Thursday, March 15, 2012

Excusersizing


I've been meaning to write a follow-up post about exercise, and excuse-making, for a long time. It has been quite a while since I looked at that post, so if you have, and some of it is redundant, please forgive me.

Before I say what I have to say however, I should repeat the qualifications that I (don't) have to be writing about this topic in the first place. I'm not a personal trainer, or a professional athlete, or anything of the sort. I'm just a guy who has somehow managed to stick to an (ever-changing) exercise routine for the last 20 years, without any significant lapses. My goal isn't to look like a Men's Health specimen, just to be able to bench-press my own weight a dozen times and do a sprint-triathlon (without actually sprinting, but merely without dying) on any given day of the week. But the commitment issue is what most people seem to struggle the most with, and so that is the one aspect of this that I might be able to shed some light on.

But I am going to start by sharing a little secret that I have learned over the last two decades, and one that is rarely, if ever, heard from those who are trying to sell you an exercise/diet/lifestyle program:

It has to hurt.

No, really, it does. Of course, you don't often hear this because if exercise guru A is selling a program that promises “no-pain,” and exercise guru B is selling one that is honest, whose program is everyone going to buy?

And this is the largely the root of the reason people struggle to commit, especially in American “where can I get a pill to make it all better?” culture. Unrealistic expectations of what it actually takes to get, be and stay fit, cause most people who have a half-hearted desire to be physically and mentally healthy to quickly give up when the mental challenge of commitment becomes too much.

Here is the problem with the almost any approach that is being “sold” to you, whether in the form of a magazine article, a DVD set, or a 6-month deal on gym memberships: almost invariably they try to sell you on the fact that you can get fit in only 90 days, with minimal fuss, and you'll look like Spartacus or Mira when you're done.

You don't need me to tell you that these are lies, lies, lies. But if these are lies, what is the truth?

Not 90 days- 90 years.
There will be a great deal of fuss.
You will never, ever look like someone who is paid to look good.

The Approach

Staying fit is a lifetime commitment. It is. There is no way around it. Taking up yoga for 18 months in your 30s will not keep you trim and healthy in your 50s. Having played high school football does not mean you are in shape now. We all know this, logically, but many people fail to appreciate what it means in a practical sense. Here are some things that anyone who wants to get/be/stay healthy needs to think about:

Forgive yourself. Just because you missed a week or six, does not mean it's all done, you're through, finished, kaput. Just identify the next available time you have to resume your routine (make it soon), whatever it is, and do it. This is one of the problems with thinking of exercise as a “program” that you can “mess up.” It's not a program. It's your life. If you don't get enough sleep for a week, you don't give up on that, do you?

Adapt. We age. Circumstances change. Schedules change. When this happens, you need to change. Maybe you used to jog, but your knees can't take it anymore. So swim. Bike. Do something. Maybe you used to play tennis, but your partner moved away. Keep going and playing off the wall. It probably won't be long until you meet someone else in the same situation. Or join a league. Something. Or maybe you now have a meeting on the Mondays when your yoga class met. So do Zumba. Or cardio-kickboxing. Try something new. Anything.

Variety. I sometimes hear people say, “Well, I was trying to run everyday but I got bored.” Gee, you think? There are people who can run, or bike, or swim every day. But most of us can't. And why would you even want to? Unless you are training for that sport in particular, branch out. There are no exercises that work every muscle in your body, even swimming. Mix it up, so when the day for your run comes around, it has been a little bit. Who knows? You may even look forward to it.

Get outside. Get off that ridiculous treadmill or stair machine or stationary bike. Are you really wondering why you are bored? Here's a hint: If you can read a magazine while you do it, you're not working hard enough. But more importantly, get some fresh air. It wakes you up. The scenery changes. Running through your local park or along the ocean reminds you why you are doing it in the first place- Because you are alive.

Get inside. On the other hand, if you live in a place like I do, where you get, at best, seven months a year where it is really comfortable to get outside, that's not an excuse for taking half the year off. Find something else to do in the winter- swim, play indoor basketball, take a class, dance, even get on one of those awful stationary machines. Whatever. Even if you slow down a bit in the winter, as most of us do, it will make starting up again when the weather clears a lot more fun and a lot easier to look forward to.

Compete against something. This is something I am not terribly good at. This can be someone else, your own personal best, or the stranger running ahead of you on the boulevard. You will find it much easier to push yourself hard if you are determined to beat your husband in racquetball than if you are just going for a jog because it is time.

Have fun. For those of us who aren't training for anything, this is probably the most important thing to remember. All of the above add up to this, but it is important to keep it in mind as a separate goal. Exercise is fun, or at least it should be. If it's not, you need to find something else. Think of it like reading a book. We know when a book is not holding our interest. So put it down and find one that does.

The Fuss

Wait a minute, I thought you said exercise had to hurt? Now you're saying it's supposed to be fun?

Yes.

There are two ways to think about this. You can be having so much fun that you ignore the pain. But also, pain is fun.

But before I go any further, I need to be clear about what I mean by “pain.” I'm not taking about excruciating, about-to-keel-over-and-vomit kind of pain. That usually means you're doing something wrong. What I'm talking about is the pain of those last few repetitions in the weight room, or the sprint of the last hundred yards of a jog. Because it is precisely right before this point where most people quit. And this is precisely the point where virtually all your gains are made.

As an example, this is how I do dumbbell curls. For some reason, my arms ache if I don't work them to absolute exhaustion on a somewhat regular basis. So when I go to the weight room, I do three sets of curls with the 35 or 40 lb. dumbbells. But this only gets me to the point where I can't work those weights anymore. So when I have finished everything else, I return to the dumbbells and do 30 reps with the 20 lbs. Then I put them down and immediately pick up the 15 lbs and do another 30 reps. Then 30 with the 10 lbs, and finally 30 with the 5 lbs. By the time I am done, I can barely lift the 5 lb. dumbbells. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes, and I get more out of it than I do with the 40 lb dumbbells. And those 5 lb-ers hurt.

Its the same principle that applies when you sprint that last quarter mile, or go all-out on the last lap in the pool. That is where gains are made. If you start running three miles, three times a week, your body will quickly adapt to this. You will probably lose some weight, and you'll notice you have more energy and a better appetite (and not just for food...). But, like anything else, if you just keep doing the same thing, the same way, you'll plateau. And the gains will diminish, then cease. Then you'll get frustrated, and it won't seem worth it anymore. So you'll quit.

So you need to find a way to push harder in what you are already doing. One thing I love about weight training is that it allows you to push harder without costing more time- you just add more weight. But with endurance activities, pushing harder usually means adding distance, which means adding time. I typically only have about 45 minutes total to run, including stretching and cool-down. This means I can get about a 5-mile run in, at most. Most people face the same reality of having other duties to attend to. So instead of running further, try running harder. This is a hard thing to sustain over miles. (I can't do it.) But we can select an ever-increasing distance at the end of our run or swim or bike or whatever to really push and really try to empty the tank. If you have anything left when you finish, you're not doing it right.

This isn't to say that moderate exercise doesn't have its benefits. It does. Any exercise, even cleaning the house, is better than nothing. Walking is wonderful. But if you are looking to lose weight, or want to tone up, don't expect a whole lot if you aren't willing to give a whole lot. Exercise is like learning- you get what you give.

And this is why I am a big proponent of pain. If, like me, you only have three or four afternoons a week to exercise, an hour or so each, you really need to get the most out of it that you can. You need to find something that you enjoy, but that pushes you and challenges you to work just harder than you are really comfortable with. You should sweat. You should ache the next day.

The Point

You are NOT exercising just to look good. Stop thinking that. Right now.

If you are exercising to look good, to look like someone in the movies, just quit now. You will never get there. There are some people out there who are paid to look good. You aren't one of them. Remember, when an actor hunks-up for a role, they are in full-time training, often for 4-6 hours a day. They have a professional dietician watching everything they eat. People you see in “health” magazines are on a 24-hour dehydration plan so that their muscles “pop” for the camera. Bikini models are photoshopped up the wazoo.

Exercise makes you healthy. Being healthy looks good. In fact, the definition of “looking good,” in every species, is some display of health and fitness. Among birds this may be shown in bright plumage and robust song, but the principle is the same. The underlying attribute of “attractiveness” is always a display of vitality.

Among humans, we look at faces and bodies. We judge faces based on symmetry, which is a display of health during development, and a lack of any debilitating, disfiguring accidents or diseases. We judge bodies based on vitality- strength, tone, fitness.

In other words, worry about being healthy. The way you look will take care of itself.

(And while we're at it, not being obese is not the same thing as being healthy. Nor is finding a diet that keeps you under-weight, but leaves you without the strength or energy to do a whole lot else.)

And the health benefits of exercise extend far beyond the ability to run a 5k. The most important benefits are those that exercise grants the mind.

Recent studies have revealed two very common-sense facts. Aerobic exercise (running, swimming, etc.) boost your ability to coordinate multiple tasks simultaneously, make long-term plans as well as boost your ability to remain mentally on-task for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, anaerobic exercise (weight training, etc.) boosts your ability to remain focused amid distractors. Both of these make a lot of sense, and the data backs it up. Results like these are also the reason I strongly (very, very strongly) advocate both types of exercise.

Both of these factors come back to pain. Mastering pain requires discipline. It requires learning to resist temptation. When exercising, the temptation is always to quit. When I am finishing my first quarter- mile in the pool, I always wonder if I am actually going to make it for three times what I have already done. Then, when I am working on finishing my third quarter-mile, I am thinking how I could probably do two miles, if I had the time. There is always a hump to get over. When you learn that, and learn to recognize that you can, and will, get to the other side, you start to see this challenge, this opportunity, everywhere.

You'll see it when your spouse has really, really infuriated you, and you've been stewing all day on what nasty thing to say to her when you get home. Until you realize that your anger is the hump. You will get over it. And you'll still have to resolve whatever issue set you off in the first place, but you will be able to do so without any emotional complications.

You see it when you realize you drink too much, but every time you try to slow down, you do well for a few days until your boss chews you out for something that isn't your fault, and then you're right back at it. That's your hump. Get over it. It's not worth slipping back for.

Really, a Lifetime Commitment

More and more, doctors and scientists are recognizing just how much a difference exercise makes as we age. In my family we have diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's. What is the number one practice for staving of all of these? Not hard to guess.

But we're not just talking about stretching out your lifespan. We're talking about increasing the quality of it every second you are living it. Who doesn't want to look better, feel better, sleep better, eat better and make love better? Who doesn't want to have more energy, more self-control, more discipline, more focus?

Your body and your brain are intertwined on so many levels. And they are so similar. They are both learning machines that need to be constantly challenged and stimulated or they stagnate. You actually need to push them both, all the time, if you expect them to be there for you when you need them. Just as never reading anything but the sports page, or young adult novels, or never trying to pick up a new skill, or never listening to a contrary viewpoint, are all sure ways to a sedentary mind, so is treating a weekly walk as your “exercise,” a sure way to let your body stagnate.

I can't see exercise as anything less than a duty. You owe it to the rest of us to not be a drain on our health-care system. You owe it to your spouse not to “let yourself go,” just because you've got one in the bag. You owe it to your children to teach them what a healthy lifestyle looks like. You owe it to your spouse, your children and your grandchildren to be there for them as you all grow older.

But lastly, you owe it to yourself. You owe it to yourself to not suffer, on a daily basis, from fatigue, illness, and lack of confidence in both your abilities and appearance. You only get one body. Why on earth would you want to throw it away?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lying to My Kid

Irreverent parent that I am, I have been letting my four year old daughter, Charlie, watch the Star Wars trilogy. (The real movies.) We watched A New Hope on a night when my wife was gone late to a conference. She, my daughter, had seen bits and pieces of that one at my parent's house, and she was very curious, and was always talking about Darth Vader, despite only having seen the first 20 minutes or so.

Thus, figuring that she had already been exposed to the highest body count part of the movie, the initial boarding scene, I thought it would probably be best for her to actually see the rest of the movie, and appreciate the characters and the triumph of good over evil, rather than just obsessing about Vader choke-lifting a rebel officer off of his feet, or Obi-Wan sabering the arm off some cantina scum.

And so, we sat and we watched. And thinking the most traumatic parts of the movie were already behind us, I thought nothing off letting her watch all the way to the end. And she did fine, seeming to have no problem with the rest of the movie, beyond asking a million and a half questions, and insisting Leia can't be a super-hero because she's a girl (thank youuuu, Disney)... 

...until Vader cut down Obi-Wan. And then all hell broke lose. Faceless Stormtroopers getting blasted with brightly colored beams of light and falling down is one thing. A friendly old man who has been helping Luke all along was another thing entirely. Where did he go? Is he dead? Sniffling and tears. He's dead, but he comes back, right? 

Well, it's Star Wars, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Jedi, so in this case, fortunately, the answer is yes. Yes, honey, just watch. He isn't gone forever. He comes back to help Luke in just a few minutes. Watch.

And so we hyper-drived our way through the rest of the series over the next couple of nights. We had some issues with The Empire Strikes Back, with Han getting frozen in carbonite, but of course, he survives that, even if you have to wait till the next one, and she absolutely would not accept that Vader was Luke's father- "He's too mean."

At this point, she has to see Return of the Jedi, because the whole brilliant arc of the six films is only leading up to one moment, the moment of Anakin's redemption, or "Darth Vader learning how to be nice again," as Charlie would say, and I'd been promising her all along that this would happen- he's mean now, but he does learn how to be nice again. (Thanks to the awesome Despicable Me, this is a story arc she is familiar with.)

But then he dies, and Luke burns his body, though fortunately, it is with the mask on, so she insists it is just Darth Vader's "costume." And then, there they are! The ghosts of all the nice Jedis who have perished over the course of the three films, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin (the DVDs we have are new, so its the young Anakin- sigh.) Not gone, not dead, just friendly ghosts, there to watch over Luke forever and ever.

At this point, Jen and I figure, why not take her to see A Phantom Menace in 3D on the big screen? She'll get to see Anakin as a cute little kid, it'll help her understand that he was once nice, and those movie are so ridiculously cartoonish, she'll probably like them even more. And she did enjoy it quite a bit...

... until Qui-Gon Jinn dies, and he gets burned on the funeral pyre, but this time there is no mask. And this is when the real, uncontrollable tears start. (This is also where we feel like the worst parents in the world. I only ever saw the movie once, I didn't remember much except hating Jar-Jar.) 

This is also when we start lying to her.

No, no, he's not gone. He's a ghost now, like Obi-Wan and Yoda. 

How easy it is, when your child, your precious, your heart now external to you, is sobbing uncontrollably at being confronted with death, how easy it is to just start lying through your friggin' teeth.

____________

I grew up a huge Star Wars fan, like most kids my age. I will always consider those movies among my all-time favorites. But I hadn't watched them much since I was a kid, so it has been curious to view them again with her, through a more critical eye. 

Like almost every other film that comes out of Hollywood, they play into some very familiar tropes. Good and Evil are very clear-cut. Bad guy deaths don't count. Good girls go for scoundrels. But the one that really irks me is this: skeptics are always just small-minded- faith is what counts. 

One masters the Force through faith, through believing in it. Until Luke learns to trust his instincts, to feel the Force, he can't become a Jedi. 

Solo doesn't believe in all that nonsense and hocus-pocus, and hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster by your side, kid. Look, he's been from one end of this galaxy to the other, and he's seen a lot of strange things, but he's never seen anything that would lead him to believe there's some all-powerful force shaping his destiny. 

Solo continues doubting the Force and Luke's potential, pretty much right up until Luke rescues him from Jabba the Hutt. And even then, he never admits that he was wrong, though of course we all know he was.

Twice in A New Hope are the Force and the ways of the Jedi referred to as a "religion." Listing "Jedi" on government census forms has become a world-wide joke, with tens of thousands of people in the English-speaking world getting in on it.  

As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for why I was so drawn to those movies, especially to the idea of becoming a Jedi. I always played Luke. My much more skeptical (and it turns out, wiser) brother, always played Han. I left for college intending to become a priest. My brother has been agnostic pretty much since he was old enough to have an opinion. 

I so desperately wanted to believe in something bigger than myself, to be part of the cosmic battle between good and evil, to give myself over, entirely and selflessly, to the eventual triumph of good over evil. I would have much, much preferred to be Jedi over Christian, there was so much more action, and who doesn't want a light-saber?, but I'd make do.

____________

Back to lying to your kid.

Children are so, so fragile. We yell at them a dozen times a day because they've put their tiny bodies in some imminent danger, something you wouldn't even notice your spouse doing- walking past an open oven, jumping down two steps, waving their fork in their eye. 

But it is their minds that we work the hardest to protect. I can swallow my instincts, if I have a moment to suppress the gut-reaction, and let Charlie try ice-skating on her own, or riding a bike, knowing that falling and scraped elbows and banged heads are part of growing up. But what I can't do is see her terrified. 

So when your kid is sobbing over the death of even a character on a movie screen, repeatedly asking you, "Why? Why are they burning his body? Why is he dead?" the temptation to tell them anything, any crazy old thing, that will comfort them, is very, very powerful. Even telling them the patently absurd notion that death isn't death. It's just, well, something else. A transition. 

At her age, in the context of those movies, I am fine with her thinking that Jedis become ghosts. (Another similarity to religion here- only Jedis seem to see the afterlife. Sorry, Han.) 

But someday, that answer won't suffice, and I'll have to tell her the truth: I don't know what happens when we die. It seems like we just... die. And that's it.

_____________

There have been numerous theories over the years as to why the propensity to believe in something as irrational and unlikely as life after death is fairly universal in human cultures, and many of those explanations are much more thorough, and legitimate, than my brief foray here. 

But it is a well-established fact that children acquire their beliefs about religion, more than anything else, from their parents. Most of the rest of the ideas we hold about the world can find some referent; they can be cross-checked with reality in some way. Religion is immune to this, and so most people just take other people's word for it. And it is always easiest to swallow the words of those we trust the most already. And there is no greater trust than that which a child places in his or her parents.

So it is not inconceivable to me that the notion of life after death grew out of the pity a parent had for their child, when that child wanted to know where their dead brother or sister had gone. The instinct to protect them from the dangers and fears of the world is so strong, so universal, that it isn't even inconceivable that the same idea occurred over and over again, all over the world. 

And with no checks in the real world, there is no reason to stop believing it. And since good deception begins with self-deception, it isn't hard to see how even those who began perpetuating this idea, slowly began to actually believe it themselves.

No parent wants to see their child in fear. But we also want them to grow. Learning to ride a bike involves taking some falls. Learning to live involves facing some fears. If we want our children to face the world, and their fears, with courage and resolution, we can't give in to our own cowardice. We can't be afraid to speak the truth, to say those words that we dread will undermine our entire relationship with them, dissolve all of their trust-

"You know, honey, I just don't know. I don't think anybody really does."

Don't worry- they'll still love you. And you'll still be their entire world.

But more importantly, you'll have taught them something more valuable than anything they could ever learn from any lie.