fitness

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If You Build A Crew Program For Overweight Kids, They Will Row — And Get Fitter

There was no comfortable place for 17-year-old Alexus Burkett in her school’s typical sports program of soccer and lacrosse and basketball.

“They don’t let heavyset girls in,” she says.

Alexus was “bullied so bad about her weight,” says her mother, Angelica Dyer, “and there was no gym that would take her when she was 14, 15 years old. There was no outlet.”

But Alexus has found a sports home that is helping her bloom as an athlete: an innovative program called “OWL On The Water” that offers rowing on the Charles River specifically for kids with weight issues.

She has lost more than 50 pounds over half a year, but more importantly, says her mother, “They’ve given me my daughter’s smile back.”

Alexus Dwyer during warm-ups before instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Alexus Burkett stretches during warm-ups before “OWL On The Water” instruction time. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It’s given me a lot of good strength and it’s making me more outgoing,” Alexus says. “We’re all best friends and we’re all suffering with the same problem — weight loss — so we’re more inspiring each other than we are competing against each other.”

OWL On The Water offers a small solution to a major national problem: According to the latest numbers, 23 million American kids are overweight or obese, and only about one quarter of 12-to-15-year-olds get the recommended one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Heavier kids are even less likely to be active, and only about one-fifth of obese teens get the exercise they need, the CDC finds.

“I know I need to be active, but please don’t make me play school sports!” That’s what exercise physiologist Sarah Picard often hears from her young clients at the OWL — Optimal Weight for Life — program at Boston Children’s Hospital that sponsors OWL On The Water.

Many gym classes still involve picking teams, “and my patients are the ones that are always picked last,” she says. “You’re the biggest one, you’re the last one, you’re picked last, and you’re uncomfortable.”

They are strong, powerful people.
– Sarah Picard

School fitness testing is important, Picard says, but it, too, can be an ordeal: “I have kids who sit in my office and tell me that they didn’t go to school for a week because they wanted to miss the fitness testing,” she says.

While many a coach might see bigger bodies as poorly suited to typical team sports, Picard sees them as having different strengths. Particularly muscular strength.

“What I’ve observed is that these kids are much better at strength and power-based activities,” she says. And rowing is particularly good for them, she says, because though it is strenuous, it is not weight-bearing, and thus more comfortable for heavier bodies — yet a heavier, strong body can pull an oar much harder than a smaller person’s body. The program begins by building on that muscular strength, she says, and then works on aerobic fitness. Continue reading

Project Louise: Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Zombie Workout

Yes, I promised that my next post would be an interview with a stress expert. But I cannot deliver that post to you, because finding the right person to talk to has just been too stressful.

I wish I were kidding. And I wish I could say I had done a thoughtful and comprehensive search of all the possibilities. But we know me better than that by now, right? So let’s just keep this brief and move on: I have not succeeded in interviewing a thoughtful, reliable and accessible expert in the field of stress reduction. I’m sure there’s one out there, and as soon as I find him or her I will let you know.

Meanwhile, though, I have returned to my long-neglected trainer, the wonderful Rick DiScipio, and he’s been giving me some great advice about exercise. So let’s look at that, shall we?

Rick’s watchword for today is “HIIT.” You may already know, as I kinda-sorta did, that this stands for “high-intensity interval training.” Basically, it means that you work at maximum intensity for a very brief spurt – as little as 10 seconds, Rick says – then recover for a similarly brief time, then repeat. It’s quite the thing; do a search on YouTube and you’ll get about 557,000 results. Including this one:

Rick recommended that one to me as an example of “training to failure” — that is, working to the point where your muscles are too tired to do even one more rep. “That’s high intensity,” he told me.

“Notice the slow reps, supersets, force reps, and isometric holds at each point of the exercise,” he added in an email. “My thoughts are everyone should train with intensity because intensity = work = results but training needs to be personalized.” That’s important, Rick points out, because your individual health history, injuries, motivation, energy level and goals will help determine what’s most likely to work for you.

Elsewhere in the vast YouTube library, I came across the one at the top of this post. I haven’t made my way all the way through that video yet – it’s a deceptively simple killer, one that Rick points out is similar to the notorious Insanity workout – but I think it’s the very simplicity of the concept, and of the execution here, that makes it so appealing. Knock yourself out, then catch your breath. Knock yourself out again, breathe some more. I’ve been doing an even simpler version of this on my home treadmill, and I’m finding it surprisingly easy. Continue reading

Boston-Origin ‘November Project’ Takes Nation’s Capital By Storm

You heard it here, first: That the November Project — the free, early-morning “fitness tribe” that is the brainchild of two Boston-based crew buddies — would go far.

(What is the November Project? If you’re asking that, you’re probably not a young, fit Bostonian, because the NP is already legend in Beantown. Here’s the full backstory: Two Guys Walk Into A Bar And A Free Fitness Movement Is Born, and the movement has now spread to multiple cities across four time zones and counting.)

Now here it is emblazoned across the virtual pages of the leading newspaper in our nation’s capital: “November Project: Hugs and Fitness.” According to the Post, of the 17 fitness “tribes” that have been launched in various cities, the D.C. contingent is second in size only to the mother of all tribes here in Boston. It’s gathering hundreds to its early-morning workouts — documented in lovely Post photos of burpees against a Washington Monument background. One cannot help but note that the denizens of the cutthroat political culture of D.C. might be particularly in need of both hard muscles and hugs.

The November Project members don’t believe in handshakes, the story notes:

What they do believe in is the grass-roots movement started in 2011 in Boston by Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, two former Northeastern University rowers who made a pact to exercise together throughout the month of November (hence the name). When friends — and, eventually, strangers — began to join them as they ran the stairs of Harvard Stadium, they decided they didn’t just want to get stronger and faster. They had a new goal.
“We want to change the way people see fitness,” Mandaric says.

How far will this thing go? To quote Bojan Mandaric from our 2012 story: “I have no idea…”

The Grown-Up, Full-Body Playground Workout In 10 Moves

(YouTube)

(YouTube)

Perfect timing. Yet another study, just out, finds that fun is good for you. Or rather, as The New York Times puts it:

“If you are aiming to lose weight by revving up your exercise routine, it may be wise to think of your workouts not as exercise, but as playtime. An unconventional new study suggests that people’s attitudes toward physical activity can influence what they eat afterward and, ultimately, whether they drop pounds.”

Responds one commenter: “Finding fun in fitness has to be an essential part of any effort.”

About once a week, I run — or rather, plod — up a giant hill. There’s no way I can call that fun. But at the top there’s a newly renovated playground, and I asked personal trainer Kat Setzer, who writes the How To Be An Athlete roller derby blog, to design a fun but efficient playground workout for real, middling-fit people like me. (As opposed to superhumans like the video hulk in the photo above. What good is a workout when you can’t even do an exercise once?)

Important note: No children were excluded from playground equipment in the making of this workout (none were out in the early morning when we ran through it. And honest, if they’d been around, we’d have given them dibs.) Also, remember to warm up and cool down. And aim for two or three circuits.

1. Swing split squat: Stand one long stride ahead of the swing and put one foot on the swing. Bend both knees until your front leg is bent to 90 degrees. Get your back knee as low as you can. Keep your weight on your front heel if possible. (Think of it as a lunge with your back foot up.) Fifteen times on each side.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the Swing Split Squat.

Kat Setzer demonstrates the swing split squat.

2. Swing knee tucks: Facing the ground, put your hands down in push-up position and your feet on the swing in plank position. Tuck your knees into your chest, then straighten your legs. Repeat. You can make this easier by putting your knees in the swing’s seat and holding a plank. Fifteen times.

Kat Setzer demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

Kat demonstrates knee tucks on the swing.

3. Box jump onto platform Start in a squat next to a platform that’s 6-12 inches from the ground, feet shoulder width apart, legs parallel. Continue reading

Project Louise: Advice From A Witch, And A Big New Challenge

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

Don't be frightened -- sometimes witches have good advice. (Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t be frightened — sometimes witches have good advice. (Wikimedia Commons)

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” one of the Witches said the other day.

The Witches are my two oldest friends in Boston; we worked together for years, and the nickname comes from an old joke from that time that would make even less sense if I explained it. We’re not actually witches, unless you really make us mad.

Anyway, this particular Witch is not known for going easy on me, so I was surprised when she said I should lighten up.

“Going to the gym five times a week? Lifting weights? Swimming? You’re trying to force yourself into a lifestyle that just isn’t you,” she said. I didn’t know where she got the five-times-a-week idea, but I kept listening.

“Go for a walk,” she said. “It’s not that complicated. Just get outside and go for a walk.”

Ha, I thought, that sounds too easy. So I didn’t do it.

Which is when I realized she might be on to something.

Continue reading

Project Louise: Learning To Run A Marathon Instead Of A Sprint

No, Louise isn't running an actual marathon -- not yet, anyway. But she is learning to plan for the long haul. (Chris Brown via Wikimedia Commons)

No, Louise isn’t running an actual marathon — not yet, anyway. But she is learning to plan for the long haul. (Chris Brown via Wikimedia Commons)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

I’ve been meeting with Coach Allison every two weeks to review my progress, set new goals and generally figure out how Project Louise is going. When we talked on Friday, she pointed out that my posts here have tended to look back on a given week and discuss what went right … or wrong. All well and good, she said, but what about exploring the process of looking ahead, breaking my big goal (health!) down into smaller intermediate goals and finding ways to keep moving in the right direction?

This was yet another moment when I realized how lucky I am to have support in this project – from Allison, from Trainer Rick, from Dr. “DASH” Moore and of course from the Naughty Moms.

Specifically, Allison’s expertise in strategic planning and project management brings a perspective that I don’t often have. I have spent my adult life working on daily, or at most weekly, deadlines: You have a task, you get it done, you move on to the next deadline. I’m good at it, I know how to do it, and I keep doing it over and over again.hamsterwheel

But a project that will take a whole year to complete? (And, really, if I do it right, it’s a project I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.) Who can plan that far ahead?

Well, it turns out, Allison can. And, thanks to her, I’m beginning to see how I can do it too.
The concept of setting intermediate goals is one of the most helpful for me so far. Those of you who are less challenged in this area may be amused to know that, until Allison pointed it out, I hadn’t realized that my overall weight-loss goal – lose 44 pounds by Dec. 31 – breaks down rather neatly into quarterly goals. Yes, that’s right, lose 11 pounds every three months and I’ll get there. (As a reward for figuring this out, I may buy myself a new T-shirt for the gym. It says: “I’m an English major. You do the math.”)SENGLISH_375_1

Sooo … we decided that I should do a six-month assessment at the end of June, assessing my progress not just in losing weight, but in eating more healthfully, exercising more regularly, taking care of myself spiritually and emotionally and generally living a better life. And before that, at the end of March, we’ll take a look at how I’ve done for the first quarter of the year.

This felt so obvious once she laid it out. But it hadn’t been obvious, at least not to me. And Trainer Rick says that I’m not alone in this.

“People set really unrealistic goals,” he told me in a recent session. Continue reading

Love That Fitbit ‘Force’ Tracker, Don’t Love The Wretched Wrist Rash

The author's Fitbit Force rash (Courtesy)

The author’s Fitbit Force rash, even after weeks without the tracker. (Courtesy)

There has been a flurry — dare we say a rash? — of reports in recent weeks from new owners of the Fitbit “Force” activity tracker who developed nasty skin irritations under the device that lasted for weeks even after they stopped wearing it.

The Today Show has covered the phenomenon — “Get serious about fitness, get rewarded with a weird skin rash,” they write — as has The Consumerist: “Fitbit Force Is An Amazing Device, Except For My Contact Dermatitis.”

The complaints crescendoed to the point that Fitbit issued an apology “on behalf of the entire company” and posted a Web help page and FAQ for rash-afflicted customers. Here, a Boston health care executive and CommonHealth regular reader describes her own “roller coaster ride” with the Fitbit Force — including the “second life” interactions around Force rash issues she has observed online. 

By Alexandra Lucas
Guest contributor

I pre-ordered the Fitbit Force, an activity tracker you wear on your wrist, the minute I heard about it last fall.

I’ve worn half a dozen activity trackers over the years, and they were fine but the Force promised to have it all: a display with a watch, a step counter, a running total of how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, and gratifying vibrations and flashing lights when I met my step goal. I could set silent reminder alarms. It would sync with my iPhone wirelessly and the app had a decent dashboard so I could track my progress over time. It looked sleek. And because it was a wristband, it would make it easy to see how I was doing in real time. So I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning when it arrived, and I put it on immediately.

Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons

(Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons)

Why do all these features matter to me? I’m an average, middle-aged, overweight executive who’s training for her first half-marathon (walking), trying to offset the poisonous temptations of sitting in front of a computer screen all day, and working on building better habits like going to bed when I’m tired. The Force fit my personality beautifully. I’m motivated by data and instant rewards. I don’t have the patience to check a phone app all the time to see how I’m doing. I don’t want to worry about losing a clip-on tracker or sending it through the wash (though I did once, and it registered a couple of thousand steps and came out fine).

The Force met my expectations and more. It really motivated me to get up from my desk and move, take the stairs at work, and go to the gym to get those steps in.

So what happened? After wearing it for five or six weeks, I noticed a rash on my wrist, right under where the Force’s metal battery is. I took the Force off but the rash continued to get worse. On a whim, I googled “Force rash” and found out that others had the same problem. Then I went on to the Fitbit user forum and found a thread of comments – up to 1386 at last count, and growing 80 a day – from people who have the exact same rash in the exact same place that I do.

Reading the comments was both illuminating and horrifying. Everyone had the same symptoms, most occurring a few weeks after they started wearing it. The rashes have lasted for weeks and in some cases spread and got infected. Continue reading

How “Sticky” Are You When It Comes To Health?

When it comes to health and fitness, even the best intentions won’t get you far if you don’t stick with the plan.

That’s the thinking behind a new fitness tracking and motivational nudging service, called Wellocracy, that seeks to get at a person’s “stickiness” quotient. In other words, how likely is he or she to stay engaged with one of the myriad health and fitness apps currently available?

It’s the brainchild of Dr. Joseph Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare, the dominant hospital system in the state. I spoke with him recently about the concept of “stickiness” and the new service.

“Part of the reason we launched this effort is because we studied for about 10 years why patients adopt these technologies,” Kvedar says. “We were trying to reach people who could benefit from self-tracking as a health-improvement strategy, but either don’t know about it or find it confusing and frustrating.”

He pointed to an October 2013 survey of 2,014 adults in the U.S. which found the following about fitness-tracking behavior:

• Sixty-eight percent say encouragement from family and friends is important for achieving health goals.
• More than half of respondents aged 35-44 found it difficult to stay motivated to live in a healthier way.
• Sixty-five percent think tracking their health using a device, website or app would be beneficial, including 32% who felt it could keep them motivated in pursuing health and/or fitness. About half of those 18-44 agree that easy-to-use tracking tools are essential to following through with their health goals.
• Eighty-six percent say feeling informed about the status of their health is empowering.

Given the widespread endorsement of fitness tracking, one might think it a fairly common practice. On the contrary; the survey found the following: Continue reading

‘Fourth Trimester’ Fitness For Moms Who Are Not Duchesses

This July 23, 2013 file photo shows Britain's Prince William, right, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge with the Prince of Cambridge as they pose for photographers outside St. Mary's Hospital in London. (AP Photo)

This July 23, 2013 file photo shows Britain’s Prince William, right, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge with the Prince of Cambridge as they pose for photographers outside St. Mary’s Hospital in London. (AP Photo)

When Kate Middleton stepped out of a London hospital earlier this year, just one day after giving birth to Prince George, her belly was beautifully there. Like many other mothers, I squealed with happiness. (A few days after my twins were born, a visitor had patted my still-quite-enormous belly, asking: “You got another baby in there?”)

But that grace period quickly evaporated and Middleton debuted her newly trim frame just six weeks post-partum, reminding many of us that yes, the race for perfection is still very much on.

For all of the women who shake their heads at that last sentence, let me say this. I hear you. I get it. I shook my head, too.  But then, six weeks after I gave birth to my twins, I tucked my Seven-Sisters-educated brain into my pocket and got my ass in gear.  I needed to shed those 60 pounds.

At that point, it felt like the only thing left in my control.

In between breastfeeding and pumping and supplementing and sleeping (barely), I started researching post-partum exercise programs.  And I’m happy to report that we new mothers may not be as rational and patient as we might be about getting our bodies back, but at least we’re resourceful about inventing ways to do it.

There was Stroller Strides and countless “Baby and Me Yoga” classes, “Mama Ballroom,” and BABYlates. All possibly great ideas for women with singletons, but I had two screaming infants, both needing a breast or a bottle or a pacifier or a diaper change or a…You get it.  No exercising was going to happen with them along for the ride.

So I went online. And found a few personal favorites.

MommaStrong Continue reading

How To Cycle Faster And Injury-Free — Even Up Mountains

The author, at left, with his companions roughly a week after the Cascades climb, at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, after a 3-4 hour climb.  (Courtesy)

The author, at left, with his companions roughly a week after the Cascades climb, at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, after a 3-4 hour climb. (Courtesy)

By David C. Holzman
Guest Contributor

Early afternoon found us downshifting into low as the grade abruptly steepened. Soon we were rising high above the coastal plains, towards Stevens Pass, elev. 4061 feet.

Yet the unexpected ease of pedaling my 30-pound, 1972 Peugeot bicycle, with 20 pounds of gear in the panniers up the Cascades made that day, July 16, 1975 (the beginning of a cross-country trek from Seattle to Boston) unusually memorable. Long after the trip was over, I would dream of cycling up mountains, with the same euphoric feeling as when dreaming of flight.

What a contrast to the previous summer’s trip, a 500-mile loop from Watertown to Burlington, VT, and back. On Day One I’d knocked off, exhausted, at midday, after struggling 50 miles over six hours, gaining a mere thousand feet of altitude.

At the end of that 10-day haul, I rode back to the Bicycle Repair Collective on Broadway in Cambridge (now the Broadway Bicycle School), where I’d learned bicycle mechanics, to check out the bike. It’s normal for a bicycle chain to stretch with use. Twelve chain links should measure 12 inches, but an extra eighth of an inch is no big deal. Mine was stretched half an inch.

I was perturbed. I’d bought and installed the chain just before the trip, and I was sure the it must have been defective to have stretched so far. But the mechanic on duty was having none of it. He claimed I’d pedaled too slowly. What???!

How could this mechanic have any idea how fast I’d been pedaling? He hadn’t been riding with me! That, he said, was simple: had I been riding with proper cadence, I wouldn’t have stretched the chain half an inch in a mere 500 miles.

Besides stretching the chain, the slow pedaling apparently was putting my knee joints at greater risk for several maladies: patellar chondro-malacia (or what some doctors call patellofemoral syndrome), which can range from minor inflammation to damage to the cartilage on the underside of the kneecap; patellar tendonitis; bursitis; and even arthritis. Another potential knee injury is ileo-tibial band syndrome. In that case, the pain is on the outside of the knee.

Pedaling slowly and pushing hard increases the sheer stress you put on the bearing surfaces of your knee joint, where the cartilage of your kneecap slides along the cartilage of your femur as the joint flexes. (The femur and tibia also articulate, but for cyclists, the weak point in the joint is generally the cartilage of the kneecap.)

But Vijay Jotwani, MD, of Houston Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, says that such injuries are unlikely unless there’s a muscle imbalance or biomechanical abnormality. “A muscle imbalance refers to the variation in strength or coordination of one muscle group that opposes another,” says Jotwani. “For example, for patellofemoral syndrome, the outside part of the quadricep muscle (vastus lateralis) may be stronger than the inside part (vastus medialis), which then pulls the kneecap to the outside when the entire quadriceps contracts.”

Biomechanical abnormalities are more likely to be problems for women, says Jotwani. Their wider hips can result in a slight outward angle at the knee in an unbent leg. Pedaling pressure can then pull the kneecap slightly out of its groove. Jotwani says that various leg weight-lifting exercises can mitigate these problems.

An improperly fitting bicycle, and a too-low seat can also raise the risk of knee injury, says Greg Cloutier, MPH, Project Manager for the Human Performance and Exercise Science Lab at Northeastern University.

Frequently I see cyclists grimacing as they bear down upon the pedals, and I wonder if they think the bulkier, stronger muscles they build this way will make them faster cyclists. If so, they are wrong. While a modicum of muscle is necessary, the thing that enables one to climb steadily, or pedal all day, is power. Continue reading