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?

diy: citrus cleaner/degreaser

I loooove my bike. I love it. I really do. The only problem with bicycling everywhere, though, is the fact that the chain, gears, and frame tend to get a teensy bit … well, I’ll just show you.

Notice the black gunk on the chain? How about the fabulous streak on the frame right behind the front derailer? Delicious, right? Don’t lick it. I know it’s tempting. But don’t.

Unfortunately, a lot of the products on the market for degreasing bicycle chains tend to have really, really adverse effects on the environment (and if they don’t jive with the dirt they’re dripping onto, they probably won’t jive with the environment on a human organism, either). They’re made from petrochemicals – that is, chemicals derived from petroleum/oil production and refinement – and as such, you probably don’t want that stuff to end up on your skin by accident. Not only that, but they can get pricey. Some degreasers can cost as much as $10 per bottle, and if you’re a cheapo like me, you probably see a price like that on a little bottle and go “hahaha! Wait. Really?”

A few months ago, I was trying to put together a little how-to guide for simpler living in my town. While it didn’t take off as I wanted it to, there were a few things in there that definitely have a home on this blog. Like homemade degreaser. I originally intended to promote it as a replacement for most surface/oven cleaners on the shelves (and this stuff’s been around much longer than these companies), but I tried it on my bike chain and gears in about June, and – yep, you guessed it – it worked like a charm.

So, what’s in it? How is it made? Where does it come from? Is it witchcraft?

It has two ingredients, both of which can be found easily at any supermarket: distilled white vinegar and citrus fruit peels. (Okay, so you might not be able to buy just the peels. But you won’t see me complaining about having to eat citrus fruit. Yes, this homemade degreaser will even ward off scurvy if you let it.)

In order to make it, all you do is fill up a big jar (like one of those monstrous pickle jars from a wholesale store) as much as you want with citrus peels. Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit. Then, you pour the vinegar on top of the peels until they’re all covered, but not so much that they’re drowning in it. Just cover ’em. Last, place an old, clean washcloth (or a cheesecloth if you want to be all fancypants) over the top of the jar. That way, you still have a source of oxygen for the process that makes the cleaner, but you won’t let any huge foreign particles in the jar. Let it soak for about a month. Strain out the peels, dilute with a little water.

That’s it. I’m serious. That is the secret behind all the really good citrus cleaners out there. You pickle some fruit peelings. I know, right?

It’s not witchcraft, inasmuch as science isn’t a form of witchcraft, which is highly debatable to me at times. Speaking of, SCIENCE AHEAD: The reason it works so well is a chemical compound in the peels called limonene, which is one of the chemicals (terpenes, for you geeks) responsible for giving citrus fruit its citrus-y smell. Limonene is an extremely powerful solvent and is particularly good at binding to petroleum-based greases – y’know, what a lot of us use on our bike chains. The vinegar extracts the limonene from the orange peels, and what you have left is a concentrated, delicious-smelling cleaner that will degrease the crap out of your bike chain. And it’s mega-cheap. And it’s completely non-toxic. And you can use it to clean literally everything in your house.

Did I mention it was cheap? Oh, okay. Just checking.

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.