Qi Meets Sweat

Watching my Friday morning Qi Gong students, I see them reach for the qi, eyes closed, bodies rocking slightly as they finish the session with Bamboo Sways In The Wind. Many stand but some, tired by the thirty minute session, sit, backs upright in their folding chairs. None had heard of Qi Gong before. None is younger than 75.
Some had tried the Senior Center Tai Chi class but found it too tiring, too strenuous, too demanding of arthritic hands, artificial knees, and spinal stenosis to continue. But in Qi Gong, they have found a combination of movement and stillness within their sometimes restricted reach. I may have to remind them to keep breathing deeply, nudge them away from trying to do more than they are comfortable with–it’s not easy to “relax” and “move like water” when you’ve done the opposite for seven decades–but after we finish, they laugh about being ready for a nap and there are always questions: Can you show us those acupressure points for headaches again? Is this why my granddaughters always want me to rub their feet? I don’t want to wear the back brace I bought so my posture improves so can Qi Gong help me do this on my own?
We don’t talk about religion or spirituality, but I gather from their comments that most are Christian and good churchgoers. They aren’t seeking an alternative to their monotheism, yet remain open to the idea of meditation and visualization. Not the “hippie transcendence seekers” of the 60’s, these are women who quite simply don’t want their necks to ache, who want to shop for groceries when they’re 80, who might wear sensible shoes but also rock their scarves and rings and joke about their next career as a runway model. While they follow their doctor’s orders, they’re ready to try other modalities. Health is health for them, whether the “fix what’s broken” mechanic’s approach of Western medicine to the “tend to the healthy” gardener’s view of Eastern.
While in Asia the traditions or Taoist and Qi healing go back thousands of years, from the Dao Yin of the Yellow Emporer to the bringing of Zen to China by Bodhidharma, becoming locked into the rigidity long tradition encourages, in America, lack of tradition engenders freedom of approach. My students don’t know The Eight Brocades or The Animal Frolics so aren’t insulted if I don’t teach them but would learn them happily, as well. In America, where we go to Yogalates, Spin Qi and other blended East/West workout classes, “pure” Qi Gong, with its emphasis of strength and suppleness, thousands of forms, and mix of healing, spiritual and martial arts styles steps naturally into our let’s-try-it-all culture. And for those who’ve avoided fitness because of their weight, their bad knees and backs, their lack of flexibility or balance, Qi Gong’s precept that one can and should only do what is comfortable, feels approachable in ways that Zumba, P90X or even Tai Chi doesn’t.
And seniors are not the only group that can benefit from and appreciate the teachings of Qi Gong. Stress-related doctor visits constitute the highest percentage of all appointments; insomnia has been linked to weight gain and high blood pressure; by 2030, statistics project 50% of all Americans will be overweight or obese, many suffering from metabolic syndrome. Qi Gong’s movement, mindfulness, and stress reduction with little space and no special clothing needed could be practiced in offices, homes, parks, even museums and churches, the ideal complement to Western medicine and an antidote to Western lifestyle.

Exercise du Jour–or Door–or Wall

Wall Squat w/ Bicep Curl   What a great day to just hang out against a wall.  Well, we can’t make it quite that easy. But this Squat with Bicep Curl is a dandy for hitting lots of muscles at once. And it’s not hard to learn.  Although getting the ball behind your back if you’re by yourself can be quite a trick. Ah, that’s why you should have a personal trainer!

OK, So stand with a stability ball wedged between your back and the wall. Grab a couple of dumbbells. No, wait, grab the dumbbells first–see how tricky this is getting. Once you’re wedged up there with the dumbbells in the “up” position of a bicep curl, you can start the actual exercise. Slowly go into a squat, pressing your back against the ball, feet a little in front of you to keep pressure off the knees. As you squat, lower the dumbbells, again slowly, using that eccentric power to control them.

Now, stand back up, curling the weights as you stand. Remember that as with any bicep curl, you keep your elbows tucked to your sides.  With your back leaning against the ball, you won’t have to worry about the “hip hinge” and knee position as you would a regular squat but if you do feel it in your knees, just move your feet forward a little more.

And, man, doesn’t it look like she has incredibly long legs! Not a picture of me, I’m afraid!

(And no, there really isn’t a video with this. But I’m going to do one. Promise. But you’ve all heard that one before.)

An App For Fat: Day 1

Step one at the four apps I’ve picked to check out is to see how much help they’ll give me in setting goals. If I don’t have a clue how many calories I should be downing or how much fat is too much (or too little), then what do I learn from listing my foods (ok, the four pints of Ben & Jerry’s might be obvious)? And how consistent are the numbers from app to app. So I went in to set up my personal information on each one. I chose to say I wanted to “maintain” weight (smirk) to avoid getting “diet” numbers.

Calorie Counter, which is allied with FatSecret and is one of the more popular apps on the iPhone and iPad, didn’t give me any recommendations. I was able to put in my height, weight, and age but I had to come up with goals on my own. It’s possible that syncing with the web site,  http://www.fatsecret.com, would have done more for me but I’m trying to stick strictly to the app versions.

I went to SparkPeople next. I’ve been to their web site before and found it massively confusing, with ads galore, and lots of flashing widgets and links. The app is much more cleanly laid out, although I could do without the inspirational “quote of the day.”  After putting in my stats, it recommended a broad calorie range for me, 1500-1850, calories. Rather mysteriously, it made comments about what kind of exercise was scheduled for the day, telling me that “No cardio is scheduled for today.” Too bad I hadn’t seen that before I did cardio, huh! And on the daily food page, it did give recommended–again in broad strokes–ranges for carbs, fat, and protein but didn’t explain that those numbers were for grams of each, not calories, which could be confusing: darn hard to eat only 33 calories of fat, no matter how “good” I’m being.

Next stop was Calorie 1.  I had to reset this once because it didn’t save my info from the first time I put it in.  When I did get the right stats in, I got a very specific calorie recommendation, 1687, but it took me some time to find the goals for other nutrients and somewhat strangely, I thought, it gave numbers for fat but not for carbohydrates or protein although there was room to enter that myself.

Livestrong and Calorie 1 must be using the same calorie formula (and I suspect Calorie 1 might have been an earlier version of Livestrong–too many similarities of style) because I was again, at Livestrong, given a very specific number: 1686. Somebody’s rounding down and somebody up, no doubt. And while this number is lower than what I get when I figure my own based on the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, both sites figure the difference between calories and net calories in their math, subtracting calories expended in exercise (but not in “activities of daily living”). I find this a bit dangerous, since computing calories burned is a tricky science. Nowhere does the Livestrong app mention fat, carbs, and protein but maybe once I start entering foods, that will pop up.

Not much to conclude from this, except that on first look, Calorie Smart doesn’t seem to give as much guidance as the other three, SparkPeople stays comfily vague, and Calorie 1 and Livestrong are perhaps too paternalistically prescriptive. Round one: no clear winner but I’m dumping Calorie 1 as being too much like Livestrong.

Shapes and Sizes

Not the Arboretum!

Hauled my skinny legs and Buddha belly out to the Arboretum today. I love walking through the trees before they get their leaves. That’s when you really see the architecture of the trunks and limbs: the long pillar of  the Pyramidale Maple next to the circle of the Globe Maple; the layered, old man bark of a Linden; the draping limbs of the Polish Larch with its dangling cone jewelry.

And the lack of leaves lets you notice the wildlife more easily, too. I spotted, darting delicately among the flowers of a newly blooming shrub, the tiniest bird–other than a hummingbird–I’ve ever seen, watching me watch her, yet not seeming particularly worried about me. And at the top of a large pine far away sat a silent giant of a bird just checking out the landscape–an eagle, I suspect from the white breast.

I loved every variation, from the achingly beautiful to the runty and rough. And what does this have to do with a blog on people, fitness, and appearance? I think you know.

There’s An App For Fat

Logging your meals and exercise can provide powerful motivation and keep your fitness plan on track–all the while giving you a way to annoy your friends with details of your daily diet. Long ago, in the dark ages, let’s say about 5 years or so back, you went out and bought a little notebook and carried it around with you, totting up the totals throughout the day while referring to another book that had fat and calorie counts in it.

But now, of course, such rigorous, tedious research and the accompanying writer’s cramp have been replaced by technology. Many websites exist just for this purpose but happily for those who can’t remember what they had for lunch once they get home for dinner, there are plenty of mobile apps that let you enter as you eat. But which ones really work? Which make it easy for you to track diet and exercise and which are a pain in the Blackberry? And how well do they agree on their suggestions, like how many calories a day you should eat and how many did you burn off on that lengthy hike into Krispy Kreme from your car?

I’m going to try out a few and over the next few weeks, report what I’ve found. To get started, I narrowed my choices down to four iPad apps that ranked toward the top in popularity:

Livestrong (related to the megafitness-empire Lance Armstrong backs)


Calorie Counter

SparkPeople (connected to the website of the same name)

I had another that I was going to check out called “Carb Lover’s Diet”–put out by Women’s Health–but discovered before I could even get started that unless you eat the recipes they supply or the “approved” foods, it’s too unwieldy; you’d have to enter every food and its nutrients by hand. And it’s a shill for the food industry, as well.

So, here I go, into the land of exercising my flying thumbs! Suggestions welcome!