Sunday, August 2, 2015

The (Barely) Fit Writer

Would you look at that? Back in Vegas, and the blog is back to its normal fonts and coloring. Sad to see the French theme go, but it was time.

While I was in France, I thought of a few ideas for themed blog posts. However, none of them were particularly French, so I decided to save them for my return. The first is exercise.

If you're like me, you hate exercise. Or at least, you hate conscious exercise. I'm not aggressive enough for sports. The gym bores me. Running makes my considerable chest hurt, and not even the fanciest, most high-tech of sports bras can help. In a perfect world, I'd be able to sit on the couch all day and eat whatever food I wanted (all of which would be prepared by my personal chef so I didn't have to waste time cooking) and write and read. Occasionally I would take a nice long walk for variety. Also, I'd be David Bowie.

Sadly, this world is deeply flawed. I am not David Bowie, and calories exist. Therefore, I have had to find enjoyable ways to exercise, and I have had some success. Now I will share my secrets, so you too can stay fit (enough).

In 2008 and 2009, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Rome, Italy and Beijing, China. I was convinced that I'd lose weight in China, as I wasn't a huge fan of Chinese food, and my chopstick skills were miserable. Turns out that authentic Chinese food is delicious, and that in order to deliver the delicious food to one's mouth, one can learn how to use chopsticks very quickly. When I returned to the States, I wasn't happy with how I looked. I started eating better, but I knew I needed to find a way to exercise that was effective, tolerable, and would take as little time as possible. I didn't think I was particularly good at dancing, but I knew I didn't hate dancing, and I also knew I liked music. A few Google searches later, and I ended up ordering a copy of The Bollywood Dance Workout, featuring "fitness star" (whatever that means) Hemalayaa.

There are lots of terrible things about The Bollywood Dance Workout, first and foremost the blatant cultural appropriation. Furthermore, Hemalayaa is obnoxious, and she frequently screws up the moves, unlike the other dancers in the video. Here's the thing though: it works really well. The workout is only 50 minutes long. I did it once a day for a few months, and I lost tons of weight. I looked like an idiot while doing it, but I was in my living room alone, so that didn't matter. Plus, I scrolled through the DVD menu and learned that there's a feature which allows you to turn off Hemalayaa's disgustingly cheerful voice. I wouldn't recommend this when you're first starting out, but once you get the hang of it, by all means, make it stop.

I must not be the only one for whom The Bollywood Dance Workout was effective, for there are many other DVDs in the series, some that focus on abs, some that focus on legs, and so on. Nevertheless, doing the same thing every day gets dull after a while. After I graduated from college and started working full time, I realized I could afford a hobby, and I decided to find one that would get me moving. A friend recommended the Psychedelic Go-Go dance classes at The Old Town School of Folk Music. I love 1960's music and fashion, so I decided to give it a shot.

Changed my goddamn life. Sounds silly, but it's true.

Once a week on Thursday nights I'd go to classes and dance with many other lovely people who also like 1960's music and fashion. The instructor, Tina, is funny and fabulous and talented, and she always took the time to choreograph dynamic numbers for us to perform at the end of the session, and she'd often make us costumes to boot. When I started gogo classes, I thought I was an awful dancer. But that isn't true! I'm a good dancer, assuming it's the kind of music and the style of dance that I like. I daresay that I flourished in gogo classes. Gogo became one of my favorite activities. I got stronger, and my confidence went through the roof. Eventually I even started gogo dancing semi-professionally, as the solo act Blondie Saint-Shimmy (yeah, I had a stage name) in variety productions like Beast Women, and in a troupe with the (ultra-fantastic) Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band The Fortunate Sons.

Pictures or it didn't happen:

I desperately wish I still owned this dress.

Of course, if you're not fortunate enough to live in the greatest city on the planet Chicago, gogo lessons may be difficult to come by. But do not fret! The internet is your friend. Back before she was a burlesque legend, Angie Pontani and her sisters were queens of the gogo scene, and they produced a series called gogo-robics. The first one is nearly impossible to find, and the second DVD is out of print as well--it's available on Amazon, but it's relatively expensive. Fortunately, some kind soul uploaded the second edition to YouTube. The first section goes through some basic gogo moves, and then they teach you a dance to the song "Barracuda" by The 5.6.7.8's. Once you get the moves down, you can throw on whatever 60's music you want and improvise. (Or not 60's music. In the picture above I was dancing to Cake's "Short Skirt Long Jacket.") It's excellent cardio, and at least in my opinion, it is legitimately fun. Pro-tip: if you want to dance in boots, don't get them at the costume store. Order boots from marching band surplus stores online. Slightly lower heel, literally made for walking.

When I moved to Las Vegas, I had to hang up my fringe dresses and stop performing--though I still gogo dance for exercise on a regular basis, usually for about an hour at a time. Still, moving to a new state is a good excuse to pick up a new hobby, too. In Nevada there are mountains. I can still hardly comprehend the existence of mountains, as Illinois is flat as flat can be. Near Vegas, there's great hiking at Red Rock Canyon--but am I going to drive thirty minutes to go hiking on a regular basis? No. Way too lazy for that. Exercise needs to be easily accessible, or I'm not going to do it. Fortunately, after some prodding from BFFL-and-frequent-visitor Leta, I went to the climbing gym with her and my friend Austin.

In my head it seems like I've been rock climbing for a while now, but in reality it hasn't been that long. This very blog tells me that I first went climbing sometime in April of 2014, so it hasn't even been a year and a half. And that might be the best thing about rock climbing: one can improve quickly. I'm certainly not brilliant at it, but I can already climb at intermediate levels, and it's not as though I spend my time lifting weights or training for it in any way. Climbing feels less like exercise and more like a logic puzzle--how do I climb up this wall while using only the holds that are taped in green? (Or blue or pink--whatever.) It's actually fantastic exercise, though, and after climbing for an hour or two I'm usually quite tuckered out. It has its disadvantages: you have to pay for a climbing gym membership, and if you don't own equipment, you have to pay to rent it. Also, it helps to have someone to go climbing with; most gyms have auto-belays, but not very many auto-belays. You could always go bouldering instead (climbing up shorter heights without a rope), but I am not a fan. I think I got started too late in life--the fear sections of my brain were already fully developed, so jumping to the ground from even four or five feet up freaks me out. I realize that being in a harness hardly makes it less dangerous, but it feels less dangerous, and that's all that matters. I don't want to discourage anyone: as long as you do it properly, the dangers are relatively low. If you're in Vegas, Nevada Climbing Centers is my gym of choice, but there are many others. If you're in Chicago, good news! They just recently opened/are soon opening a few gyms there: First Ascent in Logan Square and Uptown, and Brooklyn Boulders in the West Loop. I haven't been to any of those, but hopefully they're good.

I also haven't been climbing on an actual mountain yet. Soon...

Last Spring I started taking a Mindfulness and Meditation Workshop to help get my ridiculous anxieties under control. One big thing I learned from that experience is that I'm terrible at breathing. As in, I hardly breathe at all. I hold my breath, or I breathe shallowly, and when your brain likes to panic over nothing, being in an oxygen-deprived physical state doesn't help. Since then I've been working hard on mindful breathing, and it's made a world of difference. In order to help with mindful breathing, I started practicing yoga at the school gym.

Some people say that yoga is addictive. They are absolutely, 100% correct. I was skeptical at first, as until that point I had filed yoga in the "new-agey bullshit" category. In my head, "yoga practitioners" shopped exclusively at Lululemon and ate exclusively granola and listened exclusively to Enya--even though I knew plenty of people who did yoga and were not like that at all. I was also worried that I'd be bad at it. The most important thing to remember about yoga is that everyone sucks at first. These are not natural positions into which you're contorting yourself, so why would you be good at it? For the first few weeks, you'll fall over a lot. But it doesn't matter--everyone else is also focused on not falling over, so they won't notice when you do. The other nice thing about yoga is that it's more about breathing than it is about exercise, so once you get the hang of it, it's very calming. By the time Spring Break rolled around and there were no gym classes for a week, I was hooked, and I resorted to YouTube in order to get my fix. I like this 45-minute yoga workout, even if the woman does call herself something as silly as "Lesley Fightmaster." It's vinyasa yoga, and it's fairly repetitive. Once you go through it a few times, it's easy to remember. Bonus for early-2000's music nerds: many of the songs in the background are from the Garden State soundtrack.

But what about those days when you don't want to spend between 45 minutes and 2 hours exercising? I mean, there are so many seasons of Supernatural to binge-watch, am I right? Also, what if you live above other people and you don't want to stomp on their floor in your groovy gogo boots? The internet comes through for us once again.

When I was in France this summer, I lived on the fifth floor of an apartment complex. I was doing a lot of walking, but I knew I should probably figure out some way to squeeze in cardio. Leta is as brilliant as she is gorgeous and talented, and she found me this quiet cardio workout by FitnessBlender on YouTube. The downside: it's no fun. It's blatant exercise without any distractions, and as usual, I strongly dislike it. However, it's only 20 minutes long! 20 minutes, and you'll burn (according to FitnessBlender) 132-198 calories. Not a ton, but enough for those days when you're too busy playing games on your phone to do anything else. Plus, you don't need equipment of any kind--just your body. It's not great, but it works.

I skipped a few stories--my brief dabbling in burlesque, my occasional zumba stints--but for the most part, this is how I, a decidedly exercise-repulsed human, stay (kinda) fit. For all the writers out there, the musicians, the Netflix addicts, I hope this helps.

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