Category Archives: “the gym”

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Cycling Through Bliss

I’ve recently embarked on a new exercise program, and I’ve chosen a recumbent bike as one means to accomplish my goal.  It’s fairly boring to cycle in my current gym, a gray and sterile place, so I’ve taken to closing my eyes while I cycle and imagine blissful scenes I’ve cycled through in my past.

I focus on the scenes around my home of 30 years in the eastern section of Wilmette, a charming village on Chicago’s North Shore.  We bought our home in 1975 for less than $70,000, but during the three decades that we lived there, home values increased enormously, and by the time we sold it, its value had multiplied about 14 times.

During those years, east Wilmette became exceedingly desirable because of its location near Lake Michigan and its lakeside beach, harbor, and park—Gillson Park– along with excellent schools, a nearly invisible crime rate, a top-notch public library, a Spanish-influenced small shopping mall called Plaza del Lago, its 28-minute train ride to downtown Chicago, and other highly sought-after features.  Although we were not at the most affluent end of the spectrum in Wilmette, especially as the years went by, we reaped the benefits of living in a near-idyllic setting.

I set my second novel, a mystery titled Jealous Mistress, in this part of Wilmette, which I called East Winnette (blurring its name with that of another North Shore suburb, Winnetka.  [https://www.amazon.com/Jealous-Mistress-Susan-Alexander/dp/1463503652]

I’ve loved cycling ever since my parents gave me my first Schwinn during my growing-up years on Chicago’s Far North Side.  I continued to pursue cycling throughout my high school and college years.  And even when I was a law student at Harvard, I purchased a second-hand bike from a graduating 3L and delightedly rode it through the beautiful Cambridge streets until I myself graduated and passed it on.

While working as a lawyer in Chicago before I married, I bought an inexpensive bike at Sears and loved riding it through Lincoln Park, along Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere along the lake, near where I’d rented a small studio apartment.

After I moved to LA in 1970, I bought a second-hand bike and hoped to ride it near my apartment in Westwood. But the neighborhood was too hilly for me, and I soon abandoned cycling there.

Landing in Wilmette in 1975, I was determined to once again be a cyclist.  With the bike I moved from LA to Ann Arbor then moved to Wilmette, and the bike my husband acquired in Ann Arbor so he could ride with me there, we set out on our bikes as soon as we could.  Having two daughters complicated things, but as soon as we could somehow attach them to us or to our bikes, or they were old enough to ride bikes themselves, off we went.  Both daughters became avid cyclists, often biking to school during their high school years.

Here’s one of the blissful North Shore routes our family shared, one I remember with special and heartfelt fondness:

Our family of four would cycle out of the detached garage behind our house and set out on our bikes, riding a short way to 10th Street, a sometimes busy through street.  We’d then ride three blocks down 10th Street (carefully, to avoid traffic, which was usually fairly light) to a delightful route down Chestnut Avenue.  This route enabled us to ride for about six blocks without interruption by any curbs or cross-streets because we took the sidewalk on the eastern side of Chestnut, and it had no breaks of any kind.

I always loved our rides down Chestnut Avenue.  Chestnut features huge homes and extensive front lawns, and I memorialized it as Oak Avenue in my novel Jealous Mistress.  In this story, set in 1981, the protagonist-narrator is planning to visit a house on that street:

 

“It was only a few blocks from my house, but those blocks made all the difference in the world.  The houses on my block ran the gamut from ordinary and somewhat cramped (mine) to large and fairly impressive (the one next door…).

But the houses on [Chestnut Avenue] were borderline mansions.  One of them always reminded me of an art museum I once saw in Williamstown, Massachusetts (on a slightly smaller scale, of course).”

My protagonist-narrator hopes that the house she’s visiting “would turn out to be the museum lookalike, but it wasn’t.  It just looked like one of the houses in a Cadillac ad in the latest issue of LIFE magazine.”

 

As our family cycled alongside the magnificent homes on Chestnut Avenue, we savored the uninterrupted ride that led us to where Chestnut ended and flowed into the adjoining suburb of Kenilworth.

Kenilworth was and still is an upscale, somewhat snooty, suburb just north of Wilmette.  Like some areas of east Wilmette, this section of Kenilworth, east of Green Bay Road and close to Sheridan Road, also features huge homes, tall trees, and extensive front lawns.  My older daughter remembers these areas as “park-like.”

Kenilworth’s streets had very little car traffic—a definite plus—but the best thing about them was that they were all paved with asphalt.  In our part of Wilmette, later called the CAGE because of the four streets that bordered it (one of them was ours), the streets were still paved with red bricks.  The vintage bricks (expensive to replace when they broke) lent a certain cache to the streets, and we loved them, but they were so bumpy that they were truly awful for bike-riding.  So whenever we could ride our bikes on the streets of Kenilworth, we knew we’d have smooth sailing for that part of our ride.

When I close my eyes at the gym, I often picture the sights along this route.  During the six months of the year (May through October) when cycling was more-than-pleasant on the North Shore, we’d relish the cool breezes from Lake Michigan and the delightful sounds of birdsong that surrounded us.

But another route was equally blissful.  On this one, we’d head east, tolerating Wilmette’s bumpy brick streets as far as Sheridan Road, where we were able to ride down smooth sidewalks and streets leading to the stunning lakeside gem called Gillson Park.  Riding into Gillson gave us a couple of options:  We could head all the way to the sandy beach, riding alongside Lake Michigan, or we could cycle along Michigan Avenue, the posh residential street just east of busy Sheridan Road.

Gillson was, and still is, a gem for a host of reasons.  One is the accessible beach and harbor, where sunning, swimming, and sailing were happily available in good weather.  Another is the abundance of tall trees and green grassy lawns, where countless barbeques cropped up every summer.  Still another is the marvelous Wallace Bowl, where Wilmette offered free concerts (and Broadway musicals) every summer, and where a concert of patriotic music, followed by fireworks at the beach, was an annual tradition on the Fourth of July that attracted people from all over the Chicago area.

So we would enthusiastically ride into and through Gillson, sometimes stopping to look at the lake, sometimes zooming past Michigan Avenue mansions, always having a glorious time on a breezy, sunshiny day.

Gillson Park turned up as Sheridan Park in a scene in Jealous Mistress.  I couldn’t resist setting a scene in a secluded spot along the water where my protagonist-narrator could meet up with someone who turned out to reveal important secrets.

 

Update to today:  If you’ve read my blog before, you know I live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  So you may be wondering why I don’t envision cycling on routes through my new neighborhood rather than the routes stored in my memory bank.

The truth is that although I moved a two-year-old bike from Wilmette to my new home in San Francisco, I’ve sadly never used it.  Why?

The apartment building I chose is perched in a very hilly part of SF, and I soon realized that cycling on these hills would be much too arduous.  Hence I ride the recumbent bike at the gym while my own bike still leans against a wall in my building’s garage.

Instead of cycling, I walk almost everywhere I can in San Francisco.

But cycling still beckons.  I plan to abandon my boring gym and acquire a new recumbent bike of my own, a stationary one that will reside in my apartment, to be ridden whenever and for however long I wish.

I can hardly wait.

Take a hike

The lure of “the gym” has always escaped me. I’ve joined a few fitness centers in my day, but I consistently end up abandoning the gym and resorting to my preferred route to fitness: walking. Whenever possible, I walk and hike in the great outdoors.

A host of recent studies has validated my faith in the benefits of walking. And some of these benefits may surprise you.

First, being active is better for your health. Duh. We’ve all suspected that for a long time. But here’s a new finding: sitting may be the real problem. Studies show that the more you sit, the greater your risk for health problems. In a study of more than two thousand adults ages 60 and older, every additional hour a day spent sitting was linked to a 50 percent greater risk of disability. Even those who got some exercise but were sitting too much were more likely to get dumped in the pool of disabled people.

Dorothy Dunlop and her colleagues at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science concluded that sitting seems to be a separate risk factor. Getting enough exercise is important, but it’s equally important not to be a couch potato the rest of the time. Their study appeared in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health in 2014.

Another study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, noted something else about prolonged sitting: taking “short walking breaks” at least once an hour may lessen or even prevent some of the adverse effects, especially on the cardiovascular system. When healthy young men sat for 3 hours without moving their legs, endothelial function—the ability of blood vessels to expand and contract—dropped significantly from the very beginning. But when they broke up their sitting time with slow 5-minute walks every 30 or 60 minutes, endothelial function did not decline.

Here’s another benefit: Exercise, including walking, can keep you from feeling depressed. A British study, reported in JAMA Psychiatry, followed over 11,000 people (initially in their early 20s) for more than 25 years. It found that the more physically active they were, the less likely they were to have symptoms of depression. For example, sedentary people who started exercising 3 times a week reduced their risk of depression 5 years later by almost 20 percent. The researchers concluded that being active “can prevent and alleviate depressive symptoms in adulthood.”

Ready for one more reason to walk? A study described in The Wall Street Journal in 2014 found that walking can significantly increase creativity. This is a brand new finding. In the past, studies have shown that after exercise, people usually perform better on tests of memory and the ability to make decisions and organize thoughts. Exercise has also been linked anecdotally to creativity: writers and artists have said for centuries that their best ideas have come during a walk. But now science supports that link.

Researchers at Stanford University, led by Dr. Marily Oppezzo, decided to test the notion that walking can inspire creativity. They gathered a group of students in a deliberately unadorned room equipped with nothing more than a desk and a treadmill. The students were asked to sit and complete “tests of creativity,” like quickly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, e.g., a button. Facing a blank wall, the students then walked on the treadmill at an easy pace, repeating the creativity tests as they walked. Result: creativity increased when the students walked. Most came up with about 60 percent more “novel and appropriate” uses for the objects.

Dr. Oppezzo then tested whether these effects lingered. The students repeated the test when they sat down after their walk on the treadmill. Again, walking markedly improved their ability to generate creative ideas, even when they had stopped walking. They continued to produce more and better ideas than they had before their walk.

When Dr. Oppezzo moved the experiment outdoors, the findings surprised her. The students who walked outside did come up with more creative ideas than when they sat, either inside or outside, but walking outside did not lead to more creativity than walking inside on the treadmill. She concluded that “it’s the walking that matters.”

So a brief stroll apparently leads to greater creativity. But the reasons for it are unclear. According to Dr. Oppezzo, “It may be that walking improves mood,” and creativity blooms more easily when one is happier. The study appeared in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition in 2014.

In truth, I don’t need these studies to convince me to keep walking. It helps that I live in San Francisco, where the climate allows me to walk outside almost every day. Walking is much more challenging when you confront the snow and ice that used to accompany my walks in and around Chicago. So I’m not surprised that walkers in colder climes often resort to exercising indoors.

It also helps that San Francisco has recently been voted the second most walkable city in America. According to Walk Score, an organization that ranks the “walkability” of 2,500 cities in the U.S., SF placed just behind New York City as the most walkable major American city.

SF’s high score is especially impressive in light of the city’s hills. Although I avoid the steepest routes, I actually welcome a slight incline because it adds to my aerobic workout. Why use a Stairmaster in a gloomy gym when I can climb uphill enveloped in sunshine and cool ocean breezes?

But whether you walk indoors or out, do remember to walk! You’ll assuredly benefit health-wise. And you just may enhance your creativity quotient. Someday you may even find yourself writing a blog like this one.