Category Archives: exercise

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. 

Heading to the bars

It’s developed into a relatively new habit, at least a few times a week.  Even when traveling, I’ve started investigating where the bars are so that I might stay nearby.

It all started in Bangkok a couple of years ago when, in the course of going out, I took a side street and discovered a bar area worth hanging out in.

Bars can set you free, no club to join, and like most bars, a congregation area for meeting others with the same goals.

For those sharing the same hankering, the following are a few images of bar areas I’ve run across in recent travels.  If you care to share your favorite bars, your input would be most welcome.

 

The bars that started the obsession — Lumpini Park, Bangkok

East River near the East Village, NYC

When I must stay in Shanghai, I try to stay around Jing’an Park, which has a semi-hidden bar area (partial view)

On the ocean in Danang, Vietnam

Manhattan Beach, California, a bar area hard to beat

Partial View of a bar area on the Colorado River, Austin, TX

Zhangjiagang go-to bar area as long as the locals are not using them for drying clothes

This morning’s alternate bar area in Zhangjiagang, Jiangsu, China

Duh,..I can’t remember

And I’m not sure if it’s buried, misfiled, or purged.  After all, there’s only so much memory space, right?

Kind of.  As much as memory storage is relative to overall health, which is affected by all the stuff we are familiar with, like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress.

Memory serves us well, as long as we don’t live in the storage bins.  But what is memory? (Don’t worry, you won’t learn that here.)  As we know it, it is simply a dynamic process of neurons encoded by conscious and unconscious thought, with a measure of observation and dash of awareness.

Supposedly, we can train and expand our recollection ability through learning.  There are volumes written about theories and methods for the most efficient ways to build the encoding, storing, and recalling process.  The thing is though, memories are not frozen in time, but rather experiences and associations which change over time.  I can’t recall who (duh), but someone in the know described remembering as creative reimagination. 

Talking to one of my sisters yesterday, we joked that when remembering events, we don’t know whether we remember what actually happened, or remember what we remembered.  In either case, remembering is, at best, a reconstruction colored by our own (unique) awareness.

Memories, or what we remember, isn’t stored in some kind of brain ether.  Memories are stored in specialized, information-transmitting cells.  But those cells, like all our cells, are constantly changing.  In a real sense, we are completely different people than we were 10 years ago.  Cells that make up our body are not the same cells of 10 years ago.  Which means life is fluid (duh).  And so is our memory (double duh).

The storage and retrieval function ends up corrupted from time to time.

For those so inclined. the good news is, they say, that a healthy mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercise improves oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain, increasing neurotransmitter levels (slowing down normal decay), and giving us our best chance to recollect what we care to remember.

Now if only I could remember what that was, duh.

Resistance Plus,…or is it Minus?

Two weeks ago I wrote a few meager, grainy thoughts about resistance exercises.  What I neglected to mention is the importance of tissue preparation, muscle activation, and dynamic preparation — an elaborate and more technical manner of describing proper warm up before hand, steps I must have botched last week before one of my workouts.

The low, dull, seemingly innocuous pulsing started somewhere in the lower back left side.  By the next day it had turned to discomfort and moved down to my hip, then transformed to a more serious pain in the gluteus area, to the top of my thigh, and eventually my entire left leg from hip joint to ankle.

This is not how you want to feel after resistance

Two days after it started, a 2.5 hour flight was enough to bring me close to tears as the pain objected vehemently to its forced sitting position.  Since then it has only marinally improved.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, the ache subsides somewhat during the day to permit moderate mobility, except at a tad slower pace.  But at night the pain leaps out of its daytime hiding place with a vengance and has an intensely good time not letting me sleep well.

To add insult to the injured left side, a couple of days into my trip, which required quite a bit walking for the scouting mission I had planned, it started drizzling as I was cruising on a crowded sidewalk.

fortunately I went forward and not on the already injured rump

As I’ve learned the hard way on two wheels, the first coating of moisture on metal ground plates makes for an icy-like surface.  Because I didn’t have an umbrella, I picked up the pace and before I could react my right foot slipped out in front of me on a metal sidewalk plate, causing my left knee to slam to the ground where I landed in a half kneeling position.  The good news was that the new throbbing sensation from the sudden jolting impact was great enough to render the other pain a non-issue, at least temporarily.  The slip managed to win a layer of knee skin and left me with a fashionable rip in my otherwise un-torn jeans.  The passing pedistrians gave no nevermind to the half-kneeling wierdo as it took a few seconds to gather the required ummpf to rise and continue on.

Not a shiatsu pressure point nor an otherwise therapeutic massage has improved the constant stinging of the original offense.  I’m kind of down for the count, or at least off resistance temporarily, wallowing in a holding pattern somewhere between wanting to punch something or cry.  I suppose staying in the middle of those extremes is worthy of contentment.

There are so many muscles, it pays to pay attention to a few. They are all connected

Nephew Trip S warned me about the warmup importance.  I thought I did, but evidently not well enough.  So for anyone hankering to know what a good activation warmup looks like, Dr. Peter Attia, a knowledgeable nutrition professional and once marathon swimmer, along with Jesse Schwartzman, demonstrate a routine here in a 4-part video.  Many are the same activation movements Trip S teaches.

Preparation and activation are the key words.  If you resist, do yourself a favor and make it resistance plus, not minus.

Resistance

It comes in many forms, psychological, physical, emotional.  We all know what it is to resist.  There are times to resist and times to go with the flow.  It’s pretty much futile to resist a forceful water current when you are head deep in a raging river.  On the other hand, resistance is helpful when we are up against regretful temptations.

But one area where we always want to invite resistance, is exercise.

Most of us don’t have jobs that involve tons of resistance activity, like shoveling cement into wheelbarrows, or being a mover, sanitary “engineer,” or package delivery person.  We lead relatively physically resistance-free lives.  Yea, it’s great to walk, jog, run, do yoga, meditate, and stand on your head.  All of those activities, done with purpose, can be considered forms of localized resistance.  But as we age, our anatomy responds well to resistance using a kind of brute force, for an added dimension of strength.

Light resistance works just fine.

Light resistance works just fine.

Loosely defined, resistance is a forced skeletal musculature contraction.  This isn’t bodybuilding, although it is.  Resistance training, the pushing and pulling to reach a point of slight discomfort, tones muscles, making us more agile and responsive.  By exerting muscle contraction, resistance exercise, done right, causes microscopic damage, which the body quickly repairs, making the muscles stronger.  After we reach our physical peaks in our 20’s, the muscle growth process slowly reverses.  Resistance minimizes muscle loss.  A resistance exercise habit also has a side benefit of increasing resting metabolism.

Where I live the gyms don’t open until 9 a.m., besides I’m gymed out.  Fortunately, there are plenty of parks with bars for body-weight resistance exercise.  But the routine was getting stale, boredom had been seeping in.  By good fortune, nephew Triple S, a young, but nevertheless master resister, a trainer of trainers, visited and introduced me to resistance bands, which fortified and expanded my limited routine.

These bands are my new best friends, even traveling with me.

These bands are my new best friends, even traveling with me.

The challenge to resistance exercise routines is actually resisting the resistance — battling the sound logic of the little voice which inevitably finds its way into our thoughts convincing us why today (any day) is a justified break from the discomfort of resistance.  It’s not easy to thwart awesome rationalism as to why we’d be better off not being uncomfortable.

If you don’t believe that a resistance workout habit is important, then maybe it isn’t.  So I’ll end these grainy thoughts by saying, ‘smartly done resistance hath hurt no man.’

If only all bar areas had this view. Last trip to Southern CA in Manhattan Beach.

If only all bar areas had this view. Last trip to Southern CA in Manhattan Beach.

what’s your secret?

This innocuous question was posed to me twice during a recent week of traveling.  The first by an early 30’ish, relatively slender men’s buyer at a retail clothing company where I was presenting our latest men’s button-down shirt collection.  During a coffee break in their lounge, he asked me “Freddie, after all this time, how have you managed to stay so thin?  What’s your secret?”  (I couldn’t help but thinking that what he meant by “after all this time” was “how does an old fuck like you….”)

He was displaying an unusual amount of cocky swagger and it was evident he wasn’t after anything more than a short answer.  He clearly wanted to remain the center of attention.  I told him my secret was chasing down stray dogs at every opportunity.  He wasn’t amused and insisted that I must have a secret or that I was blessed with good genes.  I shrugged my shoulders and tried to change the subject.  Determined, he went on to say that if he didn’t have his little belly protrusion, which, he claimed, was owed to his Indian heritage, that he would don tight shirts, skip wearing jackets and “really flaunt it.”  At least he was honest as he admitted what is part of our culture’s warped perception.

It wasn’t but a couple of days later that a middle-aged man asked me the same thing.  While padding his generous girth he wanted to know my secret for maintaining a slimmer gut line.

I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for either one.  The truth is, while I may think I have an idea, I have not studied, at least in depth, human biology and physiology.  The truth is, I think the topic is fairly complex, with no correct answer, or secret, that fits everyone.  There are most likely many secrets.  Apart from the obvious factors like not eating junk (and knowing what junk is) and being generally active, logic says that staying on the slim side is a result of a chosen lifestyle, including well-balanced mental health.  Regardless, thinness and overall long-term health are mutually exclusive.  There are loads of less-than-healthy thin people.  But overall health is not the principal goal for many.  Thinness is.

his secret?  must be milk

his secret? must be milk

My 50-something NYC neighbor has been laser focused on his newly attained physique as he prepares for life post-divorce.  His secret, he says, is grunting through 1,000 daily push-ups and kettlebell swings.  He also goes through at least 10 packs of zero-calorie sugar substitute every day with his coffee.  His dinner drink is diet Pepsi.  But he has gotten thin and is happy about it.

We all want to look our best — that’s natural in our “looks” obsessed world.  What may not be natural is our conception of “best.”  Why would a woman choose to walk around with her heels several inches off the ground, her feet in a distorted position?  Because our appearance matters, even at the expense of substance.

If I had a secret to long-term vital health, I would not have had to deal with a nasty health issue a few years ago.  As we all know, looks can be deceiving, that’s no secret.  But maintaining optimal, vital long-term health?  That’s a secret worth knowing.