Want to get fit? Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone

Have you noticed that we humans often gravitate to the things we’re good at, and shy away from the things we can’t do well?  We get confidence from being in familiar territory, and self-esteem from our mastery of a skill or task.

In the gym, that translates to sticking with the exercises we know—the ones we can knock out without any hitch or hesitation. We might even do the same routine time after time, going down a mental (or written) checklist and ticking off the boxes, in order.

But the science of resistance training tells us that’s not the way to get results. The way to grow stronger and fitter over time is by asking your body to do just a little bit more than it could before.  If your workout is “no sweat,” that means “no gain.”

Working on weaknesses

That’s why seasoned trainers don’t limit their routines to a standard run-through of major muscle groups. The good ones will help you systematically diagnose and work on your areas of weakness over time, gradually bringing them into balance with the stronger parts of your body.

To be clear, I’m not for a minute suggesting that you push yourself to your limits at all times. That’s asking for trouble if you’re over 50, and overtraining is counterproductive at any age.

How can expand your comfort zone without overdoing it? The key is making sure you push the envelope  gently, gradually, and selectively.

One step at a time

At each workout, or every week or so, pick just one exercise you’d like to progress or one muscle group you want to strengthen. If, for example, you can’t do a full squat so your knees make a 90-degree angle, spend some time focusing on that.

Then explore different ways to challenge yourself. Increasing the weight you’re lifting is only one possibility.  You can add a set. Or do more repetitions in each set. Or increase your range of motion. Going from a bilateral to a unilateral exercise, such as a one-legged squat or one-armed bicep curl, can build strength rapidly. It will also immediately tell you if one side of your body is stronger than the other.

In my book, improving your movement form is always the place to start. Only when you can do 15 repetitions of an exercise with good form should you think about adding weight.

Mixing things up is another good way to challenge your body.  Do a different shoulder exercise than the one you’re accustomed to. Or use different equipment—say, cables instead of a barbell.

As a top trainer once told me, “If you want to be fit, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  In other words, take an exercise to the point where you feel you’ve had enough…and then do one more repetition. That last bit of effort will produce rewards over time.

Image: Black Swan Photography


By |2018-08-24T20:24:28+00:00August 24th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Want to get fit? Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone

A Walk Isn’t Just Good Exercise. It’s Also a Chance to Practice Walking

It may sound strange to think about practicing something we’ve all been doing since we were toddlers.  But going for a walk is a perfect opportunity to generally improve the ways you move. Use your walks as a chance to focus on:

Body awareness – Pay close attention to how you’re moving.  Are your strong glute and thigh muscles driving your movement? Is your body relaxed as you stride?  Ideally, you’re moving forward in a smooth, slightly rolling motion with your arms swing loosely in opposition to your step (your left arm swinging forward as you step with your right foot, and the reverse).

Posture – Remind yourself to keep your chest up and pelvis tucked, so your backbone is in its neutral, slightly S-curved position. Pull your shoulder blades together in the back, letting your arms hang at your side. Try to keep your neck in line with your back and your chin up.  Think of this as your “proud walk” –straight and tall.

Breathing – Inflate your lungs fully as you’re moving, and exhale slowly until they are emptied. Not only will this send more oxygen through your system, it will encourage good posture.

Gait – Many hip and knee problems can be eased by correcting issues with gait, which can be subtle.  A good trainer or physical therapist can spot dysfunctional habits you may want to work on. Meanwhile, are your feet and knees pointed in the direction you’re going, or do they drift inward or outward? Do your feet maintain their arches, and are they aligned with your hips? Does your walk demonstrate economy of motion, or does it involve extraneous movements, like arms pumping from side to side?

When you turn your walks into mini-training sessions, you’ll be building good habits of movement every time you hit the walking trail.

By |2018-06-22T20:36:28+00:00June 22nd, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on A Walk Isn’t Just Good Exercise. It’s Also a Chance to Practice Walking

What Mothers Need to Know About Staying Active

Mother’s Day is a perfect occasion let your mom or mother-in-law know you want her to be healthy, happy, and vigorous for years to come. If she’s not already doing something to stay fit, it’s not too late—and you can help! Joining her in a walk, a stretch, or a workout is a great way to celebrate the holiday. You can also encourage her to take steps toward a well-rounded fitness program, keeping a few basic principles in mind.

1) Getting or staying fit doesn’t have to be arduous. Regular, moderate exercise goes a long way toward reducing risks of injury or chronic disease. The keys are consistency and finding activities Mom might enjoy. If they include socializing, so much the better! A class at the local community center or Y could be just the ticket.

2) Doing something for balance is critical.  One in three people over 65 suffers a fall each year, and your mother may not realize that a lack of core strength can lead to a tumble. Encourage her to do core exercises like the plank, rather than crunches or sit-ups, which can strain necks or backs. She could also try simple balance-boosters like standing on one foot for 20 seconds or walking heel to toe.

3) Building strength is more important than many women think.  Loss of lean muscle mass accelerates with age, leaving older moms more vulnerable to injuries, falls, and osteoporosis. You can help yours by showing her bodyweight exercises she can work up to gradually (see my earlier post on this topic). You could also gift her with a set of resistance bands, some light dumbbells, or some sessions with a knowledgeable trainer.  

4) Regular stretching can be life-changing. Bad backs, throbbing knees, painful necks and shoulders—so many everyday aches and pains trace back to the tightness and stiffness that come with age. Stress and too much sitting only make it worse. Gentle stretching can ease pain and stiffness while helping Mom stay mobile and avoid falls, too. Stretching is also a great way to ease into a fitness program.

5) The most important message: Just Move! Most of us slow down a bit with age, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the more science learns about aging, the more we understand the physical and mental health risks of being sedentary. Remind Mom that she deserves to spend time taking care of herself. After years of filling multiple roles, she’s earned it!

Images: (top) Galina Barskaya/Fotolia/Adobe Stock; kali9/iStockphoto

By |2018-05-10T22:24:26+00:00May 10th, 2018|Fitness Over 50, Uncategorized|Comments Off on What Mothers Need to Know About Staying Active

Heads (and Chest) Up: The Easy Power Move Everyone Should Know

There’s one simple move that can instantly improve how you’re moving while helping you look and feel better, too. In fact, it’s so simple that it’s widely neglected. It requires no special gear. And you can do it standing or sitting just about anywhere.

The secret is…Lift your chest.     

Stand up straight and really lift that chest, so your shoulder blades come together behind you, your shoulders are pulled back, and your arms are hanging loosely by your sides. No leaning back! Your feet should be at about hip width and pointing straight ahead.

A whole-body realignment  

Notice what happens right away:

Your gluteal, thigh, and calf muscles tighten, and your tummy flattens. In fact, your entire core engages.

Your back moves toward its natural, S-curved shape, and your whole body is more aligned.

Your hips open, and your pelvis is appropriately aligned and “tucked,” rather than tilting forward.

Your chest cavity opens, too, giving your lungs room to inflate more fully.

You stand measurably taller, gaining as much as an inch or more in height.

Make it a habit

Now try to keep your chest lifted as you walk or move. If you tend to carry your head forward, think about keeping your neck back and your chin up, so you’re looking straight ahead (imagine an invisible string that is pulling you up from the ceiling through your spine, neck and head).

This is what good posture looks like! Learn how to “stand proud,” and you’ll engage those important core muscles a lot more often. Make it a habit, and you will be less likely to stress your knees, hips, back, or shoulders while lifting or turning. You’ll also feel stronger, more confident, and more in command. So if you want to be fit, “just move”—and lift that chest while doing it.

Image: Havey Productions

By |2018-04-19T18:01:22+00:00April 19th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Heads (and Chest) Up: The Easy Power Move Everyone Should Know

Why I Love the Gym (and You Might, Too)

Call me crazy, but my workouts are some of the best times of my week. I didn’t feel that way on day one, it’s true. But as soon as I started seeing progress, the gym became my home away from home. Here’s why:

It gives me a time and place to focus on improving how I move. It’s like a laboratory where you gain insight into your strengths and weaknesses and figure out what your body needs in order to be more balanced and functional.  (Ideally, you do this with the help of a skilled trainer who brings expert knowledge and an objective eye to the effort.) That work continues outside the gym. As you improve your patterns of movement in your workouts, you can apply that learning to all your other activities. Over time, those new and better ways of moving become embedded in your muscle memory.

It offers many ways to be challenged. The gym is a chance to show myself what I can do.  It also lets me gauge my progress in a variety of ways. How good is my movement form? How close am I to the full range of motion for a given movement? Can I do more repetitions, or throw in some harder variations? When I’m able to do a demanding exercise after working on it for a while, it gives me a real sense of accomplishment. It also makes me feel I can do whatever I set my mind to.

It’s always an energy boost. For one thing, it’s energizing to be around other people who are actively working to become more fit. Talk to gym regulars about what keeps them coming back, and they’ll often say, “Because it makes me feel so good.” As scientists now know, when your heart is pumping, your blood is moving, and your muscles are working, it benefits your body on a cellular level. It also improves brain function and stimulates the release of endorphins, your body’s natural “feel-good” chemical.   There’s simply nothing like the glow you feel after a good workout!

Image: Bryan Black Photography

By |2018-04-13T19:38:29+00:00March 29th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Why I Love the Gym (and You Might, Too)