I really enjoy shuffling through fallen leaves in autumn. Walking through wet grass on a hot summer day is even better. But both pale before walking a lush moss-covered forest path.
I went for a long-for-me, 7.22-mile run this morning, and listened to a podcast about light therapy.
(I go back and forth on listening to podcasts during runs. When I listen I feel like I miss out on being fully embodied in my physical activity. When I don’t listen I fall behind on stuff I really want to listen to. Today I listened.)
The podcast had Paleo Magazine‘s Ashleigh Van Houten interviewing Scott Nelson, the founder of Joovv, talking about the health benefits of exposing your skin to red and near-infrared light. I’d heard about this, but had assumed it was some woo-woo new-agey thing. Turns out it’s probably not. There’s been a huge amount of research on the benefits of exposing your skin to red light in the 660-nanometer and near-infrared light in 850-nanometer range.
(There was apparently a lot of research funded by NASA back in the 1990s when they had to use lasers to get light of just the right frequency. Nowadays LEDs make it easy to get the intensity and frequency of light that you want.)
So, I’m out on my run, listening to Ashleigh and Scott talk about all the health benefits to your skin (of the red light) and to deeper connective tissues (of the near-infrared) and thinking that it all sounds really cool, but knowing that I’m probably never going to want to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars to buy a device that will shine bright red light on my skin.
At around the mid-point, maybe 4 miles into my run, I paused for a drink of water out of the fountain in Morrissey Park, thinking it was pretty hot for just 8:40 AM . Which made me think of this giant glowing orb in the sky, which was shining down on me with pretty intense light at a wide range of frequencies, most definitely including red and near-infrared.
Turns out, sure enough—the energy in the red and near-infrared frequencies of sunlight is right in the range of therapeutic doses shown to have health benefits.
Of course, full sunlight is full of other frequencies of light, including blue (prone to mess up your circadian rhythm if you’re exposed too close to bedtime, but just what you want to get your circadian rhythm set correctly if you get your exposure in the early morning like I was doing), and ultraviolet (dangerous in excess, but the UV index was zero when I started my run at 7:40 AM and probably didn’t reach 5 before I was safely back indoors). So you need to treat sunlight with respect. But I already knew that.
I have mentioned before that I feel better when I spend a lot of time outdoors, and have speculated that sun exposure is part of the reason. (Along with time in nature, moving more, appropriate quantities of community and solitude, etc.) The information about red and near-infrared light exposure seems to lean a bit in the sunlight direction—but with the welcome news that it’s not just the vitamin D that helps make me feel better, which means maybe I can feel great without having to expose myself so much to the deadly actinic rays of the sun.
Maybe there are non-deadly actinic rays!
I visited my dad in Kalamazoo last week, and managed to establish a bit of a routine for both of us:
- I’d get up around 6:00 AM and spend some time on-line, checking my feeds and email, and doing the Jumble with my brother and my mom (and anyone else in his household who was available).
- My dad would get up around 7:00 AM and we’d each fix our breakfasts and eat them.
- Around 8:00 AM we’d each settle down to do a couple of hours of writing.
- Around 10:00 AM we’d stop for a coffee break.
- After coffee we’d go to a natural area and walk until we got tired or hungry, at which point we’d break for lunch.
- After lunch we’d put some time in on our assigned non-writing task for the week (getting as much as possible of my dad’s old papers and junk gathered and sorted for shredding, recycling, or taking to the dump).
That was the end of the productive part of the day. After that was cocktail hour followed by dinner, typically followed by streaming a Cardinal’s game.
It was a pretty satisfying schedule—productive, but with plenty of time to be social, both with my dad in person and with my other relatives on-line, and plenty of time to be outdoors in nature. (My dad has been keeping up on the latest research on how being in nature is good for your mood, as well as many other aspects of your health.)
Because it was so satisfactory, I’m going to try to maintain a version of this schedule going forward. One complication is that Jackie’s work schedule has her breakfasting very early on days that she needs to be at the bakery early, but not necessarily that early on other days. Still, that’s just a detail that can be worked around.
The picture at the top shows a buttonwood plant that my dad and I saw while walking in the fen at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum near where my dad lives in Kalamazoo.
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.)
Via The Art of Manliness I found this great graphic of a nature pyramid (à la the food pyramid) at the Nature Kids Institute. It’s aimed at kids, but really the prescription for adults should be exactly the same.
It’s tougher in the winter, of course—when the grass is snow-covered and the paths are icy, they simply aren’t so runable or walkable. But that’s okay. It’s still worth getting outside.
It’s also tougher in Illinois to find wilderness than in most other places I’ve lived. There was real wilderness in Michigan and Indiana and Florida (although when I lived in Florida I did a pretty poor job of spending time in it), and of course vast amounts of real wilderness in Utah and California. Still, there are places in Champaign county where I can at least get out of sight and out of earshot of roads, even if it isn’t really free of human influence.
Anyway, these quantities seem like good initial target minimums for time in nature. Maybe not optimal, but adequate, and probably a lot better than most people manage.
Nothing like walking through tall prairie grass to clean up a pair of muddy boots.
Like most of my friends, I’m distressed and depressed about the prospects for our country.
I’m not going to back away from the fight. I hope and expect we will use the tools and tactics that the Republicans so ably demonstrated to block as much evil as possible. I also hope we’ll be much more strategic than they were. They seemed more interested in making the Obama presidency a failure than in advancing their own agenda. The Democrats may prove more capable at making some progress—letting the Republicans “succeed,” when they’re doing something we’d also like to do.
Having said that, I must say that distress and depression are not a good look on me. Nor are anger and bitterness. And those are the things I find when I watch the news, listen to the radio, read articles on politics, and increasingly when I read my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
So, while not backing away from the fight, I do hope to back away from the outrage. That’s going to mean changing the way I interact with both news media and social media.
I’m going to follow fewer links—so often they go to articles calculated to produce outrage, and I don’t need more outrage. It’s a fine line, because there has been and will be much that is deserving of outrage. Yet: I do not worry that I will suffer from outrage deficiency.
My hope from this is that I will gain many things: time, attention, equilibrium, equanimity. These things will be used: For movement, for family, for study, and for my work—writing (both fiction and non-) and joining Jackie in her volunteering at local natural areas.
Yesterday Jackie and I walked at Forest Glen. The leaves are mostly down, covering the ground so thickly that some places it’s hard to find the trail. But with the leaves down, you can see much further into the forest:
Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.
Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).
I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.
People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:
- Environmental enrichment
- Calorie restriction
- Aerobic exercise
- Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).
I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.
My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.
My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.
The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)
According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.
Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:
- Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
- Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
- High blood glucose levels
My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.
Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.
Even just that seems worthwhile.
(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)
I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.
Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.
I’m trying to do the same.
It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.
Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”
This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.
Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.
Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)
The Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.
Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.
I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.
It only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.
Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.
Well, something to continue working on.