The one exercise practice I've maintained for a year

Wellthy adjective - characterized by focusing on good habits to make it easier to make healthy choices to have a balanced, healthy life that includes enjoying simple pleasures without guilt.

Years ago, I had the now-defunct Kinect with my XBOX. It was great fun to play with my girlfriend and friends. I was overweight, the least athletic of the bunch, yet I managed to win most of the time. They were puzzled and frustrated by this phenomenon. I credit my competitive nature and ability to game the system with years of experience playing video games.

Over the years, I have many failed attempts at regular exercise, working out, trying to lose weight/get in shape. I’ve tried personal trainers, gym memberships, working out at home with videos or guidance. I never kept up with any of it beyond the initial enthusiasm.

First of all, why is it that these incredibly fit trainers insist on pushing you to your limits in the very first session? Whatever happened to easing into things, just dipping a toe into the water before diving in? They might not think that doing ten push-ups is that hard, but tell that to someone who can barely do one!

The experience of working out is unpleasant to me. Yes, I know some people love it, and it’s a mindset thing, but man, it’s hard to change my mindset on this one. I don’t get that “runner’s high” people talk about. The rush I get at the end of working out is the relief that the torture is over. But actually, it’s not over. Next comes the soreness. So, let’s review. First, there’s torture. Then at some unspecified time after that, there’s soreness. It’s a double indignity! Nevertheless, I know that in order to be wellthy, I need a body that is working properly. There is no way around some type of physical activity.

When starting any new exercise routine, my number one priority is to avoid injury. This is especially important as I have gotten older and the body seems to be less forgiving.

My next priority is to avoid the routines I tried in the past that didn’t work. No more gym memberships, which was a prescient decision since the gyms were one of the first places to close down for COVID. Although that would have been a great excuse. “I was going to work out today but can’t because the gym is closed! Thanks a lot, COVID!”

The next priority is starting out easy. It’s like Tina Turner says at the beginning of the live version of Proud Mary:

“You see, we never do nothing nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough. So we’re going to take the beginning of this song and do it easy, then we’re going to do the finish rough.”

I don’t anything about a rough finish, but I’m in for a nice and easy beginning.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

As it happens, in October of 2019 a new studio called StretchLab opened near my house. It turns out, there are people called flexologists who are trained to provide customized, assistive stretching. 

Some of you may be thinking, “You mean you need to go someplace and pay money to stretch? Just stay home and watch yoga videos on YouTube!” You know what, I tried that. It turns out, I couldn’t even manage the “beginner” yoga poses. Yes, I could struggle stretching on my own, hoping that I’m following some proper technique. But I have learned that it is best to hire a professional when it comes to things outside my areas of expertise.

One of the techniques employed by the flexologist is called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF). I call it the ol’ push and pull (not to be confused with the ol’ in and out). The idea is that you stretch in one direction. Then you push in the opposite direction against pressure from the flexologist to allow for a deeper stretch. It works and would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by myself.

So what's so special about stretching? Among the many benefits are the following: 

  • improve sports performance

  • increase range of motion & flexibility

  • reduce muscle and joint pain

  • improve posture

  • improve relaxation and decrease stress

The last point is critical because I didn’t realize how much stress we store in our bodies. Here was my comment after my first session. “I think I stretched some muscles that haven't been stretched since the Clinton Administration. I felt better right away, and now a couple of hours later, I feel fantastic!  I look forward to continuing my weekly sessions.”

A little over two months after stretching for 50 minutes once a week, these were my thoughts.

I am happy to say that this activity is working. My flexibility has improved measurably. Before I started stretching, I could not sit on my knees and come back to touch my butt to my feet. Now I can do that. I could not bend down and touch my toes. Now I can. My arms and shoulders have a better range of motion. I am slowly undoing the damage that sitting for hours on end has done to me.

It's still work. If you imagine that I'm calmly lying down and getting stretched passively like a massage, think again. I don't work up a sweat, but I definitely work during the session with breathing exercises and resistance stretching. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable or bordering on painful, but that’s when I push myself to my limits.

What are my results? I decided to join the kiddies and create a Tik Tok video. Kids, don’t try this at home. Actually, nobody should try this at home because remember flexibility has been one of my superpowers from early on. Tik Tok stretch.

After six months of stretching, I felt I was limber enough to go to the next level with some strength training. I called this endeavor Project Strength. I wanted a program I could do at home, and I asked a fitness trainer to create a “beginner’s program for me.” I specifically said, “Imagine I have been in a coma for the last ten years, and I just came out of it. Create a program that you would have me use to get back into the groove.” She laughed, and I said I am not kidding.

The plan was to complete the following regimen three days a week.

  • Band bicep curls

  • Banded tricep extensions

  • Elastic band lat pulls

  • Lunges - alternating

  • Glute bridges

  • Kettlebell lunge row

  • Kettlebell goblet squat

  • Kettlebell rotations

  • Planks 30 second hold

Let me reiterate that I started this plan from a position of being entirely out of shape without the benefit of ever having been in shape. I have a job that keeps me in front of a computer for eight or ten or twelve hours a day. Yes, I had been regularly stretching, and that loosened me up; however, I was still very much a beginner when it comes to even moderate physical activity.

The morning after my first workout, I was feeling somewhat sore as expected. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and I thought to myself, "Boy, I remember it being a lot worse than this. I guess I started just right." I should have remembered Tina’s “rough finish.”

Fast forward to the second morning after my workout when I fell out of bed as I woke up in the morning. Someone had replaced my perfectly functional and pain-free legs with two wrecked limbs. A simple maneuver of standing up or sitting down felt like someone was jabbing my thighs with needles. It was terrible! I told my trainer about it, and she said, “Yep, totally normal. Make sure to keep moving and stretching.” Are you kidding?! The LAST thing I wanted to do was move or stretch. I was miserable. And by the way, based on the schedule, I was supposed to do workout #2. I powered through the second workout with mainly upper body and core exercises because my legs were having none of it. Thankfully, that was the worst of it. My second week went much better than my first week. I thought I was on a roll and then I hit a wall. I lasted four weeks working out three days a week before I burned out. I reached a point of burnout mentally and physically, and I declared that Project Strength was a failure. After reflecting on this experience, I concluded the following:

  • I started too aggressively. I asked my flex coach for a basic, total-body workout.  The problem is that her version of a basic workout was still too advanced for someone who has gone so long without much physical activity or training. 

  • I am someone who has 2-day delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The basic structure of a workout schedule allows for rest days in between workouts. My problem is that I'm prone to more soreness on the second day after a workout, which was supposed to be the day of the next work out. That type of schedule is not going to work for me.

  • I underestimated the effect of working 100% remotely. I was used to working remotely with travel breaks. A few months of working completely remotely (with the added bonus of a pandemic lockdown) affected me more than I thought it would. It’s not just the physical activity but also the state of mind that is crucial.

I find it interesting that I could sustain dietary changes much longer than a physical workout regimen. I lasted a full year on a stringent, medically-supervised ketogenic diet, and yet I couldn’t last more than four weeks with a “simple” workout routine.

The good news is that over the last year, through it all, I still maintained my weekly stretch appointments. I genuinely enjoy going to these sessions. While it’s not exactly my definition of fun, I believe in the benefits and the outcome.

I have a history of being an able-bodied yet least physically-active person. I mean, I take the gold medal in Couch Potato Olympics. Somehow, I found an activity that I have been able to maintain for a year. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

If you are not happy with your current level of physical activity, you can take steps to change that. I’m not saying the answer is to find a StretchLab or yoga studio, though I highly recommend stretching. Even if you failed to maintain an exercise routine in the past, don’t give up. Eventually, you will find the right activity that works for you. You will feel better, have more energy, and before you know it, you’ll be doing other physical activities without grumbling about it. After hearing me say I actually enjoy going to my stretch sessions, anyone who knows me would be knocked over with a feather.

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” —Henry Ford

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