Last month I gave you the first five of ten tips for boosting your results from the Bar Method. The manager of my home studio in San Francisco, Kate Grove, and I first shared these tips with our students during a student workshop at my home studio in San Francisco. The next three tips are the ones we gave our students for the exercises they do midway through the Bar Method workout.
Tip #6: During “standing seat,” find vertical on your body.
Standing seat can transform your body, if you do it in the right form. Here’s how you can be sure yours is correct: Imagine a vertical line stretching from your ears, through your shoulders, hips and working thigh, and keep these body parts centered on the line. Staying vertical during this exercise is easier said than done. Your mind gets the idea, but your body instinctively craves a more comfortable stance. Lose focus for a moment, and when you snap back to attention you might discover that your head has dropped forward, your seat as arched back, your torso has leaned one way or the other, or your working thigh has wandered off the line. How do you avoid falling out of vertical? First use the mirror to check that your torso is upright. Next, keep re-gripping both sides of your glutes, and remind your lower back to relax. Maintain a vertical spine, and finally, keep your working knee unwaveringly under your hip (give or take an inch). This level of good form requires self-honesty and determination, but it’s worth the effort. When you succeed, standing seat will give you gorgeous posture and could become your favorite killer exercise.
Tip #7: During “flat-back,” don’t worry about a little “pooching out.”
If you’re like many students, you're hesitant to take the option of lifting both legs during flat-back because whenever you try to raise them, your abs push out. In fact, a little pooching during flat-back is a natural stage your abs go through on their way to getting flatter. Pooching out usually happens when your two deepest abdominal muscles are weak. They are your transversus abdominis ("TA") and your internal oblique. When you exhale sharply, these muscles pull in your belly. If they're weak, they don't pull in effectively, which allows your ab muscles that are on top, including your powerful six-pack muscle (the rectus abdominis) to contract outwards. The good news is that simply by vigorously exhaling, you engage your deep abs. When you vigorously exhale and add the weight of your legs to the effort, you strengthen these muscles. So even if you start with a little pooching out, you'll end up with flatter abs by challenging your deepest ones during every class.
There's another reason your abs might be misbehaving during flat-back. Your four ab muscles tend to store fat in between their layers, and that fat can bunch up when you contract them. In either case, raising both legs during flat-back, even if your abs pooch out a few inches, is harmless and will ultimately help you achieve flatter abs. Simply put, the more you work your deep abs during flat-back, the stronger and flatter they'll get in relation to your other abs muscles, and the more "belly fat" you’ll burn.
One caveat: if you're very over-weight or have very weak abs, they may pop forward more than three inches when you raise your legs. In that case, hold back on the lifting both at the same time until you lose some weight or get stronger.
Finally, if you just can’t lift your legs no matter how hard you try, sit on one-to-three "risers," which are firm cushions designed to raise you up a few inches from the floor. If you’re tall and need to use risers, go to a stall-bar, lay a riser against it, and place three of them under you. By sitting up higher, you'll be able to get your legs airborne and derive the full benefits of doing flat-back.
Tip #8: During curl, imagine your favorite super-cut celebrities doing ab work.
Students have been known to say that Bar Method ab work is “worse than childbirth.” Maybe so, but this thought is not the most motivating one to have in mind when getting through the last reps during "curl" section! Switch it out with mental picture of a hunky super star working his way through is own ab-sculpting routine. Stars grunt through hundreds of crunches a workout just as you do, so picture the abs of celebrities like David Beckham, Matthew McConaughey or Ryan Reynolds doing ab exercises such as the Bar Method's "high curl" or "clam." Your "inspiration" hunk will get you into the spirit of embracing a macho zeal for the burn!
If you just plain have trouble staying in the burn, try this approach: Devote just as much energy to the "back" part of each crunch as you do to the "forward" of it. This techique keeps you tightly in the muscle as you proceed through the reps, and doubles your benefits along the way.
Next month: Tips for finding your inner dancer during the last part of class.
Kate Grove is a master teacher and the manager of our Bar Method studio in the San Francisco Marina. Kate has a reputation for designing fun, creative classes, and she’s been just as creative as a studio manager. This year, she came up with the idea of offering student workshops to our “Club Bar” members, who are students with ongoing class packages. In the past, we've only given teacher workshops. Now thanks to Kate, our students are gaining expert knowledge about the Bar Method and are using that knowledge to take their workouts to the next level. After our first workshop, participants said that their classes were making them more sore than ever in the muscles they most wanted to shape. Britney Bart, a ten-year Bar Method student, commented that simply knowing where a muscle was on her body made the exercises feel different. “I have been doing arm walks with you since 2003,” Britney told me, “but I have not felt them and proactively utilized them for the specific purposes you described until the workshop.”
All these comments inspired me to share with Bar Method students who read this blog the information Kate and I gave in our workshop. This month focuses on our tips for the first half of class:
Tip # 1: Move your body in one-inch increments during the faster tempos.
How do you respond when your teacher says, “lift up, up, up” or “press in, in, in?” If your range is too large, you’re relying on momentum, which is only moderately effective at keeping your muscle “on.” If your range is too small, you’re not firing your muscle enough to get the most out of the exercise. A one-inch range keeps you “in the muscle,” while it enables that muscle to ignite with maximum energy on every rep.
Tip #2: Use your "rhomboids" and "lower traps."
When I take class, I’m constantly thinking about contracting my “rhomboids” and “lower traps” (“trapezius) during the weight-work section. These two muscles draw your shoulders in and down. During weight work they play a critical role in keeping your upper back from slumping forward and your shoulder joints from rotating out of kilter. They also help improve your posture and burn extra calories during the exercise. So one valuable piece of information I can offer you is to consciously use your “rhomboids” pull your shoulder blades closer together and your “traps” to pull your shoulder blades in and down. Reverse pushups can sculpt your lower “traps” if you hold your shoulders down while your arms are carrying the weight of your torso (see photo below). Stay aware of how these muscles enhance your performance, and you'll sculpt your upper back muscles and give yourself a longer, more graceful your neck-line by virtue of your stronger "lower traps."
Tip #3: Protect your joints by working in good form.
Here’s a fact you might not be aware of: when you stress a joint during a workout, the muscles around that joint will resist change. The joint sends a signal to these muscles saying in effect, “stop doing that!” So if you’re regularly tweaking a joint, you might not be getting the results you want.
The Bar Method’s “reverse pushups” is an example of an exercise that you need to do in good form to get the best results. Here are the two key points to remember: 1. Keep your wrists turned forwards and slightly outwards. If you turn your wrists backwards, you’re pressing into your wrist joints instead of controlling the move with your arm muscles. 2. Keep your shoulders directly over your wrists. If you don't and instead shift your shoulders forward of your wrists, you will pull your shoulder blades out of alignment and at the same time make the exercise significantly less targeted. So keep your shoulders directly over your wrists, and you’ll quickly gain the definition in your triceps you're working for.
Tip #4: Do straight-leg pushups, and don’t go low!
Pushups work an array of muscles. Obviously they sculpt your pecs and arms. Less obviously, they tone your abs, glutes, traps, and a muscle called the “serratus anterior,” which holds your shoulder blades in place when you’re pushing with your arms. By engaging these less obvious muscles, you’ll get much more out of pushups, and look great doing them. What’s the easiest way to do recruit all these muscles? Believe it or not, by doing straight-leg pushups (wait a second before you reject this idea!) and moving just one inch down and up. This way, you’re using every muscle in your pushups repertoire without killing yourself and creating a more defined body overall.
Tip #5: During thigh-work, let the music move you.
Bar Method students are famous for their fighting spirit, and if you're one of them, I know you already give thigh-work your all. So what else can you do to get more out of this exercise? Make it a dance! Remember that you just gave your legs a deep stretch at the bar, and stretching is been proved to enhance muscular coordination. So use the stretches you did before thigh-work to take your performance to a new energetic level. Tap into the enhanced agility that the stretches infused into your legs, and do thigh-work like a dancer! Become one with the beat, and concentrate on performing the reps with precision and grace. Your muscles will expand and contract more energetically, and you’ll discover a new level of strength, athleticism and stamina in the process.
Next week! Ten Tips for Boosting Your Workout, Part 2
If you were to look in on a typical Bar Method class, you’d see a wide diversity of age groups. Some students will be barely out of college. Others will be in their 60s. Whatever their age, they will all be equally focused on psyching their way through the shake and the burn, adjusting their bodies to the stream of form cues emanating from the teacher, and tackling the “last 20!” In these efforts they become a team, regardless of where they fit into the generational scheme of things.
Why does the Bar Method appeal to so many generations? One student in her mid-70s named Lynn gave us the answer from her vantage point. A few years ago, Lynn fell into a funk after having to give up the dance aerobic classes she loved. She'd developed chronic hamstring and knee injuries, pain in her feet and low back and muscle spasms. “My body just couldn’t take the punishment any more,” she said. Lynn tried other kinds of classes and therapy, and none of them worked for her. Then an acquaintance turned her on to the Bar Method in Redmond, Washington, and she was “blown away!” Since becoming a Bar Method student, she says, “my old bod has strengthened and streamlined,” “my ‘old age’ aches and pains have minimized, my formerly poochy abs are now flat,” and ”how fun it is to work out with so many beautiful, dedicated young women my grandkids’ age.”
Lynn's fellow student Norma had a bumpier ride getting up to speed as a Bar Method student. When Norma discovered the class in 2010, she was in her late 50s, 75 pounds overweight, and was recovering from a car accident. She managed to struggle through her first class but not without some hardship. “I was the heaviest, the oldest, and, assuredly, the most out-of-shape participant, and yet the teachers and students were so kind and encouraging that I continued to struggle through,” she remembers. When Norma turned 60, she had lost 75 pounds and wore a size 8 pant. “My doctor is amazed at my statistics,” she says. “Who would have thought?...”
Students like Lynn and Norma tell us they also enjoy the welcoming atmosphere at Bar Method studios. They especially appreciate that teachers give "options" for different body types and abilities during class. The friendliness of the staff eases students' anxieties around their first class. Rachael, for example, a student in her 40s, wrote us about her first time at the studio in Summit, New Jersey. "I changed three times before I left the house, not sure what to wear. I was sure I would be the only person there who would not be able to lift her leg to her ear. I was so nervous when I turned the corner into the studio, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming. As I made my way through the class, I was amazed at the extensive options given within each exercise, options for those who were advanced and options for novices like me."
Does the Bar Method's supportive style of customer service appeal to younger generations too? To hear it from the brides who come to class, absolutely! These three young students wrote the Redmond studio these words of thanks for helping them them look and feel gorgeous on their wedding days:
“My arms were toned, my shoulders were sculpted and looked great in my dress, and as an added bonus, I felt more comfortable and confident in my bikini on our honeymoon than I ever have before!” Brynn
“By my wedding day I had lost 25 pounds, 3 sizes in denim and 4 dress sizes. My dress had to be taken in 3 times before we had it right!.” Stefani
“The thick, muscular, “jacked” body that I had before is long gone because The Bar Method transformed it into a strong, long and lean body instead. I was able to stand up at the altar on my wedding day with a stunning body, beautiful posture, and all the poise and self-confidence in the world.” Melanie
When you mix generations, inevitably those generations are going to start mixing with each other. Daughters and mothers, sons and fathers find a new connection as fellow students in a class that both generations can relate to. Penny, a Ridgewood, New Jersey student goes to class with daughters Carolyn and Julie because “it makes me feel as young as them!” Cheryl, another Ridgewood, mom, says of her experience attending with her daughter Alyssa, “we found it to be something that has provided tangible benefits to both of us.”
Riggs attends the Marina Del Rey studio with his son George. “My son and I are avid skiers," he wrote us, "so he got into the Bar Method… and he loves it too! We love the supportive, no-nonsense environment and the constant focus on correct form."
Jamie, another Marina Del Rey student, told us why she loves having her mom as a fellow student. “When we take class together, I can’t be next to her because her facial expressions distract me and make me laugh. We have so much fun and it’s brought us even closer than we were before.”
Jamie’s mom Rosita says she gets great benefits of her own from the class. “As a fifty-four year old woman, I am no spring chicken. My knees, like those of many women my age, hurt when I get up from bed or out of my car due to arthritis. I used to have aches and pains all over my neck, shoulders and arms. After Bar Method, I don’t feel that pain anymore…Another plus side," she added," …is what it has done for my butt.”
I’d like to end this blog by adding my own thanks to the Bar Method for what it does for my 65-year-old body: for the firm muscles around my knees it gives me that allow me to run around like a young person, for a recent bone scan of my spine which my doctor marked "good!", and, though my husband says he loves me no matter how I look, for being my age and still being able to look great for him! ;-)
Do you get a better workout in a class that uses a “see and do” or “Simon says Simon does” format, or in a class that includes teacher-student interaction? Competitive athletes routinely get lots of feedback from their coaches during their practice sessions. But when you’re simply working out, do you get any extra value from your exercise instructors interacting with you about your form and focus?
I decided to get an educated answer to this question by researching what regular teachers think about interactive teaching. It turns out that the world of teaching is in the midst of a major tectonic shift in its approach to this issue. Overwhelming evidence that the old-style lecture format doesn’t work very well is inspiring teachers to switch en mass to “active learning.” “Active learning may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years,” declared a Harvard professor last year. “Thousands of studies indicate that active learning," explained another Harvard expert, 'is the most effect thing,” One of these these studies took place at the University of British Columbia in 2011. A research team held two week-long classes on identical subject matter that were attended by two groups of students as closely matched as possible. The only difference was that one of the classes was in a lecture format, and the other in an interactive format, which engaged students in discussions and active problem solving. The results? After the course, the interactive class participants scored twice as high as those in the lecture-style class.
What’s more, women are turning out to benefit more from the interactive teaching style than men. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physiology professor, noticed this when he switched to an “active learning” technique, and his women students quickly closed the gap between themselves and their male counterparts. “The verbal and collaborative/collegial nature of peer interactions,” Mazur speculates, “may enhance the learning environment for women students.”
Can these discoveries about interactive learning be applied to exercise, especially to exercise favored by women? In my experience, absolutely! I give you that simple aerobics workouts, during which you just want to keep your heart rate elevated for a time can pay off without much focused concentration. Getting good results from a strength-work however depends on your level of mental alertness; how attentive you are to your form, how precise your movements are, and how well you gauge your exhaustion point. Without coaching, it’s hard not to lose focus on the challenge and allow your body to take the easy route and shift away from the effort. Competitive athletes for this reason use coaches to maximize their focus, and the Bar Method gives its students the same caliber of feedback and guidance. Teachers verbally coach individual students on their form, alignment, mental focus and individually acknowledge them when they improve. By means of this guidance, students continue to advance their skills and get the results they want.
The experience of being in a class where interacting teaching is going on is, at least for me, fun, exhilarating and collegial. My body reflexively responds to the verbal adjustments I hear my teacher give my fellow students. For example, when I hear “Sally, lengthen your back.” My back lengthens. “Gina, square your shoulders.” My shoulders square. “Nicole, come up less.” I come up less. These cues thereby become a conversation among all of us. The teacher talks to a student. The student responds by adjusting how she’s working. The rest of us get in on the tips by adjusting our own bodies accordingly. This back-and-forth not only gets me involved and “in the moment.” It gives me a deeper connection to my body and to the athleticism and power of the exercises.
Active learning in Bar Method workouts doesn’t stop at verbal interaction. Students are of course learning with their bodies, so Bar Method teachers are trained to interact with them on a physical level too. This “hands-on” guidance is essential in order for most students to get good workout, without which, try as they might, they would be unable to recruit difficult-to-reach muscles or to work safely. Here are a few examples of how students learn better form with interactive teaching.
The students in these photos are, from top to bottom:
1. Slumping due to habitual posture,
2. Leaning weight into the joints of shoulders and wrists instead of the triceps muscles, and
3. Bending at the lower back and neck rather than engaging the glutes.
By receiving this ongoing supportive feedback from their teachers, students develop better body awareness and alignment, as well as learn to target muscles instead of joints.
There’s simply no turning back the clock once innovations like “acting learning” demonstrate their power to enhance our lives. It's left up to each of us to take full advantage of the benefits.
When most of us embark on a new activity that involves practicing on a regular basis, we typically hear a voice inside us saying “I don’t wanna." Even though we've been excitedly thinking about making this change in our lives, actually doing the work towards learning something or changing our habits is not a walk in the park. At the beginning the practice is boring, and it’s tempting to decide instead to have a snack, do our laundry, reorganize our files, or watch the news. How long do most people have to struggle with feeling this discomfort while turning in a new direction? Sports psychologist Gregory Chertok wrote in this week's San Francisco Chronicle that, "for a behavior to become an ingrained action…it takes four to six weeks of ‘consistent’ action,'” that is, regular practice.
Don't be discouraged if in the past you've been derailed by the tedious process of "engraining" a new behavior and given up! Our brains and muscles are hardwired with a surplus of potential to learn countless skills, and we keep much of this resource for life. You can tap into it any time and acquire a dazzling new piece of yourself, plus a surprising bonus for having stuck with it: a new-found pleasure in doing the very task that was such a drag at first.
My father, who died three years ago this month, knew of these riches. He wrote about them in his book about learning called "Mastery," and towards the end of his life he personally demonstrated that you don’t have to be young to benefit from practice. To illustrate how someone can use practice to sharpen a skill and find joy, even during his last days, I want to reprint this story about my father that I wrote for this blog shortly before he died:
In the summer of 2003 my father George Burr Leonard had most of his stomach and esophagus removed. He lay in the intensive care unit for three weeks falling in and out post-surgical psychosis as we hopelessly tried to reason with him. We were overjoyed when he came to. We were also relieved to learn that the doctors had gotten out all of the cancer. My father was declared okay to go on with his life.
And what a life he had to go back to. My father is a pioneer in the emerging field of human potentialities, the investigation into just how far we humans can go towards maximizing our inborn potential for growth in mind, body and spirit. He is the founder of three life-enhancing techniques that have touched tens of thousands of people the world, is past-president of Esalen Institute and The Association for Humanistic Psychology, is the author of twelve books on the human potential (my two favorites are “Mastery” and “The Silent Pulse”), is a fifth-degree black belt in aikido, an accomplished jazz pianist, and the writer and lyricist of musical comedies. In person, my father is funny, sweet, enthusiastic and playful. His favorite words are “joy” and “generous.” He, as they say, lights up a room.
Dad never planned to retire, no less to get sick, or even old. After his recovery he leapt right back into his life. The problem was, he had trouble eating. At first we family members figured he wasn’t trying hard enough. We advised him to eat fattening foods, eat more often, drink Ensure, see specialists and healers, take pills and remedies, and he did them all. Nevertheless, in the face of all the wizardry the medical and healing worlds could offer him, he became thinner and weaker.
In 2008 when my father hit his 5-year survival mark, a supposed measure of post-cancer recovery, he was no longer joyful. His disease had seriously affected his body and mind. He couldn’t drive and became house bound except for increasingly frequent visits to the emergency room. He stopped writing and playing the piano. His friends didn’t visit him as much. He became despondent and at times could not be consoled.
Then four months ago, one of Dad's many doctors prescribed something he had never tried. “He took out his prescription pad,” my father told me, “scribbled something on it, and handed it to me. It said,
'Practice the piano 15 minutes a day, seven days a week.'"
And that’s exactly what my father has done.
I visited my father today. He is still stooped, but his eyes are lit up with his old good humor. He eagerly told me about his piano playing and to my amazement of his enjoyment of being retired. “It’s fun,” he said. “I can stand back, look at the world, and laugh at it.”
What amused me about the prescription that finally healed my father’s spirits is that it was for his own medicine. Most of his books give emphasis to the power of daily practice as the foundation for positive change. In “The Life We Are Given” he writes:
"Any significant long-term change requires long-term practice, whether that change has to do with learning to play the violin or learning to be a more open, loving person."
As a reader and fan of his books, I took this idea when I was in the process of developing the Bar Method and used it to guide both students and teachers. I discovered that, just as my father prescribed, regular practice – whether it be simply attending class three times a week or, just as important, really practicing the exercises while doing them – changes us inside and out more than we initially believed possible.
This year I had the opportunity to take a variety of different fitness classes including some that used a ballet bar. I noticed that the bar classes gave fewer stretches between exercises than what you get at the Bar Method. The intention of these workouts is probably to deliver good results to their students by being as aerobic as possible, a currently popular approach to fitness. But are their students missing out on the body-changing benefits to be gained from stretching?
Sports scientists have researched this subject over the past few years, and they’ve come up with some surprising findings. Three years ago for example, one team of researchers set up an experiment to find out if stretching strengthens muscles. They recruited 16 men and 16 women, all college students in Hawaii’s Brigham Young University. The authors of the study, (Kokkones, Nelson, Tarawhiti, Buckingham and Winchester) divided the 32 students into two groups that matched as much as possible in athletic ability. The members of the first group trained on three different exercise machines for the legs three days a week for eight weeks. The members of the second group did exactly the same routine three days a week for eight weeks. The only difference was that the second group also stretched twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.
After the eight weeks, the researchers tested their subjects’ performance on the three exercise machines. The members of the first group – those who’d only strength trained -- improved their performance an average of 11.6% on each machine. Those in the second group, who’d also stretched twice a week, boosted their performance on the machines more than twice as much, to an average of 24.6%.
Why did the stretching substantially improve the performance of the second group? The researchers said that, as other studies have found, “placing a muscle on stretch can induce Z-line ruptures and increase protein synthesis and growth factor production.”
I was fascinated to learn that stretching causes “Z-line ruptures” because that’s also how strengthening works. When you do a “strength” move such as lifting a weight, you cause tiny muscle tears that stimulate your muscle to build denser and stronger fiber as it repairs itself. Passive stretching, it turns out, causes the same kind of tears by pulling on muscles, while at the same time strengthening the stabilizer muscles that are maintaining the pose. No wonder I’m often out of breath after a stretch sequence!
With this research in mind, consider what’s happening to your body during the Bar Method’s “stretch at the bar.” When you place your leg on the bar, you can now credit the source of the burning sensation you feel to tiny ruptures in your hamstring muscle fibers, similar to those that occur from strengthening. When you turn your body to the side for the "waist stretch," your obliques, triceps and back muscles are also being toned as you stretch them. Meanwhile, the heat generated by this work is serving to get your muscles warmed and limbered up for the thigh-work to follow. Last but not least, you feel extra satisfaction knowing that your muscles are doing more than just taking a break during this stretch!
The many research studies recently carried out on stretching have found that it has a lot of other benefits besides making you stronger. Here are highlights from three of the studies that focused especially on stretching's power to enhance your appearance.
Researchers did a study to find out if stretching makes people more coordinated. They put forty-two college students on a “stabilometer,” which challenges the user to keep his/her balance while standing on it. The students who stretched before standing on the stabilometer significantly improved their balance, by 11.4%. Why? The researchers speculated that “stretching improved maintenance of balance perhaps by helping the subjects to eliminate the gross muscle contractions … and to replace them with fine muscle contractions.” In other words, stretching makes people less “klutzy” by reducing unintentionally jerky movements, thus enabling them to move more smoothly and efficiently.
A leaner body
Researchers tested stretching’s ability to reduce blood sugar. Twenty-two subjects drank a large glass of juice. A half an hour later they either stretched for 40 minutes or did a “mock stretching regime” (not really stretching). Afterwards the researchers measured everyone’s blood sugar. They found that the group that stretched had “a significantly greater drop in blood glucose.” High blood sugar stimulates our bodies to convert the sugar into fat. Stretching, it turns out, metabolizes blood sugar, thereby preventing it from being stored as fat.
Finally, I want to mention the long-established connection between stretching and good posture. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain a proper posture.” Stretching gives these muscles greater range of motion, enabling our bodies to stand up straight and move with more elegance, confidence and grace.
All this evidence shows that the Bar Method’s stretches are not merely elongating students’ muscles. They’re playing a significant role in changing their bodies. Shannon Albarelli, who co-owns a Bar Method studio in Montclair, New Jersey, noticed this difference after she took another barre fitness during her last four years in college. "I liked the class I took in college," she told me, "but I it was only after I moved to New Jersey and started taking the Bar Method that my body changed."
How does someone begin to heal from a broken heart? Elyse Arrington learned the hard way when a personal tragedy struck her last year. Elyse grew up in Salt Lake City and came New York City to study at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She became a Bar Method student three and a half years ago, taking classes both in her hometown and in New York. She was engaged to be married and about to begin her teaching career when suddenly her focus change. Recovering from loss, she realized, would be a process, and it called for her to find a safe haven where her spirit could gradually reconstruct its place in the world. Elyse found such a place at the Bar Method. A few months ago, she wrote her Bar Method teachers at the New York Soho studio this thank you note:
"There is a certain kind of comfort in conformity. Not conformity in the mindless joining of the masses in prescribed rituals, but in routine, structure, and systematic movement.
That’s where the classes come in.
It was just over a year ago that I lost him; very sudden, without foresight or warning because, I guess, how can one be given warning of accidents and high rooftops with great views. It was just over a year ago that I fell out of pace with the rest of the world. I lost my footing in a once secure hold of love, life, and hope.
It’s hard to survive these things living in a swelling metropolis like New York City, where you are literally a face in a sea and a name on a class roster. And yet, everyone does it, every day—unbeknown to anyone else. It is a constant struggle to feel important, like what happens in your life matters, to see yourself as an individual, and try to build and grow connections with those other faces in the sea. So, back to the classes.
I realized this the other day while sitting during round-back: here is a room full of beautiful women. I do not know their names, their jobs, or where they are from and they do not know me. I know nothing about them, other than the fact that we all chose to come to class on this particular day, at this particular time and that we are now connected by doing the same structured movement at the same time, systematically. And sitting there, knowing nothing of these women, I felt joined to them in spirit, physical exertion and intent. And that was pretty powerful.
In that moment I realized the comfort that being in these classes has brought me.
After my fiancé died, everybody rationalized my devotion to BM as my attempt to “work out my pain and grief,” burn it off in the form of calories I suppose. But I realized that it was more than mere endorphins and sweat. Yes, that was part of it I’m sure, but it was the combination of all that along with a routine and structure that had been familiar to me over the past 3 years and had stayed the same across the country, as I moved from Utah back to New York. And in practicing that routine collectively, unspoken and relatively unacknowledged connections, social synapses, were being formed. When the majority of my life had shifted out of the realm of familiar and comfortable, and everything else had been tainted with the bitterness of grief, coming to class became one of the only places that offered me something concrete to hold on to—a bar perhaps? It was something I could count on and one place where conforming to class routines brought me comfort.
This message is not intended as an over-revealing story, but a great 'thank you' for being fabulous teachers and an overall great studio.
See you in class—"
Today, Elyse teaches 9th grade English language arts at a public school in the Bronx.
Thank you, Elyse, for sharing your story with all of us!
In the delightful movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," Dev Patel's character has a saying, "Everything will be all right in the end. So if it's not right, it's not yet the end." Patel's motto is right on the mark, in my view, when it comes to how we're progressing on keeping ourselves healthy. Last month for example, I reported on some new scientific evidence that exercise can significantly extend youthfulness in the realms of strength, agility and leanness. One recent study found that the muscles of triathletes in their 70s and 80s ressemble those of 40-year old triathletes, while sedentary people lose most of their muscle mass by that age. A second study showed that exercise suppresses the appetites of fit people.
Did this amazing news hit the headlines and prompt people to exercise? Hardly. The reports hovered on the periphery of the media, barely noticed. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that as Patel says, "it's not yet the end." For one, our historical behavior shows that we're hard-wired to take advantage of new knowledge about our health, only it takes a number of generations for us to change our habits in the right direction. In the process it can even appear as if we're going backwards. Look at the general population's increasing weight issue and continued love affair with smoking in the face of clear evidence that both habits shorten life. I think we'll eventually get it, even though it will take a few generations before people consider eating healthy food and exercising regulary as obligatory as brushing their teeth.
Before you call me a cock-eyed optimist, I'd like you to consider one more scientific study about our health that came out within the year. Last October, Harvard psychologist and world renowned thinker Steven Pinker published the findings from this study in a fascinating book called “The Better Angels of our Nature.” Pinker's book makes a powerful case that human beings are gradually but steadily moving away from their old self-destructive ways. In his preparatory research Pinker exhaustively surveyed human violence through history, and he came to a surprising conclusion: In spite of what we see on the evening news, human violence has steadily decreased throughout history. For example in past centuries, people were prone to stabbing each other and cutting off each others' noses at the dinner table. Dinner knives are for that reason round at the tips.
Today the world in which that kind of boorish behavior was an everyday occurence is too far in our past for us to appreciate how far we've come in our table manners. Violence has decreased significantly even in the past 50 years, and we’re getting nicer to each other in other ways, among them bestowing human rights and fair treatment to others.
How do Pinker's findings relate to exercise? Though Pinker doesn’t go into detail about whether we’re treating ourselves with increasing kindness, his research points clearly in that direction, and recent mass changes in behavior do too. Before the 1960s, new mothers wore girdles rather than exercising to get back into “pre-baby shape.” Before the 1980s, people rarely thought about planning for a high quality physical old ago, just a secure financial one. Another sign of change is the fitness industry's growth from a bare existence 50 years ago to a $25 billion market last year. My reading of these shifts is that they confirm we’re in the learning stages of instilling good manners into ourselves towards our own bodies, a process that's ultimately going to involve parents en mass teaching children from an early age about good food and regular exercise. The obesity epidemic looks bad to us now, but press the zoom-out button enough times, and I think the trend away from obesity and towards a full payoff from exercise will come into view.
Two amazing research studies published over the past year have challenged some major scientific assumption about exercise. Both studies found that regular, intense exercise has much more potential than previously thought to give us strong, lean and slender bodies all our lives.
The first study, printed by The Physician and Sports Medicine Journal last November, looked at 40 “master athletes” (20 men and 20 women) whose ages ranged from the 40 to 81 years, all of whom trained intensely 4 to 6 times a week. The authors of the study wanted to investigate whether the ill effects of aging – “loss of muscle mass and strength, resulting in falls, functional decline, and the subjective feeling of weakness” – are due to muscle aging or to muscle disuse. Their 40 subjects endured a series of strength tests and had MRIs made of their quads (as shown). Their findings were astonishing. At age 60, the master athletes lost a small amount of strength and mass. After that, they lost no strength and no muscle mass. The outcome of their work, in the authors’ words, “contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging.”
The second study, this one investigating the effect of exercise on appetite, was published in February by the Journal of Applied Physiology and covered later by the New York Times. The authors of the study wanted to know if exercise increases or decreases appetite and if so, whether it influences the types of foods people crave. For their subjects they recruited 30 fit male and female athletes in their 20s, all students at California Polytechnic. The researchers told half of them to work out strenuously for an hour and half to sit for an hour. Then they attached electrodes to the volunteers’ heads (I love when scientists do this) and showed them photos of different kinds of foods. As the subjects looked at the photos, the scientists noted how much their brains’ “food-reward systems” lit up. Here’s what they found: “In the volunteers who’d been sitting for an hour,” the New York Times reported, “the food-reward system lit up, especially when they sighted high-fat, sugary items. But if they had worked out for an hour first, those same people displayed much less interest in food, according to their brain scans.” The researchers switched the roles of the two groups of volunteers got the same results.
But does exercise have the same appetite-suppressing effect on sedentary people? Not as much, according to another similar study using electrodes done on 34 overweight
subjects. Exercise did lower the appetites of 20 of the volunteers, and they lost an average of 11 pounds each. The remaining 14 members of the group were not as fortunate. Their brains’ food-reward networks, as the New York Times put it, “lit up riotously after exercise at the sight of food.” “It’s likely that, in order to achieve weight loss and weight maintenance,” concludes the leader of the Cal-Poly study Todd A. Hagobian, “you need to do a fair amount of exercise and do it often.”
Bar Method student Christine Binnendyk learned this from personal experience. "Funny how I can be ravenous for a big lunch on less physical days, yet a light lunch entirely satisfied me on more active days," she wrote me. "The longer I live, the better I become at hearing what my body is telling me."
Where does this new research leave the millions of the sedentary people in the world today? Will it make any real difference going forward in how much people exercise? Next month: some good news on this front.
"What do you eat?" is a question I sometimes get asked, and it's one I have trouble coming up with an easy answer to. The students asking this question, I think, are looking for some tips on keeping off extra pounds and wonder if they can glean some insight into doing so from my diet. My dilemma is that I don't think I can be of much help to them. My choice of foods, which are too high in carbs and include too many chai lattés, won't give them much guidance. I do have, however, some really effective eating strategies I can share. Two eating rules in particular, which I've stuck with from my 30s to my 60s, deserve the most credit for keeping me slim all those years.
Rule #1: No over-eating. Everybody tries not to overeat of course, and I sympathize with people who struggle with this issue. The tactic that's worked for me is to cede full authority to my body when it comes to determining how much I get to eat. If my body gains weight, I don't ask questions. I eat less. Metabolism, hormones and aging don't have a chance against this strategy.
I can thank my mischievous Southern bell of a mother for teaching me to listen to my body from a young age. Starting from when my sister and I were in grade school, she'd tell us at the dinner table that any food we left on our plates was “better in the garbage can than in your stomach." I loved the impertinence of this rule. It thumbed its nose at everything kids in my time were being brought up to revere. Not only that, "better in the garbage can” pointed vividly to a destination for the food I’d otherwise have been stuffing myself with (unlike the moralistic-sounding “eat moderately”). You could make an argument for softening my mother's phrase to “better in the frig as left-overs than in your stomach,” but I prefer the defiant brashness of the original.
Rule #2: Exercise! You're probably thinking, "of course exercise burns calories and heightens metabolic rate. So what else is new?" Exercise has done these things, but that's not how it's kept me lean. Earlier this year I happened to spend a few months without much exercise due to some time-consuming projects. During that time I noticed that a kind of hunger-blindness set in. I lost my ability to tell whether or not I needed food. Was I hungry? Or was I just bored, stressed or fatigued? I felt awash. From this experience, I came to understand how living long term in a non-exercising state could cause someone to seriously miscalculate their food intake! When I finished my project and got back to exercise, I quickly regained my connection to my appetite. Hunger went back to feeling distinctly like hunger and food like replenishment, not just something to do. Feeling hungry and enjoying food: My body needs to experience both sides of this equation to stay in equilibrium.
So what do I eat? For one, too many carbs and grande non-fat chai lattés. My diet isn’t perfect, but it works for me.
(When at home) two eggs cooked in a little olive oil over rye toast (360 calories), an Activia yoghurt (100 calories) or
(When at work) a whole grain bagel with reduced fat cream cheese (390 calories)
Add to both breakfasts one or two Starbucks grande nonfat chai lattes (200-400 calories).
A Safeway-made lettuce, tomato and provolone sandwich (my estimate is 450 calories), or
A Starbuck’s goat cheese & garden veggies box (220 calories), or
A half a 7-11 tuna fish sandwich (the whole sandwich is 540 calories).
The tuna sandwich is a recent addition. Since meeting my husband three and a half years ago, I've been a vegetarian (eat no meat or fish bu eat cheese and eggs), an easy change
since I don't like meat anyway. Lately however I felt a need for more protein. My husband consumes a lot of nuts and protein powder drinks. These sources of protein don't agree with me. The 7-11 tuna sandwish is delicious, easy to eat, and a nice solution to my protein needs.
An afternoon pick-up. I rarely snack, but on occasion I'll have:
Pizza Kitchen spaghettini with goat cheese (1,331 calories, usually half saved in the frig), or
Bhaingan bhurta and rice (200-300 calories), or
Spinach tortellini made by my husband (calories unknown), or
Pumpkin enchiladas at our favorite restaurant Avatar (my guess is about 1000 calories), or
Two-to-three pieces of pizza margarita (my guess is about 230 a slice).
Add one glass of red wine on week nights (125 calories) and two on Saturday night (250 calories).
So you see that I don’t have the best eating habits! You can also see that I'm not a foodie! I eat a lot of rich food and don’t finish a lot of meals (“better in the garbage can….”). I skip lunch a few days a week due to mid-day meetings or getting busy. All told, I probably eat about 1700 calories a day, right on the mark according to what “ThinandHealthy.com’s” calculator estimates someone my sex, age, height and weight and exercise routine.
So there it is. If there’s any wisdom to be found in what I eat, it would be that different foods work for different people. One person can thrive by being a vegan. Someone else can swear by meat and potatoes. The best advice I can offer is, when you're searching for the diet works best for you: Listen to your body; get in touch with what your hunger is telling you; stick with exercise; and remember, as my mother always said, “better in the ...” :-)