FF1:  Introducing Traveling with a Fitness Focus (www.travelfit.us)


New Realities

“Traveling with a Fitness Focus” is our new webpage moniker that replaces “Biking with Bill & Barb Overseas” on www.velofun.us. Fitness focused travel is what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years: mostly on our bikes, mostly overseas.  But our webpage is changing in Year 11 to reflect the sudden need to achieve our fitness goals without the prior heavy reliance on cyclo-touring in Europe.

It was hard to imagine a lifestyle better than this (France, 2009).

A “Come into the back room” encounter with the EU immigration officials as we were departing the continent in December of 2010 will have us limiting our time in Europe to a maximum of 3 months per year, which sadly has necessitated redesigning our entire lifestyle.

We’d been thinking that perhaps it was time to move on to other activities or other venues, but totally lacking in inspiring alternatives that didn’t have a huge planning overhead, we had been content to keep doing what we’d been doing. But suddenly we were confronted with the urgent need to implement the “Plan B” that had eluded us.

We presumed that the “what” of the new lifestyle would be unchanged--making a minimum of 2 hours of CV exercise per day our top priority--but everything was up for re-evaluation. The “how” and “where” were totally baffling without easy-to-plan and guaranteed-to-please Europe as an extended cycling venue.

Soul Searching

The winter of 2010/2011 became the time to start from scratch, the time to once again question our basic premise of wrapping our future lives around exercise, of making significant daily exercise our top priority. It was a premise we’d been compelled to keep questioning because we were the only ones we knew that were organizing their lives in this way.

We both were well aware that one of the tactics psychiatrists use in coaching crazy people is to point out if “Everyone else thinks ‘X’ and you alone think ‘Y’, then maybe there is something wrong with you instead of everyone else being wrong.”  We couldn’t help but notice that this approach that doesn’t work well on crazy people wasn’t having much effect on us either.  We still assumed we were on the right track with our fitness focus even though that commitment to exercise had us feeling crazed by societal standards.

Even before we upped our exercise 10 years ago with almost full-time cyclo-touring, my family had derisively labeled us as “the nuts & berries” relatives.  Amusingly, that was before we were actually eating a lot of nuts and berries like we are now. We decided to wear the insult with pride and carried on with our socially uncomfortable quest for a healthy lifestyle. Having failed to deter us with the first label, we were then we were accused of being addicted to exercise.

Later, in our early 50’s, another relative announced that we should “Act your age” which was code for being meticulously sedentary like that individual. My mother admonished us over the years for being poised to prematurely wear out our bodies with all of our activity. And more recently, a family member ridiculed us along with other normal weight individuals as being “stick people” and itemized the numerous advantages she enjoyed by being obese.

Certainly our families were sympathetic with the psychiatrist’s “If everyone else.....” argument that said we were on the wrong track. Our friends and associates have tended to be politely quizzical, reinforcing the feeling that most people thought we were nuts. But we clung to the occasional piece of medical research scattered over many years, research that fueled our zeal and helped us repeatedly conclude that surely we were doing the right thing with our fitness focus.....weren’t we???

“Exceptionally Successful Aging”

While at home this winter we rehashed our fitness lifestyle model over and over again looking for flaws. And in case we concluded that we were right, we simultaneously cast about for inspiration as to how we’d sustain our fitness focus for another 20+ years without running tight circles in a gym or on the neighborhood streets.

Cyclo-touring had been a perfect match for me as I can hardly bear to workout indoors and I easily get bored with routines. And better yet, cyclo-touring was the carrot, rather than the stick, approach to exercising. The daily goal was to get to the next village or up the next pass rather than clock a prescribed number of minutes or miles on a piece of exercise equipment or a track.

Our sign read: “Barcelona to Istanbul”--quite the carrot (Istanbul, 2005).

While ruminating on these exercise issues, I stumbled upon an inspiring article in AARP magazine. The phrase “exceptionally successful aging” resonated for me as I read the words quoted from a recent article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. That’s what we’d been striving for all these years but my slogan “aging well” wasn’t nearly as compelling. The robust images conjured by the phrase “exceptionally successful aging” sharpened our clarity of purpose and gave us the sense of a community of like-minded people that we had been missing. Suddenly, we had a new chorus, one that said we weren’t crazy after all.

The short AARP article debunked the research which had evolved during our adulthood--research that chronicled all of the scientific reasons as to why we were doomed to reduced mitochondrial activity, diminishing muscle mass, and decreased capacity to regenerate muscle tissue as we aged; changes guaranteed to make us weak and easily exhausted in the coming years.

These discouraging truisms were now being cast aside by more recent research on active rather than sedentary seniors and the new research painted a more hopeful picture. The emerging model suggested that those unwelcome physiological changes could be relegated to the realm of almost inconsequential as one ages.

According to the article, the seniors who have the best outcomes are the ones who work the hardest, the ones who compete until they drop. Doing intervals and sustaining the discipline to get out there and train were the 2 keys elements presented in AARP, elements that fit with our own, though less extreme, personal experience. [AARP, The Magazine; March/April 2011; “Secrets of Super Athletes; Gretchen Reynolds; pp 52-56 & 86-7.]

For years I’ve told Bill that I thought discipline was the key to aging--that we needed to have the discipline to follow-through and do what we knew we should do. Of course, to get the goods, you have to deliver, but the AARP article was convincing: even a late starter can become a competitive athlete and defy the worst effects of aging on the muscles.

The researchers recommended committing 1-2 hours per day, 3 times a week, to high intensity training in the sport you’ve targeted to compete in, plus doing strength work-outs and less intense training on other days. Following this regime was considered sufficient by them to transform almost any senior into a competitive masters level athlete in 1-2 years, even in a new sport.

They added that regular and vigorous endurance exercise also decreases the previously documented decline in VO2 Max (an indicator of fitness) associated with aging, by about half. Exercising hard results in maintaining one’s endurance capacity, which makes it easier to keep being active.  The bottom line is that it is inactivity, not aging, that dooms one to declines in muscle mass, endurance, and strength. The article did admit that exercising gets harder as one ages, which relentlessly challenges one’s discipline and commitment.

Doing intervals or relatively short bursts at near maximal effort had been emerging as a key factor for us in our own exercise/play, so it was delightful to see it validated in print.  (Like sprinting for a quarter of a mile, resting a few minutes, then sprinting again.) Slogging our way up mountain passes on our bikes isn’t textbook interval training but we clearly learned the overall fitness benefit of these periodically intense workouts that took us to our limit.

Our more recent experiences of dabbling with mountain running while hiking made the potency of even modest interval training clear. In 2010, I established the habit in the Alps of running up steep pitches for 1-2 minutes at the end of a day hike and scattering 1-2 minute uphill sprints throughout a 2 hour fitness hike. I could practically see the performance benefits from one day’s training bursts to the next, which encouraged me to do more. Ironically hiking and not biking was more immediately revealing about effectiveness of different training strategies.

I assumed the biggest benefit from competing in the master’s events touted in the AARP article was that the competition itself provided the motivation to train hard. It is challenging to push oneself into the discomfort range that is needed for building muscle and endurance and the structured training of race preparation is one way to rally the follow-through. Though neither of us have the competitive zeal or natural athletic ability to make competition on any level appealing, we hope to replicate the benefits of a competitive focus in other ways.

The need to get over yet another pass kept us fit (Switzerland 2005).

The “exceptionally successful aging” model presented in AARP reassured us that our fitness focus was indeed wise and that actually we should be doing more than we were, not less. We hope to take the wisdom of the benefits of preparing for a race and apply it to more light-hearted biking and hiking activities, perhaps with more interval training thinly veiled in challenges like “I’ll race you to the top”.

More on Mitochondria

Less than a month after reading the validating AARP article, the online version of the NY Times ran a short article featuring a new study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted by Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky that further inspired us.  Experimenting with mice genetically manipulated to prematurely age, Tarnopolsky found that “exercise reduced or eliminated almost every detrimental effect of aging.” Like in the study cited in AARP, mitochondria (energy producing zones within cells) that tend to flag with aging remained more robust with vigorous exercise. In this study the mice were engaged in strenuous aerobic activity though the research didn’t establish the threshold of exercise necessary to achieve the results.

In between spotting these 2 ‘mighty mitochondria’ studies was a chance reading of a minor study that suggested the gold-standard 30 minute exercise interval was insufficient for significant weight reduction, that it instead required a 45 minute interval. “Keep exercising, make it vigorous, make it sustained” was appearing on all of the signposts we were reading as we re-crafted and validated our fitness-focused lifestyle. It was a ‘good news/bad news’ trend: the message was clear, achieving it was going to take years of consistently applied discipline.

Early Application of the Strategy

The medical research we were stumbling upon while at home gave us some peace: it affirmed that the “what” of our new lifestyle should continue to be making vigorous exercise our top priority each day. But we were still scratching our heads over how and where to achieve that goal without our beloved lifestyle of extended cyclo-touring in Europe.

A couple of days before we flew to Las Vegas, Nevada to begin our 2 month-long RV/hiking trip in February of 2011, Bill spotted Michael Sandler’s new Barefoot Running book at REI. We’d been migrating towards barefoot/minimalist shoe hiking and running for the last 18 months and Sandler’s book was an inspiring guide for spicing up our emerging, non-cycling, exercise routine.

Our new forefoot striker shoes:  leather moccasins with Vibram soles.

Sandler’s voice of experience comes from a highly unlikely mix of being: a professional, ultra-endurance athlete and coach; a man with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and one who has an impassioned commitment to listening to your body and not overdoing. Over and over he suggested spending as little as 1 minute doing a new activity and then skipping it the next day to let your body gradually adapt to the unfamiliar stresses, which made it feel like we had a truly supportive coach on board.

Sandler’s enthusiasm for cross-training spurred us to more fully explore ‘extras’, like jumping rope and barefoot kickball, as cross training activities--things we’d only dabbled with on our own. His dozen or more drills to be done while running on one’s forefoot made the 5-10 minutes of jogging we were initially doing in 1 and 2 minute intervals whiz by. And of course his passion for barefooting fed our own as we did the next best thing, which was to walk, jog, and hike in our growing wardrobe of minimalist shoes well-suited to forefoot striking. (The generally too-harsh SW terrain severely limited our barefooting to a few minutes here and there.)

Our ultimate goal wasn’t to become accomplished barefoot runners like Sandler but to re-introduce running using the forefoot vs heel-striking gait in hopes of circumventing the recurrent injuries we experienced as accomplished runners in the past. Forefoot running eliminates pronation altogether, which was the most formidable challenge for both of us. And the reduced overall impact of forefoot striking promised to be much kinder on our knees, hamstrings, hips, and backs as we became ‘re-runners’.

We had the “what” question answered and Sandler’s coaching gave us more hope for answering “how.” As the weeks went by in the southwest, our running distances steadily increased, giving us a viable option of both some street running and more trail running when hiking as 2 ways to keep our CV exercise level up despite a future with less loaded cycling.

Resisting Temptation

The first days of living in our rented RV and watching those around us in RV parks quickly reinforced a concept that we’d kicked around before, which was the importance of resisting labor saving assistance, especially as one ages. It brought to mind an “ah-ha” moment several years ago when biking through the resort area of Costa Brava in Spain. It was there that Bill identified that all of those overly-rested vacationers around us were doing precisely what we all are genetically programmed to do, which is to conserve energy.

For most of the history of our species and of our earlier ancestors, getting sufficient calories to stay alive was the #1 task. Now many of us live with an excess of food that we can obtain with little energy expenditure and yet our programming still has us conversing our effort for survival’s sake. But our modern fat stores tend to go way beyond what’s needed for survival and obesity has become rampant.  We confronted that same powerful tug-of-war in the RV: the desire for things to be easier so as to conserve energy and yet we recognized that if living was too easy, we’d get weak and fat.

The drive to conserve energy lost out to necessity.

The rigid mattress wedged into 3 corners of the back of the RV was a nightmare to make up--it was just too hard to do. Getting the mattress cover and fitted sheet securely wrapped around the ends had us alternately crawling on all 4’s on top and underneath the mattress, triggering a string of grunts and groans and complaints. Bill decreed that if we ever owned an RV that it would have walk-around space to ease this struggle. But the alternate perspective was to view this unwelcome energy expenditure as a form of sport, as a form of exercise afforded by the chores of daily living.

Over the last few years I’ve developed a new regard for the benefits of graciously integrating strength and flexibility challenges in odd alignments into our lives, like those involved making the bed in the RV, or even using a manual can opener. These energy-expending challenges are ‘gifts’ as they use our bodies in configurations that are never achieved on exercise machines or named sports. Begrudgingly, Bill tried to embrace the RV bed making challenge as a therapeutic sport rather than a design flaw that could be avoided by careful shopping.

Making the bed was the worst, but even getting in and out of the too-high RV bed was a challenge. Standing on tippy toes and then giving a little ballistic boost was what I needed to get high enough and onto my knees so I could crawl across the queen sized mattress with a squishy pillow top.

Getting into bed conjured images in my mind somewhere between climbing into a tree house and being a big cat stalking prey on the savannah. It felt like an accomplishment by the time I arrived at my back corner and got turned around while still on hands and knees on a surface with too much give for easy navigating. “Sport” I kept saying to myself and Bill as we laughed each night, “Think of it as a bonus sport activity at the end of the day.”  After all, nothing else we did in a day used that particular combination of muscle effort and coordination.

“Sport”, reframe awkward chores as “sport.”

Clearly one of the tricks to aging well, and to maintaining strength and flexibility, was to keep doing a wide variety of activities. Embracing rather than retreating from awkwardness was one way to do that. It’s like parking far from the entrance to the market and walking the rest of the way rather than parking at the door to keep up one’s general level of effort.

There are times when taking the easy out is absolutely the best strategy but doing it routinely is literally deadly. The trick for us is to get the best mix between ease and aggravation, convenience and exertion, to have both wellness and a sense of wellbeing. Like with viewing our sense of tree climbing when getting into our RV’s bed as a healthy form of sport rather than something to be avoided, sometimes it is only a matter of agility in reframing the experience.

Our trip underscored that the booby traps in the form of easy alternatives are everywhere. In the RV parks we frequented, the people who whizzed around in their electric golf carts and on their cruiser bikes looked so pleased and contented. I’m sure that both modes were great fun on those flat, estate-like compounds where the posted traffic speed was in the 5-10 mph range. But really, it would have been far healthier for them to spend a few extra minutes and expend a little more energy by walking instead as it rarely took much more than 5 minutes to stroll from one corner of these parks to another.

Just like when using their cars to dump their trash or take their laundry to the centrally located facilities, some of these RV park residents were systemically undermining their fitness by habitually taking the easy way, by succumbing to expending the least possible amount of effort, which was a good reminder to us.

Continuing to “resist the temptation to conserve energy” would be a small contribution to our new lifestyle plan: it would be another “how” in our quest to keep our overall fitness level high. It was something we’d already been doing, like making it a habit to take the stairs instead of the elevator and not always walking on the smoothest surface available, but we’d heighten our awareness about the new opportunities that accompanied our changing routines. Vigilance in avoiding making activities too easy would enhance our background level of fitness.

Younger Next Year

I never found the following passage that barefoot runner Sandler attributed to Crowley & Lodge in their book, Younger Next Year, the passage that prompted me to buy the book. But it was a fun read and besides, how could I pass-up a tome that purportedly talked about the importance of “becoming full time athletes once we pass the age of 60?”

I was turning 60 in a few days of buying the book and they were preaching to the choir because we had already drawn many of the same conclusions. Things like vigorous daily exercise, engaging in strength training sports, the need for unwavering discipline, and the importance of making exercise one’s top priority made me purr. And I was especially comforted by their notion that those who have traveled this path before us are nearly invisible because everyone must craft their own program. According to the authors, we weren’t really alone in our beliefs, just widely dispersed on unmarked or poorly marked backroads.

Bill downloaded the electronic version of the book for me for $7 and after reading a few pages, I insisted that we read it aloud while driving our rented RV. It was unashamedly written as a ‘guy book’ and the blunt talk ushered out any chance of Bill wavering in his commitment to our stated goals. For me, it was delicious affirmation that we weren’t nuts. Even better, some of their images were identical to ours, like being predators on the savannah.

Crystal Clear At Last

Over the course of 10 weeks early in 2011, our mindset shifted from “This must be the right lifestyle strategy for aging” to “This is the right strategy.” The “what” of our future daily lives was now crystal clear:  maintaining a high level of fitness would continue to be our top priority.

      Fitness accessories stashed in our rented RV.

As we launched ourselves for 2 months of hiking in the US southwest from a rented RV, we moved on to wrestling with the “how” of our fitness objectives.  For the last 10 years, cyclo-touring supplemented by summer hiking and winter urban walking were the ready answers to the question. But EU visa issues meant that our 9-10 month cyclo-tours were a piece of history so a new “how” had to be identified or concocted.

Our habit of using outdoor sports for our exercise, not gyms, would continue because the carrot, not the stick, makes me wildly more compliant. If the RV trip went well, perhaps hiking in the US would become our primary fitness sport, with day rides, minimalist shoe running, and de-emphasizing energy sparing in doing our chores as supplements. But we’d still be hoping for something new to be stirred into the mix.

Whatever we settled upon, making our daily exercise as fun and self-sustaining as possible would continue to be another important objective. And the insights of the AARP article about the benefits of competitive level of effort would hopefully nudge us to increase the emphasis on intensity and endurance.

Our forced lifestyle change that prompted us to revisit all of these issues coincided with purchasing our first non-PC operating system computer, which created challenges for continuing with our website. Somewhat apprehensively, Bill elected to accept the challenge of developing a new website for us using Apple software. With all those changes, we decided to further break with the past and add one more change, which is our new website: Traveling with a Fitness Focus on www.travelfit.us. Our old site, www.velofun.us, will continue on but we likely won’t be adding new material (except to the Country Details files) to it as our focus is no longer biking overseas.  So here we are: developing a new lifestyle that is being presented on a new website with the support of a new operating system. That’s enough change for now.

What’s Next

This is our first “FF” file, “Fitness Focus” file on our new website, which explored the “what” of our new lifestyle. The next FF file will explore the “how” and the “where” since cyclo-touring in Europe is taking a backseat as an answer to those questions. Concurrent with these FF files will be a series of travel files covering our immersion in the world of snowbirds and RV’ers as we toured the US SW in search of great day hike venues.