Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Achievement Unlocked: Chen 48-movement form

I’ve been practicing taiji for more than 4 years now. Jackie and I started with a 16-week class at OLLI, after which we continued studying with the same teacher, Mike Reed, at the Savoy Recreation center.

philip-brewer-ji
Me teaching the summer Park District class. Photo by Steven D. Brewer, used with permission.

The OLLI class taught an 8-movement form, the same form I taught my students when I taught a taiji class for the Champaign Park District this summer. We continued to do that form in the Savoy Rec classes, but also started learning a form that consisted of the first 12 of the Chen 48-movement form. Fairly early on, Mike proceeded to teach us the second 12 movements, so that we had a 24-movement form.

We stuck with that 24-movement form for a long time—I think we went most of a year without adding any new movements.

Jackie and I and a couple of other students bugged Mike about adding more movements, but he resisted. I think I now understand the reasons. The first 24 movements are pretty easy to do. That is, learning the whole sequence takes a while, and doing them exactly right may be difficult, but no individual piece of any of the movements is physically very challenging. Starting early in the second half of the 48, there are a number of movements that are considerably more challenging: Hops, jumps, kicks, and pivots—sometimes in combinations—that Mike hesitated to try to teach to a class where I’m the youngest guy there.

Eventually, after maybe a year, we wore him down. A year and a half ago, we got through the third 12 movements (somewhat modified, to reduce the aggressiveness of some of the jump-kicks and hopping pivots). This fall, we’ve learned the final 12 movements, doing the last two last week.

Today, for the first time, we did the whole 48-movement form from beginning to end.

I still have a lot to learn, even about the first movements—and, of course, I barely know the last few. But that’s okay. One of the first things I learned in taiji—that I should have learned from my previous studies of martial arts, but somehow didn’t—is that taiji isn’t something that you learn: it’s something that you do.

Now I can do a bit more. That’s all. And yet, it’s kind of a big deal to me.

Enough exercise (and a calf update)

I recently came upon an old livejournal post about my struggles to get enough exercise.

It had been written in April 2008, some seven or eight months after I’d quit working a regular job, and was about how I’d always blamed the job for keeping me from getting enough exercise, and how I was unhappy that I hadn’t seized the opportunity that came from my new regular-job-free lifestyle to get into better shape. Here’s an excerpt:

The big advantage of not working a regular job ought to be that I can exercise anytime I want.  In the spring, I can run in the afternoon when it’s warm.  In the summer I can run in the morning when it’s cool.  I can pick the nicest day of the week for my long ride (minimize the chance of being caught miles from home in a thunderstorm) and then organize the rest of the week’s workouts around that.

I say “ought to,” because I haven’t taken full advantage so far.  Last summer I was still working until the end of August, and then I was trying to focus on my novel while still cranking out four or five Wise Bread posts a week.  I tried to get the running habit set up in the fall so that I could continue it through the winter, but didn’t really manage it.

Now, though, it’s spring, and I’ve decided to make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.

Reading that post, I realized that I have, finally, succeeded. I now get enough exercise.

Brief aside: Except, of course, that I’ve scarcely run in a month, because of my injured calf.

I’ve tried three times to go out for a short run, and each time the result has been re-injury. After the third time, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, trying to get back to running as quickly as possible. I decided to wait until the symptoms were completely gone, and then give it at least a full week for further rest and recovery, before trying to run again. On that schedule, my first run would be roughly Saturday. In fact, it’ll be delayed at least two days further, because Saturday Jackie and I will go to Forest Glen and squeeze in a long hike in the morning, ahead of a spinning and weaving event there. (And not taking a day to recover from a long hike before a short run is how I hurt my calf in the first place.)

Basically, though, my calf is fine. It doesn’t limit either my walking (we walked 10 miles yesterday) or my taiji (I’ve taught my class on schedule every day). It has been completely pain-free, except when I re-injure it—then it hurts for a couple of days.

I wrote two years ago about my winter fitness regimen. (Three times a week I lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days I try to walk for an hour.) It proves to be satisfactory to maintain my weight and maintain a base level of fitness.

In the summers, I’ve been doing more. I preserve the lifting and the taiji (and much of the walking, which is mostly incidental to getting other things done) and augment it with running—before my injury, I had been running 7–9 miles most weeks—and have also added a weekly very long walk.

That livejournal post has a chart with the amount of time I had been devoting to exercise the last time I’d been in really good shape. Here’s a similar chart for what I’d been doing until a few weeks ago when I had to quit running:

Activity Minutes per workout Workouts per week Minutes per week
Lifting 30 3 90
Taiji 60 3 180
Short walks 60 4 240
Long walks 240 1 240
Short runs 22 2 44
Long runs 60 1 60
Total 854

The first thing that strikes me is just how similar this is to what I was doing in the past when I’ve been fit. I’ve replaced the bike rides with walking a very similar number of minutes per week. I’ve added the taiji, which adds 3 hours a week, and I’ve reduced the number and length of my short runs, to gain back maybe 50 minutes of that time. But the bottom line is that I’m now spending about 120 minutes a day on fitness-related activities.

Now, that’s great. Certainly it feels great—I feel great when I’m getting this much exercise. And having gotten here, I believe I’m prepared to declare victory, and say that getting and staying in shape is a solved problem.

But how could anyone with a regular job manage such a thing? And yet, much less exercise than this would not build and maintain the capabilities I want. If I want to be able to run for an hour, I need to run for an hour pretty regularly. If I want to be able to walk for four or six hours, then every week or two I need to walk for four or six hours.

I don’t really have an answer here for people who find that making a living limits their ability to be fit. I managed it temporarily a couple of times, but only by letting things slide temporarily—things that I couldn’t let slide permanently.

Still, just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Thanks to the taiji, I move with more ease and control than I’ve ever had before. Thanks to the lifting and the endurance exercise, I have more power and stamina than ever before. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s long hike. And I’m looking forward (after a day or two to recover from that) to trying to run again. (Because, as Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”)

Running injury (minor, I think)

Last week I was perhaps a mile into a short run when I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my right calf. It hurt quite a bit, and hurt more on each of the two steps it took me to come to a stop without falling down.

My brother likes to say, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”

I’ve had pretty good luck with injuries. I did get hurt the first time I took up running, back in 1992. When I pushed my long run up to 6 miles, so I could run in the Allerton Park Trail Run, I upped the distance too quickly, irritating my Achilles tendon. It took over a year to heal completely, and by then I was no longer a runner.

I’ve taken up running several times since then, without injuring myself. When I gave up running those times it was simply because winter came and I couldn’t make myself spend enough time on the treadmill to stay in shape. Spring would come and I was no longer a runner. Some years I managed to get back into running shape. Other years I didn’t.

After I hobbled back home, I did a good bit of internet reading about strained calf muscles. The injury is most often caused by sudden changes in direction, such as in racket sports. My scenario is the second most common: even a very easy run, when the muscle is tired—I had walked 16 miles the day before.

I rested and iced the calf, and it got a lot better right away. By the second day after the injury it didn’t hurt to walk, I was able to lift weights (skipping calf raises), and I was able to teach my tai chi class without pain. After another couple of days, I was able to walk five miles without discomfort. Once the initial pain and swelling had passed, I’d been doing some massage of the injured spot, trying to minimize the adhesions that seem to be a problem for some runners with recurring calf injuries, and that had reached the point of being pain-free as well.

That all misled me into thinking it was more healed than it turned out to be.

On the fifth day after the injury I tried to go for a very short run, just to see if it was going to be okay. And it was. I ran a few blocks—maybe a quarter of a mile—and then back again, all without pain. Then, when I tried to turn onto my street: ouch.

That reinjury seems to be even more minor. A day of rest and icing and I think I’m back to normal as far a non-running activity goes.

Today I’ll try a mediumish walk, going 2 or 3 miles to lunch, with the option to switch to the bus if my calf hurts along the way. If it’s not sore at all after lunch, maybe I’ll walk home as well.

One of the web pages I read about calf muscle injuries said that after 10 days, scar tissue is as strong as muscle tissue. I’ll hold off on more attempts at running until 10 days after the original injury, and I’ll make sure there’s a day of rest after any other strenuous activity before my next run.

Then we’ll see.

Today’s walk: 12.35 miles, plus taiji

Jackie wanted to walk to the Savoy Recreation Center where we take our taiji class, and it was about time for another long walk, so we did.

Our training plan for getting in shape to walk the Kal-Haven trail calls for, I think, a 5-hour walk this week. We didn’t walk quite that far, but if you count the hour we spent doing taiji as part of our workout (which I think is fair, since we’re on our feet for the hour), I think we just about hit the mark.

I was a bit peeved with Endomondo, which seemed to have crashed the Samsung tablet I use to gather the data on our workouts, but I quickly got over it, because it doesn’t seem to have lost the data on our workout. The walk to Savoy Rec and then to Bo Peep’s where we had lunch is shown here:

The tablet rebooted while I was getting it out of my pack at lunch, but once it was up and running again I restarted endomondo and then started a fresh workout to track the walk home. That workout is here:

I paused the app during taiji, and then it turned itself off during the lunch break, so you’d have to add about two hours to the total time of 4:17 (2:40 plus 1:37) to get a comparable time to previous workouts (where I just left the ap running the whole time).

We left home around 7:10 AM just slightly later than planned, and walked the first leg quite briskly, covering each of the 5+ miles to Savoy Rec in under 20 minutes (and the first mile in just 18:04). After lunch we went a little slower, but still kept to a roughly 20-minute pace.

I think we remain nicely on-track for being in shape to hike the Kal-Haven trail sometime in July.

Fictional characters getting in shape

I’m a huge fan of a particular sort of scenes in stories—the scenes where the hero gets into shape.

I was reminded of this recently, after reading Greg Rucka’s Critical Space, a thriller I read after it was mentioned by Marissa in a recent post, which has an excellent instance of this sort of scene. The getting-in-shape sequence in this book takes the form of a montage (much as you might see in a movie with such a sequence) written in second person. You swim. You run. You do yoga and ballet. You take supplements and you eat lots of fruit. You lift weights. You see the changes in your body. You learn to be an assassin.

I have long been a fan of these scenes, both in books and movies. They’re a key part of the original Rocky movie, of course, and are practically all there is in Rocky III. I’m especially fond of the getting-in-shape sequence in the book Man on Fire by A. J. Quinnell, and I’m still bitter that the movie completely omitted the sequence. (Easily the best part of the book.)

A lot of sf and fantasy stories have versions of these. For example, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liad books often have characters learning a martial art. In these, as in a lot of fantasy stories, the hero or heroine often turns out to have an especially high level of natural talent for the art. I view this as a negative—it’s more interesting to me when the hero lacks any extraordinary skill, but manages to excel through hard work. Patrick Rothfuss’s Wise Man’s Fear does a particularly good job in the scenes where the hero learns a taiji-like martial art. Instead of the hero having preternatural talents in the area, his success comes from seizing an opportunity (and, of course, having preternatural talents in other areas).

A whole genre of its own is the boot camp story, where the heroes not only become fit and learn a lethal skill, but also learn something about teamwork and camaraderie.

Anybody out there like these sequences as much as I do? Can anybody point to books or movies with particularly good instances?

Tai Chi class I’m teaching

Tai Chi flyerI’m going to be teaching a Tai Chi class this summer for the Champaign Park District. Classes will be 8:30–9:30 AM Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. There’ll be a first session running from June 3rd to July 26th and then a second session from August 5th through September 27th. (This update to my post of a week or two ago is because the Park District has produced some fliers with class info: Tai Chi fliers.)

We’ll learn some moving Qigong exercises, an 8-movement form, and provide an introduction to meditation.

The class is appropriate for beginners, although other students are also welcome.

Register at the park district website or at any park district office.

Update 3 June 2013: The class has started, but the Park District is keeping registration open for another week or two, hoping to pick up another student or two.

Teaching Tai Chi this summer

I’m going to teach a Tai Chi class for the Champaign Park District this summer.

Screen grab of the Tai Chi course description.
Screen grab of the Tai Chi course description.

The park district doesn’t put their course descriptions on the web except in the form of the pdf file of the course catalog, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that they also don’t put the pdf file on their website, but instead offers it through Scribd—which makes it excruciatingly difficult to download the file. Otherwise, I’d go ahead and link to something. But, as I can’t find anything useful to link to, I’ll just paste in this screen grab from their on-line catalog.

I’d encourage any local folks who are interested in an introduction to Tai Chi to sign up. It costs $50 for park district residents and $75 for non-residents. The first session runs from June 3rd through September 26th. The second session runs from August 5th through September 27th.

Losing weight

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

I’ve lost a good bit of weight over the past 18 months. I haven’t talked about it much here. It’s bad enough when this starts seeming like an exercise blog; it will not become a weight-loss blog.

That’s partly because the topic is so loaded with cultural baggage. I think there’s pretty good evidence that eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are both associated with better health. There’s a lot less evidence that being thin is associated with better health—and none at all, as far as I’m aware, that trying to lose weight improves your health, or that exhorting someone else to lose weight improves their health.

Having said all that, my weight is something I’ve been paying attention to, so it seems like something I should talk about here.

What prompts this post at this time is that I’ve reached my lowest adult weight. That is, at 179 pounds this morning, I’ve matched the lowest weight for which I have any record.

I have pretty good data on my weight since 1999. For Christmas that year my brother gave me a Palm III and I installed a weight-tracking app called Eat Watch, which I used fairly regularly from early 2000 until mid 2007. At that point there’s a break in the data, because I lost access to the good doctor’s scale at the Motorola office when the site closed. My bathroom scale wasn’t up to the task. In May of last year I finally bought a good digital scale, and since then I have almost daily data.

Although I’ve been heavier than I’d like pretty much my whole adult life, and have often paid attention to my weight, I’ve largely avoided the curse of yo-yo dieting. Really, there are only two other periods when I’ve lost weight.

The previous one began in 2003. Early that year blood work showed modestly elevated blood sugar levels. The idea that I might break my pancreas was upsetting enough that I took steps: I quit drinking soda and I started running again. From February 2003 through September 2004 I lost 40 pounds, getting my weight down to 188. I kept the weight off for a while; at the end of 2005 it was still around 195, but it was already inexorably rising. By the time the Motorola site closed, it was back up over 200 pounds.

I don’t have much data on my weight from before 2000, but the one exception includes the other period I was losing weight. Back in 1991 I started running, and my running log from that period tracked my weight. I don’t have a value for every week, but I weighed 201 in March that year, and got my weight down to 179 by the end of running season.

In my experience, losing weight is either easy, or else impossible. The easy times are generally summer, when I’m getting plenty of exercise. I’ve tended to blame difficulty in getting exercise for the fact that I gain weight in the winter, but I don’t really have data to show that. It could be other things. Maybe in the dark months I burn fewer calories on incidental movement, such as by fidgeting less. Maybe in the dark months I eat more.

It would only have to be slightly more. One thing the data does make clear is just how few calories it takes to make a large difference. Since May of last year I’ve lost 26 pounds. That corresponds to a daily deficit of just 134 calories. Any little thing—an extra soda, an extra cocktail, an extra beer, an extra snack, an extra serving—would have more than wiped out the deficit. An almost imperceptible change in my amount of fidgeting could easily add or subtract more than 134 calories per day.

It’s pretty much impossible to impose that difference by effort, which is, I think, why diets don’t work. There are extremely complex mechanisms in your body for controlling your weight, which bring to bear powerful forces like appetite and satiety. Making a point of eating less is no more likely to be successful than making a point of breathing less. Losing weight requires changing how you live.

Changes like eating a healthier diet and being less sedentary are likely to lead to weight loss. I used to despair of making such changes. Eating more healthily is tough because (unlike Jackie), I don’t really like vegetables. Being less sedentary was tough because so many hours per day had to be allocated to sedentary activities—sleeping and working.

I’ve improved my diet some. Over the past 20-some years I’ve steadily cut back on the amount of fat and sugar I eat. I’ve also learned to pay more attention to how much food I really want, which lets me get those complex mechanisms for controlling my weight working for me, rather than against me.

Not working at a regular job has helped with being less sedentary—more of my hours are my own. I’ve also made a bit of an attitude adjustment: Before I thought that an hour a day was probably more time than I could afford to devote to exercise; now I figure that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

Last winter I described a fitness regimen that allowed me to maintain a stable weight. Briefly: Three times a week we lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days a week I try to walk for an hour. It worked. My weight was stable. (Specifically, from the beginning of September last year though the end of March this year I lost weight at the rate of 0.03 pounds a week, implying a calorie deficit of 17 calories a day. And that right there is a crystal-clear instance of those powerful mechanisms working. Imagine trying to match your calorie intake and activity level within 17 calories by counting calories. It’d be hopeless.)

Maintaining a stable weight over the winter was key. It was perfectly ordinary that I lost weight last summer and this summer. What was different was that I put two summers of weight loss back-to-back.

That’s pretty much the extent of my plan for the rest of this winter as well—a stable weight, so that I’ll be starting from here next summer.

I don’t have much data on which to base a longer-term plan. The National Institutes of Health suggest that the highest healthy weight for a person my height is 164 pounds. That seems like a good medium-term goal.

Looking slightly beyond that, I observe that Jackie is looking very trim these days. To match her body mass index my weight would want to be around 144-151.

That target is supported by my only reasonably specific recollection of my weight from longer ago: When I was a freshman in college, I got mononucleosis. The combination of nausea and a very sore throat resulted in eating a lot less for several weeks, producing considerable weight loss. I don’t have any records, but I’m pretty sure I remember my weight dropping under 150 (which is to say, probably down to 149¾). Despite having gotten there by being sick, I was by no means wasted away at that weight. In fact, I remember looking pretty good.

So, that’s my weight loss story. I don’t expect to talk about it much beyond this. “Let me tell you how I lost so much weight” is just not a useful or interesting story. I only mention it at all because I’ve been paying close attention to it. It would seem to make my own story incomplete to leave it out.