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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Slow down

Greek tortoise. Athens, 2012

Ndànk-ndànk ay jàpp golo cib ñaay
(Senegalese saying, meaning: you have to go slow if you want to catch the monkey in the bush.)

I've been reading "In Praise of Slow - How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed", by Carl Honoré.

I must be a little slow myself, because the book was published 10 years ago, and I hadn't read it yet. In any case, it's timely because I have been forced to slow down drastically in the past month or so. The string of various illnesses was interrupted briefly, only to give way to new and improved afflictions. At the moment I have both a vigorous sinus infection and a debilitating runner's knee. The former is helped by long, steamy showers; the latter is helped by applying ice. I hope alternating between the two won't ruin me irrevocably. And thank goodness for modern pharmaceuticals.

But the details of my decrepitude are not what matters here.

What matters is what I am learning from this change of pace.

As I am - slowly - discovering, slower can be better. I can feel some benefits already.

In his book, Honoré makes the apology of slow food, slow weightlifting, slow sex and slow work, to name but a few.

We've already heard of the benefits of taking our time at the table and in the bedroom (in that vein, haven't I celebrated the value of a long, slow kiss in a previous post? - click here)

As for weightlifting, I thought I was already going slow (making each movement last a few seconds), until I read about the extreme approach that recommends you lift as slowly as you can. According to those who have tried it, you don't even sweat, yet it has the same benefits as "traditional" weightlifting. I gave it a try, and it's true: I remained fresh and dry, all the while feeling the burn more than ever. Interesting! We'll have to see if there is an effect on post-workout soreness.

Intense activities like weightlifting are not the only ones that can benefit from slowing down. Based on what 2 different, rather healthy friends have experienced recently, I think we can generalize to gentler activities, namely, yoga. Yes, 2 of my friends got seriously injured at yoga. I can see how. Yoga can be demanding, and it's easy to overdo some postures. To all my yogi readers: please be careful!

As a general rule, to enjoy life and enhance wellness, slowing down could be the overlooked panacea. Feeling good, really good (as opposed to simply numbing some kind of pain, physical or emotional) often arises from such simple things: drinking when you're really thirsty; eating when you're really hungry; sleeping when you're really tired. This applies to all basic needs. Remove the source of pain or discomfort, then enjoy life. Frantically chasing pleasure has no role in that equation. I know Epicurus would agree:

Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, his teachings were more about striving for an absence of pain and suffering, both physical and mental, and a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. Epicurus argued that when we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ataraxia, "tranquility of soul" or "imperturbability". (Wikipedia)

In the work arena, I, for one, do not have to be convinced that slowing down can make you more productive, while helping maintain your sanity. Instead of rushing from one task to the next, taking the time to breathe and allowing ourselves real breaks can make a difference for the best. Multiple studies have shown the positive impact of pausing in the midst of a busy day and of taking real vacation on a regular basis. And while at work per se, it is entirely feasible (and beneficial) to slow down as a general rule. It's all about focusing fully on one thing at a time. The most interesting part of this is that despite slowing down, we get as much done (if not more) at the end of the day. Bonus: we're less stressed!

One chapter I haven't read yet in Honoré' book is entitled "Leisure: The Importance of Being at Rest". I cannot wait to get to that chapter (slowly but surely!) I know leisure and rest are an issue for me. I don't allow myself to rest much (apart from a good night's sleep). Everything has to be useful or productive, including my pastimes (e.g. running, working out, writing a blog, etc.) I need to learn to take time and do things solely for fun. That does not come naturally to me. Even on vacation, and even when said vacation is far from home, I make lists of things to "accomplish". Up to now, the only way I've been able to really take time off was to go on a yearly retreat where I have nothing to care about but my own enjoyment and relaxation.

What about you? What would you say about the pace of your life? Have you tried other paces? How did it feel?

Monday, February 17, 2014

In fitness and in health

Marvin L, Flickr

The resolutions of January are fading away much faster than the weight gained during the holidays. The winter still has a few long, dark, cold weeks in store for us. There's no substantial race in the near future.

You know what that means. Motivation for fitness might be at its lowest right now, just like our energy levels.

On top of those defeating circumstances, I personally have been almost constantly sick, at varying degrees, for the past few weeks (which is very unusual for me - I blame extra stress at work for lack of a better explanation). At some point I was bed-ridden, ate pretty much nothing and lost 5 pounds in 4 days. You only appreciate what you have once it's gone, they say? Well, now that I only have a little bit of a lingering common cold, let me tell you that I appreciate my "relative health"!

Even when health is present, a number of obstacles erect themselves in front of us, making our fitness goals harder to reach. The commitment to a healthy lifestyle is definitely not easy to keep. What are we to do? We are to come up with strategies. This week I will share mine. I hope you take a moment to share yours in the comments!


It's too easy to self-loathe when it comes to health and fitness. "I don't eat well enough." "I don't work hard enough." When you start having those thoughts, the next step could be to abandon altogether.

I learned early on in my fitness journey that what matters is not to avoid setbacks, but rather to pick yourself up. If I eat junk at the end of a healthy food filled day, I focus on all the good nutrition I got into my body before the skidding occurred. And as soon as I realize what I've done, I go back to eating clean. (Tricks to stop a binge: have a big mug of tea, or throw a few chewing gums in your mouth, or brush and floss your teeth.)

A bad workout is still better than no workout at all. And as they say, even if you run slow, "you're still lapping everyone on their couch". Focus on the positive.

Do you have any tricks to focus on what you do well?


Should we always be A+ in our food and training, or can A- (or even B+) be acceptable at least part of the time?

Here I will borrow fellow blogger Roy's concept (click here to his blog) of sustainability in fitness. Sustainability might be the first and foremost factor of long-term results. The reason why diet fads and over-the-top training programs don't work is because they are not sustainable in the long run. It's been said time and again: we need to adopt a healthy lifestyle... for life.

Now if you have very specific fitness goals that put intense demands on your body, you might have to find a middle ground. Even top athletes are not at their top 365 days a year, because the intense training one does in prep for a competition/race is not sustainable year long.

What is sufficiently demanding, yet sustainable? You might have to resort to trial and error to figure it out.

I know I can attain wonderful results when I work out every day, and eat only salad and chicken breast. I know that because I did it. Gawd was I ripped. But I also know that there will be moments through the year when I'll want to slack off a little bit, train slightly less, eat chocolate, and drink some wine. If I do that week after week I will not be very healthy and definitely not fit.  But I do want to be able to indulge sometimes. So where's my happy middle?

I have found that when I work hard, I can run comfortable half-marathons and maintain my body fat at 16.5 %. I know that if I worked even harder I would run "comfortable" full marathons and be even leaner. But I don't really want to put in that much effort. I have a life, after all. Being super fit, even if it's a wonderful feeling, involves some sacrifices that I'm not willing to make full-time. The good news is that even when I slack off slightly, training a little bit less and being less spartan about my food (everything is relative - I still have a pretty healthy lifestyle), I can still run 10Ks at a moment's notice, and my body fat does not exceed 18 %. I have come to realize that this is perfectly acceptable and sufficient - most of the time. I'm probably the only one to notice that my clothes fit a little bit tighter. And nobody knows (well, until now!) that I'm finding it harder to do my "legendary" 40 push-ups these days (40 is my magic number when it comes to push-ups, and an indicator of my fitness levels). Once in a while I will decide to set a specific goal for myself, and I will put more effort for a few months. That's fun and motivating. But once in a while I will also allow myself to "sit back and relax".

The "sit back and relax" levels vary from one person to the next. All that really matters is to determine "how low you will go". I have a fitness threshold under which I don't want to fall, because I know it would affect my life negatively. But I don't feel the need to be at the top of my game all the time either.

Have you found your happy medium? Can you define it?

Sneak in the goodies

I'm not gonna lie: like most people, I find it hard to eat clean. Too many temptations (sweets in my case), not enough time (to prep, to cook). Over time I have developed some strategies that help me boost my nutrition. One of them is my "jar of seeds". If you opened my fridge, you might think I host a colony of birds. "My jar" is filled with all the seeds you could possibly imagine: pumpkin, sunflower, flax, hemp, chia, plus wheat germ and slivered almonds. I buy them separately but mix them in the jar to save on time. I pour that mixture in/on anything and everything: salads, oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, homemade muffins, name it. I know it's packed with nutrition, and it adds a nice taste and texture.

Other strategies include eating sprouted bread instead of regular bread, Greek yogurt instead of regular yogurt, to never consume any caloric beverages (no juice, no pop, nothing in coffee) apart from the very occasional glass of wine, and to always keep lots of berries and green leafy vegetables in the house (I also make sure I always have washed, cut veggies at hand).

And: eating out or takeouts should be for special occasions only!

What are your nutritional strategies?

Ironman? No, thank you: know your limits

I love training. (I really do.) I'm okay with eating clean. (Even if it's hard sometimes.) I fully appreciate being fit. But I have my limits. An Ironman is not a goal I even contemplate. It's not that I don't think I could do it: proper training can do miracles. It's just that I'm aware of the time and effort commitment, and... it's too much for me. At the moment anyways (never say never!)

Do you know your limits? What are they?

Make the good feeling last : the new and improved "stretch-a-lot" strategy

One of the best parts of a workout is the post-workout: You get to rest. You get to shower. You get to snack. But don't rush it. I don't know for you, but as soon as I put the last weight down, or take my last running step, I can feel the rush of endorphins filling me with a blissful sensation. And since I think I deserve it, I make it last. How? By stretching a lot. I take my time. I indulge in each stretching posture. I throw some yoga poses in the mix. If I have a couple extra minutes, I even sit down on a mat and meditate. Not only does that help me cool down and prevent soreness and injuries, it feels wonderful!

How do you maximize the pleasant feelings associated with your health and fitness regimen?

For more on fitness, health, running, nutrition, food, and similar topics, simply type the word you're looking for in my Search bar on the right hand side of the blog. Happy reading!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic attitude

Oliver E. Hopkins, Flickr

Side note on healthy eating:

Daughter R came back from school complaining that a classmate called her a "health nut" again. I said, "What were you eating when he said it?" "An apple, then a plum", says R. I roll my eyes. "Eating fruit makes you a health nut now? Plus, we don't even eat that healthy!" Just as I pronounced those words, I looked down: in my hand was a half-peeled avocado; on the cutting board, a tomato and a bell pepper; and on the counter top, a bag of spinach. "Well, maybe we are health nuts after all. But it's a good thing dear. You should be proud of it". When D came back from work and heard the story, he added "Just tell him your epigenetics will be much better than his!" R said "Sure, and now he's gonna call me a brainiac on top of it all!"

That family of mine cracks me up.

Now on to our main topic:

Every four years, we watch the Winter Olympics, and each time, the same set of questions are raised:

  • How much does one and one's family have to sacrifice in order to get to that level of elite sport? (So much time, money and energy spent on training and its facilitating factors.)
  • How dangerous is it to go down those hills at that speed? (Downhill skiing, bobsleigh and the like exceed highway speed limits.)
  • Why do they hold Winter Olympics in places where there's no winter worthy of the name? (It's been around 10 °C the whole time in Sochi, and Vancouver was only slightly colder.)
  • And last but not least, how can the figure skaters dance together like that during the day and not sleep together at night? (Put your face in my neck, I'll grab your inner thigh... seriously!)

Joking put aside, those questions could be generalized to our lives; why don't we do it now.

Sacrifice questions

From what I hear, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters spent each and every weekend on ski slopes form their youngest age. My first question is, they didn't have birthday parties back then? (I seem to constantly be driving either one of my kids to one of those.) My second question is, when did the parents clean the house and do the groceries? My third question is, didn't they become bored over time, doing the same thing every single weekend? I know I would. (Which is the first and foremost reason why I'll never be "THE BEST" at anything.)

Busy life put aside, I don't think I would be able to do the same thing over and over again, weekend in, weekend out. Throughout my "athletic" journey I have somehow felt the need to change sports every couple years or so. I played loads of tennis in my teens. Then in my twenties I swam. My thirties saw the beginning of long-distance running. Who knows what my forties will have in store for me?

One could argue that I still seem to devote a decade to each sport, which should yield interesting results. The difference between me and the Olympians, however, is that sport is only one little part of my life. As one of my young students wisely said, "You have to give up a lot to become an Olympian".

Those words of wisdom might apply to most things in life. Specialize and give all you have to something, and you have more chances of becoming excellent at it, but there is a cost. For example, if you decide to focus on your career or creative outlet (great artists/virtuosos fall into that category) , there comes a point where your family life and life balance in general will suffer.

There is a fine line between striving for excellence/looking for optimal stimulation/putting one's talents to good use/getting out of one's comfort zone (which is all fine), and going too far and actually hurting yourself (physically or mentally) in the process (which is not fine). If you've ever pushed yourself too much, you know what I mean. You eventually reach your "level of incompetence", or simply become overwhelmed. The consequence is usually stress and eventually injury/illness, whether it's in your joints or in your mind. I don't want that for myself nor do I want it for my kids. 

That all being said, most of us "regular people" still make sacrifices in order to reach some goals. I might not be willing to take my kids to the ski slopes every Saturday and Sunday, but I am willing to put money aside (in a "travelling account") so that we can take them on trips abroad on a regular basis. Parenting wise, that might be our biggest "sacrifice" (it doesn't really feel like one though, and it's so worth it: travel definitely broadens the mind).

What is your biggest chosen sacrifice, that you consider to be worth it?


Safety questions

I would never go down a hill at 130 km/h on skis, in a bobsleigh or what not. Never. Yet I am willing to take some risks, and so are you.

I've been on taxi rides, in other countries (namely Italy, Greece and China) that were scarier than roller coaster rides - and in which the danger was real, as opposed to the safety of most roller coasters. Getting on a plane after slaloming in traffic at high speed was a relief and a sure way to cure flying phobia!

My parents themselves took us to dangerous-animals-infested Africa when we were little (interestingly, nothing bad happened at all).

For the sake of travelling, I am willing to take some risks. If we wanted to be 100% safe we would never leave our house, let alone our country!

Next summer we are planning to tour the States, which makes me somewhat nervous since all Americans seem to carry (and use) a gun to their heart's content, but hey, I really want to visit the "land of the free"!

What risks are you willing to take?

Weather questions

My weather questions these days don't fly very high: I just want the darn weather to be warm enough to run at 5 in the morning! Minus 20 (or 30 cm of snow, that we receive almost every week) just is too much! K and I are no wimps; we'll happily run in the dark by minus 15, or in the rain and the wind. But minus 20? I still care about my lungs (asthma) and cheekbones (frostbite) a little bit too much for that! Lately we have been running most of our runs indoors, on the treadmill. Boooooring... I can't wait for this crazy winter to end.

How's the weather in your corner of the world?

Lust questions

Apparently, the Olympic village is, even-numbered year after even-numbered year, a "hotbed for sex" (pun intended).We already knew about the large quantities of condoms distributed and used by Olympians. Now we learn that there is an app to facilitate "encounters of the flesh". It's called Tinder. Based on this article (click here), Olympians make good use of it, and it goes something like this:

"Potential mates pop up on your screen, you swipe right, and if they did too, you talk and say, “Let’s sex.” Then, you sex."

Talk about abbreviating courtship! I guess that's what my recently divorced friend, S, was talking about when she said there's no more "wine and dine" - the new way to do it seems to be straight to the bedroom. Boom.

In any case, I've never used the Tinder app, but I do admit to having a twisted mind (i.e. figure skating allusion above); in my defense, and to my great relief, some have taken the analogy even further. This article (click here) in particular will surely inspire you! (Slide show with hilarious comments.)

For a longer article on what really goes on during the Olympics, click here.

What do you think of that "hidden side" of the Olympics?

For another post from this blog on the Olympics, click here.

And if you're more in Valentine's Day mood, you can read this past post of mine (click here) on the power of a kiss. You can also do a search for LOVE in the search box. Happy reading!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Did I hear Sex Ed?

br1dotcom, Flickr

Dear reader: Before you go any further into this post, may I proudly announce that I have just been published on the Fit Mama website! Follow this link (click here) to read about my experience with fitness!

The recent distribution of a sexual health education leaflet by our school to its students (Grades Primary to 5) has created a general outcry within the community. 

Some of the reactions, by parents upon opening school bags, read as follows on the social media:

"It's insane!"

"I almost died!"

"Not happening!"

"This is disgusting! [Sex ed] shouldn't happen until they're 12."

The parents (mostly moms) were going to the barricades about this leaflet. I hadn't opened it yet, so this strong reaction definitely piqued my curiosity. What horrors was I going to find in the leaflet?

Turns out the outcomes for elementary school children were very, very reasonable:

  • What makes up a family/diverse family structures
  • How to identify a safe and trusted adult
  • The proper names for body parts, including what areas of the body are private
  • Concepts related to sexual abuse
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Body image
  • Physical and emotional changes associated with puberty
  • To think critically about media messages
  • That sexual orientation is part of our personal identity, and that homophobia has harmful effects

One mom protested "But those topics have nothing to do with sexual education!"

Unknowingly, this mom had put her finger on one of the biggest challenges when it comes to teach our children about sexuality: in many adults' minds, the word sexuality evokes genitalia in particular and sexual intercourse in general.

But sexuality encompasses much, much more than that!

The first time I opened a book about sexuality with my daughters, I was ready to explain, in a matter-of-fact way, how "babies are made". To my surprise, however, my daughters showed very little interest in the actual "mechanics" of it. They wanted to know how you name each body part, what happens when people of different ethnic origins have kids together, etc. Not much about "the act" itself.

So I did as my friend the sexologist always advises: I simply answered their questions, as clearly and honestly as I could, without putting any embarrassment into the equation. And I did not get ahead: I let them lead the discussion. Because children will only ask a question when they're ready to hear the answer.

In any case, I've always approached the topic keeping in mind that the reproductive system is just another one in the body, along with the digestive, the circulatory, the respiratory. Why make a big deal out of it? Keeping taboos usually doesn't yield great results.

Sounds simple enough to me.

Now the issue might be that we, as adults, are not always entirely comfortable talking about sexuality, especially to children. But asking ourselves "Am I, as a parent, ready to explain those things?" is irrelevant. Children deserve honest answers, and we would be selfish to let our own discomfort with this topic get in the way.

Plus, if those things aren't explained in a respectful and age-appropriate way (at school or at home), how do you think our kids will learn about them? And when? (Knowing that puberty happens earlier and earlier! Wait until they're 12, as the above mentioned mother suggests, and you will likely have missed the boat altogether!)

Not knowing what to expect, thinking "it's disgusting", or learning about it in the wrong circumstances, could be a passport to having an unhealthy relationship with one's sexuality. Who would wish that for their kids?

Luckily, some parents who reacted to the leaflet had it right. One said "Maybe it's better she learns the info properly from her teacher than on the playground". Another said "I'd rather my child learn this stuff than be in the dark and have no clue".

  • Have you talked about those topics with your kids? How did you go about it? How did they react?
  • Did you learn about sexuality in optimal, respectful circumstances when you were younger?