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Jill Barker: Woman of action
|PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris|
Jill Barker isn't one to sit around getting bleacher butt. When her kids are busy playing sports, McGill's new fitness coordinator in the Department of Athletics doesn't stay and watch. Instead, she laces up and goes for a run.
"If your kid has a hockey practice every Saturday morning, it's a perfect time to go for a walk, run or cycle," says the mother of three. "There's lots of hidden time during the day that people don't take advantage of."
A weekly fitness columnist with The Gazette and contributing editor to Homemaker's Magazine, Barker previously worked with the Lester B. Pearson School Board, John Abbott College and Champlain Regional College. She earned a diploma in recreation and leisure studies from Dawson College in 1978 and a Bachelor of recreation and leisure studies from Concordia in 1985.
She is now responsible for the athletics department's Active Living program featuring non-credit physical education courses for staff and students.
Convincing people to sign up isn't the hard part -- classes are sold out. It's getting them to stay; about half of participants drop out in the first three weeks.
"You won't speak to many people who aren't interested in getting in shape," Barker says. "The real challenge is to get them to stick around." She suggests trying out different activities until you find one you like.
She also recommends exercising earlier in the day to avoid getting busy with other things and skipping the workout. "If you plan it for 4 pm, lots can happen to get in the way. Less can get in the way at 6 am."
She also says it's important not to put a time limit on how long you plan to work out. "Every little bit counts. If you only have 30 minutes, it's still better than sitting at your desk. I read somewhere that exercise is like spare change -- a little bit adds up."
Barker admits that it can be hard to feel comfortable jumping up and down in an aerobics class or lifting weights after you've just climbed off the couch to start exercising. To avoid the intimidation factor of being around a bunch of buff bodies, start getting into shape before heading to the gym.
"Form the habit on your own of going for a walk or getting on your bike so that you don't have to feel like a doofus in the back of the class," Barker says. "I'm not talking about running-marathon shape, I just mean being able to sustain an hour's walk at a decent pace."
That can be accomplished in a more subtle way by parking the car or getting off the bus a bit further away from your destination and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
"Physical activity doesn't just happen in Lycra and running shoes," she points out. "People are always looking for someone to shovel the walk for them but they don't hire someone to watch television for them."
Yoga, Pilates and fitness balls seem to be the most popular ways to get in shape. "It used to be that you did exercises for your abdominal muscles and for your back in isolation. Now the trend is to have them working as a team," Barker explains.
Pilates is done on a mat with exercises that are partly stretching and partly strengthening. "If you are lying on your back and lifting your leg towards the ceiling, you have to do it with no wobbling from side to side. It must be a very controlled movement and requires strength, coordination and body movement."
If jumping around in an aerobics class or lying on your back with your leg in the air isn't your thing, there's always swimming, running and team sports. Barker hopes to attract more men to the staff fitness program, have a running club and some "play and learn" activities like volleyball, basketball and golf.
The opportunity to combine work and exercise was too good to pass up when the job at McGill came along.
"To be totally honest, it couldn't be a better job for me," she says. "I go for my runs at lunch and, believe it or not, it's an important part of the job for me to be able to fulfill my own fitness goals."
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Collegiality through chemistry
If it weren't for their daughters taking dance class together, Debbie Moskowitz and Simon Young might never have collaborated on a study on social behaviour. After all, what could a social psychologist and a neurochemist have in common?
Moskowitz, a psychology professor, had long pondered how to measure social interaction. So she'd developed tools to look at two axes in social conduct, that of agency, or power, measuring dominance/submission, and the affiliative axis of agreeableness/quarrelsomeness.
Dominant behaviour can include setting goals for others or taking initiative, where submissive behaviour includes not voicing an opinion, or waiting for others to act.
Quarrelsomeness can be measured by disagreeable behaviour like sarcasm, or purposefully giving incorrect information. Moskowitz found these behaviours change with hierarchy, and even have cyclical patterns.
So once, while waiting for their kids, Moskowitz asked Young, "Why don't we play around with this neurochemically?"
Enter tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin in the brain. Young, a psychiatry professor, was familiar with studies showing that monkeys who lose dominance have lower serotonin levels. Likewise, if monkeys have higher levels of serotonin in the brain, they demonstrate affiliative behaviour by grooming each other more often.
So, along with Gilbert Pinard, David Zuroff and Lawrence Annable, they waded into the field of sociopharmocology. Would raised serotonin levels affect normal people's social behaviour? Would it increase dominant and agreeable behaviours, and perhaps reduce quarrelsome ones?
Participants took either tryptophan or a placebo 12 days running, nothing for two days, then switched. Several times a day, they filled out a form shortly after social interactions, giving a description of what just happened (Was it with an employer, or a friend? Who was around?) and ticking off statements that applied. For example, did they make suggestions, raise their voice, listen attentively? Did they feel happy, frustrated or blue?
The forms worked like a charm. The researchers saw that tryptophan led to a decrease in quarrelsome behaviour and an increase in dominance.
Although dominance gets a bad rap in our society, Moskowitz reminds us that good leaders can be congenial. The best CEOs, for instance, influence others, while maintaining warmth. As Young says, "If we can show the world it's possible to be dominant and agreeable at the same time, it can only be a good thing."
Moskowitz wonders if tryptophan can be used to start cycles of positive behaviour, and wants to study how people respond to tryptophan takers.
Even though it didn't raise agreeableness in their nice, normal participants, Moskowitz and Young hope to look at the effects of tryptophan on disagreeable characters, people who are quarrelsome and irritable. With these research tools, they can hone in on previously immeasurable conduct.
So the next time a co-worker makes some snarky comment, just tell him to lighten up and take some trypto.
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