Gratitude Adjustment: Weight Loss & Positivity

Almost all of us know someone who’s never happy about anything.  Even if something good happens, they manage to find a negative about it.  As my grandpa used to say, “if he won a million dollars, he’d complain about the taxes!”  These days I joke a lot about how I’m never happy with our office thermostat: I complain when it’s cold, and I complain when they turn on the heat in the office- whatever the temperature is in our office, it’s not right for me! So I spend most of my time either wearing a sweater or with my desk fan on.  The difference between “being negative” and my fake-complaining is that I know my boss is trying to accommodate me but obviously, there are going to be people who in the office who don’t like my temperature setting either.  My boss is doing the best he can for everyone here and I know that, so if it’s too warm or stuffy for me, I turn on the fan on my desk and if it’s too chilly, I put on my sweater, and I will kid him about it every chance I get!

People who are true Negative Nancys / Neds are people who don’t acknowledge that others are doing the best they can to make everyone happy.  Whatever is going on, they automatically assume the worst. The traffic is always bad; the restaurant always gets their order wrong; if they win a million dollars, they’d have to share the pot with a hundred people plus pay the taxes! Nothing is ever right or good for them so they are always miserable!

I know a few people like that and my comment is usually something along the lines of “he’s only happy when he’s miserable.” I’ve stopped going out of my way to accommodate them or make them happy because it’s never going to be good enough anyway.  I know that’s a cop-out and I do try to do my best for them, but at the same time, I know whatever I do is going to be wrong.

We’ve all heard about the benefits of keeping a positive attitude and looking on the bright side of things. Usually we (meaning me!) roll our eyes and tune out without a second thought, but when we do that, we not only lose out on any benefits, we condemn those around us to our bad attitudes. I know there is a lot of media attention about Gratitude Journals and Gratitude Routines, either morning, evening or both, and while some of it can come off as “Feel-Good Mumbo-Jumbo,” that doesn’t make it worthless or nonsense.

One of the suggestions that usually made me roll my eyes and sigh deeply was the Morning Gratitude Routine (any morning routine, actually!) I don’t have a lot of time in the mornings because of my commute: I need to be out of my house by 6:45 a.m. and to be on the freeway by 7:00 to make it to work by 9:00 a.m.  Since I am so NOT a morning person, that means if I get up at 6:00 a.m., I have overslept! Where can I cram fifteen or twenty ‘calm’ minutes into my morning?  I spend the whole time looking at my watch! I have alarms on my phone to let me know the time before I even leave the house! And you want me to spend 15-20 minutes calmly focusing on what I’m grateful for or how I’m going to ‘win the day’? [Huge eye roll with exasperated sigh right about now!]

Then I realized that I do have a ‘morning gratitude routine.’  It’s just not like one everyone suggests: every morning I spend about 15-20 minutes focusing on my dogs.  I’ve actually built that time into my morning, getting up in time to spend those minutes playing with them, petting and holding them. We spend about 10-15 minutes when we first get up, telling each other good morning and playing with their toys, and then another five minutes or so on my lap before I leave for work.  While it’s not writing in a journal or focusing on ‘winning the day,’ it does set the mood for the day.  I am grateful for my dogs and their positive attitudes are infectious: it’s hard to be negative when you have a happy dog on your lap who just wants to play and be held. When I leave the house, even if I woke up in a bad mood, am feeling rushed or thinking of my busy day as I go out the door, I always feel better for having spent a few moments bonding with my dogs.

So, what does a good mood have to do with weight loss? A LOT more than most people think!  For starters, people who are happy or have a positive outlook are more likely to take better care of themselves. When you feel good about yourself or life in general, you are less likely to ‘medicate’ yourself with food or anything else.  Most of us look to sugar or treats to make ourselves feel better or happier, but when you already feel that way, there is less temptation and if you are offered treats, they are easier to refuse.

You are also more likely to be active.  When we feel good, we usually have more energy and are more productive.  We feel more confident and get more done at home and at work. In other words, when we are enjoying our lives and feeling positive about ourselves, we are less likely to grab a cheesecake and camp out on the sofa bingeing a tv show to escape from our own lives.

Happy positive people take more pride in their appearance, are nicer to others, are more productive, more active and tend to eat better than people who are pessimistic or have a negative outlook on life. So while taking a few moments every day to focus on the positive things in your life is good for your health and weight loss, it’s just plain good for you overall!

How you choose to focus on the positive is completely up to you! There are people who love and swear by their Gratitude Journals.  Those do have the added bonus of being able to look back on what you’ve written, but for some of us, just the act of sitting down with pen in hand to put your gratitude down on paper is enough to kill the positive mood.  There are people who take joy in spending time with their family and kids in the morning the way I do with my dogs, and there are others who choose prayer or meditation.  And it also doesn’t have to be in the morning (although it does tend to set the tone for the day).  I have a different evening routine with my dogs and cats (the cats ignore me in the mornings- also not morning people!)  I spend a few moments when I get home and more time when we go to bed, plus they are usually on my lap or on my feet when I am home anyway.

What you choose to do is less important than the ritual’s overall importance to you.  Reminding yourself of the good things and people in your life and their significance to you is the point.  When we focus on weight loss, most of us are used to counting our calories to make progress but we need to remind ourselves that we might make more progress if we count our blessings as well!

You Are Stronger Than You Know: Weight Loss & Testing Your Mettle

This is something I have been repeating to myself for the last few weeks. It happens to all of us from time to time: we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes we’re fighting a bug or getting over it; sometimes it’s overwork or just stress or even just feeling really burned out.  It really doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we just really want to take a break– from everything!

You know the feeling: the alarm goes off and as we turn it off, the thought of calling in sick runs through our head.  You are on your way home from work, there’s nothing prepared for dinner and you feel too tired to cook, so ‘we can do takeout for one night, can’t we?’ Every little thing feels like a major production and the demands on your time and energy are really beginning to wear on you.

Before you give in and speed dial the Chinese Palace, take a deep breath and repeat after me: “you are stronger than you know!” Normally, I am not someone who subscribes to “feel good” mantras.  I am not discounting mantras as ‘hocus pocus,’ but like affirmations, they are highly personal.  Mantras and affirmations work for a lot of people, but for me, not so much. Standing in front of a mirror and telling myself “I am worth my best effort every day!” makes me want to roll my eyes.  I have heard others remark “if you don’t believe affirmations/ mantras work, tell your kids they are failures every morning and see the effect that has on them.” I firmly believe mantras and affirmations work when we believe them and, while I truly believe I am worth my best efforts every day, I also know that some days, we have to put others ahead of us. In short, Real Life catches up to us.  We have to get a project done, which means we work late, which means that healthy dinner we had planned isn’t looking good to us as we drive home, exhausted and already running late. “Hello, Chinese Palace?”

“You are stronger than you know.”  I’ve been repeating this particular mantra to myself a lot lately simply because I’ve been so busy! There’s been more going on at work, there’s been more going on socially, and I’ve got tendonitis in my right hand which is healing very slowly. On top of all this, I’m house/ dog sitting for my sister’s family which means I’ve got 8 dogs on my hands and as I was packing the car the morning of my departure, I tripped over the luggage and landed in the flower bed! A few bruises, some muscle strains and landed on the right hand– lovely! I really felt like giving up! But, I packed the car, loaded my own dogs (2 of the 8) and headed off to my sister’s. There are people and dogs depending on me!

Given everything that’s gone on in the last few weeks, it would be easy to give up: I need a break! And the truth is that I really do need a break, but not from taking care of myself! In fact, taking a break and getting some rest would qualify as ‘taking care of myself,’ since it would allow me to rest, catch up on some sleep and de-stress.  We all know what happens when we allow ourselves to become overworked, underslept and over-stressed: reference that sore throat mentioned above! We tend to get sick and worse, we tend to be chronically tired. You might think those should be reversed and that being sick is worse, but there’s a lot that stems from chronic exhaustion.  It takes us longer to recover from illness and injury (reference the tendonitis in my hand), we tend to make mistakes due to poor concentration and we tend to make poor decisions as well.  In short, when you are chronically tired, run down and over-stressed, your sleep quality goes down due to the stress, you tend to get more stressed more easily, you are likely to forget things or make errors, which can lead to more stress or injury and when you are faced with a choice like takeout or something healthier, you are more likely to choose the takeout since it’s one less thing for you to do!

Ideally, you should always be the first priority on your list since how can you take care of the others in your life is you are exhausted and burnt out?  As I said, “ideally!” We all know that’s not what happens as much as it should. But giving up and giving in to junk food isn’t going to make you less tired or less burnt out or more rested. More often than not, it’s going to make you feel worse than you did before. If it’s full of sugar or carbs, your blood sugar will likely spike then plummet. If it doesn’t have a lot of nutrition, it will probably add to your feeling run down and if it’s more junk than nutrition, you will probably feel hungry again a couple of hours later.

At the risk of sounding like an old lady, too many of us use the very good practice of “taking care of oneself” as an excuse to give up.  In short, we are becoming a culture of crybabies. It isn’t quite “he was mean to me so I’m not going to work/ school/ gym today” but sometimes it feels like it’s headed that way.  It’s one thing to take care of yourself, as in stand up for yourself when a coworker/ supervisor is mean, rude or otherwise inappropriate, or to stay home a day or two to fight off a cold or flu.  Staying home and getting some rest not only helps you recover faster, it keeps you from giving the bug to the rest of office! (Thank you for NOT sharing!) You know the people I’m talking about: they are the ones in the office who look for a reason not to come to work or to pass off the difficult assignments to you. Their lives are full of drama and stress and they need sympathy and attention because “it’s all too much to handle!”

Life has a way of wearing us down if we let it but we don’t have to let it get that bad.  More importantly, we don’t need to give up every time we get stub our toe! We really are stronger than we know but most of us throw in the towel before we even begin to test our mettle.  We’ve all heard stories of ordinary people who have survived some really hard situations and overcome tremendous obstacles: what we don’t realize is that the same kind of resilience and mental toughness is in all of us.  We just haven’t had to go there, so most of us think “I’d never survive something like that!” When the time comes, however, we surprise ourselves by finding the strength we thought we didn’t have.

Obviously, surviving a few tough weeks at work or at home doesn’t really qualify as a “life or death survival situation,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t tough.  When we give up on taking care of our health because things aren’t going as smoothly as we’d like, it becomes a habit and like all bad habits, the more we practice them, the better we get! We never put ourselves to the test because when things start to look difficult, we start looking for shortcuts and escape routes to avoid whatever difficulties might be coming our way.

We need to get in the practice of toughing it when it’s appropriate and taking time to rest when we really need it.  FYI: “rest” doesn’t mean “takeout” or “ice cream”– it means getting some sleep, eating something nutritious and maybe getting a little sunlight.  It can mean walking the dogs down to the park and rolling around on the lawn with them. Taking care of yourself is the most restful thing you can for yourself and it’s pretty dang healthy too!

 

 

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!)

 

Weight Loss & The Why: Does It Really Matter Why You Gained Weight?

I am going to admit right now that I have a love-hate relationship with asking Why.  There are a lot of scientific issues where I want to know why something occurs the way it does or how something came about in history.  I’m just curious that way and I realize that knowing the Why or the How doesn’t necessarily add anything to the outcome beyond satisfying my curiosity. When it comes to obesity and losing weight, I think knowing the Why can be risky.

When you end up gaining as much weight as I did (+/- 450 lbs), does it really matter Why I gained weight?  Other than a medical-physical reason such as a problem with my thyroid or another hormone, the Why is pretty much irrelevant. I can tell you when I started putting on a lot of weight and I know it correlates to my horrible home life while I was in middle school.  If you wanted a Why in my case, that would probably be it. Does it solve anything?  Does knowing that add anything to the outcome? Nope, not really! Living at home really really sucked and my escape from it was eating bags of chips, cookies and whatever else was available and doing it repeatedly.  End result: I learned to ‘solve’ my emotional stress with food. Not a whole lot of insight there: most people who are overweight ‘medicate’ themselves with food!

Does looking back at that extremely stressful time in my childhood and drawing the conclusion that I overate to soothe negative emotions help me with my current weight loss? That one can go either way: since I know I am a stress-eater, I can take steps to use other non-food methods to relieve my stress but do I have to go back to ‘when I first started to gain weight, it was because of the stress in my childhood and I overate to relieve that stress’? Again, most of us know by the time we are adults that we are stress-eaters and knowing that doesn’t contribute anything unless we take steps to manage our stress without food!  But beyond providing interesting but not necessarily useful information about ourselves, there is a small danger associated with digging up this Why.

That danger has to do with blame.  A recent post was about shifting the blame for why you aren’t losing weight or why you might be overweight now. Blaming it on our DNA or our family’s eating habits are common: it’s just an accident of biology or a family dynamic.  If a lot of your family is chubby or obese, you are just like everyone else! If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s no big deal!

The problem comes when you can point your finger at one act or one time in your life as The Reason Why and you refuse to move forward from that point. In my case, I can blame my initial weight gain on my parents’ crappy marriage and the roller-coaster home life that ensued. As I said before, knowing that doesn’t help me say no when I’m standing in Safeway’s bakery section debating whether I really ‘need’ that piece of German chocolate cake for dessert, but it does offer me an excuse to get it! “This is how I deal with stress and it’s been a horrible week!”; “I can’t help being obese- this is how I learned to deal with life!”; “I’ve been fat since I was a kid and it’s not my fault my parents didn’t stop me from eating!” Shifting blame, anyone?

For some of us, digging up the Why becomes our End Goal instead of developing healthier eating habits.  There are a million different reasons we might gain weight: a medical condition, an injury, an emotional issue, or the simple fact that food was scarce for a time in our lives and we learned to overcompensate. While all of these can be the cause of our weight gain, knowing that only helps us lose the weight if we take steps to correct the cause. In my case, it took me a few years to get distance and perspective on Why I gained the weight I did.  Obviously, while I was in the middle of that horrible home life, making a connection between scarfing bags of potato chips and zoning out so I don’t have to listen to my parents screaming at each other was pretty much impossible.  Looking back, it’s become pretty clear that my weight began to get out of control the crazier things got at home, but at the time I didn’t realize it was even possible to ‘medicate’ oneself with food.

After making the connection as an adult, it’s been pretty easy to draw connections between “I’m feeling crazy-stressed right now!” and the desire to wolf down carrot cake: “let’s forget how stressed we are by eating something yummy!” or even not-yummy.  Sometimes eating until we feel sick or eating just to eat or eating ‘so it’s all gone’: all of those are options to avoid the negative emotions we don’t want to deal with! I mean, it worked when I was a kid, didn’t it?

No, it didn’t work.  I felt better for the few minutes I was eating but gaining all that weight just made so many things that much harder.  It was hard to find clothes that fit; I was ridiculed by classmates, family members and even a few teachers for being overweight.  It was a continual problem between my mom and me.  Everything in my life that wasn’t already in chaos because of the poor family dynamics was thrown into chaos because of my ballooning weight.  My weight became the focus of how awful things were at home: my parents blamed my weight on each other; it was a constant landmine at home and the more there were problems at home, the more I ate and the bigger I got.  Eating my problems only added to my problems!

This is what I need to take away from Why I Gained Weight: eating my emotions made everything worse! Going forward, I need to remind myself that eating cake or chips or bread or anything does not solve any problems at all unless that problem is “my body needs fuel.” Eating because I am hungry is the only reason I need to eat! Even then, I don’t have to eat “right now!” just because I am hungry, especially if there aren’t any healthy options around.  If I can wait until later when I can eat something healthy or something I really enjoy, then I can wait to eat.  We’ve all stared into the fridge or the pantry looking for something to eat and asking ourselves “what am I hungry for?”  We aren’t really hungry because if we were,  we’d eat what was there, whether it’s eggs, broccoli, a can of soup, etc.  The fact that we’re ‘hungry for something’ means we’re looking for comfort or distraction, not food!

We all have unhappy events in our lives, some of them much more traumatic than others.  Some of us learned to deal with these incidences by eating our emotions and some of us turned to other methods to deal with the emotional and psychological fallout.  However we’ve chosen to deal with them, if our method is unhealthy (like overeating), then it is adding to our problems, not helping us deal with them. When it comes to our weight, knowing Why we gained weight initially only helps us if we take that incident or learned habit and use it to find ways to correct the detrimental behavior.

Yes, it sucks having to find other ways of dealing with stress.  Sometimes we have to face the yucky emotions and just deal with them.  Stress is uncomfortable, but until we find a healthy way of dealing with our negative emotions and situations, eating our stress only adds to the stress in our lives.  It may be that we have to learn meditation or a breathing technique or prayer or even a counselor. All of these techniques are healthier than eating our emotions. There’s also no rule that says you have to find only one technique either! In some situations I simply tell myself “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” because worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet is just adding more stress.  In some situations I go to the gym and spend some time in the pool.  My Go-To Stress Relievers? My pets! I go home, spend some time playing with them and they are such a healthy distraction that I feel better almost immediately (and they are calorie free!)

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!

 

 

 

 

Connected: Being Part of a Pack- er- Tribe?

I recently heard a podcast about ‘Longevity village’ in China.  This is an isolated village (or at least it used to be!) where the residents routinely live 100 years or pretty close to it.  Once researchers found out about it, they naturally had to figure out why these people were living so long and were so healthy. From what I heard, most of it was the obvious: hard physical work that keeps them mobile most of the day; getting up and going to bed with the sun; clean fresh food and water; natural optimism when it comes to stress; and strong social connections.  The strong social connections is what catches a lot of people by surprise.  What does it matter if you have a positive social network?  Being a devoted pet parent, it’s easier for me to understand than for someone who doesn’t spend 90% of their time around four legged individuals.

Some of you know I am a hard core TLC addict, and I’ve been seeing ads for a new show called The Putmans, which has yet to premiere.  It’s about an extended family all living in one home, which is about 25 people.  I grew up in an atypical family and although we didn’t all live in the same household, we regularly interacted.  If any of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, my family was really similar.  There’s the scene where Tula gets busted because her cousin sees her with her boyfriend who tells her aunt who gets in her face about him.  That was pretty much how I grew up: lots of relatives who all live in the same town so we run into each other all over.  We also had a tradition of getting together on Sunday afternoon/ evenings.  We would eat dinner and spend time talking, playing games or passing around parts of the newspaper.  Usually the television would be off and any devices would be put away.  This was time we spent being together and holidays were simply to ‘all day version’ of Sunday afternoons.  These weekly get-togethers ended when my grandparents passed away (we met at their house) and they are one of the things that I miss most.  Although I still connect with my family, it’s mainly over the phone or through social media.  While the host of the podcast feels this is still a viable connection, for me, it lacks the real connection of being in the same room with them.

SinceI grew up having my family around me, it was normal to stop at a bakery or business where a relative worked.  Seeing them in stores or around town was and still is normal.  Even as a child I was very aware that this was not how it was with most of my classmates and colleagues (my grandparents lived into their 90’s, so this tradition lasted well into my 40’s).  I also came to realize that for friends and colleagues who grew up in other countries that this was very normal for them.  For them, running into a relative while shopping or having coffee with friends was just part of every day life and most of my foreign-born friends soon came to realize that most American families have a different idea of ‘family.’

I’m not criticizing anyone’s idea of ‘family,’ but having grown up with one version and now living a more ‘standardized’ version, I know which version I prefer.  I miss the connections and interactions with family, and while many of them are happy connecting through social media, I’m pretty lame when it comes to apps like Facebook or Instagram. The important aspect is the Connection.  Humans are social creatures and we don’t do well in isolation. This is what makes positive social interaction important to our health.

There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment, not only in prisons but also as children.  Remember all those times we misbehaved and got sent to our room?  It’s solitary confinement: if you can’t work well or play well others, then you’re going to be alone.  Across the world, cultures have traditionally used a form of isolation or ostracism to punish those who disrupt the society at large, and it tends to be successful.  Loneliness is a huge problem, even in our cyber-connected society, and it leads to a host of health problems.  As the author of The Longevity Plan pointed out, people who have strong and positive social connections live about seven years longer than those without them.

Having grown up with pets all my life, I have seen the interaction among them.  Dogs are as social as humans are and while we travel in ‘tribes’ and dogs travel in ‘packs,’ it’s all the same thing: this is my social unit.  We eat together, we sleep together, we play together and we work together.  This is how we survive. (Cats are less social, but they also strengthen their societal bonds in the same ways.) If any of you are familiar with Dr. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimps, our closest primate cousins also travel in tribes and follow the same kinds of bonding behaviors: grooming; sleeping; eating; playing; working.  We are more successful, productive and safer in our groups. A chimp, dog, cat or human is far safer in their group than on their own.

I have a very clear memory of when I began living alone, or at least being the only human in my house. It was the day my sister moved away to college: I said good bye and watched her drive away and as I walked back into the house, I realized that I was alone.  More specifically, I realized that changing the lightbulb in the garage had new implications for me: if I fell off the ladder, it could be days before anyone realized something had happened to me. This is one of the reasons ’emergency pendants’ are such big business now: more of us live alone and face the same dangers.

Falling off the ladder aside, positive social connections promote a positive outlook.  When we’re happy, we have others to share our joy and when we’re upset or angry, we have others to commiserate and share our burden. We have others to help with a project, come up with plans or even help with the physical labor. Remember the expression ‘many hands make light work’? Being alone makes everything harder, even the every day tasks most of us don’t really think about.  Living alone, if I don’t do the dishes, they sit in the sink until I do them.  The same with throwing out the trash, making a meal, doing the laundry, and the shopping and the rest of the housework.  If I don’t do it, there is no one else in my house who will.  That means all of the work falls to me, which means I have less time to pursue things I enjoy or to socialize.

Even taking care of my pets falls to the sole human in the pack (2 cats, 1 dog, 1 human).  I notice a lot of the same bonding behavior among us even though we are different species: they will all groom each other, play with each other, sleep next to each other and eat together.  As the lone biped, I am not exempt: they include me as much as they can with playing, licking and sitting on me.  When we go to sleep at night, all four of us end up in the same room and usually on the same bed. I realize that most people think it’s pretty weird to consider animals as part of a family unit, but I really grew up treating them as people (they are a Who not an It.) I have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter so much what we interact with so much as the fact that we do interact.  If we feel we are connected and feel the benefits of those connections, then it doesn’t matter if the connection is with a phone, a tablet or a dog or a cat.  We benefit from knowing that we are not alone.  Recently, in fact, I was at home without my dog since I had returned from a trip on a Sunday and could not pick him up until the following day.  When I went to bed that night, I was very aware that there was no dog in my house and I didn’t feel as safe as I do when he is there (he’s all of 12 lbs!) The cats were also aware that one of our pack was missing and were looking for him in the house, which felt oddly empty without his bouncing around. I know my furry little family unit looks a lot different than most and while they may not be human, they are most definitely my tribe.

Giving in to Stress is Deal with the Devil

When you are on a fitness or weight loss journey, we are used to taking the budget approach to calories and fitness. A lot of our calorie calculators look like a long math problem: 1200 calories + 1350 food = -150 calories + 400 exercise = 250 calories left over. Yes! I can eat that 200 calorie cup of yogurt after dinner! It’d be nice if it really was so simple, but the truth is that metabolism isn’t so cut and dry, and more than food and exercise affect it.
What we don’t realize is that almost everything we do in our lives has a cost and a consequence, whether weight related or not. Relationships, work, food, exercise, and every day life: they all have a cost in our lives and a lot of times, that cost is hidden.
We’re get used to looking at labels and putting on our activity trackers with our watch or jewelry. We diligently log our food and water, and we make a point of getting more sleep. These are all good healthy habits we should be proud of, but when it comes to the stress in our lives, we don’t see it as something with a cost, or at least a cost that can be controlled.
Stress, both good and bad, is a normal part of life. That’s a given but we don’t always think about the effects stress has on us or on our health, fitness and weight loss. Even ‘good stress’ like exercise or a vacation trip, puts pressure on our health. We’ve all heard the expression “a vacation from the vacation.” It’s because the packing, the traveling, the being away from home, and then all the unpacking, laundry, and fitting back into every day life: you guessed it! There’s stress! Even if the vacation was wonderful and relaxing, getting back into your routine can take some work.
There are other stressors in our lives we may not recognize, like helping someone out. Even something as simple as picking up someone’s mail or feeding their cat while they’re gone can be a stress, especially if you already have a busy schedule. It’s one more thing to get into your day, and the more of those “little easy things” you add to your day, the more stress you are under. We’re used to thinking of calories and exercise adding up, but stress also has a cumulative effect.
When we don’t manage our stress like we manage the rest of our health, simply put we are buying trouble. Managing our stress can be as simple as not cramming our schedule full to bursting, even if it’s “healthy” stress like exercise. (That’s why we need recovery/ rest days.) “Fun stress” also takes a toll, if you finish the end of every day or every weekend exhausted. Stress relieving activities don’t have to be things like yoga or meditation: they can be simple things like walking the dog, taking the kids to the park, or just spending some leisurely time in the pool. Other choices: doing a puzzle or crossword, getting a manicure, reading a book. Essentially, if it’s something you enjoy that’s restful, then you need to make time for it in your schedule on a regular basis, but cramming it in just so you have “stress relief” may work against you. These should be activities that don’t really have a timer attached.
We know there’s limits on our calories and our time for sleep and exercise, but they are also limits on how much stress we can handle. We’re mindful of things like gluten, sugar, and overtraining, but we also need to be mindful of what else we sign up for when we sign up for the other non-health activities in our lives.