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Don’t relax!

02/20/2009

Beautiful Readers,

Sometimes I think I'm a genius. Not about everything, but about certain things like men, women, popular trends, and what's good for you. Does this help me in my own life? Not a bit. But it sure does leave me feeling mighty smart sometimes.

So just try to guess what can be helpful to you that I predicted long ago was getting a bad rap it didn't always deserve! Stress! Yes that's right folks– that fine chemical cocktail that courses through your body when you are being chased by a tiger or even just thinking about one.

Now don't get too excited, there are several common categories of stress that you should make every effort to avoid.

  1. chronic stress
  2. feeling that you are being forced to do things you hate (also known as hating things you have to do)
  3. being stuck in a situation where you feel powerless or invisible

The above kinds of stress are bad. In fact they are so bad that they can literally affect your brain in a way leaving you less smart–the chemicals that are released in the above situations just go right ahead and shrink your neurons. These kinds of stress are also malevolent enough to increase your blood pressure and your risk of heart attack. You should work proactively to adjust your life so that you are not experiencing these kinds of stress.

But normal stress, that good old spike of adrenaline, and maybe a little follow up of cortisol now and again, can be just ducky! It can temporarily help you access information that you had previously forgotten, can build brain cells, and can make your muscles activate–as long as you have a reasonably good attitude about your stress.

What got me thinking about good stress versus bad stress recently, was the familiar sight of a woman about my age (that would be middle-aged for those of you who don't know) running through Prospect Park and looking absolutely miserable. Not the invigorating kind of "hurts so good" kind of miserable that you see on some runners, where you can tell they want to puke and that they are damn proud of it, but more of a "If I don't keep running, I will have failed." kind of thing. Depressing and with all my good fitness-y intuition, it felt wrong–with a capital W.

Now, some fitness types say that you HAVE to love your exercise to get through it and to get the most out of it, and, of course, that would be great, much like loving to floss would be great, but I have also seen people make huge improvements in their lives by starting to exercise regularly and just living with their hatred of it for awhile. 

In my experience, it doesn't seem to matter much what attitude you start out with, love, hate, whatever,–the people who ultimately get past the misery while they are exercising do seem to benefit more. Clients who take ownership of the experience and believe that exercise is something that they personally want to do, even when it seems hard, overall benefit far more than the folks who may be exercising to please someone else, or because they think they have to. Exercising to appease a coach, husband, doctor, boyfriend,or that little voice in their head telling them they're fat, never seems to work out for long, and often has a weirdly un-relaxing effect, which always seems strange because positive exercise is the most relaxing thing (besides meditation) that I know of.  

And now I know why. This weekend I ran into Newsweek's cover article Who Says Stress is Bad For
You
  which, while careful to clarify the pitfalls to ongoing stress, also illuminates some of the thing that can mitigate it's negative effects, and also describes how we can use it to our advantage.

This quote in particular seemed to describe the plight of the runner in the park.

For all of the science's shortfalls, there's animal research that suggests why something that should lower stress can actually cause stress if it's done in the wrong spirit. In a classic study, scientists put two rats in a cage, each of them locked in a running wheel. The first rat could exercise whenever he liked. The second was yoked to the first, forced to run when his counterpart did. Exercise, like meditation, usually tamps down stress and encourages neuron growth, and indeed, the first rat's brain bloomed with new cells. The second rat, however, lost brain cells. He was doing something that should have been good for his brain, but he lacked one crucial factor: control. He could not determine his own "workout" schedule, so he didn't perceive it as exercise. Instead, he experienced it as a literal rat race.

Our runner probably felt like she "had to run" that morning. Maybe it was the only time she would be free to do it that day, maybe she was tired and didn't feel like doing it at all. My advice? If I were her, I guess I would have tried to adjust either my schedule or my attitude–and if I couldn't have gotten over the misery, I probably would have headed home. A fitness coach recommending bailing on your morning run? Certainly. Sometimes.  But not being able to work through what is sometimes known as "the suck" should be a lesson about the importance of making sure that you are feeling that your exercise is working for you and not vice versa, because with the right attitude and opportunity, fitness should make you feel great.

Fondly, Alix Florio, President; Beautiful Fitness

Like Skating on Ice

02/04/2009

Beautiful Readers,

I have been afraid to ice skate for over a decade. A totally irrational fear of falling on the hard cold ice, and maybe getting run over by someone in ice skates, has made me resist every invitation for years. It would not be enough to say that I just didn't like it (though that is certainly what I said whenever I was asked) but I was really afraid. Of course, my resourceful eight year old daughter somehow managed to get to the ice without me, fell in love with ice skating before I could thoroughly frighten her, and so, I was faced with a problem. Several skeptical friends have asked why I love having kids. And I think this is why. They make you do all kinds of things you don't want to do. 

If you have seen this blog before, you may notice a difference in the title. For a long long time I was committed to starting each post with a collection of B words, like 'Beautiful Boys Bowling' hoping that it would amuse readers and help them remember that the name of our company was Beautiful Fitness (which, as you may notice, also starts with a 'B'. Gosh.)

But I've given that up  because I was finding it too limiting. And without thinking much about it, I believe I may have made a kind of internal New Year's resolution this year. I will give up more easily on restrictions, rules, people, fears, and things, that require more effort than they offer reward. I have kept too many clothes that don't fit right, and stuck with too many plans that just didn't work.

 A few things have conspired to put me in this state of mind. One, the recent move, while harrowing at first, has done the thing that any big move does–it shook things up. Bad in some ways, good in others, but we got through it and things are settling down differently both physically, and in my mind. And then, before our very eyes, the world became a slightly different place. The first African American president was sworn in, and on TV we all were able to watch a black man, who not 150 years ago would not have had the vote, give this inauguration speech. Don't ever again try to tell me that people can't change. Even if this ends in tragedy or failure, it happened at all, we know it is possible, and that is huge. 

I'd also like to give some props for my new lighter state of mind to Seth Godin
self proclaimed author, entrepreneur and agent of change, author of The Dip
The Dip, among other things, talks about companies making it through that phase of life that can feel like being a snowboarder discovering that the run you are on leads to a long, extra flat, stretch of catwalk where you sit on you butt for a bit thinking about whether or not to unstrap your board and take a walk to the bottom of your snowy hill. I think that's the kind of dip Mr. Godin was referring to.

But at that moment (or if you are very clever, perhaps before you hit the really big dip) you make a choice, you take action, and refuse to be paralyzed by a fear of failure. In fact, Seth Godin suggests that you could transcend a feeling that quitting, in a situation like the one I described, constitutes failure at all. In fact, sometimes quitting is just the right thing to do. It can lead to all kinds of nice things like, better runs next time, tasty hot chocolate at the bottom, not ending up tumbling down the hill instead of merely walking down the hill, or spending that precious time that would be spent in agony, doing something you benefit from more-like taking a lesson maybe, so that next time you can manage the cat walk better.

Anyway, my daughter had an ice skating party recently. I planned it and hosted it, and because there were so many unsteady eight year olds to shepherd around on the ice I gave up my fear of skating. Just like that. No bravado. No whining. Just did it, like they say in the advertisements. And then last weekend I went skating again, and then tonight I took my daughter to her school ice skating party. I'm actually a pretty good skater. But more importantly it reminded me again of what freedom from fear really feels like and how easily attained it can be-how sometimes it's just a question of letting go.