Yesterday I spent most of my waking hours carrying boxes up several flights of stairs for friends who had recently moved back to Pittsburgh (yay!). It was wonderful to catch up on each others’ lives, but I got just as much out of the lifting and climbing as I did out of the intellectual camaraderie. There’s something wonderful about collapsing on your couch at the end of the day with the sense of a job well-done, muscles pleasantly aching because darn it, you put your back into it.
It’s strange to think that, once upon a time, you didn’t really need to make time for exercise because our society depended so much more on manual labor, both at home and at paying jobs. Now those of us in the service and information economies have to carve out space in our busy schedules to run, swim, stretch, climb, and all the other things that used to come to us naturally (and that so many other people still do for a living). Given that I can’t help someone move every day, it’s worth the schedule-shuffling if it keeps me from turning into a slack-jawed couch potato.
The Library collection has been really helpful in terms of finding new workouts and activities to try. Because I already walk all over the city, I’ve pretty much got cardio fitness under control. Books about strength training and flexibility, however, are always coming home with me from the Library for a test-drive. Here are a few of the books that have made it to my permanent home collection.
The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health, Linda Sparrowe.
This book contains three long practices and a wide variety of short sequences that women can use through the various stages their life, from young adulthood through post-menopause. The instructions are clear, the illustrations are helpful, and the advice is comprehensive: Sparrowe covers modifications and suggested poses for pregnancy, osteoporosis, arthritis, and back pain, and she has a lot of helpful advice on topics like eating disorders, depression, and perimenopausal symptoms. If you need a serving of stretching with some heaping sides of emotional support, this is the yoga omnibus for you.
Ballet Beautiful, Mary Helen Bowers.
Always wanted to work at the barre, but can’t bring yourself to join an actual dance class? Bowers, who helped train Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan, offers a butt-kicking workout that will leave your muscles aching, your posture taller, and your face grinning from the sense of achievement you’ll feel after that last set of swan arms (tougher than they sound, I assure you). Because of my visual impairment, I’d rather learn this sort of thing from a book; however, Bowers has created a series of companion DVDs for those of you who learn better from a live instructor. Respect the ballerinas, my friend, for they are made of pure steel under those tutus, and this workout proves it.
The Abs Diet, David Zinczenko.
Normally I avoid any book with the word “diet” in it, mostly because of the “die” part (moderation in all things is more my style). The gold in this book, however, comes from the actual workout, which combines ab exercises and weight training for an all-over body buzz that will make you feel strong and confident. I like this workout because it doesn’t require a lot of special gym equipment; if you have it, that’s great, but modifications are provided for those of us who rely on free weights around the house. There’s also The Abs Diet for Women, but here’s a little secret: it’s the same workout. So don’t be fooled by gendered marketing; just get your hands on either of these books, or the companion DVDs, and get crunching.
Smart Girls Do Dumbbells, Judith Sherman-Wolin.
One of the biggest myths out there is that women who lift weights become She-Hulks; while I can think of worse things than looking like Jennifer Walters, it’s just not true, and Sherman-Wolin’s book explains why, in great detail. Once you’re convinced, you can flip to the back section where she outlines a 30-day program that alternates upper and lower body weight training with incrementally increasing weights and reps.
These workouts are great when you’re crunched for time; they’re over so fast, you think you’re not really doing anything, but as the days go by, you’ll feel stronger, healthier, and happier. By the time you’re ready to level up the weights, you’ll be feeling a lot more confident, too. This is one of my favorite workout books.
The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, Bernie Clark.
Yin yoga uses many of the same poses you may already know from other forms of yoga; what’s different is that you hold them for long periods of time, so that when you finally release them, your whole body weeps with gratitude. At least, that’s what it feels like! This is much more pleasant than it sounds; often I do not realize how tense I am until I practice one of Clark’s sequences and feel so much better afterwards.
There’s a lot of information on the history, practice, and anatomy of yin yoga; depending on your level of interest, you can peruse it all or jump straight into the workouts, though a cursory reading of the introductory material is a good idea if you’ve never done yin style before. Each sequence is offered in two lengths: a reasonably short one (30 minutes) and a longer one (60-90 minutes), so you can modify your workout based on how much time you can make to practice. Clark says that even if you’ve only got time for one long pose, it’s better than nothing; having tested that theory myself, I agree 110%.
Consider this book a workout for your brain that will help you design a workout for your body. Sadly, a lot of women don’t enjoy exercise because they think of it as a chore, a duty, or a punishment for a body that doesn’t fit into society’s draconian cultures for what is “acceptable.” Blank calls shenanigans on all that, and argues that movement is supposed to be fun and joyful, something you do because it feels good, not because you’re not a size zero, or because you ate cake today.
A combination of practical advice, encouragement, and writing exercises designed to help you figure out what would work for you, Blank’s book emphasizes being fit over being thin, which is good, because they aren’t necessarily the same thing. A must-read for anyone struggling with body image issues, and don’t forget the resource list in the back, which is loaded with more useful gems.
It can be really difficult to feel at home in your body when your waking life relies so heavily on your brainpower, and when the culture you live in only values that body if it fits a certain mold. I’ve managed to take my power back by finding physical activities that not only make me stronger, but bring me joy. Do you like to exercise? Why or why not? What kinds of workouts do you do most often? Do you have a favorite workout book / DVD / download? Share your thoughts and resources in the comments section!
with apologies to Soul II Soul