Act young.  But not in a creepy way.

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?

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

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.

Quit smoking and quit hanging around people who haven’t.

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 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.)


Act young.  But not in a creepy way.

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.

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

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?


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?

Use a moisturizer/ sunscreen (SPF 30) always, regardless of season.

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.

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

To thine own self be KIND

August 13th, 2014

aaaI am my own worst enemy.

I am my harshest critic.

Have you ever said this about yourself? I have. And I am. And have been kind of proud of it. No one is harder on me than me, I proclaim. I can never please myself, I say, kind of pleased with myself for saying so. I’ve long thought of this as keen-eyed self-judgment and realistic (if harsh) self-assessment, the antidote to all that saccharine love yourself just the way you are/ forgive yourself psychobabble.

Oh, wait. It’s not psychobabble? It’s self-compassion? And it’s actually a healthy (not to mention counterclockwise) trait to nurture? Oops. Will I ever be able to forgive myself for not knowing this?

Self-compassion means recognizing and acknowledging your humanness, which is to say your imperfections and failings, and instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for these inadequacies or shortcomings, being kind and understanding. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. Guess what? That’s called being human.

In relatively trivial counterclockwise lifestyle terms, this means: So what if you read a great book all weekend instead of sweating at the gym? Are you the worst person on earth because you inhaled a slab of Metropole Bakery carrot cake (just sayin)? Forgot sunscreen? Didn’t drink your 8 glasses of water? Blahblahblah. The time and energy you spend beating yourself up about these “failings” can – that’s right — age you!

It turns out that people who are kind to themselves suffer less stress and anxiety, which translates into less cortisol circulating in their system. Cortisol (the “stress hormone”) increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, decreases bone formation and is implicated in systemic inflammation. All bad. People who are stressed and anxious also have higher blood pressure and faster heart rates. Not good. Self-kindness is an anti-aging strategy!

Take this self-compassion test online, and see how you do. I took it, and I came close to flunking. Then I berated myself for my low self-compassion score, thereby showing my lack of self-compassion. Which does have a lovely circularity to it and would make a great New Yorker cartoon. However. Now I shall quit yelling at myself and attempt to embrace my flawed humanity. Or at least my rotten test score.

Thanks to Colleen McKillip, loyal reader and recipient of a free Counterclockwise audiobook, for suggesting this topic. I have another free download to offer to the next reader with a good suggestion for an idea I’ve yet to tackle. Pitch it to me as a “comment” to this post.

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

Counterclockwise Cat

August 6th, 2014

sonnyEverything I know about living counterclockwise I learned from my cat.

I could make a bundle publishing a book with that title, right? It appeals to that most lucrative, literate and thus far untapped demographic (you know who you are) of counterclockwise cat-lovers.

Alas, no book. Instead, I will give away all my insights for free right here. This is your lucky day. My cat is pretty excited too.

My cat, Sonny, is 15 years old. That’s 76 in people years. (fyi: A cat reaches the approximate human age of 15 during its first year, then 24 at age 2. Each year thereafter, it ages approximately four “cat years” for every calendar year.) He is alert, frisky, fighting-weight, clear-eyed, and soft-furred. From your typical sitting-on-haunches cat position, he can leap 3 feet in the air and nail a landing on the 4-inch wide porch railing. He sleeps soundly. He is happy (as evidenced by incessant purring).

What’s his secret? What does Sonny do right? As cats are said to have 9 lives, here are Sonny’s 9 counterclockwise strategies:

1. He grazes on high-quality, no-garbage food all day, eating a mouthful of food at a time, never a big meal.
2. He stays hydrated.
3. He gets ample physical activity that is integrated into his daily life.
4. He plays.
5. He pals around with someone much much younger than himself (my other cat, Simon, who is a human twentysomething).
6. He continues to challenge himself cognitively and physically by hunting (note semi-revolting pic of Simon chewing bunny guts)

sonny guts7. He is surrounded by a loving and supportive family.
8. He has a useful place in that family (well, as useful as cats get).
9. He is treated as ageless.



Now, here’s your reward for reading about my cat.

Counterclockwise was just published as an audio book on  I am offering a FREE download to the first three of you who send me a good (new) idea for a future column for the blog. Just send as a “comment” to this post. The audio book is wonderful, btw, voiced by the very talented actor Hollis McCarthy.

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

A Sense of Purpose

July 30th, 2014

compassI’m delighted to share this newest research on health and longevity, on how to live a counterclockwise life.

No, it’s not another superfood.

No, it’s not a new ultimate fitness regimen.

It’s not about fasting, detoxing, botoxing, hormones, enzymes, lotions, lasers or dead skin-eating fish.

It’s about – wait for itliving a life with a sense of purpose. A while back, I wrote about meeting a vigorous, energetic 92-year-old woman who does just that.

You may remember that I’ve also written about a related subject: how volunteering is a powerful anti-aging strategy. Several recent studies found evidence that those who volunteer — which gives them a sense of purpose — live longer than their non-philanthropic counterparts. I mentioned a 2013 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging that found that mid-life adults who volunteered about 4 hours a week were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure 4 years later. Other studies discovered fewer health complaints, higher functional ability, less depression and anxiety, and less incidence of heart disease among volunteers than among matched sets of non-volunteers.

Now more good news in the same vein. Simply stated: People who live with a sense of purpose live longer. National Institute on Aging-funded research based on more than 6,000 mid-life people found that people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared to their more aimless counterparts. The Canadian researchers controlled for other factors known to affect longevity like gender, age and emotional and psychological well-being. Sense of purpose trumped them all.

And here’s additional good news: It didn’t appear to make a difference when these people found that purpose. It could have been in college. It could have been after retirement. You might be interested to know that “sense of purpose” is not limited to the grandiose – joining the Peace Corps, cleaning up a toxic river, working for a political or social movement. The researchers defined purpose as a “compass or lighthouse that provides an overarching aim and direction in day-to-day lives.”

It could be big, like working for social change. But it could also be intimate like ensuring the well-being of one’s family. Or it could be self-focused, like doing well on the job. Creativity could also give a person a sense of purpose and direction.

Exactly how purpose benefits health is not clear. It might be that individuals with a sense of purpose are also purposeful about their own health and so lead healthier lives than others. But a likely explanation – especially given the research on the health benefits of volunteering – is that sense of purpose increases self-esteem, happiness and optimism, all traits associated with a myriad of health benefits. The researchers hypothesize that a sense of purpose may protect against the harmful effects of stress, one of the great systemic agers.

All of which goes to prove that living a healthy, vigorous and long life is not about anti-aging fads and 7-day make-over promises. It is about building and enjoying a rich, purposeful life. With (dark) chocolate for dessert.

Seek out creative, intellectual and physical challenges.  They keep you vital.

The Sun: Yes or No?

July 23rd, 2014

bright sunSummertime means fun in the sun. Or does it?

It’s complicated. More complicated than you think.

Gone are the days (for most of us) when we brazenly sunbathed, slathered in baby oil, holding aluminum foil-covered reflectors to our faces. (Or was that just me?) We have been well schooled in the evils of El Sol these days, the big one being skin cancer. It is the most common cancer, and far more common in the gray and misty Northwest (where I live) that you would think. It may be that we Northwesterners are so thrilled when we see the sun that we celebrate its appearance with an overabundance of enthusiasm.

The other, less dire message about sun exposure concerns aging, as in premature aging of the skin, aka photoaging. Sun exposure dries out the outer layers of the skin (moist skin is youthful skin) and does damage to the deeper collagen layer that gives skin its resilience. Dermatologists believe that photoaging trumps chronological aging in terms of those sags and wrinkles you don’t want to see. Add to this the solid research that sun exposure may contribute to the development of cataracts, and it’s enough to make you want to live in a cave all year.

Ah, you say, “Not me. I use sunscreen. I’m safe.” Sorry to deliver some potentially bad news on this front. You may want to take a deep breath:

The titanium dioxide nanoparticles increasingly used in sunscreens to protect the skin (the tiny particles directly absorb the radiation from sunlight) are so tiny that some scientists are raising concerns about whether they might do harm by seeping through the skin and into the bloodstream. Back in 2006, the International Agency on Cancer Research classified titanium dioxide as a potential human carcinogen (based mostly on inhalation studies in animals). Although these concerns has been largely dismissed (whew), there are now new concerns focused on the possibility that these nanoparticles could promote skin aging.

Yes, that’s right: The stuff we slather on our skin to prevent damage may, in fact, promote it.

So…sun BAD; sunscreen BAD.  Stay out of the sun entirely?  Not so fast. There are extraordinary benefits to sun exposure, according to ongoing research. Sunlight is the major source of vitamin D-producing Ultraviolet B radiation. At least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body are now thought to be regulated by D3, the active form of the vitamin, including: calcium metabolism, bone health, neuromuscular and immune system functioning, regulation of hunger, fertility, post-work-our resilience and, get this, the inhibiting the growth of some cancers. There is also research on the possibility of sun exposure reducing blood pressure, cutting heart attacks and reducing the incidence of strokes. (In fact, Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in the UK suggest that the heart-health benefits of sun exposure may outweigh the risk of developing skin cancer.) And, as you probably know, sun exposure has also been associated with reduced risk of seasonal affective disorder.

What to do?

Maybe this will help: Dr. Michael Holick, a vitamin D researcher with Boston University School of Medicine says that “the alarmist view that you should never be exposed to one ray of sunshine without wearing sunscreen has led to a pandemic of vitamin D deficiency and health problems.”  We should be cautious.  Not freaked.

How about 20 minutes of unprotected basking — unless you 1)  have had skin cancer or 2) are very light skinned.  Then 1) it’s the cave for you and 2) 10 minutes?

Summertime when the livin’ is easy?  Yeah, right.

Non-solar sources of D coming up next.  Stay tuned.