The Basics of Mindfulness & Moving Meditation

A Crossroads by Ornoth

Mindfulness may have links to Buddhism, but there’s really nothing ‘spiritual’ about it.

Mindfulness has been becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ over the last few years and I think in many ways is becoming one of the next new buzzwords.

I’m conflicted in how I feel about this – on one hand I think mindfulness applied properly is an extremely useful tool in improving people’s lives and is genuinely something I feel everyone should practice, on the other hand I’m concerned about the corruptive process of becoming a fad.

Given the new interest in it, I thought this was as good a time as ever to explore the basics of mindfulness and introduce one of my absolute favorite techniques for cultivating it – moving meditation.

What is ‘Mindfulness’?

Mindfulness, put simply, is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences occurring in the moment.

There are at least two key parts to this. We’ll start with the end and work our way back. Mindfulness occurs in the moment. That means that when you’re being mindful you aren’t thinking about things in the past or the future. In fact, true mindfulness means not even recognizing at the time that the past or the future even exist.

This is probably the hardest part for most people to master – the majority of people dwell heavily on the past (regrets, nostalgia, & what-ifs), on the future (hopes, worries, goals & fears) or both that existing completely in the present is a big change. This isn’t to say thinking about the past and the future is inherently destructive, just that most people take it to the extreme.

It is important to learn from your mistakes, but once you’ve learned from them you need to let them go – not chain yourself to regret over something that is long gone and beyond your control. Similarly it is important to plan for the future and to anticipate problems that may lie ahead, but once you’ve planned for them continuing to worry or fear things that haven’t yet and may never happen only wastes your time and makes you miserable.

Regardless to be truly mindful is to recognize that that neither the past, which is gone forever, nor the future, which may never come at all, don’t really exist for you – only the moment you are occupying right now.

The second key part is a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of your experiences. That means not only being completely aware of as much as is occurring to and around you, but also not making any kind of judgement of that experience – simply acknowledging it as it is.

This is not as easy as it sounds either, particularly since we are fairly well wired to make some kind of value judgement of every single experience we have. From an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense, we tend to immediately categorize things at the very least into positive/pleasant or negative/unpleasant stimuli.

Mindfulness lets go of this instinct to judge. When practicing mindfulness you aim to be aware of as much as humanly possible occurring around and within you, but to not categorize anything as positive or negative. When mindful you become aware of something, acknowledge it and move on.

In many ways this makes mindfulness very similar to standard meditation. The main difference being that in standard meditation you want to acknowledge thoughts and feelings then dismiss them until your mind is empty – when practicing mindfulness you want to do the same except to hang on to the thoughts about what’s occurring in the moment and to dismiss thoughts of the past, future, or those straying from what’s around and within you.

The very best example in my opinion of someone who is completely in a state of mindfulness is a pro athlete who is in ‘the zone’. Being ‘in the zone’ or in a state of Mushin means that the person’s mind is not thinking about the past, or the future – they’re really not even thinking too hard about what’s going on around them- they’re simply aware of it and their actions flow freely as a response to stimulus with no decisions or judgment going on.

Imagine a professional boxer in a fight. She isn’t thinking about her next career move, she isn’t wondering if she picked the right coach, and when she sees a punch coming she doesn’t deliberate what would be the best thing to do or think, “Oh man, that’s a good hit, didn’t see that coming,” – the punch comes and she moves. Instantly. Instinctively. There is no decision to move, it just happens. She doesn’t think about striking back, her fist moves of its own will.

That is an expression of mindfulness.

Why Practice Mindfulness

You might be saying to yourself, “Ok, that’s cool and all, but why should I care? This mindfulness stuff seems really hard.”

It Lowers Stress – Practicing mindfulness (and meditation in general, actually) helps reduce stress in a handful of ways. The first is that the clarity of thought existing in the present moment brings helps you think through the things that would normally stress you out and let them go. On top of that, mindfulness practice actually helps you perform better at everything you do – when you aren’t distracted by everything else and can focus on each task as it comes it’s a lot easier to give 100% on each one.

Being able to perform better means less worries, failures and problems to stress you out. On top of all that, you don’t just feel less stressed – mindfulness practice reduces cortisol levels meaning you’re less chemically stressed too. Your hormones, particularly cortisol, can make or break your efforts to change your body composition.

It Rewires Your Brain – In a study by the University of Oregon researchers found that mindfulness practice actually resulted in physical changes in the brain. Not only was axonal density improved meaning there were more signaling connections formed in participants’ brains, but also increased development of myelin sheaths around the axons in certain brain regions.

What does that mean in plain English? It means mindfulness practice physically changes your brain to work more efficiently and be better protected from mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. You think better, more clearly and are at a significantly reduced risk for illness – sounds worth it to me.

It Improves Sleep – How many times have you been stuck tossing and turning because you just can’t shut off your brain? That kind of insomnia can shave more than a few hours off your total sleeping time, which adds up to a lot. In one study as little as two fewer hours of sleep in a night led to an average of a 20% reduction in a maximal bench press test. It also pushes your cortisol up and causes havoc with the rest of your hormones making it extremely difficult to put on muscle, lose fat and recover from exercise. Sleep deprivation is also linked to depression, reduced immune function and lots of other unpleasant things.

Sleep is really important.

Mindfulness training teaches you to master your thoughts and where your attention focuses. Combine that with the reduced stress levels and that means no more monkey mind and a much, much easier time slipping off to sleep when you actually want to.

It Increases Mental Control – The journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reports that mindfulness training actively increases your conscious control over your mind’s cortical alpha rhythms. The reason this is important is that your alpha rhythms are largely responsible for determining what it is you’re paying attention to.

Increased control over your alpha rhythms means practicing mindfulness brings a heightened ability to ignore or tolerate pain, control emotions and make more rational decisions. It also helps serve as the ‘off switch’ to dismiss any thoughts that might be worrying you, keeping you up at night or making you depressed.

How to Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is simultaneously easy and difficult. It accomplishes this contradiction by being an extremely simple process that anyone can learn that is so contrary to the standard mindset that almost no one ever actually does it.

Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways. The first that most people think of is zazen, or seated meditation. If you’re a complete beginner to meditation then zazen may be a good place to start if you want to be a bit more traditional or just think it looks cool to sit on a pillow in the middle of a room and burn incense.

Another option though that I honestly find to be a much better expression of applied mindfulness is moving meditation.

Moving meditation, also sometimes called active meditation, entails entering a state of mindfulness while engaged in an action. That means being fully engaged in the present moment with a complete and nonjudgmental awareness of what you’re experiencing as it pertains to the action you’re taking. It means being deliberate and purposeful in everything you’re doing.

A good mental image is to picture a tai chi master flowing through a set of forms or a yogi going through a set of asanas. They aren’t thinking about something that happened yesterday or worrying about what they’re going to do tomorrow, their thoughts are focused entirely on the precision of their actions, the smoothness of their movements, the reaction of their bodies and the tempo of their breathing. They are fully and totally engaged in that single action in that single moment.

The reason this is so difficult for a lot of people is it’s the direct opposite of what I consider to be a standard of distracted half-assery prevalent in modern culture. We multi-task as a rule, we’re constantly distracted by our phones, checking social media, planning for tomorrow, thinking about a thousand other things that we’re rarely completely focused on the thing we’re actually doing.

An easy introduction to active meditation is to practice a little mindfulness with your next meal. This is most easily done when eating alone, you can certainly do it while carrying on a conversation but it will add a bit more difficulty.

Sit down with your meal, with no other distractions, and really focus on eating that food. Do not turn on the TV. Do not touch your phone. Experience your meal. Take the time to smell it, to pick out the different scents of the ingredients. Chew slowly and deliberately. Pay attention to each of the separate flavors and how they combine and contrast with each other. How does it feel to chew it? What’s the temperature of the food like? What are you hearing around you? You get the picture.

In essence, savor your damn meal.

You’ll find that this attention to the task at hand, being fully present in the moment, really enhances your experience of the meal. Even if that meal is cold McDonald’s take out in a back alley.

Once you’ve mastered this process with meals – which I find to be the best way to start for most people – extend that same frame of mind to other tasks. Even if it’s something as mundane as walking out to the car to go to work, be all in about it. Are you stomping out or dragging your feet? How much noise do your footsteps make? How do you feel at that moment? What do you see, and smell and hear?

This type of mindfulness practice can be applied to any action, or even every action throughout your whole day. It makes everything you do feel deliberate and purposeful and, through reflection and refinement, eventually it will make every action better.

Do you practice mindfulness? Have you tried any types of meditation, active or otherwise? What’s been the biggest challenge for you in becoming more mindful? Share it with us in the comments! We love hearing from everyone.

Photo Credit: Ornoth

What’s English Prime and Why Does it Matter?

Optimus Prime by El Dave

No, E Prime doesn’t have anything to do with Transformers.

English Prime, or E Prime, is a constructed variant of standard English developed in the 60s in order to provide a form of English that reduced or eliminated any difficulty of the listener or reader to distinguish between fact and opinion and make the biases of the writer or speaker more evident.

Like most languages created for the purpose of promoting sweeping social and cultural good (cough, Esperanto, cough) it never really took off beyond a small group of hardcore devotees.

While it’s merits as a clearer form of English are debatable, the premise behind it and the form of it can actually teach us a lot about the way we perceive things in the world and help us be more mindful in our thinking.

How Does E Prime Work?

In it’s essence, E Prime works by eliminating all forms of the verb ‘to be’ in English. The idea behind this is that by removing the copula it removes a speakers ability to make value statements about a thing or event as if they were objective facts.

In general, people do tend to abuse the use of ‘to be’ in English. This does cause some faulty reasoning from time to time, so the premise at least has some merit in that regard.

Take for example the assertion, “That movie was good”. We can’t use ‘was’ in E Prime since it’s a form of ‘to be’, so you have to reword that sentence as “I enjoyed that movie,” “That movie made me laugh”, etc. This changes the structure in such a way that you are no longer describing the movie itself but instead are describing your own experience of the movie. It makes clear that you are making a subjective value statement rather than an objective one.

Now I don’t think everyone should actually start speaking like this – there are too many linguistic issues with it in my opinion to make it viable large scale – but I do think we can learn a lot about how we approach things by the way it works.

E Prime and Mindfulness

Even if it isn’t valuable as an actual means of communication E Prime is valuable as a tool for reflection on mindfulness and the way we think about things.

First of all it helps us notice that many times things expressed as absolute facts are really opinions. When you remove the absoluteness of the copula it reveals the fact that everything we express is a reflection of our own experience.

When someone says, “That’s a bad idea,” they may really mean “I dislike that idea,” “That idea won’t work,” or another similar sentiment. Rather than just dismiss it as ‘bad’ they have to elaborate at least a little bit to explain what their problem is. When people make a hard assertion like “[blank] is [blank]” that assertion should always be understood as being colored in some way by their subjective experience.

If you say something like “Earth is the center of the universe,” E Prime makes it clear that what you really mean is “Earth appears to be the center of the universe.” This exposes more clearly that you’re just relating the experience of a fallible observer and not making an absolute, infallible statement.

That’s not to say you can’t make statements like that in E Prime. “The Sun orbits the Earth,” is a good example of an authoritative sounding E Prime compliant sentence that doesn’t really reveal that it is colored by the perceptions of an observer.

That’s fine. The point is really just to recognize that whenever people express a value statement or report actions they are always heavily colored by their own subjectivity.

The reason this is important for increasing our mindfulness is that it reminds us constantly that when you’re talking to people the things they discuss are always filtered through the subjective lens of their world view. Being aware of this in the moment helps us make better judgments based on the reports of others and helps us better understand the thoughts and motivations of those around us.

Similarly it reminds us of our own subjectivity and fallibility in the statements we make. It discourages us from making hard, absolutist statements about things as we recognize that we can only report our own experience. This understanding makes it much easier for us to be open to changing our views on things which is an important part of growing as a person.

If you only think of your statements and opinions in terms of absolutes, it makes them harder to change. Someone who says, “He’s wrong,” is less likely to reconsider than the person who says, “I don’t agree with that.” The second person, in some small way at least, recognizes that their own thinking may be incorrect.

Now a quick note on subjectivity – it’s important to understand that people’s statements are influenced by their own subjective experience, but there are still things that are objectively true. I don’t buy the whole “That’s your Truth but not my Truth,” idea. However, if you think I’m wrong and that there’s no such thing as objective truth, I encourage you to decide gravity is no longer part of your subjective truth and then to step out of a second story window.

E Prime, while not really useful as a communication tool in my opinion, can help us be more mindful about our own thinking and the thinking of others by reminding us that everyone’s statements pass through the filter of their own experience before being expressed into the world. Are there any other lessons you’ve learned from the way E Prime works? Have you actually tried using E Prime on a day to day basis? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: ElDave

Using the New Memrise App to Learn Everywhere

Memrise Logo

Memrise’s new free app means you can learn efficiently anywhere. Except the bathroom – that’s weird.

To say that I am a big fan of learning would be a monumental understatement. I really think continued learning is one of the most important things you can do with your life.

That dedication to always learning new things means that when new tools come up to make it easier or more efficient I am all over them. The latest of those is the free app out now from Memrise – and it is fantastic.

Best of all when used properly you can learn a substantial amount of information with a fairly minimal time investment and not even feel like you’ve studied.

Enter the Memrise App

I’ve been a big fan of the Memrise site for a long time now. If you’ve never used it, it’s basically a community driven Spaced Repetition System (SRS) learning tool that comes with user generated memory hooks (‘Mems’ as Memrise calls them) already built in for you. Along with Anki it’s my favorite way to memorize large volumes of information, like target language vocabulary for instance, permanently. Right now Memrise and the associated app are both free, although there are plans to have paid courses in the future.

Previously, the single flaw I really found with Memrise was the fact that there really wasn’t a good way to make it mobile. They had a beta app out but it really wasn’t the same – you could also pull the site up in the mobile browser but it was honestly a bit of a pain to use that way. I don’t mind sitting down and putting an hour in doing my reps on Memrise, but I think SRS tools really shine when you can use them in your downtime.

That’s all been fixed by their new app.

The free Memrise app syncs with your account on the website so that all of the courses you’re subscribed to are available on your phone. The interface works perfectly, and all of the really large courses I’ve subscribed to load quickly. It even gives you the option of downloading the courses to your phone so that when off wi-fi you don’t burn through all your plan’s data usage.

How to Use the Memrise App Efficiently

In my opinion where the Memrise app really shines is as the perfect way to make little chunks of inevitable downtime extremely useful. Since – if you’re like me – your phone goes with you everywhere, you can study everywhere. Combine this with the fact that the heart and soul of SRS is small chunks of spaced out study rather than large sessions and it makes for a perfect opportunity for learning.

Every time you have a few moments – waiting for a bus, standing in line, waiting to be seated at a restaurant, etc. you can pull out your phone and learn or reinforce five or six new vocab words. There are lots and lots of these little chunks of dead time each day, and over the course of a month it adds up to hours and hours of study time. The best part is, you don’t feel like you’ve actually studied, you just realize one day that you know a ton more vocab than you did a couple weeks ago.

Let’s face it, you’re going to pull out your phone during these times anyway, why not personally benefit from it?

A good trick I’ve found is that I made it a rule that I have to do one round on Memrise before I can open Facebook, Twitter or my E-mail on my phone. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I do this compulsively, so it makes for a lot of opportunities to learn. Best of all, the courses are broken into small manageable chunks which are further broken into small learning sessions. Each session takes me 30 seconds to a minute to complete so I’m really not inconvenienced at all by doing it before I get to whatever I was originally going to do on my phone.

You can find Memrise on the Apple App Store for iPhone and on Google Play for Android.

Have you tried out the Memrise app? What did you think? Come up with any other good tricks for getting the most out of it? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Memrise

Identity Based Habits 101 – How to Build a Habit Forever

More Questions than Answers by An Untrained Eye

The best way to form a lasting habit is to completely re-imagine your identity.

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a new habit from scratch knows – change is difficult.

Think about it, how many times have you gotten really fired up about wanting to start something new, whether it was a new exercise program, studying a second language, writing a book or even just getting in the habit of stretching a little each morning?

As fired up as you were, how long until that initial motivation wore off and you were back to your old habits of not working out, studying, writing or whatever? For most people it’s usually not long at all. So what’s the trick to making a new habit stick if being really pumped about it initially isn’t enough?

The use of identity based habits.

What are identity based habits?

I’ve written about using identity based habits to achieve goals in the past, but in case you aren’t familiar with them the basic idea is that you can best solidify a habit by becoming the kind of person who would perform that action habitually.

Ok, that may actually sound more confusing – here’s how it works.

Without getting too much into discussions of free will, determinism and compatibilism, essentially all of your thoughts and decisions arise out of processes that begin unconsciously. In other words, while it may feel like you consciously decided to have a cup of coffee this morning in reality that decision was made well before you were aware of it by a long chain of neurological and causative factors.

In fact, studies have been done where researches hooked participants up to brain scanners and could accurately predict what the people were going to do when left alone in a room (for example, pick up a magazine, walk around, etc.) several moments before that person was aware they were going to do it. This was possible because regions of the brain the participants weren’t consciously aware of fired well before they had the ‘conscious decision’ to do what they were going to do.

Alright, so that’s kind of freaky – but what does it have to do with building habits?

Well what that demonstrates is that whether you like it or not, your decisions and behaviors really are largely if not entirely dictated by factors that exist outside of or independent of your conscious mind. In other words if you’re trying to form a new habit by sheer willpower alone, you’re already setting yourself up in a losing battle – or at least a battle over which you have very little control over the outcome.

Rather than just throw the dice and hope you roll high enough to form the habit (some D&D player somewhere is reading this and nodding), using identity based habits lets you rig the dice in your favor.

An identity based habit is formed by acting like the person you want to be until you actually become them. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.

Then, gradually, you would set yourself up to really live like you were already ‘a fit person’. You would do whatever things in your mind ‘a fit person’ does, maybe read about lifting and nutrition, talk about it with other people, and (most importantly in this case) lift regularly. Before long it become self-reinforcing and the new parts of your identity that you’ve been ‘faking’ would become part of your real identity.

In other words, by thinking of yourself as ‘a fit person’ and strongly identifying as such it becomes contrary to your nature to not go lift. Before long it will get to the point where it will feel strange to not do the very thing you’ve been struggling to make habitual.

This rigs the system by changing the environment, background causes and subconscious neurological factors that determine our choices before we are aware of them. Put simply, you’re making it hard to lose by playing a winnable game.

How to Establish Identity Based Habits

You may at this point be saying, “Ok, that makes sense, but how in the world do I just change my identity? Isn’t that as hard as changing my habits in the first place?”

Not quite as difficult, but to be fair there is some truth to it – suggesting that you should wake up tomorrow and just decide to have an entirely new identity is a lot like suggesting to someone suffering from depression to decide to cheer up – it’s not going to be that easy.

The best ways to make the transition process easier are by playing pretend and using small winnable goals to prove to yourself that you really are the kind of person who you want to be. We’ll look at playing pretend first.

Remember being young and playing make-believe? Well if you can’t try really hard because that’s exactly what we’re going to use to get your new habits to stick.

Rather than try to force yourself to genuinely believe right off the bat that you are now, say, ‘a person who can speak four languages’ rather than someone who speaks one pretend to be that person. Fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes.

This works because in the end it doesn’t really matter if you believe it, as long as you pretend well enough to do the things the person you want to be would do, then eventually you’ll wake up one morning as that person. Using the above as an example, if you pretend like you’re the person who learns languages easily and do all the things that you imagine that kind of person would do (study up on target languages, read news in those languages, watch TV in those languages, etc.) than eventually you’ll have done so much of that you will actually be the kind of person who does those things – see how that works?

The other good way to ease into it is by using small goals as ways to prove to yourself that you can actually be the person you want to be.

By small goals I mean significant things that are still small enough to accomplish without much trouble. For example, if you want to redefine yourself as a writer you don’t want to shoot for writing a book in a week – that’s just setting yourself up to fail at which point you’ll doubt that self-image. Instead you would pick something like writing 500 words everyday. That’s maybe half a page or so.

That type of goal is achievable enough that you really have no excuse not to do it. No matter how busy you are you have the ten minutes or so per day necessary to write half a page worth of something. After a couple weeks, when you look back at all you’ve written, you can say to yourself, “Hey, look at all this I’ve accomplished. I guess I really am a writer!” Then you can kick it up a notch to 1,000 words per day or whatever the next step would be in solidifying that self-image.

Just like with faking it, before long you’ll find it just feels wrong to not write something each day. After all, you’re a writer and that’s what writer’s do. When you get to that point – congratulations, you’ve just formed a lifelong habit.

The best results will always come from not focusing on the end goal or result (I want to be fit) but instead by focusing on embracing and internalizing the process itself (I want to be the kind of person who trains regularly and eats right).

Have you ever tried to change your self-identity in order to better solidify or create a habit? How did it go? Do you have any other advice for other people who would like to try? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: An Untrained Eye

How to Develop Ron Swanson Confidence

ron fucking swanson

Were you born ready?

Note: This is a post about Ron Swanson. That means there’s a good chance there’s going to be a lot of fucking curse words. Hey, there’s one now. If that sort of thing bothers you, you might want to stop reading at this point and come back for the next post. Thanks!

Ron Swanson is confident.

The extreme way he exudes confidence is one of the biggest reasons Ron Swanson has become one of the biggest characters on Parks & Recreation – complete with his own cult following, tumblers consisting entirely of his quotes and a site dedicated solely to his mustache.

So how can we develop that kind of rock solid self-confidence without having to work our way all the way up the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness? Let’s take a look.

Ron Fucking Swanson

It’s a recurring theme through the show that whenever people question Ron Swanson’s ability to do something he reminds them – he’s Ron Fucking Swanson. Here’s a clip from early in the show as an example:

While this is more of a reflection of his confidence than a source of it, it’s something I think it’s good to focus on. That attitude that no matter what, you’re great. You can handle it. You’re not just John Doe – you’re John Fucking Doe. Or Jane. Or whatever, plug your own name in.

Now, while I normally think self-assertions and affirmations and things are kind of silly (though doggone it, people do like me), this is one example where I really think people can get a lot of benefit from remind themselves of how great they are. Particularly if you don’t think you’re a very confident person take some time each morning to look yourself in the mirror each morning and psych up a little. Remind yourself that you’re [Insert] Fucking [Name Here]

In fact say it now. Out loud. I’ll wait.

I don’t care if you’re reading this at work or on your phone in public or something, say it out loud. Ron Fucking Swanson wouldn’t give a damn if other people thought he was talking to himself. You know why?

Because he’s Ron Fucking Swanson.

Greatness Itself: The Best Revenge

One of the blocks of Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness is Greatness Itself, which Ron considers to be the best revenge. Not only do I agree completely, but I also think embracing that concept is an excellent way to fire up your self-confidence.

When you’re feeling unconfident and unmotivated think about all the people who’ve wronged you in the past. Think of all the people who have doubted you. The people who didn’t think you’d amount to anything. The people who treated you like crap. Picture all of those people in your mind.

Do you think Ron Fucking Swanson would let those people be right?

No. He’s Ron Fucking Swanson.

Ron Fucking Swanson would go out and do something incredible. Something fantastic. He would succeed so much that everyone who ever doubted him would never speak again at the shame of being so horrendously wrong.

You should feel the same way.

When you think of all those people who have wronged you, talked bad about you, thought you’d never amount to anything – get fired up and then go out and be epic! You don’t have to do anything world changing (though you’re always welcome to try), you just have to tackle every day with the mindset that you’re going to do everything you do as best as you can and you’re going to crush it. You have to go out determined to do everything with so much greatness that when you’re done strangers will ask, “Who was that?” and people in the know will reply in hushed, reverent tones,

“That was [Insert Your] Fucking [Name].”

“Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Ron Fucking Swanson does things right, and so should you. He doesn’t just try to do something, he puts everything he’s got into it and accomplishes it no matter what. That’s how you should feel about building up your confidence.

Don’t just try to be more confident.

Don’t half-ass it.

You don’t stop until you feel like you could accomplish anything you wanted to. Then, you go out and actually accomplish everything you want to. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Keep going until you’ve done what you set out to do. Ron Fucking Swanson isn’t a quitter – and neither are you.

These tactics won’t make you Ron Fucking Swanson confident overnight, but they’ll help slowly and gradually.

Just stick with it. Like carving a perfect canoe out of a solid mahogany trunk with a pocket knife and a pair of nail clippers, it will take a while. If you stick with it though you’ll get there, and it’ll be worth it in the end.

What do you think? Has Ron Fucking Swanson inspired you to be a little more confident? Is there some other thing that gets you fired up? Share it with us in the comments!

20 Easy Ways to De-Stress and Relax

http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/

Full moon and bonsai not required.

Are you stressed out?

I know, I know – stupid question. Everyone’s stressed out. It’s just a condition of modern life. We all have pressure from work, family, finances, health concerns and a million other things. There aren’t really many good options for escaping it.

The problem is being stressed out all the time can literally kill you or at least set in motion changes that can bring about a much earlier demise than would have otherwise been in your future. Health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes to acne can be caused or exacerbated by being too stressed out, and if you’re trying to lose weight the cortisol it floods your system with will make things exponentially more difficult for you. Being stressed is serious business.

So what can we do about it?

How to Fight and Relieve Stress

Everyone’s a little bit different, so some things will work better for some while others may need to try a different approach. The important thing is to find what works best for you and then to make time to do it every single day. Remember, if something’s important you should do it everyday. Relieving stress is extremely important, so don’t neglect it.

  1. Meditate – Meditation is number one on the list because it’s probably the most obvious and yet the most potentially intimidating if you’ve never done it. The key is to not think of meditation as some mystical or spiritual thing, it’s just exercise for your brain. Exercise that has been shown to reduce stress, improve clarity of thought and train your mind to focus more easily. Some studies have shown that meditation even helps your brain build more grey matter to help you deal with stressful situations on a day to day basis.

    The easiest way to get started if you’re a beginner to meditation is to just set aside five minutes to sit down and not think about anything. It’s harder than it sounds, but once you can sit five minutes with no thoughts popping into your head, try for ten, then for fifteen and so on. Guess what? You’re meditating!

  2. Read – As little as six minutes of reading has been shown to cause significant reductions in saliva cortisol levels – that means a reduction in stress. The studies in question used fiction, so the jury’s still out as to whether curling up with a technical manual is going to help you much.

    I know my preference for de-stressing is a good work of fiction anyway. Few things offer the kind of imagination powered escapism that a good book has inside of it. Don’t think you can half-ass it and de-stress with TV either, with the exception of comedy shows TV increased stress levels on average so ditch your TV.

  3. Listen to Music – Music is extremely therapeutic. The trick is in finding the right kind of music for you. There have been studies on the calming effect of classical music, so if you’re not sure you can always turn to that to unrustle your jimmies.

    Now while I personally do enjoy classical music, I’ve found I de-stress equally well to all the 90s music I group on. Well, almost all of it anyway. The point is there are even some thrashing, screaming Finntroll songs that I’ve found I can sit down and close my eyes and listen to that calm me down – find what music works for you then spend a little bit of time each day or night listening to it. Really listen to it too, don’t do anything else or try to multitask, just listen and relax.

  4. Have Some Pet Time – Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, spending time with pets not only helps de-stress you but also helps lower your blood pressure. Spending some quality time just loving on your pet of choice is so effective they even use them in some nursing homes and hospitals to help improve the condition of residents and long term patients.

    If you have your own pet, take some time each day to just sit and pet them or play with them. If you don’t have any pets see if you can hang out with a friend or family member who does or volunteer every now and again at a rescue or animal shelter.

  5. Scream Profanity – If a lot of your stress is manifesting itself as anger and tension, go scream some curse words at the top of your lungs until you feel better. Screaming is a really good way to vent and let off pent up frustrations, and the use of profanity actually helps us deal with physical pain better – so it stands to reason that it would help deal with stress as well. Aside from being cathartic, it’s usually pretty fun.

    On a side note, if you get hung up over the use of profanity, grow up and deal with it. They’re just words. It’s the intent that’s important, and if your intent is to blow off steam and relax as opposed to intending to harm someone else then there’s nothing that makes any of those words ‘bad’.

  6. Smile and Laugh – Even if you don’t have anything to smile about, forcing yourself to think about something that makes you smile actually triggers a feedback loop that releases the feel good chemicals in your brain that cause you to smile. That means forcing yourself to smile can physically make you feel happier.

    The same thing happens when we laugh. Every time we laugh our brains are triggered to release the chemical cocktail that makes us happy and want to laugh more. You can either force laughter by trying to think of something funny, or just go out and find something funny to watch or listen to. Spend 5 minutes every night watching something hilarious on YouTube or find a funny show you really love and save them for when you’re particularly stressed. Laughter not only improves your mood, but it also lowers blood pressure – so you get a double benefit.

  7. Go Play – Just because you’re a grown up doesn’t mean you have to act old. Playing is not only an inherent part of being human, it’s an inherent part of being a mammal. Getting out and playing not only gives you something to focus on other than the reasons you’re stressed out, it also gives you an outlet to work out some of your energy and get a little bit of exercise. It’s also a social activity, and being around other people you’re comfortable with is another good way to help lower stress. Make it an outdoor game and you even get the mood elevating effect of Vitamin D exposure.

    Grab some friends, or your kids or even your dog and go find a game to play. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, it can be as structured as an organized game of football or as irreverent as a game of chase. The point is just to go have fun and forget about everything that’s troubling you. Make it an actual physical game though, video games don’t count.

  8. Have Sex – If you’re reading this, sorry Mom. The fact is though that sex is an excellent way to relive stress. I’m reasonably certain I don’t have to explain in too great of detail why that’s the case. It should be noted though that this tactic is one best taken when you’re in a committed relationship as trying to use sex as a stress reliever outside of a committed relationship can increase the probability of creating situations which will lead to much more stress down the road.

  9. Workout – A good workout acts as stress relief in many of the same ways good sex does – the physical exertion not only encourages your body to release all the pleasant chemicals and hormones that make you feel calm, serene and happy, it also allows you to physically vent any pent up frustration and anger that may be adding to your stress levels. Exercise pair extremely well with meditation as vigorous physical activity also leads to changes in your brain that improve your clarity of thought.

    Really you should be on a structured fitness routine anyway, but if you aren’t on one or are strapped for time you can always make good use of a quick 5 minute morning bodyweight circuit There is no such thing as being too busy to work out – you have time to exercise – you just have to make it.

  10. Go for a Walk – Vitamin D is a natural mood elevator, and there are few better ways to get a little bit more Vitamin D than taking a nice relaxing stroll outside. Going for a nice walk is effective as a stress reliever for a variety of reasons, the physical activity encourages the release of pleasant brain chemicals, the exposure to sunlight provides an extra little does of Vitamin D and lastly a good long walk allows you time to reflect on the things that are stressing you and work through them.

    Thoreau (who penned an entire essay entitled Walking) wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements”. It’s that freedom from worldly engagements, the feeling of which I second, that provides so much needed relief from life’s stresses.

  11. Explore Nature – I’ll resist the urge to follow one Thoreau quote with another, or perhaps one from Emerson, but both would tell you that it’s extremely important for a person’s well being to spend some quality time immersed in nature. I’ll tell you the same thing – getting outside into the wilderness is a wonderfully calming experience and I think a lack of time truly enjoying nature leads to a great deal of the stress most people feel in their lives.

    Take an afternoon and head out to a park or the nearest woods and go for a stroll. Sit by a stream and listen to the birds or climb a tree and just hang out up there for a while. If you want, combine your exposure to nature with some of the other stress relieving tactics – exercise outside, read a book in a tree, or meditate on a log. Just be careful about number 8, depending on where you are that might lead to embarrassment and a night in jail.

  12. Call Home – I know, I know, you’re a big boy or girl. You don’t need your mommy. You might change your mind though once you see how much stress she can take off your shoulders. In a study on college aged girls researches found a ten minute call to their moms brought about a significant reduction in saliva cortisol. A quick call home to the folks may be just what you need to stop feeling like you’re going to rip all the hair out of your head.

    Of course, if you have a strained relationship with your parents this option may not be the best one for you. It goes without saying that you know your situation better than anyone, just don’t dismiss it as an option because you feel embarrassed.

  13. Eat a Small Piece of Dark Chocolate – A small piece. A small piece of dark chocolate can trigger all of the same good feelings as a round of hearty laughter or some good grins, as well as all the feel good chemicals that come along with it. Cocoa also has a positive effect on blood pressure and HDL levels, so there’s an added bonus there. The important thing is to not go overboard. A small piece of dark chocolate is good for you, an entire bag of dark chocolate is not good for you. Especially if you use your stress to justify tearing through one each night. Keep it in moderation.

  14. Vent to Someone – If screaming out profanity isn’t really your thing, you can always verbally vent to someone else. Being able to just unload on someone who cares and is patient enough to listen not only helps by providing a comforting social experience where you bond even more closely with a friend or loved one, but also allows you to openly examine what’s stressing you and get all of the internalized pressures off your chest.

    Sharing your burdens with someone willing to help you with them is a huge relief, but make sure to actually vent to someone willing to share your burdens. It can be even more disheartening to open up to someone about how stressed out you are only to have them react dismissively or negatively. You know which people in your life you can open up to, so pick the right one.

  15. Breathe – Breathing is an incredible physiological process. Deep calming breaths have a profound ability to calm the mind, slow down your heart rate and bring clarity of thought. It’s why a focus on deep breathing is such a key element to many forms of meditation. You don’t need to meditate to use breathing as a stress relief technique (although, seriously, you should try meditation), you just need to take a second to take a nice deep breath through your nose and out your mouth.

    Focus on breathing from your diaphragm. That means when you take a nice deep breath instead of your shoulders coming up, your belly should push out and down. This allows you to get a much bigger, deeper breath which means more oxygen. More oxygen means a happier, calmer and more focused brain. That means less stress.

  16. Get a Massage – Again, if I need to explain to you why this is a good option for how to de-stress, you are way too far gone for me to help. Go on out and treat yourself to a professional massage every now and then if you have to – some people swear by it. A better option in my opinion is to trade massages with your significant other. Not only are the massages a good way to relieve stress and increase intimacy, they tend to lead to another stress relief option I mentioned previously.

  17. Make a List of Positives – Being able to take what’s stressing you and get it out of your system, either verbally or through physical exertion, is a common thread running throughout many of these stress relieving tactics. That’s because it works. Another equally good option is to sit down and make a physical list of all the good or positive things in your life.

    There’s something psychologically powerful about making physical lists. While you can certainly type it, I really do think getting a pen and paper and writing by hand is a much more powerful exercise. Take some time and do it mindfully, write down as many good things in your life as you possibly can. By the end I guarantee you’ll feel a lot less stressed and a lot more grateful.

  18. Smell Something Really Good – Out of all the senses, scent is the most strongly linked to memory and emotional response in our brains. You can use this to your advantage by finding a particular scent that reminds you of something you love, be it home, the smell of your favorite flower or a special fragrance your significant other wears, and exposing yourself to it when you really need to relax.

    If you don’t have any smells ingrained in your mind as particularly calming or pleasant you can make one. Pick a unique scent, lavender works well and so does incense as they’re easily available and very unique. Once you have your scent every time you employ one of the other stress relieving techniques fill the room with it first. Before long just exposing yourself to the scent will trigger the same emotional response as the calming activities you normally do with it.

  19. Visualize Something Happy and Calming – While visualizations aren’t quite as powerful as scent for triggering an emotional or memory response, they’re still pretty strong. It’s why we employ visualizations to enhance our memories to encode a lot of new information very quickly.

    In this case, we want to use our visualizations to recall a happy or serene moment rather than to encode new information with a memory hook. Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, take a nice deep breath and picture your happy place. I know it sounds cliched and silly, but it really does work.

  20. Stretch – Stretching is a good idea for a lot of reasons, but the one we’re concerned about here is the relaxing effect it has. Most people already stretch instinctively when they’re trying to relax. You can use the natural physiological response from stretching to lower your stress levels and increase your flexibility a little bit all at the same time.

    While I’m of the opinion you should already have a good flexibility routine in place, you don’t need one to use stretches to relax. Just set aside 5 to 10 minutes either right when you wake up, right after a workout (not before) or right before bed to do a couple easy stretches. If you want to get a little more advanced, try some nice slow yoga. (Though you should avoid hot yoga at all costs).

I’m certain there are lots more quick and effective ways to reduce stress, but these were the first ones to come to mind. If you can think of any others or have some that have worked particularly well for you in the past, share them in the comments! We’re all stressed out and I guarantee they’ll be appreciated.

Photo Credit: H.koppdelaney

How to Not Suck at Evaluating Claims

From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary by Double--M

You don’t need all this stuff to properly evaluate the veracity of a claim.

Most people really suck at evaluating claims.

It’s not their fault – to be honest at least in the U.S. very little in our society or education systems properly prepares us to evaluate claims and make proper reason-based decisions.

The good news is, even if you’ve been awful at it your entire life, you can easily learn how to evaluate claims properly by starting to use some basic guidelines.

But first, why is it even important to have this skill?

Sic Semper in Excretia Sumus, Solum Profundum Variat.

It is staggering at times just how much bullshit there is out there – even more staggering is how willing people are in general to accept it.

Whether it’s Deepak Chopra making rambling, nonsensical claims about quantum mechanics, Dr. Oz touting the latest scientifically unsupported miracle health fad or a pop up ad yelling to you about a guy who “language professors hate” because he came up with the secret formula for easy language acquisition – there are a lot of people asking you to believe a lot of claims out there.

Some of these claims are legitimate, others are not. When the consequences of failing to properly evaluate a claim can range from something mildly annoying like wasting $10 to something dire like serious injury or death it’s vital to separate out the two as best as we possibly can.

While this skill applies across the board to essentially all aspects of life due to the manner in which we’re assaulted with information and advertisements on a daily basis I think it’s extra important for those interested in fitness and looking to improve their health because the fields of health, fitness & nutrition are some of the most saturated with unsupported and potentially dangerous claims.

So what are some easy ways to begin separating out the claims you should probably accept from those you probably shouldn’t?

The Bullshit Detection Kit

I have to give credit to the incomparable Carl Sagan and his excellent book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for the concept of a bullshit detection kit (sometimes also called the baloney detection kit). The idea is to have a set of tools that can be easily applied to new claims that you come across to help you determine if they are likely to be true or not. Our bullshit detection kit differs a little from his, but the concepts are the same.

A note on the word ‘true’ – ‘True’ here means supported by reality. If you’re the kind of person who vociferously claims there is no objective truth and that everyone determines their own equally viable personal truth I invite you to decide gravity is a subjective truth and step out of a second story window.

The bullshit detection kit is in no way infallible, but it can offer a little bit of guidance in the right direction. As we unpack our kit we’ll apply each piece to a fitness claim that was made recently enough to still be in memory but far enough back that it’s been solidly disproven – the efficacy of power bands.

So let’s get to work.

  • Who’s Making the Claim – The first thing to look at when evaluating a claim is who’s making it and with that do they benefit directly from acceptance of this claim. In other words, if the only people making the claim are the manufacturers and sellers of a product then that claim should be more suspect than one independently verified by a source with nothing to gain by verifying that claim.

    In the case of power bands while companies made claims that the efficacy of their bands was scientifically demonstrable, they never actually released any studies or proof that didn’t come from a place funded entirely by the company that sold them. When the only people making the claim are the people trying to sell the claim to you and they’re only backed up by their own non-independently verified research, you should be suspicious.

  • Has the Claim Been Tested Properly – Whenever possible you should always look for a properly controlled double-blind study on whatever claim you’re evaluating. A proper double-blind study with a control group does the best job of guaranteeing that any confounding factors (variables that affect the outcome of the test and obscure the validity of the claim) are removed and only the claim is being tested.

    Anecdotal evidence or evidence from personal experience is insufficient – people are very easily deceived and we’re always the best at deceiving ourselves. Someone may tell you that a claim is true, someone may tell you that something worked for them, they may even genuinely believe what they’re telling you but the claim still may be false.

    It’s equally important that the claim be tested properly because then other independent testers with no personal stake in the outcome of the testing can run the same test. If they come to the same conclusions and get the same results then that lends credibility to the truth of the claim. If not, either something was done improperly in the testing or the claim is more likely to be false.

    Many power band companies used a kinesthetic trick where they would put the band on you and tug on your arm. You would appear to be much stronger with the band on and, hopefully for the sales person, be so impressed by this ‘proof’ that you’d drop $50 or so on a 10 cent piece of rubber and tin foil. When these same products were put to a double-blind study wherein the participants didn’t know if they had the band on or not, there was absolutely zero effect.

  • Is There Definite Causation – The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy is a common misstep in the evaluation of the truth of claims. It’s due to the tendency of people to conflate correlation and causation – or just to see causation where there isn’t any.

    A good example might be that you have a headache. You take two aspirin and spin around ten times. Your headache goes away, but which actually cured you? This can even happen sans the aspirin since sometimes headaches just go away. You might spin around ten times and your headache disappears, but did the spinning actually help or did the headache just go away on its own or for another reason.

    Another good example might be the fact that there’s a strong correlation between having black hair and eating a diet high in rice. Does that mean that having black hair makes you more likely to eat rice or that eating rice makes you more likely to have black hair? Clearly not – it just happens that black hair is genetically more common in Asia and agriculturally rice is a staple food there.

    In the case of power bands they claimed that big name athletes that used them were performing better in games and pointed to statistics of professional athletes who had bought into their marketing to back it up. Even though they pointed to improvements in the performance of these athletes it still didn’t prove that the bracelet itself was having any actual effect.

  • Does the Claimant Rely on Arguments from Authority or other Fallacies – A common tactic for puffing up a claim with little actual substance behind it is the argument from authority. The argument from authority is essentially the argument that because someone smart or important says it’s true, it must be true.

    While in certain cases the support of a knowledgeable expert can add credence to a claim – for example a respected astrophysicist agreeing with a claim about astrophysics – it should not be the sole reason for accepting it.

    Even if a ton of experts agree a claim is true, it may still not be. Even if everyone in the world agrees that a claim is true, it may still not be. A claim must stand on its own merits and not rely entirely on its acceptance by others.

    Power bands companies, either through genuinely convincing them or via large payments, secured the endorsements of a lot of pro athletes. This was a big selling point for most people who thought, “If NBA star X wears one it must work! I’ll buy one too!” Unfortunately for the consumer, just because someone else says something is true doesn’t actually mean it is.

There are a lot more ways people who make false claims will try to convince you of there veracity and many more ways to help sort out the true from the false – but this will at least get you started. If you have any other tips you think people should keep in mind in order to not suck so bad at evaluating claims chime in and share them!

Photo Credit: Double–M

4 Quick Workout Tips for Super Busy People

Double-decker Bus Does Pushups by Michael Camilleri

I advocate doing push ups while you wait for the bus, I don’t advocate buses doing push ups.

Life is busy.

For all the same reasons you probably don’t think you’ve got time to learn a second language you may also think you haven’t got the time to spend hours every week getting fit and healthy. Now while I think most people do have some things that can prioritize around and cut from their schedule, I’m not going to say it’s as simple as cutting out TV time. Most people are genuinely busy and that can make fitting in a workout difficult.

Thankfully there are some ways that you can make it work and at least fit something in without having to sacrifice anything from your schedule.

Do What Fits Your Schedule

Even if you’re following a set program like Starting Strength or Wendler’s 5/3/1 it’s not the end of the world if you do a different workout instead that fits your schedule better that day.

Sure, if you’re consistently finding that you only have the time to do a workout from the program you’re following properly once a week, then it might be a good idea to either reevaluate your reasons for being on that program or reevaluate your schedule. If it’s just once in a while though Rippetoe is not going to hunt you down and punch you in the face.

Instead either pick a different workout that’s shorter like our 5 minute morning bodyweight workout or just do whatever you can from your normal workout in that time frame.

Even if that means only doing your warm up and your cool down that’s fine – it was something – and something is always better than doing nothing at all.

If you have a little more time you can prioritize what you do from the workout. If you’re more focused on your legs right now do your squats but leave the pressing for another day. Use the limited time you do have to hit what’s most important to you, which brings me to the next tip…

Be Efficient

If you have a very limited amount of time to get a workout in, it makes the most sense to get the most out of that short workout.

For that reason you always want to make sure to prioritize what you plan to do. Always put strength training above cardio. Gains in conditioning on the cardiovascular side of things diminish relatively quickly when you go for a period of time with no training. Gains on the strength side of things however last much longer when you have some time off and in fact can even be benefited by taking breaks. It makes a lot more sense then if you have a chaotic or busy schedule to not worry so much about the cardio side of things and to prioritize strength training.

Within the strength training you should always prioritize what you’ll get the most benefit from for your particular goals. If you have a sport or activity you really love or are actually training for, hit the most used muscle groups for it and leave the less used ones for another time. Alternatively you can hit whatever area needs the most work or feels the most recovered from the last workout.

Everyone’s prioritization is going to differ based on their goals – the important thing it to put the thought into prioritizing first.

A related option for prioritization is to do whatever exercise you enjoy the most. If you hate push ups, pick them as the thing to drop and leave in what you enjoy. Choosing to do what you consider fun will ensure you enjoy your brief workout and aren’t tempted to come up with excuses to skip it. That ties in to our next piece of advice…

Have Fun and Go Play

I think most people, if they had only 20 minutes of free time in a day, would rather do something fun than workout. Part of the problem here is that most people don’t find working out as fun as I do, but the other problem is that they think it’s one or the other – you can have fun and work out at the same time.

While it’s certainly true that a well-planned and structured fitness program is the best way to get you to your particular fitness goals for most people any kind of physical activity is a serious improvement from that they normally do.

So just go play.

Chase your dog around the park, race your kids, grab a handful of friends and play a pick-up game of something, go try out parkour. There are countless options.

Don’t really feel like doing that upper body workout today? When was the last time you climbed a tree? Not in the mood for those interval sprints? See who can get to the tennis ball faster, you or your dog. Anything that you really enjoy that gets you moving not only gets you a little bit of exercise, but it also makes sure you won’t hate it and fight to come up with excuses why you can’t do it.

Weave Exercise into Your Routine

I understand that for some people their schedule is so tight that even all of these options may not work, particularly if they’re struggling to find even a short chunk of time to get away and have a quick workout. Even if you fall into that category, there are options.

If you really don’t have 10 to 15 minutes in one single block for some quick activity then weave it into your day.

There are tons of things you can do both while you’re working on other things or during the hundreds of minutes each day you inevitably spend waiting on something.

If you sit all day consider switching to a standing desk. Every time you’re waiting for something to load on your computer hop up and do push ups until it loads. Do dips on the handrail of the elevator as you ride it up to your office or take the stairs and lunge your way up them. Hop down on the floor and see if you can hold a plank for the entire duration of the commercial break. Rock out some bodyweight squats while you wait for the bus.

There are countless options. The point is to just always be present in the moment with with whatever you’re doing and asking yourself, “Could I be exercising while I do this?”

These are just a few of our best quick tips for fitting some fitness time into a packed schedule, but there are lots more. I want to hear from all the other busy people – do you have any things you do that help you stay fit even when you’re super busy? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Michael Camilleri

Using Breaks to Overcome Fitness Plateaus

Bear in a Basket by Ucumari

Even bears know the importance of taking a break once in a while.

Sometimes you just hit a wall in your progress.

It happens to everyone – it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been training, how well constructed your program is, how perfect your diet, sleep patterns and recovery are – at some point you’re going to plateau. Often times it’s extremely frustrating because it feels like you’re doing everything right, but you still can’t make any progress.

The natural response for most people is to try to power through it. They up the intensity, super fine tune their diet, obsess over every little thing and about kill themselves to push as hard as they possibly can in each workout. The problem is this is the wrong response. So how do we get back to progressing?

Simple. Take a break.

Why Have a Deload Week?

For some people it’s puzzling why I would recommend taking a week off or switching to something lighter (deloading) for people who are stuck and want to get stronger. The problem is that they’re not looking at the big picture and still think exercise makes you stronger. It doesn’t.

Recovery makes you stronger.

Essentially while all the hard work in the gym is necessary to provide the stimulus to start the process of muscle growth the actual muscle growth itself doesn’t happen in the gym, it happens over the next few days and while you’re sleeping.

Exercise is the ignition switch that starts up the engine, but recovery is the engine itself – it’s what really does the work you want in the end.

Sometimes after a while it gets to a point where you’ve just done too much intentional damage to your system and haven’t given it or aren’t giving it enough time to recover. That can translate to putting in a lot of work, but not seeing any results. When something like this happens the best course of action is to provide your body with enough rest to recover fully so you can get back to work. How do you do that?

Take a break.

How to Deload

For some people, wrapping their head around not training for a week can be painful. I used to feel that way too. Once you see the benefit a well-timed deload week can have though you’ll see why I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not suggesting that you just drop everything and spend the week lying around on the couch eating ice cream either, when you take a break to help push through a plateau it should be an active, intentional break. Here’s a few options if you have no idea how to do that.

  • The Traditional Deload Week – Generally when people in the lifting world talk about a deload week they mean a week with a 40% or so reduction in training intensity. So that means on higher rep lifts a reduction in reps by around 40% (e.g., 12 reps instead of 20) and for low rep high weight lifts a reduction in weight by 40% (e.g., 180 lb. squat instead of a 300 lb. squat).

    Why specifically 40%? To be honest I’m not sure other than that historically it has always worked well. As to whether there have been any rigorous scientific studies to back that 40% up as the ideal amount I’ve been unable to find any. You could certainly reduce by a different percentage, but just know that the 40% deload has been used often and with lots of success.

  • The Active Recovery Week – Instead of a traditional deload week, you can always go for an active recovery week. An active recovery week differs from a more traditional deload in that here you don’t necessarily do the same exercises as your normal training program. Instead you focus on different related exercises and things that get you moving but aren’t nearly as intense as your standard routine.

    Spending some steady time on the rowing machine, focusing on mobility work, checking out some yoga classes, switching to a bodyweight routine or doing assistance exercise to your core lifts at a lower intensity all fall under the category of active recovery.

  • The Play Week – Another option if neither of those sound interesting is just to take a week and focus entirely on playing. Go have fun, climb some things, give parkour a try, play some football/baseball/hopscotch/whatever, go hiking, you get the point.

    Play is a big part of alive and happy so go do it. Make the whole point of the week to be up and moving as much as possible but in a relaxed, fun, playful way. By the end of the week not only will you feel better physically, you’ll probably be a lot less stressed and more happy on top of it.

A Note on Nutrition

Just because you’re taking a break from your standard exercise schedule doesn’t mean you should necessarily take a break from your normal nutritional plan. Depending on how you’re eating one cheat day in there may be fine if you have them normally and they’re a part of your program, but don’t take the week off as an excuse to go into some Bacchanalian feast mode and nom your way through three tons of junk food.

Instead, if you’re going to change your dietary habits at all during your break, eat lots of meat. Protein is your very bestest friend during recovery time, so go nuts. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, well… you have my sympathy.

Have you had success breaking through a sticking point in your fitness by using a break or a deload week? Tell us about it in the comments! If you’ve got any other good ideas for how to relax and recover properly, be sure to share those too.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

Easy Ways to Maximize Limited Language Learning Time

Hangul by Chita21

It’s a fact of life – most people are busy.

You’ve got a full time job or school to worry about, possibly a family to take care of, and countless other responsibilities. Not everyone wants to spend their downtime studying either, you need a little time to relax and have fun too.

When you add all of that up, there isn’t always a lot of time left for learning a new language. If you’re living in a country that primarily speaks the language you’re learning it’s not as much of an obstacle, but not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully there are some tips and tactics you can use to get the most out of both the limited time you can dedicate to practice and all the downtime you’ve got throughout the day.

Optimizing Learning Time

First we’ll look at some things you can do to optimize the time you can specifically devote to studying your target language. A lot of these have to do with making sure you’re as focused and productive as possible.

  • Have A Plan – Don’t go into a study session not really knowing what your goal is for that session. Studying without a goal almost always leads to aimless screwing around and that’s almost never productive. Instead, go into each study session with a plan not only for what your specific goal for that study session is but also with a game plan for how you’re going to work toward or reach that goal during that session. It can be as simple as ‘Memorize these 20 new words’ or as complicated as ‘Be able to write a poem in my target language’, the important thing is to have a goal.
  • Eliminate Distractions – If you have an hour set aside to study, use that entire hour to study. Do not check Facebook, do not watch TV, do not listen to music, do not get distracted by texts from friends or check your RSS or go read blogs (even this one). You can use a program like Rescue Time or Freedom to shut off your Internet temporarily if you’re not using it to access your materials. If you have to just download everything you need or print it out then turn your phone off and rip out your modem – you’ve dedicated this time to studying and damnit, you’re going to spend that time studying.
  • Take Controlled Breaks – I know, I know I just told you to buckle down and study for the time you allotted, and you should, but you should also take a controlled five minute break every 20 minutes or so. It turns out we tend to remember things better the closer they are to the beginning and ending of our study sessions. By taking a very short break every 20 minutes or so you can maximize your recall from the study session much more than if you sat there and studied for an hour straight. This is not free license to give into distractions and goof off. Your breaks should be no more than 5 minutes and they should be something that you’re not going to get sucked into. That means yes to getting up and stretching, walking around or doing some push ups and no to checking Facebook, your e-mail or just about anything online.

Optimizing Downtime

So now you know how to get the most out of your structured study sessions, but what if you don’t have the time to have structured study sessions. My first question would be ‘How much time do spend watching TV every night?’. Even excluding that, there are thousands of little moments of downtime each day, times when you’re waiting on something or not doing anything, that you can add up into a substantial amount of study time.

  • Master Passive Learning – Just because you can’t go live in a country that speaks your target language doesn’t mean you can’t master passive, immersive learning by building your own language bubble. When you’re in the car, at the gym or anywhere else you can have your headphones in or music playing listen to dialogues in your target language that you’ve selected or listen to music in your target language. Label everything in your house in your target language using sticky notes. Use your relaxing TV time to watch TV in your target language. Essentially every time you can be exposed to input in your target language make sure you’re getting it.
  • Use In-Between Moments – There are countless moments in your day when you just sit there waiting for something. Maybe you’re waiting for an elevator, for a website to load, for the microwave to finish, for your turn to order at a restaurant – frequently with the proliferation of smartphones people use this time to check in on Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use them to practice a phrase or grammar structure you’re working on or to flip through some flashcards of new vocab.
  • Talk To Yourself – It doesn’t have to be loudly, particularly if you’re at work or on the subway or something (although muttering to yourself in a foreign language might guarantee people give you a little space to get comfortable), but talking to yourself in your target language is not only a good way to reinforce what you’ve learned and solidify it in your memory – it’s also a good way to develop the muscle memory for speaking. Speaking a language is a skill, and just like other skills the muscle you use to practice that skill (your mouth and related bits in this case) need to build up the motor pathways from repeated practice to make the skill feel most natural. The more you chat to yourself, even if you just move your lips and don’t vocalize, the more used to speaking that language you’ll get.

With all of these tactics you really have no excuse for being too busy to learn a language – so go get started! If you have any other helpful ways to pack more practice and study into limited share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chita21

Page 10 of 20« First...89101112...20...Last »