Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The No Sweat Workout

[Again, this is one from the files, though still relevant. Because my jobs have changed, my habits have had to change and I need to get back to this. I love that since having written this, without causing it in any way, Yoga has really taken off in this country. Flexibility is great stuff.]

The No Sweat Workout by Larry Brow 4/25/2002

Five years ago I happened to notice a small pair of dumbbells in the darkroom where I worked. They were unlabelled, but seemed to be about seven pounds apiece. Alone, I figured, “Why not?” and stopped in my work routine to do some curls. Being so light, they put no strain on my joints and I did forty repetitions before stopping. I hadn’t used much time and, what’s more important, I hadn’t even started to work up a sweat. As you can imagine, my co-workers would not have enjoyed seeing me stumbling out of the darkroom exhausted and sweating.

Now I’ve been to gyms. I’ve seen the buff gods pumping away, streaming with sweat. I’ve even done my own sad imitations of them. But you need a regular routine, away from your workday, to truly enjoy the benefits of such a lifestyle. Away from work, I’m too busy, too lazy, too cheap.

On the other hand, I’m in my forties. I don’t much mind growing old, but I do not want to spend the coming decades being frail. So, I started studying weightlifting (from over here, mind) and I got interested in “high repetitions.” This is where you lift lighter weights, yes, sissy weights, but for many more repetitions than you would your personal maximum. You still strengthen your muscles, but you also strengthen your joints and without putting the dangerous strains on them that heavier weights invariably create. I went back to the little weights in the darkroom.

Soon, aside from my improved number of reps, I noticed that my total on Mondays was often higher than my maximums the rest of the week. The rest my muscles got over the weekend was improving that Monday performance. Keep in mind, in my own ignorant way I was still only doing curls, that being the only exercise I knew how to do with proper form. So I watched more television fitness shows and picked up a few other lifts to do on those other weekdays, exercising different muscle groups, trying to use proper form for maximum safety and results.

Monday became arms, Tuesday shoulders, Wednesday legs, and Thursdays abs. If I missed a day I might make it up the next or just let it slide a week. But each week I’d start again just trying to do as well as last week or maybe another five or ten reps better.

And I did improve. I found that one hundred reps were as much as I had time for, so I had to invest in my own pair of weights, now ten pounders. My number of reps dropped accordingly. Years later I’m now using fifteen pounders. It seems like such a little thing to do, but the results speak for themselves. What was once forty reps with seven pound weights is now eighty reps with fifteen pound weights.

This may not be something you can do working in a cubicle or in a public space. Our business cultures do not yet include the institutional breaks for exercise and stretching that the Japanese employ. You may have to make this part of a pre-shower routine at home. But it’s worth a try.

I suggest doing what you can to stretch and remain limber as well. I think that a lot of the frailty that we associate with aging is actually the stiffness that comes from a reduced range of motion. Spend more time on the carpet and less in the recliner. Yoga is great for this.

Five basic tips:
First, use light weights and good form. If you can’t do ten or twenty reps get lighter weights until you can. Once you can routinely do one hundred reps it’s time to get the next heavier weights.
Second, no sweating. Sure, you could, but not at work, and if you’re doing this at home the no sweating rule will keep you from overdoing it. This is just a cute little fitness thing to do, nobody is trying to turn you into a bodybuilder or athlete, and nobody is watching.*
Third, this is about strength and muscle tone, NOT cardio-vascular fitness. The exercise that improves the fitness of your heart and lungs WILL cause you to sweat and WILL require more than a couple of minutes a day. Know what you’re trying to achieve.
Fourth, give yourself time to recover by making this a workday routine and moving each day to a different set of muscles. Aging bodies need more time to heal and re-build.
And Fifth, be patient. No illusions, this will take time and though the mirror will eventually show you the improvements, for weeks you will have to please yourself just by improving your repetition totals. Nothing more. It was just a break in your workday. Back to work now.

*If you are already frail, certainly your doctor should know that you are doing this. That doctor should approve. Also, for some activities, like cleaning roof gutters and old age weightlifting, you should always have a “911 person.” Someone to correctly interpret the sound of you falling and make the phone call.

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