Take intelligent, calculated risks.  A no-risk life will age you.

What, me worry?

February 10th, 2016

Hakuna.matata4And then there’s the morning (this morning) when instead of awakening to take a deep belly breath and stretch your limbs and luxuriate in the softness of the flannel sheets against your skin and feel the warmth of the body next to you, you instead awaken to hear a mind already chattering with petty worry and negative thoughts: You have so much work to do today…and how much of that work really matters to you…and why aren’t you filling your hours with what does matter…and why did you read Martha Stewart Living last night instead of starting that book on prison reform you should be reading…and the garage is overflowing with returnable bottles…and how come this new blogsite you’ve been talking about for six months isn’t up yet…and oh, sweetie, just in case you momentarily forgot, you somehow (well, you know how) gained five pounds since Christmas.

Welcome to the Black Hole Zone.

Astronomically speaking, a black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out.

Uh huh.

A place where no light can get out. Did you get that?

Have you been there? Of course you have.

What does one do to stop the chatter, to dig out of the hole? (Okay, I know you can’t dig yourself out of a Black Hole, but just stay with me.)

There’s the “count your blessings” approach. Yes, we all should, especially those of us who have so many. There’s a “daily affirmations” approach. Yes, positive self-talk is a good thing. You go, girl. Both of these strategies are lovely. But, for me, a little cheesy, a smidge bumperstickery.

There’s the “stop digging” approach. Here’s a turn-of-the-phrase truism I heard on the radio the other day: The best way to dig yourself out of a hole is to stop digging. I like that one. Translation: Just (don’t) do it.

I prefer either of these strategies:
1. The sweat it out approach. Brainless bliss in the exercise studio or on the forested hike or the long-distance bike ride. It quiets the mind and lifts the spirits.
2. The fake it ‘til you make it approach. Pretend you’re not worried. Turn that frown upside down. (Yes, you may groan.) Burst into song. You know which one. At some point, the pretense becomes real. I know that sounds psychologically problematic, but I’m pretty sure this is what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is about. A nicer way of stating this approach is: Believe you can do it (transcend stupid worries, for example); act as if you are already doing it. And you end up doing it.

And you?

Packaged foods?  Oh no you don’t.  Unless you want trans fats, refined grains, HFCS.

Use your words

February 3rd, 2016

WordsSometimes I think English is the richest of languages: a murder of crows, a sleuth of bears, an exaltation of larks. I mean, really, it doesn’t get much better than that.

But it does.

It turns out that other languages have emotionally enriching words that are sadly lacking in English. A University of East London researcher is investigating non-English words for positive emotions and concepts that have no direct translation in English. Although certainly one can feel an emotion without having a name for it, having a name captures the emotion, shines a light on it, preserves it, makes it sharable. What Tim Lomas, the researcher, says is that if you don’t have a way of identifying a specific feeling it “becomes just another unconceptualized ripple in the ongoing flux of subjective experience.”

I don’t know about you, but I am not partial to unconceptualized ripples.

So here is a sampling of what Lomas has found so far. You may want to boost your vocabulary with these words:

Gula (Spanish) the desire to eat simply for the taste
Mbukimvuki (Bantu) “to shuck off one’s clothes in order to dance”
Schnapsidee (German) coming up with an ingenious plan when drunk
Volta (Greek) leisurely strolling the streets
Gokotta (Swedish) waking up early to listen to bird song
Gumusservi (Turkish) the glimmer that moonlight makes on water
Gigil (Philippine Tagalog) the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
Firgun (Hebrew) saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
Sprezzatura (Italian) when all art and effort are concealed beneath a “studied carelessness”

I think there ought to be word for how muscles feel when they are toasty and pliant and well-used.

I think there ought to a word for the wave of well-er-than-well feeling that floods the body during a brisk walk on a bright February morning.

I think there ought to be a word for that rush of surprise and pleasure when discovering a bag of last summer’s hand-picked blueberries at the back of the freezer.

Because those are the words I would use to describe this morning.

BANISH white sugar and white flour from your life. And rejoice!  (Good riddance to bad rubbish.)

Leave it at the door

January 27th, 2016

worryIt’s early morning — steel gray skies, steady light rain (yes, western Oregon in January. Also February, March and probably April) – and I’m in the car on my way to the 7:30 Barre3 class. I am worrying about the presidential election and what if Donald Trump gets elected and I have to move to Canada. I am worrying about whether my daughter is going to be offered this baking job she wants and does the cat have worms and what’s that strange clicking I hear coming from the engine and wasn’t I supposed to get my yearly cholesterol check like two months ago. I am worrying that I worry too much.

I find a parking space on Broadway and I walk across the street, worrying that I forgot to put shampoo in my bag. I open the door and stuff my coat (it’s getting ratty…should I invest in a new one?) and purse (uh oh, did I remember my cellphone from the car?) in a cubby, ditch my boots (I should really get them re-heeled), and walk barefoot into the studio. I find my place at the barre.

We start with deep breaths, then neck stretches, then cat-cows. We are eight beats into step-tapping to Edge of Glory when I suddenly realize that I am not worrying any more. I realize that I am not in my head any more. The realization zips by in an instant, evaporates, disappears because, well, I am not in my head any more. I am in horse pose doing plié-relevées. I am in chair doing tricept kickbacks.  I am planking. I am my body.

This, really, is the glory of physical exertion. For years – decades – I exercised with my focus on the long game: bone strength, cardiovascular health, weight control. All important, oh yes, but it was all about the future, about the distant rewards, about body parts and mechanics. My deep investment in long-term goals all but blinded me – or at least caused me to take for granted — the immediate gratification one gets from movement and exertion: the infusion of energy, the sense of well-being, the elevated mood. And the insistent, chattering internal do-it-it’s-good-for-you monolog robbed me of the real-time experience of moving in my body. Of being in my body. Of scouring my mind of worry and thought.

And, like this morning, of moving, just moving.

Have a plan.  Have a Plan B.  Flexibility and resilience are hallmarks of a youthful life.

2-4-6-8 Don’t be so quick to correlate

January 20th, 2016

EATING OR DRINKING    IS LINKED TO           P-VALUE
Raw tomatoes                       Judaism                        <0.0001
Egg rolls                                  Dog ownership           <0.0001
Energy drinks                       Smoking                        <0.0001
Potato chips                          Higher score
                                                   SAT math v verbal      <0.0001
Soda                                         Weird rash                    <0.0002
Shellfish                                 Right-handedness      <0.0002
Fried/breaded fish             Democrat                       <0.0007
Beer                                         Frequent smoking      <0.0013
Coffee                                      Cat ownership              <0.0016
Salt                                           Likes ISP                        <0.0014
Steak w fat trimmed          Atheism                          <0.0030
Bananas                                 Higher score
                                                   SAT verbal v math      <0.0073
Cabbage                                  Innie bellybutton         <0.0097

This spurious [and pretty damn funny] correlations table is from a smart, thoughtful article recently posted on FiveThirtyEightScience. It’s about why it is so very difficult to get trustworthy, consistent information about diet and nutrition.

Here’s the problem. Or rather, the problems:

There’s lack of consensus about what makes for a healthy diet. Yep, it’s that basic. There are raw foodists and calorie-restrictors, vegans and paleos, gluten-frees and dairy-frees, Mediterranean fans and Asian followers. There’s scientific evidence to support the health benefits of all these regimens. No one is making a case for a high-sugar, low-fiber, processed food diet, but the inclusion (or exclusion) of meat (yes beef, no beef? grass fed?), dairy (milk no, but yogurt yes?), various grains (demon wheat, angelic quinoa?), fruit (blueberries as panacea?), vegetables (kale kale kale…really?), coffee (no! yes!) all get big media attention, millions of adherents – and (confusingly) credible research backing.

That’s because scientific research on diet and nutrition is flawed. I’m not talking about the Beef people tweaking numbers or the Dairy lobby funding its own studies. I am talking about the underlying method used by top-notch researchers. Studies on the possible connection between certain foods or dietary regimens and health are retrospective. That is, researchers ask eaters to keep food diaries or fill out questionnaires about what and how much they eat after the fact. As anyone who has ever tried to keep a food diary can attest, this is not easy — unless you always eat at home and prepare your own food. Also, the farther back you have to remember, the less accurate you are (but a number of studies ask you to respond to “in the last month, how often have you eaten…”) It is also a well known phenomenon in the research that people like to report they eat healthier than they do.

The potential for flawed data continues when researchers ask a zillion other questions about the eater’s habits and lifestyle. The more data collected, the more possible it is to find correlations between responses that may in fact have no connection at all outside the realm of statistics. In fact, it’s ridiculously easy to link individual foods with reported behaviors or conditions. As  as a computational physiologist says in the article I urge you to read: These connections are nothing more than circular reasoning.  “You’re taking one type of subjective report and validating it with another form of subjective report.” And so we get corrections between use of table salt and one’s level of satisfaction with an internet provide. Or consumption of potato chills and SAT math scores. (So that’s why my math score was so low!)

Read the article. It’s funny and fascinating. And sobering.

Stop. Breathe. Chronic stress harms the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center.

Shades of Gray

January 13th, 2016

gray-greyNope. Sorry. Not Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m talking about a different sort of shades of gray — with gray spelled the good old all-American way, you know, with an “a.” Although, really, that’s the least of the differences between that spurious book and my topic today.

My Shades of Gray is about how we – and by we I mean me – often don’t see shades of gray. Instead we see black or white. Success or failure, All or nothing.

In the world of therapy (because, yes, thinking like this is a bonafide psychological problem), this is called splitting, “the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.”

All-or-Nothing thinking dictates: “Either do this perfectly or don’t even bother.” Assuming you do take action and accomplish something, all-or-nothing thinking frames it this way: Either what you did was flawless or it was hopelessly flawed. Given that those are the only two choices, and given that “flawless” is generally unachievable, failure is pretty much assured. Which doesn’t mean you’ve actually failed – not at all – just that 100 percent A+ perfection was not the outcome. Easy to see how all-or-nothing thinking can sabotage effort and create enormous road blocks to positive change.

Well, easy to see in retrospect.

But not so easy for me to see last Monday, the very first day of the January Barre3 challenge. I had been looking forward to the challenge, building it up in my mind. January was going to be THE month. With perfect (there’s that word!) attention to body, mind and spirit in January, with four studio classes and two at-home, online work-outs every week, with a smoothie/salad/soup daily regimen of healthy, whole food, with insistently self-compassionate self-talk, I was going to launch the new year in a big way. It was going to give it my all (there’s that word!).

Instead, it snowed on Sunday followed by sleet and freezing rain, and come Monday morning I could not drive up my steep access road to get to the B3 studio. Or to the store to stock up on smoothie/salad/soup ingredients. Instead of ALL, I was left with (I thought) NOTHING. Why even try to rescue the day, do the online exercises, see what I could pull together from what was in the cupboards? My Monday fresh start to my January fresh start was RUINED. Poor me. Poor loser me.

Embarrassingly, it took me most of the day (during which I did NOT log on to do the online exercises but did find plenty of time to mindlessly eat handfuls of granola) to recognize my erroneous – not to mention damaging – all-or-nothing thinking.

On Tuesday, when the ice hadn’t melted, and I still couldn’t make it up the access road and into the studio, I did not self-sabotage. I hauled out the yoga mat. I breathed and asana-ed my way into a better head space. I did two online work-outs. I threw together a bottom-of-the veggie-bin soup. It wasn’t ALL. But neither was it NOTHING. It was a Shade of Gray.

Dark chocolate (70% cacao) is YES! an anti-aging health food. Enjoy a square a day. The flavinoids help lower blood pressure and improve lipid profile.

What do you REALLY care about?

January 6th, 2016

target

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I only had the time, you say to yourself, I would (fill in the blank): start writing that story/ take an EdX course/ get to know my neighbor/ learn tagine cooking/ volunteer at the homeless shelter…

As soon as I finish (fill in the blank): the laundry, scrolling through all these Facebook updates, remodeling the kitchen, this one big project at work, I’ll find time to  ______, you tell yourself.

If I could just clear the decks, you tell yourself, then I’d have the time to get to what is really important to me.

STOP. The people who win Pulitzer prizes, the people who win Nobel prizes, the people who start new businesses, who exhibit their art work, who go back to school at age 40 (50,60,70), who teach themselves how to play the piano, who invent, discover, create, lead — all of them, like you, like me, have 24 hours in a day. That’s it. They don’t do more because they have more time. We all have the same amount of time. It is how we use it.

Here’s a thought: Instead of doing everything other than what you really want to do — on the mistaken notion that you must “clear the decks” in order to get to the important stuff — START with the important stuff. Put the important thing, the passion, the dream, the challenge, at the center (or as close to the center) of your daily life as possible. And then make the rest of the day fit in around that. That’s the idea of the target drawing above. (And yes, you’re right, I was not referring to myself when I mentioned “people who exhibit their art work.”)

I am not saying that you paint your masterpiece while your children eat from the dog’s bowl. I am saying that, after you do what you absolutely must do, you elevate your passion to the very next spot. You make a space (that is, a time) for it rather than hoping you have time “later.”  Because later never comes.  Because the decks will never be cleared. There will always be another call to make, another errand to run, the emails in your in-box, those pesky weeds overrunning your garden.

Life doesn’t stop, or simplify itself, to allow you time to pursue your passion. Life, in fact, has an uncanny way of getting in the way. But that’s only if you construct your days around everything you have to do that is not what you say to yourself (and others) you really really want to do. If you construct your days around that passion/ challenge/ dream, then the question is not “when will I have time to (fill in the blank with that one thing you say you really really want to do)” but rather “when will I have time to vacuum the living room carpet?”

It’s a sure bet that at the end of the day –- and at the end of your life – you won’t be wishing you spent more time with the Hoover.

Take 10 deep, slow from the belly breaths.  Do this as often as you can during the day, especially when you feel stressed.

A new day

December 30th, 2015

amazing dawnYou could make any number of health and wellness/ counterclockwise-y New Years resolutions. You know what they are, and you know from past experience which ones will stay with you past, say, January 7. So you could resolve to:

Get to the gym three times a week or
Eat six servings of vegetables
Or you could vow to:
Get another hour of sleep or
Give up _______ (fill in with favorite bad-for-you indulgence)

Some people disdain the whole resolutions thing. I personally think January 1st lists are phony and set us up for failure or guilt (probably both). But I do love the idea of intention that powers action and expectation that leads to outcome. And I love the idea of self-direction. So I am, in fact, thinking of starting the new year with a plan.

The plan involves a physical challenge – actually back-to-back related physical challenges (the January Barre3 official Challenge and my personal February get-back-to-the-ballet-studio challenge). But more an more I am convinced that living a vibrant and engaged life is more about attitude and intention than it is about kale and kettlebells. I don’t mean that good health isn’t important. Certainly it is. And I don’t mean that we should shirk our personal responsibility to promote, enhance and maintain good health. Of course not. So yay for those six servings of vegetables or that pledge to work out more.

But that’s not all there is to vitality, and resolutions (if you are the resolution-making type) that focus only on the physical are often not as life-enhancing as maybe we think (or hope ) they are.

So what is? Waking with energy and purpose, eagerness and curiosity each morning. That is my “resolution,” and, yes, I know there’s a disturbing whiff of bumpersticker-ese about this. Allow me to replace that unpleasant scent with this quote from John Updike:

 Each day we wake slightly altered and the person we were yesterday is dead.

Which means we are reborn. New to the experience of that day. And that, my friends, is counterclockwise living.

(Photo by me, 30,000 feet flying east into the dawn.)

Keep chemicals off your skin!  Read, really read, those ingredient labels for body products.

Kick in the butt/ Pat on the back

December 22nd, 2015

Master-Skill-CurveIs it possible to raise the bar and simultaneously practice self-compassion?

Is it possible to expect more of yourself than you already know you are capable of, to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to take on a big new challenge…and be kind to yourself in the process? Particularly when “the process” can mean failing – yes, I am going to use that word! – to meet your own expectations, failing – yes, again – to learn quickly enough, to master the task, to excel…or, more humbly, to get to a point where you don’t feel embarrassed at your attempts at whatever it is you are attempting.

Is it possible to speak to yourself in two distinct voices: the tough and demanding task-master; the encouraging and supportive counselor?

Yes, I think it’s possible. But I also think it is very very hard. It is very hard if you have high expectations for yourself and keep expecting more. And it is very hard if you are averse to the “good job!” mentality that suffuses our culture. You know what I’m talking about: The automatic praise delivered for modest, mediocre or just plain lame efforts.

So what do you do if you want to keep taking on challenges but also not beat yourself up for being so-very-much less awesome than you would like to be? Here are two strategies that (sometimes) work for me:

I keep in mind that there is always someone more accomplished than me, regardless of how much I am able to accomplish. And there is always someone farther back on the learning curve, regardless of how clueless I am. I keep this is mind not for the sake of comparison, but just the opposite – to stop comparing myself to others. Regardless of what I do, I will always be part of a continuum of effort and skill. Case closed. Move on.

I also keep in mind that the path to mastery is not one long climb to the top. The path is far more interesting (and more challenging) than that. It involves short bursts of progress often followed by long plateaus during which it is easy to believe I am making no progress at all and never will again (and thus the voice of little compassion starts yelling at me). The path involves hard-won advances sometimes followed by ego-crushing backslides (if I listen to the ego-crushing voice). Knowing that any learning curve has ups and downs interspersed by long plateaus, knowing this is just the way it works, helps me have patience with myself.

Sometimes, if I actually deserve it, I tell myself “good job.” But, regardless, to honor the process and my perseverance, I always tell myself: “I believed I could, so I did.”

Think about what you’re going to do,not what you have already done.

A groove becomes a rut over time

December 16th, 2015

Ballet me and NutWith Raising the Barre, my new book, just out, I’ve been on the road quite a bit: reading at events, responding to readers’ questions, listening to their take-on-the-challenge stories and their shake-it-up-midlife dreams.

I know that my personal dream to dance The Nutcracker on stage with a professional ballet company is not, to put it mildly, for everybody. But everyone I’ve talked with on my travels or heard from via email and social media gets it – either because they too have this do-I-dare-to-dream-this dream or because they, like me, feel this midlife urge to raise the bar on their own life. It’s really about appreciating where we are and what we’ve so far accomplished but not allowing complacency, not going on autopilot, not settling. A groove becomes a rut over time.

The big, important (and generic) question I’ve been getting most often is: How did you do it? How did you move from dreaming to doing? I just got this question recently during a live Facebook chat with Barre3 founder Sadie Lincoln, who is the poster girl for dream-and-do-it. Because we were slammed with questions, I could respond only briefly. I wrote this…”One word: LISTS.”

Let me elaborate. The difference between wanting to do something and doing something, between wanting a change and making a change is motivation. First step: Ask yourself why you want or need to take on this challenge and make this change. What are your specific reasons? Make a LIST. The list itself creates (or fans the flame of) motivation.

But that’s not enough. Motivation must be tied to expectancy. Can you see yourself doing this? Do you believe it can happen? If yes, where does your confidence come from (LIST!). If not, why not (yes, LIST).

And now comes the hard part. It takes focus, effort and attention – lots of it – to make something happen, to convert dreaming to doing. I don’t mean that in a general ya-gotta-dig-deep way. I mean, specifically, in a this-is-what-I-need-to-do-to-make-this-happen way. Are you seeing a…wait for it…LIST here?

That’s how I did it. Step by step. Each step an item on a list, from changing my fitness routine to finding a “remedial” ballet class; from enlisting a friend into the adventure (everyone needs a wing-woman) to talking with midlife women who made big, bold changes; from buying my first leotard in more than 4 decades to…well, you get the idea.

A list does not rob you of spontaneity. It imbues you with focus. It converts the impossible to the possible, step by step. In Raising the Barre I refer to – and draw confidence and energy from –E. L. DOCTOROW’S famous line: “Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For “writing a novel,” I substituted “dancing The Nutcracker.” I focused on what the headlights illuminated, not the long, dark (foggy) road ahead.

And I got there.

Combine physical flexibility with emotional resilience and you’ve got a powerful turn-back-the-clock strategy.

What works from those who know

December 9th, 2015

keep-calm-and-trust-the-expertsYou want to live an active, engaged counterclockwise life. You want to be healthy and vibrant, “youthful” in the best sense of the word — the sense that has nothing to do with a wrinkle-free face and everything to do with energy and vitality.

Yep, me too.

So what do you do? Actually, I think the more important question is: Whom do you trust to inform you about what to do? Whom do you trust to alert you to ways to live and sustain a well-er than well life?

How about taking advice from the pre-eminent peer-reviewed science journal in the U.S.? Oh yeah. Science has just published a special issue on aging, and I’m going to give you the highlights. And be your interpreter. Otherwise your eyelids may grow heavy merely from reading this snappy headline: “Geroscience Interventions with Translational Potential.”

Here’s the latest, credible, vetted information about paths to counterclockwise living.

Dietary restriction. DR – sometimes called CR (calorie restriction) is the most studied intervention for delaying aging. It involves a lifetime of under-eating (as much as 30 percent fewer calories than your body presumably needs) while simultaneously getting all the nutrition your body needs. This is very very hard – and not at all fun – to do. You don’t want to hear this, so feel free to skip over this part: It works. And not just in mice and monkeys. People who practice DR/ CR enjoy important health benefits, including reversal of a variety of disease risk factors.

Exercise. You know this already. A large body of literature provides substantial evidence for the many and varied health benefits of exercise.

mTOR inhibitors. What if I told you that mTOR is a serine/threonine kinase, which belongs to phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase related kinases family? What if I didn’t? Suffice to know that we want to INHIBIT the sucker, and that inhibiting its action increases health span, reverses cardiac decline and improves the immune system. In mice. A recent study found immune-boosting in actual humans.

Metformin. Bet you’ve been reading about this one. FDA just approved studying it as an “anti-aging” drug. It is already widely used in the treatment of diabetes. Promising.

NAD precursors. NAD stands for nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. It’s a coenzyme found in all living cells that plays a central role in cellular energy production — as in happy mitochondria, efficient disposal of the waste products of energy production (aka free radicals). The body makes it. You can lend a helping hand by taking a precursor like nicotinamide riboside. Mice studies look very promising (improve health span and cognitive function), and scientists are excited. Well, as excited as scientists get.

What else does Science say?

Taking “youth” hormones? “Largely controversial.”
Tinkering with telomeres? “Possibility of increased cancer risk.”
Accepting health advice from random websites? “Stupid.”  Okay. I said that.