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.

Longest run in years

We had a few days of mild weather this past week, giving me a chance to get some outdoor exercise. I took advantage by running almost 6 miles on Monday. That’s my longest run in years.

Back in 2004, I ran 8 miles as my last long run before running the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo trail race. But since 2008, which is as far back as my current exercise log goes, this run (5.83 miles in 1:11:35) is my longest.

I started at the Savoy Rec Center after taiji class, and ran all the way home. Here’s the route:

It was probably a bit further than I should have run. It left my knees kind of sore the next day. I’d gone 4.6 miles on Saturday—a much more reasonable distance for my current abilities, and probably part of the reason Monday’s 5.83 was too much. But knowing that I might well not get another chance to run outdoors for months, I couldn’t resist the urge to overdo it.

I never had any particular interest in extreme endurance runs. (I had no ambition to run a marathon, for example.) I ran for two reasons:

  1. Efficiency—I wanted to get enough exercise to develop and maintain a basic level of fitness with the least amount of time, effort, and money devoted to the effort.
  2. Capability—I wanted to develop and maintain the ability to be able to run if it was necessary.

Both those goals are easily satisfied with a weekly mileage of 10 to 12 miles—a long run of 5 or 6 miles together with two or three runs in the 2 to 3 mile range—which is where I’m at right now.

There’s certainly no reason to run further for health. If I wanted to devote extra time and effort to improving my health there are a hundred better things to do (starting with eating better, but including things like improving flexibility and core strength). Running more is probably a negative for health—my chance of injury just goes up from here. The only thing running further would improve is my ability to run further.

Even knowing all that, I find that I always want to run a little further. Once I’ve run five miles, I want to run six. Once I’ve run six, I want to run seven. I hesitate to follow that progression to its logical conclusion. And yet . . . .

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.

An open-ended run

Yesterday, I went on my first open-ended run of the season.

On earlier runs, I pretty much knew how far I was going to go and what route I’d follow. Occasionally there’d be a bit of room for variation—I might think, “If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll add a second lap around Kaufman Lake,” or “Maybe I’ll add the leg out to Bradley and back.” But by and large, I knew to within a few tenths of a mile how far I’d run before I took my first step.

The reason was that every run would take me a large fraction of as far as I could run. There was no chance I’d just decide on a whim to go a few miles further, because I couldn’t run a few miles further.

So, it was a great treat yesterday, to head out for a run with only a general idea of where I’d be running, and with no specific plan how far I’d go.

I knew I’d run halfway down O’Malley’s Alley (the short bit of rail trail that I call McNalley’s Alley), and then cut over into the neighborhood south of there. But I’d had only a vague, somewhat aspirational notion that I’d continue on as far as the trail through Robeson Park. But I knew that the trail would cross several different roads, and that I’d be able to head for home on any one of them, if I decided that I’d run as far as made sense.

In the end, I headed home when I got to Crescent. On some future run, I’ll push on as far as Mattis, and maybe continue on down the Simon trail before heading home.

This run, according to my GPS thingy, came to 4.84 miles, which I ran in 54:15, for an average pace of a bit over 11 minutes per mile. And it was a great run. My feet didn’t hurt, nor did my ankles, knees, hips, or any other bits. I did get pretty tired by the end, but not over-tired. In fact, after a bit of a rest and rehydration, I had enough energy to bicycle 9 miles, lift weights, and do an hour of taiji. (The lifting, I must admit, was a rather feeble effort.)

At over 50 minutes, it was definitely a long-enough endurance effort to produce significant levels of endocannabinoids, which I presume is the reason that my memory of the run is mainly just a strong sense that I was having fun and feeling good. There are only a few spots where specific details are sharp and clear—the spot where I had to back up and run on the grass next to the trail, to avoid a muddy patch, the spot where I thought, “There’s a hill here? How did I not know there was a hill here?” and the spot where I slowed to a walk so I could look back over my shoulder and read a street sign, so I’d be able to make a map.

Speaking of which, here’s a map of the run:

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.

Brain chemicals and artist’s dates

In my family, “brain chemicals” is the shorthand term for unmotivated negative feelings. That is, when you’re feeling sad because something bad happened, that’s normal, but when you’re feeling sad for no particular reason, that’s brain chemicals. (On the theory that you’ve probably got a chemical imbalance or something, and that you should probably see a doctor about it when you’ve got the time.) The same applies to anger, frustration, anxiety, etc.

I mention this because I often suffer from brain chemicals, especially this time of year, when the days get short and dark and cold.

I’m actually doing pretty well this year. I’m doing a bunch of things that help. I’m taking my vitamin D. I’m trying to get outdoors for some actual sunlight, any day that there is any. I’m getting my exercise in. (For many months now, Jackie and I have been lifting weights three times a week and doing an hour of taiji three times a week. I’m trying to get in an hour of walking and at least a few minutes of additional taiji on the other days of the week.) I’m being productive. I’m getting enough sleep.

Still, despite all that, brain chemicals seemed to be setting in yesterday. I was feeling over-busy, under-accomplished, and frustrated. So, I went to level two in the fight against brain chemicals, and scheduled an artist’s date.

I think of it as a date with my muse. A proper artist’s date involves going somewhere and spending time with something that spurs creativity. That could be almost anything, and if I did them more often (and I really should) I’d probably have to broaden the range of places that I go. But I don’t do them very often, so I can usually get away with taking my muse to the same few places.

I started at the Krannert Art Center. Much of their exhibit space today was full of stuff that I had little interest in, but outside the museum proper there’s a changing exhibit of student work that’s often more interesting than the work in the museum itself. Today it had the work of school children. There were a lot of interesting ideas—for example, a low passageway made of cardboard where kids who’d studied ancient cave paintings had painted their own—even if only a few of the actual pieces spoke to me.

Connected to the museum is the school of design building. They often have some student work on display in the hallway, and I rather liked a small group of pieces by students who had apparently had the assignment to create a brand identity for themselves. They produced the same elements that a brand identity package from a marketing firm would provide—a name and logo (provided in a couple of sizes and formats, in both color and black & white), together with some key terms and images that could go into a branded ad campaign.

It was everything an artist’s date needs to be—a reminder that creativity is everywhere, a reminder that there can be joy in art of all sorts.

I was already feeling better today, and expect that I’ll feel even better tomorrow.

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.