Have You Seen My Doodad?

For the past few months, my wife and I have been a voluntary lab rats in an experiment being conducted by a savvy wellness entrepreneur using technology and gaming to encourage folks in Central Oregon to walk more.
My duties as a lab rat are not very demanding. During this TOJ's waking hours, I wear a small (about the size of a half walnut) electronic doodad on my shoe. Each night I go to my computer for a couple minutes during which the doodad transmits the collected data into a web application that displays some graphs of total steps taken, active minutes, and distance covered.The next day I get an email message again showing the data in a neat tabular format, along with an encouraging message.

This doodad is one of many tools to support the new buzz in exercise - the "quantified self." We can now measure everything and, of course, some exercisers want to know as much as they can about themselves. The doodad I wear is pretty simple and cheap. There are elaborate, expensive ones that keep even more information such as average heart rate, peak heart rate, calories, location (GPS), etc., and then display the data on a cell phone or computer. Warning: If you have even a hint of obsessive-compulsive disorder, doodads will take you right off the deep end - check out this story of ridiculous extremes.

So what have I learned from the doodad, other than it's a pain to keep track of it? (Is it on my trail shoes, gym shoes, Five Fingers, loafers, socks? I know I saw that damn thing somewhere.) Are there good reasons to wear one to track your steps?

The most important thing I discovered is although I exercise more than most people, especially my age, the number of steps I take on average are only a little above the optimum number recommended by experts, such as the Cooper Clinic, to stay healthy, which is around 10,000 per day. On days I go for a run and walk my dog, I might log 16,000, but on days I just do a weight routine and walk my dog, it's more like 8,500.

Luckily, steps are just one measure of healthy activity. The doodad I use is not able to measure intensity or metabolic equivalents, such as how many pounds I've lifted or time at 90% max heart rate. I can take the dog for a long walk, stand at my computer to write for hours, then do 45 min. of pretty high intensity resistance exercise. The doodad might accurately measure a few of those activities, but not the HIT, physically the most challenging thing I did that day.

So what is a doodad good for?

It's very useful for people who are relatively new to basic aerobic exercise, like walking or jogging. Yes, you can also measure these activities in minutes and hours, but steps and distance are nice to know. You can set benchmarks and see your progress, like "I did 60,000 this week - next week the goal is 63,000." Specific and measurable, the stuff of good goal setting.

The doodad also fuels competition. Even my wife and I find ourselves comparing numbers (we can do the identical distance and she gets more steps because she takes shorter steps). Weekly the project also tallies everyone's data to show where people are vis a vis each other. Your pride might motivate you to take more steps to put you closer to the top. In the gaming part of the pilot, one participant can challenge another to complete 50,000 steps in a week and reward them with a free cup of coffee so there's a tangible reward if they meet the challenge.

One fun surprise is what actually makes an active day with lots of steps. We tend to think of those days as ones with lots of time time allocated to formal "exercise," but one of the days on which I logged the highest number of steps was not when I went for an extra long run, but when my wife and I had our grandkids for a few hours! No joke.

For an experienced exerciser who engages in a variety of physical activities, a doodad won't add much. A TOJ knows pounds, time, and distance, as well as heart rates and anaerobic thresholds. From hours of workouts and activities of all kinds, you know what that feeling is like in your body when you've done too much, too little, or just the right amount for that day.
I'll continue to wear my doodad as part of my civic duty as long as the experiment is underway.

But there's no doodad that will ever tell you what your body will. It's free, no computer is required, and you don't have to try to remember where you left it.

Deja Vu All Over Again

This TOJ was searching through the long list of classes offered at our community fitness center  looking for something challenging, but not too hard, fun but not wimpy, energetic but not hyper, tiring but not exhausting. You know, the perfect class for my body that particular day. It had been a long time since I'd been in a fitness class.

I was about ready to give up after seeing the umpteenth Zumba or yoga (on the way to having as many flavors as micro brewed beer) class, when I spotted in bold type: RIPPED with a slogan promising "total body shock" or something like that. The class was an hour and ten minutes long. Promising!

The slogan was trademarked, so I Googled RIPPED and found it's a franchise. RIPPED is an acronym for Resistance Intervals Power Plyometrics Endurance Diet. Like Crossfit, their website showed lots of buff younger people, in their case 10-to-1 women to males, with big smiles. They promised muscle confusion, constantly changing routines, no boredom, motivating and music.

Sure enough, when I arrived before the class, the ratio was 10-to-1 women, mostly young. In the mirrors lining the front wall, this TOJ looked like Santa Claus among a bunch of large Spandex elves. I asked the girl next to me if I needed to warm up, she smiled and said, "Don't worry, you'll get warmed up." I was excited to experience the latest and greatest in fitness.

The instructor bounced to the front of the crowded class with her headset on. The sound started up with siren cue, like what you hear from a garbage trucking backing up warning you to get out of the way. The instructor warned if anybody had a hangover, they wouldn't for long.

Then the music started, some rap song, not too fast. We stepped sideways right, stretched sideways left, stepped right lifted the left knee, stepped left lifted the right knee.

Then a new song came on with a faster beat. More double knee lifts. Then we got into a horse stance (she called it a plie, like in ballet) and did jabs, then lunging left and right, we did uppercuts and hooks. Tons of them. I flashbacked decades to boxing and tae kwon do. The instructor, facing the mirror in front of the class, growled at herself.

After a couple songs, we'd take a minute or two break to get water, wipe off the sweat, and walk clockwise in a circle. The instructor walked counterclockwise giving high fives.

More music. We got out the mats and did conventional push-ups to "We Will Rock You." We did some more. Another flasback to junior high PE classes. Then we did crab walks right, then left, push-up, right, then left, push-up, etc. Then we did side planks. Then another walk in a circle, people chugging the water, breathing hard.

More music. Now feet shoulder width and running in place. Instructor advising to bend over and get low, as we went right, left, right left. Another flashback - high school football agility drills. More punching. Then another short walk in a circle, more people breathing harder.

The instructor said "Pick up your weights!" Not knowing how crazy the class would get, I picked 10 lbs. dumb bells instead of the heavier ones a TOJ wold use for real weight training. To more rap and hip-hop, we did rows, flys, lunge presses, more reps than in any strength workout. I heard the instructor yell, "Get it out, all out it. Out!" Then we put the weights down and did some modified burpees, with a jump emphasized (this must have been the plyometrics).

Then we got the mats again and did some dynamic yoga. I don't remember what the music was, but it wasn't something you'd hear in an ashram in India or at the Integral Hatha Yoga Institute in San Francisco, where this TOJ first tried yoga in the 60's. The fitness center didn't smell like incense either.

The instructor wrapped it up with a congratulations to everyone, circulating through the group with more high-fives.

A TOJ's assessment: RIPPED is close to what it says, though more a cardio-workout than anything else. The resistance and plyometrics are tame, probably because nobody could sustain those for more than a few minutes. The class was right at the edge of aerobic, a good place to build cardio-fitness. If you brought your own intensity, like the instructor did, you'd be dipping well into challenging anaerobic, which is beneficial too, in small doses. I got winded and left drenched with sweat.

Truth is, when it comes to exercise, there's little new under the gym rafters. Human movement is very basic - push, pull, lift, squat, lunge, rotate, walk, run. In the exercises themselves, it was deja vu, been there done that. But there were some tunes this TOJ had never heard before - modern, faster, younger.

A Tale of Two Cramps

Experts say you need to listen to your body. TOJs can be hard of hearing when it comes to that advice because every day there are some aches and (small) pains. If you have a set exercise routine, most of the aches are the same old, same old. You do this, you can expect some DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) there. They are familiar and predictable.

But less predictable if you change your normal routine is the location and intensity of the new aches and pains. During these periods of change, sometimes your body screams loudly to be heard, as was the case with the two cramps.

A month ago this TOJ and my wife got American Council on Exercise certification as a personal trainers. It was amazing to discover after having been very physically active as long as I've been alive, and sort of a student of exercise, how little I really knew. We're going to start a business focusing on 50+ people. We wanted to get familiar with what's going on around our new community (moved from Colorado to Oregon last summer) so started attending some group classes at the excellent community fitness center in Bend, plus familiarizing ourselves with some of the newer resistance machines.

We have a really good home gym with weights, dumb bells, kettlebells, bands, TRX, stability balls, ab roller, jump ropes, pull-up bar, and large training mat. However, there are some advantages to the machines (a prime one being safety). The group classes can be good too because you get some solid coaching from experienced trainers and maybe push a little harder because you want to keep up with the rest of the group.

So on a Wednesday we did a low to medium difficulty class on Functional Conditioning - lots of core work on the ball, some Yoga postures, lateral movement, squats, body weight presses. I do more with heavier weights at home, but this was different and very worthwhile. New movements enlisted some muscles I hadn't used in awhile.

The next day I was walking from my car to the house when there was a sharp, painful cramp in my right calf. It hung around most of the day, but steadily bercame less intense and more intermittent.

Cramp #1 was gone by Thursday, when I did a double circuit routine of ten exercises on the resistance machines. One thing I really liked is I could do leg presses and squats with much more weight than I could at home. I cooled down afterwards with a few minutes on a treadmill. The workout felt great.

On Friday, my legs were a little tight from the presses and squats, but no pain in the right calf. It was a beautiful day outside, so I went for a low key trail run along the river for a few miles. The footing was not very good because of some uneven rotten ice and frozen foot-printed mud, so the lower legs did a lot of work to maintain balance. Still, it was a fun run, and afterwards I felt great. Sure, the usual tightness in the hips and sore quads, but no big deal.

That night my wife, daughter and I went to the Deschutes Brewery for dinner. I'd just finished a tasty Obsidian Stout and shifted slightly on my seat, lifting and bending my left leg. Suddenly there was a shot of pain in the left hamstring as Cramp #2 struck. I groaned,winced, and clutched my leg. My wife, seated to the left, gasped and asked what was happening, likely fearing a heart attack. My daughter, a nurse and Crossfitter, watched to see where this was going because she could tell the pain was intense.

I slumped down in the booth, trying to straighten my leg, and the cramp eased back. I noticed a young girl with a concerned look at the next table elbow her mom and point in my direction. Then the cramp returned (still count it as Cramp #2 because it was in the same place), even more intense, two more times separated by a couple of minutes. When the muscle spasmed the third time, I started to sweat and feel a little nauseous. I dug my fingers into the back of my leg and massaged it as hard as I could. Finally, the pain started to subside permanently, and the little girl at the next table was finally able to take her eyes off the old guy who she feared might be dying right before her eyes.

We speculated about what had just happened. My daughter suggested it was dehydration, and that I should drink bone broth or more water, knowing I drank coffee (a diuretic) all day long. My wife thought alcohol might be a factor. Both of these were probably right. Plus I didn't stretch at all during the past three days, which probably further set the pre-conditions up for trouble.

Actually, the experts don't really know what causes cramps. They guess that cramps are due to either causing electrolyte imbalances, over-stressed, i.e., under-rested, damaged tissue, or loss of neuromuscular control in the motor units.

Here's the take away lesson of this comic/pathetic tale: If you make a substantial change to your exercise habits, then anticipate increasing vulnerability until your body adjusts. To give yourself the  best chance to avoid painful cramps or real injury: a) stay hydrated, b) cool down and stretch after strenuous exercise, and c) allow ample time between new exercise routines for your body to recover.

I got it. Pain has a way of making a lesson unforgettable. This TOJ vows to be a better listener. Better late than never.


Greetings, exercise and wellness fans. TOJ is back, and the book about a year of working on wellness with my former co-workers a community health center in Colorado is finished. We'll release it as an eBook in late spring. You'll find it full of useful health and nutrition information along with stories of real people trekking the winding, upward path to wellness.

Watch this inspiring TED Talk by Charles Eugster. He's a 93 year old, serious athlete. You'll see this is not an oxymoron. He can do 50 push ups in 45 seconds. Wow! His insights on the state of our health and what to do about it are right on.You can read more about him here and discover some other amazing older people.

This TOJ is impressed not by Eugster's physical abilities, determination and message, but what an incredible example he is of our resilience. He's not a guy who worked out all his life. Quite the contrary, he encountered serious health issues, but instead of succumbing, his will to live life to the fullest kicked in and he turned his life into a truly remarkable story.

See? It's never to comeback to life!  Your body is ready, willing and able. Never forget.