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Health and Diet

This week I watched the DVD of the BBC One documentary The Young Ones. It follows an experiment in which six famous British seniors live in an environment which simulates 1975 to see whether re-living your youth can make you young again. The theory is  that being reminded of what they used to be like would increase their physical and mental well-being.

It was fascinating to watch the transformation of the participants, many of whom struggled with limited mobility and a reduced capacity to perform everyday tasks. In the beginning they had a lot of beliefs about what they couldn’t do because they were too old or frail. However as the week progressed each of them developed a renewed vitality and confidence.

Profession Ellen Langer who was the consultant for the study, which also she ran for the first time 30 years earlier, contends that the way that we age isn’t inevitable. It seems that we risk limiting our possibilities in later life by living up to social expectations of what ageing means. One area where this was evident was in rehabilitation from illness and injury. A number of the participants who’d had strokes or falls were tentative in walking and performing household tasks. However with encouragement, they were able to achieve a much better recovery and take on activities and hobbies they thought were behind them in a very short space of time.

Although living in a 70s house and wearing 70s clothes may have had an impact, it seemed like one of the biggest benefits of the study came from being in a stimulating environment. The participants had great fun joking with each other which lifted everyone’s spirits. They played a big part in the success of the experiment by encouraging one another to achieve their goals for the week. Many of them had been missing the stimulation of their working lives and it was clear that the free time and solitude we crave when we work full time can become a pitfall later in life if it translates to lack of purpose and isolation.

I am glad I saw this documentary in my early 50’s because it challenged me to rethink my attitude to what I am capable of. It made me aware that I need to get more serious about maintaining my fitness and flexibility while I am still able to do so, and nip the “I’m to old for that” talk in the bud. The participants in the study improved very quickly, which means that they were capable of more than they thought they were all along.

Putting what I have learned from this documentary into practice requires finding a balance so that I respect my genuine limitations, without holding myself back unnecessarily. This also applies in my dealings with others, particularly the seniors in my life. While its true that we may be more capable than we think we are, people who are not used to being challenged to extend themselves find it very confronting if they pushed to do things for themselves. They can feel that they are being bullied, disrepected, or abandoned which can be very discouraging. Hopefully I can fulfill the role of encourager and motivator, without turning into commando boot camp trainer.

I have been making a few trips into the city lately, and often end up buying lunch on the run. Being gluten free and not fond of cooking, I find it difficult to think of tasty, portable meals that don’t require heating or refrigeration that I can take with me. Instead I tend to look for takeaway Asian food, and this often involves eating in noisy, crowded underground shopping centres, railway station platforms, and trains. It also produces a lot of waste in the form of plastic containers and water bottles.

I decided to challenge my belief that eating bought meals while out of the house had to mean dining on bad food in lousy environments and creating a lot of waste. I realised I had been telling myself that it was “too expensive” to buy lunch in a sit down establishment with propper (non-disposeable) crockery and cutlery, or that I didn’t have time to wait. But these days time is something I do have, so maybe I could use it to give myself a better quality of experience.

What I have found is that takeaway food can be still be expensive, especially by the time you add in a bottle of drink. Places with an eat-in lunch special often provide free water, so when you are looking at gluten free meals the overall cost is comparable.

I made a checklist of what I am looking for in an ideal city eatery and came up with the following:

  1. Premises directly facing the street or in a protected environment (rather than buried in a shopping mall).
  2. Quiet with minimal ambient noise
  3. Comfortable space to sit with some privacy from other tables
  4. Comfortable climate; not too hot, too cold, too sunny or too windy.
  5. Food served on real crockery with real cutlery that a real person will wash up
  6. Free water in a glass made of glass
  7. Good food ready to serve or to order freshly made

Now what I need to do is scout out a few “favourites” in areas that I frequent so that I can plan my meals on my trips into the city. I found a place recently that provides good food with real cutlery and crockery. It was in a noisy shopping centre and rather stuffy, but at least it was better than eating hot chips standing on the railway platform.

Today I wanted to head for home rather than stop to eat so I made a compromise. I bought a sushi roll and took it down to the railway platform. However I waited for the train and ate sitting down in comfort once the train arrived. I wasn’t ideal, but I felt better to be putting some thought into the quality of what and where I was eating.

Next step is to make better choices from the menu.

How do you solve the “finding food while out and about” issue?

Given this blog has change and transition as a theme, there is one change that I want to mention, although I feel some reluctance in doing so. I feel shy to write about it, but there it is, right in front of me. Looming. The change concerns a women’s health issue, so if thats something that would make you uncomfortable or bore you, feel free to jump over to YouTube or Facebook or the next post on your Reader for 10 minutes. You have my full permission to bail out now!

Perhaps you have already guessed what this post is about. Given that I am in my early 50’s there’s a physical change I need to go through fairly soon, that can’t be avoided.  When I say it can’t be avoided, thats not quite true, because I am on medication that is postponing the process and masking the symptoms. What I need to do is go off that medication and see where I am up to. If I collapse in a screaming heap, or find myself burning up, or just want to cry all the time, I may need to go on a different treatment to manage the situation.

Those of you who are very perceptive might have picked up that I am a little reluctant to find out where I am up to, and a little fearful of the process. Given that I am the happiest I have ever been, I have been reluctant to rock the boat. In fact I was supposed to go off my current medication six months ago, but felt that I was already dealing with enough transition in my life so have been putting it off.

Having said that, I am starting to be aware of the benefits of getting to the other side of this change. It could save me money, and give me back one weekend in four that is currently given over to lounging around the house. But more than that, I think its important to embrace each stage of life, and not try to hold back the clock. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by avoiding the inevitable.

So I am starting to prepare myself for the transition. If I want to snuggle on the lounge with a hot water bottle and drown myself in TV, I can do that anytime. I don’t have to feel I will be missing out.

Every so often I fall back into believing the sugar myth. And the chocolate myth. And the ice cream myth. The myth is that these substances are wondrous delights and not harmful in small quantities. Miraculously special treats that we all deserve. Maybe thats true for some people, but its not true for me. For me these foods, and sugar in particular, have always been problematic.

A lot of sugar makes my blood sugar peak then plummet so that I end up with poor concentration and the shakes. After hitting a pole in the parking lot with my car a long time ago, and learning I am prone to hypoglycaemia, I have given up eating sugar in large quantities. No only does it gives me the shakes, it makes my skin crawl for the next 24 hours, hangover style, if I have too much. It really does feel like I have eaten a toxin that is working its way out of my body.

What I find hard to accept that sugar is a problem for me even in small quantities. For a week or so at the end of January I got into the habit of having two small wrapped chocolates a day. And also relaxed on a few other dietary troublemakers, like cake and ice cream. I thought I was going OK, when a week ago, I suddenly got sick. I’ll spare you the details, but it seem like regular exposure to fairly small amounts of sugar weakens my immune system and brings on various unpleasantnesses that make me unwell. If I was going out to work, I would probably have had a week off. As it is, I have chipped away at my own projects at a much slower pace than usual.

I find it difficult to reconcile my own sensitivity to so many foods, and the happy abandon with which people eat and drink all manner of things in the media, and in life around me. Of course obesity gets a lot of air time, but the general undermining of health and wellbeing that comes from eating the wrong things is more difficult to describe. When I say “the wrong things” I mean the things that are wrong for you specifically, and that can be very tricky to determine.  Doctors don’t seem to fully recognise the undermining nature of food intolerance, but its been a very real part of my experience all my life. All I know is life goes much better if I avoid gluten, sugar, coffee, chocolate and alcohol. I feel bad and my health suffers if I don’t control my diet fairly carefully.

To be honest I was eating special treats as a silent rebellion against feeling that I needed to diet to lose weight. Even the thought that I should be careful about what I ate for the purpose of weight loss made me feel deprived and rebellious. Now I am on a very  strict dietary regime to try to restore my body to balance, but I don’t resent that, because I know its necessary.

Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project talks about absteiners and moderators when it comes to limiting the things that are not good for us. Although I try to be a moderator with foods I am sensitive to, it really is easier to abstein. When I don’t have sugar, cake and chocolate I lose the taste for it, and it just isn’t a part of my universe. I have been enjoying pursuing new interests and I don’t like having my momentum disrupted by cheap chocolate, so I think I will be heading back into the absteiners camp. Its too hard to know when a little bit has become too much.

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I am going to tell you a little secret. When I joined the gym a couple of months ago, I told them my goals were to build strength and fitness but weight loss was not a major issue. I meant what I said at the time. I certainly didn’t want to be walking into a women’s weightloss gym and telling them I wanted to lose weight.

Now that I am quitting the gym with absolutely no weight loss to show for it, I am going to admit to you that I was secretly hoping that I would accidentally lose weight by going to the gym three times a week. I have been in the normal range for about 30 years, and probably still am. But I’d say I am getting to the high side of normal, and my clothes are getting tight. I am 1lb away from my “never go above” weight (and thats before breakfast). My main concern is that I am approaching the time of life where women start to gain extra weight, and find it harder to lose, I want to give myself the best chance of staying out of the overweight category.

I think my experience at the gym highlights a weakness of process goals, rather than outcome goals. I was aiming to go to the gym three times a week, and reward myself with a tick on the calendar, and hoping good things would come of it. However when I was at the gym I felt like I was serving time because had to go because I was paying for it, and didn’t really give it 100%. In the meantime I was actually avoiding other opportunities physical activity because I felt I had to save myself for the gym.

My last day at the gym is Saturday, and I have already lost interest in going. I have been walking in the park instead, and enjoying being outside in a more natural environment. Since I seemed to be spending my walks writing blog posts in my head and missing everything around me, I decided to do some meditation at the same time. I also took my camera along in case I saw something interesting.

On my last walk I managed to walk, meditate and take photos all within the hour, with each of these activities supporting the other, rather than competing. It feels like a more wholistic way to exercise. I am keeping in mind that yes, I would like to lose a little bit of weight and will need to make some effort to achieve that. I have stopped giving myself “ticks” on the calendar and instead give myself mental encouragement for having done my exercise for the day. I am hoping that by taking more personal responsibility for my exercise I will see better results.

Hibiscus flower at my new "gym".

Hibiscus flower at my new “gym”.

Now that the New Year is in swing I have started working on my new self-styled fitness program to replace the gym. On New Years Eve I picked out my new “fitness centre” which has a cricket pitch, basketball court, walking track, exercise stations, gum trees, hibiscus bushes, sulphur crested cockatoos, pink and grey gallahs, and a library. Ok, its a park, but its a good one. There is an asphalt walking track around the perimeter with some outdoor fitness stations that I can try out.

I think this park would be a good place to do a bit of running. From my extensive reading on running I have leaned that is better to run on asphalt than concrete as it has more bounce, and its safer to run on a smooth flat track than to try and jog around the uneven footpaths. Since my ankles aren’t getting any younger, I’d probably rather not run on uneven surfaces. I had a good brisk walk around to check it out, but didn’t actually run as the sun was pretty hot and humidity was 110%. Summer weather is definitely a factor to consider at the moment.

I have also done some yoga which can be used for strengthening as well as stretching if you pick your exercises well. I could remember enough to make up my own sessions with a few standing poses, stretches and twists.

Today I felt like focussing on strength so I dragged out a pilates book and DVD that was lurking in the “fitness” section of the bookcase. What a revelation. I have done pilates before, but needed a bit of input to remember what to do. Wow, I really knew where my stomach muscles were after 5 minutes. I couldn’t make it to the end because it was too advanced and I didn’t want to overload on “too much too soon”. That workout was more demanding than anything I did at the gym for core strength and stability. If I ever get to be able to do the whole DVD I will be a core strength wonder woman. The nice thing was I did that mid-morning after I had done some computer work and felt that I needed a break to refresh myself. It was a great use of time to just adjourn to the loungeroom floor for half an hour, and then get back to work on the computer afterwards. Later in the day I went for a walk to the supermarket and carried the shopping uphill, so in my book, that counts as two fitness activities in one day.

Later today I read a post on a similar theme from Leo Babauta who was writing on The New Rules of Fitness for 2013. He advocates a more flexible approach to fitness where you do small amounts of exercise thoughout the day. He uses the idea of the “fitness bit” which is a unit of exercise that you slot in where it fits in your schedule, and adds up with other bits into a fit lifestyle.

I have been exploring what I call “incidental exercise” for a while now and I find it much more enjoyable than having to get to the gym in the right clothes at the right time. Your could call it Guerilla fitness, using the time, space and opportunities that arise in your environment on any given day. Getting off the train a stop early and walking home, walking across the CBD instead of catching a bus, carrying home the shopping, sucking in the tummy while cleaning the bath. It all counts.  Some intentional long walks or runs, and some stretching and strengthening sessions on the loungeroom floor add structure and focus to the proceedings.

And what holds it all together? Just the intention to get fit, lived out every day. And a tick on the calendar for any significant exercise activity.

My Fitness Partner

My Fitness Partner

There is an interesting discussion going on over at Tara Sophia Mohr’s blog on food addictions. Tara has written a post called My Sugar Story about giving up sugar, which has attracted a lot of comment from her readers. This is topic close to my own heart, as I have been on a long journey of trial and error to find a diet that works for me. My reason for doing this was, quite simply, that I felt lousy most of the time. The first to go was sugar. It makes my blood sugar swing all over the place, leaves me edgy and creates a creepy crawly feeling in my skin if I have too much, like a sugar hangover. It also wrecks my body balance and causes all sorts of irritating minor health issues. Later I tried restricting wheat and yeast, and eventually all gluten. I also don’t drink alcohol. Goodbye bloating and fatigue. At various times I tried to be vegetarian, but that was just too difficult to pull off, given all my other food restrictions.

The point of this story is not what I eat or don’t eat, but the issue of food intolerance. I have accepted that I have a sensitivity to certain foods, and life goes better for me without them. Thats OK. I can live with that. I don’t feel deprived. In fact I feel LUCKY not to have to bother with certain so called treats. The difficulty for me has been that my food choices sometimes bring up a strong reaction in other people. I am sure everyone is aware that there can be a  fair amount of social pressure to drink alcohol, whether direct or indirect. In my experience there is even stronger social pressure to eat cake, chocolates and desserts! These foods come up in a much wider range of social occasions than alcohol, and because they are regarded as treats and signs of sociability, there is a huge pressure to ‘join in’.

It still surprises me how strongly some people feel the need to urge food onto others. When it comes to cake, chocolate and dessert, there seems to be a belief that I am depriving myself, and suffering in some way. People say I am “being good” or “being healthy”. Actually I am not trying to be anything, I am just trying to feel OK for the rest of the day. I don’t fully understand the motivation to urge certain types of food onto people when they clearly don’t want it, but I suspect it comes from beliefs about sociability and from discomfort about their own eating habits.

I came across similar issues when I was trying to be a vegetarian. I had a flatmate who got very persistent in trying to convince me that it was stupid to be a vegetarian, and that I should eat meat because it was normal. That was a while ago, and I think vegetarianism is much more accepted, but I expect there is still a certain amount of discomfort around that choice for some people. I really admire people who are able to be healthy vegans, because it seems like a logistical nightmare in a society that doesn’t support that diet choice well, and I expect there is a lot of social pressure to relent and eat animal products.

Many people choose to eliminate certain foods to achieve a healthy weight, manage allergies and intolerances, control addictions, promote general wellbeing and be true to their values. It is not an easy path. Unfortunately society does not always do a good job of supporting them in their efforts. So let me help out.

It’s OK not to eat cake at a birthday party.

Its OK to skip dessert at a restaurant.

Its OK not to have alcohol at a wedding.

Its OK not to eat meat at a barbeque.

It is OK not to eat chocolate at Easter.

You don’t have to turn yourself inside out making wheat free cakes, sourcing substitute chocolate and guessing which wine a vegan can drink. If people have special requirements, they will usually work it out themselves by making careful selections or doing without, or they can tell you about their preferences if you ask them. People who are working with their diet don’t want a lot of fuss and attention. They just want to be allowed to get on with it without judgement, without being singled out, without being  made to feel weird or guilty. Giving people space to sort out what diet works best for them and supporting them in their decisions is what Food Tolerance is all about.