Saturday, January 6, 2018

Battling the Bulge - Part 1 #Fitness by Leah St. James

When I started writing this piece a few days ago, I had thought to write about how depressing it is to pack away all the Christmas decorations. And then I checked my email. It was like a switch had been flipped in the email world when the calendar turned to January 2. Gone were the ads for post-holiday sales, and in their place, a flood of ads for workout gear, workout clothes, workout equipment, promotions on diet aids...and on it went. In fact, according to this article at, fitness is the No. 1 resolution for 2018. So I figured, why fight the tide? Let’s talk getting in shape.

I must confess, I have a personal reason for tackling this topic. After a lifetime of being overweight (or downright obese), I went on Weight Watchers back in 2008 and lost 80 pounds, reaching my goal clothing size. Since then I’ve managed to keep it off for the most part until the past year. I don’t know if it’s the elevated stress of my current job, my age, or just my lack of attention before and after Son No. 2's wedding, but I’m at the point where I have to either get a grip on myself (again) or start buying bigger clothes, and I’m far too cheap for the latter.



So for this post and my next post (January 22), I figured I’d share with you what I’m doing to get back in shape, let you know how it’s going, and invite you to share your story (advice, commiseration, whatever) with us.

Let’s start with the “E-Word” – Exercise. (I know, I know...I’m groaning in my head too.)

First a disclaimer: These are my opinions and mine alone. I am not a fitness instructor, expert or in any way professionally trained or certified. What I do have is years of experience trying different programs, and a few opinions to share.

Q. Do I really have to get off the couch? It's so comfy there. And I'm snuggled up with my new book!

A. I’m sorry, really sorry, but I believe (again, my opinion) that if you want to lose weight and keep it off (meaning eating well in real, everyday situations), you  have to move. 

But that’s okay because exercise is good for your overall health, even if you don’t actually drop pounds. Check out this article for some information about the great benefits of exercise, including improved cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning and metabolic health.

So it should be a no-brainer to add movement to your everyday life, but for many of us (myself included) it’s more like, “Noooo....don’t make meeeeee!!

For me, the key has been finding what I like and sticking with it. After trying everything over the years from line dancing to Zumba classes, to gym memberships, I’ve discovered what works best for me are at-home workouts. There are tons of them out there, but my current favorite is fitness expert Jessica Smith’s Walk On Walk Strong programs.

I love, love, love Jessica Smith. She’s young and beautiful and peppy (which is enough to make me snarl some mornings), but she’s so NICE. And she works out with her mom (who’s  about my age) and her dog Peanut! Seriously, you can’t stay cranky with this woman too long. You might be stiff and grumpy when you start, but before you know it, she’s got you doing something you never thought you’d even try – like these torturous moves called planks, or push-ups, of all things.

What I like about her workouts:

I have a low boredom threshold for exercise, but Jessica offers a number of well-rounded and comprehensive programs including aerobics, strength training, muscle sculpting/toning, circuit training, interval training, yoga, stretching, Pilates...I can’t remember them all. She even has workouts that focus on brain teasers for mental agility. 

I think it’s important to vary your workout. If you work the same muscles in the same way every day, even if it’s a great exercise, the effectiveness starts to diminish in my experience. So variety is great.

She has hundreds of free videos on YouTube, but also produces workouts available for purchase on DVD (Amazon) or digitally for streaming (via her website). The quality of the exercises is the same for both, but the free ones are more of a DIY experience, where the ones for purchase are a professional production quality. In addition, she usually has one or two people with her (demonstrating modifications) on the paid versions, where she’s mostly by herself on the free YouTube videos.

From Walk Strong 3: The Complete 8 Week Home Fitness Program for Women

Jessica’s routines can be really tough (I can't lie), but she stresses safety and that each person should do a movement or program to her own abilities. So for those who have arthritic knees (like yours truly), she’ll show modifications to keep the strain out of the knee joint. In her for-pay workouts, her mom, Debbie, usually works out with her and does the beginner form of the exercise. Friend Beth does the advanced form (like the super jumping jacks), and Jessica takes the middle level. Sometimes I start with Jessica, move to Beth and end up with Debbie. The important thing, according to Jessica, is to challenge yourself to your own level.

Positive Focus
“Practice makes progress” is one of her favorite sayings, and it’s really helpful to hear when you’re panting like a marathon runner when she’s barely breaking a sweat. She often teases her mom about the harder moves. It’s cute. It makes me smile, and who doesn’t need a smile while exercising?

Health vs. Cosmetics
She stresses in every program that the goal is to improve physical health. Even though an added benefit might be fitting in a favorite pair of jeans (or showing off abs in a bikini for the those of you who might dare), the real benefit is improved functionality for everyday life. Movements are designed to help you with what you need to live a full life every day, like the ability to pick up kids or groceries, stand from a seated position on the floor, or build a house. She wants you to have the strength and endurance you need to achieve your daily (and life) goals.

YouTube videos are free.
The for-pay videos range from around $15 to up to around $80 for the long, multi-disc programs. The one I’m doing right now is an 8-week program consisting of six separate discs of three programs each, so 18 separate exercise routines. It’s on the pricier side (around $80, I think), but it’s been really worth it for me. With each of the multi-disc programs, she provides a suggested rotation for the videos. Even for the free YouTube videos, she’ll come up with playlists and series to help you get in the mood.

When I started working out with Jessica about 18 months ago, my aerobics capacity was pretty good, but stagnant. Now I'm doing much more advanced (for me) moves that make me feel younger. Strength-wise, I was working with 3-pound weights for light and 5-pound weights for my “heavy” weights. I’m now up to 5, 8 and 10 pounds. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but I can sense a real increase in my everyday strength, and that makes me feel good.

Jessica Smith is my current favorite, but here is a short list of other workouts I’ve tried:

Leslie Sansone Walk at Home
Leslie's at-home walking workouts start with four basic steps (walking in place, knee lifts, side-to-side steps and kicks), and she builds on those. She also offers a variety of programs including strength training. I loved Leslie’s workouts and did them for years, but I eventually hit my boredom threshold. If you're new to working out, check her out.

Margaret Richards' Body Electric
My favorite from the mid-‘80s, this made me feel like I was doing ballet while building muscle. Margaret has a Kickstarter campaign to get her original free PBS shows up for live streaming. If you’re interested, check it out.

Yoga flow 

Many people swear by yoga, but it wasn't such a great experience for me. The 15-minute program I did claimed to melt off the fat as quickly as 30 minutes of aerobics. It didn’t. But I did manage to kill my knees. I’m sure my form wasn’t great either. I probably would have benefited from a class with an in-person instructor.

Tabata training
High-intensity movements for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest, for eight rounds. I used to do this and liked the fact I could get done in under 20 minutes. 

Tae Bo
Loved watching Billy Blanks but nearly killed myself trying to keep up with him. Enough said.

So that's my take on exercise. If you're looking to ramp up your own fitness program, I hope I've given you some ideas and some encouragement. If you're currently doing a program you love (or don't love), I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Here's to a happier, healthier 2018 for all!


Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at


Brenda whiteside said...

Lots of options, Leah. I've never had a real weight problem. Yes, I've thought I'm overweight at times in my life but it's all relative. I've found with age I'm going to carry a little more weight but it's the "softness" I cringe over. Still I know the main thing is to eat right and stay active. I have a squat routine I should do everyday but miss some times. It's more to keep my back strong but a side benefit it keeps my butt from drooping. Walking is my exercise. I usually get in 15 miles a week. And if no one is up for walking with me, it's really tough to get out. I need company to exercise for the sake of exercising. Otherwise, I'm content to curl up with my computer and write.

Leah St. James said...

I'm with you on walking, Brenda. I used to walk daily (briskly!) with a friend back in Jersey. We had a 3-mile circuit that included some hills, and we walked every day, unless there was snow/ice on the ground. Even in those 90-degree/90-percent humidity days we'd wait until the sun went down. We had the best conversations, and I miss it. These days I don't have a good walking option, but it is one of the best forms of exercise. I also do a set of back/leg exercises for my arthritic knee, prescribed by the ortho.

Diane Burton said...

I've always had a weight problem. Weight Watchers worked for me many times. My problem, of course, is not sticking with it. Then there's exercise. I know what I should do. Don't we all? When exercising hurts... My doc recommended water exercises or just walking in a pool. I have all the excuses ready, but I really have to bite the bullet and do it. Like you, I hate spending money on bigger sizes. Thanks for the inspiration.

Alicia Dean said...

Wow, such an ambitious post! I definitely need to move more and get healthier. Maybe I'll check Jessica out. She sounds great. Good luck, Leah. Let us know how it goes.

Leah St. James said...

Diane, Water workouts are supposed to be fantastic. I've never tried them, but I have a friend whose mom does them. Like I said, you need to find something you like. Would your D-I-L (I forget if you have one or two nearby!), or a friend have time to join you? Company always helps.

Leah St. James said...

It is ambitious for us couch potatoes of the world, Alicia! :-) One of the things that I find so fun about that particular program is the fact that the mom (Debbie) is not at that super high level. She's like me. It's great to have someone you can relate to on those workout videos.

Betsy Ashton said...

I stopped having a weight problem after I was a pre-teen chubby runway model. Yup, pre-teen chubby. Then, between my freshman and sophomore years in High school, I grew five and a half inches. No longer chubby. No longer the shortest girl in my class.

I went on to become a yoga instructor. I still do yoga, but now with the same rigor I once did.

What happened? Laziness. An arthritic knee. Low back problems. And each of these can be solved with walking more (I live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, so finding a strenuous walking workout begins at my front door) and more yoga.

I'm staring at the mat...

remullins said...

And never ever pick the first week of January for your annual check-up as blood sugars, cholesterol, and weight will be elevated. Which, of course, is what I did and it happened to me.
I know good and well I'll have these things back under control once I return to my regular (post holiday/company) diet.
Great post

Leah St. James said...

I wish we lived close enough, Betsy, that you could show me some safe yoga moves! I would love to try it again but am too fearful I'll damage my knees again.

Leah St. James said...

Good tip, Robin! I think mine is scheduled sometime toward the end of the month. I hope I'll have recovered enough by then.

Jannine Gallant said...

I walk the dog in the woods for exercise. In the winter I put on boots or snowshoes and walk the dog in the woods... Except this year when we've had NO SNOW since the East Coast is hogging it all. I never had a weight problem until I hit menopause. It was like my metabolism just shut down and retired. I gained 20 pounds over the last five years. I hate it, but nothing (except possibly not eating at all) seems to help. I eat healthy and exercise daily, doing everything I used to do. I asked my doctor about it. He basically told me to suck it up buttercup because I'm not getting any younger. When my husband broke his collarbone and started lifting small weights (5-10 lbs.) as part of his rehab, I began doing some arm strengthening with them, too. I'm not noticing much improvement in tone, but I seem to be opening jars with less struggle. I think the only answer is to literally eat half as much as I used to, and so far I haven't managed that yet. Thanks for the inspiration to keep at those weights and increase the dog walks, Leah!

Leah St. James said...

The weights, I think, are so important, Jannine. Good for you for sticking with it. And walking/hiking through woods is a much better option than, for example, walking laps around a track. Sounds like a great plan!

Rolynn Anderson said...

Routine and companionship matter in the area of exercise. My husband and I trot over to the fitness center three mornings a week; I read while I peddle for a half hour every night; I golf with friends. I'm determined to add walking this year. Like you, Leah, I'm now lifting 10 pound weights as (listen to this!) I stand on an upside-down BOSU. So I get all kinds of balancing movements while I lift. (I'm standing on the flat side...the air-filled rubber is on the floor.) Years ago I lost about 30 pounds and I've only crept up 10. I am 5'10" with size 12 feet, so petite is never what you can call me. My husband at 6'5" makes me look small in comparison, thank goodness.

Like Jannine, I'm more focused on the flab...or what havoc gravity has wrought. And, I hate to admit it, but I don't like to sweat. Heavy sigh. Maybe this is the year to sweat?

Leah St. James said...

Wow, Rolynn, that's impressive. (I had to google what a BOSU is!) I've been working on balance,too, thanks to Jessica's workouts. It's a muscle thing, like anything else, that needs to be trained. Unfortunately improving my ability to balance hasn't countered my natural lack of grace. I still walk into walls and tend to teeter sideways unexpectedly! Kudos to your hubby for going with you! As far as sweating, I don't sweat as much as I used to. I go more by increased rate of breathing to tell how hard (aerobically) I'm working. I'm glad for the lack of sweat these days!

Rolynn Anderson said...

P.S. I remembered I had an end table....16 inches high...tucked away in the closet. It's a perfect height for stand-up computer work, so as I write this, I'm trying out the method. Of course I'd like to raise and lower the table at will, but at least this way I can test out standing while typing. I'm told a spongy mat under my feet is a good idea. I will continue to to report my findings.

Vonnie Davis said...

A very ambitious subject. And well done with links and everything. I walk to the mailbox every day. I exercise my fingers over the keyboard. I do housework. My knees won't let me do much more. I pick Calvin off the floor when he falls. My enjoyment is in writing, but kudos to all of you who are disciplined enough to make the time to exercise.

Leah St. James said...

Rolynn, That sounds like a really smart way to test it out. I just sent some information via email on the one my boss uses.

Leah St. James said...

My motivation is simple, Vonnie. I love to eat, and if I don't exercise, I can't eat even half of what I enjoy. So it's really self-serving! :-) I hope Calvin is doing well!

Christine DePetrillo said...

It's all about balance. If you've sat at your computer writing for a length of time, level the scales by doing something physical. If you've eaten Chrismtas cookies for breakfast, eat a salad for lunch. If you suddenly find yourself living in the arctic tundra (aka Rhode Island) and can't go for your usual 40-minute walk through the 'hood, dance around the basement to 80s tunes with your dog. Balance. I never agreed with those workout or diet programs that were extreme. They're not healthy. Being fit is a lifestyle choice that begins with balance. Great post!

Alison Henderson said...

Whew! I'm so impressed, Leah! I've always thought (wrongly) I was overweight, but in reality the weight just crept up on me slowly in middle age. When I was 53, in the teeth of the worst menopause symptoms, I decided to do something about it. I couldn't change being old and tired, but at least I didn't have to be old, tired, and fat! I paid more attention to what I ate and started exercising religiously (treadmill & weight machine in my basement--they came with the house!) I lost 30 lbs. and have kept it off for 10 years. I've had to cut my treadmill days back to every other day after a got a stress fracture in my foot a couple of years ago, I try to alternate with resistance band training, but it's so easy to let that slide. Since I turned 60, I've found that if I'm reasonably active, something is going to hurt every single day. If I try to work through it, like I did when I was younger, the pain can easily become chronic. Like so much else in life, this growing older is still a work-in-progress for me.

Leah St. James said...

My mom used to have a similar theory, Chris - basically, everything in moderation, whether it's activity or food choices. I think you hit the nail on the head for maintaining where you are, and if I had lived by that for the past year, I probably wouldn't be in the situation I am now where I need to ramp up my efforts a bit. When I get there (and I'm determined!), I hope I can remember your advice.

Leah St. James said...

Alison, I was in my 50s when I first lost my weight, too. It's a tough age (and hormonal condition!) to make those kinds of changes, but we're proof it can be done! Good for you for keeping it off. I also use resistance bands and love them. (I have one band,a purple one, that's as tough as lifting those heavier weights!) I sympathize, too, with your pain. You're smart to listen to your body. If my knees are giving me a particular amount of grief in a given day, I go easy on them as much as I can. I used to take the stairs at work (up and down throughout the day) to burn calories, but now I have to be more judicious. I'm still learning too.

Andrea Downing said...

Hmmmm. I've had a gym membership most of my life--for some unknown reason--and my exercise goes in spurts. I also have a very bad knee so it's mostly treadmill walking or, when weather permits, outside walking which I try to intersperse with a little run. Weights. Pilates. Oh, and eating. That's my favorite exercise of all.

Leah St. James said...

Eating is my favorite, too! :-) The walk-run pattern is supposed to be super effective, Andi. I love walking, but so far I haven't been able to force myself to jog or run. I never have. When I do the indoor workouts, I have no problem jogging in place (not that I like it, but I do it), but once outside on pavement, I hate HATE IT. :-) Sounds like you have a great program going!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Like you, I lost about 60 pounds with Weight Watchers. Unlike you, I put it all back on. For years we've belonged to a health club, still do. Weight training is a great way to stave off those little aches and pains that come, and increase, with age. The key is to keep at it religiously. That and walking three to five miles a day. Which I still do. (Except today, it was the treadmill and me.) Minus 14 when we got up this morning here in Michigan. Battling the pounds is a never ending battle for me. But at least it's one where I am making some headway.

Leah St. James said...

You're right about sticking with it, Margo. Once I had to lay off exercise for three or four weeks due to a back injury. When I went back to it (forced myself back), it was almost like starting over. I had lost muscle strength in just those couple of weeks. Geesh. (Thanks, body, for hanging in there!) I do need to put in more "steps." Maybe I should invest in one of those Fitbit thingies to see where I'm at just up and down, back and forth at work...or not. :-)

Barbara Edwards said...

What a great post. I'm looking forward to the next post.