Grandma Squats

“Squat,” said the trainer. I did as told, feeling very fit in my black spandex shorts and neon pink tank top. Just shy of 50 years of age, I had joined a gym and signed up with a trainer.  I hoped that regular strength training exercise would help keep my pre-diabetes from blossoming into diabetes. (So far it’s worked!)

The trainer paused, looked straight at me, and said, “Further down, like you’re about to sit on a toilet.”

I moved my derriere an inch closer to the ground. I was not comfortable with the suggested image. As a girl, I was taught to stand, sit, and move like a lady. That did not include public toilet behavior.

Since my introduction to this basic move, I’ve learned to just shut up and do what the trainer says. Otherwise, she’s going to study my butt and badger me into lowering it until she’s satisfied. I don’t like anyone studying that part of my body, except maybe my husband on a good day.

My introduction to the squat didn’t end with perfecting the simple move. As it turns out, there are many ways to execute this exercise. There are side squats, lunges, squat-and-twists, squats with a weight, and more. None are ladylike.

I’ve also come to understand that squats strengthen three key muscles which any grandma needs in taking care of little ones. The gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the body, is the one that gives your hind quarter its shape, or, as you age, its droop. It’s critical for movements of the hip and thigh, and in most people it’s one of the most underutilized muscles. While we’re good at using it to flop down onto the couch, we don’t get up often enough to give it a workout. Squats also strengthen the quadriceps (front of the thigh), and hamstrings (back of the thigh), both of which are important in walking, running, jumping, squatting, and controlling some movement in the trunk.

Doing squats regularly will help you better perform some key childcare activities, like retrieving the sippy cup dropped 100 times from baby’s highchair. You can make your retrieval into a squat, and get some exercise in the process. You probably shouldn’t do 100 squats in a row unless you’re very fit, so you can feel justified in taking the sippy cup away (to howls) or taking baby out of the highchair (to smiles). Or, just leave the sippy cup on the floor, so that baby can sharpen his negotiating skills as he points at the cup, grunts, and looks at you expectantly.

The American College of Sports Medicine publishes a newsletter called the ACSM Fit Society® Page. One recent issue outlines an excellent strength training program for beginners, starting with our friend The Squat.    Skip to page 4 of the newsletter for a good description of a squat and an alternative form leaning against a large medicine ball.

Happy squatting!

Grandma Walks

A baby’s first steps cause celebrations for all involved. The child is inordinately proud of herself. Look at me Mom and Dad! I can get around without your help! The parents are excited to witness this major milestone, followed by a mild depression as they picture the little one going off to college. Grandparents and other relatives congratulate all involved. Witnesses to the event clap, hoot, shout hurrah, and if they’re lucky, snap several hundred photos and a video before baby flops her butt onto the floor.

If only this excitement could last forever. School-age children would never say: “I don’t want to hike—it’s boring.” Teenagers wouldn’t protest at the thought of walking six blocks to the store instead of driving. Workers would jump at the chance to walk over to the next cubicle instead of sending an email. But for many, walking loses its panache. It’s easier to sit. It’s faster to drive.

Walking has numerous health benefits. Our studies at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have shown that moderate-level physical activity is associated with reduced risks for several cancers, and with improved quality of life and survival in those who have cancer. We also conducted state of the art clinical trials, and found that the combination of weight control and increased activity provides optimal improvements in risk factors for several cancers. So, just as you can lower your blood pressure by getting your weight under control and exercising, you can also lower inflammation, hormones, and growth factors that can increase risk for cancer.

So now that you’re sold on the benefits of an active lifestyle, you might ask what to do and how to start. Most adults choose walking for their exercise. You don’t need any special training or expensive equipment to walk. You will need decent shoes. In our exercise studies, we gave women vouchers to ensure that they were fitted for shoes that were right for their feet, and that had stability and cushioning. You’ll need to dress right for the weather, wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, bring water, and you’re set to go. In inclement weather, you might choose to walk in a mall or other large enclosed building.

Some people prefer to walk and talk—arranging to walk with a friend will make the time go quicker and the walk more enjoyable. If you’re concerned about personal safety, walking with one or more friends can make you feel more comfortable. Some people prefer a solitary stroll. I walk most mornings with friends, on weekends with my husband, and some late afternoons on my own. I call the latter my “Zen” walks.

The United States Surgeon General recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate level aerobic activity or greater for adults. That translates into 30 minute walks, 5 days a week. If you’re completely sedentary right now, start with a 15 minute walk on a flat surface, and work your way up. More is better. I walk at least an hour a day. Step counters and fancy fitness monitors might motivate you, but unless they turn off the TV, lace up your sneakers, and free up your time from other duties, they won’t get you out of the house. That’s up to you.

Walking with grandchildren is a wonderful way to stay active and introduce kids to nature (they’re fascinated with worms, flowers, bird, squirrels, dogs, and cats). Walking is soothing to a baby; you can help new parents get some shut-eye while you take the baby outside for a stroll. When toddlers or preschoolers are fussing or squabbling, there’s nothing quite as therapeutic for both grandparent and kids as getting out of the house for a walk. It’s a perfect cure for the whines, the fights, the boredom, and the frustrations.

While taking a walk won’t likely get you claps and hoots from your family, it can bring joy, satisfaction, and tranquility.

Fit Grandma

Over the past 20 years, I’ve conducted many studies where we ask middle-aged and older people to exercise, and measure effects on their health. I’ve learned that there are several basic human movements, things we need to perform activities of daily life. I’ve listed these movements below, with annotations of how they are critical for grandparents who are visiting or caring for young grandchildren.

Walk and run: Grandparents can often sooth a crying baby by walking. It’s especially important with a newborn, because the parents may be so disoriented from lack of sleep that they walk into walls. Not a good thing with a babe in arms. You may also be called upon to run after a baby or toddler who has decided to try going down stairs without help from a grownup.

Squat: You’ll use this motion to look a preschooler in the eye as you tell her no she really can’t get out the finger paints five minutes before naptime. You’ll squat to pick up the toast that landed jam-side down on the floor already sprinkled with that day’s toddler crumbs. If you’re not quick, the toddler will delicately pluck it up and swallow it with a grin. Floor-food-eating doesn’t seem to bother the parents, so it’s just your own hygienic desires to be satisfied here.

Push: Picture a sunny day, birds chirping, little baby peacefully sleeping as you push the designer carriage you bought for him. You’re basking in the sunshine, in the pride as neighbors peer into the carriage with smiles of delight, and in the little bit of exercise you’re getting. Now the reality. The baby is screaming and won’t yet take a bottle, so you’re rushing home to get him to mom’s breast before the world ends. Or, you’re pushing 60 pounds of toddler and preschooler uphill in a double stroller, and the preschooler keeps saying, “Hurry, Grandma,” because she wants to play in the park now.

Pull: This is a useful movement for yanking a kid away from the brink of death and destruction. Like plucking a preschooler out of a giant puddle when she isn’t wearing rain boots, or avoiding the 6-inch slug she wants to pick up and hand to you, or keeping an 18-month-old boy from joining a teenagers’ game of pick-up basketball because he thinks he’s got game.

Bend: Leaning over the crib, you delicately lower your sleeping grandson onto the mattress. If you can’t bend far enough over, you risk dropping him the last few inches, surely waking him (and risking the parents’ scorn).

Lunge: This little action can save your grandson who has decided he can stand on the sofa arm. His head is as big as the rest of his body, so if he looks down just a little, his whole body will catapult and he’ll hit the floor forehead first. It’s best to minimize the number of bumps and bruises on your watch.

Twist: You’ll need to turn your head while diapering one grandchild to see what nefarious activity the other one is up to. Preferably, you’ll execute a 180 degree turn like an owl. This will give you a clear view and greatly impress an older grandchild. In reality, you’ll be lucky if your arthritic spine will let you turn at all.

Lift: If you sit for babies, toddlers, or preschoolers, you’ll be lifting all day long. Sometimes the child will ask for it, especially if you have your hands full with another child or the food you’re preparing for her lunch. Sometimes, the toddler will decide he does not want to be picked up, in which case you’ll be lifting and carrying a limp or squiggling creature.

Carry: As a young parent, you carried little ones without giving it much thought. With some years under your belt, you’ll discover some positions work better than others. I can hold kids in my arms and on my hips, but my aching back screams when I try to use a baby carrier in any position. If you have a strong back, go ahead and try the various wraps and carriers the baby’s mom has purchased. Make sure that at least one parent tests you on putting baby in and out of the contraption. It’s important that both you and baby can breathe, and that you can easily remove outer layers of clothing (hot flashes with a sweaty little baby on you are miserable). Some kids like to be carried on shoulders, but the parents might be wary, especially if they remember the time grandpa dropped them from that position when they were kids.

In future blogs, I’ll give advice on ways to increase strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity so grandma and grandpa can be fit for duty.

Grandma Bear

My hands clenched the wheel in exactly the 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions as I drove my three year old granddaughter home from preschool. I had carefully strapped into her car seat, and worried a little that I might not have buckled her in safely. We were about ten minutes from her house when she suddenly said,

“Grandma, there’s a spider in the car!”

“Where?” I asked. I put my blinker on for the benefit of no one on this empty Seattle hill climb, and pulled to the side of the street. Taking a deep breath helped me not to follow my instinct, which was to fling open the car door and make a quick escape.

“It went across the windshield.”

“Was it a little spider or a big spider?”

“It was medium.”

This didn’t help my anxiety. I searched around the car, but saw no eight-legged creatures. Shaking, I pulled back onto the road. I willed the next few minutes to go by very quickly.

“Grandma,” I heard, waiting for her to tell me it was crawling up my seat.

“What, Sweet Pea?”

“Spiders are very good jumpers aren’t they?”

“Yes, they certainly are.”

I never did find that spider.

The urge for self-preservation is understandable—we all have it. It’s innate. Protecting your children, for most parents, overwhelms that urge. As a young mother I’d find myself feeling like a mother bear. The little girl who bit my daughter’s cheek doesn’t know that if I hadn’t made a sacred vow never to hit a child, she could have been smacked hard enough to send her flying across the room. For the same reason, the little boy who pushed my daughter on the jungle gym was saved from being tossed on his head by my instinct to protect all children. Over the years, my reactions have morphed into internal rage at anyone who makes one of my daughters unhappy. On the surface, I probably come across as sympathetic to my children’s issues, when I’d prefer to be plotting revenge against their aggressor.

I was surprised to discover that my urge to protect the young extended down to the next generation. I’m now a Grandma Bear. I still vow to practice self-restraint. If a child attacks my grandchild, I’ll get my grandchild to safety and perhaps have a talk with the aggressor’s caretaker. In situations of danger, real or perceived, I’ll make sure my grandchild is protected before I take care of my own safety. But I’ve made no sacred vows against harming little nasty things. Like the yellow jacket that hovered outside my granddaughter’s bedroom yesterday—squish!