Monday, June 30, 2014

Weight loss project: Meditate while you work out

While doing my aerobic workout I noticed many people distracting themselves. Some would read books, others watch TV, and people sometimes wear headphones. One time a woman was chatting intensely on her cell phone while working out, and another right next  to me was reading a long series of PowerPoint slides about motivating employees (OK, I peeked).

Distracting (taking your mind off of something unpleasant) and self soothing (inserting a pleasurable activity like eating, lighting candles, listening to music, or rubbing lotion on your hands) are effective ways to take care of yourself emotionally. However their power is very limited and their effects wear off quickly; you don't get a lot of bang for the buck with distraction and self soothing. They should be used in conjunction with more powerful methods of relaxing, accepting, and "holding in your mind comfortably" the present moment.

This thought also occurred to me: if people are treating working out as something so unpleasant that they have to remove their minds from the experience, how likely are they to commit to a long-lasting workout regime? In other words if it's so unpleasant, wouldn't one be motivated to drop the activity as soon as the goal (weight loss) is achieved, setting the person up for gaining back all that weight? What might it be like to engage with the activity, make peace with it, flow with it, pay attention to it, and hopefully find a way to enjoy it for its own sake, regardless of the ultimate goal? In a gym workout, what is the equivalent of "it's the journey, not the destination"?

It was then that, as part of my lose-the-gut effort, I began experimenting with doing my aerobics mindfully—without distracting or self soothing. That way I could kill two birds with one stone; I could exercise and do an extensive mindfulness meditation!

I decided to apply mindfulness to aerobics, because that's the part of the gym workout less naturally lending itself to being present with the activity. When lifting weights I find that I naturally pay close attention to my breathing and how my body feels as I lift, which is necessary to avoid injury.

So for the past few months, I've been focusing on a number of meditative thoughts as I worked out on the elliptical machine. As I mentioned in a previous post I do intervals on the elliptical. Therefore I decided to do a meditation during the challenging interval (the more unpleasant one) and let my mind wander during the easier one.

A dozen times or so during my one-hour aerobic workout, I would recite in my mind the following statements during a difficult interval:

  • I am
Focus on your body and its movement and nothing else.
  • THEY are
Become aware of everyone else working out around you.
  • WE are
Get in touch with how you all are there for a common reason, a common purpose. You're connected in this way.
Get a fleeting sense of how you all are a part of a much, MUCH larger world and universe.
  •  I am CLEAR...HERE and NOW
Take your attention and focus on specific details around you: read words on a poster, notice the buttons on a machine in front of you, notice a crack in the wall, pay attention to the electrical outlets and wires. Simply “notice” all sorts of small details around you. In this way you connect with your surroundings.
  • I am this place
Shift your attention to the larger room or place where you are working out.
  • I am this time and at no other
Notice how the space looks RIGHT NOW (as opposed to a few minutes ago).
  • I think
Notice thoughts that occur to you.
  • My five senses ARE!
Notice your breathing, how your body feels—sweat, heat, a breeze, fatigue, pain, sounds you hear, a taste that’s lingering, how your clothes tug against you as you move—and notice how these sensations are different than “thoughts.”
  • I'm FINE doing this here and now...
Choose to accept being in that place, doing what you are doing, and feeling what you are feeling. Notice that you’re OK. You’re fine as you are right now. There’s no “rule” that you should be doing something else or feeling any differently, and you can accept this and “be here.” You’re fine as is. The past and the future all fall away; there is only right now, and it's fine by you.
  • I'm FINE!
Reinforce it. Say it again. Get in touch with its truth.

Sometimes I touch my belly, which is a part of my body that I’m trying to reduce using exercise, and I add, “My belly is fine as it is right now…it’s fine.”
  • I'm at PEACE doing this here and now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
  • I'm AT PEACE!
Reinforce it.

Sometimes late in the exercise I’ll remind myself, I’m at peace with sweating, I’m at peace with a flushed face, I’m at peace with my fatigue. It’s OK. I accept this. I can manage this. There’s no “rule” or “tablets from on high” that say it should be any other way.
  • I belong here doing this now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
Reinforce it.
  • I'm at home doing this here and now...
Get in touch with this truth. Try to FEEL how true it is.
  • I'm HOME! 
Reinforce it. You're exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be doing right now. (We'll deal with what you should be doing "later" at another time.)
You are a part of everything, everything is a part of you, and you can accept everything as it is right in this moment. You can accept it, engage with it, participate in it, flow cooperatively with it, and make the most of it.
  • I am...I am...I am...
Relax, adjust your pace so that it’s not too fast or too slow, not too hard or too easy, smile, and feel yourself peacefully participating in the exercise. Stay clear; don’t “space out.” Complete the challenging interval as best you can.

Remember to say it like you mean it. Put some emotion behind your thoughts, really get into it.

Then during the easier interval I usually try to keep my mind clear by reading posters, noticing details on machines, glancing very briefly at the TV, noticing new people who enter the exercise area, feeling a breeze from the fan, and so on. 

Try to limit how much you become engrossed in the program on the TV or let your mind wander as you listen to a song. Glimpse and notice the TV; notice and appreciate the song. Just don't let your mind immerse itself into a program or lose itself in the music. Stay present in the room, alternating between everything there is to see, hear, and feel. 

I remember one time, during the easy interval, I watched some TV, answered a "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" question, and then returned to mindfulness meditation once the difficult interval began again. Be present and mindful through as much of the exercise as possible, but don't worry if your mind wanders from time to time, or if you zero in on the TV program for a minute. Perfection is not the goal.

*     *     *
It's been a few months now that I've been doing mindfulness meditations and thought-chanting while I've been working out on the elliptical, and it's begun to pay off outside the gym. Mornings have always been a difficult time for me to "get out of my head" and be mindful and "in my body." My mind's been running around like a child all night long, and it has trouble settling down first thing in the morning.

Recently I noticed that I was "up in my head" during my morning bathroom routine, I thought to myself I AM, and I calmed down and gently focused very quickly; it felt almost like someone turning the "lens" of my camera and feeling everything come into sharper focus. I now use the phrases I AM and EVERYTHING IS AS IT SHOULD BE as instant Chill Pills, relaxing me and helping me to focus on what I'm doing in the present moment. (It may take months of practice for you to see similar results, and your results may vary.)

Weight loss project: My engine wouldn't stop revving after a workout

I thought that I'd mention a workout related challenge I faced in case others have experienced it. This past winter I started a gym routine after years of dabbling and not really establishing it with any regularity. After a few months I noticed that I had become very speedy and irritable; my husband pointed this out to me. My thoughts and actions were much faster, and I was stressing out about my To Do list more than I had in years. It was if the workouts caused my internal, emotional engine to rev high and get stuck in over drive.

This felt so unfair! I was getting into better physical shape than I'd been in for years, yet my emotional life was taking a hit.

I noticed one pattern: I was more irritable after weight training than on days when I limited my exercise to aerobics. I thought that one culprit might be an uptick in that ole devil testosterone. However I'm 53, and I'm sure I'm not producing testosterone at the same rate as I did decades earlier. After I noticed, I made sure not to overdo it with the weight lifting (avoid lifting two days in a row, avoid lifting more than three days a week).

I also noticed that the Engine Revving feeling was very similar to how I felt in my youth. Back then my mind used to race, I was prone to worry, and my digestive system was frequently off, which was all very similar to what I was now experiencing; I used to be the kind of guy whose knee bounced rapidly and nervously whenever I was sitting down. Perhaps entering into an intense workout regime triggered me, and I reverted to how I was the last time I was very athletically active, which would be in my younger, less-wise days.

Finally, I experimented with a few things to get my internal engine back to its normal speed. For example, mainly as a way to settle myself before doing life & career coaching with clients, I'd think meditatively, slow...patience, compassion! This helped me to enter into more of a slower, listening mode. However my overall speediness continued during times when I wasn't working.

Eventually I stumbled upon a meditation that worked much better. When I'd think meditatively, I'm WILLING!, my whole body would relax, I'd instantly feel more peaceful, and my thinking and actions slowed down considerably. 

One of the ideas behind being willing as opposed to being willful is to avoid pushing; when I was worried and rushing, I was trying to push past what I was doing in the present moment and attempting to rush on to the next item on my agenda. My saying that I was willing was a powerful reminder to relax, to flow with the way things were right in that moment, to cooperate with the situation, and to focus on doing what would work best right then instead of worrying about what was coming next. For me, focusing on being willing was like taking a fast-acting Chill Pill. 

Finally I found that taking a time out slowed down my internal motor. I took a ten-day vacation in Florida, spending a lot of time floating in the pool and napping.

When I returned from vacation, I felt the Revving Engine on my first day back at work, but I haven't felt it since. Occasionally when I notice myself mentally and emotionally trying to push through and past a situation, I think, I'm willing, and I relax into the moment and calm right down.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Willing versus willful

I've received advanced training in Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT) program. It's a wonderful set of lessons full of amazing techniques for managing difficult feelings and establishing emotional well being. At the heart of the program is the skill of mindfulness; most of the postings in this blog are based on principles found in mindfulness meditation. However the "willful versus willing" DBT lesson is particularly powerful, and I'd like to review it here. 

It is not the goal of any self-help or self-development program to eliminate all pain from life; that's impossible. One of my favorite quotes from the DBT program is that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We can't do much about some life situation popping up and creating a stab of emotional pain. However at that point, how we choose to react to that pain determines whether it will soon subside or whether we'll stoke it into a bonfire of intense, long-lasting suffering. One of the key factors to preventing suffering is whether in that difficult moment we choose to respond in a way that is "willful" or "willing."

In the DBT program, the "willful versus willingness" lesson appears under the larger topic of Radical Acceptance. Completely describing the concept of Radical Acceptance is outside the scope of this posting, but let me try to summarize it. Denial is when we insist that the difficult situation we're facing is wrong or shouldn't be happening. Acceptance is when we acknowledge that the difficult situation we're facing is actually happening. Radical Acceptance is when we take responsibility for addressing the difficult situation as best we can, we accept that parts of the situation are completely outside of our control, and we make the very best of the situation, addressing it and improving as best we can.

So hopefully you can see how being willing to address the situation is a key step toward Radical Acceptance. Let's take a look at what it means to address a situation in a willing manner:

  • You pay attention to what is happening in this situation and how you feel about it; you simply notice it without impulsively and quickly acting on it.
  • You determine what the situation calls for, and you decide to do something that is effective.
  • You pay attention as you take action in the moment.

Now I could give a full-day workshop on what it means to be effective. However I can summarize it to mean doing what works, which appropriately addresses the situation, makes sure that you're taking care of yourself along the way, results in you feeling proud of how you reacted, and results in the best possible outcome. For example, if the bad situation is literally a glass of spilled milk, then effective action cleans up the spill as quickly and efficiently as possible, instead of blaming, shaming, crying over it, or other actions that are beside the point.

Doing what works may sound obvious to you, but observe in life how many times people act and react in ways that have nothing to do with effectively addressing a situation. People have hidden agendas, use situations to boost their egos, deny situations that threaten them, do what's comfortable and familiar, avoid out of fear, and much more.

Let's take a closer look at what it means to act willfully:

  • You sit on your hands when the situation requires action.
  • You give up.
  • You do the opposite of what works, taking ineffective action.
  • You try to fix a situation that can't be fixed.
  • You try to force things instead of working cooperatively with what's around you, especially if you're trying to fix it in your head—thinking intensely about it over and over again—without taking action.

To shift into a willing state of mind, I suggest that my clients use thinking such as this: I wouldn't have written the script this way, but this is the way it's turned out. All the wishing in the world isn't going to make it different. I can manage this. To use another Marsha Linehan analogy from DBT, it's like playing cards. A good player doesn't stress about one hand that she's dealt. The idea is to be mindfully aware of your hand and to play it as skillfully as possible. When that hand is over then you let it go emotionally and move on to playing the next hand you're dealt. If you play each hand as skillfully as you can, then you end up playing a darn good game of cards. The same can be said of life as well.

To apply this lesson to your life, mindfully observe when you're resisting, denying, or refusing to deal effectively with a situation. Then shift to a mindset that allows you to accept the situation, flow with it, address it as best you can, and find peace in it without having to fix it.

Weight loss project: Getting the heart rate up

As part of documenting my Lose the Gut project, I thought I'd write briefly about the aerobic exercises that I'm doing.

First, I'm doing my workouts in a gym; I work long hours, the gym is attached to my office building, and the convenience makes me more likely to stick with the program. Because I had back surgery for a herniated disc, I've begun by using the elliptical machine for a minimum of 45 minutes (often an hour), and I'll do that three to four days a week. During very busy weeks, I've noticed that I still get good results if I do anything 30 minutes or longer, and I can almost always afford to spend a half hour on exercise (not including locker room time).

I also do core exercises from the book The AbSmart Fitness Plan by Adam Weiss. I've been very pleased with how these exercises feel do-able without straining my back. However I've been startled by how long it's taken me to be able to do the Intermediate level of three sets of five exercises. I'll chalk that up to being 53. I'm seeing results, so I will stick with this abs program even though it's taking me months to get it up and running.

To protect my back I won't do rowing. I've postponed any running on the treadmill until I'm stronger and in better shape. I will do 15 to 30 minutes on a stationary bike after I'm finished on the elliptical machine, but only in those rare instances when I have extra time. As for the elliptical machine, I'll alternate between one that has those ski-pole arms and one that does not (but allows you to alter the incline).

I find that intervals work very well for me; the elliptical machine that I use has an automatic interval setting, which runs for two minutes on a Difficult setting and  alternates with two minutes on an Easier/Rest setting. I recommend playing with the resistance and incline settings until the Difficult setting makes you breathe heavily by the end of that two minute cycle but does not exhaust you! Put another way, I recommend that the Difficult setting put your heart rate well into the Cardio range (not the lower Weight Loss range!).

I recommend pushing the pace during the Difficult setting, energy permitting; if the energy isn't there, especially late into the exercise, just complete the Difficult cycle without pushing it. Using this method, when I measure my heart rate, it always lands between 140 and 155 heart beats per minute at the completion of the Difficult interval. 

In addition to being humane about alternating between a challenging pace and a more restful pace, intervals help to address the problem of plateauing and getting the after-burn effect. By "mixing it up" and getting your heart rate into the Cardio range, you're likely to create an effect in which your shaken up metabolism will continue to burn some extra calories after you've finished the exercise. Obviously this is goodness.

If you're working with a personal trainer then I have no issue with you pushing harder under her or his supervision. However I work out alone. Also, after my workout and during the next day, I need to be clear headed for clients, and I struggle to do that if I push my workouts harder than I've described. I've been able to drop twelve pounds in four months using this method, and I'm happy with that slower pace, given the other positives that I get from it.

Finally, it's important to be aware that there are multiple ways to get your heart rate pumping. For example I worked with a client who struggled with foot and joint issues, so the elliptical machines and treadmills were difficult for her to use for long without feeling pain. Her personal trainer introduced a boxing workout that got her heart rate up with much less foot and leg movement, and she loved this exercise! Because you're more likely to stick with something you enjoy, it can be worth your while to experiment with different aerobic activities. Also, swimming is a great way to get your heart rate up without putting extra stress on your joints. The goal is to do any activity for 30 minutes or longer that gets your heart rate into the Cardio range for your age.

Here's a posting and chart that can help you to figure out the Cardio range for your age. I recommend starting out in the Beginning range and working your way into Intermediate within a month or two.

Scary stories we tell ourselves about growing old

As a life & career coach I help people to get unstuck so they can reach personal goals quicker and easier. While doing this work I've noticed that mortality issues often cause us to freeze, avoid, or freak out more intensely than other challenges. So anything involving sickness, starting a family, the death of a loved one, the death of a pet, aging parents, saving for retirement, and more, can trigger really intense feelings and stall progress toward related goals.

Addressing our mortality doesn't always have to be a heavy conversation. Sometimes it can be approached from a humorous angle.

For example, a female friend of mine has a theory about all women's worst fear. She thinks that womendeep downare afraid they're headed toward one of two dreaded situations in their elder years:

  • The homeless bag lady pushing the shopping cart down the street.
  • The cat lady who needs an intervention to remove the animals from her home.
During conversations involving fear of getting older, I'll mention this to my female clients, and they'll look at me wide eyed as if saying How did you know that?! Then we'll have a good laugh about it.

Check this out:

I'm not quite sure what the male version of that growing-old fear would be, but at the age of 53 I know what's been on my mind lately. Every once in a while I'll observe one of my reactions to change or to the younger generation, and I fear that I'm becoming a Grumpy Old Man. You know, the one who opens his door and screams into the neighborhood, Arrrrrrr! What's WRONG with you kids today! Get off my lawn! Arrrrrr!!!

But that's not happening, right? I'm still cool, right?  ;-)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nervous talking on the phone? Standing up may smooth out the conversation.

I recently worked with a client who had an unusual dislike of conducting business on the phone, which became especially intense when talking with someone she didn't know. 

In an interesting coincidence, I struggle with the same situation. Email? In person? I'm fine striking up a conversation with someone I don't know. A phone call coming in from a number I don't recognize? I don't want to answer it, and I often feel awkward with my wording as I'm speaking.

Recently I stumbled upon a way to make these calls much, much easier. I thought I'd share my discovery in case there are others out there who struggle as my client and I do.

First I let new calls from unknown sources go to voice mail. I then prepare myself and call the person back. Immediately after I dial, I stand up and pace slowly while talking. 

Keep your arms uncrossed and hands out of your pockets ("open" body language). If you pace then be sure to keep it slow; when I've paced too quickly I became out-of-breath and struggled to talk evenly. Feel free to gesture with your hands as if the person were in the room with you.

I can't explain why this works, I have no brilliant theories. All I know is that I feel less "trapped" when I talk to strangers on the phone this way, and my ability to find words, answer questions, and be flexible and nimble with my ideas are much improved when I stand, walk, and gesture while talking.

If you find these kinds of phone calls challenging then give this technique a try.