Parkour workshop

I went to a parkour workshop yesterday held at 25 O’Clock Brewing in Urbana—one small bit of the UnConference (a very Urbana thing).

I’ve been interested in parkour for years now. I have included various bits in my own training, and also gone to train with the campus parkour group (the same people who led this workshop) a few times. For various reasons (social timidity, physical timidity, lack of fitness) I haven’t managed to establish a regular practice of training with the campus group. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested, so I was glad to learn about this workshop, which seemed like a safe, easy way to get back into it—and was.

We were led in a warmup, followed by some quadrupedal movement: Bear crawls, aka foot-hand crawls, both frontwards and backwards, followed by a move I know by the name “traveling ape,” although there are probably other names for it.

After the QM we went for a very short run to a wonderful object that could perhaps be described as a free-standing wall of old railroad ties locked in a wire cage. It had a flat metal top which together with the cage made it great for practicing cat hangs: The cage provides enough of a toe hold that even people with limited grip strength can hold on long enough to get a good workout.

The next thing we worked on was shoulder rolls. I was particularly glad for this part because I used to be able to do shoulder rolls, but at some point in the last 35 years lost the mix. Starting from a kneeling position, though, I was able to recover my roll. In just 15 minutes of practice I was back up to doing rolls from a squat. From there I’m sure I can work up to rolls from a standing position pretty quickly.

(Actually, the main delay is that for some reason the rolls made me queasy. I don’t remember that from 35 years ago, but yesterday I got queasy after a few minutes rolling, and my stomach didn’t completely settle down for several hours.)

After rolls we did some vaults. We started with the safety vault, which I’d already learned (and have continued to practice, because it’s really handy for things like getting across downed trees while out hiking). Then we proceeded to some initial progressions for the kong vault. I’d always thought of the kong as the most advanced vault, but that’s when it’s used to traverse a gap beyond the thing you’re vaulting. It can also be used like the safety vault as a way to get on top of some object, and that’s what we learned yesterday. With a low-enough wall (waist-high, rather than chest-high), I can already get on top with a kong vault.

Shout-out to restorative exercise specialist Ashley Price who spotted that the parkour workshop was going on and suggested that I attend.

Today I’ve already included a bit of parkour in the day’s activities, adding a bit of QM to my afternoon walk, both foot-hand crawling and a bit of ground kong. (The latter is excellent practice for reminding myself that I need to keep my knees together, something that does not come naturally.)

Adulting my to-read pile

For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.

I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”

Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”

I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.

Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.

In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.

But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)

By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.

It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.

Wall of Plufs

Several of the exercises Jackie’s physical therapist had her do involved stepping over padded blocks, both forward and back and sideways and back.

That was fine in the gym where the therapist worked, but at home we lacked the padded blocks, so Jackie had to improvise. It turns out that a three-pack of plufs is pretty close to the height of two of the padded blocks stacked on top of one another, and we had a few three-packs on hand.

One thing I had noticed when Jackie was doing the exercise in the gym was that she tended to swing her foot out to the side, rather than lift it up high enough to clear the obstacle. To help herself remember not to do that, Jackie went ahead and built a whole wall of plufs. (In fact, sometimes she’d go so far as to stack an extra box on top of the three-pack to the side, so that straight ahead offered a lower barrier than to the side.)

The course of physical therapy has worked very well for Jackie. After just seven visits over less than a month, she has recovered “normal”range of motion in her hip. The improvement has also shown up in her gait.

Jackie wanted me to use this post to solicit comments from other people about improvised exercise equipment. What household stuff do you guys use?

(I should also mention that our facial tissue of choice is “Puffs plus lotion.” But that’s too long to say, so we call them “plufs,” a term which you are welcome to adopt for your own use.)

Movement in 2018

This year’s review of my movement practice will be a bit less detail-oriented than last year’s, when I included a long list of exercises, and a long list of non-exercise movement that I’d engaged in over the year. This year I exercised a bit less and moved a bit more, and came to a balance that I’m pretty happy with—that I don’t feel much urge to analyze.

I continued the winter exercise regimen that I described a year ago for the rest of the winter, but then let most of it go in favor of less-structured movement. As I say, I’m pretty happy with what I ended up doing, although the result was a decline in some of the strength increases I’d made.

Summer included a lot of solo walking (mostly in natural areas very close to home) and a lot of walking with Jackie (in a wide range of environments, including natural areas somewhat further afield).

One major piece of our walking was our big trip to Utah, where we got in plenty of hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Arches. (See image at top.) The length of any particular hike was nothing to write home about (although we did write home a bit), but the ruggedness—and especially the steepness—made the hikes very different from anything we manage at home.

Basically, summer was great—lots of time spent in the sun, lots of walking, lots of time spent with my sweetie, lots of time spent alone.

As summer transitioned to fall, I had the same problems I usually do, perhaps slightly worse this year than average because the transition seemed more abrupt, with early fall being unusually cold. Happily, late fall was no worse than early fall, and what was unusually cold for early fall is actually rather mild for early winter.

One thing I have done this fall is get back to running. In the past I’ve always meant to establish a running habit that I can carry forward into the cold months, and I have nearly always failed. This year, so far, I’m doing okay, getting in a couple of runs a week, with long runs of 5 miles or more. With just a little luck (not too icy, not too much bitter cold) I’ll be able to carry a lot more aerobic fitness into the spring than I usually manage. That would make it possible to do a spring running event, if I want.

I’ve had very good luck this year on the injury front, managing to stay healthy though the whole year.

I still teach taiji, both the beginners class and a class for continuing students, and it remains rewarding it all the ways it has been—physically (I get my own taiji in), mentally/emotionally (I get my meditation in), socially (I gather with a group of friends several times a week), and financially (admittedly in a small way).

Looking ahead, I’m rather inclined to stick with a movement focus, spending more time doing stuff (moving) and less time preparing to do stuff (exercising).


Weird (horrifying) study of human movement

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times linked to a new study on age-related declines in human movement. It’s an odd study, but not because of the result (which shows that children start moving less at age 6), because that seems entirely predictable to me, despite the general understanding previously having been that the decline started in adolescence.

Rather, what makes the study seem odd to me is the weird blind spot the researchers seem to have about when and how organisms (including humans) choose to move.

In the study itself the researchers make clear that they had considered the obvious presumption—that kids start moving less when they start going to school: “The overt explanation for this earlier decline could be the increased sitting times due to school.”

The  blind spot I’m talking about is presented in the next sentence, where they immediately qualified that:

However, time-specific analysis of [physical activity] has revealed that in addition to the increased [sedentary behavior] during school hours, there was also a distinct decline on weekends, out-of-school days, and during lunchtime.

Schwarzfischer P, Gruszfeld D, Stolarczyk A, et al. Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior From 6 to 11 Years.Pediatrics. 2019;143(1):e20180994

What’s weird and horrifying is that they make that statement seemingly without it occurring to them that forcing children to sit still for hours on 5/7ths of the days of the week might affect their behavior on the other 2/7ths of the days.

Right off the top of my head I can think of four obvious reasons that would be true:

  1. The required behavior in school normalizes the behavior of extended sitting.
  2. Even a few weeks of enforced extended sitting will result in the kids becoming deconditioned aerobically, making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  3. Extended periods spent in any static posture—especially the static posture of sitting—will begin the process of reducing their range of motion (they’ll pretty quickly lose the ability to squat, for example), again making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
  4. The addition of “physical education” to the kids’ daily schedule sets the pattern of replacing movement with exercise—a time-bound, regimented activity which attempts to pack the health benefits of a week’s worth of movement into just a few hours. (I’ve written about this before.)

Just one instance of this blind spot is bad enough, but it shows up again in a key reference. The researchers say that it is accepted that physical activity declines with age: “A natural and biologically determined decline of total [physical activity] throughout the life span seems likely.” They support that assertion with a couple of references, one of which looks specifically at movement in non-human animals.

Unfortunately that study (Ingram, D. K. Age-related decline in physical activity: generalization to nonhumans. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 9, pp. 1623-1629, 2000, which is sadly behind a pay-wall.) has exactly the same blind spot: All the animals studied were captive animals. That study looked at how animal movement varies when an animal is moved from its “home cage” to some other cage. I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised the behavior of those captive animals closely resembles the behavior of children moved from home to school and back again.

I would be very interested in studies that included some free-range animals. (Which isn’t something I can do, but which seems at least possible now that accelerometers  are cheap.)

Of course school isn’t the only factor that inhibits children from moving more. The restrictions on self-directed play so well documented by Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow no doubt feed in as well.

So it would be great if there were studies of movement in free-range kids as well.

The final weird and horrifying thing isn’t anything new, but is something I hadn’t really been aware of before: The assumption that an age-related reduction in movement is “natural and biologically determined,” has led directly to public policies that normalize it:

This decline is also represented in recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO): preschool-aged children should accumulate a minimum of 180 minutes per day of total [physical activity], children and adolescents (4–17 years old) at least 60 minutes per day, and adults only a minimum of 30 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

To which I say, “Argh!”

I probably wouldn’t be so struck by this if I weren’t already tracking my own movement. (Cheap accelerometers again.)

For some time now I’ve been working to a goal of 105 minutes of movement per day, and over the last few weeks I’ve come pretty close, averaging just over 102 minutes of movement per day, according to Google Fit. (This number, based primarily on steps, somewhat underestimates my movement. In particular it gives me almost no credit for the time I spend teaching taiji, because although there’s plenty of movement, there’s not much stepping.)

The WHO recommendations make me strongly motivated to upgrade my goal for movement to 180 minutes per day.

Why should kids under 6 get all the fun?

(The image at the top is topical only in that it is is a photo from our afternoon walk yesterday.)

Vitamin texture

On my Flickr feed I shared several pictures of the rocky canyon paths that Jackie and I hiked in Utah with the tag “vitamin texture.” Katy Bowman uses the term to talk about how always walking on flat, level paths fails to provide some of the “movement nutrients” our feet, ankles, calves, knees, and other body parts need to be healthy and capable.

There’s not much in the way of rocky terrain here in Central Illinois (although there are some forest paths with enough exposed roots to produce a reasonable degree of ruggedness). There’s also not much in the way of ordinary hills unless you’re willing to drive for at least half an hour, but I do have one reasonably convenient hill: the highest point in the county is just a couple of miles away—a man-made hill in Colbert Park.

Jackie and I walked there a couple of days ago and climbed up and down the hill a couple of times. The image above is the view from the top of the hill, and here’s an image of Jackie walking up:

It’s not like the climbs in the canyons:

Looking up

But it’s steep enough to provide a good calf stretch.

I’ve thought to use the Colbert Park hill for running hill repeats, but it’s just far enough that I’m generally not up for running there, running hill repeats, and then running home. (I think I did that one time, about two years ago.) I could drive to the park, but that just seems too lame. Still, my running is coming along okay this spring, so maybe I’ll be in shape to do hill repeats in the middle of a five-mile run pretty soon.

Monkey bars

I used to play on the monkey bars all the time when I was a kid. My mom encouraged it. She knew it built upper-body strength, and that the ability to traverse monkey bars was an important capability for any human. (She could traverse monkey bars herself, when I was a boy.)

I quit doing the monkey bars, probably when I was college age, and quickly lost the capability. Then for three decades would have been afraid to even try, because I’d definitely have hurt myself. A few years ago I wanted to regain that capability, so I started looking for monkey bars to practice on, and found that they’ve gotten quite scarce. Many playgrounds don’t have them at all.

Winfield Village has a playground in every quad, but the only playground with any sort of monkey bars is the big one close to the office, and it has a rather strange curving monkey bar that over the course of 5 rungs makes a 90° turn—a particularly challenging version. (Like most these days, this one has weird triangular bars hanging from a single support, rather than a series of rungs supported on both sides.)

Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground

The reason for both the near disappearance and the switch to triangular bars seems to be that monkey bars are “dangerous.” Many playground safety experts recommend that monkey bars be excluded from playgrounds altogether, and I think the weird shape is designed to make them harder to climb on top of, in the hopes that kids would then not do so.

I spent a chunk of yesterday afternoon at an “alignment play day” with folks from CU Movement (and  kids), getting some hanging and balancing and barefoot walking on various textures. One thing I did was traverse the monkey bars at Clark Park in Champaign—an old-style set of monkey bars, rather like the ones I remember as a kid.

One of the kids in our group—small enough that it was a challenge to reach the next bar, and at a height that the experts would no doubt claim was “too high” for a kid of that size—did the monkey bars, and then immediately wanted to climb on top of them. He asked for help getting on top, which his mom declined to provide—except that she pointed out that one of the supporting poles could probably provide the necessary foot purchase for him to get on top on his own. And he did manage to find two ways to get up there. Having gotten up there, he decided against traversing the top of the monkey bars, and simply swung back down under them.

A new school of thought is emerging (finally!) that “dangerous” playground equipment offers valuable opportunities for kids to do exactly what this boy did: evaluate a hazard and decide how much risk was appropriate. The only way to learn to make that sort of evaluation is to actually practice it. Making playgrounds so safe that children cannot hurt themselves reduces their opportunity to develop a good sense for what is safe and what is dangerous, and what is and is not within their capability.

It has also made it a lot harder for me to find a set of monkey bars to practice on.

I crossed the monkey bars three times in the afternoon, but I forgot to attempt my next big trick: Cross from one end to the other, turn around (without putting my feet down) and cross back again.

I’ll do that next time.

Hedonistic movement

When I started writing about frugality for Wise Bread, one of the points I tried to make was that my perspective was basically a hedonistic one: I was not denying myself things I wanted; I was instead choosing to spend my money purely on the things I wanted most. It recently occurred to me that I am approaching movement in exactly the same way.

My mom suggested that my lifestyle—healthier now than it was a few years ago, and much healthier than it was for many years before that—might help me live a long time. I admitted that this is something that I think about, but in fact long life is really a secondary (or even tertiary) consideration. I’m doing the things I’m doing—eating better, moving more, moving more of me—not because I think it will make me healthier when I’m old, but because it makes me feel better right now.

(I’m sure my friend Chuck will come along in the comments shortly to point out that I’m already old. Thanks in advance, Chuck.)

My point here is that my movement practice is a hedonistic one. I feel better when I move more. I feel better when I move more of me.

Although there is a psychic benefit—thinking that I’m doing something healthy makes me happy—and a long-term aspect—my workout three days ago has left me feeling better today, and I’m sure my exercise practice over the past three years has made me feel much better right now that I would have felt without it—these things are not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about this: I feel better while I’m moving. Going for a run feels good. Going for a walk feels good. Picking up something heavy feels good. Stretching feels good.

If a movement doesn’t feel good, I immediately quit doing it. I could probably get stronger faster if I was more willing to push through the pain of picking up something that was just slightly beyond my capability, but I don’t. I don’t because the whole endeavor is a hedonistic one. I’m not doing this to get stronger faster. I’m doing this because it makes me feel good right now. If it doesn’t make me feel good, I stop.

Movement trumps exercise

Last Thursday Jackie and I (along with several other Urbana Parks Department volunteers) spent a couple of hours clearing invasive bush honeysuckle at the Perkins Road natural area. (The photo is from a year ago. Sadly, we did not have a fire this time. We just piled the honeysuckle up in great huge brush piles.)

Like last time the work consisted of cutting and then carrying or dragging honeysuckle trunks and branches across a forest floor made rough by many tangled roots and littered with small stumps where honeysuckle had been cleared in past.

The next day Jackie commented that her feet were tired, and suggested that the stewardship work was more to the point than the various foot exercises suggested by movement teachers such as Katy Bowman and our new local Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. (Exercises such as rolling your foot on a ball or standing in boot trays filled with river rocks.)

To which I said, “Yes! Exactly!”

Movement trumps exercise.

That’s not to say that exercises don’t have their place. Especially for people whose lifetime movement history has left them unready to safely perform certain movements, but also just for people whose schedule makes it hard to fit in as much movement as they’d like, exercises can be an excellent way to make yourself ready or keep yourself ready.

But to actually use your whole body capabilities to perform real work? To engage in bending, squatting, dragging, lifting, carrying—and do so while in nature, as part of a community effort, making the land better? So much better.

<whispering in Katy Bowman voice>Hashtag #VitaminN Hashtag #VitaminCommunity Hashtag #VitaminTexture</whispering> (This last will make no sense if you don’t listen to the Katy Says podcast.)