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

Living the dream

December 17th, 2014

me n couch in costumeIt’s a good thing.

I am too busy living counterclockwise to write about it. At least this week.I just returned from 5 days on the road with the Eugene Ballet Company. We — yes, I am (temporarily) part of the company — are touring The Nutcracker for the holiday season. We just did 5 shows in 5 days in Washington and Idaho. Tonight and tomorrow we are in Salem. Friday, Saturday (matinee and evening) and Sunday we are at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon.

Those of you who follow me on facebook know I’ve been preparing for this for a while, going back to my childhood passion for ballet, going first to community classes and then company classes, rehearsing with this company of talented professionals — and now performing and touring. I’ll be writing about this in a new book, Raising the Barre, about shaking it up mid-life, going back to the beginning of the learning curve, challenging myself while ecapturing old dreams. Right now, though, I have to put on my stage make-up, gather my tights and leo, my character shoes and headpiece, my protein bars — and leave for the studio to catch the bus up to Salem.

Thanks for stopping by the blog today. I promise a nice, meaty post next week.

(photo by Cliff Coles)

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

Run, don’t walk

December 10th, 2014

colorful shoesConsider the various health and fitness “truisms” that have turned out to be not so true. As in false.

Eggs are high cholesterol bombs. Avoid them. Uh, no.

Butter is artery-clogging junk. Change to margarine. Nope.

No pain; no gain. So wrong.

Twenty minutes of exercise three times a week is all you need. Sorry, no.

Walking is as good for you as running. Apparently not. This is the latest bit of dogma to bite the dust.

It turns out that running may reverse aging in ways that walking does not, according to a new study of active older people. It was a small study — 30 men and women in their mid- to late-60s or early 70s – conducted at the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory. (Interesting to note here that Colorado always ranks as the #1 healthiest state in the union. Apparently, the researchers had no trouble whatsoever
recruiting healthy, active volunteers.) For the study period, 15 of these volunteers walked at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more. The other 15 ran (gentle jogging speed) at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more. Then the scientists had each runner and each walker complete three brief walking sessions on specially equipped treadmills that measured the way they moved. The volunteers also wore masks to measure oxygen intake, which helped the scientists determine cardiovascular efficiency.

The results? The runners won. By a lot. They required considerably less energy to move at the same pace as the walkers. In fact, when the researchers compared the walking efficiency of the older runners to that of young people (measured in earlier experiments at the same lab), they found that 70-year-old runners had about the same walking efficiency as a typical sedentary college student. The older walkers, on the other hand, had about the same walking economy as people of their own age who were sedentary.

Yikes.

No one disputes that walking is excellent exercise. All kinds of studies have concluded that older people who walk have significantly lower rates of obesity, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. But researchers have noted that the walking ability (strength, endurance, efficiency) of walkers decreases with age. They move slower, fatigue more easily, etc. So it was thought that physical decline was a consequence of age, they thought.

The older runners in this study disproved that.

How did they stay so fit – as fit as nonexercisers 40 years their junior? One word: mitochondria. I wrote about these powerhouses within our cells in my book, Counterclockwise. I even had my own mitochondria measured. So the conclusion of the Colorado researchers will sound familiar to my readers: Intense, prolonged aerobic exercise (like running) increases the number and activity and efficiency of mitochondria in the muscles. More mitochondria mean more energy with less effort. More mitochondria mean a higher level of fitness. More mitochondria move us counterclockwise.

Yes, running is tough on joints. And it’s not for everyone. The take-home message is here is that intensity of effort can make a very big difference in cardiovascular health and muscle efficiency. The take-home message is that it is NOT age that accounts for lack of fitness; it is lack of strenuous exercise.

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.

Down with moderation!

December 3rd, 2014

sodaI am not an “everything in moderation” kind of girl, despite the long-standing popularity of that advice – particularly when it comes to health and wellness.

I personally throw myself – body and soul, heart and mind – into a number of select endeavors. Passion almost always trumps moderation. Moderation, to me, is boring.

I don’t even know what “moderation” means. What is a moderate amount of stress? What’s a moderately satisfying relationship?

More importantly, there are some things that are just no damned good – and should not be engaged in at all, moderately or otherwise. And so, from a health and vitality/ counterclockwise perspective, I would counsel LACK of moderation. That is, as close to avoidance as possible. I’d like to bring your attention to 4 of these, what I’m (oh-so-cleverly) calling “The Four Ss of the Apocalypse.” Here they are:

SMOKING Please tell me you don’t smoke tobacco, you don’t hang around people who smoke tobacco and you have not been enticed into the whole vaping thing. Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Of the close to half million such deaths, 40 percent are from cancer (lung, esophagus, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach, cervix and counting), 35 percent are from heart disease or stroke, and 25 percent are from lung diseases. And please, let’s wait for some actual research on health consequences of vaping.

SITTING If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about sitting. In fact, if you are SITTING at your computer right now, or sitting on your couch with your mobile device reading this: STAND UP. Sitting has been implicated in so many health problems and aging miseries that it was recently proclaimed as bad as smoking. Shocking, right? But the research is persuasive. Also, for those of you who take solace in the hour of gym time you carve out for yourself and think you are immune to the effects of sitting… sorry. No. It turns out that 6 hours of sitting negates the health benefits of 1 hour of concerted exercise.

SODA
Just how bad is excessive soda consumption for your body? Very. High rates of soda consumption have been linked with numerous health problems, including weight gain, poor dental health, kidney problems, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—which can ultimately lead to heart attacks, stroke and premature death. And regular soda isn’t the only culprit. Even diet drinks, which utilize artificial sweeteners in place of sugar, are proving to be unhealthy. Researchers at Purdue University believe that artificial sweeteners in soft drinks trick the body into reacting differently when it tastes something sweet, ultimately throwing off metabolism. A related University of Minnesota study of 10,000 adults found that just one diet soda a day was linked to a 34 percent higher risk of metabolic syndrome. A Harvard Med School study of 3000 women found a two-fold increase in risk for kidney decline for those who drank 2 or more diet sodas. Soda is (liquid) junk food, plain and simple.

SUGAR
Here’s the rap sheet on sugar: It is bad for teeth, taxes the liver and can cause significant organ damage, leads to insulin resistance (a stepping stone to metabolic disorder which is a precursor to diabetes), raises cholesterol levels and may contribute to the development of certain cancers. Sugar also has unique fat-promoting effects (which, interesting, actual fats do not have). And, to top it off, it’s highly addictive. No, not the sugar in fruit, which exists within the context of fiber and vitamins and scores of phytochemicals. The sugar in Coke. The sugar in caramel frappacinos and eggnog lattes.

Avoid the 4 Ss. Strike a blow against moderation!

Forget fads. Eat (mostly) plants. Eat nutrient dense, calorie controlled foods. Simple.

Happy (youthful) Thanksgiving to you

November 26th, 2014

turkeyThanksgiving is – and has always been – my all-time favorite holiday.  And now I have another reason (actually 10 of them) to love this day.  And so do you.  Here are the Top Ten Reasons Thanksgiving is the Ultimate Anti-Aging Holiday:

10. Family gatherings where you spend time with people younger than you are helps you “think young,” which translates into real biological benefits like lower blood pressure.

9. Cleaning the house before the guests arrive is good exercise.  Integrating functional physical activity into your life is probably the single most successful long-term anti-aging strategy there is.

8. Cooking turkey is one of the least anxiety-producing culinary activities you can engage in and still call yourself a cook.  Lower anxiety is linked to longer telomeres.  Longer telomeres are linked to a healthier, longer life.

7. Eating your largest meal mid-day is a proven weight-control strategy.  Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of avoiding chronic illnesses (diabetes, heart disease) that decrease quality of life and shorten lifespan.

6. Turkey (breast) is a high-quality, super-lean source of protein.  Protein helps build muscle.  A favorable fat-to-lean ratio is a biomarker of youthfulness.

5.  Pine nuts or hazelnuts in the dressing (made with celery, mushrooms, tons of garlic and onions sautéed in olive oil, mixed with toasted multi-grain bread crumbs).  Oh yes! A study from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported that people who regular consumed nuts were less likely to die from a variety of diseases, most significantly cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases. Nut eaters also tended to be leaner.  (I am guessing their nut-eating did not include slabs of pecan pie… so cross that off your list for tomorrow’s dessert.)

4.  Cranberries have powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory – and perhaps even anti-cancer – properties.

3. The Center for Science in the Public Interest rates sweet potatoes as the number one most nutritious vegetable.  One cup of sweet potatoes (no, not carpeted in brown sugar and dotted with marshmallows) contains 65% of RDA of Vitamin C – a powerful anti-oxidant — and a walloping dose of beta-carotene (which converts to vitamin A in the body) that equals 700% of RDA. Vitamin A is key for good vision and a healthy immune system.

2. Giving thanks and being thankful are signs of self-efficacy and optimism, traits that are associated with greater health and well-being, and a longer lifespan.

And the #1 reason Thanksgiving is the ultimate anti-aging holiday:

1. It’s a holiday that demands no gift-giving!  No gift-giving means less stress.  Less stress means less cortisol. Less cortisol means less inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to just about everything you don’t want to happen to you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

 

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

Tea Time!

November 19th, 2014

leavesFall – the season of soups and boots – is my favorite time of year because of, well, the soups and boots thing. Not to mention glorious foliage. Also: TEA, steaming mugs of fragrant tea sipped on chilly November mornings. So, this being a chilly November morning, let’s talk tea: herbal tea, health and wellness.

Herbal tea isn’t really made from tea—which is a specific kind of plant. Herbal tea an infusion of leaves, seeds, roots and bark extracted in hot water. I have nothing against tea tea. In fact, I drink quite a bit of green tea, but herbals do have specific properties that are believed to be health-promoting. I say “believed to be” because, if you’re looking for large-scale, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trails on herbal tea and its health benefits, you ain’t gonna find them. (Those kind of studies cost tens of millions to mount and are generally financed by pharmaceutical companies.) But you will find enthusiastic endorsements by herbal tea drinkers, naturopaths, herbalists and others. And you will find centuries of use in cultures that value herbal remedies. Here are a few commonly available, potentially health-promoting, counterclockwise herbal teas to consider this fall:

Peppermint is believed to be a stress-reducer. It’s also known for its ability to ease nausea, abdominal discomfort and bloating (holiday overindulgence, anyone?), relieve sinus pain and maybe even clear the skin. Personally, I find this tea peps me up. (I mean mood elevation not energy boost.)

Lemon Balm tea is thought to lift the spirits, ease digestion and help with sleep. And there is some science behind the sleep claim. Yes, clinical trails. Researchers have investigated lemon balm’s use in treating insomnia and anxiety, but most of these studies used a combination of lemon balm and other herbs like valerian, hops and chamomile. The University of Michigan Health System cites a preliminary clinical trial that compared the effects of a product containing lemon balm and valerian root with the insomnia medication triazolam, or Halcion. The study found that the herbal combination was just as effective as Halcion at improving the participants’ ability to fall asleep and quality of sleep.

Chamomile – wonderful, soothing, grandmotherly chamomile– is considered to have calming, sedative effects and muscle-relaxing properties. It may also be a boon to the immune system – the enduring strength of which is a key to a counterclockwise life — due to plant-derived compounds called phenolics. Plus, it smells wonderful.

Ginger tea is renown as a great digestive aid, used to curb nausea or settle an upset stomach caused by motion sickness. Ginger is rich in Vitamin C and Magnesium, as well as other healthy minerals, and is believed to improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, fight respiratory issues and boost the immune system. And it grows in sidewalk cracks.

Rooibos tea – a tasty new favorite of mine – is high in vitamin C and has thus been touted for its antioxidant properties, which may protect against disease and mitigate signs of aging. I don’t know. I just love the taste of it. Rosehip tea, like rooibus, is a vitamin C powerhouse. I don’t like the taste, so it doesn’t get a separate listing. So there.

Nettle Tea is rich in B vitamins, iron and calcium. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties that make it beneficial in treating arthritis, diabetes and even heart disease.

The thing about these health and wellness claims is: maybe yes, maybe no. But there’s no downside to trying a cup.

Please write in with your go-to herbal teas.

An anti-inflammation diet is easy: brightly colored veggies, fish, nuts and seeds.

Joy.

November 12th, 2014

surpriseThe thing about joy – the best thing about joy – is that it comes unbidden.

You can (if you are very very lucky) find yourself sipping a glass of Brunello and nibbling a chunk of local pecorino as the Tuscan sun glints off a field of sunflowers. And it is lovely. And it is wonderful. And you are happy to be there. But the moment doesn’t grab unexpectedly at your soul. It doesn’t shoot a bolt of electricity from the soles of your feet to the top of your head. Maybe it’s because you worked hard for that moment. You planned it, set it up, made it perfect.

Alternately, you could pull yourself out of a warm bed at 5:20 on the chilliest morning of the year after a not-great night’s sleep. You could be thinking (not-entirely-positive thoughts) about the 6:15 Barre3 class you have to get to and the semi-grueling ballet class that follows and the long day of writing after that. And you could walk out the back door of the house into the cold, black morning and, with that first inhale, you could be — you are! — almost knocked silly by an overwhelming blast of joy. I mean full-body, electric-charged, all-encompassing bliss. Unasked for. Unplanned. Boom.

Here’s why I decided to share that moment in today’s post rather than write about what dogs can teach us about anti-aging (which is what I thought I’d be writing about when I woke up this morning): I want to acknowledge the power of the unexpected. I want to embrace the idea that you don’t always have to work so very hard to get to a good place. It may be that, occasionally, when we least expect it, without the gritting of teeth and the straining of muscles and the writing and checking off of lengthy to-do lists (yes, I am referring to myself here), good stuff happens. It may be that cultivating a life-long openness to that possibility, to the unexpected glory of surprise is as viable a path to a counterclockwise life as, say, kale salad and cross-fit.

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

Fall is in the air

November 5th, 2014

humpty dumptyHere are two scary stats for you:

Seventy percent of people older than 70 take blood pressure meds. Yes, you read that right: 7 out of 10. More than 30 million men and women.

And…25 percent of older people who fall and fracture a hip die within a year. Eighty percent are left with mobility problems severe enough that they are unable to walk a city block.

Why am I passing along this depressing information? Usually I’m all upbeat and full of beat-the-clock energy and brimming with just-do-it spirit. It’s not that I’m feeling grouchy today. Au contraire. Things are going very well for me on my latest counterclockwise journey (my quest to dance in The Nutcracker this holiday season). But I feel compelled to comment for two reasons:

First, these two equally depressing, seemingly unrelated health statistics are, in fact, closely related. People who take blood-pressure-lowering medication are at significantly increased risk for serious falls. This according to a study published last April in JAMA Internal Medicine. (Other drugs commonly prescribed for older people including anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs and sleep medications can, in the words of a Yale geriatrician who studies falls, “directly affect your balance.”)

And second (here’s where I switch back to my just-do-it self): This is AVOIDABLE. (“This” being both the taking of such medications and the falling.) Why do 30 million older people require medication to lower their blood pressure? Elevated blood pressure is not a natural consequence of aging. It is a natural consequence of an out-of-shape heart and stiffened arteries…which are not a natural consequence of aging. They are a natural consequence of lack of exercise, poor diet, obesity, smoking – the decisions we make (or don’t make) and live by every day. And the decisions we make today at age 40 or 50 or 60 WILL have consequences when we are 70 or 80 or older.

Why not have those be good consequences?

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

Ditch “The Rule”

October 29th, 2014

annaHere it is today, short and sweet:

Why, when we encounter or read about a vibrant, curious, active, creatively alive older person is that person “the exception that proves the rule.” Because, as we all know, “the rule” is old equals cranky, crabby, frail, sedentary, sexless, useless. And the rule abides.

Why, when we acknowledge that an old person is (you choose): a productive documentary filmmaker (Frederick Wiseman, 84), a brilliant naturalist (E.O. Wilson, 85), an astonishing modern artist (Carmen Herrera, 99), a #1 Billboard entertainer (Tony Bennett, 88) , an avant-garde dancer and teacher (Anna Halprin, 94) are these interesting, engaged, productive, still-growing people all “exceptions that prove the rule” – the rule being getting older sucks and nothing good will come of it and your best days are behind you.

Isn’t it time we consider that these “exceptions” actually challenge the rule? Isn’t it time we reconsider what aging means – or can mean – if we remain curious and open to experience, if we work to keep ourselves strong and healthy, if we stop buying into “the rule?”  Time to ditch the damn rule. Read this elegant little essay by Lewis Lapham (who will be 80 this January) with accompanying portraits in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine. And think of each one of the “Old Masters” profiled in the story as examples of – not exceptions to – aging.

Eat protein at every meal. That includes snacks.

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.

Sleep in a cool room (temperature not décor).

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?