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

The ease in the effort

October 22nd, 2014

Mikhail-BaryshnikovI’ve been thinking lot lately about finding the ease in the effort.  This is what my supremely talented Barre3 instructor, Summer Spinner, (yes, her real name) says as we are holding the most challenging pose of the morning.  It’s that pose that requires every muscle – including those you never knew you had – to fire.  There’s a way of achieving this by tensing everything, from inner thigh to outer glute, from multiple layers of abdominals to the entire back body.  When I first find my way to this pose, here’s what happens:  My neck tenses, my shoulders lift and my face scrunches up.  Then I hear Summer say, “now find the ease in the effort,” and the entire posture changes for me.  I release my neck and slide my shoulders down.  I untense my face.  I close my eyes.  I take that breath that I didn’t realize I was holding.  And everything goes deeper. “Ease” is not what I’d call it because all those muscles are still very busy.  It’s more a place of stability, almost peace –  “the calm within the chaos,” which is another thing Summer says.

I know I know.  You’re reading that and thinking:  Spare me the New Age hoo-ha.  But really, I am here to tell you, this is important stuff.  I’m not just talking about what happens for me in a Barre3 class. I’m talking about the bigger lesson I am learning because of this.  I am talking about an attitude, an approach to counterclockwise living.

Finding the ease in the effort is, for example, a way to change that demanding, insistent, relentless self-talk (I am going to eat an anti-aging diet, damn it, with 8 cups of veggies and 4 ounces of lean protein and nothing white ever — except cauliflower) to a calmer, saner, happier I am going to enjoy and delight in healthy, mindful eating.  It’s a way to change I am going to put in my 3 days a week of cardio and my 3 days a week of weights and remember to stretch at least 15 minutes, damn it to I am going to live in my body and enjoy and delight in physical activity.

When you try so hard, the trying takes over.  It becomes all about trying, and what you are doing and how you are experiencing what you are doing is lost in the effort and the sweat and the scrunched up face. Believe me.  I know.  This is one of most challenging lessons I am trying to learn.  (But trying to not try so hard.) I am so surprised that finding the ease in the effort is so much harder than finding the effort.

Here’s what Mikhail Baryshnikov has to say on this subject:  “It is harder to be relaxed on stage than to produce high powered virtuosity.” Think on that.

Think of good posture as an anti-aging tool.  Good posture means improved flexibility, a healthier back and fewer injuries.

Life ends at 75

October 15th, 2014

oldSeventy-five.

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

So begins Ezekiel Emanuel’s awful, depressing, wrong-headed essay in the recent issue of The Atlantic. Emanual, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is a hale and healthy – and productive – 57. But he imagines a dire future for himself. He imagines that when he reaches 75, life will not be worth living.

Why? Because he equates getting older with being incapacitated. He writes, “our older years are not of high quality.” Really? Tell that to Betty White (82) because I guess she didn’t get the message.

Why is life not worth living past 75? Because, he writes, we not only slow down mentally (he gets to this after several slit-your-wrists paragraphs about dementia), but “we literally lose our creativity.” Really? Tell that to New Yorker essayist Roger Angell (94) who is writing some of his best work right now.

Tell that to the consistently brilliant E.O. Wilson (85) with an extraordinary new book just published. The New York Times calls him “wise, learned, wicked, vivid, oracular.” And, apparently a full decade past the end of his useful life.

If those reasons don’t resonate, Emanual ends the essay with the ultimate guilt trip: Think of the burden you’ll be to your kids. Worse yet, those years after 75 — the sickly, frail, uncreative, awful years? – will “inevitably become [your children’s] predominant and salient memories” of you.

Wow. Kill me now, so my kids’ salient memory will be when I rocked out at an ACDC tribute band concert this past summer.

I am just disgusted with Mr. Emanual and with our culture’s fear and denigration of what it means to get older. Thinking old, thinking the worst possible scenarios about getting older, is a shortcut to the unsatisfying, unhealthy and unhappy life Emanual imagines for himself.

Me? I imagine (and am joyfully working toward) an entirely different future. And you?

Eat 30g of cholesterol-lowering, happy-colon fiber every day.

Exploring the Uncomfort Zone

October 8th, 2014

ballet floorCounterclockwise living is not just about kale salads and Crossfit. And thank goodness for that, as neither is – or is likely to be — a part of my life. (I hate kale, but not as much as I hate the whole Anointed Superfood of the Year thing. As for CrossFit: Did it, escaped without serious injury – unlike many people – and moved on.)

What I mean, more broadly, is that living a healthy, engaged life that actively promotes vitality and youthful energy involves far more than eating well and moving one’s body. It is, as I’ve written about here and in my book, about nurturing a kind of bring-it-on attitude. It’s about purposely (bravely) stepping out of one’s comfort zone to take on challenges, to try new things. Being inquisitive and adventuresome is a hallmark of youthful energy. It is in the Uncomfort Zone that interesting things can happen.

You know how trainers will tell you to vary your exercise routine to create “muscle confusion”? If you do the same exercise routine every day, your muscles adapt and soon are not working as hard. You’re on the treadmill for the same 50 minutes, but you’re really getting 25 minutes of a decent work-out. If you switch it up and engage different muscle groups, you give your body a new challenge, and it is forced to answer the call. You begin to make progress rather than merely holding steady.

It’s the same with other routines in your life. You’ve spent a lot of years, decades probably, getting good at whatever it is you do. It’s likely that, at mid-life, you have adapted to that work. It is easier, less challenging. Admit it: You are on auto-pilot. (I am speaking about — and to — myself here too.) How about pushing yourself into the Uncomfort Zone? How about doing something you are NOT already good at? How about going back to the BEGINNING of some learning curve…just for the heady, scary thrill of it?

That’s what these folks did. (You really, really want to click on this link!)

And it’s what I’m doing right now as I take on the (self-inflicted) challenge of re-learning ballet (I stopped taking lessons at 12) and dancing The Nutcracker this season with the Eugene Ballet Company.

What can you do to shake it up?

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

Fall: the BEST counterclockwise season

October 1st, 2014

soupBecause Fall is my favorite season,, and because I feel I must make a case for it given the whole but everything is dying and the weather is turning crappy and vacation time is over litany I hear from autumn-detractors…I hereby declare that Fall is absolutely the very best counterclockwise season.*

My reasons are simple and, if I do say so myself, compelling.

1. Soup. Fall is the season of soup. In fact, I just made my first soup of the season yesterday: mushroom barley from the very first Moosewood cookbook. (Secret ingredient: tamari) I also adore a later Moosewood recipe for black bean soup. (Secret ingredient: dried apricots) If you make soup yourself, you get the pleasure of the cooking – contemplative, anti-stress, much chopping of veggies and fragrant sautéing of onions and garlic — plus the pleasure of the eating. Not to mention the deep pleasure knowing that you are nourishing both body and soul because, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” notwithstanding, there is an alchemy to soup. It is magic elixir in a bowl.

Also…It’s difficult (and dangerous!) to consume hot soup quickly. This is a real benefit. Eating slowly not only increases enjoyment and creates a greater window for kitchen-table interaction, it allows the sensors in your stomach to communicate to the brain that you are getting full. All good news for the counterclockwise lifestyle.

2. Flannel sheets. Fall is the season of flannel sheets, whisper soft against the skin, warmed immediately by the body, deeply, satisfyingly sensuous. (I just changed my sheets yesterday – while waiting for the onions, garlic and mushrooms to sauté, in fact.) Flannel sheets on an autumn-cool night: the best. I take that back. Flannel sheets on an autumn-cool night with the rain shushing and hissing outside…that’s the best.

What does this have to do with an invigorated, weller-than-well counterclockwise lifestyle? Good, restful, deep sleep, that’s what. Significant research links good sleep with health in general, with disease prevention, resilience, weight control and other hallmarks of anti-aging.

So stop mourning the end of summer with all that skin-aging, cataract-causing sunshine! Embrace the fall.

*Alas, only for us northern hemisphere folks who live in places with four seasons

Think of good posture as an anti-aging tool.  Good posture means improved flexibility, a healthier back and fewer injuries.

Counterclockwise brain

September 24th, 2014

brainCounterclockwise is a belief, an attitude, a behavior (well, more like a set of behaviors). Counterclockwise permeates everything we do, all our choices, our activities, our relationships, our moods.

And our brain.

I write a lot about the body. This week, a few updates about the brain, the sharp, resilient, problem-solving, challenge-loving, creative counterclockwise brain. The brain you want until it’s time to go skydiving for that one last time. (My end-of-life fantasy.)

So here’s a summary of some recent research I’ve been reading:

The brain and physical activity. Being active can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by as much as 38 percent, according to a meta-analysis of 47 studies done by a group of Australian researchers. This activity-brain health connection (exercise increases circulation which means more blood to the brain which means a healthier brain) has been known for a while. It’s the meta-analysis that’s impressive here. If you haven’t paid attention to this particular benefit from exercise, now would be the time.

Obesity and cognitive decline. You know what I’m going to say, right? Well, hear it again: According to a BIG (10,000 people) longitudinal study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, people with BMIs greater than 30 had a 79 percent increase in their risk of cognitive decline compared to those with BMIs under 25. Although the whole BMI measurement thing is quite a bit less than perfect, this is a study to pay attention to. Obesity (defined as a BMI in excess of 30) is implicated in so many health problems. Cognitive decline is now on that list.

Another reason to drink green tea. Researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, report that green tea extract enhances cognitive functions, in particular the working memory. It was a small study. But still, given that anti-oxidant-rich green tea has already been linked to other health benefits like longer telomeres, why not drink a cup or two (or three) every day?

And yay for yoga. A group of 60-plus year olds showed significant improvement in immediate and delayed recall of verbal and visual memory, attention and working memory, verbal fluency and processing speed after 6 months of practicing yoga compared to a matched group of non-practicers. Again, it’s a small study (87 people) but…as there’s almost nothing better for flexibility than yoga…and it’s a mood-enhancer and stress-reliever as well, why not get out the mat?

Eat curry! Curcuminoids, the active ingredient in tumeric, has proven anti-inflammatory and liver-cleansing properties.

One BIG thing

September 17th, 2014

a fingerI’m sorry. I lied.

Last week I wrote that there was no one “big thing,” no single secret to living a healthy, weller-than-well counterclockwise life. I said that “the small stuff” was all there was. Let me amend that.

The small, everyday choices we make (or don’t), ARE important. Consider the excellent list of small actions taken by several readers who responded to last week’s post.

But, truthfully, there are a few BIG-ticket items, one-off significant changes that can make a huge difference in how and how quickly (or slowly) we age. The obvious one is smoking. Quitting smoking is probably the single most important health decision a person can make. But I am betting that none of you reading this are smokers, so let’s move on. Here are my top 5 BIG things. (And I promise never to lie to you again).

1. Eat breakfast. You wake up your metabolism and signal your body that you don’t intend to continue starving it. (Remember, you just fasted for 8 or 9 or 10 hours. Your body is now concerned. If you don’t deal with that concern in the morning, your body will want to store as many of the calories contained in the next meal you eat as fat – to guard against starvation.) If you’ve never heard of the Sumo Wrestler’s “Diet,” this is how it works: Starve the body all day, then eat all your calories at once. Then go to sleep. That’s how Sumo Wrestler’s put on all that weight. They DON’T eat 7000 calories a day. They eat a moderate 2500-3500. At one meal. Of course, breakfast is nutrient-dense, protein-rich, calorie-controlled. Greek yogurt, blueberries and chopped almonds, for example. Sorry, pan au chocolat n’est pas bien.

2. Trade your desk for a standing desk (or even a treadmill desk). Sitting is the new smoking! Sitting for hours negates the fitness benefits of the time you spend in the gym or the lovely long walk you took with your dog. I’m sorry. It’s true. Proceedings of the Mayo Clinic just reported that, for every hour of sitting, you wipe out 14 percent of the health benefits of one hour of exercise. That means 7 hours of sitting puts you back at square one.

3. Sleep 7 hours. Or, gasp, even 8 if you can manage it. (I can’t.) I’ve gotten along on 6 hours a night for years and years because I love early mornings but can’t seem to get in bed until 11 (and then read for a half hour). By “gotten along,” I mean I have the energy to do what I need and want to do during the day. But the health and antiaging benefits of 7-8 hours of sleep are undeniable.

4. Find and/ or cultivate a fitness buddy or posse. Friendships grounded in physical activity (as opposed to meeting up for drinks or dinner) are rich and rewarding, a fun way to stay on track, a great way to keep moving and stay accountable. When I hooked up with the Sweat Chicas, my fitness life got a HUGE boost.

5. Eat (mostly) plants.

Sitting is BAD for you. Use a standing desk. Stand when you talk on the phone.

Yes! Sweat the Small Stuff

September 10th, 2014

better big thingIt’s ALL about the “small” stuff when it comes to living a healthy counterclockwise life. It’s about the accumulation of all that small stuff, the sum of the many little decisions we make every day that can result in keeping us vibrant, engaged and happy well into the upper reaches of our lifetimes.

It’s true: We’re constantly bombarded by news of the newest miracle product, the best-ever exercise plan, the just discovered! powerful-beyond-belief! anti-aging supplement, the one (impossibly exotic) cure-all superfood, the quick fix we’ve all been waiting for, the big secret that will now be revealed. We want to believe. We are socialized and acculturated to believe in The Next Big Thing. Yay consumer capitalism! Yay take-a-pill western medicine!

But health and wellness doesn’t work that way. Health and wellness is the result of specific choices. You reach for an apple instead of a bag of chips. You take a walk instead of sit in front of a screen. You stretch your calves when you wait on line at the grocery store. You go to bed a half hour earlier. Earth-shaking? No. Life-changing? You bet.

I was reminded of this way of thinking when I read Deborah Szekely’s new post at wellnesswarrior.org. I’ve written about kick-ass nonagenarian Deborah before. Let me quote her again right now:

Achieving overall fitness and well-being is built choice by choice, one “smidgen” at a time. So is disease and infirmity. In fact, the small choices—repeated often enough and over time—have the greatest impact. The cumulative effect of actions and non-actions shape the person we are today and the person we are in the process of becoming as we age.

Later, she writes this:
Aging is not something that kicks in suddenly when we turn 65; it is a progressive accumulation that builds over a lifetime of eating, breathing, exercising (or not), “stressing out,” burning the candle at both ends, and a myriad of other actions and choices.

And Jeez, the woman should know. She’s 92. She glows. She hikes up mountains. She travels the country and the world promoting good food and good health. She is living life to the fullest – is able to live life to the fullest – because she has spent the last 70-plus years paying attention to the small stuff.

For those of you who know me more broadly as a writer (and not just of these blog posts), I want to add that this same advice permeates my writing life. In the new edition to When Words Collide, a book about the art and craft of writing well that I first co-wrote many years ago, I say this:

Keep in mind that good writing doesn’t just happen. Stories don’t “write themselves.” Skilled writers, talented writers, professional writers work hard at it. They struggle and strain. In fact, contrary to the clichéd admonition, they do sweat the small stuff. In fact, it’s all about the “small stuff.” Clear, powerful, evocative prose is the result of a series of small, conscious choices that transform the ideas inside writers’ heads into the stories we want to read…. Style is the culmination of many small things done well, the result of sheer hard work.

The same, the very same, can be said about living a vibrant, healthy and engaged life. So today, right now, make one small good choice. (And send a comment about it to the site. I’d love to post a list.)

 

If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, don’t eat the food or use the product.

Veg Out (in a good way)

September 3rd, 2014

plant-basedEat (mostly) plants!

Yes, you’ve heard it before, and here it is again. This is nutritionally sound, research-validated, high-level wellness, powerful anti-aging advice.

The healthiest, longest lived people on earth, the ones with scant heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s, the ones with keen hearing and sharp eyesight into their 9th decades, the lively, sprightly ones – those ones – are from different cultures and live in different corners of the world. But they have a few core habits in common, one of which is their mostly plant-based diets. This doesn’t mean that they consume no animal products. It means that their diets are built on vegetables, fruits. beans, seeds and nuts with animal protein as addendums.

What these so-called Blue Zone folks are doing is eating the way the best informed, least faddish, most anti-aging savvy nutritional researchers say we should all be eating: High nutrient density/ low energy density (aka caloric) foods packed with fiber and rich in phytochemicals. Veggies top this list. I don’t have to tell you what’s on the bottom, do I?

Just how good is a (mostly) plant-based diet? Let me count the ways.

An uncomplicated, whole foods, plant-based diet may reduce (or prevent) heart disease, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and a number of digestive ailments and illnesses. This is pretty much a laundry list of what ages us from the inside out. There is evidence that a plant-based diet may help prevent everything from gallstones to macular degeneration, may have a positive impact on oral health and allergies, and may be tied to improved cognition. One study suggests that this kind of clean eating devoid of processed foods and stingy with animal products can turn back the (biological) clock 14 years. Here are links to the research on all these studies.

And here’s a bit of the text of an article written for physicians about nutrition and health. These are researchers talking to doctors – not diet-of-the-month hucksters trying to sell books, not food faddists jumping on some bandwagon.

“Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. They may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients.” (italics are mine)

And note this conclusion to the article: “The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables.”

Or, as Hippocrates said almost 2500 years ago: Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

But I want to add, although I really hope I don’t have to, that eating this way is not at all like taking medicine. It’s not about limiting options but expanding them. It’s not about deprivation but surfeit, about flavors and colors and textures that make counterclockwise eating-for-wellness also eating for pleasure.

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

You Snooze, You Win

August 27th, 2014

sleeping beautyRestorative sleep. Beauty sleep.  Good sleep hygiene. Safe and restful sleep…sleep…sleep.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We all know:  Sleep is good. And necessary. But how good?  And what – if anything — does sleep have to do to with a counterclockwise life?

Plenty.

And not just the obvious, as in the generalized mental and physical recuperative effects of adequate and good-quality slumber.

Here’s the latest word on sleep –not too much (more than 9 hours) but just enough (7-8 hours):

Sleep promotes and helps maintain sharper cognitive function, especially memory. Researchers have long known that lack of sleep impairs reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail, among other effects. However, the mechanisms behind sleep benefits in these areas have been unknown. Now University of Rochester Medical Center researchers have discovered a system that drains waste products from the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid, a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, moves through the brain along a series of channels that surround blood vessels. The scientists reported that this brain lymph system can help remove a toxic protein called beta-amyloid from brain tissue. Beta-amyloid is renowned for accumulating in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Other research has shown that brain levels of beta-amyloid decrease during sleep.  This is a mouse study…so don’t start jumping up and down (unless you are a rodent). But it is potentially good news.

Sleep contributes to a strong and healthy heart. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links too little sleep (six hours or less) and too much sleep (10 or more hours) with chronic diseases — including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, clogging of the arteries anxiety and obesity — in adults age 45 and older. In another study of more than 30,000 adults, those who slept approximately 7 hours a night were far less likely to develop heart disease that those who averaged 5 hours. Poor sleep appears to increase substances in your body, such as c-reactive protein, that indicate inflammation is a problem. Poor sleep also causes the body to produce more stress hormones, which may contribute to cardiovascular disease.

Sleep assists in weigh control.  Brain scans in healthy adults reveal that a good night’s sleep effects areas of the brain that regulate desire for high-calorie food. University of California/Berkeley researchers found that people deprived of a good night’s rest are more likely experience urges to eat fattening food.  The changes in food desirability encouraged by the sleep-deprived brain may originally have been an important adaptation, they say, adding – unnecessarily – that today they are “maladaptive and no longer benefit our health.”

So there you have it: Sleep as an anti-aging strategy.  Sleep in a cool, dark room.  Do not watch TV or use electronic devices right before bedtime (something about the particular light waves that are emitted).  Progressive muscle relaxation techniquees and deep breathing really work.  Are your eyelids getting heavy?

If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, don’t eat the food or use the product.

Much enthusiams

August 20th, 2014

sunflowersBinge. Purge.

No, this is not a treatise on eating disorders. This is about how our lives, our exciting, creative, counterclockwise lives are often all about bingeing and purging. And it’s not a bad thing.

I go on a novel-reading binge, gobbling up And the Dark Sacred Night, Painted Girls, Astonish Me and Arcadia in less than three weeks (the last three weeks, in fact). The purge is coming up. I’ll probably not read another novel for four or five months, as I purge myself of fabricated worlds and immerse myself in nonfiction. I binge-watch Orange is the New Black, and then I don’t watch television for weeks. I drink three or four cappuccinos a day (remember the fika I wrote about?) in Stockholm. And then go coffee-less for the next month.

I go through a binge cycle on exercise, too. Last week I ran every day. This week I’m not running at all. I go through intense periods of certain activities – circuit training, boxing, Barre3 – and then purge by moving on to something else, something entirely new.

If you think of “bingeing” as giving yourself up entirely to something, immersing yourself, saturating yourself in it, losing yourself in it, then bingeing becomes a vibrant whole-hearted act. A powerful, exhilarating act. But not sustainable. Not meant to be sustainable.

If you think of “purging” as cleansing, sluicing out the brain, the body, the spirit to make way for new “binges,” then the purge is also a powerful and necessary act.

Several years ago I stayed at an agritourismo near Montepulciano run by Fiori, Marzia and their teenage daughter. They had re-built the place, themselves, from a few ancient stone buildings. The gardens, vegetable and flower, were breathtaking. They had a small vineyard, a big field lush with girasole (sunflowers), hand-laid stone patios, honeysuckle-covered verandas and a number of beautifully crafted little outbuildings. How had they accomplished all this, I asked Fiori. Where did all these ideas and all this energy come from? “Ah,” he said, with a big smile, “Marzia…she is a woman of much imaginations.”

I want to be a woman of much imaginations. I think this is a major component of youthfulness as I’ve tried to define it for myself, a cornerstone of living the counterclockwise life. And I think that means bingeing and purging, throwing myself into the great wide open and then, sated, pulling back to recoup, to cleanse, to ready myself for the next adventure.