Thursday, February 23, 2017

Want a lift from failure? Weight training will help

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published March 29, 2006, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

I’ve been lifting weights for about 18 months, and it just now occurs to me why I like it so much. The way to success is through failure, and that relieves a lot of the pressure.

From my years in the corporate world, I’m used to hearing, “Failure is not an option.” To fail in school always meant dreaded discussions with parents and educators. In today’s fast-paced, success-driven culture no one wants to fail. The only exception is in the gym.

Here, failure is a good thing. It’s what you strive for in your workouts. The goal is to tax your muscles to the point of failure. That’s how they get stronger.

To give in to failure is a strange sensation. The temptation is to stop while you’re still in control, but you need to push up against that boundary.

Say I’m doing a bench press, and I’ve got a little more than half my body weight on the bar. The first few repetitions are easy enough that I can still hold a conversation. Suddenly, I start slowing down. Things…get…tougher. And tougher still.

Finally, I can only get my arms halfway up. I’m stuck. I can’t finish the rep. That’s when the trainer steps in with an assist. I feel like a failure; I can’t even complete the set. He says failure is good. How could you not love such positive reinforcement of a negative result?

The funny thing is I had been avoiding the gym for years because I feared failure. I was intimidated by the svelte spandex babes and the muscle-popping he-men you see in gym advertisements. I didn’t want a lifetime membership to a big-box exercise mill. I felt that having a personal trainer would be a bit too, well, personal.

I finally found my way to a small, comfy gym by way of another kind of failure. An injury had caused my shoulder to fail, and so my doctor prescribed physical therapy. Treatment included working with a therapist and working out in the onsite gym. Once I was healed, I “graduated” from being a patient to a client, a logical next step.

I already knew and liked the staff, so staying on became a no-brainer. And that’s exactly what my workouts have been: a no-brainer. The trainer designs my workout program. He keeps an eye on my progress and suggests changes when needed. And he encourages failure. When I finally master an exercise, he hands me more weight to make things harder. I may curse him the next day when I’m stiff and sore, but I know I’m getting the results I’m after.

It’s not that I want to be a bodybuilder or a female version of Jack La Lanne, often called the godfather of fitness (although he looks great at 91). It’s just that from everything I hear, growing old is not for the faint of heart. My goal is to build up enough strength and resistance to live an active life for the next 50 years. Then that 18-wheeler with my name on it can flatten me like a cartoon character.

Until that final failure, I’ll be lifting weights like there’s no tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The road to fitness

#ThrowbackTuesday: Originally published in the November 1997 issue of the Delco Road Runner's Club newsletter, "Keeping Contact"


It’s always hard to fit a decent workout into the weekday. And it certainly doesn’t help that the days are getting shorter. So you would think that a business trip would present an ideal opportunity to fit in a few quality workouts. After all, you’re removed from your normal environment, and all chores are suddenly suspended: dog walking, cat feeding, laundry, dishes, bill-paying, cooking, food shopping and everything else that crowds the evening hours.

Once the business meetings are over, you’ve got the whole night ahead of you. Well, let me tell you about the best laid plans for fitness on the road.

BOSTON: Nice hotel, bad part of town. Okay, so I won’t run around the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll just check out the health club. Or should I say health hallway. I guess a wall of mirrors and a few treadmills and stationery bicycles constitutes an exercise area of sorts. But a 6 ft. by 40 ft. hallway is not an aerobics workout room. It’s an afterthought, at best.

ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND: I guess it’s too much to expect a high-priced hotel that advertises a pool in winter would mean one that is heated or indoors or both. But outdoors it is and closed at that. Not even the polar bears among us can take a dip. So, forget the swimming, there’s a health club on the second floor. At least there WILL be a health club, when they’re through with renovations. Never mind.

CHICAGO: This hotel has a pretty decent indoor swimming pool. It even has a hot tub. Better yet, I have the whole place to myself. Then I see the signs. Lone individuals are not allowed to even think about getting wet unless there is another person with them. Well, I often travel alone…and the majority of other lone travelers are men. I can just picture the response if I walk up to one of them and say: “Hi. Are you alone? Would you like to go swimming with me?”

CINCINNATI:  A new twist! The hotel advertises an incredibly extensive health club. But it’s not in the hotel. It’s three blocks away. So I make the trek to find out what’s available. For a small fee, they’ll set me up with a trainer who will map out my exercise program for the next week. Well, I’m not really looking for a relationship, just a one-time fling with the Stairmaster. I politely decline the hands-on approach and ask about running trails nearby. The receptionist tells me about a great 4-mile course, but she can’t tell me how to get there. She tries, but she has no sense of direction. She draws detailed maps, writes out directions, tells me about landmarks, but it’s harder to find the course than it is getting to Cincinnati in the first place. So I stumble around town and head toward the river…and there it is. Easy. A direct shot from the hotel. And so, despite her helpfulness, I find what I’m looking for after all.

SAN DIEGO: Another incredibly over-priced hotel that charges a mini-membership for your few minutes of sweat. Maybe that’s why the perfect rows of gleaming exercise machines are so empty. Or is it the plate glass windows and “mirrors-R-us” d├ęcor? It’s both disconcerting and intimidating to be so-o-o visible to passers-by when you’re using Nautilus machines for the first time. I quickly decide to bag the “spa” and head for the pool. But I’m back within minutes to sign out a towel. That’s right. You just can’t trust guests with those thin terry rags they call pool towels. You’ve got to make them show their identification first.

DENVER: Now here’s a pool. And a hot tub. And an exercise room with a multi-station weight-training machine. So what if it needs maintenance. So what if some of the equipment is wobbly or misaligned or even loose. I figure the hotel management must know about the deplorable condition of this place because there is a big, red emergency phone on the wall. “Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

There must be a lesson here somewhere. Maybe instead of loading my suitcase down with running shoes, workout clothes, and swimsuits, I should leave everything at home. I could use the extra packing space for all those books and magazines I’ve been meaning to read. Or I could raid the mini-bar and order an evenings’ worth of in-room movies. I could even go shopping, something I never have the time or energy to do at home.

The real answer would be to consider working out a chore. With that mindset, it’s so much easier to leave exercise behind with all the other obligations that await my return home.

To borrow a phrase from Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”




Thursday, January 26, 2017

Running clothes wear thin

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published July 1, 2009, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

If clothes make the man (or woman), then everyone I lay eyes on is a runner. At the airport, it’s all Nike, Adidas, Brooks, Mizuno—from top to bottom. People of all ages and sizes are decked out in training clothes, performance gear and running shoes.

It’s the same on the streets of Philadelphia. Ditto all around Delaware County, the state, the nation. Can it be that everyone has jumped on the exercise bandwagon? Or is active wear thought to be so cool, so comfortable, so convenient compared with regular clothing that it’s now the preferred garb?

I don’t get it. I hate wearing sneakers. They’re big and clunky and not at all flattering. I wear them to run—and then stow them away until the next time. Actually, it’s not recommended, or even budget-friendly, to use your expensive running shoes for everyday wear. Better to save them for workouts than wear them out at the Acme.

I used to have a hierarchy for running shoes. Fresh shoes were for running. Then they became dog-walking shoes. Then gardening slip-ons or painting footwear. When they became too gross to touch, they were garbage. Now I look for sneaker recyclers; I’m not exactly sure how they recondition or reuse old sneaks, but it sounds like a better option than landfill.

As for running bras, shirts, shorts, skirts, skorts, whatever—there either is or should be a limit to how many hours you spend encased in spandex. Remember the natural feel of cotton. The ruggedness of denim. The universal appeal of khakis. Does everything have to stretch and be formfitting?

For some people, wearing athletic clothes seems to fulfill their pledge to exercise. They feel fitter and ready for action when disguised as an athlete. Yet they wouldn’t dream of running, unless it’s to the bank or to do errands—and then “running” really means “driving.” I’ll bet marketers are behind this push for all-day, everyday athletic wear. But that seems short-sighted. Just as one-size-fits-all often means it fits no one all that well, having what is basically one wardrobe misses the opportunity for variety and specialization.

During a recent drawer reorganization, I took stock of all the different flavors of workout wear I’ve accumulated over the years—and how some are more suited to certain activities than others. For power yoga, I definitely need spandex tanktops or something else that stays in place when I stand on my head. For my very first yoga class, years ago, I wore a cotton T-shirt and sweatpants—and I thought I was going to die. Throughout the 75-minute heated class, my clothes became wet, heavy and totally in the way as I attempted twisting and inverted postures. I fought more with my clothes than against gravity.

For weight training at the gym, I don’t need such formfitting clothes as with yoga. What I need is coverage, so I don’t make a spectacle of myself while doing squats or hip thrusts or donkey kicks. When I work glutes, I want to concentrate on the exercise, not worry about what I might be revealing to innocent bystanders.

When it comes to running, that’s the easiest choice to make. There are fewer worries about wardrobe malfunctions. Shorts work just fine and any T-shirt will do, although technical fabrics are better than cotton for keeping you cool and dry in the summer heat. The first thing I do when I get home from any exercise is to shower and change. Yes, I could put on fresh workout clothes for whatever’s next that day—but I don’t. I like that divide between working out, when I don’t mind getting sweaty and dirty, and everything else I have to do, when I’m showered and clean.

It’s a mental thing. Or maybe it’s the persuasive power of learning by example. When I see masses of humanity decked out in running clothes, with no intention of ever working out, I don’t want to be mistaken for one of the crowd.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Don’t worry Amazon, you’ve got me

A recent headline left me bewildered. I found it unbelievable. And it had nothing to do with U.S. politics.

In late December, the Wall Street Journal reported “Not everyone wants to shop on Amazon.” The subhead read: “Roughly 22 million U.S. households didn’t purchase anything through the retailer this year.” [While the full story is behind the paper’s paywall, the headlines and link for subscribers is here.]

Me? I don’t know if I could live without Amazon. I buy from the online retailer so often I’ve made it a line item in my accounting software. I can buy from my PC and from my smartphone. I even bought an IBM Selectric II typewriter ribbon for my mother within minutes of her request, even though the machine's heyday was the 1970s. Some days I make multiple purchases from Amazon, hours apart, although I have to check the shopping cart so I don't buy things my husband parks there temporarily.

I don’t have anything against bricks-and-mortar stores, and there are a few I frequent. But I have to admit I have always been a terrible shopper. I can walk into a store knowing exactly what I want and still spend an inordinate amount of time on the purchase because it comes in a thousand shades of the same thing. A list is only somewhat helpful, because I get distracted by shiny, new products I never knew existed. If I walk into a store with just a sketch of objective – maybe something to wear for a special occasion – I melt into a puddle of indecision within minutes.

Before there was online shopping, there were catalogs. I loved catalogs. I still do. I page through them while watching TV. I know I’ve seen the same activewear every week for years, if not decades. Those fresh-faced models must be collecting Social Security by now. Yet whenever a new catalog arrives, I have to flip through before dropping it in the recycling bin.

What catalogs used to do for me, and what online shopping does now – particularly with sites like Amazon – is show me the exact items I'm thinking of buying. There are multiple views, colors, and reviews from others who bought the product. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for a lot of smaller purchases and keeps me from running around town – unless it's to the post office to mail a return.

These days shopping trips to retail stores are something I plan. I might pre-shop online to get a sense of what’s available before venturing out into the real retail world. I try things on. I feel fabrics. I look for new arrivals. I peruse sale racks. And I make a bunch of purchases.

I’m still a terrible shopper, but now I can shop terribly both online and in my local stores. I guess that’s a win-win-win all around. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Homebound by reality TV

 My guilty pleasure is watching HGTV shows about home renovations. “Love it or List it.” “Flip or  Flop.” “Property Brothers.” “Fixer Upper.” “Tiny House Hunters.” Even my husband now watches, remarking on the strange and sometimes silly choices made, both by homeowners and renovators.

At this point, I’ve seen enough shows and refurbished homes that they’re all starting to look alike. I can predict with certainty that interior walls will come down, large islands will dominate new kitchens, hardwood floors will supplant carpeting, and subway tile will be the go-to choice for bathrooms and kitchens.

I could play house-hunting Bingo with phrases likely to be muttered by potential homeowners viewing properties:
  • “This kitchen is sooooo dated.”
  • “Ew, I don’t like the brick fireplace.”
  • “There’s no ‘wow’ factor in the foyer.”
  • “I don’t think having one sink in the bathroom will work for us.”
  • “White walls, how boring,” or “I don’t like the wall color; it all needs to be white.”
I get a lot of exercise rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s because decades of homeownership, and four houses later, I’ve learned that every single one needs work to make it your own. I’ve stripped my share of wallpaper, painted and repainted walls, changed out old carpeting for hardwood and new carpets, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and replaced windows, doors, and siding.

Still, I can imagine an HGTV host walking in the door and pronouncing my house dated. Corian instead of quartz countertops? A kitchen peninsula instead of an island? No shiplap or backsplash? A laundry area in the kitchen? How quaint and 1980s. They would definitely recommend ripping everything out and starting fresh.

“Have at it,” I’ll tell the next buyers, but I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than dated, I consider these timeless design elements. My house is functional, if not trendy. I did have subway tile in my first house, but after years of riding subways, I now associate them with the pungent smell of urine. So, no thanks, I won’t be choosing subway tile anytime soon.

The more I watch home shows, the less enamored I become of the result. Most look like showplaces or upscale hotels instead of cozy homes. Or they are the nth version of redesigns featured in previous weeks. Some even look just like the home section of retail stores. Maybe I would want a trendier look if I were buying my first house, but these days I’m content with tried and true.

My only comfort is knowing that today’s trends quickly turn into tomorrow’s outdated designs, which in time become vintage. All I have to do is wait.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Near misses and dodged bullets

'Tis the time of year when stuff happens – and not the kind of stuff anyone looks forward to. Most people have stories of an ailing parent or family member. Car accidents seem less accidental and more destined, especially with mobile-device-using drivers on the road. And there's always the unknowable and unexpected. If you’re lucky, the outcome is nothing terminal, chronic, or expensive to fix.

For me, last week seemed the perfect storm of potentially bad stuff happening. Respiratory symptoms recurred that should have been long gone. Friends reported strange ailments. Elderly moms (mine and others’) required immediate medical interventions. And our sports car took off on its own.

After a few worrying days, most things returned to near normal. Medical consultations occurred. Conditions  stabilized. And our car was successfully extracted from the neighbor’s backyard.

Oh, I guess that last one needs some explanation. It helps to know that my husband has lusted after this particular model sports car since age 14. Finally, in 2012, we bought a gently used 2005 Porsche 911. My one stipulation was that it be his everyday car. On Thursday he drove it to the store. Upon returning he asked: “Do you want the good news or the bad?” That’s never a good opener, and I opted for the good news. “No one got hurt.” The bad news? He had to show me.

I followed him into the garage, and I kept following him down the driveway, through the yard between two neighbors, down the terraced backyard of one neighbor, and to the creek bordering the local farm market. There it was. The Porsche. Looking perfect, but perfectly stuck in a ditch.

Funny thing about emergency brakes; when they fail, they cause their own emergencies. My husband had parked the car in the garage, set the brake, got out, and backed away. The car also backed away, slowly, on cat’s feet. My husband saw what was happening, but – luckily – didn’t make matters worse by attempting to stop a moving car.

He ran alongside until the car outpaced him. Then he watched it hop a curb, scamper down the neighbor's sloping lawn, and settle in the creek bed. It took 24 hours, three tow trucks and their operators, a winch, and the kindness of neighbors to get it unstuck. The professionals parked it safely on the flatbed and towed to the shop where the claims adjuster could have a look-see. Our insurance company, State Farm, couldn’t have been more responsive and even nice about the whole thing. And the neighbors were appropriately astounded and amused at our predicament.

We were lucky. Things could easily have gone sideways. Or, as the Brits say, pear-shaped. The car could have hit someone or something. It could have flipped or landed in the neighbor’s living room. Instead, it just went for a wander.

I consider last week one of near misses and dodged bullets. Things could have been a whole lot worse in a number of different ways. But they weren’t. And for that, I am truly grateful


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Monday, November 28, 2016

Why I follow you…or not

There’s a lot made of the follows and likes on social media. Articles offer tips on ways to get more followers. Businesses of every stripe plead to be liked. Some social awareness marketing sites offer shortcuts to those who want to, in essence, buy followers, likes, and shares for their business, their brand, or themselves.

I started my blog in 2008 and joined Twitter in 2010 to see what social media was all about. I began to follow people I knew personally or professionally. I followed thought leaders and people who made me laugh. I looked for favorite news outlets and interesting sites.

There’s no great rhyme or reason to my following, or unfollowing, strategies. A follow or like doesn’t mean I’m a true-blue, faithful fan. And an unfollow doesn’t mean you’ve lost my confidence. There’s no analytic or deeper meaning here. I’m just a fickle consumer of social media.

I recently began following a number of local and national politicians on Twitter. No, wait. Don’t stop reading now. It’s not what you think. There’s an old saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” So I am testing a theory about listening to people I otherwise might avoid. I am trying to get more insight into differences, discover plans that may be in the works, and see if there is any common ground in uncommon areas.

So far, my experiment is proving only partly successful. I’ve had to unfollow a few who seem untethered to reality as I know it – and to those who post mainly platitudes and party lines, with little original thought to contribute. On the other hand, I am beginning to feel a little more informed about who is saying what or doing something for, or against, things that matter to me.

As social media has evolved, it has gained far more impact and influence than most could ever have imagined. Where it goes from here is just as unknowable. The only thing that seems certain is continual tinkering with technology so that today’s hot networking sites will one day be leapfrogged by something even hotter.

Me? I can’t wait to follow what’s next.