Trans-fat (as in store-bought bakery items)?  Really?  You know better.

Clint

January 28th, 2015

clintSetting aside the politics, I want to say a few things about Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” I promise this has something important to do with aging. Just stay with me for a moment.

The movie knows what it’s about and goes for it. Where it could be arty and dramatic, it is blunt and unsentimental. We know what we need to know just when we need to know it. The acting does not feel like acting. The skirmish/ battle scenes, which need to communicate confusion and randomness without themselves being confusing or random, do just that. The movie, with very few glitches, is a sharp, clear, sure-handed, finely crafted piece of work, professional and powerful from beginning to end. It is the directorial work of a master.

That master happens to be 84.

What I have been hearing (from friends who’ve seen the movie, from media commentary) is how amazing it is that an 84-year-old could do something like this. Wow. He is an old guy and, gee, he is in top form. Isn’t that astonishing! As if being old is an obstacle to excellence as opposed to a contributor.

Clint Eastwood could make this kind of movie because he is 84 not despite the fact that he is 84. (And, anyway, who knows how old he really is…as in biologically. His chronological years make far less difference to his energy, vitality and creativity than his biological age. That’s the counterclockwise message I’ve been preaching in these columns. That’s the counterclockwise message the science of aging communicates unequivocally.)

I want to repeat: Eastwood is capable of such work because – not despite of – his age. Can we please please stop playing the age card, stop assuming that people past a certain chronological age are diminished? Can we please please stop viewing those who continue to contribute as “exceptions to the rule”? It may be that they ARE the rule.

Here’s what Pablo Casals had to say about age and excellence: “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”

Play on, Clint.

And consider the lives of these “elderly” folks.

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

I (heart) yoga

January 21st, 2015

yogaHow could you not want to start the day with something called “Happy Baby”? I mean, really. Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana) is a yoga pose. You lie on your back, draw your knees into your chest, fan open your legs and reach down to grab the outsides (or insides) of your feet, making sure your feet (alas not the cute chubby little feet of a real happy baby) are parallel to the ceiling. And then you rock, gently, from side to side. And you breath.

Yoga teachers and instructional websites will tell you that Happy Baby has the following benefits: It opens and stretches the hips, stretches and releases the lower back, lengthens and helps to realign the spine, and strengthens the arms and shoulders. I don’t doubt it. I will tell you that it scours the mind and makes you feel both happy… and like a baby.

Lately, I’ve been starting my days with Happy Baby followed by cat/cows and pigeon, various spinal twists, and three lengthy sun salutations. I love the irony of doing the sun salutations in the pre-dawn (no sun) in the Oregon winter (with no hope of sun once the day begins). I love the flow from posture to posture. I love that the postures have names like cobra and down dog and warrior one, two and three. And I love how I can lose myself in the flow – even though, every morning, I have to persuade myself anew to spend these 30 minutes.

That’s because for decades I’ve thought (even as I’ve taken my share of yoga classes and gone through asanas in the living room while following yoga DVDs), that yoga isn’t real exercise. That my time would be better spent sweating or grunting or, preferably, both. Yes, I know it’s wrong-headed to think of yoga as “exercise.” It is a philosophy, a way of being, a connection to self. Still, I’ve not given it its due because I have been unable to appreciate the physical benefits.

So, if you need convincing about the importance of yoga to a counterclockwise life, breath deep and read on:

Balance  “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates 1 out of every 2 women and 1 out of every 4 men over 50 will suffer a fracture related to a fall. Balancing poses in yoga can keep us aligned and steady on our feet

Flexibility  That happy baby doesn’t just grab her feet in the crib, she nibbles on her own toes. You try that now. A certain amount of inflexibility does come with age, but most of it comes from inactivity. Every yoga posture helps with flexibility, especially hips and spine. And posture! Oh yeah.

Strength  Yoga builds strength slowly and safely (unlike, say, CrossFit) through weight-bearing postures like downward dog, cobra and plank. It’s okay – and for some folks preferable – to avoid high impact, high intensity strength-building exercises. Yoga does the trick.

Body awareness  Through the postures and the poses and the movements and the breathing, we notice where we hold tension – and release it. We feel – and can correct — the slouch. We deepen the shallow breathing. The stronger the connection we build between body and mind the less likely we are to, essentially, punish our bodies with destructive habits like all-day sitting, mindless eating.

So, tomorrow morning, join me in saluting the sun. I know it’s up there somewhere.

Looking younger is not the same as being younger.  Focus your efforts on heart, lungs, arteries and muscles – not crow’s feet.

Feeling good

January 14th, 2015

amazing dawnI awoke this morning feeling…good. Deep-down, to-the-core, easy-breathing, clear-headed, for-no-particular-reason good. And, instead of rushing out of bed as I usually do, I lay quietly for maybe as long as five minutes. Which is a very long time when you are motionless in an inky black room at 5:45 in the morning, and you know you’ll have to hoof it to make it on time to the pre-dawn Barre3 class to which you are (happily) addicted.

But I stayed put. I was, for some reason, struck by how good I felt. It wasn‘t the endorphin-high good of an intense work-out or the I-just-accomplished-something good of a self-esteem high or the warm body rush of a great-hug high. It was a quiet, solid, embodied good. Emphasis on the embodied. As in: in the body.

I stretched out long, pointing my toes, reaching my arms above my head. I flexed and pointed. I rotated my arms in wide circles, careful not to whack my sleeping husband. I shrugged and released my shoulders. I took big, deep breaths. The air in the room was chilly, just like I liked it. It tickled and cooled my nostrils but, when I released through my mouth, it was soft and warm.

I hadn’t just awoken from a lovely dream, or even had a great night’s sleep. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly wonderful day. I merely awoke into my body, into the good health and banked energy of my body.

When people ask me what I do or what I eat or what supplements I take, and then ask (of course) “Does it make a difference?” I can’t answer in the way they want me to answer. I can’t say “Why, yes, since I starting taking CoQ10 I have more energy.” Or, “Sure. My daily work-outs have increased my bone density by 2 percent.” Or, “Absolutely. Eating kale has made a new woman of me.” Because everything I do, everything we all do (or don’t do) is part of a much bigger, still pretty mysterious mix. Everything we do (don’t do) is more than a sum of its parts in ways we don’t understand and cumulative in ways we won’t discover for years. Or until one morning when we awake into our own wellness.

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

The OVER-examined life

January 7th, 2015

self-tracking-3-219x300“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates (according to Plato). But what about the over-examined life?

Socrates meant examining your beliefs, ethics and morals, your behavior towards others, your actions in the world. At least that’s what I think he meant. Unlike Plato, I did not sit at his feet and listen. Why I’m writing about this now is to comment on our current-day fascination/fixation – mania? — with over-examining our lives, particularly the many many ways we have of tracking and quantifying the health-conscious (counterclockwise) lives we would like to be living. I am the last person to argue against making every effort to live a healthy, mindful, body- and soul-enriching life. But I’m concerning about the obsessive tracking of such a life.

For Christmas this year Santa presented me with a Garmin Forerunner 620, a sophisticated wrist and chest-band tracking device that measures my heart rate, miles run, split times, calories expended. The usual. But also offers such information as my cadence (steps per minute), vertical oscillation (my bounce while running), my ground contact time (amount of time in each step spent on the ground measured in milliseconds). Not to mention my VO2 max, predicted race times for 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon, recovery check (real-time indication of my state of recovery within the first several minutes after a run), recovery time (optimal time until next hard work-out). It also tracks me on GPS and sends all this info to my phone. I can share it with you!

Don’t worry, I won’t.

You can buy devices, download apps and join online groups that will help you track your food intake, water consumption, alcohol intake, volume of oxygen consumed (and air quality thereof) metabolism, blood pressure, skin temperature, sleep time/ quality/ phases, moods, time spent waiting, time spent doing whatever it is you spend your time doing that isn’t waiting. If this interests you, you might want to check out The Quantified Self.

For me, there’s a line – and not really the proverbial “thin line” — between mindfulness and obsessive self-tracking. It’s important to eat clean and healthy, but is it important (or healthy) to quantify every phytochemical you ingest? Yes, we should move our bodies every day, but do I really need to know my vertical oscillation while running on the beach? I care about sleeping well, but I know when I do (or don’t) without tracking how many minutes I spend in various sleep phases. Etcetera, etcetera.

All this self-tracking, all this technology may just rob us of enjoying and experiencing life in the moment – which, really, is the core on counterclockwise living. Or so it seems to me this morning as I resist the temptation to strap on the Garmin before my foggy run.

Sleep is restorative and regenerative.  Getting enough good-quality sleep is one of the best anti-aging strategies.

A new day

December 31st, 2014

news years

You could make any number of 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 first 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 I love the idea of self-direction. So I am, in fact, thinking of starting the new year with a plan.

But more and more I am convinced that “staying young” (as in vibrant and active and engaged, curious and challenge-seeking) is about attitude and affect as much – or more – 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 counterclockwise living, and resolutions (if you are the resolution-making type) that focus only on the physical are not as life-enhancing as maybe we think (or hope ) they are.

So what is? Waking with energy and purpose, eagerness and curiosity into 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.

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

For Alena

December 24th, 2014

god rejskeSometimes the only thing you can do is make a story of it.

This is the story of Alena.

My husband and I arrived in Copenhagen one early afternoon last spring. A taxi dropped us off in front of what we thought was our airbnb apartment. But it wasn’t. We were jetlagged, over-luggaged, sweaty (it was an astonishing 70 degrees), cranky. And lost. I traipsed back and forth in front of a long line of sleek canal-side apartments checking addresses and names, not finding our place, becoming increasingly distraught.

Then a woman called to us from a second-floor balcony. She had a cloud of blond hair and a larger-than-life smile. “Can I help? Are you lost?” Yes. And yes.

She raced downstairs and began to fuss over us. Her English was quick and charming. She would help us find the apartment, she said, but she would not hear of us standing on the sidewalk while things got straightened out. She helped us lug our luggage up to her place. She poured us tall glasses of water. She made us coffee. She offered us food. She lent us her phone. She was spontaneously, gloriously, unself-consciously generous.

Finally we connected with our host and found the apartment. A few days later, we invited Alena over for dinner to thank her. She refused and instead invited us to her apartment where, at the end of a long day of work, she prepared an extraordinary multi-course meal. I remember these tiny, impossibly creamy little potatoes. I remember enough fresh salmon, perfectly prepared, to feed the entire neighborhood. We brought dessert from Lagkagehuset, tiny, beautiful works-of-art pastries. We had to catch a flight in the early morning, but we stayed late, very late, eating and talking, talking and laughing.

When we got back home, I told everyone about Alena and how she was what I would remember most about our week in Copenhagen. I sent her a scarf in a shade of blue that I thought would match her eyes. We emailed back and forth for several months. Her written English was impossibly quirky and very funny. I loved hearing from her. Late last summer, she told me she was suffering from depression, and nothing was helping. This was territory she knew well, she said. It would pass, she said. I sent her a silly card. Twice a week I emailed what I hoped were encouraging thoughts. Then, mid-fall, she stopped answering.

This morning an email arrived from a woman who introduced herself as Alena’s best friend. She told me that last week Alena took her own life.

So this is a sad story, and maybe not a story you want to hear at the holidays (or ever), and certainly not a story that has to do with counterclockwise advice. So you are wondering why I am telling it.

I am telling it because I have to, because, in telling it, I am honoring Alena. I am telling it because I want to make it into a story not about death but about generosity of spirit and the way we touch each other’s lives, about moments of connection and how they stay with us, how they live on. Even though we don’t.

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

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)

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

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.

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

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!

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

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.