Get out there and do it. Personally, I'm going to get the sledgehammer out and bust up the ugly concrete patio that's taking up our back yard area this weekend so the landscapers can seed it on Monday. Anyone care to join me?

Have a great week!


Saturday, June 10, 2006

DF Tip #16: Two Minutes a Month to Shapely Thighs!

thighOkay, so I've been a little negligent when it comes to these tips lately. Several factors have contributed to this: my wife and I have moved into a house, business is pretty good -- thanks, clients -- I'm out of town at the moment, and, well, the summer's officially here, and with it, a little natural aversion to doing things that require me to sit down for long periods. So I apologize for my silence.

But when I look over the above list, I have to admit that my excuses read like the kind of things I hear from my clients and acquaintances when they talk about exercise, why they don't have time for it, why they can't bring themselves to do it, even though they really, really want to.

It's all true, and all understandable. In my life as a normal human and not a fitness nag, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the way that pesky thing known as "life" can interfere with one's best intentions. It's all well and good for me to sit here and tell you to work out hard and often, to tell you that it's great for you, that you'll feel better, look better, and be more effective as an employee, boss, husband, wife, parent, friend, WHATEVER -- but what about those times when those myriad obligations stack up perilously high, requiring you to either skip exercise or stumble around numb and half-drunk from getting up at 4:00 a.m. to jog around the block dodging bewildered raccoons (which I've done, and regretted)?

racWell, first I would say that if the above describes you most of the time, it's time to do some reprioritizing. It’s a matter of opinion and personal choice, of course, but I firmly believe that no one should feel so constantly hectored and buffeted by the stresses of life that they can't squeeze in three hours a week to keep their bodies in good operating order: your health just isn't worth the few extra beans that your superhuman vocational efforts will pull in. But even for those of us who are pretty consistent about exercising, sometimes stresses just converge on us, and our carefully-plotted-out exercise plan is usually the first thing to go.

What's to be done?

Uncharacteristically, I'd like to make a plug for the conventional wisdom here. What you read most of the time is that when you are strapped for time, you should truncate your workout into a ten-minute stretch session here, a trot up the stairs at work there. Every little bit counts, they say. Do it often enough and you've got yourself an active healthy lifestyle.

Up until recently, I believed that, for someone like me, these little bouts of exercise were essentially useless. If my usual workout was a pulse-pounding hour of lifting weights, or two hours of biking hills, or fifty minutes of intervals in the pool, what possible good would a five-minute stretch do for me? So when I'm pulled in too many directions on a given day, the temptation to scrap the whole workout and wait for a time when I can put in a Real Session is pretty overwhelming. I get very grouchy on days like that. Just ask my wife.

But hold on there, I tell myself, and even with my resistance and impatience on full blast, I start going through a series of stretches, and five minutes later I feel better, clearer, and more able to cope with whatever it is that's hectoring and buffeting on that particular day.

Now, of course, there's no substitute for the real thing. Eight Minutes In the Morning might have sold a zillion copies but I’d venture to say that's not so much proof of the program's efficacy as it is evidence of the selling power of wishful thinking. At the risk of repeating myself to the point of stridency, if you really want your body to change and adapt, you've got to put in some real hours and some real sweat. My five minutes of stretching is in no way equivalent to a real workout. At the end of that day, despite my five minutes, I'm probably a tiny bit less fit than when I work up that morning.

So what's the point in doing it at all?

Stating the obvious, it's a little break in the day. Taking fifteen, ten, or even five minutes to do something physical on a hectic day makes you stop, breathe, gain just a little bit of distance and perspective before you dive in and finish whatever it is that's robbing you of your soul on a given day.

Secondly, that little personal fitness break can serve as an effective placeholder -- or kickstart -- for the longer workout you've been subconsciously putting off for the days, weeks or months since you last put some sweat equity into your health-and-fitness account. It's like writing your body a quick memo that says "I know it's been a while, pecs and lats, but here's a little something to tide you over before BodySculpt class with Malikai the Malicious next Thursday." You'd actually be surprised at how effectively those placeholder workouts can get you -- or keep you -- on track. Very few fitness success stories I've heard say "I started by exercising two hours a day, eliminating all sugar and consuming no carbs after 3:00 p.m." Almost all of them say something like, "I started by walking up the two flights of stairs at work every day."

Finally, the few minutes you take out of your hectic day can actually serve to clarify whatever is causing your stress to begin with. Ironically, it's often when we most need a break that we're most afraid to take one. We're worried that if we take our foot off the accelerator even for a second, we'll lose ground and miss whatever deadline is threatening to flatten us like a bug on a windshield. We think that only more and more strenuous mental effort will solve our problem, but often it's the opposite: the minute we step back from the problem, breathe a little, and reconnect with our bodies, solutions start to present themselves. How many of us get our best ideas not while we're at our desk but while we're in the shower, or drifting off to sleep, or taking a relaxing stroll, completely relaxed and carefree? Einstein said he got his best ideas riding his bike. If you're worried about skillful and creative problem-solving, that alone should inspire you to jump on the nearest Schwinn and start pedalin.'

workoutSo that’s my tip this week. If you're stressed, if you don't have time -- and that's the number one excuse for non-exercisers everywhere -- if you otherwise feel unable to make the workout you've scheduled for yourself, put in five minutes. I'm not even going to tell you what to do. Jumping jacks, yoga, stair climbing, walking the block, skipping rope, it doesn't matter as long as it feels good, takes your mind off the stress and leaves you feeling more focused.

Good luck, everyone. Now here's hopin' I can take a little of my own medicine about consistency and be a little more diligent about these tips.