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.

Three miles on the dread mill

I hate running on treadmills. I also dislike running outdoors in the cold. The result has been that, while I may get into pretty good shape in the summer, I always lose that fitness over the winter, because I don’t run.

This year, I’m trying again to run on the treadmill. This year, I’m trying with podcasts.

I don’t listen to my iPod when I run outdoors. Running outdoors is wonderful, and I want to experience it full. Running on a treadmill is awful, and I want to pretend it isn’t happening.

I’ve had to make a second change to make this work: I’m going to the fitness center by myself.

Before, I tried to fit my workouts into the joint visit to the fitness center that I make with Jackie to do our lifting. That didn’t work. Jackie was willing to walk on her treadmill while I ran on mine, but she wanted us to be walking together. Since I was trying to pretend that I had slipped into some sort of lacuna in the space-time continuum, I was an unsatisfactory companion. Jackie was also willing to carry on with her workout while I ran, but there’s no reasonable way for her to stretch her workout to last 20 minutes longer, which is only barely enough time for me to get a reasonable run in.

So far, the scheme is working okay. For three weeks now, at least twice a week, we’ve gone to the fitness center for our lifting, then gone to taiji, after which I’ve gone back to the fitness center to run on the treadmill. The first couple of runs were kind of shaky, but I’d gotten them up over 2 miles last week, and today I ran 3 miles.

That’s long enough, I think. My long runs outdoors had gotten up over 5 miles, but my plan for the winter isn’t to boost my endurance, it’s just to preserve it. If I can run 5–7 miles a week, I think I can accomplish that. A single 3-mile run each week, combined with one or two 2-mile runs, will do the trick.

The podcast thing is working. My plan had been fiction, and I’ve listened to an Escape Pod story and to one on the Small Beer Press podcast. The problem with fiction is that it takes a while to get wrapped up in the story, and every instant that I’m not immersed in the story is an eternity of actually experiencing the fact that I’m running on a treadmill. Music works okay. News podcasts are okay, too.

Once, when Jackie and I were heading into the fitness center, back before we’d given up on treadmill exercise together, I asked her on our way in the door, “Are you ready to face the satanic mills?”

“At least they aren’t dark,” Jackie replied.

“It’s true,” I admitted. “They are well-lit.”

They’re still well-lit. They’re still satanic. But they’re pretty tolerable, if you’ve got a story to listen to.

Physical benefits of standing meditation

Standing meditation is just like sitting meditation, except you do it standing up. (It almost seems topical right now, when so many people are talking about working at standing desks, which is similarly just like working at a regular desk, except standing up.)

I’ve been doing at least a little meditation pretty regularly for three years now, as my taiji instructor spends some time in each class meditating. I have yet to perceive any of the mental benefits that are supposed to flow from meditating. Perhaps I’m just doing it wrong.

The physical benefits, on the other hand, have been remarkable.

Before I started doing standing meditation, I’d gotten a little wary of excessive standing. I’d struggled a bit with plantar fasciitis, and had eventually come up with a multi-pronged approach that included a pair of slip-on birkenstocks that I used as slippers, supportive shoes in general, and limiting the amount of time I spent standing. Together, those tactics had served to keep the plantar fasciitis at bay, without quite curing it.

In the past three years, since I started doing taiji, something has completely cured the plantar fasciitis. Maybe it was the taiji, rather than the standing. Maybe it was the running, walking, and other exercise I’ve gotten. I’ve lost some weight, and that’s bound to have helped. But I’m inclined to credit the standing with a good bit of it.

I think this is true, even though I think I was also right to be careful about excessive standing, because standing meditation is not just standing. Standing meditation is standing with focus. Our instructor emphasizes that we’re not thinking about anything in particular, nor are we doing anything in particular (except standing), but we’re ready. We’re actively ready for whatever happens.

Standing with this sort of intention is very different from standing while doing something else. While we’re standing, we making an explicit effort to identify and relax any muscles that we’re using beyond the minimum set needed to keep us upright. I doubt if a cashier who has to stand for an eight-hour shift would get similar benefits.

Maybe I’ll eventually get some of the other supposed benefits of meditation. In the meantime, I’m happy to settle for just this one.

Local taiji blog

The local taiji group that I practice with, Community Tai Chi, recently opened up its formerly closed (password protected) Community Tai Chi student blog.

If you’re local, and you’re interested in studying taiji, the site and the blog together give you a very good idea of what you’d be studying if you studied with us. At the top of the blog are a series of posts with links to videos of the various movements in the 8-movement form we teach beginners (reposted so that they appear in order). Further down is a long post with links to videos of the 24-movement form that the more advanced class is working on (the first 24 of the Chen-style 48 movement form). Further down yet are some older posts with links to taiji resources various other places (including a couple that link back here, to some of my taiji posts).

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Doing Taiji backwards

The Taiji form that we’re learning is handed. That is, many of the moves are not symmetrical left versus right. That seemed odd to me. In Aikido, each move has a left version and a right version and we always learned them both ways. My instructor says that some schools of Taiji do learn all asymmetrical moves as both left- and right- handed, but that most, including the version he’d learned, do not.

He told us a while ago that he’d added some mirror-image work to his own practice, and we even did a little bit in class. Many of the students resisted this, and we only did it a couple of times. Still, doing a mirror-image of the form seems like an obvious win to me, so I’ve just recently started to do so in my own practice.

What’s most interesting to me so far is the way doing mirror-image work makes me a beginner again. Not that my study of Taiji is at all advanced, but I had progressed beyond beginner—until this.

It’s a very different sort of being a beginner. When I was learning this form the first time, the hard part was simply learning how the moves went. In the time it took to learn what I was supposed to do, I worked through my coordination issues for executing the move. Doing the moves backwards, my experience is quite otherwise. I know how the move is supposed to go, but executing it backwards requires developing a whole new set of muscle memories. The practice exposes a part of the learning experience that was largely masked before—hidden by not knowing quite what I was supposed to do.

The whole thing is interesting enough that I’m sure I’m going to want to repeat this exercise on the long form, once I’ve gotten reasonably good at doing our short (9-movement) form backwards. I’m also going to have to think about other variations that might let me rediscover being a beginner in other ways.

The obvious varient would be to reverse the form in time—do it from the end back to the beginning. I’m not quite sure what the reverse of the kicks and stomps would be, but for the rest of it, working each form backwards would be straightforward enough. It’d certainly make me a beginner again.

Taiji, weight shifting, and intention

One of the practices that we do in our Taiji class is a moving qigong exercise with a Taiji stick where we bring one end of the stick toward us, press that end down and point it down toward a spot outside the foot on that side.

We’d long done two versions of that exercise, one where we just shift some of our weight to that foot, and another where we stand on that foot (lifting the other and moving it close to the foot we’re standing on). We usually start with the former and then go on to the latter after a few repetitions.

In a class last week, though, one of the instructors called out the switch differently, prompting an interesting insight into weight shifting.

The instructor just said something like, “Now shift all your weight to that foot.”

I initially thought that this was some new, intermediate version of the exercise, so I was shifting all my weight, but without actually lifting the other foot.

Right away, I noticed that the instructors weren’t doing some new version, they had just described it differently, so I went ahead and lifted my foot—but only after having shifted all my weight to the foot I was going to be standing on. What a difference! This was obviously what I should have been doing all along.

Comparing the experiences, it was clear that I hadn’t been getting the weight shift properly established before trying to lift the other foot. Of course, once you pick up one foot all your weight is on the other foot, so the result (assuming you don’t fall down) ends up being the same. But the process is much easier and more comfortable if I make a point of getting the weight shifting completed and then raising the foot only after it is no longer supporting any weight.

It’s giving me some interesting insights into intention. I’m comparing the weight shifts I do in other activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. I’m sure there’s more to learn here.