Weight or Water? Weight Loss & Retaining (or Not Retaining) Water

I hate it when this happens: I get on the scale and it looks like I’ve gained weight.  My first thought? “It’s water weight! Right? I must be retaining water. Right? Because I can’t have gained weight?”

Yeeaahhh, riiigghhtt.  I couldn’t have gained weight so it must be water!  ……except it’s not.  It’s weight aka fat! But my first thought is pretty much the Number 1 excuse for why the number on the scale went up! Unless we made some kind of planned deviation from our eating plan, like a celebration or a holiday, gaining weight means we messed up somehow, either by eating the wrong things, too much overall or both.  Most of us know it’s not water, even if that’s the excuse our minds hide behind, and for me, after facing the grim truth that chocolate chip cookies are not Paleo and on my food list, I once again ban them from my shopping cart!

However, that doesn’t mean that our bodies don’t ever retain water. In certain circumstances, we do retain a certain amount of water in our tissues.  It’s not twenty or thirty pounds of water or maybe even ten, but depending on how much you weigh and the circumstances, it can be as much as 5 lbs. Five pounds can be a lot for but, again, it’s dependent on the circumstances, so you can’t just automatically dismiss that 5 lb gain as “water weight.”

Our weight fluctuates under everyday normal circumstances, even if we are ‘behaving ourselves.’ Water retention tends to be the biggest component in that fluctuation so if we find we’ve gone up a couple of pounds, it could really be that retained water.  Of course, the same holds when we find we’ve dropped a couple of pounds: it could be that water coming off! This is why so many weight loss professionals discount the scale or regular weigh-ins. Unfortunately, the scale is the easiest tool for us to use on a regular basis, so what we want to see is the downward trend over time. We want to see our weight going down, even if it does ‘bounce up’ a couple of pounds as long as it’s followed by a loss of the same amount or more.

However, depending on what we are eating, how we are moving and who we are, we can try to minimize our water weight.  The biggest culprits for retaining water are: 1) our diet; 2) our exercise; 3) our hormones; and 4) our stress levels. When we pay attention to these factors, we can have a better idea if that number on the scale is because we ate that pasta primavera last Tuesday or if it’s because it’s ‘That Time of the Month”!

Number 1 is number one for a reason, but not exactly like most of us might think.  When we think “water retention and diet”, we tend to think Salt.  Yes, salt is a big factor.  Salt is an electrolyte and our body keeps it in solution, so it’s not uncommon to eat a big bowl of salty popcorn and then feel puffy the next day. Usually in a day or so, we pass the water and we feel less puffy.  However, the other factor in that salty popcorn might take a bit longer to fade away.  That is the carbohydrates in the popcorn.  When it comes to carbs and retaining water, the best description of them is “little sponges.” Carbs soak up the water and it stays with us a while. No wonder you feel puffy after eating it! Between the salt and the carbs, hello! You’re retaining water for sure! When we eat a lot of carbs, even if it’s something not salty, if it’s a carbohydrate, it’s going to hold water, so a diet rich in carbs is going to show it on the scale.  Not only does your body store the excess carbs as fat, they also hold more water than protein or fat, so your weight will go up the more carbs you eat, salty or not.  I know from my own experience, after I’ve binged on carbs and then gone back to low carb/ no carb, after a couple of days it feels like I’m always running to the loo! It’s my body getting rid of all the stored water.

Most people know to watch their diet for any water-retaining culprits but we don’t usually think of exercise as one.  When we exercise, especially more strenuous than usual, it causes ‘damage’ to our muscles, which then need some time to repair themselves.  This is how our muscles get stronger and why we need recovery time.  That ‘damage’ is normal: our muscles build themselves up during the repair. But to do that, muscles need water, so after exercising, our muscles retain water! This is why some people don’t weigh themselves the day after a workout: they know their muscles are full of water! This is one reason our trainers are always pushing us to drink during and after a workout: we’re sweaty and our muscles need the water too! Even if it feels like it wasn’t a strenuous workout, if your muscles feel a little sore, you are probably retaining a little water!

Hormones are another no-brainer for most of us (and the guys can skip this one!) If you are a woman of child-bearing years, you are eminently familiar with this scenario. For most of us, the week before our period, we puff up like a balloon as our body stores water in preparation either for growing a baby or getting ready to shed the uterine lining.  If you are pregnant, congratulations! And get ready for some major changes in your body! If you aren’t pregnant, your body will start shedding a lot of water in a few short days.  All of us women have been through this more than a few times, and if you are one of the lucky ones who doesn’t turn into a water balloon, you are the envy of every woman who does! That said, most of us know when not to weigh ourselves in order to avoid the appearance of weight gain.

Stress is another sneaky culprit with water weight.  When we are chronically stressed, either physically or emotionally, our body just recognizes it as “danger/ stress” and will hang on to the Basics to make sure you survive whatever stress you are facing.  For the body, those Basics are water and fuel aka fat. This is why so many health and fitness gurus are pushing stress management.  Incidentally, it’s also why they are pushing more sleep, since our body treats poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation as a stressor.  We all know how crappy we feel when we don’t sleep well or enough, so it takes a physical toll on our bodies beyond just exhaustion and low energy headaches: our body stores fat and water as a result! The problem is that most of us have a hard time knowing when we are getting enough rest and managing our stress, so when we get on the scale and see the number isn’t budging,– or worse, going up– it just seems to add to our frustration and stress! This is one of the benefits to adding a proper sleep schedule and stress management routine: they not only help feel better mentally and physically, they also help you lose weight!

When it comes to managing our water weight gain, it’s really just one part of a healthy lifestyle.  If we manage our carb intake, get enough sleep, relaxation and keep our bodies moving, we should be able to identify if the number on the scale includes a few pounds of water or not. We also need to know that water is not bad! Many pro athletes know that diuretics (“water pills”) are a quick and easy cheat for losing a few pounds in order to make their target weight.  But a “cheat” is exactly what they are if you are taking them just to lose weight! Dehydrating yourself either by not drinking enough or using diuretics can be dangerous.  Our bodies are dependent on water to send chemical signals to organs, including such vital organs as your heart, lungs and brain. No water, no signal, no life! Like so many other necessities, our bodies function properly in a narrow band of the Right Amount: too little water can cause as many problems as too much water. Our bodies are pretty good at keeping our water where it needs to be to keep you healthy: now it’s just up to us to do our part (and put down the popcorn and chocolate chip cookies!)

 

The Secret Saboteur: Weight Loss & Stress

Let’s be honest: stress gets the blame for a lot of things we screw up in our lives.  We forgot to make the car payment because we were stressed over our job; we missed our dentist appointment because we were stressed over the kids; and the classic: we blew our diet because we were just so stressed!

We are so used to hearing Stress being painted as the villain that we regularly dismiss it now. Friend:”yadda yadda yadda Stress made me do it yadda yadda!” You: “Yeah, whatever!” But while Stress might be a convenient villain, it doesn’t mean that it really isn’t a villain. In fact, Stress is as ubiquitous and all-pervasive as Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty.  Stress seeps into every facet of our lives, working its corrosion into our best laid plans.  While you’re probably rolling your eyes and telling me, “duhhh! old news there!”, let me ask you “so what are you doing about it?”

When I was a kid (lo, those many decades ago!), drunk driving was no big deal. Everyone knew someone whose parents drove drunk a few times and even when I was in high school, no one thought twice about getting buzzed at some party out at the reservoir and then driving home. They were more concerned about getting busted by their parents than busted by the cops. The truth of the matter was that drunk driving was never a “big deal”….until it was. Once the general public became aware of how many lives are destroyed daily by drunk driving, then we saw it for the huge problem it really is.  But until we were actually paying attention, it was ‘nothing to worry about.’

While Stress normally doesn’t have the catastrophic and tragic results that drunk driving has, it still has some really negative results and depending on how severe the Stress is, it can be pretty bad. When it comes to weight loss, Stress is that secret saboteur that gets in your way, leads you astray and continually confounds your progress, and if your weight is contributing to a condition like diabetes, kidney, heart or liver disease, that can be just as catastrophic as a car accident!

For most of us, our weight isn’t life-threatening and usually doesn’t have such overreaching effects on our lives. It’s that annoying twenty pounds that makes us ‘feel fat’ when we wear jeans or keeps us from taking off the cover up on the beach.  Still, how much better would our lives and our health be minus that annoying twenty pounds? Probably a lot better! So… why haven’t we lost that weight? The answer probably has something to do with Stress!

Like I said before, we probably look at Stress as the ‘Convenient Villain’ that gets blamed for our over-eating, eating Forbidden Foods, skipping workouts, etc.  While Stress may not be the actual villain in those scenarios (admit it- you ate the chocolate cake because you wanted the chocolate cake!), it really is working against you! Whether it’s physical or emotional/ mental, when we feel stressed, we have a physical reaction which spreads throughout our bodies and damages us.

If you’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, hopefully you’ve seen the Robert Downey, Jr. movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows where he shows Jude Law’s Watson his wall full of pictures, news clippings and notes all connected by strings to a central figure. In the stories, Holmes describes Moriarty as the spider in the center of web controlling it all.  Stress is the Moriarty spider in the center of our lives!

We all know about the Fight or Flight reaction we have when faced with a potentially dangerous or threatening situation.  Stress is part of that reaction.  Something happens that puts pressure on us, either mentally/ emotionally or physically, and our bodies react to it.  Most of us discount this Stress because hey, we aren’t going to die if we’re late back from lunch or if our morning meeting runs long and the 10:30 client has to wait a little while.  Our boss or the client might not be happy but some things (like traffic and long meetings) are out of our control.  It’s called the Modern World, people!

This is exactly my point: Stress is still in our lives, but because we don’t think “we’re going to die!“, we tend to discount it.  How bad can Stress be if it’s not going to kill us? The truth is that it is killing us, just very slowly.  Stress, especially chronic Stress, keeps our cortisol levels elevated.  Cortisol is the “stress hormone” and the main mechanism which causes so many of the problems related to Stress. Prolonged and recurring Stress, such as the kind that comes with a high pressure job or a hectic family life, effects us in ways we don’t think of as any “big deal.”  So we have “a few” sleepless nights; we forget the dentist appointment; we pour the coffee on the cereal in the morning because we’re preoccupied with the upcoming project. Nothing to freak out about, right?

Ummm, that depends. You know how little treats add up when you’re trying to lose weight? How those two cookies at lunch aren’t a big deal but how those two cookies are joined by the bag of chips on the way home and the grande mocha in the morning and then the bowl of ice cream after dinner? One of those treats alone isn’t that big a deal but all of them together turn into a diet killer!  That’s what happens with your Stress:  a couple sleepless nights aren’t a big deal but they add up and are usually joined by Stress-triggered effects.  These are things like headaches, muscle tension/ pain, fatigue, digestive troubles as well as the sleepless nights.  Stress causes anxiety, feelings of restlessness, hopelessness, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, inability to focus/ concentrate, anger and depression.  These can lead to eating disorders (over-eating and under-eating), angry outbursts, substance abuse (food, alcohol, drugs, tobacco) and social isolation.

Those high cortisol levels are mainly responsible for increased inflammation which many studies are now showing are behind a lot of our autoimmune disorders (such as arthritis and fibromyalgia) and also behind some of those problems I mentioned earlier: heart disease and kidney disease.

The sleepless nights aka Sleep Deprivation also has a whole host of negative effects, such as memory issues, mood changes, inability to focus/ concentrate (brain fog), drowsiness, weakened immunity, high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes due to the increased levels of insulin, weight gain due to the resistance to leptin (the satiety hormone) and increased ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and the increased inflammation- again!  The attendant drowsiness that comes with chronic Sleep Deprivation is usually responsible for all manner of accidents, from tripping and falling to car accidents due to drowsy driving (it’s now listed on police collision reports!)

All of these negative effects are the result of Stress.  This is why I call it the secret saboteur. Stress really does sit in the center of the web of many of our health problems.  Our weight is just one of the many things that is affected by the ongoing Stress in our lives.  While we may not be fighting off a tiger or a wolf, we are now constantly bombarded by little stressors such as traffic congestion, late-paying clients, lost phones, too many activities and pressure from family and friends. It doesn’t help that we manufacture our own Stress when we stay up too late scrolling through Facebook or ordering online and then we feel rushed in the morning because of the traffic and where’s our phone and are you taking the kids to basketball tonight? All this Stress leads to poor eating choices, lack of exercise, giving in to hunger and cravings, over-eating, and increasing waistlines.  How can we be expected to lose weight with all this Stress in our lives?  This is where we blame Stress (“That’s why I ate the whole bag of Chips Ahoy!”) but what are we doing about all this Stress?

Let’s be honest: Stress is not going away, so we need to learn to manage it. There are a lot of strategies to manage your Stress (google that late at night!) and they include simple things like going to bed at the same reasonable time each night; making time for relaxing hobby (I like puzzles); being more physically active; socializing with friends or pets; relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing and meditation; and the simplest is absolutely free: keep a sense of humor! I know it’s easier said than done but at the end of the day, we need to decide what really deserves our immediate attention, what can wait until later and what we need to let go.  When my cable box recently died, after a fairly major tantrum that night, I put off replacing it until the weekend.  So I miss a week of tv! It’s not worth the Stress of rushing around to “get it done now!” As a result, it was fun “camping out” with my kindle for a few days and I got to spend more quality time with my pets (my favorite stress relievers)!

 

Trying and Trying Too Hard: More (Stress) is Not Better

One of the biggest issues we face in America and most Westernized industrial nations is the idea that “more is better.”  If some exercise is good, more must be better! If some B vitamins are good, more must be better! If some caffeine is good, more must be better, and so on and so on.  Obviously, more is NOT always better and with some things, like vitamins and supplements especially, more can be deadly.  Hint: when something says “do not exceed recommended dosage” on the label, follow the directions! Bonus hint: always read the directions on any medication, vitamin or supplement! Seriously, too much of certain ‘safe’ vitamins, supplements or even OTC remedies can kill you.

This More is Better idea has become a way of life for a lot of us, except when it comes to certain healthy routines.  We think nothing of overtraining, overworking, overeating, but when it comes to things like sleep, relaxation or even something as ‘woo-woo’ as meditation, we poo-poo the ideas and go back to overworking.  We seem to pride ourselves on being stressed to death by work and training and even so-called recreational activities like parties, classes or hobbies.  We’ve taught ourselves that every minute of every day must be scheduled with something ‘productive.’  As a result, we’re scheduling ourselves into our graves.

Even when it comes to healthy habits like eating better or being more active, we’ve scheduled ourselves with trainers and workouts and reading books, blogs or listening to podcasts. We’re trying to cram as much as we can into every day either with work, our healthy routines, our hobbies or even gathering more information. So, if we aren’t working at our job or our home, we’re working on ‘being healthy!’ Isn’t that awesome?  Ummmm…. not as awesome as you’d think!

Again, more is NOT better, especially when it comes to filling every nook and cranny of your life because we really are stressing ourselves to death.  The only times we even consider something like a ‘rest day’ is when it comes to training and in a lot of those cases, we ‘rest’ the muscles we worked out the day before. So if we do the upper body on Monday, we work out the lower body on Tuesday and then back to the upper body on Wednesday.  That should be plenty of rest, right?  Maybe for your biceps, triceps and rhomboids, but not for YOU. You might think and even feel like you’re doing okay and not feeling a lot of stress, but how much rest are you actually getting? After working eight hours and working out for another hour and then running some errands, you come home, have dinner, walk the dog, help out with cleaning up or housework, watch some tv and then go to bed so you scroll through blogs, Facebook or put on a podcast as you lie in bed.  By the time you actually fall asleep, it’s after midnight and then you’re up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to do it all again! The only difference is on weekends when you can work out longer, run more errands for you and the family, read more blogs, Facebook or plug in more podcasts and stay up later because you don’t have to work on Sunday, unless you do bring work home so you get to schedule that into your weekend too!

All of this is stressful. We think we’re getting enough rest and relaxation when we do things like work out or walk the dog or scroll through Facebook, and for some of us, that may be true. If walking the dog is something you enjoy and you can relax while doing it, then don’t stop doing it.  The same thing with hobbies: if this is time that you have set aside for yourself and your own enjoyment, that really is awesome, but the real test is when you get up in the morning or sit down at the end of the night.  If you wake up to your alarm and feel as tired or achy or grumpy as you did the night before, you are not getting enough rest and recovery time. If you sit down to watch tv at night or lie in bed scrolling through your device and find yourself nodding off, then you are overscheduled and stressed out.  The same thing with weekends: if you sit down for ten minutes and fall asleep- bingo!! Not getting enough sleep! And FYI: the answer to not getting enough sleep isn’t more caffeine!

When we decide we want to be healthier, right along with advice like “eating right” is the advice about “be more active”. That really is good advice, but we only read those two and seem to miss the “get more sleep” and “manage stress” advice.  Part of this is a cultural work ethic and part of this is just that ‘more is better’ attitude again. We think being more active means getting more things done in the day, especially since we need to cram in the time for the blogs, the podcasts, the workouts, the healthy grocery shopping and everything else that we already had scheduled in our day.  ‘Being more active’ has very little to do with ‘getting things done.’  I can sit at my computer typing pleadings and correspondence all day long and while I may get a whole lot of documents done, it also means I’m sitting on my butt not being active. The same goes with listening to podcasts or reading blogs.  Unless I’m doing that on a treadmill or on bike, I am not being active although I might be ‘getting things done.’ Sometimes we have to be a little creative when it comes to getting things done and being more active, but it also means not scheduling ourselves to death. For me, this means listening to podcasts in the car while I am driving to work: as long as I’m stuck sitting on my butt, why not get something done that I can do sitting down? As for being more active, when I make time in my week for working out, that means I have to look at anything else I’ve scheduled in my week and choosing either to move activities or discontinue them completely because there is a finite amount of time in our days and weeks! We can’t do everything: we need to be selective with our time.

Part of this time and stress management means I set an alarm on my phone to go to bed.  While this sounds a little silly (an adult with a bedtime like a five year old?), it means that when I wake up in the morning, I’m not a grumpy old b*tch.  Silly as it seems, setting a bedtime and keeping it has had major and positive impact on my stress and my health.  I am about as close to a vampire as you can get without burning up in the sun and going to bed at 10:00 p.m. is about the same as other people going to bed in the middle of the day.  However, reluctant though I am to keep my regular bedtime, I notice that when I do, I wake up before the alarm goes off and, while I’m never happy about getting up in the morning, I am not exhausted and snapping at the pets. It also means that if I’m feeling tired at 9:00 p.m., I don’t stay up unless I’m working on something.  “Working on something” doesn’t mean posting online or reading a book or blog and definitely not watching tv.  It means things like finishing the dishes or changing the cats’ litter box- stuff that really can’t wait until tomorrow (unless it has to)!

Getting enough rest and stress management are actually two separate ideas.  If you are not getting enough rest, your body will feel the stress even if you think you don’t.  Being chronically sleep deprived is a stressor on the body and the mind.  All those ‘senior moments’ you have are probably stress and sleep related. You know you can’t think clearly when you’re tired but when you’re chronically tired, you begin to think being a little fuzzy minded is normal.  For those of us who wear glasses, we don’t realize how much our vision has changed until we visit the optometrist and she tries out new lenses on us- wow! Talk about clear! For those of you who don’t wear glasses, next time you’re at the drug store, try looking through the reading glasses while you’re there, then once you take them off, you’ll understand. The same thing happens when we’re always tired, always a little fuzzy and always a step or two behind.  It’s not because we’re getting older- it’s because we’re not getting enough sleep!

The same thing happens when we’re always stressed. Remember what I said above about snapping at my pets? Remember when your kid asked you something and snapped at her? It might have been something simple like going over to a friends or watching something on the living room tv, but you bit her head off.  We have a finite amount of patience, too.  We’d like to think it’s limitless but the more we go through in a day, the less patience we have when we get home and unfortunately, the ones waiting for us at home who have to deal with the leftover bits of patience we’ve got are the ones we love the most.  We snap and grumble and huff at them when they want to spend time with us and they don’t deserve that. This is especially bad when we bring work home with us.  Some of us are lucky enough to leave the job at the office, but we can still bring home the worry and the stress. I’ve heard of people who designate the first thirty minutes or more at home as ‘unwind’ time.  That means let mom or dad change clothes, take a shower, lay down, whatever before asking questions or cornering them over something. For me, that ‘unwind’ time (odd as it seems) is my drive home. This is when I will call friends on my Bluetooth, put on an audiobook or play list or just drive in silence. This is my time and even though it’s spent in traffic, I get very grumpy when people call to bug me during my drive time!

If walking the dog is your unwind time, don’t stop doing it and it might be a good idea to let others know that when they interrupt you while you’re walking Max, it is not a good thing! If you don’t have some time or ritual set aside to de-stress, set up something and let your family and friends know that this is your time for yourself and it needs to have a permanent home in your schedule. It’s like getting enough sleep: when you wake up not hating your day, the more you can not only enjoy it but the more productive you can be overall.  When you don’t manage your stress, it spreads into the rest of your life and wears away at things you used to love. You end up not sleeping well, not enjoying your job and either not enjoying time with your loved ones or being too tired to enjoy it.  What’s the point in eating right and working out if you’re too tired and stressed to enjoy the life your working so hard to achieve?  News flash: even if you are eating right and working out, it all gets cancelled out by being overtired and overstressed.  Remember: more is NOT better!

 

 

 

 

Running in Place: Getting Nowhere FAST!

I am not talking about a treadmill, or elliptical or even a stationary bike here! This is when we are frantically trying to make progress, busting our butts to move forward and we aren’t going anywhere at all!  This is the most frustrating position we find ourselves in as we try to lose weight or become more fit.  It’s even more frustrating than figuring out where to start, because at least in that situation, you have some kind of direction: how do I get started?

When we are ‘doing everything right’ and not making progress, it’s almost unbearable.  Obviously, we aren’t doing everything right, but what is it we are doing wrong?  Maybe it’s nothing we are doing but what we aren’t doing.  Maybe it’s something external that’s affecting us.  Maybe it’s a plateau. Maybe, maybe, maybe!! Still not helping us move forward!! What do I do? How do I fix this? Can I even be fixed??

I know you don’t want to hear this but the best way to figure this out is to slow down.  We need to approach this like a detective or a doctor and ask a few simple questions to narrow down the culprit: 1) When did I stop making progress? and 2) What has changed since that date?  If you are tracking your progress, this should be a matter of looking back through your journal or whatever you use.  Of course there isn’t going to be a big red flag proclaiming: THIS IS WHEN YOU WENT OFF TRACK! so you need to look back at the last date you know you were on target and then move forward to the present.  This is why you need to slow down, because even though it’s only two questions, there are a lot of things that come into play and if you aren’t tracking all of them, or at least making notes, then it’s going to be a little more complicated.  Another big reason you need to slow down is that if you just start making arbitrary changes, like “I’ll eat more protein and less carbs!”; “I’ll add more reps/ time to my workouts!”; “I’ll switch up my workouts from cardio to weight training!”, you might not be addressing the problem.  If the problem is too many indulgences, working out more might help, but not as much as cutting back on the indulgences.  Also, if the problem is over-training, adding in more workouts is just going to make it worse!

Like I said, it helps if you are tracking and depending on your personality.  I use the My Fitness Pal app but I also use a paper journal. The MFP app is good for nutrition calculation, water, counting calories and it’s awesome for support.  I also use the Fitbit app for calculating sleep and activity and the paper journal is also where I track my food, portions, macros, calories and all the little incidentals that I don’t put in MFP simply because it’s easier to write a little note and it’s a whole lot easier to flip through.  The paper journal I use is the DietMinder from MemoryMinder.com, although I get mine from Amazon.  It’s two pages per day and it’s good for 90 days.

When you start looking at your notes or journal, what you want to look for are things like the obvious and then move on to some of the more stealthy culprits:

  1. Too many calories, even if it’s just creeping up or down by a few calories a day or are you not being accurate with your portion sizes?
  2. Macros (fat, protein, carbs)- did your ratio change?
  3. Activity- are you moving more, less or did you change your routine?
  4. Sleeping less? Or more? Not good sleep?
  5. Stress level: up or down
  6. Water- how much are you getting?
  7. Other changes in eating habits, like eating out more, eating more or less salty/ sugary/ different foods; or fasting
  8.  Injury or illness: obviously if you’re hurt or sick, your body is going to put most of the focus on repair and recovery or it could affect your activity level
  9. Medication changes: this can have a huge impact on how your body burns or stores fuel!

One of the stupidest (and yes, I mean STUPID) statements I heard on My 600 lb Life is when a patient poo-poohed Dr. Now’s calorie limit, because she said “I can look at a food and immediately calculate the number of calories, the protein and the fat in it.” Seriously!! I almost fell out of my chair when I heard that! I’ve gotten pretty good at estimating portion sizes, but I still weigh my food to make sure that I’m eating the amount I think I’m eating, because calories sneak up on you this way.  They also get away from you the same way.  I fry some bacon and I think it’s about two ounces but it’s more like three, so there’s a lot more calories than I had estimated.  At the same time, if I think I’ve eaten more veggies than I have, then there’s less calories, but also less fiber and less vitamins.  Macros matter mainly because fat and protein tend to keep you feeling fuller longer than carbs do, so it may be that you think you’re getting enough of those necessary nutrients but you aren’t and as a result, you feel hungry and eat more.

It can also be that you’ve stopped being as active as you used to be while your calories have stayed the same.  That can be really confusing, because it may feel like you’re really busy, but that can be the stress playing tricks on you.  Stress and lack of sleep will also mess with your progress in big ways: your body goes into survival mode even if the stress isn’t physical.  The brain is still sending the Under Attack signal to your hormones and as a result you tend to store fat instead of burning it and you can also feel more hungry since the body is trying to hold on to everything it can, including food, fat and water.

Changes in medication can be really stealthy culprits and one of the biggest is insulin.  Many people who are obese are type 2 diabetic and if your doctor has you on a medication that produces or mimics insulin or suppresses your satiety hormone leptin or increases the hunger hormone ghrelin, you could be storing more fat due to insulin or insulin mimic, not feeling full when you’ve eaten enough (leptin) or feeling hungry all the time (ghrelin).  Several of my family members have been on steroids, especially Prednisone, which makes you feel hungry all the time! You never feel full while taking it! If your doctor has given you a new prescription or made changes, read the pamphlet that comes with it or look at some of the side effects that come with it.  Talk to your doctor or your pharmacist, because it may be a drug interaction that is behind it and not just the drug itself.  FYI: this includes herbal supplements and vitamins!

If you think you’ve found the culprit sabotaging your progress, you not only need to make changes, you need to track those changes! Note the changes you’re making and then give yourself some time to see if there is improvement.  Again, I know you don’t want to hear that we need to slow down, but seriously, if you’ve upped your workout times or changed your macros or calories, are you really going to see a change in three days or even a week? It may be the right change for you but if you wait a week and nope- not improving! let’s switch to keto!, you may have just sabotaged yourself!

Slowing down really stinks, but if you don’t take the time to figure out what’s going on and what you need to do, it doesn’t matter how “fast” you go or think you are going- because you still won’t be getting anywhere! Patience, tracking and a little investigation can go a long way to fixing problems that result in progress, even if it doesn’t feel like it.  Most of us would rather be fast than thorough, including me! When I feel like that, I look at Wyatt Earp’s quote stuck on my cubicle wall: “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” Bulls-eye!

 

 

Emotional Eating: Dealing with Stress

This probably the most common excuse for overeating, eating the wrong foods or just plain bingeing. We either use food to distract us or comfort us. We want something yummy to make us feel good. It’s completely understandable: we’re anxious, uptight and we want those negative emotions to go away. Food is something that does that for us. Things like ice cream or chocolate or potato chips set off our pleasure center in the brain. It’s why we think of them as addictive. It doesn’t have to be sugary or salty: as long as they relieve our negative emotions, we will keep coming back to them when we feel the stress.

It’s easy to make healthy choices when we’re feeling good but once things start getting complicated, we feel it’s okay to ‘have a treat’ or ‘take a break,’ but actually it’s the worst thing we can do. Giving ourselves permission to make unhealthy choices, whether it’s cookies or skipping a workout, is simply reinforcing our old stress relieving routines which kept us from our fitness goals to begin with. There will always be stress in our lives: it’s an unhappy fact of life. Learning to change our habits in times of stress is another tough stressor but it’s a necessary one. Once we learn how not to stress-eat or make excuses, we make a quantum leap forward. Let’s be honest here: we’re under stress, we eat a stack of cookies, we feel better for the five-ten minutes it took to eat them, then we feel guilty about the cookies on top of the stress that started it all, then we worry over whether we’ve either stalled or gained weight. More stress and bad news!

There’s also the whole physical effects that come with our bad choices besides the stall/ gain. We usually don’t realize it until we get away from the poor choices, but things like chips, cookies, and other processed foods are ‘quick’ carbs. We use terms and phrases like ‘chocoholic’ or ‘sugar addiction’ and we’re not wrong: our bodies learn to crave the processed foods because they’re quick energy. One of the reasons they’re not good for us is because they spike our blood sugar, which is followed by a rapid drop, which results in the cravings for sugar or other quick carbs. These processed foods are full of calories but low in nutrition and they perpetuate our cravings. What about any of that is good for us? The less we eat of these foods, the less we crave them and once we lose our taste for them we realize a few things: we feel better physically and mentally when we don’t eat them. Unfortunately it’s not until we eat them again that we realize how just plain awful they make us feel compared to eating something healthier. They don’t taste as good as they used to, they’re not good for us and they make us feel ‘ugh.’ So, why are we eating them?? Because we were feeling stressed and that’s what we do when we’re stressed!

It’s a little bit of a catch-22: we’re freaking out over the negative emotions, so we go to what calms us down, but then we freak out because now we just ‘blew our diet’- no win situation.  But sometimes learning a new healthy habit doesn’t help either: we’re freaking out and we try the ‘healthy thing’ but it doesn’t really seem to help since it’s not the old comforting routine.  We’re still feeling the urge to do the ‘old habit,’ and we’re left stressing out with the negative emotions.  This transition period is usually where we give up and revert to the emotional eating we wanted to avoid.

It’s easy to sit here and say “stress isn’t an excuse! Don’t eat your emotions!”  In reality, when we are stressed, we aren’t thinking clearly because we’re under emotional duress (the fancy way of saying we’re freaking out!)  The law in fact recognizes this and makes exceptions to agreements made under emotional duress.  However, we have to be stronger than the negative emotions and learn new ways to cope with stress.  It’s not easy and it’s fun but until we learn how to deal with our bad habits and our negative emotions, we’re going to keep doing it. This is what makes that transition period so extremely difficult. Not only are we dealing with whatever triggered the stress response, but we’re trying to deal with learning new behaviors at the same time.  So in the middle of all of this emotional turmoil, we’re supposed to be clear-headed enough to tell ourselves to be patient and learn the new healthy habits because, in the long run, we’ll be better off.

Being a responsible adult really stinks at times and this is definitely one of those times! I vividly remember trying to be “responsible and healthy” about dealing with my stress and I still found myself staring into the fridge after the argument with my mom! I wasn’t hungry at all, but it was pretty easy to figure out what the trigger was! Luckily, I realized what I was doing and shut the door, but then, I was still left with the stress….

The first thing you need to realize is that screwing up isn’t the end of the world.  This is a learning situation, so there’s going to be mistakes and it’s going to be a little trial and error before you find out how to get over it.  The second thing you need to realize is that eating was your distraction from the negative emotions, so you are going to need to find a new distraction or learn to deal with the negative stress and emotions.  Obviously, learning to deal with the emotions is the best way to handle it, but until you do, you need to find a distraction that calms you down and doesn’t involve food!  Most people opt for exercise: it stimulates ‘feel good’ hormones and it burns calories.  Sometimes, however, when your body is occupied, your mind starts going to whatever you are trying to forget.  We all know how it is when we go to bed and then your day starts running through your head! I find this happens a lot to me when I start working out: body busy, brain not busy- so it goes right to whatever was bothering me! Sometimes it helps to focus on your form or counting your repetitions.

Even if you do opt for exercise as a distraction, it’s better to have more than one way of handling the stress.  We aren’t always going to be some place where we can start lifting or doing lunges or whatever we do when we exercise.  You need to have some other options available to you.  For some people, meditation works well because it teaches you focus on clearing your mind so you can relax instead of stress out. For other people, games, puzzles or reading work a little better since they distract the mind but require a little less practice at “thinking about nothing.”  It all depends on you. No doubt we all remember getting to the bottom of the page or the end of the chapter and have no recollection of what we just read: while our eyes were busy scanning the page, our brain was somewhere else!  This is actually the number one reason I had such a hard time (and still do) learning through audio. It’s much easier for me to dismiss what I’m hearing as background noise and focus on something else than it is for me to dismiss what I’m seeing or doing and focus on something in my head.  That was a good thing when I had to study in a noisy cafeteria as a kid but when I’m trying to listen to a book or a lecture, not so much!

This is where you need to spend a little time learning what works for you as a stress reliever.  Again, reading might not work so well but a puzzle or a game that forces you to focus might work a little better.  We all know there is no shortage of computer games and puzzles!  While playing a game to relax might seem like a waste of time, it’s really stress-management.  That’s why these games are so popular.  [Seriously, how many versions of ‘find the hidden object’ and ‘candy crush’ clones do we need?]  As a culture, we are super stressed! This is another reason why we eat so much.  It’s an easy thoughtless distraction.  Don’t think about the nasty letter we got from XYZ; think about the donut we’re going to get at the Krispy Kreme drive-thru on the way home! Don’t think about how we’re going to pay to fix the leaky shower: think about what we’re going to have for dinner instead! Games and puzzles are seen as a waste of time, like yoga and meditation.  It’s not for ‘serious minded business people.’  Somehow relaxation and stress-management have been overlooked by a lot of the health and nutrition industry, aright along with sleep, and are only now beginning to get the attention they deserve.  If we are so stressed out that we can’t sleep, that we are eating junk food to stay awake and distract ourselves from the unending stress, that our blood pressure is so high we’re in danger of a stroke, what difference does it make if we’re successful at our jobs?  One of my mom’s supervisors was someone who was a workaholic.  She was always working an extra shift and holidays because she wanted to have enough money put away for retirement with her husband.  It’s an admirable sentiment and one that most of us would agree with.  Unfortunately, a few months after she retired, she had a major stroke that left her paralyzed for the remaining few months of her life and her husband spent her retirement money taking trips with another woman.

We’ve all heard stories like that: “Mr. Jones worked hard all his life, and a few months after he retired, he died!!” Unfortunately, what we take away from those stories is “don’t retire! you’ll die!!”  The point is that the cumulative effect of chronic stress, chronic sleep deprivation and poor diet is what kills us. Learning to manage our stress has other benefits than just not overeating.  Once we learn to manage our negative emotions in healthy ways we not only lose weight, we allow ourselves to relax and heal mentally and physically.  We need to take the time to enjoy the life we have right now rather than kill ourselves working for the life we want to have when and if we live long enough to retire.

Watch Where You’re Going! Looking Up From Our Devices

This one probably sounds like it’s got nothing to do with weight loss, but our devices are insidious little creatures that really eat at different aspects of our lives.  Our health is just one of those things that slowly gets ground up by them.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials that involve the family piled in the car and everyone is wearing headphones staring at their devices.  I heard a recent podcast where the two hosts were sharing an Uber with another woman who was too busy swiping on her dating app to look up at the two eligible young men in the car with her.  Myself, I’ve seen scores of men and women walking along the street, in the gym or in the stores, headphones attached, eyes glued on their devices. I really don’t need to tell you this is unhealthy behavior.

For starters, it’s just not safe to be walking through traffic and not paying attention.  That falls under the “Duhhh!” category.  You don’t even have to be plugged into your phone to do that: I was recently driving up the side street to our parking lot when a gardener with his blower on and his earplugs in stepped backwards WITHOUT LOOKING into the street! He nearly hit ME because he was not paying attention! I’ve seen so many pedestrians crossing streets without looking, run into people and things on the sidewalk because their eyes were glued to their phones. I can’t begin to count the ways you can be hurt doing that!

The one that really makes me laugh is when they are doing it in the gym.  Where’s the logic in that?: Hmm, let’s go work out and spend an hour sitting in the lounge not working out because I’m glued to my phone! Granted, I see lots of people busy on the machines, weights and treadmills with their headphones attached as they are working out, and I think that’s great! If you’re taking your phone to the gym, that’s how it should be used, but sitting around in the locker room, the lounge or out front doing nothing but texting or swiping over and over again is a waste of your gym time.  Unless you’re trying to find out where your gym buddy is (and how long does that take?), you’ll have spent an hour in the gym sitting around doing nothing! A good healthy use of your time? Not hardly!

The one that really bugs me is when the families are in the car and everyone is doing something on their devices: “let’s get together and ignore each other as a family!” Really, people? I remember when car makers began putting DVD players in the cars so the kids/ people in the back could watch a movie on the way.  I remember thinking then that was not a good idea.  Parents love it for one simple reason: “are we there yet??” Yes, it puts an end to whining and complaining, but it also kills any family interaction. When we used to take car trips (way back in the Olden Days), we used to listen to the radio and sing along badly; we’d play games like License Plate Alphabet or Landmarks.  Maybe it wasn’t as exciting as watching the latest Fast & Furious or playing Candy Crush or whatever on your device, but at least my family spent some time talking to each other.

This might seem like it doesn’t have a lot to do with weight loss, but it’s part of our overall health.  Sitting around at home, in the gym or wherever, while you’re glued to your device isn’t healthy because #1) you are sitting!  Even if you are walking in traffic, you might be walking, but you aren’t looking where you are going!  #2) That bent over posture isn’t healthy: your neck and shoulders are rounded and it limits your ability to move (don’t believe me? Read Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World!) Our devices are destroying our mobility.  #3) The artificial blue light emitted by those devices are playing havoc with our circadian rhythms.  We are up all night scrolling through Instagram instead of sleeping and when we try to sleep, we are lying there awake because we’ve wired up our brains. Our body is interpreting the blue light as daylight, so it’s time to be awake, even if it’s 3:30 a.m.  Our brains think it’s daytime when humans should be awake.  #4) We are sacrificing our human interactions and relationships.  When is it better to meet people via an app instead of interacting with real live people? Again, there are the half-funny commercials where family members are texting each other across the breakfast table. They are only half funny because people really do it: let me send you a text instead of actually talking to you, even if you are in the same room with me!

The cumulative effect of too much device-focused living is becoming more and more apparent.  The obesity and lack of mobility is what most people think of: we are out of shape, unable to do simple physical activity and the physical stress of sitting with rounded shoulders and repetitive stress injury on our hands and wrists is showing up in younger and younger patients.  Not to mention the PSA (public service announcements) directed both at drivers and pedestrians about watching out for the phone-focused person on the street and in the car! Again: “Duhhh!” category!  We are chronically sleep deprived because we are too busy binge-watching, streaming something, Facebooking/ Instagramming or playing games instead of sleeping.  The lack of sleep takes a toll on the brain and the body: we have chronic brain fog, inability to focus and fall asleep at our desks because we were too busy watching silly cat videos on YouTube.  (I love a cat video as much as the next person, but at 1:00 a.m.???) Human interaction seems like the least important aspect: “But I am making contact with other people through my phone!”  I’m sorry but that is not actual interaction- you are interacting with a device! We are becoming increasingly isolated and humans have developed as social creatures.  Biologists have noted that animals that are social creatures, such as birds, primates and canines, feel stressed when they are isolated.  They will bond with other creatures in order to secure that feeling of being part of a group. (Check out all of those funny animal friends videos- that’s why they’re together!) As a college student, we watched the video of the baby chimp in the enclosure with two fake mothers: one was a wire framework with a bottle of milk attached and the other was a wire framework covered in fur.  The baby chimp spent all its time clinging to the fur covered mother and only went to the milk-mother when it was hungry.  Honestly, it broke my heart seeing that poor baby missing its mother.  We are not so different: being alone stresses us as social creatures.  We need actual interaction that involves hearing, seeing and touching!  (Robb Wolf brings this up in Wired to Eat.)  I admit that I am also not good at this: I am well aware that relationships are a major stressor for most people, including me!  I substitute a lot of my human interaction with my pets (natural stress relievers).  Although I do make a point of spending time with the people who are important to me (and NOT via the phone/ device), I also spend a lot of one on one time with my pets. In fact, my pets are pretty good at shoving the device out of my face so I can pay attention to them! When they do, I put the device away.  After all, they did ask me nicely!

I know this seems like a bit of a rant, but when we are stressed, not sleeping and certainly not being active, do you think we are losing weight and eating healthy? Nope! Do you think we are making good food choices when we are exhausted, stressed and feeling cruddy? Also, nope!Our body interprets the stress and the lack of sleep as an emergency situation and we are not burning fat, but storing it instead! It’s a simple fix: put the device away at certain times of the day, like being in the gym or before you go to bed or frankly, just turn it off at dinner and leave it off so you can spend time with the family, wind down and get some sleep! You can binge Breaking Bad together another time! Instead, spend some time with the real people in your life!

Burnout: When We Get Singed

We all know this feeling: we have so much to do and are constantly jumping from project to project, whether at home, at the office, or for most of us, a combination of both.  We have all these projects at work going on, and then we leave work to take care of all the projects we have going on at home. It feels like we are always “on” and there is no time to recover or rest.  Being overworked, whether it’s necessary tasks or just “fun stuff,” it takes a toll on us and sooner or later, we crash.

Life is not about cramming in as much as you can just because you can, nor is it about being constantly overloaded with tasks, whether they are ‘fun’ or not.  This is something I have to keep telling myself on a pretty regular basis.  Just because I have ’empty days’ on my calendar doesn’t meant that I can cram in another ‘activity.’  Normally I make a habit of spending one day home with my pets (usually a weekend or a holiday).  Part of this is because I want to spend time with them (they are usually pretty fond of ‘lap time’) which means I need to be sitting down for a while, but part of this is so that I get a chance to rest and de-stress.

But, as so often happens, the best laid plans of mice and men……! Life makes its own plans and for better or worse, we usually get swept along.  This is pretty much where we just have to ‘sit down, shut up and hold on,’ as the saying goes.  My life has pretty much not been my own since about the middle of February (it is now May).  Part of it was silly me, scheduling things when I thought I was in control of my own life, and part of it was events out of my control.  In February, my sister’s in-laws had a death in the family and they had to fly out of state suddenly, so I got to pet & house-sit for a week.  Kind of inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as losing a family member, and it put a minor crimp in my plans: I lost a weekend but not a big deal.  A couple of weeks later, my sister and her family had booked an outing on the coast (prior to the death) and the friend who was supposed to house & pet-sit for the long weekend had something come up, so…. I got to do it again! Kind of inconvenient again, but it happens, and this time, I lost a a bigger weekend. [I take a vacation day the weekend after my birthday, and that was the weekend I lost that time.]  Then, my sister lost her father in law, and was out of state again for a few days: more house & pet-sitting.

You might be asking, what’s the big deal staying at your sister’s house?  My sister lives twenty minutes away from my job (on the other side) and I live an hour and a half from my job.  This means, I have to take my dog with me, which means a two hour drive to my sister’s to drop him off and then drive back to work.  The nice thing is it takes me 20 minutes to get to my sister’s after work while I’m there; the not so nice thing is they have 6 dogs of their own, 3 with health issues, of which 2 require medication twice daily and they all stay in the house. Then, going back to my home, I get to drive back to my sister’s, load up my dog and bag and drive two hours home.  Not much of a weekend left by the time I get there, especially since no one has been at my house since I left and there are things that I need to take care of.

That was pretty much my March and April; also going on those months, silly me had signed up for two different classes (both of which were non-refundable) so there were some days I missed on those classes, and then there was just work stress: we had a couple of ’emergencies’ that required my working late (more missed workouts) and then when I decided to try my ‘birthday weekend’ again, my dad ended up in Urgent Care due to a bad reaction to his new medication.  This ended up being 6 hours in Urgent Care, followed by driving him home (he lives an hour and half from me) and then I had to drive home myself,  since his trailer has no room for guests (got home at 1:30 a.m.) but I had to get my mom so we could bring his truck home the next day, so another three plus hours of driving.  That was my second ‘three day weekend’! Both weekends I had a total of one day off- the only good thing was that if I hadn’t taken 3 days, I’d’ve had NO days off.  And on top of all this, I’m trying to keep up with my classes, workouts, job and just life in general.  Saying I have been over-stressed is an understatement.

Since the last failed attempt at a three day weekend, my dad is doing much better (doc changed his meds back) and one of my classes ended.  I was considering signing up for another one (apparently I was still under the delusion that my life was my own) and had not made up my mind when I went to bed last Saturday night.  That night I dreamed that my sister, her family, my family and I were all living in one bed, which was already crowded and more and more people kept crowding in.  It was so crowded no one could move or get comfortable.  When I woke up Sunday morning, I realized that my subconscious had more sense than my waking brain: I’ve got too much going on in my life right now.  Time to slow things down a little.

We’ve all heard that stress sabotages your weight loss and health in general but most of us don’t realize the extent to which it jams us up.  Most of us think of the obvious: missing workouts and exercise.  That’s just the scratching the surface. If we’re lucky, we can reschedule a workout or two, but then there’s the mental and emotional exhaustion.  We’re just drained, walking around with our shoulders all tightly hunched up.  (I started using my Fitbit’s reminders to move as reminders to relax my shoulders!) Being so drained is bad: we’re too tired to make good food choices (“I don’t have time/ want to deal with this now! That’s close enough to healthy!”) or we give in to temptation (“I’ve been so stressed and this will be a nice treat!”)  The other thing is that our body is getting the ‘danger’ signal, so our cortisol is elevated.  This means that our body is hanging on to whatever fuel it can in case we need to run for our lives or prepare to wait out a prolonged famine.  Either way, we’re storing more than we’re burning, and since we aren’t making great food choices, we’re probably over eating, eating the wrong things or (like me!) doing both! None of those is good for health, fitness or weight loss! On top of all that bad eating and high cortisol, we are probably not getting enough sleep either and the sleep we are getting isn’t quality sleep.  We all know what it’s like lying in bed thinking of everything that’s going on and what are you going to do if XYZ doesn’t work out and blah blah blah- it’s two A.M. and I have to get up in four hours and I haven’t slept at all! Ironically, realizing you need to get up shortly just adds to the stress of the moment, so you are less likely to get any quality sleep!

Sleep is when your body and brain restore themselves.  It gives your body a chance to adjust the hormones and make its repairs and it gives your brain a chance to process what’s going on and recuperate from the day.  There is more to sleep than just ‘feeling rested’ when you get up the next day: the less sleep you have, both quality and quantity, the more stress your body feels.  Not sleeping equals more stress to the body.  Not only are you continuing to add to the stress but you are taking away the down-time your body needs to recover from the stress it’s already under. Think of it like the oil in your car: you need to change it, but you keep putting it off and in addition, you keep driving more and more.  Eventually, either the oil burns out and degrades to the point where it’s useless, and you have engine damage; it dries out (you have NO oil left!) and your engine overheats; or eventually you change it.  Ironically, most of take better care of our cars (which can be replaced) than we do our bodies (we get only ONE).

I know what happens when you live under constant stress: it happened to me almost three years ago.  I had become so overweight, so physically damaged from stress and poor health choices, I had to quit my job or die.  Not being dramatic here: the constant stress and all its accompanying ills left me barely able to function. My nerves were so frayed I was having anxiety attacks; I was eating junk because I was so physically exhausted, but sleep was nearly impossible due to the anxiety attacks and stress.  When I did sleep, it was more like passing out than anything close to restorative.

I wish I could say that burnout doesn’t happen to us or there is always a way to avoid it.  Sometimes, things just happen, and when they do, we can only do our best to maintain our healthy routine as much as possible.  While I was staying at my sister’s, although I did miss a few workout classes, I was able to still make healthy food choices and get some quality sleep.  My stress escalated with the prolonged disruption of my routine and it got harder and harder to keep to it. That’s called real life and it’s not an excuse to throw away healthy choices or habits: I owe it to myself to make the best choices I can in the situation presented to me.  Sometimes it means not doing something I would otherwise consider a healthy choice, like choosing to forgo another exercise class than cramming another one into my already hectic schedule.  Sometimes it means going home and going to bed rather than running another errand, or staying home to rest (or sleep) rather than going out with friends.  Sometimes it means that a treat I might otherwise allow myself is not really a treat, because it’s really just one more bad choice on top of other bad choices already eaten.  In other words, “leave the garlic bread alone because you’ve had too much bread and sugar already this week!” Sometimes, it also means that adding more exercise to a busy week is not healthy, especially if you are having pain in your joints.  I admit, I did keep my workout despite having pain in the joints with the hardware installed (pins & plates) even though it probably wasn’t the best idea, but I modified some of the harder exercises.  It made me feel a little more in control just keeping the appointment.

When burnout happens, we need to recognize that we are under stress and need to make recuperation a priority.  Even though it may not feel like the best use of our time, we need to take a step back, take a few deep breaths and decompress.  If that means turning off the phone, tv, computer, then we need to do it. If it means telling family members no, then as hard as it is, we need to do it.  We cannot help anyone else if we are not in good shape ourselves, mentally or physically.  Burnout is like a physical wound: we take care of an injury or a sprain, but we often let the less obvious wounds from stress fester and grow worse.  Burnout is as much an injury as a sprain or a cut: we need to give ourselves the opportunity to heal rather than letting the wound grow worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing to Your Own Tune: Personalize Your Healthy Living Routine

As some of you know, I like to eat Paleo and one of our chief gurus, Robb Wolf, recently published a new book, Wired to Eat, about customizing your eating plan.  The book has been out a little over a week and I downloaded the audio version.  I confess I am not a big fan of audio books, but what the heck! I can give it a listen on the drive home.  One of my favorite people (Elizabeth Benton, Primal Potential) is also reading it and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts on it.

From having read the opening chapter (thank you, Kindle sample!), it looks like the point of this book is that no matter what eating plan you follow (Paleo, Keto, LCHF, etc) you need to find what works for you! You would think this would be a no-brainer, but many times we just “follow the rules” or “follow the crowd.”  For example, “my sister does keto and she doesn’t eat any veggies at all! I must be doing it wrong since I usually have salad once a day!” This is where so many of us run into problems, and not just with eating.  It’s that syllogism again: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.  We are all human, so there are some foods that are better for other species than for us (ie eucalyptus leaves are not high on our diets!), but we are not all the same, so there are some foods that are better for me than for you, and vice versa.  Even among poodles, there are variations, so we need to account for these variations when we start making improvements to our routines.  Sometimes, following the crowd and/ or rules will not work for us, and it’s okay to customize our routines.

We often forget that when we try to adopt a healthy new plan. For example, another one of my favorite people (Alan Misner, 40+ Fitness) was giving some tips on how to stick with your workout routine, and one of his tips was to get it done first thing in the morning. Honestly, I hear a lot of advice about getting your workouts done first thing in the morning, doing your journaling or gratitude or meditation, etc, first thing in the morning. For a while, I just figured I was out of luck, since I am the antithesis of a morning person.  The old expression “I’m allergic to mornings” is the best descriptor for me. Listening to their podcasts, I pretty much came to the conclusion that as a night person, if I tried to do the routines Alan and Elizabeth were describing, it would be a disaster for me. I am not awake in the mornings, so when they gave advice about doing self-care and journaling and workouts, it would be the same as a morning person trying to do it at night.  Most people come home from work and they are pretty worn out, ready to have dinner, watch a little tv/ internet and go to bed.  I am more awake in the evenings: I come home, do my journaling, get online, watch tv, have dinner, play with the pets, do my workouts, make my phone calls and if I had my way, I would go to bed around 1:00 a.m. or so. Going to bed by 11:00 p.m. is a sacrifice for me!

So, instead of setting up an evening routine that’s pretty much on autopilot, I set up a morning routine that is on autopilot.  Before I go to bed at night, I set out everything I need to pack for breakfast and lunch.  All I need to do when I get up is turn on the coffee maker and grab my lunch bag.  My gym bag gets packed the night before and left next to my purse.  My clothes are laid out the night before.  The only accommodation I really make is I get up a bit earlier to I can do my version of gratitude.  “Gratitude” is a practice that focuses on things and people you truly appreciate in your life and it starts (or ends) your day on a positive note.  I don’t write anything out or pray or meditate: I spend a few minutes each morning playing each of my pets individually.  The rest of the morning is pretty much on autopilot for about an hour or so, until I really wake up sometime after coffee and getting on the highway.

The reason most people do an autopilot routine in the evenings is that this is the time of day when they are most likely to veer off track and away from their goals because they are emotionally and physically drained at the end of the day.  Alan refers to this as “decision fatigue.”  This is when you’re asking yourself what to have for dinner, should you go to your workout? what should you do to keep on track to your goals versus what feels easier for you to do right now?  This is when they stop for fast food or call for pizza or blow off the gym.  I know from my own experience, these ‘evening’ pitfalls hit me more often in the morning: if I didn’t pack my gym bag the night before, I am more likely to blow it off in the morning because I’m tired, not awake, I have too much to do, etc.  It’s easier for me to make excuses in the morning.  The same thing happens with breakfast: if I didn’t set it up the night before, I can pretty much guarantee I am getting it to go at some fast food place.

Plain and simple, I don’t fit the norm, so following the routines that all the “professionals” advocate is almost impossibly hard for me. The idea of my working out in the morning is pretty much laughable: I’d never get there on time and I’d probably hurt myself being half awake.  I customized my routines to fit what works for me and after a little practice, they are working out really well.  But for some of us, we have never thought of customizing a plan to fit our own needs: we just follow what everyone else says is “the right way to do it.”  If it doesn’t work for us, we scrap it and try another routine from someone else.  We forget that we can modify things to fit our own schedule, (although both Elizabeth and Alan will remind you to do what works best for you.)

One of the other hot topics in the health & fitness media is sleep, both the quality and the duration.  I have never been a good ‘sleeper’ since I have been told since childhood that I am ‘doing it wrong’:  I sleep in the day; I am awake at night; I sleep with the lights on, with all kinds of noise, in a warm room and with all my pets jumping around the bed.  “Well no wonder you are sleep deprived!” they tell me. “You need to sleep in a cold dark soundless room during the night without anyone else in the bed!” Ummm…….no.  When I make my own schedule, I sleep just great: in the day, with the noise, the lights, the pets and the heat on. I sleep until I wake up naturally and I have lots of energy.  Trying to do it ‘the right way’ is an exercise in agony for me.  When I force myself to sleep according to the rest of the world’s day-night routine, I end up sleep-deprived. I am foggy-headed when everyone else is wide awake and I am wide awake when the “experts” tell me I should be getting my best sleep. I sleep just fine with the lights on (after a lifetime of pets sprawled out on the floor) and the lights going off will in fact wake me up.  The pets wrestling on the bed aren’t a blip on my radar. I wake up and find the ones who were on the bed are on the floor and the ones on the floor are on the bed, and I never even budged! How can I be doing it ‘wrong’ if the routine I use gets me the results that I want? [FYI: I was told the same thing by my study skills professor in college: studying in a noisy room while watching tv is “not effective!” Guess I just imagined graduating magna cum laude! My sister has the same habits I do, and she graduated summa cum laude, but what do we know!]

Robb’s book seems to be about taking this customization idea a little further to include your eating plan.  For most of us who eat Paleo, there are some foods that are simply off the menu if you follow the strict diet, like bread, wheat/ grains, refined sugars, beans/ legumes, etc.: “Completely non-Paleo! Bad food! Bad food!” But the truth of the matter is that if my sister and I eat a food like corn, I might have an extreme blood sugar response and she might not.  The corn will effect me negatively but she might be fine with it.  On the other hand, if we both have something like cherries, my sister might have more of a blood sugar response than I do. Sometimes, it’s not the foods, but the amounts of foods, and although most people focus on carbs and blood sugar, it’s not just the carbohydrates that effect us. Some of us don’t react well to fats or proteins.  MCT oil is not my friend and neither is coconut oil.  They don’t make me sick exactly, but I don’t like the way I feel after eating them.  If you listen to a lot of health gurus, both of those are really pushed at people as being “superfoods” (like kale, also NOT my friend-yuck!) and I am really “missing out” by not including them in my diet.  I beg to differ: why eat something supposedly healthy and good for me if it makes me feel awful?  “Awful” is not how I want to feel; if I wanted to feel awful, I would go back to eating the way I used to eat when I weighed 375+.  At least I was eating food I liked back then )although I have since lost my taste for it.) The point is that if your healthy routine and/ or eating plan make you feel miserable, awful or is just too awkward or difficult to maintain, then try changing it so it does work better for you.  Healthy living is supposed to make you feel better physically and mentally: if it’s not doing that for you, then you need to change what you are doing! You might be doing it “the right way,” but if your routine, whether eating, sleeping or working out, isn’t giving you the results you want, then you aren’t doing it the right way for you. You don’t win any prizes for following the rules; you only win the prize when you get the results you want.

I have to admit that the idea of creating something completely tailored to your unique lifestyle and metabolism can seem a bit daunting at first.  Everyone likes something custom-made just for you, unless we have to do the work to make it ourselves! Then it’s just too much work or too confusing: “Where do I start?”;  “What if I’m doing it wrong?”; “How do I know if it’s right?” Robb’s book gives you a great starting point, but even if you don’t decide to use his book, there are a few out there that will give you an idea of how to develop an eating plan that works better for you than a more generic “one size fits all” plan.  Dr. David Ludwig’s Always Hungry? is also very comprehensive and it gives you a structured format to start you off before you learn to fly on your own. The important points to remember are: 1) it takes time to get all the kinks out before you find the routines and foods that work best for you, so be patient!; and 2) simpler is always better! It’s generally easier and more convenient.  The more you overhaul the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain! And not just the drain: if something involves too many steps or is just too inconvenient, what are the odds you will stick with it long term?

In the end, it’s all up to you: only you know what works best for you: eating, sleeping, being active- all of it!  It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for others or if they are telling you to try what works for them, even if it’s a family member who’s telling you. If what you are doing is getting you the results you want, then stick with it!  If it’s almost there but not quite, then give it a tweak and see how it goes.  Don’t abandon what you’re doing until you have given it enough time to know that yep, not working! Then you can try what your brother or your friend recommended, but since we are all unique, there is no ‘one size’ for everyone.

 

 

The Basics: Don’t Make it Harder than Necessary!

Occasionally, I see posts about people ‘starting again’ or I hear people talking about how they want to get started eating healthier and being more active and sometimes they seem a little bit lost or a little vague about how they want to or how they can do this.  Sometimes they start by ordering some exercise DVDs or they’ve joined the gym and went to the XYZ class which really kicked their butt! Apparently, their idea of being healthier and fitter involves getting their butt kicked regularly.

Really, there are only a few things you need to do in order to be healthier.  These work whether you want to lose weight, be more fit or just be healthier in general, and you don’t need to buy boxes of supplements, exercise DVDs or expensive shipments of diet food.  All you need to do is 1) eat better foods; 2) be more active; 3) get good sleep; 4) stay well hydrated; and 5) manage your stress.  If they sound simple, it’s because they are.  That is, the concepts themselves are simple; it’s the putting them into practice that gets a bit complicated!

Eat Better Foods: This is number one because nothing matters more than what you put in your body. I usually compare this to putting cheap gas in your car and expecting peak mileage.  We all know that ain’t happening!  Cheap gas = bad mileage! It’s the same with your own body: cheap processed foods yield poor health.  Yeah, you can eat the boxes of pasta mix and the potato chips and the frozen dinners, and just like your car, your body will still function, probably with a few knocks and pings just like your car.  You won’t have the same acceleration and after a few miles/ hours, you will need to refuel because that mileage just ain’t there.  Face it: there’s no substitution for the good stuff!  I hear some of my fitness friends commenting on how they stopped eating ‘insert processed food here’ and started eating ‘insert healthy whole food here’ and wow! they feel so much better! they have much more energy! they aren’t hungry after a couple hours! That’s because they put in the premium fuel, whether it’s cage free eggs, grass fed beef or organic sweet potatoes.  When you stop eating food that is full of chemicals, preservatives and already broken down, your body gets more nutrition from it and it runs better for longer.

Stop and think for a moment what happens when food is processed.  The food is made to last longer than it normally would, so chemical preservatives have been added, and it is made to be easily prepared and eaten, so in some cases, it is essentially “pre-digested.”  It takes your body less time and energy to break it down to extract whatever nutrients might be left in it, since processing removes a lot of the nutrition naturally in the food itself.  This is why much of our processed food has been fortified.  In many commercial breads, for example, the wheat used to make the flour has been broken down into a literal powder.  All of the fiber and germ and most of the vitamins have been stripped away, leaving essentially only the starches.  After the flour has been mixed with the other ingredients to make the dough, the manufacturers add vitamins, minerals and fiber to make it more ‘nutritious.’

This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your snack cakes or whole wheat toast and snack solely on crudité! As Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) often reminds us, it’s a spectrum: all you have to do is begin to make improvements. This can start as simply as giving up the breakfast bagel and eating a banana for breakfast (this is what I did). Yes, the banana still had a lot more sugar and carbs than I needed in the morning, but it was a whole food and it was better than the bagel. I stopped eating takeout for lunch and started bringing a lunch with leftover meat and veggies from dinner the night before.  You don’t have to make changes according to anyone’s schedule except your own.  When you are ready to take the next step, take it and if if that’s a week or a couple of months or longer, no problem!  You are still moving forward eating better foods!

Be More Active: This concept generally gets misinterpreted as “exercise your butt off!”  It’s part of the Calories In Calories Out (CICO) mentality: “if you burn off more than you take in, you are going to lose weight.”  The disclaimer is “until your body and metabolism adjust to the extra activity and lower fuel intake.”  Your body is designed with one primary goal: to survive as long as possible.  To do that when you are working your butt off four nights a week in the gym and eating only chicken, broccoli and protein shakes, it will lower your metabolic rate so you burn less calories to make those few you are taking in go farther; it will make you as hungry as a bear emerging from hibernation; and it will leave you absolutely exhausted. This is why the CICO method usually doesn’t work long term for most people. After losing some weight, you start to plateau and unless you make some changes, that’s where you stop.  Unfortunately, the lowered metabolic rate is usually permanent.  This is how Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up having to limit their calories to ridiculously low amounts to keep from regaining all the weight lost.

So how do you do this without causing metabolic damage? You make slow changes.  Yes, to lose weight you do need a calorie deficit: you do need to burn more than you take in, but it doesn’t have to be a crazy high amount of exercise or crazy low intake of food.  Generally eating the same amount of calories (or a normal amount) is still okay and then you just put in some healthy exercise two or three times a week, or maybe just increase your daily amount by a small margin.  For example, if you normally get fewer than 5000 steps a day, try upping your steps to 10,000.  Even if you don’t make it that high (it can be tough if you have a sedentary job), your increased activity will burn more calories and your body won’t freak out since you are still eating a good amount of food. Lifting weights (strength training) is also a good way to be more active.  While it doesn’t have the intense calorie burn that cardio has, it has the added advantage of building muscle (you won’t blow up like Arnold- I promise!) and as we’ve all been told a thousand times, muscle burns more energy than fat, so while the act of lifting will only burn a few calories, you will put on more muscle which will raise your metabolic rate.  This means that just sitting around at your desk, your new muscles will burn more calories than your love handles do! The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn and smaller your love handles become!

One caveat here: if you don’t do a lot of exercise now, it’s extremely important that you don’t jump into an intense workout regimen all at once. That’s how people get discouraged, and more importantly, it’s how people get hurt! Going from a couch potato lifestyle to a spartan-type exercise program at best can leave you thinking you’ve bitten off too much (because you have!) to actually causing a serious injury to a muscle, joint, or worse, a heart attack! You need to take some time to learn the proper techniques, especially if you are going to be lifting.  There are ways to do exercise correctly, not only so that you get the maximum benefit but also so that you don’t injure yourself.  If you can’t afford a personal trainer or a gym membership where classes are taught by trainers, there are a lot of training videos available free on YouTube or you can invest in a DVD that is reputable and within your abilities.  Finding someone reputable is key!  Generally, if I have questions about training, I go to MetabolicRadio.com.  The hosts (Shane & Taylor) have been in fitness nearly all their lives, and if they can’t answer your questions, they will point you in the right direction!

Get Good Sleep: Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record, but this is something that really gets overlooked and it is personally one of my own bête noires.  As most of you know, I am a night person and keeping ‘normal’ hours isn’t normal for me. If I could do my job at night, I would, but there is no denying that when I get enough sleep time and it’s quality sleep (meaning I’m not waking up every couple hours or lying in bed playing mah jongg on the tablet), I have more energy, I am more alert and I feel better overall.  I also lose weight more consistently. Sleep in an important restorative component of health for your brain and your body.  When you are sleep deprived, your body is not producing the hormones necessary to repair your body and keep everything functioning at its best.  Using another car analogy, if you don’t get the oil changed on a fairly regular basis, you end up broken down on the freeway with some big expenses for towing and repairs!  Seriously, sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by some of the most ruthless regimes in history. Why do you want to do that to yourself?

There are a lot of books, blogs and podcasts that will give you some good tips on how to get quality sleep, but since I know I am atypical and that I am not alone in being atypical, here’s my advice to you: track your sleep patterns.  If you have a Fitbit, most of those will track for you as far as hours asleep, waking, and restlessness, but you will need to make your own notes about how you feel the next day. Most experts will tell you that you should sleep in a cool, dark, silent room and avoid electronics, eating and drinking for about an hour or two before you go to bed. Personally, that would be torture for me: I prefer a warmer room, with some kind of noise (even if it’s just a sleep sounds app) and I usually have some kind of nightlight showing (pets who like to sleep on the floor). I have tried the typical scenarios which usually leave me wanting more blankets on the bed, waking at every small sound I hear and staring wide awake at the dark (FYI: the pets don’t think much of it either!) Whatever works best for you, do it, even if all the ‘experts’ say it’s wrong: I have been known to sleep comfortably and well while my pets literally have a wrestling match on the bed. You will feel better when you get good sleep, your exercise will be easier and you will lose more weight (it’s a hormone thing)!

Stay Hydrated: This is my bête noire le deux! I generally don’t drink enough water, and by water, I don’t mean soda (diet or otherwise), coffee, tea or any other beverage.  I mean plain old H2O. Getting enough fluids overall is important, so even if you drink several bottles of diet soda, you are doing yourself more good than not drinking anything at all, so if it’s a choice between nothing and tea, soda or any kind of beverage, take the beverage, but if it’s a choice between ‘beverage’ and water, choose water.  It has no calories, no preservatives and it’s good for the body!  It keeps joints, muscles, the digestive tract and the brain happily humming along. We are mostly water, don’t forget, and we expel more water than we think on a daily basis.  I don’t just mean through the urinary tract and sweating: every breath we exhale has water vapor in it.  Try exhaling on a mirror: that fogginess on the glass is water vapor. We all know that dehydration will kill you, but just being chronically mildly dehydrated puts a strain on the brain, heart, kidneys, and digestive tract.  The body shows the lack of water in your hair, skin, eyes and mouth. (This is another torture technique.)

There are just as many sites that will tell you how much you should drink a day and the various formulas and minimum requirements. If I followed the last formula I found, I’d be drinking nearly 22 glasses of water a day (171 oz)! Most people follow the 8 glasses a day rule or 64 oz.  The rationale is that if you drink other beverages in addition to the eight 8 ounce glasses, you’ll be well hydrated.  Other people go for the urine test: if it’s clear or light yellow (barring any B vitamins you just took), you’re okay.  The darker the urine, the more dehydrated you are.

Personally, I have noticed that poor sleep and poor hydration go hand in hand for me: when one of them is bad, the other usually is also, and my weight loss stalls, my energy lags and my mood is pretty cruddy.  Conversely, when I get enough water, my sleep is better, my energy level and my mood improve and I lose more weight.

Manage Your Stress:  This is another stealthy saboteur. Personally I think it gets away with sabotaging us because we let it.  We hear all the advice and it’s “yeah yeah yeah, I know!” and then we don’t do anything about it. Stress is another one of ‘those hormone things’ that ends up robbing our sleep and keeping our cortisol elevated and we stop losing weight and we keep feeling really lousy.  Cortisol and adrenal fatigue aside, stress robs us of our happiness in life. We are always on edge, always worried about whatever is stressing us out and it leads us on a vicious circle- a seriously vicious circle! When we are always worried and stressed, all our bodies feel is the cortisol surge.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the suspected mugger in the parking lot or the boss buzzing us every day about that report she needs on her desk.  It’s like the goofy robot from that old tv show flailing its arms around: “Danger, Will Robinson!  Danger, Will Robinson!” It may not be life and death, but it could be, so your system is on high alert. The problem with always being on high alert is that it doesn’t get any rest.  Think about it: if you were told that at any time, a killer could jump out of the shadows, so you had to be on the lookout for this killer ALL THE TIME, how would you feel after a couple of hours?  Would you just want this situation to be over already?  I know I would. This is why people get so stressed in hospital waiting rooms: they are waiting for news on their loved ones which could come AT ANY MINUTE! They are on heightened alert and it wears on the body, even though they are literally just sitting there!

When you don’t manage your stress, the same thing happens to you.  You don’t have to start transcendental meditation or yoga in order to manage your stress: you just need to find some way to relax for a few hours every day. There are a lot of law enforcement and other high stress job professionals who make a practice of leaving work at the office.  Whatever they have going on at the office, when they come home, there is no “office talk” and they don’t bring work home with them.  I know not everyone can be that lucky, but if you don’t have to bring your work home with you, leave it at the office.  This was one of my problems when I worked the Job From Hell: when I left the office, my boss would call/ email/ text me at home, evenings and weekends, and telling her “no” was a hard thing to do. It’s on me, because I rarely told her no and just put up with all of this stress, until it began to kill me and I quit.  My boss now is much more sensible (he respects boundaries!) and when something pops in my head when I am out of the office, I just remind myself that I can take care of it tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do right now, so stop worrying about it!  I admit, it takes a little practice, but it’s worth it!

Sometimes, it’s not the office that is stressing you out and this is where an OFF switch comes in handy.  Find something in your life that is relaxing and enjoyable to you, and make a practice of doing it regularly.  For some people it’s going to the gym, reading a good book, walking the dog, or just some alone time.  It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s enjoyable to you!  I spend a lot of time playing with the pets, reading, doing my water aerobics, even just taking my time doing the weekly shopping.  When I am feeling particularly stressed after work, I take off the Bluetooth to my phone and turn up the music on my playlist. No one can reach me and I’m in my own little happy place at least for a little while.  In fact, one Friday night, I got stuck on the freeway behind a particularly messy car fire and it took me four hours to get home (instead of the usual hour & forty-five minutes).  There was nothing I could do about it, so I rolled down the windows and turned the music up really loud (I remember thinking “I hop they like The Lord of the Rings, because too bad!”)  Didn’t help move the traffic along, but it made me feel better! Letting go of the stress not only improves your health but it improves the overall quality of your life.  Being the most stressed out person in your family or office is not a badge of honor, it’s a slow and painful death.  It robs your life of joy and peace and makes spending time with you miserable for your loved ones.  It’s not worth it to lose what you love most in life.

So, getting started is as simple as going through the list above and making positive changes.  Take a look at the list: better foods, more activity, better sleep, staying hydrated, managing stress.  Find the areas where you can make improvements and start making them!  Don’t do a whole transformation at once: that will just add to your stress!  Try making one or two positive changes a week, and be patient.  The goal is not to change as fast as you can: the goal is to make permanent lifestyle changes that will improve your health and your life overall.  You will also find that the more healthy changes you make, the easier they become and you will be able to move faster once you get started.  It’s in trying too fast when starting out that most people stumble and give up.  Don’t try to run before you can walk and even if you stumble, don’t give up.  Just get up and keep going!

Being Uniquely You vs. Joining the Pack

New Year’s resolutions are running rampant right now as people are doing everything they can to hang on and not give up on the attempts to make positive changes.  I admit that I have never been a big fan of making resolutions based on a time of year.  Yes, it’s convenient to have an unforgettable date but the new year already has so many changes associated with it: new laws and government forms are in effect; you have to change the dates on a lot of items, not to mention every time you date a form “don’t forget 2017!” (we even had court calendaring clerk assign a trial date based on the wrong year: “um, that’s a Saturday, Your Honor!”) In my opinion, the new year already has enough baggage for you to deal without bringing your resolutions with it.

However, now that you’ve made them, there’s no reason not to try and keep them.  It’s not the resolutions that I have problems with- it’s just the timing. Establishing healthy habits is always a good thing! Let me add one little caveat to that statement: provided the habit is healthy for you! In all the hustle to sell their new workout videos and diet programs, the health and fitness industry is not really very concerned about what’s best for you! I’m not going to sit here and say they’re just out to make a buck, but- yeah, that’s what I’m going to do! They are trying to sell you something and if it doesn’t work out for you, then you’re probably going to buy something else they are selling to see if that works for you, so the more things that don’t work for you, the more they are going to make from you.

I’m not selling you anything.  I don’t even advertise for other companies on my blog (although WordPress might- I don’t have any control over that.) My concern is that you learn healthy habits that work for you, so you can be as healthy and happy and get the most out of your life. The key phrase is here “work for you” and I am emphasizing that ‘you’ because I don’t care what works for everyone else.

This issue actually began for me as a rant against a podcaster (whom I actually like very much) and another book I was reading about learning to sleep smarter.  Both of them were talking about “prime sleep hours” and the “best wake-sleep rhythms” and so on.  It was really annoying because they are trying to cram everyone into one little box and if you don’t fit, you’re just not trying hard enough and you’re hurting yourself. (Huge eye roll here!) It’s like when the FDA tries to tell everyone that they need to drink 8 ounces of milk each day or eat 11 servings of whole grains daily.  HELLO! I think we all know by now that all those grains led to a huge epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity, and that some people are sensitive to lactose (especially if your ethnicity is not Northern European!)

This is where I get really annoying again and tell you that if you aren’t tracking your foods, energy, moods, and sleep, you really should, because that tells you what works for you and what doesn’t.

Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while may recall that I have a really jacked up sleep-wake cycle (‘circadian rhythm’ is the technical term).  When I was in college on semester/ summer break, my sister and I would both turn into vampires.  We would sleep most of the morning, wake up about noon or later and be up until around two in the morning and then go to sleep. It wasn’t because we had night jobs or night classes or had some kind of weird disease: this was normal for us.  In fact, we did most of our grocery shopping around midnight at a 24 hour store.  Even after we moved to separate locations to go to graduate school, we kept the same hours: we’d text each other around midnight or one a.m. and it wasn’t unusual to get back a response in a couple minutes, because, yep- we’re up!  One of the reasons I got a kindle in fact is because I do most of my reading and book-browsing between 11:00 p.m. and two a.m. (Amazon will back me up!)

When I keep my normal hours, I am alert, rested and a little high energy in fact: I sleep when I get tired, wake up without the alarm and feel good during my ‘day.’  That’s how you are supposed to feel and it’s how you know you are getting enough rest.  On the other hand, if I tried to force anyone else to keep my schedule, most people would feel really tired during my waking hours and would try to wake up probably about 6 or 7 a.m. (when I am normally getting my best sleep!) They would get very burnt out in a few days and probably be really irritable and groggy and drained.  It’s because this is not their circadian rhythm; it’s mine.

That is how I feel most of the time when I try to match the rest of the world’s sleep-wake cycle.  I have to wake up at a time when I am normally getting my ‘best’ sleep: between 4-6 a.m., be awake and alert when I am normally sleeping and then I’m supposed to go to sleep when I’m normally awake!  I know that humans are not nocturnal creatures, but my sister and I are about as close to being nocturnal as humans can get! If any of you have ever had a night job, you know how uncomfortable and disorienting it can be to be awake when you’re normally sleeping and sleeping when you’re normally up and alert.  It’s physically painful for me at times to wake up to an obnoxious alarm clock (they are all obnoxious!) and get ready for work.  It’s a long and difficult transition for me to adjust to a ‘normal’ wake-sleep cycle and when I am off for an extended period of time, I revert right back to what’s normal for me.

The point of all this griping and grousing is that so many of us try to do something similar with diet, exercise, sleep and everything else in order to fit the rest of the world’s “healthy habits.” We try to eat 6-8 ounces of meat daily and drink 8 ounces of milk daily and get all those healthy whole grains and we feel horrible.  Our digestive tract rebels and causes all kinds of pain and discomfort but we keep on trying.  We hit the gym and walk the five miles or so three times a week and our knees, back and hips revolt until we can hardly stand up, let alone walk, and we keep trying.”What’s wrong with us?” Probably nothing! We’re that round peg not fitting into that cookie cutter square hole. The point of being an individual is that we are not like others.  Some of us don’t digest meat very well and some of us are lactose intolerant and some of us are sensitive to grains.  Just because we’re humans doesn’t mean we are all alike! It’s like the old syllogism logic teachers love: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.  Yes, they are all dogs, but yes, they are all different  and the same truths apply to us. While we are all fundamentally the same, we are all actually very different.  While this may seem like a real “duhhh” statement, how many times have you or someone you know tried the “one size fits all” approach? and how did that work out for you or them? There were a lot of times I tried the latest diet fad and most of the time, if it didn’t outright make me sick, I generally felt pretty horrible.  I know when I tried Nutrisystem, yes, I lost weight and yes, I was hungry the entire time.  I didn’t have a lot of energy either, but I kept with it because I was losing weight.  Weight loss: yes; Energy level: low; Hunger: high; Learning new healthy habits: oh hell no!  But because of that one yes, I stuck with it until I couldn’t stand their food anymore (besides being REALLY expensive!)

The same thing happened with me when I tried exercising.  How can you hurt yourself walking on a treadmill?  It was the bottom line recommendation from my gym and just about every website and blog I read: if you haven’t been exercising, start using the treadmill. So I did.  My feet hurt, my legs hurt, and my knees were killing me.  I pushed through, because I know there’s a difference between discomfort and pain and when you start a new activity, there is usually a little discomfort involved.  When it didn’t go away and started to get worse, I went to my doctor and the treadmill was actually the worst thing I could do.  I have arthritis in my knees (this is how I found out!) and even the low impact from the treadmill aggravated the condition (even now it still does, since I tried it again recently and even just 15 minutes was enough for me to feel it).  My doctor told me to use a pool since I can exercise without aggravating my knees and the water has some good resistance to it as well.  I can easily do an hour’s workout in the water and still not have painful knees.

I don’t want you to get the idea that everything needs to be personalized for you by some trainer or nutritionist or professional.  If you can afford those, then yes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but even though most of us can’t afford that level of personal attention, it doesn’t mean that we are out of luck!  When you start a new way of eating or new workout program, monitor how well it works for you.  Yes, this will mean writing down when you eat, what you ate and how you felt afterwards.  The same with the exercise and anything else you start doing differently.  I like to use a paper journal but there are a lot of apps (like My Fitness Pal and Fitbit) which will allow you to track this and those two apps will talk to each other, so you can use them both to combine your info.  Both of those will also sync with the My Health app on iPhones so you can have all your data in one place. The idea is that if there are some things about your new habits that work out for you, then you want to keep those but if there are things that don’t, then you can modify them.  For example, I eat a low carb diet, but I know that if I consistently eat lower than 50 carbs a day, my energy level drops dramatically.  I’m tired and irritable and usually have a bit of a headache.  I try to keep my carbs between 50-100 (a big carb day for me is about 135).  I generally feel pretty good in that range, and actually 135 was my old number (which is in the moderate range).  I knew from experience that eating really low carb (less than 20 carbs daily) really made me feel awful (some people call it ‘keto flu’ or ‘carb withdrawal’) so as I ate less, I found a range that worked for me: I didn’t feel tired or irritable, was getting enough fiber and glucose to exercise without getting exhausted or voraciously hungry, and my mood and hunger/ satiety were still positive.  By tracking all these things, I figured out what range is good for me.

This may sound like complex science experiment but it really isn’t.  If you use an app like MFP or Fitbit, when you enter your meals, the app does all the work for you. You don’t even have to write it all down if you don’t want to.  There’s a Notes section on MFP so at the end of the day (or during the day if you want) you can make notes like “really tired after lunch” or “lots of energy after breakfast” or whatever else you want to say about your mood, energy, digestion- whatever! The Nutrition portion of the app will tell you want your carbs, protein, fats and nutrients were for the day.  I like to write it all down but that’s just me!  It takes a couple minutes each day and at the end of a week, you have a lot of data collected.  If you don’t notice any problems or changes, then boom! you’re all done! But if, like me, you do notice days when you feel really tired or really fat or really hungry, you can take a look at what you did that day, and the next time it happens and the next, until you can see that each of those days you did or ate XYZ- maybe that’s the problem? Make a change! Then note the results: I ate more than 50 carbs and felt better.  I did a bigger cardio workout and I’m probably going to be really hungry tomorrow morning.  Tracking lets you know what you need to change and what you need to keep, so over time, your eating plan and workout program, and even your sleep schedule if you want, is customized to give you the best results for you. You know yourself better than anyone, even before you start tracking.  Tracking just clues you into the signals your body is sending you anyway- the difference is now you’re paying attention.  It’s like taking that “one size fits all” dress or slacks and altering it to fit you perfectly! Tracking also helps you keep making progress because we all know that what works for us now will eventually stop working as our bodies and metabolisms change.  This is why calorie counting methods keep dropping your calories the more weight you lose.  Eventually, your body will get used to your exercise and your metabolism will get used to a certain number of macros.  This is where many people get confused and frustrated and sometimes they will abandon their program and go in search of something different.  They may not need ‘something different’- they just need to make an adjustment to what they are doing now! It’s like altering those slacks again! It keeps your plan personalized for you! You have changed, so shouldn’t your plan change also?

One more heads-up: peer pressure can be enormous, especially if people are telling you you’re doing it ‘wrong,’ or that their plan is much better.  Maybe it is better- for them! Maybe the way you’re doing it works for you! The push to join the pack is extremely hard to resist.  We see everyone else having great success or lots of enthusiasm with their programs and we not only feel the need to be like others, we also want to have the same success.  It’s normal, but before we join the pack, we need to take stock of our current situation.  Is our plan working for us, i.e. we are hitting our goals and we are happy with it? If not, then maybe it’s time to make a change to our plan before abandoning it altogether.  If we do decide to try a new plan, we need to monitor ourselves to see if it works for us.  If not, again, we can try personalizing it to fit us or we can try something new again.  The point is that if we are not being patient and making the changes we need to our eating plans and workout programs, we are just going to keep bouncing from one to another.  That’s not a good way to find success.  One more personal example: when I started college, I took the required Study Skills class that said we should all study in a quiet isolated room with no distractions.  The guidance counselor thought I was crazy when I told her I studied in the living room with the tv on or the cafeteria full of students with the campus radio going full blast.  I knew from experience that the silence of the library was too distracting to me.  A sneeze in a silent room is the same as bomb going off while a sneeze in a room full of noise is just a sneeze.  My brain filters out a room full of noise as junk but one sound in silence is an alarm bell. I still study and read with the tv on.  We are all all our own unique individuals and we should be proud of our differences!  That’s what makes us strong! We need to focus on ourselves and less on what everyone else is doing and what everyone else says is “the best way to go.”  What works for “everyone else” would be fine, if we were “everyone else.”  Frankly, the world would be pretty boring if we were all everyone else and all dogs were poodles.