fitness for bibliophiles: the downstairs girl

At least we have a home. It’s dry, warm, and rent-free, one of the perks of living secretly in someone else’s basement. As long as you have a home, you have a place to plan and dream.

The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

Can you go up and down undetected? Can you keep your upper body still while moving your lower body? Can you lift yourself out of a lunge without needing assistance from a barre or yanking on your hip?

You should be able to. Or you should want to be able to.

The Downstairs Girl is one of my favorite reads from 2019, which should not have surprised me, because it’s rare that I don’t love a Stacey Lee book. It’s feminist historical fiction about someone who’s not just a white girl, and it’s also about secret identities and murky family secrets. I’m not someone who reads a lot of adventure or survival novels, as that’s something I prefer in my movies, but I’m always down for a Stacey Lee survival adventure. This isn’t a survival novel in the desert island sense, but it is a bit thrilling and deals with social survival when you’re part of a disenfranchised class of people. Jo Kuan, the protagonist, has to constantly traverse Atlanta’s social and metropolitan systems, and she’s pretty much always at a disadvantage. She is adept at slipping out of sight when she needs to, but she also finds strength and learns to stand tall.

Ballet lunges, or elevator lunges, or scooters, or any other name you know them by, are a great exercise because you can work on your stability and control, and even if they are a quad-centric exercise, you have to do a lot of stabilization with the abs, and if your hips aren’t in good shape, your form will be off and then your hips will hurt more as a result. Hooray! I love it when an exercise uses more than a single muscle group.

If you have access to a ballet barre at home or at your gym, where you are MOST DEFINITELY WEARING A MASK, RIGHT?, use it. Otherwise, you’ve got a counter or a high-back chair at home. If all of those are inaccessible, you’ll have to do it without, which actually makes it harder-easier, by which I mean harder to perform but easier in the sense that you won’t be able to cheat, so your body will learn proper form right away.

You’ll see in the video that I’m using a home ballet barre and sliders, but if sliders/gliders are something you don’t have available at home, small towels or washcloths work fine on tile/wood/cement, and paper plates work fine on carpet. Now, here’s how you do the thing:

Feet on sliders, facing your “barre,” with about four feet of space behind you. Underhanded, light grip on your support. Raise the heel on your right foot so just the toes are on the slider. Now begin to bend your left knee, and as you do so, push the right slider back behind you as you lengthen your right leg. Your left thigh is what’s initiating the movement, so it’s what’s responsible for your right leg sliding back. Your upper body should be still and straight, so if someone couldn’t see below your waist, they would think you were going straight up and down like in an elevator. You’re going as low as you can, but what determines the “as you can” is not literally how deeply you can bend your knee but how deeply you can bend it without needing tons of assistance to stand up again. As you bring your right leg back in, you should be driving your weight into your left thigh as you slowly straighten it back up to stand tall. Repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-8 times, depending on your fitness level and comfort.

What not to do: Many people hold onto the barre for dear life as they bring the moving leg in and use it to help them pull themselves up. When you strangle the barre, you’re forcing your back into an uncomfortable position and yanking your hips, which is terrible because then you’ll be in pain, and it’s also terrible because you’re supposed to be working on your legs, not your hips or lumbar region. This is not something that should or even can be done quickly if it’s going to be correct. Try aiming for a 4-count in each direction.

Bonus burn: keep the left leg bent as you rapidly (1- or 2-count) scoot the right knee in and out, 4-12 reps. Again, no yanking on your support system, and think about holding your abs in as a way to keep your balance, not forcing your hips to do it. The point is increased strength, not pain.

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fitness for bibliophiles: circe

It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

–Circe, by Madeline Miller

My usual retort to any cis woman when she tells me that she doesn’t want to lift heavy weights because she doesn’t want to bulk up goes something like this: “Are you eating 200 grams of protein a day and taking testosterone supplements? Cause if you’re not, lifting some weights is not going to bulk you up.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. Generally speaking, if you are genetically female, you are not designed to get substantially bulky without outside help. Lifting twenty pounds instead of two will not change that, though it will make you stronger.

There are two important things in fitness, and you don’t exactly get them at the same time: muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength is what you can lift, right? Endurance is how often or for how long you can lift it. Want to increase your strength? Go high weight, low rep. Want to increase your endurance? Go low weight, high rep. Want to be fit? Do both.

Low weight, high rep is how many workouts marketed to women are designed: LA Fitness’ Body Works Plus Abs program, barre classes, and Pound are some examples. They trade on the fear that women have about bulking up, which is too bad, because they could just market themselves as muscular endurance classes without the fear-mongering. They are fantastic for that! But at some point you also have to work on more sustained and heavier exercises if you want to get stronger. Lifting heavy weight to failure in, say, six reps will do wonders for your overall strength, while lifting light weights to failure in, say, 32 reps, will help you with your stamina.

Please do both. Please.

There’s nothing new or interesting about saying that women are shamed a lot when it comes to fitness. We are told not to do things that will make us bulk up, even though that’s not how science works anyway, and we’re told we’re always inadequate but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to “improve” every day, and and and. But if there’s one thing I can impart to you (and assume about you), it’s that you should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights (and you probably aren’t doing a lot of it). That doesn’t literally mean you have to go bench press 200 pounds, though feel free if you want to. It could also mean doing slow bodyweight exercises, throwing some pushups into your routine, strapping on or setting up some resistance bands to push and pull. But don’t speed through everything with two pounds.

The goddess Circe doesn’t give any fucks about society’s wishes for her, though in our human defense, we don’t have centuries upon centuries to unlearn harmful body messages, and she did. Though this book starts out kind of boring, essentially just giving us summaries of all the major Greek myths, it gradually turns into this really fantastic feminist tale, and I’m so glad I stuck with the initial boring bits to get to the amazing rest of it all. Highly recommend.

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fitness for bibliophiles: freshwater

“I can see you change,” he told us, his eyes narrowed in interest. “Your body language. How you talk. Your eyes. You’re not always the same person, are you?”
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

It took a really long time for me to get into a workout routine. My entire life, all the physical activity I did was dictated by others–PE in elementary school and eighth grade, ballet folklórico because my sister did it, swim team because Tucson is hot and what else are you going to do, riding my bike because it gave me independence and it’s how I met up with my friends around the neighborhood. I did not like team sports because I was afraid of the ball and uncoordinated. (As opposed to now, when I am still afraid of the ball but slightly more coordinated.) And given I was being treated for a condition I didn’t have (asthma) instead of a breathing condition I did have (vocal cord dysfunction), it was difficult and embarrassing to engage in physical activity.

It wasn’t until I was about 26 that I liked exercise, and it was even longer before I developed a solid routine and regimen–a diet, so to speak, of exercise. And just because I have one doesn’t mean it’s never going to change. I’m a librarian by training, even though I don’t work in a library anymore, and one of our guiding philosophies is that if you don’t like to read, you just haven’t found the right book yet. If you don’t like exercise yet, buy a bunch of Groupons, join classpass, find studios and gyms in your area that offer a free first class, or sign up for free trials of streaming fitness services and go wild! Just as the best book to read is the book you want to read, the best type of workout is the one you actually want to do. So with trial and error, you’ll find something.

But don’t stop there. The theory of muscle confusion is pretty much debunked at this point, but variance does lead to better fitness outcomes. It can be something as simple as increasing the weight you’re lifting, adding more reps, or doing interval training. For me, though, I’m less and less interested in traditional cardio machines, and I can’t do a lot of traditional weightlifting after multiple arm and wrist injuries, so that’s not going to work for me. What does work for me is keeping about four different modalities going. Right now that’s Pilates, indoor cycling, p.volve, and aqua fitness. That allows me to use different muscles in different ways, accommodate my injuries and limitations, and not overtrain. I’ve done overtraining and it was the worst. For the most part, I’m doing these things two, one, two, and one time a week, and I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time.

Ada is a protagonist whose selves are splintered. She is more than one person, and those different people process different events, happy and sad, exhilarating and traumatic, at different times. This book is heart-shattering and vindicating to read, from the college angst to the meditations on mental illness. As someone who lives with mental illness, though not those that Ada has (and are they just illnesses? Magic realism complicates that notion), I totally loved this book.

I’m not always the same person. I’m not always in the same mood. I don’t always have the same physical, mental, or emotional needs. So how could I always need the same workout?

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fitness for bibliophiles: the any old book will do

never-half-ass-two-things-whole-ass-one-thing

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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