180 days

Today, I engaged in my 180th consecutive day of meditation, a record for me for all sorts of reasons. I’m not renown for my ability to stick with things in general, and given that mindfulness is such an intentional action, this is a real milestone for me.

As important, it reflects on how important and powerful the practice of mindfulness is. There is a lot of information–and disinformation–out there about what mindfulness is and does, so I think it’s important to share my own experience so that others have a point of comparison when evaluating that information.

For me, mindfullness and meditation are part of a broader pursuit called active thinking. Active thinking as a brain training routine that encourages the practitioner to evaluate their thoughts with intent and, as much as possible, discipline themselves to train their brains to focus rather than be scattered.

This is an important undertaking for me as someone who struggles with (not formally diagnosed for a variety of reasons) adult ADHD and other mental health challenges. It’s easy for my brain to go wild, and my wild brain can get very dark, and active thinking forces me to evaluate why and to create boundaries that help reign the wildness in.

My own practice is something of a departure from traditional mindfulness in that, instead of always just making my brain stop thinking (my interpretation of most traditional meditation; your mileage may vary), I often take the time to seize the random thoughts blazing through my head and follow them to their sources. Doing so helps me understand what triggers them and, sometimes, how to manage those triggers.

I’m making no other claims, but the fact is that the closest approximation I can think of to my process is that presented in Sherlock’s mind palace from the BBC’s latest iteration of Sherlock Holmes. I imagine my own mind as a vast and unkempt library full of pesky beings who are constantly rearranging the books therein for reasons that are often difficult to understand. One of those beings in particular has the job showing me random books with the near constant question, “What about this?”

By using mindfulness and active thinking, I delve into that library with the intent of establishing some sort of order. Sometimes, I just wall things off to deal with them later. Other times, I place things in order and forbid the denizens from disturbing that order. I’m not always successful, and there is a lot of backtracking and repeating, but the process generally moves forward.

To me, the most important part of this process is that it, slowly but surely, reclaims my brain for me. Instead of it being an undisciplined thought generator, it increasingly stands by to deal with the information and thoughts I feed it. It’s an arduous process, but over time, it pays dividends that are worth the effort.

Mindlfullness is not a perfect process, hence the reason it’s called a practice. Everyone’s experience will vary, but in my opinion, it’s a worthwhile undertaking for anyone who wants to have better control over their own brains.

As for me, I’m shooting for a full year of mediation every day. Here’s to the challenge.

DLH

You’re not finished until you’re done, or understanding tired

I recently read a quote from a personal trainer that said, “You’re not finished when you’re tired; you’re finished when you’re done.”

While I appreciate the sentiment of not quitting until you get to your goal, as someone with a chronic illness, I also understand it’s not always that easy.

What do I mean? Well, it seems clich√©, but there’s tired and then there’s tired. There are times when I want to quit because, frankly, I’m just to lazy. I think that’s the kind of tired the trainer is talking about, and in that case, they’re right. No one can advance if they quit because it’s hard.

On the other hand, there are times when I want to quit because my body can’t. I tend to describe that as being tired too, but the reality is that it’s more unable than tired. Something has happened inside that means I don’t have the energy to expend, and pushing at that point can create disastrous consequences.

One of the most important parts of managing the complexity of a chronic illness is learning the difference and knowing when to quit. Further, there’s the task of knowing how to tell the people around you who care why you have to quit this time when, maybe, you didn’t have to the last time.

This isn’t an argument for quitting altogether. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that, sometimes, the path isn’t a straight line toward the destination. Sometimes, we have to know when to quit so we can get ahead.

DLH

Take a break

To say that I am motivated to lose weight and increase my overall fitness is an understatement. My overall health is directly tied to those two variables, and moving them in my favor promises a whole host of benefits.

I’m here to say it’s possible to want it too much.

Over the past four and a half months I have pushed myself, occasionally to the point of breaking and renewed illness, only to jump back into it again the moment I was able. I’ve increased my average daily steps from 4,800 a day in January to 11,000 right now. I’ve increased my average hours of movement from 2ish to 4ish. I’ve lost and kept off 25 pounds since the first of the year.

And I’m exhausted.

Now, that’s to be expected, given the ramp up in activity I’ve inflicted on myself, but it’s also unsustainable. Over the past few weeks, I’ve begun to suffer a series of chronic warning signs the outcome of me ignoring them I know too well. I’ve reached the edge of my envelope, and it’s time to back off.

I’m telling you all about this as both a warning and an encouragement. Every single thing we do has a long term effect, even if we don’t realize the correlation when that effect occurs. It could be a good effect. It could be bad. But it will be there.

What we have to be aware of is the fact that, if we burn it all up now, there may not be anything left for later. It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to back off for a bit. Backing off now may well be the way you push yourself harder down the road.

So, for the moment, I’m taking a break. I’m ramping down my steps for the rest of the month and transferring that effort into more natural movement pursuits and, for the next week or so, getting my sleep sorted out again. Once I have, I’ll be back at it, stronger and more motivated than ever.

DLH

Work or work out?

Ages ago, I developed a hypothesis that I wanted my work to be my work out. At the time, it was a wrongheaded attempt to ignore the fact I was doing neither, but it turns out I also wasn’t completely wrong about the notion.

As part of my effort to improve my health, I have been researching, learning about, and engaging in the idea of natural movement, especially as it pertains to the fact that, even when we work out, we’re often incredibly sedentary in the intervening time, effectively undermining some of the best benefits of our work outs.

Now, I grant, it’s nearly impossible for us moderns to return to our hunter-gatherer roots, but I think we can make specific changes to how we approach physical activity that allow us to utilize some of their genetics we inevitably carry.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made pursuing that goal is to make sure I eat after I engage in physical activity. In short, I work out first, then I eat. It turns out, that’s the pattern our bodies are designed to follow rather than the bell schedule three meals a day. In fact, that’s where exercise “hangry” comes from, and we would do well to listen to it.

The second thing I have changed is how I exercise. I walk a lot, but I have made my walking less structured and more free-form. I sometimes carry awkward things. I have the benefit of having a 185 acre farm with few dedicated paths, so I force myself to walk in the unimproved areas to get the benefit of climbing and having to work my way through.

The result of these changes is that I am working my body more the way it expects to be worked, thereby increasing my overall fitness.

My goal from here is to increase the amount of manual labor I do on the farm, meaning that I intend to forgo the use of labor saving tools when it is possible and safe in favor of doing the work by hand. This labor follows the same pattern as the rest, and I expect it to magnify the results I am already achieving.

In the end, the answer of work or work out is yes, do both. Do as much as you can. Get up and move around often. Lift and carry heavy things. Eat when your body says it’s hungry. Sleep when it says it’s tired. The benefit is there. Pursue it.

DLH

Movement vs Exercise

A long time ago, I started getting fat and it started getting me in trouble with my job in the Air Force (Air National Guard). At the time, I adopted an exercise routine that, despite what some people believed, was quite focused and rigorous. There was a point where I was walking several miles a day for months. During that time, I lost maybe five pounds but ended up gaining dozes over the long run.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that adopting a sleeping habit that actually fits me and adjusting my diet to fit my metabolism and nutrition needs has paid huge dividends, but one of the most important changes I have made is to stop exercising and start moving.

What do I mean by that? Well, I still walk a lot, but what I’ve discovered is that the things I am doing that I can feel almost every time I do them are not exercise in the classical sense. I do body weight squats, modified push-ups, simple getting up and down off the floor, Tai Chi, and Yoga, and I am convinced that these activities help me as much as all the walking I do put together.

And the fact is that the science supports that it is our lack of general movement over aerobic calorie burning that has gotten us all into trouble. One of the reasons that exercise programs like CrossFit end up being so effective is because they so often focus on movement over other kinds of things.

So, my challenge to you is to just get up and move. Don’t worry about duration so much as frequency, and make it movements you don’t already do. Try it for a couple of weeks, and see how you feel. I’m convinced you’ll thank me for it.

DLH

Documenting Progress

I had a medical appointment yesterday, which in itself is not remarkable, but that revealed a very good result.

I should back up a step and explain that, since about June of last year, I have altered my approach to managing my physical maladies, adopting a very low-carb diet(1) and following an intermittent fasting schedule(2) along with ramping up my physical activity. These changes flowed into the fact that I also started taking a pair of antidepressants in October that helped clear my head so I could focus better on what I am trying to do. Finally, in December I started taking Trulicity in addition to insulin and metformin

When I got out of the hospital a couple of years ago, my A1C was 8.5 and my blood glucose was running in the 450s mg/dL (yes, I am aware of how dangerously high that all is). At my last appointment, my A1C was 7.1 and my blood glucose average was around 180 mg/dL.

Fast forward to yesterday, and after about 9 months of focused effort, my A1C has dropped to 6.6 and my blood glucose average sits at around 161 mg/dL.

The moral of the story is that, if you are suffering from similar issues to mine, there are methods to overcome the obstacles those issues present. The right combination of medications, diet, and exercise can pay huge dividends in a short period of time and offer the promise of remission if not recovery.

DLH

(1) I try to keep my daily intake of all carbohydrates between 20 and 40 mg a day and do so by avoiding all sugars, modern grains (basically, anything containing wheat or rice), and manufactured foods. In general, I also try to keep the foods I consume in the low Glycemic Index range (below 55). Foods called Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and the like) are great for this.

Understand this kind of diet can be a huge adjustment, and if you decide to try it, there may be a period of transition where you experience symptoms similar to coming down with the flu. Also, if you have other health issues, be careful not to make them worse by following this diet. Be sure to consult your health care provider as you move forward.

(2) There are as many opinions on intermittent fasting as there are people who try it, and I don’t have a specific recommendation of where to start, but in general, the idea is to limit your calorie consumption to a narrow window once or twice a day. For me, this means usually eating one big meal between 2 and 4 and another smaller meal about an hour before bed (this helps level out overnight blood sugar spikes). These meals can vary somewhat based on my daily schedule, but in general results in there being at least 12 hours and as many as 16 hours between caloric intakes.

This method of eating helps encourage your body to take advantage of its already extant biological pathways that are part of the “feast and famine” experienced by our ancestors. Doing so helps our bodies use calories more effectively and, once you get into the habit, often results in eating less.

Realizing unspoken goals

I realized a few days ago that I have a life goal that I haven’t even been telling myself I have. It turns out I really like hiking and camping, especially alone. That’s always been true, but it’s been decades since I’ve been able to do either for a variety of reasons. A few days ago, it occurred to me that I want to be able to do so again, and there are real obstacles I have to overcome to be able to do so.

Realizing that desire and those obstacles is not a lament. Rather, it is a finite realization of what exactly it’s going to take for me to get to the point where I can be the person I physically want to be. I don’t know yet how I am going to go about surmounting those obstacles, but I know they exist now, so I can start working toward finding my way around or through them.

I guess my point here is that it’s okay to dream big about the person you want to be as long as you’re honest about what it’s going to take to be that person. I may detail the specifics of those goals and challenges in a later post, but for now, I am satisfied to have come to the realization I have.

DLH

Five million steps

Yes, 5 million steps. That’s the number of steps–at least a rough estimate anyway–that stand between me and cutting my current body fat measurement in half.

Granted, it’s always dangerous to reduce human biology to a simplistic math equation, but the correlation between high percentages of body fat and health problems is pretty strong. It turns out that, when measured as simple calories, half my current body fat adds up to about 3.5 million steps worth of walking. Add in another 1.5 million steps that account for my current rate of walking, and you get 5 million.

At first, that number seems daunting. It is also, far less simplistically, a moving target influenced by all sorts of sometimes inscrutable variables. Yet, it’s also a concrete point; a goal to focus on that helps manage everything else.

If I were to somehow manage to walk that many steps in a year, that’s only about 13,700 a day. Granted, I’m only at 8,000ish a day now, but doubling the number doesn’t seem all that bad, though I’ll have to do more than double if I want that number to be my average.

The point is that we can’t do what we don’t know we’re trying to do. Now I know how many calories 5 million steps will burn. Now I understand what it will take for me to get to that number. I’m just at the beginning, but I can get there.

Now, to do it.

DLH

2018 goes out a lot better than it came in

With the year drawing to a close, I would be remiss if I did not revisit where I find myself now after the past couple–and really the past few–years of illness and struggle.

One of the most important health changes I have ever experienced happened in the form of starting a mild anti-depressant at the end of September. The changed I experienced upon beginning that medication is real and enduring and has enabled nearly everything else that has happened since then.

The biggest subsequent change has been to dedicate myself to a series of dietary and exercise changes in the hope of wrestling my life back from my health. I have virtually given up process sugars, modern grains, and processed foods. I have begun an intermittent fasting regimen. I have starting moving more than I have in years.

Specifically, I am walking and using a bike trainer, and plan to start running and attending a yoga class after the first of the year. If those efforts go well, I plan to start trail hiking and purchase an e-bike for longer-distance rides sometime in the next year.

I have begun using light therapy as part of a daily program that involves waking up using light instead of sound and also using a therapy panel as part of my daily routine. The effect this has had on my mood and energy level cannot be understated.

Perhaps most importantly, I am confident that I can do the things I plan for the first time in a really long time. I am hopeful for the new year, and those are strange words coming out of my mouth.

More will follow.

DLH

An advent

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, mostly because I came to resent the fact it seemed like I only came to these pages to complain. Recently, however, something very positive has happened to me, and after debating when and how to share it, I decided to share it with everyone all at once.

About six weeks ago, I started taking an antidepressant after consulting with my healthcare provider about some things I had going on, including rampant insomnia and some ways of thinking that lead nowhere good. For those of you who know me well enough, you may realize how important and difficult a decision this was for me.

I wish I had pushed this issue decades ago.

In the past six weeks, for what seems like the first time in my life, my head is clear of so much of the noise that has plagued me most of my life. I have slept full nights for the first time in years. The change is beyond remarkable for me, and has contributed to a host of realizations about myself and my behavior that were, for me, clouded until now.

Granted, I am just at the beginning of a process, and we’ve already had to make adjustments to my medication to accommodate symptoms and side effects, but the fact is I can see where I need to be going and how to get there for the first time in a really long time.

I’m telling everyone this for two reasons. First, because, especially as a male, it can be hard to admit something is wrong and to ask for help. Second, because it’s important for all of us to remember that the brain is an organ just like the liver or the pancreas, and if you’re willing to take medication to help them work better, why not consider doing so for your brain too if you need it?

The bottom line is that I did ask for that help and got it, and for the first time in a really long time, I am optimistic about being able to improve. I can’t say for certain where this will head, but I know it will head somewhere. Stay tuned for more as time passes.

DLH