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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Keeping Tabs on the Mermaid -- Trying out the Shine Activity Tracker

A few months ago, I came across an article in the New Yorker about a treadmill desk.  The article highlighted the health benefits of moving around (and the risks of being sedentary).  While I am not ready to invest in a treadmill desk or a desk cycle, I do spend way too much time sitting during the week, and I wanted to increase my activity.  I used to have a pedometer, but I found it a little clunky and inaccurate.  Technology has improved, and there are now a variety of electronic activity trackers on the market.  I wanted something simply designed that would track my activity accurately, sync to my phone, and give me a little nudge to get up and walk around (or swim around).

I did some research and narrowed my search down to three candidates -- the Fitbit One, the Weight Watchers Active Link, and a newer product called the Shine.  All of them have gotten good reviews from sources that I trust.  I needed a device that I could wear in the pool (all of these work in the water) and that I could clip to my bra or swimsuit (for the boys, you can also clip it to your shirt or waistband).  A lot of my friends have the Fitbit Flex bracelet.  If you are into the whole plastic bracelet look, then that is a good option, but to me it kind of screams house arrest couture.  

The Fitbit syncs wirelessly to your computer, tablet or smartphone by bluetooth.  It tracks a lot of data (and includes a heart monitor, as well as tracking your sleep and activity) and allows you to track your food intake.  It also gives you inspirational/encouraging messages and has a social media component.  It costs around $100 (depending which model you choose).  The One is pretty simple and unobtrusive.  I thought that the inspirational messages would drive me crazy and I was worried the social media component might play to my competitive instincts (which is not a good thing).  I am also a bit of a hypochondriac, so between the heart monitor and the sleep monitor, I would be self-diagnosing myself with sleep apnea, heart issues, etc.  So the Fitbit was not for me.

Since I am pretty much permanently on Weight Watchers (it seems to be working), I thought about the Active Link.  A couple of people in my Aqua Boot Camp class have them.  It is similar to the Fitbit, but the big advantage is that it syncs to the Weight Watchers points system, which makes it a little easier to track activity points.  The device itself is about $59, but there is also a monthly fee of about $6.  I thought this might add up quickly (and would have me permanently wedded to WW).  My friends who have it like it, though.

When I was doing my research this spring, I read about the Shine, which was being developed by a company called Misfit Wearables.  The company was founded on the day that Steve Jobs died, and the name pays homage to Apple's "Think Different" campaign, which began, "Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes."  I am a loyal Apple fan and a little bit of a square peg.  

One of the company's founders is the former CEO of Apple, and the device was "crowdfunded" through Indiegogo (the founders set out to raise $100,000 and raised 8 times that amount).  I spent the early part of my career advising tech startups, so I was intrigued by the story.  For me, however, the Shine won out on a combination of good design and functionality.  

Note -- the Shine is only compatible with iOS, not Android.  

I ordered the device online for about $119, and it arrived in two days.  

The Shine is made of metal and is about the size of a quarter -- it is simple and elegant (looking at it, you would not know it is an activity tracker).  

It is waterproof and is even designed to withstand accidental trips through the washing machine.  In my house, it is more likely to meet its demise in cat toy limbo (somewhere behind the couch).  The cats investigated within ten seconds of my having popped it out of its packaging.  So far, it has evaded becoming a puck in the daily feline hockey matches in my apartment.

The Shine is powered by a watch battery, which pops in easily (they include a tool to open the device).  

I downloaded the Shine App for my iPhone and popped the Shine into its magnetic clip (it also comes with a bracelet) and I was in business.

The device allows you to choose initially from three levels of activity -- I chose the moderately active setting -- the equivalent of 1 hour of walking/day (around 8000 steps).  You can adjust your activity level as you go.  

You can wear it on your chest, your wrist or your shoe (depending on your activity), and the algorithm adjusts based upon how you wear it.  To sync the device, you place it on your iPhone and tap it (and it updates).  

In this respect, it is a little less convenient than the Fitbit, which syncs continuously.  You can also track your progress by tapping it -- here is how it looks when I am a third of the way to my daily goal:

It gives you a rough visual idea of how you are progressing toward your goal.  I am not sure exactly how it works (there is a lot of information on the website).  The founders have experience in wearable medical devices (including glucose meters that sync to iPhones), so I feel like there is some science behind the elegant design. 

So far, so good.  On a "normal" day, I can meet my activity goal by walking to and from the subway, getting up every hour to walk around for a few minutes, walking around a little at lunchtime, and adding a 15 minute walk at the end of the day.  On days when I add an exercise class, I exceed my goal.

It seems to track walking and water aerobics very accurately.  It had a little trouble with deep water running, but it did note that I was very active during my class.  I like that it keeps track of your activity on a weekly basis -- in a given week, I have been exceeding my goal, even with one or two less active days.

Because it's still new, I definitely feel like a beta user, but so far I'm happy.  For me, it is enough information and I can increase my activity gradually and it's giving me positive reinforcement to keep moving (at my own pace).  I'll keep you posted on my progress.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Spinning my Wheels: The Mermaid Bikes Underwater at Aqua Studio

About five seconds into my Aqua Cycling class at Aqua Studio, I developed a sudden awareness of my quadricep muscles.  Five minutes in, I discovered that it's possible to sweat in a pool.

After months of procrastinating, I decided to try Aqua Cycling.  I enjoy cycling (despite the fact that my own bike has been hanging unused in my hall closet for 8 years) and I love the water.  Spinning always intimidated me.  My old boss, who biked to lower Manhattan from his home in northern New Jersey on a regular basis, used to take spinning classes during lunch time.  He was in incredible shape.  I thought about trying it but it seemed a bit intimidating -- the din of the bicycles, the high volume of spandex, the screaming instructors with their headsets.  But in my quest to find new water workouts I was undeterred.  I wanted to bring my friend Bonbon, the neurologist/stroke specialist, with me -- in case I passed out in the pool.  I had a window of opportunity this week.  Bonbon was on call, but I went anyway.

Aqua Studio opened several months ago to a wave of publicity.  It is the brainchild of Esther Gauthier, a French woman.  Apparently, aqua spinning is popular in France.

From the moment I walked into the gorgeous studio on Franklin Street, I sort of wanted to live there.  The ground floor is beautiful and minimalist, with dark wooden floors and a glass enclosed stairway leading down to the locker room and the pool.  I had booked the class online.  The receptionist greeted me warmly.  Aqua Studio requires that you rent clear jelly pool shoes for the class (for a $2 rental fee).  I am blessed with freakishly large feet, so I was worried that they wouldn't have shoes to fit me -- I was pleasantly surprised that they had an ample supply in all sizes (including mine).  Shoes and towel in hand, I descended the glass enclosed stairway.  The locker room is tasteful and spotless.  I stashed my belongings in a locker (they provide keys for the lockers) and made my way to the pool,

where I was greeted by name by the instructor, Ava.

There were only a few students, and I was the only newbie.  The pool area is simply designed, with a concrete deck.  We hopped in the pool, which was comfortably warm.  Ava asked whether I had any injuries and showed me how to adjust the height and position of the seat, and gave me a brief orientation (advising on how to avoid putting undue pressure on my knee).  Strangely enough, I felt a little seasick standing in the pool adjusting the bike (it was a weird sensation to focus on a fixed metal object in the midst of undulating water).  I was fine once I was on the bike.  The sturdy bikes, which are Italian, are made of stainless steel.

Ava dimmed the lights (there were candles by the pool) and cranked up the music.  We started by cycling and moving our arms around in the water.  Then we did variations of several moves.  We would stand up on the bike and pedal in one of two positions -- high jump and low jump -- Ava was in the pool with us so it was a bit hard to see what we were actually supposed to be doing.   There was a bike up on the deck.  It would have been helpful to have her demonstrate some of the moves on land.  That said, I appreciated that she was in the pool sweating along with us.  I found it a little hard to stand and pedal in the water -- the movement was a little choppy at first, and I was worried about my knee.  I kept up for awhile but I ended up spending a lot of the class sitting on the seat and pedaling furiously.  We did some occasional sprints.  For the most part, it was like spinning on land, with one exception.

At several points during the class, Ava instructed us to stand up.  Keeping our feet in the stirrups of the bike pedals, we had to lift and vault ourselves over and behind the bike seat, where we would float.  Once in that position, we were to continue pedaling while moving our arms as if we were doing the breast stroke.  To do this properly, you need to fully engage your abs.  I managed to maneuver back and forth over the seat successfully, but I was terrified of banging my head on the side of the small concrete pool, so I held onto the seat (for dear life) with one arm and moved the other (alternating arms).  Toward the end of the class, I was brave enough to let go and try it with both arms.  I stroked along smoothly until one of my feet flew out of its stirrup -- at that point I reverted to the one arm method.

We pedaled consistently for about 40 minutes and ended the class with a cooldown and stretch to Adele's Skyfall.

The Aqua Cycling workout has been compared by some to getting a massage -- the Aqua Studio website claims that you will sleep better after the workout.  I would not say it is like a massage (the workout basically kicked my -- er -- mermaid tail).  I will say that I felt really great when I got out of the pool.  I slept like a rock that night.

Would I try it again?  Maybe.

If you already like spinning, you will probably love it.  The classes are a bit expensive (a trial class was $34 and an individual class is $40 after that).  It's about the cost of a class at Soul Cycle.  I was probably the oldest person there by a couple of years (and the next class was full of a gaggle of spandex-clad 20 somethings).  For me, I think it will be an occasional splurge.  I definitely worked some muscles that I hadn't used in awhile and I noticed that I was faster in my next deep water running class.  I didn't love it enough to make it part of my regular routine, but I am going to get my bike tuned up and take it for a spin in the park -- the cycling really seemed to help my knee.  And next time I go to Aqua Cycling I'll bring some friends.

A few other points:

- Most of the classes at Aqua Studio are for women only (this is because they only have one locker room).  They have added two Saturday afternoon classes for men.  You can check the schedule on the website.

- Aqua Studio is located at 78 Franklin Street, between Church and Broadway, across the street from (in dangerously close proximity to) Billy's Bakery, which has some of the best cupcakes in Manhattan.  After my grueling workout, through a surprising act of sheer will power, I resisted the temptation to pop into Billy's for a banana cupcake.  Instead, I treated myself to a cab ride home.

A bientôt mes amis!

- MM

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cat on an Underwater Treadmill

I saw this on several news outlets today - Buddha, a 31 pound cat, exercising on an underwater treadmill (see video here).  I don't judge - go Buddha!  The poor thing sounds unhappy but he's lost weight and is apparently more spry.  I am not trying this with my cat.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Mermaid on Dry Land Part 1: Vancouver Foodie Tour

As I mentioned in my previous post, Vancouver is home to the longest pool in Canada.  I spent most of my vacation on dry land, frolicking with my friend the White Rabbit, her husband the Red Rabbit, and the wee Pink Rabbit.  Since we had all been there before, we didn't feel obliged to hit all the major tourist spots, but we covered a lot of ground (mostly on foot).  We saw enough that I'm breaking it up into a few posts.  For me, it had all the elements of a perfect vacation -- good friends, good food, and handbags (which will be covered in Part 2).

Vancouver Foodie Tours: World's Best Street Eats Tour

Vancouver is home to a number of great restaurants, but the burgeoning gourmet food truck scene in downtown Vancouver is a major source of local pride.  Prior to 2010, city regulations only permitted food carts in Vancouver to sell hot dogs, roasted chestnuts and sodas.  Seizing on the food cart trend, a savvy politician pushed through changes in local law that year (allowing licensing of a wider variety of mobile food options) and there are now more than 100 food trucks in downtown Vancouver.  Licenses are doled out through a competitive process (in which food bloggers play a role).  As foodies, the Rabbits and I decided to try Vancouver Foodie Tours "World's Best Street Eats Tour" (CAN $49 for a 2-hour tour, including food tastings -- tour schedules and other information are available on their website).  We met our well-informed tour guide, Andrew, in front of the Japadog cart on Smith and Burrard.



Japadog was created by a Japanese ex-advertising executive who came to Vancouver with dreams of starting a food business.  They offer a variety of hot dogs (including seafood and vegetarian options) from several carts and one storefront in Vancouver.  They also have a shop on St. Mark's Place in New York City, which is sort of a dangerous discovery for me.  I didn't know that hot dogs are the White Rabbit's guilty food pleasure.  We split a Kurobata Mayo dog topped with teriyaki, Japanese mayo (insanely tasty -- and I don't normally like mayo), onions and shredded nori (seaweed).  Looks a little scary but it was delicious (good blend of Asian flavors and textures and delicious high-quality sausage).

The White Rabbit with the Japadog!
The Mermaid...

Food vendors have to go through a rigorous selection process to secure locations in Vancouver, and they are subject to random inspections -- so the trucks were all very clean.

After walking through Robson Square,

we stopped at Mom's Grilled Cheese (where we didn't actually get to try grilled cheese -- we had some homemade mint and ginger lemonade, which was lightly carbonated and not too sweet -- I found it really refreshing).  The proprietress, Cindy Hamilton, used to run craft services trucks for film shoots (including for the film Kill Bill, in China, for which she was a stand-in for Uma Thurman).  The sandwiches looked and smelled amazing, with nicely toasted bread oozing with cheese.

The Pig on the Street cart, next to the grilled cheese truck, looked tasty (but we did not try it).  We trundled over to the nearby Eat Chicken Wraps truck and had one of my favorite tastings of the tour -- a hoisin chicken roll (five spiced organic chicken, hoisin and veggies wrapped in a crispy Chinese pancake).

The combination of flavors was spot on, and I liked the contrast of the crispy pancake and the fresh spring onions.  The chicken wraps are prepared by a husband and wife team (Danny Mei and Sammy Ma) using fresh organic ingredients.  Yum.

Next, we hit the Soho Road Naan Kebab truck, next to the Vancouver City Sky Train station, where we sampled some delicious butter chicken and freshly baked naan (they actually bake naan in the truck, and the kindly chef gave the Pink Rabbit some extra naan to nosh on).

The chicken was moist and tender, and the naan was fresh and delicious.  Soho Road gets bonus points for friendliness (and the food was great).

Finally, we made our way down to Le Tigre, where we tried some really delicious Asian inspired roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower (delicious) and I had beet fries (so-so -- I was allergic to the other option, which was shellfish based).  The chef at Le Tigre can be identified by his signature Hello Kitty glasses.

We convinced him to let us try on the glasses.  >^..^<

We finished up with Chocolate Diablo cookies from the Tacofino truck (chocolate with a hint of chili -- really good -- crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside).

The tour was worthwhile.  Andrew is a trained chef, and gave us a lot of history about Vancouver's food trucks.  He is an accountant by day, so he also provided a lot of information on the economics of the food truck business (I suspect a lot of people fantasize about opening food trucks -- it is definitely a tough business).  Vancouver Foodie Tours also gets bonus points from me for making accommodations for food allergies and dietary restrictions (a couple of us had shellfish allergies and there were two vegetarians in the mix -- the tour organizer could not have been more gracious).  We also met some nice fellow foodies on the tour.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Longest Pool in Canada (Vancouver Adventures with the White Rabbit)

I am a lifelong New Yorker, but every once in awhile I visit a city that makes me wonder why I continue to deal with the chaos that is NYC.  Vancouver is such a city (but -- no need to worry New York friends -- just when I think I'm ready to leave, NYC reels me back in).  Vancouver is urbane, clean, beautiful, healthy and friendly (with really superb Asian food and excellent public transport).

I recently spent a week in Vancouver meeting up with my Chinese-Canadian doppleganger, the White Rabbit (along with her husband, the Red Rabbit, and their adorable toddler daughter, the Pink Rabbit).  The White Rabbit and I worked together in London years ago and we've stayed in touch ever since thanks to email and Skype.  She lives in Hong Kong at the moment, so Vancouver seemed like a good meeting spot, until I can get over to Hong Kong for a visit.  We had some great adventures in Vancouver, mostly food related -- I am writing them up in a separate post.  

This was my second trip to Vancouver.  I was there briefly in May 1999 for the Vancouver International Half Marathon, which I finished in a freezing, driving, and bone-chilling rain (and then got right onto a red-eye to New York, stopping over en route at LAX for a coffee with my old friend NeNe).  I saw very little of Vancouver on that trip, other than the race route.  My memories of the 1999 trip were clouded by jet lag -- I got off that red-eye and went straight to jury duty -- I ended up falling asleep on a hard wooden bench in the jury room at 60 Centre Street for the better part of the first afternoon.

This time, the weather was more cooperative -- it was gorgeous, sunny and warm the whole week I was there.  I was determined to stick to my water exercise routine and also did a lot of walking, which balanced out some slightly unhealthy eating during my vacation.  I had no trouble finding affordable and convenient water exercise classes in Vancouver.  As luck would have it, we were staying within walking distance of the Kitsilano Pool.

At 137 meters long the Kits Pool is purportedly the longest pool in Canada and the only outdoor salt water pool in Vancouver.  During the summer months, they offer Aqua Fit classes several times a week (including 6 pm classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and morning classes on Saturdays and several other weekdays).  A day pass to the pool, including the class, was $5.67 (Canadian).  There are other options and passes for residents and longer-term visitors.  The pool was lovely and immaculate and the views were stunning.  

I enjoyed the fresh air and the spectacular mountain vista.  By contrast, in New York, I typically work out in windowless basement pools.  

The local folks were very friendly, unpretentious and helpful.  I queued up for the first class behind a gentleman with a long ponytail and a walking stick, sporting a full length kimono and a messenger bag from an origami conference (yes, I was definitely on the West Coast).  He was really nice and explained some of the ins and outs of the pool (i.e., how to avoid crashing into the lap swimmers).  

I went to two evening classes while I was there (I dragged the White Rabbit along to the first one).  The teacher, Ashley, was a bit like the energizer bunny -- we spent about 45 minutes jumping around to a good mix of pop music, and then stretched and did arm exercises for about 15 minutes.  It was an active class (men and women, young and old) -- the White Rabbit and I had to move to avoid a young guy who was splashing/flailing around enthusiastically.  The pool holds up to 1800 people and there were about 100 people in the Wednesday night class (the Friday class was a little smaller -- it was a bit chilly by that point).  It was incredibly orderly.  There were no ropes separating the lap swimmers from the exercise class, but everyone got along without any mishaps.  The locker facilities were clean and a little old school (stainless steel lockers with keys that attach to your swimsuit with giant orange safety pins).  

After the Friday class, I enjoyed the sunset, a glass of local white wine and some delicious salmon (and shared a decadent piece of strawberry ice cream pie) with the Rabbits at the Boathouse at Kitsilano Beach.  The setting was lovely and it was also very child friendly (they had high chairs and a kids' menu).

Unfortunately, the Kitsilano Pool is only open during the summer months, but there are other options.  The Vancouver Aquatics Centre, centrally located next to the Burrard Street Bridge, is open year round (it was closed for renovation during my week in Vancouver).  From the outside, it looks a bit like a bunker.  It has a 50 meter pool and offers a variety of classes (again, very reasonably priced).  The Aquatics Centre at the University of British Columbia also offers a variety of aqua fitness classes, which are open to the public -- a drop in pass is $6.30 (Canadian) and there are other options for multiple visits, season passes, etc.  There are also several other public pools (indoor and outdoor) listed on the City of Vancouver Parks, Recreation and Culture website.  They offer a range of classes (including deep water exercise classes at several sites).

I was really impressed at how easy it was to find a variety of inexpensive, accessible and fun aqua fitness classes (NYC has a bunch of public pools, but offers fewer water exercise classes in its public pools).  We could learn a bit from our friends to the north.  After two wonderful weeks of vacation, I am headed back to work tomorrow.