Nature pyramid!

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.

The future

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:

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Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

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
  • Stress.

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.)

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

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.

Walking on the beach

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.)

lake-michigan-beach-2_29188771842_oThe 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.

looking up a duneRather a lot of sand, actually. Whole dunes of it. It’s beautiful along the lake.

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.

feet-in-the-sand_29219114001_oIt 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.

Targeting minimums versus averages for movement

There’s a downside to my plan to hit my movement goal every day in December that I had not considered.

As I discussed a few days ago, I was aware of some of the downsides of using an unbroken streak for motivation—that it can tempt one to continue a streak when doing so would be unhealthy, and that it can be terribly demotivating when it is finally broken.

This is different. It has to do with setting a target that’s a little aggressive, and then making it a minimum.

My current goal, as far as Google Fit is concerned, is 90 minutes of movement. The default was 60 minutes, but I bumped it up right away back when I was manually entering my taiji sessions. They’re typically an hour long, so one class put me over the top; the lower goal didn’t motivate me to move at all.

It’s not a very aggressive goal. Looking back at my history, I generally hit it more than half the time—about 4 days a week. Looking at it on a per-week basis, I do quite a bit better than that, totaling at least 7x my daily goal about 4 weeks out of 5.

Looking at it terms of miles rather than minutes, I walk between 20 and 25 miles almost every week, but I don’t do it by walking 3 miles per day. Rather, I walk 4 or 5 miles three or four times a week, and then one day I take a long walk in the 8–15 mile range. I think it’s healthier to have a mix of short, medium, and long days, and to include an occasional rest day when needed.

And that’s what’s been lacking so far this month. My goal isn’t so aggressive that I’m suffering from the lack of adequate rest days, but it’s aggressive enough that I’ve reduced my scope for including a really long day every week or two.

I suppose Google Fit could accommodate this a programmatically, through something like separate minimum and average goals, but that seems like an unnecessary complication. Probably better to just do what I was doing before this month, and aim to hit the target on average.

I wouldn’t want to continue this unbroken streak forever, but so far it is doing what it was supposed to do: encourage me to get a good amount of movement during the dark days of early winter.

Now that I’ve noticed this issue, I should be sure to get in a long walk soon. If I don’t go overboard, I should be able to take a long walk without needing so much rest that I can’t hit my minimum the next day. And if I can’t, well, the unbroken streak is a motivational tool, not an end in itself.

The photo above was taken at the University of Illinois Conservatory, which was a destination for our walk a couple of days ago. Here’s another, with Jackie.

Jackie in the Conservatory

The vitamin D window has closed

Me in the Snow
Me in the snow. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

Seven or eight years ago, I became aware of research that suggested that vitamin D deficiencies were a possible cause of seasonal depression. As I have long suffered (albeit mildly) from SAD, I figured it was worth trying a vitamin D supplement, and it did seem to help.

I worry just a bit about taking a supplement, because there are dangers with excessive doses of vitamin D. (A random site on the web suggests that doses over about 10,000 IU per day are dangerous, if continued for a period of months.)

So, I prefer to get my vitamin D via sunlight. A pale-skinned person like me can make upwards of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in just a few minutes of mid-day summer sun—but there’s no danger of getting an overdose: your skin keeps making it as long as you’re in the sun, but once saturated with an optimal amount, it starts un-making it as fast as it makes it.

But it’s the UVB light in the sun that makes the vitamin D, and at my latitude (I live at almost exactly 40° north), little or no UVB gets through the atmosphere during the winter. Specifically, the vitamin D window closed this year on November 20th. It’ll open again on January 20th—although of course it’ll be too cold to expose much skin to the sun for a month or two after that.

This past summer, I spent more time in the sun than in years past, and found that it made me feel especially good—like the opposite of seasonal depression. I imagine it’s the extra vitamin D, although I don’t see any way to tweeze evidence for that hypothesis out from the many other possible reasons. Perhaps it was just more bright light (as opposed to the UVB in particular)—surely the sun is the world’s best light box. Perhaps it was just being more active (I tend to get my sun walking or running, not sitting or lying in the sun). Perhaps it was the endocannabinoids produced during the longer runs in particular. Perhaps it was more time in nature (I spend a lot of my outdoor time walking or running in our local prairie and woods), which is known to be good for the mood. Perhaps it was the extra “together time” Jackie and I got on our very long walks. Perhaps it was the solitude of walks and runs by myself, providing space for meditation.

Whatever it was, I miss it in the winter, and I fixate on a vitamin D deficiency as a possible culprit. Maybe I’ll up my supplement dose. Of course, I won’t do just that. I’ll use my Happy Light™. I’ll go for long walks in the cold and snow. I’ll get out in the prairie and the woods. I’ll try to cover all the possibilities. But I’ll keep taking my vitamin D.