“Little treats” keep us going

I hate running. I’ve said that before, but it’s actually not so true any longer. I still don’t like to run, but I don’t hate it as much as I used to. That’s because I’ve been running regularly for over a year. I only run twice a week. And it’s still mostly run / walk, but I do run for over a minute at a time. I call that running. How did I achieve that consistency of doing something that I actively dislike? The “Premack principle.” Those rewards, those little treats keep us going.

A little treat keeps me on the treadmill

David Premack, a psychologist in the 1960s developed the theory, now named for him, that said that doing something you like to do can be a reward for doing something you don’t want to do. Like my listening to an audiobook that I really enjoy while I run, which I do not enjoy. It’s that little treat – an audiobook that I get for nothing – that keeps me on the treadmill. My body gets much more of a benefit from running than my brain does by listening to that audiobook. 

Those little treats keep us going, but they’re not luxuries

A recent article in Psychology today explains that these little treats are not a luxury. We’re not pampering ourselves by getting rewards. Ray Christner, the article’s author, says that the Premack principle has a solid foundation in psychology. And we use it for our dogs too. It’s called positive reinforcement. These little treats keep us going by offering encouragement for doing something good. 

It’s like dog training

Likewise, our dogs are rewarded for doing what we like. We always say that “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” And this holds for us, too. That audiobook gets me on the treadmill twice a week. And, now, to tell the truth, when I have to miss a day of running, I don’t feel quite right.

And studies have shown that the speed of the reward matters. The faster the reward is linked to the action, the more motivated to perform it. And it actually may not be the reward that compels us to perform the action – it may be how that reward makes us feel. Listening to that audiobook is not a tangible thing. And it’s different every time I turn the player on. But I feel the same enjoyment.

How to use those little treats

If the little treats keep us going, how do we use them? First, we have to set clear, achievable goals. For me, it’s treadmill time twice a week. Walking no more than half the time. And running at 7 miles per hour or more.

Identify meaningful rewards

Identify meaningful rewards and tie them to specific achievements. Choose rewards that you like, perhaps a cup of coffee or a half hour doing a crafting project after you perform the behavior you’re not fond of.

All things in moderation. Don’t go overboard – either with the reward you like or the behavior you don’t. Have the reward fit the behavior. 

And make sure it’s helping. For me, it is – I’m faster than I was, I can run longer, and I no longer hate running.

It’s true – those little treats keep us going. They motivate us to face challenges and lead a happier life. Remember to celebrate your achievements – big and little.

Not feeling it

After 325 articles about fitness, exercise, motivation, time management, healthy aging, balance, and other aspects of my world, I sat down to write something new and fresh and uplifting. But I just was not feeling it. Had I covered it all? I refuse to believe it. I just was not motivated to delve deeper.

Outside and Inside Forms of Motivation

So that leads me to the controlled and autonomous forms of motivation. Yes. Another research study! But this one is completely relevant to fitness and how we approach it. Controlled motivation is determined by outside forces. If it’s raining, we’re motivated to close the window. If my dogs are jumping on me, I’m motivated to put in another few minutes of training. I see controlled motivation as cause and effect. If you know you’re supposed to exercise and you’re not feeling it, controlled motivation is not going to cause you to change into workout gear and run. 

Outside motivation doesn’t last

Well, perhaps if you’ve eaten an entire candy bar, you may feel motivated to exercise for a while. But that candy bar is not going to inspire you to develop the healthy habit of a regular exercise program. Working out because you feel guilty or bloated today is not going to remind you to exercise in two days.

This controlled motivation goes away when the immediate need is satisfied. Once you don’t feel the bloat, you’re not likely to lace up those sneakers.And you know that exercise is not effective unless you do it several times every week. You won’t get all the benefits that exercise offers, like weight control, stronger heart and bones, better cognition and mood, and improved memory, unless it becomes a habit.

Healthy habits are autonomous motivation

And autonomous motivation creates healthy habits. That is, motivation that comes from within. So, even though you’re not feeling it, you go exercise. You brush your teeth twice a day no matter what. Every time you get in the car, you put your seatbelt on. You know that your teeth and gums stay healthy only if you brush twice a day. Putting your seatbelt on is not just the law, it saves lives. Sound familiar?

That autonomous motivation keeps me lacing up my sneakers 4 or 5 times a week because exercise has become a habit. So, even though I’m not feeling it, I still do it. I know that I’ll be in a better mood. And even though I may not realize it right away, I’ll be able to remember more. My sleep quality will be better.

So, even though you’re not feeling it, exercise anyway.

Sparking joy in exercise

I’ve said it before: “I don’t like to exercise.” And yet I do it 4 or 5 times a week. Every week. For years, now. You’re probably saying, “She might say she doesn’t like it, but she does. Deep down, she likes it.” No, I don’t. While I don’t exactly dread putting on my exercise clothes, once I’m in them and into a workout, I just keep going. And it’s true, if I really hated it, I wouldn’t do it. No amount of positive mindset-changing can do that. One kind of exercise, though, has always tried to elevate that positive feeling. Jazzercise’s mission is to spark joy in exercise.

Changing with the times

You may say that Jazzercise is outdated. You tried it years ago And, while it’s true that this style of exercise started in the 1970’s, it’s still popular, and not just among people who did it when it was first introduced. Jazzercise centers around a dance-based aerobics routine, but now there’s a strength training component. The music has changed with the times, as has much of the choreography, so Jazzercise is not your mother’s workout.

If it’s not fun, you’re not going to do it.

As I’ve said many times, if exercise isn’t fun, you’re not going to do it. Even if a certain workout has every single benefit you want – like instant weight-loss, a fix for your memory, and getting rid of flabby arms – if you don’t enjoy doing it, you’re not going to do it beyond a few days. 

So, I say if something can spark joy in exercise, by all means, do it. If Jazzercise was your thing back in the ‘80’s but you haven’t thought about it in years, get back into it. Classes are streaming now, in addition to classes that you can attend in person. 

Lots of options

And if Jazzercise isn’t your thing but you’d like other choreography-based workouts, there are plenty available. Search YouTube for instructors and music you like before you sign up for pricey classes. Or perhaps a gym near you will let you try out a class.

While it may take a lot to spark joy in exercise, you can find enjoyment in it. Any exercise you do is better than none. You’ll get physical as well as mental benefits, and it’s essential for your healthy aging. If you like dressing up, you can do that to your heart’s content too. Just be prepared to sweat!

The right way to breathe

Breathing is something we take for granted, every minute of every day. We only think about it when it becomes hard – for example, if we’re ill. (Like during my cold last week.) And we breathe harder during certain activities, when we exert ourselves running up the stairs, for instance. And we still don’t think about it. That’s pretty amazing, if you ask me. But, is there a right way to breathe?

Air is a life-giving resource that we don’t even have to think about receiving. During our normal, every-day, tasks oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide goes out and we don’t have to do a thing. But when we exercise, we should be conscious of our breath to maximize the benefits we want to receive. When our lungs are working properly, our performance is optimized and we can achieve the other benefits that exercise gives us. So, what’s the right way to breathe during exercise to get the most out of it?

What happens when you breathe?

When you breathe, air travels through lots of tubes and byways on its way to your lungs. In your lungs, the air ends up in little sacs called “alveoli.” Each alveolus is surrounded by tiny little capillaries which drop off carbon dioxide and pick up oxygen and take it through your bloodstream. The primary purpose for breathing is actually to get rid of carbon dioxide rather than to get oxygen.

When you exercise, levels of carbon dioxide increase in your bloodstream, leading to the need to breathe faster to get rid of the excess. Exercise can increase respiratory efficiency but it doesn’t actually lead to increased lung capacity.

When you breathe shallowly, this can lead to additional stress. If you pay attention to your breathing and notice that you’re just using the upper part of your chest, this is shallow breathing. You’re not getting the oxygen you need, and you’re also not getting rid of enough carbon dioxide, contributing to a panic mode. That’s why people say to “breathe deeply” to help you calm yourself. Change your mindset just a little to breathe from your diaphragm and you’ll be calmer and get more out of your workout.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The best way to feel what you’re supposed to be doing is if you try this lying down (no pillow). Breathe in through your nose and feel your lower ribs rise (put your hands there to feel it more). Breathe out through your mouth and feel your lower ribs fall. Using the diaphragmatic breathing technique during exercise, exhale for the exertion and inhale on relaxation.

When you run

My breathing always increases when I run, and sometimes I find myself breathing through my mouth only. Experts indicate that doesn’t really matter – focus on the thing that makes running easier and more effortless. Some experts recommend varying the number of steps you take during inhalation and exhalation so that you’re not always on the same foot. Keep in mind that there’s really no one right way to breathe during exercise. Just be sure to breathe and not hold your breath. Again, focus on the thing that makes your exercise more effortless, and your breathing will follow.

Exercise with a cold?

I had a head cold this week. It was not COVID – I tested – thank goodness(!), so I didn’t have to miss my classes. I did wear a mask while close to people, but I wondered if I should work out. Should I exercise with a cold? The first couple of days I felt completely miserable and didn’t even consider changing into exercise gear. But after that, would I just be using my cold as an excuse to be lazy?

Above or below the neck?

The Mayo Clinic says that it’s perfectly fine to exercise as long as your symptoms are all above the neck and you don’t have a fever. Provided that your symptoms just include things like a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and a minor sore throat, you should be fine if you exercise with a cold. Note how all these symptoms are “above the neck.” That’s what a head cold is about – and it’s not really a big deal. Sure, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes downright messy. But if you feel like exercising with a head cold, that’s fine.

On the other hand, if you have more than a head cold – if your symptoms are in your chest and lungs, or if you have a hacking cough, then it might be better if you wait to exercise until you’re better. Also, the Mayo Clinic suggests that if you have a fever, fatigue or muscle aches, wait. You don’t want to jeopardize your health even further. And if you have COVID, isolate yourself. If you want to exercise, don’t do it around other people. Be considerate. I even put a mask on at home while my sister and I did the dogs’ nails. It’s the right thing to do.

It’s okay to take time off

Definitely exercise if you're up to it, and your cold symptoms are above the neck.

Earlier, I mentioned that the first couple of days with a cold I didn’t exercise. I just felt too lousy. And even though sometimes if you exercise with a cold, it can actually open your nasal passages and temporarily relieve congestion, you certainly don’t have to. I’ve mentioned that it’s okay to take a day or two off from exercising without affecting your performance. But you should resume your normal activities when you can. For me, that alleviates my guilt, and I know I won’t be too sore the day after I exercise. 

The question is very personal: “Should I exercise with a cold?” For me, the answer is a practical, “If you’re up to it.” If it really is just a head cold, I won’t have too many days off and I’ll still be able to do the things I want to do.

A strong core eases back pain

Having back pain is the worst. You can’t do anything when your lower back hurts. Upper back pain is bad, too, but movement is usually at least possible. When your lower back hurts, you can’t walk comfortably. Forget about standing up when you’re sitting. And when you’re standing you can’t sit back down. And leaning over or bending is impossible. I speak from experience. Up until a few years ago I had sciatica pain that was unbearable for weeks at a time. The sciatica pain blended with the hip bursitis pain on occasion to create spasms of pain and breathlessness. I don’t like to think about that time. Then I read some studies that led me to work on my core. These studies indicated that having a strong core eases back pain. And in some cases prevents it entirely. Less pain means we can be happier every day.

Physical therapists agree

I still get newsletters from Athletico, where I did physical therapy for my knee a number of years ago. The latest newsletter (February 2024) highlights the correlation between a strong core and lessening back pain, in fact. “The goal of core stabilization exercises is to improve your abdominal strength and increase the stability in your lower back or lumbar spine, which can help alleviate aches and pains you’re currently experiencing.” So the key to easing back pain is not pain medication or even rest, it’s simple core exercises. This is great news for our healthy aging regimen.

The simplest core stabilization exercise

Renegade row - a great core stabilization exercise.

A simple core stabilization exercise is the plank, done on your forearms or the palms of your hands and your toes. Look straight ahead, tighten your core and keep your back in line. Don’t sink down or have a rounded back. If even a forearm plank is difficult for you, try an incline plank with your hands on a table, your kitchen counter or even a wall. As you get stronger, you can go lower. And you can add variations, like the “Renegade Row,” which challenges your core even more.

Other good core stabilization exercises include “Dead Bug,” which I talked about just a couple of weeks ago, and a simple pelvic tilt.

My goal, when I started working on my core, certainly was not to get a “six-pack.” I’ll be happy if no one else ever sees my abs. They’re strong and my back doesn’t hurt, and that’s all that matters to me. A strong core eases back pain for life. It doesn’t take long, if you’re consistent, and it’s certainly worth the few minutes to do the exercises most days.

Everyone’s getting into the balancing act

I’ve got to admire Al Roker. He’s looking great these days, and this month he’s focusing on improving his balance while he walks. In the clip on the Today show, he merely said he wanted to improve his balance, so that’s the focus of their February challenge. Stephanie Mansour, the fitness consultant for Today, has put together a month-long challenge for members of the show’s “Start TODAY” 100-day challenge that will combine balance, walking and core work. The show’s website provides a calendar that indicates the kind of work to do on any given day – walk, balance or core.

We use balance in everyday movements

Mansour emphasizes the importance of balance in overall stability because we use it for things we don’t even think of every day – like getting up from a chair or picking something up off the floor. With better balance, we don’t even think of movements like this. But if our balance is weak, then, for example, we’d think twice about picking that piece of paper up. And it would take at least twice as long to brace ourselves to get out of a chair. Mansour includes core work in this challenge because strong core muscles lead to stronger balance. Our core helps our posture, our breathing, and our ability to move.

We know that balance is crucial for our healthy aging. Without our working to maintain it, our balance erodes over time. But, we can do something about it. Al Roker recognizes this. We can work to improve our balance with simple exercises. The “Your Week of Core-Centered Balance Moves” Guide gives you some of the exercises that will help.

Some Balance Moves

The recommended exercises highlighted in the Facebook group Balance for Fitness, Balance for Life, are just that – recommendations. They’re not the only ones that will help to improve your balance. Mansour highlights other, probably more advanced, balance exercises. She includes the yoga “Tree” pose, Plank Shoulder Taps, and “Warrior III.” The Plank Shoulder Taps combines core and balance, where you tap alternating shoulders while you’re in Plank position. Warrior III is another balance move that’s quite challenging. There’s also a move that Mansour calls the “Balance Beam Walk,” that’s like Inline Walking, but balancing a book on your head. Again, it combines balance, walking and core.

More Core Moves

Of course Mansour highlights “Plank” as a good core strengthener. Others exercises in the Today challenge include “Bird Dog” (raising opposite arm and leg, alternating) and “Dead Bug” (Lying on your back with arms stretched up and legs lifted, bent at a 90-degree angle. Touch the opposite knee with your hand and go back to the original position.).

Get into the balancing act! You’ll work everything – and combine balance, walking and core.

Push-ups Work Everything

I’m really bad at push-ups. There. I said it. I’m weak, my elbows hurt when I try to go deep into a push-up, and I’m really bad at them. But I keep trying. Because I know that push-ups work everything. Experts not only recommend 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week, but also 2 days of strength training.

Strength training helps build muscle and also bones. We smallish women over a certain age can become fragile over time, and must do what we can to stay strong and vital, crucial for our healthy aging. Being strong means that we’ll be more resilient, too, able to face whatever life throws at us. And there’s nothing that builds and tests your strength more than push-ups.

Amber Harris, a certified strength coach, notes that including push-ups in our workouts helps us increase strength and muscle mass which we lose at a rate of 3 – 8 percent every decade over age 30. Push-ups also help us lift and push things, like boxes and doors. And, by working the core, push-ups also help us maintain good posture. But they’re hard.

Doesn’t something else work?

If you’re like me and don’t like to do push-ups, you’re thinking, can’t I do something else? And the answer is, of course. There are loads of exercises that build strength in your arms, your shoulders, your back, your core and your legs. Just not all at once. Push-ups work everything all at once, so it’s a really efficient exercise. Talk about multi-tasking. A few push-ups, even modified ones, pack more of a punch than an equal number of biceps curls, for example.

But I can’t do full push-ups

Me neither. Not many, anyway. Full push-ups, the ones where you’re on your toes, bending your elbows so your chest brushes the floor, are ridiculously hard. I can do maybe four of them. I know that if my goal is to do 25 full push-ups at some point, then I have to keep trying. For the rest, I modify.

Bianca Vesco, a NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, advocates modifying push-ups to meet you where you are so that you can build on them. You can start by doing standing push-ups, hands on the wall. Then progress to lower inclines, like your kitchen counter, a table, an ottoman, a step stool and then finally a full push-up on the floor. This progression gets steadily harder, but as you make your way through, your body will get stronger and you’ll succeed. For all of the modifications, though, remember to keep your neck straight, your core tight, your butt tucked and your back straight. Another progression, when you’re getting to the really hard ones, is to lower your body in the modified position, then when you’re as low as you can get, put your knees on the floor and reset to the starting position. This adjustment helps build the muscles you’ll need for the full push-up.

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, push-ups will help you build the strength you need. Because push-ups work everything.

Instead of punching something, do this instead

Mondays for me are frequently busy, tending to orders, customer requests, a too-full inbox and dogs zooming around like crazy things. This last Monday was all that and more. Not only were there customer requests, there were also customer complaints, website links not working, and a learning curve on a new mailing program that had me stymied. To say it was frustrating is an understatement. It’s impossible to be productive when we’re under major stress, and we know that stress can compromise our immune system. So, instead of punching something to release my frustration, I took a walk.

Instead of punching something, get physical

Use exercise to release stress instead of punching something

Releasing energy with physical activity is a great way to deal with frustration. I didn’t have time for an intense workout, but I could clear my head with a walk around the block. It was not a long walk, as the temperature was well below freezing and somewhat icy, and even bundled up it was still chilly. So my walk didn’t last long, but I burned a few calories and released some frustration. When I returned to my desk, my head was clearer and I was able to solve a couple of problems.

Exercise helps you handle other stress better

In fact, it’s been found that exercise helps to prevent anger. In a study done a few years ago, people who exercised were “less prone to anger and aggressive tendencies.” One theory as to why this may occur is that while we exercise, we put our bodies under prolonged beneficial stress. After exercise, our bodies are more able to handle other stresses.

Another possibility is that when you’re exercising, you’re putting the stressor on a back burner. You’re not thinking about the thing that got you angry in the first place, and stepping away for a while can help you put it in better perspective. So instead of punching something, you’re stepping away from it.

Replace stress with calm

And Harvard Health Publishing advocates certain autoregulating exercise techniques to help “replace the spiral of stress with a cycle of repose.” These techniques include breathing exercises which are similar to forms of meditation. Practicing progressive muscular relaxation  (tightening and releasing sequential muscle groups) works too, but takes longer to learn.

So instead of punching something when you’re angry or frustrated, try one of these techniques. You may be happier afterward, and your family definitely will be.

Give your body what it needs

You may say, “Oh, I don’t need a lot. I’m happy with the way things are.” But what you really mean is, “I eat healthy and get the nutrition I need within my calorie allotment. I move my body the way the AHA and CDC recommends. I give my brain all the stimulation it could possibly need.” But, is this really true?

It’s a lot. And if it really is true, that’s fantastic! But let’s take each of these individually to see if you do give your body what it needs.

Nutrition

I’m no expert, but I know that if I eat my 3 squares a day, load up my plate with lots of veggies and legumes, a little meat, and not nearly as much potatoes or pasta as I like, I’ll be eating well. I’ll probably be within my recommended calorie range. I’ll be getting enough protein, enough fiber, and enough vitamins and minerals to keep my body fueled. Of course, I also add in a bit of chocolate to keep me happy. You’ll want to check with your doctor or a nutritionist, but I’ll bet they’ll tell you pretty much the same thing.

Exercise

You’ve heard it from me before. The Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity, and even more strength work. How you get those minutes in is up to you. You know you’ll want to keep your workouts fun – because that keeps your motivation up. But, if you don’t exactly enjoy your workouts, but you know you have to keep it up, what do you do? You might want to hop on the “Cozy Cardio” bandwagon. That’s making your environment appealing. If you walk or run on a treadmill, or use a stationary bike, that’s a great way for your workouts to be more inviting. Listen to an exciting audiobook, like I do when I run, or watch a favorite TV show while you exercise. You’ll enjoy the ambiance, if not the workout.

Brain

And when you exercise, you’re also feeding your brain! Vigorous exercise improves your memory, makes you happier, more resilient and helps you sleep better. 

Put like that, it’s not too much to give your body what it needs.

Make it easy to track it all every day using your Fitness Journal and Tracker!