Monday, June 29, 2015

High Intensity Interval Training

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of cardiovascular exercise that has been found to improve overall conditioning, boost metabolism, and burn fat.  It has been a part of the training of serious athletes for a long time and has become increasingly popular with more casual exercisers in the past few years.

HIIT entails alternating short bursts of high intensity anaerobic exercise, making your heart work much harder, interspersed with more moderate levels of recovery.  It requires high motivation because it is very physically demanding and therefore not for everyone.  But if you already exercise regularly and are looking to ramp up your exercise program, HIIT may be just the thing for you.

 According to Wikipedia, “HIIT exercise sessions generally consist of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period.”

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) tells us that high intensity intervals should be performed at about 80 to 95% of capacity or maximum heart rate.  It should feel like you are exercising hard or very hard, to the point where it would be difficult to carry on a conversation.

In contrast, recovery intervals should be done at about 40 to 50% of maximum heart rate, a low enough level to allow you to recover sufficiently to move on to the next interval.  Note: older people may require a longer recovery period.  

HIIT can be done with almost any form of aerobic or cardio exercise including walking, running, biking, swimming, or elliptical training.


According to Wikipedia and ACSP, based on research, HIIT has numerous benefits:
  • Improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health,
  • Improved insulin sensitivity (important for diabetics or pre-diabetics),
  • Reduced abdominal fat

And according to the ACSP, not only do HIIT workouts burn more calories during the workout itself, but also afterwards compared to regular cardio workouts that don’t involve high-intensity intervals.

Safety Concerns:  Who Can Practice HIIT? 

HIIT is not appropriate for people who have been largely sedentary, at least until they “establish a foundational level of fitness” (ACSM).  People with cardiovascular conditions (e.g., hypertension, high cholesterol, or who smoke), diabetes or obesity should not attempt HIIT without being first evaluated by a physician and cleared for exercise.

Before beginning HIIT, you should be able to exercise at least 20-30 minutes at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate [see below for maximum heart rate].  

Starting an HIIT Program

The whole exercise period can last from 20 to 60 minutes.  There is no generally agreed upon specific formula for length or ratio of the high intensity intervals versus the recovery periods. In what I read I saw that the ratio can range from 1:1 (equal length intervals of intensity and recovery) to 1:4 (recovery periods last 4 times as long as intervals, e.g., 30 seconds at 80 to 90% followed by 2 minutes of recovery).  

The exact ratio depends on person’s level of fitness, with serious athletes better able to have longer high intensity intervals and shorter recovery periods.  People who only have a short period to exercise like HIIT because the high intensity can be a way of getting a lot of benefit in a relatively short time frame.

Begin each HIIT session with at least 5 minutes of warm up and 5 minutes of cool down.  The graphic below depicts a sample schedule if you are interested in trying HIIT:

How often should you engage in HIIT?   Because it takes longer for your body to recover completely from HIIT, no more than three times per week is recommended.  Depending on your conditioning, you might want to start out with once a week and gradually move up to three times per week.  You can, and should, customize HIIT to your own fitness level.

Maximum heart rate and exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control, maximum heart rate is determined by subtracting your age from 220 (in my case 220 - 66 = 153 beats per minute).  Vigorous exercise is performed at 70 to 85% of your your maximum heart rate.  Therefore HIIT would be considered extremely vigorous at 80 to 95%.  Moderate activity is considered to be 50 to 70% of your max heart rate.

My HIIT Program

About three times per week I have been doing 6 to 10 intervals during a 35 to 40 minute period of exercise on an elliptical machine.  I warm up first for at least 5 minutes.  My intervals last from 30 to 45 seconds, and I get my heart rate up to 80 to 90% of the maximum, 122 to 138.  I follow each high-intensity interval with a recovery interval of 2 to 4 minutes at 50%, although my heart rate stays pretty high, 100 to 110.  I have been enjoying it.  It makes an otherwise pretty boring session of cardio a lot more interesting by setting up challenges.

If you are already exercising pretty regularly, give it a try!

Wisdom and Aging

I've been thinking a lot lately about wisdom, perhaps because I say the Serenity Prayer pretty much every day (“God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I
can, and the wisdom to know the difference”).  Also, recently someone said to me that some things I had said in a meeting were very wise.  Hmmm...

One of the stereotypical hallmarks of aging is wisdom. Have older people cornered the market on wisdom?  Am I wiser now than when I was younger?  Can you foster wisdom in people?  

What exactly is wisdom?

When I did some research on wisdom, I found that there wasn’t a whole of agreement on what wisdom is.


Wikipedia defines wisdom as “the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.” 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines wisdom as:  “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgment.”

So, wisdom might consist of:  knowledge, good judgment, good decision-making, the ability to apply experience and knowledge, common sense, and insightfulness.

There may be more discussion about and research on wisdom these days as the bulging Baby Boom generation – our generation – moves into old age.   Researchers agree that wisdom is hard to study, but not necessarily on what it is.

Research by gerontologists and psychologists tells us that some of the characteristics of people deemed wise include:

  • Higher well-being
  • Ability to accept reality with equanimity
  • High self-awareness but low self-centeredness
  • Better, more active coping
  • Good emotional regulation
  • Humility
  • Reflective
  • Empathetic
  • Pragmatic
  • Learn from previous negative experiences
  • Generous

A New York Times Magazine article called "The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis" from 2007 noted that “certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: a clear-eyed view of human nature and the human predicament; emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.”

The Times article goes on to discuss a California study of older people:

“What the Stanford researchers [Laura Carstensen and colleagues] have found — in the laboratory and out in the world — is that despite the well-documented cognitive declines associated with advancing age, older people seem to have figured out how to manage their emotions in a profoundly important way. Compared with younger people, they experience negative emotions less frequently, exercise better control over their emotions and rely on a complex and nuanced emotional thermostat that allows them to bounce back quickly from adverse moments. Indeed, they typically strive for emotional balance, which in turn seems to affect the ways their brains process information from their environment.”

There seems to be agreement that being old, or older, doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. 
According, again, to The New York Times: "Surprisingly, a good deal of evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, suggests that the seeds of wisdom are planted earlier in life -- certainly earlier than old age, often earlier than middle age and possibly even earlier than young adulthood.  And there are strong hints that wisdom is associated with an earlier exposure to adversity or failure.  

I really agree with the latter point regarding adversity.  When I think of the people I would consider to have wisdom, all have struggled with some type, maybe multiple types of adversity at some point in their lives.

What do you think about wisdom?  How important is it to you as an older woman to be wise?  How have you benefited from the wisdom of others?  who do you know that you would consider to be wise?  Food for thought...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Active Gratitude

One of the most important things I have learned in recovery is gratitude.  That's right, I learned to be grateful.  I don't remember being grateful much at all before I got into recovery, although I must have been thankful at least occasionally.  If you are not spending part of every single day being grateful, then you can and should learn to practice active gratitude.

What is active gratitude?  We all know that being grateful is being thankful or appreciative.  Active gratitude involves really working at being thankful for the many blessings in our life, no matter what our life looks like at the moment.

Why?  Active gratitude promotes happiness and well-being.  And who doesn't want to be happy?  The research of Dr. Robert Emmons, who considers gratitude to be a human strength, has found that grateful people are less stressed and depressed, have more positive emotions, are more optimistic, and are more satisfied with their lives.

Although gratitude can be associated with one's religion, one doesn't have to be religious to practice active gratitude (although I would consider it to be an aspect of spirituality).

Strive to make active gratitude a daily habit of mind.  I list the things I am grateful for shortly after a rise in the morning.  Your gratitude list can include big important things, like a spouse, friend, or financial security, but also more mundane and fleeting things like a sunny day or light traffic.  If I'm feeling snarky, off the beam, or just have the blahs, I try to add some new things to my list.

I've found a couple really excellent links to websites that talk about what active gratitude is and how you go about practicing it.

5 Reasons to Practice Gratitude -

Practice Active Gratitude | BJ Gallagher - Huffington Post

Having trouble feeling grateful?  Feeling like your life stinks at the moment?  All the more reason to work actively at being grateful.  I would contend that no matter how bad your life seems, there are always things to be grateful for.

You have cancer? Sure, pretty bad, but having health insurance is something to be grateful for, as is having family or friends to support you through it.

Not in the romantic relationship you'd like to be right now?  Ok, loneliness is no fun, but do you have food on the table?  Are you healthy?  Is there a roof over your head?  Then there are three important things to be thankful for.

Count your blessings.  If your life is wonderful right now, then you have a lot to be grateful for.  Enumerate those things every day and let others know how grateful you are.  But if your life seems not so great right now, if you are struggling, it is even more important for you to identify what you are grateful for.  In other words, use gratitude to change your attitude.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Meditation has been around for thousands of years and has become increasingly popular in recent years.  Considering its benefits, it is easy to see why.  Meditation originated as a spiritual practice in many religious traditions, including Buddhism and Christianity.  What exactly is meditation?


There are numerous different types of meditation and to some extent its definition depends on the type we are talking about.  Most types of meditation involve focusing one’s attention on a single point of reference.  The focus can be one’s breath, a particular word or mantra, a candle flame, etc.

The definition I like best comes from the Free Dictionary (see link below:

Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.”

Meditation is about training the mind so that we increase awareness and can be more present in our lives.


Meditation is not easy, as even experienced regular practitioners will admit.  Then why practice it?  Regular practice of meditation has been found by both personal self- report and scientific study to have numerous benefits:

  • Deep relaxation and stress reduction
  • Reduced anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of well-being
  • Improvements in a variety of medical conditions, including hypertension, arthritis, stroke, insomnia, chronic pain, ulcers, colitis and substance abuse
  • Greater focus and concentration when not meditating

How to Meditate

There are a variety of written and online resources available to help you get started with meditation.  If you want to learn more about mindfulness meditation I would urge you to read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go There You Are.  The former is about stress and its harmful impact on the body.  If you are experiencing a lot of stress in your life you are likely to find it both educational and very helpful.  Wherever You Go is about meditation itself, and I found it very helpful in getting me started on regular meditation.  Both are available in good bookstore and on Amazon.  The links before are useful for getting started with meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation

The type of meditation that has been most extensively studied is mindfulness meditation as practiced by Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed it to assist patients who have experienced a variety of stress-related physical illnesses. 

The goal of mindfulness meditation, if in fact it has a goal, is to be present.  Simply put, it involves sitting (or lying) still and focusing on the breath for a period of time that can range from 15 minutes to an hour or more.  Both beginners and experienced practitioners will find that despite the intention to focus exclusively on the breath, the mind will wander.  In fact, when I talk to people about mediation the most common response I get from people is “Oh, I tried it a couple times but I couldn’t do it because my mind kept jumping around.”

Of course your mind wanders – that’s what our minds do!  In fact, your mind will start to wander almost immediately.  These constant thoughts, this chattering, is sometimes referred to as “monkey mind.”  And what happens when our minds wander while we are trying to meditate?  

We become judgmental and get down ourselves for having wandering minds, which is not helpful.  Instead, simply note the thoughts your mind has wandered to and refocus your attention on your breath.  Kabat-Zinn talks about imagining your thoughts as objects floating by on a river, or perhaps clouds floating by in the sky.  Over time you will notice a quieter mind with less chatter.

Getting Started:  Meditation Tips

  • Start small.  An easy way to start is just counting your breaths.  Count to 10 and then just start over again.  Decide in advance how long you will meditate and set your phone for that amount of time so you won’t get distracted by thinking about how long you’ve been at it.
  • Meditation takes patience.  Be easy on yourself.  Meditation is challenging; if it was easy everyone would be doing it and we’d all have quiet minds.  Practice compassion on yourself.
  • Try to meditate in the same place every time so the place itself over time will become associated with mindfulness.
  • Set aside time when you will not be disturbed.  If you live with others, let them know that you need to have this period of time to yourself.
  • Experiment with different ways of meditating (e.g., with soft music in the background, guided, silence, sitting, lying down, walking, focusing on a candle, with your eyes closed, etc.  If you stick with, chances are you will find what works best for you.
  • Try to meditate daily, if only for 5 minutes.  It’s the regular practice and discipline that is beneficial in the long run.
  • Try to be more mindful in everyday life; eat mindfully, for example.
  • Be more aware of your breath when you're not meditating, when you driving your car, for example, or talking with your partner.
  • If you have trouble sitting for long periods of time, try lying down, on your back on the floor or a bed.  You might be more comfortable with a pillow under your head and/or your knees.  Place your arms out to your side, palms up and your feet in a relaxed position about shoulder length apart (savasana position in yoga)
  • After you complete each meditation practice, regardless of how good you think it was, reward yourself with positive affirmations for doing it, e.g., well, although my mind was jumping around today, at least I put in the effort.

Meditation Music

As meditation has become more popular, quite of bit of New Age music has become available to provide a soothing background for meditation.  You can experiment with iTunes or some of the free streaming music services like Pandora.  A couple of composers I really like who do a lot of music good for relaxing, meditation and yoga are Deuter and Dean Evenson.  But there are many others.  Some of this music has embedded sounds that are designed to promote various cognitive states such as relaxation or creativity.  One example of a prolific composer whose music includes such tones is Dr. Jeffrey Thompson.

A sub-genre of this music that I really like includes ambient nature sounds such as ocean waves, forest sounds, or a gurgling stream.  Many people find this type of "music very relaxing.  I find it very conducive to meditation as well.

Guided Meditation

A variety of guided meditations are available on CD.  Jon Kabat-Zinn has several that are available pretty inexpensive on Amazon.  I think the best one to start with is the one called "Guided Mindfulness: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program" ($16.10 on Amazon).  It includes 40-minute Body Scan meditation that I found very helpful in the beginning and still return to.  It also has two 45-minute simple yoga practices ("Yoga IS Meditation," says Kabat-Zinn, and I would agree) as well as other guided meditations.  If you are just starting out, you might find it easier to listen to someone in the beginning rather than sit (or lie) in silence for long periods of time.

If you Google "guided meditation" you will find a host of other free meditations available through a variety of sources, including YouTube.  I have included the link below to UCLA's website, including two body scan meditations as well as a lovingkindness meditation.  They range in length from 3 to 19 minutes, so they are excellent for beginners.  Two contain specific meditation instructions.  You can listen directly from your device, so I would recommend doing this on your phone or iPod using headphones.

Free Guided Meditations | UCLA Mindful Awareness ...

If you are not someone who has tried meditation, I hope I have opened your mind to the possibility.  Although its benefits are not immediate, with regular practice you can feel more relaxed, tuned into the present moment, and open to the world around you.

Be present!


Stretching is said to be an instinctive and natural human activity (Wikipedia).  It is also an essential part of any fitness program.  People who regularly stretch enjoy it and feel better afterwards.

Purpose and Benefits

The purpose of stretching is to lengthen muscle fibers and enhance muscle flexibility.  It is essential to stretch if you exercise because working out tends to shorten muscles fibers which, over time, will become tight. Other benefits of stretching include enhanced range of motion and injury prevention.  A major aspect of yoga's benefits and popularity is that is stretches so many muscle groups.

How to Stretch Correctly

Although stretching may be a natural human activity, there are right and wrong ways of stretching.  Stretching incorrectly can be harmful and even tear muscles.

In the link below, the Mayo Clinic includes several brief slide shows on how to stretch safely as well as recommended stretches for specific muscle groups, including calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, IT bands, hip flexors, etc.

Stretching: Focus on flexibility - Mayo Clinic

The type of stretching recommended in that link is called static stretching, where you stretch the muscle to the point where you feel tension -- but not pain -- and then hold for at least 30 seconds.  It is also important not to bounce when you stretch.

Another reputable health website WebMD, also provides advice about stretching, in particular dynamic stretching, in the link below:

Stretching and Flexibility: How to Stretch, When to Stretch

Other Stretching Tips

It is more beneficial to stretch after you exercise (when muscles are warm) than before.  At least this is true for static stretches.  Dynamic stretches that are performed while moving are more beneficial before exercising.  Stretching will be most beneficial when performed frequently, ideally daily, and can be done even when one is not exercising.

So what are you waiting for -- go stretch!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Establishing a new habit

Old (bad) habits are hard to break, and new ones are hard to get established.  If it was easy, nobody would have bad habits, and everybody would have good ones.  Change, it turns out, is pretty darn hard for almost everybody!

But the good news is that there is a whole body of research in behavioral psychology to guide us in how to start new habits successfully.  According research, it takes some time to get a new habit firmly established -- at least a month and more likely a couple months, as spelled out in the link below from the Huffington Post.  How long it takes will vary from person to person and depending on the type of habit.

You can access this research by Googling “establishing a new habit,” but some of it is highly technical and frankly not all that accessible for laypersons.  So I have summarized the gist of this research below, incorporating my personal experience.

  • Choose something relatively easy or attainable to start, like walking 20 minutes rather than an hour
  • Perform the behavior daily; less often than that makes it harder to establish the habit
  • Commit to 30 days; research shows that takes 4 to 8 weeks of daily performance to effectively establish a new habit
  • Set a reminder

  • Identify likely obstacles to performing your new behavior and figure out how you're going to get rid of those barriers; for example, waiting until the end of the day to exercise but feeling too tired.  Plan to work out in the morning instead.  Research has shown that morning exercisers are more likely to work out regularly than people who wait until later in the day

  • Be prepared to experience the “oh-screw-its” if you miss a day.  This is likely to happen.  Rather than saying to yourself, “this is just too much effort, it’s not worth it,” write down the benefits of establishing this new behavior and read them.  Be easy on yourself.  It’s not the end of the world if you missed a day or two.  You’re human.  No one is perfect and it’s unrealistic to think you are going to perform this new behavior perfectly. But don't waste any time in getting back into your new routine.  Think about my previous bullet point:  maybe you need to tweak your routine after figuring out why you failed to perform the new behavior.
  • Reward yourself for performing the new behavior with positive self-talk, e.g.,  “good job,” “you made progress today,” “you didn’t feeling like working out today but you did anyhow – good for you,” etc.

Weight Loss (or Control): What’s more important, what you eat or how much you exercise?

Just read a really interesting article the New York Times (June 19, 2015) by Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.  It confirms what my friend M (gorgeous, fit, late 50-something) mentioned awhile back:  for purposes of losing weight, exercising is much less important than what you eat (she said 80% of weight loss – or by extension weight maintenance – is what you eat and 20% is exercise).


Some of the points Dr. Carroll makes:

·      Exercise can increase your appetite, leading you to eat more (maybe because you rationalize that you’re burning it off by exercising)
·      Weight loss often slows your metabolism, regardless of whether you exercise, according to research studies, explaining why, over time with dieting it becomes harder to lose weight and you seem to plateau
·      Both dieting and exercise are hard, although “dietary change still works better than exercise” in terms of weight loss
·      In terms of dieting, slow gradual improvements that are sustainable over time, i.e., changing your eating habits in ways you can maintain long term, are more effective than brief drastic changes or cutbacks in calories that are not sustainable over time.

So, it almost sounds like you shouldn’t bother to exercise if you’re trying to lose weight.  I would argue that nothing is further from the truth.  Why?

Because there are MANY important reasons to exercise besides burning calories or losing weight.

According to the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health, exercise improves mood, boosts energy, promotes relaxation and improves sleep, and can prevent or delay certain diseases and health conditions, such as osteoarthritis or hypertension, and improve your endurance, flexibility, and balance.

I would also add that exercise makes you stronger, an important issue for older women as bone density naturally decreases with the aging process.  Exercise also combats stress and is a very healthy coping mechanism that has helped me greatly over the years as well as others.

Also, exercise can and should be fun.  There are so many different ways to work out.  To be sustainable, exercise has to be at least somewhat enjoyable for its own sake.  If you don’t like to (or can’t) run, think about hiking or bicycle riding.  If working out with weights is not your thing, consider yoga, which improves strength as well as promoting flexibility.

Furthermore, according to the NIH, it’s never to late to start.  So if you are not someone who has never exercised, or haven’t done so recently, you can start now.

So get moving!!

Next Up:  How to establish a new healthy habit.