Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ready, set, DASH!

Don't reach for those running shoes just yet — this DASH is a diet. The acronym stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, but one doesn't need high blood pressure to reap the benefits of this eating plan.

And that's all DASH is — a sensible way to eat daily, for life.

I'm not a nutritionist or dietitian, so I'm offering this story only as a personal account of my experience with DASH.

I was introduced to DASH last summer, when my blood pressure began flirting with the so-called prehypertension range (120/80 to 139/89) and I wanted to stop that train in its tracks, without medication. My doctor recommended DASH, and gave me some information about it.

The basics of the DASH diet are simple: it stresses the consumption of grains (6 to 12 servings a day); fruits (4 to 6 servings); vegetables (4 to 6 servings); low-fat dairy foods (2 to 4 servings); lean meat, fish or poultry (1.5 to 2.5 servings); and nuts, seeds or legumes (3 to 6 servings per week). It even allows for limited amount of fats and sweets (2 to 4 servings a day); and alcohol (no more than one drink a day for women, two for men). These serving amounts are based on a daily intake of from 1,600 to 3,100 calories.

Now I was already a pretty healthy eater to begin with, so fitting DASH into my life was easy. I mainly had to add a few more grains and another serving or two of fruits and vegetables, reduce some of the processed foods I was eating, and try to keep that sweet tooth in check. A checkoff form I found online helped me follow the plan's guidelines.

I never feel hungry between meals when I follow the DASH recommendations, and I have more energy than when I'm eating junk. In combination with daily walking and other exercise, I have lost weight on the DASH diet (without even intending to), and my blood pressure has come down to normal levels.

I genuinely like the DASH plan, and figured that now is a good time to mention it, as we head into that season when locally grown fruits and vegetables become readily available. If you want to give it a try, the local farmers will probably be as happy as your body will be.

It's too bad that the word diet has come to have such negative connotations, because the word simply refers to our daily sustenance. It's about nourishment, not deprivation.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Caution: Headlines ahead

Ever notice how one week you'll see a headline like Red Wine Prevents Heart Disease, Study Says and then two weeks later, as you sip a glass of Cabernet while enjoying the Sunday paper, you'll see Study: Red Wine Leads to Growth of Third Eye, or some such horrible thing?

I'm a fan of science — it's improved our lives in innumerable ways. But the reporting of it? Not so much ...

Take the New York Times headline I came across this weekend: Excess Pounds, but Not Too Many, May Lead to Longer Life.

It piqued my interest, and apparently caught the attention of a lot of others, because it was among the most-frequently e-mailed health stories of the week, according to the newspaper's Web site. Spread the word, overweight is good!

The story goes on to explain that the study's headline-worthy finding applied to people who were "overweight but not obese — defined as a body mass index of 25 to 29.9."

I wondered just how many readers would know what BMI means, or how to calculate it. A little explanation would have been nice, to help put the information in context.

You can find a BMI calculator here, in case you're curious what yours is.

The study found that people in that 25-to-29.9 BMI range had a 17 percent lower risk of dying than people of normal weight (defined as a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9). Those who were underweight (a BMI under 18.5) were found to have a 73 percent greater chance of dying than those of normal weight.

Call me self-absorbed, but my usual reaction to such stories is: what does this mean for me? So I tried out that BMI calculator. I'm 5'6" and weigh 136, for a BMI of 21.9.

It turns out that to reach a BMI of 25 to 25.9, I would need to weigh from 155 to 185 pounds.

Would I want to gain 19 to 49 pounds, even if I thought it would buy me a few extra years? Nah, I think I'll pass, thanks.

The study was said to have taken such factors as physical activity and age into account. The data came from 11,326 Canadian adults (sometimes what happens in Canada stays in Canada) who were tracked over 12 years.

Something about it all just didn't sit right with me and I wanted to know more about how the study was conducted and what the actual findings were, not just a quick summary as filtered through a reporter. I clicked on the link that was supposed to take me to the journal Obesity, where the study was said to have first been published, but that link redirected me back to the New York Times Web site.

Other links in the story proved equally unhelpful in finding out more information about the study itself. This story wasn't making it easy for me to draw an informed conclusion.

Even if far more information had been available, how many readers would want to sift through it?

My point is, it's far too easy to seize on a headline and run with it. I also think that when we're bombarded with conflicting information — and there's a cacophony of health and fitness news these days — we eventually lose interest and tune it all out.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of good information out there that we could use to improve our lives. So please, keep on reading, but with a sense of curiosity and a sharp eye, and take some of those study findings with a grain of salt.

But only one grain, please. Excess Sodium Intake Can Raise Blood Pressure, Studies Say

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Off to the links

How I wish I were playing golf today! I don't know about you, but all this rain has been seriously cramping my outdoor lifestyle.

Today I'm talking hyperlinks. I'm beginning to add to this page what I hope will be some useful links — places where you can go for some expert, trustworthy information about health and fitness.

I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of my personal favorites, the Mayo Clinic's Healthy Lifestyle page. It's chock-full of information that will help keep you fit and well. I also love the recipes.

Here's a fun little quiz from the site that you can take, just to get your feet wet — if they aren't already.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Healthy, wealthy and thighs

All right, back to those headlines that raise my blood pressure. Besides being tired of media messages whose purpose is to make us feel inadequate (in order to sell products, of course), I'm also troubled by the amount of misinformation and outright disinformation they convey.

The big myth behind those gut-busting headlines is that you can "spot reduce." That is, that by targeting your abdominal muscles — or whatever body area happens to be causing you misery — using the exercise-du-jour, you can transform fat into lean mass. That's simply not true.

Regular strength training will make muscles stronger, but if you're still carrying a lot of extra fat, no one is going to notice those muscles.

The only way to get rid of fat is to burn it through aerobic exercise, by expending more calories than are consumed. And even that's no guarantee of wonderful abs, arms, legs, or whatever. First In First Out is an accounting principle, not a fat-loss phenomenon: when you're burning fat, you just have to hope it comes off where you want it to.

I also hate to mention that dreaded word genetics, but all of us all have favorite storage areas for excess fat. If the abdomen happens to be your spot, all the crunches in the world won't reduce it.

None of this is meant to discourage anybody from exercise. I just hate to see people have unrealistic expectations, because those can only lead to an exercise in frustration. It is possible to transform your body composition, but it's not as easy as the magazines might like you to think.

So keep on exercising, but not because "they" tell you it will make you look like "this" or "that." Do it because it makes you feel stronger, healthier, better.

By the way, in case you're wondering about the headline: I'm healthy, and in my mind, that makes we wealthy.

And those thighs? Well, let's just say that even though I've been lucky enough to have had good abs all my life without even trying, anytime I've carried excess weight, I knew exactly where it was going to end up.

I don't worry about it anymore. Those legs of mine might not ever be invited to a photo shoot, but they're strong and take me where I want to go.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


OK people, there's nothing to see here — please move on. To be continued tomorrow, after I calm down. These headlines that just seem to scream at us from the supermarket checkout get me ripped. And I'm certainly not referring to my physique.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pour a shot and make a toast to ...

... ALMONDS! For those of you who were hoping this was going somewhere else, maybe you're not reading the right blog. Perhaps you meant to go here.

I'm just plain nuts about almonds. They're a really delicious and convenient snack. Yes, they contain quite a bit of fat, but it's the good kind of fat. And it just doesn't get any better than that when it comes to fat!

They're also a good source of protein, calcium, iron and vitamin E. You can read all about it here, if you're so inclined. Jeez, it's only day five and already I'm getting lazy. That's because this post wasn't intended to be about almonds — it's really about portion size.

Remember that shot glass? Well it turns out that a serving of almonds fills a shot glass. Isn't that convenient? I don't know about you, but I have a few problems with the portion system, if there even is one. Take a pint of ice cream, for example. That's four servings. Really? Not on my couch! Sometimes it's hard to know just how much we're really eating.

Back to almonds: The can says 28 almonds constitute a serving. Without any education about the matter, I'd look at that and grab a fistful and say, yeah, that's about right. In reality, I'd probably have 122 almonds in my grasp.

So what I'm proposing here is an occasional reality check. I'm against obsessive measurements of any kind (see my first post), so I'm not suggesting that you weigh or measure or count everything you eat.

What I am proposing is that you just occasionally pull out the measuring cup or that pack of playing cards that's the benchmark for fish and meat servings and consider how much you're really eating. After just a couple of tries, you'll get the idea.

This is not about weight loss, though certainly reducing portion sizes would aid in that. This is about health. If we kid ourselves about how much we're eating, then chances are we're getting a lot more of a lot of things, such as saturated fats and sodium, than maybe we should. It's even possible to overdo the good stuff, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

I'm not trying to place blame, mind you. After all, we live in a super-size society, and our nation as a whole is starting to show it. I'm just advocating that we all think a little bit more about what we eat, and how much of it we're eating.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go knock back a shot.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fun and games on a slippery slope

One of the passions in my adult life has been skiing. I got a somewhat late start to the sport, at age 25, but I more than made up for that soon after by managing to get in 40 to 50 days on the slopes each season. I didn't want to be just an OK skier — I wanted to be a really good, even expert, skier.

I trace my breakthrough in that quest to a chance meeting in 1994 with a ski instructor at Stratton Mountain, Vermont. The instructor, whose name was Jep, happened to be skiing on his day off when we ended up sharing a chairlift ride. We were both alone, so he asked if I wanted to take a run with him. I agreed. He seemed pleasantly surprised at my abilities after that first run, and we hopped back onto the chairlift together, eagerly chatting on the way back up about books, life, and skiing.

As we slid off at the top again, Jep asked me if I wanted to "play a game" on our next run. "Sure," I said blindly, figuring that as an instructor, he knew what he was doing. He then asked me to follow him down the mountain as closely as I could, keeping the tips of my skis practically on the tails of his. He said if we collided, we'd just get back up and have a laugh. Oh sure, I thought, I'll laugh — so long as the nerves controlling laughter haven't been severed in a bone-shattering crash. I briefly considered whether Jep was insane, then dropped in behind him as he headed down a black-diamond trail.

I'm the sort whose competitive nature can get her in trouble, so I managed to stick right with Jep the whole way down as he carved turns at what seemed like warp speed, first closer to the trail's edge than I usually cared to go, then around lift stanchions and over a couple of rolls before we finally came to a stop, both of us breathless and laughing, our spines intact. This went on for a few more runs, until it was time for me to head home.

I was genuinely surprised that I could ski that well, but it was only later that I truly realized why that day seemed so magical: Jep had gotten me back in touch with the joy of skiing. I had become so focused on my goal that I had lost touch with the means of attaining it. Instead of playfully exploring the mountain and trying new things, I had become beholden to a set of instructions, positions, and expectations. My skiing had lost its spontaneity.

I never saw Jep again, but my skiing improved immensely after our afternoon together — I could simply ski, instead of thinking about skiing.

His little game came to mind as I contemplated why some people seem so averse to regular exercise. Perhaps we've made it too much of a chore (even the phrase "working out" has negative connotations). The movements we spontaneously and joyfully made as children — skipping down the street, tumbling down a hill, running as we played hide-and-seek — have been replaced by a rigid set of rules about what we're supposed to do and when we're supposed to do it, how we're supposed to look, how we're supposed to act.

I'd like to think that becoming fit, or at least fitter, doesn't have to be work. If you don't like treadmills or elliptical machines, take a brisk walk or jog in the woods. If you don't like resistance machines, drop down into the grass for some push-ups or find a suitable tree branch on which to do some chin-ups. Perform lunges while you mow the lawn and let your neighbors laugh — it'll be good for them, too.

If you're the indoor type, do some jumping jacks while watching Wheel of Fortune, dance along with Dancing with the Stars, or try some aerobic vacuuming while plugged into your favorite tunes.

If you're already a gym rat, then mix it up: if you've been doing three sets of 12 reps for as long as you can remember, try two sets of 8 reps with a heavier weight. Add intervals to your aerobic training. Take a yoga class.

My point is, there's no set way to do any of this: just keep moving, and have some fun along the way.

As I write this, I can still remember how the wind in my face felt on that beautiful afternoon at Stratton, when Jep taught me all over again what it means to ski. It felt like freedom.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Easy Writer

As I begin my first full week as a newbie blogger, I suppose now is as good a time as any to explain just what the heck this blog is intended to be.

When I first entertained the idea of starting it, those little voices of doubt began chattering: But there are already so many fitness blogs; you aren't an "expert" in the field; how can you possibly have something to write about every day?

My biggest worry was not that I would run out of things to say, but rather, would what I have to say add anything of value to the overall conversation? And then the answer, rhetorical as it was, hit me like a blind-side tackle: Why wouldn't it?

It's true, there are a lot of fitness blogs, but blogs are like clothes; you usually have to try a few on before you find one that fits just right. I hope this one will make you look and feel stunning.

And no, I don't have a degree in medicine or exercise science, and I'm not a registered dietitian. But I do have decades of experience as a fitness-industry consumer and as a practitioner of regular exercise. I'm also currently studying for the American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification, and hope to be certified before the summer's end.

I'd like to think that my biggest credential is that I'm 50 (soon to be 51), and feel great. I'm as active and strong as ever, and more open to all the possibilities that life has to offer. I think I can bring a unique perspective to the discussion of fitness. So I plan to be here most days, serving up what I hope will be some nutritious food for thought with a Rhode Island flavor and a side of humor and fun.

After having thoroughly enjoyed creating my first two posts, I suspect this blog might prove to be as much an opportunity to exercise my writing skills as it is a venue for writing about my exercise skills. We'll see where it goes. I hope you'll join me for the ride.

In deciding to go forward, I recalled one of my favorite movie lines, from The Dish: "Failure is never quite so frightening as regret."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Slant-outs, buttonhooks, and Dad

I have been athletic all my life, and I have two people to thank for that. One was a boy named Michael, who lived on the street where I grew up. The other is my father.

First, Michael. When I was 4 years old, my family moved from Wilmington, Delaware to Munster, Indiana, and Michael, who was the same age as I, showed up on our doorstep the day we arrived, a football tucked under his arm, hoping that the moving van meant a new playmate. If he was disappointed that our home had only two girls, he never let on, and Michael and I soon became inseparable best friends. He taught me how to play football, baseball and basketball, and in a neighborhood rife with boys and short on girls, I was just one of the guys when it came to sports.

Now my father and mother were pretty traditional, but they never seemed troubled by my tomboyish ways. My father encouraged me in all of my athletic pursuits. I think he was genuinely happy to have someone to practice his knuckleball and curveball on, or toss the football with.

Playing catch became a daily ritual with us when he arrived home from work in the seasons that offered enough evening light. Football was our favorite sport, and we would spend hours devising and practicing pass plays that we would later use on unsuspecting overnight guests and in the pickup games that often took root in our spacious, treeless backyard. My father and I were good — really good, if I may say so.

When I was 14, we moved back to Delaware, where I faced a different school, different friends, and different neighbors. But all through high school, my dad and I kept throwing the football around, and challenging each other in other sports as well.

We were ridiculously competitive when it came to table tennis. My mother would just shake her head when my dad and I would emerge from the basement after playing, drenched in sweat, the victor taking verbal jabs at the loser. Winning wasn't always everything, but it sure was important to both of us.

After I moved away from home to go to college, and later moved to New England, the football came out of the closet fewer and fewer times each year. As I got older, I managed to play touch football every so often with friends and coworkers, but those games always paled in comparison to the ones I remembered from my childhood.

My father is 83 now, but still relatively fit and active. The last time we tossed the football around together was two years ago at Thanksgiving. His arm was clearly not what it was once, and I could no longer run a post pattern with the utter abandon I once did, but the joy was still there for both of us — the joy of movement, sport, the outdoors and competition. Those were the lessons I learned best from my father.

So thanks, Dad, for teaching me that to "throw like a girl" can be a good thing. I still get the occasional chance to throw a football around, but I miss having someone who knows my routes well enough to lead me perfectly. Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The injustice of scales

Bathroom scales can be dangerous, especially when you're planning to clobber them into smithereens. So please, when executing this maneuver, always wear safety glasses.

I guess it's obvious that I don't like scales. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I don't like the way many people become slaves to them. Okay, okay, I'll admit that I've dabbled in such slavery in the past. I couldn't help myself; the poor scale was just sitting there patiently in the bathroom, day after day, waiting to perform its sole function in life. I didn't want it to feel unappreciated.

Like just about everything else in life, when used in moderation, the bathroom scale has some value. When misused, however, that quiet little beast is capable of setting off cycles of frustration and despair, or, conversely, joy and jubilant celebration, both of which can trigger episodes of counterproductive eating.

Those of us who log a lot of hours in the gym also know that scales do not tell the whole story. Muscle weighs more than fat, so it's quite possible when engaging in resistance training to see no difference on the scale or even a weight gain. But muscle weight is desirable weight, since muscle is a very metabolically active tissue that burns more calories than fat tissue. Build and maintain enough muscle and you'll become a fat-burning machine even at rest.

I suppose I shouldn't blame the scale for the misuse and misunderstandings. After all, scales don't weigh people — people weigh people. It's human nature to want feedback on our pursuits, and this may never be more true than when we're sweating at the gym every morning or evening in an attempt to get into that swimsuit or wedding gown or the size 6 jeans purchased impulsively in a moment of wild optimism.

But do we really need a scale to tell us how we're doing? I think not. If we're honest with ourselves, most of us know the answer. We can tell by the way our clothes fit, and by how we feel.

Fitness is not a number, it is a feeling, and feelings cannot be weighed.