Fitness Agon

"Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…."

Defining the Core

Anyone interested in fitness lingo, or has sustained a back injury, has likely encountered a therapist or fitness enthusiast who loves telling people about the importance of “the Core.”  This mysterious and powerfully functional aspect of the body has nothing do with eating apples, and everything to do with developing efficient & stable muscles.  Although professionals tend to overuse the word, the idea behind core stabilization remains significant, and understanding it can help individuals develop muscle strength, and reduce injury risk.  Today we’ll look at a basic “core” definition, explain some reasons for it’s importance, and provide a few basic exercises to help develop the area.

In Certified News of American Council on Exercise (ACE) June/July 2008, contributer Fabio Comana, M.A, M.S. describes the core as “the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk relative to the pelvis and legs (9). ” This means that the core of the body functions the same way as a building foundation; it provides stabilization for the major muscle groups (back, pelvis, legs).  The strength & efficiency of these major muscle groups contributes to postural control, balance, coordination and overall movement.   Incorporating core exercises into daily regiments can greatly enhance functional activities, as well as overall health.

The authors of the Second Edition of The Essentials of Strength & Conditioning define core exercises as those which “recruit one or more large muscle areas (i.e. chest, shoulder, back, hip, or thigh), involve two or more primary joints, and receive priority when selecting exercises because of their direct application to the sport.” This definition may appear somewhat vague, until compared with the idea of “assistance exercises,” exercises that recruit smaller muscles (neck, biceps) and involve only one primary joint (Baechle & Earle 398).  Single-joint exercises include some basics, like bicep curls, knee extensions, shoulder rows, ab crunches & neck circles.

Core exercises, on the other hand, involve the cooperation of 2+ large muscle groups, and can work in several planes.  A lunge, for example, is a core exercise because when performed correctly, it recruits the quadriceps muscles as the knee flexes, and also the glute muscles as the posterior hip extends.

Another component to core exercises involves the idea of stabilization, or developing supportive muscles.  The concept here is explained in the 3rd Ed. ACE Personal Trainer Manual as exercises that “challenge the abdominal and back muscles to hold the spine in the appropriate position during movement of the extremities (Bryant & Green 271).”  Basically this means that to develop the support of large muscle groups, there must be tests of muscular endurance, often in static positions, and involving more than one plane.

A few examples of this concept would be a single-leg balance pose, bird-dog pose (see below), and the basic plank position (see below).

The importance of core exercises comes into play when paired with daily activities, & common muscle functions.  How often, for example, do people go up & down stairs, putting their bodies through a modified version of a reverse lunge?  Or down to the toilet or chair & back up, for a squat?  Or reaching behind furniture to pick up something hard to reach, much like a single-leg deadlift?  Some of these basic movements often become difficult when the muscles become shortened, underused or injured.  Performing core strengthening & stabilizing exercises regularly reduces the pain and/or inability of basic tasks.

For fitness novices & experts alike, core exercises remain vital to the overall longevity and health of muscles.  Performing exercises like the ones below can help almost anyone develop a strong & stable foundation for the rest of their body to live in.  Individuals at any fitness level can perform core exercises, as modifications or challenges can usually be incorporated.  Start with the basics, and gradually progress to greater challenges.  And as always, consider it a joy that you have the ability to exercise!

All images are property of ACE Fitness.  Complete descriptions of exercises can be found at the ACE Fitness website.

Simple, tasty stew for a Winter Night

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When the cold weather set in earlier in December, I told myself that this would be a good season to start experimenting with different soups and stews. I went through my crock pot recipes and organized the soups in a way that was supposed to motivate me to follow this endeavor. Unfortunately I have not gotten far in this new goal, but I did find a creative burst yesterday when perusing my pantry and trying to decide on the night’s dinner.

 So with a little guidance from Tosca Reno (author of “The Eat-Clean Cookbook”), I created a simple & tasty version of lentil vegetable stew that I think you will enjoy.

 Easy Lentil Stew (makes about 10 cups)

Ingredients:

1-2 tablespoons olive oil 

1-2 cups lentils (rinsed and sorted)

1 medium onion

5 garlic cloves 

1 large sweet potato, sliced

1-2 cups broth

1-2 cups vegetables of your choice (I used a 1/2 bag of frozen mixed veggies)

1-3 cups water, as needed

1-2 Tbsp tumeric seasoning

1 tsp. thyme

salt and pepper to taste 

Directions:

 1. Heat oil in pot  over low heat for about 1 minute. Add chopped onion and garlic and saute for about 2 minutes. Add in sweet potato, lentils, broth and spices and cook covered for about 10-15 minutes.  

2.  Bring stew to a boil and (if using frozen veggies) add those at this time. (If using regular veggies, add them in with the sweet potato.) Add water if needed at this time. Cook for an additionl 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on the lentils, as overcooking them will make them mushy. Continue to add water to give it the soup texture, as the lentils absorb water as they cook.

3. Add salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Eat and enjoy! 

What is Trans Fat?

Part of the purpose of this blog is to help educate people about what they put into their

Crisco’s label boasts that it has “50% less Saturated fat than Butter,” but the fact is that shortening has partially-hydrogenated oil (trans fat), while natural butter does not.

mouths, and essentially, into their engines of energy (aka their bodies).  This post intends to clarify a bit about trans fat: what it is, why it’s harmful, what it look likes on an ingredient label, and what foods you would find them in.

Trans fat in its most basic definition is the addition of hydrogen to oil through a process called hydrogenation[1].  This creates a very stable substance that doesn’t spoil or break down, and it’s used to extend the shelf life of packaged food products.  Food manufacturers and bakers use ingredients with trans fat (i.e. shortening) because they produce foods with better baking qualities and enhanced flavors.[2]

The unfortunate part about trans fat is that the human body doesn’t recognize the difference between trans fat and saturated fat, and saturated fat is the healthy heart’s number one nemesis.  A diet high in saturated fat contributes to a variety of problems, including raising LDL levels (low-density lipoproteins, the “bad” cholesterol), and increasing the risk of stroke and heart disease.[3]  Trans fat, in addition to these risks, also decreases the levels of HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins), the “good” fat that provides essential amino acids to the body, and lowers the risk of heart disease.  Also, because trans fat contributes to elevated cholesterol, the risk of developing atherosclerosis increases.

Atherosclerosis is the hardening of artery walls due to buildup of blood waste products (fat, cholesterol, etc) called plaque. The accumulation of plaque makes arteries increasingly inflexible and narrow, and can contribute to strokes and heart attacks when blood is unable to pass through the narrowed chambers.

If you are a packaged food eater (and even if you think you’re not), you might be surprised to know where trans fat is hidden on the shelves.  It goes by the name of “partially-hydrogenated oil” and it can even exist in packages that say “0 trans fat.”  That’s because the FDA regulations allow for up to .5g of trans fat per serving for products to make the “0 trans fat” claim on their labels[4].  For that reason, it is absolutely critical for consumers to READ the ingredient labels of food products before buying it.  Below is a list of common food items that typically have partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredients:

-Peanut butter
-Sweet treats (cookies, cakes, candy, doughnuts, icing)
-Packaged popcorn
-Crackers
-Vegetable shortening
-Fried foods
-Pie crusts, pizza dough, breads
-Pre-made cake and pancake mixes
-Snack foods
-Frozen dinners

Crisco vegetable shortening has both partially and fully hydrogenated palm oils in its ingredients, making it a source of saturated and trans fat.

And contrary to what you may think, if a product reads “fully” or “completely hydrogenated,” it actually does not contain any trans fat, although it is still has saturated fat.

Finally, I just want to emphasize again how important it is for consumers to be informed label-readers if they are going to buy packaged products. The best route in most cases is to buy whole, unpackaged foods, like fruits, nuts, veggies, bean varieties, and whole grains…then there’s nothing to worry about in the labels. But for people who do buy pre-packaged foods, you need to be your own health advocate and learn what your putting into your body, and how that affects you internally.

For consumers who don’t want to take extra time to read the labels, below is a list of a few companies I’ve found that avoid putting trans fat into some of their products and offer healthy, alternative & tasty foods to try.

Butter products: Smart Balance, Earth Balance, Land O’ Lakes (select varieties)
Snacks (cookies, crackers, Granola bars): Kashi, Newmans Own, Clif Bars, Nature’s Valley oat bars (i.e. Honey ‘n Oats)
Peanut Butter: Smuckers Natural, MaraNatha, Planters Natural, Skippys Natural, Smart Balance
Cake/cookie/brownie Mixes: Naturally Nora, King Arthur Flour (most mixes)

These represent just a small portion of the many health food companies & products out there, and I encourage you to find more as you shop.  But as always, the best meals are typically homemade anyway, so why not save money, put on your chef’s hat, and cook your way to healthier lifestyle? Everyone has a spark of creativity inside, and sometimes the kitchen is a wonderful place to feed that flame and make something tasty. I’d love to hear some of your stories of healthy food creations you’ve made in your kitchen.  Cheers!

FITNESS AGON

The place of struggle

“Run with endurance the race that is set before you.” Running the race is the culmination of months of sweat & struggle.

It’s tricky to come up with a title that embodies catchiness, meaning, thought, intrigue and relevance…all pre-requisites for an effective blog or book title.  “Fitness Agon” is my attempt to convey these traits for the purposes of this blog.
So what does it mean?  “Agon” represents a Greek concept, referred to in a few places in the Bible, that captures the idea of conflict or struggle. Used in Hebrews 12:1-2, “agon” is translated to race in English, so in many Bible translations, the verse reads something like this:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith….”
I don’t claim to be a Bible scholar or have much knowledge of Greek; I do however, own a book that makes up for my inadequacies.  If you are a Bible reader and desire to get a comprehensive look at Scripture passages, I encourage you to use a book like Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.  This book shows where every word of text in the Bible is used, and also offers dictionaries for Hebrew and Greek words of the original words, with references to the English words.  My personal copy is based off the KJV version, but you can get other versions as well.

The start of a new endeavor can be thrilling and daunting at the same time, but to finish the race, starting is an must.

So as I looked into a new title for the blog, I simply referred to the concordance for references to “race” in the Bible, and looked at the Greek root.  That is where I learned about “Agon.”  In Greek context, it refers to the place where the national fitness contests took place, or the struggle that embodies the competition.  In English, “agon” refers a literary conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.
For my purposes, I am using “agon” to represent the struggles and challenges associated with living a fit and strong life.  As many of you know, this lifestyle is not easy; in fact, it’s a battle!  Daily we war against the temptations of food, depression, self-worth, pain, negativity and more as we pursue wholeness.  But if you are in the midst of that conflict, take heart.  The battle is not without a payoff.  While the external milestones (losing weight, getting off meds, finishing a contest, etc.) teach us valuable life lessons, the best lesson is that our successes will be remembered.  “Agon” used in 2 Timothy 4:7-8 gives us this promise:
 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
God sees your struggle and hears your cries of pain, despair and discouragement and he does not ignore you.  Keep fighting, and he will reward you better than you can ever imagine.

The pain and struggle of the race will always be worth the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when we cross the finish line.

EPIPHANY IN THE SINK

Although my blog has officially been up for a year and a half, I’ve been lax over its upkeep, to say the very least.  My average posting rate is probably similar to a lot of people’s exercise routines…non-existent.  And my excuses are probably not much different…busy with life, work, family, church, volunteering, etc.  Unless it’s a fixture in my routine, and there’s an concerted effort on my part to make this succeed, my blog’s future will probably end up much like the martini shaker that my husband & I got for a wedding gift three years ago: it seemed like such a great idea to put it on the registry, never mind the fact that we hardly ever drink.

 

I’m guessing that I’m not alone in my struggle to start a new habit, and then fail.  It seems that a lot of people face that same conflict, especially seen around every New Year’s Day, when magazines, health clubs, and every business in America pounces on consumers to make new resolutions.  It seems there is a profound desire in every person to better themselves, and despite the adage that says “People don’t like change,” I tend to think that with the right motivation and achievable results, people actually do pursue change.  The problems come when motivation diminishes, and the results seem gargantuan.

 

Enter my new motivation for this blog.  Well, let’s first start with my first motivation, which was to provide an understandable, yet scientific site for individuals to embrace healthy lifestyles.  Since I possessed little knowledge of the blogosphere, I looked to my husband’s example. He writes on religion, Muslim evangelism, and current events.  He does a lot of research, and writes scholarly articles for Yahoo!.  He pores over articles and sometimes takes weeks to write a post for his blog.  Needless to say, that approach proved rather daunting to me; so daunting, in fact, that I entered a blogging paralysis.  I realized that while scientific articles offer great perspective, they also take a lot of time, which I tend to lose all the time.

 

So 583 days later, I had an epiphany where most great epiphanies take place…washing dishes.  I thought about the lifestyle changes I’ve made since entering the fitness career field, and how easy many of them have actually been.  Then I thought, why don’t I write about that for my blog?  Personal experience is way more motivating and fun to write about than research.  Although I haven’t completely given up on my first ambition, my new motivation is simply this…to write on a conglomeration of topics, from recipes to fitness gear to exercise studies…anything fitness or health related that I find interesting that I hope interests you as well.

 

I hope my newfound motivation speaks into your life as well, and that you will be challenged and encouraged by my posts to jumpstart your own ambitions.  And in the mean time, I hope you enjoy the posts to come!

 

Roses and Thorns

A few years ago, our pastor shared this story (written by our visitation pastor) in our Thanksgiving service. It touched my heart then, and every time I read it, my eyes fill with tears as I consider the truth of it all. I share this story with you on the eve of Thanksgiving 2011 as a reminder that in the midst of the things we need to be thankful for, we must thank God for the thorns He places in our lives, whether or not we understand why they are there. Be blessed, my friends.

 “Why me, Lord?”

This question has been asked many times when days of perplexity and confusion arise. We all have gone through circumstances that were beyond our ability to explain. We begin to wonder if God really loves us or if we are one of His children. Why must we go through such difficult times? This is a question that always looms up before us.

When we have tried to give of our best service to the Lord, shouldn’t we expect Him to shield us from such trying experiences? After all, it is not uncommon to find the unbeliever going through easy times while we are struggling with a huge pile of grief.

“Why me, Lord?”

This is perhaps the most frequent question that has been asked of me during my years of ministry. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult ones to answer adequately for the one who is suffering.

I recently came across and interesting approach to this subject in a Christian publication. I thought the answer and the conclusion is one that we need to face squarely to put our problems into perspective.

Sandra felt as low as the heels of her Birkenstocks as she pushed against a November gust and the florist shop door. Her life had been easy, like a spring breeze. Then in the fourth month of her second pregnancy, a minor automobile accident stole her ease.

During this Thanksgiving week she would have delivered a son. She grieved over her loss. As if that weren’t enough, her husband’s company threatened a transfer. Then her sister, whose holiday visit she coveted, called saying she could not come. What’s worse, Sandra’s friend infuriated her by suggesting her grief was a God-given path to maturity that would allow her to sympathize with others who suffer. “She has no idea what I’m feeling,” thought Sandra with a shudder.

Thanksgiving? Thankful for what?, she wondered.

For a careless driver whose truck was hardly scratched when he rear-ended her? For an airbag that saved her life but took that of her child?

“Good afternoon, can I help you?” The shop clerk’s approach startled her.

“I..I need an arrangement,” stammered Sandra. “For Thanksgiving? Do you want beautiful but ordinary, or would you like to challenge the day with a customer favorite I call the Thanksgiving “Special?” asked the shop clerk. “I’m convinced that flowers tell stories,” she continued.

“Are you looking for something that conveys ‘gratitude’ this Thanksgiving?”

“Not exactly!” Sandra blurted out. “In the last five months, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”

Sandra regretted her outburst, and was surprised when the shop clerk said, “I have the perfect arrangement for you.” Then the shop’s door small bell rang, and the shop clerk said, “Hi, Barbara. let me get your order.” She politely excused herself and walked toward a small workroom, then quickly reappeared, carrying an arrangement of greenery, bows, and long-stemmed thorny roses. Except the ends of the rose stems were neatly snipped: there were no flowers on the ends

“Want this in a box?” asked the clerk.

Sandra watched for the customer’s response. Was this a joke? Who would want rose stems with no flowers! She waited for laughter, but neither woman laughed.

“Yes, please,” Barbara replied with an appreciative smile. “You’d think after three years of getting the special, I wouldn’t be so moved by its significance, but I can feel it right here, all over again.” She said as she gently tapped her chest.

“Uh,” stammered Sandra, “that lady just left with, uh…she just left with no flowers!”

“Right, said the clerk, “I cut off the flowers. That’s the Special. I call it the Thanksgiving Thorns Bouquet.”

“Oh, come on, you can’t tell me someone is willing to pay for that!” exclaimed Sandra.

“Barbara came into the shop three years ago feeling much like you feel today,” explained the clerk. “She thought she had very little to be thankful for. She had lost her father to cancer, the family business was failing, her son was into drugs, and she was facing major surgery.”

“That same year I had lost my husband,” continued the clerk, “and for the first time in my life, had just spent the holidays alone. I had no children, no husband, no family nearby, and too great a debt to allow any travel.”

“So what did you do?” asked Sandra. “I learned to be thankful for thorns,” answered the clerk quietly. “I’ve always thanked God for good things in life and never to ask Him why those good things happened to me, but when bad stuff hit, did I ever ask! It took time for me to learn that dark times are important. I have always enjoyed the ‘flowers’ of life, but it took thorns to show me the beauty of God’s comfort. You know, the Bible says that God comforts us when we’re afflicted, and from His consolation we learn to comfort others.”

Sandra sucked in her breath as she thought about the very thing her friend had tried to tell her. “I guess the truth is I don’t want comfort. I’ve lost a baby and I’m angry with God.” Just then someone else walked in the shop.

“Hey, Phil!” shouted the clerk to the balding, rotund man. “My wife sent me in to get our usual Thanksgiving arrangement, twelve thorny, long-stemmed stems!” laughed Phil as the clerk handed him a tissue-wrapped arrangement from the refrigerator.

“Those are for your wife?” asked Sandra incredulously. “Do you mind me asking why she wants something that looks like that?”

“No…I’m glad you asked,” Phil replied. “Four years ago my wife and I nearly divorced. After forty years, we were in a real mess, but with the Lord’s grace and guidance, we slogged through problem after problem. He rescued our marriage. Jenny here (the clerk) told me she kept a vase of rose stems to remind her of what she learned from “thorny” times, and that was good enough for me. I took home some of those stems. My wife and I decided to label each one for a specific “problem” and give thanks for what that problem taught us.”

As Phil paid the clerk, he said to Sandra, “I highly recommend the Special!”

“I don’t know if I can be thankful for the thorns in my life.” Sandra said to the clerk. “It’s all too fresh.”

“Well,” the clerk replied carefully, “my experience has shown me that thorns make roses more precious. We treasure God’s providential care more during trouble than at any other time. Remember, it was a crown of thorns that Jesus wore so we might know His love. Don’t resent the thorns.”

Tears rolled down Sandra’s cheeks. For the first time since the accident, she loosened her grip on resentment. “I’ll take those twelve long-stemmed thorns, please,” she managed to choke out.

“I hoped you would,” said the clerk gently. “I’ll have them ready in a minute.”

“Thank you. What do I owe you?”

“Nothing, nothing but a promise to allow God to heal your heart. The first year’s arrangement is always on me.”

The clerk smiled and handed a card to Sandra. “I’ll attach this card to your arrangement, but maybe you would like to read it first.”

It read: My God, I have never thanked You for my thorns. I have thanked You a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my thorns. Teach me the glory of the cross I bear; teach me the value of my thorns. Show me that I have climbed closer to You along the path of pain. Show me that, through my tears, the colors of Your rainbow look much more brilliant.”

Praise Him for your roses, thank Him for your thorns.

Have you thanked God for the thorns in your life? Have you learned lessons from them?

Pastor Paul Eldridge

When Will You Quit?

Borrowing the title from Brad Bloom’s Faith & Fitness future discussion forum, the start of 2011 presents not only a good time to think of new beginnings, but also of new “quittings.”  Many times, to start something, we must first quit another thing, whatever it is that’s holding us back from our starting.  We realize that to “Let God,”  we must first “Let Go” of “every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us (Heb. 12:1).

So with the beginning of a brand new year, we see people that generally fall into three categories of thought. 1-Resolutions of Failure-those who avoid making resolutions because they believe resolutions are “set-ups for failure.” ; 2-Vague Resolutioners–those who verbally express goals but have no plan of action to reach them. ; 3-Persistent Resolutioners-goal oriented people who set goals and have specific ideas on accomplishing them, and often reach their goals.   Regardless of which group you find yourself in, there is no doubt that the need for new beginnings resides in each of us.  And so to start, we must first quit.

Quit elevating comfort over betterment.  Quit pushing God aside.  Quit making excuses.  Quit loving taste over nutrition.  Quit being vague about our goals.

When we quit, we allow God to start something new in us.

Start a friendship.  Start a vibrant prayer & devotional life.  Start giving without grieving.  Start making reasons for starting.  Start adding nutrients into our consumption.  Start setting specific actions to reach your goals.  Start living the abundant life.

Ps. 144:9 – “I will sing a new song to You, O God.”

Luke 22:20 – “Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.”

2 Corinthians 5:17- “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he isnew creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

Rev. 21:5 – “Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Jesus is in the business of making raggedy, old and worn people and transforming them into beautiful new creations of His design.  Do not resist His Spirit…let him create something new in your life today.

Blessings to you for 2011!

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