All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for June 2004

'Habit' is the key to beating your own games

Fri, Jun. 11, 2004
Richard Seven
The Seattle Times

Intellectually, fitness is a no-brainer. We all understand exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress management are spokes in the same wheel that keeps us moving. Then real life derails our focus. A recent study has shown that 95 percent of us can recite the multiple benefits of exercise and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, yet less than 20 percent adequately apply the knowledge.

The main barriers are time, motivation and distraction. That's partly why Curves for Women and other concentrated, supervised and relatively brief workouts have caught on. It's also partly why exercise boutiques employing focus and time management have set up shop next to downtown high-rises full of time-crunched achievers who often let health and fitness fall to the bottom of to-do lists.

I checked in on a young company called Protocol Fitness that is made up of former software workers and features a plan called Smart Habits. It has positioned its small gym in downtown Seattle and has its personal trainers oversee intense 30-minute workouts.

The pace is aimed at putting bodies into "fat burning" states, but it also is about reality, allowing the worker to fit exercise into a tight work day. Smart Habits even washes members' sweaty workout clothes to try to remove one more excuse. Some members pay extra to enroll in cooking classes where chefs make whipping up Alaskan halibut with asparagus, cherry tomatoes and a warm lemon vinaigrette look like no big deal. Others enroll in a lifestyle-coaching service that includes telephone calls and e-mails to help motivate.

While the program works hard to remove barriers, its holistic approach has become an increasingly common one. Long gone are the days when sweating and lifting are considered enough_especially when weight loss is the goal.

The key word to these sorts of approaches is "habit." They want you coming back so you can see and feel the results.

I began a workout program with the X Gym in the downtown Seattle neighborhood of Belltown a year ago. It employs short, intense and highly focused weight workouts. My first workout went well. My second was a bit overwhelming, so I canceled the third and was immediately called to make sure I was OK and find out when I'd be returning.

Most of the customers who go to Smart Habits and similar programs want to lose weight. That's an easily tracked but frustrating goal. It requires patience and constant attention. I'm genetically thin, so my goals are different and somewhat harder to get ahold of. I wrestle with multiple sclerosis, so I'm searching for energy and strength. But I need to do it without worsening my condition. In many ways, I share concerns of people far older than I am.

The first thing new members do is provide information about their health, lifestyle and goals. They are weighed and measured and run through a few cardiovascular and lifting exercises to determine a baseline for future comparison. Often they get the "before" picture taken, because the mirror provides a powerful message, at least in theory.

Stacy Oxenhandler, a Bastyr University-trained naturopath who works for Smart Habits, took my measurements and put me through physical drills to show me how clients typically begin the program. She listened as I talked about my perceived obstacles, exercise regimen, diet, appetite, sleep, stresses and, of course, excuses.

I hooked up with one Smart Habits trainer to assess the 30-minute workout. It was high-intensity and taxing. I went from one station to the next, resting little and pushing limits, the same sort of workout I did with the X Gym. The trainer was sensitive to my limitations and, overall, easy on me. Yet, while she repeatedly told me I was in charge, she also wanted me to push as hard as I felt I could. So I did.

As is the norm, I pushed too hard. It took me a few days before I could straighten my arms without pain. This might have just been a good dose of soreness, the product of awakening dormant muscles, but it made me wonder if I'd stick with it. (I do recall that the other man who was working out when I was there_only two can work out at a time in the tiny gym_was older and overweight yet seemed to be cruising through the torture just fine.)

In recent years, the YMCA has done a lot of work learning how to turn fitness and health into habits. The Northshore facility in Mill Creek, north of Seattle, in particular has worked on promoting behavioral changes in the way members view and do exercise. It aims at spotting and fixing what leads people to fall off track.

Atlanta-based Dr. James Annesi of the YMCA has developed a program called "Coach Approach." Research into the program, conducted at 10 YMCA branches, found that noticeable change is a key to keeping people on track, but so are developing tools to measure emotions, stress and fatigue.

While I can appreciate buddy systems, personal coaching and even reprogramming how we view exercise and fatigue, one of the more helpful things I've run into recently was the FitLinxx. It's essentially an automated personal trainer. By plugging my ID code into a small console connected to certain weight machines, my lifting was tracked and stored. The system recorded the loads I lifted, the number of reps and the main body parts getting exerted. It was a taskmaster, refusing to count a rep unless I did the correct range of motion. It alerted me if I was going too slowly or too fast. It automatically logged the data and measured me against others in the gym.

I actually found myself competing in standings with people I didn't know. I tried this at the Northshore YMCA, but then my temporary pass expired. Well, the gym is too far for me to continue going there . . . and I work a lot . . . and I have kids to help raise . . . and iffy health days and . . . the excuses continue . . .

Copyright © 2004, The Seattle Times