Fitness - Inside and Out, Integrative Medicine

What’s my age again?

How old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you were?

There are some days where I feel about 100 years old. My body moves like it’s made of lead and all my senses are dulled. Thank god those days are few and far between. Most of the time, I marvel at the amount of physical work I am capable of; something my unhealthy 25 year old self would have fallen over just thinking about. There is  a lot to be said about the statement, “You’re as old as you feel” which ties into the question that opened this post. With proper exercise, nutrition and stress reduction and/or mediation coupled with good genetics, a person can certainly look and act a lot younger than their chronological age. Our functional age is based on how capable we are to carry out physical tasks in daily life and also encompasses psychological, environmental and physiological factors. This is especially important amongst the elderly population, where their ability to function at a younger level helps maintain their vitality.

Behold, Edna, a woman approaching 100 years old, who happily works with her trainers at the gym doing a medley of exercises in her adorable leopard print leggings. Energy, strength and personality exude from her tiny frame. Her mantra? “Don’t let yourself get weak.” We could all grab some inspiration from her, as excerpted below from a Women’s Health Article published in March 2014.

http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/97-year-old-woman-doing-squats

Edna’s positive and motivated mental state counters the physiological reality of her age and its limitations. As we age, we lose muscle mass (sarcopoenia), bone density (osteopoenia) and collagen, which weakens our connective tissues. It takes more effort to do a lot of the activities of daily living in addition to the fun stuff like working out, chasing your grand-kids or climbing a trail.  The psychophysiological relationship is fascinating to me because it essentially shows that a good attitude, social interaction and familial/community support can override a lot of what would limit you physiologically. It can also do the opposite when the above three things are non-existent. Even as a young person, a negative attitude (I can’t do that) mixed with social isolation (Leave me alone) and no sense of community around you (I have no friends) can have drastic affects on how you function. Ask that person how old they feel and the answer probably will not match their chronological age; nor will it be for the better.

How old does this toddler feel if she’s conked out while standing?

So, take a moment to do a little metal inventory and ask yourself the opening question. What are the factors that made you answer the way you did? Are you doing too much? Too little? Have you not seen a friend or family member in a while because of a hectic schedule? Are you surrounded by energy vampires? This self searching will allow you to pinpoint what needs to change in this moment in order to feel more like the number you deserve to be. Life is already too short as it is. Make every year count!

Fitness - Inside and Out, Massage Techniques Explained

Premenstrual fitness

I never miss a training day. My exercise schedule is rigid; conducted with a NO EXCUSES attitude. That is how I roll. No one has to cajole me out of bed, push me out of the house or leave threatening messages on my phone to scare me into fitness. When it comes to exercise, I have always been self-motivated. Twice a week, I do a combination of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength/weight training with my trainer. Another two days of the week, I do some form of cardio mixed with cross fit and strength band/weight training on my own, either at home or at the gym. Everyday of the week, I manage to fit in at least 45 minutes to an hour of walking, stair climbing or overall hustling intermingled with my work as a massage therapist, which is a tremendous core strength builder. It’s fair to say that I’m tired by the end of my day, but the only time I truly feel the affects of all my activities is the few days prior to my period known as premenstrual syndrome or PMS for short. To say I am pooped would be an understatement. My body feels like it is made of lead. My balance and coordination are a joke; I can barely do a one legged squat without tipping over, which my trainer finds highly entertaining being that I have that martial arts/dance background and what not. My nutrition becomes spotty, as I crave the saltiest of salty and chocolatey of chocolate things, but get so nauseated that I end up eating less than what my body needs. Worst of all these symptoms is my emotional state, which fluctuates from absolute rage to bottom of my soul sadness. The former makes me want to break someone’s face and the latter, like I am falling to pieces mid-workout.

Training like a Spartan may not be the intuitive thing to do.

The 7 to 10 days prior to the arrival of the menstrual cycle and the first two days of the cycle itself can be unbearable for many women. Men can make all the snide comments and PMS jokes in the world; however hormones are powerful movers and shakers of a body’s state of balance a.k.a. homeostasis. These chemical messengers regulate many functions and processes; too little or too much of a particular hormone and things go haywire. Take for example human growth hormone, which ensures our bones, muscles and tissues grow us into adulthood and beyond. Having an over production causes Gigantism, where a person will grow to heights above 7 foot. Having too little will cause Dwarfism, a condition where a person is extremely short (well under 4′ 10″) with proportional body parts. With respect to PMS, it is the shifting of estrogen and progesterone that cause its symptoms and determine how acutely one experiences them. My clumsiness (aforementioned falling over during my workout), low tolerance for noises (I can’t take it when weighted plates and dumbbells get dropped after people finish their sets), difficulty concentrating/confusion (no, no you meant my other “left”), fatigue (lead body), aggressive behavior (god bless boxing and muay thai) and craving for excessive sleep are all symptoms that challenge my ability to workout and work effectively. Rather than ignore and try to push through, I found that I had to modify my definition of what would be effective fitness for this period of time (pun unintentional).

I loved Xena, my pseudo Greek warrior princess!

While sparring relieved some of the aggression I felt, trying to take someone’s head off left me vulnerable to shoulder injury. Hence, know when to use 20% of your strength and when to go full on. Instead of taking a 4 second break between sets, I grab my water bottle more often and take the time to breath through whatever meltdown I am feeling coming on; therefore getting it out of my system before continuing.  Again, I am avoiding injuring myself by pushing my body, but without sacrificing the level of workout I have set out to do. I also found that increasing my cardio (i.e. aerobic exercise) during this time helped me to get my appetite in check and jump-start my cycle without as much muscular cramping as I felt when I did more strength training and aggressive exercise. Since every body is different, it is super important to pay attention to what your symptoms are telling you and then, try modifying your activities to see what works for you. Ultimately, PMS should not be a reason to shy away from fitness. If anything, it will help put those hormones back in their bloody place (that one was intentional 🙂 ) per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Massage Techniques Explained

It’s a matter of choice

Male or female?

When given the choice between a male or female therapist, which would you prefer? There are definitely many factors that play a role in this decision, including your gender, sexual orientation, religious and/or cultural mores and presumed stereotypes to name a few. Although ideally it should be an equal opportunity booking system, ultimately you want to book with someone you feel comfortable with. More often than not, the therapist that fits that bill ends up being female.

While still in school, I remember becoming very anxious about my ability to find work upon graduation. I consulted with one of my teachers, who happened to be male. I was hoping he could advise me on where it would be best to apply and what potential employers were looking for in a “rookie” therapist. Keep in mind that this teacher had a successful private practice, had been a lead therapist/supervisor at a very popular gym/spa chain and super active member of various professional groups related to massage in addition to his position as a core member of the faculty. Despite all this experience, he told me that it had been very difficult for him to obtain clients. He had to work twice as hard as the female therapists to strum up business and eventually reach the level of success he had. His skills and expertise were not the deciding factor; it was his gender that put him at a disadvantage.

Think about the power differential. The client laying on the table is in the most vulnerable state. You are unclothed and in a submissive position. You trust that the therapist towering over you has the education and skills to address your needs properly and respectfully. You hope that they don’t judge you or your body in any way. You pray their touch is firm, focused and has a flow. You want them to put you at ease from the start, so that you can mentally check out and really enjoy the benefits of the work. Regardless of gender, a true professional will be able to provide all of the above to the client, but without a doubt women win out for their perceived nurturing nature, transcending the role of “mommy” on the massage table. A recent article in Psychology Today outlines the gender gap when it comes to caretakers. Society expects women to be the natural choice due to their biology, while men are hardwired to be natural “fixers” and protectors. You might think these qualities would bode well for the male therapist, but not when it comes to massage.

Minus the watch, this is a perfectly normal image of a male therapist working the lumbar region of the back of a male client.

Then there is the tricky area of sexuality. As long as there are “happy ending” jokes circulating and brothels posing as massage parlors, the massage profession will always have to prove its legitimacy. That said, heterosexual men, whether single or married, can feel extreme trepidation at booking with a male therapist because of what other people may assume about their sexuality. Also, since the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated during massage, an erection could occur and the thoughts of this happening with a male therapist brings on much anxiety. On the other side of the coin, heterosexual women, whether single or married, can feel hesitant to book with a male because of the possibility of an attraction related to their touch or the judgment of their body in a sexual manner. I recall one of my clients telling me she didn’t care if she had shaved her legs or had cellulite dimpling on her thighs with me because “we have the same parts” but if she had gotten a male therapist she would have felt embarrassed. Throw into this mix the complicated and often skewed ways touch could be perceived after a trauma or abuse and again, the female therapist is the “safer” choice.

You may wonder then, how male therapists are ever able to get clients and be successful in this career. There are some stereotypes that work in their favor. With respect to strength, males are definitely viewed as the stronger sex and more capable of delivering deeper work. Even more so if the work is sports specific, as most massage therapists affiliated or employed by sports teams tend to be male. It took many years for Kelly Calabrese to push through these stereotypes and become the first female massage therapist employed by a Major League Baseball Team. All that aside, education and über professional conduct will prove to be the most powerful tools in bridging the gender gap. The more informed the client is about massage and its benefits, about the background of the therapist and their skills through testimonials and reviews, the more likely they will be able to make an informed decision when given the choice of male or female.

Fitness - Inside and Out, Illness and Conditions, Massage Techniques Explained

A Body is a Terrible Thing to Waste

All bones, no strength – Anorexia circa 2003

October 13th was the 8th anniversary of my recovery from Anorexia. Back on that date in 2004, I broke down on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I was staring into the demon bowels of the disease that had dictated my life for 3 years. It sucked the air from my lungs. I couldn’t live another day with its crushing pressure. It took me two weeks to leave the confines of a friend’s home (where I had escaped to cocoon myself from reality) and once I did emerge, I felt like I was in some kind of silent film. The world moved slowly, while I felt frenetic. I quit and distanced myself from everything in my life that I had allowed to enable the disease. I went into therapy. I ate a bowl of black eyed peas and rice, my first meal, with trepidation. My stomach; my intestines; my mind slowly came back to life. With belly distended, I proudly proclaimed on whatever social networks existed at that time that I was recovering. I was still very thin, but by the New Year 2005, my consistent eating led my body to “betray” me.

Performing in 2007, at my heaviest post recovery (Image copyright: Gary Winter)

The life preserving shut down of my metabolism was meant to make sure I wouldn’t starve again. I was afraid to eat, but I did anyway. I submitted my food journals to my therapist who approved and told me to eat more. “Variety” she stressed, but I was fixated on foods I felt safe with. I did gratuitous amounts of cardio at odd hours, so no one would stare at my body at the gym. They had known me when I was at my thinnest and I feared their assumption that I was letting myself go. My fears were realized when in the Spring of that year, a trainer approached me and offered to give me a fitness assessment. The masochist in me accepted and after running his various tests, proclaimed to me that I was borderline obese. Oh, the shame that washed over me. For years, that left me with such an acrid taste for personal trainers. He told me to cut out the “junk food” and come see him for sessions at the gym. I was living on tuna fish and pita breads, fueling my workouts with coffee and bee pollen smoothies. I never went back to that gym. In fact I stopped going to any gym. My weight and health habits fluctuated erratically between 2005 and 2008, until a good friend recommended his trainer. I got over myself and the shame I had felt in my previous experience and contacted him. He assessed me through a short circuit of activities and introduced the concept of strength training. He taught me how muscle mass and strength would benefit me in the long run, making my metabolism more efficient and letting my body reshape itself into it’s own “normal.”

All muscle, all strength!

The seed he planted germinated when I went back to school for massage. I was hit with Anatomy, Physiology, Neuro and Kinesiology. I never soaked up information with such appetite before. I couldn’t get enough. This knowledge enhanced my workouts and sessions with my trainer because I understood how my body was designed to function. Suddenly, Mr. “Borderline Obese” became the joke that I should have never taken seriously. (Side note here: I saw his picture and name on a real estate placard recently, which clearly shows us he did not have a glowing career in exercise physiology after all). I also returned to therapy with a more cognitive approach to help get to the root of my control issues and take them head on…much like throwing knees and elbows during pad drills. I channeled my emotions into my workouts and learned, often times the hard way, what an art BALANCE is. Now, as a massage therapist, it is so important to foster this healthy sense of bodily awareness within my clients, wherever possible and always when solicited.

So when I was contacted recently by a Fitness/Wellness website for a review of their services, I stepped up to the plate and joined. SlimKicker is a point based program kind of in the vein of Weight Watchers, except that it values activities and nutrition at various levels and creates challenges for its users to foster long term health habits. It also provides a calorie counter, fitness tracker and other resources. There is the community aspect too, as users can post inspirational feed on the homepage, join each other in challenges/groups and “friend” each other for support. The About Us section states that the site is all about learning proper nutrition, portion control, and acquiring important habits. In that vein, upon signing up I was asked for my weight and what my goal was – weight loss or strengthening/toning. Although I chose the fitness oriented option, the pop up that followed was more for weight loss, citing how many calories and percentages I needed to consume in order to achieve my goal. The amount it noted was no where near what I would need to fuel my body and my workouts. To drive this point home, I logged only my exercise habits; not my food intake. If I followed what the site suggested, I would essentially send my body into starvation mode.

It is important to note here that there is a disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions that states the site should not be used by anyone with any medical or nutritional conditions and that content is for informational purposes only, not meant to replace professional medical advice. Obviously no one with an eating disorder has any business on a site where everything is meticulously logged and counted, but many people without said issues can still have disordered eating habits and cycles of guilt they feel compelled to share via social network. The site’s inspirational feed is 80% laments at having eaten too much of something labeled “bad” either by the user themselves or the nutritional information offered to them by the website (Remember that disclaimer,guys?). Also, there are statements of pride over extra exercises and completed challenges; however these inspirational statements are edged with complaints about weight gain or lack of loss (again, that disclaimer). This is not the site’s fault. They want you to be positive, stay focused and band together for support. Our society is more to blame for fostering this widespread self loathing and depreciation. The hate and guilt are infectious and breed a vicious cycle that will continue so long as we choose to continue “sharing,” despite any health oriented social networks best efforts.

SlimKicker, if used properly, can function as a motivator for adopting a fitness regimen because it holds you accountable for your activities. Much like a TO DO list, if exercise is factored into a week and logged daily, it makes you all the more aware of the need to check it off your list. After doing so for so many times, it will hopefully become a natural part of your daily lifestyle. I’m still not a fan of food logging due to my past; however if you truly don’t know what you have eaten in a day, keeping a food diary can help you track unhealthy patterns like over eating and of course, under eating. My advice is to pay attention to your body’s individual needs and seek out a registered dietician and/or nutritionist if you find the process to be overwhelming.