Elect Yourself Mayor of the Gym

I am very competitive. I love to win. Board games? Ice-cream-eating contest? Limbo competition? I am confident that I can defeat any challenger…

…with one major exception: fitness.

It started in grade school when I was the last kid picked for every team. I’m no better as an adult. I tried to compete the first time I visited the gym. I kept pace with my co-worker Mary Kate on a treadmill for about two minutes before quitting in exhaustion. I tried to be as bendy as fellow blogger Sarah the first time I took yoga, only to fall on my face.

I’ll be honest: it sucked. For someone who likes to win, it seemed like the gym would never offer me a reward. (Yes, I know the reward is being fit, but that’s like telling a football player the reward is being on the field. We both want to WIN something.)

Then one day I became mayor of the gym. It changed everything.

Work hard, play Foursquare

Check-in at your gym on Foursquare and you may elect yourself the mayor!

Foursquare is a social game for your GPS-enabled smart phone. It allows you to check into places to score points and badges. If you have the most check-ins at a location within 60 days you become its mayor. Some places give special discounts to their mayors, but mostly it is an honorary title that comes complete with bragging rights.

Bragging rights were enough for me. I had been checking into my gym out of habit when one day Foursquare informed me, “You are seven days away from being mayor.”

I assumed it was a fluke. I don’t go the gym very often. Foursquare must have added things up wrong. Yet, over my next few visits, Foursquare kept counting down the days to my mayorship. Suddenly, I was trying to find extra time in my day for a quick workout to catch up with the existing mayor.

The day finally came. I left my first boot camp class and checked in on Foursquare, and it proclaimed:

“You just became mayor of the gym!”

It felt amazing – which was a good thing, because the class almost killed me. I had finally won at fitness, even thought I only use 10-pound weights in my boot camp class. Suddenly I found myself locked in a battle for the mayorship with other gym-goers, which just made me visit more. Not only that, but Foursquare kept a tally of my consecutive workout days and weeks, and gave me a “Gym Rat” badge as proof that I am really walking the talk.

Social games for physical fitness

Achieve victory over fitness by tracking your exercises with Fitocracy

Foursquare isn’t unique in adding a gaming element to daily life and fitness.

For a fitness-specific game, check out Fitocracy. Instead of GPS check-ins, Fitocracy asks you to enter your workouts. It assigns points for things like duration, challenge, and frequency, and tracks your score as you compete against friends and people with similar interests. As you accumulate points you level up – like a character in a video game!

Or, just buy a pedometer. Experts suggest you take 10,000 steps every day. One of my friends at work armed himself with a pedometer to track his steps, and discovered he walks almost 100,000 steps every week! I borrowed his pedometer and discovered I walk almost 4,000 each day just in my commute to IBX.

Now my boss and I are having a friendly (and very competitive) step-counting competition. She is kicking my butt (did I mention “competitive”?), which just makes me want to walk more.

Play to win!

When it comes to fitness, it doesn’t matter if you are the first-picked or the fastest. What counts is challenging yourself and having fun. Foursquare helped me stay motivated and form a great gym-going habit, and now I’m trying to get extra steps in every day. Even if I lose my mayorship, I’m still winning at fitness.

What about you? Have you competed against yourself or others to stay fit? What’s the most motivating healthy game you’ve played?

Being a social butterfly while sustaining a healthy lifestyle

In my last post, I mentioned my need for a group workouts. Yes, they are motivational, but even more than that, they’re social.

I absolutely love social events – cocktail parties, art shows, dinners with friends, alumni outings – you name it. Anything to get out, meet new people, and spend time with friends! But attending events like these can sometimes make it difficult to stay on the healthy path.

I recently moved back to Center City, which for me means going out and having something to do pretty much every night. And brunch plans – every weekend.

I maintain a healthy balance with the 80/20 rule.

Let’s face it, Philly is a foodie town. A new restaurant, bar, or food cart is opening all the time, meaning countless opportunities to go out somewhere new and see what’s cooking – literally! Besides all that, one of my close friends is a food blogger who cooks and bakes; I really love being a taste tester…

This is why I aim to stick with the 80/20 rule. Some people may remember hearing about this in a college business class as Pareto’s Principle, back in those college days when healthy living consisted of a veggie pizza from your local pizzeria washed down with light beer. Now, in the “real” world, trying to stay healthy is a whole different story.

The way I look at it, if I spend 80% of my week eating healthy then I can allow myself to indulge 20% of the time. Granted, I might be out and about 80% of the time, but that just means I’m more careful with what I’m choosing to eat and drink. During the day, I aim to stay super healthy so I can have a tasty dish and a glass of wine when I go out in the evening and not feel guilty about it.

There is more than diet and exercise that lead to a healthy lifestyle – going out and spending time with friends is part of keeping a healthy lifestyle, too. Depriving yourself will just leave you angry, so why not try to balance it out a little more and enjoy everything you love?

How do you manage to balance going out and staying healthy?

Conquering CrossFit, Pt. 2: You’re going down, burpees

As I said in my post Monday, it’s really hard to fit everything I want to say about CrossFit Center City in a single post.

The first time I walked into the gym I was really nervous. I always thought of myself as a weak little girl who sometimes can’t even lift my heavy pocketbook. But looking back on the last two weeks, I can’t believe how much I have accomplished. My first reaction when I learn that I have to do something is always “I can’t!,” but this experience changed all that. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I could do some of the things I did, but somehow it happened.

Here’s a rundown of my biggest accomplishments for each day of CrossFit Elements:

Day 1

I did a walk-up handstand. It took a couple of tries, but I did eventually walk up that wall, point my toes, and hung there for a minute. I also did about 20 or so pushups. For someone who can barely do two, that’s a huge accomplishment!

Day 2

My air squats had improved so much from the first class, Chris said they were beautiful! I also finished the Metcon second in the class. We had to jump rope 50 times, and then do 15 air squats four times.

Day 3

I survived! (Yes, this is an accomplishment.) I met my arch nemesis, burpees, yet again. We had to complete as many wall squats (throwing medicine balls against the wall while squatting) for four minutes, and then four minutes of burpees. I only did about 12. Ashley-0, Burpees-1.

Day 4

I lifted 40 pounds of dumbbell weights over my head. That has to be the most I have ever lifted!

Day 5

I learned how to do an Olympic weight lift. I also completed the “Fran” during Metcon first in my class, 21 thrusters, pull-ups, and squats, then 15 thrusters, pull-ups, and squats, then, finally, nine thrusters, pull-ups, and squats.

Day 6

Burpees … we meet again. This time, we had to start every minute with three burpees and then try to complete 50 overhead squats. I wanted to get those burpees over with fast so that I would have more time in between my minutes to do the squats. I completed this Metcon in 3:29. Ashley-1, Burpees-1.

Looking back, I can’t believe I did so much. It was challenging, but not out of my reach. If you think you can’t do it, think again. ANYONE can do it. Doesn’t matter how old you are, your size or shape, you can do it. CrossFit is not different from any of the other places I visited; you have to work at it to get better at it.

I also can’t say enough about the staff I met. Everyone is friendly and welcoming. The sense of camaraderie is evident when you walk in the door and watch the coaches and students interact.

I loved my time at CrossFit Center City. While I have no plans to ever become an Olympic weightlifter or compete in an Ironman, I do plan on taking more classes. If you are looking for a challenging new workout that is ultra rewarding, try CrossFit! If you are a fan of our Facebook page, you can even take advantage of our latest deal: save $25 on the class I took, Elements, (usually $75).

This workout was clearly my “Everest.” So tell me, what is the most challenging workout you’ve ever done?

Conquering CrossFit, Pt. 1: Finding my inner Iron(wo)man

When my co-workers first suggested I try CrossFit, I immediately Googled it. Seemed simple enough, so I agreed to participate. Then someone sent me this video and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Watching the video made me exhausted, as well as anxious, and then a little nauseous. As you know from my previous posts, I have zero upper body strength. I can’t even do a push up. How would I be able to climb ropes, lift heavy weights, and do crazy hand stands on rings?

I decided to go for it. I signed up to take Elements at CrossFit Center City. The Elements class is the prerequisite six classes you must take before you start your regular CrossFit sessions. Over two weeks, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I’d be dedicating an hour before work to the CrossFit gods. I told myself this will be the most hardcore, challenging thing I have ever done, but it will be worth it in the end.

I walked into the CrossFit gym for the first time while a class was still going on. Each of the participants looked like they were doing different exercises and running around. They were all very sweaty.

Yikes! What did I get myself into?

Chris, our coach, introduces himself to all five of us taking the class. Right off the bat, I like how this is a more intimate setting. I was already nervous, so this helps calm me down a bit. The class itself is structured; it’s broken up into 5 different sections.

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)

We begin every class with the SMR, which are different massages that help reduce pain in your muscles. We use rollers on our back and legs. My favorite was when we used a lacrosse ball to massage our feet. (I may carry one around with me when I wear heels!) I have proof that SMR is great to start with because while I had usual aches and pains the next day, they weren’t nearly as bad as I expected.

Mobility

With this warm up, we are typically working our joints, spine, hips, knees, or shoulders. This could include hip thrusts or laying flat on your back and kicking your legs from side to side.

Dynamic Warm-up

Next, we perform various stretches. These aren’t you run-of-the-mill lunges. We stretch muscles I never knew I had! The Spiderman is one of my favorites.

Skill work

We always learned some sort of skill that is essential to CrossFit, whether it was box jumps, double-under rope jumps, kettle bell lifts, erg rowing, dumbbell press, or Olympic-style weight lifts. These were always pretty challenging, but Chris was very patient while teaching us, breaking down each movement slowly so that we got the most out of the skill.

Metcon

For me, this was always the toughest part of the workout. It combined elements from skill work and warm ups and added in endurance and aerobics. You need to have lots of stamina and strength to complete this part of the workout. By the end, maybe even halfway through, you feel like you may pass out or get sick, but the feeling doesn’t last, and in the end, you feel so accomplished for finishing.

It’s hard to fit six classes into a single blog post. You’ll have to wait until next time to see what I really thought, but you can save $25 on the CrossFit Elements class today if you are a fan of IBX’s Facebook page.

What happens in Vegas… when you’re hungry?

No one should be unhappy on vacation, but that’s just what I was on the first day of my recent trip to Las Vegas.

Unhappy in Vegas! I know a lot of things are legal there, but being unhappy should be outlawed. There was so much to do and see that I was overwhelmed. I was also overwhelmed with grumpiness, which is why I need your help for my next big trip.

Is it possible to eat healthy food on vacation?

The food might have been a challenge, but the view was great!

My problem with Las Vegas wasn’t the sights – it was the food. Everything was delicious! However, some days I felt like there was nothing healthy to eat on the entire strip.

You know that saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? That’s not true when it comes to calories, sodium, and cholesterol. Plus, I needed the energy to hit as many landmarks as possible each day.

In addition to being a health-conscious eater, I’m also a pescetarian (e.g., a vegetarian plus fish), which means some common healthy solutions – like deli sandwiches and grilled chicken dishes – don’t do me any good. At one buffet we visited even the salads had meat pre-mixed into them! And, even seemingly healthy smoothies were practically milkshakes after all of the added dairy and sugar.

After my first unhappy day, I approached our hotel’s concierge and inquired about more veggie-friendly meals … or even a place to pick up a simple fruit smoothie. She laughed at me. Laughed! She told me I was in Vegas, and I should forget about eating healthy.

“Live a little,” she said.

Living a little (while eating well)

I managed to get past my initial dietary panic and ditch the grump without the help of the concierge. It wasn’t easy. Here were a few of my strategies, which could work anywhere in the world.

  • Finding a source of simple, unprocessed snack foods like fruit, fresh salad, and nuts. They were super-expensive in my hotel, but less so at a convenience store down the street. Grocery stores can be your friend.
  • Asking servers for recommendations or modifications. While this wouldn’t have worked at the diner with an ambulance waiting outside to cart away potential heart-attack victims, many servers were happy to recommend a less-rich option on their menu or put sauce on the side. Wolfgang Puck’s smoothie stand The Pods was eager to concoct a non-dairy drink for me!
  • Searching the web for tips on every restaurant. Foursquare and Yelp apps on my phone helped me get the scoop on each eatery from other travelers, including secret vegetarian options, and butter-smothered meals to avoid.
  • Portioning my plates before I dug in. This protected me from getting overstuffed by huge resort portions and allowed me to bring leftovers back to our room to snack on later.
  • Staying hydrated. Air travel can sap the moisture from your body, as can a dry climate like Vegas. Add salty snacks or alcohol to the mix and you can really wring your body out with dehydration – a major source of grump, for me.

As a result, I felt like I treated my body well. At times I got slightly over-full, but I completely avoided junk! I even added a morning walk to make up for my missed gym classes. (Pro tip: the strip is empty at 8 a.m., but still gorgeous!)

Share your healthy vacation tips!

Now, I need your help, for the sake of my next vacation.

What are your strategies for finding healthy options when you travel? If you have a restricted diet (i.e., sugar-free, gluten-free, vegan), how do you research a destination before you take flight?

A Runner’s Love

February is the month associated with love — a cornucopia of greeting cards, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, and dozens of red roses. For me, last month was a month to reflect on the reasons why I love running.

To love something (or someone) is individualistic

A circle of runner's love

The same applies in the context of running. The physical benefits of running are undeniably worth the effort but it takes more than a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) to keep me logging miles.

I find joy in material comforts like my running sneakers and jacket and less tangible ones like the attentiveness of my dog next to my hip, a smile exchanged with another runner, or the visualization of crossing the finish line of my next race.

Love is never an equation of one

Ask anyone who’s in love (or has been) and you’ll likely hear about two people.
My love of running works the same way. It is more than just me. I find clarity in my solo runs, but I’m never truly alone.

From “Maravans” (a term coined by my group of friends who travel to cheer each other’s races) to marathons, my friends are an amazing source of encouragement. We support each other and our own commitments to our running goals. We keep ourselves accountable to running in our own ways, and we are all positive contributors to the running community.

I am also fortunate to support and be motivated by members of an organization called Back on My Feet and their efforts in applying the disciplines of running to help those experiencing homelessness achieve self-sustaining independence.

Love is…

I couldn’t imagine a better start to training for the Blue Cross Broad Street Run than receiving my acceptance email to the 2012 NYC marathon. Twelve weeks of training for the Blue Cross Broad Street run takes on a new meaning. It marks the beginning of a VERY long-term commitment to running.

From now until November the durations and intensity of my workouts will gradually increase from 30 minutes to hours. My weekly running mileage will go from 25 to 40+ miles. Preparing also means increasing sleep, eliminating late nights, and avoiding overindulgent food feasts. Like relationships, running takes effort. It can be incredibly challenging yet the recipe is simple. That’s love.

And “when love meets skill, expect a masterpiece.”

What do you love (or hate) about running? Do you have races planned? What’s your big commitment of the year?

Another wolf pack on the move…

Just like Layla, I’m also a member of a wolf pack of two – me and my nine-year-old pit mix, Maggie.

Maggie and Sarah in Wissahickon Creek

I never thought adopting a dog would lead to weight loss, but that’s what happened to me. I had never had a puppy before, so the world of house training and keeping a puppy from chewing on everything within reach (and some items that were definitely out of her reach yet still made it into her mouth) was new to me.

The only thing that solved both issues was walks. Lots and lots of very long walks. We walked at all hours of the day and night. At first I was annoyed. What did I get myself into? But then I realized that this little 25-pound creature was keeping me more active than I had been in years.

That was now nine years ago, but my little pit bull still gets me out several times a day. While I could just let her out in the backyard to do her business, I know that Maggie, and me, will be happier with a long walk and maybe a little running. We’ve hiked all along the Wissahickon and Forbidden Drive through the snow and cooled off in Devil’s Pool during heat waves. We even went snowshoeing in Vermont last year.
I feel lucky to have such a willing participant in my fitness activities.

When paws hit the pavement

Anyone who likes to exercise has a weather preference for their outdoor activities. Since I am a fairly new runner, my preference is to run in the cold. I love the brisk feeling of the cold air in my lungs. I love the moment my body turns from cold to warm and loosens up. I love feeling the steam from my collar once I have completed my run. Running in the cold just feels refreshing!

Last year I had quite a few running buddies. Life has taken us all in different directions, and with that being said, my “wolf pack,” as we called ourselves, is back to one. I like the companionship of a fellow runner. Having a running partner keeps me motivated and accountable to a training schedule. So, to ensure that I’m not running alone, I recruited a new member to the wolf pack — my dog, Gracie.

A runner’s best friend

Gracie the Dog

Gracie is a four-year-old pit bull rescue. She is short and clearly does not have a body built for speed — just like me. But she is starting to get the hang of running.

Just like people, animals have to start their training slowly. We worked out our kinks along the way. At first, Gracie was more interested in walking with her head to the ground, sniffing out the trail of something very interesting while stopping every ten yards. Or she would see another dog, get excited and try to run full force to entice the other dog to play with her.

Simple changes like breaking from her normal daily routes trained her to know that we are going for a run. Consistency and praise along the way has helped to make a great training partner for me. She stays at my side and prances along proudly.

We have gone on long walks along the river. I included some jogging on and off, and now she has her very own little pace. She gets excited when she sees me layering on my running gear, hoping that she’ll get to accompany me.

Gracie meets Rocky

This week I showed Gracie the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Yes, Gracie and I re-enacted Rocky several times as part of our normal running routine. At first she looked at me with her quizzical brow as though she didn’t know what was in store. Then I showed her that she could run up the stairs as fast as her little legs could take her.

She loved it as we raced against each other up the stairs and down. Tourists in line for the art exhibit stationed at the top of the stairs were pointing at her and smiling. I even had her pose at the top of the stairs just like everyone else. I could hear the chatter as we ran pass the actual Rocky statue about Gracie’s form up and down the steps. It was nice to see her get such a warm response from the people around us.

Working out doesn’t always have to be structured, and workout partners can be both two-legged and four-legged. I am so grateful to have a little partner who reaps the benefits of my healthy choices as much as I reap the benefits of her unconditional love. It definitely makes for a nice change of pace and has me ready to embark on my running goals for 2012.

I have found a fun way to keep motivated and spend time with my dog while we both reap the health benefits. Have you thought that maybe you might have a four-legged Rocky in the making laying around your house just waiting to join along in your fitness routine?

Experiencing the thrill of the fight

Cue the Rocky theme…

I have a lot in common with Rocky Balboa. We’re both from Philadelphia. We’re both good Italian Catholic Americans. His birthday is the day after mine. Besides our I.Q.s, the biggest difference between us is that he can knock a guy out, and I can’t even land a punch.

I decided it was time to channel my inner-Rocky. I went down to Brazen Boxing and MMA to check out their women’s boxing class with CEO Jessica Richman. Jessica runs Brazen with Jason Sargus, Brazen’s COO and president. By day, Jessica is a lawyer for one of the oldest law firms in Philadelphia and by night, she trains in boxing, submission grappling, muay thai, and Brazilian jiu jitsu.

A punch is a punch, right?

After warming up, Jessica asked the class of about 12 to try some punch combinations. But I needed to learn the basics before I could do any type of combination. Since I’m right-handed, I stood with my right foot slightly behind my left, my hands in loose fists hovering next to my face to protect it. Now I’m ready to throw down!

We started with the jab. Wait…there are different types of punches? Yes, apparently, throwing your fist into your opponent’s face isn’t boxing.

  • The jab is a straight blow; quick and explosive.
  • A hook when you turn to aim your fist toward the side of the head or body.
  • An uppercut is when you raise your fist vertically towards the head or upper body.

If you think I look bad, you should see the punching bag!

After combinations, we formed lines in front of the punching bags. All of the girls brought their own gloves. Luckily, they had an extra pair for me. Girl’s gloves aren’t as big as what you typically see on male boxers, so they weren’t too heavy. We each took turns throwing jabs, hooks, and uppercuts at the bag.

What a rush! If this wasn’t the best stress reliever in the world, I don’t know what is! Every time I stepped up, I threw my fists harder and harder. It felt awesome. My blood was flowing, my heart was pounding, and I was working my strength, too. It was the perfect mix of cardio and strength conditioning.

Check out my punches!

Catch me if you can

Next, we broke up into pairs to practice defense. Jessica taught us the slip, the duck, and parrying. To slip, you sharply rotate your hips and shoulders when your opponent throws a punch toward your head. The duck is similar, except you drop down so that a punch aimed at your head misses entirely. Parrying or blocking is you palming your opponent’s punch away from you or dropping your elbows at your sides to protect your internal organs.

Check out my sweet defense moves!

We ended the class with some circuit training which included burpees, pushups, and squats.

All in all, I really enjoyed boxing. The class itself is great for beginners, but there are also women that are training for actual boxing matches. Personally, I don’t think you need any type of prior experience to take this class. One of the girls told me she walked into class a few months ago and couldn’t even do one push up. Now she can do a ton. In what seems to be the theme of every activity I’ve tried this winter, practice makes perfect.

Before long, you may even see me running up the Art Museum steps throwing my south paw through the air!

I highly recommend Brazen if you’ve ever had an interest in boxing. They have classes available for men, women, and children. It’s a great work out, in a great facility, with experienced and friendly trainers. Check out their website for class information. Fans of our IBX Facebook page even save 15% on regular monthly rates, so sign up for a class.

Fast, Cheap, and on Two Wheels – A Philly Guy Talks Bike Love

If you know anything about me, then you know I bike everywhere — to work, to the store, to school. Everywhere, every day, no matter the season. All told, I probably log about 50 miles a week in the saddle.

Before you call me nuts, let me explain why I ride. (And even if you did call me nuts, don’t worry. I’ve been called a lot worse by Philly drivers, so I can take it.)

Even though I have a car and a driver’s license, I get on my bike every day because it’s fun, it’s great exercise, and it’s good for the environment. Most importantly I love doing it.

There are also three other pretty good reasons why cycling works for me: First, I’m cheap. Second, I’m impatient. Third, I like to eat.

Cheap or cost-conscious? Either works for me

Hey, if the shoe fits. All I know is that I like saving money, and biking helps me do that. For me, there are no parking issues, no trips to the gas station, and no annual inspection or emissions test. (According to an article in Time magazine, bike commuters may be saving as much as $5,000 a year.)

And while some people get hung up on expensive gear, I’m not one of them. My ride, a Miyata 12-speed that’s older than The Cosby Show, happens to be a hand-me-down. It’s not anything you’d see in the Tour de France, but with over 10,000 miles logged on it, my little Miyata has been there, done that. And it was free.

Even if you don’t have a generous cousin with a spare bike, you don’t have to break the bank to get a quality used frame or even a new bike for less than you may pay in monthly parking now.

Jams should be on toast, not roads

Because I’m impatient, I have two versions of hell. The first is sitting in stand-still traffic on the Schuylkill. The second is having my perfectly crisp dollar bill spit back at me for the hundredth time by the SEPTA machine while my train leaves the station.

Commuting by bike helps me avoid both. If there’s a jam-up ahead, I zip on down a side street and get to work in less time than it would have taken if I’d driven. And my crisp dollar bills stay in my wallet.

That to me is a little slice of heaven.

Seconds? Well, if you insist

I’m just going to say it: I love food.

Where I live in South Philadelphia is an area known to locals as Cheesesteak Gardens, and just because I happen to not eat steak (I’m a pescatarian) there are enough artery-clogging temptations to challenge even my firmest resolve. Thai, Italian, Mexican, Sushi — name the tasty cuisine, and I bet it’s a stone’s throw from my house. Resistance is futile.

But knowing that I biked for a half-an-hour means I don’t quite feel as guilty when I sit down for a three-course linguini feast because I’ve had a nice workout simply getting to and from work.

Enough about me. What about you?

Are you thinking about kicking your health resolution into higher gear? Is there a healthy routine you manage to fit in every day? Tell me all about it. I’d love to hear from you.

Until my next blog, check out this cool calculator that lets you figure out how much you could be saving by biking to work.