free and quick fitness! or: where did my get up and go … go?

“Exercise is so boring and repetitive. Maybe if I could take a dance or yoga class, it would be easier to stay in shape.”

“I’d go to the gym to get fit, but I can’t afford it.”

“I don’t have time to work out.”

Like, almost everybody, everywhere.

Guys! Hey guys! Let me tell you a secret: my brain is the biggest junkie in the world.

You’d never know it from glancing at me – paragon of self-control as I am (why is everyone laughing?). It craves fun things – all. The. Time. It likes to be entertained twenty-four hours a day. If something is boring, it will withhold a bunch of awesome chemicals I need to feel good – like dopamine. Since dopamine is key to nearly every awesome feeling ever, this is basically the molecular equivalent of a small child folding her arms, stamping her foot, and pouting – “no, this isn’t fun, why are you doing this. FINE, here’s a song you loathe on repeat for eight hours. Didn’t know you knew ALL the lyrics, did you, punk?

Our wonderful society, thanks to various forms of science, has developed a near-endless repository of entertainment possibilities that are so much easier for our brains to get a fix from than getting up and moving around. What’s even more ridiculous? Some of those activities are among those we wouldn’t normally associate with being entertaining. Ever been bored enough with an assignment at an office job that you decide to “check Facebook”? Well, maybe if your boss sprinkled more dopamine precursor chemicals on top of those TPS reports, you might be more motivated to get them done.

What’s often the case, sadly, is that we’ve made some of the more potent “fixes” easier and easier to obtain. Take the teenage gamer stereotype, for instance – one I have witnessed with my own eyes. School’s out – cripes, what a day. Time to switch on the Xbox. The television goes boom! Crash! Rat-tat-tat-tat! Oh crap, what do you mean the enemy has a predator missile?  The teenage gamer, rushing on adrenaline, takes a pull off a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew (with extra caffeine, natch, and a whopping 77 grams of sugar) and finally gets the game-winning kill for his side. Bam! Reward system activated! YEAAAAH!

I forget. Why is it so difficult to get kids to play outside again?

Speaking of, how about the instance of the harried working mother of three who, on a miraculous weekend, finally gets some time to herself? “I’ve worked enough,” she sighs, and goes shopping instead; then, on the way home, she picks up fast food for dinner, along with a bottle of wine.

Sure, you could get the same amount of reward chemicals from working out – if you did it constantly. No wonder no one has time to stay in shape any more – your brain has discovered far more efficient ways of getting its dopamine on.

Not only that, but fitness is something that is constantly sold to us – sold, not told. You need workout clothes. How about an iPod? Your shoes suck; how do you expect to walk in those, let alone run? Why are you running? Gym memberships are better; our machines are more efficient. No, ours are. You should buy one. Our instructors are offering classes, too, but you need to pay for those separately.

You can see how this might lead to all kinds of creative excuses about not having enough time or money for fitness.

Coming from a poor family (I’m talking four people crammed into a 500-sq-ft apartment kinda po’, occasional homelessness po’), I know what it’s like to fall into a reward-seeking mindset. You’re so busy surviving that you forget you need to live. Cue emotional eating. Sugars! Fats! Salts! How about booze? Booze can be cheap, right? God, I wish my life were better. I could use a cigarette.

I also know that exercise can be free, have effects on dopamine that last way longer than any of the above fixes, and doesn’t throw your body into a self-destructive hate spiral. Here are a few quick, fun, and inexpensive ways to incorporate working out into your life:

1) Just dance.  “But I can’t dance.” Cool! Neither can I! Whether or not you have rhythm or a celebrity dancing partner has no bearing on the fact that you have a body that was designed to move. So, next time there’s a break in your day, even for only five minutes – switch on the radio, close the drapes, tell everyone to leave you alone for a few (whatever it takes!) and get down. Pretend your weird arrhythmic lunges are part of some amazing new interpretive dance that the invisible audience in front of you has paid hundreds of dollars to appreciate. Jump up and down, do some twists and twirls, shake your magnificent buttocks. If you’re breathing hard when the song’s over – success! (Not to mention the obvious benefits of acting like a child for a little while – that’s right, it makes you feel youthful.)

2) Fidget with everything. Remember that annoying guy who always made the tables shake because his knee was bouncing up and down? And he said he couldn’t stop it because it was just the way his body wanted to move? Be that guy.

3) Physicaaaallll challennnnnge! I’ve said it before, but setting even the smallest goals and busting them down like you’re the Kool-Aid Man does wonders for your reward system. You don’t even have to tell anyone. Race yourself to the top of the stairs. See how long it takes you to walk from one place to another, then try to beat that goal. There’s a reason competition winners are so happy, y’know.

4) Free classes for everything online. If you’re reading this, you probably have the Internet in some form. I love free internet classes. While nothing can beat getting one-on-one help from an instructor, the truth is, you can learn a lot on your own. The one I like the most is YogaYak, which is basically a collection of hundreds of free yoga classes. I’d recommend yoga to anyone, personally, but if yoga isn’t your thing, you can punch “free ____ classes online” into YouTube or Google and get a lot of videos to choose from. And while it may not provide all the features of a live class, it’s definitely a start if you’ve been really interested in something for years but never could afford classes. Another great thing about videos is that you can pause them if life interferes. You can’t pause a yogi. (A yogi would probably be quick to point out that they pause themselves, thank you.)

5) Go biking! I’m so predictable sometimes.

Any other suggestions? What do you do for free fun and fitness?

eating well on the cheap: you vs. the ramen diet

One of the most common (and accurate) portraits of college/university students and the unemployed is the one where, due to destitution, the person in question is forced to subsist off packages of ramen noodles (and, okay, maybe beer) for the entirety of their poverty-ridden existence. I have been the girl who considered a chicken sandwich from the dollar menu to be the pinnacle of my expectations for fine dining.

It’s too bad that such a diet is actually counterproductive to being in college – or finding a good job – to begin with.

First of all, one of the major additives in the packet? It’s monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG. Monosodium glutamate is an excitotoxin, which means that it overexcites certain receptors in your brain until they basically can’t take it anymore and decide to kill themselves. For someone already frying their brain with excessive cramming and stress, the end result is – well, I won’t say catastrophic, because there are only a few legitimate scientific studies … oh. Uh. I mean, it’s not like it’ll affect anyone immediately … well, crap.

So what in the world do we impoverished souls consume for nourishment if we actually want to continue functioning as productive members of society? Isn’t MSG in nearly every cheap food ever?

No, not really. In fact, there are whole classes of foods that are extremely inexpensive and completely additive-free: fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes.

Speaking from the point of view of someone with a relatively high metabolism, I can tell you that I could probably eat three packages of ramen noodles before scratching the surface of my hunger. Even then, all I’ve really done is told my digestive system to be quiet already by shoving it full of starches and chemicals until it finally complies – for about an hour. Then, I’d be hungry again. Only this time, I’d have that gross bloated feeling because of all the water-sapping sodium, and the fact that three packages of noodles are still chilling in my small intestine. Not to mention the continuing spikes in blood glucose – and the crashes afterward – from eating noodles all day.

Beans and rice are incredibly cheap, and you can make a huge pot of them last a very long time. Recipes for excellent black bean soups are everywhere on the internet – and black beans are good sources of folic acid and B vitamins, which actually improve brain health. Soups and stews are also stock-up foods that stay good for a while after you make them, and depending on how many vegetables and legumes you throw in, they can be high in fiber (the stuff that makes you feel full).

So, to recap:

7 days of eating nothing but packaged ramen (based on a 2,000 calorie diet): 70 packs a week, 1,900 calories a day, 7,700 mg of sodium per day, 35 g of fat per day. $35/week. Pros: cheap, easy to make. Cons: probably neurotoxic, not very filling, may cause some digestive issues in certain people.
7 days of eating nothing but black bean soup (based on a 2,000 calorie diet): 42 cups per week, ~2,100 calories a day, ~2,800 mg of sodium per day,  ~18 g of fat per day. $17.43/week. Pros: cheap, easy to make, good for the brain, lots of fiber. Cons: may cause some digestive issues in certain people.

Really, there’s no contest.

walk before you run … or bike

Image courtesy of hin255 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you’re really passionate about something, it’s incredibly important to know your limits. For instance, the marathon first-day ride I set out to do a few years ago was a great example of sticking my fingers in my ears and going “la-la-la” while my limits flailed around helplessly, starved for attention and likely seeking counsel for neglect. But I had a bicycle, and I was going to use it. Even if it killed me. Really, if you want to be dramatic about the way I felt the next few days, then you could say it nearly did.

I was, back then, about 230 pounds. I was at a point in my life where it was enough of a challenge to extract myself from my computer chair and walk around the block a few times, let alone bike twenty miles to work. I’m pretty sure that burst of ambition was completely guilt-induced – that is, all of a sudden I was in possession of an expensive (to me) gadget that was specifically designed to make my life better, so I had better start using it or think of the starving children in Africa with no bicycles and you should be ashamed of yourself.

This should sound familiar to anyone who has ever purchased a piece of gym equipment as encouragement to get into shape. What should also sound familiar is the fact that it didn’t work – not at all. In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect: every time I looked at my bicycle after that, I was forcefully reminded of those days I spent writhing in pain, presumably as punishment for even thinking about how good a McGriddle sounded while I was pedalling to my death. And, not surprisingly, that made me somewhat averse to repeating the experience.

See, back then, I wasn’t aware that while limits were made to be stretched, they also exist for a reason. Your body knows how much strain it can handle at once, and it knows how to repair itself – to an extent. For instance, your body will heal a few fibres of torn muscle faster than, say, a whole torn muscle, which will heal faster than a broken bone, which will heal more efficiently than a decapitation. The great thing about muscle fibres? They’re designed to break.

When you use your bare hands a lot, your skin builds up over the heavily-used areas with calluses, making those stronger. It does this because, unless your skin has existential issues, fortifying that area would probably be a good idea if the intent is to continue using them the way you are now. The same strategy applies to your muscles. Except muscles are really good at it. They’re so good at it that they break for fun. If you want to make your muscles happy, break a few of those pesky fibres. Because when they break, new ones are formed that are even stronger than the wimpy fibres you had before. (If you want to be weird, you can think of them as making calluses on the inside.)

It becomes an entirely different matter, though, when you break so many that it’s a full-blown injury. When you have a deep cut on your hand, the scar tissue that forms later is actually weaker than your normal skin, as it’s formed in a shorter period of time and under duress. There’s more pain involved, obviously, and it takes longer to recover. So while I was in bed groaning and berating myself and essentially not moving, my body wasn’t getting stronger – it was recuperating. Not only that, but pain sends a very powerful signal to your brain: if you do this again, you will suffer. And while there is a certain class of people who enjoy that sort of thing (like bodybuilders and Dobby), most of us just want to wear jeans again without our midsections looking like rioting escapees from Denim Prison. Therefore, if you punish yourself every time you do a form of exercise, you probably won’t want to keep doing it. And if you stop exercising, guess what happens to the strong muscle fibres you nearly killed yourself to get? They get weaker still. Which means that yes, you did just torture yourself for no reason, and you’re probably worse off than you were before.

What I figured out this time around is that stretching my physical limits is not the same as punishing myself. In fact, the two are mutually exclusive. What the product hawkers at Super Intensity Gym 5000 won’t tell you is this:  you can do basically anything more than what you’re doing now, and your body will think it’s getting some awesome exercise. My car broke down at around the time I was starting to become more aware of my body’s needs, so this was more of a necessity at first, but the basic gist is the same. Here are the steps I took; I know they won’t work for everyone, but like nearly everything else in this world, they can be tailored to suit your specific body type, location, and ambition.

– If you drive to the store, park toward the back of the lot.

– Drive less. If your city/town has public transit, use that as much as possible, because you’ll end up walking a few blocks from each stop to get where you’re going. (If you have trouble with this step, pray for expensive car trouble during a period of unemployment. That usually helps.)

– If you have a bike, bike more. Start out with little trips to the store and back, or with little errands. I remember how out-of-shape I felt the first ten or twenty times I decided to take my bike on errands that required more than two miles of riding. (Note: Do not bike fifteen miles up a hill to an interview if you’re not used to biking fifteen miles up a hill every day. You will look and smell like a hobo, and you will not get the job.)

– Give yourself new challenges every time you set out. Like, “I’m going to walk three more blocks today to the next bus stop instead of my usual stop.” Or, “I’m going to try biking three miles instead of two.” Or, “I’m going to put groceries in my backpack instead of carrying them on my handlebars.” Once you get used to the idea that anything can be turned into exercise, then exercise starts becoming part of your normal routine.

– If you bike (or walk), find a scenic pathway in your area that you can ride or hike. Double plus if you can picnic there or find a place to read. It’s a reminder that exercise doesn’t always tie itself to a chore, and that getting somewhere is often half the experience. (I hesitate in saying “fun,” because I know for a fact that getting hit in the face by branches or pushing your bike halfway up a hill because you were overconfident in your thighs of steel isn’t fun, but a bit of tasteful bragging to your friends about your newly-found physical prowess kind of is, and in order to keep doing something, you have to remember how you got there in the first place.)

After months of building up the slow way, I take my bike nearly everywhere now – unless I have to save enough money to get a part or buy a new tube (note: if you bike heavily, it may be wise to invest in the super-thick tubes with sealant in them, especially if you live in an area prone to goatheads and/or broken Mad Dog 20/20 bottles). Then I figure out how much time it’ll take to walk somewhere (Google Maps has a “walk” function when you “Get Directions” somewhere; it’s a pretty good estimate for how long it takes the average person to walk from point A to point B. Did you know that if you kept a steady pace and required no sleep or nutrition at all, you could walk from Los Angeles to New York in only 918 hours?? That’s only a month and some change! Wow!), and make sure to set out about fifteen minutes before that in case I get distracted by a butterfly.

What? It was pretty.