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My Healthy Valentine

Greetings, lovebirds! The most (or least, depending on your cynicism) romantic day of the year has everything: hearts, candy, chocolate, flowers, and chubby flying babies with projectile weapons.

V-Day doesn’t have much meaning for me, although I do enjoy any excuse to cook a special meal (stay tuned for that post tomorrow!). But I started thinking about how February 14 could be repurposed as a celebration of fitness instead of a day of sugar and dating pressure.

One of my biggest inspirations for being healthy is my father. We’re a lot alike, actually– both stubborn, both happier when we’re exercising regularly. Dad kayaks every day, and goes for long walks when boating conditions keep him off the river. But he also has a genetic tendency toward elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure, which motivates him to stay active and make good dietary choices. The few times he’s had health issues, doctors have told him that his level of fitness probably prevented more serious complications. I can’t think of a better reason to start thinking about your long-term health than that.

So my proposal for today is simple: don’t just tell someone you care about them. Show them! Take care of yourself, so you’ll be around and in good health for a long time. Instead of candy hearts, use this day as a reminder to think about your own cardiac system. Are you getting enough exercise? Choosing good fuel for your body?

February is Heart Health month, and there are some great tips for good practices (and recipes!) at Women’s Health Magazine and epicurious. In the spirit of love and friendship, help someone you know take better care of themselves, too:

1. If working out feels like a chore, partner up and have some fun. Try a game of tennis, or just go for a long walk in the park.
2. Instead of going out to eat, swap recipes and cook healthy meals together.
3. Give the gift of health! Instead of sweet nothings and empty calories, take your main squeeze salsa dancing. Or rock-climbing! Or if the fastest way to your spouse’s heart is through their stomach, surprise them with something delicious yet healthful, like a set of exotic spices.

By this point in our relationship, my Husband Elect knows I don’t need flowers to feel adored, and I’m definitely not the “I love you BEARY much” stuffed animal type. He finds ways to express his love that fit both of our personalities, and that makes the gestures that much more thoughtful. This week I’m going in a million different directions: setting up wedding plans, taking a writing class, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. You know, the usual. One thing I haven’t been able to do is plan our meals for the week!

I was on my way out the door, resigned to buying lunch today, when my guy handed me a plain white takeout bag. “Keep this cold,” he said. “And enjoy!”

I didn’t peek all morning, although the suspense made it hard to concentrate on my work. When lunchtime finally rolled around, I opened the plain white bag to find an equally plain black box.

When I lifted the lid, the contents were even more exciting than a fancy chocolate assortment:

On the 14th of February, my true love gave to me....

Not everyone would think to say it with sushi, but it was the perfect quick and filling lunch for a hectic day!

Check back tomorrow, when I share how I returned the favor.

Healthy anniversary brunch

In February 2005, the future Mr. ToughCookieNYC and I graduated from circling each other in a shy, awkward mating dance (choreographed for nerds, by nerds) and took our first tentative steps as a couple. Seven years later, I’d say we’ve hit the tango stage of our relationship– both figuratively and literally. What better way to celebrate our love than a brunch that’s both health-conscious and flavorful?

Say it with pancakes!

I think the brunch was a success, as my Husband Elect started attacking his food before I could snap a picture of the plate. So you don’t get to see the perfectly crispy turkey bacon I made. Also not pictured: fresh-squeezed orange juice. I may or may not have squeezed the oranges with my bare hands, as I imagine She-Hulk might.

I tried to come up with traditional brunch classics (scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, juice, coffee) and reinvent them in a way that felt indulgent without actually being unhealthy. The pancakes were light and fluffy, but I used egg whites, skim milk, and applesauce, instead of whole milk and butter. The scrambled eggs had 2 whole eggs and a generous helping of egg whites. My iced mocha? Made with skim milk, cocoa powder, and a scoop of unsweetened protein powder. And the salad and mixed berries provide fiber and vitamins.

Scrambled eggs

2 whole eggs
1/2 c. egg whites
2 Tb skim milk
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Crack the eggs into a bowl; beat with a fork to blend yolks and whites. Add egg whites and skim milk, and beat with fork until blended. Add salt and pepper. Place a skillet over medium heat; melt a little butter (or use cooking spray, if preferred) into the pan. Pour in the eggs. As the eggs begin to set, gently pull the mixture across the pan with the fork, forming large curds (or clumps). Work from all angles of the pan, gently moving the eggs around as they cook. No need to stir constantly– just pull and rest, pull and rest. When eggs are cooked to desired consistency, serve immediately, grating a little extra fresh pepper over the top to taste.

Chocolate-chip pancakes

3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda

3 Tb. honey
1/3 c. egg whites
1 c. skim milk
4 Tb. applesauce
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
sprinkle of cinnamon powder

Chocolate chips, blueberries, etc. for topping

Combine flour and baking soda in a large bowl; mix with fork. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, folding batter with a spoon. Be careful not to overmix. In a large pan, melt a little butter (or cooking spray) over medium heat. Pour batter in spoonfuls, leaving room between pancakes. When small bubbles start to appear, add chocolate chips, berries, etc. to batter. When bubbles cover most of the pancake’s top surface, flip with non-stick spatula and let cook an extra 1-2 minutes on the other side. Serve immediately, with fruit compote or pure maple syrup.

The way the cookie crumbles

Property of Roger Hargreaves

Happy belated 2012! Blink and 1/12th the year is gone.  I had great plans to post food and fitness content regularly, but as the famous Lennon saying goes, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

However, that’s the past. It’s a new year, or at least a new month, and I declare 2012 to be the year of the cookie.

One of the biggest obstacles I dealt with during my blog hiatus was the recurring shoulder issue I talked about back in November. I was making great progress with physical therapy, doing my exercises like it was my job, stretching every day, and noticing drastic improvements in my posture, strength, and stamina.

Then life threw me the proverbial curveball. Or, in this instance, it was more of a proverbial banana peel: I slipped and fell down the stairs in the subway.

I wish I could say I turned my fall into a graceful tumble, rolling down the steps with ninja-like grace before springing to my feet in a photo-finish worthy of an Olympic rhythmic gymnast. In reality, as my feet went out from under me I instinctively did the most aggressive fallbreak I’ve ever pulled off, including during my brown belt test. I fell sideways as I slipped, which meant my right (injured) side did all the work of dispersing impact.

Then I bumped and slid down a few more stairs, taking some hits to my right hip and thoroughly terrifying a very nice tourist family who didn’t realize that day’s forecast was “cloudy with a chance of falling bloggers.”

I didn’t feel the effects of my fall right away. My Husband Elect, the brilliant Dr. Funkenstein, drew me an Epsom salts bath, dosed me with extra-strength Advil, and helped me coat myself in arnica gel. He was kind enough to wait until I was relaxing on the couch with a heating pad and a mug of hot apple cider before breaking it to me that I had a bruise the shape (and approximate size, from what it felt like) of Long Island on my hip. I wrote a note to my head instructor thanking him for drilling me in fall breaks until they were second nature. Other than that, I told myself how lucky I was to be young, in good shape, and well versed in the fine art of falling properly.

The next day, I didn’t feel young or in good shape at all.

I had a splitting headache, my stomach was upset, and I wanted nothing more than to lie on the couch and moan gently into a decorative throw pillow, like a Regency romance heroine jilted by her beau. I made appointments with the physical therapist and chiropractor for evaluation and adjustments, and resigned myself to missing several weeks of martial arts classes.

I know I take things far too personally, and I’ll probably never be able to stop being too hard on myself. But I can’t stand feeling like getting injured—again!— is something I could have avoided. If only I hadn’t been in a hurry. Why did I have to get injured now? Blather, rinse, repeat.

Obviously, a game of self-blame and regret is the least helpful mindset for healing and recovery. I may be a badass, but I’m still human. I’ve dealt with injuries that interrupted my training before, but I still have to remind myself  that I’m allowed to rest and heal before going back to the mat.

I’ve given myself permission to reorganize my priorities. Instead of my usual high-impact sessions devoted to self-defense techniques and sparring, I’ll be focusing on stabilizing and re-balancing my injured joints, and stretching out my sore muscles. My plan is to do a lot of walking and yoga, and become best friends with the resistance bands. If my PT gives the all-clear, I’m going to try modifying BodyRock’s High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions— I might not be able to jump, but I can lunge, squat, and row like a pro. I’m calling this my February Fitness Challenge, and I’m excited to share my progress here!

Along with my fitness challenge, I’ll be changing up my meal plan. While I was injured (and wallowing, to be brutally honest), I fell into the trap of ordering dinner in. Easy, but also expensive and wasteful (all those plastic containers!). Besides, even the leanest, greenest choices are probably not as healthful as what I’d make at home. So expect plenty of new non-dessert recipes from me, although it wouldn’t be ToughCookieNYC without some triple-decker brownies here and there.

Have you dealt with a fall or other injury? Have any fun exercises, neat new gear, or delicious recipes to share? Tell me all about it!

One pie to rule them all

All stressing aside, I really do love the holiday season. I’ve heard people say that you’re either a baker or a cook; I like to think that I’m both, but I certainly enjoy making baked goods for parties or as presents.

As I’m a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not really about turkey for me. Instead, I fill my plate with a variety of delicious and healthy family specialties: wild rice with mushrooms, green beans, fresh cranberry salsa, and baked sweet potatoes.

My one and only culinary responsibility is The Pie, and I take that very seriously. I have been making a version of this pie (it evolves slightly from year to year) ever since I was 12 and starting to become more comfortable in the kitchen. I asked my mother if I could make something by myself that year; she gave me a copy of the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue and told me to call her if I needed any help. The recipe I found was the “Colonial Times Apple-Cranberry Pie With Cornmeal Crust,” a celebration of mingled New World (corn, cranberry) and Old World (apple) ingredients. I liked the idea of cranberries and apples, but wasn’t so keen on cornmeal, so I substituted an all-butter crust recipe from one of my mom’s hand-written index cards and used apple cider instead of cold water. The experiment was a success: at the end of the night, as I was carrying the empty pie plate out the door, my aunt said, “You’ll make that again next year, right?”

Here’s the latest model:

At some point, I want to go back and find pictures of each year’s pie and post a comparison series. I started out with a full top crust. A few years ago, I started using leaf-shaped cookie cutters to cut out the dough and scattering those pieces decoratively over the top. I like how the slices of apple, currants, and bits of cranberry peek through the crust.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

Butter is better

There are several schools of thought as far as pie crusts go. There’s the shortening school, the shortening + butter school, and the lard school. I tried shortening, but it has about as much flavor as paste. Maybe less. Lard is out for a number of reasons. And that leaves us with butter, which is never just a consolation prize. There’s a reason so many chefs cook with butter. It’s full of flavor and makes a tender, flaky crust just as easily as shortening.

Don’t overdo it

As in, don’t overwork your dough. The more you mix and blend, the less likely it is to stand up to your filling. Less work = more successful crust.

Variety is the spice of life

When I make this pie, it never turns out the same way twice. Different apples, slightly different mixture of seasonings, a new ratio of dry to wet ingredients in the pie dough. It doesn’t need to be identical each time: just delicious.

Cranberry-Apple Pie

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Crust adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Crust

2 1/2 c. flour
1 Tb sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold
1 c. apple cider

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and work into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender. When the butter pieces are the size of small peas, stop blending. Add cider, a few tablespoons at a time, using a rubber spatula or your hands to gather the dough together. Stop after 1/2 cup and stir well; after that, add cider only a tablespoon at a time. Add a little flour if the dough gets overly wet.

Cut the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight or at least an hour. The dough can stay wrapped and refrigerated for about a week.

While the dough is chilling, move on to the filling (hey, that rhymes!):

Filling

1 c. fresh cranberries
1 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 lbs. assorted apples (I like to use as many varieties as possible: this year’s pie had Mutsu, Empire, Rome, Gala, Fuji, Winesap, Braeburn, and Jonagold)
1/2 c. dried currants
liqueur (cranberry or a good bourbon)
5 Tb all-purpose flour
optional: zest of one orange; fresh ginger juice

In the oven, position rack in the lowest third; preheat to 375°F. Place the currants in a small bowl and add just enough liqueur to cover. Chop cranberries with sugar, using a mezzaluna or food processor. Peel and core the apples, and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices. Combine apples, cranberry/sugar mixture, currants, and flour. (If using, zest orange into bowl; peel an inch-long piece of ginger root and press through a clean garlic press to get the juice.) Toss well.

Roll out 1 of the pieces of dough between waxed paper or plastic wrap to 13-inch round. Gently peel off paper or wrap; fold edges in carefully to transfer into 9 1/2″deep-dish pie dish. I’ve found this is the easiest way to transfer the bottom crust into the pie dish in one piece.

Unfold the dough; roll excess in to form a double-thick edge. Crimp edge. Roll out the remaining dough disk on a lightly floured surface to 1/8″ thick. Using a cookie cutter, cut out leaves, apples, or any other shapes you might like. If using leaves,  mark veins with a sharp knife. Add filling to pie dish. Arrange leaves around the edges and top of pie, overlapping in places. Do not cover completely: leave gaps. Brush leaf cutouts and crimped edge with cider.

Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes, then cover with foil and continue baking for about 35 minutes more, until juices bubble thickly and crust is golden-brown. Transfer pie to rack and cool for 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Bon appetit! Or as we say around these parts: OM NOM.

Happy holi-daze!

It’s the week after Thanksgiving. Holiday songs are blaring in the stores, you’ve probably eaten turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches for dinner at least three nights in a row, and on every street corner and magazine cover, messages of holiday cheer are warring with holiday warnings for your attention. “Six scrumptious pumpkin recipes!” grapples with “Watch what you eat!” and you’re supposed to look forward to parties while suspecting your friends, carolers, Santa’s reindeer, and Jack Frost of sabotaging your diet, fitness routine, and hard-earned self-positive attitude. So much for peace on earth, right?

It’s true that the holidays can be fraught with stress and peril. It’s a time that comes with a lot of built-in expectations for how we’re supposed to feel (joy! gratitude!) and behave (party! celebrate!), and being merry and bright 24/7 takes a toll. On top of that, you’re supposed to sync the holiday whirlwind with your regular schedule, finding time for nourishing meals and your fitness routine. Does your office becomes a winter wonderland of candy and cookies? There’s sure to be an article warning you of the dangers of indulging, or recommending the least damaging option for your waistline. Or maybe you have a well-meaning friend, co-worker, or family member who likes to remind you how many calories are in that delicious piece of peppermint bark. It’s not easy, but there are ways to insulate yourself from the holiday heckling.

The first thing to remember is that this is your holiday season. Your body, your schedule, your choices. If you want to skip an invitation and squeeze in a long run, that’s your right. If you want to have a large glass of eggnog… I doubt it will do any lasting damage (unless the alcohol content is high and you find yourself freestyling to Little Drummer Boy… which might actually make you the hit of the party). The way most people think of it, the holiday season is trench warfare on your body, and the first month of New Year’s resolutions is the cavalry charge. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Make manageable commitments to health, and keep your fitness goals in mind. Are you trying to make it to the gym four times a week? You might have to get creative (pre-work or lunchtime workouts), but you can still make your sessions. Or adjust your plan slightly: can you be active at home? One of my favorite ways to build up a sweat on busy days is high intensity interval training. A friend sent me to Bodyrock, which is a fantastic resource for moves and routines that will have you panting and sweating buckets in under 15 minutes. All you need is a round timer (I downloaded a free application for my phone). Some exercises call for weighted balls, duffel bags, or dip stations, but I’ve been able to MacGuyver most accessories from household items. If you’re staying active, it’s easier to silence all the voices (internal and external) nagging you about those festive cheese balls.

Personally, I build room for indulgences into my mentality. Rigid abstention simply doesn’t work for me. When it comes to food, I’m a sensualist; from smooth butternut squash soup to crispy fried shallots, I treasure taste and texture. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically virtuous in not having dessert. But there are those who think it’s their business that you’ve had second helpings of cornbread stuffing. What makes it their business? Unless they’re your doctor… absolutely nothing. People love to lecture or advise. When I’m feeling charitable, I tell myself it’s based on good intentions. If I’m annoyed, I tell myself that they’re too insecure to enjoy a treat guilt-free, and they’re trying to share the guilt. But guilt is one present I won’t accept this year.

The best defense against a guilt onslaught is to simply not engage. Anyone asking “should you really be eating that?” doesn’t really care about the answer. They just want you to deal with the question. A gym that puts a “don’t look like Santa– work off that bowlful of jelly!” sign in its window just wants your foot in the door and your membership dues in the accounts. Don’t fall for the guilt. You know your body. You know that whether you had roasted kale and lentils for dinner, or three candy canes and a double serving of latkes, you are in charge, and you don’t need to answer to anyone. Treating yourself one night isn’t the end of the world. Having a gingerbread snack attack isn’t going to undermine all your workouts, healthy recipes, and year-round badassitude. This year, give yourself the gift of self-confidence.

The next time you experience someone’s guilt onslaught, don’t buy into it. Instead, imagine a big red light and stop that negativity in its tracks. Then replace the guilt and stress with a you-positive message. It can be anything from “I rocked that Zumba class today” to “I make a kick-ass mulled cider!”
In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a bunch of recipes, exercise tips, and tricks for making this season a time of light in the darkness.
Happy holidays!

Lean, green fighting machine

No, I’m not talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The heroes on the half-shell probably wouldn’t appreciate today’s recipe, although they might be willing to try it on pizza (with M&M’s, Gruyère, and cashews, perhaps).

What else is green and fights bad guys?

Photo credit lunch.com

Brussels sprouts, of course!

Hey, get back here!

Brussels sprouts may have gotten a bad rap at the dinner table, but prepared properly they’re a delicious nutritional powerhouse. These little green buds belong to the cabbage family, and are high in dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid. They also contain sulforaphane, which is believed to have anticancer properties. It’s important not to cook all the nutrients out of  the sprouts, but overcooking is also responsible for the sulfurous odor and gray, mushy appearance that most people associate with this notorious V-E-G. Luckily, sautéing or roasting yields tender, vividly green orbs that are oddly addictive when caramelized.

Brussels sprouts are best in the cold weather months, so consider including them in your holiday feast. If you can find the sprouts on the stalk at a local farmer’s market, so much the better. The sprouts will be fresher, and roasting them on the stalk makes for a dramatic presentation.

Image credited to tinyfarmblog.com

My parents never inflicted Brussels sprouts on us. There was still something satisfying about convincing my dad (who grew up in the era of boiled vegetables) to try three bites, or what my mom calls a  “no, thank you” portion. Several “no, thank yous” later, he was a Brussels sprouts convert.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Based on a recipe from Trader Joe’s

1 stalk Brussels sprouts, rinsed, outer leaves trimmed

2 Tb olive oil

1/4 c. maple syrup

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Serves: 4-6

Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet or roasting pan with foil. Rinse the sprouts, pat dry, pick off any wilted outer leaves, and trim the end of the stalk if it looks dried out. Place entire stalk in pan.
Combine the oil and maple syrup and brush over the sprouts, coating all sides evenly. Reserve any leftover glaze for basting. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast for 20-30 minutes, rotating stalk every 5 minutes for even cooking. Baste with extra glaze. The sprouts are done when fork-tender and golden-brown.
If you want to jazz up your sprouts, some additions that pair well include lemon zest, caramelized shallots, toasted nuts, finely-grated Parmesan, and tart fruits such as dried cranberries or pomegranate seeds.

Friday fitness: apples are hard-core

Friday fitness is back with a vengeance! Let’s tackle that all-important food group: the snack. What’s that you say? Snacks aren’t a food group? Perhaps not, but if you eat smaller meals, need a little extra nourishment between feedings, or like a boost before or after working out, chances are you’ve had a snack sometime this week.

The challenge is finding a snack that’s filling without taking the place of a full meal. Some like a small handful of nuts, cottage cheese or yogurt, or veggies and hummus. I love all of those options, but this week I was in the mood for applesauce. Not just your run-of-the-mill applesauce, either– the homemade kind!

At the beginning of October, I went apple-picking. The orchard was beautiful, and I couldn’t resist getting the “20 pounds for $20” deal. However, a month later, the last few apples were starting to look a bit sad.

However, sad raw apples can be quite good cooked apples. I wanted something simple, healthy, and satisfying, so I decided to leave sugar out entirely. Some recipes call for peeling the apples, but I find that to be unnecessary. As long as you have a food mill or strainer, the peels won’t be part of the finished product anyway, and they add a nice pinkish hue. I used an apple-corer to speed things along. Using a corer that also divides is a great way to slice and seed your apples together!

A nice side benefit of cooking with apples: your kitchen smells divine. I could smell fresh apples all the way out in the hall. Actually, be prepared for deliciousness at every turn. Your apples may be funny-looking, tired, or even bruised, but the magic of a little water and heat transforms them into a silky-smooth autumnal treat.

Simple Applesauce

If your only experience is with store-bought applesauce, I don’t blame you for thinking there’s no reason to devote an entire post to the stuff. Well, I’m here to tell you that the homemade version is worlds apart. The flavor is a thousand times more appley, the texture is the furthest thing from grainy. I’ll definitely be making another batch in December to jazz up my latkes.

I used:

7 medium-sized apples, cored (This time, I had a mix of Red Delicious and Jonagolds, with some Golden Delicious; see which varieties make for good sauce)

2 c. water

Optional: cinnamon (I didn’t use any, but you may wish to)

Core and slice your apples into about 8 pieces each, using a sharp knife or divider. Put the apples and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook for 25-30 minutes, or until apples have softened. (They should smoosh easily when pressed with the back of a spoon.) Remove from heat and let cool. (I prefer to eat the sauce warm; just be careful when you’re milling not to burn yourself!)

Use a food mill with the medium disk to puree and remove peels, or force the mixture through a sieve. Enjoy plain or with a dash of cinnamon! Applesauce should keep for at least 3 days in the fridge, or can be jarred or frozen. But for a small batch like this, I know I’ll eat it before it goes bad.

Falling off the horse (and getting back on)

Greetings, internet!

It’s been far too long since I posted– online time is even more accelerated since dog years, so at this point it probably feels like at least a decade. I’ve been dealing with the resurgence of an old injury, which has affected my training. Difficulty training led to difficulty even writing about training. However, I realized that injuries, setbacks, and obstacles are part of any athlete’s experience, whether it’s as mild as a pulled muscle or something more serious. What’s important is how you address the issue and determine how to adjust your routine.

In my case, I separated my shoulder a few years ago while learning to do a forward roll. Check out the first 10 seconds in this video to see what I mean:

Instead of rolling over my scapula, I hit my acromioclavicular (or AC) joint, damaging the ligament that connects the acromion to the clavicle. This meant I couldn’t even lift my arm very far away from my body. I certainly couldn’t fight, lift weights, practice yoga, or even carry a large bag on that arm.

A separated shoulder is one of the most common sports injuries. The AC joint is one of the most mobile in the body, which means it’s also the least stable. Actually, both my parents have separated that same joint. My father, who was known for his daily 30 mile bike rides, went over the handlebars when he swerved to avoid a dog that had run onto the road. My mother slipped on a patch of ice on a hiking trail. (I should tell my sister to cushion her shoulders with bubble wrap.)

I was lucky to have the benefit of their experience and advice. “Go to physical therapy!” they said. “Immediately.” With the help of some small weights, plenty of resistance bands, and some dedicated therapists, I slowly built up strength in my back muscles (to anchor the scapula) and worked on stabilizing and strengthening the muscles around the joint. With a joint injury, you can’t improve the bones in the affected area– it’s all about the soft tissue.

After a few months, I went back to train. I had to relearn how to roll, which was both exhilarating and scary. This is where mental strength plays a key role in fitness and rehabilitation. I already had the discipline and determination to rebuild my shoulder– now I needed to face down the reason I had logged so many hours at PT. Of course, if your injury changes the scope of how you can perform, all the mental strength in the world won’t alter the fact that you simply should avoid a technique or a certain motion. In this case, I spoke with my orthopedist and therapist, and they agreed I could *carefully* relearn how to roll.

And, for several years, things were fine. I protected my shoulder and gradually stopped the additional exercises.

Trust me, I know now this was a big mistake.

When I started feeling pain in my shoulders, this time on both sides, I went right back to PT. The AC joint was fine, but my pectoral muscles were very tight, while my back muscles had weakened, drawing my shoulders forward. The strain I felt was the tight muscles pulling against the joints. This time, my routine became all about balance– relaxing the tight muscles, strengthening the weak muscles, and bringing everything into alignment again. I had to take a step back from my fast-paced routine to work at a slower, more deliberate pace. It was really hard to skip class and imagine my partners learning new techniques while I idled on the sidelines.

Ultimately, that kind of thinking was more destructive than an actual injury. I realized that for months I had been prepared to work more slowly, avoid some techniques, and bracing for the pain to return at the end of training. By focusing on fixing the problem at the most basic level, I would be able to return to training in better condition, with fewer aches and limits on my abilities.

So, what can you learn from my mistake?

1. Be honest with yourself. The first time around, I didn’t want to admit that it was a long-term injury.

2. Be upset. It’s okay to feel bad that you’re injured. Allow yourself to wallow for a little while, and then:

3. Be gentle on yourself. If your injury is more severe, it may be harder to shake off a funk. It’s okay to take some time to feel frustrated, and there’s no one right amount of time. Talk to your doctor, a training partner, or an instructor; odds are, they’ve been there, or know someone who has. It’s not a personal failure to have an injury, just an extra challenge to deal with. When you’re ready:

4. Burn it off. Do something that will help you purge those feelings. You’ve acknowledged them, and now it’s time to readjust your thinking to help you move away from that mentality. If activity helps you, build up a sweat or scream it out. If that’s not your style, take a few minutes to meditate. Or bake a loaf of bread. Scrub the bathtub if that helps. Wash it all away.

5. Be patient. Healing is a process. You’ll see progress, but probably not as much or as fast as you’d like. Don’t skip ahead just because you miss sparring, or chaturanga, or you’re sick of walking and need to run. Healing is your job right now, so focus on that.

6. Be persistent. Don’t shirk your rehab exercises! Sooner or later, you’ll end up right back where you left off, or worse.

Ultimately, it’s all about changing how you think about training. Progress in fixing your injury is still progress, even if you’re lifting half the weight you were before, walking one mile instead of ten, or doing push-ups from your knees (or not at all). If you’re goal-oriented and need some motivation, work on specific exercises to rehab your injury. Or try a new challenge!

Edited to add: I was talking with my friend C, who is doing a lot of interesting exercises at the gym. She mentioned the inverted row, so I looked it up and realized that after some more rehab work, I should try to fit it into my routine. I need to be careful with exercises with a pushing component (anything with press in the exercise name), but rows involve *pulling* and bring the back muscles into play. Check out this post from Nerd Fitness! My favorite line: “Let’s go SAT on this s.o.b. – “benchpress” is to “pushing” as “inverted row” is to “pulling.”  Balance FTW!”

In the meantime, with an upper-body injury, I’ve turned to concentrating on my lower-body fitness. Weighted squats and step-ups were out for a while, so I played around with one-legged squats, lunges using a balance board, and a number of exercises to improve my agility and coordination. Don’t take yourself out of the race just because you’re no longer running at the same speed. My father has become a dedicated kayaker. My mother still hikes, just with ice cleats in winter. Change the course, change the destination… just keep going.

Happy new year!

Today is the first day of the new year in the Jewish calendar (5772, to be precise). There’s an advantage to having two new years to celebrate– it means I have two chances to evaluate my progress, come up with new goals, and get a fresh start.

Another nice thing about the new year is all the amazing food my family makes! Dishes with apples and honey are traditional, of course, but my favorite treat is mandelbrot. Mandelbrot means “almond bread,” but it’s actually a cookie similar to biscotti. Biscotti means “twice baked,” and that’s how the mandelbrot are made. They’re baked once in a loaf shape, sliced, and then put back in the oven to get nice and toasted.

My family’s recipe comes not from our aunt or grandmother but my parents’ friend Jim. He and his wife, Ruth, have been family friends for years, and Ruth and my mother are in a Mah-Jong league together. It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

For a sweet new year

Jim’s Mandelbrot

3 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c. + 1 Tb oil
1 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 c. slivered almonds (chop some fine)
8 oz. chocolate chips

5 Tb. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F; grease 2 baking sheets.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together.

Beat oil, sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. Gradually add 2 cups of the flour mixture, beating constantly.

Fold in almonds and chocolate chips, then add remaining flour. Mix well by hand. Do not overmix dough.

Lightly flour your hands, then divide the dough in quarters and transfer to the baking sheets. Shape into flattish loaves about 3″ wide and 3/4″ high.

Combine the remaining sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle over each loaf, reserving half the mixture.

Bake for 20 minutes; remove from the oven and cut each loaf into 1/2″ slices. Turn slices cut side up, sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar, then bake until toasted and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then store in an airtight container.

I always love visiting my family for the holidays, when we can spend time together and cook and bake up a storm. In fact, those are my resolutions for the new year– spend time with the people who matter to me most and cook plenty of fabulous food!

Happy new year!

Friday Fitness: This is Why You’re Fit

Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the end of the work week or the beginning of the weekend. Either way, it’s an excellent opportunity to try something new and shake up your routine.

A couple of years ago, a website called thisiswhyou’refat.com was created to showcase extreme culinary creations such as  the “30,000 calorie sandwich.” The inevitable backlash included sites that used “This is why you’re thin” to advocate for dishes heavy on the vegetables and light on sugar or processed ingredients.

I don’t think fat or thin are as important as fit or unfit. I’m much more interested in how I can train myself to spar longer rounds without getting tired, learn a new technique, run greater distances, or simply introduce healthy changes into my life.

Like many people, I have a desk job. This entails lots of sitting and barely any motion, except for my eyeballs and mouse hand. Although I’m active in the evenings and on weekends, I’ve started coming up with ways to keep myself moving throughout the day.

I’m lucky enough to work within walking distance of the Brooklyn Bridge, and that’s this week’s This is Why You’re Fit: every day, weather allowing, I walk across the bridge and back on my lunch break. I’ve invested in sun block and a spare pair of sunglasses to keep in my desk drawer, and it’s worth it to get outside and  enjoy the air and the view. I come back to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle all the projects I left behind.

Wanna buy a bridge?

Show me why you’re fit!