Can fit2fat2fit empathize with unfit2fit2unfit?

Imagine setting out to gain weight and lose fitness. I’ve done the lose-gain yo-yo loads of times. But never on purpose.

Personal trainer Drew Manning was as buff as buff gets. In May 2011 he made a decision to stop exercising and stop eating smartly for six months. He wanted to get out of shape so he could better understand the struggles of some of his clients. He documents his journey from fit to fat and back to fit again on his blog, Fit2Fat2Fit. Recently he published a book about it. Drew gained 70 pounds and lost much of his physical fitness in six months. Six months later he’d returned to his previous level of uber-fitness and low body fat.

My question: how well would this venture help him to empathize with clients who struggle to make long-term changes in both fitness and fat percentage? My guess: not so well. Here’s why.

First let’s remember that fat and fit are not polar opposites. As we know, people can be overweight (by BMI and even body fat percentage standards) and still be fit on other measures.

Drew is different from the clients he’s trying to understand. His “yo-yo” is the opposite of theirs. Most people who struggle with weight and fitness go from unfit to fit to unfit, not the other way around. And the real challenge is long-term maintenance. This makes sense because, over time, people gravitate back towards old habits. Face it, permanent lifestyle changes are tough to make.

But Drew’s “old” habits are the habits of a super-fit, lean, muscle machine. He already eats right and gets plenty of exercise. He could get back to his original state of fitness with relative ease because he just had to re-adopt a lifestyle that he’d already internalized. But the clients he’s trying to relate to have to stay vigilant to retain the new habits. That’s harder to do than to revert to old patterns.

If you watch some of the amusing “food challenges” Drew videotaped on his website—like eating a one pound bacon cheese burger, bacon cheese fries, and a hot fudge brownie sundae with a large coke—he has a lot of trouble meeting them. He hates brownies and chocolate. Salt and grease “get to him,” which is why he found the KFC challenge so difficult. Drew is more in tune with his body than many of his clients might be.

Many yo-yo dieters can’t easily detect their hunger signals. They have difficulty knowing when they’re hungry and when to stop eating. They can’t tell when they’re full until they’re ready to burst. That’s why some people can eat a whole tub of ice cream or down an entire bag of cookies. They don’t realize it until the spoon hits the bottom or their hand reaches into an empty bag.

But in his food challenges, Drew reluctantly stuffs down more food. He knows he’s eaten more than he’s comfortable eating. If not for the challenge, he would stop way before the end of a dozen donuts or a bucket of fried chicken. His default setting is to eat reasonable portions of healthy food.

Drew started off very fit, with high quality muscle. That gave him an advantage. True, he had some health issues by the end (high cholesterol, a fatty and enlarged liver, compromised kidney functioning, to name a few). But while gaining 70 pounds he didn’t at the same time lose all of his muscle. Most of his struggling clients will start with far less muscle. Their road will be more difficult.

And it’s worth pointing out that if Drew works with women, especially older women, they just don’t change as quickly or easily as men. My husband and I started personal training at the same time last March. Within seven months, he’s lost about 20 pounds and looks fitter, leaner, and younger.

I dare say I’ve worked harder. But after seven months my weight has dropped by about five pounds and my body fat percentage feels like it’s not budging (maybe it’s changed a bit). When we went back to our regular yoga class after the summer, our teacher raved at how awesome Renald looked (and he does look great). His friends are always saying things to him about how much younger and fitter and leaner he looks (he does). Me—not so much.

I’m not trying to be negative about Drew’s story. It’s fascinating and Drew comes across as a sincere, likeable guy. He knows his stuff and freely shares printable food plans and workout plans on his website.

I’m just not convinced that fit2fat2fit can help Drew really know what it’s like to walk in the another’s shoes because he walked in the opposite direction.

Thanks to reader Daphne Gray-Grant for drawing Drew’s challenge to my attention.

Fitness Classes Then and Now

In Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1988 my friend Diane and I joined a gym in Central Square called Joy of Movement. We had a choice between two kinds of fitness classes: high impact aerobics and low impact aerobics (okay, they also had yoga, but that was for the older women—over thirty). In both, the instructor shouted out the knee lifts and overhead presses and we dutifully followed the orders, scrutinizing our reflections in the mirrored front wall. The rousing encouragement of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive” spurred us on in this daily ritual.

Fast forward 24 years to yesterday. I’m in Banff for a couple of weeks. I still need to acclimatize to the altitude and the weather (snow, cold). I don’t feel ready to run outside (maybe tomorrow). The fitness centre here offers different classes every day: muscle pump, boot camp, zumba (yes, and yoga, but I need to sweat!). I tried muscle pump and whoa, things have changed.

You still face a mirror and try to keep up with the complicated routine staying in rhythm with the music as the teacher belts out instructions. But now you have equipment. A mat, a bosu (half a ball with a solid base), weights, and a thing that looks something like a skipping rope covered in fabric; it’s called a tube. It gives resistance for working shoulders and triceps (and I’m sure other things, but that’s what we used it for yesterday).

If the aerobics classes of the past were workouts, Muscle Pump is like the Iron Man. When the leader had us jumping on the bosu from the back, then off to the side, then on, then off to the front, then on, then off to the other side, then on, then off to the back again, all the while coordinating this with arm movements holding weights, I got all twisted up and felt like I was going to pass out. Maybe it’s the altitude?

What did I think of Muscle Pump?

I liked:
• The instructor was a kick-ass woman in her fifties who exuded vitality and strength (the oldest and fittest person in the room)
• The pressure of keeping up with the others combined with not wanting to embarrass myself motivated me (for the most part).
• One minute I looked at the clock and we had more than half an hour to go, the next minute class was over!
• The combination of weight training and cardio rolled into one makes for an intense, efficient session.

I didn’t like:
• The loud music
• The gym had no windows to the outside
• The mirror was distracting
• The routine seemed unduly complicated
• The pressure of keeping up with the others combined with not wanting to embarrass myself might have kept me motivated, but that’s not the sort of motivation I want

Muscle pump got my heart rate up and challenged my muscles. I can’t see classes like that becoming part of my routine again (I’ll take a yoga class over muscle pump any day of the week!). But if you’re looking for an efficient combination cardio/weight training experience, belong to a gym, want an indoor activity for the winter months, and you like the bolstering affect of a high-energy instructor, loud music, and fellow sufferers, then the fitness classes offered these days are a good choice.

Inspirational sports movies: Where are the women?

swnak

Canada’s Globe and Mail just published a list of “Motivational masterpieces: 5 sports movies that’ll get you pumped.” Alex Hutchinson writes, “A good sports flick doesn’t just psych you up; it actually boosts your testosterone and makes you a better athlete. In order, a highly personal list of some all-time greats.”

Hutchinson’s list may be highly personal, fine, but it’s also a ‘veritable sausage fest’ (to borrow s friend’s phrasing that I now can’t resist using at every opportunity–thanks Shannon!) You can read it at the link above.

But I have a question: Where are the women?

Here are some of my favourite sports movies that would pass the Bechdel test:

1. Bend it Like Beckham

2. A League of Their Own

3. Million Dollar Baby

4. Whip It

5. Personal Best

Another fun list is here, at After Ellen: The 10 Hottest Women in Sports Movies.

What are your favourite sports movies about women athletes?

Six Things I Love about Aikido and Six Things I Struggle With

aikido

I love Aikido. I really do. I often feel like it’s a classic bad romance though since I love Aikido but I also really struggle with it. Sometimes I’m not so sure it loves me back!  I’ve been a student at the Aiki Budo Centre (ABC) of London for about 5 years now, though I’ve had two 1 year leaves for travel to Australia and New Zealand where I dabbled with other forms of Aikido. I recommend Aikido to all of my friends who want to try a martial art.

I also train with the Western Aikido Club on the university campus. (Both ABC and WAC practice the Yoshikan style of Aikido. There’s a quick run down on the different styles of Aikido here.)

I began Aikido when my children were younger and it was the one activity that attracted both sons, the ballet dancer and the now football/rugby player. One liked its grace and beauty and the other liked the more martial aspects. That is, he liked the fighting part! I noticed after about six months of watching the boys and thinking it looked fun that some of the parents stuck around for the adult class and the children stayed in the room and played. Now it’s  my 20 year old daughter and me who are students of Aikido. Her brothers have moved on, as teenagers do, but I hope one day they’ll come back.

Some of the things I love:

  • Learning to fall. I keep thinking that senior citizens should all take Aikido just for the practice in falling. A few winters ago I hit the ice getting out of my car and went for a wild ride. I was never sure if the techniques I’d learned in Aikido would be useful but I didn’t even think. I just rolled properly and didn’t hurt a thing, pride aside. It was so nice to know that after all that practice my Aikido falling technique had become second nature. And while I’m not usually that taken with the psychological and spiritual aspects of martial arts, there really is something about being knocked down and getting back up again hundreds and hundreds of times that’s very useful in life. (Good for fitness too.)
  • The structure, the rhythm, the ritual. I love bowing in and feeling like we are creating a special, sacred place. We create the mood of seriousness and mindful playfulness.
  • I love that Aikido is such a gentle martial art. It’s a self defense technique that works by using the energy of one’s attacker and redirecting it. When done right the movement of one’s partner is not forceful, but it can’t be resisted (well, not without a great deal of unnecessary pain.) I’m not convinced I’d execute any of our techniques perfectly, if attacked, but I’m very certain I don’t look like an easy target. I know how to walk with confidence. I can yell pretty loudly in someone’s face and I am pretty sure I’d be able to strike someone and knock them to the ground if need be.
  • The diversity of the participants. Aikido is the activity I do with the greatest range of age, size, backgrounds of practitioners. I really enjoy my Aikido companions. A welcome switch from university life….We have to trust one another and we get to know the bodies of each other quite well. I can tell you who has the flexible shoulders, who has stuff knee joints, and who bounces really well when thrown. We lend our bodies to one another to train and that takes a lot of trust. I need to know that if I tap on the mat that my training partner will stop applying the technique. It’s a pretty special community.
  • Our teachers are volunteers and they’re wonderful. They give so much to the community and are excellent both at teaching the techniques and as role models. There’s terrific leadership and a real sense that they work as a team.
  • Throwing large men around! I confess that I like throwing big men around the dojo. It’s satisfying to know you’ve got a technique right because you can fling someone much stronger and larger around the room. They also make good noises when they land. “Whee! Thump!” we joke though our goal is less thump, and more quiet, soft landings.

What I struggle with:

  • Rolling! I’m lousy at rolling and sometimes I hurt myself. I keep trying but it’s not coming easily.
  • Where are the women? I wish there were more women on the mats. There are some but only a couple of the black belts are women.
  • Kneeling really hurts my knees.
  • I had to work very hard to learn how to hit people! If I don’t put enough energy into a technique my training partner can’t learn how to defend himself. If my punch stops a few inches shy of my partner’s face, they aren’t really learning to block.
  • Learning the names of techniques in Japanese.
  • Testing makes me nervous but I’m getting better about that. I don’t like people watching me but once you’re in the zone and concentrating on the technique you forget that people are there.

It’s my goal during my run up to “fittest at fifty” to test for a new belt at Aikido. I’ll keep you posted!

And if you want to come watch Aikido or give it a try, just send me a note. It’s a lot of fun.

In praise of everyday movement

“Let’s have a minute’s silence for all those Americans who are stuck in traffic on the way to a gym to ride a stationary bicycle!” – Congressman Earl Blumenauer

There are two different styles of exercisers, I think. Call them the “integrationists” and the “compartmentalizers.” Integrationists try to work physical activity into the fabric of their everyday lives. Compartmentalizers view physical activity as something special  and different, with a sharp beginning and end time.

If physical activity in your life always involves special clothes, and maybe driving someplace to start, and the activity has a sharp beginning and end time, then you’re a compartmentalizer.

And if you had a hard time answering Tracy’s question when it comes to fitness activities, “What counts?” you’re probably a fellow integrationist. A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy, is an integrationist extraordinaire. He wrote the book at a treadmill desk, incorporates short bursts of intense activity through his day, and literally runs his household errands.

While I only aspire to Jacobs’ level, generally speaking I’m an integrationist too and as much as possible I work physical activity into my life. I have other values in my life besides fitness, such as environmentalism, and integrating activity into my life serves those ends too.

I walk to the grocery store and carry heavy bags of groceries home. I ride my bike to and from work, when not ferrying teenagers. I sometimes jog with the dog rather than walking her. And if I have to go to a mall (shudder) I happily park my car far away from the entrance and walk in. The quote at the beginning of this article is on my Facebook wall under ‘favourite quotes.’

What do the compartmentalizers say in their defense? I’ve asked a few and gotten different responses. Disabilities require exercise modifications for some people and so working out is only really possible in a gym setting. But others want to arrive fresh at their workout, not all tired from walking up and down the stairs at the office.  They want a quality warm-up, not just a walk to the gym.

Some can only work out in a narrow band of temperatures. Summer is too hot, winter is too cold, and so they flee to the gym where it’s always 20 degrees. Turns out I’ve also raised a compartmentalizer. My  most active child is one. He argues he has lots of gear and sporting equipment to carry around but he also thinks that walking is simply dull.

Of course, I’ve also from time to time been serious about road bike training and racing and there being an integrationist hasn’t always served my ends so well. On the bright side, riding my bike to morning training was an excellent warm up and used to net me an extra 100 km a week. No small potatoes.  I also rode my bike to some races and there my experience varied. That worked well for short commutes and short races (I think it helps me with criterium racing) and not so well for longer distances. But I reasoned that I was  racing for fitness promoting reasons, not really to win, and so it was okay.

I once set out to ride 40 km to the start of a 60 km road race and then got a flat en route. And then a second flat. By then figured I’d miss the start. It was a race where the slower groups start first with the idea that we stood some chance of finishing all together and the faster grades rode in pursuit of the slower grades.  I think then I was in D grade, near the slowest. While fixing flat number two the A grade riders rolled up and helped and offered to ride with me to the start. I told them I didn’t have a chance of making it to the start in time since I was both a much slower rider and in virtue of that fact, started well ahead of them. Nah, they said, just hang on the back of our bunch and you’ll be right. I did and I made it to the start on time. I laughed later looking at the data from my bike computer. My heart rate was the same on the ride out to the start with the fast guys as it was in my race. The 40 km roll home was very slow!

I’ve had people look shocked when I roll up on my bike to the Running Room to go for a run. There isn’t a parking space to be had anywhere near that place on a Sunday morning, but why not? It’s not a race. I’m loathe to drive to a social run.

Which brings me to housework. I know many people who design their houses to avoid movement but then spend a fortune on exercise DVDs and gym memberships. I don’t get it. In my house, there’s the running argument about basement laundry versus 2nd floor laundry, a household improvement I’m loathe to support. “You’ll wear yourself out carrying hampers of clothes up and down those stairs,” people have been known to say. We live in a 3 story house with laundry in the basement. But why make a laundry easy and then go to the gym to lift weights? Also, I sit at a desk at work. People who have physically demanding jobs might need 2nd floor laundry, but not me. I haven’t quite extended this reasoning to all household chores but I’m on my way. Certainly, it’s made me view housework in a happier light.

Running Doesn’t Have to Hurt: Giving Chi Running a Try

Late last summer my husband Renald and I were out for a walk when a man sprinted by and waved.  He had a powerful stride and a fast pace, and even sped up as he approached a long hill.  I’d just started running again and envied his form and speed.  “He’s an amazing runner. Fast. ” I said.  Renald knew him.  “I know that guy. He can run, but that’s all he can do.  Running has taken such a toll on his body that he told me he can’t walk without pain anymore.” I’m injury-phobic. The last thing I want is to end up like Renald’s friend.

My first turn at running in my twenties ended in hip pain that forced me to quit after just a few months.  I’d jumped straight into a five mile loop in Boston-Cambridge: across the Harvard Bridge, then the Esplanade along the Charles River in Boston, the Longfellow Bridge, back to Cambridge, and then by the river on Memorial Drive right back to the Harvard Bridge. The beauty of the route and the company of other runners kept me motivated for a little while. But I didn’t ease into it. In short, I didn’t run smart.  Twenty-five years later, I’m taking a more gentle approach.

This brings me to Chi Running. I’ve been reading Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury Free Running by Danny and Katherine Dreyer. Using a method and posture that stresses the core muscles — much like yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi — this form of running is supposed to make knee pain and shin splints “a thing of the past [and] dramatically reduce your potential for injury.”

The authors say many runners typically land on their heels and this taxes the body. Landing on the midfoot, they say, is much more efficient and guards against injury. In running circles this technique is known as ‘the midfoot strike.’ The authors also claim that their 10-step training program will “transform your running” so you’ll run faster, farther and with less effort.  The promises of Chi Running are pretty enticing.

It’s a bit challenging to learn a physical activity from a book because it doesn’t tell you whether you’re getting it right. But this book is a good start for anyone interested in learning a new technique. It includes detailed explanations, photos, and exercises to teach the posture, the midfoot strike, the forward lean, and the other features of Chi Running.

I’m going to keep at it through the winter and then find a Chi Running workshop in the spring. I think a face-to-face session with a certified instructor would be the best way to ensure that I’m getting it right.  So far, just using the book, I’m finding it easier to run further with this method.

Where I used to have some shin pain and lower back pain before I tried Chi Running, the posture and foot placement alone have dealt with both. If I feel any discomfort when I am running, I just re-focus on my posture (they call it ‘leveling the pelvis’) and check in with my foot placement.  Giving this kind of attention to the form of running helps me address the source of discomfort as soon as I start to feel it, and to correct it right away.

Learning to run without serious risk of injury means a lot to me. So far, I feel optimistic that Chi Running, once mastered, will help me achieve that goal.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in a gentler approach to running. Reading the book will give you enough of an idea of what Chi Running is about to decide whether you want to follow up with a workshop. I plan to do just that in the spring and look forward to reporting back once I do.

Stand up, get out of that chair, and get moving

Sitting is the new smoking. I’m sure by now you’ve heard that. And as someone who reads and writes professionally, activities traditionally done while seated, this has me worried. One theme in two of the books about fitness I’ve read recently, Gretchen Reynolds’ The First Twenty Minutes and A.J. Jacob’s Drop Dead Healthy–is that sitting is killing us.

And even getting physical activity each day, it turns out, isn’t enough to offset the risk of sitting. I’ve read these studies about the dangers of inactivity before and thought I didn’t have to worry. After all, I’m one of the most active people I know. I bike to work, I play soccer, I do Aikido, etc etc. But no.  It turns out that regular exercise can’t offset the metabolic death that kicks in from sitting, even just after 20 minutes of sitting. Reynolds now gets up from her desk every twenty minutes and runs around. Jacobs was so convinced of the evidence against sitting that he now writes at a treadmill desk–that’s how he wrote the fitness book–and he literally ‘runs’ his errands.

My preferred mode of being–in the past–was to physically exhaust myself through exercise and then with the body calm and the mind wide awake turn to my academic work. I felt good about the hours at the desk because it was usually preceded by one to two hours of intense exercise–hill repeats, intervals on the track, etc. I do my best writing that way: physically exhausted, mentally charged up and alert. I liked it because it allowed me to sit still. Otherwise, I fidget and get up and wander around.  It turns out that all that fidgeting is a a good thing, fitness wise.

So what to do? Well, at home I’m experimenting with a standing desk. See photo below. It’s still very much a work in progress but I like it a lot. I waste less time at the computer. When I’m there, I work. I stand on a pad (like people who work at cash registers) and I have a yoga block to shift my posture around occasionally. My back also feels a lot better. I’ve had physio and posture analysis done after back pain and it turns out that for a professional sitter, my sitting sucks. The good news is that I have excellent standing, walking, running, biking posture. I think maybe I was meant to be something other than a professor of philosophy. The only challenge with my standing desk is after runs and bike rides when I find myself wanting to sit but then I take my lap top to the sofa for awhile and that works too.  I’m not sure what to do at the university as I like to sit when I chat with students. I’m still trying to decide about that. In an ideal world I’d have an adjustable height desk but I suspect they are out of the university’s budget. I’ll report back.

Read more here:

A.J. Jacobs, Sitting is Terrible for Your Health

Gretchen Reynolds: Get Up. Get Out. Don’t Sit.

Andre Picard: Why the sedentary life is killing us