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.

I occasionally choose to do hard things.

In the book Own the Day, Own Your Life Aubry Marcus suggests making your brain chemistry work for you by creating small successes, especially early in the day: Decide that you’re going to do something, and then do it. Even a small thing—deciding to mediate for 5 minutes and then doing so—gives you a little dopamine hit. That makes you feel better immediately, and possibly for the rest of the day. More to the point, repeatedly achieving small successes like this gradually boosts your capability: You can decide to do harder things (get in your workout, go for a run, write 5 pages of your novel) and then do them.

In an episode of her Move Your DNA podcast, Katy Bowman juxtaposes the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you set yourself to do something that you know will be hard and then carry through all the way to completion, with the feeling of being comfortable, saying:

What we’re trying to create through comfort is like the synthetic version of what you get when you pass through those hoops.

Katy Bowman

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s very satisfying to decide to do something that’s hard and then do that thing. It feels good. I’m not sure it feels good in the same way that sitting in a comfy chair feels good, but I think there is a connection. Sitting down feels really good after a long run when your legs are tired; sitting in a really comfy chair kinda feels like that, without the need to go for the long run first.

I occasionally do physically hard things. I’ve run several footraces, at distances up to 7.1 miles. I did a century bicycle ride. Jackie and I day-hiked the 33.4-mile Kal-Haven trail. And it’s very true: choosing to do a hard thing knowing that it will be hard, and then doing the whole thing even though it is hard, is very satisfying.

However, there’s another entirely legitimate perspective:

A sentence I read today in an outdoors magazine: “You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.” Danger? Like, that’s my life goal. 😬First world folk are… interesting.

zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) January 13, 2019

She says that—but she also apparently reads outdoor magazines, so I suspect even she sees the value in doing hard things.

On a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia drew a parallel between weight lifting and meditation that really resonated for me.

Some people really like weight lifting. They enjoy the ambiance of the gym. They like doing the reps. They like “feeling the burn” as they finish a good set. They like the way their muscles feel trashed at the end.

Other people hate all those things, and loath every minute that they spend in the gym—but they lift weights anyway for the benefits that result: stronger muscles, stronger tendons, stronger bones, healthier joints, improved insulin sensitivity, increased neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

In much the same way, some people really like meditation. They enjoy the sitting (or standing, or moving). They enjoy the centeredness. They like bringing their attention to their breath (or their mantra or their mandala). They like the focus. They like the stillness. They like the peace.

Other people hate meditation. They find it boring. They find it uncomfortable. They find no stillness or peace. Their attention constantly wanders. Their efforts feel like repeated failure.

While everybody knows that you go to the gym and lift weights to get stronger—not to prove that you’re already strong—many people fail to understand that the same is true of meditation. You don’t meditate to prove that you have great focus. You meditate to get better at noticing when you’re thinking and better at letting your thoughts go.

The point of a meditative practice is not to have a 20-minute session that feels like a success. When you are sitting and you notice that you are thinking, and you let that thought go, and return your attention to your breath—that’s a rep. That’s what you’re practicing. If you do it twenty times in a five-minute meditation session. . . . Well, that’s twenty reps. That’s an extremely successful session of meditative practice.

My point here is that doing the work of practicing meditating is worth doing, even if the meditation sessions themselves feel like one failure after another. Just like the point of lifting weights is to be stronger in the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not lifting, the point of a meditation practice is to be better at paying attention the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not meditating.

This year’s review of my movement practice will be a bit less detail-oriented than last year’s, when I included a long list of exercises, and a long list of non-exercise movement that I’d engaged in over the year. This year I exercised a bit less and moved a bit more, and came to a balance that I’m pretty happy with—that I don’t feel much urge to analyze.

I continued the winter exercise regimen that I described a year ago for the rest of the winter, but then let most of it go in favor of less-structured movement. As I say, I’m pretty happy with what I ended up doing, although the result was a decline in some of the strength increases I’d made.

Summer included a lot of solo walking (mostly in natural areas very close to home) and a lot of walking with Jackie (in a wide range of environments, including natural areas somewhat further afield).

One major piece of our walking was our big trip to Utah, where we got in plenty of hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Arches. (See image at top.) The length of any particular hike was nothing to write home about (although we did write home a bit), but the ruggedness—and especially the steepness—made the hikes very different from anything we manage at home.

Basically, summer was great—lots of time spent in the sun, lots of walking, lots of time spent with my sweetie, lots of time spent alone.

As summer transitioned to fall, I had the same problems I usually do, perhaps slightly worse this year than average because the transition seemed more abrupt, with early fall being unusually cold. Happily, late fall was no worse than early fall, and what was unusually cold for early fall is actually rather mild for early winter.

One thing I have done this fall is get back to running. In the past I’ve always meant to establish a running habit that I can carry forward into the cold months, and I have nearly always failed. This year, so far, I’m doing okay, getting in a couple of runs a week, with long runs of 5 miles or more. With just a little luck (not too icy, not too much bitter cold) I’ll be able to carry a lot more aerobic fitness into the spring than I usually manage. That would make it possible to do a spring running event, if I want.

I’ve had very good luck this year on the injury front, managing to stay healthy though the whole year.

I still teach taiji, both the beginners class and a class for continuing students, and it remains rewarding it all the ways it has been—physically (I get my own taiji in), mentally/emotionally (I get my meditation in), socially (I gather with a group of friends several times a week), and financially (admittedly in a small way).

Looking ahead, I’m rather inclined to stick with a movement focus, spending more time doing stuff (moving) and less time preparing to do stuff (exercising).


About three weeks ago, just a few days before heading out on our vacation, I noticed a black spot in the vision of my right eye, modestly to the right of the center of my vision.

I hustled to the optometrist, who dilated my eyes, looked inside, and said, “Yep, I can see a thing that matches what you describe.”

Two things I already knew:

  • Your eye ball is filled with a fluid called vitreous humour,
  • that fluid shrinks as you age.

But in my brain that fluid is rather more liquidy than it apparently is in reality. In my actual eyeball, that fluid is so gelatinous that it is attached to the retina with strands of connective tissue. My vitreous had shrunk enough that one of those strands pulled free, and the strand (connected to my vitreous and no longer connected to my retina) is what I’m seeing. Or rather, the shadow of that strand is what I’m seeing.

They call it a floater, but this one is unlike other floaters I’ve had. The other ones floated—that is, they moved around. This one is fixed in place. The others were also translucent, whereas this one was black. Looking out was rather like using a screen with a few dead pixels.

The prognosis is good. The black spot should become less noticeable, through both my immune system scavenging up the no-longer needed connective tissue and my brain learning that there’s no information in the black spot and filling in with detail from my other eye. (The spot is already turning browner and translucent.) There’s a slightly increased risk of retinal tears and detachment, not from the floater itself but from the shrunken vitreous.

I asked if there was anything I could do to encourage the vitreous to regain it’s original size, but apparently there isn’t anything known to hep with that. The doctor said that it was often recommended that people refrain from heavy lifting, and I actually did quit lifting during the couple of days before the trip and the duration of the trip itself, but I’m certainly not going to give up lifting.

Because of my tendency to worry about such things, it was kind of daunting to have this happen right before our long drive, but in actual event was a non-issue. I’ll update if anything more comes of it.