20 Easy Ways to De-Stress and Relax

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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

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

How to Build Batman-Like Discipline and Willpower

Roar by Gideon Tsang

Donning a costume and yelling may also increase your willpower.

Batman’s life sucks.

It does. He has nearly unlimited wealth and freedom as Bruce Wayne and he can never enjoy it. It’s nearly impossible for him to form meaningful relationships without the fear or pain of having that person murdered as a result of their involvement with him. His days are filled with rigorous training and his nights with battles that often come very close to being fatal. He’s eternally haunted by the memory of his parents and I don’t know when he gets any sleep.

So how does he put himself through all that hell? He has serious willpower.

Think how easy it would be for him to say, “You know what? Screw this Batman thing tonight. I’m just going to sit around the mansion, watch TV and eat ice cream in my fabulously expensive pajamas.” He doesn’t though. Even when he gets sick and any normal person would take a day off of a job that doesn’t involve getting shot at he still goes out there to do what has to be done.

Beyond the bottomless pool of money that is Wayne Enterprises it’s that discipline that has enabled Bruce Wayne to become Batman.

So how do we develop discipline like that?

Defining Discipline and Willpower

Though you could probably tease out some minor differences, for now I’m going to use the terms discipline and willpower interchangeably. Boiled down to its essence willpower is the capacity to do something you don’t want to do because you know that it’s the thing that needs to be done. In most cases this involves delaying gratification and suppressing or ignoring our instinctual desires.

When you walk by the big box of donuts at the office and don’t take one even though you want to, that’s willpower. When you really want to go watch TV or play video games but force yourself to sit down and get your work done first, that’s willpower. When the alarm goes off and you would murder someone in order to sleep five more minutes but you get up and go work out, that’s willpower.

This kind of discipline is what keeps us from doing the things that we get the instant gratification from in the understanding that we will get a much bigger benefit by avoiding those behaviors. It’s what keeps Bruce Wayne in cape and cowl instead of parked in front of his Xbox.

Willpower Is a Muscle

Whenever you hear people talk about willpower or discipline you often hear people describe it like it were another invisible muscle somewhere in your body. It’s a really good way to conceptualize it – willpower really does work a lot like a muscle.

Everyone has a different strength of willpower, some are more disciplined than others naturally, practice exercises your willpower and helps you build more of it and, like your physical muscles, your willpower can only exert so much force before it’s fatigued and gives up. In fact, like all your other muscles the strength of your willpower is even affected by your health and the foods you eat.

This may sound like bad news but actually it’s really great. Understanding how our own discipline works means we can work within that system to improve it.

How to Strengthen Your Willpower

When it comes to developing a stronger sense of discipline it all revolves around that concept of treating it like a muscle. We need to remember not only to work it out, but also to make sure we don’t wear it into the ground by expecting too much from it.

  • Know Your Limits – Like all your muscles your willpower has a limited amount of energy. Once that energy is tapped your willpower isn’t going to be able to do anything until it’s had some time to rest and recover.

    Since you know this is the case, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you knew you had to move a piano on Monday night would you go do heavy deadlifts and squats Monday morning? No, you’d be spent by the time you got to the piano and you’d be useless. So don’t do the same thing with your willpower.

    If you know you have particularly weak willpower, or are going to be put in a situation where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested, don’t burn it out on little things throughout the day. If you know you’re going to have to turn down dessert later don’t spend all day walking past cookies and donuts. Eliminate the things you can that sap away little bits of discipline so that your reserves are filled for the real tests you know are coming.

  • Do Your Exercises – Studies have shown that purposefully exercising your willpower actually makes it stronger. Just like with your muscles the key is to know how to exercise it properly and to develop a plan to do so. So what are some ways you can do that?

    The easiest way is to set up controlled situations where you know you’ll be tempted by something and then exercising your discipline to avoid it. Start slow here, particularly if you know you don’t have much discipline to begin with. Pick a task you should do but never want to, like meditation, and make yourself do it for a very short time each day – maybe 5 minutes. After a while, build that up until you have the discipline to meditate for 30 minutes each day.

    Another extremely easy way is to consciously force yourself to do some little thing you’re not used to doing. For example make a commitment to not use contractions in your speech, to brush your teeth with your opposite hand or sit up more straight. It may not seem like much, but every time you make the conscious decision to do it your work out your willpower just a little and it adds up.

    Be careful though – just like with your physical muscles overtraining can lead to problems. I also wouldn’t recommend training to failure. Don’t put out a giant plate of cookies to resist all day only to push yourself too far, give up and gorge on them. Always be mindful of your limits and keep at it and you’ll see improvements.

  • Stay Fed – Your muscles need energy to function and so does your willpower. Researchers found that study participants who were put through tests exercising their willpower showed decreased blood sugar and glycogen levels as a result of the exercise. As you burn up energy flexing your discipline muscles it makes it harder and harder to keep up.

    As it turns out replenishing blood sugar and glycogen stores, with sugar water or orange juice in most of the studies, helped mitigate those effects and allowed participants to do better on subsequent tests of willpower.

    That means a couple things. The first is that if you find your willpower waning you might be able to give it a small boost by snacking on something sugary. Now if you’re trying to stick to a strict diet be careful here, that’s not an excuse to go crazy on 10 pounds of candy bars, but a little snack can help.

    Second, it means that things that tend to wear out your glycogen stores – stress, lack of sleep, illness etc. – directly deplete your ability to exercise your willpower. Use this to your advantage by going into situations where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested well-fed and rested.

    Batman of course may be the exception to this – like I said I have no idea how he finds time to get enough sleep. Once you reach equivalent levels of discipline you can skip meals and never sleep while maintaining an iron will too, until then though you should get your eight hours and take care of yourself.

  • Stay Happy – I know it’s easier said then done, but your mood also directly affects the strength of your discipline. When you’re in a good, upbeat mood your willpower is stronger and when you’re feeling depressed, upset or angry it’s a lot harder to resist doing things you shouldn’t or force yourself to do things you should.

    Thankfully, you probably don’t have to worry about maintaining a second identity or avoiding death on a nightly basis. Even so it can be a bit tough to maintain a positive attitude.

    We’ve talked about ways to stay happier in the past. A few easy ways are to consciously make yourself smile more, to learn to follow your dreams, or to give meditation a try.

    Just like with lifting, music can also give you that extra mental motivation to do what needs to be done. If you’re finding you lack the motivation to sit down and get your work done instead of wasting time on Facebook, put on some of your favorite music and rock out or dance around or whatever you need to do to get pumped. Then sit back down and get stuff done.

  • Don’t Think About Elephants – Bruce Wayne is definitely haunted by the memory of his parents. It’s part of what defines him. Instead of running from that fact and trying to suppress his anger he accepts it and redirects it into a positive thing as Batman. If he tried to deny all that hate and bottle it up it would eventually consume him.

    The same thing happens to us when we try to avoid focusing on something unpleasant – or anything really. It’s like when someone tells you, “Whatever you do, don’t think about [blank].”

    You can’t help but think about it. The harder you try to not think about it the harder it is to actually not think about it. Researchers have been doing studies on this effect for a long time and in every case the more we focus on avoiding something, the more difficult it is not to dwell on it.

    How does this tie in to willpower?

    Discipline, like we said, is the ability to either stop yourself from doing something you want to do, or making yourself do something you don’t want to do. Either way it has to do with overriding your desires. A lot of people think the best way to do that is to try to ignore them. They feel their extreme craving for a pint of ice cream and they jam their metaphorical fingers in their ears and start yelling, “I can’t hear you!”

    This doesn’t work though, for the reason we just discussed. The more you try to deny or ignore your craving for bad food or your desire to go watch TV instead of getting your work done the more irresistible it becomes.

    Instead of denying it the best course of action is to acknowledge it, decide what to do about it and move on. When you do that those desires lose their bite. Rather than ignoring your craving say, “Hmm, I really want some ice cream. I shouldn’t though, so I’ll go chop up an apple and sprinkle just a little brown sugar on it. That’ll be a lot better in the long run.”

    Think of it as Batman style mental jujutsu. By redirecting your desire to play video games and avoid work into a desire to roll up your sleeves and dominate that work so you can go play video games guilt free you take that negative emotion’s power away and make it something positive.

Being Your Own Batman

Will these techniques give you the strength of will to live like Bruce Wayne? Probably not to be honest, but I’m not certain any human could. What these techniques will do is help you build up your discipline until you can become your own personal Batman.

Being your own Batman means having the fortitude to get the things you need to get done done. It means having the willpower to stop doing all the things you need to stop and to do all the things you need to do. It means becoming strong enough to make your own life and the lives of those around you as best as you possibly can.

Have you used any of these techniques to improve your own discipline? Do you have any other techniques you’d like to add that have worked well for you? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Gideon Tsang

Don’t Bench Press ’til You French Press – A Guide to Caffeine for Performance Enhancement

Black, White, Coffee by Bitzcelt

The drug of choice for millions can give you better workouts.

Caffeine is the number one most consumed drug in the world. It’s in soda, chocolate, coffee, tea, energy drinks and even a lot of herbal supplements. Most people are extremely familiar with – if not dependent on – the energy boost it provides. I know I tend to be somewhat less than peppy if I miss my morning coffee. What most people don’t know is that caffeine is an extremely effective performance enhancer for training.

If you know how and when to supplement with caffeine you can not only improve your endurance, but improve your strength output and prime your body to burn more fat during exercise than it normally would. That means you get more out of every workout for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds good to me.

The Benefits of Caffeine

Researchers and exercise physiologists have been studying the effects of caffeine as a performance enhancer since at least 1978 and study after study has confirmed the same conclusion – it works. In fact, with all the solid data on the clear benefits of caffeine supplementation it’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned in more sports. Here are just some of the benefits caffeine offers.

Improved Endurance

The most obvious benefit to caffeine supplementation is it’s ability to improve muscular endurance. That means that you can go harder for longer without having to take a rest. Formerly it was thought this was a result of caffeine’s ability to release fat stores into the bloodstream to be used as fuel saving your muscle’s glycogen stores and allowing them to last longer. Now though research has shown caffeine also stimulates the release of calcium stored in muscle – the release of this calcium increases both endurance and overall power output.

On top of all of that, caffeine has the neurological effect of distorting your perception of exhaustion, meaning that even when your energy stores are used up your brain thinks it can keep going allowing you to push past your normal point of failure.

Regardless of how it works, researchers agree that caffeine supplementation can improve an athlete’s endurance from 5% all the way up to 25% depending on the person. A five percent increase may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to push yourself to run just a little bit farther it can make all the difference.

Increased Strength Output

When it comes to maximal strength training the best way to get stronger is to move heavy weights. The heavier weights you can move the stronger you can become and the more muscle you can build. Caffeine can help you do that more quickly by increasing the total amount you can lift.

This effect may be due to the release of fat stores and calcium that we mentioned or it may be an effect of the widening of blood vessels and increased blood oxygenation that caffeine produces – either way the result ranges from a 3% increase in strength output all the way up to an 18% increase in some studies.

To put that in perspective, for someone with a non-caffeinated 1RM bench of 200 pounds that could mean an increase of 36 pounds. That’s an impressive return for doing something as easy as downing a cup of Starbucks.

Better Fat Metabolism

More concerned about losing weight than about running farther or getting stronger? No problem, caffeine still has you covered. Caffeine stimulates the release of stored fat into the bloodstream for energy and causes the body to place a preference on using fat as energy over carbohydrates.

Best of all, this effect lasts for at least a few hours on average. That means that the increase in free flowing fatty acids is there both during your workout to fuel your efforts, and after your workout to help replace muscle glycogen stores. This means caffeine before your workout makes you burn more fat during and after that workout and may also aid in recovery.

If you’re trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds caffeine supplementation can be the thing that finally gets you past the plateau.

Beyond all of these benefits there are tons of tertiary benefits to regular caffeine consumption including lowered risk of cardiac disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s – so even if you’re not using it directly as a performance enhancer it helps keep you healthy.

A Few Precautions

Caffeine is a drug.

That means that like with any other drug there are potential side effects and dosage control is very important. Thankfully, the list of potential detriments from caffeine is relatively minor and, unless you’re pouring an entire bottle of caffeine pills down your throat, it is relatively difficult to overdose.

Blood Pressure, Increased Heart Rate & Dehydration

The first potential problem we’ll address right away is dehydration. The diuretic effects of caffeine are way, way overblown. In people who are completely unconditioned to caffeine there’s a slight diuretic effect but even this is weak enough to be insignificant in terms of increasing risk for dehydration. Be intelligent – you know when you need fluids so get them.

When it comes to increasing blood pressure and heart rate caffeine does have a slightly stronger effect but only in people who have not had caffeine for 4 to 5 days. If you have a cup of coffee everyday anyway, and have been for more than a few days, than caffeine doesn’t have any effect on your blood pressure or heart rate and won’t unless you go cold turkey for a while then reintroduce it.

If you have heart problems and hypertension and have never had a coffee or a soda in a month or two than you should be a little careful, everyone else is fine.

The best part about this conditioning is studies have shown that while the detrimental effects follow a curve of diminishing returns the benefits do not. That means if you consume some caffeine everyday you still get the full performance enhancing benefit with none of the detrimental side effects.

How to Use Caffeine to Improve Performance

Ok, so you’re convinced now right? You know you should be supplementing with caffeine to improve your workouts and you want to know how.

The first step is choosing the right source for your caffeine. Caffeine is in a lot of things nowadays and you have a lot of options. Since we’re ingesting this caffeine with the goal of using it to improve exercise performance – and therefore I assume health is important to you – we can eliminate all sugary drinks first offhand. That means no sodas, energy drinks or chocolate.

So what’re we left with? Tea, coffee and caffeine pills are the main contenders remaining. Tea has a lot of general health benefits, but it has relatively low caffeine content so I would exclude it as well. That leaves coffee and caffeine pills.

The final decision between the two comes down a lot to personal preference. Some studies have shown a statistically stronger benefit to ingesting the pure caffeine pills over the coffee, and it is much easier to control the dosage. That being said, coffee is really good – so it’s your choice.

As far as the dosages go, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 mg per kg of bodyweight. Several studies have shown benefit from dosages as low as 1 mg per kg of bodyweight though, so you may need to do a little personal experimentation and see what works best for you. The best time to ingest the caffeine is between and hour and 30 minutes prior to exercise.

An average 20 oz cup of coffee (a Venti for you Starbucks patrons) has 400 mg of caffeine, which would be more than enough for most people. A standard caffeine pill is 200 mg, meaning it also would be more than enough for anyone weighing less than 200 kg (about 440 lbs.) – so you’re covered whichever way you go.

If you’re feeling non-scientific about it 12 to 16 oz of coffee should be enough. Getting more than you need doesn’t diminish the effects, so if you like coffee you might as well go for the large or have them drop a shot of espresso in there.

You can overdose on caffeine, but that usually requires between 150 to 200 mg per kg of bodyweight in humans which translates to 80 to 100 cups of coffee for most people. It’s a little easier with caffeine pills, and some people have had problems with as little as 2 grams so don’t go crazy. Normal usage won’t have any detriments though.

So there you have it – improved endurance, strength, fat loss and tons of other benefits and all you need is a single pill or a medium cup of coffee. With all the benefits, the ease of use and the almost complete lack of negative side effects why would you not want to boost your workouts with caffeine supplementation?

Do you use caffeine regularly for the performance enhancement effects and if not do you think you’ll give it a try? Have you noticed a direct effect from it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bitzcelt

Special thanks to my father-in-law Bill for the title.

How to Get Fat

Full-Figured Man by Tobyotter

If you aspire to look like this, read on.

When it comes to health related things here we tend to focus on the best ways to get leaner, faster, stronger and more fit. What if you want the opposite though? What if instead of being strong and healthy you want to be massive and riddled with health problems?

If you’re the kind of person who dreams of one day having to buy two tickets every time you fly on an airplane, than you’re in luck – I’ve put together a basic guide on how to get fat.

1. Stop Moving

The first thing you need to do if you want to get fat is stop moving so much. Obviously you should avoid exercise at all costs but that’s not always enough. You may need to go even further than that and look for as many ways as possible to move as little as possible throughout your day.

If you have a desk job then you’ve already got a good bit of your work cut out for you. Stay at your desk all day and only get up when you absolutely have to. If you must get up, try to replace the calories you’re going to burn by swinging by the break room and grabbing a doughnut or a candy bar. It’s important to take in more energy than you expend.

Once you get home, immediately plop down in front of the TV or in front of a computer and settle in. The goal here should be to only be standing for maybe ten to fifteen minutes total each day. If you think you’re standing too much keep a journal on hand and log all the time you spend standing to see if it needs to be reduced.

Remember video games, TV and the Internet all your friends here. They all let you sit and vegetate without having that nagging urge to get up and do something take over. If you don’t have access to one of those make sure to have a smartphone with you at all times so you can use it to poke around online, stare at Facebook or play a game.

2. Snack Constantly

The claim that eating multiple small meals a day will boost your metabolism has a long history within the Broscience community – thankfully there’s absolutely no truth to it. In fact, eating constantly throughout the day is an excellent tactic for the aspiring obese.

The key here is to always have something nearby that you can grab and eat mindlessly. Any time that you aren’t cramming something into your mouth is wasted time. Even if you’ve already got the sedentary thing down and are moving an absolute minimum you still need to ingest enough calories to pack on some blubber.

By making a point of always having something nearby to snack on you ensure that you have a steady surplus of calories coming in and you never have to worry about being in a deficit and losing precious pounds of pudge.

3. Choose Good Bad Foods

You can’t just snack on and eat anything you want though. Our goal is to put on weight, so you need calories, calories and more calories. That means you should avoid certain foods at all costs.

First up are vegetables. These things are nutrient dense and extremely low calorie, which means you can eat a ton of them and still not get enough calories to get fat. If you can help it, never eat vegetables. Why waste your time getting full on something when it isn’t even going to give you enough calories to get fat? It’s a waste.

Meat is a slightly better choice, but still not perfect. Sure most meats have a lot of fat in them which, at 9 calories per gram, is the highest calorie macronutrient – but it’s also full of protein which means you feel fuller and more satisfied more quickly. Again, we’re looking for something that we can get the most out of so if it makes you feel fuller sooner than it’s not a great choice.

Instead you should turn to the macronutrient specifically geared toward getting you fat – carbohydrates.

Now I’m not saying that carbs alone will make you fat, but they have some important properties that make them ideal for putting on some pounds. First of all, they tend to taste great. If it’s sweet it’s because of carbs. Secondly large doses of carbohydrates cause spikes in Insulin. Insulin then goes on to put that energy into your muscles or, if your muscles are full (perhaps from spending all day sitting in a chair), into storage as fat.

Even with Insulin doing its thing you do need to take in more calories than you burn to actually gain that fat. If you really want to maximize how much fat you’re gaining combine the Insulin generating effects of carbs with the high calorie content of fat to make sure you not only flood your system with Insulin but that at the same time you’ve got a few thousand extra calories in you.

4. Up the Portion Sizes

Getting fat requires a lot of work. Ok, not physical work, but appetite work. You need to learn that four cheeseburgers is an appetizer. Tiny portions are useless. You need to be putting away mountains of food at each meal.

A good general rule to follow is if you’re not eating double the portion that everyone else at the table is eating than your meal isn’t big enough. Don’t be afraid to go back for seconds, thirds or fourths. Even if you’ve gotten to the point where you absolutely, positively cannot eat another bite remember that there are lots of drinks that are packed with calories. If you can’t eat more, order the biggest sugariest soft drink you can find and get to work.

If you want to be fat, more is always better.

Hopefully these tips can help you if it’s your goal to get as fat as possible. If all else fails you can always find a fat mentor and ask them what they do to maintain their girth.

Have any tips on other ways to get fat quickly? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: We Love Cosa Rica & Tobyotter

How to Achieve Your Goals by Redefining Your Identity

Fill in the Blank by Darkmatter

Your self-identity is more malleable than you would think.

“If you fall in love with the process, the results come easy.” – Unattributed

I’m not sure who said that first – I’ve heard it attributed to about 50 people including Arnold Schwarzenegger – but it really doesn’t matter because it’s good wisdom. If you stress out over the results too much reaching your goal becomes more difficult, but if you can fall in love with the process that will get you there you’ll find yourself reaching your goal without even thinking about it. So how do we make ourselves fall in love with processes? Easy.

By redefining our identities.

You Are What You Do, And You Do What You Are

I know that sounds like an empty fortune cookie-esque statement at best and self-contradictory at worst, but bear with me for a minute here. The fact is, who you are is largely defined by your habits. What you do in a day really makes up the majority of your identity.

For example, if you spend your whole day in school attending classes and doing homework in the evening, those actions define you as a student or if you spend hours and hours every day playing video games those actions define you as a gamer. Now these aren’t exclusive categories, and I’m not going to go into discussions of stereotypes and self-identification and all that either, but a lot of it comes down to how you view yourself as a person.

Now it should be noted that either the behavior or the identity can come first and they’re self-reinforcing. That is, you think of yourself as a gamer because you play video games all the time, and because you think of yourself as a gamer you do what you think a gamer should do and play video games all the time. Additionally it should be noted there are varying levels of personal choice involved in the establishment of these identities – you have a lot more choice to not be a gamer than you do to not be a student for example due to compulsory schooling.

Alright, so our actions influence our self-identities and our identities influence our actions and there are instances where we can directly influence both via our own conscious decisions.

So why is this important to achieving goals?

Because our self-identities are an extremely strong psychological influence on our actions. If you strongly self-identify as a vegan it would be difficult for you to force yourself to eat meat and conversely if you strongly identify as a meat lover it would be difficult for you to go without meat for an extended period of time.

Remember the quote up top? The best way to achieve a goal effortlessly is to fall in love with doing the small things you need to do to get there. If you love working out, you’ll get fit whether you want to or not. If your goal is to learn to play guitar and you love practicing so much that you want to do it all the time, you’ll find yourself a great guitarist before you know it. Now, forming habits and falling in love with an activity are difficult – particularly if conflicts with our current self-identities. By tinkering with your self-identity you can not only remove this conflict but instill a strong psychological pressure to do the thing you need to do on a regular basis to reach your goal.

Act Like the Person You Wish You Were

So how do you go about redefining your self-image? The best way is to do it gradually.

Using myself as an example, I used to strongly self-identify as a fat guy. To be fair, I was a fat guy – but I let that thinking define a large part of who I considered myself to be. As a result, I did what I thought were ‘fat guy’ things. I ate a ton, prided myself on being able to finish ridiculous portions of things, and expressed a general dislike of exercise.

Now, I also really loved parkour and martial arts. That meant that I really didn’t want to be a fat guy. The problem was it was such an entrenched part of my identity it was hard to force myself to engage in the behaviors necessary to actually be able to do all the things I wanted to do. I needed to get fit, but my habits made it hard for me to train and easy to eat tons of junk.

It wasn’t until I really started thinking of myself as a ‘fitness guy’ that I started building positive exercise habits. From there it compounded upon itself until I got to where I am now – a personal trainer who absolutely loves to train. Being a personal trainer is such a large part of my self-identity now it’s as difficult to not train as it used to be to train when I thought of myself as a fat guy.

Another good example comes from starting this blog. It was extremely hard for me at the beginning to develop the habit of writing on a regular schedule. I had a lot to say and really wanted to write – but I just couldn’t make a habit out of it.

Then I forced myself to start thinking of myself as a writer. What do writers do? They write! All the time, or at least everyday. I kept reminding myself that I was a writer, and that as a writer I needed to write something, that was what I did.

So everyday, being a writer and all, I’d sit down and write something. Maybe a paragraph, maybe a post, whatever. The point was that I wrote every single day because that was just what a writer did. Before long that developed into a strong habit, and then further reinforced my self-identification as a writer. “After all,” I could say, “look how much I’ve written over the past month! I must be a writer.”

The trick is to figure out who you want to be, and then act like that’s who you already are.

If you want to be the girl who speaks ten languages, figure out what that girl would do everyday (study, talk with language partners, watch foreign language TV) and start doing it. If you want to be the guy who’s really great at martial arts, figure out what that guy would do everyday (practice, practice and probably more practice) and then get to it. The sooner you start pretending to be the person you wish you were, the sooner you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s who you really are.

So what do you think? Have you ever tried getting to your goals by changing your identity? Do you think it would be too hard for you to pull off? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Darkmatter

How to Memorize Phrases and Vocabulary Instantly Using Music

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht

Music can be an extremely effective memorization tool.

There are a lot of things that can seem daunting for the new language learner, but few things have a reputation for being so tedious and time consuming as learning vocab.

While I’ve talked in the past about some of the things you can do to learn words from your environment, easily memorize new words, or even quickly memorize a whole list in order, I want to share one more method I like for memorizing whole sentences in just a few seconds – singing.

Tunes as Memory Hooks

I have to credit Benny from Fluent In 3 Months for the original idea for this technique. (If you’re learning a new language and haven’t been there, I highly encourage you to go check it out now.)

If you’ve ever noticed how quickly you can memorize lyrics to songs you like, or how sometimes an unwanted tune complete with lyrics can get lodged firmly in your brain without your consent – this technique works on the very same principle.

There’s something about our brains that makes us hardwired to latch onto tunes and hold onto them forever. While occasionally this can lead to frustration and self-induced head injuries (such as after accidentally hearing “Mmm Bop”) it can also be used to our advantage by hooking information we want to memorize onto those catchy tunes.

How to Memorize with Music

  1. Choose something to memorize – This technique works best for sentences, rather than individual words. This makes it really useful for people on the plane over who need to flash memorize important phrases. For our purposes we’ll choose “Where’s the bathroom?” in Japanese which is トイレはどこですか or “Toire wa doko desu ka”.
  2. Choose a tune that fits the sentence – Depending on the length of the sentence and the number of syllables, you’ll want to find a tune that has the right beat to it that is nice and catchy. Most kids tunes or nursery rhyme songs work wonderfully. The “desu” in “Toire wa doko desu ka” is pronounced more like “dess”, so a good fit given the number of syllables in this case would be the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb“.
  3. Swap the lyrics for your sentence – Put your target language sentence that you want to memorize in wherever it fits in place of the original lyrics. In our case, we’re replacing the “Mary had a little lamb” part with our “Toire wa doko desu ka”. For the “Little lamb, little lamb” refrain part we’re putting in “Doko desu ka, doko desu ka”. We’ll get to why in a second.
  4. Sing it – Now that you’ve got your new lyrics, sing your tune! You don’t have to do it out loud if you you’re in public, but I think it helps a little. Just keep singing it over and over again in your head and pretty soon it’ll be so etched into your memory so well you’ll never have to worry about forgetting it again. While you’re singing it helps to associate some image with the tune to help you remember what the meaning of the sentence is. After all it doesn’t help if you’ve memorized “Toire wa doko desu ka” but don’t remember what it means.
  5. Refine the song – Once you’ve got the basic tune down you can sometimes use parts to reinforce grammar concepts to use in other sentences. That’s why we made the refrain part “doko desu ka, doko desu ka” which on its own means “Where is it?” Knowing that, you can change the object at the beginning with each verse. You can start with “Toire wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” then move on to “Toshokan wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” (図書館はどこですか? Where is the library?) for the next verse and so on. You can often even fit words with more syllables than really fit, such as “toshokan”, if you’re fiddle with the pacing of the song a bit.
  6. Use your sentences – When you need to ask where the bathroom is in Japanese, you’ll have no problem remembering how because that tune should pop right into your head. You don’t have to ask it melodically, but it’s easy to memorize that way. In the above example, because of how the “Where is it / doko desu ka” part is separated out you can easily apply new vocab you learn into that sentence structure to ask where something is, the song should have taught you to put it right before “doko desu ka”.

It’s as easy as that! While this technique is definitely directly useful to people who are already on their way to a foreign land and need to pick up some survival phrases quickly, it can also be used in general to memorize new sentences. I’ve even found practicing the sentences in song helps people start bridging the gap between broken, contemplative speech patterns and truly fluid, conversational delivery.

Have you used this technique in the past? Do you have any additions or tips to make it work better? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brandon Giesbrecht

Meditation 101: Meditation for Beginners

At the Feet of an Ancient Master by Premasagar

Though it may help, an ancient tree in the serene wilderness is not necessary for successful meditation.

There are few disciplines that have as numerous and as far reaching benefits as meditation. Beyond the psychological benefits of promoting a sense of centeredness, well-being and clarity of thought it also has numerous physiological benefits – relaxation, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormone release and a lowered heart rate just to name a few. In addition, no one has ever shown meditation to have any negative side-effects.

For all of the proven benefits of meditation, most of them achievable with an investment of only five to ten minutes per day, why isn’t everyone meditating?

The most common answer people give is, “I just don’t know how to get started meditating.” That’s understandable. There’s a lot of mystique in modern Western culture surrounding the practice of meditation and that can make it appear strange, esoteric or even daunting. Thankfully, that’s all just misconception. You can start meditating today with these simple steps and in no time at all be reaping all those great benefits.

Meditation Misconceptions

One of the biggest barriers keeping people from trying meditation is the air of spiritualism that surrounds it in popular culture. While for many people meditation is a genuinely spiritual practice, it doesn’t actually have to be.

Regardless of your particular thoughts on spirituality, the primary psychological and physiological benefits of meditation stem purely from chemical reactions to the induced state of calm and relaxation and the mental exercise of learning how to focus on a single thing without allowing your mind to wander or fall prey to distractions.

In essence, meditation is mental exercise. Much like physical exercise it not only teaches you a skill but also creates physical changes within your body.

The sheer volume of different kinds of meditation also can turn away people who are absolute beginners. We can continue the comparison above between meditation and physical exercise in that the word ‘meditation’, like the word ‘exercise’, can mean a variety of different practices.

Just like the deadlift and the bench press work different areas of the body but with the common overall goal of making you stronger, different meditation styles work on different areas of your mind with the general overall goal of improving your thinking and self-control.

It would take forever to go through all the different styles of meditation, and this is a beginner’s guide anyway so I don’t really think it’s necessary. If you’re just getting started and don’t know what to do, the best form of meditation to start with is concentration meditation.

Concentration Meditation for Beginners

Concentration meditation is probably the most basic form of meditation that still gives you all of the psychological and physical benefits most people are looking for – namely reduced stress, clarity of thought and improved focus. It’s also the easiest to do.

The basic idea behind concentration meditation is to work on focusing on a single thought, sound or object at the exclusion of all other things. This is harder than it sounds, particularly with the demands of modern living and constant barrage of input from technology we’re programmed to always be bouncing around from thought to thought in our heads. Some people call this ‘Monkey Mind’, and this meditation technique will teach you how to fix it.

Bear in mind that, while relaxing, meditation is work. You’re training your mind, so take it slow at first. Starting out with two to three minutes of quiet meditation each morning and working up from there is a good way to ease into it.

So how do you get started?

How to Meditate

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to meditate – It’s extremely important that you find a place where you won’t be disturbed for the duration of your meditation. The purpose is to learn to ignore distractions, but that doesn’t mean you want screaming kids, buzzing cell phones or a blaring TV in the background. I’m not saying it has to be beneath a waterfall in the wilderness either, but it should be somewhere in your home where you know you won’t be disturbed.
  2. Settle into a comfortable, relaxed position – Contrary to popular imagery, you don’t need to be sitting in full lotus on the floor to meditate. You can sit however you’re comfy, in a chair, on your bed, you can even lay down if you’d like. I would recommend making sure to sit with good posture and a natural curve to your back – not slouching – but other than that it’s most important that you’re comfortable. I personally prefer not to do it lying down because I tend to fall asleep, but you can try it that way as well.
  3. Choose something to fixate on completely – What you choose can be anything, and can involve any of your senses. If you are a complete beginner an easy one to start with is to focus all your attention on your breathing. Don’t try to control it. Breathe naturally but focus all your attention there as you breathe in and out. Some options involving other senses are to fixate on the flame of a candle, to speak a mantra or make a sound such as the iconic ‘Om’, to listen to the clicks of a metronome or even to just repeat the word ‘one’ over and over in your mind. The idea is to find something that you can focus 100% of your attention on the exclusion of all other things.
  4. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it – Inevitably, your mind will wander to something else. Thoughts will pop up that yell for your attention. You’ll worry about your work, or some other problem. You’ll start thinking about needing to buy more candles. Something will come up. Instead of fighting it, try to acknowledge the thought and then send it on its way. Once you’ve done that immediately refocus on whatever it is you’re working to focus on. I like to think of the other thoughts as little paper boats floating by on a stream in front of me. I acknowledge their existence, then send them on down stream and pay them no more mind.
  5. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it, again – Your mind will continue to want to wonder, but keep at it. If you’re like me you might even have the thought of, “My thoughts keep bouncing all over, this is impossible, I can’t focus at all”, but treat that thought like all the others and keep going. Understand that meditation is a skill and will take practice. In time these wayward thoughts will come less frequently and eventually you’ll have no problem turning on your laser focus.
  6. After your time is up, stretch and shake it off – This step is optional if you decide you prefer to meditate before bed, but I find I prefer morning meditation and this step really helps pull me back to be ready for the day. Either way, when your meditation time is up let yourself come down out of it gradually and naturally with a positive attitude. Even if you don’t feel it yet, you’ve accomplished something by working on your focus and you should end each session with a smile and a well-earned sense of achievement.

The best way to start using this meditation technique is with two or three minutes spent practicing each morning. Like physical exercise it can be difficult to stick to, or more work than you originally thought, so it’s best to start slow.

As you get more used to it and start developing it into more of a habit you can increase your time to five minutes, then ten and so on until you reach a length of practice that fits your needs. Once you’ve mastered this form of meditation you can also start moving on to more advanced forms if you’d like, although honestly I find the concentration meditation to be one of my favorites and one of the most beneficial.

Even if you keep it to five minutes every morning, this routine will go a long way toward improving your focus and drastically reducing your stress – two things I think nearly everyone could benefit from.

Once you’ve tried them, or if you’ve tried these techniques in the past, leave a comment and tell us how it went! I’m also happy to answer any questions or clarifications that might come up. Happy meditating!

Photo Credit: Premasagar

The Basics of Warming Up

OnTheDouble Dutch at Golden Gardens

Jumping rope can be an effective cardio warm up. Double Dutch style optional.

Whether you’re lifting, doing endurance work or a little bit of everything, warming up before an intense exercise session is extremely important. Just a very basic warm up can cut your risk of injury by more than half, and they generally only take a few extra moments to complete.

Most people tend to understand that, and try to incorporate some kind of warm up into their routine. The problem is, most people never learn how to properly warm up. I often see people doing way too much, doing warm ups that prepare the wrong body parts for their routine or even doing things that just have no effect like sitting on a heater. In an effort to fix that, here are some of the basics of warming up properly.

The Goals of Warming Up

To understand how to warm up properly, you have to understand what you’re really trying to accomplish during the warm up. Despite its name, the goal of a warm up is not just to elevate your body temperature. Sure increasing temperature will provide a small increase in muscle elasticity but you’re still not going to be fully prepared for the exercise.

The real goals of warming up are increasing joint mobility and also preparing the necessary muscles for the specific exercise about to be performed. Both of these goals are in and of themselves directed at the single goal of maximizing performance on specific exercises.

Proper joint mobility can mean the difference between good form on a lift and bad, can save you from joint injuries and can even increase power output in lifts. The benefits of having the muscles prepped for the specific exercise are the same, more potential power output so you can lift heavier or run faster with less chance of injury.

How to Warm Up

A good warm up should hit both of these areas. Usually, because of the structure of most workouts, its best to begin with increasing joint mobility. How do we do that?

Dynamic Stretches

Dynamic stretches are stretches that are performed in a continuous controlled motion, not quick or bouncy. Some examples would be forward leg lefts, side leg lifts, arm rotations or side bends. The goal for the war up isn’t to do so much that you’re fatigued, but enough to work up to your full range of motion (ROM). A good general guideline is to do about four sets of twenty of repetitions for each stretch.

If you have a dynamic stretch routine that you perform every morning, then you probably won’t need quite as much and can get away with one or two sets of twenty as long as you’re hitting your full ROM. I like to do a quick full body dynamic stretch routine before each workout, both because I tend to prefer full body workouts and because I enjoy the flexibility benefits, however if you are focusing on one particular muscle group you can focus your stretching accordingly.

So why not static stretches?

Frequently you will see well-intentioned people doing only static stretches before a workout. If you don’t know the difference, a static stretch is what most people think of when you say stretching. Touching your toes and holding that position for 10 to 30 seconds is a good example, or sitting in a butterfly stretch. Static stretches are great, if you’re not about to exercise.

Static stretches, while they do increase range of motion, also decrease the potential force output of muscles – by up to 30% according to some studies. If you’re trying to get stronger or run longer you need your muscles at 100%, not 70%. Additionally going overboard on the static stretching pre-workout can push your joints past your normal ROM making them temporarily weaker and more susceptible to sprains and tears.

Muscle Preparation

Once you’ve completed your dynamic stretches, you can get down into the exercise specific portion of the warm up. The biggest mistakes I see here are people who think that any kind of moderate intensity physical activity is suitable for a warm up. It doesn’t work that way. It’ll definitely help a little, but not nearly as much as a proper warm up.

Your warm up movements must resemble your exercise movements.

The idea here is to prepare the specific muscles you’ll be needing. Twenty minutes jogging on the treadmill will warm up your cardiovascular system, but if you’re doing bench presses today it won’t help. For most strength training the solution is simple. Start with a set using just the bar, or the lightest available dumbbells / weight, then a set at around 30% your working weight, then a half set at 80%, then move on to do your prescribed number of sets at your total working weight.

Going running, warm up your legs with some bodyweight squats, lunges and calf raises – enough to feel it but not so much that it wears you out – then get your heart going with some moderate intensity cardio, maybe jumping jacks or light running. Depending on your fitness level, a circuit of 10 squats 10 lunges and 10 calf raises with no rest in-between might be intense enough to accomplish both.

Whatever you do, make sure to warm up the specific muscles you’ll be using in the workout.

Putting it Together

So with everything combined you’ll have a few rounds of dynamic stretches, followed by either a full body prep warm up if you’re going running or playing a sport, or individual warm up sets worked into each individual lift. In total, this shouldn’t add more than ten minutes to your workout, likely less. I think that’s a very small price to pay in order to not only perform substantially better, but to have a significantly lower risk of injury.

Do you have any other suggestions you’d like to add for people to incorporate into their warm ups? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bananajr