Category Archives: Fitness and Health

Have a NEAT Day: A Book Review and Testimonial

shoes and phone

Here’s where you get to say “I told you so.” A few months ago, I finally traded in my flip phone for a smarter model. I’ve long resisted that switch, but Hubs was upgrading his iPhone, and AT&T offered a two-for-one deal. I have to admit, it was getting pretty tiresome answering long texts on my ancient flip-phone, and it’s nice having a GPS that I don’t have to update. My new phone also has a pretty accurate step-counter, which has unleashed my inner statistician. Today I have walked 7, 359 steps. That leaves me fewer than 5K to go.

I’ve had pedometers before, but they’ve all stopped working, miscounted my steps, or ended up in the toilet—those waistband clips aren’t as secure as they ought to be. After tossing the sixth or seventh one, I figured I should be able to keep track of my activity level on my own, right? But there’s a big gap between “should do” and “do.” My phone has turned out to be a real boon in my effort to increase my daily activity. I also enjoy the Duolingo app, which has taught me such valuable Spanish phrases as “How many elephants eat rice?” “He is a double agent” and “I cannot die.” But that’s another story.

It’s a challenge for a desk worker like me, whose favorite hobby is reading, to get up out of that chair often enough to stay healthy. Until I earn enough to buy that treadmill desk I dream of, I need to retrain myself to get up frequently. Going to the gym or taking a walk each day is good for my health, but is not enough to counteract the harmful effects of all this sitting.

Get Up book

Here’s the book review part: I recently read Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, by James A. Levine, M.D.  Kudos to Dr. Levine for making many, many scientific studies on the effects of sitting accessible to a lay audience. My take-away from this easy-to-read book is the importance of getting out of my chair and adding more NEAT to my life. NEAT stands for nonexercise activity thermogenesis: walking around, fidgeting, doing chores–all the movements, little and big, that our increasingly chair-bound, digitally enhanced lifestyle has eliminated. Of course, we all know that too much sitting is bad for us, but before reading this book, I didn’t really grasp the extent of the problem across prosperous nations. I certainly know, however, how crappy I feel during and after a day spent sitting at my computer, no matter how fascinating the reading/writing tasks I do there.

Although he sometimes wanders a bit in his explanations, Dr. Levine’s writing is entertaining and convincing. A true believer, he presents plentiful evidence of the damage done by our chair addiction, as well as practical solutions to avoid that damage. On Dr. Levine’s advice, I now walk slowly around my house or around the block for 15 minutes after most meals, in addition to getting my behind out of the chair more frequently. I heartily recommend this book to all my chair-dwelling friends and family.

How do you incorporate movement into your workday?

In a Slump

 

Notice the hunch?

Notice the hunch?

I started out writing this blog in order to explore how to do my fifties well—how become more like the sexy, feisty, fabulous older women I’d met and admired during my younger years. I certainly don’t want to be one of those tiresome old women who natter on and on about their illnesses and infirmities.  However…

Unfortunately, the past year or so has increased my familiarity with physical therapy. (See my entry from February 16, 2015, Wonder Woman v. the Sproing). In early December, my DH had a long-overdue total knee replacement; physical therapy appointments consumed much of his time during the following month. Kudos to the great physical therapy crew at Saint Clare’s Hospital in Tacoma who guided him, via lots of painful exercise, back to strength and flexibility.

My most recent adventure with physical therapy began with a fall down the stairs, my right arm trailing behind me as I grasped for purchase on the carpet. Alas, this led to a stubborn rotator-cuff injury that still hurts, eight weeks after the fall. According to my P.T., my shoulder problem is so stubborn because of my crappy posture.

Even as a skinny, active teenager, I tended to round my upper back and slump forward; I recall my sister calling out “stand up straight” several times a day. I also tend toward lordosis—over-arching my lower back, making my belly protrude forward. Various dance teachers have commented on my posture over the years, and I do my best to straighten up when I think about it—which, evidently, isn’t often enough.

Of course, spending hours a day in front of a computer doesn’t help. An ordinary office desk and chair do not exactly promote good posture. Right now my little laptop is perched atop a thick book (M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating) in order to better align the screen with my line of vision, and that’s still not high enough. I’ll probably have to buy/build a little platform. The arms on my computer chair are too high and aren’t adjustable, so I’m perched on a pillow on the front edge of my chair, trying to keep my chest up and my shoulder blades scrunched together. Not easy, nor comfortable.

I may not be able to retrain my posture without help. There’s a little electronic gizmo called the Lumo Lift, worn on the bra strap, that buzzes when you slump. Reviews say that it’s relentless and works well if you don’t throw it out the window in frustration. I’ve also found straps to wear around the arms and upper back, which remind me of trussing a chicken up for roasting. And there are cool alternatives to the standard office chair. I’m tempted to get an exercise ball and try balancing on that for a few hours of desk time each day. Some people with back problems swear by them.

I’ve always been resistant to the idea of buying exercise gadgets that clutter up my house. Since this injury, though, I’ve accumulated a tangle of Thera-bands and stretchy resistance rope thingies. Once a day, you’ll find me face-down on the floor, doing my best Superman imitation (Wonder Woman never adopted such a silly posture) as I squeeze my shoulder blades together again and again and again and…

One fun solution I’m trying is Spanish flamenco dance class. Our instructor is a tiny, bird-like woman in her late sixties who has perfect posture and dances with surprisingly fiery fierceness. Flamenco requires just the chest-up-and-out posture that I need to cultivate, and it’s so much more fun than simply muttering to myself, “shoulder blades tight, boobs out.” If I must stand at attention, let’s do it with a purpose. ¡Olé!

 

A Writer Battles the Butt Bulge–or–Get Up Off of That Thang!

 

I really need all this space for writing!

I really need all this space for writing!

We’ve all read the stories: Sitting is the new trans-fat (or sugar, or gluten—name your favorite poison). According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “A recent study suggested that sitting for prolonged periods increases risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and death, even among people who exercise regularly.”¹

Well, y’all, guess what I do all day. It’s pretty hard to write fiction without spending several hours each day sitting. My mantra, posted on my wall, is BICFOKTAM:  Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard, Typing Away Madly. Plus, in order to improve at my chosen genres (blogging, women’s fiction, mystery) I have to read widely and voraciously in those genres, not to mention books, magazines and websites about the craft of writing.

I find that reading while pacing about the house is a good arm toner, especially if the book in question is heavy, but leads to stubbed toes and worse. I do have one piece of furniture at about the right height for reading in a standing position, and I can sometimes be found there, plugged into my ancient iPod, doing a little shuffling dance while reading. Somehow, though, I find it more difficult to concentrate when reading or writing in a standing position.

Research bears this out. According to a study by the Draugiem Group, “…for tasks which require a creative approach—for example, thinking about a possible coding solution, or writing a great article—then the urgency provided by standing is more of a hindrance. We found that for creative tasks, sitting and not paying attention to your corporal self was helpful in letting your mind wander and explore creative options.”²

And writing requires more surface area than my little sideboard offers; in addition to my little laptop, I need note cards, pens, coffee, snacks, pages of comments from my critique group, reference books…

I do go to the gym pretty often, but one hour of exercise doesn’t counteract spending the rest of the day in a chair—and I’ve got the butt to prove it.

My internet search for “workout for writers” and similar terms led mostly to writing tips and prompts—all very well, but that won’t get me out of my chair. I did find this one, good for improving blood flow and de-tensing muscles, but most of these exercises are performed while seated. http://hearwritenow.com/articles/health/exercises-for-writers/

In the meantime, I’m trying measures like these:

  • Set a timer at 30-minute intervals. When it rings, get up and clean something. I tend to ignore most housework until it reaches out and grabs me—say, my feet encounter a sticky spot on the floor. This technique could kill the proverbial two birds with one stone, if I can only force myself not to ignore the timer. Or,
  • If it’s not pouring down rain (I live in the Pacific Northwest), suit up and go for a walk around the block. Or,
  • When the timer rings, get up and dance vigorously to one song. Making a playlist for this exercise will be fun. I’m particularly fond of fast Latin music.
  • I could get up and talk to Hubs. He’s currently recovering from knee surgery, so he’s at home all the time, poor man, when he’s not in physical therapy. But once I get involved in a writing project, I tend to temporarily forget the existence of other humans. It’s good for me to switch focus for a ten minutes and go connect, preferably while standing.
  • At the end of a chapter, get up and do an online exercise video. You Tube is a rich source of these. My favorite there is a Lebanese belly dance workout that lasts twenty-seven minutes. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8j0htqi76g

Sparkpeople.com also offers a whole library of exercise videos. This twelve-minute Pilates abs     workout is tough: http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/videos-detail.asp?video=96

So far, my results are spotty, but I’m making progress in getting my butt out of the chair more regularly. How about you? Do you work in a chair? What do you do to break up long spells of sitting?

¹ Prolonged Sitting Linked to Serious Health Risks, Death, AAFP

http://www.aafp.org/news/health-of-the-public/20150127sitting.html

² We Tested Standing Desks—Here’s Proof They Make You More Productive, by Julia Gifford

http://readwrite.com/2013/09/26/standing-desks-productivity

 

 

 

Back in the (Fast Diet) Saddle Again

A few years ago I wrote here about the ease and virtue of the Fast Diet. http://latebloomingrose.com/archives/80

Following this plan helped me to drop twenty pounds in about six months with minimal suffering. Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer have published an updated book explaining the diet and the science behind it. I also recommend The Fast Diet Cookbook by Mimi Spencer and Sarah Schenker, which offers tasty, low-calorie recipes, from simple to fancy, and would be useful to anyone who wants to cook low-calorie meals.

The Fast Diet        The Fast Diet Cookbook

Of course, you can buy both of these on Amazon.

I must admit, once we arrived in the U.S. last summer, I slid out of my previous good habits. I figured that continuing the Fast Diet would be too difficult here; I no longer have my job to distract me from my hunger pangs, and now—well, my office is just across from the kitchen. Besides, I spend so much time at the gym.

Well, I have toned arms and legs, but a rather round belly from all this sitting—and snacking. (Writing is just so much easier with Triscuits and cheese.) Exercise alone obviously isn’t going to cut it, so I’m back on the Fast Diet. Actually, two weeks into the program, I’m feeling good and have dropped a few pounds. Hey, if I can endure discomfort at the gym, I can put up with the discomfort of feeling hungry twice a week. I am Woman, hear me (and my stomach) roar!

Yesterday was fast day. That means no starch (crackers, bread, noodles, potatoes, rice), no sugar, no alcohol, and very little fat. My favorite eating schedule on fast days is to skip breakfast, have a light lunch after spending the morning at the gym, and then have a light dinner around 7 P.M. OK—I might go slightly over my 500 calorie recommended allowance for the fast day, but not much.

Today for lunch I made skinny kale with eggs.

I know, I know—kale is trendy, and you’re probably sick of hearing about kale. But we all know it’s really good for us, has plenty of fiber, and helps keep us full. For my fast day, I wanted to keep the calories down, so I chopped up about a quarter of a sweet onion (maybe 3 Tbs.) and a small clove of garlic. I sprayed a non-stick pan with PAM and stirred that around a bit for 2-3 minutes, then threw in about three cups of chopped curly kale, minus the tough stems, of course. I stirred this a bit to blend, then added lots of freshly-ground black pepper, a squirt of lemon juice, about half a cup of water, and half a teaspoon of chicken broth base—the stuff that comes in a jar. I continued to sauté until the water was mostly gone, about five more minutes. The lemon and chicken broth really added a marvelous, bright flavor. On top of this I plopped two eggs “fried” in a non-stick pan with a spray of PAM. Oh my! The runny egg yolk oozing onto the tender kale…pretty damn good for a diet day meal. The highly unscientific calorie count, based on some quick internet research, would be 276 calories. Not bad!

Fast Day Kale and Eggs

I decided to make dinner right away while I was still full from breakfast. The weather was finally cooling off, and I felt like something soup-ish. I adapted my recipe for chicken chili, omitting the oil (for sautéing the veg.), the corn, the sour cream and cheese. No tortilla chips either, alas. But that’s the beauty of the Fast Diet—I can eat chips again tomorrow, if I wish. Here are the ingredients that I used:

Ingredients for Fast Day Chicken Chili

  • four skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • half a large onion, diced
  • a red bell pepper, diced
  • four cloves of garlic, minced
  • a jalapeño chile, minced
  • a can of diced tomatoes
  • a can of diced mild green chiles
  • a jar of tomatillo and cilantro cooking sauce
  • water to cover all the ingredients
  • 2 tsp. of chicken broth base
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. chipotle chili powder
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

I dumped all that into the slow cooker and let it cook on high for four hours, then turned it down to low and dumped in a can of white beans, mostly drained. By the time we were ready to eat, the house smelled heavenly. I topped each serving with sliced radishes, sliced green onions, and fresh cilantro. Marvelous! This recipe makes four generous servings, leaving me some to freeze for future fast days. There are 140 calories in a boneless, skinless chicken breast, so I’m sure this comes out to fewer than 300 calories per serving.

¡Buen provecho!

¡Buen provecho!

What’s your favorite low-calorie recipe?

 

Naked Ladies!

Does she need a towel?

Does she need a towel?

Whilst noodling around on the internet, looking for interesting blogs by women over fifty, I came across a funny bit about nudity in the locker room. Here’s the link, in case you’d like to read it for yourself: http://betterafter50.com/2014/03/10-reasons-to-wear-a-towel-in-the-locker-room/

I wrote a comment in reply and then realized that the original blog post was from March of 2014. This probably means that my comments of this blog post will never see the light of day—but how could I resist this juicy topic?

What the author of the above article seems to be saying, in a humorous way, is that she is very uncomfortable displaying what she perceives to be age-related flaws on her naked body, even in a setting (gym locker room) where nudity is to be expected, and thus she covers up her body with towels while changing, and she wishes we all would do the same.

I get it; I remember being quite shy about nudity when I was a kid and had to change for swimming lessons. I’d build a veritable tent of towels to keep from flashing any bit of my skinny body at my fellow swimmers. And when I joined the army at eighteen and had to shower in front of twenty other women—well, that took some getting used to. But we only had three minutes to shower during basic training, so I got used to it pretty fast. I remember girls who’d been athletes in high school rolling their eyes at our prissiness; they’d long ago gotten over fear of locker-room nudity.

What I don’t get is the idea, presented in the above blog post, that it’s normal to be ashamed of our aging bodies, and to feel bad about same when confronted with youthful bodies. In fact, I say that exposure to naked bodies in the locker room is beneficial to the sanity of all women and girls. Hear me out.

It goes back to swimming lessons—this time my daughter’s. You see, she grew up in Germany, where I worked on U.S. military bases. Germany is a dark, dreary place during the long winter months, but there are many lovely indoor swimming pool facilities available where people can shed their winter clothes and enjoy some warmth and wholesome exercise. And Germans are (wisely, in my opinion) much less hung-up than we about nudity in locker rooms and saunas. In fact, one must be naked to enter a German sauna; of course, one sits on a towel. I wish my fellow gym patrons in the U.S. would remember their towels and not plump their nude rumps down onto the sauna or steam room bench. But I digress.

While in German locker rooms, my daughter and I saw many, many naked female bodies, from tiny children to very old women. There’s nothing like in-your-face evidence to teach you that the human form comes in a great variety; something you’d never learn from looking at advertisements designed to make us feel bad about said variety. I’m glad my daughter got to see for herself, during her growing-up years, that the idealized female figure currently in vogue—slim hips, flat belly, big breasts, long, thin limbs—almost never occurs in nature. She saw that big, round boobs usually occurr on bodies with big, round bellies and butts. Slim hips and flat bellies usually go with slim, small breasts. We saw tall, gangly women; big, strong women; tiny, wiry women; round, soft women—all of them reveling in the joy of movement and the feeling of the water against their skin. I hope that this first-hand learning experience helped her to have more realistic expectations about her own body, and others’ as well.

Another area where all this nudity is helpful is in our understanding and acceptance of what aging does to the human body. Whether carefully groomed or blissfully unconcerned, every woman over 50 or so showed evidence of gravity’s effects, and time’s. But our German sisters seemed less concerned with hiding that as well. It’s normal, after all, for skin to be looser, for breasts to flatten out or hang lower after having nursed children, and so on. And it’s not hideous. In fact, even the bodies of very old ladies were not hideous. My daughter once pointed out how even the oldest ladies had smooth, white skin on the parts of their bodies that didn’t see the sun.

Really, what I took away from my exposure to all these naked bodies is that, underneath her clothes, no one looks quite as good as advertisements would have us believe, and no one looks quite as bad as our prejudices would have us believe. These naked ladies in the locker room just looked human. And I think it’s very good for girls and young women to understand what’s coming—not so they’ll be depressed, but so they’ll understand that youthful beauty is fleeting, something to be enjoyed when it’s here, but not something whose absence leads to despair. We have so much more to offer than our youthful beauty, and there are so many forces at work trying to convince us, and our daughters, otherwise. And so I say, here’s to naked ladies!

Fitness Goals Check-In

coach

On 19 June, I posted my goal of exercising for an hour a day. As a retired person with lots of free time at my disposal, there’s really no excuse for not spending an hour taking care of this body that I hope to inhabit for another thirty years or so, right? I imagine a stern coach exhorting me to get up and move, move, move. And besides, exercise always puts me in a good mood, which is good for my marriage and all my relationships. So, how’d I do?

So far, I’d give myself a B. From 19 June through 19 July I achieved my goal of a daily hour of exercise on twenty-three days. My activities included walking, running, spin class, Zumba class, weight training, belly dancing, yard work, and golf.

On the days when I didn’t meet my goal, I often had houseguests, family members I seldom get to see. Of course, I wanted to spend time with these visitors, and few of them wanted to (or were able to) devote an hour to walking. Then there were a few travel days, spent mostly in the car or in airports. There was the 4th of July, an important family day, and the Tacoma Blues Festival (also a houseguest day). There were also a few days spent preparing for travel or for houseguests.

On those days when I couldn’t/didn’t devote an hour to exercise, I did remember to put on my pedometer, and I did walk at least 15,000 steps over the course of the day. Does that count? Not really—I’d say that’s a day when I was active, but not exercising, since I never walked fast enough to require any heavy breathing. My goal is still to devote an hour of each day to moderate-to-strenuous exercise, not just walking around while shopping or cleaning.

Oh, I’m not giving up, but I’m a bit disappointed in how many days I’ve allowed myself to slide because of unusual demands on my time. And isn’t that always the case? We set goals, make good progress, and then along comes one of those unusually demanding days, and our new good habits are set aside. OK, sometimes we just have to cut ourselves some slack, but I suspect that I could do better at fitting in exercise on those difficult days. My inner coach doesn’t buy “I’m too busy” as an excuse. (For those of you who knew him, my inner coach is Denny Lemmon, who blows his whistle in my ear and exhorts, “Move your body!”)

It’s the old mama mode reflex: when I have houseguests, or entertain friends and family, or when a special occasion comes along, I slide into putting others’ needs and even preferences before my own. We mamas are conditioned that way, n’est-ce pas? But such conditioning is bad for our health. And when I give up my hour of exercise in order to prepare for a visit or celebration, I end up resentful of loved ones—a state they don’t deserve and I don’t want to inflict upon them. Better they do without me for a few hours while I go to the gym—then I’ll return in a happy mood and ready to enjoy their company.

So, back to the gym and my accountability calendar. Yesterday was my birthday, and I did not get that hour of exercise, though I had a great time with friends and family. Let’s see if I can make a solid week with no excuses. Gotta go—Coach is blowing his whistle.

The Power of Habit: a Daily Hour of Exercise

“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.”

— John Irving

Oh là là! The one-year anniversary of my retirement slipped by without my noticing it. I was busy celebrating my sister-in-law’s retirement, also from teaching, and entertaining house guests. Well then, it’s been a year now: a whole year of doing as I please (mostly), of cultivating my talents and passions (well, some of them), of sleeping in as late as I like (almost always)—a very good year indeed.

I started out this first year of retirement with two goals: to become a consistent, daily writer, and to become very physically fit. I had vague notions of becoming a fitness instructor and offering on-site exercise classes to teachers after school. Well…

The good news is that the writing is going swimmingly. Most days, I spend at least two hours at my computer, either writing or editing a draft. And while I could do much better with this blog (and I shall), I’m moving steadily toward my goal of becoming a professionally-published fiction author. What really gave me a boost was participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last November. In order to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days, I had to write for at least two hours each day. And I did, thus establishing a writing habit that stuck.

The bad news is that a series of visitors, the holidays, a back injury, and more visitors—plus human nature and the siren song of the internet—have pulled me away from the gym. That is, I have allowed myself to be pulled away; there’s nothing to be gained by blaming others for one’s own faults, eh? My girth is expanding, and it’s high time to do something about that.

Here’s my plan: I shall henceforth exercise for an hour every day. That’s it. I mean, really—as a retired person, I have no excuse for not devoting at least an hour a day to moving around in this body I hope to inhabit for the next thirty years. Eight hours of sleep per night plus one hour of exercise still leaves me fifteen hours per day to do everything else. Unless I am ill, by which I mean feverish, I can certainly work in an hour’s activity each day. On a busy day, I can divide that hour up into smaller segments if need be.

And by exercise I mean a brisk walk, a run, an exercise DVD, a Zumba class, a spin class, weight training, golf, yoga, belly dancing, mowing the lawn…anything that’s somewhat strenuous. Yesterday’s Zumba class at the Y was quite strenuous, and this morning’s spin class kicked my plump behind—but in a good way. Anna, our wonderful cycling instructor, said today, “You’re only one workout away from a good mood.” Isn’t that the truth? I always walk out of the Y feeling a bit giddy and delightfully relaxed, no matter what the weather. And if I’m going to pay $40 per month for membership (a bargain, in my estimation), I really ought to go to the gym most days.

My hypothesis is that by working in an hour of exercise—Every. Single. Day.—I should be able to lose this extra bit of writer’s padding I’ve acquired, even if I continue my nightly glass of wine and other foodie indulgences. I do eat a healthy diet overall, but the occasional cup of clam chowder does cross my lips. So, I’ll check back in a month from now, and will do my very best to avoid humiliation by sticking to the plan. Does anyone care to join me in the an-hour-a-day pledge?

Making Peace with My Belly

This topic holds so much meat—no, not my belly, but my relationship with same. I’m 52 and, like most menopausal women, my belly is swelly. My body has taking on the shape of a kidney bean as my belly reaches ever more insistently for the wall in front of me. When I catch sight of my reflection in lax moments, my belly looks like one of those fruitful domes you see on medieval Madonnas—not the look I’m aiming for.

And yet, when I look around me, I see round bellies on almost all the older women. Being a regular gym-goer, I see lots of naked mature ladies, and most are thicker in the middle than the younger women are; even those over-50s who have excellent muscle tone and trim, firm behinds are a bit thick in the middle. (And those few older women who’ve maintained a slim waist show the effect of gravity in other areas—no one escapes unscathed.) This fullness in the middle seems to be the shape we take on as we age. So why do we beat ourselves up about it?

Perhaps because it’s not sexy. Says who? Well, scientific studies that tell us the exact waist-to-hip ratio that stirs men’s loins, no matter how old they may be. According to a 2001 study, men in Western countries prefer women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7. (Mine is 0.5229, for the record.)

More magazine, which has lots of good content that I enjoy, relentlessly pushes the idea that we older women must fight against the appearance of age with all means necessary: needles, scalpels, burning chemical peels, rigid diets, punishing work-out routines. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the embracing of our sexy, wise womanhood? After all, the swelling belly of middle age is usually accompanied by swelling boobs as well.

But just try to find a pair of pants cut for a kidney-bean-shaped, middle-aged figure like mine. You will, in the granny department: baggy stretch pants of double-knit with gathered elastic waistbands. Ugh! Just putting a pair on ages you a whole generation.  And what do More mag and her sisters advocate? Spanx! Squish your guts with uncomfortable, confining girdles. Way to accept your body and age gracefully. You go, girls!

So—each morning I search my closet for something that doesn’t pinch and doesn’t make me look like I’m smuggling a watermelon under my shirt. Self-acceptance, good humor, and self-loathing duke it out in front of the mirror every day. My inner drill sergeant plans out my day: exercise routine, diet meals, no alcohol, early to bed, early to rise for more exercise, etc. “Eins, Zwei, Drei! Und vee iss marchink now!”

The endless battle between the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasure of having less flesh—when does self-denial cease to be worth it? I guess if I do plenty of exercise and choose my clothing carefully, I can be a lush, slightly tummified middle-aged mama. That’s a good goal: accept my basic shape, do my best to stay trim and fit with exercise that’s fun, and enjoy life, because life’s too short for dinners of plain broiled fish and steamed vegetables. I want a saucy, delicious life.

And please don’t send me advice on how to banish midlife belly fat. I got it—eat less, move more. Or guzzle apple-cider vinegar. Or avoid white foods.

Here’s the thing: I’m looking for the balance point—that magical place of peace, serenity, and acceptance, of knowing that I’m taking good care of my body, and being at peace with a rounder-than-I’d-like belly. I love to exercise; I also love good food, I love good wine, and I’m not willing to live like a Puritan in order to have a flat belly. In fact, I’m pretty sure that nothing will ever flatten this belly completely. Life is about pleasure, and I want the pleasure of enjoying my life and—is it possible?—loving my round belly. You too, perhaps? If so, please share your thoughts on living the good life with a thick middle.

Singh, Devendra; Young, Robert K. (2001-06-27). “Body Weight, Waist-to-Hip Ratio, Breasts, and    Hips: Role in Judgments of Female Attractiveness and Desirability for Relationships”  Ethology and Sociobiology 16 (6): 483–507.

Wonder Woman Versus the Sproing!

wonder-woman-clipart

Sproing! It happens to every athlete, young and old – but I’ve never been much of an athlete, and up until now I’ve been feeling pretty smug. Seated on the mat, folded over at the hips like a closed book, I had succeeded in comfortably resting my forehead on my knee during my post-workout stretch. I’d done this several times now, a happy result of my seven-month steady gym habit. Look at me! I’m Wonder Woman – defying the limits of middle age. Watch me fly! Watch me – OW!

But I felt better after two weeks of avoiding the lower-back press machine and extreme forward bends, so I tried a “beginners’” yoga class – and forgot, once again, that I am not Wonder Woman. A few days later I found myself in the emergency room, paralyzed with agonizing back spasms. Have you had these? If not, I pray that you never do. It goes like this: your lower back seizes your entire body and mind, as if you’ve just been grabbed down there with a giant staple remover. You know, that metal claw-like thing in your desk drawer? It grabs you with a sharp pain that takes your breath away and hisses into your ear, “Don’t. Move.” But you have to move, right? You have to summon help somehow. So you try a tiny step, only to be clamped again in a vice of blinding pain. Ladies, it’s not unlike strong labor pains, but centered in your lower back. And deep breaths don’t help – in fact, it’s hard to breathe. After two fuzzy days on Vicodin and muscle relaxers, I had to figure out how to fix this.

One of the things I’d been looking forward to doing in retirement was getting into really good shape. Oh, I wasn’t a complete slug during my working years; I’d hit the gym once or twice a week and take long walks when weather permitted, but it was always difficult to force myself to exercise after a long day of teaching high school and then coaching after-school activities. And to those chirpy morning types who tell me to get up an hour early to exercise, to them I say – well, I can’t use such language here. As it was, I had to get up at 5:30 A.M. in order to have time for breakfast, perform my ablutions, prepare my lunch, and gather my work things, including workout clothes. And I hated that alarm clock with a passion; every day I cursed that nasty, insistent beep, beep, beep that wrenched me from my dreams and into another cold, dark morning. One of the most delightful aspects of retirement is the ability to get out of bed when I’m damned good and ready.

But I digress. Now I’m free to fit in exercise more frequently, at a civilized hour, and I have been doing so. I’ve always enjoyed lifting weights, and we read how important it is for older women to perform resistance exercise in order to stave off the otherwise inevitable wasting of muscle tissue that comes with age, and the ensuing bone brittleness. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician and expert in women’s fitness, women lose about ½ pound of muscle per year after age 40 if they do not engage in regular resistance training. (I recommend her book Body for Life for Women, in which she presents a do-able, gimmick-free fitness program that includes weight training.) Less muscle mass equals a slower metabolism equals a plump, sluggish body and less joie de vivre. And how much fun is it to look in the mirror and see toned, firm arms and shoulders after 50!

Our local YMCA is a wonderful place to exercise. Unlike many commercial gyms, it’s truly a community center, and the clientele ranges from tiny children (in the pool – so cute!) to very old folks maintaining their strength, balance, and flexibility. I feel very comfortable and welcome there. Spin class is very challenging, and I merrily ignore the urgings of the younger instructors to crank it up to gear 15. I challenge myself, keep an eye on my heart monitor, and enjoy the group energy and the great music. Zumba class is an absolute hoot! I love a dance-y workout, and have zero interest in any fitness class that resembles combat – but hey, chacun a son gout. About 60 of us shake it twice a week, led by two young instructors through a series of heart-pumping hip-hop and Latin dance moves. I’m inspired by a woman I see at every class who’s 80 if she’s a day, and who does all the moves – modifying for her range of motion, of course. She’s having so much fun!

A problem with the fitness industry is that most instructors are young and very fit (of course!), and they lack experience in modifying workouts for older exercisers, for larger exercisers, or for people who have limitations due to injuries. “Of course everyone can bend like this,” they say. “Just try a little harder!” Our Y is blessed with some excellent older instructors who never neglect to mention modifications. But the computer is another matter.

Why, oh why, did I listen to that computer? The program is called ActivTrax, and it spits out a weight-training workout, based upon an initial strength test. Well, this computer was impressed with my progress, and told me to set the lower-back press for 110 pounds. And I listened – what kind of fool am I? I’d also been doing some very challenging (for me) ab exercises, heaving myself up on a slant board, waving my legs in the air like semaphore flags, and other foolishness. I’ve since read that an imbalance in the abdominal and back muscles can result from these very-targeted exercises, which can lead to lower-back pain. It’s better for people with back problems to train the whole core with exercises like planks, rather than to zero in on upper abs, lower abs, etc. Now I know.

My wonderful GP doctor, her physician’s assistant, and my equally wonderful physical therapist have taught me a great deal about how to exercise my abs without straining my back. My GP, who is young, slim and fit, also has back problems and will not even do any sort of forward-bending stretches of the type I was abusing when the sproing hit me. Well then! Obviously, I have a lot to learn about a subject, weight training, that I thought I was already pretty well-informed about. And I must face the fact that, at my age, I must take a more cautious approach to exercise. Not that I plan to “slow down,” nor do I plan to restrict myself to swimming – which is what so many advise old folks to do. No, you’ll find me in weight room again, but I’ll be planning my own workouts, rather than following the dictates of a computer program. And I’ll be listening much more carefully to my body.

But I would like a pair of those WW red boots!