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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Tips to Help You Enjoy Running

I’m slow and I know it. Of course my wife knows it too, as evidenced by those silent, ineffable looks only women can give in response to a man’s ineptitude around the house. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m slow of foot. And it’s not just because I’m 44 years old. I’ve always been slow, even when I was younger.
I feel it’s important to divulge this fact right up front because I’m about to discuss some solutions to improve your running. And I know from experience that often times when we read others’ advice, particularly about our physical capabilities, we are skeptical. Usually the advice comes from people for whom physical activity seems to exist naturally and easily. As a result, our response is often, “yeah, but...” In this particular case, the refrain to my advice about helping you improve and enjoy your running might be, “yeah, but I’m a terrible runner, that will never work for me...” I know just how you feel. I am honestly, truly a terrible runner too. I am not some fitness freak who can run a marathon averaging 6-minute miles. Indeed, for much of my life I have hated running. Despised it. I only did it when I was younger to stay in shape for competitive sports. And I did it after that because, well, I thought it was what I needed to do to keep from dying of heart disease at an early age, like my dad did.
I still believe that. But I now know it no longer needs to be a painful process of sheer drudgery. I am still not fast. And I still don’t have any desire to run a marathon. But I enjoy running. And I know you can too, no matter how impossible that may seem, because I am exactly like you.
Before I get to my three tips that will guarantee running enjoyment, let me preface with two important issues. One is to absolutely, positively assert that running is good for you. This is a debatable statement for those who might contend it ruins your knees...your shins...your back, whatever. I’m not ready to deal with those arguments yet. I’m just simply stating that running is good for your health. God made us to run. He didn’t make us to be able to swim automatically. Or ride a bike. Or ski. Not that there’s anything wrong with those forms of exercise. I love them all. But they’re not like running. Except for those who suffer from disabilities, children learn to run instinctively soon after learning to walk. Yes, we were made to run. And so why would it not be good for us?
The second issue I must address is that the three tips below are contingent upon your ability to make time to run. In other words, my tips ain’t gonna work if you ain’t runnin’. I realize this is easier said than done. Again, I’m not some 22-year old kid with lots of time on my hands. I have four young kids at home, a busy career, a wife with a busy career, and a long list of sh*t to be done. I’m like you. But I know that exercise will help - not automatically prevent - but help me to avoid dying of heart disease before I’m 50. So I make time to run, because I know it’s the best bang for my buck per se when it comes to strengthening my heart...if done correctly. 
And so without further ado, here’s how I believe it is done correctly:

First and foremost, by monitoring your heart. Buy a good heart rate monitor. It doesn’t have to be incredibly fancy, with 78 different read-outs. In fact, unless you’re training for the Ironman, I would strongly advise against those kinds. For the sake of brevity here, I will suggest Wahoo Fitness, which has great iPhone and Android apps that track your heart rate and average heart rate during exercise. The importance of a heart rate monitor is to be able to exercise at a relatively low-heart rate level while gradually building up your endurance, and possibly your speed. I will not go into the specifics here partly because heart rate is a very individual thing. But suffice to say, that too many people are turned off by running because they push themselves beyond their heart’s ability to sustain exertion without stressing the body. So, if your experience with running in the past has felt nothing but stressful, than you need to monitor your heart.

Secondly, you need to monitor your breath. Most people, when they go out to exercise breathe through their mouth. This is what they have been conditioned to do, and they are more than likely breathing through their mouth all day long. But the body is not made to breathe through the mouth on a regular basis. Babies all breathe through their nose, otherwise they would not be able to breast (or bottle) feed. Mouth breathing, by nature, should be reserved for emergencies... the flight or fight response, as we call it. If you are mouth breathing, especially during exercise, your body is in perpetual flight or fight response. And, once again, this is very stressful. Nose breathing during exercise might sound ludicrous, and indeed it is difficult to re-train the body after so many years of the wrong conditioning, but it is amazing the difference you will feel when you do it.
Which leads to the third point, and another type of conditioned habit we must break, and that is the way we run. Here’s where I re-address the argument that running is bad for the body. It is... when done incorrectly. There are many ways people run incorrectly, but for the sake of space, I will underscore the most common: heal striking. If you are someone who runs by letting your heal strike the ground first when you stride, you are putting your body at risk of injury, and once again, placing inordinate stress on yourself while exercising. It would be like trying to drive your car with one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

32 Ways To Live Healthy

Other than politics, probably no topic stirs more passionate debate and is more open to nuance than our health. Being healthy challenges definition. There is no finish line to cross, no standard of achievement to meet. Sure we have scales to check up on our weight...and esoteric measurements like the body mass index to tell us who knows what...and ideal images to dream about, like the ones spread across the covers of fitness magazines.  But do any of those things really have much to do with being healthy?
We might see a middle-aged athlete running down the street, with a youthful glow about them that proclaims perfect health. The kind of person who could live forever, right? Certainly longer than the slug walking by in the other direction with a cigarette in his hand and a gut hanging down to his knees. But what are we to make of the very real possibility that the runner could drop dead the following week and the gut-man might live on past 100?
Not much, because in essence life’s really a crapshoot. But who wouldn’t want to improve their odds? It helps explain why billions of dollars every year are spent by Americans in their quest for better health. Hopefully no one is delusional enough to believe in such a thing as “perfect” health...or unbeatable odds...despite the promises made by the companies marketing some products and services. The perfect diet plan? The perfect workout? The perfect combination of carbs, protein, water, sleep, sex, and carrot juice? Whatever.

It’s dizzying for sure. In fact, all the endless options available to help us live healthier, undoubtably lead many people to throw up their hands in surrender and just chose to live unhealthier. Screw the odds. It’s certainly easier that way. No need to worry about when you’re going to exercise. Free reign to eat all the hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. And a money-saver too. Have you compared the price of a container of organic berries to a box of Nilla Wafers? That’s money in the bank for college. Or a new car. Or that $48 Porterhouse at your local steak shack.
But the thing is, I don’t think it is that difficult to be healthy. OK, I am ducking now from the slew of nasty mental retorts from all you who have struggled with your weight or other health issues in absolute futility. Just bear with me though. First, it’s simple if you stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Your health is all about you. Fine, maybe it’s not so easy to stop comparing ourselves either. Not when we’re conditioned by those harrowing memories of childhood, or the constant barrage from today’s media. But you have to do it. No one really wants to be like the gut-man, do they? Even if he does live to 100, his odds aren’t great, and it must be awfully painful along the way. So put the blinders on. Just because your neighbor can run a marathon faster than you can circle your block doesn’t matter. If you’re circling your block several times a week, in lieu of watching “Survivor” re-runs on cable with a bag of Cheetos, kudos to you!
Which leads to the second point: Living healthy is not that difficult if you commit to a few simple indisputable concepts and avoid the disputable ones. Indisputable concept #1: Exercise is good. Whatever you like, go for it. There is something out there for you. Indisputable concept #2: Eat mostly whole foods, straight from the earth, with one ingredient and limited or no processing from the hands of man.

There’s your start, but there’s definitely more to the story, like a politician saying he will make your life better by cutting your taxes and giving you free health insurance.  Yes, there’s lots more to the story when it comes to our health. I said in the title to this blog that there are 32 indisputable ways to live healthy. I’m not sure why I picked that number, but it sounds about right. Let’s hear some more.