How to be Fit for Life

Mix and match ideas for keeping in shape long term. (originally published on Medium)

The first three months of the year are the busiest for the fitness industry. Most people have at one time or another made a New Year’s resolution to get in shape. They buy a gym membership and start going five days a week. They tell themselves t’s not going to be like last year or the year before when the workouts reduced from five to three days per week by March and to nothing by June.

I’m 49 years old. I’ve done all kinds of workouts and sports and have had no trouble keeping a consistent workout routine my whole life. My clothes have fit fine the whole time except when I was pregnant. I don’t have to make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. I’ve stayed in shape all my life by using both conventional advice and my own ideas on how to stay motivated. I don’t possess any more mental toughness or self-control than you do. All I do is the following.

Always keep your options open

Last night I went to a birthday party for an eight-year-old at a trampoline park with accommodations for all ages. Instead of just sitting around while the kids played, I bounced up and down while I warmed up and got the nerve to try my front flip that I hadn’t done in years. After I landed a couple, I practiced cartwheels and roundoffs with the little girls and we had a pretend gymnastics meet. You don’t have to be good at anything to jump on a trampoline. Just plain old jumping is good exercise. Make sure you’re warmed up if you are able to try any “tricks”, so you don’t pull anything.

Fit the workout to the situation

As a single mother, I couldn’t just drop my daughter off somewhere while I worked out, so I incorporated her into my workouts. I got one of those heavy-duty strollers with the big bike tires and pushed her while I roller-bladed. Even if roller-blading isn’t your thing or you don’t have a suitable smooth, wide, path for it, you can walk or jog your kid. I did that too. The resistance will multiply the workout benefit. I pushed my kid around until she was in kindergarten, and she was not a small child.

Don’t rely on anyone else.

A lot of exercise advice tells us to get a workout buddy, because that will hold us accountable. We can’t skip our workout because we don’t want to disappoint our friend. If someone else wants to start a workout program too, it can be beneficial to go together when possible, but it’s not realistic to develop a lifetime fitness lifestyle based on whether someone is available. I play tennis with friends and sometimes walk or ride bikes with my sister-in-law sometimes, but if I based my workout routine on whether they could participate I’d be at least 20 lbs heavier.

Make a habit.

My workouts are just something I do. If I didn’t do some type of workout yesterday, I’m definitely going to today, and I don’t skip more than one or two days per week. Most days I do something. I have what I call “filler” workouts that I do on the days that I can’t do the ones I enjoy for their own sake (skating and swimming). Those filler workouts are jogging (which I hate but force myself to do) and home workout videos.

Open your mind to what you might end up liking.

Although it’s definitely possible to develop lifelong fitness without this, finding a sport you can be committed to helps a lot. I did this with figure-skating, for which I never had an actual lesson until I was 28. It’s great because I get to burn calories while doing something I love, and the time goes by quickly because I’m working on difficult skills that I’m trying to advance. Having a goal keeps you coming back. It doesn’t matter if you’re not naturally gifted. I’m definitely not; I just love it.

If you have kids, you might get an idea from what they’re doing. When my daughter was in gymnastics, I got sick of sitting out there and just watching, and since there was an adult class at the same time, I took one. When that one ended, the only one after that was with kids. At that point I was too into it to care, so since they let me I join it, I did. That’s another thing that keeps me in shape; I don’t care what anyone might think.

Don’t get stuck in all-or-nothing thinking.

Sometimes people concentrate too much on how long or hard they’re going to work out. Or they put too much concentration on counting the steps on the Fitbit. Measuring how much you do can be helpful in that it keeps you motivated, but if you’re having a “bad” day, the wrong mind-set can be demoralizing. Think of your workout as just party of a healthy and in-shape life.

Try to do a little something even if you don’t feel good.

If you have a bad cold and feel like your breath is too short, or you’re so tired from a week of insomnia and stress from work, you should still work out. Remember, this is an ongoing thing that is keeping your weight down, your clothes fitting, and your health good for the rest of your life. Go lighter. You don’t have to do a whole hour and get soaked with sweat, or lift as heavy of weights as usual. As long as you did something, you did what was needed to keep in shape long-term.

My goal with this article

I hope these ideas help someone do their body a favor and start to develop a lifetime of adequate exercise. We all deserve the physical and mental benefits that regular exercise provides.

Fitness is Not Just for the Healthy

Exercise improves every condition. (previously published in Medium)

Is your or your loved one’s medical or mobility condition making you or them feel depressed or hopeless? Have you or a loved one ever felt stuck being overweight because of a bad back or leg or some internal health-related ailment?

Exercise is a fail-proof mood booster and metabolism accelerant, but a lot of people avoid it because of a mobility reduction or medical condition, even though a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for depression and premature death, in healthy people as well as the chronically ill.

However, neither you or they are doomed to the catastrophic effects of a sedentary lifestyle just because of mobility or medical problem.


The power to increase mobility

A large portion of the population stays sedentary because of a mobility reduction in one or more parts of their body. Not forcing that part of the body to move causes even more loss of mobility.

As the saying goes: “Use it or lose it.” If you can only move your leg a little, move your leg a little for a longer time than normal. Start with small stretches and mobility exercises and work your way up to more flexibility than you have now.

No one’s asking you to be a gymnast; just move a little more than your normal range of motion. Even if part of your body is permanently paralyzed, you can take advantage of the effects of aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching by modifying the activity and using what parts of your body you can.

I have an acquaintance who every couple of weeks will inevitably say she won’t be moving much that day because her back “won’t let her”. I understand the feeling because a deformed vertebra at the bottom of my back which requires me to have monthly chiropractic adjustments periodically gives me trouble as well.

Even so, if my back goes bad out of the blue or gets wrenched from any number of hazards (my dog pulling me on our walk, for example, or shoveling heavy snow here in the Midwest), moving my body loosens up the spine. One day last summer my back locked up so severely I could hardly climb into and out of my lawn chair.

After I hobbled over to the side of the pool and swam some laps, I could feel my back loosening up as I swam and when I got out, it was almost as good as new. In fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends exercise to treat chronic back pain because it strengthens the core and back muscles, increases posture, and increases flexibility.

My acquaintance suffers from frequent sciatica, back pain that radiates down the hip and leg. She frequently cites that as a reason for not moving much, but the medical community recommends keeping up as much physical activity you can to ease the pain.

As we get older, we generally move around less and our muscles shrink and tighten. Then when we have to stretch up to reach something or move a different way to shovel or rake, for example, the muscle lets the spinal cord know, in the form of pain, that it’s been stretched farther than it’s used to.

Another common side-effect of moving less as we age is the acquisition of extra pounds. It’s hard on our joints to heave around extra weight, so naturally, the buttock muscles that are designed for propelling the recommended weight for a person’s height have difficulty controlling the hip, thus increasing the chance for an irregular activity to put a strain on it, causing pain.

Starting and maintaining an exercise program, in that case, is essential for both increased flexibility and strength to lower pain and also making the load lighter to reduce the chance of strain on muscles and joints. If you’re out of shape or extremely overweight, you’ll have to start out slowly and ease into it, but your strength and stamina will soon start to increase and pain will decrease.

There are modifications available for just about any situation, enabling people with all kinds of health problems and disabilities to take advantage of the therapeutic, no-fail benefits effects exercise bestows.

Everyone can do something to get the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise. Not moving your body for at least that amount, which only boils down to 2.5 hours per week; half an hour five times or 50 minutes three times, can have devastating effects on your health, regardless of your type or severity of the condition.


Mitigation of symptoms

In almost any case, no matter the condition, the exercise would actually lessen your symptoms and you can use it to feel AND look better. Especially in people suffering from chronic health conditions, regular exercise strengthens everything from the lungs and heart to weakened bones and joints.

People with autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis are advised to take advantage of physical activity’s benefits such as regulation of inflammation-causing chemicals.

Unfortunately, people with these diseases tend to be less active than the rest of the population, even though studies have shown that physically active patients experienced a milder course of disease overall, better cardiovascular function, and improved joint mobility.

Multiple sclerosis patients who make exercise a habit enjoy increased cognition, mood, and mobility. Fibromyalgia and systemic sclerosis symptoms are also lessened with exercise, as active patients report less pain and disease severity as well as higher quality of life than their sedentary counterparts.

Cancer and cardiovascular patients do much better with exercise as well. Sara Mansfield, M.S., a certified Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program certified cancer exercise trainer, says “Loving family members may be urging a person with a cancer diagnosis to rest, but that can lead to a functional decline. Research tells us, in general, it’s better to move more than less.”

Also, according to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies show that cardiovascular patients tend to tolerate and benefit well from interval training.

Exercise is the best thing you can do for your body, and you owe it to that body that’s been faithfully lugging you around all these years. The aches and pains are its cries for help. As long as you can move some part of your body, you can give yourself the gift of exercise, even if that means thinking outside the box to find activities that work for your situation.


Modify as needed

A friend of mine had one of her legs smashed up in a car accident, so although she can walk, jogging and things like cross-fit are not options for her. I suggested swimming or water workout classes. Either one of those would enable her to take advantage of the aerobic and strength-training benefits without putting undue strain on her bad leg.

We also need to take part in weight-bearing activities as we age however, so she should lift weights a couple of times a week and do as much walking as her leg will tolerate. Weight-bearing activities are what help us keep our bone strength as we age. It’s also extremely important for people in situations like my friend’s to keep up (or redevelop if it’s gone away) their flexibility. No matter how immobile your legs are, you can benefit from flexibility exercises and stretches.

Someone with a large part of their body completely immobilized, such as with paralysis, needs exercise for mental and physical health just as much as the next person. If it’s impossible to move the lower body, strength train the upper body, just like someone with a shoulder injury or broken arm, for example, would exercise only their lower body.

Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, all public swimming pools are required to supply chair lifts to make it easy for wheel-chair bound people to reap the therapeutic benefits of water exercise.

Exercise is the sure-fire mood lifter and perspective shifter that everyone needs in their life. It releases endorphins and lowers stress hormones. We discussed how people with chronic conditions benefit from the effects of exercise, but an exercise routine is just as important to healthy people, not only for the mental health benefits but the preventive.

Exercise helps prevent all the ailments and mobility problems discussed earlier. In addition to the mental health benefits and coping mechanisms it supplies, it also reduces our chance for dementia. Too often, people, especially as they age, will have an injury which causes them to be prescribed physical therapy, finish the therapy sessions, go back to their old sedentary ways, and then start the cycle all over again.

There’s a reason physical therapy is such a booming business: injuries from being out of shape.

If you’re not regularly exercising, please do yourself a favor and start, no matter what your health or mobility situation. If you feel worse after a month, go ahead and stop. But I’d bet my next paycheck you’ll feel better.

Lose Those Last Five Lbs Without any Extra Effort

Get your weight loss back on track with just one tiny adjustment. (published in Medium on 10/14/19 by Carolyn Bertolino)

Have you ever been stuck at the dreaded weight plateau? You cut out soft drinks, started jogging (or spinning or swimming or a workout class), felt great, got within five pounds of your target weight, and then: Slam! Smack into a wall that traps you for weeks. You cut out another hundred calories and add distance to your runs, but still no additional progress. All you need is five more pounds to reach your long-awaited goal! What can you do?

The same thing happened to a friend of mine, and when she called me to vent about the scale number not having budged in two weeks, I suggested an easy trick that’s never let me down. She got her weight loss started back easily without even working out any longer or cutting any more calories. In fact, eating too few calories can sabotage your weight loss efforts as your body hoards the calories because it’s afraid of starving.  

All it takes to add an extra boost to your metabolism and shed those last few pounds is a little variety in your workout. It doesn’t even have to be much, and you don’t have to abandon your current program; in fact, you shouldn’t unless you have another reason for wanting to. Just exchange one or two of your workouts per week for a different one and startle your body’s calorie-burn mechanism into overdrive. For example, if you jog five days per week, go to a dance fitness or spin class, use an elliptical machine, or just ride your bike for one or two of your weekly workouts. Or, if your regular workout is spin class, switch it up with jogging. It doesn’t matter what you do, just that you mix in something new.

Another easy, efficient way to get over this weight-loss stagnation is to engage your muscles with resistance. It’s like magic for the metabolism because muscle, unlike other tissue, burns extra calories even at rest. Nothing too involved is required; you don’t even have to leave the house. Just buy a couple sizes of weights (I only have five and ten) and do a few simple exercises while you watch TV, listen to a podcast, or talk to your kids. You can do things like squats and lunges, calf raises, and deadlifts. Those four exercises alone a couple times a week do wonders for firming up your butt and legs. And firmer muscles burn more calories, no matter where they are on the body. Without getting too complicated, arm weight workouts such as bicep curls, triceps curls, shoulder presses, lateral raise, and alternating one-arm rows, will work the major muscle groups. Doing the curls, presses, and pulls one arm at a time even works your core muscles, helping to firm the waist.

Regularly changing around my exercise routine has kept me slim all throughout my adult life. I’ve never been in danger of becoming overweight or out of shape because my workouts don’t feel like a routine. My only goal is to get 45 minutes to an hour of a moderate to sometimes strenuous workout in four or five times per week. I figure-skate (a sport I took up as an adult) a couple times per week all year round, but everything else gets switched up. In the summer, I swim laps once or twice per week, which is great for the whole body, including the arms and chest that don’t get as much emphasis in some workouts. I also play tennis; not often, but once in a while, weather permitting. The other workouts I mix in and out are jogging, hiking, and a few workout videos that have different varieties of kickboxing, weights, and regular cardio.

Know what’s also great about switching things up, even after you’re at your target weight? You can actually get away with doing shorter or less strenuous workouts because your body isn’t used to it. For example, my skating workouts are usually an hour, but when I jog or swim after not having done it for a while, I reap the same benefits in a shorter time, usually about 35 minutes, as my body hasn’t yet become familiar enough with it to ‘take it for granted” and conserve calories. To blast away that last five pounds, engaging in the new activity for the same amount of time as your regular activity will give you more calorie-burn than you’ve been getting with your normal activity. As your body gets used to an activity, it requires less energy to perform it, so it’s able to store food rather than spending it as energy. That’s how just switching things around a little can propel you through the door of that frustrating weight loss wall.

If the thought of changing things up is overwhelming, take it small. Change out your run for a bike ride or workout class once a week, for example, and see what happens. Do a set of squats and deadlifts when you have a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did and, just like my friend found out when she followed this advice, the stubborn pounds will melt off.

Weight Maintenance Styles

Have you ever noticed that when it comes time to alter behavior in order to lose or maintain their weight, some people are food-utilizers and others are workout-utilizers? For example, when I start feeling my jeans getting tighter, my first thought is “I need to start doing crunches again and also increase and vary my workouts to burn more calories.” When one of my friend’s clothes start to “shrink”, she goes straight to planning better meals and watching her dessert intake.

As long as it works, either style is fine, but usually a person will eventually have to do at least a little of both. I’ve noticed, though, that if I really ramp up my workouts, I end up inadvertently eating a little better. For example, I don’t generally like fruit, but Sunday after I did my hardest workout video, which I haven’t done in several months, I craved an apple when I was done. Usually, I have to force myself to eat things like that. Also, eating well can boost energy levels, which makes it easier to want to work out.

So whichever your preferred weight loss/maintenance style, start out with what’s easiest and don’t beat yourself up for not going all-out with both healthy eating and exercise all at once if it’s too stressful. Either the whole package will come together naturally or having gotten into a habit on the one side will make it easier to start building the other in.

Fitness for all of Life’s Little Surprises

There are all kinds of widely-recommended ways to stay on track with a fitness program, ranging from getting a workout buddy to finding an activity to love to finding things to do at home to paying for a class in the hopes of the already-spent money being a motivator.

Having at least one activity in each of these categories is a good way to make sure you stay on track. If no one’s available to play tennis, for example, and you also have an activity you’re used to doing by yourself, such as jogging, you have a ready-made back-up plan. If you have something you’re trying to keep improving at for games or competitions, like I do with figure-skating, you won’t skip that too often as long as you’re still motivated to achieve your goal. If you’re stuck inside with the kids on a rainy day and you keep DVDs on hand or even pull up a You-Tube video, you can put that time to your body’s advantage. And if the weather’s decent, a kid can actually be a workout asset. I pushed mine in a jogger-stroller while I roller-bladed until she was in kindergarten. The extra weight was a calorie-burning bonus! And lastly, if you’ve paid for a season-long membership at the gym, depending on how frugal you are, you won’t want to let that money go to waste.

Things don’t always go as planned; friends cancel on you and the weather doesn’t always cooperate, kids get sick requiring you to stay home, etc. None of that has to even temporarily derail your fitness goals.

Working out Tired

It’s 4:30 AM, and after tossing and turning for several hours you resign yourself to giving in and surviving on only five hours of sleep, yet again. Unfortunately, you can’t go to work early so now you’ve got more than three hours to kill before you have to get ready. You could drink your coffee and turn on the tv; after all, resting on the couch, since you can’t get back to sleep, might conserve your energy for the long day ahead, right? Actually, doing a morning workout might be a better bet. If, on the other hand, you’re struggling to get out of bed after having gone to bed too late several nights in a row, in the same vein don’t skip your normal afternoon workout.

Your first instinct might be that expending energy to work out will deplete what little stores of it you have. Energy begets energy, though, to some extent, so using that time to get some exercise is actually more likely to rejuvenate you and give you a jolt to make you feel better. Sleep repairs our bodies from daily wear and tear at the cellular level, and losing out on that rejuvenation process raises our stress hormones and tenses up our muscles, especially in the neck and back. Getting our blood pumping increases our pleasure hormones, bringing down the stress, at least for a few hours, that lack of sleep had brought on. In addition to getting moving, it’s a good idea to stretch the back and neck well after missing a lot of sleep. If your sleep deprivation is severe or your regular workout is an activity that poses risk of injury, it’s probably a good idea to tone it down to something simpler, since lack of sleep can reduce your reaction time and depth perception. Interestingly, however, after the workout, those deficiencies are reduced by the benefits that exercise gives you. In other words, sleep and exercise have a lot of over-lapping benefits, so it makes sense that a workout can take the edge off the effects of sleep deprivation.

Of course, the best remedy to missing sleep is to get back into a steady schedule so you’re well-rested again, but in the meantime, until you can catch on the zzz’s, a workout can take the edge off. So next time you’re dreading your day because you woke up too early, get moving to store up some energy for the day. You’ll probably even sleep better that night.

Beyond the Physical

by Carolyn Bertolino

By now, most of us know exercise plays a big role in losing weight and maintaining that loss. For some of us, however, it helps maintain our mental health as well.

I’m a worrier, perfectly capable of lying awake at night thinking about things I’m sure don’t cross most people’s minds. As far as getting to sleep, I’ve more or less solved that with different techniques that we can definitely discuss in the comments if anyone would like, but during the day if it gets really bad, I’ve pretty much got myself trained to get out and move (or stay in and move if the weather isn’t cooperating) before the anxiety simmer evolves into a boil.

Yesterday the sky was slate gray, which seems to exacerbate my tendency to overthink and stew about things. I waited to work out longer than I should have, to the point that my stomach was actually starting to feel like it had a knot in it. Finally I threw a leash on my dog and went out for a jog, which worked wonders. Jogging is not my first choice of exercise, but I try to do a variety of different workouts anyway, as is good for long-term fitness. Fall and spring tend to be the seasons in which I do the most jogging (not more than a couple miles once or twice a week at a relatively slow pace), but just two miles of moderate jogging cleared my mind, unknotted my stomach, and lifted my spirits.

Incorporating a regular workout routine does so much more than burn calories. Being flexible with the “routine”, and developing the mindset to appreciate the act of working out as a dynamic, all-around beneficial lifestyle takes the stress out of knowing you “have to” work out.

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