Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Approaching a third

We went out and skied another 5 kilometres in the wetlands. This is the second day in a row that we've gone out to the wetlands and, as of now, the conditions are pretty good. Certainly, I feel they're good enough to ski on and so keep in shape for the upcoming triking season.

Here it is, January 26th. It's about -10C outside under overcast skies and with some light snow trickling down. This is a HUGE difference from the arctic conditions we had this past weekend. Even on Monday, though sunny, I found myself grateful for the down filled warm coat I was wearing as I jogged to both stay warm and to make it to my yoga class. But now, sane conditions have returned and so do we to the wetlands.

I've been keeping track on our white board in the kitchen of how many kilometres each of us has skied so far this season. I had set out a goal to ski 100 kilometres this ski season and managed to get in 19.4 kilometres before conditions deteriorated - mostly from the utter dearth of any ski-able snow. Then, it got bitterly cold, then it was Tuesday and things were looking a little easier to take. We headed out, skied a few kilometres only to discover that some parts of the extended wetlands weren't ski-able. The weather was really good for skiing and, as it is much lighter at 5:00pm at this time of year, we were mindful of the aging of winter. That meant that the skiing season could end rather quickly (not that it ever really started) and so going out as often as possible would be in our future.

Today, we skied once more, including finding a way around the bare parts (I have the burrs to prove it, too) and so I was able to update the tally once again. I am at 28.2 kilometres and Adam is at 31.2 kilometres, he having done an extra couple yesterday. We're not quite there yet, but we are approaching the 1/3 point of my stated goal of 100 kilometres.

Hey, I can dream...


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Brownie points for trying

Or maybe that should be asphalt-grey points for trying.

Here it is, getting on for the middle of January and we should be out there x-c skiing. We're not skiing because there just isn't enough snow to do it. That didn't stop us from trying but it did stop us from continuing.

We removed our skis from their temporary prison, waxed them and then made ready to head out to the wetlands. We had had quite a bit of snowfall this past weekend but it was of the dry, fluffy, shredded coconut type. You know the kind I mean, where even 5 centimetres of it can be swept away by a broom or a pair of boots. We figured the snow would settle a bit and provide enough of a good base for us to at least make some concerted effort.

So, Adam and I got out to the wetlands, clicked our boots into the latches of our respective skis and started our trek, the raw, biting winds from the north more of a nuisance than an impediment. I knew we were going to be into serious trouble almost right away as every time I put either of my poles down, the tips made almost instant contact with the asphalt below. At one point along the 2-300 metre entry into the wetlands proper, I looked down and saw the telltale yellow stripe that so evenly divides the pathway. I found myself looking around to make sure my skis did not wind up on bare asphalt lest they be almost instantly ruined. Apparently, Adam felt the same way because we were roughly 400 metres inside the wetlands when we both decided that the conditions were just not going to work.

Skiing on bare asphalt will ruin the skis. The wax gets scraped off very efficiently for about the first two slides, then the actual structure of the ski (wood, fibreglass, carbon fibre or whatever the skis are made from) gets scratched, torn and otherwise shredded to nothingness and the result is ruined skis and likely some bruising from the falling over that invariably happens to people like me.

So far, this hasn't really been the best of winters but it's still early in the season so there is still lots of hope and we do get the beloved brownie points for trying.

from yogurt to yoga...

I started yoga this past Monday and it is because of my good friend Helena. She and I meet every week or so for tea and just catch up on what's been going on. Well, she recently mentioned that she had started going to yoga classes and wondered if I would be interested in going with her. The drop in fee is low, the place is easy to get to and - best of all - it's held in the middle of the day.

I've only been once and my impressions are that it is a great way to stretch, re-energize and yet unwind all at once. I have done tai chi in the past and, even now, do tai chi warm ups weekday mornings. Adam, who has been doing tai chi for many years now and used to teach it, has been helping me to get back into doing a set...but I'm really enjoying the yoga.

The stated health benefits of yoga are numerous. Joints move more freely, breathing and tissue oxygenation are improved along with circulation, balance can be helped (a major issue for me), digestion is purported to improve and yoga can help to tone muscles and actually aid in weight loss. Granted, I'm not doing this for weight loss but for health promotion, but a stated benefit is a stated benefit no matter what else.

Helena had mentioned that she always felt better after going to yoga even though a number of the poses and moves can be quite physically demanding. I felt that, too, and definitely intend on returning next Monday for another lunchtime session. Anything I can do to help my physical condition for the upcoming triking season is of interest to me. Thank you Helena!


Monday, January 10, 2011

Uber Yummy yogurt!

As one of my resolutions for this year is to eat more anti-inflammatory foods, the issue of reducing sugar intake acquires a special significance. While I don't make it a point to add sugar to my foods, do freely admit to enjoying such sweeties as Lucky Charms. A lot of us have a fondness for sugar and that isn't necessarily a bad's the overindulgence that most of us (mea culpa) partake in where problems can arise vis a vis bodily inflammation.

According to Ultraprevention authors Drs. Liponis and Hyman, overconsumption of sugar can lead to increased body inflammation.

So, of course, the idea of my reducing the amount of sugar in my diet is of interest to me. I do get my blood tested annually for things like blood glucose levels and though my level there is normal (according to my GP), I do not rest on my laurels. Type II diabetes is in my family history and even if it weren't, I know I have to be careful about my diet.

This leads to my fondness for vanilla yogurt. Even the reduced fat varieties can still have a fair amount of sugar and the nutritional assay often indicates a fairly low serving size; lower than a lot of people will eat. Think about it - if a company makes a food product that they want you to consume, they'll make it tasty so you want to eat more of it. But with nutrition labels often depicting a smaller-than-average serving size (come on, who eats only 7 almonds?) suddenly the "4g of sugar per serving" becomes "12g of sugar per serving" because the serving size is a measly 60g. If something like yogurt is being marketed as tasty then no one will eat a mere 60g serving. I know I wouldn't. I'd easily have a 180g "serving" for dessert after a hot, sweaty 15 kilometre trike trip. One hundred and eighty grams is a little under 3/4 of a cup - not a tiny amount but certainly nothing that anyone would think of as 'large' either.

I am not a huge fan of super sweet things but neither will I happily eat plain yogurt so I did the next best thing. I bought some plain yogurt and decided to flavour it myself with vanilla. I knew it wouldn't taste nearly as sweet as the fat-free, made-with-artificial-sweeteners varieties but was more than willing to try. Well, plain yogurt with just vanilla extract didn't quite work for me so I added a few drops (literally) of Nescafe brand Ice java syrup. Yes, it is sugary. Yes, it contains 18g of sugar per serving (2)...but a serving is 2 tablespoons which is far too much for a bowl of yogurt. A few drops would be commensurately less than the 80-calories-72-of-which-come-from-sugar so I felt I had successfully reduced my sugar intake without sacrificing flavour.

For a 125g (half cup) serving of my new favourite, I put in a bowl:
1 125g serving of 1% fat plain yogurt
4-5 drops of vanilla extract
2-3 drops Nescafe iced java coffee syrup

The concoction isn't as tooth-hurting sweet but it is a lovely tasting treat which I am convinced will make a fantastic apres-triking/x-c skiing/urban hike smoothie. My goal here isn't to eliminate sugar (I still like my Lucky Charms and have no intention of giving them up thank you) but to reduce the amount I consume without sacrificing nutrition or taste.

Shifting Reliances

As a practicing Buddhist, I am keenly aware of the truism that things change. We all see this with the shifting weather, the price of gas or how we ourselves are feeling at the moment. What we tend to overlook, at least I did, is that even those few things we come to rely on can also change.

As I have said in earlier blog posts, I use the snowy winters to ski and thus stay in good enough shape for the triking season. I can't rely on being able to walk an equivalent measure so I assume the winters will be sufficiently snowy for my purposes. However, knowing the reality of climate change, I always had back up plans and if I couldn't walk then I had my trusty weight machine to help me keep my body toned...except that my weight machine is currently out of service. Adam and I both use it but one of the steel cables is fraying and so we have another set on order. The last thing either of us wants is to be in the middle of using it only to have one of the cables snap. There is virtually no risk of any serious injury but it would be a colossal pain in the rump if any of the cables failed thus rendering the machine itself unusable. Well, this is what happened to us recently.

I inspect the cables before I use my weight machine as does Adam but he was the one who noticed the initial fraying of the main cable. This was on top of the fact that we put our skis away due to a complete lack of any snow. So, our fitness regimen is now down to walking which, for me, can be a little challenging...except that, starting later this morning, I am adding yoga to my regimen.

A friend of mine had told me about a lunchtime yoga session she attends and would I like to start going with her? So now, I have added "lunchtime yoga" to my weekly routine, shifting my Avonex shot day back by 24 hours.

This is the reality of life, isn't it? One's safe and secure reliances, such as there being a good snowy winter by January or the enduring soundness of steel cables on a weight machine, are forever subject to change.

We did order a new set of cables and had a good snowfall this past weekend. Conditions may be good enough to hit the nearby trails by later this week...around the time the new cables should arrive. My legs still work (for now) and I'm hoping to do yoga each Monday. We'll see how long this goes.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The softest, bestest fluffy kitties I have personally seen

Okay, this isn't about anything fluffy or feline. It's about the amount of information on about fitness, diet, sleep and, indeed anything health related. The timing of these news items is interesting in that many of us are thick into our new year's resolutions and so these news items will be well read.

Canadians, it seems, are hungry for information. According to one of the articles, about 41% of Canadians are turning to the Internet for medical and health information. Experts are referring to this trend of trusting Internet medical advice as consulting "Dr. Google". Now, I have no problems whatsoever in doing medical research. I research health issues myself and have learned a lot about MS, diet, exercise and a whole host of other matters. However, I don't take any information I find online as gospel. Internet medical information is not a substitute for consulting an actual, genuine, carbon-based human medical doctor, I feel.

Another disturbing statistic circulating around these days is that a mere 12% of children are getting the recommended 90 minutes of daily exercise. Twelve percent! But then, look at the role models. According to this same news item, most adults are only getting about 2 hours per week of exercise; nowhere near the recommended 60 minutes per day. So, to address this alarming situation, the national guidelines for fitness are being - uh - changed (read: reduced). Now, kids will be encouraged to get a mere 60 minutes per day with the role model adults being equally encouraged to get 150 minutes per week. Per week. Presumably, lowering the bar will - somehow - encourage people to get more exercise. Maybe a lot of people felt that the current guidelines were too stringent and made everyone feel like failures. Personally, I have never met any fitness standards. I do what I can do as do we all...but a healthy goal is just that, a goal and no one will expel you from the human race because you only got 140 minutes of exercise last week. Lowering the standards will only result in more people doing less because there is less to achieve. Think about it in this way - would you feel comfortable visiting a doctor who got 51% in Biology? Sure, she or he would have met the standards but are those standards good enough?

The good news (of course there is good news) lies in this article. Here we see an article describing what to look for when studying the nutritional assay of food items which we all do to some degree. Specifically, we are given set amounts of nutrients and chemicals to look for and in what amounts. What the article does not seem to mention, however, is serving size. One of the commenters does mention the need to consider serving sizes and I think that is a very wise point. Susan Powter, author of the book Stop the Insanity, well known nutrition and fitness guru from the 1990s had emphasized the issue of portion sizes. If, for instance, you want to eat a slice of ham which has 18 calories in it and only 1 gram of fat that translates to 9 calories or 50% of the total calorie count coming from fat. "PER SLICE", she would shout and she was right. Portion control has been a lost cause since 7-11 came up with a drink called the "Big Gulp". Anyone else remember that one? Either you and twelve of your closest friends could have your thirst quenched (and share cold sores if you wanted to) or else you could only drink the whole thing if you had a bladder the size of a soccer ball.

So, here we are, January 2011 and armed with lots of nutritional and health information. What do we do about it? Personally, I think we should do with this information what we do with all information - take it with a grain of salt. If I eat a balanced diet and a variety of foods from the food groups; if I drink water (and not a Big Gulp's worth either) and stay hydrated; if I make it a point to balance rest/sleep with a good walk as often as I can then I don't have to concern myself with fitness guidelines or worry about whether I'm getting enough sleep at night.

Finally, it's important to keep in mind that guidelines are just that - they're guidelines not hard-lines which, if not met, will spell your imminent doom before breakfast tomorrow. Lowering guidelines won't fool anyone into getting more exercise; you can't bribe, cajole or otherwise guilt anyone into getting more or even any exercise. The key here, is to take small steps and make small adjustments. Good work takes time so let's just give ourselves that time.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the title. I had mentioned to Adam that I was going to write another blog post. He asked what the subject was this time and I said it would be about health, fitness and nutrition (or something along those lines). I then reassured him that it would be topical and that it wouldn't be about something irrelevant like 'fluffy kitties I have liked'. So, in the spirit of humour, I gave this blog post a totally irrelevant name but kept to my promised topic. However, I have also included a picture of our late cat, Zuby. She was a long haired and very fluffy cat with a nasty snarling disposition...but she was still really fluffy anyway!

Monday, January 3, 2011

A few words on health and lifestyle

It was inevitable, I suppose. People everywhere, inspired by the connotations of a new year, embark on improving their health. Lots of people promise to join gyms to shed all those unwanted kilos and improve their fitness levels. Equally do these same people vow to eat better, to take up healthier hobbies, to quit smoking and to take better care of their sleeping habits. The research on these issues is both plentiful and conclusive: taking good care of your bodies will go far in staving off a lot of diseases. This is all good, of course, and for those who have chosen to embrace better health, indeed your lives will improve, you'll feel better, fitter, less stressed and will probably sleep a little better too.

So, why is it that we're not a much healthier nation overall? According to a recently published news item, roughly two thirds of the Canadian population is overweight. This was stated by Dr. Arya Sharma of the University of Alberta and after having examined information from Statistics Canada. I won't delve too deeply into the news item itself; you can click on the link and read it yourself if you haven't already. For me, what's both important about this issue and what appears to be lacking somewhat in the news item is the psychology of this problem and, yes, it is a problem.

I have my own thoughts and opinions on the matter and they're mostly related to how our society doesn't value health nearly as much as it purports.

Specifically, ours is a world in which we value results in the shortest time. We want it all and we want it now, as personified in the stereotypical boss who wants it yesterday. Thus, vigour and unquestioning devotion to results is praised. You can call it competition and it is - those who turn in results the soonest get the prize. However, that perpetual mindset can easily backfire when it comes to health. Witness the level of vigour and unquestioning devotion to the gym membership one has recently acquired. Newly made uber-athletes set out goals which, frankly, are often unattainable. It's because we want results instantly, or even yesterday. We completely fail to understand that overweight and obesity don't happen overnight so it's equally silly to assume (let alone expect) that one can shed excess weight in so short a time. That's not to say we shouldn't set the attainment and maintenance of a healthy weight as a goal but it is to say that those goals should be reasonable and we should not generally expect to reach any lasting weight loss goals in three weeks.

Another factor to consider, imho, is a certain sense of shame that many overweight and obese people feel about their condition. While the standards of feminine beauty are changing, they still tend to reflect a certain unreality. True, the buxom beauties of women like Marilyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield are no longer de rigueur and the stick figures of Twiggy and Calista Flockhart are now parodied. However, there is still the pervasive notion that whatever you look like isn't good enough...for...what... We are still stuck on the idea of merely looking good and not of being healthy.

We like the idea of progress. I think we've become addicted to speed and convenience. We want our computers to run faster and faster, we want our line-up to move the quickest and we want our food ready to eat this instant. We're prepared to pay the price for that desire; faster computers cost more and I'm sure grocery stores have to jack up their prices to pay, in part, for the convenience of being open 24/7 or for having that express check out lane. Collectively, we see this as social progress and as some kind of human birthright.

But I have to admit that with the data before us - and we've all seen it - it gets pretty tough to believe that discounts on gym memberships and gyms themselves that are open 24/7 will be seen as more convenient than the new pizza place that just opened up the street. We're creatures of convenience and so with gym attendance getting easier, that itself is set against the fact that it's even easier to just zip out to that nearby convenience store and get that extra ginormous bag of chips, get home and plunk ourselves onto the sofa to watch a re-run of that show we missed.

It all adds up. Tied together, we have a fat, unwell society with rising obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer rates. I often wonder if medical advances to increase our lifespans are being outstripped by the trips to fast food outlets we make in our SUVs because three blocks is just too far to walk.

I'm not being judgemental here either. How many of us have been inundated with ads for restaurants that are now "open in 6 new locations near you" or open 24 hours with free delivery and in locations that have huge parking lots "for your convenience". It is now possible for many of us to zip out at 0 dark hundred hours to the nearest grocery store and buy a box of Corn Flakes...or a table top sized chocolate bar...thus depriving ourselves of precious sleep so that we are too tired to go to the gym. Of course, this is what a lot of people come to expect, isn't it? There seems to be this idea of 'quick to commit, quick to fail' and that only makes things worse, I feel. So, now we have the person who is gung ho to lose excess weight, eat better and otherwise take better care of himself only to lapse into old habits some three months later. How tired and defeated that person would feel.

I'm not blaming anyone either. It's not about blame. It's about setting sensible goals, taking small but steady steps towards improving one's health and running counter to that social norm that demands instant results.

Small steps made frequently bring big results.