Don’t have a bucket list yet? Why you should write one…today

Written by: on Monday, January 24th, 2011

In my recent sign-off as the Editor in Chief of Shape, I mentioned having a bucket list and so many people wrote to me…curious just what was on it. Well, here’s a peek at what’s on my ever-evolving list right now.

Nothing fancy; just written from the heart

There are a couple of things etched into my memory over the past year. The first is the face of my 3-year-old daughter asking me hopefully “Mommy, you stay home all day with me?” as I was rushing to catch the early-morning train. “Oh, no sweetie, not today. Mommy has to go to work,” was always my response. Her thumb went into her mouth (she’s a big thumb sucker) and her face was crestfallen. (Truth is, I had been working 60+ hours a week since before she was born and had never really spent any quality time with her, so every time she asked this was like a dagger in my heart.)

The second thing I so clearly remember is my grandmother, who turns 93 this Wednesday, telling me: “Valerie, one day you have to slow down before it’s too late. Your children grow up quickly and then you’ll be 93 and regret not having been there for them. You can never get back time.”

Assessing, and re-assessing your needs, throughout your life is so important as those needs change. (Years ago, I didn’t even want kids as I felt it would “mess up” my career…and now here I am leaving a job, partly for my kids.) But I can’t tell you how happy it makes me feel when I pick up my 6-year-old son from school these days and see his smile when he spots me (this coming from a child who told me last year that he was the only kid whose mom NEVER picked him up from school…which is true).

So for right now, my kids are my priority. It’s not something that I can afford to do for a long time, but it’s something that I’ve been enjoying every second of for now.

Yoga is the second priority. I’ve always been a sprint-Spin-swim kind of girl and my previous lifestyle of commuting 3 hours a day and working 60+ hours a week definitely fed into that. I never had time for yoga and honestly, the few yoga courses I did try, I hated. I was B-O-R-E-D and beyond anxious to get free from the class!! (“God, when will this class be over?” is what would be going through my mind as I was trying to stretch my body into various poses.) But I know how important yoga is for the body and mind…so I want to really give it a chance. (I also think it will  help me deal with stress throughout any stage of my life.) I start this Friday and have signed up for (and paid for…so no backing out!) 5 weekly sessions. (I’ll keep you posted on how I do!) Of course, I’ll still be running, swimming, biking and strength training, but this will hopefully balance out those more intense workouts. This, plus enjoying every single moment, is what I hope will help me slow down and learn to breathe again (not the quick, rapid “I have to get these deadlines out” or “I have to make this train” breaths I’ve been so used to).

Slowing down to travel with my family would be nice too…but we haven’t figured this one out yet. Having given up 21 days of vacation last year (that I never had time to take), it would be great to really get away—and do so, without having to check my work e-mails every minute of every day! More on that once I figure it out!

The last couple of points on my current bucket list are what I hope to learn (and do) moving forward. Learning about everything digital (this is the future of media, which is why I’m heading back to school [NYU] in a few weeks to learn more about it). My motto: never be afraid to admit you don’t know something…and get out there to learn what you do need to know. And someday, I hope to write a book—no details on that yet!

And then whatever job I move into, I want to continue to be the kind of boss who allows her employees the flexibility to have a life. (I’m continually surprised by how many employers—many of whom I’ve worked for!—refuse to allow that kind of work-life balance.)

But writing your goals down is so important; whether you make a bucket list or a list of things you hope to accomplish this month or this year, putting pen to paper helps you clarify where you’re going or what you hope to achieve. It prioritizes things for you so—like my grandmother said—you don’t have any regrets years down the road. And regrets is one thing I never want to have. As I’ve always said: life is just too darned short for that.

So if you don’t have a list, write one up today…and remember, it can change and evolve. But the key is to write it from the heart.

Getting lost: A metaphor for life?

Written by: on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Which way is right? Only YOU know for sure

Last night, in the dark and cold driving rain, I got lost driving endless loops around Newark, New Jersey in my car. I took 22 West instead of East, New Jersey Turnpike South instead of North, etc. I was confused by the myriad signs, pointing every which way, and not familiar with the routes as this was my first time driving in this particular city.

No, I don’t have a GPS in my car as for the longest time I have believed it makes you a slave to your machine. My friend in California, who practically lives in her car (because she drives so much)and has a GPS, says she almost can’t get to the grocery store on her own as she relies on her GPS to get everywhere. “Turn right here, go 2 miles, turn left…etc” says the robotic voice. So I’ve resisted. I definitely regretted that decision for a few minutes last night, but I shut off Nelly belting out tunes on the radio and concentrated on my mistakes, going back over routes and then learning from my missteps the second time around. And now, if you ever need me to steer you out of Newark, New Jersey, I can tell which routes go where—and how to get where you need to go. Sure, I was frustrated and went 45 minutes out of my way—but I learned the right route eventually.

It got me thinking that this whole experience was like a metaphor for life: we DON’T have fancy machines with pictures that tell us what we need to do (I can just see it now: you have made the wrong decision, take this alternate route to get back on track. Go ahead on this path 2 miles, then turn right at Success Street. You have arrived at your destiny!). We have to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Sometimes, we take the wrong route, but trusting in our gut (our internal compass) we can turn around and take another route. And that’s the beauty of life.

Recognizing our ability to take another route takes our gut, but it also takes courage. We can drive the same ol’ path every day of our lives—and it’s easy, I admit that as I know first hand. Yesterday, I missed the train so I was forced to drive to the train station at Newark to get into the city on time for a meeting. Rather than getting frustrated, “If only that darn car in front of me had turned at the yellow light, I wouldn’t have stopped and missed the **$%%*! train” (believe me, the thought DID cross my mind). But I missed the train…and I moved on. I took a different path and learned a new route. (I even believe when you branch off the path you know so well, you establish new brain connections, according to researchers.)

This lesson applies to everything in our lives: use our internal GPS to steer us toward what we should be eating, what we should be doing, and where our lives should be headed. Don’t listen to the robotic voices (of which there are SO many) in our lives “You SHOULD be doing this or that”; instead listen to that voice inside ourselves. We’ve all got one—and it’s more valuable than any piece of electronic equipment today.

Why those New Year’s diet resolutions are wavering right about now

Written by: on Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
New year's resolutions

Stop focusing on the scale and start focusing on how you feel.

I’m a positive person and I’m a big believer that once you set your mind to something, you can succeed…in most cases, so-called “dieting” is not one of them. There’s a reason the diet industry is huge—and people gain back most of the weight they lost during a so-called “diet”. Let me explain…

Like many women, I’ve been on many diets in my lifetime—you name it, I’ve tried it. The low-carb diet, the low-fat diet, the low-cal diet, the low-food diet…the list goes on. And not ONE of them has worked long term. The reason: you set yourself up to not be able to have something (um…like the food you want or that your body is craving)—and the mind rebels and sets you up for a binge. “If you’re not going to feed me, I’m going to make you unable to resist that plate of cookies, loaf of fresh bread, chocolate cake, bag of chips, pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream…” Plenty of research proves that theory. But not being on a formal diet is what has helped me drop 4 dress sizes (I used to be a size 14—and now am a 6—after my toddler daughter was born) and get down to my lowest weight in years.

So it’s now mid January, right about that time when the most stringent diets followed resolutely since New Year’s Day are wavering. Deprivation has set in (no sweets, no to that snack you’re desperately wanting, no to that second helping of pasta your body is calling out for…) and you’re about ready for a binge—and the downfall of your best weight-loss intentions. I’ve been there—many times. And the keys to losing weight long term are simple. Here’s what has worked for me—put these into practice, whether you’re looking to lose weight or not—and you’ll be guaranteed long-term success (meaning that fabulous pair of pants you love WILL fit you from year to year…a great thing!):

1.) Don’t set a deadline for yourself. I used to mark 2 pounds every week on my calendar with an end “dream” weight day marked with a big star. If you do that—or have set up an ultimate deadline to drop the weight (your wedding, that high-school reunion, etc)—change that immediately. You set yourself up for panic and stress if your body doesn’t drop the amount of weight you think you SHOULD be losing—and this panic and stress can lead to feelings of failure and the “Oh, well, I’ll never get there…so I might as well have that piece of chocolate cake” attitude. Post event, you are also more likely to go back to your old ways of eating—and with that, your old weight.

2) Stop thinking about food every single second of every single day. I can remember logging everything into my food journal (sip of tea with milk and sugar, check; half a cup of milk, check; three carrot sticks, check; half turkey sandwich with one piece of lettuce and one slice (or darn, was it two??) of tomato…and the list goes on). All I thought about was food! “How many calories does this have?” “What time is it” “Is it time to eat that sandwich I packed for lunch?” “What am I going to have for dinner?” I think about all the energy I wasted thinking about what I was going to put in my mouth—and no wonder I found dieting draining. While all the experts say that keeping a food journal is the key to long-term weight-loss success—and it can be, in the short term, for those who need to just understand how much they’re putting in their mouths—I personally have found it to be a waste of time, energy and focus!

3) Eat what you want; just eat it in moderation. Craving a bagel for breakfast, have half, and move on. Want a burger for lunch; have it without a bun and a side salad. Want that plate of pasta for dinner, go ahead and eat it instead of ordering the tasteless and totally unappetizing salad with the dressing on the side. Craving a cupcake, go ahead and have it! And please who invented “skim” or “fat-free” milk??? That is the most godawful tasting drink on the planet. I remember drinking it for years because it was lower in calories and fat—and I hated it. But never again. When I’m drinking milk, it’s 2% or bust for me.

4) Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Learn to love them—and experiment with different kinds. You need to cover at least half your plate at lunch and dinner with veggies (no, you don’t need to measure them out!); just make sure they’re not drenched in butter or heavy sauce! Have fruit or veggies for snacks (with a protein like peanut butter or hummus).

5) Drink plenty of water. Just keep a water bottle with you at all times and do not drink soda. That cuts out a tremendous amount of calories and sugar right there. Once in awhile, I’ll have a ginger ale; I treat it like a treat, rather than a daily necessity. And I drink the full-sugar kind…so it really feels like an indulgence.

6) Eat a good breakfast. I read somewhere to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, and dinner like a pauper. Well, I’m not an advocate of eating any meal like a pauper exactly…but the idea is that breakfast should be your heartiest and healthiest meal of the day. It fills you up, keeps you full until lunchtime, and sets you up on the right path the rest of the day. (I LOVE steel-cut oats with almonds, dried cranberries, a tiny bit of coconut, cinnamon, and agave nectar in the morning: how many calories does it have? I have no idea and truly don’t care in my non-dieter’s mindset.)

7) Get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. I found that I really dropped weight when I started going to bed early (I’m in bed by 10 at the latest). The later you stay up, the more tired you feel the next day and the more likely you are to reach for empty calories to give you instant energy. (You’re also less likely to wander over to the kitchen after hours for a snack.)

8) Exercise at least 3-4 times a week, no excuses. This is last, but definitely not least. Get moving and you’ll find—as I have—that your appetite is naturally controlled, your motivation is up, and you want to eat healthier. I’ve found that exercising first thing in the morning, before breakfast and before the to-do list starts piling up, is the best way to start you off on the right foot.

The bottom line is listen to your body: if it’s hungry, have something to eat; if you’re tired, go to sleep; and get moving. By listening to your body, you’ll become more in tune with it—and the result will be a body you can feel truly proud of. And by not obsessing, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the weight comes off, and more importantly, stays off.

Is something fishy going on in our environment?

Written by: on Saturday, January 8th, 2011

After I read today’s news about how the federal Department of Health and Human Services has declared that there’s too much fluoride in our drinking water (that plus a lot of other chemicals, as I mentioned in my previous blog), it got me thinking: How much else is going on in our environment that we’ll find out—in maybe 10 or 25 or 50 years—isn’t good for us?

I lived in NYC when 9/11 happened. I remember the smell from the World Trade Center site miles uptown where I lived: it was horrible, acrid and filled with the smell of hard-to-distinguish chemicals. And I distinctly remember the EPA declaring a week or two later (when the site was still smoldering) that it was perfectly safe to go back to work downtown, that the air was completely safe. And I remember thinking: there’s no way that it’s safe to breathe in that smell day in and day out, a thought shared by many of my friends (some of whom refused to go back to work). But many people did go back to work because they had no choice, every day, and now many of them are sick with lung disease, cancers, etc. And it wasn’t until years after the terrorist attack that the EPA said: Oh, yeah, it wasn’t safe to breathe in that air after all. It caused cancer. Sorry about that.

We should be treating our environment and everything in it with TLC—because it all affects our own health in the end.

I thought about that when I read about the dead birds and fishes in Arkansas last week. Not sure if you heard about this, but nearly 5,000! red-winged blackbirds were found dead on the ground in the town of Beebe, Arkansas. Right before that, about 125 miles from Beebe, 100,000!!! drum fish were found dead spread out over 20 miles of water. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission suspects disease killed the fish. Bird experts were saying it might have been high-altitude hail, poison, lightening, storms, etc that killed the birds. But I wonder if that’s true. It makes me wonder if something in the environment killed the birds and the fishes—and it will come out years later after people in the community start getting sick. Oh yeah, we forgot to tell you that we were experimenting with a new pesticide—and it must have been bad for your health. Sorry about that. Meanwhile, families have gotten sick, people have died.

And then, the best: when BP told everyone that the chemical dispersants they were tossing into the water by the millions of gallons were as harmless as dishsoap. Oh, right. Yeah, I believe that.

I can understand the idea of protecting the general public and preventing panic—and in the case of BP, saving their own hides (Could you have imagined if the EPA said the air wasn’t safe to breathe after 9/11? There would have been mass exodus out of NYC and business would have come to a standstill). But, who’s protecting the health of each and every one of us in situations like this? I’m not sure any one group is, which is why I’ve always said—and continue to say—that each one of us has to take care of our own health and our own family’s health.

If your gut is telling you something, follow that instinct. Take steps to educate yourself on what you need to do to stay healthy—and with each and every study (take this vitamin, don’t take that vitamin, eat more of this, don’t eat that, etc) that comes out, read up on them and then make your own decision.

And then, at the end of the day, you’ll have yourself to thank when some research comes out years later saying that your instinct was right all along.

The new non-negotiable rules of gym etiquette

Written by: on Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Let me start by saying: I live in Jersey and love it—and yes, I even have Bon Jovi on my playlist (more than one song!) But I never really experienced Jersey until I hit my Jersey gym. Think “The Situation” … aged about 20 years.

So as I was running on the treadmill this morning (yes, doing my intervals), I sniffed and sniffed again and looked at the heavyset guy with a beer gut and many hidden muscles getting on the treadmill next to me. He reeked of cigarette smoke; he must have had a few smokes before hitting the gym. And while I give him credit for getting to the gym and walking (huffing and puffing, thanks to his habit) on the treadmill smack dab right next to me, I couldn’t run any more because I couldn’t breathe that smell in while running at a pace of 7.0. So after I shut down the machine, I headed over to the weight room. After experiencing that, I came up with these new non-negotiable rules of gym etiquette—perfect as you start putting into effect those resolutions for the new year!

1) IF YOU SMOKE, please realize that you reek of cigarette smoke. No, you do not think you do because you CAN’T SMELL YOURSELF or the clothing that literally smells like you came to the gym right after an entire night in a smoky bar (and all bars reek, not just ones in Jersey!). So do not go near anyone on any cardio machine as you will interrupt their clean air (which is their right).

Guys: I hate to be the one to tell you this but your sweat DOES stink!

2) IF YOU’RE A GUY, you do not own the weight room, plain and simple. I go to a gym in New Jersey with a weight room inhabited by Jersey guys (conjure up a picture of “The Situation” when he’s about 40, and you get the picture). When I tried to use one of the weight benches to do my own routine, one of said big beefy guys told me “I’m using that bench and that two next to it.” I didn’t realize they rented benches at the gym! It took him 15 minutes to finish with his routine with three different benches. Unbelievable.

3) WIPE DOWN YOUR benches, guys. I mean please. I do not want to go anywhere near a bench that you’ve just sweated over and left for me with wet spots at the head and back rest. How hard is it? Most gyms (mine included) have sanitizing wipes everywhere. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt as you probably don’t realize what they’re for…but next time, use them, and then toss them in the trash.

4) LADIES, you are not exempt: you do not own the makeup counter space while you shower. When I was trying to blow dry my hair, I couldn’t use two of the dryers because an entire hair salon had been set up with brushes laid out and styling products. I almost thought for a minute that it was the gym offering freebies until I saw one of the women saunter out of the shower in her towel and head to her set-up in front of the mirror. Bottom line, there’s limited space—and just because you found some doesn’t mean that it’s your personal bathroom.

5) LADIES, I know that working out makes us proud of our bodies (heck, this is reason number one to get our butts to the gym), but please do not stand naked, chatting, behind the women blow drying their hair in front of the giant mirror. It’s hard to avert our eyes from your privates when we’re trying to get our hair to look somewhat decent. Cover up with a towel or find another spot to let it all hang out!

Once these rules are followed, we can all have a great gym experience in the new year!