Don’t drink soda. Ever. Even (especially) diet soda.
The days are getting shorter; the night are getting cooler. Exhale into Fall. And consider paying some attention to that all-important activity we engage in every day, for more hours than we engage in any other single activity.
NO, folks, I do NOT mean sitting. Remember: Sitting is the new smoking. I have already ranted several times about this, and I know you all paid rapt attention and (like me) have significantly modified your rotten sedentary habits! What I mean here is SLEEPING. So many of us have trouble with this simple, restorative, proven health and wellness strategy. Fall, with its longer nights, is a great time to get back to good, health-enhancing sleep patterns.
So what IS good, healthy sleep?
To function best, you need to get eight hours.
Not really, There is no magic number, say the experts. The non-experts in my house agree. My husband luxuriates in 9 hours. I feel like the walking dead on those rare occasions I get 9 hours. Seven feels wonderful. I actually prefer 6 ½.
Really? But MORE sleep is healthier, isn’t it?
Nope. Some studies have found that people who slept more than 8 hours a night died younger than people who got between 6-8 hours. But does sleeping longer cause poor health or is it a symptom of it? This is not yet known. It could be that longer sleepers suffer from problems such as sleep apnea, depression or uncontrolled diabetes that make them spend more time in bed.
On the other hand, some people function perfectly on 4 hours of sleep, right?
Probably not. Legendary short sleepers (Bill Clinton, Madonna, Margaret Thatcher) don’t necessarily do better on less sleep. They’re just not aware of how sleepy they are! So say sleep researchers. In fact, too little sleep impairs performance, judgment and the ability to pay attention; weakens the immune system; is linked to a higher risk of heart problems; and contributes to weight gain. (The latter was a notable [surprise] finding from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study.)
I wake up during the night…that’s bad, isn’t it?
No. It just might be your natural sleep cycle. Many animals sleep this way, and there are indications that our ancestors did, too. When 15 people in a National Institute of Mental Health study lived without artificial lights for a few weeks, they wound up sleeping three to five hours, waking up for one or two, then sleeping again for four or more hours — and they said they had never felt so rested. I regularly wake up once or twice a night – even when I don’t (stupidly) drink a 16 oz mug of tea at 10 pm.
Ha! I can make up for “lost” sleep during the weekend.
Ha! No you can’t! Bingeing on sleep on the weekend to compensate for skimpy weekday sleep— what Harvard sleep expert Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., calls “sleep bulimia” — upsets your circadian rhythms and makes it even harder to get refreshing sleep. The body loves and thrives on consistency. It’s best to rise around the same time every day, including weekends.
The older you get, the fewer hours of sleep you need.
No, ma’am. Although sleep patterns may change as we age – due not to age itself, by the way, but to health issues linked to unsuccessful aging — the amount of sleep we need generally does not. Older adults benefit from getting as much sleep as they normally got when they were in their 30s.
So get out the flannel sheets, throw open the windows, breath deep, sleep well, dream big.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Aerobic exercise increases the blood supply to the brain.
George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) wrote that, and I could not agree more. And, as if fall were not awesome enough by its own self, it is also an excellent season for those of us committed to living counterclockwise. Here are the top 5 reason (well, my top 5 reasons) fall is the best season for engaged, vibrant, youthful living:
1. Soup. Yes, let’s begin with soup. Lentil soup. Black bean soup. Potato leek soup. Butternut squash and apple (see #2) soup. Soupsoupsoup. A quiet and contemplative pleasure to make. A deeply satisfying (body and soul) meal to consume. Soup forces you to slow down, breath, savor, enjoy.
2. Apples. Sure, other fruits hog the anti-aging limelight (pomegranate, mangosteen, acai berries, blah blah blah), but the apple – glory of fall harvests – should be front and center. It’s not just the vitamin C and B6. It’s the particular kind of fiber found in apples (eat the skin or lose out) that interacts with other phytonutrients to significantly bolster the blood fat-lowering effects. The phytonutrients in apples also help regulate blood sugar. And recently scientists have identified a new important health benefit: the beneficial effects apples have on bacteria in the digestive tract. Also they are delicious, crunchy, satisfying and low-cal. And, as a bonus: Apples are grown in all 50 states, meaning you have a better chance of eating local with an apple than with just about any other fruit.
3. Sleep. Sleep is good, and we don’t get enough of it. With the equinox comes shorter days, longer nights, and more lovely darkness to take advantage of. Cooler nights (open those windows!) mean better sleep “hygiene.” Also the beginning of flannel sheet weather. Need I say more? Wait, I will say more. Here in the Pacific Northwest, fall means rain. Which means falling asleep to the soft hiss of rain, the sound people actually download to listen to because it is known to enhance relaxation.
4. Cooler weather. Not just great for improved sleep, cooler weather is perfect for long walks, hikes, bike rides, runs – you know, getting out and (joyfully) moving your body. If you were stuck indoors during summer heat waves and air inversions, now is the time to go back outside. It’s not just physical movement that keeps us healthy and vibrant, it is our connection to the natural world.
5. Glorious colors. Scarlet and magenta, gold and bronze, russet, flame, apricot. Oh I could go on. But you get it. Fall colors are magnificent, a treat for eye and food for the soul. It’s hard not to feel grateful just to be alive in the presence of such beauty.
So happy equinox, everyone. Take a walk while munching an apple. Make soup and savor it. Sleep well.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Have a plan. Have a Plan B. Flexibility and resilience are hallmarks of a youthful life.
A few years ago, as part of research for Counterclockwise, I took a college anatomy class, the most wonderful part of which was getting my own skeleton to take home. (Alas, plastic not bone.) And by far the most wonderful part of the skeleton was…the foot.
Why? Listen up. The foot contains 26 bones (one-quarter of the bones in the human body are in the feet), 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated) and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. What a glorious work of engineering. There is no more structurally interesting, meticulously constructed, mechanically brilliant part of the human body.
And our feet better be all this. They support and stabilize our entire body. They allow us to move from place to place. We plant our feet more than 10,000 times a day to sit, stand and walk. Make that 15,000-20,000 times a day if we exercise. And each time the foot contacts the ground it absorbs about 300 pounds +/- of force. (Fun fact: The sole of the foot contains 200,000 nerve endings.)
According to athletic trainers and physical therapists, most of us have weak, inflexible feet, confined in shoes and idle most of the day (planted under a desk). The body compensates for weak feet by enlisting back, hips, knees and shoulders – all good body parts, but they have their own work to do. Physical therapists who see patients complaining of tight IT bands or low back pain frequently trace the problem back to weak feet.
And yet…Ever see anyone at the gym working out their feet?
That is, until I started hanging around with dancers (during research for my new book, Raising the Barre). Dancers are, as you might imagine, foot obsessed. I never really thought about my feet, never considered that I might be walking around on “old” (as in stiff, frail, vulnerable) feet that could lead to bigger problems until I saw the dancers flex and point their extraordinarily muscular feet, until I saw the strong top arch of their feet, until I marveled at how long they could stay (and stay steady) on their toes.
I bought a wide elastic band started working on my feet — flex, point, flex point, every night for maybe 5 or 10 minutes. It’s amazing what happens when you exercise muscles, isn’t it? It’s not just biceps or triceps or quadriceps that need action; it’s the anterior, posterior and peroneal tibials of the feet. Ankle rotations help. Walking barefoot whenever possible (and certainly inside the house) helps. Barre3 classes in bare feet: Yes! Massaging your own feet: Sure! And, occasionally, oh yeah, Aegean blue toenail polish.Filed under Posts | Comments (2)
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.
No, I am not tired because my metabolism is slowing down or I’m not sleeping well, because my arteries are clogged or my joints are inflamed or my mind is foggy. (In fact, none of this is true.) I am not tired because, gee, isn’t this what “naturally” happens when you age?
No, I am not tired because I am getting older. I am tired because I carry the weight of our culture’s expectations about what “getting older” means. And that weight is heavy. And that weight is making me weary.
I am betting you carry this burden too. That you were once sort of pleased with comments like, “wow, it’s so impressive that you’re doing that” (the unspoken subtext being: at your age). But now you hear that subtext. You hear it loud and clear. And you’re tired of being “the exception that proves the rule,” the over 50, over 60, over 70 year old who…wait for it…is active and productive and sparky, who takes on new challenges and seeks out adventures, who is curious and engaged and full of energy and vitality.
I am not the exception. You are not the exception. We are the rule.
And the bloom is not off the fucking rose.Filed under Posts | Comments (7)
You’ve heard it before … Now do it: Make time for 30+ minutes of cardio-vascluar activity 3-4/x week.
Okay, I will.
It’s true that people like you and me who live physically active lives know the benefits we reap. And it’s true that researchers are constantly devising and conducting studies that show the extraordinary health and wellness benefits of physical activity. But it is also true that determining the precise, long-term effects of exercise is surprisingly difficult. Most large-scale exercise studies rely on questionnaires or interviews and medical records to establish the role of exercise.
But these studies, important as they are – I’ve referenced many of them on this blog and in my book — don’t actually prove that exercise causes health benefits, only that people who exercise are healthier than those who do not. To prove direct cause and effect, studies would have to be long-term, real-time, randomized, control-group trials comparing groups of physically active people with groups of sedentary folks. These kinds of studies are complicated, expensive and, even if executed flawlessly, can’t control for the volunteers’ genetics and backgrounds.
But… suppose you could study the health of identical twins, reared together in the same households, eating the same foods, learning the same habits, playing the same sports – who, in adulthood, diverged quite dramatically from one another in one respect: one twin maintained an active lifestyle; the other did not. You could, then, isolate the effects of physical activity on health because both nature (genetics) and nurture (upbringing) would be constants.
This is just what team of Finnish researchers has done. They mined the FinnTwin database to find (male) pairs (now in their early to mid-30s) and invited them into the lab where they measured each man’s endurance, body composition and insulin sensitivity, and scanned their brains. The number of subjects studied was very small (how easy is it to find twin sets like this?), but the results were unmistakable and startling.
These genetically identical twins turned out to be very different from each other. The sedentary twin had lower endurance capacity, higher body fat percentage, and showed signs of insulin resistance. (The twins, even in adulthood, tended to have very similar diets, regardless of activity level, so food choices were unlikely to have contributed to health differences.) The active twin had significantly more gray matter than the sedentary twin, especially in areas of the brain involved in motor control and coordination.
And, to add to the gee-whiz factor: Presumably, all of these differences in the young men’s bodies and brains had developed during their few, brief years of divergent workouts. That’s how quickly exercising — or not — can affect health.
So I believe I have told you TWO things you did not know: There is a proven cause and effect link between exercise and health. And physical activity (or sedentary lifestyle) makes for significant health differences very, very quickly.
Now go out and take a spirited walk. I said: Now.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Weight training helps boost metabolism. Add it to your routine 2-3 x/ week.
Biological age v chronological age. The actual, functional age of your body versus your birthdate. Yes, there is a versus here. These two ages are more often than not separated by years, sometime decades. One, the age you think you are because you were born in a certain year, is virtually meaningless to your health and well-being; the other, the real age of your body, determines vitality, energy and wellness. Chronological age happens to you; biological age you can control in important and life-altering ways. I’ve written about this here and here, and it is the empowering fact that underlies my book, Counterclockwise.
What I had read previously about this differential pace in aging was that it began around age 40, that the body up until then was pretty forgiving. After 40, the research said, was when the accumulated benefit – or harm – you were doing to your body started to show up in what are called “biomarkers.” Biomarkers are statistical measurements of real, functional age, like blood pressure, heart rate, bone density, lung capacity, etc. After age 40, and increasing at a faster pace onward, biomarkers reflected the good and bad decisions made about how we lived our lives.
Now comes the surprising news that this differential pace in aging begins at much much younger chronological age than we thought. In a fascinating and meticulously configured study of 1000 young people tracked form birth to age 38, a team of researchers (Duke, UCLA, Kings College, Hebrew University) discovered significant differences in biological aging in this youthful population. When the researchers measured 10 different biomarkers at the end of the study, they found that the biological age of this study group, all of whom were chronologically 38, ranged from (biological) age 28 to 61. Yes, you read that right. Some 38 year olds were functionally 28; others were nearing retirement.
The researchers then measured the pace of aging based on repeated assessments of a panel of 18 biomarkers and found that some members of the study group aged near zero percent during some chronological years, while others gained three biological years for each chronological year.
This is really important stuff, you guys. So listen up. This is not just more proof that what we do and don’t do in our lives has far more impact on our health than the mere passage of time (or our genetic inheritance). It is powerful evidence that the process of aging well begins the moment we are born.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
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.
But, to give the Stanford University researchers who came to this conclusion their due, there’s more to the story that that.
For example: They figured out how to measure the subjective sense of “feeling good.” It turns out that a particular part of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex shows increased activity during what cognitive scientists like to call “morbid rumination.” (The rest of us call this grumbling to ourselves and rehashing all the ways our lives suck.) When this part of our brain is less active, we are happier. We “feel good.”
And this interesting finding: It’s not the invigorating physical effect of walking that makes you “feel good” – that is, have decreased activity in the morbid rumination section of the brain. Research subjects who walked along a traffic-clogged street did not get the same neurological advantages and mood elevation as the park walkers.
Here are the details: Researchers gathered 38 healthy, adult city dwellers and asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their normal level of morbid rumination. The researchers also checked for brain activity in each volunteer’s subgenual prefrontal cortex, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. (Greater blood flow to parts of the brain usually signals more activity in those areas.) Then the scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace. Immediately after completing their walks, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.
For the highway walkers, the blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged. But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They also had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains were quieter.
This little study joins a growing body of research investigating the effects of urban living. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
It’s not only how you live but where you live.Filed under Posts | Comments (2)
Thinking young keeps you young. Yes, the mind-body connection is real. When you think young, you can become biologically younger.
I wrote about adventure last week – and then promptly went on one. It was no Wild, but it was, for me, both demanding and empowering: I embarked on my first-ever solo biking and camping trip.
The uncomfort zone I inhabited – an adventure is not an adventure if you don’t make yourself at least a little uncomfortable in the process – was not what you might expect. It was not so much about the physical challenge. I’m not saying that riding 70 miles over the coast range on a loaded bike was easy (especially on the lady parts), but I was in shape to do this. Getting my body to perform was a challenge, yes, but I knew I could do it.
The uncomfort zone was the woman-alone thing. Anxieties about the bike: flat tires and broken chains and assorted road mishaps far from bike shops and towns – and often out of cellphone range. Anxieties about camping alone: animals and people who act like animals and things that go bump in the night.
It took maybe 40 miles to stop feeling that particular all-body zing that, for me, signals being on high alert. This embodied anxiety feels almost like a low-level electrical current — not actually unpleasant, but insistent and distracting. But as I cycled through wetlands and pasture lands and forests, as I crossed creeks and skirted farms and edged around a lake, I began to forget all the bad things that could happen – because so many good things were happening: the greener-than-green landscape, the cloudless sky, the smell of mown hay, the solid power of my legs. I didn’t make a decision — Now I am going to cease being a scaredy cat start enjoying myself – but it happened. It’s weird to say that my body, busy pumping out the sweaty miles, actually relaxed. But that’s what happened.
And, after I successfully established my camp site and pitched my tent and started a fire in the fire ring and ate my dinner with my feet dangling in the Siuslaw River, I felt deep-down good. And ready for the next adventure.Filed under Posts | Comment (0)
Optimism is linked to vitality and good health, and optimism can be LEARNED. Oh yes it can!
Why do I make this proclamation?
It is because having adventures, whole-heartedly pursuing adventures – physical, creative, intellectual, spiritual – is the mark of one who is a curious and engaged.
It is because maintaining (no, not just maintaining, actively fueling) a sense of curiosity and wonder is the cornerstone of a counterclockwise lifestyle. A curious, engaged, adventurous person is, regardless of chronological age, youthful.
And so I say again: I am not yet ready to stop having adventures. And I hope I never will be.
An adventure is an experience that involves risk. It nudges you back to the beginning of a learning curve, which is an exciting, humbling and scary place to be. But it is the place where learning happens, where growth happens. Adventure is about inviting the unexpected and staying flexible and resilient enough to enjoy (or cope creatively with) what happens.
Adventures are individual, idiosyncratic things: a six-day silent meditation retreat is one person’s adventure; three weeks of backcountry hiking is another. A third adventurous soul might sign up for a pudding wrestling contest at a bar (a benefit for a really good cause. Really). These aren’t, as you might have guessed, random adventures. They are, in fact, adventures each of my three children have recently undertaken.
Which brings me to a conversation I overhead yesterday that compelled me to write this post today. I heard a woman at my favorite coffee hang-out say to her friend (after regaling her with what her children were up to), “After all, it’s our kids’ chance to have adventures now. Our time has past.” To which I say: bullshit. No, I didn’t say this out loud at the time. (I am not that kind of adventurous.) But I say it now. I am yelling it now. B U L L S H I T. Listen. This isn’t a zero-sum game. We don’t have to stop having adventures when our kids start having their own. In fact, this is THE time to reinvigorate our own sense of adventure.
Tomorrow I leave for my first-ever overnight solo bike trek.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen KellerFiled under Posts | Comment (0)