A blog about health, wellness and well-being, with advice on how to achieve it... from your inner depth to your outer surface.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Every day deserves a workout

Sam Howzit, Flickr

Last week I found myself caught in a debate about weight, BMI, body fat and all those indicators of health. A friend complained that his BMI puts him in the "obese category", which he visibly thought was an exaggeration, as were the 30 pounds he "should" lose to fall into the upper end of the "healthy BMI" range. I asked him if he knew his body fat percentage, since it's another useful measurement in times of uncertainty. Again, he said that his BF % also indicates that he needs to get significantly leaner to be considered healthy.

The conversation then moved on to other, more subjective ways perhaps, to evaluate whether your weight is acceptable or not, i.e. healthy. Someone suggested that the best indicator of a healthy weight is whether or not you like the image you see in the mirror. I politely had to disagree. Instead, I suggested, you should base your evaluation on the way you feel when you walk upstairs, play with your kids, carry heavy grocery bags. I added: "and how you feel on scorching hot days".

Numbers, as accurate as the calculations may be, are only one side of the story. The way we see ourselves is no better. We are all biased toward our own appearance. Anorexia nervosa is a good example of people highly overestimating their size. It's also been said of obese people who go on to lose a lot of weight that they still consider themselves big afterward, as if it had somehow permeated their permanent identity, no matter how small they actually become. As for me, having been thin all my life, I did not even recognize the fact that I had become overweight after my second (and partly bed-rested) pregnancy. My identity was that of a thin woman, and the fact that I was now significantly bigger did not register until I actually lost the weight and looked at post-partum pictures of myself, a few years later.

I have been fit. I have been unfit. 1-2 years ago I was in the best shape of my life - I had a personal trainer, went to the gym 4 times a week on top of running (toward a half-marathon) another 4 times a week. Right now I am not at the top of my abilities (e.g. I could not run a half-marathon tomorrow), but fit I still am.

That is perfectly acceptable. Being in an elite athletic shape (which has never been my case) might not be sustainable full-time; even "real" athletes go through phases, as I discovered when I coached university level triathletes.

Being unfit, however, shouldn't be an option. As a teenager I remember thinking "I wish I don't ever become completely out of shape". That was before I realized that wishing (and hoping and thinking and praying) has absolutely nothing to do with fitness. Fitness is something you grab by the horns and never let go.

Even if you don't feel like it.

Even if you're too busy.

Even if you're too sore.

Even if you're too tired.

Even if you're too stressed.

Even if you're too depressed.

Or simply not in the mood.

Your mood has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with whether or not you should exercise. In fact, there is a very good chance that your mood (and everything else I just listed above) will improve once exercise becomes a habit.

Just go.

30 minutes suffice and you only need your body weight and comfortable clothes. You don't need to push yourself to intense pain or until you throw up, either. As long as you can feel your breath, heartbeat and sweating intensify, you're probably doing it right. Struggling to keep balance is also a sign that you're working on something meaningful:

Try doing this on a floating dock!

Do it. Every day. It's a gift you are giving yourself.

What are your main obstacles when it comes to exercising?
How do you overcome them?

For more on health, weight, and the accuracy of BMI measures, click here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to s... tress

Topgold, Flickr

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. (Isak Dinesen)

It had to happen. After a week of delightful and almost absolute freedom (i.e., little work, mostly play), the reality hits again: a big contract just landed on my desk, school starts in a couple days (meaning I have to both prepare my kids for "back to school" and prepare myself for the classes I will give), extracurricular activities will resume in a few weeks... in short, I am going to be very busy again.

Most of us have felt this kind of frenzy that accompanies periods of intense responsibility. It's not pleasant. It's not even good for you: in times like this, the hormone of stress, cortisol, is released, and if that lasts it can have a significant impact on your health.

What to do, then? I have put together a list of strategies to deal with stressful periods without going crazy.

1) Get organized

Acquire a good agenda, calendar, whatever system works for you, and stick to it. Write everything down. Read it every morning. Otherwise, and especially if you're a scatterbrain like me, you will surely forget something, plan two things a the same time, etc. As for material things, they need to be organized too! If you have to look for more than 2-3 minutes before you find something, it means you're due for a cleanup! As our grandmothers used to say, "a place for everything and everything in its place". Being a relatively messy person myself, I find putting things away to be a challenge, but honestly, it makes such a huge difference!

2) Prioritize well

It would be nice to stay on top of things in all areas of our lives, but if you're really busy, that's almost impossible. Make choices. Some things will have to give. For example, it's okay to slack a little bit on your house's cleanliness if that's the only way you'll have enough time to cook healthy meals. Clean food in the tummy is more important than clean windows, if you want my opinion. Other things, that don't seem absolutely necessary from the outside, will have to be maintained because they make you feel so good. For example, even when I'm very busy I maintain and cherish my social life: spending time with pleasant people I care about is the only way I'll retain my sanity!

3) Speaking of social life...

Another priority we should make is to manage our relationships well. Some examples include: 1) not letting interactions bear the weight of your stress (venting aggressively on others is NOT okay) or be dictated by a sense of urgency ("quick, quick, hurry, we're gonna be late!")  2) choosing who we interact with carefully (focusing on the relationships that are rewarding, letting go of the ones that don't feel so good). 

4) Oil the machine

If you are going to face periods of stress, you better be prepared. And that starts with the body: eating well, sleeping sufficiently and exercising regularly are invaluable tools that help us handle anything that's thrown at us. Neglect those things, and all of a sudden stress will feel... even more stressful!

5) Act, don't react

It's easy to get caught up in reacting. This morning, the kids noticed the dog's eye was infected again. Between exclamations ("eeeew!" "disgusting!") they didn't seem to think of the most logical thing to do: just go get the eye drops and put some in! While it's perfectly okay to have a reaction, don't let it linger. Act instead.

6) Find your own ways

Some say that you shouldn't read your emails until later in the morning. That doesn't work for me. I like to open my inbox fresh out of the shower, as I sip my coffee. Oftentimes I am the only one who's up, meaning I get to read and reply in a quiet atmosphere. In a similar way, I have never been able to exercise during lunch time, as many recommend. However, I do really good when I fit my run or workout right before breakfast, or after supper. I know someone else who goes against all mainstream advice by not having breakfast. It seems to work for him. That's fine! With trial and error, you will figure out your own optimal strategies.

7) Solve problems in due course

Not all situations can be tackled right away (exceptions include serious hemorrhage, in which case I recommend you don't waste a minute). Some situations require time and a careful assessment of what is going on as well as an exploration of the possible solutions. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt at a loss for a solution, unsure of the right course of action? I sure have. It is unsettling. We would rather solve everything on the spot. Yet my life experience has taught me that not seeing a solution does not mean there is none. It only means you haven't found it yet. Or maybe you know the existence of that solution, but are not ready to apply it in your life. Which is equivalent. The only cure in those cases is time. An ex-classmate of mine, who was questioning his current love relationship and wasn't sure what to do, once told me "It's okay. I'll cross the bridge once I get to it". I remember thinking "Wow, he's so laid-back!" But he was right. Rushing things does no good.

8) Remember that problems can be attacked from different angles

Think outside the box. See things in a new light. Don't expect everything to be either black or white. Nothing is that simple in life. What seems like "a very perplexing situation" or "an insurmountable problem" to the main character in the movie below is approached very differently by the people he confides in. "Inhabiting two worlds", for example, is not a possibility that fazes them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Take a look:

Midnight in Paris

9) Meditate

Some answers in life only appear to us if we sit in stillness for long enough. Rushing in all directions will not bring an answer, only exhaustion. So sit in stillness. Do not chase any thought. Do not judge any thought that comes by. Just welcome them. Observe them.

10) Number ten is yours! What are your strategies in times of stress and uncertainty?

Above all... don't forget to breathe!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Yoga by the lake

Chris Potako, Flickr

Monday night.

It's "Yoga on the deck night". For some 10 weeks, we have been meeting T, our yoga instructor, at the end of a long serpentine path in the woods. Every Monday we have been unrolling our yoga mats on a deck by the water for an hour and a half of strength, balance and flexibility (both physical and mental). Every week we push ourselves to our limits as we move through postures, then we find our stillness as we pause and observe.

Yoga has always been a gift and a blessing, but doing it outdoors maximizes the benefits. The view of the lake, of the trees, of the sky. The lapping water. The occasional loon. The scents of the forest. After shavasana, reopening your eyes to a ceiling of green leaves.

For our last class of the summer, T has planned a practice not on the deck, but on the floating dock. As soon as we set foot on it, we realize what we signed up for. It is wobbly to walk on. Never mind trying to keep your balance as you do yoga postures! The tree pose, which has always been my specialty, suddenly takes a whole other meaning. The crow pose, which I'm proud to say I master pretty well, becomes almost impossible to hold for more than 3 seconds. And you don't want to fall. For if you do, it's in the water you're going.

T tells us it's nothing. Earlier in the day, she was practicing her headstands on a surfboard!!! She shows us pictures on her phone as proof. We have nothing to complain about.

Call me when you've done that on a floating surfboard
Pasco Olivier, Flickr

Speaking of water, it contains its own elements of distraction. The fish (that jump out to catch their supper of insects). The frogs (that hop from lilypad to lilypad). The ducks (calling other ducks).

Then there's the sky. As the sun goes down it paints it in layers of pink, orange and yellow. While upside down I notice the same stripes of color reflected on the water. It's beautiful.

We finally lie down for shavasana. For the first moments, I keep my eyes opened. I am looking straight up when pop! the first star of the night suddenly appears, big and shiny.

I close my eyes. Time stops. There isn't a sound. With the sunset, the lake has become entirely quiet and still. All I can feel and hear is my own gentle breathing.

I don't know how long it lasts. When I reopen my eyes, it is dark all around. We slowly get up, roll our mats, and walk our way back.