Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer: sun, warmth and hot dog eating contests

Summer temptation embodied:  the Shake Shack, located right outside my office building

How did this happen so fast.  It seemed like three days ago that the weather was 40F and raining.  Every day.  Now it's Memorial Day Weekend, and the weather could not be any more perfect.  It's summer, and that makes me happy in ways that I could never hope to express.  Everything is fairly perfect except for one nagging concern:  falling off the healthy life wagon.

I know that I'm not alone in the paradox of summer weight gain.  I say paradox because everything about Summer should lend itself to the healthiest of healthy choices.  On it's face, summer brings a life fully lived outdoors, and I hate being inside during the warm months (even writing this blog right now is crimping my sun seeking lifestyle -- and it's only 10 AM).  Summer is about (or should be about) light foods.  Every fruit and vegetable seems to be in their most glorious splendor.  This is the time of farmers' markets and the resplendent produce section of my grocery story (particularly now that a Whole Foods just opened in my town).

I don't have the statistics handy, but I seem to recall hearing that many, many people gain weight during the summer.  I did find one interesting data source from the American Journal of Public Health regarding kids and summer weight gain:

"Dr. Paul von Hippel and his colleagues found that the Weight Gain scenario happens much more often. In fact, the average child gains significantly more weight during the summer than during the school year. This was true for all children, but especially so for overweight children."  Here is the link to a PDF of the original article...  The Effect of School on Overweight in Childhood: Gain in Body Mass Index During the School Year and During Summer Vacation

What is apparently true for kids has historically definitely been true for me:  Summer = weight gain and habit slacking.  The interesting question is why?

Here are the theories that at least explain me:

  • Lack of structure:  I'm guessing that this is the big one for many people, and it definitely is for me.  During the school year, I'm on a pretty standard routine with every day seeming to be heavily scheduled and frequently over-busy.  With summer comes a complete change in the daily rhythm, particularly on weekends but even on weekdays.  The kids are out of school, and they are at sleep-away summer camp for a few weeks in July.  There aren't many weekend sports and practically no weekend schlepping.  As they say, idle hands are the devil's instruments.  Not having a pre-programmed game plan results in wandering around the kitchen at odd intervals coupled with mindless grazing.  
  • Socializing:  summer lends itself to spending quality time with friends at the beach, in the back yard, etc.  All of the sudden everyone who lives in my neighborhood is outside, happy and social. All of the sudden, al fresco dining is out in complete force throughout New York city.  It's hard not to get swept up into the revelry, only to find myself at the wrong end of about 17 bad nutrition choices.  
  • Vacation slothfulness:  a bit cliche, but this is nonetheless a truism for me.    
Now that I look at the list, it looks pretty solvable given a willingness to submit myself to one basic premise:  having a plan.  With that said, here is my Summer action plan:
  • Push exercise a little over the edge:  given the extra socializing, I need to plan to increase the calories burned part of the energy deficit equation.  For me that means keeping up with my existing routine of weights and gym-based cardio and adding on the outdoor activities that I love. In my case, that's primarily cycling and secondarily tennis.  
  • Staying busy on weekends:  starting with the aforementioned outdoor activities, I plan to add a range of chores, projects and excursions/walks to keep me out of the house as much as humanly possible.  Even reading at the local pool has it's benefits as it is a full three miles from my refrigerator.  
  • Staying disciplined during meal time:  just because it's summer does mean that my beloved oatmeal/fruit medley has to hibernate until it gets cold again.  Same goes for my regular lunch.  
  • Get my fruit on:  I am lucky in that I am a person who lives for fruit, all fruit, any fruit.  Keeping a big inventory in the home and at the office will help me stay righteous.  
  • Look forward to light foods:  summer should be an easy time to make good choices, and will be if I stay on the look out for them when I'm out.  For me, this means lots of fish, grilled vegetables and salads with non-fat dressing.  
  • Keep getting weight-in's:  when I'm out of my normal routine, it's more important than ever to man-up and get on the scale on a regular basis so that I have an early intervention system in place should I go off course.  
What are all of you doing to gird yourself during the seductive sunny season?



Monday, May 24, 2010

Stop it! It hurts! Role of pain and suffering in my workouts.

(can never get enough old Far Side's)

I was in yet another deathly painful spinning class this past Sunday morning, and I started to have an existential crisis.  What is with the whole exercise = pain thing?  I am a person who seeks misery?

I was back in the gym this morning, doing my best to put in a good workout on the weights.  While I was going through my routine, I kept hearing loud grunts and whelps from a largely built young dude who was lifting giant quantities of iron.  He is a trainer (and according to his civilian T-shirt, a bodybuilder), who clearly works out a lot harder than I do.  I started wondering if I lifted hard enough as I rarely make grunting or any other variety of animalistic noises.  I started wondering if I should I be upping the workout ante?

This led me to the broader question about exercise:  is it supposed to be a little painful?  Is it really a workout if you aren't a little miserable while you're doing it?

Technically, the easiest way to think about this is by considering the difference between moderate and vigorous intensity exercise.  From an aerobic exercise perspective, the difference is in the heart rate:

  • Moderate intensity:  50% to 70% of maximum heart rate (depends on your age) or 89 bpm to 124 bpm for a 43 year old person (which might be kind of my age)
  • Vigorous intensity:  70% to 85% of maximum heart rate or 124 bpm to 150 bpm for the same 43 year old person
 Some specific examples of the different types:
  • Moderate intensity activities (again, courtesy of CDC):  walking briskly (3 miles per hour or faster, but not race-walking), water aerobics, bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour, tennis (doubles), ballroom dancing, general gardening.  [I will resist the temptation to tease them on their choices.]  
  • Vigorous intensity activities:  race walking, jogging, or running, swimming laps, tennis (singles), aerobic dancing, bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster, jumping rope, heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing), hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack (no, jet-packs don't count)
The physical fitness guidelines (via 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which Weight Watchers supports) are:
  • 2 1/2 hours of moderate intensity activity per week plus two or more days of muscle strengthening activity OR
  • 75 minutes (1 and 1/4 hrs) of vigorous intensity activity per week plus two or more days of muscle strengthening
The same HHS guidelines suggest that doubling this provides event better health benefits.  Yes, they would really like you to get in 300 minutes of moderate activity or 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week.  

Suffice to say, it's not a target you hit by falling out of bed (unless you are a really restless sleeper).  What about me?  I am currently hitting the following:
  • Lifting 4X per week (50 minutes per session):  I'm good here.  
  • Aerobic:  1 spin class (50 min @ vigorous), 2X45 minutes on stationary bike (fairly vigorous, but maybe could be made more challenging) and 2-3X 30 minutes (on lifting days).  That's about 200 minutes at moderate-to-vigorous intensity.  
Therefore, according to Uncle Sam, I'm hitting the guidelines for "Even Greater Health Benefits".  Go me!  So what's the problem?  

Technically, I have no problem per the above guidelines.  Yet I am wanting more and am feeling obligated to want more.  The reasons for this are twofold:  first, I am hopelessly competitive and the idea of people working harder than me in the gym makes me slightly crazy.  Second, I have come to learn that pushing myself in my workouts allows me to gradually move up to new levels of exercise performance.  This in turn feeds my competitiveness.  It's either a virtuous circle or a doom loop depending on your perspective.  

So for health reasons, there is no real reason for me to push it any more, yet I do for competitive reasons. Is this smart?  I think it works for me because it keeps me engaged and keeps me from getting bored.  Having a new goal is a helpful way for me to stay interested.  Being able to lift a little more weight is rewarding and is a yardstick to measure progress.  Upping my intensity on aerobic workouts has a similar effect.  Also, I've never felt anything but great after a horrifically tough workout.  

This logic doesn't seem that different from someone who runs a lot and is constantly trying to improve their distances and times.  I don't love running, so I seek the equivalent process in the gym.  

In summary, I guess this inner monologue that I've just shared would suggest that I should keep pushing myself a little harder.  If you hear me grunting like an elk in Spring, just ignore me.  I will also do my noble best to not become an irritating no-pain-no-gain person. 

What's the role of pain and suffering in your workouts?  



I've been Go Daddied

Through a horrible combination or GoDaddy, my spam filter, and not paying attention to the irritating URL updating process, I've lost my URL to some thieving creep.  Welcome to the web.

For the time being, I'm reverting back to the old school URL:

If you follow me, hopefully your links will be reset automatically.

I will now go privately weep for the loss of my identity.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Competing with the plastic man. I give up!

I was flipping through the May 2nd issue of New York Magazine the other day, and I saw an article that knocked me back.  It was about male mannequins, not a common topic of journalistic investigation.  This article featured a company largely unknown outside of the fashion industry, Rootstein, a British mannequin manufacturer.  This curious company was founded by Adel Rootstein (born in South Africa) who created her first mannequin in 1956 in London.  Rootstein is now the largest, and by their estimation, most prestigious mannequin manufacturer on the planet Earth (and I have absolutely no reason to doubt the veracity of this lofty claim).  

It would not surprise you to know that Rootstein makes male mannequins and has for many years.  What has made a bit of a stir recently has been the launch of a new line of male mannequins apparently named Hommes Nouveau.  What is scary about this new plastic denizen is that he is crazy skinny.  How skinny?  Well, perhaps a brief history of Rootstein mannequin sizes over the years (c/o NY Mag):

(I've been waiting for these sunglasses to come back in style...)
  • 1967, 42” chest, 33” waist 
  • 1983, 41” chest, 31” waist
  • 1994, 38” chest, 28” waist
  • 2010, 35” chest, 27” waist (Hommes Nouveau)
Really 27" waist for a guy?  In one interview with the designer from Rootstein, he indicated that they used teenage boys as models for the new series of plastic men (just like they do for women!).  

Well, maybe I've just missed something, and maybe 27" is not as uncommon as I thought.  Let's explore the data!  Fortunately, the CDC's handy NHANES study has distribution data for male waist circumference.  Here are a few fun facts:
  • Average adult male waist size 1988-94:  37.5"
  • Average adult male waist size 1999-00:  38.9"
  • Average adult female waist size 1988-94:  34.9"
  • Average adult female waist size 1999-00:  36.3"
  • % of adult men in 1999-00 survey with a 27" waist:  about 1%
  • % of adult men in 1999-00 survey with a 33" waist (1967 standard):  15%
  • % of women ages 20-29 with waist size of 27" or below:  less than 10%

Should any of this be a concern?  Consider the following additional statistics on the percentage of eating-disorder sufferers who are men (Source: The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication; The Beauty Myth -- c/o NY Mag): 
  • 1990: 10%
  • Today: 25%
Could be correlation, but maybe there is some causation here as well.  It's hard to peruse the men's lifestyle magazine rack without seeing an unending display of dudes with six pack abs.  A lot of male fashion seems as geared to skinny jeans these days as it is for women, and certainly this is true as the frilly end of the male fashion spectrum.  There is clearly a disconnect between media perception of the ideal male figure and the reality of the adult male figure, which sadly marches in the other direction.  It's not hard to imagine how this makes life all the more difficult for the average guy dealing with a weight issue (not that the average guy subscribes to GQ, I realize).  

So what about me?  Do I look at emaciated male mannequins and beat myself up?  Truth be told, I don't really pay attention to mannequins other than for very occasional amusement/laughs.  I like nice clothes, but I don't worry about whether I can rock a pair of rock star Iggy Pop skinny jeans (well, maybe regular skinnier jeans).  Yet I do think that I hold myself to an unreasonable standard, and I tend to be too self-critical of my swimsuit self (see early post).  Am I influenced by the media in this way?  I would have to say that I am.  I probably get more of it from what I see in TV/film, and the whole Men's Health cover thing bums me out.  And those damned guys on the Jersey Shore?  We can't all look like The Situation (irony intended).  

Is this good for me?  Obviously not.  One could argue that being self-critical gives me an additional reason to stay on program, but deep down, it has to be self-damaging.  Again, to put it all in context, this is not a huge issue for me, and I don't spend massive amounts of time contemplating it.  Yet, I cannot deny that I do think about it.  Which is really pretty sad given that I have been able to get my waist from a 38" to a 34".  I should be nothing be thrilled.  

While I'm at it, one could fairly point out that I'm a guy in his 40's.  Really, what am I trying to prove?  What's next?  Rogaine and a Porsche?  Well, a Porsche would be nice.  

Self-critically yours,

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why do I have negative thoughts about my weight? Particularly, when doggone it, people like me!

The unsung hero of modern American thought, Stuart Smalley *

Well, I definitely seemed to land on a rich topic with the guilt post.  You all gave me a lot to think about, and as always it's helpful to hear how everyone else is experiencing and managing the same terrain.

First, I'd like to make a PSA/reminder:  when I blog about my own weight loss experiences, I am not doing it as a way of giving instruction or expressing any official Weight Watchers position.  We have people much more qualified to do that:  our meeting leaders.  Rather, as noted in my intro copy on top, I use my blog to share how I personally deal with my own weight-related challenges.  It should go without saying, that my head is not always on straight, and I've got a lot of the same crummy hang-ups shared by so many others.  It's probably a judgement call for me to share my own warts given my role, but it also seems that being honest is a good way to engage in important discussions.  That approach is VERY Weight Watchers.  So for the benefit of full clarity, I have no intention of launching the sale of the Guilt-o-lator on late night TV infomercials.  To be clear, the Guilt-o-lator is a million miles away from ever being a sanctioned Weight Watchers device.

While I'm at it, how about a second PSA.  Please don't ever put your head in the oven because you had a bad week.  It's just not safe.

PSA's aside, all of your comments on dealing with negative emotions made me think more about negative emotions.  Thanks for that (irony intended here).

I spent some more time thinking of how dark thoughts impact me and my efforts to maintain my weight and healthy(er) lifestyle.  They don't happen all the time or even that often.  Most times, I feel good and proud about what I have been able to do in steering my life in a much healthier direction.  Yet, like most of us (I think), I have my own inventory of evil spirits that periodically come to torment my otherwise happy mind:

The freak-out:  This usually starts with the following sequence of events:

  1. I spend a week (or two) where I am slacking off on sticking to my food plan, maybe instigated by too much socializing and eating out.  During this time, I am absolutely avoiding the scale.  
  2. Typically on a Saturday or Sunday, I will weigh myself thinking/hoping that maybe I really haven't gained any weight even though I logically know that I probably have.  
  3. That hideous troll, known as the scale, punches my solar plexus and knocks the wind out of me when it delivers the dreaded digital readout evidencing my massive personal failure.  
  4. I completely lose my mind and start pacing and storming thinking the worst possible thoughts about myself.  "I am such an idiot!"  "How did I let this happen?"  "What the h*ll is wrong with me?"  
  5. I then quickly move to a series of dramatic resolutions such as "I am so getting my rear on plan this week!"  "Enough is enough!" "I will never let this happen again!" etc.  
What's good about this?  I definitely course correct and regain my focus.  

What's bad about this?  Lots of things.  Why can't I course correct without the step of chewing myself up and out?  It's not like this has never happened before, and it's not as though I wasn't able to dust myself off and get back on track.  Why all the drama? Why all the stress?   

Malaise.  This is usually the feeling prior to the Freakout above.  
  1. This usually starts with the non-specific feeling that I am slipping.  Not like a massive swan dive into a swimming pool of Cheetos.  More like little, pernicious choices creeping up on otherwise healthy days.  Maybe a bit of after dinner grazing.  Maybe cutting the workout a little short.  Maybe cleaning my plate to an unnatural level of spotlessness.  
  2. I start to get the nagging feeling like my regimen is slipping away.  It's more of a feeling of uneasiness than rampant stress.  Yet it quietly weighs on me.  
  3. I might have fleeting thoughts about letting myself slip into even worse habits.  I really would like to start a new diet of gigantic breakfast burritos.  A pint of Ben & Jerry's might be nice.  Maybe I don't have to wake up every morning so early to workout.  It might be nice to sleep in more. 
What's good about this?  When I get this feeling, at least I know something isn't quite right.  I've experienced it enough times to know that I am heading toward something not good.  It's kind of like getting used to know what the river patterns look like right before the water fall.  And I know that I definitely don't want to pack myself into a barrel and take a leap down the Niagara falls of gluttony.  

What's bad about this?  Feeling malaise is a really crummy way to spend quality time in my life.  Why not get better at identifying those nasty little habits before they start accumulating.  More mindfulness in the moment would be much more constructive than relying on the dull and non-specific feeling that I am somehow screwing up.  

Hating the old body.  

OK, this is a tough topic that probably deserves it's own post(s).  Maybe by way of preview, this is the well worn practice of staring in the mirror and looking for imperfections, lumps and other physical examples that I am not a completely perfect profile of healthy life. Yes, men do this too (at least this one does).  I think I do this because I know that I'm indulging some bad habits, and so I look for evidence to confirm the fact that I am screwing up.  When I can get the mirror to confirm my own worst fears (never mind how massively I might be distorting such imperfections in mind), I let myself jump into a little whirlpool of yet more self-abuse.
    What's good about this?  Nothing really.  

    What's bad about this?  Everything.  I don't think I need to go into the myriad of reasons why negative body image is a really crummy phenomena.  At it's worst, it leads to eating disorders, depression, and a million other bad things.  In a sad example of increasing gender neutrality, negative body image is no longer the exclusive domain of women, but men as well (to be discussed in a future post).  

    So what to do with all of these negative emotions?  

    First, recognize that they happen.  Negative emotions are a fact of life.  They happen, and I cannot ignore them or pretend they aren't there by saying I'm somehow above them.  If anything, I need to get better at recognizing them more quickly rather than letting them quietly accumulate in my mind like so many dark clouds.  

    Second, when they do show up, I need to have the presence of mind to reframe them.  In truth, like many people, I have always been able to use negative emotions (stress, anxiety, anger, righteous indignation, guilt, etc.) to help me achieve goals.  However, I have slowly come to the point of view that nothing good truly comes from relying on negative emotions to move forward and improve.  They work in the short term, but not in the long term (at least not for me).  Therefore, the trick for me is to recognize them, and then perform a little alchemy and turn them into a more positive and optimistic intent.  

    An example might go like this.  Old Me:  "I completely screwed up this week, and I'm up five pounds.  I am a lowly person.  I deserve to be pelted with rocks and garbage.  I shall flog myself furiously with a Cat o' nine tails in the form of a spartan healthy meal regimen.  That will show me."  New Me might say:  "Well, that wasn't the smartest way to spend last week.  I know I feel better when I'm eating healthily/moderately and exercising lots.  Therefore if I will start making those better choices, and I can look forward to feeling great."    

    It's hard to argue against the point of view that the suffocating blankets of negative emotions can make weight management and healthy life a miserable and sometimes destructive process.  The choice to live in a healthy way is a happy one.  Why not treat it that way.  

    One last point on negative emotions.  Even though I know they aren't very helpful and that I'd like to have less of them, dark thoughts will happen.  No point beating myself up when they do.  Because really, that would be a double negative, which is a grammatical no-no.  

    In the words of a world's most influential philosopher:  "I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am attractive person. I am fun to be with."  You were right Stuart Smalley!*  



    * For those who have no idea who Stuart Smalley is, I'm sorry for the confusing cultural reference.  Please see early 1990's Saturday Night Live starring current US Senator Al Franken.  Sadly, all of the old Stuart Smalley clips have mysteriously vanished from the Internet.  

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Of sin, guilt, redemption and what I ate over the weekend (not necessarily in that order)

    Context for this weekend:  My wife was out of town enjoying a girl's weekend in DC, so I was left to my own devices (other than the usual shuttling around of my two daughters).  All choices were mine and mine alone (as it should be!).  So from a healthy life perspective, can I be trusted to make decisions for myself?  When I make decisions, can I handle the moral repercussions?

    I was thinking about all of this while reading the Sunday NY Times Magazine, which had a fascinating article about people who track everything in their life with analysis.  They go way beyond diet and exercise, including variables such as mood, number of times they pick their nose, etc.  It was a good reminder to use my recently invented Guilt-o-lator which tracks my guilt levels at different points in time.  It's still a prototype model that is available only in Japan (or, more accurately, only available in my imagination).

    BTW, for those interested, here is the article referenced above...

    So what were the results as the weekend progressed?

    Friday:  I got home a little bit early so I could see my younger daughter give her presentation on Walt Disney (the nice version, not the guy from the McCarthy hearings).  Afterwards, I was working from home.  So how did it go:

    Friday afternoon:  little bit of grazing, but I focused on beef jerky (still loving it) and an apple.

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  low

    Friday night:  sushi.  Good news:  sashimi.  Not so good news:  spicy tuna.

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  lowish (might have been higher, but it's a Friday night and I deserve a break)

    Saturday workout:  lifted weights (had a great workout)

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  erased any bad feelings about spicy tuna

    Saturday breakfast:  Special K, banana, 0 fat Greek yogurt, coffee

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  very low (except for the bite I took from my daughter's donut -- but it was only 1 bite)

    Saturday lunch:  PB&J (on low cal bread), cottage cheese

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  low

    Saturday afternoon:  began grazing (couldn't tell you exactly what I ate, but hummus & crackers were in the mix)

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  rising

    Saturday pre-dinner:  my similarly stranded neighbor (his DSW was at a reunion) came over w/ his four kids for a BBQ.  Started with snacks (cheese, salami, crackers) and beer (Bud Select 55 -- 1 POINTS value per pop/nice!).

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  rising faster, definitely in the yellow zone

    Saturday dinner:  1/2 pound burger + bun, mayonnaise infused salad stuff, grilled vegetables

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  in the red zone

    After dinner:  kids up to bed, and I'm by myself.  What to do?  Why not have a glass of wine and the rest of the ice cream they didn't eat?

    Guilt-o-lator reading (upon waking up next AM):  critical

    Sunday AM exercise:  death-by-spinning (seriously, I wonder how many people actually self-combust on their bike when in their 3rd anaerobic cycle).

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  back to the red/yellow zone

    Sunday breakfast/lunch:  see Saturday

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  edging back to the lower side of yellow

    Sunday dinner:  grilled scallops and raw bar

    Guilt-o-lator reading:  back to the green zone

    Overall, Saturday night was far from a brilliant lifestyle performance, but I sandwiched my sin with some more angelic choices before and after.  I felt fairly well redeemed by the end of the weekend, and I'm fairly sure no permanent damage was done.

    Bigger question:  is using the guilt-o-lator a good idea?  Logically, I would say that guilt can be a dangerous weapon in evaluating choices that have already been made.  It seems that I should not be dumping negative, self-flagellating thoughts on myself as a general matter of course.  That said, thinking about how I felt about my choices actually helped me course correct fairly quickly.  For example, at dinner Sunday night I turned down the bread basket.  I suspect that feeling a little bad about the Saturday binge helped fortify my defenses for the next day.

    I may keep the guilt-o-lator around a little bit longer, and see if it is helpful or whether it permanently damages my soul and mental health.

    What is your take on guilt?  And be honest!