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.”