Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan


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Tamed by a cable snap

IMG_0393Humans plan, G-d laughs. There are many times when I’m working out, that I’m struck by how many analogies may be made between exercise and life in general.

Last weekend, as part of our Pan Mass Challenge training, we started to do rides of 35 miles or more.  We set off for a 42 mile trek on Saturday morning, as the skies turned blue, temperatures were in the perfect riding range of the low 60s, and all was well with the world.

The first 21 miles to Carlisle went smoothly with some nice climbs and great scenery as we rode through rolling farmland and wooded areas. Four of the guys had to turn back, so I continued on with three others from our group. As I mounted my bike for the more downhill ride back, I noticed that my back derailleur wasn’t shifting. The average distance cyclist who owns a racing or road bike has anywhere from 18 to 27 gears. Mine has 22, with a small and large ring in the front, and 11 rings of widely varying resistance in the back. I realized that my shifter had broken, rendering my back gear stuck in the one I was using when the cable snapped. Thankfully, it was in a middle gear, which allowed me to pedal through the flats efficiently, but not the uphills or the downhills.

The result was an imposed leisurely ride, just at a time when I’m trying to increase my speed. I realized that pedaling while going downhill had no effect, since there was no resistance to help me up the next hill or power through the next flat. I had to coast down hills, and start the intense pedaling every time I hit even a slight uphill. I wasn’t able to keep up with our normal speeds of 16-17 miles/hour in a group, but the guys kept slowing down for me,  allowing me to catch up.  After about 2 miles, I told them to go on ahead and not wait for me. I’m sure they were relieved, and so was I. They made sure I didn’t mind cycling alone, which is something I actually enjoy.

The ride back of 21 miles from Carlisle to Newton took an additional 20-25 minutes, which isn’t too much. I thought it would be much more.

Lessons learned? Plenty:

  • Initially the thought of riding in one gear for 21 miles made me wonder just how I would manage it, and seemed like a very big task. After I finished, I realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated.
  • It was a nice change to coast down hills and not think about timing and speed- very pleasurable!
  • I had a chance to appreciate the great scenery as I was going much slower.  I didn’t have to watch the bike’s wheel in front of me like a hawk to avoid colliding into my fellow riders.
  • The pride I feel when keeping up with my fellow riders had to be put on hold as I knew my speed was insufficient to ride with them, and I felt relieved to have them go ahead. I’m a little annoyed that I still have that ego need-  I’d like to be done with that!
  • It’s easy to get frustrated or angry about your failed equipment or any other things over which you have no control, but it doesn’t change the situation.
  • What truly matters is not the situation, but just your reaction to the situation.

Some people say that people or pets are put into your life for a reason, but I think hobbies and avocations are as well. My bike continues to teach me important lessons about patience, ceding control and being content with what is, not what should or could be.

Post-script– The next day, I used my back-up bike as I prepared to ride in the Berkshires. My back brake jammed, and the gears were grinding. Both my bikes had to go to the bike hospital at once! More lessons learned- we hiked instead!

Humans plan, G-d laughs, but with some humility and acceptance, we can learn to laugh too.


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Simple Exercises for Maintaining Mobility, Balance and Strength

As we age, many changes occur throughout the musculoskeletal system. We may experience feelings of stiffness, loss of speed and balance when we walk. There may be a higher frequency of aches and pains as we go about normal activities such as shopping, driving, and even getting out of bed in the morning. Most of these changes can be traced back to a loss of elasticity in our muscles and a corresponding shortening of the muscle bellies themselves. This, in turn, causes increased compression of our joints, and loss of range of motion.

How do we slow down or stop this process from occurring?

Great question!  The best way to retard and even stop these changes is to practice a few mobility and balance exercises each day. Below, I ‘ll share four exercises that can be done in a matter of minutes when you get up in the morning, or at any time during the day.

We will start by focusing on the upper back (thoracic spine) which often develops into a “hunched” posture due to muscles in our chest that shorten and pull our shoulders forward, and lengthening of the muscles that attach to our shoulder blades that should hold our shoulders in a more neutral position.

Open Book Exercise: Lay on your side with your head resting on a pillow, and knees slightly bent. Put hands together, and then, while keeping your hips perpendicular to the floor or bed, slide your top arm across your bottom arm and over your body to lay flat on the other side. Your head should slowly follow the trajectory of your top arm along the pillow, and you should feel a nice light stretch in your upper back. This is great to do before you get out of bed in the morning.

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Snow Angels standing or lying on your back: The goal is to bring your arms from your sides to your ears without arching your back. When you start, you’ll find it difficult to get above even 90 degrees, but this will improve with time and practice – I promise! This one should also bring you back to those snowy days as a kid when your arms had no problem completing this range of motion.

Image result for supine snow angels Image result for standing snow angels

 

Let’s move down to the hips.  The hips have an outsized role in determining our stride length when walking, and motion distribution through our whole body. If our hips lose flexibility and motion, this may cause increased stress on our lower backs or knees, which can lead to injury.

Supine Hip Flexor stretch: Here’s another great one to do before getting out of bed in the morning.  Lying on your back, hug one knee to your chest while gently letting the other leg lower over the side of the bed to the ground. Make sure you don’t feel any tension in your lower back (and if you do, stop the stretch). You should feel a gentle stretch in the front of your hip and thigh. Hold this position for at the minimum of 20 seconds.  It is a common misconception that stretching for 5-10 seconds does the trick, but in reality, it not enough to make a noticeable difference.

Image result for supine hip flexor stretch

Quadruped to Child’s Pose: I know many, if not all of you, know child’s pose as a static stretch, but moving from a position of all fours back into child’s pose about 10-20 times in a row will help make sure your hips stay a bit more mobile, and it’s a great way to ensure that motion isn’t occurring through the low back.

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Single leg deadlift to wall or chair: This is one of my all-time favorite exercises for mobility, balance, ankle strength and hip strength. It is quite difficult at first and requires mastery of a single leg balance, but once again will improve dramatically over time-  just have faith!  Start one foot away from the wall, stand on one leg, and slowly lean forward bending at the hips to touch the wall. Repeat 5-8 times on each leg. The image below is a more advanced version of this exercise and can be a progression once you can safely touch the wall without losing balance.

Image result for Single leg deadlift to wall

 

Beyond these four exercises are a wealth of others that can help maintain mobility and strength.  If you can start doing these every day, I can assure you that you’ll be walking faster, feeling more confident in daily activities, and decreasing some of the stiffness we all feel as we age.  So get to it, and add these exercises to your daily regimen to feel your best!

 

 


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Exercising in the great outdoors

Finally, the weather is breaking, and spring is upon us!  With temps in the 50, 60s and 70s, it’s much more enticing to exercise outside. When it comes to exercising, are there benefits to being outside vs. inside? Read on!

Hearing birds sing and seeing the calming colors of green vegetation and blue skies has been shown to have a stress reducing effect.  Walking, running or any type of playing outside creates muscle confusion, because you must constantly adjust to uneven surfaces. Your brain has to be on high alert,  which is good for your coordination, balance and neuron stimulation. If you live in New England, you’re all too familiar with potholes, uneven sidewalks, and various other obstacles that make you continually adjust to varied weather and surroundings.

When biking, walking or running, additional resistance comes from wind, even when it’s only a light breeze.  Fresh air causes you to naturally breathe more deeply.  Essential vitamin D, which is hard to produce from your body alone, comes from the sun, and it does not have to be a sunny day to absorb the needed amount. While much debate exists around the guidelines, some researchers suggest that five to 30 minutes of sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at least twice a week is sufficient for vitamin D synthesis.  Sunscreen with an SPF of over 8 blocks the rays, but this needs to calibrated against the safety of protecting your skin, especially if you’ve had pre-cancerous marks removed, or have a family history of any type of skin cancer. Alternatively, you could apply sunscreen after 15-20 minutes in the sun, and know  that you’re getting enough vitamin D.  Exposure of your face, arms and legs is advised to get the needed requirement.  As you know, vitamin D boosts your immune system and helps you absorb calcium better, which strengthens your bones.

Another good reason to exercise outdoors is to disconnect from devices and screens. Many people watch TV, or use a device to stave off the monotony when using cardio machines indoors.  When outdoors, it’s easier to lose track of time, and be more in the moment, because the  the environment is more enjoyable. You may find yourself staying outside longer because it’s so pleasant.

The variety in an outdoor environment is also more stimulating with the changing seasons, which prevents boredom with the same old scene.  Another less obvious benefit is that when we engage with the outdoors, we gain a better appreciation of nature, and thus become better stewards of the land. Conservation efforts are often lead by the very same people who derive great satisfaction from enjoying the outdoors in its many forms- forests, mountains, oceans, lakes and even parks all confer many benefits to people from all walks of life.

However, there are benefits to a controlled environment, which is found more often indoors. Gyms and studios have predictable classes, machines, and variety of equipment, which may help you get a complete workout. Many people find it more difficult to do the essential resistance training with weights without dumbbells,  kettlebells, and weight machines, which are typical fixtures in gyms.

You can get resistance training outdoors by using body weight, tubing with handles that you can use around trees or railings, or doing cardio on stadium seating at parks and soccer fields. For more ideas on how to get a good workout outdoors with no equipment, go to  https://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/10-new-outdoor-workout-ideas

If you want the best of both worlds, you may want to try an exercise class outdoors with an instructor, so you have proper sequencing, socialization, effective cuing and fresh air. Reduction of stress, engagement with nature, and an improved mental state have all been shown as benefits of outdoor exercise. To read more about these benefits, go to https://extremephysiolmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2046-7648-2-3 

It’s essential to include cardio, flexibility (stretching and rolling) , resistance (weight training),  balance and core training in any exercise regimen. All of these can be done inside or outside, with the right motivation and creativity.   The most important thing is that you MOVE, and reap the myriad benefits of being active.

So here’s to spring and enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer!

 

 

 


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How to eat right in a nutshell (or a peapod)

Even though the weather betrays the season, now is a great time to get back on the wagon of eating healthily. There’s so much information and misinformation out there about what you should be eating and what you should NOT be eating.   The benefits of fasting, (intermittent or otherwise), eating low-carb, paleo, gluten-free, vegan, – you name it, there’s a book about it, and the author will say it’s revolutionary!  

I hate to sound so boring about the true facts, but as usual the answers lie largely in moderation. Moderating portion size, moderating the amount of meat, moderating or reducing sugar intake, and emphasizing whole foods still are the best ways to keep weight down and keep your digestive tract healthy.

I thought this article was useful in summing up some of the most current misconceptions about what should be inherently simple for us- eating the best foods for our digestive systems, optimal weight management, and longevity.

http://www.grubstreet.com/2018/03/ultimate-conversation-on-healthy-eating-and-nutrition.html

Most of you know by now that processed foods are often robbed of their natural fiber and hydration properties, which makes them less nutritious. Processed foods also tend to have added ingredients like sugar and salt to make them tastier, and stabilizers and preservatives to extend their shelf life. Recent studies have shown that the soft drinks,  junk food, and even foods perceived as healthy like yogurt, granola and energy bars have used misleading advertising to entice people who want to eat well. More and more research is confirming the addictive properties of sugar and corn based foods which cause us to crave more of the same stuff.

Recent studies have also shown that artificial sugars, even those deemed more healthy than known villains like high fructose corn syrup, or saccharin, can wreak havoc on your gut, which is now understood to play an essential role in your immune system.

Artificial sweeteners also are sweeter than real sugar, maple syrup or honey, so it conditions you to crave sweeter and sweeter foods. Naturally occurring sugars such as those contained in fruits and vegetables are fine in moderation, as long as you don’t have problems with insulin resistance.

In this excellent article about diet soda, the author cites several studies that demonstrate how artificial sweeteners, thickeners and emulsifiers present a danger to our natural gut microbiome, which is the collection of essential and varied bacteria that our digestive systems contains.

To summarize the main points of the “what to eat” article:

  • Eating mostly plants, including vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, fruits, is still considered one of the healthiest diets. The Mediterranean diet hews close to this philosophy.
  • Whole grains, while identified as carbohydrates, are important for fiber intake, B vitamins and keeping your elimination regular and your intestines healthy.
  • Carbohydrates, shouldn’t be seen as “bad”.  Carbs include fruits, vegetables, beans and other healthy foods. The carbs to avoid are overly processed foods like crackers, and any packaged, prepared foods with a long list of ingredients, many of which you may not be able to decipher.
  • Fats are perfectly fine to ingest in moderation, especially naturally occurring healthy fats like walnuts, cashews, avocados, and olive oil.
  • If you substantially reduce your food intake to lose weight, you will slow down your metabolism, and over time, your body will adjust by maintaining your weight in spite of lower caloric intake, because it thinks you’re adjusting to a food shortage. You can maintain proper metabolic rates by increasing muscle mass through weight training and cardio exercise while consuming fewer calories from processed foods to lose weight steadily and slowly.
  • Animal protein is OK to consume if it’s locally sourced, has no added antibiotics or hormones to its feed, and is grass instead of grain-fed. Red meat should be eaten in moderation, ideally no more than twice a month. Fish is fine as long you limit your consumption of larger fish that are higher up in the food chain,  because of concerns of high mercury levels. Tuna and swordfish would fall into this category while smaller white fish like sole, cod and haddock contain negligible amounts of mercury,  especially when locally sourced.
  • Sugar is the new “villain” when trying to eat healthily. Most processed foods have added sugar and salt, and even unlikely culprits have added sugar for taste. Salad dressings, tomato sauce, condiments, and salty snacks all have added sugar. Most foods, including desserts with high sugar content can be addictive, and offer no nutritional value. We all know this, but what are good alternatives?  For those of us with a sweet tooth, (speaking from first hand experience), eating mango, pineapple or strawberries to get your sugar fix can be surprisingly satisfying. If you love chocolate, a few squares of dark chocolate will not come back to bite you, and it also contains anti-oxidants.
  • Cleanses that involve fasting and drinking smoothies will help initially with weight loss, and are often a good way to kick start a new way of eating. In other words, unless you plan to change the way you’re eating after the cleanse or smoothies, the weight will return, and no lasting benefit will come from it. Protein shakes are a fine substitute for a meal, along with fruit and yogurt smoothies, but if you go back to typical eating afterwards, you can expect to gain the weight back. Many people are successful in maintaining weight loss by drinking a nutrition packed smoothie with greens, fruit and and/or protein powder and use it as a satisfying meal substitute, for one or two meals a day, while avoiding feeling hungry or deprived.
  • Processed and cured meats have been shown to have a definite link to cancer when eaten frequently; red meat has been shown to have a probable link when eaten frequently.  Limit eating red meat to once or twice a month, and processed meats to very infrequently.
  • Flash frozen vegetables may be higher in nutrients than fresh vegetables, because if frozen immediately, they maintain most of their vitamins and minerals. If we buy locally sourced, recently picked produce, that is best.   Often when we buy in a supermarket, produce has been stored and shipped for weeks and may have lost much of its nutritional value because of the amount of time between harvest and consumption.
  • Dairy and eggs are also fine in moderation if you don’t have allergies to them, and can provide excellent sources of protein. Be aware that many types of cheese are very high in calories and sodium, so moderation is key.
  • Only about 1 % of the population has true celiac disease, which is a full-blown allergy to gluten, but about 10% are gluten sensitive. There’s a whole other subset of people who feel better when they don’t eat much gluten, and by now you likely know where you fall. Again, a one-size-fits-all approach to eating gluten doesn’t work.

There is a lot of additional, useful information in this article. Eating a diet composed of primarily fresh vegetables, fruit, seeds, legumes, seafood, some poultry and minimal meat is best. Limiting added sugars, salt, and preservatives is important for maintaining optimal insulin levels, good gut microbiotica, and a nearly ideal weight. Exercising, sleeping, keeping stress levels low, and limiting alcohol are good ways to keep your natural detoxifying organs like liver and kidneys healthy, and your stress hormones and weight at the right level. So go ahead, enjoy some of your favorite foods (in moderation) and focus on all the great whole foods that are readily available and will bring us healthily into our golden years!

 


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Corrective Exercise and Posture, Part II How to keep your spine healthy

In the last blog post, we looked at how habits, posture, and alignment influence how our body feels from one day to the next. Many studies have shown that the way we hold our bodies determines if and where we feel pain.

When discussing posture, it’s essential to understand how our spine works. Our intervertebral discs, located between the bones (vertebrae) of our spine, are made up of a tough outer fibrous layer surrounding a gel-like fluid in its center. They serve as cushioning to reduce impact during jumping, walking, running, dancing, twisting, pushing, pulling, and other activities that compress our spine in a multitude of ways.

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There are 23 discs in the human spine: 6 in the neck (cervical region); 12 in the middle back (thoracic region); and 5 in the lower back (lumbar region). For example, the disc between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae is designated “C5-6”. Our lumbar spine is one of most common areas to have disc problems, as the thicker vertebrae in our lower back absorb larger amounts of pressure from activities of daily living.

The graphic below examines the pressure we put on our spines in various positions.

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This is not to say that we shouldn’t assume the positions that put more pressure on our discs. But, it does emphasize the importance of maintaining good alignment and strengthening the muscles that support our vertebrae to ensure that we minimize strain.

So, what can be done to maintain spine health? If you practice the following strategies regularly, you’ll help your back deal with most of the pressures of daily life.

  1. Exercise regularly.  The increased blood flow provides oxygenation and nutrients to the tissues, and although discs don’t have their own blood flow, essential nutrients are absorbed through osmosis to the gel within the discs. Movement puts healthy stress on the surrounding muscles, which enhances their strength, as well as causing bone deposition to keep bone density at an appropriate level.  Swimming has been shown to have an especially beneficial effect for people with back problems, because the downward pressure of gravity is eliminated, and back extension is a natural part of this activity.
  2. Stay well hydrated.  Because the discs are composed of fluid, it’s essential to consume enough liquid to support their composition. You should drink half your body weight in ounces daily to maintain proper hydration. For example, if you weigh 130 pounds, you should drink 65 ounces of liquids a day. This includes water and tea, but not alcohol or coffee.
  3. Use good form when exercising to minimize negative effects on your spine. Knowing proper alignment will help keep you stay safe while performing tasks that require increased strength or flexibility.
  4. Get massages to increase circulation and break up adhesions (knots in muscles or fascia) that prevent optimal alignment and equal distribution of forces. Finally, you  have a medical reason why you should indulge in regularly-scheduled massages!
  5. Get into a consistent walking routine.  Regular walking produces moderate forces on your spine and improves circulation, while maintaining flexibility.  If you do interval walking, you’ll have the added benefit of improving your cardiovascular ability while increasing endurance.  If you have active low back issues, hills may increase pain. Walk on level, cushioned surfaces, like dirt or a rubberized track, to reduce impact and help keep your pain at a minimum.
  6. Eat well and try to stay within 10 pounds of your ideal weight. No news here! The same eating habits that are recommended for a variety of health issues apply. A diet composed of mostly vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains is important, with 2 caveats: increase calcium intake by consuming foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese and get enough protein through lean meats, fish, poultry, and legumes to help support bone and muscle integrity.
  7. Evaluate your sleeping position.  Having the right pillow to support the natural cervical curve on our necks can make a huge difference. How many of you have slept in a different bed and had neck problems the next day because the mattress and pillow were not what you were used to? A thicker pillow for side sleepers and a flatter pillow for back sleepers make sense to support the spine’s natural curves. Belly sleeping, while comfortable for a short while, is bad for necks because we have to sustain an unnatural position for a long period of time for which our neck structure is not designed.

Once again, we return to the basic concept of  how we hold ourselves during waking and sleeping hours.  What are our typical postures, and how do they interfere with our ideal alignment? A mirror, an experienced observer, or a trained health practitioner can help you determine what needs modification to improve your everyday patterns. If you follow the suggestions above, you’ll maximize your chances to take on whatever life throws your way!

 

 

 


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Corrective exercise to reduce tightness and pain, Part I

In the never-ending search for one of the holy grails of successful aging, exercise is an obvious answer. But we need to break down this answer into multiple components, to analyze the specific changes that will make a real difference.

Last weekend, I had the chance to go to a Corrective Exercise workshop that delved into this very issue. Dr. Evan Osar, a massage therapist and chiropractor, created the Institute for Integrative Health and Fitness education. The conference focused on how to help people learn the appropriate techniques for dealing with common aches and pains that  have mysterious sources.  Dr. Osar discussed how these problems arise mainly from misalignment, improper breathing and poor activation of core muscles.

I’ll distill a massive amount of information into 2 blog posts in an attempt to let you in on some useful techniques. I’ll also be incorporating them into my group exercise and individual sessions because I really believe they can make a difference in how your body feels.

One of the basic tenets is that most pain comes from poor habits cultivated over your lifetime. These poor habits manifest themselves in inefficient posture, limited range of joint motion, and difficulty activating the deeper postural muscles. This results in  overuse of more superficial muscles, causing tightness that leads to pain.  For example, when we underutilize the power of our diaphragm for breathing, we compensate by using muscles of our chest and neck to make up for insufficient oxygen intake caused by shallow breathing. This, in turn, causes neck and shoulder tightness and pain.

Three major principles, your A, B, and C will help guide you to change these sub-optimal tension-inducing habits:

  • Alignment – Analyzing and correcting the alignment of of our thoracopelvic cylinder- (ribcage and thoracic spine, T1-T12) , although our neck alignment is also included.  Our head, thorax and pelvis should be aligned over our feet, without excessive posterior pelvic tilt, which is typical sitting posture and hunched standing posture.  The last one in the image below is the one we’re aiming for, neutral pelvic position.

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  • Breathing- learning how to use all part of our lungs, inflating with the correct muscles to avoid compensating and fatiguing our auxiliary muscles.

download-4.jpgOne of the best videos I found on the explaining diaphragmatic breathing is a yoga video that you can view here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd78W66mA2U   

Another useful video for breathing instruction is here- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BA-IXbP0_Y

Control- learning how to activate the deeper muscles, and relax the more superficial muscles to do the basic activities of life: squatting, lunging, bending, rotating, pushing, pulling, gait, balance and carrying. These techniques take time and attention to body position, feedback from muscle groups, and proper cuing to know when you are doing them properly.

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primal-movement-patterns-7.jpgNote the neutral spine, (flat back, slight anterior pelvic tilt) with all movements

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The place you’re likely to have chronic pain is the place that you are “gripping” or overusing the muscles.  Stretching and rolling those muscles can help, and breathing deeply while stretching will improve your stretch’s efficacy. You can also do an active release technique, which involves contracting a muscle against a strap or wall, then releasing and gently trying to increase your range of motion of the joint after releasing. I’ll review these techniques in class and in individual sessions.

Give the breathing videos a try, as breathing is one of the first steps you can take to improve the health of your muscles, alignment and overall oxygenation. Well, there you have it- just a snippet from a weekend of useful tips and techniques that I’ll be going over when I see you next!

 

 


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Taking a page from Pita Taufatofua, Akwasi Frimpong and other Olympic athletes

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How do I get to Carnegie Hall?  This old joke’s answer, “Practice, practice, practice”!  certainly applies when it comes to Olympian performances. Time and again, I hear people say “How did s/he do that?” when the only answer is thousands of hours of practice. There are some outliers, like Pita Taufatofua, who began practicing his sport 3 months before competing, and Akwasi Frimpong, who began practicing skeleton just 2 years before his first Olympics.  Pita is the well-oiled single participant from the nation of Tonga, a Pacific island near Fiji. He participated in his first Olympics in Tae Kwon Do in 2016 in Rio.  For his new sport of cross-country skiing,  he practiced on roller skis, studied countless youtube videos on how to cross-country ski and took many falls on pavement and sand when trying to learning this sport in his native country.  He began to train in Germany just 3 months ago on actual snow for the first time after qualifying for the 15k cross-country ski event.  At 34, he is quite an example of using his mind over matter and not letting the simple fact that his tropical home has no snow, stop him in his pursuit. He stated his goal was not to medal, but ” First step, finish before they turn the lights off, and don’t ski into a tree, that’s No. 2.”   He actually finished in 114th place, but beat 4 other competitors, although the gold medalist was 23 minutes ahead of him.

His reasons for doing it were to try a new sport, even if conditions are less than ideal,  challenge himself, and to inspire others from South Pacific nations to compete in the Winter Olympics. He is not afraid to fail. He considers failure an important way to measure stretching himself to new heights. Pita also has a goal to compete in the 2020 Olympics, and says he may train for swimming which would be more accessible to him at home.

Akwasi Frimpong, 32, was once a promising track athlete in the Netherlands who immigrated there illegally from Ghana as a child and represents that country.  He’s been through a lot of adversity due to his immigration status, but that only increased his motivation to try to be an Olympic contender. He began training on the skeleton and after practicing on this pared down, super fast sled for only 2 years, his dream of qualifying for the Olympics came true.  Akwasi states that with determination, resilience and self-discipline, you can accomplish anything. His victory dance (after he placed last) went viral, and he competes to inspire others, especially those with African roots,  to do what initially seems impossible.

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The vast majority of the rest of the Olympian athletes have more typical stories. As the men, women, boys and girls from countries around the world flip, slide, pirouette, fly through the air, somersault, (aim and sweep when it came to curling) and in general defy gravity on all kinds of slippery surfaces, it’s easy to think of their feats as superhuman. But, after hearing their stories and seeing pictures of them as tots diving and flipping off their sofas, and barely filling out their skis, we all know that the lion’s share of them began very early, and haven’t stopped practicing since.

If you practice something every day for several hours leading up to a performance, I guarantee that you’d do a stupendous or at least an excellent job at it. OK, maybe excluding back-flipping on a halfpipe!

download-3.jpgHow many hours does it take to be considered an expert at something?  The platitude that it takes 10,000 hours or 6-10 years to become an expert is too general a parameter. Research has shown that it takes deliberate steps, planning and coaching to really become outstanding. Consider how different each of us is when acquiring different skills, and you can see it’s not easy to extrapolate how long it will take to become professional at anything. However, some basic steps will get you much closer to your goal, and these ideas are worth considering when trying to improve at most things.

For example, if you want to improve your ability to remain in a plank position, and you do it every day, you can expect to see a gradual but predictable increase in your ability to hold yourself in the proper position, thus strengthening your abdominals and back. If you want to get stronger, and you decide you will lift weights consistently for 3-4 times a week, you will see an improvement in strength. If you want to get better at remembering names, you can practice encoding and using mnemonic devices very consciously and that, too will improve. Many times, we just aren’t attending to the situation at hand; our minds are wandering to the next thing we have to do, or place we have to go.

Back to how you can make the discipline of practice work for you. If you had to define your own personal “Olympic” goal, what would it be? It could range from walking every day for 6 months of the year to cycling, indoor or out, for a certain length of time. Or, it could be doing the plank daily, or making sure you practice balancing on one foot each day. Whatever it is, with attention and practice, you are sure to improve in your chosen discipline if you keep at it in a consistent, organized way.

Here are some tips for eliminating obstacles and reaching your goals:

  • Identify obstacles that prevent you from practicing. Is the activity accessible? If the gym is too far, or the equipment too expensive or unwieldy, it will impede you.
  • Is the activity enjoyable? I heard so many Olympians speak of the sheer love of  their sport, which kept them looking forward to daily practice.
  • Is the goal something you know is worthwhile and will give you a return on your investment of money and time? If walking, running, biking or taking some type of exercise class or training on a consistent basis will allow you to take an eagerly awaited trip that involves endurance and a certain level of fitness, then it’s worth it.
  • Do you have a cheerleader who can help you attain your goals? Most of us do better when we have support, encouragement, and some type of coach or friend who keeps us accountable.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Better to try, and not reach your goal, as long as you begin and make progress. The process is just as important as the final product.
  • Think of the role model you can be for others who may want to try something but need someone to inspire them. Many people will observe what you’re attempting, and it may help motivate them to reach their goals.

With about a week left of the Olympics and several athletes to watch, it’s a great time to get inspired about moving, embracing the cold, and seeing how you can stretch yourself. You don’t have to qualify for the Olympics to feel fulfilled about meeting your goals, no matter what form they take.

So think like an Olympian, find something you love to do, practice consistently, get a good coach or cheerleader and keep at it! Be like Pita- don’t be afraid to fail,  try something new, and feel good about just getting out there and finishing! Or think like Akwasi and let your resilience and determination lead the way!