New Year’s Minus Eve, Plus One?

In the days after New Year’s I am always sad to see the lights come down.  When the mornings get colder I tend to push walks and runs to the evening hence the term our family uses “Christmas Light Walk”.  There is a route on a neighboring block that has in recent years become our first family holiday tradition.  We’ve been in our little house on Cottonwood Road for three Christmases now and for each one of them I have been pregnant.  These Christmas light walks and runs have offered extra motivation when it has been much needed.  The first year was my first experience with the first trimester.  The second year I was tired and heavy, just days before my due date.  This year I was back in the first trimester and mourning a Christmas without my baby daughter. Pregnancy and the holidays seem to go hand in hand.  Loss and the holidays also seem to go hand in hand.  As I write this I am only a little over 9 weeks pregnant and though common practice these days is to wait until 12 weeks to disclose I figure what the hell; I know all too well there is no “safe” point in pregnancy.

What brought me to my computer today was the urge to share my recent lack of motivation as it ironically coincides with the start of the New Year, the prime time for fitness resolutions.  This personal trainer has been struggling.  Hormonally speaking week 9 is the height of the first trimester blues, the anniversary of Eve’s delivery was yesterday, and January is the most depressing month of the year.  Contrary to popular belief personal trainers don’t always bounce out of bed raring to go in the morning.  Lately peeling would be a more accurate description of extracting my body from the comfort of my covers.  To every client who has ever told me they have zero motivation I now more than ever understand you.  Getting started is the hardest part but once you begin you will rarely be sorry you did.  I will share what has been working for me this January and hope the same may work for you:

-Start Every Day with Movement and Meditation (or at least one of the two): Notice I say “movement” and not exercise.  If you are not big on hard-core workouts in the morning find something that you can do.  It can be as easy as taking the dog for a stroll or stretching on your bedroom floor.  The same goes for meditation, no need for hours of quiet contemplation.  On those days I am crunched for time after a morning run I’ll set my phone timer for five minutes of closing my eyes and taking some deep breaths which is enough to set a better tone for the rest of the day.  Better yet, try some yoga to get the benefits of both at the same time.  Taking some time to get in touch with your body first thing will automatically lead to healthier choices throughout the day.

-Look at the Big Picture: You don’t have to be an athlete to be an active person.  Though formal exercise is important to consistently increase one’s overall fitness level and make moving more pleasurable it’s what happens outside the gym matters more.  If you spend 1 hour doing a really intense workout then sit on your bum for the remainder of the day much of the benefit is lost.  On those days you can’t make it to the gym aim to be more active throughout the rest of your day.

-Exercise Makes Things Better: No it won’t necessarily solve your problem but it can promote more positive feelings, lead to clearer thinking, and increase energy.  On those days I feel crappy I know I will feel even crappier if I don’t exercise.

-This Too Shall Pass: Just like everything else in this world our motivation ebbs and flows.  Acknowledge when energy is at a low point and find ways to be healthy within that space.  One positive change I’ve found during this low point is an increased ability to sleep.  I am usually not a great sleeper and when I first found out I was pregnant the fear of getting back on the proverbial horse kept me up many a night.  One blessing of first trimester fatigue is that I sleep more than usual.  While a big part of me can’t wait to pass that 12 week mark I will miss these extra long sleeps (and even occasional nap!)  Low energy activities can be good for you and are always better than trying to lift the mood through mindless snacking.  Read to nourish your brain, listen to music to nourish your soul, treat your body to a hot bath…exercise isn’t the only way to increase feelings of good health.

Even though I’ve been dragging myself kicking and screaming into my workouts these past few weeks I have yet to regret a single one.  Sometimes when things seem overwhelming exercise can be the one thing that brings a bit of immediate gratification.  It isn’t always easy to gather the momentum to get moving but the days we least want to exercise are the days when we need it the most; though winter may seem endless spring will be here soon enough.

Strength Training

I’ve been thinking a lot about strength lately, and not just the type that has to do with barbells and free weights.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love barbells and free weights and they certainly have their place in making a person strong.  True strength, as I am learning now daily, can be cultivated in a variety of ways.  Sometimes we take it upon ourselves to become stronger, sometimes life forces us to do so or crumble under its events.  But what is it really that constitutes true strength?

Often society tends to emphasize putting our head down and pushing through rather than actively engaging in our feelings as they arise in the moment .  We are told to “keep a stiff upper lip”, that “big girls don’t cry”, and that “there’s no crying in baseball” (just had to add that last one for fun…)  The biggest challenge for me as a trainer is to get clients to slow down in their exercises.  It’s easy to get caught up in this grunt and get it over with mentality but doing so jeopardizes what could otherwise be an exercise in growth.  In order for muscles to grow they need more time under tension.  If you rush through reps and sets without paying attention and time to the muscle group you are working with the results won’t be nearly as dramatic.  Time under tension, being with the discomfort, creates growth and change.  Interesting that what is true for the body is also true for the mind and spirit.

When performing exercises clients often joke that if the exercise is uncomfortable it can’t be good for them.  Unfortunately we don’t live in a world that is free from discomfort, or even pain.  Furthermore, never challenging the body to go outside of our comfort zone eventually leads to even greater discomfort in the future.  A life of inactivity leads to physical and mental stagnation and eventually the body will rebel.  Diabetes, osteoporosis, and arthritis are only a few maladies that can either result from or worsen due to physical inactivity.  Working to keep the body strong and breathing through moments of discomfort leads to more comfort overall.  What if, instead of running from it, we got a little more comfortable with discomfort?  What would this mean for our body, how would our lives change?

The old saying “no pain no gain” has been transmuted to “no strain no gain” and I believe the latter to be more true than the former.  There is no need to push to the point of injury, there is such as thing as going to far.  To know what is the right amount of struggle for you you must slow down and listen.  Breathe and be present.  Use your workouts to teach you more about not only your body’s but your whole self’s limits.

I find strength training is a particularly poignant topic for women.  Many women, my former self included, prize being thin over being strong.  Why are we so attracted to “skinny”?  What makes boney more attractive than muscular?  Why, when it comes to our bodies, is less more?  In my line of work I hand women weights often with varying response.  Some are accepting of the challenge and are inspired by the idea of becoming stronger.  Some tell me they fear looking like a man and aren’t really into having muscles.  To these women I say that is unfortunate because having muscles is a non-negotiable part of being a human being.  Whether they are flaccid or toned is up to you.

In our culture women are often thought of as the weaker sex.  Generally we are more in touch with our emotions, a product of both nature and nurture.  In defense of the weaker sex theory and in order to take a more feminist approach to life I used to lift weights aggressively to fly in the face of convention while laughing off more holistic forms of exercise such as yoga.  I wanted to be tough, and to me this meant denying the softer, more emotionally connected side of myself.  What is often overlooked is how truly powerful feminine energy can be.  Through yoga practice I’ve come to integrate characteristics such as intuition, emotional sensitivity, and sensuality into all aspects of my life.  Isn’t the feminine archetype, which brings consciousness into form, the epitome of strength?  Integrating the physical and emotional is a much more satisfying and sustainable way to live.

This past weekend J and I went to Arlington National Cemetery.  I was caught off guard as I walked up to the Kennedy gravesite and buried next to Jacqueline Onassis was her stillborn daughter.  I remember reading that she had a daughter that was stillborn but it surprised me to see her recognized in such an honorable and public way.  I had come to believe that mothers of stillborn babies belonged to a somewhat secret society and seeing this beautiful tribute from a time when stillbirth was even less talked about than it is now warmed my heart.  As we walked through I saw many graves, like that of my daughter Eve’s, scattered around the cemetery.  Babies with just one date marked on their tombstone.  It struck me that Jackie Kennedy, a woman known for her stoicism and grace, chose to recognize her daughter in such a public and emotional way.  Seeing soldiers, known for their strength and emotional control, validate the life of a child that never took their first breath gave me hope for the human race as a whole.  There is so much more to strength than meets the eye and so many ways to cultivate it within ourselves.  As a self-proclaimed oenophile I can’t help but draw an analogy between cultivating strength and the fact that struggling vines make the best wine.  Maybe, when it comes to leading a more vibrant richer life, a little struggle goes a long way.

Holiday Health

Maintaining good health through the holidays is a challenge.  Most times we equate this with gleeful parties filled with decadent treats and merry-making alcoholic beverages.  The stress of being over scheduled is recognized as a contributing factor to health being put on the back burner but for many there is an underlying stress that often goes unrecognized.  The same holiday gatherings that bring us together with loved ones can also be poignant reminders of those we are missing. I can’t think of Christmas without thinking there should be a “baby’s first” in front of it and New Year’s Day will forever be the day Eve died. In preparation for the upcoming holiday season I’ve been putting together a toolbox of sorts. If you are among the many grieving a loved one this holiday season the following are some ideas for a healthy, if not altogether happy, holiday season.

Make time for stillness- It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the season no matter what your take on the holidays.  Making time for stillness, even if it is just 5 minutes a day, can go a long way towards recognizing what your body truly needs. If you are not one for formal meditation something as simple as sitting quietly in the glow of your Christmas tree could suffice.

Let go of expectations- Trying to create the perfect holiday often ends up more miserable than merry (think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). On a holiday, much like any other day, it is impossible to predict what will happen. Accepting that a holiday, like any other day, will have moments of joy, sorrow, and everything in between can turn a stressful day into a more peaceful one.

Moderate your food, moderate your mood- Emotional stress leads to the release of stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Both of these hormones cause blood glucose levels to rise. Consuming excess sugar in the form of holiday treats or alcohol can exacerbate this response. High blood glucose levels can lead to fatigue and depression so while a treat or beverage in moderation may raise your spirits, too many could have the opposite effect.

Celebrate with self care- Indulge in some self-care. A long winter walk away from the craziness festivities can be even more relaxing than a glass of mulled wine. A long, hot bath can be more delicious than a second cookie. During the holidays, and especially when grieving a loved one, we long for comfort. There is nothing wrong with finding it in food every now and then but realizing there are many other ways to comfort yourself can be very empowering. Never underestimate the power of a comfy robe, slippers, soft blankets, a favorite holiday tune, etc.

And last but not least…exercise!- Yes, this is still a fitness blog and it is my duty to tout movement throughout the holiday season. There are endless ways to move your body even when the gym is closed. Practice yoga at home to combat stress, take an evening walk and check out the neighborhood Christmas lights, dance around the house to your favorite holiday music. Instead of taking a vacation from exercise entirely take a vacation from the norm.

Like the old saying goes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. By taking care of yourself this holiday season you will be better able to give to the loved ones you are with and honor those you are without.

My Health Hero(es)

When Oscar Insurance Corporation asked me to write a post about my health hero I had a hard time picking just one.  In the end I decided that writing about multiple people would be fitting since Oscar, a provider serving New York and New Jersey, is all about promoting health through community.  As a fitness professional I spend my days trying to be a health hero for other people but really these people are the ones who inspire me.  You see, when I moved to Charlottesville, VA after working in New York City and Chicago I had a bit of a paradigm shift.  Charlottesville is a beautiful town as well as one of the most popular places to retire in the country.  Moving here at the ripe old age of 29 I had previously worked with mostly young professionals.  Nowadays the majority of my clientele are between the ages of 55 and 87.  These folks have no interest in 6 pack abs or 30 inch biceps.  In fact, I rarely focus on numbers at all these days.  They come to me with one common goal: to feel better.

My clients give new meaning to the phrase 70 is the new 50.  Due to Charlottesville’s proximity to Washington D.C. many are retired lawyers, doctors, and government officials.  One would think after living such fast paced lives they would be inclined to slow down but this is not the case.  They are well versed in working hard to overcome obstacles and this is apparent in the way they relate to their bodies.

I used to think my work was to make people look better in order to be more comfortable in their own skin.  I now know that being comfortable in one’s own skin is less about an aesthetic and more about a feeling, a confidence that comes with knowing that you are doing your best even when things are far from ideal.

My clients have not had it easy.  More than a few have fought and won their battles with cancer.  Some have lost.  Several live with multiple sclerosis.  I’ve written programs for clients with all manner of frustrating symptoms.  Whether due to a degenerative disease or the aftermath of valiant military service they do not see their struggles as a reason to give up.  They know that the road to better health is paved with commitment.

My clients have encouraged me to look at my own health in a new light.  My struggles used to make me feel like a fraud in the fitness world.  I used to think I should be effortlessly thin, glowing, a beacon of health.  Now I see that through my own struggles I am better able to relate to their struggles.   I am not a fraud, I am human.

Through working with this dynamic group I’ve come to know the importance of community support when it comes to individual health.  I’ve watched them cheer one another on and have received the benefit of their enthusiasm.  When I was pregnant with my daughter Eve they supported me through 40 weeks of training and teaching.  When my daughter tragically died due to a cord compression 3 days after her due date I didn’t think I would be able to continue working in the same capacity.  How could I go on preaching the benefits of a healthy lifestyle when my own body had betrayed me so egregiously after all my hard work?

During the days and weeks that followed delivery I received countless cards filled with kind words from clients that had accepted, long before I did, that try as we may some things in this life are beyond our control.  I soon went back to work and though every day is a challenge I know that my experience strengthens my connection to others who wrestle daily with their demons.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my littlest health hero, my daughter Eve.  As soon as I found out I would be having a daughter I knew it was time to start giving my own body more respect.  Like many women my body is far from the ideal I hold in my mind.  I didn’t want Eve to take on my insecurities so throughout pregnancy I began trading in the idea of exercise as self-punishment for one of self-care.  I focused less on calories and more on nourishment.  I focused more on exercising to feel good and less on the size of my thighs.  Though Eve is no longer with me her influence is still strong.  I want to live a life she would be proud of, one that honors her memory.  My body was her home and because of this it is sacred.  Every movement, every breath, every beat of my heart connects me to her and all those who seek greater health for a life well-lived.

Find Your Edge

What is going on in your body right now? Where are you holding tension? Is your breathing shallow or deep? Don’t forget to look for positive feelings as well, what parts of you feel at ease? Taking a moment, or several moments, to check in on the body is an essential part of any health and wellness routine. The more attuned we are to what is going on, the less chance we get to the point where the body has to scream for our attention.  This is precisely where stretching comes into play.

A few years ago there was a study that proclaimed stretching before a workout was not as valuable as once thought.  Most of my clients read the headline of the article in the New York Times but few went further than that. For those who didn’t like stretching, here was proof they didn’t have to do it!  The caveat was the stretching they studied was static (holding a stretch for 30 seconds or longer) and the impact it had when practiced before a workout. Performance was not improved because static stretching inhibits muscular response. The muscle is essentially in a relaxed state which causes it to fire more slowly . Therefore, if you want to warm up before a workout, you are better off performing an active stretch (moving through different ranges of motion without load on the muscle, mimicking the movement you plan on performing later in the workout). So where does static stretching fall into place in the overall health and wellness picture and is it worth the time and effort?  If static stretching “weakens” the muscle and temporarily inhibits intramuscular response it makes sense that we might perform it when we want the muscles to be more relaxed.

There is a saying in yin yoga that we store “issues in our tissues”. Physical tension is tied to mental tension and vice versa. Just as positive emotion can have a relaxing effect on the physical body, releasing tension in the muscles can have a positive effect on our mental state. I look at stretching as a time to “check in” on the body and emotional state.  After a workout it is more of the former (especially if you are in a crowded gym when doing so!), during a yoga practice it is more of the latter.

I remember being a little afraid to practice yoga or even take a walk by myself in the first few days after I lost Eve. Instinctively I knew that getting back to my body meant delving deeper into what was going on internally.  As humans our initial response is to back away from discomfort, which works quite well when we mistakenly touch a hot burner on the stove but less well when we repress, distract, or numb ourselves to our emotions.  Diversions have their place but it isn’t possible to turn away from uncomfortable feelings forever.  They will need to be dealt with sooner or later, and better during downward facing dog than during a meeting at work.

The internal aspect of yoga can seem daunting but it is really not so. Sure, there will be uncomfortable points but by staying with the discomfort we learn some key things about ourselves.  Notice what arises.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “My hips are really tight from all the running I’ve been doing lately”. Sometimes it’s “I hate this feeling, I hate sitting with this feeling, oh, wait, it’s starting to lift.”  The lifting and lightening is something that still takes me by surprise.  I always knew that if I held a stretch or a pose for any length of time my muscles would eventually relax and release.  For some reason it took me until recently to realize the same was true for emotions.  I used to think that negative emotions must be acted upon but in the face of Eve’s death there is nothing I can do to right the wrong.  When difficult emotions rise, as they often do now during my daily yoga practice, I acknowledge them, experience them, and watch them pass.  It takes as much, if not more work, than the physical practice but seems to help strengthen and repair whatever it is that is broken in there.

“Finding the edge” is a phrase that often gets repeated in yoga class.  The edge is the point of a stretch that is deep without going too deep, just this side of comfortable.  Everyone’s edge is different and you can’t find your own without testing the waters.  It’s the place where you are accomplishing without forcing, moving forward without pushing.  It’s the balance between letting things be as they are and warming to the possibility of growth.  What keeps things interesting is that our edge is constantly changing.  Even if you are someone who likes to perform the same stretching routine or yoga practice day after day it will never truly be the same.  The edge and the ease are rarely in the same places you found them yesterday.

What is the difference between a “yoga stretch” and a “fitness stretch”?  Yoga stretches are performed with the intention of noticing what is going on internally.  Fitness stretches are performed without this intention but may lead one down the same road by default.  Releasing, relaxing, and moving with more ease…seems worth it to me.

Results are Typical (Though they may be different than what you were expecting….)

As a trainer there is always one question that I hesitate to answer when taking on a new client: “How long will it take me to see results?”.  I hesitate to answer this because to answer would imply there is a finish line on the road to health.  As much as infomercials would like to have us believe there is no end game in the pursuit of fitness .  Yes, exercising can dramatically change your body, lift your spirit, and make you a more intelligent, well-focused individual.  I believe that with every cell of my being.  But, as with anything else in life, to really reap the benefits one must focus on the process rather than the end result.  I say this by no means to discount the importance of having goals.  If exercise didn’t assist in things like weight loss, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, elevated mood, increased strength, better bone density, and the like very few would see any point in doing it.  As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”.  It is great to have a goal and nine times out of ten you will reach that very goal.  Ten times out of ten you will discover things you never had the prior ability to visualize along the way and it will be these things that truly inspire change.

Maybe you start eating a cleaner diet with the initial goal of losing weight.  You start adding more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables and struggle for the first few days,  As you continue on this path you gradually notice changes that are not connected with weight loss at all.  Your energy soars to new heights, those irritating headaches have suddenly dissipated, you no longer need that 3:00 pm cup of coffee to get you through the work day.  Soon you start to lose taste for the convenience foods you once survived on, your body has had a taste of true nourishment and never wants to go back.  Your clothes are looser, your body is stronger, and you are amazed to find that the weight you were trying to get rid of has fallen off.  You haven’t been cranky or hungry or felt that sense of frustration you felt while on “diets” in the past.  It seems so natural now to live this way and you are enjoying and appreciating food more than ever.  The road to weight loss has been enjoyable and the outcome is now a nice side benefit.

B.K.S. Iyengar, who recently passed away at the age of 95, said this of yoga:  “Penetration of our mind is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.”   Maybe, like eating a cleaner diet, you began an exercise program with the initial goal of losing weight.  You begin moving more, lifting weights, and for the first few days it is uncomfortable and you are not sure you want to continue.  Just when you are considering quitting the gym you have a really tough day at work.  You consider going to happy hour to drink your cares away but decide to give the gym one last shot. You jump into a kick boxing class and find a release that is much more powerful than anything you have experienced on a bar stool.  After a few weeks of increased activity you are sleeping better, are better able to handle the stress life throws your way, and feel stronger both mentally and physically.  And yes, you’ve lost weight.  Your looser pants feel that much better paired with your new-found peace of mind.

Why does anyone ever want to lose weight?  The reasons are many but they all fall under the same umbrella: to feel better. But maybe we are barking up the wrong tree.  Maybe it’s the healthy habits themselves that we are truly craving.   It is unhelpful to put all our hopes and dreams on a desired outcome because, in fitness as in life, there is very little we can control.  As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”  Our bodies, our lives, and ourselves are constantly changing.  While keeping anchored to our highest goal can keep us on the right path it is more important (and ultimately more rewarding) to be fully committed and present to the journey.  

Running Right

“Laura, stop running like a bimbo!” This is the phrase that popped into my head on my Saturday morning run.  These exact words were yelled by a choreographer during the first modern dance piece I performed in college and 14 years later (no need to do the math people) they still make me giggle.  It was the first and last time I have been called a bimbo, at least to my face.  Ever since then I’ve wondered, is there a right way to run?

The jury is still out on proper running technique.  Are runners better off with a more cushioned shoe, less cushioned shoe, or no shoes at all?  Is it preferable to strike the ground with the heel or the forefoot?  The studies are mixed and though according to Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory I might be a fitness expert I don’t consider myself an expert on running.  I do, however, enjoy it very much, or at least enough to hit the road most days of the week.  I am, like many people, a late convert to running and don’t do it competitively but rather because I like the way it makes me feel.  Coming from the flatlands of Chicago to the mountain town of Charlottesville my runs became more challenging but also more frequent.  Despite its hilly terrain I’ve grown to love running this town.  This is partially due its more temperate climate, partially due to its inherent beauty, and partially due to time of life.  The following is my personal recipe for a delicious run:

1 part inspiring music: The ideal running tempo is 180 bpm but concentrating less on the beat and more on choosing music that suits your mood makes for a much more satisfying run.  Sometimes “workout” music is just the thing but other times it will drive you crazy.  If you aren’t in the mood for base-pumping club beats put on something you are in the mood for.  Listening to music is a powerful way to validate even the most difficult feelings and in this way it can act as a kind of therapy.  If you run to work through difficult emotions adding an emotionally poignant playlist can be very powerful.

1 part solitude: Running alone and uninterrupted can turn a tedious bout of cardio into a moving meditation.  Finding a time if day when the roads are quiet, such as a weekend morning, can contribute to a more peaceful session.  If you live in an area where the roads are never quiet finding an out of the way trail route is another option.

1 part adversity: Stress by its very nature is fuel for action.  Running is a great way to burn off excess energy whether you’re going through major emotional turmoil or going stir-crazy from sitting at a desk for too long.

1 part nourishment: After burning off all that excess energy refueling is essential.  Along with rehydrating, refueling with the appropriate amount of carbohydrate and protein will leave your body happy and energized.  Since there is a 60 minute post-workout window during which the body is primed for glycogen production it makes sense to consume something within the first hour of returning home from your run.  My favorite post-run treat as of late has been a protein smoothie with one or two tablespoons of raw cacao powder.  The mood boosting properties of raw cacao compliment a runner’s high nicely.

I am pretty sure I’ve stopped running like a bimbo but whether I am running the right way is still up for debate.  When I was working out during pregnancy Jed would always joke that I had the power of two.  I loved this idea because in a way having Eve did make me feel stronger instead of weaker.  The pain of losing her is largely what fuels my runs but I like to think the motivation goes deeper than that.  Einstein famously said “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”  Judging from her formidable punches and kicks I know that my daughter had a great deal of energy and it is this energy that remains inside me, somewhere, propelling me forward.