7 Unexpected Perks of Water Aerobics

I’ve been attending early morning water-aerobics classes for a month now, and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve already written about the more practical lessons I’ve had, like park in the same place and pack your gym bag the night before. But water aerobics offers unexpected perks in addition to the more obvious health benefits.

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Water aerobics with style!

1) Water aerobics is a practical lesson in Newtonian mechanics. Since I take a deep-water class, I wear a floatation belt and bob around like a cork. Most of the exercises have balanced motions of the arms and legs so you stay in one place no matter how hard you work. At least a few times each class, I find myself heading for the wall, or worse, another person, when I’m supposed to stay put. I’m amazed at how hard it can be to figure out which part of the move is causing me to travel and how difficult it can be to get things back in balance so I don’t run into anyone.

2) It also teaches you about the theory of relativity. Einstein proved that time is relative, and water aerobics is a great way to experience it personally. The last time an hour was this long, I was a kid waiting for Santa.

3) It attracts fun-loving people. A few weeks ago, the instructor told us to really push ourselves. “I want to see some waves!” So one of the smart-alecks in our class lifted her hand out of the water and waved at the teacher. I still can’t believe that I can laugh so much at seven in the morning.

4) It trains you for a whole new and interesting life. It’s great practice for those interested in being a mermaid or a dolphin. Future astronauts also get plenty of practice maneuvering in low gravity (see number 1).

Ed White takes the first U.S. space walk. (Astronauts train for low gravity in swimming pools.)
Ed White takes the first U.S. space walk. (Astronauts train for low gravity in swimming pools.)

5) You get to see some hot guys in swimsuits. No, they aren’t fellow classmates. At our gym, there are lap swimmers who use the outdoor pool and come inside to return equipment they’ve borrowed while we are in class. The kind of guy who is willing to swim outside before 7 am on a winter morning tends to be in amazing shape. There’s a reason Tarzan was played by a swimmer.

Johnny Weismuller behind the scenes. The winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, Weismuller starred as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s.
Johnny Weissmuller behind the scenes. The winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, Weissmuller starred as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s.

6) It’s a time machine. You get transported back to childhood. Splashing and laughing in the pool brings back memories of swimming in the neighbor’s pool on summer days as a kid. I always climb out of the pool feeling younger than I did when I got in.

7) It’s great exercise for the brain. My friendly fellow students know everyone’s name, including mine. It’s made me pay attention and really work on learning who is who. Remembering names is not one of my strengths, and there’s an added challenge when you go from the pool to the locker room — all those floating heads look very different when you see them on land. Suddenly they are also tall or short, fat or thin, and in clothes instead of their swimsuit. Definitely push-ups for my brain.

Does your favorite exercise class have unexpected perks? What are they?

10 Tricks for Building An Exercise-First-Thing Habit

Apparently, the number one thing you can do to increase the chance of good health in your senior years is to exercise now. Even the shortest walk is better than not moving at all, so my new goal is to move daily without being too strict about what counts as moving. Gardening and walking the dog both count, as does anything I do while at the gym.

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Of course, setting the goal to do something every single day is scary. I’ve failed so many times before. I hoped I’d develop a daily drawing habit by taking a drawing class, but it didn’t happen. Some part of my brain hates the idea that I need to do something every single day, even if it’s as simple as brushing my teeth.

But I was serious about getting in better shape and moving every day, so I decided I needed to develop a new habit. Fortunately, I found Gretchen Rubin’s new book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I read it eagerly and reflected on my past experiences with exercising.

When I was younger, there was a period where I exercised six days a week. While belonging to a gym helped, because it provided the classes and equipment that formed my workouts, the real secret to my success was my commitment to exercising first thing every morning. I got up early and went to the gym before I went to work. It was a habit, something I just did without question, and it worked. I’ve argued against this strategy ever since because mornings became increasingly harder as I got older (mostly due to health problems).

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Thanks to the changes I’ve made in the last two years (including diet and light therapy), I am now much more of a morning person than I used to be. I wake up easily instead of dragging for hours after I get out of bed. For the first time in years, I was willing to consider the idea of going back to an exercise-first-thing schedule. Some of the tricks I am using to build this new habit are from Better Than Before, but some I’ve learned on my own.

1) It’s easier to do something every day than now and then. Gretchen Rubin has been saying this forever, but it’s one of the harder ideas for me to apply. I think of doing something every single day as a tedious chore or worse, setting myself up for failure. So I’ve made my rule a little less strict: get up early and exercise first thing, Monday thru Friday. I still have the goal to move daily, but on the weekend I don’t require myself to do it first thing. With a husband who loves to hike, a dog who loves to run, a big yard to maintain, and the gym waiting on bad weather days, it’s not hard to get moving on the weekend.

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2) No excuses. According to Rubin, once you allow yourself to miss a day for some reason, you make it easier to skip again until suddenly your new habit is no more. For me, no excuses means I don’t look for a reason to make an exception today. One day during my first week of the new schedule. I was awake for half the night. It would have been an easy morning to rationalize skipping the gym because even though I was awake well before the alarm went off, I felt awful. I got up and went to the gym anyway. I spent some time on an exercise bike and doing a handful of free-weight exercises. It was hardly the most intense or comprehensive workout I ever had, but it met my goal of moving daily, and it kept me on track with building my new exercise-first-thing habit.

In her book, Rubin talks a lot about setting ourselves up for success. The easier it is to make the right choice in the moment, the more likely we are to stick with the new, healthier habit we are trying to form. In the old days, going to the gym before going to work was a great choice for me because I was already getting in the car to go somewhere. Now that I work at home, getting in the car takes effort, so I do everything I can to make the rest of the process easier.

3) Pack your gym bag and lay out your workout clothes the night before. This makes getting out the door in the morning quick and easy, and removes the possibility I’ll talk myself out of going because I’m not ready. The other big advantage to packing the night before is that I can be pretty sure I’ll remember everything. Finding out I forgot a bra or a brush can be annoying to say the least. But a bag I packed the night before is likely to have everything I need in it. (I could make it even easier on myself by making a packing list to use when I get my bag ready. But I’m not that organized… yet.)

4) Park in the same place in the parking lot. This sounds totally goofy, but I’ve found out that just because I’m awake at 5:30 in the morning doesn’t mean I’m paying attention. My first few days at the gym, it took me longer than I care to admit to remember where I’d parked. So I make it a habit to park in the same section of the parking lot every time, so I have a much smaller area to search if I can’t remember exactly where I left the car.

5) Use the same locker every day, or at least a locker in the same section. This is like the parking trick: it helps me find my locker quickly when I come back from class without having to rack my brains to remember where I put my stuff.

6) Pick exercises you like. I’m currently taking water aerobics three times a week. I love splashing around in the pool and the fact that I can work out hard without getting too hot or injuring myself.

7) If you intend to do an exercise you don’t enjoy, find some other way to make it fun. Half an hour on a stationary bike isn’t my idea of fun. Reading for half an hour is. So I read whenever I’m on the bike. I also make repetitive stretching exercises more interesting by listening to podcasts while I do them.

8) Make friends with the instructor and the other students. This is an extension of #5. Getting to know people in my classes makes it more fun, because then I have people to chat and joke with. I look forward to seeing them, and that’s one more thing to help get me to the gym on time.

9) Get to bed early. (This is also one of Rubin’s favorites.) It’s hard enough to get up when it’s still dark outside. A short night of sleep can make it even harder. Get the rest you need to help make that early morning a little easier to face.

10) Give yourself credit for everything. Whether I spend fifteen minutes walking the dog or a full hour in an intense gym class, I give myself a gold star for moving that day. I still have days where my health and energy aren’t all that great, and if I don’t give myself credit for what I am able to do on those days, I’ll be likely to tell myself “it isn’t worth it” and stop trying at all.

Do you have an exercise habit? What tricks do you use to help yourself stick with it? What things have gotten in your way?

A Hard Hike Reminds Me Not to Compare Myself to Others

We went hiking on Sunday and it was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever taken.

We set out knowing that we had chosen a tough trail. Even though it was only two miles to the top of the mountain, we would gain 1000 feet with every mile, and the steep trail was full of large rocks that were hard to climb.

Add to that intense heat — it was 93 F but it felt hotter in the sun — and you have a recipe for exhaustion. Fortunately, we are experienced hikers. We had plenty of water, sunblock, and food with us. We wore hats, stuck to the shade, and took long breaks.

As we slogged up the mountain, lots of people passed us going both directions, including people who were running. (This is Colorado. The outdoor crowd is insanely fit.) We continued to slog.

By noon, I was done. I was struggling to make my leaden legs climb up yet another slope just minutes after I’d had a snack and a long rest break. I felt like crying.

We came to a fork in the trail. Dogs weren’t allowed on the section that led from the junction up to the peak. On top of that, it was spitting rain (lovely, cooling rain!) and thundering. So we sat for a while, waiting for the storm to pass, and trying to decide what we wanted to do.

Dory and I take a much deserved breather.
Dory and I take a much deserved breather.

In the end, my husband and our friend went on while Dory and I sat in the shade resting, waiting for their return. They were gone for about an hour and a half, and during that time I had a talk with myself.

I felt like a failure.

For over a year now, I’ve been eating a healthy diet that has been hard for me to follow but is actually healing me. For a year and a half, I’ve been sweating through a hard gym class every week, putting up with the fatigue and aches that go with it, but clearly getting stronger in the process. I’ve been adding other exercise whenever I can, doing my best to get fit.

I was now sitting on a mountain, drained and feeling ill, while my two companions, both a decade older than I am, climbed to the top without me. Every now and then people would go by on the trail, some walking, some running.

It was depressing.

I reminded myself: Compare and despair. Comparing my performance to someone else’s is a waste of time. It’s like comparing apples to armadillos. Whether or not I can keep up with someone else doesn’t matter. The only performance I should compare to mine is my own.

How am I doing compared to my past self? Amazingly well. Such a hike would have been impossible for me only a year ago. In addition, I was up early the following morning, full of energy. Previously, letting myself get so tired meant days of recovery afterwards.

On the hike back to the car, I found I felt pretty good considering how the morning had gone. The cloud cover protected us from the sun and the temperature was cooler. The long rest while the others were gone had revived my legs. Taking my socks off so they could dry left my tired feet feeling like new.

The stunning scenery was worth it. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)
The stunning scenery was worth it. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When they came back down from the peak, my husband told me more than once that the last part of the trail had been much easier to climb, and that I could have made it if we had been allowed to take the dog along.

At the time, I didn’t believe him.

Now I know he was right.

Training for the Zombie Apocalpyse: My New Exercise Goals

As a kid, I hated gym and avoided exercise. As an adult, I recognize I need to get moving if I want to be healthy, so I have been looking for ways to make exercise more fun.

A few weeks ago, one of our stations during the gym class I take was at the punching bag. You hit it with a baseball bat, swinging for a home run, whacking the bag with all your might.

I loved it! I’m not comfortable with violence against living things, but beating the crap out of an inanimate object was fun.

I teased my instructor: “You didn’t tell me you were training us for the zombie apocalypse!” He laughed, and I realized I’d found a whole new way to think about exercise.

Here are some of the things I am now training for:

  1. To journey There and Back Again,
  2. to become a Jedi,
  3. to survive the three dangers of the Fire Swamp,
  4. to become a dragonrider of Pern,
  5. to win the Triwizard Tournament,
  6. to follow the Beavers across Narnia,
  7. to outrun the Daleks,
  8. to ride with the Rohirrim,
  9. and, of course, to kick ass during the Zombie Apocalypse.
If by some weird chance I get to hang out with these guys some day, I want to be ready!  (photo from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema)
If by some weird chance I get to hang out with these guys some day, I want to be ready! (photo from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema)

I doubt I’ll ever sign up for a marathon, a triathalon, or a long-distance bike race, so there’s no point in training for them. I suppose it’s just as unlikely I’ll ever be face-to-face with a zombie, need to walk across Middle Earth, or run faster than Daleks roll.

But I love the idea of getting ready, just in case.

How about you? Do you have any unusual goals to help motivate you when you work out?

How My Exercise Goal Prevented Me From Developing A Walking Habit

It’s been two weeks since Dory and I finished our virtual hike of Hadrian’s Wall Path and I realized something surprising today. Although we covered nearly 95 miles in nine weeks, I didn’t develop a habit of taking Dory out for long walks. It’s not a habit at all. In fact, the first few days after we reached our mileage goal, I blew off our walks entirely.

Dory and I are still walking (and birding) but not nearly as often as we were.
Dory and I are still walking (and birding) but not nearly as often as we were.

I never stated building a habit as one of my goals for the project because I assumed it would just happen. How many times have I heard or read that you build a habit by repeating an action for 21 (or 28) days in a row? We didn’t walk every day, but I still thought we would develop a habit of walking because we were doing it so often.

This article about how setting a goal with a specific deadline can undermine habit-building explains what happened. The temporary deadline that motivated me to get the miles in kept me from developing a long-term habit. I developed a “just for now” attitude about our walks. I made the effort to walk the miles partially because I knew I was only going to be doing it for a short time. Walking ten miles a week for the rest of my life sounds impossible. Walking ten miles a week for nine weeks I knew I could manage.

My virtual hike of Hadrian’s wall didn’t get me into the habit of walking like I’d hoped. So how do I develop this habit?

According to Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit), I need three things to build a habit: a cue or trigger to tell me to start the behavior, the behavior I want to become a habit, and some sort of reward.

B.J. Fogg’s TED talk Forget Big Change, Start With A Tiny Habit reminded me of the power of baby steps. Many of the biggest changes in my life were made one tiny step at a time. I weened myself off caffeine instead of going cold turkey. It took time and discipline, but I was spared withdrawal symptoms, and by the time I was only drinking a tablespoon of cola a day, I no longer wanted it.

Because I believe Fogg’s approach of tiny habits will work best for me, I’ll have to get small with my thinking. Instead of insisting on walking for a certain amount of time or distance, my only goal needs to be get out the door with the dog on a leash. For it to develop into a habit, I need to tie it to a trigger or cue, an event or other already established behavior that reminds me it’s now time to go for a walk.

We need to walk early in the day to avoid the summer heat, so I’m going to try breakfast as my trigger. I will take Dory for a walk after breakfast. It may be short, it may be long, it doesn’t matter. I can adjust it to fit my schedule and the weather. But it needs to happen right after breakfast is over.

Besides a cue and a behavior, I need a reward. It needs to be immediate and satisfying, something I do the minute I get back from the walk. Simple is fine. Fogg’s example celebrations are saying “I’m awesome” or doing a silent victory dance for just a few seconds. I’m going to give Dory a treat and give myself credit for meeting my walking goal for the day.

I have no idea if this will work or not, but I want to try it. Tiny changes that I make on a daily basis can have remarkable results. What I do most of the time has a much greater impact than what I do now and then.

And for now, my tiny change is going to be heading out the door with the dog after breakfast. We’ll see what it leads to.

Finished Friday: What I Learned From Our Virtual Hike

We did it! Our virtual hike of Hadrian’s Wall is finished. In less than ten weeks, Dory and I walked a total of 94.5 miles. Woo hoo! I’m pumped. I can’t believe we actually accomplished this goal. Just ten days ago, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t make it. But we did, and we even finished a day early.

We succeeded because I set a measurable goal, picked a reasonable deadline, and was flexible about how I went about it.

Having an actual number of miles to walk came from the idea of pretending I was doing a through-hike instead of just wandering around our neighborhood with the dog. That gave me something to measure.

Then I thought about what was reasonable. I wanted to pick a number of miles to walk per week that was a stretch but wouldn’t require herculean efforts. I also didn’t expect to walk every day. I allowed for 5 walks a week. (We actually walked 42 out of 67 days, averaging 4.4 days/week.) Dory’s birthday was 9.5 weeks from our start date and would require us to walk 10 miles/week, so that was the day I picked as our deadline.

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The super-hiking Dory is 6 years old today and ready to walk another 94.5 miles.

The only restriction I put on myself was that I couldn’t walk without Dory. I wanted us to both be in better shape, so she had to be with me if I wanted the walking I did to count.

I didn’t tell myself I would walk every day, or that I would follow a fixed schedule or a fixed route. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to walk at a specific speed, either. Being flexible about when, where, and how we walked turned out to be critical to our success. We had bad weather, sick days, and days away from home. We were constantly adjusting in order to get our walks in.

I did keep track of our miles in a spreadsheet, so I could see how much progress we had made and if we were on target to reach our goal.

I hate to admit it, but my initial idea didn’t really work. I had thought that using a trail to track the miles we covered would help me to be more interested in our walks.
Except for setting our mileage goal, Hadrian’s Wall didn’t enter into it much. I didn’t have the time to read up on it like I thought I would. If I had used a paper map of the HWP to track our progress, I would have been more conscious of the trail. But using the spreadsheet made it more about the numbers and less about the virtual environment that we were pretending to pass through.

Fortunately, I found another way to make the exercise fun. I kept track of the birds we saw and heard. By the end, I was carrying binoculars with me everywhere and looking up new birds when we got back to the house. Since it’s spring and migration is under way, this is a great time to be watching birds. Birding made the walks fun.

So, I won all around. We met our exercise goal, we both are in better shape, and we had fun doing it. Best of all, we got to watch spring unfold all around us.

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P.S A friend of mine is actually hiking Hadrian’s Wall right now, so I am getting to see and hear all about it from her. I have already recognized the names of places she’s mentioned and feel like I’m getting a second virtual hike of the HWP. I’ll try to pay more attention to the actual trail this time.

Virtual Hiking Update: Why I Refuse to Panic About My Deadline

My Hadrian’s Wall virtual hike is nearing the end. There’s only 11 days left but Dory and I still have 23 miles to go. If we had been able to keep to our earlier pace, we’d have a doable 12 miles left, but my assumption that things would get easier as we got farther into the spring has proven completely wrong.

It seemed obvious that as summer approached, the weather would warm up and there would be more nice days for taking a walk. Initially, the weather did improve and made walking a pleasure. But instead of a steady gradual improvement in conditions, the weather has been erratic at best.

Some of our warmest days were also horribly windy. The howling of the wind around our house was so bad that I could barely stand it while I was indoors. Going out to walk in the maelstrom seemed impossible.

Dory riding in Kurt's vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She's ready for spring!
Dory riding in Kurt’s vest during a hike too cold and snowy for her. She’s ready for spring!  photo by Dana Geary

We’ve also had some winter flashbacks. Right now, we’re in the middle of a snow storm. Lots of heavy, wet snow coming down steadily, making it too cold and too wet for Dory to be out. So we’re losing time even as I type.

If I’d thought about it, I might have realized I couldn’t count on the weather. But I was certain that as my fitness improved and I got in the habit of walking nearly every day, it would get easier to reach 94.5 miles of walking. I was right and wrong about this one.

My fitness has improved and I look forward to our walks. But because of the bad weather days, I’ve found myself at the gym, taking a yoga class or lifting weights, to get my exercise fix. Great news, except that I’ve remembered how much I love yoga. I’m back to three classes a week, plus our weekly training session, so on those four days it’s hard for me to find the time for a long walk as well.

As far as improving my own fitness goes, this is a win-win. But helping Dory build up some endurance before we start our mountain hiking season was one of my goals. Without our walks, she doesn’t get the training she needs.

If we take our long  walk for 10 of the coming 11 days, we can still finish the virtual hike on schedule. But a quick look at this week’s weather forecast has me wondering when exactly these walks are going to happen.

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If we don’t meet the mileage goal, I will still consider this project a major success. We’ve already walked over 70 miles since March 17th, and we would never have gotten out this much if I hadn’t set a goal. Dory’s in better shape than she was, and so am I. Also, I’ve had fun while getting some exercise.

So I’ve decided not to panic. It won’t really matter how many miles we’ve covered by the time the 23rd rolls around.

Only it does. Despite the obstacles that have cropped up, that competitive part of me will do its best to get those last miles walked before time runs out.

Have you had unexpected obstacles crop up when trying to reach the goals you set? How did you deal with them? Is reaching the goal you set more important than what happens along the way?