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.


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