Core Strength

Sitting too much can be a real pain in the…gut?

Moving from face-to-face teaching to more online environments means we are standing less and sitting more.  As we know, sitting too much is bad for us.  But how?  One of the ways is by reducing core strength.  Core stability and strength are at the roots of movement. Less core strength can put us at risk if we are just starting an exercise program or are a weekend warrior. This article talks about the relationship between core strength and injuries – knee injuries being one of them.

Our bodies are clearly integrated machines, and a stable foundation makes the whole unit stronger. Raise your hand if you have low back pain.  Chances are, you do.  What does your core strength have to do with it?  Some research has shown that core stability exercises can significantly reduce back pain in the lumbar (low back) region. Core stability has been shown to enhance balance in older adults. (article behind paywall).

But what is a core, exactly?  People define the core in different ways, but basically it is the muscles that make up our torso. The muscles that hold our spine up are also included (I’m not going to say straight, because having a completely straight back is more of a problem than most realize).  The core muscles are aligned in such a way that allows us to bend forward, backward, side-to-side, and twist. 

Here are some short exercises you can do to strengthen your core muscles. As always, the difficulty level varies from workout to workout.

Tried any of these? Have others that you like?  Share them in the comments!

Guilt and Shame in Academia

So, I’m beginning this post by saying I took a day off today.  By taking a day off, I mean that I’m not officially grading or following my schedule.  I am, however, blogging (obviously), answering emails, and dealing with administrative issues.

At my Institution of Higher Education (IHE), I’m lucky to have a Supervisor and Dean who both respect that family comes first and work second. Neither of them batted an eye when I had to attend three funerals in the span of two weeks – in fact, they checked to make sure I was ok.  The majority of students are understanding when you tell them, and some even sent condolences when one of my parents died. 

But there was this one time…this was in the days before smartphones, in-flight internet, and wifi. I installed email on my Razr because I thought it was important to be available. Got on the plane to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast.  Once we landed, I checked my emails.  There were no less than 20 from a student, the last one simply saying, “I guess you just don’t care about your students.”

Inappropriate?  Yes.  Effective?  Oh yeah. 

Maybe it is conditioned when we get into grad school.  You should be writing.  Why aren’t you writing? What do you mean you’re at the beach? Are you writing there?  How many of us carried around a book because we were suppose to be writing, read a few pages here and there, then closed it?  Or was that just me? I felt like everyone else had more discipline in their right pinky than I would ever have. 

When I looked into the literature, the guilt piece seems to be studied most in women with children and people of color.  We are expected to get things done, and many of us work long hours to do it. In this article by Delello, et al., one of the pluses of academic life is flexibility; however, there is no one to tell you to turn off the light and go home.  Boundaries seem to be important to longevity. That said, “Presenteeism” is a chronic concern in academia. So what are some ways to make sure we are making time for both work and rest? I’m using rest deliberately here – I am very aware of the work that happens “after work” – caring for children and/or aging parents, property upkeep, paying bills and taxes, etc… and I’m going to insist that you put in at least a little rest while juggling all that.

The dreaded PSS (Post-Semester Sickness)

Christmas Eve 2014, I went shopping for dinner, which we were taking to my family the next day.  It was our first Christmas in our new home.  I started getting what I thought was a migraine. Nope. Christmas Day, I got Tamiflu as a gift from Santa. And no family visit. Yay me.

I’m sure that many of you can relate to the Post-Semester Sickness phenomenon. The illness you get right after the stress of the semester ends. Of course, it isn’t restricted to the end of semester. Right after that big grant application. Turned in your promotion or annual review.  The list goes on and on.

This year for me it’s just a nasty head cold and sinus infection. But it got me wondering – how does the stress of academia affect our immunity?

To delve into this, I had to read outside my comfort (and possibly my comprehension) zone. The medical articles I read didn’t really get to what I was looking for – most of them were talking about chronic stressors or major illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes. There was lots of literature about mental illness and stress. Important topics, but not what I wanted to know. I wanted to know about small illnesses after big stressors. 

I found nothing in my search. Nonetheless, I have been told by friends and physicians alike getting sick after big projects is not uncommon.  It’s a thing, but of course scientific evidence of a thing is superior to anecdotal.

If science ever says Post-Semester Sickness is a thing, I’m wondering if it is preventable?  Sure, we need our flu shots and to wash our hands more. But could it be that we put the project’s needs before our own health?  Would engaging in regular exercise, stress reduction, and a good diet mitigate illness after stress in an otherwise healthy population?

Anyone want to take this project on?  If you can find literature that I didn’t, please let me know! Now bundle up, wash your hands, and head towards the finish line!

CDC Guidelines for Fitness

Last night, before I went to bed, I was studying for my Personal Trainer Certification test.  Yes, this is what I do in my free time and find it fun.  Don’t judge.  Anyway, the instructor on the study podcast referenced the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines of 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity.

Whoa – less than 20% of women and 30% of men don’t engage in enough physical activity to keep them healthy?  And, quite frankly, I’m one of them? Why aren’t more behavior analysts heeding the siren’s call to help fix this?  

It was a great reminder to move, but what exactly does that mean for the academic? 

The first thing to keep in mind when engaging in an exercise program would be your current level of fitness and any limitations you might have.  It goes without saying to check with professionals, but as an example – I realized yesterday while using my barstool/standing desk that my core muscles have become pretty weak from sitting all day long.  I’m a slipped disk waiting to happen, given that I already have all kinds of spinal arthritis and disk issues.

Next, I wondered about the definition of moderate, easy, and vigorous.  Those seem pretty subjective and in the eye of the beholder. The CDC uses a measurement called METs – basically, how much energy does the activity use relative to a resting baseline?  While this is pretty precise, it doesn’t really help the average Doctor Prof trying to get healthy.

Therefore, the CDC suggests the average exerciser use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to determine intensity. RPE is defined differently in different places – anything from a 1-10 to a 1-20 scale, but is nevertheless helpful when determining how difficult an activity might be. 

Rate of perceived Exertion Scale

I, personally, like heart rate better, but target heart rates can fluctuate with level of conditioning and medications (for example, Beta Blockers like Inderal). This article by Aamot, et al. (2014; behind a paywall) seems to suggest that we tend to overestimate how hard we are working. Which one works best for you will probably be an individual decision.

While I don’t have any data to support this – maybe I will some other time – I’ve noticed us academics tend to be all-or-nothing types.  If I can’t get 150 minutes at level 5, then I won’t do anything at all.  While reading the guidelines, it seems that we need a combination of all levels, as well as flexibility and resistance training, to be at our best. In future posts, I’ll look at ways we might tame the “all-or-nothing lizard” that gets us in so many ways.

What are ways you try to fit in exercise in your day, as well as tame the propensity towards perfection? Let me know!

TAGteaching Optimism?

We now have a Facebook page! If you like what you see here, go over there and give us a like! 

I saw a photo on Facebook the other day and it got me thinking. In the photo, a poster said they went to school with someone who used a clicker whenever they had an event or happening that made them feel good.  Then someone mused whether the clicker could elicit good feelings on its own when needed.

It makes pretty sound behavioral sense.  Clicker training has long been used with both animals and humans.  The idea is that the clicker is more precise than praise would be.  Here is a short video on an application of clicker training called TAGteach:

I’m a pessimist by nature.  In college, I was given a book 101 Reasons Why We’re Doomed. I got the message, but it’s still easy for me to see the problems and the reasons “why not.” According to the popular press, we are hardwired to see aversive stimuli and ignore the more pleasant stimuli in our environment.  I did a cursory lit review and didn’t come up with anything on that front, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence to support it.  Nor could I find anything about the praise-to-corrective ratio of 5:1 often talked about.  Of course, if anyone has any references, I’ll be sure to add them.

Why couldn’t it be used to help with positivity?  If TAGTeach has been shown to teach behaviors such as golf swings, dance moves, and yoga poses, why not use it to increase well-being and positive general outlook?

I think it goes without saying that we could all use a little more positivity in academia. It is, by its nature, competitive and filled with rejection. My colleagues in other settings are often amazed at things like day-long interviews and the peer review process. How does one stay above it? 

When there are no data to support a research question, what should we as behavior analysts do?  Collect data, of course! Of course, positive outlook isn’t observable or measurable, but counting the number of “positive happenings” in my environment is. I won’t say that increases in counts of positive happenings is a proxy for my emotions – only I can know that for sure.  But, this seems like a reasonable way to see if self-monitoring using a clicker increases reports of positive daily events.

Unfortunately, the mechanism for data collection I’ll use will also be my feedback tool. I plan on using a counter (often either called a “golf counter” or a “church counter”) to provide both the click and the count. Therefore, it won’t really be a controlled experiment. I am looking forward to charting my progress using a Standard Celeration Chart. That way, I can see if noting positive happenings increases. Not JABA worthy, I know, but hey, what do I have to lose?

Are you going to try it?  Let me know – share your chart on the Facebook page!

Diet tracker update

Diet-wise, I’ve decided to go back to my trusty Sparkpeople.  The interface is clean, the price perfect, it works on all my devices, and it has most of the bells and whistles that the other apps have. By moving to other interfaces, I’m trying to fix something that isn’t broken, it seems. 

I did learn some good things about myself and diet and exercise in general from my experiment, even if it wasn’t tightly controlled. We’ll just call this qualitative? I do best with social support. My goals, even though I am a behavior analyst and should know better, tend to be a little nebulous and vague. That said, there are a few things I would like to study a bit more. It’ll be interesting to see if there are some takeaways that I can incorporate into my daily routine:

  • Daily Weigh-Ins. I’m wondering if this is a good  idea or not – it was a little frustrating to see my weight fluctuate by two pounds every other day.
  • Virtual Coaching v. Having a Live Coach. Not sure if synchronous v. asynchronous coaching is what I mean on this one. Is having a real person on the other end who is dedicated to answering your questions and checking in with you better than pre-recorded motivational and informational videos? 
  • Types of Self-Monitoring. What types of self-monitoring are best.  Does the advent of apps and automatic monitoring devices increase the likelihood of generalized and maintained behavior change?  

Having done a cursory lit search for this blog, it seems that I could do a full-on search and study on each of these topics. I just might do that!  As always, if you have a question or comment, please leave it in the comments section below!

Movement Break Ideas

After realizing I needed more movement in my day, I began to look at ways I could move more and sit less.  Since I already incorporate Pomodoros into my day,  I thought I might try to re-visit the idea of 5-minute exercise breaks distributed throughout the day.  One of my biggest hurdles is motivating myself to do the exercise breaks, so creative solutions are always welcome.

Occasionally, I will go to Obstacle Course Training. About a year ago, one of the trainers introduced me to Sally.  Sally is not a person, but a training technique.  “Bring Sally Up” by Moby and Trevor Rabin is the ideal song for a short but challenging movement break.  You can do this with just about any move that goes up and down (abs, pushups, wall sits, even stepping), but I’ll put this video here for an example. 

Remember: I’m just putting these up here as ideas. Consult a doctor, PT, or trainer for specific advice, and follow theirs if it contradicts mine.  

Catchy tune, isn’t it?  It doesn’t hurt that I am a huge prog rock fan and love Trevor Rabin’s contributions to Yes. 

Here is a stretch video that might be nice after grading that “what was I thinking when I assigned THIS” set of papers.

Last but certainly not least, if you are looking for something intense and you aren’t afraid to face-plant, here is a 5-minute HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training, not to be confused with Super High Intensity Training). This one I have not tried, but it does not look like it is for the faint of heart.

If you give one or all of these a try, I’d love to hear your feedback!  Have a great weekend – and take some time for you!

Working from Home

Cartoon of sloppy women working from home. Sweatshirts, hairy legs, old clothing, no bra, and ponytails.
Can you relate? 

I am fully dressed as I write this blog, so no one needs to cringe inside, promise.  But I do have my signature hoodie on and yesterday’s jeans. 

The thing about not having a commute is that I start working as soon as my butt hits the couch.  The ability to work from home is great, and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity to do so.  But as with all situations, some uncomfortable issues can arise:

  • The lack of fashion represented by the cartoon above – no one will know if I brushed my teeth before I sent that email.
  • Even less movement than if I were sitting in the office.  My data say somewhere between 2000-3000 less steps. Yikes, that isn’t good at all.
  • The perception that I’m home, so I can: 1) get household chores done; 2) run errands; 3) be available in general for personal things

Can anyone else relate?  I don’t tend to have the TV on when I work (I’m more drawn to the siren’s call of Facebook), but clearly working from home is wreaking havoc on my health. 

I found this review by A.I. Tavares that examined how telework affects health.  Some of the advantages of telework that Tavares cites are:

  • Scheduling flexibility
  • Less office politics (I’m not so sure about this one in academia)
  • Increased job satisfaction and quality of life

Some of the disadvantages included:

  • Difficulties with boundaries between work and home (ya think?)
  • Social isolation
  • Working when it might be ill-advised to do so, such as when sick or hungry or under-caffeinated
  • Lack of presence affecting promotion and recognition for efforts (again, not so sure about this one in academia)

So how does telework affect health?  There are definite health advantages to working from home, such as less stressful evironments and less exposure to poor air quality.  That said, working from home may create issues with repetitive stress and other musculoskeletal injuries.  There is no social pressure to sit up straight or take a break, leading to injury.  The lack of structure may lead to overwork, stress, burnout, and depression due to social isolation. (Unless you are a social vegan who avoids meet.) While telework has the potential to improve work-life balance, the opposite may also be true. 

Other surprising issues that emerge from telework include increases in gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, and metabolic disorders.  It makes a lot of intuitive sense. 

In a future post, I’ll talk more about possible solutions to the work-from-home-inertia.  I’d love to hear your experiences and solutions in the meantime. 

Food Tracking

I stepped on the scale this morning and ouch. 

About this time a few years ago, I made a pledge to myself to get healthy again.  I was depressed, homesick from moving to a new town, and out of shape. Picked up Dr. Pam Peeke’s Fit to Live. I lost 25 pounds, got into shape, and started running Warrior Dashes. 

Then I stopped.

There was a major life trigger, as well as health reasons.  I found out that I had all kinds of digestive issues related to Ehlers-Danlos. These life events resulted in me taking medications that not only promoted weight gain, but also made me sluggish and inert.

My losses have been negated.  Such is how life goes. 

I’ve tried MyFitnessPal, Sparkpeople, and WW and had success with all three, but not this time around for some reason.  So, I decided to try Noom to see if it would be different.  

My original thought was to use an alternating treatments design to determine which one to keep and which ones to scrap.  I was planning on spending a week on each one,  seeing how much weight I lost, then repeating the process a few more times to determine the winner.  However, Noom is a little different in its approach so that won’t be possible. 

They have a plan that is very compatible with ACT as well as Pam Peeke’s plan.  They start with a values clarification exercise, or what Pam Peeke calls a “Power Why.” You then set out on a customized plan based on caloric density, or the water content in foods. We’ll see how that works, since Glycemic Index is considered a more evidence-based approach. 

You also get a personal coach, which means I now have a life coach, a weight loss coach, and a writing coach.  Pretty much I have a personal team of coaches.  I kind of feel like a celebrity!  With this type of support, if I go wrong, I might just be a hopeless case. 

Hopefully, this is what I need to jump-start my journey back to healthy living.  I’ll keep you posted along the way.


BONUS:  Here is a blog by Erin Lusby-Donovan about healthy holiday living, ABA style!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it yesterday.  I was able to get caught up enough Wednesday night to have a guilt-free, pajama-clad morning.  My original plan was a Turkey Trot, but registration was full by the time I got around to it.

There has been a lot of talk about gratitude in the popular press.  Authors such as Rick Hansen and Tara Brach say that gratitude is one of the gateways to happiness.  So, I thought I would do some research in what behavior analysis says about that.

I think the best way to start is looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (said as the word, not the acronym) posits that much of human suffering comes from rigid, rule-bound behavior. For those of you who are struggling to see the connection to behavior analysis, let me try to break it down for you.

So, there are basically two ways to get a new behavior into your repertoire – either by learning a rule about it or by experiencing reinforcement.  A rule can come in many forms – signs, instructions, songs, even past comments.  If someone told me,  “teal is your color,” I might wear more teal.  However, if I learned the rule that bikinis make me look fat, I might not wear them.

Think of all the things you probably learned through rules:

  • Dress codes
  • What you eat for breakfast versus what you eat for dinner (Lentil soup for breakfast is gross in the U.S. but standard in other cultures)
  • Traffic and other laws

Let me give you some proof – “Ma Na Ma Na.”  You’re welcome for what comes next. What are the things that come to mind?

For those of you saying “huh?” I will teach you.  Watch this video and come back to this post either tomorrow or later today.

Here is the strange thing about rule-governed behavior – even when the environmental events change, that behavior doesn’t.  At least not easily.  Let’s say someone has a history of abuse.  The rule might have been, “don’t speak up or make waves, or trouble will start.”  Later in their life, they have trouble asking for what they need or want because the rule is you don’t do that. 

Much like riding a bike, you never forget your rules, because they become part of a network called a relational frame.  Train a few rules up in the right way and a whole new set of networks emerge without much training. Sometimes this is good, like in cases where you use your filter before speaking or stop at red lights.  Sometimes they can get sticky and rigid and sometimes irrational.

Here are some awesome videos that describe the phenomenon of relational networks and how they affect mental health, by the Great Steve Hayes:

So my long-winded post – what does ACT have to do with Gratitude?

I can’t seem to find anything published, but my guess is that if we expose ourselves to grateful experiences on a regular basis (also called multiple exemplar training), we’ll form a network of them.  That way, when we see similar situations, we’re more likely to think, “ahh, this is something that fits into the gratitude network.”

Anyway, I’m grateful for all of you readers, as well as my colleagues and clients.  You make all my chains concurrent.  (TLDR; Lots of reinforcement available at the same time for lots of different behavior)