Saturday, March 12, 2011

On exercising well

The title, incidentally, is a play on the book "On Writing Well" by ... someone who knew what he was talking about. I think I have that book in my closet somewhere, and look what it's done for me! (Oops, dangling preposition in the first sentence.) 

I haven't written about exercising lately, and it's time for an inspirational post, one that I've been ruminating on as I jog or do the elliptical, lately. I am so very pleased with myself because I have finally, after several years, gotten to the point where I can jog 3 miles and not feel that I've stressed my body! I can finish the workout and seamlessly resume my life as usual, even with significant housework or yardwork, which is fantastic. Yippee! I take a bow.

There are several ways to look at this achievement. From the standpoint of a serious athlete or a Zen master, it's not much! In fact, it's nothing. I see that and I appreciate this insignificance in all its beauty and wisdom. Sorta like taking the measure of each human being -- a mere grain of sand. Equally tossed by wind and waves, finite, constantly changing.

So from one standpoint, I've taken a few steps up a long, challenging staircase. I may not take many more steps above this, but I'm quite pleased to see progress made. I see, too, the marathoners, the triathletes, the Ironmen and women, and I know I have no desire to join their ranks. That would require a level of sacrifice that I do not wish to undertake.

Then there's the perspective of this achievement compared to all those couch potatoes out there, my fellow Americans. I'm probably in better physical shape than 85-90% of this population in my age group. Ha! I'll take it. Are you ready to throw an apple at me yet?

I'm spending a little time crowing about this because I've earned it. I've gotten through quite a few huffing-puffing, sweaty workouts. Some were harder than others. Some were quite difficult. None were actually intensely painful, though. I don't do pain! If I'm feeling a pulled muscle or my knee is really sore, I stop.

These workouts have become an integral part of who I am, and I don't think I could do without them. In fact, I might be a totally different person if I had not fallen in love with exercise a number of years back. I might even be depressed, I mean in a clinical sense. Sorta like how I suspect my mom was, during most of the time I knew her.

Exercise is as high a priority for me as writing. If you said I had to give up one or the other of these -- well, don't ever make me do that. It would be like saying, you have to stop either breathing or eating. Your choice. Or, sacrifice one of your children. Just one.

Last Saturday, I ran the local 5K, the Power of Pink put on by the Women's Service Organization to benefit the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation. It was perfect running weather, the temperature starting in the mid-50s and climbing perhaps to 60 by the end of the run. So I felt fabulous, even with limited training leading up to this event. I was happy just to be able to run the whole way. I use the term "running" loosely, being about an 11-minute miler and maybe pushing 10 at my best showings. And then, I just walked away. (After stretching and a snack, of course.) No lingering aftereffects, which have been known to happen when I'm all excited and push a little too hard at a 5K.

I have been even more motivated to keep working out regularly these days. First, because I have a full-time desk job now and I sit. All day long. It's been very challenging for me. Second, this is tax season and my hours are longer. Then there are all the other stressors life throws out, like Austin's possible gallstone attack and the fact that my husband is really miserable at his job these days. I really need the release of a good workout, at least several times a week.

I want to tell everyone that it doesn't matter where you are now, you can achieve a fitness level that will make you happier and healthier. (I feel a strong urge to say, I guarantee it!) But this is not a commercial or even an informercial. Shake that image out of your mind.

I know you can achieve fitness, because I did, and I'm no athlete. I was the uncoordinated one throughout school, the last to be picked to be on a team.

Here's what really sticks -- make lifestyle changes. Those would be small, incremental changes in your life. And -- very important -- stick with them. Don't try to go from couch to Arnie (as in Schwarzenegger) in 6 weeks, or 6 months! That approach is guaranteed to cause a lot of frustration.

Here's what I recall doing. First, I learned to take longer walks and really enjoy them. I tried out a number of different activities, and still do. I was in karate for several years with my boys and had a blast with it. I went swimming when they had swim lessons at the Palo Alto natatorium. Biking, neah, not so much. Then I started jogging. The simplicity just hooked me. No special equipment or clothing, no memberships required. You can pretty much do it any time, though in South Texas the challenge is the heat.

I was weightlifting on my own, then after a few years, tried out the personal trainer offered free of charge at my job at the time, the Wilson County News. She showed me the correct forms and a lot of different routines, which led to a huge improvement in the results.

These days, I have joined Anytime Fitness and I do my own program there, a combination of strength and cardio. It's probably not up to snuff with what a trainer would do -- they push you. But I'm pretty self-competitive and like to work hard. I'm going to start some yoga in a week or two, with the class time being right for the longer tax-season hours and with me needing to de-stress. My hubbie got me a Groupon coupon for the yoga.

When you start a fitness program, don't go into it assuming you have to make yourself miserable to get results. You can do intervals, bursts of moderate to intense activity with frequent breaks in between to recover. Start really slow. Just think, it took me about three years to feel natural about jogging. I think a big beginner's mistake is going all out and being exhausted, or injured, as a result. Or, you think to yourself, OK, that was a lousy time and I felt awful. Why on earth would I try that again? "Listen to your body," as my trainer would say.

Small things can make a big difference over time. Health writers mention taking the stairs at work (which I do, being on the 7th floor) and parking further away and walking. If you can fit in just 5 minutes at a time of exercise, do it! That's what I do at work. I try to take the stairs about three times a day.

A misconception that people seem to have is that exercise magically becomes easy for people who are fit. I'm here to tell you, it's never easy, especially if you are pushing yourself. Maybe you see that as a discouragement. Oh, well then, why bother if it's always going to be work? I actually find it inspiring, though, that every athlete can get sweaty and out of breath!

One example is one of the women pro tennis players, who would start grunting more and more loudly as she got deeper into a match, every time she returned the ball. When I'm starting to breathe harder and possibly even grunt and groan myself while jogging, I think of her. 

My kids were trying out some P90X workouts, which are like regular workouts on steroids, and the leader of those workouts (what's-his-name, which you probably wouldn't recognize even if I knew it to tell you) is always huffing and puffing as he talks. He's ripped as all getout. (Good-looking, too; just thought I'd throw that in.) **Added here: Tony Horton is his name, and he was mentioned on the front page of the WSJ March 16. Some of the young new Tea-party types in Congress do his routine, apparently, wanting to make not just the nation but themselves leaner.

So his being breathless -- not just breathlessly handsome, but a tad winded -- either means he's focusing too much on strength and not enough on cardio, which is a possibility; or it means we all get out of breath if we are doing a really tough workout! Yeah! You should hear me puffing away as I take those stairs. I have to give myself a little break in the stairwell if I'm climbing up from the basement, which is where the microwave and eatery are. Otherwise, I'd be a tad embarrassed returning to the office.

Try adding this wonderful ingredient of exercise to your life, and cheers to you if you already do. I'll be rooting for you!

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