Category Archives: exercise

Embracing Life Maintenance

You know,…those occupations we perform that keep life flowing.  Those (mostly) self-imposed duties that keep us from real living.  The perpetual actions that don’t contribute to noticeable forward progress.  The errands we execute that may even be termed drudgery.

When I lived in San Francisco some time ago, a good friend of mine commented upon retiring at 40, that he noticed personal maintenance constituted about 20% of his non-sleep time.  He had a small home and lived alone so he was talking about routine chores like laundry, cleaning, personal care, preparing meals, washing up the kitchen, etc., — all the small jobs that come with independently keeping a healthy home and body.

Thankfully, not many of my clothes need handwashing.

Housewives and homemakers with kids peg the maintenance percent much higher, closer to the inverse of my friend, 80% or above.  We all conduct maintenance, whether brushing teeth, going to the gym, or filling the car’s gas tank.

Our free time usually dictates our relationship to many of the day-to-day upkeep responsibilities.  They fall into categories of;  we accept doing them, we do them grudgingly, we avoid doing them, have someone else do them, or we don’t think they need to be done (as often as they should be).  Seldom are they actions we leap out of bed to perform with gusto. Wherever they land though, a key question is, do we embrace (any of) the maintenance?

In our small NYC apartment, we luckily have two bathrooms.  The one I use, the one visitors use, I’m responsible for.  Which means that when I’m there, at least weekly I am on my hands and knees scrubbing around the toilet.  Not a job many of us relish but one I’ve reluctantly come to embrace (at least the bathroom I use).

Exercise maintenance has its moments.

Daily exercise of some type is a non-negotiable physical service.  Sometimes it is pleasurable, other times it’s damn hard.  For me, it usually falls somewhere in-between and accepted as a necessary self-preservation habit.

During the last few years, because much of my time is spent living on my own in Asia and hiring help is not so convenient, I do the routine household chores myself.  Further, because I’m cooking more often, the maintenance category has increased markedly.  I’m kind of stunned at the amount of time sucked up by the entire food prep process.  Eating well is paramount, and basic.  But finding food with good ingredients is not always easy, especially when it’s prepared with industrial oils and sweeteners.  Hence, my maintenance percent has skyrocketed.  I may not be up near the busy housewife with five kids, but I’m at least in the 50/50 zone.  Buying, washing, cutting and preparing, food, then cleaning the dishes and kitchen is no small amount of time.  Besides food, the places I live, because I like the windows open, collect dust so fast that cleaning has become a daily labor I’ve been grappling to embrace more firmly.  Laundry — the washing, drying, folding, (I rarely iron and it may show), of clothing, towels and bed linen is another chunk of valuable time.

Buying, preparing, cooking, and cleaning afterward is a significant time-sucker.

The other day GV, who is visiting me in Asia, cleaned my refrigerator, which she said was disgusting.  It was a necessary maintenance chore I not only hadn’t been embracing but also didn’t realize was as sorely needed as it was.

Whether we fold laundry while watching a video or listen to audiobooks during the work commute, we try to find ways to soften life chores to make necessary tasks more tolerable (efficient).  Some outsource a block of maintenance (vis-à-vis maids, restaurants, or partner agreements).  But then again, there is subtle value in adopting even small rituals, such as making the bed in the morning.  I’ve known many, mostly males, who do the minimum amount of domestic work.  It’s not considered macho business.  Real men don’t clean toilets.  Although the understated value of cleaning up after yourself is not to be sneezed at.

The trick, it seems, is a little mental juxtaposition, to turn tasks from drudgery to willing acceptance.  It may just be, that if successful, the result is a more positive alignment of perspective, having a favorable rollover effect to other aspects of life.

Besides, last year McMaster University conducted a study showing that doing housework five times per week can cut the risk of early death by 20%.

Hmm,…I’d better start a more serious mental exercise program, digging deep to welcome with open arms, the mountain of life maintenance which seems to be growing, and be content that it’s only me I’m maintaining.

What is meditation? 

As long as I’ve been on the topic for the past several posts, I thought I’d give the definition of meditation a wholewheat-spaghetti stab.

For the record, I’m no meditation o-tar-a-ti, nor an experienced meditator.  I can barely sit crosslegged.  Therefore, the following is a grainy summary of what I’ve gleaned from other smart people who are in-the-know on the topic.

First, a few givens, confirmed by science and other advanced fields:

  1. Thoughts are electrical impulses, with real cause and effects.
  2. A large portion of the thoughts we generate is illusory, or made-up fiction.
  3. Most humans on the planet live their waking hours in a state of perpetual thought, and most of us are guided throughout our lives by those thoughts.
  4. The energy transmitted by the thoughts of those around us affects us much more than we consciously realize.  In other words, it’s easy to be whipped into a judgment frenzy when we are bombarded by the forceful energy fields around us.

Granted, it may be hard to find the time.

Second, what meditation isn’t:  It is not a goal, an end, nor something to achieve.

So what is meditation?

Meditation is an exercise to create pockets of space around thoughts.  It is training to help create gaps in our stream of thinking.  Meditation is a practice to, even if a little, quiet the mind.  And it’s a process to become, and remain, an observer, a witness, to our own presence.

And the benefits?  What does having gaps in the thought stream achieve?  How are pockets of space around thoughts of value?  Why invest (time) to meditate?  Hmm,…following is a partial list;

  • Thanks again to science, we know that meditation practice significantly improves brain health, particularly the part of the gray matter responsible for memory.
  • Through meditation, we grow more “mindful” of the impacts of our ponderings.
  • Meditation practice enables us to convert detrimental and useless views into positive ones.
  • Meditation helps, bit by bit, untangle the passive conditioning built up over eons.  In other words, it helps clear (some of) the natural muck that clouds our perspective.
  • Meditation equips us to become more fundamentally aware of our feelings and emotions, what affects them, and how to temper them.
  • Meditation gives us the poise to (be able to) respond vs react.
  • Meditation improves focus.
  • Meditation reduces chronic stress.
  • Meditation brings a deeper awareness (present-ness) throughout our lives when we are not actively meditating.
  • Meditation helps (some of) us become nicer humans.
  • Meditation leads to more joy.
  • Meditation (can) lead to enlightenment.  (Whatever that may be).

    There is a multitude of ways to meditate.

And I’ll go out on a limb and say, because everything in our body is connected, that if meditation practice has been proven to improve cognitive health and reduce stress, then it has upside potential for enhancing overall physical well-being.

Not that I’ve turned into a meditation advocate, but in our new digital age, with almost everyone on the planet cruising through life spending much of their time staring into handheld devices, our thoughts are not only more actively competing for our attention, but we are also turning them over to a growing influence of artificial stimulation.  Meditation can help mitigate the digital stranglehold.

A Wholewheat Spaghetti Summary

Meditation is a healthy, perhaps vital, habit that empowers us to more frequently, genuinely, and gratifyingly, smile to ourselves and others, for the overall experience of being human.  

Hmm,…I’d better get practicing…

Rocky B

More than a little creativity sparked the well-known, seven-part, iconic movie series of Rocky Balboa.  Created and played by Sylvester Stallone, the films depict an everyday Philadelphian, digging deep, sucking up every drop of inner hunger to beat the odds, and sometimes the face, of visually stronger opponents.

Add a few decades, a dash more creativity, and a healthy stock of running events consuming most cities, and voila, Philadelphia has cooked up an annual Rocky Balboa half marathon race that attracts thousands of runners, many from other countries, who are inspired to test their inner grit.

A couple of family members running this race took me to the city of brotherly love this past weekend.  Although there are a couple of different courses at the event, a 5K, 10k, and 10 miles, to receive the Italian Stallion medal, you’ve got to run the 5K followed by the 10-mile course. The total adds up nicely to 13.1 miles, the distance of a half marathon.

Relatively new as of 2013, this race is held the Saturday in November following the New York City marathon. The RB course supposedly replicates the run SS took during film number two of the famous series.  Unlike a marathon like Boston or New York, which are more classic, downtown city events, this Philly half is a no-nonsense, country run which includes 1.5 miles of a stiff hill to climb.  No half marathon time records will be made running this race.

Despite its recent kick-off, word of this spirited Rocky B running event spread quickly.  For those who’ve seen the film, running the same streets as Stallone did years ago, then after, posing for a photo in a hooded sweatshirt on the steps of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art is alluring.  Leaving our hotel for the start line yesterday was a couple from London who traveled to Philadelphia for two days, only to run this race.

The mood of marathons and their half-brothers can be infectious, with lots of good energy.  Still, I didn’t run.  Even a half marathon can be grueling.  Evidently, I don’t have the craving to dig for the hunger it takes.  Maybe that’s why I admire those who can summon the inner strength to run a physically punishing long-distance event.  And hey, someone’s got to cheer.  That’s a role I can dredge up.

What would a trip to Philly be without a cheesesteak?

Or a pint of suds in Philly’s oldest ale house

Tucked away outside our hotel in City Center.

10% Happier,…a review

An Audible book review — 10% Happier, by Dan Harris

Stories have a way of capturing us.  Given that the author is in the story-making business, he creatively loops several facets of meditation, vis-a-vis a series of real-life tales, into a mainstream mindset.  Overall, I found 10% Happier entertaining and well worth the listen.

Admittedly, I didn’t know who the author was when I came across this book.  Being part of a major news network contributed a degree of credibility to the narrative, especially since he had the ability, and apparently, the desire, to interview a broad cross-section of leaders on the ‘spiritual’ side of the self-help business.  He, therefore, brings an objective, albeit at times somewhat inelastic, perspective to the concept of meditation.

It was slightly off-putting, for example, that he needed to dis Eckhart Tolle right out of the gate, even though Tolle’s book, A New Earth, which he admittedly read three times before he started his journey, opened the door into a life-changing, philosophical shift in his thinking.  His curious derision for Tolle seemed to be affected not only by concepts he evidently couldn’t grasp but also by his wardrobe.  Thankfully, Harris somewhat redeemed himself in the epilogue, reluctantly giving Tolle (some) credit.

At times, it seemed like he was writing the book for his colleagues at ABC, perhaps to explain spats of conduct as well as elucidate the logic for his path into the quasi-spiritual world.  Still, the book was highly engaging, with humorous bouts of self-deprecation and a partial inside view of the high-stress world of network news.

Apart from his highly skeptical nature — if there is no proof, and it’s not mainstream, then it borders fringe or beyond unless someone he respects provides scientific and logical evidence — Harris comes across relatively open, honest, with hefty doses of witty tongue-in-cheek, which adds to his likability.

For anyone wanting to increase their English vocabulary, I’d recommend the written book.  Because I listened to the narrated version, I was (slightly) better able to understand, if only in context, the abundance of unfamiliar flowery words and phrases peppered throughout.  Reading such a bounty of unusual words would have stopped me in my tracks more often than I would have liked (but that may be a good thing).

What I particularly liked about the book, besides the evocative anecdotes, is his method of spreading the value of meditation, which, because of his unique media role and presentation style, takes some of the mysteriousness out of an opaque topic.  I’ve been on the cusp of starting this lifestyle practice for too long.  After listening to the book, I’m a convert.  Meditation, as it’s evidently been scientifically proven, is an exercise with only constructive upside benefits.

Even though I was slightly annoyed about the Tolle dissing, (it was useful mindfulness practice anyhow), I found myself wanting more when it ended.  Hence, I’ve already pre-ordered his new guidelines coming out in Dec 2017.  I’m at least 10% more motivated.

P.S.
Suggestion: Harris closed the book with a self-developed list of ten useful “precepts.”  I’d recommend changing #1 from “don’t be a jerk” to “be kind.”  It’s easier to be something than not being something.  Besides, jerk is relative, and kindness precludes jerkness.

It’s all about balance

Ha.  Just like most things in life.  I didn’t realize how challenging it would be, although I didn’t suspect it was as easy as riding a bike.  I asked the owner of an NYC West Village specialty shop last week if he thought an old dog could indeed learn new tricks.  I knew the answer.  Still, he responded like a good salesman telling me what I wanted to hear.

For some reason, over the years the sport bugged me.  When I lived in San Francisco, they hung out in groups, loud and sort of obnoxious, disturbing casual walkers along the Embarcadero, perhaps because they didn’t have a formal place to play.  Instead, they used benches, railings, steps, and anything they could otherwise jump or slide on, and eventually destroy.

But beyond the racket they made, the sport didn’t make sense.  Incessantly practicing tricks and performing by flipping a wheeled board while not going anywhere didn’t seem logical, or much fun.

My new 32″ low profile longboard

My feelings about skateboarding started to change when I was exercising at Manhattan Beach, in So Cal last year intermittently watching surfers finish their morning bout with the waves, then hopping on skateboards to travel along The Strand.  That made sense — a commute vehicle.  Since then I’ve noticed more people using boards as a form of transportation, not just for acrobatics.

Gradually the bug bit. ‘ Why not use a skateboard as an alternate form of commuting in China, where it’s relatively flat?’ I started thinking.  GV suggested that I consider a scooter, which is probably a smarter idea.  But I was anxious to try the hands-free wheels.  Hence, I walked into Uncle Funky’s Boards last weekend and left 30 minutes later carrying a new longboard.  They told me the longer the board, the easier to learn, so I picked up a 32-inch model.  The more extended 38 incher I may have preferred was too long to hand-carry on my fight to China.  As it was, I barely finagled the 32 through the Newark airport security process strapped to my backpack.  It was too long to fit in my checked bags.

Unfortunately, the beautiful side faces the road surface

It didn’t take long to gain respect for how fast this board travels.  The four thick 75mm wheels start rolling without much coaxing.  Tumbling on my ass as the board sped away gave me the reason I needed to start slow.  I’m sure it’s simply a matter of TOB (time on board), and balance.

The new toy means I’d better carve out a little time each non-rainy day practicing if I’ve got any hope of seriously using it.

This guy, also featured last week, is as cool as a cucumber on his wheels

As in skiing or skating, part of the skill and confidence comes with stopping ability. Today as I was cruising down a slight decline picking up speed, I realized I didn’t know how to stop without jumping off.  Being a low profile board, the trucks — skateboard lingo for the bracket holding the wheels — are at the ends of the board bolted on top, opposed to typical boards where they are positioned underneath.  These low boards make stepping on the end and tilting the board down to stop, hard to accomplish.

Another challenge is twisting the feet.  While pushing the board for acceleration, both feet are parallel with the board, but cruising, they are perpendicular.  While I was gaining speed in the decline, my feet were in the perpendicular cruise position.  How was I going to twist my front foot parallel and skid to a stop when all I could do was concentrate on saying on the board?  I awkwardly jumped off, knowing I have a major hurdle to conquer.

It will be a while until I’m ready to use the board for a commute vehicle.  The manner in which the locals don’t give much credence to right-of-way means bikes, peds, and cars can end up in your path unexpectedly — requiring immediate reaction.

All in all, I’ve got a new respect for the skateboard tricksters.  Even though I still have zero inclination for tricks, I’m hungering for some of their stability.  But I suppose that will come with TOB.  For now, I’ve got a newfound appreciation for balance.

Still trying to figure out which side to face.  Left foot forward, or right?  Maybe it’s gotta be both, taking turns.

 

 

 

Fluently Fluenz

Although there is still much more about our brains that we don’t know than we do, what those who study our noggins have discovered is that learning a language is an activity that pays relatively high dividends.

Learning a foreign language creates more connections

For most of us, because of the complexity, learning a new language is not easy.  It takes time, thought, effort, recall, and lots of practice.  It’s kind of like aerobics, resistance training, and yoga all combined into a well-rounded mental workout.  And like physical exercise, the results are proportional to the effort we invest.  When we learn a language, brain scans are showing the firing of neural synapses actually help expand the plasma membrane where we need it most — memory and recall.

Good advice, but may not be too helpful for actually learning the language

As an added bonus, brain heads are also detecting a host of extra side benefits from learning a language, such as an increase in creativity, flexibility, openness, focus, and an improvement in general cognitive skills.

This seems to be about my speed

Having been in rural China (on and off) for a few years means that getting to know the basics of Mandarin not only makes life a bit easier but also a tad more enriching.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, most business communication is conducted in English, giving me an excuse and an out.  Still, I’ve poked around at several different learning methods, from podcasts, to classes, to a book and CD — each one improving my rationalization skills for avoiding the mental workouts.  I even tried using a stone of the rosetta variety, but nothing was sparking the neuron stimulation I was looking for. Then I found Fluenz.

While I’m still well entrenched in the beginner stage, it’s kind of thrilling to be able to direct a taxi and order food without pointing to everything like a dumbo.  After a few years, that’s not saying much.  Anyone with normal intelligence would be a lot further along.  But the fact that I’ve found something that is not a chore is thanks to the structure and format of this online and downloadable course.

This must mimic my own circuitry — minimal

The co-founder, Sonia Gil, has developed a method that actually makes learning the language engaging.  The premise of Fluenz is that each language requires a slightly different approach, at least for English speakers. I can’t speak for their other courses, but the Mandarin version consists of three levels, each one with more than a couple dozen sessions.  Each session is broken down into many, aptly named, workouts.  The exercises include a short dialogue with and without translation, explanations, matching words with photos and sentence structures, practice writing what you hear with the correct inflection (pinyin), and more. The sessions are pleasantly mixed and diverse enough that the learning process is stimulating.  Additionally, the iPad and iPhone versions are appealingly interactive.  The course also includes digital flashcards in a variety of formats, mobile podcast practice, and a short dictionary.

My rationalization skills for avoiding study time are still well-honed.  Many days spent justifying why not studying Mandarin is in my best interest has made me an expert at fooling myself.  The one phrase I’ve got memorized for the Chinese people who try to speak to me is “tīng bù dõng” which in essence means, I’m clueless about your language, so it’s fruitless to talk with me. But because I’m an oddball in their world, the locals are curious.  They want to converse. By not trying, tiny grains of richness evaporate, so it doesn’t seem right that I deny them, or myself, those scattered yet potentially wholesome morsels.

With luck, if the gray matter is not too thin and I can somehow overpower the phony excuses, I’ll eek out of baby phase at some point and into toddlerhood. If so, I’m hoping to eventually savor some of those residual benefits.  I won’t hold my breath, but if there’s a chance, it will be thanks to the Fluenz course.

And if I can power through, I just may pick up another Fluenz language and chalk it up to encephalonic health care.  Not being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the effort.  Daily mental calisthenics with so many perks could be a worthy commitment.

Catching restorative Z’s

During my 40’s & 50’s, I was an avid alarm clock user.  It was set for 5 am, weekends included.  I was either in the gym or outdoors doing something active every day at 5:30 am, no matter what.  The daily morning engagement was a commitment.  It didn’t matter if the evening prior was filled with late fun, the outdoor date with myself at 5:30 in the morning held.

To get up at five, meant I should have been in bed and asleep by nine the evening prior.  That never happened.  It was more like 11 pm, or sometimes 12.

We should not need one of these

In my 30’s I didn’t get up that early.  But the idea may have been festering for years. During the time I lived in San Francisco, I met a young, upwardly mobile, apparently successful and vibrant couple, each running their own business.  We became friends and occasionally jaunted up to Napa and Sonoma on our motorcycles for lunch.  Curiosity led me to ask about their workout routine.  They explained that they got up at 5 am to workout in their home gym so they could fit in their physical activity before their day jobs.  Their answer to “what time do you go to bed and sleep at night” left me with my jaw hanging open.  Nine pm they said. They were my age, early 30’s.  How could anyone go to sleep at 9 pm every day I thought.  But they did. They were not going to trade-off sleep.

It wasn’t until my later 50’s, that I was slapped upside the head (actually the neck).  Yea, ok, I’m a (real) slow learner.  Little did I realize that length, and of course quality, of sleep, is just as important as eating and exercising well.

Sleep researchers say that adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep a day.  Throw out the 3rd standard deviation, and that leaves more than 80% of us requiring between 7.5-–8.5 hours daily — depending on our individual rem sleep cycles.  If we trim or curtail our required sleep-time, we are not doing ourselves, or our bodies, any favors.  In other words, cutting sleep short creates metabolic distortions.  And, if we are getting the right amount of sleep we shouldn’t need an alarm clock to get out of bed.

A common habit — eating into healthy sleep time.

Most of us have (self-created) demanding, competitive, activity-filled lives, hell-bent on productivity and getting ahead, that a major challenge is squeezing life into our waking hours.  Unfortunately, sleep usually takes a hit.

It’s not surprising.  Many business success self-help books extol the virtues of waking up earlier, burning the midnight oil, and other push-the-envelope advice, ignorantly neglecting the health repercussions of extended sleep deprivation.

We’ve all had to work on less sleep from time-to-time, but when it becomes a lifestyle, then long term health is compromised.  The right amount and quality of daily sleep set us up for optimal physiological and biological performance.  It’s just as important as exercise and diet, if not more so.

The challenge for most of us is not waking up early, but getting to bed, lights out/devices off, so that we can wake up, alarm free, after a full night’s sleep.

I still have the morning date with myself but without the alarm clock.  It’s still a tug-of-war getting to bed on time.  But seeing that compromising sleep-time is a health disservice, it’s worth protecting like gold.