Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Healthy Living" - The Tenets (part 2)

So this post has been severely delayed. Apologies. One of the biggest reasons I'm doing this is to get myself to blog more, and it's already not working. Clearly this doesn't bode well, but I'll carry on and try to get better at following through on this.

So here we go:

Sleep habits - This is a big one, big enough to sneak in Part 1 if I hadn't rambled on for so long. Sleep is one of the biggest unknowns in science. For the life of us, we can't figure out why we do it. We can't take any particular bodily function and say that sleep factors directly into its existence. But we do know that a lack of sleep results in a host of negative side effects - increased risk of diabetes, reduced cognitive throughput, weight gain, impaired judgment, decreased attention span, and more.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, for this lifetime, your body is you. When you do something bad to your body, it tries to find ways to tell you this. If skimping on this one activity causes this many ill effects that we can already measure, and if we don't even understand why we sleep in the first place, think about all the harmful effects a lack of sleep causes that we don't yet know about.

Or, in short, there are very few things core to our existence. Sleeping is one of them.

Nutrition - Similar concept to sleep in many ways. Eating food is, again, one of the few things we absolutely must do to stay alive. Most of you know my take on this: natural, home cooked, fresh, etc. is the way to go. Packaged, fast, synthesized food should be avoided. If you've been living in a cave and haven't read any Michael Pollan, get at it. He spells it out much better than I ever could, especially the tagline for his 2nd most recent book, In Defense of Food, which reads: Eat food, not too much, mostly plans (food as opposed to food-like substances, i.e. almost anything in a package). Nice and simple summation of the philosophy I'm going to try to follow.

Joint/body impact vs fun - This is the first of a stranger set of beliefs that will guide the redesign. One of the biggest areas of rethinking I've been trying to do has been in the area of exercise. I started to question some assumptions I had held my entire life - most fundamentally, the harder your train, the healthier you are.

When I thought about this, this doesn't make much sense. Why is doing crazy cardio that keeps your heart rate at 160+ for extended periods of time good for you? The heart, like any machine designed by nature or man, is optimized for medium usage. It's not good for your car to run at 6,000 rpms on a consistent basis. Why should our bodies be any different? It's a simple materials issue - pushing a system to the high end of its performance capabilities will strain the materials involved, be they metal or living tissue.

Even if you're not with me there, I'm assuming you'll agree that joint impact is an issue. Despite the new barefoot running movement, there is no getting around the plain truth that running is probably not great for your knees. Ditto for other high impact exercises. The machine analogy applies again - if you strike a system with higher degrees of force, you're more likely to cause long term damage.

But on the flip side, some high impact activities are just plain awesome. There are few things in life more fun than a great game of football or more exhilarating than a 20 degree run through Boston Common (a newfound passion of mine, though by no means am I sad to see the winter go).

So my goal will be to optimize along these two goals - if I go for a run, I'll try to keep it short and pay attention to how my knees feel, and if I'm going to be running around for a long period of time, I better be having a blast (playing a game of football, for example).

Sports - Along those lines, I also want to play more sports. They're fun, and the competition gets the juices flowing.

Trying new things - This is also a bit of a subset of the joint impact vs. fun point. Pushing the bounds of what you know and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is always a great learning experience and a great time. So, when I'm doing active things, I want to make an effort to experiment with activities I haven't tried. Martial arts, rock climbing, and wind surfing are a few I'm kicking around right now.

I think that's it for now - did I miss anything? I'm going to synthesize these into an exact regimin, which I'll describe in my next post. And after that, it's time to get at it. Hopefully I can stay disciplined and get the next post up soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Healthy Living" - The Tenets (part 1)

I think this is a fairly important post in the still young "Healthy Living" series. When I decided I wanted to blog about this stuff, this post was what I saw as the cornerstone - a hopefully comprehensive list of the tenets around which I'd like to build a healthy lifestyle. So, without further ado...

(Actually, that's a lie. I think I'm going to split this up into two posts - this one will be about the two larger issues, and the next one will elaborate on more specific issues.)

Holistic approach - Above all, I think there has been an unfortunate downside of the emergence of science, which is that our logic has tended toward reductive rather than holistic thinking. We're told to throw a ball farther we should lift weights. We're instructed to avoid this or that nutrient (fat or salt or sugar). We're given drugs for any and all ailments.

This doesn't make any sense. You inhabit one body. Everything is connected. To some, this may sound like new age-y rubbish, but I imagine most people reading this generally agree. However, I want to take it further - I want to explore this link. My hypothesis is that it's extremely strong. By cultivating good habits in all the various spheres of life, I believe you can develop overall resilience and competence - physical, emotional, and otherwise.

What does this mean in reality? I think that, for example, if you sleep well, you're better at handling both a bad break up and a tough day at work, and you're quicker on your feet (again, both mentally and physically). Avoiding fast food probably improves your creativity or mood, in some way, and all sorts of other stuff that we don't see as intuitive today.

And I think we know this - our bodies tell us in their own way - but our science has convinced us otherwise, and our minds are too busy to hear the message. Which brings us to tenet #2:

Quieting of the mind - Until very recently, humans have had relatively few forms of entertainment. While this sounds awful to us, I'm guessing it wasn't so bad. People tend to view their experience relative to their surroundings, and it's hard to miss TV when it hasn't been invented yet.

And with this lack of distractions, premodern cultures had a much easier time turning off their brains by focusing on something simple. Almost every culture ritualized this process in some way: yoga, prayer, and meditation are just a few examples. The benefits of these activities are hard, if not impossible to quantify or even qualify - in the Zen tradition, for instance, you are actively told to not desire any particular outcome from your practice, so much so that desiring an outcome defeats the entire purpose of the meditation.

Think about how crazy that sounds. Any modern viewpoint would write such a mindset off on face. But doing so inherently blinds you to any potential benefits and wisdom that such a philosophy possesses.

To make this a little more credible, I will say somewhat paradoxically that this is based on personal experience - in the 2+ years I've been practicing Zazen (sitting meditation) with some degree of frequency (not to imply I have any degree of proficiency - I'm awful - but luckily that's not the point), I've certainly found it to have positive effects. The tradition's point refers to the intention of the process - you're not supposed to go into it or practice it with any "gaining idea" (reason for doing it).

So I intend to make this a strong tenet in the lifestyle redesign. While meditation or yoga are obvious examples of this, it by no means stops there. The idea is to focus on being in the moment - walks, runs, or games of catch can be very meditative and mind-quieting in nature, if approached with the correct mindset.

There you have it - two of the main points of what I'm trying to do. Take them for what you will. More to come - stay tuned.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Healthy Living" - Personal Introduction

Disclaimer: This is a pretty boring post. I think it's important from the standpoint of fully introducing the concept, so I wrote it, but it's mostly about my health history. The next one will be much more interesting, I promise.

I think the next logical post after describing what I'm trying to do with this "Healthy Living" series should be about my "health" past and present - where I am today. I'll follow that up with a post about the core tenants I'm going to try to adhere to in designing the lifestyle changes and finish introducing the concept with the first pass at a specific plan of guidelines I'll be following.

So, most of you know me, but I'm a 6 foot Indian kid, usually weighing slightly less than 165 lbs. As a rule, Indian men tend to store body fat in the waist, build smaller but denser muscles, and generally be of slighter build. I certainly conform to this body type. I tried to maintain a heavier weight during high school (for football purposes) and hovered in the 180-190 lb. area, but even then I didn't gain much actual size (another characteristic of my body type).

Since then, I've realized 165 lbs. or slightly below is a good equilibrium weight for me - it tends to stay in that region almost irrespective of my health habits (which can vary a fair amount but not drastically so). I think that it means it's a good weight for me. Has anyone else found they have a natural "equilibrium weight" by the way?

That all may sound a bit off topic, but I think it's important to note that body types vary widely, and it's something one should keep in mind when designing a workout plan. Looking at my family and maybe Indian people in general, we tend to have skinny joints, which can often mean knee and hip problems down the road. That means I probably want to do things that limit strain on my joints - keeping my weight down and avoiding high impact exercises, for example. (That's far from a scientific analysis and I have no idea if Indian people as a whole are more likely to have joint problems. I'm mostly writing from personal experience - please disagree if you so desire.)

Speaking of which, I should probably describe my past/present habits. I have weekly goals of hitting the gym 5 times a week, which I do probably 85-90% of the time. Workouts usually consist of one pure cardio (20-30 minute run), then 3-4 days of short cardio (5-10 minutes to get the heart pumping) and lifting (major muscle groups being legs, back/biceps, chest/triceps, and shoulders - sometimes I'll combine legs and shoulders), and then maybe a day of yoga (which I'm not very good about fitting in).

Past that, my second goal is meditating 5 times a week for 30 minutes, which I actually get to 65-80% of the time. Right now, the meditation is all of the zazen variety (good explanation here), but I'd like to branch out and this will probably be another thing I change going forward.

Finally, my eating habits are good, but not great. I haven't done a very good job documenting them, but I'll try to summarize as accurately as possible. I'm really good about breakfast - eggs, toast, fruit, maybe some cereal. Past that, I do some cooking, though not often beyond the pasta and friend rice realm. That said, I do a pretty good job getting fruits and veggies, but not a very good one by any means. I stick to whole wheat bread and brown rice almost exclusively and haven't had fast food for ages. I try to go vegetarian every other day - it doesn't always work out that way, but I'm pretty happy with my meat intake. That said, I eat out probably 3-5 times per week, at least 1 (and sometimes 2) of which are Dominos. It's not good for you by any means, but $6 for what amounts to 2 meals (medium two topping pizza) is hard to pass up on a start up budget. For what it's worth, I typically tell them to go light on the cheese. :)

Anyway, I think that's about everything. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 01, 2010

"Healthy Living" - A New Blogging Series

So I was in between sets at the gym a couple weeks ago, looking around at all the people straining to lift weights and zoning out on cardio machines, when I started to wonder: what makes one healthy?

And as I went through the mindless motions of the mundane rowing machine, I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that what I was doing probably was only as "healthy" as I had managed to convince myself it was.

What about pulling on the handle was actually good for me? Sure, maybe it worked out my biceps and upper back muscles. But what did that do? What made those muscles more important than others? I wasn't at the gym for cosmetic reasons, so why was I here?

That, of course, got me to the bigger picture - in our age of corn-fed beef, packaged food, chic yoga classes, and mega gyms, what does it mean to be healthy?

So this new blogging series is going to be my attempt to answer that question while simultaneously making a series of lifestyle changes (which I'll blog about as part of the series). I'm going to spend the next few posts introducing the series by describing my current habits, fleshing out what I believe is healthy (and by all means feel free to disagree), and laying out my plan for the changes I plan to make.

The goal is threefold: mostly, I think writing about this will help hold me to the changes I'm making. Second, I've always believed journal-keeping has enormous self-reflective benefits, and I'm hoping writing about the experience will help me get more out of it. (Sidenote: dream journal keeping really does promote lucid dreaming, or at least it seems like that so far.) Finally, I want to open the process up to feedback/comments/criticism from my many (read: 3 or 4) readers.

Fundamentally, I think this stuff is really important. The modern world introduces quite a bit of stuff (physical and emotional) into our lives, so much so we tend to forget that we're organisms. We just need to eat, drink, and sleep. Health is wealth, and all that.

Enjoy, and try not to come to the conclusion I'm a complete idiot.