Monthly Archives: January 2016

Chewing gum

gum ball machineSometimes it’s hard to tell what mechanism is at work.

Take chewing gum for example.

When agitated people chewed gum, they felt less anxious, more alert and had less cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva.

By chewing gum, are you increasing blood flow to your head? Is that extra blood flow helping with alertness and also distracting you from the stressful factors around you?

Maybe by chewing gum you’re tricking your lizard brain (the oldest and simplest part of your brain) into feeling that if you’re chewing, everything must be okay so there’s no need for anxiety and the stressful cascade of things that entails.

But what about this. Most gum is sweet tasting. We’re hardwired to seek out sweet foods. So maybe chewing something sweet is soothing because of the taste.

Chewing gum could also be considered form of fidgeting. You’re just using your mouth for chewing instead of wringing your hands when you’re nervous.

Some people like feeling busy. If you’re busy chewing maybe you feel like you’re somehow being busy and by feeling busy your attention is diverted.

Maybe what happens you chew come is some combination of these possibilities. It’s hard to know sometimes exactly what’s happening.

Hanging

musem displaysAdulthood and aging aren’t just about cellular processes degrading. There’s also the loss of mobility. Movements that adults can’t do anymore isn’t always just because they’re adults. It happens because they stopped doing those movements.

Most animals, including us, are designed to be mobile. In other words, we should be able to run, walk, jog, crawl, swim, climb, throw, and jump.

Because our bodies are efficient, they adapt to whatever position or movement pattern our bodies finds themselves in most often.

In his book on shoulder health, orthopedic surgeon John M. Kirsch, M.D. said he noticed his kids easily swinging on monkey bars and realized he couldn’t because he didn’t perform that movement pattern anymore. He didn’t need to. Or did he?

Along with our ape relatives, we’ve evolved a complex shoulder joint giving us the ability to hang from our hands. Dr. Kirsh reasons that because we don’t occasionally hang from our hands, our main shoulder ligament can become tighter, often leading to shoulder problems.

He figured out that by hanging (not pull-ups) every day or so you can fix or prevent many common shoulder problems. Don’t worry if you’re short for your weight, you can hang with your feet supporting some of your extra weight

After childhood, most people don’t need to hang by their hands, but you should. He thinks it’s smart to hang at least a little bit. You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to because something might sound “silly.” Remember, without conscious and deliberate effort, inertia always wins.

Common sense meditation

sp sunset by s hughesWhen I was young any interest in a transcendental experience was supplanted and snuffed out by the lure of lust, love, and other shiny things.

The physical realm’s attraction was too strong, and its more realizable results were too enticing. After my hormones peaked, those drives lessened. The possibility of reaching or uncovering a stable state of joy became more interesting, and easier to explore through meditation.

“Enchanted by” is the best way to describe my view of what meditation can do. Meditation seems like the best direction to take in pursuing an awakened state.

The way it seems to be is: your ego is your attachment to the constant stream of thoughts and internal chatter. Recognizing that attachment put you on the way to letting go of the  preoccupation with the thoughts bubbling up and drifting away.

I used to run a lot and was pretty good at it but I didn’t get a “runner’s high,” I just liked doing it. That’s what meditation is like for me too. I enjoy doing it but don’t experience a big shift in my outlook. I think something subtle is happening.

A few days ago, I got an email from a nephew who’s interested in meditation. The next day, I happened across a post on meditation by Leo Babauta with some easy-to-follow advice. So, instead of reinventing the wheel I thought I’d give a shortened version of Leo’s tips.

What’s one of the most important feelings for people to have? I think it’s enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm not much gets done, but with it who knows what’ll happen. That’s why I think Leo’s first tip is really significant. It is: start by meditating for just two minutes. Two minutes isn’t daunting and is easy to do and get behind. An easy way to maintain your enthusiasm while you’re building a habit.

Here’s what Leo has to say:

The most important habit I’ve formed in the last 10 years is meditation. Hands down, bar none.

Meditation has helped me to become more peaceful, more focused, less worried about discomfort, more appreciative and attentive to everything in my life. I’m far from perfect, but it has helped me come a long way.

Probably most importantly, it’s helped me understand my own mind. Before I started meditating, I never thought about what was going on inside my head — it would just happen, and I would follow its commands like an automaton. These days, all of that still happens, but more and more, I ‘m aware of what’s going on. I can make a choice about whether to follow the commands. I understand myself better (not completely, but better), and that has given me increased flexibility and freedom.

While I’m not saying it’s easy, you can start small and get better and better as you practice. Don’t expect to be good at first.

These tips aren’t aimed at helping you to become an expert … they should help you get started and keep going. You don’t have to implement them all at once — try a few, then come back and try one or two more.

  1. Sit for just two minutes. This seems ridiculously easy, to just meditate for two minutes. If that goes well, increase by another two minutes the next week. By increasing a little at a time, you’ll be meditating for 10 minutes a day in no time. But start small first.
  2. Do it first thing each morning. It’s easy saying “I’ll meditate every day,” and then forgetting to do it. Instead, do it every morning when you get up, and put a note that says “meditate” somewhere where you’ll see it.
  3. Don’t get caught up in the how. People worry about where and how to sit, it’s not that important. Start by sitting on a chair, on your couch, or on your floor. It’s just for two minutes at first anyway. Later you can worry about optimizing it, but in the beginning it doesn’t matter, just sit somewhere quiet and comfortable.
  4. Check in with how you’re feeling. As you first settle into your meditation session, simply check to see how you’re feeling. How does your body feel? What is the quality of your mind? Busy? Tired? Anxious? See whatever you’re bringing to this meditation session as completely OK.
  5. Count your breaths. Now that you’re settled in, turn your attention to your breath. Just place the attention on your breath as it comes in, and follow it through your nose all the way down to your lungs. Try counting “one” as you take in the first breath, then “two” as you breathe out. Repeat this to the count of 10, then start again at one.
  6. Come back when you wander. Your mind will wander. This is an almost absolute certainty. There’s no problem with that. When you notice your mind wandering, simply  return to your breathing. You might feel a little frustration, but it’s perfectly OK to not stay focused, we all do it. This is the practice, and you won’t be good at it for a little while.
  7. Develop a loving attitude. When you notice thoughts and feelings arising during meditation, as they will, look at them with a friendly attitude. See them as friends, not intruders or enemies. They are a part of you, though not all of you. Be friendly and not harsh.
  8. Don’t worry too much that you’re doing it wrong. You will worry you’re doing it wrong. That’s OK, we all do. You’re not doing it wrong. There’s no perfect way to do it, just be happy you’re doing it.
  9. Don’t worry about clearing the mind. Lots of people think meditation is about clearing your mind, or stopping all thoughts. It’s not. This can sometimes happen, but it’s not the “goal” of meditation. If you have thoughts, that’s normal. We all do. Our brains are thought factories, and we can’t just shut them down. Instead, just try to practice focusing your attention, and practice some more when your mind wanders.
  10. Stay with whatever arises. When thoughts or feelings arise, and they will, you might try staying with them awhile. Yes, I know I said to return to the breath, but after you practice that for a week, you might also try staying with a thought or feeling that arises. We tend to want to avoid feelings like frustration, anger, anxiety, but an amazingly useful meditation practice is to stay with the feeling for awhile. Just stay, and be curious.
  11. Get to know yourself. This practice isn’t just about focusing your attention, it’s about learning how your mind works. What’s going on inside there? It’s murky, but by watching your mind wander, get frustrated, avoid difficult feelings … you can start to understand yourself.
  12. Become friends with yourself. As you get to know yourself, do it with a friendly attitude instead of one of criticism. 
  13. Do a body scan. Another thing you can do, once you become a little better at following your breath, is focus your attention on one body part at a time. Start at the soles of your feet — how do those feel? Slowly move to your toes, the tops of your feet, your ankles, all the way to the top of your head.
  14. Notice the light, sounds, energy. Another place to put your attention, again, after you’ve practice with your breath for at least a week, is the light all around you. Just keep your eyes on one spot, and notice the light in the room you’re in. Another day, just focus on noticing sounds. Another day, try to notice the energy in the room all around you (including light and sounds).
  15. Really commit yourself. Don’t just say, “Sure, I’ll try this for a couple days.” Really commit yourself. In your mind, be locked in for at least a month.
  16. You can do it anywhere. If you’re traveling or something comes up in the morning, you can do meditation in your office. In the park. During your commute. As you walk somewhere. Sitting meditation is the best place to start, but in truth, you’re practicing for mindfulness in your entire life.
  17. Find a community. Find a community of people who are meditating and join them. 
  18. Smile when you’re done. Be grateful you had this time to yourself, that you stuck with your commitment, that you showed yourself that you’re trustworthy, that you took the time to get to know yourself and make friends with yourself. That’s an amazing two minutes of your life.

Meditation isn’t always easy or even peaceful. But it has benefits, and you can start today, and continue for the rest of your life.

Everyday system for managing distractions

shot iPhoneThis is the last of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

The other systems I’ve described have been mostly about physical health. This one is about mental health.

The problem weekend luddite addresses is this: For every labor saving device there seem to be at least two time consuming devices to soak up all that freed time again. T.S. Eliot wrote something about us moderns being “distracted by distraction from distraction,” and that was pre-Internet and pre-TV. We’re in infinitely worse shape now. We aimlessly surf the web or listen to all kinds of crazy podcasts when we should be doing something else. Then we complain that we don’t have time to do what we really want to do.

It’s a problem that seems innocuous at first, and I think tends to get underrated. But think about it. Time is life, when you waste time you waste the most precious thing you have. I’m not saying you should constantly be striving towards some concrete self improvement goal, relaxing is great, but there are much better, more intentional ways to relax than flicking channels or bumbling around youtube.

I call this problem distraction management, and weekend luddite is really just a partial solution. But it’s a start. I’ve been practicing it for about two years now, and it’s been an enormous help.

You’ve probably heard the term “Luddite” before. People generally use it to refer to someone who is anti-technology. The original Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who rose up by smashing the machines putting them out of work.

Weekend luddites are a little more moderate. We don’t destroy machines, we just avoid them. And not all the time, just on weekends. And not all machines, but just the machines that are wasting our time.

I’m a computer programmer. Like a lot of people today, even non computer programmers, I sit all day if front of a computer. You’d think that when I come home the last I’d want to do is spend more time on the computer. But this is precisely what I used to do. I’d check my email, I’d check my stocks, I’d check the NYT website, I’d check my own web site statistics, then I’d go over to some blogs, and pretty soon I’d be at some random site about Malaysian skyscrapers, which is interesting, sort of, but maybe ten thousandth on my list of what I’d like to be doing. I’d look up and it would be midnight.

I don’t watch much tv. I don’t play video games. But I’d fritter away endless hours in front of the computer like this, stumbling around aimlessly on the internet. And it was very tricky to root out entirely because I didn’t really want to root it out entirely. There is something good at the root of browsing around on the internet. It’s curiosity. Being a complete internet luddite would mean giving up something that is genuinely good, more good even, I think, than the downside is bad. The trick is how limit the bad, without sacrificing the good.

I thought of the name weekend luddite and the basic idea before I though of the precise details of how it should work. But the details are critical, and it took some experimenting to get them right.

Let me describe two early implementations of weekend luddite that didn’t quite work, so you can see the advantages of the one that did.

I started out trying to just do Sunday no computer, a single 24 hour period. But it was just too hard. Unread emails sang out to me. Doubts as to whether my web servers were still up and receiving their proper due of traffic plagued me like pangs of conscience. It sounds pathetic, but I couldn’t go a whole day, much less a whole weekend. 

Then I tried going just half a day. My rule was “on weekends, don’t touch the computer from dawn to dusk.” This almost worked. The amount of time was definitely about right. But the boundaries were a little unclear and badly placed. Dawn and dusk change a lot with the seasons.  If I sleep too late to check my email, am I really not going to check it until after sundown?

So what I wound up doing for weekend luddite is “on weekends, don’t touch the computer from breakfast to dinner.” It’s about the same amount of time as dawn to dusk, but less variable, less ambiguous, and better placed. Breakfast and dinner are clear events.

The boundaries are also better placed. I can’t oversleep breakfast, I’d just have a late breakfast, so I have some guaranteed time to check my email in the morning and not get too antsy about what I’d missed during the day. This clarity about the boundaries, combined with knowing that I’d just have to wait at most half a day, meant that I didn’t get so antsy  that I’d break the rules. And I reclaimed most of my waking hours for worthier, more intentional pursuits. I found that I had time to do serious, careful reading again. Also, now that we have a child I don’t have that temptation to check “one more thing” on the computer while I’m taking care of her. She gets 100% of Daddy. 

One of my biggest excuses for procrastinating on the web was tending my web sites. So now, if I have an idea that seems web-worthy, I write it down on a piece of paper. Or speak it into my digital recorder. In fact, I find it’s easier to write this way. No Malaysian skyscrapers to distract me.

Another gain is that the time I do spend on the web is more productive. Why? Because it has to be. There’s less of it. I value the time I have to browse around and so I do it better. I know there is a cost for every link I click on – a cost of very limited time. It’s like supply and demand. Give yourself a lot of time and time becomes cheap.

If you want to get more done, give yourself less time. The more time you give a task, the more time it will take. Most tasks will soak up whatever time you throw at them. Give them less time, and not only do you get them done more quickly, but you feel more alive, more engaged during that time. 

For me, the internet is the big distraction that I need to restrict. But I don’t go any further than that. I don’t restrict TV, or video game consoles, or my ipod. They aren’t big distractions for me, and I don’t want to load myself up with unnecessary rules that I could start to resent. But you may be different. Your big distraction device might be the TV. Or your iPhone. Find the one or two devices that are causing the most problems and restrict just those and nothing else. If you get overambitious, it’s not going to work.

Everyday system for managing habits

Big coffee potThis is the sixth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Managing habits is actually kind of a big issue.

Think about the difference between home improvement and self improvement. When you do a home improvement project, it’s a one time thing. Put in granite counter tops, it’s done, and move onto the next project.

Improving yourself isn’t like that. When you hit your goal in terms of diet or fitness or whatever, you can’t just back off. You have to maintain this behavior. It’s almost like having to re-install that new granite counter top every day. And most of us have more than one self improvement issue to work in at the same time. It’s like having to reinstall the counter tops, refix the roof, and retile the bathroom every day. If you express your self improvement goals in terms of goals and rely solely on conscious effort to achieve them, that’s really what you’re doing.

It’s pretty tough, but if you look at self improvement in terms of habit, it gets much easier. A habit is a behavior or set of behaviors that’s at least partically automatic and unconscious. Because of the big unconscious element, the maintenance is minimal.

They’re are all over the place. Your psyche is teeming with these dangerous but potentially useful forces. Habits are kind of like wild animals. Very powerful, but dumb. You can’t face them head on, they’ll tear you to shreds. But with some carrot and stick, you can tame them, and get them to work for you.

Conscious attention is a very limited commodity. You can do sophisticated stuff with it, but because it’s so limited, you want to reserve it for the when it’s really necessary. Save your conscious attention by hitching up habit to pull along desired behaviors, like a horse pulling a cart. You need conscious attention for the hitching up, but don’t have your conscious attention pull that cart. That’s what dumb strong unconscious habit is for.

So the question is, how do you take a conscious self improvement goal, like losing 50 pounds in six months, and turn it into an unconscious habit?

First, express the goal differently. The way you frame a goals is important. Think in terms of actions and behaviors rather than results. Framing your problem in terms of what you have to do to solve it instead of what you hope will happen as a result of your actions.

This is important for a number of reasons. We tend to be really, really bad at achieving “results” goals. They’re usually pretty arbitrary, not realistic assessments of what we can actually accomplish. And you can’t turn a result like “lose 50 pounds” into habit. Right? It’s an end state.

What do you do? It tells you where you want to be, but not how to get there. A habit is an unconscious behavior. A behavior is way of describing a repeated action. And an action is something you do. A results goal isn’t an action, and you can’t make it into a habit.

So instead, think about the actions that you hope will get you those results. For example, “no snacking on weekdays” or “exercise 14 minutes every weekday morning” are behaviors. Long term, results come from behaviors. You’re focusing on the part of reality that you can actually change. Results goals are essentially just wishful thinking.

Here’s the great thing, behaviors continue to be useful after you’ve hit your desired results.

You don’t have to change anything once you get there. In fact, I’d toss the results goal out entirely. A results goal is a distraction. It doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere. It depresses you if you don’t. And it doesn’t tell you what to do next when and if you do get there.

Another great thing about thinking in terms of behaviors is that you can’t fail, unless you decide to. With a habit, you’ll get there eventually if it’s a realistic goal.

You don’t have direct control over the scale or over a nautilus machine. But you do have direct control over your actions, so if you don’t do what you set out to, there’s no surprise because it’s your decision.

The power to fail is the power to succeed. They inherently go together. The alternative is powerlessness. A rock can’t fail. A rock can’t do anything.

Everyday system for walking more

NYC early snowThis is the fifth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

“Urban Ranger” is a system for convincing yourself to build the habit of purposeful walking. It’s probably the everyday system I’d choose if I had to pick just one, because it’s at least as good for the mind as for the body.

You’ve probably heard a million things about how great an exercise walking is supposed to be. What you need, then, is something to get you fired up about this humble, uninspiring activity, so you’ll actually do it.

You need to convince yourself that walking is not some last ditch compromise shadow exercise, but that it’s exciting. That’s where urban ranger comes in. It’s like a role that you play, an alter ego. A way of re-imagining yourself so that walking becomes the most important, the most exciting thing that you could possibly be doing. Sound excessive? If you’re like me, that’s what it’s going to take to get you walking at all.

Think about it. We’ve invented one class of machine to spare us physical exertion and another class of machine to inflict it back on us again, but in an infinitely more boring, painful, and useless manner. We berate ourselves that we don’t labor in our leisure time, that we don’t spend our freed hours in that torture chamber, the gym.

You probably don’t exercise as often as you think you should, if at all. Your problem is that you’re squandering willpower on a hopeless task: exercise divorced from purpose. The solution: purposeful exertion; in particular, walking.

You probably can’t kill a caribou for dinner, or plow a field, or do most of the useful work that your ancestors did for thousands of generations. But you can still walk. And believe it or not, walking is enough.

Walking is still useful, interesting, and pleasant. You can think and observe while you walk. You get somewhere. You don’t need any special equipment or outfits. It provides great health returns on very little investment. And you can do it for the rest of your life.

Walk to and from work. If you work too far from home to walk the whole way, practice the noble sport of distance parking and walk part of the way. Walk to run errands. Walk up stairs instead of taking the elevator or escalator. Walk during your lunch hour. Walk when you’ve got cell phone calls to make. Walk to listen to an audiobook. Walk when you’re depressed. Walk when you don’t know what to do next.

The question should be “when shouldn’t I walk?” Walking is the default activity. It’s everything else that needs a justification.

For the sake of your own dignity and the beauty of the world, please don’t put on any silly outfits and pump your arms like a maniac. Just dress and walk normally. That 5% extra health benefit or whatever that you supposedly get from pumping your arms won’t mean a thing when you stop after 3 months because you are tired of looking like a bozo. You’ll unconsciously get faster as you do it a lot. So relax.

You are smarter when you walk. It’s not just the physical movement, it’s the changing scenery around you. I bring a digital voice recorder along to capture my brilliant ideas, to-do lists, and diaryesque inanities. Once a week or so I transcribe it to my computer. I thought of most of the other everyday systems like this, while walking.

How’d Alexander the Great’s army get to India from Greece? How about the Grande Armee of Napoleon, how’d they get all the way from Paris to Moscow? They walked. For thousands of years winning a war was largely a matter of being there before your enemy. So get the aqua sweatpants out of your mind, this is man stuff!

Everyday system for eating less

foodThis is the fourth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

We all can see there’s a big problem these days of being overweight. The solution, the everyday system that solves this problem, is called the “No S Diet” (you can pronounce it the no-es-diet).

The No S Diet is: No snacks, NO sweets, no seconds – except (sometimes) on days that start with S. That’s actually the whole system right there. 14 words. The worlds shortest effective diet plan.

“Don’t eat too much” is shorter, just 4 words, but it isn’t effective. But the No S is effective.  I lost over 40 pounds on No-s and kept it off for almost 5 years now. No yoyoing. Other people on the no s diet bulletin board have lost even more weight than this. If you’re antsy to learn more now, go to nosdiet.com. Or everydaysystems.com.

Everyday system for easy exercising

sledge hammer

This is the third of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements. That’s my sledgehammer above. I painted bands on it for remembering where my hands go when I switch sides.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Take a sledgehammer and wrap an old sweater around it. This is your “shovelglove.” Every week day morning, set a timer for 14 minutes. Use the shovelglove to perform shoveling, butter churning, wood chopping and other motions until the timer goes off. Stop. Rest on weekends and holidays.

OK, this probably sounds a little crazy and arbitrary (and dangerous) to you. Let me explain why I came up with it. I think it’s virtues will then become apparent.

It was a rainy Sunday in 2002, I think. I hadn’t gone to the gym in over three months, and I was feeling painfully out of shape and antsy to do some kind of exercise. But it was raining outside, so I didn’t really want to leave the house, and the prospect of subjecting myself to the boring torture of the gym seemed even drearier. I wanted an exercise I could do right there, in my living room, without any fancy equipment.

I didn’t want to do sit-ups or pushups. I didn’t want to grovel on my stomach on the floor, like some degraded beast. I thought, “there must be some kind of movement I can do standing up, with the dignity of a human being. Some kind of movement that is natural and interesting, that my body would like to do, that would engage my mind , instead of just keeping it a helpless passive prisoner.”

I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen. I forget where I read this. So I started making shoveling motions. Without even holding a shovel, just sort of air shoveling, I immediately knew I was on to something. The movement was fun, it, and even in pantomime it involved a lot of muscles, and my mind was engaged, I was thinking about the french coal miners, it was like acting, like a kid playing.

Now I could have gone outside to the back yard and actually started shoveling with a shovel. But, it was raining. I didn’t really have anything to shovel. But I couldn’t really shovel indoors, either. I’d need some kind of weight to move, for resistance, and I’d need some way of keeping it from scratching the floors or killing the cats.

That’s when it occurred to me: what I needed was a shovel with a weight attached to it, and a fuzzy glove to keep it from scratching the floors. At first I thought I’d call it “fuzzy shovel,” but “shovelglove” seemed catchier.

I went to the local hardware store, and after some experimenting, I wound up with something that worked: a sledgehammer with an old sweater wrapped around it. It had the right shape, just enough weight, and the requisite softness. And it was pleasingly simple.

Other movements besides shoveling occurred to me. My chief criterion was they had to have a natural analog, some useful movement that human beings had historically performed during the course of their ordinary daily activities. My hypothesis was that these movements would be inherently interesting to perform, develop muscles that might actually come in handy, and relatively safe. They might not target specific muscles quite as efficiently as the contrived motions of the gym, but that seemed an important consideration – what you won’t do (because it’s painfully boring) won’t help you.

The second criterion was that the movements had to be performed standing up. The first criterion pretty much makes this a given, historically people haven’t done a whole lot of work lying down, but I feel that erect posture is important enough to deserve its own particular emphasis. Before we were Homo sapiens, we were Homo habilis, the tool user, and before we were Homo habilus, we were Homo erectus, men who stood up. I firmly believe that you’ll feel better about whatever it is you’re doing (with a couple of obvious exceptions) if you do it standing up.

The third criterion was that the movements had to be convenient to perform in a modern living room. Plowing fields, useful as hell, you do it standing up, but I haven’t  figured out a way to do it in my living room.

I call these movements, “useful movements,” because that’s what they are, at least potentially. The trick is to really imagine yourself doing them — really shoveling, really chopping wood. It’ll keep you interested, and it’ll keep your form good. Form is important, you can seriously mess up up your back swinging around a sledgehammer like a spastic maniac. But form is also easy with shovelglove because you have this straight forward natural analogy for each movement. It’s almost more like acting than exercise.

So what are the movements? Over the years, I and people on the website have come up with quite a few. Here are the ones I do regularly these days: shoveling, churning butter, chopping wood, driving fench posts, hoist the sack, flip the lever, tack the bales, stoke the oven, the fireman, and chop the tree. The names are mostly pretty evocative, you can get an idea of what they’d be like.

I’d just like to say that my useful movements movements hypothesis turned out to be correct — at least for me and lots of other people who’ve posted to the shovelglove bulletin board. The movements are fun, so fun that I’ve only missed a handful of weekday mornings in almost five years, and I’ve gotten very strong. Five years ago I was a pudgy weakling who had never stuck with an exercise routine for more than a few months. Now I have forearms like Popeye, and a discernible, if not exactly bulging six pack. Looking in the mirror is not only good for my vanity, it’s like I’m a walking anatomy lesson. I have muscles in places I never knew existed.