Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To Move is Human: 7 simple steps to get in shape - for life

Getting (back) in shape: How begin the begine? Have you experienced this effect when making a sortie into getting back into some kind of fitness space? You do your first workout, see what you can do, and are so gassed by it you think heck, you'll only be able to do this once a week - till you get stronger. Maybe once a year. Or maybe you feel you'll never go back; that was horrible. Totally understandable. Totally reasonable to think gosh so much for my plans to work out several times a week; i need to build up to that. So i'll work out once or twice a week instead. After all finding time to work out more frequently is a challenge, anyway.

source of photo

In the following post, i'm going to argue that a first order of business in any get in shape program is, in the beginning in particular, to think less about intensity (ie working out "hard" one or more times a week) and more about frequency (more TIME in movement is better). I'm going to make seven points about this daily approach to in-shape-ness, that build upon each other, as guidelines for the approach. One for every day of the week, perhaps:

  1. To move is to be human; practice being human as frequently as possible by moving as much as possible in a day.
  2. To sustain movement, create it as a habit. To create a habit - something done autonomously, effortlessly - takes thousands of reps - frequent "movement snacks" a la Frank Forencich helps get the reps up.
  3. To succeed, plan-ify: first, plan ahead; second, plan a plan b. Resilience is Plan B. 
  4. To continue, start lighter than expected and respect recovery. 
  5. To develop, keep a record. Records can be lightweight: what is sufficient to be useful?
  6. To understand, play. Taking time to explore all sorts of movement experiences is a huge win. 
  7. To thrive, include the brain in practice. Learn about the body; challenge the brain.
From Such Acorns, Mighty Practice and Strength Grows. Focusing on these principles or heuristics will enable one to build up any kind of health, strength, fitness, wellbeing regimen as one learns first how to build the time and second, how to keep adapting the particular practice within the time.
Fundamental: make the TIME for movement: practice doing that; then move within the time.

1. To Move is Human 

One thing people have in common who want to get in shape is lack of time under movement. We work at a desk or at a single machine; we move about in the house or work place a bit, but we're not spending deliberate time "in movement."

A first strategy of a workout program, rather than focusing on a specific activity like lifting a lot of weight or swimming the english channel might be the more mundane but powerfully effective target simply to "move more." Consistently. Daily.

For more reasons than we can count here, simply moving *more* than we do now is a potent target for just about anyone reading this post (including its author). From anecdotes of coaches to research about physical and cognitive practice, it seems the more we move, the happier we are in our performance, from body compoisition to intellectual performance. Yes, we perform more intelligently the more we move (the opposite is also true - so if we're sedentary for years at a time, we're not only not getting younger, we're getting stupid-er (see the Whitehall study)).  For the brain, movement with our heart rate elevated is very good. For body comp, it seems moving 5 hours a week minimum of movement/activity correlates with greater happiness about body shape (one ref on this topic).

If we accpet this premise to "move more" first, rather than "lift heavy" or "swim/run far" as our founding premise of wellbeing or of getting in shapeliness, then our strategy shifts from "i must get to the gym X times per week" to preparing for a sustainable movement practice. If it's daily, we need to be able to recover from it to keep doing it. Going crazy is not an initial option. Consistency and Persistence is the biggie. Please note, i do not mean get a cardio program (ie, lots of running or swimming or similar as opposed to lifting weights or sprinting or interval stuff). I mean MOVEMENT.

Practice Variety. Push ups are movements; dancing is movement. Walking is movement. Olympic lifting is movement. Throwing a discuss or frisbee is movement. Moving as many joints as possible in a movement is movement. The more variety of kinds of movement that we practice, it seems, the better off we are in terms of engaging not just our joints but our vision and balance systems as well. Moving harder and less hard also important. It seems we're wired for variety, hence the need to practice variety.

Daily Practice: I Move More. This focus on daily practice can be quite liberating. We have a whole ton of choice - of anything counts. Whether that practice is walking, running, going upstairs, skipping, mobility work, playing frisbee doesn't really matter: it's that we have said we will do SOME movement everyday and we do it. We'll look at how to ensure the practice leads to progressive development, in part 4, below.

2. Building up a Practice-as-Habit

REmember the body comp stat of 300 minutes a week to feel good about one's body?  If 300 movement minutes sounds a bit daunting for starters, that's understandable too. Change can be pain. No joke: changing patterns of behaviour is rewiring the brain. Change of established patterns takes work. And lots and lots of practice. So making it possible to get many reps in is another aspect of daily practice. We simply need the time to build the reps to make the change to sustain the habit, to do the re-wiring in the brain.

It's a fact that when we're stressed we go to what we've practiced most. If we've practiced being innert more than we've practiced movement, that's our likely go-to place when we often need the exact opposite: movement helps blow off stress (it's hormonal: fight or flight responses mean MOVE; when we don't move those signals keep coming on; move/exercise/get the heart up - we signal we get it; we're responding; the signals change; we feel better).

Thus, the first part of true and enduring get in shape work, it seems, is to accept it into our hearts as a necessary and good thing to do - that we see it as fundamental to be moving more - that that is the natural state; being so sedentary is not natural at all. We who neither reap nor sow. Nor hunt nor build. Living in the head, the digital ALL the time would not too long ago be perceived as a disease state, where our inertia would be pitied, and where if rich we'd be shoved up to the mountains to take The Cure.

So yes, no. 1: accepting that to be human is to move; and if we want to experience our humanness we may want to move a little more, (eat a little less). To move more, we need to habituate movement into our lives. That means lots of practice.

The next point deals with how to get all those reps.

No. 3 In the Plan is Perfection; in Plan B is resilience.

Plan for Success. One of the biggest reasons the best laid plans of mice and would be athletes fail is that we don't plan for success - most often because we don't know how. Here's a few tips to help get a new practice in gear. To paraphrase Martha Beck from the Four Day Win (uk | us), plan four days ahead, rather than leaping in at this moment. Give yourself permission to start your new movement program four days from now. Think,where might movement begin, not today, but four days from now? And with that question we can ask,  what road blocks can i anticipate? Knowing these, how make the path clear for day four, for say 20 mins. of action? Does that mean 4 blocks of five minutes each? two blocks of ten? to do what? Walk? do push ups? mobility work?

Block out the Time: Make a Promise to Yourself - and keep it. Plan ahead, write it down; talk with whomever you need to talk with who might need to know this is what you're doing so they know, this is what you're doing. To borrow from Steven Covey's First Things First (uk | us), why not put those times for movement practice into the calendar before the week starts?

When we make appointments with ourselves, Coveys' argument goes, we show respect for ourselves. We honour ourselves. That time becomes as important as appointments we set with anyone else. Covey also has this lovely notion that we can't say no to something until we have something to which we're saying yes. If we are committed to being human, and thus to movement; if we get that to move we need to make it a habit, and that to make a habit we need lots of reps, then finding the time to make movement happen in order to get those reps will be a natural YES priority. AND that movement practice will help us be more alive, more present and more successfully present in our engagement with others, as well.  Thus, our movement practice times are protected, scheduled and

Making the time to move also throws open many more options than any pre-canned workout program. Movement - rather than a workout program - lets us think about doing something that is natural every day. Some folks have a hard time initially with thinking about "doing a workout" every day. No kidding. That sounds daunting. But moving every day? what's the alternative? be innert every day? is that a desired state to NOT move daily? And yet, if you put a pedometer on many of us, that's exactly what you'll see: we move very little. So actually, it's often pretty easy to move more.

WHAT COUNTS as MOVEMENT?- Generally speaking ANY deliberate movement where we bring our minds to the fact that we are moving is better than not. So mobility work where we go through each joint in our body to explore range of motion (like r-phase and i-phase movement templates, links about these approaches, below), that's great for many reasons written about elsewhere.

Mobility Work Example:
Eric Cobb demo'ing cross body figure 8's in the z-health Neural Warm Up
 Combining some mobility work then with work that gets our heart rates above standing state - that's generally where even more goodness happens.

Validate Movement: Check Seated and Standing Heart Rates. That's easy to test: check your heart rate seated at rest for a bit; check it when standing for a minute or two. Check it after you've walked a bit; check it after you've walked up a flight or two of stairs - get some sense of your body's responses to movement.

Plan a Plan B: Resilience is having a back up plan

Something important to have within these spaces is what's a back up plan for an activity if the main one falls through? suppose it's raining and that scotches planned outdoor play for the day? what will put movement into that 30-60 minute slot in its place? Mobility work? bodyweight practice? what are the alternatives?

Having a movement plan B means we're rarely taken by surprise.  

No. 4 start lighter than expected and respect recovery

When going at something new - like a DAILY movement practice - find out what level of intensity can be sustained for daily practice - we have the rest of our lives - to get more intense. The focus of practice building is to build - in this case, to build skills and habits for a lifetime. And again, the biggie here is often preparing the way for the practice to happen,making appointments with ourselves, and then filling the time with the activity.

The Unbearable Lightness of Sustainability
When we start a movement practice, we can pick a small unit of time - say five minutes. We can propose to walk around the block at a pace where it's easy-ish to keep a conversation going, but not effortless. Let's say that that may seem, after that walk, to have been pretty easy - but
a) how long did it take?
b) what's our post-walk heart rate?
c) what's our heart rate a minute after the walk is finished?

If the goal was to move for five minutes, and the round block walk took five or likely more minutes, and the heart rate after the walk is above standing rate, and a minute later it's closer to standing rate, that is a huge success.

It's a huge success because
1) we scheduled it AND did it - check on keeping a committment
2) we learned something about ourselves in terms of walking pace for five minutes
3) our recovery heart rate shows we didn't over do it
4) we know we can do it again - we have a building block
5) we also have measures for progress:
- time taken to walk a specific distance
- distance travelled
- heart rate at close of event
- recovery rate inside a minute
- success rate at keeping a promise to ourselves

No 5. Progress means Understanding: Keep a Record

Especially while we are developing our practice, keeping a log means that we are keeping it real. A record is evidence that we are keeping our commitment; a record especially early on in practice helps us reflect on what works and what needs work. A record helps us craft deliberate intent. When we put something into words, we reify the practice: it becomes cognitive; it frames our attention. Going through intent to learn - making something new as cognitive as possible it seems - helps to craft it into something that can become - eventually - more reflexive. 

The above list of elements in No. 4 about date, time planned; time taken; heart rates - are all simple examples of what can go into a log. 

No. 6 - play: it's a learning experience  

Play is a terrific part of beginning a movement practice. As i'm arguing, we don't have to have a "workout program" from day one: we just need to plan to move more. Indeed, more exploration is better. More types of movement is better. Walking one day, doing push ups (off the wall or knees if full ones are not accessible), exploring jogging another, bowling another, frisbee another, swimming another, baseball another, lifting weights - it's all good and fine.

Plans: For many of us, though, we find it easier to develop a movement practice if we plan time ahead for what we're going to do. That's grand. A plan can be - kick a football around outside for half an hour monday; hack around playing squash with a friend for 45mins tues. Push baby in stroller for twenty minutes at a fast-ish clip twice on wed. Swing a light kettlebell for 100 reps total and do 100 wall push ups total for thurs. Take an olympic lifting class friday, recover saturday. Go for a long walk with partner sunday trying flexible shoes that pass the twist test. That's six days of mixed movement. And as long as we're checking those measures of time and heart rate, we have a really cheap way to see what progress we're making, like - i can do the round the block faster and with a lower heart rate and greater recovery this week than last week. That's progress. Time to look at maybe going a bit further or a bit longer. Or a bit harder.

running in uber-flexible xero shoes
Once we get to a place where we're compliant in moving daily - let's say 5-6 days a weeks - for a month, then i'd suggest game on for thinking more deeply about what skill we'd like to practice (walking is a skill, too: a learned action).

If we've already decided what our skill sets are going to be - say working with a kettlebell - then super. There are many approaches and schedules out there for practicing kettlebells. If these call for a three day a week schedule, grand. Since to Move is Human, and we want to be Human every day, what will we do on the other days to continue learning about how our bodies move, and to keep moving, to keep up a daily practice of Being Human?

The great thing about movement is we have so many options to find a skill practice that engages our attention sufficiently to keep us from being bored, to keep us engaged and improving. What will that be? Every rep is a learning opportunity: how do we engage our practice to feel like we're learning, doing, having fun?

(At least once in awhile) Get a Coach: I've said this before: everyone needs a coach. Once you've found something you enjoy, do yourself a favour and talk with folks for recommendations about a coach. Find out how to carry out the movements of your sport as effectively as possible. Find the smartest person you can with the best experience and manner. Engage with them about checking your technique. Excellent coaches will not try to do everything at once, but the right thing for now to let you enjoy your practice more. Each time you come back will be a retune to help you get that much further along. This is an affordable, effective way to reduce injury risk and improve performance and pleasure.

No. 7 Respect the Brain While Respecting the Body

One more aspect of building a movement practice is to learn about our bodies and brains and how one interacts with the other. For instance,
  • i've stated that we need to build up time in movement and need to get our heart rates up to a certain level. How come? What about time and heart rate is important?
  • I've also suggested that watching for improvements like getting more distance in in shorter time with a lower heart rate is a sign of progress. Progress of what?
  • I've also suggested that exploring many types of movement from game play on a field to lifting weights is good not just for our joints, but for our vision and balance, too. How's that?
  • And best, i've suggested that research shows exercise contributes directly to cognitive performance. People who move are smarter than those who don't. What's going on with that? 
By knowing some of those whats we can take control of our own movement practice. We can begin to assess intelligently what works for us and what may need work. We can also begin to understand the interplay of the various qualities of our movement practice and how we might want to tune them over time.

Never Surrender An approach many folks have is actually to trust someone else to put them through a "program" for x period of time to achieve a specific result. They tend to surrender to the other person the understanding of the process and trust them to get them from a to b, and that getting to B is a great thing to do. Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. How would we judge that beyond the claims of the packaging without having some grounded undesrtanding of how our body adapts to movement? And sure, it's understandable starting out: we just want a plan to get going and feel better. We want to believe There's a Program for That. This desire has helped sell an awful lot of fitness DVDs (like p90x, anyone?). That doesn't mean Programs per se are bad. But yes i will go so far as to say, just doing a program and not delving into what its assumptions are, and whether or not they're valid, is lazy. How many folks have accepted P90X's claim about "muscle confusion" for why P90X claims it is better than any other program? if you don't know what that claim is - really it's ok (though if you're really interested, a critique is linked below). My point is that we bring incredible skepticism to many product claims, but programs, especially when we like the sound of their claims (ripped in 90 days, for example), not so much it seems.

Learning more about how our bodies work is also really really good for our brains' health. After all, our
7th edition of
McArdle and team's 
Exercise Physiology
Great place to begin
exploring the what and
how of movement
brains are another part of our bodies. They need practice, too. Learning new things; exploring new domains is apparently a great way to keep them resilient. By learning about how different kinds of movement practice can develop different properties of the complex systems that we are, we exercise our brains and improve our wellbeing. We can test and refine a practice for ourselves to become our optimal selves. Work with a coach yes, but have questions, too.

Indeed, in my experience folks who build successful life-lasting, resilient movement practices also develop knowledge around those practices so they can (a) get off someone else's program that may or may not be effective for them over the long haul and (b)begin to build and explore and evaluate/test their own approach to movement and wellbeing.

In SUM: To move is human; to move more feels devine. 

To review:
1) to be human is to move. Movement works more than joints; it helps our brains; helps regulate hormones, related to how we feel; how we eat; how we sleep; how we engage with others.

2) To move more - that is change for many of us, and for a change to become not a change but normal, a habit, a part of our lives, we need lots of reps. To create the space for those reps to happen, we need daily movement practice - and since the more we move the more natural and human we are, moving many times within a day is optimal. More reps is both better for our bodies and helps create the change wiring, forming the habit.

3) To give ourselves the best chance of success with a new habit, like moving more, we are most effective when we plan our strategy in advance: what are we going to do, when? what do we need to address in order to make sure that time can happen/will not be put at risk? What is our back up plan if Plan A falls through? Plan, schedule and protect that time for ourselves.

4) To make sure we keep going with our practice, what we do has to be gaged to hit a level of effort that enables us both to make progress and not kill ourselves. We need - as part of our plan - to start lighter than we think we need and ramp up progress from there.

5) To make sure we are making effective use of our precious movement time, keeping a log lets us reflect on the success of our practice, as well as reality check whether it is what we think it is.

6) Especially when starting out - play / exploration - is an optimal course. Try out as many skills as we can. If we don't like something - like a ball sport - find out why - it may be a vision issue (can't catch? get a vision (not an eye) check). Even if we have a practice we particularly like, spice it up with variety of movement. That all gets back to point one: we move in many ways - make sure our movement practice moves like a human too.

7) To ensure we can "own" our practice, and engage our brains in our practice, committing to learning about what's happening in our bodies with our movement is a Good Thing, too.

If we follow these 7 points, we will "get in shape" - and more - we'll stay in shape for the rest of our lives. That's a bold claim, but also inevitable: we repeat what we enjoy. Finding a path that is stimulating, pleasurable, repeatable - it's all good. We may find periods where we move less and know we don't like it; we need to get back into moving more; we learn that's where our happy place is. If we have never experienced that yet, this is why it's important to start with consistency of movement, blend in fun and challenge to keep us engaged, sufficiently challenged and improving. This is why we have to make a commitment to ourselves to keep searching till we find a path that engages us.

Once we have something we're doing, or many things we're exploring, every rep is an opportunity to practice, to learn, to re-wire, to adapt, to get better to keep moving.  The more reps we find in a day, the more attention we pay to the quality and shape of each rep (hence a coach to ensure quality is entrained) the more we learn the faster the better, the smarter. It's just the way it goes.

Caveat: This 7 point approach to "move more" and get to moving at LEAST 300 minutes a week is not  a "minimal effective dose"approach - or what we might call not the best we can do but the least we can get away with.  The goal here is not to move the least possible to have a benefit - but to move as MUCH as possible, as to move is wholly human.

Quite frankly, i don't know how one would decide what a "minimal effective dose" of movement is.  And why do we want to try to find the least we can get away with rather than the best we can do for ourselves and so be our best for ourselves and those in our lives? Sure we have limited time, but few of us have explored deliberately how we might optimise our opportunities to move. Why not give ourselves that chance to explore that potential?

Full Motion: Herman Cornejo executes a seeming impossible
double tours en l’air as part of David Michalek's slow dancing project.

To get in shape, we just need to move more and better as we go.
To move more, 
Prepare, plan, commit, do, learn. 

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