Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Here's What Helped Me

I can't get the images from my mind: Anna on the floor in a cobra pose, Joseph hanging from the bar, arms locked out, knees together, slowly raising up and down.

--Here's what helped me, Amy.
--This is what the therapist had me do.

I work in a service field. When I clock in for my shift, I agree to stand at the service of others, whether by instructing them on exercise form or by keeping clean the equipment they'll use. This is where my deep joy in my work derives: I use what I know to make you feel better.

When I hurt my elbow, I'd talk about it here and there to members at the gym. People would check in with me, ask how I was feeling, offer earnest sympathy. Yet few of these folks suffered the same injury, so conversations often ended at sorry.

But when I walked around on a shift last week with an involuntary grimace on my face, and I told anyone who asked that I threw out my lower back, the help came. Low back pain is a common complaint, and what I found was a community ready to serve me.

--Here's what helped me, Amy.
--This is what the therapist had me do.

Phone calls. Mindy took time from her three small children home on President's Day to talk me through my problems. Anna on the floor. Joseph demonstrating the one successful technique he discovered after trying everything else.

Gifts, all. It's said that receiving can be more difficult than giving, but I am nothing less than grateful. Not entirely for the advice--some worked, some didn't--but for the care and concern. For the ways that those I serve choose to serve me.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

INTERVIEW: Lou Schuler on aging and exercise

Lou Schuler is witty, smart, and one of my favorite fitness writers. He and Alwyn Cosgrove are co-authors on The New Rules of Lifting series, and one of their recent titles, The New Rules of Lifting for Life, hit me where I am. Lou agreed to talk with me again here, as our last interview was such a good time.

Lou, I found your book right when I was kicking myself for taking up boxing at the not-so-tender age of 40. You say the gym brings out the teenager in all of us, and I've got the MRI scans to prove it. Is there a way that our spunk and fight can be balanced with the realities of aging?

Our mistakes make us wise. My biggest mistake is that I started playing basketball in my mid 30s. By the time I finally quit playing, in my mid 40s, I couldn't even run or jump anymore. I had to walk up and down the court.

Now, in my mid 50s, I think my hardest-earned skill is my ability to limit the damage when I tweak something, or when I'm under the weather.

Take today, for instance. I had planned to work out several days in a row, doing lower-volume workouts each day, just to see if I felt better than I do with my traditional three-times-a-week program. But when I woke up this morning I realized I'm developing a cold. Working out today will only dump new stress on top of the stress of fighting off an illness. So I'll hold off on my experiment for a day or two.

The great thing about doing this as long as I have -- since 1970, when I was 13 -- is that I'm free of black and white thinking about fitness and diet. There's always tomorrow.

Yes, but don't you miss basketball? It's depressing when age wins out.

You know, in general, I really miss playing sports. For all the pain, there's something about friendly competition that's more fun than any other type of exercise I get. I can remember my best shots and steals and blocks with more clarity than some of the pivotal moments in my kids' lives. I know that makes me sound bad as a father, but really, it says more about my athletic abilities. We're talking about maybe six really cool plays in 10 years.

But let's use this to pivot to something that your readers might care about, which is their own fitness programs. What I learned from sports--and this has some support in the research--is that we always work harder when we have that adrenaline going. We try a little harder when we think we're letting down teammates, or when we see someone we consider a peer going faster or lifting something heavier. Just that little bit of competition, or peer pressure, or whatever it is, seems to unlock something that makes us try harder, and ultimately achieve more.

And trying harder is what you push for in the book--you mention a study showing that resistance training can actually reverse aging in skeletal muscle. I like how you put it: "It's inevitable that you'll decline from your peak--whatever it may be, and whenever you might achieve it--but it's not inevitable that you grow feeble."

This is something I think about a lot, especially since my mom began her decline into Alzheimer's. When I was a kid I thought she was pretty awesome. She was a small woman, but she had biceps like apples. My older brother and I would bring friends over to see Mom's muscles. I think she maybe indulged us once, and after that made it clear it was not cool to put our mother on display.

I remember one time I asked my dad to make us a muscle for us. If my petite mother had these big, round muscles hiding in her skinny arms, then my big, fat father must've had biceps like cantaloupes. After all, he was a former marine drill sergeant and MP and a pretty scary guy. When he tried...nothing. Whatever he had couldn't even rise through the fat. He told us it was because he had a bad back. 

That was the big fitness lesson in my young life: It was better to be thin but have flex-worthy muscles than to be fat. I never wanted to be a guy who couldn't make a muscle. As it turned out, I had my mom's genetics for thinness, but I must have my dad's genetics for muscle bellies because for all my years of lifting I'll never have biceps half as good as my mom's. 

So those were my earliest role models: the strong parent who was never injured and could do just about anything around the house, and the weak parent who always had an excuse for not doing anything. 

But the story takes a twist as dementia set in. Mom stopped eating during her last years living alone. We live a thousand miles away, so I only saw her once a year at most. My siblings who lived closer thought her diet was reduced to chocolate, peanuts, and a light beer every night. I don't think she intentionally starved herself, but it had the same effect. She deteriorated pretty fast. We'll never know to what extent dementia was inevitable, or how much the diet may have contributed. 

That's why I think so much about strength and aging these days. Even now, at 86, my mom's still ambulatory. Her strength didn't stop her mental decline, but it kept her independent for a lot longer than anyone expected. My dad, on the other hand, died in his sleep when he was 69, which is only 13 years older than I am now. Given his weight and all his other self-imposed health problems, it's kind of amazing that he made it that far. 

If you told me those were only two choices, I'd take my mom's path. With 30 more years, I'll at least be able to see my kids grow up. But of course I don't see those as the only choices. I hope that all the things I'm doing now -- the workouts, the protein-rich diet--will maybe keep the lights on a little longer. And with my books I hope to get as many people as possible to join me.

Protein and weights, then. But what do we do about the complaints from our joints and connective tissues? Is this why we're directed to yoga and the pool the older we get?

If someone is steered from the weight room to the pool or yoga studio, I'd want to hear why. If the joint problem is caused by laxity--that is, too much range of motion--then yoga could very well make it worse. If the problem is tightness in the shoulder capsule, then swimming could make it worse.

With just about any non-acute injury, blood is your ally. You need to get those nutrients into the joints. You do that by working with light to moderate weights, or some percentage of your own body weight, through a pain-free range of motion. 

It feels kind of weird to try to give generic rehab information, but I think the research is clear enough that the worst thing we can do is sacrifice strength and lean tissue. That's guaranteed to make your life worse down the road.

New Rule #3 is "Your body won't change without consistent hard work." No matter a person's age, it's never too late to begin, is it?

No, it's never too late. Or too early. I should note here that even without changing your body in a dramatic way, you can still get the health benefits that come with training. And you'll certainly feel better.

But let me pivot back to where we started: 

With age, we certainly have some disadvantages, relative to our younger selves. We've lost some strength, endurance, and muscle mass. Our bodies don't recover as fast from one workout to the next. On a percentage basis, we can make some pretty impressive gains, but we're starting from a lower base, and we'll peak at a lower level than we would have if we'd started earlier. 

But the one big advantage we have is, as I said, the wisdom of our mistakes. We can pull back before we push ourselves too far. When something starts to hurt, we understand it'll only get worse if we don't figure out what the problem is and take steps to fix it, even if the most important step is giving it time to rest and recover. It doesn't make for a very inspiring Facebook update--"Today I was awesome! I spent the whole day not aggravating the elbow I tweaked in my last workout!"--but it gives us a fighting chance to do the most important thing, which is to show up for the next workout ready to go.

As long as we keep going, we win. Take that, youth and inexperience!

Check out all of Lou's books at .

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Riding with Simon, through Wisconsin, for Theo

Let me tell you about the night I learned about this ride.
I dragged the kids to a local running shop, on a school night, to attend a meeting run by JDRF. The idea was my husband, Greg, would run a marathon and raise money for the organization. I had an inkling I might want to ride, too; my family jokes that I only take up sports beginning with B (bench pressing, boxing...biking).
The enthusiasm in the room was infectious, so much so that when we were leaving and I asked the kids what they thought, Simon, age 12, said, "I want to do it."
Let's back up for a minute. This is a kid who reads books. A lot of books. He draws comics, too, and cracks a lot of jokes. But sweating, my friend, he does not do. No sports, no physical activity of his own accord. The kids is barely passing PE. And yet he wanted to ride.
I didn't want to spoil the moment, so I just nodded my head. The next day he asked if we would do it. Airfare, fundraising, went swirling in my head. I said I wasn't sure. Over the next week, I convinced myself that his reasons couldn't be genuine; this is a kid who chose to play the bass in orchestra only when he learned it came with a stool on which to rest. I was sure he wanted to do the ride because someone had mentioned all the food that's offered. He's 12; that would matter.
But when I asked him later to tell me what made him want to do this, he said, "It sounds like fun. And, well, it's for diabetes." Decision made: we would ride. (Greg will still run a marathon, but we felt that two of us fundraising is enough.)
I am doing this for both of my sons, then: for Simon, who is willing to break out of his very comfortable comfort zone and train and bike 30 miles through Wisconsin with his mom and for his brother; and for Theo, age 9, who will have type 1 diabetes until a cure is found.
When we walked into the meeting, the director was in the middle of saying how close reserarchers are to finding a cure and better treatments. The technology has come so far in the past decade, from pumps to continuous glucose montiors to combos of the two.
All they need is money. There are lots of great causes out there but this one, this one can take your donation through the smooth and rough terrain, and over the finish line.
Diabetes is a manageable illness, but it's a major illness. All day, every day, we work in its service to keep Theo healthy and safe. We pray we keep our heads when it comes to getting the math and shots right, because we're the ones who prescribe, change, and administer doses. We educate everyone who comes in his path. We bite our tongues over misconceptions. We cry when mistakes happen. We cry when, by the grace of God and parental intution, we catch a mistake that could have been life-threatening.
Simon and I each have to raise at least $3K to fulfill our commitment. Your money is so important to this. Our ride is symbolic of our faith in these researchers, our dream of a cure, and our love for Theo.

That's where the story ends on my fundraising page. But let me keep going here.

Signing on to do this ride has opened my eyes so much, even in just the past couple of days. There's a whole community of folks who diligently fundraise and ride each year, leaning on their belief that this money will indeed make a difference.

There are people dedicated to riding each year until there's a cure. Parents who ride in honor of their diabetic children. Parents who ride because they've lost their child to this disease.

It's hard to take.

Today I read a blog post by a mom who was upset at the sympathy given to her T1 daughter. Yeah, sometimes it's too much. But you know what? This deserves some sympathy. It's a tough disease, and any caring person will acknowledge that. I have no qualms playing on your sympathies here. None with stirring your heart strings with the story of a brother riding for his brother.

Because this is not manipulation. This is real life.

We have to raise a combined total of $6000. Please give at Simon's page or mine.

jm images photography

Sunday, February 3, 2013

I Am Not Here To Amuse You

In an introduction to Aristotle’s Poetics, Joe Sachs addresses the idea of catharsis, commonly understood as a release or purging of repressed emotions, and compares it to a sense of wonder one is left with at the conclusion of a tragedy. He writes,

“What is characteristic of wonder is the sudden loss of the sense that we understand what is going on. What it knocks away are all our habitual assumptions and opinions.”

This appears to be a positive outcome: We leave the theatre with our perspectives challenged, our eyes wet with tears. But Sachs goes on to say this:

“But it does not follow that the poet [i.e. playwright] has taught us anything. His impact is on our feelings, and we can recover our usual habits of judging as soon as those feelings wear off… The state of wonder holds in abeyance for an extended moment the natural flow of our opinions. That is an amazing gift that the world or a poet can sometimes give us, but if anything is to come of it, it will have to be our own doing.”

Enter Bertolt Brecht, the playwright who would post banners in the theatre demanding disengagement, that audience members not become overrun with their emotions.

And then Augusto Boal, who clarified: “We must emphasize: What Brecht does not want is that the spectators continue to leave their brains with their hats upon entering the theater.”

This morning, I put on a play.

A group of former prisoners stood before a church audience and offered deeply personal stories of fear, shame, hope and redeeming love.

Church members were profoundly moved, they cried, their assumptions were shaken. They told us as much after the church services.

This is what we wanted: to spread the word that they're not all bad, these men who had spent anywhere from nine to 25 years in prison. To stir the hearts of those who would hear.

Still, I am dissatisfied. I do not feel this is enough. 

As a student of Boal, I cannot be an accomplice to catharsis. I can't allow these men to show such vulnerability so that folks can have a good cry.

And yet: change can start there, can't it? Yes. But I am still unsettled.

One of the men suggested today that this might be his last performance. He needs to move on, he said, and no longer dwell on the past. He'd done so to help others understand his plight but now, he admits, it's too much to stay there. It's time to step out of the darkness that the bright lights illuminated, and on to a new stage in his life.

During the course of the script, another of the men tells the story of stabbing his best friend in a drug-induced haze. This man has completely turned his life around, and it pained me each time to hear him tell it, and to rehearse the fine print ("You need to emphasize the word 'stabbed' there").

As the writer and director, I can't live with myself if these men bared themselves only for a good cry. And yet there is no way to know what can move someone to action. A word can, I know. And maybe someone will invite one of these men to dinner, or give a former felon a job, or donate money to a ministry.

I won't necessarily know what will come of these performances, which is probably why it doesn't feel like I've done enough. I know I rehearsed this well, got it in good shape, put on a solid piece of theatre with men who hadn't acted before. But I don't know--may never know--what all this work amounted to.

Boal did think of catharsis as a purging, but "of detrimental blocks"--hindrances that would stop a person from working to make change. Boal would want the tears of today's congregation to move them to do something, just as I do. “To create disequilibrium which prepares the way for action."

If anything is to come of this play, it will have to be of our own doing.