Sunday, February 27, 2011

Life lessons from skiing. Loosening the coils of my inner spring.

It's Sunday morning, and I just got in from my family ski vacation late last night.  The vacation was fantastic, and the quality time with family and friends was superb.  That said, I have to admit that I always look forward to getting back into my regular, if not somewhat OCD, routines.

From a health perspective, I would say that the vacation was a solid performance on the personal responsibility front.  As planned, I ate a pretty healthy breakfast every day, even on the flights to and from Utah.  I was fairly responsible for lunch, and as planned, I lightened up for dinner.  I didn't really eat much, if any, junk during non-meal time.  I also kept it pretty reasonable in terms of being non-obsessive and even allowing myself indulgences such as dessert and (horrors!) non-light beer.  I know, what a wild and crazy guy!  I had fun, and I'm not returning feeling like a horribly nasty person.

Wait.  This was a ski trip, right?  Yes it was.  Utah got absolutely dumped with snow last week, putting on roughly four feet over an eight day period.  For the powder freaks (not me), it was manna.  For my part, I got on the slopes five of the six available days.  I spent one day off nursing a head cold and cranking out some accumulated procrastination work.  It was good exercise, and it was great to be outdoors, head cold or not.

As I noted on my earlier post, I am still a pretty inexperienced skier with this being my sixth year out on a mountain for any appreciable time.  It's not easy to pick up this sport at my older age (my rationalization, anyway), and I only get in one week per year.  As a result, I am not what anyone would call an effortless and proficient slope god.

In an effort to try to elevate to a higher level of competency, I did what I always do.  I looked for professional help, and I secured the services of a ski instructor.  I told him my goal and wish was to simply be able to cruise down the blues and double blus without a care in the world.  It was through the process of trying to improve my skiing game that I learned a little more about myself.

I was pretty envious as I watched men and women of all ages effortlessly swooping down the mountain, barely moving their bodies.  It was as if they were born with skis attached to their limbs.  They were able to ski the way I was able to ride a bike -- without even thinking about it.  Me?  I approached skiing with the intensity of an astronaut attempting to land on the moon for the very frist time.  Every muscle was tensed and on high alert.  I was always fully aware of the exact instructions being sent to my left and my right ankles.  Each new turn was a completely new thought process.  I would wrench my skis each time thinking that there was no possible way that they would respond and I would be sent barreling off a cliff into an endless abyss.  As far as my stance goes, I was tightly hunched over my skis, convinced that if I pulled myself up, I would fall over backwards.

My instructor watched me and said, "you must get really tired when you ski."  It's true, my quads would have a nice burn on every steep(ish) run.  He tried to convince me that I was relying too much on my muscles rather than my skeletal structure resulting in a massively inefficient and energy intensive process.  Sadly, my first reaction was:  awesome, more Activity Points!  Regardless of my obsessive want for calorie burn, I was there to learn.  I reluctantly started to stand up more and started using more of my ankles and knees to keep my torso pointed down the hill.  It was easier and it worked.  Go figure.

Next came the skis.  My default approach to turning was to treat each turn like a hockey stop, literally pulling my skis up so I could swing the tails out.  My instructor's next course of business was to get me to start using the tips of my skis to turn rather than the tails (it seems so obviously to write it, less so to do it).  He encouraged me to relax and to take more patient turns, letting the skis do the the work.  What do you know?  That worked too!  I'm not going to say that I was graceful by the end, but I looked less like a broken erector set snow plowing down the mountain.

I have to admit that I was pretty hard on myself for not being a better skier.  My instructor then reminded me that he had been skiing since he was 18 months old.  It was natural to him.  Me?  I was firmly stuck in my head and was completely over-thinking the entire process.  My natural instinct was to dig in harder, edge more aggressively, and use every possible muscle I could find to overpower the process.  Therein lies the story of me.

I don't even want to think about
what my K is ...
Most people who know me would fairly describe me as a pretty tightly wound and intense person (please stop snickering!), particularly when I'm immersed in what I consider to be an intense activity.  I naturally obsess and stress.  It's part of what has allowed me to achieve the things I have achieved.  However, I have increasingly recognized that it's also a bit excessive and unnecessary.

I will admit to the fact that I have taken the same kind of intensity and anxiety into my effort to become a healthier person on the Weight Watchers program.  I will admit to treating each meal selection process to the same kind of hyper-intense thinking that I put into each turn of my skis.  This approach was helpful to helping me avoid from wiping out on the mountain as well as from wiping out on the dinner table.  However, it's frankly exhausting and not really necessary anymore.  Eating healthily and exercising regularly need not be an olympic sporting event.  For me, I always run the risk of getting too much into my own head in staying on program.

I am now entering my third year of maintenance.  My goal for myself is for this process to become increasingly effortless and natural, not a high wire act.  With this in mind, I will seek to enter this new week with a calm resolve to simply track my PointsPlus values and to hit the gym.  I will simply make common sense and healthy food choices, and I will try to be mindful of mindless eating.  Simple.  Easy.  Common sense.  Exhale.

Of course, I second guess myself in healthy life for the same reason I second guess myself in skiing.  I have only been living this way for the past five to ten years just as I have only been skiing for the past six.  I didn't put on my first pair of skis at 18 months, nor have I lived healthily since leaving the nest.  Therefore, my tendency has been to assume a spectacular wipeout in both eating and in skiing, even though deep down I knew that I could calmly avoid it in either.

My ski instructors last words to me were this:  "You know how to ski and you know what to do.  Get out of your head, and start enjoying yourself."  Good advice for skiing.  Good advice for living.



Sunday, February 13, 2011

I need a vacation! I also need to not gain weight...

After all of the ensuing debate following last week's post, I'm kind of bushed.  I think I have now figured out why most CEO's don't write blogs where people can post and comment at will(!).  That said, it is more than worth the occasional bloody nose so I can have a whole new way (in addition to going to meetings) to stay grounded on what's going on out there.  In any case, I really do appreciate the feedback, both the better and the less better.

I've got one more busy week in front of me with a quarterly earnings release, a trip to visit some meetings in Baltimore, and a bunch of other stuff.  As of Friday night, I rush home to finish packing so I can take off with my sweet, understanding family for some quality non-work time.

I'm rolling up to my second year anniversary as a Lifetime member in good standing.  I'm in a very good place, and maintenance has never felt better.  The 3 PM apple-snack trick has been just one example of my happy food place.  It's not as though I haven't had my lifestyle challenges.  The Superbowl last Sunday was a particularly brutal example of how to be a thousand miles away from on-plan utopia.  Who knew that I would love pimento cheese dip quite so much?

If I have one particular habit that I really owe my maintenance success to, it is clearly exercise.  Food lapses come and go, but exercise has been my constant OP buddy.  I've been getting at least an hour in for six, and sometimes seven, days per week now for as long as I can remember.  At this point, it really is just habit.  I would characterize my workout frequency more as an example of my captivity to ingrained routine than to any lofty notion of discipline.  When I don't get my workout in, I just feel kind of off.  It's kind of like walking out of the house with a shoe missing (not that this doesn't happen).

I have been able to form my religious Rube Goldberg workout routine because I am largely in control of my environment.  I can almost always find a way to navigate to a weight room for my four day lifting split.  Finding a piece of cardio equipment is usually a pretty manageable task.  I am pretty good at picking hotels that either have a decent gym or are located close to one that allows me to buy a day pass.

All this comes to a crashing halt next week, and I will have to rely on all different exercise options.  We're going skiing.

Really hoping I don't end up like this...
I didn't even start skiing until about five years ago as I was entering my fortieth year.    Now we go once per year for a week, enough for me to get a little better each year.  Learning to ski at an older age is not for the feint of heart, particularly for those of us who do not cherish the idea of embracing a tree at high speed. You would be hard pressed to identify anyone else on the mountain who looks quite as tense and un-fluid as yours truly.  The best visual I can give you is that of a person with terrible constipation wearing restrictive knee and back braces.

So do I find skiing fun?  I think so, but I cannot be totally sure.  I am more than a little envious of those people who can effortlessly glide and swoop down the slopes without a care in the world.  For example, my kids.  It is an exercise is complete humility for a so-called industry leader executive-guy to be routinely humbled by a 10 year old little girl.  She doesn't actively dress me down with insults and taunts, but it's almost more sad that she periodically has to wait patiently for me to catch-up with nothing but a sweet smile on her face.

Do I enjoy skiing?  Yes.  I like trying to get better at it each year, and it's definitely a worthy challenge.  I also appreciate the fact that it's a great workout.  Terrible and risk adverse skiers like myself get an exercise advantage over all of you pros.  Why?  Because we have to take three to four times as many turns to get down a slope.  That's work.

This gets me to the point of my post.  I have ever increasingly become a big fan of active vacations.  Sitting on a lounge chair with a frozen drink keeps me happy for about two, maybe three days, and then I start climbing the walls.  I love a vacation where I can hardly stay up past 8 PM because I am so physically wrecked.  So no, there will be no weight room for me for the next week, and there will be no two wheeled vehicles.  Yet, I have no doubt that I will have more than enough AP's to keep me going in good health.

From an eating perspective, I will follow my usual vacation plan:  keep breakfast healthy and OP, stay sane for lunch, and let it hang loose a bit more for dinner.

I'm not sure if I will get back to post another one of these before I get back, but I will be thinking of all of you!!!



Sunday, February 6, 2011

2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans now out in the wild. The recommendations look curiously familiar...

Last week the US government through a joint effort between HHS and USDA published the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).  They are required by law to update these guidelines every five years.  This is a huge effort that has a lot of very smart and knowledgable people combing over mountains of scientific studies using a method called systematic evidence-based review methodology to answer roughly 180 scientific questions related to the way we should eat.  They have now published the results of this, which can be found on their website (  For those curious about such things, it is actually a pretty easy and interesting read, and it is a nice place to find a lot of fun and interesting facts and analysis, all nicely collected and collated.

The primary audience for the DGA is professionals that use the recommendations to help shape policy, nutrition programs and educational materials.  The Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion (CNPP), the group that publishes the DGA, will at some point also put out some materials intended for the consumer audience (i.e., all of us).  This is where the famous food pyramid first came on the scene in 1992, though the USDA published its first food guide in 1917.  The first Dietary Guidelines were published in 1980.

I have a vague recollection of being a teenager and hearing about such recommendations.  I recall something about eating so-many cereals and grains and that many fishes and meats and X fruits and vegetables and maybe not quite so many sugars and fats.  I suppose that many of these guidelines were somehow incorporated into the nutritional education I vaguely recall seeing in school from time-to-time.  Nonetheless, I did grow up with a notion that somewhere out there was an official guide on the correct way to eat.  In truth, I think it would be hard for me to say that any of this had a huge influence on what I should eat other than the very clear message that fat was bad.

Over the years, there have been a number of iterations on the pyramid.  In truth, I personally found the visual somewhat confusing.  The stuff at the top of the pyramid was foods to restrict, but isn't the top of the pyramid supposed to be awesome stuff (i.e., the pinnacle of food)?  Further, I could not for the life of me ever remember what was in those pyramid bands.  Nor could I remember how much of what kinds of food I was supposed to eat.  Frankly, the whole thing was kind of confusing for me, so I never paid it much personal attention.

According to some, it's a good thing I didn't pay too close attention as the food pyramid has come under fire from various places over the years.  It was perceived as being too heavily focused against fat while ignoring the impact of excessive carbohydrates.  Nutritional science is a very political and controversial topic area capable of spurring brawls among academics, journalists, politicians and food companies.

So lo and behold, we now have new Dietary Guidelines.  So what's in them?  Mostly, common sense, and that is a good and welcome addition.  The 2010 DGA can be summarized as having two primary recommendations:

  1. Maintain calorie balance over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight.  Translation:  don't eat too much and exercise more to lose weight and sustain the losses.  
  2. Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.  Translation:  eat more food that is high in nutrients and low in calorie density.  Translation of translation:  eat mostly food that's good for you.  
The DGA then goes on to give a summary of foods to limit, mostly recommending that we limit sodium and only use a small portion of our calories on foods with added sugars and fats (i.e., junk food).  More interesting to me was their summary of foods to focus on.  For the latter, here are their guidelines (their words, not mine):
  • Increase vegetable and fruit intake. 
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas. 
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains. 
  • Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages. 
  • Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. 
  • Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry. 
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils. 
  • Use oils to replace solid fats where possible. 
  • Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products. 
One simple mnemonic they have already introduced is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.  Frankly, I am hoping they stay with the visual of the plate rather than the pyramid as it seems much more intuitive and easy to remember.  

Even in it's simplified form, along with any good visuals that they might introduce, it's one thing to know what we should eat.  It's quite another to put it into action.  Therefore, the 2010 DGA finally goes on to encourage people to put into place eating patterns that reinforce all of the above guidelines.  

What if there was a system that used the principle of budgeting and keeping count in a way that supported the kinds of healthy choices by promoted by the 2010 DGA?  Such a system might use some form of simple measure that allowed us to know how much we were eating and stick to a budget each day.  It would further use a currency that rewarded healthy choices.  It would also allow for indulgences, but it would help us to make more informed choices by making them a little more expensive.  It might even get behind the half-your-plate of veggies & fruits by assigning a value of Zero to fruits and non-starchy vegetables.  In summary, said system that would promote vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and low fat dairy, but do so in a fairly simple and straight forward way.  

Sound like a system we know?  It's PointsPlus.  As I read through the 2010 DGA, I realized that I've basically been eating this way even more since I started following the new program.  

I know this post sounds horribly self-congratulatory, but I can't help it.  I'm flat out proud of the program that my co-workers developed and that our Leaders and delivering.  If the 2010 DGA is the goal, then PointsPlus can be the path.  It's nice to be on the right path.