The Casual Blog

Tag: exercise

This Saturday: irises, exercise, protest riots, Schoenberg, Indian food, and soccer

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

As usually happens when I travel, I picked up about three pounds, which I’d very much like to drop. Three isn’t a lot, but it can so easily become six, or twelve. And it’s so much easier to add than to subtract! With reducing in view, I’ve been focussing my exercise recently on fat burning, adding 15 minutes to my usual 30 of morning cardio, along with the usual resistance, core, and stretching. I’ve been doing various combinations of machines (elliptical, stairs, rowing, treadmill), classes (spinning, yoga), and outdoor running. On Saturday morning, I considered spinning at Flywheel or yoga at Blue Lotus, and decided to go to O2 for an aerobic martial arts-type class.

But first I went up to Raulston Arboretum, getting there a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. The big story this week was irises of various colors, boldly blooming, and still dewy when I got there. I spent an hour strolling and trying to capture their spirit, and then headed to the gym.

The exercise class was called Body Attack, and involved an hour of rhythmic footwork, punching, and kicking, to a throbbing club-type beat. I’m a highly non-violent person in real life, but I must admit, shadow boxing with a group is fun. I succeeded in sweating a lot and getting my heart rate into the mid-150s, and avoided either accidentally kicking or being kicked.
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After showering back home, I drove out to Cary for a haircut with Ann S, my hair cutter of many years. I always enjoy talking with Ann about our families and doings. Part of her news this time was sad: their 14-year-old dog had to be put to sleep this week. The diagnosis was liver failure. I mentioned that I’d been thinking of our sweet Stuart’s mortality (as I noted last week), and we both struggled to articulate what is lost when a beloved pet goes.
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On the way back to Raleigh, I stopped at Swift Creek Bluffs for a walk in the woods. It was muddy from recent rains, and most of the wildflowers were gone, but things were green and lively. The creek was burbling, and a wood thrush sang brilliantly. I ran into Matt J., a fellow photographer who knows a ton about wildflowers, and we talked about plants and cameras. I saw this little guy:

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

On the drive back, I made a stop at the Washaroo to get Clara a shower, and listened to NPR reports on the protest violence in Baltimore. I was not aware, since I almost never watch TV news, that the right-wing media had been demonizing the protests. That’s crazy! I think I have a pretty good idea why Baltimore’s poor blacks (like those in Ferguson and many other cities) were angry. I learned a lot from Alice Goffman’s excellent book, On the Run, which vividly lays out what it means to live in a city (in her case, Philadelphia) where the police take the view that you are either a criminal or potential criminal and constantly harass and intimidate you.

It’s a harsh reality. It is unusual to be able to have a normal job, a loving family, and a comfortable place to live, and usual to face violence from both police and gangs, poverty, and betrayal. A legal system organized around criminalizing recreational drugs and draconian punishment for violators is a basic part of the problem, but there are other layers, including police militarization and racism. The people who are the victims of this system mostly suffer in silence, and so middle class America is mostly oblivious to the depth of the problem.

But that may be changing. When people destroy their own neighborhoods, it’s a wake up call – we at least know something is very wrong, and maybe we wonder what it is. I was cheered this week to read a news story that the leading presidential candidates on both sides agree that the system of mass incarceration for minor crimes needs to be turned around. Can our political system fix this humanitarian disaster? Repealing overly harsh sentencing laws and ending the war on drugs would be a good start.
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In the afternoon, I read some and practiced the piano. At the moment, I’ve got on the workbench polishing and memorizing Chopin’s Preludes in C and G, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, Schumann’s Arabesque, Debussy’s Reverie, and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 1, while working on my first music by Arnold Schoenberg – his Six Little Piano Pieces. Schoenberg wrote this in 1911 and uses his famous twelve-tone system, which systematically avoids traditional harmony. It’s highly angular music, and not easy to love, but seems much more approachable to me now. I’m finding strangely haunting melodies, and a sensuality not so far from Debussy’s.

On Saturday evening we went to see the Carolina Railhawks play Tampa Bay at the soccer park in Cary. We enjoy our soccer outings, but figuring out a food option has been challenging. There is no healthy vegetarian food on sale, and our system of smuggling in a sandwich went down last season when they began checking in bags at the gate (and we had to consume our Jimmy John’s veggie special standing in the parking lot). Sally had read a review of a new southern Indian vegetarian restaurant on Chatham Street just past the soccer park, and we tried it out before the game. At Sri Meenakshi Bhavan, the chaats were delicious, and there was a great selection of dosas. The décor was purely functional, and there was no alcohol, but the price for this marvelous food ($35 for two) was most definitely right.

At the game, it was a bit chilly, and we were glad we’d brought our sweaters. There were some exciting sequences, but I left displeased with the Railhawks’ sloppiness. We were fortunate to get away with a 1-1 tie. I’m hoping it was just an off night, and not a step down from the high level of play of last season. I was also displeased with the broadcasting of local advertising by a booming PA system during the course of play. There were several such ads in the second period, which were very annoying. Who thought this was a good idea? I intend to complain.

More eye surgery, healthy habits, a gay marriage revelation, a new veggie restaurant, and the shame of the processed food industry

This week I had eye surgery to repair the effects of scar tissue from my previous eye surgery, with the understanding that there would probably be more surgery needed in future. And so in the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from an adult in remarkably good health with no history of hospitalization to a fairly experienced consumer of modern American medicine. There are, of course, some negatives, such as worry, fear, and pain, but I’m trying to stay positive. It’s a learning experience.

Most of my healthcare team at the Duke Eye Center, including nurses, orderlies, anesthesiologists, and doctors were surprisingly cheerful and supportive. The anesthesia was designed to keep me partially conscious, which it did, and so I was able to listen to the conversations of the team and the music they listened to (vintage rock, unfortunately). I was instructed to let them know if things hurt, and I did speak up a couple of times when it got fairly intense.

The operation involved removing scar tissue from my left retina and eye wall and reattaching the retina to the wall. It was an extremely delicate procedure and took about three hours. When Dr. Mruthyunjaya checked me the next day, he was pleased with the initial results, but noted that it would be some months before we’ll know how much vision I’ll have with that eye. At some point I’ll need cataract surgery as well. But that day I was able to see the top couple of lines of the eye chart, which was an enormous improvement from last check, when I couldn’t make out any letters at all.

Healthy Habits

I was banned from all strenuous exercise for at least a couple of weeks and possibly more. I’m not sure Dr. Mruthyunjaya appreciated that this was a fairly harsh sentence for a person like me, with a big exercise habit. Getting to the gym or other physical activity most every morning is something I just do. It makes me feel better for the rest of the day and is part of the long-term plan of staying healthy and happy. But I don’t think about the pluses and minuses at 5:15 a.m., which would be way too much work. It’s taken a long time to get to the point where exercise is almost automatic, and does not feel like dreary work. I don’t want to lose the habit.

With this partly in view, I decided to recommence my computer programming studies during the newly freed up early morning. I signed up with Codeacademy for their free online Python course. It should keep me in the habit of getting up early. So far, it’s been interesting and mostly fun, though also frustrating at occasional junctures when I get stuck. I’m thinking of it as a lot like learning Spanish: an exercise that at a minumum serves to stimulate the brain in a healthy way, and could turn into a skill that could come in handy.

Gay Marriage Switcheroo

Speaking of brains, in the news this week was a report that Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, had decided to switch from an opponent to a backer of gay marriage. His reason? His son came out as gay. I had two reactions to this:

1. good
and
2. you’ve got to be kidding me!

As to 1, I’m happy that Senator Portman has seen the light, and come to view gay people as entitled to the same civil rights as everyone else. But as to 2, coming to this view really shouldn’t depend on having a gay child!

All of us place special weight on the welfare of our loved ones, but that isn’t a very reliable starting place for broader moral reasoning or policy making. Otherwise, those with healthy families would have no concern for the less abled, and those in a majority race would ignore the rights of minorities. This would be a morality with severe myopia. I wonder how much conservative family values blather is accounted for by such myopia.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Senator Portman, who must surely possess more-than-usual courage to take issue with the conventional and rabid views of his party. We could all benefit from exercising our empathy muscles. Here’s a suggestion: what if we all spent five minutes a day imagining that a specific human in a group we generally dislike is our dearly beloved child? Our imaginations could extend the diameter of our circle of caring and feeling. This would be a good thing. I’ll go first, and try to think loving thoughts about a rightwing fringe Republican.

Trying a New Vegetarian Restaurant

Last night Sally and I tried Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh’s new vegetarian restaurant on Dawson Street. It was full when we got there, with a wait time of 45 minutes, which would exceed our usual supply of patience, but we found a place to stand near the bar and had some Chardonnay. The vibe was hip-funky, similar to Poole’s, but with a younger, edgier crowd — think tatoos, grad students, gays and lesbians, interracial couples, and even a few babies. Oh, and one middle-aged guy with a strangely red left eye swollen half-shut. The place hummed with the sound of many conversations.

The food was creative, with an emphasis on local seasonal ingredients. For appetizers, we had the wintery spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce and seasonal fritters, which had NC apples, spices, and bourbon-agave. We split two entrees, the sweet potato sushi rolls with sashimi tofu and braised tempeh with pesto grits. Every bite was tasty.

Shameful Goings on in the Processed Food Industry

It was really cheering to see a new vegetarian business in Raleigh doing so well. As regular readers know, I’m a big proponent of healthy, ethical eating, which is another habit that’s good for humans, and also fun. But there are powerful forces promoting unhealthy food. For evidence, see an op ed piece in today’s NY Times, by Michael Mudd, a former honcho with Kraft Foods, titled How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry.

As a former insider, Mudd seems credible when he characterizes the business of large food processors as “enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.” He describes how “relentless efforts were made to increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”

According to Mudd, “Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.”

Mudd also describes the food industry’s clever PR efforts to deflect attention and regulation, such as attributing the obesity epidemic to other factors. There are, of course, multiple factors, but none with the same despicable level of conscious intent. At the same time, they contend they are giving the victims “what they want.” These wants, of course, are the product of advertising and food engineering. (There was a very interesting piece in the Times magazine by Michael Moss a couple of weeks ago on the dark art of synthesizing junk foods that are almost irresistible.)

For solutions, Mudd proposes federal and state taxes on sugared beverages and snacks that undermine health, which would generate funds for education programs and subsidize healthy foods for low-income people. He also recommends mandatory federal guidelines for marketing foods to children and better food labeling. This makes sense.

Coping with pollen, trying Pilates, and news on how to eat to reduce cancer risks

Spring is definitely here, greener and greener and blossoms everywhere. Also here is a cloud of heavy yellow pine pollen settling on cars, including mine. The pollen surprises me every year. Last year it arrived the day after I got Clara detailed, and the pollen turned the beautiful dark blue car yellow. This year, I resolved to get the big spring car cleaning done well in advance of pine pollination, and got the full treatment from Dave of A to Z Auto Detailing. She looked great, until the pollen arrived, two days later. Pine trees, stop trying to impregnate Clara!

It was a homey week — no travel — and I got up early each day and had a work out done by 7:00 or 7:30. On Monday, I did intervals on the elliptical machine on the roof and then some weights and stretching. Tuesday I did forty minutes on the elliptical machine first, then went across the street to early bird yoga at Blue Lotus. Wednesday I went to Pullen Park pool and swam intervals and then stretched. A lifeguard complimented my stretch routine (though not, I noted, my swimming).

Friday I went to O2 gym at Seaboard Station for an hour-long RPM spinning class. Spinning means riding an exercise bike to loud music at the intensity the teacher directs, and it is much more demanding than it sounds. The teacher Friday was a substitute who was six months pregnant. At the start, I felt fairly confident that I could keep up with her, but in fact she kicked my butt. I predict her baby will be a champion.

Backing up, Thursday I had my third Pilates lesson at Evolve with Julee. What is Pilates? My friend Chuck and others had recommended it, but I found it hard to get a clear description. But I felt ready to try some new type of exercising. It’s good to shake things up from time to time. Meredith, my wonderful massage therapist, turned out to be a big Pilates fan, and she recommended Julee, whom she regarded as highly gifted.

Pilates is named for its inventor, a German named Joseph Pilates, who came up with his system early in the twentieth century. It involves various contraptions that he invented. It entails a particular way of breathing, of focusing on the core area, and of contracting various muscles. Yes, it could be yet another nutty exercise fad, but there seems to be more to it. I say this based on (1) my very limited experience trying it and (2) observing that Pilates students are exceptionally fit looking.

It seems to involve a sophisticated understanding of human biology, and as an experience it nicely balances the physical and the mental. As Julee has introduced me to the various exercises, I’ve found myself focusing hard on just one thing: the movements. I’m just starting to get my bearings on the system, but so far it seems stimulating in a healthy, fun way.

In other health news, there was an interesting news story this week on the health effects of aspirin. Two significant new British studies found that a daily dose of aspirin was associated with large reductions in cancer. One study found a 46% reduction in colon, lung, and prostate cancer, and both found large reductions in other common cancers. That’s huge!

I’d taken a baby aspirin for some time to reduce the risk of a heart attack, but quit after a recent study indicated that for healthy patients the heart benefits may not outweigh the risks. I was sufficiently impressed by the new studies to dig out my aspirin bottle and start taking the little pill again.

Also noteworthy is a NY Times report of a new study that eating red meat is associated with death from heart disease and cancer, with the risk increasing with increased consumption of meat. The study involved 121,342 men and women and data from 1980 to 2006. Each increase of meat consumption by three ounces increased the risk of death from cancer by 10 percent and death from cardiovascular disease by 16 percent. It sounds like, if the norm is six ounces of meat a day, eating no meat would reduce your cancer risk by 20 percent and cardiovascular disease by 32 percent. That’s also huge!

For some reason, the Times did not put this on the front page, or even as the lead item in the health section, but rather buried it deep in general news section. A new drug that dramatically reduced cancer and heart disease would surely have been treated as a major news event. I’d think this new study would be something most people would want to think about.

Of course, people generally don’t like hearing that their ingrained habits are unhealthy, and tune out news that causes dissonance, so I will leave the subject for now. On a more cheerful note, I will just mention that I greatly enjoyed listening to some Haydn symphonies on my iPod touch while exercising and doing other activities this week. I had sort of forgotten how wonderful they are. I was listening to numbers 100, 101, 103, and 104. Here’s the second movement of number 100. My recording, which I prefer, is by Christopher Hogwood directing the Academy of Ancient Music (on period instruments).

How to keep lost weight from coming back

Healthy snacks on the counter at Casa Tiller

Returning from travels over the holiday break, I stepped on the scales to find myself three pounds heavier. It always happens! I swear, though there were temptations aplenty, I was reasonably moderate in my eating and drinking. How amazing that the body can accumulate mass so quickly! Also, a little scary.

In recent years, I’ve not been much concerned with losing weight, but I’ve been working hard not to add it. This basically means being careful about eating and diligent about exercising. That sounds — so — boring! Even if you do it, who wants to hear about it!

Thus, I was interested to read the NY Times magazine piece titled The Fat Trap: Do You Have to Be Superhuman to Lose Weight? by Tara Parker-Pope. According to the article, sustaining a healthy weight after losing a lot of pounds is not just unusual — it’s extraordinary. Those who do it are a “tiny percentage.”

That’s a bummer, both for the individuals who struggle with their weight and for our health as a society. Scientists are trying to figure out why people usually gain back weight after losing it and what can be done about it. Meanwhile, as a member of the fortunate “tiny percentage”, I may have something helpful to contribute. I’ve previously posted about losing 50 pounds, but here are some additional thoughts specifically related to how I’ve kept that weight off for several years.

It isn’t easy, but it also isn’t impossible — obviously! In fact, the methodology is basically the same as any worthwhile achievement that takes sustained effort. If you’ve learned to play the piano, speak a foreign language, play golf, or whatever, you’ve probably already employed most of the same methods you need for ongoing weight control. You need to find your motivation, keep it simple, be empirical, and have fun.

1. Find your motivation. Actors talk about needing to find a character’s motivation to bring the character to life. Try it: ask yourself what you really want, and why. For anything that’s going to take a long, sustained effort, you’ll need a motive that carries real meaning for you — something that’s more important than simply feeling good right now. It helps to articulate it clearly. My own guiding motivation has to do with the battle with father time. More concretely, I’m working today to be able to ski the deep snow in the big mountains of Colorado and Utah when I’m in my eighties. The snow on the mountains is beautiful. I sometimes think of this in the very early morning when it’s still dark and I’m making myself go to the gym.

My friend in the gym on the roof -- the elliptical machine

2. Keep it simple. If a system is too complicated, it will not be sustainable. A good system is one you don’t have to think about very much once it’s in place. It involves turning good intentions into good habits. For myself, I have some simple rules that help in avoiding bad eating decisions, such as: no chips, no sodas, and no candy bars. For snacks, I put in place simple and nutritious substitutes, like apples, bananas, and baby carrots. If you are considering going vegetarian, I’ll note that one of its many benefits is helping to simplify the challenge of eating a healthy, less fattening diet. Anyhow, these types of snack choices have gradually become habitual for me, and as habits they don’t take much mental energy. Of course, there’s the countervailing powerful force of other lifelong personal habits, customs, traditions, and advertising tempting you to make bad eating choices. There will be slip ups — and hello, there’s three new pounds. Then you refocus, and move on.

3. Be empirical. Look at the available data, and consciously monitor how you feel. I bought a digital bathroom scale and use it every day. I watch food portions carefully, and notice whether I’m feeling too hungry or unenergetic. I have not adopted a single off-the-shelf theory of eating and exercise, because I think every body has somewhat different needs. What works for you may not work for me. You need to be experimental. If an approach isn’t working, chuck it, and try something else. If you test a healthy snack or an exercise approach that seems to work for you, try it again and see if it still works.

4. Be creative and playful. We’re talking about a long-term approach here, and if it is no fun, you will eventually give it up. Simple repetition is boring. Try out interesting new healthy foods and new exercises and sports. When traveling, I make it a little game in airports to find the least unhealthy meal, and to find something interesting to do in the little hotel gym. I vary activities over the course of a normal week, so that at the moment I alternate among the elliptical machine, the stationary bike, and swimming, and various types of resistance training. For more fun, I enjoy listening to music and reading while doing the elliptical. I’ve found that classes liven up the cycling experience. Every so often, I change the mix of activities and try something new.

So there you are, for whatever it’s worth. Having said all that, I’ll note again, sustaining weight loss isn’t easy. It takes conscious work every day and every meal. But it doesn’t have to be white-knuckle misery or boredom. The guidelines of motivation, simplicity, empiricism, and playfulness help. And developing skill with the guidelines could lead to other good things. They can be applied to any rewarding long-term objective, like learning a sport or a musical instrument.

Gary Player’s diet and exercise routine, and a few thoughts on yoga

One of the nice things about getting older is that you gradually worry less about being cool. You slowly realize it’s almost impossible to be old and cool, and give up on the idea. Letting go of such worry frees up some energy for more fun.

Age is tough on a body. Fight as we will, eventually we’ll all succumb. But I see no real choice but to fight. Over time I’ve become more dedicated to the battle for good health, though it occasionally strikes me that it could be viewed as hopeless, ridiculous, or both. A middle-aged white guy sweating — for what? It’s certainly not cool.

Thus I was cheered and inspired this week by an account of Gary Player’s fitness program now that he’s 75. As golfers know, Player is a legendary player, with more than 160 tournament victories. In his prime, the man was known to be serious about exercise, and he still is. His routine involves 1,000 sit ups and push ups every morning. He does lunges and squats, works with weights, and runs, swims, and does stairs. As for diet, Player says that it’s 70 percent of the fitness puzzle. He eats a mostly vegetarian diet heavy in fruits and vegetables, and aims for portions about half the size he used to eat. He says he has more energy since he cut the meat, and his stomach works better.

I also have found that a diet of moderate portions of plant foods is energizing. And so is regular morning exercising. Lately I’ve been noticing how during most of my waking hours I feel really good, and feeling grateful for it.

I’m especially grateful to my yoga teachers (Yvonne, Suzanne, Kathleen, Jill, and others). Over the past couple of years, yoga has gradually insinuated itself into my life, and has become a good friend. Lately I’ve been doing two or three classes a week at Blue Lotus. Every teacher and every class of every teacher is different. Some classes are quite arduous (think high heart rates and lots of sweat) with an element of risk, and some are very slow and calm.

When I began, I’d expected that yoga would help my flexibility and balance, which it has, but it has done some other good things that I hadn’t expected. It has made me a better breather and more conscious of the significance of breath. It has helped my focus and concentration. And it has made me view relaxation as an essential element of good health.

There’s also something pleasing about exercising in a class. It’s sometimes humbling but often inspiring to see so much strength and grace in the group as it moves together. I like the sound of people breathing in unison. It’s good to be with people who are committed to taking good care of their bodies. And it’s fun.