Saturday, December 29, 2012

Planet Fitness Guest Pass Trick and Review

Nick and I spent Christmas at my family's home in Michigan.  While we were there, my dad invited us to go to the gym with him.  He is a member of Planet Fitness in Northville.  Planet Fitness charges only $10/month with no commitment requirement-- not a bad deal, especially compared to some of the gyms we considered joining in Philly that cost $50/month and were smaller.  

We were hoping to get a guest day pass for $5/day... apparently they don't do that any more.  Instead, they wanted to charge $20/day for each guest.  What?!  That seems pretty absurd, given that their monthly membership fee is only $10/month.  Well, Nick and I worked around that...

We asked to join as members.  The initiation cost was only $5, and billing is on the 17th of the month.  We joined on December 22.  For $5 each, we got a free t-shirt (and we even got a special black t-shirt instead of white because we were so patient while waiting!) and a full gym membership for the duration of our stay in Michigan.  We canceled our membership on December 28, meaning we missed the billing cycle and didn't even have to pay our $10/month dues.  Now that's how you work the system!

I'm sure Planet Fitness is not too thrilled with us, but hey, if they had a 7 day trial membership, none of this would have happened... or if they charged $5/day instead of $20.

For a review of this particular franchise (Planet Fitness in Northville, MI):
Overall, for $10/month it's a good deal, and I would recommend it!  
(+) The gym has all of the standard strength training machines, free weights, and cardio apparatuses.  
(+) They have a rowing machine.
(-) This particular franchise did not have any medicine balls or kettlebells.  They also did not have any standard barbells.  
(-) They could use a much larger area for mat work/stretching.  
(+) They have a unique "30 minute circuit" set-up: a group of weight machines in a designated area with a timed light on the wall so you know when to rotate to the next exercise.  
(-) The free weight area sometimes felt a bit cramped.
(+) I was amused by their "judgement free zone" and the "lunk alarm."  Basically, whenever someone is dropping their weights or doing a ridiculous amount of grunting (a "lunk"), an alarm goes off in the gym.  The purpose of this is to reduce the intimidation factor and create a space where all people (regardless of current physical fitness level) are welcome.
(+/-) They have TV's on the wall in their cardio room, but each machine does not have its own personal TV.
(+) The clientele seemed to be a range of ages and fitness levels.  People worked hard but did not seem pretentious about their fitness routines.
(+) They offer (included in the monthly membership) unlimited fitness training.  Each class is limited to 5 people and lasts 30 minutes.  They do not offer classes like kickboxing, yoga, etc.  Instead, their classes focus on a muscle group (e.g., arms, legs, abs) and the instructor (from my understanding) teaches different exercises to work these muscles.  I did not take advantage of these classes during my (short) time as a member, so I can't speak to them.
(+/-) I am against tanning beds, but for those who enjoy these cancer boxes, this gym has tanning rooms.  They also have a massage chair room.  
(+) They have a locker room (bring your own lock) to store your items.  In addition, they also have an open place to hang your keys and another to hang your coat.  While this works in Northville, I don't think I would trust hanging my coat in the open in Philly.  
(+) They have great hours.  They are open from 5am on Monday through 10pm on Friday (24 hours on these days).  On the weekends, they are open 7am-7pm.
(+) The staff members were friendly.
(+) I like their purple pens.

If we didn't have a gym in our apartment complex and the Planet Fitness in Philly were a bit closer, I would consider joining.  It's important to remember, though, that each gym is individually owned (franchise), so they may vary between locations.

Has anyone else experienced Planet Fitness?  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Power Circuit

Since Monday's workout focused on endurance and strength (20 minutes hill profile on the treadmill, followed by my Total Body Strength Training Mini-Workouts), I decided I needed to choose another one of my 8 Key Aspects of Training for Tuesday's workout.

I chose power.

In athletics, "power" is often referred to as "explosiveness."  You can imagine a powerful basketball player launching a chest pass to a teammate before being blocked by the other team, a defensive lineman exploding off the line of scrimmage to immediately tackle an opponent, or a gymnast like McKayla Maroney springing off the vault to reach an incredible height.  What do these examples have in common?  Each athlete must produce a lot of force very quickly.  

We can break down what "power" means by using engineering/physics.

Power is the rate of energy production.  Work is another term for energy.

P = dW/dt   

In the above equation, P is power, W is work, and t is time.  The d represents the derivative, or the change in work divided by the change in time, to represent the instantaneous power.  Power is given in the SI-unit "watts" (like a light bulb).  Watts is the unit for joules per second.

Work is force times distance.  Work is given in the SI-unit "joules" (Newtons * meters).

W = F*D  

In the above equation, W is work, F is force, and D is distance.  We can re-write our power equation as follows:

P = d(F*D)/dt   

Looking at this equation, what does this tell us about how we can increase our power?
  • Increase force
  • Increase distance
  • Decrease time (be quicker)
When we train to become more physically powerful, we must keep these three points in mind: force, distance, and time.  The more weight we can lift/throw/spring, the further we can lift/throw/spring this weight, and the faster we can do it all equates to increased power.  We need to train our muscles (more specifically, our motor units) to respond quickly and generate a large amount of force.  To do this, our training must focus on explosive movements, exercises that force us to generate a lot of power... this usually comes in the form of plyometrics.

Plyometrics are exercises built to improve power.  They test a person's ability to generate high force in a short period of time.  Such exercises often including jumping and hopping.  With this in mind, I designed the following circuit to train my (super)power.  Perform each exercise for 1 minute and repeat the circuit 3-4 times total, resting between sets.    

Warning: Plyometrics are intense by nature and are not appropriate for people with joint problems, especially those with bad knees.  Additionally, beginners should gradually build up to such a circuit by slowly incorporating one or two exercises into your normal routine.  Form is especially important in these exercises because the quick actions increase injury risk.    

Tuck jumps: Just as it sounds, jump and tuck you knees to your chest.  As soon as you land, immediately spring into another tuck jumps. 
Make it easier: Straight jumps, alternate tuck jump-straight jump
Make it harder: Tuck jump on a soft surface that absorbs your energy.  In gymnastics, we used the pit mat, and it was killer on your legs (and lungs and heart)!

Plyo push-ups on medicine ball: Assume a push-up position, with a medicine ball (of any weight) in between your hands right below your chest.  Bend your arms to do a partial push-up and touch your chest to the ball.  Immediately spring off your hands and land them on the medicine ball, balancing for a couple seconds.  Spring off the medicine ball and land in a push-up position on the floor.  
Make it easier: Plyo knee push-ups, push-ups and tap the ball with each hand (one at a time), plyo push-ups to tap the ball with both hands simultaneously (without balancing)
Make it harder: Plyo push-ups extending your arms up by your ears as you spring up (no medicine ball), handstand push-ups

Sit-ups with medicine ball chest pass: Grab a partner for this one (thanks, Nick, for being my partner).  Have your partner stand on your feet as you assume a sit-up position.  Sit-up and chest pass the medicine ball (I used 10 lbs) to your partner.  Perform a regular sit-up and grab the ball back at the top of your sit-up.  Repeat, alternating between chest-pass and non-chest-pass sit-ups.  Be careful with this one!  I hit Nick in the lip the first time around (oops, sorry, honey!).  I recommend either having your partner put his/her hands low and you chest pass it directly to his/her hands (so while you toss the ball with plenty of force, it barely travels) -or- have your partner stand further away to catch the ball (use another heavy medicine ball to hold your feet down).  

Squat jumps: Just your basic squat jump.  Concentrate on proper form- knees behind your toes, soft landing, land and immediately prepare for another jump, push through your entire leg (including your toes!) to jump as high as you can (you should have pretty pointy toes in the air if you're doing it right).  Feel free to swing your arms with your body motion to help you get higher.

As I said before, this is a very intense, high impact workout.  Please be careful!  I even had to ice my knee afterwards because (while I wasn't in pain) it swelled up and felt stuffy.  I probably had a slightly off landing but didn't notice until afterwards.  Make sure you are listening to your body!

Let me know what you think of this circuit.  Do you have any other favorite power/plyometrics exercises?  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Chia Fresca: Iskiate

I finally purchased some chia seeds from Whole Foods a couple weeks ago.  I've found a few articles describing how nutritious they are, and ever since reading Born to Run, I've been dying to try "iskiate," a chia fresca. 

Let's review how nutritious these little seeds are.

1 tablespoon of chia seeds (1 serving size, the amount I used to make my drink) has 

  • 3 g protein
  • 5 g fiber
  • 0 mg sodium
  • 0 mg cholesterol 
  • 2282 mg omega-3 fatty acids
  • 752 mg omega-6 fatty acids
  • Only 60 calories
The benefits of high fiber and protein and low sodium and cholesterol are well-documented.  What about the omega-3 and -6 fatty acids?

In 2004, the FDA announced qualified health claims for omega-3 fatty acids.  This means that companies can write the following statement on their packaging:
"Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [Name of the food] provides [ ] gram of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.]"
In addition, the FDA recommends that consumers not exceed more than a total of 3 grams per day of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, with no more than 2 grams per day from a dietary supplement.  A serving of approximately 1 g per day of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids is recommended to protect the heart, and higher doses may reduce elevated triglyceride levels, morning stiffness, and blood pressure.  

Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, are more controversial.  Some studies suggest that high intake of omega-6 fatty acids may increase risk of certain diseases, while other studies show a protective effect on the heart (reduced risk of coronary heart disease).  Perhaps more important is the ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.  The typical Western diet has a ratio of 15:1, whereas a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality, and the optimal ratio may vary with the disease under consideration.   

If we review our nutrition facts, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds has approximately 2.3 g of omega-3 fatty acids, which is in the range of (potentially) providing beneficial health effects (awesome!).  Our ratio of omega-6-to-3 fatty acids is less than 1 (~0.3).  Combined with the high fiber, no sodium or cholesterol, and some protein, these little seeds are quite a superfood.  

As described in Born to Run (p. 44), to make iskiate all you do is dissolve the chia seeds in water with a squirt of lime juice and sugar to taste.  The longer you let the little seeds set, the more gel-like they become, similar to tapioca.  The seeds really don't have any taste.  I thought the iskiate tasted great.  The texture reminded me of drinking Bubble Tea (oh Bubble Island in Ann Arbor, I miss you!) with really tiny bubbles.  

Today in the grocery store, we saw a bottled version of a chia drink using coconut milk and fruit juices selling for $4 for a single serving.  Woo, pricey.  Now, I can make my own for less than I could buy in the store!  While I will admit that the seeds themselves are pretty pricey, one bag has 34 servings, so it'll last a while.  I'm excited to explore other ways to use these seeds, like baking.  I've already used them once to make a cocoa-almond quinoa breakfast bake bar, and it turned out alright.  

Has anyone else tried chia seeds or heard of other healthy, satisfying recipes using them?            

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Total Body Circuit Training

I'm sharing the total body circuit that I did on Saturday and am still feeling today... sore butt, hamstrings, quads, back, abs, and chest.  I'd say that's a pretty complete workout.  Each mini circuit provides a combination of upper body, lower body, and core exercises.

Let me clarify a few of the exercises.

Gymnastics "mountain climbers": In gymnastics, we always used to call jump switch lunges "mountain climbers."  It wasn't until after I explored many workout classes upon finishing my gymnastics career that I learned that "mountain climbers" can also refer to an exercise similar to high knee running while in a plank position.  For the mountain climbers in this circuit, you start in a lunge position, spring into the air while switching legs, and land back in a lunge position with your other leg in front.  It's a great way to pack in a little cardio while shaping a hot tush and legs.  Just make sure to control you landings (no knee busting on the ground) and keep your front knee behind your toes to reduce risk of knee injury.

Tuck-opens: These are another exercise borrowed from gymnastics that translates in the non-gymnastics world as well.  This is an ab exercise.  You begin on your back with your upper and lower body off the floor (balancing on the small of your back, abs engaged).  Your tuck your knees in, and then extend back out to an open position, as the name implies.

Stability ball pike-ups: (aka "pooch-be-gone")  I've talked about these before in a previous post.  Awesome lower ab exercise that targets the famous belly "pooch."   

Let me know what you think!   

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Presidential Fitness Test

Yesterday, I spent some time venting about how I want to be fit, not skinny, and how this places me in an awkward fitness category.  I'm not trying to lose weight, I don't want to become a professional bodybuilder, I'm not an exercise beginner, and I don't have "trouble spots" that I solely want to focus on.  I want a well-rounded total body fitness routine that incorporates my 8 key aspects of training and is an appropriate challenge for my fitness level.

But how can you judge your success if your goals are so ill-defined?  I can't measure my progress on the scale or even by just the weight I'm able to lift.  Where can I find a measurement of my well-rounded fitness level?  This got me thinking...

Who remembers the Presidential Fitness Test from good ol' elementary/middle/high school?  Everyone's favorite test of the year... not.  Even as a competitive athlete, I used to dread these pre- and post-tests.  I would get really nervous leading up, particularly on the day we had to do the 1 mile run.  Every year I was afraid I wouldn't make the cut.  Endurance was not (and is still not) my thing.

And then there was the time that I fell down in front of everyone during the shuttle run and had to repeat it not twice, but three times in order to get a measurement recorded.  The first time, I dropped the eraser.  The second time, I slipped and fell right on my butt, of course landing in a pose with my arm up in the air and gymnastics hands (thank you, Coach Jen, for always making us look pretty when we fall).  Mortifying.  At least I was able to get it right the third time (and surpass the Presidential level).

Or the time I decided to show off (hey, I wanted to break our school record) and did over 100 push-ups in 8th grade.  Those poor classmates of mine who had to just sit there and watch.  To the students in my gym class, I'm so sorry.  And holy cow, I have no idea how I did that many push-ups (today I could only do 20!).

Let's chat about this Presidential Fitness Test that we remember from grade school.  It's not perfect, but it's something.  It covers endurance (1 mile run), agility and speed (shuttle run), strength (push-ups, pull-ups, and curl-ups), and flexibility (sit-and-reach).  Alright, so it's lacking in balance, grace, and power from my top 8 list, but hey, 5/8 isn't too bad.  I began to wonder whether there was an adult version...

And lo and behold... there is!  Check out this adult fitness test.  It has a 1.5 mile run (or 1 mile walk if you aren't fit enough to run), half sit-up test, push-ups, sit-and-reach, BMI, and waist circumference.  I wanted a standard way to test my fitness level, see improvements over time, and learn where I need to modify my workouts to improve more significantly... and it looks like I found it.

Today, I decided to do this President's Challenge Adult Fitness Test.  Nick was my partner (counting my curl-up and push-up reps, measuring my waist and sit-and-reach).  Hello grade school all over again.  Consider this my pre-test.  I plugged in my measurements online and found out where I stand compared to the "rest" of the nation.  More importantly, I recorded all the information in a document so I can keep track of my improvements.  I hope to repeat this test once a month and evaluate where I need to improve and change my workouts.  I'm disappointed that the pull-ups and shuttle run have been removed in the adult version; tomorrow I plan to test myself in those as well because I think they are valuable fitness measures.

I still don't have a measure for all 8 key aspects of training, but at least I've found a standard measurement for some of them.  And like I said before, I know this is not a perfect test, but it does provide some baseline that I can use to my benefit.  Has anyone else attempted the President's Challenge Adult Fitness Test?

I sometimes contemplate whether it would be valuable to incorporate such a test in the workplace.  I mean, we used to get graded in school based on how well we did on this test; why can't we do something similar in the office?  Obviously, there aren't grades involved... but there is money and health care coverage.  I know some companies (Boeing and Ethicon Endo-Surgery, for example) offer incentives to those who exercise (at Boeing, Nick received a gift card for using a pedometer and going a certain number of steps a day; at EES, I received a t-shirt for exercising a certain number of times a week).  These measurements are subjective, however, and say little about the current fitness level of the person.  Is there a way we could standardize this?  I know employers may be reluctant to such a thing, particularly when this is not the focus of their company (they are there to make profits and meet the demands of their customers); however, a company benefits (in terms of reduced cost and improved efficiency) by having healthy employees.  Do you think employers should consider incorporating fitness incentives or taking on a standard fitness test for all employees?  Do companies have a responsibility of encouraging their employees to take care of their health?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Rant On Being Fit (Not Skinny) and 8 Aspects of Training

I need to go on a little rant.

Today is the official start of my wedding workout plan.  That's right, exactly 6 months from today, I will be walking down the (very, very, very long) aisle with 200+ people (that's 400+ eyes in addition to two photographers and one videographer) all watching me.  Naturally, I want to look and feel my best in that moment.

Ok, stop.  Before you even say anything...


I swear, the next person who says I don't need to lose any weight after I tell them I'm creating a 6 month wedding workout plan...

I just want to be healthy and toned.  I strive to be fit, not skinny.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges of the exercise industry.  Since more than one-third of American adults are obese, there is a significant market for weight loss products and services.  Even my most recent Women's Health and Fitness Magazines (my two favorites) litter their covers with highlights like "Blast Fat Fast," "Superfoods That Speed Up Your Slim-Down," and "Turn On Your Lean Gene."  But what about the other 60% of adult Americans who aren't obese?  And the percentage of that 60% who do not want to lose any weight?

I am looking for a well-rounded workout and lifestyle.  I want to get stronger and lift some weights.  Ok, stop.  Before you even say anything...


Honestly, let's just bust the myth here.  If you are a woman lifting weights (and we're not even talking about dinky 2 pounders) a few days a week while maintaining a normal diet, you will NOT turn into a bodybuilder.  Sorry, ladies, but we lack the testosterone to build huge muscles the same way that guys quickly can.  To look like one of those bodybuilders, you would need to significantly alter your diet to include vast amounts of protein in addition to heavy lifting most days of the week.  So embrace the free weights; they're good for you!  

So where does everyone else end up-- those who don't want to lose weight or bulk up?  Those who want a well-rounded fitness routine?

No man's land.

I personally have found it difficult to find an exercise program (without paying for a personal trainer) that is well-rounded.  I'm talking about a program that incorporates what I believe are the 8 key aspects of training (in no particular order):
Are you surprised by this list?  Have I left anything off?  I think most people would first think of strength and endurance, maybe also flexibility and speed.  Lumped in with grace, I include a sub-category of coordination (you could be coordinated and not graceful, but you can't be graceful without being coordinated).  Few sports even attempt to train all of these aspects.  Gymnastics (of course, I am biased) comes close.  But even so, endurance in gymnastics (in terms of cardiac/respiratory endurance, not mental endurance) is much different from that of a runner or dancer.  Gymnastics routines last 1.5 minutes, not tens of minutes.  I applaud fitness regimes like CrossFit, which aims "to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness."  In other words, specialize in not specializing; however, even CrossFit falls a little short on my list above (where is the inclusion of flexibility and more focus on grace?).

In addition to hitting all of my 8 key aspects, I need a fitness program that keeps me entertained and challenged.  And, being a (poor) graduate student, I don't have the means to pay for a personal trainer.  So... I will make my own plan.  And it begins today.  Stay tuned as I keep you updated on my exercise routines!

Does anyone else feel like they fall into the no man's land fitness category with me?      

Saturday, November 17, 2012

2012 Rothman 8k Race

Remember how I was training for the Rothman 8k race?  Well, today was the big day!  It was time to put my (half-assed) training to the test...  

The morning started with a 5:45am wake-up alarm and me finally rolling out of bed just after 6am.  Honestly, I don't even get out of bed that early on weekdays normally.  Needless to say, I was NOT in the mood to go for the longest (tied with last year's race) run in my life in the bitter cold (36 degrees F) this early in the morning.  I begrudgingly threw on the clothes I laid out the night before (Nick assured me that you can never wear too much pink), wolfed down a "cocoa-almond quinoa breakfast bake" bar (with chia seeds substituted for hemp seeds, and flax meal instead of almond meal), and tightened my laces.  Off we went.

We got to the race early, and Nick stood close to keep me warm.  He wasn't running this year (I'm pretty sure running the marathon last year has turned him off from running for life), but he came to cheer me on and take pictures.  The poor guy-- I complained straight from 6:30am until the race started at 7:30... and he put up with me.  It was too cold.  My hip was too stiff.  It was too early.  I was too tired.  I hate running.  This sucks.  I'm nervous.  At least it's a clear day... 

At least it was a pretty day.

...But it's too cold!  And my hip hurts.  Why did I sign up for this again?

Then, it was time to line up (with all 1,886 other runners).  The national anthem was sung, and things started to feel real.  During gymnastics, I always used to count and make sure there were 50 stars on the flag as the anthem played (a coach once said it was good luck), but I couldn't find the flag this time.  Instead, I said a little prayer to thank the volunteers/organizers/supportive friends and families and to ask God to look after everyone's health during this race.  I also asked for a boost of endurance...

Then, they played the Rocky theme song, the semi-official pump-up song of Philadelphia.  Who doesn't feel motivated by this song?  That was the moment when my nerves turned into excitement.  I was about to run the longest (tied with last year's race) distance in my life, and I was about to accomplish a goal.  My goal was to beat my time from last year (44:59, 9:03 average pace) and run an average of sub-9 minute miles.  I've never done that before, but I told myself I could.  The adrenaline was kicking in just in time.  There went the air gun!

Long distance view from the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps ("Rocky" stairs) of the race start.

We were off!  While I will probably always claim that I hate running and cardio, I actually kind of enjoy races; the atmosphere is hard to beat.  There is a sense of unity and a collective energy that is so inspiring.  Everyone is encouraging.  I had random people say "Go Sarah!" as I ran by (our race bibs said our names).  I gave Mayor Nutter a high five.  I gave a random guy on the sideline a high five.  I thanked the water station volunteers.  I gave Nick two thumbs up.  Cow bells and claps and hoots and hollers came from the dedicated friends and families supporting their favorite runners.  I smiled.  (Wait, I smiled... while running?)

Two thumbs up and a smile!

Every 5 minutes, my iSmoothRun app kept me updated on how I was doing.  Average pace of 8:37 for the first five minutes?  Thank you, adrenaline.  Don't think I can keep that up, though.  Wait, I'm still at an average of 8:45 pace at the halfway point?  How can that be?  I'm normally around 9:20 average pace when I run on my own.  I may actually beat my goal!  And I still feel... great?!  I'm running, and I feel great?  I guess God delivered on that prayer for an endurance boost!

I continued to concentrate on short, quick steps, as I learned from the book Born to Run.  It was working. At 35 minutes I was already at 4 miles.  I was cruising!

I crossed the finish line with a final chip time of 43:20, which puts me at an average of 8:43/mile pace.  I squashed my goal! I'm really proud of myself for what I accomplished.  

Yesterday, when I went to the expo to pick up my bib, I started to feel a little down.  The expo is geared towards the half- and full-marathoners, not the measly 8k runners.  Who cared if I ran 4.97 miles when thousands of people on Sunday were going to run more than 2.5 or 5 times that?

I care, and that's what matters.  I also know that my family cares, and Nick cares, and Nick's family cares.  I have a lot of supporters.

Well, now it's finally all over (until I sign up for my life-goal 10k and have to start training again).  I want to give a public thank you to Nick for capturing the moment on camera for me and being there for support before, during, and after the race.  I'd also like to thank my super-cute hot pink Asics for supporting my feet and not rubbing them the wrong way.  Good luck to all of tomorrow's runners!

I did it!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Just Fake It

Sometimes, you just have to fake it.

I sat down to dinner with my family on the outdoor patio of a restaurant in Austin.  As the waitress took our drink orders, I noticed a movement with my peripheral vision.  I looked over.  A spider had just made its way onto the wall next to me.  Enter arachnophobia.

I am terrified of spiders, and I don't know why.  Logically, I know that (most) spiders have no power to hurt me.  I appreciate the fact that spiders can help with insect control and make beautiful, intricate webs.  The mechanical properties of their silk is coveted by engineers and is even used for tissue engineering applications.  Yet, I still cannot convince myself that spiders are not freaky little creatures.  I'm even too afraid to kill a spider, and if nobody is around to kill it for me, I tend to freeze in place and stare at it.  (I'm letting you in; please don't use this against me.)  

Then, the second spider joined the first.  Both were black with bulbous butts.  They weren't directly on the wall itself but instead on a disjointed web connected to the wall.  Unlike the first spider, which had its back towards me, the second spider was on the other side of the web so that its legs faced me.  For whatever reason, this freaked me out even more.

My mom sat across from me, and I gave her the stare down and glanced over at the spiders so she knew about them.  I sat silent.  My dad and sister had no clue what was going on.  Thank God.  My sister, who screams if just a moth gets near her, had already been complaining that we chose to sit outside.  Mistake.  I knew that if I said anything, she would cause a scene.  While I tend to freeze in place when scared by a spider, she tends to scream-- not good for being in a public place. 

My mom asked if I wanted to move to a new table.  I said no.  I didn't want to be "that person."  My sister overheard and started fussing about why we would switch tables and how that wouldn't be a kind thing to do to the waitress.  We dropped it.

I wanted to cry.  I sucked it up.

"Just pretend the spiders don't exist," I told myself.  I took a sip of my beer, looked the other direction, and re-engaged in the family conversation.  

The I-am-about-to-cry knot in my throat melted away.  "Psh, I'm not afraid of spiders," I comforted myself.

I bravely made it through the dinner.  As we were waiting for our bill, I got up to use the bathroom and told my family I would meet them up front.  As I stood up, my mom asked if I had looked up above me.  I said no and scurried away without looking.  Apparently, 4 other spiders were hanging over my head through the whole dinner, zipping around, making their web.  Ignorance really is bliss.  

As they got up to leave, my mom showed my sister and dad the spiders.  Needless to say, we chose to sit inside for dinner during the rest of the vacation.  I surprised myself by being able to make it through dinner without a major meltdown.  I'll admit that I had a mini internal meltdown, but nowhere near what it could have been.  

The spiders were just to my left.  Notice how I'm leaning in a ridiculous amount.

Sometimes, you just have to fake it, and eventually you'll fake it so well that you'll convince yourself that your fear does not exist.  And when you think your fear does not exist, then it actually does not exist; fear only exists in our heads.

This lesson was also reinforced during the challenge course.  Yes, in addition to my fear of spiders, I have a mild fear of heights.  (Double whammy!)  The fear of heights isn't nearly as bad as spiders, but I do get pretty uncomfortable.  

My dad and I did the challenge course together.  He was nervous and let everyone know.  I was a little nervous and let no one know.  About 3/4 of the way up the net climb, I started to feel my heart begin to beat a little faster as I realized that I was getting out of my height comfort zone.  

"Just don't look down," I reminded myself.  

The worst part was the double tight rope.  I faked away my fear like I used to have to do in gymnastics.  "Psh, just like gymnastics," I comforted myself.  Except our balance beam was 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the ground, not half an inch wide and a few stories off the ground.  I didn't need to remind myself of that at the moment, though.

This was the scariest part for me!

Everyone in our group (my dad and me included) made it through the challenge course with no tears or meltdowns.  Success!  There was even a guy who admitted he had a huge fear of heights.  He did great.  

All of us made it!

These two experiences solidified the lesson taught to me by all of my previous gymnastics coaches (Meg, Coach Christa, Coach Jen and Brian, Erin-- I'm referring to you!): if you can't beat 'em, fake it.  During a gymnastics competition, confidence is key.  You've done the skills enough times that your body knows how to do them correctly, but your mind is the tougher muscle to exercise.  Sometimes, your mind forgets that you know what you're doing, and you begin to doubt.  My coaches used to remind us that nobody can tell if you're pretending to be confident.  They said just fake it.  Get out there on the floor and pretend like you're having the best time of your life.  Fly on those bars like a monkey and know that your hands won't slip.  Run as fast as you can toward that stationary object (honestly, who in their right mind other than a gymnast would do such a thing?), and conquer the vault with as much power as you can muster.  And jump, leap, and spring over that 4 inch piece of suede-covered wood as if you were still on the ground.  While I learned these lessons through gymnastics, I can apply them to daily life.

The beauty of fear is that you create it, which also means that you have the power to destroy it.  With a little self-encouragement, you can conquer your fears.  Start by faking your confidence, and your confidence will grow.  The beauty of confidence is that it is a positive feedback loop; the more you have, the more you get.

When's the last time you've had to fake it?  Have you experienced your "pretending" turning into "reality?"   

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Unity through Disaster: Hurricane Sandy Recap

It's been less than a week since Sandy busted through the East coast, bringing disaster and unity.  The compassion that people show for one another during a time of need is inspiring.  Below is a combination of images, posts, and re-posts that Facebook friends have shared.  Be inspired by the positive and good that you see.

RS: One way to help the hurricane relief effort if you DON'T live in the NYC area: If you can give blood, please consider doing so! The hurricane forced the Red Cross to cancel more than 240 blood drives in the Northeast.

JH: Come if you are around tomorrow!

CS: We are still somehow without power although most of downtown has been restored, but it's a beautiful day on the upper west side and I am so thankful for all the wonderful friends that have helped me through this week!
Image courtesy of Chelsea Selden

RS: riverside park is alive and well. new yorkers are a resilient breed!
Image courtesy of Rebecca Sunde

KE: Donating blood!

AJ: east coast peeps - stay safe

DY: Stay safe East Coast!

Random act of kindness.  Image courtesy of NBC Washington.

XS: really hope new york comes out of this storm alright

MC: I sure hope this is just a Miguel Bloombito overreaction. May the frankenstorm be only as fierce as Irene (when it didn't even rain yet many were evacuated and LGA was closed) and require only as much man-power as a NY snowstorm (when there are two feet of snow and zero snowplows).

SP: Happy Hurricane Day! Hope everyone stays safe.

SY: my thoughts are with you east coasters! hoping you stay safe and your world normalizes soon. keep updating; it is good to know you are okay!

Hoboken, NJ- seen this re-posted a few times on FB, not sure where the original image is from.

RA: To all friends up North, please be safe, stay warm, and stay in tomorrow.

SC: New Jersey brahs, please stay safe out there!

MG: Irene, it was only when Sandy came and took my house away that I realized I loved you most!

Seen this re-posted a few times in FB, not sure who took the original image.

JG: We just got power back and the whole neighborhood is cheering. WOOOOOOOO

MZ: Hoping that all of my family and friends stay safe during the next few days out East! Sandy is looking interesting....

GJ: ...thinking of my East Coast friends - stay safe, folks.

LH: NYC friends - the Upper West Side still has power (and now internet!) and my fridge is full, so please come on over if you need anything!

CS: Just an update: although we are still without power, we are just fine. We weren't affected by the nearby Con Ed explosion and although still flooded, the water is receding on Avenue C.
Prayers for those who have it much worse than us and fingers crossed that we get electricity soon!!

JH: It's all good in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We have power and it's not even raining here... I hope everyone is safe!

PH: From a city full of white for Sensation to a city full of darkness... This place really does move fast

Image courtesy of Chelsea Selden

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall: You live up to your own expectations

I just finished reading the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, a gift from a friend of mine.  This was an awesome book that now makes my favorites list!  I highly recommend it.  From the title, I figured this book would only appeal to runners, people who could directly relate to the content; as I've stated many times before, I sort of (really) detest running.  Within the first couple chapters, however, I was completely enraptured by the writing style and mystery of the Tarahumara tribe.  I realized that this was a book not just for people who can relate to running, but for anyone who can relate to life (which is... everyone).  

For those who haven't heard of this best-seller before, it's about an ancient, mysterious Indian tribe in Mexico known for their ultra-running.  It is part self-help book, part mystery novel, part biomechanics text book, and part adventure-- all my favorite genres combined into one masterpiece.  The author engages the reader from the beginning, and I found myself not wanting to put the book down (a nice change from the books I've been reading lately!).  The writing was so flawless that I actually felt like I (yes, even me!) could become someone who enjoys running.  

There were a few things that stood out to me while reading this book, and one was this passage:  
"And if I really wanted to understand the Raramuri, I should have been there when this ninety-five-year-old man came hiking twenty-five miles over the mountain.  Know why he could do it?  Because no one ever told him he couldn't.  No one ever told him he oughta be off dying somewhere in an old age home.  You live up to your own expectations, man."  Born to Run p. 50
I wonder how many of our aspirations are put on hold because we expect we can't accomplish them.  How many times have we let the words from other people invade our minds, our hearts, our drive?  How do our expectations define who we are and who we will become?  And what can we do to make sure that we do not lower our expectations but instead raise our confidence and motivation to meet our high expectations?  Who says we can and who says we cannot?  What would you achieve if nobody (including yourself) told you that you couldn't?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Spa Water

When I go to restaurants, I'm the type of person that never asks for lemon with my water.  I've always enjoyed my water "plain."  

...That is, until I learned about "spa waters."  

For those who have never heard of "spa water," it's a fancy term that simply refers to fresh fruit (and sometimes herb or flower)-infused water.  Essentially, it's having a slice of lemon with your water... but it doesn't have to be lemon!  Man, have I led a sheltered life until now!  A whole new world of non-lemon options has been opened for me.

Benefits of Spa Water

Why bother experimenting with and drinking spa water?  Here's a list of some spa water benefits:

Spa Water Flavors

As I mentioned in a previous post, each building at Travaasa Austin has a different type of "spa water," so during this vacation I was able to experience several spa water flavors, all of which I really enjoyed!  These flavors are listed below:  

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list!  If you do a quick search online, you can find "recipes" for tons of different spa waters with such unique flavor combinations, and I'm sure they all produce a mini party in your mouth.  Don't bother purchasing a spa water book (tempting as it may be), because there are so many free ideas online.  When you drink these waters, you must keep in mind that you are not drinking a punch; do not expect the flavor to be as strong as your daily Kool-Aid.  Spa water provides a refreshing hint of flavor, leaving you wanting more.

How to Make Spa Water

Spa water is super easy to make.  I asked Eric, our waiter pretty much every day at Travaasa, how they make their spa water.  It's a part of his 6am restaurant-opening routine.  This is what he said:

By the time I was standing there chatting with him about 3 hours after he had made the water, the flavors had fully diffused and I got a little burst of refreshing cucumber-orange.  For one huge drink dispenser (the pretty glass ones that have a dispenser tab from the bottom that you use to serve large groups of people), they used what looked like just 1 large grapefruit coarsely cut into circular slices.  Couldn't be easier!  I think the trick to making sure you have enough flavor is to use quality fruit.  Don't expect your steroid-enhanced orange, which is mostly water instead of flavor, to give your the results you desire.

Once I get home, I can't wait to try out some more unique flavors, maybe even including some of my own herbs.  
Does anyone have any favorite spa water "recipes" or flavors to share?  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Equine Encounter: Life Lessons from Jasper the Horse

At Travaasa Austin, I participated in their "Equine Encounter" activity.  At first, I was a little doubtful-- all I knew was that you'd be "communicating" with horses (you didn't even get to ride them!) and that supposedly that was going to help you become a more centered person.  I love animals, and believe we can learn a lot through our interactions with them, but still, this activity sounded a little hokey.  Regardless, I joined my mom and dad and two other women as the two Cowboys led us on.

Yes, cowboys.  Full on boots-jeans-cowboy hat kind of cowboys.  The kind you'd expect to find in Texas.  They grew up on ranches (Keith them grew up in Montana, that's how you know he's a "pure-bred" cowboy) and have been interacting with horses their whole lives, including riding those "buckin' broncs" in rodeos and being kicked off a few (many?) times.  What I did not expect was to find that The Cowboys were some of the most laid-back people I'd ever met.  Jodi, especially, was so mellow and grounded.  He seemed to take everything as it is, offering advice and wisdom when he could.  I dunno, I guess in the movies they always make cowboys look really aggressive and overly dominant.  These men were dominant, but in an approachable way that made me respect them even more.

We were each assigned our own horse.  Meet Jasper:

Jasper with Keith (Jasper's head is blocking Keith) and Jodi.

Lesson 1: Walk with a purpose. 

The first thing we had to do was just walk our horse around by holding their guide rope.  We tried it on our own and then again after The Cowboys offered some advice.  The first time I tried to walk around with Jasper, it felt a little bit like he was walking me.  I walked without a purpose, and Jasper sensed that.  Our first lesson from The Cowboys is that if you don't walk with a purpose, nobody else will either.  The horses expect leadership, and if you don't show them that, they will take the lead themselves.

Lesson 2: You must enter your body to achieve oneness.

Next, we spent a long time brushing our horses.  This was our time to really connect with the horse's energy level.  After a while of brushing Jasper, I started to enter a trance-like state.  It was relaxing, and I felt that I had a purpose to what I was doing, that I was a meaningful part of this horse's life.  My purpose was to give Jasper the attention and caress that he deserved.  Keith told us that he once heard someone say that in order to achieve oneness, you must leave your mind and enter your body.  We are all one, part of something greater, but our minds are what make us individuals.  In order to be in tune with the collective oneness of the world, we must allow ourselves to leave our minds and get in touch with our surroundings.  This happened as I brushed Jasper.

Lesson 3: Stay "Level-headed" and "Take a load off."

It was amazing to see Jasper's energy level reflect mine as he eased into a relaxed state.  The Cowboys taught us that when horses are relaxed, their heads drop so they are level with the ground (rather than upright), allowing their vertebrae to expand (no longer crushed from their back sagging) and endorphins to rush through their body.  This is where the phrase "level-headed" comes from.

Jodi noticed that Jasper shifted the weight of his hind limbs and "popped" a leg (curled one of his feet under).  Horses are naturally aware of their surroundings and their main defense mechanism is to run and be quick on their feet.  Unless they are very relaxed, the horses will have their feet firmly planted in the ground so they can take off sprinting at any moment.  The fact that Jasper felt that he could take a load off a leg meant that he was making himself vulnerable, and we only let ourselves become vulnerable when we are very comfortable.  This is where the phrase "taking a load off" comes from.

Lesson 4: Make your intention known.

Finally, we each had a turn with just us and our horse in the center of a ring.  We were taught to show the horse that we are the leader.  We used a whip-- no, NOT a whip to smack the horses.  This was simply an "extension of our arm" to allow us to "convey our energy" to the horse.  We just raised it up and down or occasionally let it hit the ground but NEVER the animal; we used it as a communication tool.  We had the horse walk around the ring at varying tempos (slow walk to a trot) and stop and turn around.  And to do this, we never touched the horse; we did it all through our body language.  It was pretty amazing that we could get the horse to do exactly what we wanted by just being clear about our intentions.  Honestly, it felt a little bit like bending a spoon with my mind; I simply had to "become" my intention and Jasper would respond.  It was easy to see when we weren't clear, however.  The horse would stop or wander aimlessly if you did not give it your full attention with a deliberate intention.  The Cowboys said that these horses responded in this way not because they were trained but because this is how leadership is shown in their natural environment as well.  Apparently, you could take a wild horse and (once you've gotten him to trust you and calm down) lead him in this same way and expect the same type of favorable response.

The Cowboys would tell us about each horse and his/her personality as it was brought into the ring.  Jasper was the sensitive horse ("Red" was the mellow hippie horse that like to hang out in the flowers, another one was the dominant horse of the group that was going to rebel and test any new handler, etc.).  The way The Cowboys described Jasper reminded me of our German Shepherd, Dre, back home.  Jasper has always been a bit fearful and requires the handler to be very calm and stable in order for him to respond; if you're jittery, Jasper will be too.  This means that when interacting with him, you need to be especially aware of your body language because Jasper will read into every move you make.  That's not pressure or anything...

Once we established with the horse that we were competent enough leaders worth trusting, we stopped, put down the whip, and if we had established a close connection with our animal, the horse would come right up to us and follow us around (like a little puppy) without us needing to touch him; this was the real test.  Jasper did this on the first try!  It was amazing to know that I had made that type of connection with Jasper and that he felt the connection and trust also.  I would not have established this type of connection had I not been in tune with my body and how my actions were affecting him, been clear and deliberate in my intentions, and reached an energy state compatible with his.

In the end, the two hours I spent with Jasper were wonderful.  I think the world would be a better place if everyone spent 2 hours learning to get in tune with their surroundings by working with horses.  I felt like I learned a lot that I can apply to not just horses but also the people I interact with daily.