Minimally processed food

Eating low-carb has been a useful tactic for me—when I watch my carbs, my allergy symptoms are greatly eased—but that doesn’t change the more fundamental truth of Michael Pollan’s basic rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That first rule is the most important, and would be very nearly enough all by itself, if followed strictly. Probably the way in which “low-carb” helps me as a tactic is that it eliminates whole categories of “foods” which fall short of being food, but which were in my diet for so long, and which I enjoy so much, that I’m otherwise inclined to eat them anyway.

By “food,” I’m referring to industrially produced food-like substances. And, of course, it’s not so simple as that. Twinkies and Doritos are out at the far end of the “ultra-processed” spectrum, but what about the near end? I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals—which with all the fiber removed and large amounts of sugar added are clearly ultra-processed. But what about more grown up breakfast cereals—processed, but made from whole grains, maybe with a bit of fruit or nuts added? What about granola?

Really it’s just about impossible to eat food without processing. A green salad is pretty minimally processed, but I like my lettuce picked, washed, cut or shredded into bite-sized pieces, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and vinegar (each of those latter two somewhat processed in its own right). Maybe if you get down on the ground and chomp down on a live lettuce plant you could say you were eating unprocessed food.

I started thinking about this when I saw a pair of lists—processed foods and unprocessed foods—in “Nutrition Action,” a publication which aims to be evidence-based, but which has some striking idées fixes, particularly as relates to low-fat, as illustrated in these lists: generally unremarkable, except that they bizarrely included 2% milk as an “unprocessed” food.

Now, raw milk from a single cow is arguably unprocessed. Mix it with the milk of another hundred cows, pasteurize it, and homogenize it and I think it’s already a bit of a stretch to call it just minimally processed. But to then remove half the milk fat and call that “unprocessed” to me is a bridge too far.

With ragweed season in full swing, my allergy symptoms have clicked into high gear. I’ve belatedly gotten back on very low-carb diet and am already (after just one day) feeling much better.

This time I’m trying to keep more of an “eat food” perspective on the whole thing. I don’t want to fear fruits, just because they’ve got carbs. (I am staying away from fruit juice, at least until I’m sure I’ve got the inflammation fully back under control.) I’m being even more cautious of grains, but not hesitating to include a little rice. I haven’t eaten any lentils yet, but I won’t hesitate to include them either.

I don’t want to say it’s not the carbs, because it is. But with a very few exceptions (like honey and potatoes) it’s only with ultra processing that it becomes at all appealing to eat excess carbs. If I eat food, I’m not going to have to worry about the carbs.

Here’s a photo of Jackie minimally processing some okra for the gumbo pictured at the top of this post

Exercising in the heat

I have always enjoyed exercising in the heat. In this I seem to be different from most people.

I originally took note of this fondness back in the early 1980s when I was living in Ft. Lauderdale. A ritzy local tennis club—way too expensive for me—offered summer memberships for just $100. I just got access to the outdoor courts and not to the indoor amenities, but all I wanted was a place where I could reserve a court and know that it would be available when I met someone there. The only downside was that you were playing tennis outdoors, in the summer, in Ft. Lauderdale. And it turned out I was okay with that.

I’m pretty careful not to be stupid about it. (And successfully so, it seems—I’ve never gotten heat exhaustion or heat stroke.) If I start feeling tired, thirsty, or overheated, I slow down, move to the shade, and drink some cold water.

Over the years I’ve had a variety of theories about why I didn’t mind exercising in the heat when other people hate it so much. I like to imagine that I’m just better at tolerating the heat than the average person: Everyone slows down in the heat, but maybe I slow down slightly less; at some high temperature, maybe I’d become competitive! More likely, since I’m not competitive I’m not making unfavorable comparisons between my speed in the heat versus my speed in cool weather, so the fact that I slow down doesn’t make me unhappy.

Recent research has given me a new, much more likely reason why I like exercising in the heat. On Rhonda Patrick’s Found My Fitness podcast, I heard an interview with Dr. Charles Raison, in which he described the results of a study suggesting that Whole-Body Hyperthermia was an effective treatment for depression. The experiment used infrared lights to heat people up to a core body temperature of 38.5℃ (101.3℉), but Raison is convinced that there is nothing special about the device used, and that a sauna, hot spring, sweat lodge, hot yoga—or just exercising in the heat—would have the same antidepressant effect.

Dr. Raison is studying further to try to elucidate the mechanism by which hyperthermia boosts mood in depressed people. (It seems to reduce inflammation, perhaps by boosting IL-6 which activates IL-10.  Heat Shock Proteins might also be involved, since they do all sorts of things.)

I have always been inclined to blame a lack of daylight for the seasonal depression that I’m prone to suffer from during the winter—both too short of a photo-period (which I address with a HappyLight™) and too little vitamin D (which I address with vitamin D supplements), but it now occurs to me that a lack of opportunity to exercise in the heat (and thereby raise my core body temperature high enough to trigger whatever it is that reduces depression) may be an independent factor.

It seems very likely that, just like my desire to spend time outdoors in daylight is probably self-medicating to boost my vitamin D and regulate my circadian rhythm, my desire to exercise in the heat is probably self-medicating to boost my mood.

I hesitate to rejoin a fitness center just to get access to a sauna, but I’ll have to investigate options for access to winter whole-body hyperthermia.

Vitamin texture

On my Flickr feed I shared several pictures of the rocky canyon paths that Jackie and I hiked in Utah with the tag “vitamin texture.” Katy Bowman uses the term to talk about how always walking on flat, level paths fails to provide some of the “movement nutrients” our feet, ankles, calves, knees, and other body parts need to be healthy and capable.

There’s not much in the way of rocky terrain here in Central Illinois (although there are some forest paths with enough exposed roots to produce a reasonable degree of ruggedness). There’s also not much in the way of ordinary hills unless you’re willing to drive for at least half an hour, but I do have one reasonably convenient hill: the highest point in the county is just a couple of miles away—a man-made hill in Colbert Park.

Jackie and I walked there a couple of days ago and climbed up and down the hill a couple of times. The image above is the view from the top of the hill, and here’s an image of Jackie walking up:

It’s not like the climbs in the canyons:

Looking up

But it’s steep enough to provide a good calf stretch.

I’ve thought to use the Colbert Park hill for running hill repeats, but it’s just far enough that I’m generally not up for running there, running hill repeats, and then running home. (I think I did that one time, about two years ago.) I could drive to the park, but that just seems too lame. Still, my running is coming along okay this spring, so maybe I’ll be in shape to do hill repeats in the middle of a five-mile run pretty soon.

Achievement unlocked: One-arm hang

In the Runner’s Rehab class I’ve been taking, which is mostly lower-body alignment, mobility, and strength, Ashley usually includes a few minutes of upper-body work as a bit of a break. We’ve done hanging from the high bar, playing with parallel bars, playing on a climbing rope, etc.

One time when we were hanging, Ashley asked if I could hang from one arm, and I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t tried in a long time. I can sort-of brachiate on the monkey bars, so I guess I can hang for at least a moment….”

So I figured I’d try, and: Wow! I can hang from one hand!

How I twist when I hang by one hand.

I haven’t done it for time yet. When I hang from one hand my body turns out. I haven’t yet gotten that under control enough to hang for very long without feeling like I’m going to twist my shoulder.

Still, it give me a feeling of considerable satisfaction to be able to hang from one hand, even if just for a few seconds.

I don’t think this twisting is really a strength issue; more a motor-control/patterning issue. It shouldn’t take me long to get to the point where I can control the twist, at which point I’ll be able to hang for as long as my hands are up to it, and I think they’ll be up to a reasonable amount of one-arm hanging pretty quickly.

Hedonistic movement

When I started writing about frugality for Wise Bread, one of the points I tried to make was that my perspective was basically a hedonistic one: I was not denying myself things I wanted; I was instead choosing to spend my money purely on the things I wanted most. It recently occurred to me that I am approaching movement in exactly the same way.

My mom suggested that my lifestyle—healthier now than it was a few years ago, and much healthier than it was for many years before that—might help me live a long time. I admitted that this is something that I think about, but in fact long life is really a secondary (or even tertiary) consideration. I’m doing the things I’m doing—eating better, moving more, moving more of me—not because I think it will make me healthier when I’m old, but because it makes me feel better right now.

(I’m sure my friend Chuck will come along in the comments shortly to point out that I’m already old. Thanks in advance, Chuck.)

My point here is that my movement practice is a hedonistic one. I feel better when I move more. I feel better when I move more of me.

Although there is a psychic benefit—thinking that I’m doing something healthy makes me happy—and a long-term aspect—my workout three days ago has left me feeling better today, and I’m sure my exercise practice over the past three years has made me feel much better right now that I would have felt without it—these things are not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about this: I feel better while I’m moving. Going for a run feels good. Going for a walk feels good. Picking up something heavy feels good. Stretching feels good.

If a movement doesn’t feel good, I immediately quit doing it. I could probably get stronger faster if I was more willing to push through the pain of picking up something that was just slightly beyond my capability, but I don’t. I don’t because the whole endeavor is a hedonistic one. I’m not doing this to get stronger faster. I’m doing this because it makes me feel good right now. If it doesn’t make me feel good, I stop.

Strength, functional strength, and hypertrophy

I’ve been lifting weights regularly for at least 25 years–shortly after we got married I convinced Jackie to start lifting with me, and we lifted together all those years until we moved and let our membership in the fitness center in our old neighborhood lapse.

Any time during that period, if you’d asked me what my goals were, I’m sure I’d have told you that functional strength was what I was going for. I’d have just called it strength, but functional strength is what I’d have meant: The ability to do things that took muscle power—to pick up heavy things, carry heavy things, climb stairs with heavy things, etc.

The actual exercises I did, mostly with machines, were poorly selected for developing that strength, but that’s just because I didn’t know better, not because I was secretly going for something else.

As a secondary goal I’d have told you I was interested in the general health benefits of being strong—stronger bones, more metabolic activity, etc. Once I learned about lower insulin resistance I’d have included that.

One thing I was never interested in was hypertrophy. That is, I was only interested in bigger muscles to the extent that they’d be stronger and provide the associated metabolic advantages. If I could have gotten that with small muscles, I’d have been totally fine with that. In the privacy of my own brain, I was even a little disdainful of people who lifted for the aesthetics of having bigger muscles.

I did know that stronger muscles and bigger muscles pretty much go together. Competitors in sports that involved moving your own body—and especially sports that involve your body up a hill or mountain—have always sought ways to make their muscles stronger without making them (much) bigger. It’s possible—just barely, at the margins, to a limited extent—but by and large getting stronger means getting bigger.

I mention all this because I’ve taken an interest in hypertrophy, for a very specific reason: At my last physical, my doctor suggested that I should quit losing weight.

I’m not quite sure why—I’m just about at the mid-range for “healthy weight” (based on BMI, which has its flaws, but which probably provides pretty good guidance in my case) and well above underweight. Maybe he was just concerned in case I wasn’t in control of my weight loss. Maybe he was worried that I might be losing muscle as well as fat. I’ll ask him at my next physical.

At any rate, that left me with a minor dilemma. My weight, at the midpoint of the healthy range, is just where I want it. (Even before my doctor mentioned it, I had already decided to quit losing weight, when I realized that if I lost much more weight I’d no longer be size “medium” and would start being size “small,” and I didn’t want to be small.)

However, I still have more subcutaneous fat than I’d like. To lose that fat without losing weight, really my only option is to build more muscle.

So, for about a year now I’ve been working on that, with pretty limited success. Hypertrophy is hard. It’s also harder to measure than weight, which makes it hard to know if I’m having any success or not. In fact, I haven’t even tried to measure my muscle hypertrophy. (Measuring my chest and biceps and such puts me a little to squarely in the group that I mentioned being privately disdainful of, although I probably ought to get over it.)

In any case, so far I’m sticking with just measuring strength and figuring that hypertrophy will follow.

And let me reiterate just how weird it feels to have even this much of a focus on hypertrophy.

Reply to: get that climbing pass

Thanks! Turns out Urbana Boulders has a “starter kit” with a 5 visit punch card, 5 shoe rentals, and 1 hour of instruction, all of which sounds like exactly what I need.

Happy New Year to you too!

You’ve had a terrific 2017, Philip! Happy new year! You should totally get that climbing pass at UB and give it a shot.

Source: You’ve had a terrific 2017, Philip! Happy new year! You should totally get that climbing pass at UB and give it a shot. My wife

Movement in 2017

I’m pretty pleased with 2017 on a movement front. As I sat down to write this, I had been feeling a little discouraged about how slow my progress seemed on the strength front, but when I looked back at where I was one, two, and three years ago, I can see that I’m actually making steady progress. (And, after I’d started drafting this post, I managed to do a chin-up, so I’m especially pleased about that.)

I feel like I’ve pretty much managed to internalize my realization that movement trumps exercise. I certainly don’t move enough, but I’m much more inclined to notice now whenever I do something that minimizes or outsources my movement. This gives me a chance to say, “Never mind. I’ll go ahead and do that myself.”

Since I don’t move enough, I have to add exercise to the mix. Especially in the winter, when the cold and the dark and the ice make it tough to fit all the movement in, I exercise. And I pick my exercises with the goal of improving the capabilities—mobility (especially), strength, control and access to appropriate movement patterns—that I found were limiting factors last summer.

This last—access to movement patterns—is new. I’m just coming to realize that in many cases my limitations are not (or not entirely) a lack of strength or flexibility, but rather are due to poor patterning of the movement. More on that below.

Exercise

I stuck with the exercises I’ve been focusing on for three years now, and added a couple.

Squatting

I finally made real progress in squatting, and it turned out to be a really simple thing that made the difference—and probably a movement pattern thing.

In one of the classes I took with Ashley Price, she had us find the best squat we could do with perfect form. That is, we got in neutral posture with our feet hip width apart, our feet pointing straight forward, our femurs neutral, and then we squatted down only as far as we could go while keeping our shins vertical.

My discovery was that by first getting as far down as I could with my shins vertical, I was in a posture that let me easily lower down the rest of the way into a deep squat. It’s not a perfect deep squat (I wouldn’t want to load up my back with a heavy weight and lift it) and it’s not quite to where I can comfortably rest at the bottom of a deep squat (although it is getting pretty close), but it is now a useful capability. For example, on the last day of the year I got down in a deep squat to look over the choices in our liquor cabinet, and ended up lingering there for some little time. (The range of choices is rather large just now, thanks to a generous gift and a bit of splurging on our own.)

Basically, I’m happy with my progress on squatting.

Hanging

Here I’m finally making great progress—chin-up!

Other than that I’m pretty much doing what I’ve been doing—negative pull-ups. Sometimes I do them for volume (I’ve done as much as 3 sets of 7, or 2 sets of 8 plus a few). Other times I’ve been doing many fewer sets and reps, concentrating instead on doing them very slowly.

Just since doing my chin-up I’ve begun to recognize a movement pattern issue here as well. Based on how sore my traps were after my first chin-up, while my lats weren’t sore at all, I think I’m failing to initiate the pull with my lats. I’m addressing that two ways. First, I’m doing the negative pull-ups very slowly, trying to find the point where I transition to using my lats and emphasize that part of the move. Second, I’m trying to specifically engage the lats by pulling my shoulders back and down before trying to pull myself up.

Besides all that I’m sticking with my other hanging exercises—swinging side-to-side and back-to-front, leg raises, knee-ups, and I’ve added some twisting knee-ups as well, turning my hips to alternate sides and raising my knees toward my elbow on that side. I’m also ready to start doing some traversals along the bar.

Wall dip

I haven’t made much progress here, for much the same reasons as last year: wall dips are hard, and I’ve been working on various progressions instead. I play around with bench dips and (rather shallow) parallel bar dips and wall supports.

Another reason I’m not making much progress here is that for my main pushing exercise I’ve been emphasizing pushups.

Toe stretches

I’m reasonably pleased with my progress on toe flexibility as well, even though I haven’t actually increased my range of motion much. What I’ve done is improve my ankle dorsiflexion enough that I’ve been able to start doing the things I couldn’t do because of limited toe flexibility.

There’s a particular move I wanted to be able to do, that involved shifting from a squat to a deep knee bend, then lowering the knees to the ground and then kneeling. It can also be reversed by flexing the ankles to tuck the toes under, rocking back to get into a deep knee bend, and then shifting to a squat for standing back up.

Among other things, this is a martial arts move: You can move from kneeling to standing while keeping your hands free to block an attack (or prepare to launch one).

I can sorta do that now. Not smoothly, and not without an amount of toe stretching that feels a bit excessive, but vastly better than two years ago where a single attempt hurt my knees and toes enough that it took weeks to recover.

Pushups

As I said, instead of dips I’ve instead been focusing on pushups. I’ve made good progress here as well: I can now do 8 pushups (up from 1 a little over a year ago). I’ve also greatly improved my form—keeping my elbows tucked in close to my sides, rather than letting them flair out as I’d probably done since I was a kid in gym class. (Your humeri should be neutral with your elbow pits pointed forward.)

Now that I can do 8 pushups it’s about time to start doing multiple sets—maybe starting with 2 sets of 5? I’ll try that in a couple of days.

I don’t have long-term plans to emphasize pushups though. I’ll keep doing them, but once I can do a couple of sets of pushups and still have some strength left in my triceps, I’ll get back to work on the various sorts of dips.

Kettlebell swings

This year I added kettlebell swings to my exercise regimen. I want to talk about this a bit, because there’s a story here.

About a year and a half ago I was out on a very long walk with Jackie. Toward the end we sat down on some concrete benches for a short rest, and I found that there was an uncomfortable lump right behind where I was sitting. Shifting around to find a lumpless spot was not successful. Eventually I figured it out: I had lost enough weight that I no longer had enough cushioning to keep my tailbone up off the bench; the lump I felt was my coccyx.

Figuring that bigger glutes would be a better choice for keeping my coccyx up off the bench than fat anyway, I started boosting the weight I used in my goblet squats. Then I remembered an old post by Tim Ferris that recommended kettlebell swings as the best glute exercise. Then some anonymous kind soul donated a 45 lb kettlebell to the Winfield Village fitness room.

Looking at my training log, it appears that I started doing kettlebell swings in January, and worked up to 3 sets of 25 by April. As Tim had recommended 75 reps as a target, I’ve left it there. I don’t have data on the size of my glutes, but I’m no longer bothered when I sit on a hard bench.

I use the kettlebell swings as my high-intensity interval training as well. A set of 25 swings spikes my heart rate up right toward my max heart rate. (I’ve actually seen heart rates above my estimated max heart rate, which just means that the estimate is a bit off.) Each set takes about 50 seconds, and I follow it with as much rest as I need to get my heart rate back down around 100, which works out to two or three minutes.

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a fourth set, and might yet do that.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking. It was a bit limited in the second half of this year because I hurt my feet, and one foot in particular has taken a long time to recover.

I think what happened was this: I was waiting for the bus, which unbeknownst to me had been rerouted due to road construction. Seeing the bus zip past a block away, I took off running to try to catch it at the next stop. In the rush I think I must have fallen into an old heel-strike movement pattern, bruising my heels, resulting in this nagging foot pain. Only in the last few days of the year does it seem to finally be completely resolved.

Walking

I still walk a good bit for transportation, just less than I was doing before I hurt my feet. I’ve also done less walking with Jackie since she started working at Great Harvest bakery. (This does not mean less walking for her—she walks to work most days.)

I expect my walking quantity to return to its old baseline quantities in the new year.

Running

Running was also curtailed by my foot injury. Before I hurt my foot I had been increasing my running distances as well, working my way up to where I did an 8-mile run for the first time in many years.

Some of my running is exercise, but a good bit is movement (as, for example, the sprint to catch the bus where I injured my feet.)

Parkour

I did spend a little time with the campus parkour club, but once again timidity (both movement timidity and social timidity) kept me from doing as much as I might have.

Each summer I mean to step this up. Maybe 2018 will be the year.

Taiji

For most of the year I teach two taiji classes—a beginners class that meets for an hour twice a week, and a group practice for continuing students (we don’t consider ourselves “advanced”) that meets for an hour three times a week. Besides that I do some taiji and qigong throughout most days. I do some qigong to loosen up in the morning. I do some before lifting to warm up, and then I do some between sets as “active recovery.” I might do a whole short form when I feel like a little moving mediation would do me some good, or even a whole long form when I feel like a lot of moving meditation would do me some good.

Basically, I do a lot of taiji.

Even when I’m not teaching I include it as part of my daily movement, simply because it has proven itself such a powerful tool for helping me move and feel better.

Push hands

Over the summer I got back together with my friends who practice push hands a few times, but we were never able to get a regular thing going, which is very sad. I’ll try again next summer.

Stewardship work days

I have continued my practice of joining Jackie for occasional stewardship work days at natural areas in and around Urbana. (I even did one without Jackie—a prairie burn.)

These are perfect examples of non-exercise movement: We don’t do them for the exercise (although we get plenty); we do them to improve the land.

They are very satisfying for many reasons—doing hard work with friends is always satisfying, contributing to the community (making the parks better) doubly so. I think an additional reason is that the actual physical movements and mental activity that we do while locating and removing invasive plants is virtually identical to those that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors must have done for most of the past two hundred  thousand years. (I see now that I made exactly the same point last year.)

Looking ahead

With one possible exception, my plans for the new year don’t include big changes, just continuing progress. (The possible exception is treating myself to a month pass to Urbana Boulders and putting my new upper-body strength to work climbing walls.)

I have had some success in getting my mind right with the cold, this year in particular, but also gradually over the past several years. I’m getting in more outdoor exercise this year than last, and a lot more than I did five or ten years ago. That, plus the indoor strength training and the taiji, look to stand me in good stead for getting 2018 off to a good start.

We’re planning a spring trip to some national parks in southern Utah which will entail a good bit of walking, so we have that bit of extra motivation to keep up with our walking over the winter.

Happy New Year!

I did a chin-up!

For the first time since I was in elementary school, I did a chin-up.

I’ve actually been working on pull-ups, which seems like a more useful capability: If you can do a pull-up, you have a shot at being able to pull yourself up onto a wall or up out of a hole. I’m not quite there yet. But along with my pull-up training I’ve taken an occasional stab at doing a chin-up, and today I managed it.

All it took was three years of ceaseless effort.

Movement trumps exercise

Last Thursday Jackie and I (along with several other Urbana Parks Department volunteers) spent a couple of hours clearing invasive bush honeysuckle at the Perkins Road natural area. (The photo is from a year ago. Sadly, we did not have a fire this time. We just piled the honeysuckle up in great huge brush piles.)

Like last time the work consisted of cutting and then carrying or dragging honeysuckle trunks and branches across a forest floor made rough by many tangled roots and littered with small stumps where honeysuckle had been cleared in past.

The next day Jackie commented that her feet were tired, and suggested that the stewardship work was more to the point than the various foot exercises suggested by movement teachers such as Katy Bowman and our new local Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. (Exercises such as rolling your foot on a ball or standing in boot trays filled with river rocks.)

To which I said, “Yes! Exactly!”

Movement trumps exercise.

That’s not to say that exercises don’t have their place. Especially for people whose lifetime movement history has left them unready to safely perform certain movements, but also just for people whose schedule makes it hard to fit in as much movement as they’d like, exercises can be an excellent way to make yourself ready or keep yourself ready.

But to actually use your whole body capabilities to perform real work? To engage in bending, squatting, dragging, lifting, carrying—and do so while in nature, as part of a community effort, making the land better? So much better.

<whispering in Katy Bowman voice>Hashtag #VitaminN Hashtag #VitaminCommunity Hashtag #VitaminTexture</whispering> (This last will make no sense if you don’t listen to the Katy Says podcast.)