Fasting is very much in the forefront of the kooky part of the health/wellness/fitness world that has me snake-fascinated. I’m convinced by the basic logic that our physiology functions best when we alternate between fed and fasted states, and functions poorly when we are always in a fed state.

As I write this, I’m approaching the end of a three-day fast. I did similar fasts in 2018 and 2019. This is actually my 2020 fast, slipped to early 2021 because I’d hesitated to do a fast during a pandemic. The pandemic isn’t over, but with 11 months of experience at dealing with it, I knew I could just arrange my schedule such that I had virtually no contact with other people for these three days.

Kinds of fasting

There are a lot of ways to do a fast, differing primarily in how long one fasts, and also in what one consumes during the fast.

At one end of the spectrum there’s just not eating for the period between supper and breakfast, which pretty easily stretches to 12 hours for anyone who can forego a bedtime or midnight snack. That period can be extended moderately—there are people who chose to fast for 13 to 16 hours per day—or it can be extended by somewhat more—some people choose to fast for a whole day. At the other end of the spectrum there’s prolonged fasting, where people fast for multiple days.

There are names for these various protocols. Some people practice what’s called 16:8 fasting, where they fast for 16 hours out of the day and consume all the food they eat within an 8 hour window (perhaps 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, or noon to 8:00 PM). Another is called 5:2 fasting, where people fast on two days out of a week, eating as they like on the other five.

People seem to use the term “time-restricted eating” (or time-restricted feeding, if you’re talking about lab animals) to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting/eating windows are measured in hours. There is also the term “intermittent fasting” which some people just use as a generic term to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting window is not much more than a full day. (If you fast on alternate days you’ll typically end up with 36-hour fasts, assuming that you start your fast after supper on day 1, fast on day 2, and then break your fast with breakfast on day 3.)

Beyond the numerous periods of intermittent fasting, there’s the broad category of “prolonged fasting,” which can be anything from 48 hours out to 30 days or more, although fasting for longer than a week is rarely done for health reasons, except for people who are morbidly obese.

Autophagy

I’ve become convinced that some amount of fasting is not only healthy, it is important for health. Very briefly, there’s a finely balanced system inside of each cell that monitors available energy and available amino acids. If those things are present, the cell switches into a growth pathway, and starts making proteins and organelles (whatever the cell needs at the time). If the cell is short of either energy or amino acids, it switches over into what’s called autophagy, and instead of making proteins starts breaking them down.

For many people in the modern world it has become ordinary to eat frequently enough that one rarely goes even as long as 12 hours without eating. In that circumstance, cells rarely ever switch out of the growth pathway. Autophagy never happens, and old proteins never get broken down. This leads to all sorts of problems. Clearing out those damaged proteins (and damaged organelles) is important—they’re implicated in virtually all the diseases of aging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

The cell seems to preferentially break down damaged, mis-folded proteins and damaged organelles. (See Selective degradation of mitochondria by mitophagy.) In any case, it’s going to replace them with whatever proteins and organelles you need most at the current moment. The process will end up improving both the quality and appropriateness of your cellular machinery.

My fasting

I do a version of intermittent fasting all the time. Jackie and I eat breakfast fairly early in the morning, but then we just have one main meal of the day, usually around 2:00 PM. We got started on that because I found that eating close to bedtime was interfering with my sleep, and Jackie got frustrated that moving supper as early as I wanted meant that there was barely enough time between lunch and supper to clean up the kitchen and then prepare another meal. My proposal to just combine the two meals was met with some initial skepticism, but it has turned out to suit us very well.

In one sense, I’m doing a version of a 16:8 fast, because I fast from 3:00 PM or so until 7:00 AM the next morning. It’s not a strict fast though. I typically have cocktail hour at 4:00 PM, and I nearly always have cream in my coffee first thing when I get up in the morning. That shrinks the window in which I’m strictly fasting, but probably does it in a way that doesn’t much reduce the benefits of the fast. (For details see Fast This Way, by Dave Asprey the guy who invented Bulletproof coffee.)

Once a year though, I do a prolonged fast of at least three days. Although the research is preliminary, there’s some evidence that after three days the body goes beyond just autophagy, and starts clearing out senescent cells. That’s great, if it’s true; there’s very good evidence that clearing out senescent cells substantially improves healthspan and lifespan.

Glass of water, big cup of green tea

Except that I have a big cup of green tea in the morning (mainly to support my caffeine habit, also because green tea boosts autophagy and ketone production), I’m doing a water-only fast.

It hasn’t been hard. I was a little hungry the first day, felt great the second, and am now rather looking forward to breaking my fast in a few hours. But if there were some reason to extend my fast I could do it easily enough.

Slamball and kettlebell
Slamball and kettlebell

I made a point of getting in a hard lifting session on day two, just to let my body know that I was most definitely using those muscles, and that those proteins should be used to repair muscle and not be metabolized for energy.

I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.

This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.

There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).

During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:

  • 3 strength training workouts
  • 2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
  • 1 HIIT workout
  • 2 rest days

That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.

Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).

The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.

Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.

So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)

Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.

His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).

I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.

This year was obviously strange in all sorts of ways, so I figure it’s not so strange that my movement practice got strange.

One thing that seems very strange to me is that I reverted to doing a lot of exercise, after having made a big deal the past few years of scorning exercise in favor of movement. I wrote a whole post on this recently (Exercise, movement, training), so I won’t repeat all that stuff here, except to say that the pandemic response provided me with a lot of opportunities to exercise, while restricting my opportunities to move and to train.

Exercise

Around the beginning of the year I had a realization that what had held me back from achieving my fitness goals was not (as I had been supposing) a lack of intensity, but rather a lack of consistency. I responded by getting very serious of getting my workouts in, and was pretty pleased about having established a proper workout habit when just a few weeks later the pandemic led to our local fitness room being closed. I found this momentarily daunting.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was around this time I saw this hilarious tweet:

To which my response was “Challenge accepted!”

Resistance exercise

The biggest problem with losing access to the fitness room was losing access to the pull-up bar. I looked around for alternatives, found that gymnastic rings were available and affordable, and I ordered a pair.

Easily the best purchase I made last year.

The addition of gymnastic rings made for a big change in my exercise regimen. I use them for three exercises: pull ups, inverted rows, and dips. I had worked pretty hard on pull ups before, but upon getting the rings I redoubled my efforts. As far as inverted rows and dips, I had played around with both, but now I got serious.

I round out my upper-body exercises with push ups.

For lower-body exercises I experimented with a variety of possibilities: squats of various types, kettlebell swings, burpees, lunges, etc.

One milestone was achieving my first pull-up. Another was the first time I did two pull-ups. Later I manged (a couple of times) to do three pull-ups!

I just wrote about how kettlebell swings taught me something about the value of doing lots of reps. Based on that, for my indoor workouts (where it’s not handy to set up my rings), I’ve started doing more exercises for high reps. Not enough data yet to know how that’s going to work, but it seems like a valuable experiment.

Running

For a long time—at least many months, maybe more than a year—I’d had a sore foot that got worse when I ran. I repeatedly cut back or eliminated runs, had my foot get better, and then had it start hurting again as soon as I started running again. This past summer I finally took a full month off from running, which seems to have been what my foot needed.

I’ve very gradually resumed running. For some weeks I kept my runs down around just one a week and just 2–2.5 miles. Then up to a 3–3.5 miles. I did one 4 mile run, which didn’t seem to cause any problems, but then I did a run of nearly 5 miles, which did make my foot sore the next day. I took a break until the pain was completely gone and eased back to 3–3.5 miles, and all seems well.

I’ve just started doing two runs per week, a “long” run (slightly over 3 miles) and a “fast” run (where I hold the distance down under 3 miles, but include a few 10-second sprints around the mid-point of the run). That felt really good the last time I did it. (My running gait seems to improve when I run fast.)

Kettlebell swings

I’ve talked at some length about my adventures in getting a kettlebell during a pandemic, and about my experience with kettlebell swings producing unexpected hypertrophy, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just say that cold weather—and especially ice on the patio—have kept me from doing much kettlebell swinging in the second half of December. But literally every day I look out on the patio to see if it is clear of ice, and get out and do some swinging when it seems safe.

Jump rope

I added a jump rope to my exercise equipment a while ago, and back in March and April did enough rope skipping to recover the ability to do it. (That is, I could jump rope for 30 or 40 seconds with zero or one misses.) The problem was that jumping rope hurt my sore foot just like running did. I prefer running, so when I had to set limits on those exercises to protect my feet, I ended up mostly running, as long as the weather was nice.

As the weather turned chilly in the fall, and especially when we started having days when there was an occasional short period adequate weather, but not the sort of reliable block of nice weather that makes me think I can fit in a good long run, I started thinking that an occasional bout of jumping rope might be a great way to squeeze in a quick, intense workout during even quite a brief period of nice weather on an otherwise nasty day.

To make full use of such periods, I paid up for a weighted jump rope. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very much the opposite of my old jump rope, which was just a plastic-coated wire—very light and very fast—marketed to martial artists and cross-fit types. Pretty good for getting lighter on your feet, and adequate for a lower-body workout, but not much for the upper body. The weighted jump rope (even the lightest one, at just ¼ lb) definitely turns the jump rope exercise into an upper-body exercise as well.

I haven’t had the weighted jump rope long enough to form a definite opinion about it, but after just a couple of sessions, I’m pretty pleased, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get multiple HIIT jump rope workouts in over the course of the winter.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking, but I’ve done very little this past year. This was half due to the pandemic, and half due to Jackie having a sore hip that makes it hard for her to walk fast or for long distances. (I’ve been taking Jackie to physical therapy, and she’s getting better. We’ve been doing walks in the woods south of the Arboretum, and that’s going very well.)

With fewer and shorter walks with Jackie, and with walking for transportation almost eliminated by the pandemic, my non-exercise walking has dwindled pretty severely.

Ditto for my non-exercise running.

Parkour

I have very much had my eye on parkour as the thing I want to get back to this summer. Since I have made great progress on strength training specifically with an eye toward parkour, I’m very hopeful.

I’ve been doing just a bit of training, even without being able to get together with other traceurs.

The most active member of the campus parkour group turns out to have moved to Colorado. I’ve been in touch with him, and he seems to mean to spend at least some time here this summer, so hopefully I can put together some sort of training with him. In the meantime, I ordered one of his t-shirts, so I’ll have something to wear.

Taiji

Like everything else, the taiji classes I used to teach at the Savoy Rec Center had to be abruptly canceled back in March.

During the spring I led a few group practice sessions via Zoom. They’re better than nothing, and at least keep the group connected.

Once the lock-down restrictions in Illinois eased up a bit in April, my group started meeting in the park, and we continued to meet through the summer. Once the weather turned, I resumed the on-line practice sessions.

Unlike a lot of my students, who don’t feel like they can do the taiji practice without someone to lead them, I can actually do a full practice session entirely on my own. And I occasionally do. But without the group being there, it’s hard to get motivated.

Still, I almost always include some qigong as part of my morning exercises, do the once-a-week group practice session, and occasionally do the full 48-movement form (if only to make sure I don’t forget how to do it).

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, of course, is all about the end to the pandemic, something that I have high hopes for. If I can get vaccinated by June, let’s say, then by July maybe I can resume normal activity (while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course, but actually interacting with people other than just Jackie).

Normal would include hiking in the woods, and maybe visiting some natural areas within a few hours drive. (We’ve pretty much completely avoided going anywhere so far that we couldn’t go, hike, and return without having to use a restroom.)

Normal would include practicing parkour with the campus group.

Normal would include resuming teaching taiji in the fall.

I had scheduled a visit to Urbana Boulders to do some wall climbing right when the lockdown started, so that fell by the wayside. I had actually started taking an aikido class when we had to stop because of the pandemic. Either one of those things might happen, once the pandemic ends.

Basically, I have high hopes for 2021.

Objectively speaking, autumn is probably the best season. Not cold like winter, stormy like spring, or hot like summer, autumn has great weather—totally aside from the pretty colors and Halloween (arguably the best holiday, albeit in a near tie with Groundhog’s Day).

For pretty much my entire adult life I’ve dreaded the cold dark days of winter, and among the many ways that Seasonal Affect Disorder affected my life in a negative way was that it ruined autumn. I could usually get past the summer solstice okay (although in the back of my head, I knew that the best day of the year had come and gone), and I could keep it together through July and August. But by the beginning of September I knew that winter was coming, and I’d spend the last months of nice weather steeling myself against the dark days to come.

It was the dark that bothered me, more than the cold. It’s easy to armor yourself against the cold—flannel, moleskin, fleece, wool, down—there are many ways to deal with cold. But even a Verilux light therapy lamp (which does help) does not solve the problem of the dark days of winter.

All of which is merely an introduction to saying: Last winter I did not suffer from SAD!

I had meant to write something at the time, but I didn’t want to speak too soon, and then once it was spring, it didn’t seem like the most important thing.

I don’t want to jinx anything, and I’m sure the right combination of stressors on top of the cold and dark could once again put me in a bad place, but something more important has changed than just a good year: I’m no longer afraid of the dark days. Maybe I’ll suffer from SAD again, and maybe I won’t, but at least the mere knowledge that the cold and dark is coming is not ruining my fall! In the back of my head I seem to have turned a corner and developed some confidence that I’ll be okay despite the season.

So what has helped?

First, not having to work a regular job. I’m sorry that I can’t recommend something more generally available, but that was the biggest thing that made a difference. Because I don’t have to be productive on a day-to-day basis, I avoid the depression-spiral that used to result from realizing that I wasn’t getting anything done, which made me anxious about losing my job and being unable to support my family, having the anxiety make me more depressed, and the depression making me even less productive. That used to be a killer. On top of that, because I don’t have to be in the office during any particular hours, I’m able to spend a few of the few non-dark hours of the day outdoors, taking advantage of what daylight there is (and making some outdoorphins).

Second, exercise. I always knew it was important, but I took things up a notch each of the last few years, and each new tick up turned out to provide an enormous improvement in my mood. In my experience, all kinds of exercise are good. Endurance exercise is good. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is good. Skill-based training—ballet, parkour, animal moves, taiji—is good. Resistance exercise (lifting) is perhaps best of all. Letting the dark days of winter compress you down into a lump that seeks (but never finds) cozy because you’re unable to move? That’s the worst.

Third, community. Granted this is not so easy during a pandemic, but even people that you only see on-line are still people you can have a connection with, and having connections is good.

Fourth, something to look forward to. It can be almost anything. Last year I was looking forward to having my family visit. Other years I’ve looked forward to taking a vacation somewhere warm. Even little things help me—ordering some fountain pen ink or cold-weather workout clothes and then looking forward to the package being delivered, and then looking forward to using the newly acquired item.

Fifth, a project that you can make progress on. Ideally something without a deadline—at least, no deadline during the dark days of winter—but a project that you care about. Something that you can spend a few minutes on every day and see some headway that brings you closer to completing it. Creative projects are good, but creativity isn’t as important as just having a thing that you’re working on, and making steady headway.

Not suffering from SAD, even if just for one year, has been wonderful. Having some confidence that things will be okay-enough this winter that I’m not spending all fall dreading it is even more wonderful-er.

I’ve been lifting weights for decades. I was pretty consistent about it for a long time. For years while I was working at a regular job, Jackie and I would go to the Fitness Center and lift before I went to the office at least two, often three times a week, using whatever machines they had (three or four different brands/styles of machines over the years). I saw pretty good gains the first six weeks or so that I was doing this, but they leveled off. I kept at it for years after that, with very little to show for it.

All that time I imagined that the issue was intensity—to make more gains, I needed to lift more and harder. I now think that was wrong. I think the problem was just that machines are a crappy way to build strength or muscle.

Four and a half years ago we moved to Winfield Village, which has a pretty good set of free weights. I’ve been using them—once again without much to show for it. In this case, the issue is not a matter of using the wrong equipment or a lack of intensity—it’s that my consistency has fallen off. I get on a schedule of lifting two or three times a week, but only keep it up for a week or two and then miss a few workouts.

Happily, this month I’m doing pretty well. In 21 days I’ve gotten in 9 lifting sessions, which is just about exactly my target. (I aim for every other day, so when I miss an occasional day it still comes in at 3 times a week.)

I’m seeing some nice strength gains (although after just three weeks I can’t be sure I’m not back in the situation of “anything will build strength for six weeks”). I’m also putting on some weight—probably just because I’ve been eating too many carbs, which I’ll fix here shortly, but in the meantime I’m choosing to imagine that I’m adding some muscle as well.

Understanding that consistency is the key, maybe I’ll be able to keep it up. (Watching my older relatives become frail due to sarcopenia, I’m determined to avoid that fate.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll manage okay until the weather turns and I have to start balancing the lifting with the running and hiking. (I’ve only gotten in one run this month, because of ice and cold.) We’ll have to see after that. But as I say, I’m determined.

Among the things that I pay more attention to than I ought is a vast swath of preliminary research (and guesses based on preliminary research) about how large physical things (like diet and exercise) work at the scale of cellular biology.

To work though an example:

  1. It seems likely that eating soup, or just drinking good, gelatinous bone broth, will provide your body with the amino acids that it needs to build connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, cartilage, as well as skin and hair.
  2. Actual growth of those tissues is mediated in various ways. It seems virtually certain that mechanical transduction is involved—just pulling on tendons and ligaments, as well as pounding on cartilage—spurs them to get stronger and thicker. But it seems likely that it’s mediated by chemical signals as well. There’s pretty good evidence that Human Growth Hormone signals all these tissues to grow, provided all the building blocks are available.
  3. Even if (like me) you’re quite leery of exogenous supplements of Human Growth Hormone, you can nevertheless raise your circulating levels in various ways, such as by getting a good night’s sleep. In particular, exercise will do it, both resistance exercise and aerobic exercise. In fact (I have heard) a hard leg workout will raise your circulating HGH level temporarily higher than the level produced by a typical dose of supplementary HGH.

This suggests a simple protocol, good for your tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, but also good for skin and hair:

  1. Drink some bone broth. (Make sure you have some vitamin C as well. Doesn’t have to be extra; an ordinary amount is fine.)
  2. After 30 minutes or so, do some stretching exercises and some light lifting. (Your tendons, ligaments, and cartilage tend to have poor circulation. The mechanical action of pushing and pulling them produces the fluid exchange necessary to get the amino acids into them.)
  3. Do a heavy resistance workout, focusing on your largest muscles. Squats are the obvious choice.
  4. Rest.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep.

This is why my thighs are really sore this morning.

I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.

Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.

The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).

Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:

  • Taking delight in things. In particular, I take delight in the opportunity to wear seasonally appropriate woollies. I also like to spend time in the Conservatory, go to art galleries or museums, listen to live music, and generally go on artist’s dates.
  • Getting plenty of exercise. Last winter I managed to get out for a run almost every week. As fall approaches I’m getting back to my lifting. (Here’s a great resource on the current science on using exercise to treat and prevent depression.)
  • Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
  • Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
  • Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
  • Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:

  • There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
  • Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
  • Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.