When we moved to Portugal last September, it was a priority for me to keep up my fitness program. We all know what can happen in the autumn when bulky layering begins to hide an ounce here or there, and then the holiday parties begin. By March we’re shrinking from headlines at the supermarket checkout telling us that Bathing Suit Season is Just Around the Corner! I signed up at a local health club, routinely hit the Precor machines and free weights, and developed a nodding acquaintance with women in the locker room and the trainers. (We have our own trainer in the family, by the way, but the commute is a tad expensive to have a session with him.)
The problem is when I travel. Hotel facilities notwithstanding, I often get derailed, and in no time my clothes are fitting more snugly. I’ve found the perfect solution.
As faithful as I am to body training, my husband is not. His method of keeping fit is to drink thirty grams of chocolate-flavored protein first thing in the morning, along with olive oil. Thankfully, he puts the latter on toast and not in the glass. My breakfast used to be black coffee with an organic biscuit—okay, maybe a butter cookie—followed by fruit and yogurt, but since having protein before anything else is supposed to help your metabolism, I’ve rearranged things. The rest of my mate’s “workout” consists of more liquids. Since his office is in our home, I often find him in the kitchen brewing buckets of green tea and espresso to keep his waistline trim.
Now he’s come up with a plan based on a study in which people who simply thought about exercising strengthened their muscles. That’s right. Researchers found that participants who did finger exercises for a month had a thirty percent increase in muscle strength, while those who merely imagined doing them had a twenty-two percent increase. The explanation is, conceptualizing and doing an action require the same motor and sensory programs in the brain. That is to say, the neurons responsible for the movement instructions to the fingers were still being used, and therefore strengthened, whether or not the fingers themselves were contracted. As explained by psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge, MD, in The Brain that Changes Itself, this has implications for those hoping to recover movement lost, for example, due to a stroke, yet anyone can take advantage of it.
But wait, there’s more! It seems just believing your daily activities are exercise can improve physical fitness. Harvard researchers told one group of hotel housekeepers that their daily work qualified as such, but a control group did not receive this information. Four weeks later, those who believed their work was a form of exercise had a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index, even though their behaviors hadn’t changed. How’s that for an impetus to pull out the vacuum cleaner?
Enough about studies, on to application: let’s say I have an early morning flight and can’t make it to the club. In my seat, in less time than it will take for me to arrive at my destination, I can imagine my legs on the adductor, triceps at the pushdown station, abs tightening with a hundred crunches. Why not two hundred, while I’m at it? Goodbye guilt, hello muscle tone.
Am I going to cancel my gym membership? I doubt it.
But it’s something to think about…