Sunday, December 22, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 2

It's been 2 weeks since I had my first post about this month's exSPIREment to meditate every day.  I've enjoyed this journey so far, though I do admit to skipping 5 days already.  I've been keeping an Excel file to log my pre- and post- meditation feelings and blood pressure/pulse in addition to the type and duration of meditation.  I've tried a variety of meditation styles.  Here are some examples: 

Each person will have a meditation style that suits him/her best.  For myself, I've learned that lying down does not work for me.  The one time I tried (while listening to a recording of a body scan), I fell asleep (rookie mistake!).  When I sit cross-legged on the floor, my legs and feet get tingly, so I switched to sitting onto 2 stacked pillows on the bed.  For part of my Christmas present (we exchanged gifts early), Nick got me a meditation cushion filled with buckwheat!  This is so much better than sitting on pillows!  I tried it last night for the first time- I feel more stable, have better posture, and am able to maintain the same position for a longer time without adjusting.  Through my practices, I've also learned that I focus better with my eyes closed.  The OnDemand Qi Gong video I tried did not fulfill my goal of relaxing, though I did like the concept of mindful movement in general.  When I set a timer and sit in silence, I find myself wondering how much time is left and then when the alarm goes off, it startles me (even when it is set to something soft like chimes).  I've typically been meditating in the evenings, but I did try one morning after exercising; I was tired.  Through my practices, I think I've been getting quicker at being able to settle into a meditation session.  My mood is generally more positive after a session; however, my blood pressure/pulse does not seem correlated.  

I put my skills to use this past week as I prepared for my thesis proposal (PhD candidacy exam) on Tuesday.  I was especially anxious on Monday.  That evening, I meditated for 20 minutes (seated, focusing on my breath and positive energy).  My pre-meditation blood pressure and pulse were especially high, likely because of my anxiety.  After my meditation session, my systolic pressure dropped by 10 mmHg, my diastolic dropped by 3, and my pulse dropped by 18 beats.  This was the one time I felt that my meditation had a significant influence on my blood pressure (though I was still anxious after my meditation session).  

A week prior to my thesis proposal, I had watched this TED Talk on body language and how it influences your feelings:

On Tuesday, the day of my proposal, I was fortunately not as nervous as the day before.  To ensure confidence for my afternoon's presentation, I periodically assumed a power pride position (arms in the air in a V-shape, as if I just crossed a finish line), which I had learned about from watching the TED talk.  I only held the pose for maybe 30 seconds each time, but I did it multiple times throughout the morning and one final time about 20 minutes before my presentation.  It sounds silly, but seeing myself in the mirror in this position did make me feel like I was strong, confident, and ready.  Something must have worked because in the end, my thesis proposal went well, and I am now a PhD candidate! 

As I continue my exSPIREment for the rest of this month, I'm going to try incorporating mindful moments into everyday activities rather than simply setting aside a specific time of day to be mindful.  

What's your favorite meditation style?  
How do you reduce anxiety and increase confidence?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 1

In October, for my first exSPIREment, I tried reading the newspaper every day.  From that experience, I improved my knowledge of current events and have since downloaded the NPR app, to which I listen as I walk to work; I particularly like the 10 minute newscast that is updated every hour and gives short blips for the main headlines.  Staying up-to-date on national and world events is a new addition to my lifestyle to help me improve as a person.  Now, it's time to embark on my next journey...

On Sunday, December 1 (also the 6 month mark of my marriage!), I commenced on my second exSPIREment: to meditate every day for the month of December.  This comes at perfect timing, seeing that I will be proposing my PhD thesis in the middle of the month (less than 1.5 weeks away now!), and I'm going to need to stay level headed to get through it successfully.

I've long been intrigued by mindful practices.  Indeed, this is not my first time undertaking meditation as a daily routine- I have gone to various workshops and classes on meditation over the years.  I even once participated in a 21 day meditation challenge through One Yoga Philly; however, I have not yet made meditation a part of my lifestyle.  The objective of this exSPIREment is to 1) define the personal benefits I gain through consistent meditation practice and 2) identify how I can incorporate meditation into my lifestyle. 

Newspapers, magazines, online articles- you can find articles touting the benefits of meditation almost anywhere you look.  I chose to search on PubMed for the real research articles to decide for myself how beneficial meditation may be.  For once, it seems that journalism has only moderately blown the benefits out of proportion: meditation and mindfulness-based practices have been suggested as an effective treatment for various psychological problems (particularly to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress), a method to assist smoking cessation, a practice to decrease chronic pain, an adjuvant treatment for patients with neurodegenerative diseases, a way to "slow down" time, a method to improve sleep quality and cognitive function in older individuals, a practice to improve autobiographical memory specificity, etc. 

Meditation has both acute (immediate) and chronic (long-term) effects: one study showed an acute relaxation response and improved reaction time and long-term improvements in IQ and stress.  Meditative practices produce real physiological changes.  For example, MRI imaging of the brains of Parkinson's patients who underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness based intervention had increased gray matter density in the regions of the brain thought to be important in Parkinson's.  Increased regional gray matter in the brain has also been seen in healthy subjects that underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction. 

Although many studies show benefits of meditation or mindfulness training, taken together, the findings across multiple studies are inconclusive.  A review the effects of mindfulness training on cognitive abilities concluded preliminary evidence for enhanced cognitive functions but that more high quality studies are needed.  The American Heart Association released a statement that meditation is not recommended in clinical practice to lower blood pressure, due to lack of evidence; however, transcendental meditation may provide mild benefits.

I hypothesize that 

  1. Acutely, meditation will lower my blood pressure and pulse (quantitative), indicative of a relaxation response, and improve my mood and focus (subjective). 
  2. Chronically, meditation will improve my ability to handle stress (subjective).
To test these hypotheses, I will keep a log that details my pre- and post-meditative states.

Join me in meditating this December!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 4

Two days ago, on October 31, I completed my first exSPIREment to read the newspaper!  In this self-study, I set out to read the Wall Street Journal every day for the month of October.  I chose the Wall Street Journal because Nick's business school tuition includes a weekday subscription to the newspaper.   

Results and Discussion

For the 31 days of October, I estimate I missed reading on 7 days due to various reasons (the newspaper wasn't delivered, time management, I just didn't want to, I didn't find an online source to read over the weekend).  I hypothesized that reading the newspaper would 1) improve my knowledge of politics and world events, 2) improve my ability to navigate the newspaper and skim articles, and 3) teach me something or inspire a new idea.  All 3 of my hypotheses were supported... within just the first week!  By the middle of my exSPIREment I was tired of reading the newspaper.  It took too much time and I found myself skimming more and more.  By the end, I completely skipped the middle sections of the newspaper and solely focused on the main section that includes national and international news. 

As predicted, my pitfalls included identifying a consistent time of day to read, convincing myself to read the articles that at first bore me, and settling on an alternative to read on the weekends.  Surprisingly, I was not overwhelmed by the wealth of information in the paper (probably because I just ended up skimming or skipping a majority of it); however, I was extremely overwhelmed when I tried to read online alternatives.  

I've identified pros and cons of reading the Wall Street Journal as my main source of news.
  • Pro: A paper news source has a limited amount of information (unlike an online source, where one can keep clicking indefinitely), so I do not feel overwhelmed.
  • Con: The Wall Street Journal has a marketplace/finance/economic spin on all articles, something I'm not too interested in. 
  • Pro: A paper news source allows one to easily skip articles he/she doesn't want to read (unlike a television or radio program, where one must listen through the entire segment).
  • Con: A paper source does not have the most up-to-date, ground-breaking news (unlike an online, television, or radio source).
  • Pro/Con: The Wall Street Journal is not a local newspaper, meaning I am spared the dreadful daily tragedies happening right in Philly; however, that also means I am not aware of important community news and issues.
  • Pro: A paper news source is portable. 
This was the method I developed on 
  1. Read the "What's News" column on the left side of the front page.  This section is essentially an annotated table of contents.  It gives a 1 sentence description of the main articles and where they can be found in the paper.  Mentally note the ones that sound interesting/important/relevant.  For me, this is the most useful part of the paper.  In just a few minutes, I am able to get a general idea of the main events.
  2. Review all articles on the front page of the paper.  This does not necessarily mean read each in depth.  Instead, read the title and a few sentences from each article.  There's a reason (though maybe not always a great reason) they've made the front page of the paper.  
  3. Flip through the remainder of the main section (A).  In general, the main section is laid out beginning with U.S. News, then World News, then Opinion.
  4. Go back to step 1 and read any articles you made mental note of.
  5. Flip through the remaining sections of the paper.  Read titles and if anything strikes you, read the first paragraph.  In general, the Wall Street Journal is pretty good at putting the key piece of news in the first couple sentences of the article.  If you're compelled to learn more, continue reading, if not then move on.
  6. Continue until satisfied.
Caveat 1: If you only read the titles and first paragraphs of each article, know that you are only getting the "conclusion" and missing any details that may indicate how valid this "conclusion" is.  If you read the entire article, you will be able to make a more informed decision for yourself on the pieces of information worth taking away and what is fact versus opinion.

Caveat 2: All news is biased.  Even if you read each article thoroughly, know that every story is told from a certain perspective.  Not everything that is presented is a fact.  Opinion is inherently intermixed because which facts are presented is a choice made by the writer/editor.  Everything you read/hear must be taken with a grain of salt.  You must be a critical reader and take away only what is valid.     

Future Directions

Throughout this month of November, I will attempt to establish new habits based on the findings of my exSPIREment.  Specifically, I feel that I do need to continue to incorporate some form of the news into my daily life; however, I'd like to search for alternatives to the Wall Street Journal.  Other forms of news include television news programs, radio, phone apps, online newspapers/magazines, or other hard-copy newspapers.  I am open to suggestions!  Ideally, I would be able to multi-task being informed by the news with another daily task (e.g., walking to/from work or exercising).  

How are you informing yourself of local and world events?     

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We All Fall

Once a year, my advisor holds one-on-one "strengths-weaknesses" meetings for everyone in the lab.  We are supposed to come prepared with a list of our individual perceived strengths and weaknesses, those of the lab, and those of our advisor.  It's a meeting that I think most of us dread going in (candid discussions can be really awkward) but are pleasantly surprised by coming out (it's not actually as bad as we envision it will be). 

Well, my first year of this, I sat down nervously, heart pounding (as usual), with my list in front of me.  I recited what I had prepared (mostly trying to avoid eye contact) and then waited for my advisor to respond with his thoughts.  He told me

My strength is that I fail.  Gracefully.

He said it a little bit nicer than that, but the gist was that I had several projects go wrong and somehow I hadn't quit and my morale wasn't demolished.  (Oh, to be a young, enthusiastic grad student.)  Perseverance. 

That comment has really stuck with me.  I didn't quite make it through the 5 stages of grief-- there was no denial; after all, I had definitely failed multiple times-- but my internal response to this comment has come in stages.  At first, I was kind of disheartened (I've been here for over a year, and my most notable strength is that I fail?) but as that feeling dissolved, it was replaced by acceptance and understanding.  Not everyone fails gracefully.  

Now to be honest, I hate failure.  There are few things I hate more.  I think this is part of the reason that I don't see myself as a full-time researcher for a career-- too much failure.  With as many self-help, business management books I've read and TED Talks I've watched, I "know" that failure is the key to success and growth.  But still, my knee-jerk reaction to failure is to cry.  Of course, I tend to learn something from my failures, but in the moment, it sucks.  I'm working on improving that.  

Ironically, this was a strength of mine in gymnastics as well.  Only, literally.  Our coach used to tell us that if we fell, we had to make it pretty.  Act like you mean it.  Pose.  Pose.  Pose.  Smile.  I took that to heart.  

My strength was that I fell.  Gracefully.  

Oh, and did I fall.  On beam, on floor, on bars.  Pose.

The first time I went skiing with my friends in high school, they ditched me to hit the slopes, and I was left on the bunny hills with my friend's dad.  When I was finally ready to move to a green circle, I was so terrified of falling.  It was such a stressful experience.  Stressful because I didn't want to fall.  It wasn't so much that I was afraid of getting hurt, but more the fact that a fall meant that I failed.  Of course, inevitably, I fell.  My friend's dad told me it was the most graceful fall he had ever seen on a ski slope- a kind of one-legged twirl in an arabesque with an arm in the air, gently settling on the ground.  Skiing.  Pose.

And then in 8th grade I tripped over my own feet doing the shuttle run for the Presidential fitness test.  Shuttle run.  Pose.  In front of my entire class.  Epitome of an awkward middle-schooler?  I think so.  One leg propped, hand in the air with pretty fingers.  Yes, that was me.

Oh, those dirty four-letter F-words.


We all fall.  We all fail.  But the story doesn't end there.  That's only where the story begins!  Too often we focus on that fall.  On that failure.  Really, the climax to the story is how you pick yourself back up.  How you pose.  How you cope.  What you do next.  That's where your true strength is.  If you never fail, you'll never know how strong you really are.  I'm grateful to have an advisor recognize that strength.  

Check out this video that's been shared on Facebook by a few of my gymnastics friends.

Do you fail gracefully?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Pearl Earring

A funny thing happened to me yesterday: I was rewarded for following through.

As I brushed my hair in the morning, I noticed one ear was missing its pearl stud earring.  I pretty much always wear earrings- when I sleep, when I shower, when I exercise.  Honestly, I think my ears look funny without them.  I hastily glanced around the bathroom floor but didn't see anything shimmer.  "Oh no, it must have fallen down the drain while I was showering," I thought to myself.  "I guess that's going on the Christmas list."  I was pretty bummed.  I've had these simple earrings for about 5 years, and they were one of my few pairs that still had both of their backs (impressive, I know).  Plus, pearls match every outfit.

As I was showering, I made a mental list of the few chores I wanted to complete that evening.  Specifically, I planned to do 1 load of laundry, put away dishes, and try (for the second time) cleaning the shower tile grout with bleach.  The bleach helped significantly last week, but the grout was still dingy in several spots, so I decided to try again.  

You see, when I come home from lab, I normally konk out on the sofa.  I find it hard to motivate myself to do anything productive (hence the reason I switched to morning workouts).  Yesterday, before even letting myself sit down, I popped in a load of laundry and started spraying down the shower.  As I let the bleach sit, I emptied the dishwasher.  Then, it was time to scrub and rinse the shower.  For this, I grabbed the scrub brush and gloves located in a bucket under our bathroom sink.  Wait, what's that nestled in the rag in the bucket?  

My earring!  

I have no idea how the earring got in there; the bottom of our sink is open (it was designed so that a wheel chair could fit under it), but the bucket is normally completely under the sink so that it can't be viewed without looking underneath the counter.  Maybe it's chance.  Maybe it's a small smile from God for following through.  I dunno.  All I do know is that there is no way I would have found that earring if I didn't follow through on my planned chores.

For once, I completed all my evening chores!  And in return, I got back my earring (and the satisfaction of having motivated myself to do something productive).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 3

I'm just over two weeks into my exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  At this point, the novelty has worn off, and it is an obligation.  I feel like I am reading the same things over and over, and maybe it is just particularly frustrating in light of the repeated articles on the government shut down and the circular negotiations that seem to be taking place.  I find myself completely skipping the Marketplace and Investing sections to more thoroughly read the main section.  I still have not found an adequate online source for my weekend reading (this past weekend I happened to stumble upon the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal in a hotel).  All that said, I do know that reading the newspaper has improved my knowledge of current events.  I just wonder whether I could be getting this information in a more efficient manner.  I'm not sure the whole reading-and-walking thing is the greatest idea as I'm going into work in the morning.  

Does anyone know of any news streaming apps that I could listen to as I walk to work?   

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 2

Today marks the 9th day in the journey of my first exSPIREment to read the newspaper every day.  To recap where I left off:

The objective of this exSPIREment was to improve my knowledge of current events.  I hypothesized that reading the newspaper every day would 1) help me feel more comfortable participating in discussions about politics and world events, 2) improve my ability to navigate a newspaper and skim articles, and 3) teach me something new or inspire a new idea.  

So far in my journey, I've encountered 3 themes:

The Wall Street Journal presents one perspective

I decided on the "methods" of this proposed study based on available resources.  The Wall Street Journal is delivered to our door every weekday morning; therefore, I chose to read the Wall Street Journal.  Nothing to it.  Except... there is a lot to the Wall Street Journal.  It's a pretty dense newspaper that is obviously written for a readership interested in finance and business, neither of which is my forte.  Apart from its main section on top national and international news, WSJ also has "Marketplace," (really?) "Money & Investing," (yawn) and "Personal Journal" (my fav!) sections, along with some other sections that come and go.  Even the top national/international news is told from an economic twist (doesn't help that the main story since I've started reading has centered around the U.S. economy and the government shut down).  Maybe WSJ was not the best place to start for a novice newspaper reader, but go big or go home, right?  This paper really lays out numbers and stats, so fortunately I'm a numbers girl.  That engineer in me kind of loves some of the dryness of the articles.  Other times I get bored.  Regardless, I must keep in mind that the Wall Street Journal presents just one perspective of the news, as does any source of "news."  They say there's two sides of the story and then there's the truth.  The stories that WSJ chooses to report and the way that they choose to present those stories are unique to this newspaper (just as they are unique to any other news source).  The researcher in me strives to read critically, take away as much valuable information as I can, and stay honest with myself about the biases and limitations.

I'm really turned off by politics (and other things)

Thankfully, the Personal Journal is the very center section; otherwise, I'm pretty sure I would never read the "important" stuff.  The goal of this exSPIREment was to improve my understanding of current events.  So far, I think I have made a few small improvements.  Whereas in the past, I would have had no idea why the government shut down or maybe I wouldn't even realize it was shut down (except for PubMed telling me with every article I search that they are maintaining their website with minimal staffing), at least now I know it's because some of our elected officials seem to be acting like stubborn little brats.  In all seriousness, I do feel like I have a better grasp of some important current events, including the negotiations underway with Iran.  I'm not expert.  I don't claim to know all the facts or even most of the facts.  Actually, I really know very few facts or probably no facts.  But, I at least am aware of these situations.  Awareness is a huge step away from apathy.  

I do not force myself to read the paper like a book, from cover to cover.  Quite simply, I don't have time for that.  But I do make sure I at least catch all the headlines before letting myself find the articles that actually pique my interest.  I normally just glance through the titles of the articles in the Marketplace and Money & Investing sections.  I allow myself to not be interested in the politics and economics, but I do force myself to at least get an idea of the important stories.  If I let myself do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, instead of displaying some discipline and self-control, I'd be eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and reading only articles about exercise.  Ironic, I know.         

You cannot predict inspiration

I thought after my first few days of reading I had down the general layout of the WSJ, only to find out come the weekend, that *surprise* they switched things up.  It was actually a breath of fresh air, knowing that I wouldn't know what would be in the newspaper each day.  I have found some hidden gems in WSJ.  To highlight, I've come up with a potential Christmas present idea for someone based on something I saw in the paper.  Today featured an entire section on Education, which was awesome (given that when I graduate with my PhD I want to teach at a university).  Yesterday, I was able to ask Nick his thoughts on the JAL contract with Airbus and what that means for Boeing.  I get excited when I see someone quoted or referenced from University of Michigan or University of Pennsylvania (which is actually somewhat frequently).  Opening the door each day to see the WSJ sitting there is a lot like the anticipation of opening up a present.  You never know what may lie inside or what little story will inspire you.      

In terms of my hypotheses, I have not yet participated in any discussions about politics or world events, I do feel that I am beginning to navigate the newspaper better, and I have learned many new things and been inspired several times!  

In terms of my expected potential pitfalls, I have had some trouble identifying a consistent time of day to read.  I have tried browsing the headlines while walking to work and then reading in the evening.  So far this seems to be the best method.  As I mentioned above, I do struggle convincing myself to read the articles that bore me, so rather than fighting it, I just get the headlines and a general concept of the story.  I don't read everything.  The worse part was trying to read a digital paper on the weekends.  Talk about information overload!  I started at the New York Times, but after simultaneously opening several tabs, I quickly reached the 10 articles per month limit without realizing.  I'll try something else this upcoming weekend.  Suggestions welcome.

How are you getting your news?

Find all episodes of the newspaper exSPIREment here.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 1

Today marks the first day of my first exSPIREment!  The concept for exSPIREments stemmed from the unexpected success of my attempt to turn myself into a morning exerciser.  What started as a small self-study turned into a new, healthy, sustainable habit.  More than two months later, I'm proud to wipe the sweat off my forehead and fulfill an accomplishment before 7am.  Invigorated by my success, I wondered what else I could change about my lifestyle.  What other healthy habits could I adopt?  Where am I failing to meet my potential?  

And so I created the exSPIREment.  You can learn more about the concept on the exSPIREment page by clicking the tab or the link above, but in brief, an exSPIREment is a two month personal discovery experiment.  The first month is total immersion and the second month is applying lessons learned and adapting your lifestyle as you see fit.  

Upon reflection, I realized I do not keep myself very well informed on current events and relevant issues.  I shy away from politics and world news and feel like I'm the last to know about national or international events.  I often find myself without an opinion, or even worse- apathetic, because I haven't followed the news.  I'd like to be able to contribute to more engaging conversations.

Right as I had these realizations, we began receiving the Wall Street Journal at our door every weekday morning.  The newspaper is included in Nick's business school tuition.  What a perfect opportunity to use my available resources and strengthen a personal weakness!  

During this month of October, I will read the newspaper every day.  On weekdays, I will read the Wall Street Journal that is delivered to our door.  On weekends, I will browse digital newspapers.

I hypothesize that 
1. I will feel more comfortable participating in discussions about politics and world events
2. I will improve my ability to navigate a newspaper and skim articles
3. I will learn something new or generate a new idea inspired by my readings

I expect potential pitfalls to be 
1. identifying a consistent time of day to read the paper,
2. convincing myself to read (or at least skim) the articles that at first bore me, 
3. feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of information on various topics, and
4. settling on a digital newspaper to browse on the weekends.

Follow along or join with me as I embark on this journey!  I plan to post once a week about the experience.

Check out these follow-up posts:
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 2
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 3
Oct-Nov exSPIREment: Read the Newspaper, episode 4

Monday, August 26, 2013

I've Learned to Listen to My Body

When I entered 7th grade English, one of our very first assignments was to create a slip of paper with something that we had learned about life on it (our teacher had been inspired by some book she read that summer).  Mine looked something like this:

In gymnastics, we were constantly told to listen to our bodies.  As competitive athletes, we tried to push ourselves beyond our limits, only to often end up with a greater injury that set us back even further.  I thought my "learned" advice was really wise... until I saw everyone else's hanging up on the wall, and then I thought mine was stupid.  I cringed when I saw it next to the giddy middle school sayings about smiles and silver linings to clouds all in some sort of curlicue font.  Mine just didn't seem to fit in.  I'm pretty sure I used Times New Roman.  

It was too simple.

So I thought.

These days, I realize how valuable my "learned" advice was, and how even now, I have not really learned what it means to listen to my body.  I've gotten better; I've learned some quirks that my body has, but still I sometimes push it beyond its healthy limit.  This past week has been a rude awakening to the lesson of listening to my body.

It started Tuesday morning... actually, no, rewind.  It started a few weeks ago.  In middle-end of July, I spent an entire week on my feet at work.  Since high school, I've had a bad back (stress fracture combined with a strain and an excessively curved lower back), and standing or walking for long periods of time tends to aggravate it.  That Wednesday (I remember because I had to run rats), I couldn't bend over because of my back pains.  I eased up for a bit and felt myself getting better.  Now, fast forward to this past Tuesday morning (since I'm a morning exerciser now)...

I decided to do this Fitness Magazine workout, which was not more intense than other workouts I've been doing recently, so I didn't think anything of it.  I texted Nick in the middle of the day, saying my back was tensing up, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to bend over in another few hours.  Sure enough, I was right (unfortunately).  Well, Tuesday evening through Friday evening I was unable to bend forward any more than like 5 degrees.  It was worse than last time- a sneeze nearly brought tears.  I used a heating pad and avoided exercise-- pretty much all movements involve your core and most were painful, so I listened to my body and took a break.  By Saturday, my back was finally beginning to feel the benefits of rest, just in time for my stomach to kick in.

Friday evening, I attended a happy hour, had plenty of wine and ate some catered food I'm not accustomed to.  Sometime between my last bite of food and 2am, my intestines decided to form a coup and overthrow everything inside.  Holy cow.  I spent the night getting up every 10-20 minutes for the bathroom, praying for the pain to stop.  I was sweaty and miserable.  Somehow Nick slept through all this.  All day Saturday I laid in bed with a pillow (or was in the bathroom).  I struggled in making the decision to stay home or go sailing.  I held out as long as I could in making the decision and then realized that sun mixed with dehydration and being stranded in the water with no bathroom could be a disaster.  I'm glad I stayed home.  By Sunday I ventured to the couch and analyzed some data for my research, only to find out my project has been a huge bust.  I made the call last night at about 11pm to stay home from work today.  I wasn't sure if I'd be up for it.  If not a physical rest day, I at least needed a mental rest day.  I found out today that I needed both.  I was hoping to feel well enough to at least be productive at home today-- maybe go to the post office, clean, etc.  I learned this morning that I don't think I'm quite ready to venture out of the apartment for an extended period of time.  Hopefully tomorrow I should be well enough to resume normal life.  

Until then, I am learning to listen to my body.  My physical body, my mental body, my spiritual body, my emotional body.  It's all telling me it needs a break, and at this point, I don't have much of a choice but to listen.  Too many weekends worked, not enough stretching, too little relaxation, not enough deep breaths.  I need rest, and my body is forcing it upon me.  And I'm trying to convince myself that it's not something to feel guilty about.    

What is your body telling you?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

TED Talks App- 20 Minutes of Inspiration for 24 Hours

One month ago (exactly), a friend posted a TED talk on Facebook (this one happened to be about non-profits and how we should stop treating them differently in terms of business plans and expenses than a for-profit).  I listened to it as I was walking to work.  It really was insightful, and not the type of TED talk I would normally pick out myself.  Which got me thinking...

I've been a TED fan for a little while, but recently, they had slipped my mind.  Being that they are short talks, it's interesting to listen to ones on areas outside of my expertise.  As I soaked in that talk on my way to work, I realized that TED must have a phone app.  Sure enough, they do!  I also realized that every day I have a 20-25 minute walk to and from work, a time when I do nothing else but walk.  I immediately put 2 and 2 together, downloaded the app, and put it to use.

As one might expect, the app has a collection of TED talks (short talks that range from just a few minutes to ~20 minutes) on a huge variety of topics.  You can search, watch featured or popular talks, or (my favorite feature) tell the app what you are in the mood for (inspiration, fascination, beauty, funny, etc.) and how much time you have... and *POOF* it gives you a suggestion.  Perfect for hopeless decision-makers, like me.

 Home page (left) and "Inspire Me" feature (right) of the TED app.

One talk I listened to yesterday was called "There are no scraps of men."  It is a story about keeping an open heart, applying your talents and skills to help others who could benefit, and not making assumptions about other people's abilities.

Another oldie but goodie is the speech that Steve Jobs gave to Stanford graduates in 2005.  Although this isn't exactly a TED talk, it popped up on my app the other day.  It's the kind of speech that gives you goosebumps (to use the word of my Italian friend).

This is why I love TED talks.  Twenty minutes can inspire you for 24 hours.
I encourage you to be inspired.

What is your favorite TED talk?  How are you inspired?  Leave your comments below- I'd love to check out some new TED talks!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Philadelphia Eagles Line Drill Warm-Up

Last Sunday (July 28), Nick and I went to the Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp-- their first public practice.  It was my first time watching a professional football practice (or actually, any football practice), so I found it really interesting!  Honestly, I enjoyed watching all their drills more than watching a game.  They had such intense music blasting the entire practice, and everything seemed so well-orchestrated.  I turned to Nick at one point and said that watching them reminded me of watching the movie Fantasia.  Who else remembers that scene where there are a bunch of brooms running around?  

Ok, watching that scene again after like 20 years... maybe the football players weren't exactly like the brooms, but still.  You get the point.  Right?  They were all over the field doing a million different drills.  It really was like a symphony... in massive, sweaty, football player form.  And hardcore, stereotypical weight room pump-up music in place of violins.  

For most of the practice, the players were split into groups based on their positions.  The only time they were really all together was at the very beginning when they were doing their line drill warm-up.  

<Blast from the past: how many hours of my life have I spent doing line drills across the gymnastics floor?  Too many to count.  Handstand walks, handstand forward roll to a pike stand (bend your legs ever and you get yelled at), back extension rolls, cartwheels both sides, back-walkovers, front-walkovers, back-handsprings, etc. etc.  Pretty much every practice, with the emphasis on form for these basics.>

I used the unique opportunity to learn some new agility drills from the players, and I jotted down their line drill warm-up.  It really was neat learning some skills from another sport.  

I incorporated this warm-up into my own work-out one morning.  It did its job to get my heart pumping and joints loosened up.  

In other news, 3 weeks down and I'm STILL going strong in my morning workouts!  I've consistently worked out from 6:15-7am for 5-6 days for the past 3 weeks (1 or 2 days for rest each week).  Much better record than when I was trying to exercise in the evenings.  I'm still sleeping in my exercise clothes and prepping the night before- it really helps me motivate myself to get out of bed in the morning.  

What other line drills do you do?  Do you incorporate any football drills into your exercise routine?  Have you challenged yourself to morning workouts yet?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

10 Tips for Motivating Yourself to Exercise in the Morning: A Personal Pilot Study

This past week, I performed a pilot, proof-of-concept study... on myself.  The following is an abstract of this study, following my advisor's formula for a good, scientific introduction.  

(general problem) Fitness is an important part of who I am; however, I sometimes struggle in motivating myself to get to the gym.  (focused problem) Specifically, two weeks ago, I did not step foot in the gym the entire week because I would come home and want to rest after a long day at work.  (what is known) Evening workouts were not working for me.  In the past, I had tried morning workouts, but in the morning, I would always value sleep over the gym.  I simply am not a morning person.  (what is unknown) It was unknown whether I could make morning workouts a habit.  Therefore, the purpose of this pilot study was to determine whether I could wake up and perform a morning workout all 5 workdays in a single week.  I hypothesized that given a few modifications to my approach, I would be able to succeed in morning workouts for a week.

This pilot study was carried out from Monday, July 15 to Friday, July 19.  Preparations for each morning workout began the night before.  When getting ready for bed, rather than changing into my pajamas, I slept in my workout clothes (shorts, sports bra, tank top).  I laid out my brand new, custom-designed Reebok RealFlex Strength training shoes, with socks next to my shoes.  I made sure my water bottle was filled and in the refrigerator.  I transferred my keys and entry card to my gym bag and placed my gym bag on the kitchen table.  Being a habitual snooze-presser in the morning, I set my alarm for 5:50am, to allow myself the luxury of pressing snooze only once.  I made sure to get to bed by 10:30pm so that I could get a full night of sleep.  I planned out my morning workout the night before so that I could be efficient with my time in the gym.  I told people about my experiment to enhance my commitment to success.  Most importantly, I did not allow excuses.

Each day, my alarm went off at 5:50am.  I pressed snooze once and got out of bed at 6:00am.  I brushed my teeth, put on my gym shoes, pulled back my hair, grabbed my water bottle and gym bag, and headed to the gym.  I was in the gym by 6:15am (there is a gym in our apartment complex).  I exercised until 7:00am, at which time I returned to my apartment, showered, got ready, ate breakfast, left for work by 7:40am, and got to work at about 8:00am.  

Monday- strength conditioning with a lot of lunges/squats
Tuesday- 5k run outside
Wednesday- total body strength conditioning with light free weights
Thursday- 25 laps swimming
Friday- upper body strength conditioning

The results of this pilot study support my hypothesis and provide proof that I am able to succeed in completing morning workouts.  In contrast to my previous attempts at morning workouts, the modifications I made this time worked.  In particular, key tricks for me included sleeping in my gym clothes, being realistic with myself about what time I needed to get up, staying consistent in the time I got up, and not allowing any excuses (even when I went to bed late).  Perhaps even more impressive was that I was able to convince myself to wake up and get out of bed while my husband continued to sleep (and on a couple occasions was still in bed when I got back from the gym).  Although he did not join me, he asked me each day how my workout went and would tell me he was impressed.  His encouragement was helpful.  It was also helpful to tell other people about my experiment- once I told somebody else, I felt like I had to commit to my morning workout so to not let them down or go back on my word.          

I noticed that I am much slower (in terms of running speed) and weaker (in terms of weights) than during my evening workouts, but that is to be expected.  I did not eat prior to my workouts, which was a mistake.  During my 5k run on Tuesday morning, I felt a little lightheaded a couple times, likely due to not eating (and the rising heat outside).  In the future, I should make an effort to eat at least little something prior to exercising (like a banana). 

I noticed myself feeling like the morning moved very slowly at work- 9:30am felt like it should have been noon.  I started getting hungry for lunch at 10:30am, despite having a full breakfast.  In the evenings, I think I felt more tired than normal because I was getting up earlier.  It did feel good knowing that after a long day working I did not have to come home and convince myself to go to the gym; I could simply come home and relax.  I also did not feel pressured to end my workday at a particular time; this was beneficial because in these next couple months, I may have a few longer work days than normal as everyone tries to finish projects for an abstract deadline in the beginning of September.

In conclusion, this pilot study was a success, and I was able to complete 5 consecutive morning workouts.  I can't say I've become a morning exerciser (or a morning person in general) or that I love morning workouts, but I've taken a step in the right direction.  Future studies will include a longer time point to determine whether I can make morning workouts a part of my daily routine.  I aspire to become the type of person who enjoys morning workouts.

What are your tips on how to become a morning exerciser?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Categorizing Others

"There is so much you don't know about a person.  I wonder if I could've made her days a little bit easier, if I'd tried.  If I'd treated her a little nicer.  Wasn't that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I'd thought."  -The Help, Kathryn Stockett, p. 492

We judge based on what we perceive, what we think we know.  We set boundaries based on these abstract concepts.  We separate others, group people and things where they "belong" in the categories that we create.  
Blue collar.

And the list goes on.  

But in doing so, we separate ourselves.  We think we belong in certain categories.  We draw invisible lines.

It's been a while since I've read a really good book (Modern Library's Top 100 Novels has had some let-downs), so I took a break from my reading list to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  Someone had left the book (willingly) in our apartment mail room, so I picked it up (and will return it now that I've finished).  Nothing better than a good free book!  I can't speak for the movie, but if you haven't read the book, you must.  It really is excellent.

I challenge us all this week to remove one invisible line.    

When you read the above list of adjectives, what or who came to mind?  Why?  Is it fair to categorize them that way?  Where do you belong?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Quick Circuit Workouts

Today's workout was a combination of 2 circuits:

Explanation of Exercises

Push-Ups: self-explanatory
Make it easier: push-ups on your knees
Make it harder: add a clap as you spring off your hands

Mountain Climbers: read about my version of Mountain Climbers on a previous post.  
Make it easier: no jumping, just do alternating forward lunges
Make it harder: add ankle weights, add 3 small pulses at the bottom of the lunge

Rolling Tuck-Opens: read about normal tuck-opens on a previous post.  Do one normal tuck-open and then do one full log roll (roll from your back, to your stomach, to your back) and do a second tuck-open.  Then, log roll back the other direction.  Each tuck-open is one rep.  During your log roll, try to keep your feet and arms elevated so they never touch the ground; you should pass through a superman position.  The benefit of adding the roll is that it forces your entire core to be engaged, including your back (which we often forget about).   
Make it easier: do a normal crunch instead of a tuck-open
Make it harder: switch from a tuck-open to a v-up

Vertical Push-Ups: any modification of a handstand push-up that you like so that the top of your head always gently lowers to the ground (not your chest).  Options include the following (in order of difficulty): a full handstand push-up (most difficult), a piked hand-stand push-up (feet are elevated on a bench so your legs form a 90 degree angle with your upper body), push-up with your knees on a stability ball, pyramid push-up so that you are in a downward dog-like position (butt sticking up in the air).

Sumos: legs spread wide (like a sumo wrestler), feet turned out.  Plie (deep squat).  As you stand back up, lift a leg as high as you can to the side, so you end balancing on a fully extended stance leg and your other leg is out to the side to work your glutes.  Return to deep squat and repeat on other leg.
Make it easier: wait to lift leg until you have stood up completely, use a chair for balance
Make it harder: add a hop, add ankle weights

Plank Hold: self-explanatory
Make it easier: decrease the time
Make it harder: increase the time, add alternating knee-to-elbows, balance on one leg (switch legs half-way through)    

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2-Exercise Full Body Workout and Spinning Workout

Alright, it's been ages since I've updated this blog.  The past few months got a little hectic with the end of wedding planning, and now that the wedding is over (it was beautiful, but more on that another time), I'm ready to get back to my fitness.  I kinda let things go in those last 2 months of wedding crunch time.  

I am happy to report that I can check running a 10k off my bucket list!  Despite not having trained as I was supposed to, I was very pleased with my final time of 57:03 (9:12/mile) in the Novi Memorial Day Run.

Since we've been back trying to adjust to "normal" life again, Nick and I have been hitting the gym pretty regularly, motivating each other.  Here's a sample of 2 workouts I've done this week:

I used a pull-up assist machine (30-40 lbs assistance), and boy am I still super sore!  For burpees, make sure you do the full thing including the push-up (go on your knees if you need to), otherwise, you will not be getting a full body workout.   

I think I took this spinning program from a magazine a while ago.  I have a cool free app on my iPhone called "Spin Class."  It allows you to program your intervals so it keeps time for you and tells you when to switch to the next activity.  Below is a screen shot of what the app looks like when you've entered a program:

Let me know how these workouts go for you!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Lunch Recipes

Friends, a very happy Easter to all!

Today was a great day.  I felt like I finally was able to just relax... and not feel guilty about it.  Nick and I spent our day cooking our Easter lunch, eating our Easter lunch, cleaning up from our Easter lunch, then watching the Michigan boys dominate their basketball game to make it into the Final Four (Go Blue!!!), baking our Easter dessert, watching the Duke-Louisville game (my brackets are so over, and who else is still cringing at that broken shin bone sticking through the player's skin?) while painting my nails, and finally just chilling here enjoying the evening.

I wanted to share today's menu (served with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc):

Roasted Carrot and Avocado Salad (Food and Wine Magazine, click link for recipe)
Review: I was curious as we began making this recipe-- such a unique combination of ingredients that I would never think could work together (cumin, carrots, avocados, sour cream, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, citrus vinaigrette, etc.).  I was so pleasantly surprised!  We left out the chile because we couldn't find it in the grocery store, and I can't really handle spicy foods; we also left out the sesame seeds because I thought we had some but apparently we don't.  This salad was selected as Food and Wine's best first course salad recipe.  The carrots are definitely the hit and I think could stand alone as a side vegetable for a dinner.  Next time, I'll probably skip the sour cream; I think without the chile it doesn't add much to the salad.  Overall, a healthy, delicious salad, worthy of serving to guests.

Mascarpone Mashed Potatoes (Cooking Light, click link for recipe)
Review: Eh, not bad, but I've had better.  Decent, but I don't think the mascarpone added anything special. Sour cream or cream cheese would have been just as good or better.

Julia Child's Favorite Roast Chicken (Food and Wine Magazine, click link for recipe)

Review: This was our first time roasting a whole chicken (and we could actually do it thanks to our new roasting pan), and I was nervous.  But it turned out pretty good!  Definitely the gem of this recipe is the onions and carrots at the bottom of the pan-- you must eat your chicken with a drizzle of the sauce and with these roasted veggies.  It wasn't a very difficult recipe.  The chicken itself didn't seem to have too much flavor plain, but as I said, the veggies at the bottom are delicious.  Another dish worthy of serving to guests.

Upside-Down Fudge-Almond Tart (Cooking Light, click link for recipe)  
Review: Pretty much just tasted like a brownie with toasted almonds on top.  It's not bad, and Nick liked it, but it's not really worth the work.  You could get the same effect buying brownie mix at the store and adding almonds. 

Excited for the leftovers I'll get to eat for lunch tomorrow!

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Birthday Lesson

I wish every day were my birthday.

Yesterday was a pretty normal day, and yet, it was made a great day by my birthday.  I wore my normal clothes, worked normal hours, had a normal lunch (Au Bon Pain wouldn't even give me a birthday discount because I'm not on their birthday email list)...

And yet, the weather seemed sunnier, the birds chirped louder, more random people flashed a friendly smile as I walked by, my research seemed to go smoothly...

(not to mention all of the happy birthdays and well wishes from friends and family, a delicious dinner and Oreo ice cream cake, a fiance who went overboard on birthday presents and worked hard to make me feel special).

All of this because it was my birthday.  

Or was it?
Would the sun have shined as bright, would the birds have chirped as pleasantly, would I have received as many smiles, and would my lab work have gone as smoothly if it hadn't been my birthday? 

Yes, but I wouldn't have noticed.

Because it was my birthday, right when my alarm charmed in the morning, I had a positive attitude that was going to be hard to shake.  What if I had that kind of attitude every day?  That feeling when I wake up of "Today is going to be a great day."

Sure, some may argue that I would be setting myself up for failure-- I would have too high of expectations if I expected every day to be a great day.  Maybe they're right.  After all, bad things do happen.  On the other hand, I thought we already decided some things have nothing to do with you or me... some things are just the way they are, and you can only appreciate these elegant subtleties if you let yourself, if you open your eyes and radiate your positive energy.

My birthday gave me a reason to look for and enjoy these little things.  What if, instead of waiting for a birthday, I chose to appreciate these things every day... simply because I can.  The world's daily gift to me is its goodness and beauty.  Why wouldn't someone want to embrace that with an open heart, mind, and soul?

Birthdays are also unique because you spend a much greater proportion of your day saying "Thank you" and showing your appreciation for the kindness of others.  This state of being thankful is in a positive feedback loop with experiencing the goodness in your day.

And so, on my 25th birthday, another year wiser, life gave me a birthday lesson:

You, and only you, can choose to appreciate the goodness life has to offer.  The beauty is always there, but it is your duty to open your eyes to let in the light.

Happy (birth)day to all!