fitness for bibliophiles: the any old book will do


I disagree.

I mean, yeah, of course. That is a true thing that Ron Swanson has said there. If I took that advice more often, I would already have about five novels published and be in much better shape in my career. But sometimes you don’t have the energy to whole-ass anything, and so you may as well half-ass at least a thing or two. If it’s a question of half-assing two things or doing nothing at all, pick the former.

You’ve heard that “sitting is the new smoking“? Research is showing that even if you are an active person, you’re probably still going to die young. I bought a Jawbone tracker a few months ago and have definitely noticed that even if I exercise 60-120 minutes a day, which I generally do, I still have trouble remembering to get up and walk around. Last year, when I worked in a library, I was at least standing up and sitting down pretty regularly. Now, though? I have my step counter set to an 8000-step-a-day goal (I figure that with the amount of exercise I do on machines like stationary bikes, that’s a sufficient goal rather than the usual 10,000), and I only meet it about half the time. Sure, the thing is not perfect–it regularly tells me I’m being idle if I’m standing and walking around my kitchen cooking, just because I’m not swinging my arms enough, I guess, but it’s a decent approximation.

I would like to not die young. One of my biggest exercise motivators, besides needing to make rent, is not wanting to die ever. Also, because group fitness is my main area of activity, even if I’m not always the teacher, sometimes I just need me time. Off the couch. I get a lot of me time because I live alone. But it’s not the same, you know? Anyway.

When I was in grad school, I always had a ton of reading to do. I have more to do now, given that it’s my main area of employment and I’m on a literary award committee. And I’m going back to grad school in August, so that will add even more. Reading is necessarily a stationary activity…

…or is it?

Only somewhat.

When I came to the realization that my $19 a month Boston gym membership was still costing me real money, I realized that if I took my reading to the gym, I could at least give my body a slight boost. So I hopped on the T (or walked, when the weather was nice) and went to GymIt, parked myself on a recumbent bike or elliptical, turned up the resistance a little, and read my book.

Was I working super hard? No. Was I increasing my cardiovascular fitness? Probably not. I wasn’t trying to do anything but make my legs move and get my reading done. I’m going to say that a recumbent bike serves the same purpose as standing and walking around when you’re just trying to counteract the stationary nature of your life.  Not that I have a degree in physiology, but it seems logical.

I’m prone to vertigo, so I was not going to sprint on the elliptical. I was not, for many reasons, going to run on the elliptical. However, so long as I took the occasional break to look around the room and take a sip of water, I was able to read without any problem while still making my legs work and burning a few calories. It’s easy to hold a paperback while on a recumbent bike, but I recommend magazines or Kindles when you’re standing, as taking one hand off an elliptical handle to turn a page can make you dizzy.

This is a good way to start a fitness regime, too, especially if you’ve previously been doing nothing at all.

So now if it’s a day I’m not teaching and that I have low energy, I try to force myself to do exercise of this ilk, nothing else. It gets me out of the house, it keeps me from the distractions of Netflix that keep me from reading at home sometimes, it will likely not contribute to the overuse injuries that fitness instructors are prone to, and it makes me think that maybe I won’t die young.

That’s it. Give it a try.

fitness for bibliophiles: the henry and clare

“I won’t ever leave you,” she says. “Even though you’re always leaving me.”
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The driving tension of The Time Traveler’s Wife is the alternating POV chapters – which don’t just alternate POV but also times. Henry and Clare, destined to be soulmates, are always meeting when she’s too young, then Henry is disappearing whenever they’re trying to work on their marriage, and then the babies Clare is pregnant with time travel out of her body and she miscarries, and now I’m just making you sad, but you see my point? They’re always in each other’s lives, but they’re never in the right place at the right time.

So. Let’s say you are the type of person who needs accountability and companionship to commit to going to the gym. Or, alternatively, you have already committed but you also happen to like having a gym buddy. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you want to get ideas for workouts, so here is how you’re going to get your fitness on, Henry and Clare-style.

Scope out the floor of your gym and identify some machines or free items that you want, like kettlebells or various weight machines, as well as a little bit of space for body weight exercises. Discuss ahead of time what specific activities you’re going to do, and pick at least four (so, for example, bicep-curl-to-press with dumbbells, the adductor/abductor machines, wall sit, kettlebell deadlift – and we’re going to call them “stations”). Have your eye on the clock or get a watch or use your fancy pocket telephone computer, whatever. Just be able to regularly see 60 seconds passing.

Now (you already warmed up in this scenario). One of you starts at a station, and the other stays near enough that you can converse and encourage each other. At the start of the minute, one of you does the station, the other does a cardio interval. If it’s convenient to you, you might try hopping on an elliptical or treadmill, but otherwise you can run in place or do jumping jacks. Grab a jumprope, maybe. Just get your heart rate up.

At the end of the minute, switch places. No break.

Then you switch again, but on station 2. One minute, one minute. Move on, no break.

Lather, rinse, repeat until you’ve gotten through each of your stations (that is, each person has done each station and each corresponding cardio interval). With four stations, that’s eight minutes. After you’ve finished, get a sip of water, towel off, and then do it again. Another sip of water, wipe the sweat off your brow, and then do it one more time. That will take you to around 30 minutes, including your warmup and cooldown/stretches, obviously more if you’ve worked in more stations. Even if you only do it twice, it’s high intensity interval training, which means you’re working hard, improving your cardiovascular function, and getting stronger. Congratulations: you win! Henry and Clare did not, but that’s their problem, not yours.

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i mudded! again!

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 12.19.22 PMTwo Saturdays ago, April 30, I did a 10K mud run – for the second time.

I never could have anticipated I’d become any sort of fitness person. I hated physical activity as a kid unless it was riding my bicycle*, I couldn’t breathe**, and I was afraid of the ball in all sports that required them. But I guess I have always enjoyed climbing on things, because learning to rappel off a mountain in eighth grade was pretty great, and high ropes course was infinitely superior to low ropes course, because it was all me and all climby fun stuff, none of that bullshit team building crap. So when I first heard about the Tough Mudder, I secretly thought it sounded cool, even though I outwardly  scorned it for being ridiculous.

It is ridiculous. Mud runs are ridiculous. And I would never do one. Certainly never a Tough Mudder.

I have a penchant for signing up for things I have explicitly and recently stated I have no interest in. So last October, mainly because I wanted to make new friends, I did a 10K Terrain Race at Old Tucson Studios. I did make new friends (two cycling teachers from the gym where I work), and I had a great time. One of the girls I ran with, who is also a PE teacher, told me that even though I didn’t run at all, all the cycling I did would actually make me a more competent (in terms of endurance, not actual form) runner than I’d thought, and she was right.

So I figured sure, why not do the run again.

It was way, way harder this time. I forgot until moving back to Tucson that I have the worst allergies in the world, since in Boston and the Bay Area I did not. I cannot breathe in the spring out here. I had to stop for walking breaks so many times, which was a bummer because I have gone practice running like four times since the last time I did the 10K, and whenever it’s a real race I need a walking break, but when it’s just running to run, I don’t. I thought I had broken down that wall, but clearly there’s something to competition (and, probably, pacing myself) that I have not cracked yet.

That said, though, I got through it. And it’s partly because of a thing I’ve done as long as I can remember but only recently learned the name for – defensive pessimism. It’s what happens when you, like me, tell yourself the plane is going to crash when you’re going through takeoff. Or when you determine that if you don’t finish a thing, you’re going to quit (I’ve done that with my novel, and I’ve yet to finish it but also yet to quit altogether). Where I learned it was an anecdote about one of those people who tried to swim the Arctic because apparently an Ironman or something is for losers. He was feeling like he had nothing left to give and told himself over and over just how many miles down he would sink, just how cold he would be as he died, and said that to himself over and over again as he….finished the swim. So I spent the race telling myself I could just quit at the 5K split and call it a day. And then my friend and I got there (I’m 100% sure that this race, which had numerous logistical failures this time around, actually had it split into about 7K and 10K, but that’s another story) and she asked if I wanted to do that because she could see I was struggling, and I said no. And I did lots more walking breaks and forewent more obstacles than I’d planned to, but I finished it.

I finished. I did not check my time and I’m sure it was a shameful one, but I don’t care. It wasn’t a race for me. It was just a thing I did, and I finished, and defensive pessimism got me through it. The end.



*not all that surprising that indoor cycling was my first certification and my favorite class most of the time

**nope, not asthma. Vocal cord dysfunction!

review: the first 20 minutes

Okay, I get it. You are maybe not a weirdo like me and thus do not want to read stuff that is super heavy on the exercise science. BUT you are also a person who respects the scientific process. Awesome! The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer is a book you’ll want to pick up. Here’s why:

First, take a look at the author’s qualifications. Gretchen Reynolds is a long-time columnist for The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in the country. Reporters, as you might know, are trained (at least we hope) in doing their homework, fact checking (or, at least, sending someone else to fact check), and coming at things from multiple perspectives. People who take time on things are usually more convincing people than those who do not. Good author? Check. Extra points because she’s chatty and super engaging and occasionally funny.

The book is organized as a glorified FAQ to exercise, basically. That makes it incredibly readable, even if you, unlike me, do not like reading science books cover to cover. You can skip around to chapters that interest you and learn, in very easy prose, summaries on the latest studies in exercise science so that you know that HIIT is actually worthwhile and produces results, that running actually does NOT ruin your knees, and that regular engagement in fitness will indeed keep you from aging before your time.

If this book has a flaw, it’s that Reynolds does have the underlying assumption that the only reason anyone cares about fitness is because they care about weight loss. She often ends sections with a bit of self-deprecating snark, which I can absolutely appreciate, but that snark holds some derision about fat people and fatness. She doesn’t really get down to a lot of the whole “skinny fat” or HAES movement.

But if you have questions about random fitness things and don’t want to have to flip through every back issue of SELF to see if they were answered? This book. This book. Good stuff. Definitely pick up the paperback for keeps and make notes in it.

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fitness for bibliophiles: the every day

The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp.

Every day I am someone else. I am myself–I know I am myself–but I am also someone else.

Every Day, by David Levithan

After being out of shape and out of any fitness habits at all, it was amazing when I discovered that indoor cycling, especially with hand weights and tap backs and other things to make me forget I was exercising, was the thing for me. So I started doing it frequently, because that’s what you should do with exercise, and it was great because it felt fun and that made it easier to make it a part of my life.

But after awhile I felt myself plateauing, and I had to admit to myself – because I am always reading books about exercise science and because I could feel it in my body – that you really don’t get stronger or lower your body fat percentage or work your bone density if you don’t strength train. So I added in another class, GRIT, even though I didn’t much like it, into my routine once a week or so. And it did help me keep my body reshaping (in the two years since I started exercising again, I have essentially kept off no pounds and still weigh the exact same, but I don’t care because I’m stronger and my clothes fit differently and I’m better at avoiding or fighting colds and other things, and that’s far more important).

Please find a type of fitness that works for you and that you enjoy. It’s life changing, really. But once you find yourself committed to it, please also find another type that you can do. Find something that is different, which means you might have to look around for awhile (this is why Groupon, LivingSocial, and Gilt were invented – so you can be a gym slut. Or you can do ClassPass if you live in certain cities.)

Women especially have this ridiculous idea that strength training will bulk them up, and that’s not how science works. You have to do a lot of additional things, like drink 10 protein shakes a day, to look like a body builder. And strength training is what instigates things like EPOC*/after-burn, which are what help you lose weight if that’s your goal, and which keeps your metabolism working properly.

So: alternate types of exercise day to day, whether that’s every day or just one cardio workout and one a week. Whatever. But don’t let your body get used to one thing, or it will start phoning it in.

*excess post-exercise oxygen consumption

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fitness for bibliophiles: the elya yelnats

Every day Elya carried the little piglet up the mountain and sang to it as it drank from the stream. As the pig grew fatter, Elya grew stronger.

Holes, by Louis Sachar

One of the classes I teach is a strength training class. You choose dumbbells, and unless you want to leave the fitness room and go dig something up on the main floor, your choices are 2.5-, 5-, and 7-lb weights. Not all that heavy. That’s because the class is a low weight, high rep class where I make you do the same movement 20-40 times. What that does is work your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which give you muscular endurance.

That’s awesome. It teaches your body and muscles not to get fatigued too easily.

It’s not a strength building class, though. You’re not really working your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones that kick in if all of a sudden you’re hit with a huge load of weight. So you need to do both. And even with the low weight, high rep class, at some point you’re probably going to want to go up a weight, or at least have a slightly heavier one for when we do lower body work and you’re just letting your weights hang out on your trapezius. (I only ever use 2.5-pounders, but that’s because if I did something heavier, I’d be paying attention to my workout, and it’s the class I’m supposed to be giving my attention to. I do other strength work on my own time.)

So, to build muscular strength you need to find weight that you can only hold for a maximum of about five times before you reach failure. If you’re at a gym, this will take you a little while to look around and test things out, and it’s likely that with whatever type of lifestyle you have or activities you already do, you will find that you need much heavier weights when working some muscles than others. Just make sure you test them out, and as you get stronger, don’t get complacent. Keep using gradually heavier weights and then you’ll always have a challenge, rather than a plateau.

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reading running culture

Nothing is real unless I’ve read a book about it. So when I woke up in early January of 2014 and had this random thought that I wanted to run a 5K, I still didn’t really want to run it until I read a book about how to run. There are many ways to learn, from kinesthetic to aural and on and on, but with many things, I can’t really comprehend their relationship to my own life or my self unless I read it.

So I did one audiobook and one print book (plus an issue of Runner’s World), and then I talked to two of the fitness teachers at the school I worked at for advice. THEN I cross trained and only actually trained like three times, and then I ran (with a little walking) the 5K. Aside from trying to catch the train a few times, I didn’t run again until a Precision Running class at Equinox more than a year later. And I only went to that once until I ended up moving back to Arizona, where there is no Equinox because we don’t get fancy stuff until they’re not trendy anymore.

I don’t like running. I find it boring, even though I’ve tried it inside and outside, even though I’ve done it with television, with a podcast, with music, and with nothing extraneous at all. I don’t like it.

After I did the 5K and the Precision Running class, I still didn’t run. Then I started working at LA Fitness and made two cycling instructor friends who convinced me to do a 10K obstacle course in October, which was a week away when they told me about it, and very expensive, so as soon as I signed up, I had to be committed. I thought I would be terrible, but it turns out that when you do cycling five times a week, you are actually somewhat prepared to do other cardiovascular activity without totally falling apart. Especially when a) every time it gets boring, you get to climb a thing or splash in a thing or throw a thing, and I like that type of stuff; and b) you’re running on dirt and sand in the desert instead of concrete or something horrible for your knees. It was a blast.

Then I stopped running again. But I have enough friends who run that I really wanted to break through and figure out why any of them liked it, so I kept considering taking it up. Runner’s high is a compelling idea, because as much as cycling (especially in Tucson because of weather) is a similarly intense, in-group subculture that makes you very fit, I never hear anyone talk about it in that sense. Running is free, apparently good for you, and can be done everywhere, so I think it’s a good skill to have in your back pocket. I slowly began to read more about running, as I am wont to do, and eventually found a copy of Women’s Running at the used bookstore and bought it.

That’s what did it for me. I really liked that it was a glossy, mainstream-looking magazine dedicated exclusively to women (really just cis women, and I will have another Saturday essay on the positive and negative aspects of women-only spaces that don’t acknowledge gender as a spectrum, so bear with me now. I’m a cis lady and I feel really safe in spaces that are dedicated to nurturing ME, but I know there is a host of problems with that). I found a discount code and immediately subscribed, and now I own three entire issues of it.

Behold 3 covers of the magazine


It’s not like there’s anything new to pointing out that mainstream women’s magazines really only put one type of woman in the cover, so this has really stood out to me. That image on the back right is of a girl who is Latina. On the left is the first one I received in the mail, and it’s a black woman who, upon closer inspection, is a co-star of Sleepy Hollow, a sci-fi show with two black women on it, which is its own amazing. And front and center is the latest issue, which has a fat girl on it.

I tweeted about this right away because I was so excited. It is really amazing. But looking at it more closely, it is important to note that it’s semi-progressive while still adhering to some cultural standards we have for bodies and people who are not white and slim. Left cover? Black. No mention of how she’s famous until you read the feature inside. Slim and wearing a crop top.

The fat cover? Clearly larger than most cover models, but also far from really fat, and she’s white. Because you can only be one marginalized thing according to culture, not two. Just as we erase queer people of color from discussions of gay rights or non-Latinx people from discussions of immigration or or or, these covers still only take down one stereotype at a time. And the fat cover, it’s important to notice, shouts that it’s aware that it’s a Fat Person Cover by putting in large words the fact that there is a feature article on body positivity and acceptance.

I am all for body positivity and acceptance, or else I wouldn’t be a (not fat, and I don’t want to appropriate, only be an ally, as well as unpack my own non-mainstream-society-conforming body parts) co-founder of a blog about size acceptance. But making it the reason for the cover model they chose is still situating it firmly in mainstream values and keeping it from being just another cover, in the same way that discussions of diversity still reinforce whiteness, heteronormativity, etc by avoiding discussions of privilege or use of the words “equity” and “justice.”

But still. Are these major milestones to celebrate? Fuck yeah. This magazine is what has made me go running for my own personal enjoyment twice in the last month and what has made the 30-minute treadmill portion of Orange Theory no thang. Do I like that a magazine like this is for everyone but also for me, rather than the majority of articles in, say, Runner’s World, which are for “people” and maybe for women? Again, fuck yeah.

So if you want to take up running or already do run but want a magazine, and you identify as a lady, this one should really be your choice.

fitness for bibliophiles: the nick and norah

I am the one who takes this thing called music and lines it up with this thing called time. I am the ticking, I am the pulsing, I am underneath every part of this moment.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Sometimes you need a very particular playlist. Indoor cycling classes, for example, need “choreography,” and that means devising and listening to songs with rhythms and lyrics that inspire or lend themselves well to hills, jumps, and sprints. Other times, though, you’re grudgingly plugging away on an elliptical because you know working out is healthy, and you’d rather be anywhere but there.

Enter the infinite playlist.

I hope you still have an iPod, or maybe you understand the cloud better than I do. I have an iPod because I like to know that my music will be around even when there’s no 3G. Anyway. My iPod has 15000-something tracks on it, and they run the gamut, as just about everyone’s music library does. If that’s the case, because you can put your varied music tastes to good use by using them to inspire your workouts.

I have an ever-growing playlist on my iTunes, and it’s the only playlist where I abide disorganization. It’s simply a dumping ground for every type of workout-appropriate song you can imagine: 80s one-hit wonders. 90s boy band and girl pop classics. Hardcore rap. Club music. Even a little metal. Everything that’s even a bit loud or good mood inducing or silly or embarrassing outside of earbuds or Top 40 or totally dirty and sexy, because you never know what type of mood you’re in.

So when I’m just working out to work out and don’t have much direction or motivation, that’s when I click onto that playlist, put it on shuffle, and press play. You’d be surprised how quickly you can be swept up and have a song automatically urge you onto sprinting or keeping a rhythm or changing your intensity. All of a sudden, you have a workout that actually keeps your interest, and because it’s so long (mine’s about 1000 tracks at this point), you’ll be surprised every time.

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