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“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

September 20th, 2010 No comments

As anyone who has ever done anything around the house knows, it pays to be able to crawl under stuff, lift stuff, step over stuff, get into awkward positions and most importantly, get out of them.

If I want to keep crawling, lifting, stepping and extricating, I have to stay healthy and in shape.

I’m sure Red Green, famous Canadian handyman, would agree.

Secrets of Rejuvenation #12: know your body

September 3rd, 2010 No comments

I’ve found that knowing how my body functions best is key to overall health. However, this doesn’t mean “my body craves chocolate” or “I’m not good at sports”, as those statements would relate more to my mind, habits and choices than my body. No, I’m talking about how my body functions best, based on actual performance data. To wit:

1) I tend to be rather stiff in the morning, 2) in a squash match, I tend to lose the early games and win the later games, 3) even though I may start a workout by dragging my sorry butt into the gym, after a squash warmup, I can run for a half-hour, do some weights, and I’m not tired yet and 4) It takes me a while to get flexible. Combining this experiential data with some test results, namely 5) I have a resting heart rate well below 60 and 6) I have a body temperature below normal indicates that I probably need to warm up more than other people.

So, “big deal”, you say. Yeah, it is, to me, because my old idea of physical exertion was that I would begin with 100% of my available reserves, and working out would only deplete them and tire me out. (Sure, I expected an increase of reserves from workout to workout.) Now, I see things differently: my energy actually increases as I work out, to a point where I need to really push it to get tired, which of course, I eventually do. “Lucky bastard”, you say. Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. “Big deal, then”, you say. Yes it can be, because I’m addressing those of us who believe they are walking around with the most energy they’ll have that day, and exerting themselves will only make themselves feel worse.

(Well … maybe if you’re carrying a lot of weight and everyday tasks make you lose your breath, then fine, but that’s a function of your current level of fitness.)

So I should reframe it: know your body as it is right now. Get some data. Do some physical stuff. But you have to sweat, otherwise the data isn’t very meaningful. Then, push yourself a bit at a time to see just what you can do. Refine and repeat, no?

Categories: fitness, secrets of youth Tags:

Shake your booty

July 26th, 2010 No comments

When I run, I’m always concerned about form … not so that I can look good or please some God of running, but so I can feel relaxed, run efficiently, and above all, avoid injury. I evaluate my form by checking my bounce, the sounds made by my footfalls, but mostly by looking for tightness, imbalance or tension in my body.*  If I didn’t do Zhan Zhuang (standing practice), I would be less equipped to notice these feelings, because with Zhan Zhuang, you basically have nothing to do except notice those feelings. Well, that’s simplistic, but you get the idea.

While running, one of my challenges is to reduce the feeling of tension I get in the back side of my body as I run. I feel pretty good when I run, but there’s a lingering effect of tightness back there which I alleviate when I stretch afterward. But why do I have to stretch this out? It’s not the running itself that’s causing the problem, it’s how I’m running, what I’m doing when I run. Either I’m off-balance fore & aft, compensating for the imbalance, or just habitually tensing things back there for some reason … maybe I do that all day.

In cases like this, usually my answer is to change the form, relax the body part, or do a combination of both. The challenge with the relaxing is to still keep doing what you’re doing, whether it’s running or just standing up. If we relax too much, we may lose connection & structure, and create too much motion, leading to a need to compensate in ways that may create more tension … or we may injure ourselves due to eccentric loading that would come from too-loose form.

Well, the other day, I noticed something while running: my butt was jiggling.

It wasn’t much, and it might not have been visible. But with each step, I felt a tiny jiggle back there. So I thought I’d pay it some attention — nothing more, no change in form, just relax enough so I could sense the vibration there.. As I did that, I was able to relax it a bit more, and a strange thing happened: I felt a tiny increase in speed. It was if I had removed a restraint of some kind. I also felt smoother, and after the run, the muscles at the top of my glutes didn’t need as much stretching.

It’s all about cues. We all can use some kind of trigger or cue to do what needs to be done. In this case, for me, it was to pay attention or be aware of the softness of a body part. Whether it was fat or relaxed muscle, I don’t know, and it’s not important right now. I’ve discovered something that I’ll look into again.

Of course, I could only sense something this small because I had spent a lot of time looking inside while doing Zhan Zhuang and slow exercises. Also, I’ve made keeping a calm mind a priority. Without that, we can’t feel inside the little places. If I were a religious man, I’d say that that’s where God is …

… in the little places.

(* The sharp-eyed reader may recall that I’ve advocated the idea of “just running” in the past, where the runner attempts to run in a natural fashion without too much intervention. However, I currently believe that in many matters, we flow between two states: a training state and an execution state. In this case, when training the correct, natural form, we study, examine and correct to create good, natural habits, but when executing, we act according to current habits but occasionally act according to nature if we learn to “get out of its way”. The whole thing is a process of discovery. I’ll clarify my position on this in a future post.)

Categories: fitness, interdisciplinary, running, Yiquan Tags:

Secrets of Rejuvenation: Incremental Growth

June 16th, 2010 No comments

When we try to make changes in our lives, we often become frustrated at the lack of progress, especially as we approach our target. In my quest to improve my health, I’ve found it to be a slow, steady march toward a healthy weight, diet and level of activity. However, after being at it seriously for about a year, I’ve gotten used to this pace of progress. If I gain some weight over the weekend, I know that by eating properly the next week and exercising, I’ll get back down in a couple of days: no big deal.

I think that’s the key. We expect that something will happen quickly, but if we stick with it and don’t give up, we’ll find a pace, or a rhythm that we can maintain. We’ll get used to that, letting it form our new set of expectations. If we wish, we can then push them a bit more to see if we can pick up the pace.

As for incremental growth, I’ve now realized it’s the key to lasting change. The body is trying to adapt to new circumstances, but there are limits to the pace of this adaptation. If we try to ram too much change in at once, the body knows that something’s not right, and it tries to return to the previous steady state, whatever that was. However, if we make small changes, give the body a chance to adjust and create a new steady state, then previous habits won’t seem normal any more. For example, my previous portion size seems too big now, I don’t like Coke very much any more, and I can handle much more physical activity as a matter of course.

In other words, each incremental gain creates a “new normal”.

Keeping Track

June 8th, 2010 No comments

I recently purchased a pedometer to keep track of distances on runs outside of the gym … once I get out of the gym, of course. Until then, I thought I’d see how many steps I take in a day, possibly approaching the 10,000-step recommendation popular nowadays. Well, it ain’t so easy, either because my normal day is rather slug-like, or 10,000 is a little high.

Monday was a normal day, where the walking about could be divided into six segments: 1) morning shower/breakfast stuff, 2) stopping off at bank, 3) walking about in office, 4) at the gym,  before/during/after five games of squash with stretching, 5) zhan zhuang class, 6) evening wind-down at home. Basically, I walked about 7900 steps that day, with about 5000 at the gym, 2900 outside the gym, give or take, and this happened over a combined span of an hour and 24 minutes. I don’t believe that data for its own sake isn’t very useful (wow! 7900 steps!), but it can give quantitative values where none had existed, and allow comparison to a perceived standard, in this case, 10,000 steps as an indication of appropriate physical activity. To make the comparison:

– Without going to the gym, an average day for me takes about 2900 steps … if I run an errand. I work at a computer.
– Squash and stretching yields only 5000 steps. However, it could be said that a squash step trumps a walking step, since I really sweated during those games. In fact, according to 10000steps.org.au , 25 minutes of squash equals 5000 steps of activity. So, adding whatever steps took place outside the game, maybe it’s more like 6,000. You can see where this kind of calculations would just get rather silly.
– It’s not a good idea to try to rack up steps during a Zhan Zhuang class where you stand for 45 minutes. I kind of expected that.
Apparently a sedentary person may only average 1000 to 3000 steps each day. Now I know what a “sedentary” day feels like.

There must be a lot of ways to improve and measure physical health — this is just one, and I’ve just gotten a taste of it. I don’t expect to monitor my steps with the same rigor as I’ve monitored my weight (more on that later), and it’s said that a weekly tally might be better than a daily one. However, I did get some value from this exercise, and it will encourage me to raise the level of activity on non-squash days by walking more, running more, or biking to work.

Update: I’ve had bad luck with pedometers, and this one’s no exception. It doesn’t take kindly to being dropped, and reacts by shutting down, then resetting everything to zero and erasing all user data. (sigh) But I’m not going to buy one of those $250 GPS things for runners any time soon — I’d just drop it.

Categories: fitness, modern life Tags:

A manifesto?

May 10th, 2010 No comments

My high school English teacher attempted to drill into us the importance of clarifying meaning whenever a disagreement popped up. Clarifying our meaning and intent can often lead us to realize we’re actually in agreement, and if not, hopefully we can agree to disagree, possibly until some new information comes to light. To that end, here’s what could be called my “small “m” manifesto”, which you may or may not find interesting in light of your own point of view:

Goals: when describing them or using the phrase “my goal is”, I’m not usually describing the traditional Cartesian (as I see it) goal-setting approach of “I’m here now, and I want to be there later”, where “here” is a specific point or state, and “there” is another specific point or state. Even if it seems that I’ve done that in the past, as was the case with my desire to learn to squat, the intention was to reach a door and open it to a new beginning, not reach a terminus and wonder what to do next. No, my usual approach is more like a Euclidean vector, where I choose to apply a certain amount of energy in a particular direction and see what happens along the way. It’s intention-focused, not destination-focused. This approach allows for variation in the magnitude (energy) and direction of the intention, rendering the eventual destination uncertain.

Here’s a running example: Cartesian: “I’m training so I can run and finish the ScotiaBank marathon in under 3 hours.” Euclidean: “I’m increasing my running mileage a little bit each week.”  (up to 10 percent, of course) One is close-ended with the goal being the marathon, the other is open-ended with the intention being increasing the cardio. If it turns out to be too much, I’ll back off. This differs from the mindset of “keep your eyes on the prize”.

Also, I generally avoid the Cartesian goal-setting approach because at the outset, my impression of the end state is an illusion. Since I haven’t been there yet, I don’t know what that state looks like or feels like, so mapping it as a destination is imprecise. Once I get there, I’ll be different, and it will be different from what I thought. So it’s a mug’s game, a fool’s errand and so on. I also believe that the real goal isn’t the stated goal in many cases. In the case of the marathon, the real goal is often “to feel good about myself”. Isn’t it?

Of course, life has deadlines, so the Cartesian approach is useful on occasion.

My intention: After doing the stuff that I’ve done over the last ten years or so, my current intention is to move toward “natural action”, or “natural being”. By that, I mean that I want to continue to discover a more efficient or natural way of standing, moving and living. This way would be in accordance with the laws of physics and how the structure of my body interacts with those laws. When I imagine natural action, I imagine a jungle cat stalking its prey with no concern over how it’s balancing its weight, whether it’s keeping its shoulders down or whether it’s landing on it’s forepaws or mid-paws when it runs. It studies its prey, senses the reactions of its prey, senses the reaction of nature to the cat’s approach (snap!), then when it feels the time is right, moves: “go”.

Natural does not mean habitual, by the way.

How to achieve this: I am taking a roughly four-step process, which is cyclical or spiral if you add some sort of improvement measure as a third axis. 1) observe an issue with the body. 2) relax the body at the point of notice 3) align the body to distribute the forces (e.g. gravity) to another part of the body until I notice nothing special any more and 4) listen some more. Maybe 5) get back to whatever I was doing, this time more naturally. For example, if my lower back feels a bit funny, I’ll listen to it, align myself and usually transfer my weight to my lower body. Keep in mind that I’ve been doing this for years, and expect to do so for a while longer. Actually, the lower back is no longer a problem, probably due to the way I’ve changed how I stand and sit.

I expect to keep doing this for a long time, but I don’t expect to keep doing it in the same place for a long time. I expect to fix most things and move on, but for other things, I suppose I’ll accept them.

Correction and maintenance: I believe that these sort of actions and techniques are corrective, to restore natural being when it has been upset by outside events or by reversion to unnatural habits. I don’t believe that it will be necessary to constantly apply these techniques (as I’ve applied them) for the rest of my life. In some cases, I’ve applied the technique, and I’ve eventually “gotten it”, so I no longer need to apply the technique … as long as I don’t go back to old habits. If I’ve instilled good habits and avoid injury, I’ll never need to apply the technique again in that way. After all, we can learn, we do grow, we do change and we do move on. For example, my left arm/shoulder no longer hurts because I no longer “wing out” as a matter of habit,  so I no longer need to consciously apply a technique to change that habit (thanks, Caprice!). If, I happen to revert under stress, I’ll correct it again, but it’s not a given that I’ll revert. Herein lies the importance of sensitivity, awareness, and stress management.

As for maintenance, it’s a series of minor corrections in my opinion, necessary to correct what could be called minor injuries, or minor lapses in healthy behavior. Improvement is another story, but I also believe that restoring to a natural state is “improvement”.

Habits: habits can be changed. If they couldn’t be changed, we’d still be acting as children do. I believe that part of natural action is acting through good habits. Now I sense that mindfulness advocates might be getting their backs up, and that’s fine, but maybe they should be mindful of why they’re gotten their backs up before we go on. …….. Mindfulness is great and necessary, but I believe that it should be applied to that which is most important at the time: to that which can be corrected through mindfulness, or to that which is nourishing, such as mindful eating. We can be mindful of the nourishing things as long as we live, but I expect that once something (which needs correcting) of which we are mindful is corrected (such as posture) to a more natural state then we can let it slip away, so we can be mindful of the nourishing things, such as how nice a day it is.

Now some may say that it is natural for the body to correct a habit (such as compensating for a dropped shoulder by tightening somewhere else), but I believe that the original shoulder-dropping is not natural. It could be said that everything is natural since it is made up of components from nature, but not everything is healthy. So then, to me, natural means “healthy”.

Mindful and no-mind: By “no-mind”, I do not mean “mindless”, I mean 1) a state of natural action, and 2) a state of high, but relaxed awareness, not hooked or attached to any one thing. I also do not mean “free of intention”. If we imagine an elite athlete “in the Zone”, that athlete surely has an intention, yet is not hooked on or attached to an external outcome while in the Zone. To do so would distract the athlete with thoughts, words, and so on. The intention is simple, and as I can only extrapolate based on my moments in the Zone (not being an elite athlete), the intention is explainable in simple terms such as “smooth”, “there”, “go”, “connect” or whatever works for the athlete. The details have been taken care of by practice and the cultivation of good habits and natural action. If the athlete were mindful of every detail, he would be lost. In the example of martial arts, the saying is “the best technique is no-technique”, meaning that in the heat of a contest, the fighter must be in a state of no-mind, acting on practiced habits and trained instinct, not  carefully considering every possible response to a given attack. Of course, the fighter must study, practice and learn techniques in a state of mindfulness, but the preferred state in a contest is the fully-aware, yet unhooked, unattached no-mind state. Mindful in training, no-mind in execution.

Internal vs. External direction: As an example of external direction, one might say “touch your toes”, with the internal direction being “stretch your back — how does that feel?”. In physical matters, I believe a balance is necessary, but the instructor must know which is which and when to apply one or the other. It seems that most of the time, to get in the ballpark, external directions are needed, since our chronic uncorrected habits may have led us to perceive our bodies inaccurately, believing that we may be standing straight when we are leaning to one side, for example. The Alexander Technique seems to be based on correcting such perceptions, assuming (correctly) that in most cases, our body image isn’t very accurate when it comes to balance, alignment and positioning. However, I believe that once a student has successfully used an external source such as a mirror or instructor for feedback, it’s time to look inward, for the student to use proprioception to determine his or her level of balance and alignment at a very fine level. This requires sensitivity, developed over time. Refine and Repeat. My concerns are that many instructors have not been able to direct their students to this point, or that instructors do not want to teach the students to take charge of their own health, because that would make the instructor redundant. I’ve had two chiropractors in my time: one who wants me to keep coming back for regular maintenance regardless of how I feel, and one who gives me exercises and trusts me to do them. One is right for one kind of patient, and one is right for another, I suppose. However, I believe that we are all responsible for our own health, and that the path probably lies in the external directions first, then internal directions for refinement.

This is how I feel at this time. Any questions?

Muscle mythbusting

March 16th, 2010 2 comments

“Don’t work out, don’t build muscles. It makes you tight and inflexible.”

I’m just watching a Cirque Du Soleil video now, and you can’t tell me that those performers aren’t flexible, and at the top of their physical game … and we’re not talking about muscles for vanity, we’re talking about muscles that are useful. If performance were my goal, muscle-wise, I’d use these guys as a model.

Also, we lose muscle mass as we age, so metaphorically speaking, we should place regular deposits in the muscle bank before the annual fees bankrupt us. Google sarcopenia. Is this loss due to age or disuse or a combination thereof? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter because I know I’m getting older, so if I don’t use my muscles, it’s a certainty I’ll lose muscle mass.

I only have myself to go on (since I don’t go around squeezing bodybuilders), but my muscles aren’t normally tight or hard — they’re soft. They’re flesh. They’re only tight if I tense them. The general public might think that muscles are hard because they see bodybuilders tensing them so they look hard. Since working out more, they don’t feel any different to me, they’re just bigger than they used to be. And due to the loss of some fat, they’re more visible around the edges.

Now there is probably an optimum state for muscle size, far short of the point where a bodybuilder’s muscles get so big they impede his movements, but there’s no chance I’ll get that way. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination … nor the youth or body type, probably.

Here’s an article to get us started. There are plenty more out there. They seem to agree: proper nutrition and exercise are what we need.

Thoughts? Caprice?

Categories: fitness Tags:

Signal to Noise

March 4th, 2010 3 comments

I just found a new metaphor. Finding them is a hobby of mine.

Signal-to-noise ratio is a technical term indicating the efficiency of a transmission of information. For example, let’s say you’re trying to talk to someone. Your speech is the signal, and the club noise is, well, the noise interfering with the clarity of the transmission of your message. If you’re in a noisy dance club, the signal-to-noise is low, but in a quiet room, it’s high. The goal is to have a high signal-to-noise ratio for the sake of clarity.

I was planning to tell my design students about signal-to-noise in the context of delivering a message graphically, when I stumbled upon an article in today’s Globe and Mail about running. With a berating of a poor Running Room salesperson on the subject of heel striking still clear in my mind, I made the connection:

When running, moving forward is the signal, and all other movement is the noise.

Bouncing up and down and from side to side would be the noise, then. I don’t expect that it’s a good idea to reduce it by tensing up and holding things in, but there should be a sweet spot — an optimal state.

That covers the spatial noise, but there’s also a kind of long-term temporal noise: noise that interferes with the signal over time, or your ability to run smoothly forward over the long term. (Am I stretching the metaphor?) That noise would be inefficient habits such as stretching forward with the leg to land on the heel, tensing body parts, running with a wide gait … that sort of thing. Given that the signal is to run forward, these habits interfere with that signal over time, so they constitute noise.

Now sometimes, noise adds color and texture, but then it’s not really noise, it’s part of the signal … like the overtones added to a smooth sine wave to turn it into the sound of a violin. So there.

What’s your signal? What’s the noise interfering with it? Can you reduce it?

Given the choice …

March 3rd, 2010 2 comments

… between spending an hour walking on the treadmill or skipping the chocolate cake, I’ve come to the realization that I’d rather skip the chocolate cake and get an hour of my life back.

(This philosophy found on a site describing Bruce Lee’s training regimen. I’m just crediting it, not endorsing it yet.)

... and here’s a bit about burning off calories. Interesting-looking body, though.

But wait! there’s more! Here’s the Picture Perfect Weight Loss Guide and the 300 Calorie Food Picture Gallery to give you a picture of the calories in food. There’s no shortage of this stuff. By the way, right now, I’m staving off the afternoon muffin craving. Let’s see if tea and a persimmon will do.

Categories: fitness, nutrition Tags:

Why stretch?

February 24th, 2010 No comments

Of course we should stretch, I’d just like to explore the reasons why. Here’s my theory:

We stretch to maintain or increase our maximum range of motion. We do that so we can avoid injury while moving within our usual range of motion.

We stretch our arms so we can comb our hair. We stretch our quads so we can run. We stretch our hamstrings so we can kick. The length or angle of a stretch is greater than the length or angle through which we would move the relevant body part.

When I speak of stretching, I speak of lengthening the muscle and/or tendon and/or fascia longitudinally. Along its length. If you want to talk about opening up the muscle between the fibers, that’s best left for another day.

Here’s my point: If we want to keep doing something physical, we need to stretch beyond that just to “maintain”. We need to stretch gently, while relaxing, with no bouncing and no tension.

Make sense?

(Hey, it looks as if somebody else has the same theory. Sort of.)

(edit: A little more research may reveal this to be a simplistic point of view. For example, stretching may allow the body to repair injury. I’ll get back to you.)

Categories: fitness Tags: