Fitness ≠ Health

     I was struck by an article I read this week in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “Why Are Americans So Fascinated With Extreme Fitness?” There has been a growing trend in the fitness industry with ever more extreme workouts, from P90X for in-home puking to CrossFit for group puking. While I may be exaggerating a bit, many of the hard-core fitness fanatics participating in these methods embody the following statement from the article, “The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it.”

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?

     Trainers are often looked up to as models of physical health and achievement, our level of fitness seen as the yardstick by which clients can measure their own. But now that there is this extreme exercise craze, I can’t claim to keep up with even the weakest of the bunch in a CrossFit or NAVY seal workout class. And I have no interest in trying. Because, to me, fitness ≠ health. Let me explain…

     I recently had a forced lay-off from exercise, about 4 weeks. I needed to take it easy after a minor procedure and, knowing I’d have to restrain myself from a higher-intensity approach to life, I braced myself for a very hard month. But something unexpected happened. I had no interest in working out. I didn’t even miss it for a second. In fact, I enjoyed being inactive so much that I extended my break by another month.

     It may be that my brain was tired from 20 years of structured gym training (not including the 7 years before that of formalized tennis training) or that my body preferred to experience life without the chronic aches that come along with lifting weights. It may have also been that I enjoyed having the time I saved from working out to devote to other projects I often short-change.

     Whatever the reason, I was blissful for 2 months and, ta-da, my aches disappeared and I felt mentally at peace with being a sloth. I didn’t experience the typical guilt of missing a workout or not exercising as intensely as I should have. Even if my fitness levels had dropped, perhaps I was experiencing greater overall health.

     Pushing yourself to be fitter and less sloth-like is probably the right approach for most people. However, if you ambled into the gym like my client last week, looking exhausted and fighting a bad cold, maybe it would be smarter to choose health over fitness. He’s so used to getting up early to run or lift (work on his fitness) that he’s forgotten how to obey the obvious signs that his body wasn’t in good health.

     Deliberately dialing down the intensity of a training session now and then can be the right move if you aren’t feeling well (read: sick, overworked, stressed, sleep-deprived). Yes, this trainer is telling you to fight the urge to push too hard. After all, being fit for a lifetime requires a balance of stress and recovery. And that requires you to honestly appraise what you need most to feel your best.

Keep on Movin’

-CA     

P.S. I’ve started back to exercise and I’m slowly gaining the wind in my sails.

Resilience

     On Sunday, Novak Djokovic claimed the Wimbledon title after a hard-fought five-set match against Roger Federer. I was lucky enough not to have my regular clients so I could stay home and watch the entire affair. Although I was beginning to get cabin fever after the match headed into a third hour, the drama was so compelling that I didn’t mind missing out on the sunny morning.

     After having played and watched thousands of hours of tennis in my lifetime, I can honestly say that Djokovic won one of the greatest mental battles I’ve ever witnessed. He had come into the match having lost five of his previous six Grand Slam finals and was starting to doubt his ability to win the big titles after a record-breaking 2011, when he became the number one player.

     The match began with Federer winning the first set in a tiebreaker (for the tennis uninitiated, that means it was a tight beginning) and appeared to have the momentum. Novak improved his chances by winning the second set, and then the third. He was leading 5-2 in the fourth set when Federer began clawing his way back and ended up winning that set, pushing the match to a final, fifth set. After having let the set (and his grip on the match) deteriorate, Djokovic took a bathroom break. At this point, I (and the commentators) thought that Djokovic was going to let the match slip away as he had done so many times before.

     However, Novak came back from the break focused and determined. Federer was the one who blinked under the pressure and Novak came out on top. He became quite emotional after the nearly four-hour match ended.

Djokovic wimbledon win

When asked afterwards how he was able to pull out the victory, he referenced his bathroom break as a turning point. He gave himself a pep talk, piling on the positivity and self-belief.

     “I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment,” Djokovic said.

     His lesson is a simple, yet powerful one that we can all apply in situations of adversity. Being resilient under stressful conditions—when facing injury, illness, or even work screw-ups—is a fundamental, yet often overlooked part of being successful. When things are going well it’s easy to be positive and patient with yourself. But it is in the moments of doubt, when our faith in ourselves is tested, that we must be even more positive. As Djokovic demonstrated, we have a choice how we respond to situations that are not ideal. If we can practice his brand of self-belief and resilience then we’ve got a better shot at coming out on top.

Keep on Movin’

-CA

 

Book Excerpt 2: The Workout

    Today’s excerpt from my upcoming book, The Workout, is a piece about the childish (and outright disgusting) behavior that some gym members display. If you’ve spent any time in a gym you’ll recognize the characters immediately.  Enjoy.

     For better or worse the gym represents a suspension of reality, a way to put on hold the mental stress of household chores, the in-laws’ constant interference, a talk with the adolescent child about habitual internet porn surfing, the clinical upkeep of a dull marriage.

     Unfortunately, the downside of mental vacancy can mean the loss of decorum and tact as some members regress into elementary school nitwits. The gym must trigger memories of 4th grade and I can see the recess hierarchies still intact. Social cliques and belligerent twits interact together while loners drift beyond boundaries. The playground atmosphere keeps the gym buzzing with gossip corners, popularity contests among rival group fitness members, and bullies. This last group can be a problem—people who don’t know how to behave courteously or who hector for fun. They commandeer benches already in use and refuse to share equipment. They almost dare you to challenge them just so they can wrap you around the flagpole. These ruffians must get hounded at work and need an outlet for their frustrations or they bully others and can’t relinquish that domineering mindset.

     Traditionally, men unleash more aggression when establishing their workout space by leaving sweat on equipment like they just peed on the mailbox. Women tend to ask for machines while men silently claim their turf and expect bystanders to move if they’re in the way. Every so often, though, I’ll watch a woman switch gender roles and refuse to give back the weights I was kind enough to share. Then, I’ll start looking around for one of those alpha males to elbow her in the face while he flexes in the mirror, admiring his guns.

     Bullies don’t have a monopoly on tactless behavior, though. The most off-putting part of my job deals with, not the client who slumps into child’s pose whenever she’s stressed (during our sessions), or the doctor who cancels at 5:30am for our 6 o’clock appointment (in the middle of fucking winter), but the shameful spreading of germs.

     Regretfully, I’ve watched members sneeze without bothering to cover mouths, spraying dumbbells like a crop duster coating a field of apple trees. Unknowing bystanders grab those weights for curls or presses, often scratching a nose itch or redirecting errant bangs, bringing someone else’s cold dangerously close. I’m repulsed by the infirm member who coughs into his hands and then grips the banister on his way downstairs. Nose blowers occasionally opt for towels instead of tissues and then use them to wipe their benches after a set. I’m sure you’ve seen people sweat all over equipment, leaving drops around treadmills and sweaty head outlines on machines, and then fail to clean up their mess.

     Anonymity in the gym allows some insolent members the freedom to be absolute pigs. Besides, why not abuse the maintenance staff a bit more? It’s not like cleaning poop from the steam rooms or bodily fluids from the shower walls sucks at all. And it’s not as if these silent laborers can visit the doctor if they get sick from such exposure—they don’t have health insurance. Let’s burden the lowest-earning, hardest-working employees even more by having them disinfect equipment after entitled members sweat, spray, and walk away.

Public safety lesson: Use a towel when lying or sitting on any surface, don’t touch your face (even to fix your tousled hair—you shouldn’t be too pretty at the gym anyway), and wash your hands after every workout and bathroom break.

Keep on Movin’

CA

Book Recap: Nerve


     When I present a physical challenge to clients, I often observe one of two responses; either they buckle from fear, pressure, stress, or lack of self-confidence or they push themselves to achieve the goal (or come as close as they can). I’ve often wondered what separates those who melt down from those who brace up. Last week, I happened to glimpse a book that covered this very topic and I wanted to share a write-up with you on Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark.

     The Introduction highlights some interesting questions and statistics:

 

  • “One of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about…”
  • The United States is the most anxious nation on the planet.
  • More than 18% of U.S. adults suffer an anxiety-disorder in a given year (whereas, in Mexico, the number is 6.6%).
  • Psychologist and anxiety researcher, Robert Leahy, points out that, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”

 

Clark differentiates between fear, anxiety, and stress:

Fear: “the physical feeling you get when there’s something dangerous in front of you right now.” This is the fight-flight-freeze response you feel when you perceive a threat. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and tunnel vision are all examples of this survival mode.

Anxiety: a cognitive phenomenon that protects you from potential dangers “that might pop up in the future.”

Stress: a broad term that describes “how our bodies respond to excessive demands.”

     Clark explains that a part of the brain, called the amygdala, is our security system that monitors for threats by parsing through sensory information (separate from conscious collection by the prefrontal cortex). If the amygdala senses that trouble’s lurking, then it will fire up a fear reaction before the conscious brain has time to decipher if a bad guy’s crunching footsteps are following you or if the wind has rustled a stray newspaper.

     Even though we know consciously that striking out in baseball or playing a wrong note in a concert aren’t life-threatening situations we still experience the fear response in those contexts. The question becomes, why do some people perform well under those conditions while others don’t?

     Clark investigates the qualities of those who most successfully handle high-stress situations:

  • Training: Whether it’s prepping for a speech or practicing Bach for a cello recital, we must practice in order for skills to become automated (which lower the chances of them breaking down under stress). The key, though, is to practice under stress. My colleague used to spend countless hours honing her snatch technique but wasn’t able to perform well in weightlifting competitions because the pressure of the situation paralyzed her. So, even though the skills were automated, she hadn’t practiced them under performance conditions. (I’m happy to report that she’s begun having friends watch her during workouts—desensitizing herself to the gaze of others—and she’s faring much better in competition).
  • Confidence: If we’ve practiced thoroughly and have experienced success on tasks throughout training, then confidence can buoy us in fearful situations. As a renowned astronaut said, after manually controlling his dysfunctional aircraft from space safely to the ground, “Modesty is not the best trait for a fighter pilot. The meek do no inherit the sky.”
  • Locus of Control: If we believe we can influence the outcome of a frightening situation, then we’ll handle it much better. That same astronaut, Gordon Cooper, could have felt that his fate was out of his hands and that he was destined to perish after his craft lost telemetry, cooling, electrical, and oxygen purification systems. But he chose to focus on what aspects of the flight were in his control, relying on the intensive practice he had done to deal with this very situation.
  • Tolerance for Uncertainty: I often tell clients that it’s easy to perform well when the conditions are optimal. The real skill lies in how we perform when things don’t go as planned, when conditions are out of our control. Tennis players exemplify this principle, as their matches can be played at 11am or 11pm, in the blazing heat of an Australian summer day or the cool spring of Rotterdam. And there’s no stopping a match for wind. In the 2012 U.S. Open final between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the wind was so extreme that a ball would bounce and then shift several feet by the time a player tried to strike it. However, Murray maintained his poise and accommodated the conditions better, allowing him to win his first Grand Slam championship.
  • Humor: Although it may seem antithetical to joke during a potentially scary situation, humor helps to diffuse tension. Clark refers to the POWs from the Vietnam War, many of whom (including John McCain) referred to their use of humor as a way to fight the horrors of their stay. They’d tell jokes, make funny comments, or invent humorous scenarios to bring levity to such a tense situation.
  • Task Focus: As we saw from astronaut Gordon Cooper’s story, he didn’t dwell on the craft’s failing mechanics or allow himself to focus on what might go wrong: he focused on what he needed to do in the present moment. Anxiety can take over current thinking into the realm of “what ifs.” By staying mentally disciplined on the challenge in front of us, we can quiet the anxiety and eventually escape its tempting grasp.

 

     Clark points out that you won’t suddenly be able to live a life free from fear or anxiety by simply following these recommendations. But, he suggests learning to live with these inevitable, primal feelings which, if taken in stride, can facilitate our success rather than hinder it.

 

Keep on Movin’

-CA

 

Nibbling on Newton

Time and again I’ve had success helping clients “get” a movement when I teach them about a nugget I gleaned from Sir Isaac Newton. When I first learned about his idea of active and reactive forces, my mind was blown and it profoundly altered the way I understood and taught movement. Hopefully, you’ll gain new insight into how you create movement so that you’ll move more efficiently and effectively, creating big gains in the gym.

In a previous post I examined Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion (Click HERE to read A Physics Primer: Part 2) but the information is deserving of deeper investigation. I’m going to devote this post to his Third Law of Motion, which you’ve probably heard before in some iteration:

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Now, what does this have to do with your bench, squat, or row? Time to get geeky.

          Let’s start with a question: How do you get up from a chair? You stand up, right? Yes, but how does this happen? The way you stand up is by pushing down. You literally push down and back into the ground with an active force from your legs and the ground pushes an equal and opposite reactive force into you, causing you to rise forward to a standing position.

My 90 year-old client pushes down and back to stand up and forward from the bench.

My 90 year-old client pushes down and back (red arrows are his active forces) to stand up and forward from the bench (green arrows are the ground’s reactive forces).

 

So, how do you ascend from the lowest point in a pushup? You push into the ground with your arms and the ground pushes back up into you, causing you to straighten your arms and rise.

When Jackie's at her lowest point, she actively pushes down so that the ground's reactive forces will cause her to rise.

When Jackie’s at her lowest point, she actively pushes down so that the ground’s reactive forces will cause her to rise.

 

Final question: How do you press a weight over your head? You push down into the ground and the ground pushes an equal force back into your legs, which channels energy through your trunk, shoulders, arms, and hands to move the weight up.

The common idea among these scenarios is that in order to create motion, we have to apply force in the opposite direction from where we want to end up. In other words:

We are the result of the forces we apply

        Walking forward requires the constant application of force behind us—we do this by pushing off of the trail leg. Shooting a foul shot demands us to push down and back into the ground to throw the ball up and forward. Likewise, we do a pullup by actively pulling down into the bar, which results in a reactive force that causes the ascent.

How does this translate into stronger, more efficient lifts?

      Let’s take a deadlift for an example. But first we have to acknowledge the biomechanical demands of the task to appreciate how to maximize the active and reactive forces.

At the bottom position (start), you have a load in front of you. You want to finish standing, which means that the load will rise (vertically) and displace towards you (horizontally). Said another way, the load starts down and forward (as does your center of gravity) and you desire to lift it up and back.

 

I start with the weight in front of me, which shifts my center of gravity down and forward. So, I push down and forward to finish standing up and back.

I push down and forward to stand up and back.

Therefore, you have to apply the active force (red) down and forward to result in the ground’s reactive force (green) to lift the weight up and back.

        The more precise the direction of the active force, the more you can take advantage of a hefty reactive force. However, several common mistakes can get in the way of maximizing the ground’s reactive forces.

Trying to “lift” the bar

     Instead you should be focusing on pushing into the ground.

Assuming that the bar travels up in a straight line

                              There is horizontal movement of the load too, so make sure to push down and forward.

Wearing cushioned footwear

     The softer the buffer between your feet and the ground the more the active and reactive forces get distorted and diffused, which means you are leaking forces in both directions. Now you have to work harder to move the bar the same distance than if you were to use stiff shoes (or remove them altogether).

The principles of active and reactive forces apply to all movement. First, determine the direction in which you desire to move and then apply force in exactly the opposite direction. Happy lifting!

Keep on Movin’

-CA

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