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Category — Exercise

Leave it at the door

worryIt’s early morning — steel gray skies, steady light rain (yes, western Oregon in January. Also February, March and probably April) – and I’m in the car on my way to the 7:30 Barre3 class. I am worrying about the presidential election and what if Donald Trump gets elected and I have to move to Canada. I am worrying about whether my daughter is going to be offered this baking job she wants and does the cat have worms and what’s that strange clicking I hear coming from the engine and wasn’t I supposed to get my yearly cholesterol check like two months ago. I am worrying that I worry too much.

I find a parking space on Broadway and I walk across the street, worrying that I forgot to put shampoo in my bag. I open the door and stuff my coat (it’s getting ratty…should I invest in a new one?) and purse (uh oh, did I remember my cellphone from the car?) in a cubby, ditch my boots (I should really get them re-heeled), and walk barefoot into the studio. I find my place at the barre.

We start with deep breaths, then neck stretches, then cat-cows. We are eight beats into step-tapping to Edge of Glory when I suddenly realize that I am not worrying any more. I realize that I am not in my head any more. The realization zips by in an instant, evaporates, disappears because, well, I am not in my head any more. I am in horse pose doing plié-relevées. I am in chair doing tricept kickbacks.  I am planking. I am my body.

This, really, is the glory of physical exertion. For years – decades – I exercised with my focus on the long game: bone strength, cardiovascular health, weight control. All important, oh yes, but it was all about the future, about the distant rewards, about body parts and mechanics. My deep investment in long-term goals all but blinded me – or at least caused me to take for granted — the immediate gratification one gets from movement and exertion: the infusion of energy, the sense of well-being, the elevated mood. And the insistent, chattering internal do-it-it’s-good-for-you monolog robbed me of the real-time experience of moving in my body. Of being in my body. Of scouring my mind of worry and thought.

And, like this morning, of moving, just moving.

January 27, 2016   1 Comment

Exercise as Immediate Gratification

instant-gratificationPhysical activity is life-enhancing, health-enhancing, mood-elevating – and fun.

It feels good.

It makes you feel good.


It is the key to a vibrant, energized life.

So why do only 17 percent of American women get the minimum amount of aerobic and strength-training exercise? This is according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control. Women over 45? Only 15 percent are regular exercisers. For women over 65, the percentage goes down to 12. (Men fare somewhat better. But not much.)

Why when we are awash in information about the extraordinary benefits of physical activity…when we are slammed with studies that link inactivity to illness, poor quality of life and early death…why are we an increasingly slothful nation?

Of course I am not addressing you, dear readers. You (we!) are the 17 percent. But what about your sister, your aunt, your co-worker, your partner?

I recently came across some interesting research about this. Although the many and profound benefits of physical activity are constantly in the news, it may be that the message is not being presented in the right way. Apparently, promoting physical activity as a way to prevent or control disease, or lose weight — and prescribing doses as if exercise were medicine – doesn’t get most people off their butts or help them establish activity habits. This is according to research conducted by Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. Here’s what she said in an interview with veteran New York Times health columnist Jane Brody: “Health is not an optimal way to make physical activity relevant and compelling enough for most people to prioritize in their hectic lives.”

I’m stunned. It seems counterintuitive, but her research shows that people whose goals are better health and weight loss do not tend to spend much time exercising. It could be because “better health” is a life-long journey with cumulative – and sometimes invisible (until it’s not) – benefits, not instant gratification. It could be because exercise alone, with no change in eating habits, is not a very successful weight-loss strategy. It could be because people hate to be preached at. Or all three. Whatever the constellation of reasons, almost 200 million Americans are not doing what pretty much all of them know is good for them.

Dr. Segar, a psychologist who specializes in helping people adopt and maintain regular exercise habits, is using another approach that focuses on the immediate rewards that enhance daily life — more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity for connection. These benefits, her research has found, offer more powerful motivation. Her message: Physical activity is a way to revitalize and renew. It is the fuel that powers us to better enjoy what matters most.

And now, friends, I am off to my own refueling station, my local Barre3 studio.

November 4, 2015   4 Comments

Less is more. Or at least enough.

young-woman-reclining-in-spanish-costume-1863I realize that many people don’t love physical activity and exercise the way I do. Or at all, for that matter. I don’t get it. I don’t get that some people – statistically LOTS and LOTS of people – do not engage in some form of sweat-inducing activity every day. I don’t understand this not because there is so much evidence out there linking exercise to good health. People ignore evidence all the time. I smoked cigarettes all through my 20s despite exposure to revolting pictures of blackened lungs and reams of scientific research linking tobacco to the devil.

Why I don’t understand those who are persistently inactive (note I do not say “lazy”!) it is that exercise, or rather physical activity (“exercise” sounds too much like a specialized class) always, always makes me FEEL good. It elevates my mood, scours me of stress, spurs the creative process. Of course I am well aware of – have written many times about — the straightforward physical benefits (healthier heart, stronger bones, etc.) but it is the mental and emotional lift I get from physical activity that compels me. Why wouldn’t everyone want to feel this way?

Now, good news for those of you who do not share my penchant for perspiration, who have to psych yourself up to get out the door, who have to battle with yourself every day to “make time” to exercise (and often lose the battle).

For women: Less is More.

A University of Oxford epidemiologist and colleagues recently completed a large-scale, 9-year study  involving 1.1 million women in the U.K, average age 56, who were free from cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots and diabetes at the study’s start. Women who performed strenuous physical activity – sufficient to cause sweating or a faster heart beat – two to three times per week were about 20% less likely to develop heart disease, strokes or blood clots compared to those who reported little or no activity. Interestingly, among active women, there was little evidence of further risk reductions with more frequent activity.

In other words, you can reap significant health benefits from far less frequent bouts of physical activity than you thought. (The psychological benefits come with the package. Once you experience them, you’ll want to be active every day, with or without added risk reduction. )

“Inactive middle-aged women should try to do some activity regularly,” said the study’s lead author.


May 6, 2015   No Comments

Dancing, dancing, dance the night away

me spreadleggedFile this under Health News I Love to Share: Research suggests that regular dance classes can improve cognitive function and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

This is not why I started taking ballet classes more than a year ago, or why I sweet-talked artistic director Toni Pimble into allowing me to join the Eugene Ballet Company last fall. It is not why I went on to attend company classes every morning, angle for a part in the holiday production of The Nutcracker, rehearse with the company for a month and dance in the ballet for 16 performances in 9 cities in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Nope. I did all that for other reasons – which I hope you’ll want to read about in my upcoming book: Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker.

And yes, that was shameless self-promotion. Allow me to continue in that vein by telling you the book will be out in November just in time for the 2015 Nutcracker season.

Back to science.

Dr. Joe Verghese, associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, conducted a study comparing the effects of different types of physical and mental activities on cognitive function. His subjects – close to 500 men and women between 75 and 85 years old – were followed (detailed clinical and neuropsychological evaluations) for up to 21 years. Researchers tracked the subjects’ participation (and frequency of participation) in 11 physical activities: tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, group exercises, bowling, walking for exercise, climbing more than two flights of stairs, doing housework, and babysitting.

Dance was the only physical activity that was found to reduce the risk of dementia.

Here’s what Dr. Verghese thinks about these surprising findings: “Dance is a complex activity. You have to follow the music, remember the steps and improvise. And it’s a physical activity so it also increases the flow of blood to all parts of the body, including the brain.”

And here’s what I say… Actually, it’s what famed dancer and choreographer Agnes deMille said: “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power. It is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”

March 25, 2015   2 Comments

Are you STILL sitting?

officeStand up!

Yes, I am talking to you.

Stand up right now.

I fear you didn’t take to heart the anti-sitting research I summarized a few months back in Sitting is the New Smoking. Because if you did, I wouldn’t have to be yelling at you right now. (Apologies to the upright-eous.)

Here’s the harrowing recap of a recent meta-analysis (18 studies, close to 800,000 participants): Those who spent the most time sitting increased their risks of diabetes (112%), cardiovascular diseases (147%), death from cardiovascular causes (90%) and death from all causes (49%) compared to those who sat fewer hours. In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died—regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised.

Got that? Are you standing yet?

And here is more damning data on the health effects of sitting.

Sitting is bad for your brain. A Michigan State University study found that college students who were less fit (thanks to sitting longer hours) had a harder time retaining information than their more physically active classmates. Long-term information, which is anything from more than 30 seconds ago, was more difficult for the lower-fit individuals to remember.

Sitting is bad for your circulation. Those who sit too much have poor circulation in their legs, which can lead to varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis. An Indiana University study found that even just one hour of sitting can impair normal blood flow by up to 50 percent.

Sitting is bad for your spine. Moving around allows soft discs between vertebrae to expand and contract naturally, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. Sitting causes discs in the back to become squashed unevenly. When that happens, collagen hardens around ligaments and tendons, making your spine less flexible. Chronic sitters are far more at risk for herniated lumbar discs (the most common cause of lower back pain).

Sitting is bad for your hips. Hip flexor muscles – they provide both mobility and balance — stiffen during long periods of sitting.

So it is time – past time – to get yourself a standing desk. Or, as in the photo that companies this post, an inexpensive platform to place on your old desk. I have a true standing desk in my writing office. For my university office (the photo), I requested a standing desk and, after eight months of bureaucratic run-around, I decided that if I wanted a healthy environment I’d have to create it myself. It may be that your employer, like mine, talks about a healthy work environment but doesn’t pro-actively (or even reactively!) provide one. Do it for yourself. My platform (at amazon) was around $125. There are smaller ones for under $100. This is possibly the best investment you can make for your health.

(btw: That’s a poster of a window looking out onto water. My office is actually windowless.)

February 25, 2015   2 Comments

I (heart) yoga

yogaHow could you not want to start the day with something called “Happy Baby”? I mean, really. Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana) is a yoga pose. You lie on your back, draw your knees into your chest, fan open your legs and reach down to grab the outsides (or insides) of your feet, making sure your feet (alas not the cute chubby little feet of a real happy baby) are parallel to the ceiling. And then you rock, gently, from side to side. And you breath.

Yoga teachers and instructional websites will tell you that Happy Baby has the following benefits: It opens and stretches the hips, stretches and releases the lower back, lengthens and helps to realign the spine, and strengthens the arms and shoulders. I don’t doubt it. I will tell you that it scours the mind and makes you feel both happy… and like a baby.

Lately, I’ve been starting my days with Happy Baby followed by cat/cows and pigeon, various spinal twists, and three lengthy sun salutations. I love the irony of doing the sun salutations in the pre-dawn (no sun) in the Oregon winter (with no hope of sun once the day begins). I love the flow from posture to posture. I love that the postures have names like cobra and down dog and warrior one, two and three. And I love how I can lose myself in the flow – even though, every morning, I have to persuade myself anew to spend these 30 minutes.

That’s because for decades I’ve thought (even as I’ve taken my share of yoga classes and gone through asanas in the living room while following yoga DVDs), that yoga isn’t real exercise. That my time would be better spent sweating or grunting or, preferably, both. Yes, I know it’s wrong-headed to think of yoga as “exercise.” It is a philosophy, a way of being, a connection to self. Still, I’ve not given it its due because I have been unable to appreciate the physical benefits.

So, if you need convincing about the importance of yoga to a counterclockwise life, breath deep and read on:

Balance  “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates 1 out of every 2 women and 1 out of every 4 men over 50 will suffer a fracture related to a fall. Balancing poses in yoga can keep us aligned and steady on our feet

Flexibility  That happy baby doesn’t just grab her feet in the crib, she nibbles on her own toes. You try that now. A certain amount of inflexibility does come with age, but most of it comes from inactivity. Every yoga posture helps with flexibility, especially hips and spine. And posture! Oh yeah.

Strength  Yoga builds strength slowly and safely (unlike, say, CrossFit) through weight-bearing postures like downward dog, cobra and plank. It’s okay – and for some folks preferable – to avoid high impact, high intensity strength-building exercises. Yoga does the trick.

Body awareness  Through the postures and the poses and the movements and the breathing, we notice where we hold tension – and release it. We feel – and can correct — the slouch. We deepen the shallow breathing. The stronger the connection we build between body and mind the less likely we are to, essentially, punish our bodies with destructive habits like all-day sitting, mindless eating.

So, tomorrow morning, join me in saluting the sun. I know it’s up there somewhere.

January 21, 2015   No Comments

Run, don’t walk

colorful shoesConsider the various health and fitness “truisms” that have turned out to be not so true. As in false.

Eggs are high cholesterol bombs. Avoid them. Uh, no.

Butter is artery-clogging junk. Change to margarine. Nope.

No pain; no gain. So wrong.

Twenty minutes of exercise three times a week is all you need. Sorry, no.

Walking is as good for you as running. Apparently not. This is the latest bit of dogma to bite the dust.

It turns out that running may reverse aging in ways that walking does not, according to a new study of active older people. It was a small study — 30 men and women in their mid- to late-60s or early 70s – conducted at the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory. (Interesting to note here that Colorado always ranks as the #1 healthiest state in the union. Apparently, the researchers had no trouble whatsoever
recruiting healthy, active volunteers.) For the study period, 15 of these volunteers walked at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more. The other 15 ran (gentle jogging speed) at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more. Then the scientists had each runner and each walker complete three brief walking sessions on specially equipped treadmills that measured the way they moved. The volunteers also wore masks to measure oxygen intake, which helped the scientists determine cardiovascular efficiency.

The results? The runners won. By a lot. They required considerably less energy to move at the same pace as the walkers. In fact, when the researchers compared the walking efficiency of the older runners to that of young people (measured in earlier experiments at the same lab), they found that 70-year-old runners had about the same walking efficiency as a typical sedentary college student. The older walkers, on the other hand, had about the same walking economy as people of their own age who were sedentary.


No one disputes that walking is excellent exercise. All kinds of studies have concluded that older people who walk have significantly lower rates of obesity, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. But researchers have noted that the walking ability (strength, endurance, efficiency) of walkers decreases with age. They move slower, fatigue more easily, etc. So it was thought that physical decline was a consequence of age, they thought.

The older runners in this study disproved that.

How did they stay so fit – as fit as nonexercisers 40 years their junior? One word: mitochondria. I wrote about these powerhouses within our cells in my book, Counterclockwise. I even had my own mitochondria measured. So the conclusion of the Colorado researchers will sound familiar to my readers: Intense, prolonged aerobic exercise (like running) increases the number and activity and efficiency of mitochondria in the muscles. More mitochondria mean more energy with less effort. More mitochondria mean a higher level of fitness. More mitochondria move us counterclockwise.

Yes, running is tough on joints. And it’s not for everyone. The take-home message is here is that intensity of effort can make a very big difference in cardiovascular health and muscle efficiency. The take-home message is that it is NOT age that accounts for lack of fitness; it is lack of strenuous exercise.

December 10, 2014   3 Comments

Yes! Sweat the Small Stuff

better big thingIt’s ALL about the “small” stuff when it comes to living a healthy counterclockwise life. It’s about the accumulation of all that small stuff, the sum of the many little decisions we make every day that can result in keeping us vibrant, engaged and happy well into the upper reaches of our lifetimes.

It’s true: We’re constantly bombarded by news of the newest miracle product, the best-ever exercise plan, the just discovered! powerful-beyond-belief! anti-aging supplement, the one (impossibly exotic) cure-all superfood, the quick fix we’ve all been waiting for, the big secret that will now be revealed. We want to believe. We are socialized and acculturated to believe in The Next Big Thing. Yay consumer capitalism! Yay take-a-pill western medicine!

But health and wellness doesn’t work that way. Health and wellness is the result of specific choices. You reach for an apple instead of a bag of chips. You take a walk instead of sit in front of a screen. You stretch your calves when you wait on line at the grocery store. You go to bed a half hour earlier. Earth-shaking? No. Life-changing? You bet.

I was reminded of this way of thinking when I read Deborah Szekely’s new post at wellnesswarrior.org. I’ve written about kick-ass nonagenarian Deborah before. Let me quote her again right now:

Achieving overall fitness and well-being is built choice by choice, one “smidgen” at a time. So is disease and infirmity. In fact, the small choices—repeated often enough and over time—have the greatest impact. The cumulative effect of actions and non-actions shape the person we are today and the person we are in the process of becoming as we age.

Later, she writes this:
Aging is not something that kicks in suddenly when we turn 65; it is a progressive accumulation that builds over a lifetime of eating, breathing, exercising (or not), “stressing out,” burning the candle at both ends, and a myriad of other actions and choices.

And Jeez, the woman should know. She’s 92. She glows. She hikes up mountains. She travels the country and the world promoting good food and good health. She is living life to the fullest – is able to live life to the fullest – because she has spent the last 70-plus years paying attention to the small stuff.

For those of you who know me more broadly as a writer (and not just of these blog posts), I want to add that this same advice permeates my writing life. In the new edition to When Words Collide, a book about the art and craft of writing well that I first co-wrote many years ago, I say this:

Keep in mind that good writing doesn’t just happen. Stories don’t “write themselves.” Skilled writers, talented writers, professional writers work hard at it. They struggle and strain. In fact, contrary to the clichéd admonition, they do sweat the small stuff. In fact, it’s all about the “small stuff.” Clear, powerful, evocative prose is the result of a series of small, conscious choices that transform the ideas inside writers’ heads into the stories we want to read…. Style is the culmination of many small things done well, the result of sheer hard work.

The same, the very same, can be said about living a vibrant, healthy and engaged life. So today, right now, make one small good choice. (And send a comment about it to the site. I’d love to post a list.)


September 10, 2014   9 Comments

Move. Dammit.

BrainExerciseSay the folks at the National Institutes of Health: “People who exercise not only live longer; they live better.”

The MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging, a ground-breaking, myth-exploding ten-year project that revolutionized the study of gerontology, concludes by touting the “powerful effects” of exercise and calling it “the only anti-aging regimen that actually works.”

The renown scientists who head the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University believe that, besides quitting smoking, “there is no single thing that will increase vitality at any age other than exercise.”

One of the major conclusions of the Nurses Health Study, among the largest (more than a quarter of a million women) and longest-running (almost forty years) investigations of factors affecting women’s health? “Higher levels of midlife physical activity are associated with exceptional health status…”

An eight-decade-long investigation of 1500 Californians found that being active in mid-life was the single most important predictor of good health.

Reviewing more than forty studies on the benefits of exercise, researchers writing in the International Journal of Clinical Practice concluded that regular exercise helps prevent more than 25 diseases and health conditions later in life. Among them are the diseases that rob us of vitality and youth — not to mention years: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure.

So really…you need another reason to get up and move?

Okay, here it is – and it’s doozy:

Adults who exercise can halt or reverse “natural” “age-related” shrinkage of the brain. Exercise promotes more gray matter in the hippocampus region, which correlates with improved cognitive abilities and memory.

Notice that I placed quotes around natural and age-related because it appears that brain shrinkage is neither. While it’s true that that the hippocampus typically declines in volume at a rate of about 1 to 2% each year after age 40, if regular aerobic activity can, as the researchers found, “provide a significant protective effect that can eliminate or even reverse this shrinkage,” then – hold on – shrinkage is not natural. Or even age-related. It is, in fact, the cumulative result of inactivity, the effect of lack of vigorous blood flow to the brain, the effect not of the years going by but of the years going by on the couch. Remember, when you ask the heart to pump more blood faster, as you do in exercise, the blood travels everywhere. Your brain is bathed in the good stuff – that’s the scientific term – just like your muscles are.

Here’s what the recent study I’m talking about concluded: “After controlling for age, gender, and total brain volume, total minutes of weekly exercise correlated significantly with volume of the right hippocampus.”

There are many parts of us we don’t want to get bigger as we age, but the brain ain’t one of them.

May 28, 2014   2 Comments

By the numbers

bloodWe live our lives by the numbers.  By “lives,” I am referring here to our health and wellness (and anti-aging) lives.  By “we,” I mean probably you – and most definitely me.

My quantified life:  5-mile runs, 7-minute work-outs, 20 seconds work/ 10 seconds rest Tabata, 10,000 steps a day, 20 reps, 25 lb. kettlebells, 350-calorie breakfast, 20 g of protein a meal, 1200 mgs of calcium a day.  What’s the number on the scale this week?  What’s my VO2 max, BMR, BMI, hip-to-waist ratio, fat-to-lean ratio? (And I’m not nearly as serious about all this as those FitBit, everything-I-do-is-synched-to-every-device-I-own people.  You know who you are.)

Numbers are meaningful — if they have meaning, and if we understand what they mean, and if we realize their limitations and flaws.

For example: Cholesterol.

For years now we’ve been hearing about how high cholesterol is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (which puts a person on the fast track to poor health and a shortened lifespan).  First we were told that any number above 220 total cholesterol was bad.  Then the magic number was lowered to 200.  Then we began to hear that this total cholesterol number, whatever it was, was really not that important.  It was the ratio of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) – which builds up on the walls of arteries to form plaque — to “good” cholesterol (HDL) – which helps remove “bad” cholesterol from the body that was important.  This gave us another set of numbers to focus on: According to the American Heart Association, the goal is to keep cholesterol ratio 5-to-1 or lower. An optimum ratio is 3.5-to-1.

Now medical researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that “good” and “bad” cholesterol numbers, and their ratios, are less meaningful than was previously thought.  It turns out that it is the size of the lipoproteins, both the “good” and the “bad” ones, that may be what play the significant role in heart disease, diabetes and longevity.  Yay! Another number!  Apparently, small particles are better at digging into the walls of blood vessels and creating the conditions for plaque to form.  Larger, “fluffier” particles don’t do this.  It is not often that large and fluffy are good things in the world of health, so let’s take a moment to enjoy that bit of medical news.

As regular readers of this blog know, I never pass up an opportunity to tout the benefits of exercise, so let me pass along this good news from researchers at Duke University Medical Center:  Exercise makes small dense LDL particles (the most harmful kind) “larger and fluffier”… which translates into lowered risk.

The blood test you get as a part of your annual exam (aka the “lipid panel” your doctor orders), measures total cholesterol and gives you those now less-than-meaningful numbers for LDL and HDL (plus the now less-than-meaningful ratio).  It does not count small particles versus large particles within the LDL and HDL. For those numbers, you need to ask your health provider to order either a VAP or an NMR test.  It may be, next week or next year or ten years from now, we discover that these numbers are less than meaningful, and another metric reveals itself to be the magic measurement of heart and artery health.

I expect that will happen.  I also expect that an active, engaged life and a diet rich in whole foods will remain the keys to enhancing vitality and health.

October 10, 2013   No Comments