Movement in 2016

This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.

I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.

Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.

Exercise

I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.

Squatting

My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)

The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.

With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.

Hanging

My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.

To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.

When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.

Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.

Wall dip

I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.

I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.

Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.

So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).

I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.

Toe stretches

The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.

This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.

It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.

Pushups

I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.

They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.

I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.

Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.

Non-Exercise Movement

Walking

Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.

Running

I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.

Parkour

Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.

Taiji

I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).

Push hands

One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.

Volunteer stewardship work days

This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.

Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.

I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.

I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”

I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.

 

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.

Who has time for all that?

I gave up multitasking a long time ago. I realized that I’m not good at it, and started paying attention so that I could notice when I was doing it and stop.

As an aside, I should mention that there’s now quite a bit of research to show that nobody is good at multitasking, and that the people who think they’re good at it are even worse than the people who know they’re not.

Even though I’m more efficient doing one thing with complete focus and then going on to the next thing, that practice alone doesn’t solve the underlying problem that tempts people into multitasking: How else can I get everything done?

Half of the answer to that is the drearily obvious, “You can’t. What you can do is get a whole lot done, if you quit frittering away your time on trivial, pointless stuff, and apply your time doing the most important stuff.”

I know some people who are pretty good at that, and they are routinely way more productive than me or most other people.

But there’s more to it than that. Katy Bowman has been talking about one useful practice, suggesting that you “stack your life” by accomplishing multiple goals at once—something that sounds suspiciously like multitasking, but really isn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit, wanting to articulate the difference for my own sake if no one else’s. My take on it, is that it has to do with what the limiting resource is for each activity.

There are a lot of limiting resources. Your hands are one—they can really only do one thing at a time (although my mom used to read, fan herself, and drink lemonade all at the same time, and felt like she was being very efficient). Location is another—something that can only be done in the kitchen can’t be stacked with an activity that can only be done in the garage or the gym or the grocery store. Other people are another—something that requires the presence of another person can’t be done without him or her. (Though it’s not that simple, as sometimes you can stack up the other people and get multiple things done with multiple people.)

In multitasking, the limiting resource is your attention, and what’s unique about attention is that many activities can be done with partial attention. That experience tempts us into thinking that attention is more divisible than it really is.

Washing dishes only takes partial attention, meaning that you can listen to the radio or a podcast and get full benefit out of both activities.

Driving is a more complex example. We know that driving sometimes requires your full attention. This is why talking on the phone is unsafe to do while driving—talking on the phone requires enough of your attention that doing so reduces your competence at driving as much as getting drunk does. (Talking to someone in the car with you is much less unsafe, because that person can see when the road conditions are such that you need your full attention and shut up. Just listening to something—the radio or a podcast—does not seem to cause the same problem, probably for reasons having to do with deep structures in the brain that prioritize social interactions.)

Even though there are plenty of activities that can be done with partial attention, most important activities require full attention to be done well.

Writing a blog post can be done with partial attention, but when I try to do it while simultaneously listening to a podcast, checking my twitter and facebook feeds, chatting with a friend on-line and another in-person, and answering the occasional email message, I don’t do it as well.

As I’ve worked to apply this lesson—noticing when I’m multitasking and then refocusing on the main thing I’m doing—I’ve learned something else: Many activities that don’t require full attention turn out better when I give it to them anyway.

Beyond that, I feel better when I give my full attention to whatever I’m doing.

It was the meditation practice that I adopted as part of my taiji practice that taught me this. First, it taught me the skill of paying attention, then it taught me that paying attention to what I was doing right now paid dividends, even when all I was doing was sitting or standing.

I’ve noticed it particularly with exercise. I used to distract myself from exercise with music or podcasts or games like Zombies, Run!, because I found exercise to be unpleasant drudgery that I only engaged in to the extent necessary to build and maintain a basic level of fitness. I don’t do that any more. It’s much better when I fully embody my exercise: I enjoy it more, I’m less prone to injury, and the exercise is more effective.

The more I do this—give my full attention to whatever it is I’m doing, whether it seems worthy of full attention or not—the more I find it worthwhile.

Downside: I’m falling behind on my podcast listening, because there are so few things were I feel like partial attention is all they deserve. Maybe I’ll find more, but at the moment I’m just about down to riding on the bus.

So, yes: Stack your life. If you can do one thing with your brain, one thing with your hands, and one thing with your feet all at the same time, go for it. But think twice before dividing your attention. If something is worth doing, it may well be worth your full attention, no matter how hard that makes it to get everything done.

Prairie Spiderweb

Accidentally fast run

The weather finally became what I want from weather: gloriously warm and sunny. Friday I celebrated by going for a run.

Conventional wisdom for a while now has been that faster foot-turnover—at a rate of 180 steps per minute—is better. Supposedly it maximizes the amount of energy stored in the elastic properties of your feet and ankles which can then be returned as free energy in the next stride. Slower foot-turnover means you have to work harder twice—first, using muscle strength to absorb the energy of the foot-strike, and then using fresh muscle power to generate the next stride.

To work on that, I’d downloaded a metronome app to my phone, and set it to tick at 180 bpm. I started that up, and started running in sync with the ticking.

I’m sure it’s possible to run at a slow pace with fast foot-turnover, but doing so did not come naturally to me. I sprinted off down the road at quite a bit faster than my usual running pace.

Perhaps, if I’d focused on running slowly at 180-foot-strikes per minute I’d have been okay, but the other thing I was focusing on was making my foot-strikes as gentle as possible. (There’s recent research supporting the obvious: minimizing impact loading of each step reduces running injuries.)

With my attention focused on faster, lighter foot-strikes, I managed to get myself pretty out of breath in just a mile or so. At around 2 miles, I passed a playground that I like to pause at—I practice my balancing by running around the perimeter formed by (I think) 1×6 boards, and then do some inverted rows using a piece of playground equipment. That gave me a chance to catch my breath a little, and I walked for a minute or so after I finished there.

Once I started up running again, I ran a bit more slowly. I’d turned off the metronome, although I was trying to keep the 180 bpm pace in my head. I was doing a bit better at keeping a lower pace, until I came into sight of the traffic light to cross Route 45, and saw that Jackie was also approaching the intersection, about a block ahead of me.

I responded to that by picking up the pace (again), and managed to cross on the same walk signal. Then I quit running, and walked the rest of the way home with her. The run came in a 3.2 miles, at an average pace that is nothing to write home about, except that it includes the time playing on the playground equipment.

Next step: Figure out how to run slowly with fast foot-turnover.

By the way, this is still true:

The image at the top is the view out the study window, where you can see that our neighbor’s flowering tree is in full bloom. Ours is perhaps a day or two behind.

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

Report on exogenous cannabinoid use in exercise

Having written about endocannabinoids as the likely source of runners high, I wanted to draw people’s attention to this report, which talks (in the middle third) about the use of exogenous cannabinoids by athletes.

If runner’s high is not enough, why do people exercise on THC, the active ingredient in cannabis? It is not unusual for athletes, like other social groups that follow common routines, to combine popular lifestyle activities like alcohol (beer after racing) and food consumption (pre-race pasta parties), with others in the clan. The same appears true of cannabis use, enhancing leisure and social activities such as getting together for a run or race.

Source: REPORT: Smoking and Exercise – Dr. Phil Maffetone

Even the first bit (on nicotine as a possible performance-enhancing drug) is interesting, with an appropriate emphasis on tobacco’s dangers. The bit on marijuana, viewed largely through the lens of its possible beneficial effects both during and after exercise, made for a nice contrast.

Low-carb, one week on

I’m halfway through my two-week test, and thought I’d provide a quick progress report.

It has been both easy and hard to eat this way. Easy, in that I’ve certainly never been hungry. Hard, in that I’ve already gotten very bored with the things I can eat. (This is only because I’m a picky eater; there’s not much that I like. Especially, there are very few vegetables that I like. Eating a lot of eggs and meat, together with a lot of the exact same vegetables every day, has gotten quite tedious.)

I felt subpar on day two and the first half of day three: logy and tired. Several people suggested that the problem was probably not eating enough calories, so I tried boosting the size of my meals. Whether it was that, or just making it through the transition, I got over it easily enough.

I’ve done pretty well at sticking to the diet, with one exception: Easter brunch. I did fine for the salad course and the main course, but when they brought carrot cake for dessert, I was unable to resist. (Surely the carrots counteract the sugar, right?)

It tasted good, but very quickly I felt terrible. As I described in email to a friend, I assume what happened is this:

The sugar hit my blood stream, and all my carb-depleted muscle and liver cells said, “Oooh! Sugar! We gots to get ourselves some of this!”

But at the same time, my pancreas said, “Hmm. There’s sugar in the blood. I’ll release some insulin.”

But, because there was only one small serving of cake’s worth of sugar, in no time it was all gone. But the insulin was still there.

So my blood sugar plummeted.

And then my liver said, “But, but, I just got this teeny little bit of glucose! I haven’t even turned it into glycogen yet!” and then said, “Oh, all right. Here’s enough sugar to get your blood levels back to normal.”

I probably exacerbated the whole thing by going for a run—I thought of it as penance for failing in my commitment to be low-carb for two weeks. The run no doubt put additional pressure on my blood sugar levels.

Anyway, for a couple of hours there after lunch, I felt sick to my stomach, shaky, jittery, and had an inappropriately high heart rate. Some of that might have been psychosomatic, but it was all very unpleasant.

After my run I had a V8 juice, which may have helped. A tiny bit of sugar.

Except for that piece of carrot cake, my only deviations have been:

  • Occasional small servings of cured meat (bacon, ham, sausage), which are generally low carb, but which are off the list for the two-week test because so many are cured with sugar or otherwise include carbs. I’m trying to pick ones that don’t have sugar, but am generally trusting that my servings are small enough that it doesn’t matter much.
  • Some small servings of peanut butter, which is also off the list for reasons I don’t understand. It’s natural peanut butter with no added sugar, but of course peanuts do have some amount of carbs. Again, I’m keeping my servings small.

In my post saying I was trying the low-carb thing I had a list of specific issues I was hoping low-carb eating might improve: allergy symptoms, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight. Taking those in reverse order . . . .

Weight

I can certainly see why low-carb diets are popular for weight loss: I lost several pounds almost immediately.

From what I’ve read, I gather this is largely water weight. Supposedly there are several grams of water bound up in the storage of each gram of glycogen. As the glycogen goes, the water is freed up, producing near-instant weight loss.

That all happened in the first two days. In the next five my weight has continued to trend down, but only very slightly. I assume this is mostly fat. If the second week is like the first, I’ll probably have lost about two-thirds of a pound of fat during the course of the test.

The dramatic weight loss is kind of interesting. Because I was already near my lowest adult weight, this big drop punched me down to a series of new all-time lows. I don’t have good data, but as best I can recall I am now at my lowest weight since I was a freshman in college and lost a bunch of weight when I had mononucleosis.

I assume those water pounds will pop right back on the instant I eat enough carbs to replenish my glycogen stores. That’ll be okay.

Blood sugar

I don’t have (and am not inclined to buy) equipment to check my blood sugar, so I don’t know if my fasting glucose levels are down or not. Empirically, I can report that my energy levels are now very stable, which suggests to me that my glucose levels (whatever they are) are pretty flat.

I do see the appeal to this. It’s convenient to never feel like I have to eat right now. It’s convenient to not feel tired and sleepy after every large meal.

The originator of the two-week test that I’m following, Phil Maffatone, is all about burning fat to power endurance exercise—ultra-marathons and the like.

A body well-adapted to using glycogen for endurance exercise can store maybe 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles and liver combined, providing around 2000 calories. By itself, that’s not even enough to run a marathon, let alone a longer endurance event.

Even a very lean person, on the other hand, probably has at least 10% body fat. That would imply that a 70 kilogram athlete would have around 7 kilos of fat, providing a staggering 63,000 calories. Even allowing for the significant fraction of irreducible fat (cushioning for your eyeballs, etc.) that’s still enough to power literally hundreds of miles of walking or running.

The idea that I’ll be able to do my long runs and very long walks without needing to make special provisions for food is especially appealing.

My glucose levels during the test are in any case only of academic interest. After the test I’ll reintroduce carbs and see how much and what kinds I can eat while preserving the stable energy levels. What I care about is what my glucose levels will be then.

Blood pressure

My blood pressure hasn’t shown much of a trend. So far it’s a little erratic, but has not been down enough to suggest that a different dose of lisinopril is in order. I’ll continue to monitor it.

Allergy symptoms

My allergy symptoms are the thing I’m most interested in improving, and here the results have been at least mildly interesting. I quit taking the Claritin just two days into the test, and then quit taking the Nasacort two days after that. I’m a little sniffly, but I’m not sneezing much, nor am I suffering from the nasal congestion that I needed to take the Nasacort for.

Of course this is not necessarily due to the diet. My allergy symptoms have always been seasonal (even as the “seasons” have grown to cover most of the year); maybe this is just one of the seasons when I’d have been okay anyway. Still, I’d be surprised if that were true. Tree-pollen season has always been a problem for me, and looking out my window, I can see several different kinds of trees with the discreet flowers characteristic of wind-pollination.

Only time will tell, but I’m glad to have at least a few days off the drugs in any case.

I’ll post another update in a week or two, unless the results seem boring.

Prairie burn

They burned the prairie behind Winfield Village this afternoon. While I was out for a run, I got some pictures:

 

Running with the hawks

All last year I ran less than in recent years. Initially it was simply because of all the walking to prepare for our big hike. A very long walk takes a very long time, so it was harder to fit in runs. Plus, I learned the hard way that after a very long walk I’m prone to injure myself if I try to run too soon.

I didn’t want to quit running. I enjoy running, and I want to be able to run, both of which seem like good reasons to run. So what I did was drop most of my short and medium runs in favor of walks, but keep the (ideally) weekly long run.

Over the winter I haven’t been getting my long runs in weekly. I’ve just been running when the weather made it seem like it would be fun, which has worked out to just a couple of times a month.

Yesterday was one of those times.

Fairly often I see wildlife when I’m out running in the woods and prairie near Winfield Village. Unless it’s a turtle, I don’t usually manage to get a picture, but yesterday there was a hawk on a branch directly over the trail, and he sat there long enough that I did mange to get a photo (at the top of the post).

Of course, it’s almost pointless to take a picture of a bird unless you have a very long lens, but here’s the photo anyway—zoomed in enough that you can tell that I actually did see a hawk.

zoomed hawk