Over the last week I have taken my business 100% online. I’ve lost about a third of my clients and 90% of my group class revenue, but to be honest, I am so grateful that I even have to option to offer my services from the web, because so many do not have that luxury and are finding themselves suddenly unemployed.
I believe that most of us want to be helping our communities if we can. Social distancing is the main way, but giving is another. I canceled one of my $12.99 app subscriptions (NOT Netflix, lol) and opted in to a monthly auto-pay donation to the Vermont Food Bank for the same amount. Not much, and I am not bragging, I am just giving a personal example. I will be looking for a way to support our local service industry workers as well. In fact, if you know a way, please email me!
Having a open heart and a generous spirit can feel downright dangerous when we are feeling fear, panic, and anxiety. Our instinct is to close off, protect, put up the walls, dig a mote, clench our fists. I know for myself, that is a one way ticket to mental health crisis-town. Behind our closed doors, our hearts can remain open. Finding ways to give, even teeny tiny ways, makes us feel in our power, because we are taking action in the face of fear. Balancing isolation with unity. Just like when we ask when in a yoga pose, “Where must we stay firm so as not to collapse and where can we soften so as not to shatter?”
In and out, pretty simple, right? Our breath is imperative and fundamental, yet easy to forget about, because we’re going to breathe whether we think about it or not. However, mindfully and strategically breathing during weight lifting (light or heavy weights) can massively improve the effectiveness of our workout.
1. DYNAMIC WARM-UP Hopping on the treadmill for 5 minutes is all well and good, but I consider a proper dynamic warm-up with an emphasis on breathing absolutely essential and simply the best way to prepare for any workout. This style of dynamic warm-up has a yogic feel because we are matching the timing of our movements to our inhales and exhales. This helps to focus the mind, bringing awareness into the body, and better preparing the body and mind for what is to come. It is also energizing!
2. INHALE TO LENGTHEN, EXHALE TO CONTRACT This is a great rule of thumb the 90% of us lifting sub-maximal weights. If you are going for a 1-5 rep max, you would follow a different breathing technique called the Valsava maneuver, which I’ll cover another time. Using the bench press as an example; inhale as the bar lowers, exhale as the bar presses up. During a squat, inhale on the way down, exhale to rise. Exhaling automatically activates the muscles of the core, helping to support the spine. That being said, don’t think, “oh, well I’m exhaling, so my core must be braced,” actively brace your core, with an emphasis on bracing during the exertion phase.
3. CONCENTRATE ON WHAT YOU’RE DOING Bringing awareness to the breath while we are lifting helps us focus on our muscles working; inhale lengthen, exhale squeeeeeeze. A Pubmed study showed that by concentrating on the pectorals during a bench press, a lifter can increase muscle activity 60-80%. This is another great reason to stay present during your weight lifting. If you find yourself pondering what you’re going to get at the grocery store later, return your focus to your breath and the muscles you are trying to work.
For more than a decade I used shame and guilt to “motivate” myself to be “better;” fitter, more successful, make more money, be more educated, accomplish more. I didn’t think that the current version of myself deserved acceptance because I wasn’t who I wanted to be, yet. Once I got to my goal weight, had the cool car, had the job I wanted and the clothes I wanted, then I would accept myself, but until then I didn’t deserve it. In fact I believed that in order to “stay on track” I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t good enough. The real Justine was in the future, and if I worked hard enough I would get to her, embody her and my life would start then, I would be worthy then.
My 2020 New Years Resolution is TO ACCEPT MYSELF EXACTLY HOW I AM. Scary, right? It won’t happen all at once. In fact, it already started years ago without me even realizing it. The difference is, through maturity and more life experience, I’ve established clarity and focus around my intentions. This resolution does not include a goal that is somewhere out in the distance, outside of us. This resolution requires us to embrace and nurture what we already are, and through that tenderness and curiosity, unlock the unlimited potential within.
Here’s the thing, in this moment, we are who we are, and to not accept this is quite ludicrous. Let me be clear, by committing to this challenge of self-acceptance, we’re not giving up on our ambitions. Acceptance is not the same as approval or satisfaction. Self-acceptance is dropping into the present moment and experiencing reality free of judgment (good or bad.) It’s about moving inward to reveal who we are, instead of constantly focusing and reaching outside of ourselves, trying to embody a fantasy version of our self that does not and will never exist. All we have is RIGHT NOW, whether we accept it or not.
To accept ourselves exactly how we are right now is counter-cultural. We’ve been taught from a young age that we are a thing that needs fixing. As women this is especially true regarding our bodies. The main message to women is, “be pleasing to look at and everything else will fall into place.” Marketing campaigns targeting girls and women meant to convince us of our unworthiness makes women very good consumers. Companies create problems that don’t exist (stretch marks, wrinkles, cellulite) then sell us the “solution.” But here’s the thing, THERE’S ANOTHER “PROBLEM” RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. Its never-ending! This is how marketing works; this is how good consumers are created. (~conspiracy theory vibes~)
The real work of self-acceptance begins with seeing and eventually embracing what we perceive as the “ugly” or unacceptable parts of ourselves. That is when true healing begins. My “ugly” parts include feelings of jealousy, parts of me that want attention, judgmental thoughts, fears, self-doubt, and shame. By nurturing and accepting these parts of myself, I am not “encouraging” them, I am allowing them to express themselves in a space of equanimity. In my experience, these “ugly” parts just need some attention and then they quiet down. I spent years shoving these parts down, and it holds true that what we resist persists.
Recently I have been taking more action. I went through my twenties preferring to be inconvenienced rather than risk inconveniencing someone else. No doubt a symptom of an extreme people-pleaser. I thought that putting others’ time/feelings/priorities above my own meant I was a “good” person. When in balance and done skillfully, selflessness can be a healthy practice. When done out of fear of voicing one’s own needs, like I was, it is detrimental.
I’ve started challenging myself to question things I’ve accepted as “the way it is.” For example, I had a block of clients starting at 7am on Mondays and every Sunday starting around 3pm a ball of anxiety would start growing in my chest, AKA the “Sunday Scaries.” My thinking was, “I am a personal trainer and this is just how it is, I have a crazy schedule that eventually will run me down and I’ll have to give in and get a ‘real job.” Then a lightbulb went off; it was totally within my power to at least TRY to change these circumstances.
I asked my Monday morning clients (via email) to move to Tuesday morning and anxiously waited for my inbox to explode with angry replies, like “you’ve got some nerve” and, “who do you think you are?!” Instead, everyone graciously changed their session days without a peep. Well, whaddya know? Now I don’t go into the gym on Monday mornings till 10 at the earliest and my Sundays are lovely till the very end.
I ask myself a lot of questions now, especially if something doesn’t feel right. Like, is there anything you can do to change it? What is the risk of making that change? Is the reward worth the risk? I don’t do this alone. I am lucky to have a partner, friends, and family that are super smart and supportive that help me talk through things. Oh, and a therapist!
What are you accepting as “just the way it is”? It may be something that is so ingrained in your belief system that it doesn’t jump to the surface. Really give it some thought and don’t be afraid to shake things up! A “no” won’t kill you. I will leave you with a quote from the one and only, Oprah, “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”
In my late teens my father was in the process of dying from cancer. Less than a quarter mile away from his house, a family friend had a little studio gym where Jenni Johnson (who you might know from her jazz singing) taught fitness classes. I began attending in the evenings and all I knew was that it felt good. The feeling of my muscles burning, my body heating up, the resistance of the weights, the workouts placed me into the present moment. I relished the feeling of those last 3 reps where I had to push myself beyond my comfort zone, the battle between wanting to stop and wanting to keep going. That’s still one of my favorite parts of a workout. At that time, I was exercising for a feeling, not for an outcome.
My motivation to exercise began to change in my early twenties. I realized that all of the other women at the gym or friends I knew who worked out were doing it to reach a goal. Almost 100% of these goals were aesthetic and had to do with weight loss and visible abs. Shrinking seemed to be the theme to all of the workouts that the women around me were doing, and I followed suit.
My workouts morphed into mostly cardio and abs. Suddenly I became fixated on all of the numbers, especially the “calories burned” monitor on the cardio machines. I also became very aware of the number of calories in my food. Every morning I vowed to eat as little as possible, which would ALWAYS result in a binge, triggering a deep depression filled with shame and the repeating question, “What is wrong with me?” The next day I would start the whole process over again.
It’s easy to look back and see how painfully misguided my expectations were and how obviously I was in a cycle of binging/restricting. I was suffering from depression and I believed that the cure was weight loss. I didn’t understand, or maybe was too scared to acknowledge the real issues at the core of my obsessive weight loss endeavors.
After graduating from college with a degree in sociology, I settled into working and living as a young adult. I found another gym and decided to return to group fitness, instead of toiling away alone on the elliptical for an hour. I started doing Body Pump, a class that uses a barbell and takes participants through a full body workout. I was flooded with all of the feelings I remembered; the burn, the heat, the resistance, and I was hooked. I started attending regularly because of the true joy it brought me, not because of what I thought my body would look like if I kept doing it. I felt compelled to go to class, like an invisible force was carrying me along, then I realized, holy shit, I am having FUN, that’s why I want to do this! DUH.
I began to teach classes like Body Pump, and over time exercise became a natural and constant fixture in my life. It was not a chore or a punishment, it simply became a part of who I was. I let go of the numbers and just did what I enjoyed.
Now I would love to end the story with “and I never had any issues with food or exercise again!” But you and I both know life is not that simple, and old habits die hard (or never!) About 3 years ago I got a really cool heart rate monitor. Almost immediately I slipped into what I call my “number fixation.” I slowly became more and more preoccupied with the number of calories I had burned each workout. I would compare my numbers to other peoples numbers. I even started tracking my food (RED FLAG,) and finally that lead to me watching the numbers on the scale. TOO MANY NUMBERS. I began to feel disappointed with a workout if I didn’t burn “enough” calories, even if the workout felt really good in every other way. What BS!!!
After realizing that I had slipped down the proverbial slope, it still took me about 6 months to stop wearing the monitor for every workout. Now I only wear it for specific training drills where I need to see my heart rate (not calories burned.) Let me be clear, data provided by a heart-rate monitor, food/macro tracking, even calorie counting, can be extremely helpful and beneficial to some peoples’ fitness and health. I was using the data in an unhealthy way. At the end of the day only you can know if something is helping or hurting you, that is a personal choice that’s nobody’s business but your own.
Since letting go of the numbers (again,) my workouts are my own. Sometimes I exercise for 10 minutes, sometimes 90. I listen to my body; I push myself if I am feeling fresh, I slow it down if I am feeling depleted. I take it day by day, because every day is different. I do it because it makes me feel good, connected to my body, and present in the moment. The ways my body has changed as a result of exercising regularly is a bonus, not the point of the action, but a byproduct. I am actually heavier now than I have ever been and I feel better in my body than I have ever felt. How’s that for a twist?!
If you’re a slave to the numbers associated with your workouts and nutrition and you’re feeling like that is not serving you any more, here are a few things you can do:
#1 EXPERIMENT – Spend 7 days not tracking any workout data and see how you feel. Trust yourself. If you hate it you can go back to tracking. Keep a journal to explore how you are feeling during the week and see if there may be deeper reasons behind all this control/tracking besides health and fitness.
#2 ABILITY/PERFORMANCE BASED GOALS: Ditch the aesthetic goals for a minute and choose a fitness goal based on abilities or performance. Such as: an obstacle course, getting in peak condition for ski season, learning a new skill, like deadlifting or a kettlebell training. See how your workouts and mindset change when your goal isn’t just burning calories.
#3 EDUCATE YOURSELF – You will get more get more benefits from a 20 minute well executed HIIT workout that grinding away for 60 minutes (why does it have to be 60?) in the “fat burning zone” (which is a total misnomer, btw.) Ask yourself why. If you do have a goal, talk to a trusted certified professional about the best way to reach it. Don’t rely on celebrity workouts or what your coach had you do in the gym back in high school.
#4 SPORTS – Get active outside the gym. Tennis, hiking, pickle ball, SUP, snow-shoeing, biking, dragon boating, swimming`. Do something you can get lost in! Find that flow, do it because it’s fun!
Most of us can agree that being fit is a good thing.. but what does being “fit” really mean? To me, fitness is about balance and it goes beyond the physical. The most significant breakthroughs I’ve had in my fitness have been the direct result of emotional growth. For example, my binge eating subsided when I started practicing mindfulness; I was able to make better nutrition choices and lost weight as a result.
What I’ve observed as a trainer is a resistance to look beyond diet and exercise and dig deeper than meal plans and workout routines. Unhealthy relationships, excessive stress, poor sleep, an unhealthy work environment, and trauma effect our fitness and health. Often, instead of dealing with the root causes that may be inhibiting success in the gym/kitchen, people berate themselves for being “weak” and lacking willpower. They either give up or engage in destructive yo-yo style restricting and binging habits.
And why the resistance you may be wondering? BECAUSE ITS SCARY! WHATS UNDER THERE?? IT HAS FANGS!!!! AHHHHHH!!!! CLOSE THE DOOR! CLOSE THE DOOR! Spooky stuff, huh?
Root causes are complicated and nebulous. They can bring up confusing, intense, and painful emotions. They aren’t simple or straightforward. We are forced to ask the question,”WHY?” Why do I feel powerless around potato chips, why do I have this voice in my head telling me I am fat and disgusting, why the fear, why the negative self talk, why the binging, why the restricting, WHY GOD WHY?
Of course, we should all be in therapy, but here is the next best thing: a few tips from me, your personal armchair psychologist.
1) Variety truly is the spice of life and is key to the balance we need for our mental and physical health. Here’s the basic rule: if you find you’re only doing high intensity activities, get more low intensity activities in the mix, and vice versa. You prefer to sit around? Than you need to stand up. Do you prefer to stand? Then you should probably sit for a while. If you are interested in deep diving into the idea of balance in your life, check out this article.
2) Look before you leap. You may leap anyways, but at least you’ll do it with your eyes open. Here’s what I mean – I used to binge eat basically every day. Then I began a very simple (yet difficult) practice: pause & choose. Before I cooked the box of pasta, I would take a few moments just looking at the box. I would say to myself, “I am making the decision to eat this, this is my choice, I am not sure why, but I need this right now.” Instead of binge eating on auto-pilot, using the “pause & choose” tactic made me take responsibility for my actions, not in a blamey/shamey way, but in way that highlighted that I had a CHOICE, and I found it empowering. It took time, but I eventually chose not to have the pasta at all, and my eating habits changed drastically because I gave myself the space needed to look at what the hell I was doing.
3) Ask WHY – As a trainer I use this all the time. Keep asking “why” until you get to the root cause. Read this Wikipedia article to learn more about this simple and effective as hell tool.
A warm-up is a smart way to start your workout or to begin your day, especially if you wake up feeling stiff and/or sluggish. A proper warm-up helps enhance our performance during our workout and helps prevent injury; you will feel toasty warm, more energetic, and ready for your workout or workday.
I recommend we do not approach stretching the way we approach exercise, meaning our stretching routine should be (mostly) relaxing and not strenuous. Move slowly, mindfully, and continue breathing; do not hold your breath!
Here is a yoga inspired warm-up for you to try! **You will need a mat, or put a towel down on a carpeted surface
– Try initiating the movement of the spine with the pelvis instead of the head/neck – Inhale as your hips lift, exhale as your hips tuck X10
Inhale as you reach, exhale as you contract X5 each side
TABLETOP TO CHILD’S POSE
Inhale in tabletop, exhale into child’s pose, flow through X5
Hold for 30 seconds each side
HALF KNEEL LATERAL BEND
Hold for 30 seconds each side
Please let me know if you have questions and let me know how you feel after this yoga inspired dynamic warmup!
The holiday season is a time of familial and communal celebration… It can also be anxiety and depression provoking for many of us. There are heightened expectations, many more social obligations, and it truly can be an emotional roller coaster, where we feel as though we are being pulled in a thousand different directions.
Here are my 2 suggestions for making it through the next few months with minimal emotional scarring and meltdowns.
Here is why practicing gratitude is important. This Harvard Health Publishing article explains that thinking about and expressing what we are grateful for increases our own sense of well-being and can improve the moods of those around us. Further more, if you are stuck in a negative thought cycle, taking a moment to meditate on what you are grateful for in your life can give you the space your mind needs to get on a different track. You don’t even have to write it down; just stop, close your eyes, ask yourself the question, “what am I grateful for?” And think about that person or thing for a few moments. THAT’S IT. It can be totally private, and certainly does not need to be broadcasted over the internet (i.e. #Blessed) to make it legitimate and effective.
~ Exercise ~
Well you knew this was coming at some point! This article from the American Psychological Association explains that exercise can help alleviate depression in the short term AND long term. You can do an experiment all by yourself… after a stressful day, go for a brisk 20 minutes walk, do you feel better or worse after your walk? I rest my case.
Even outside of the holiday season, the most common excuse for not exercising is “I’m too busy.” So let’s redefine the idea of exercise; instead of skipping the gym because you can’t fit in a full hour, commit to a 15-20 minute workout at a higher intensity. What about a brisk walk during your lunch break or before/after work?
~ Final Thoughts ~
Beware of perfectionism, it runs rampant this time of year. Slow down, take a big breath, open your eyes and check who’s driving the bus. Is it Pammy the Perfectionist or Down-to-Earth Debbie ? Pammy will drive you over a cliff, Pammy didn’t even pass her drivers exam… BEWARE OF PAMMY.