Integrate stretching into your daily life. (Waiting on line, talking on phone, work breaks.)

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.

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

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?

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

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.

Think about what you’re going to do,not what you have already done.

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.

YES!  There is an anti-aging “magic bullet.”  It’s called physical activity.

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?

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

Exploring the Uncomfort Zone

October 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do to shake it up?

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

Fall: the BEST counterclockwise season

October 1st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t drink soda.  Ever.  Even (especially) diet soda.

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?

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

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.