Saturday, October 29, 2016

Exercise and Healthy Living

Photo taken on a recent bike ride

I want to begin by apologizing for not posting very frequently lately. I am in the middle of a big work-related writing project, so that has left me less time for writing blog posts.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "You are on leave, so what's with doing a work project?"

Yes, I am on leave. However, when I arranged the leave, I committed to doing some projects. They are projects of my own choice, with a relaxed timeline. I am greatly enjoying my current project, and rarely spend more than half a day on it. (By that I mean five or six hours. Yes, I do have a workaholic's definition of the length of a workday.) So after staring at books and the computer screen for that many hours, I am less inclined to write a post.

However, tonight I have been inspired to write something on health and exercise by a blog that I have been reading. That blog is Retired but Certainly not Retiring, written by John, and here is his recent blog post on the topic. A goal John set for himself when he recently retired was to begin living a more healthy lifestyle, and in particular to lose some weight. He has written some rather hilarious posts on the topic, but the goal is serious.

John's discussion reminded me of a series of posts I wrote a few years ago on the theme of heart healthy choices. My focus on this came about because I went to the doctor for a physical exam, and she informed me that my LDL cholesterol (the bad type) was borderline high. She encouraged me to start a low cholesterol diet. The handout she gave me had none of my favourite foods on it! So I promptly ignored it. But I did set about taking a look at my eating and other health habits. I talk about this in Heart Healthy Habits.

After taking stock of my healthy attitudes and behaviours, such as eating lots of fruits and vegetables every day, I took a hard look at my not so healthy behaviours. Oops!

So I set about changing some of those unhealthy habits. My first action was to research and read about lifestyles that support heart health. I looked at trustworthy health and medical websites, and also went right to the source and read some research articles in journals. So that gave me some background on what to look for in my own health-related behaviours.

As well, from my knowledge about making behavioural changes, I know that one of the first steps is to notice and track the habits. Habits are routine behaviours that usually fly under the radar. They are actions that are so routinized that we may fail to recognize that we are doing them, or to what extent. We humans also are amazingly good at minimizing the impact of or excusing our own undesirable behaviours. This is reasoning like, "food eaten while standing at the fridge doesn't count," or, "I'll go for a long bike ride tomorrow to make up for having spent the whole day on the couch today."

As it turned out, I had a number of eating, exercise, and other lifestyle habits that were sabotaging my generally healthy lifestyle. I discovered from scrutinizing my diet that I love salt, sugar, and dairy fats a little too much. It was beginning to show in my body mass index, my waistline, my LDL cholesterol level, and it was having an impact on my joints and my overall feelings of well-being. On the diet side, I explored how food, emotions, and social life are intertwined, and how that can make it hard to change habits. (By diet, I mean the food I eat daily. I am not using the word in the sense of weight loss diet. I do not believe in dieting because I believe it usually sets up or reinforces unhealthy attitudes and patterns.)

Once I had identified some habits I wanted to change, I developed a system for changing them. (I also wrote a bit about my views on dieting in that post.) I believe that when people fail at changing habitual behaviours, as happens to many in the month of January, there are a few reasons. They are:

1. Defining the overall objective in terms of a vague general outcome: "I want to exercise more." It is more effective to define the goal in a specific, concrete way: "I will exercise at least 150 minutes a week, and this will include at least 5 days of exercising, at a minimum of 20 minutes each day."

2. Trying to make a big change all at once: "I will drink 8 glasses of water a day." Well, if you currently don't drink any water, but only coffee, tea and beer, this would be a very big change to make. You would be more likely to be successful if you break it down into little steps: "I will drink one eight ounce glass of water just before I open my first beer of the day." Once you have successfully achieved this goal to the point that it is a habit, then you can incrementally increase the aim to two glasses of water a day: "I will drink an 8 oz. glass of water when I brush my teeth in the morning." And so forth. Little changes are less daunting and much easier to make and sustain.

3. Trying to change several habits at once: "I'll only drink water from now on, and I'll eliminate all wheat from my diet." Well, not only does this objective try to add a water-drinking habit, but it also aims to eliminate a coffee habit, a tea habit, and a beer habit at the same time. And that doesn't include all the complications of the wheat part. Some very determined people might be able to accomplish big complicated goals like this, but more often than not, my guess is that they don't sustain them.

4. Not tracking the behaviour. If you really want to change something, whether it is adding a new behaviour or eliminating an unwanted habit, you have to keep it right in front of you within conscious awareness for awhile. For me, I have found that the best way to be mindful about it is to use good old behaviour modification principles and track it/ count it/ tally it, then give myself some little reward for success (and I am embarrassed to admit that stickers actually work for me, but it could be whatever works for you -- a bubble bath, an announcement of success on your facebook page, buy yourself a new water bottle, or whatever.)

5. Not keeping focused on the goal long enough to make the new behaviour habitual. It takes 3-6 weeks to establish a new habit or to eliminate an old one. For me, I set the bar at 3 consecutive weeks of success with each goal before I stopped formally tracking it.

So, four years later, looking back at the lifestyle goals I set for heart healthy living, I am happy to report that I have maintained 7 of the 10 new habits with no effort whatsoever. The new habits have truly become part of my everyday living.

Although I have not been following such a formal lifestyle plan recently, I have incorporated the 150 minutes of exercise a week into my life consistently since I have been on leave (which is possible now that my foot is rehabilitated). On Saturdays and Sundays, Rob and I make a point of getting out for longer bike rides or hikes. Today we cycled 12 kilometers. Typically we cycle 8-16 km. (5-10 miles) or hike/walk 5-10 km. each weekend day. I have been tracking my exercise activities on an app on my phone. It tells me I have walked or cycled 108 km. so far in October. Once the snow falls, we will get out the cross country skis and ski around the golf course or the park. Or we will travel to the mountains for downhill skiing. During the weekdays, I walk most evenings, usually 2-5 km. I also have started an introductory yoga class, which I attend once a week. I love it!

In terms of meals, my current goal is to reduce the number of red meat dinners a week to 2. A good balance would be red meat X2, fish X2, vegetarian X1, and poultry X2. I would happily eat vegetarian more frequently, but Rob is very fond of meat and not that fond of vegetarian cooking. I am also aiming to cook more low meat meals (e.g., homemade turkey soup). I have added a fiber supplement to my daily diet, and am working on increasing my daily water intake by an additional eight oz. glass per day.

I am on leave, so I have turned the alarm clock off. Yay! I have been getting 7 1/2 to 9 hours of sleep every night. I am making up for years of sleep deficit due to my previously hectic work schedule. I am learning to be more mellow in how I spend my days. The biggest factor of all in my more healthy lifestyle is that I am no longer working 11 hours a day in an extremely stressful job.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Possible Lives

Road to One-Eye Lake. Plein air painting completed this summer.

Sometimes in life we reach a turning point, and turning sixty is one of those times for me.

I have always seen life as full of possibilities, and have had a constantly evolving list of things I want to do some day (as contrasted with a list of things I have to do, which is a different story). To be fair, I have accomplished a great many things on that list. I am very good at focusing, figuring out a step by step plan, and buckling down to do the actual work. What I have not been so good at is committing to a particular line of inquiry, career plan, or workplace over the long term. Or to a particular vision of who I am and the life I want to lead.

I have taken to heart the adage, "follow your passions," although with considerable introspection at each major zig or zag of my life and career. While at each major turning point I knew with certainty it was time to make a change, the direction of the change was less clear. I have an eclectic set of passions and interests that have pulled me in various directions. A partial list includes the following: language, writing, art, outdoors, wilderness, skiing, family, food, environment, health, design/development, teaching, problem solving, organic food gardening, stories, reading, travel, parenting, leadership, ideas, communication, human relationships....

My decisions also have been shaped by a healthy dose of pragmatism. For example, from the time I was in my teens, I have always known that I wanted to have skills that would allow me to independently support myself throughout my life. So, for example, when I was seventeen, trying to decide between whether to go to art school or university, I chose university. And when I graduated with a BA in Linguistics, I then went on to further education that allowed entree into a profession where there were lots of jobs. This choice was practical, but also followed my passions for language, teaching, and communication (but backgrounded my passion for art).

There are trade-offs in every decision. For every path followed, there are many paths not followed. You can never go back in time to take those other paths. Take my possible life as an artist. What would my life have looked like if I had followed that path instead? Now I will never know.

At this point, you, the reader might be saying, "Oh, come on! There's nothing to stop you from throwing yourself into your art now, if that's what you really want to do. After all, that is the beauty of retirement. You are not required to work for a living once you retire, using up all your time and energy in the employ of someone else. So it is a golden opportunity to pursue those deferred passions. Or even to let go of all that anxious striving and just be."

And you, dear reader, would be right. I am standing on the threshold of this period of open possibilities, looking out toward the future. After a zig into senior administration, I am now about to zag to...something else. The trouble is, I don't know what. There are so many possibilities.

It is much easier to look backwards. When I look back, I can see that aside from the life changing events that fate dealt me, every major decision about a change in direction in my life or career was preceded by a period of reflection, weighing of factors, and goal setting. For better or worse, I have ended up here, author of a good life, but struggling to write the next chapter.

There are so many choices! In the past, the way I responded to having to choose one direction over another was to console myself that it was only temporary -- somehow I would find a way to do it all. Maybe I wouldn't be able to do it all simultaneously, but surely I could do it all consecutively.

As I have considered the possibility of leaving my career altogether and fully retiring, I have suddenly come up with a plethora of new projects that I would like to do within my career before I step away, enough exciting ideas to keep me going until I am 90! But if I go down that path, I will never find out what it is like to devote myself to my art. I will never finish writing those novels.

The thing is, now that I am sixty, I realize that my time horizon is getting shorter. Choosing one thing over another has consequences, because I don't have all the time in the world. (Of course, I never did, but that was easier to ignore when my own mortality wasn't staring me in the face quite so obviously.) If I buckle down and use my remaining time to do those work projects that I am inventing for myself, Rob and I will just keep getting older and at some point we will be too old to ski that powder or hike in the Alps.

I think that some day I might get to a point where I'll say, okay, enough with all these goals and this striving. This is it with trying to achieve in this area or that. This is as far as I get. And guess what -- because of never committing to any one thing but trying to do it all, I will see that I didn't do any of those things as well as I might have if I had been more focused. I hope that I will judge myself with compassion. My old self will know that life really isn't about what you do and accomplish at all.

But I'm not there yet. I still have so much I want to do. However, time is getting shorter, so I have to choose wisely where to put my efforts. I have come face to face with the realization that I can't do it all, after all. That realization is having a paralyzing effect on my decision making about what comes next. Whatever choice I make feels too much like choosing to put all my eggs in one basket, too much like closing down possibilities, too much like giving up.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Sometimes Life Happens: Story of the Moose

Over the last few months, I have continued with my avid reading of FI (Financial Independence) and retirement blogs. There is a lot of great information out there in the blogosphere, and I have been impressed with the thoughtful exploration of topics, willingness to share personal stories, and the positive support bloggers provide for each other. I have learned a lot. One of the big themes is that through mindful planning and effort, both financially and personally, people can prepare for a successful and fulfilling (and possibly early) retirement. I find that people's stories really speak to me, and help me visualize my own transition to retirement.

I have always been a planner. I opened an RHOSP when I was still a university student living below the poverty line. (An RHOSP was a tax sheltered savings account for saving for your first house down payment that used to be available in Canada in the late 1970's and early '80's -- okay, I know I am dating myself.) Once I graduated and got my first career-related job, one of the first things I did was open an RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan). So yes, I plan.

However, sometimes life is what happens while you are making other plans. I have learned that it is important to leave enough flexibility in a plan -- to not get too rigidly committed to it -- so that you can accommodate, adjust directions, and also stay open to unexpected opportunities. Here is my moose story. It happened fifteen or twenty years ago.

Image from Clipart Panda.

It was Christmas time. I was living in a northern part of Canada where the winters are cold and snowy. At winter solstice, just before Christmas, the days are very short. The sun comes up around 9 and sets around 4. We were driving in my extended mini-van to go to spend Christmas with my parents, a five-hour drive on icy roads.

I was tired. My job at that time always became especially frantic just before the winter break, and required long hours and intense focus. I had just finished up at work the day before. As well, I had had to do all of the shopping and other Christmas preparations, and get everything ready and packed for the trip. I was a single parent of three children aged eleven and under. Sometimes I look back at that period of my life and wonder where I found the energy.

My brother had arrived the night before and was travelling with us. We also brought the cat. The van was packed with skis, boots, and poles (both downhill and cross-country sets) for the five of us, skates, winter clothes, Christmas presents, and 20-25 of my oil paintings. I was putting on an exhibition of my work at an art gallery in a small city a couple hours from my parents. So I planned to travel to that city for two days during the break, leaving the kids with my parents, and hang the exhibition and attend the gallery opening.

After about four hours on the road, we stopped for gas in a little town. That was a signal to the kids to pile out of the van and race into the gas station store to buy candy and junk food with their allowance. It was also a chance for all of us to use the washroom. That brief little stop seemed to take forever. I was trying to get to our destination by 6 o'clock, as my Mom was expecting us for supper.

Impatient and grumpy, I herded everyone back into the van. As we left the little town, and climbed up out of the river valley, the last light of the twilight had disappeared. My headlights illuminated little but the dark track of the narrow highway and the high shadowy snowbanks on either side.

Suddenly, just to the left and ahead, a huge dark form exploded out of the snowbank. "Moose!" my brother shouted.

It ran across the road, on a collision course with the van. Moose run very fast, and I had only a split second to respond. In that split second, I debated my options: speed up so that the moose would pass behind us? Risk slamming on my brakes on an icy road? Steer into the snowbank at highway speed?

As I slammed on the brakes and steered to the right toward the snowbank, I saw the top of the moose's front legs just outside my driver's side window. The moose was so close it was within arm's length. We were all going to die. The luggage flew forward onto my children in the back seats, and the cat flew forward into the front seat.

Somehow, we didn't hit the moose. Or, the moose didn't hit us. I didn't even put the van into the snowbank, but veered around the moose and back onto the road. As the moose disappeared into the darkness behind us, I found a place to pull over and sat there shaking. A fraction of a second later or a different driving maneuver, and I certainly would have been crushed by the moose. My brother and all of my children would have been killed or severely injured.

My brother said that the moose had seemed to hesitate, or check its speed, just as it was about to hit the van. He speculated that as I turned toward the ditch, the headlights were no longer blinding the moose, and so it saw us and avoided hitting us.

We could have all died. In a split second, our dinner plans, my art exhibition plans, our Christmas holiday, and the rest of my children's lives would have been forever altered. I would not be presently planning my retirement. Or, if we had left the gas station five minutes earlier or later, we might have never even seen the moose.

But this isn't the end of the story.

Twenty minutes later on a straight stretch, a deer suddenly appeared in front of me in the circle of headlights. It was running like crazy, from left to right in front of the van. I barely had time to brake before it disappeared into the blackness again. I may have grazed its hind end slightly with the passenger side of the van.

I commented to my brother, "At least that one wouldn't have killed us all." I think I was still in shock from the near miss with the moose. I had never almost hit a deer or moose before, nor have I since. What was the chance of two near misses in one night?

We arrived at my parents' place alive, had a family dinner, and made plans to go skiing the next morning, a Saturday.

There was a big snowfall overnight. I headed up to the ski hill with the kids. We were all going to meet up at the ski lodge. Although the ski hill road is steep and tricky with lots of switchbacks, I had driven it dozens of times. I had studded winter tires on the van. Even though the van was a gutless wonder, I had always managed to make it up the hill.

Not this time. When I got to the section of road where there is a long steep hill immediately followed by three switchbacks, I discovered a long lineup of cars stuck on the hill. I knew the van would only make it up the hill if I took a run at it. So I waited at the bottom of the hill with a line of cars behind me until the road looked clear. Then I headed up the hill. I made it to the top of the straight stretch only to discover cars ahead of me stuck on the switchback. I had to stop. The road was polished to ice from all the vehicles that had been spinning their wheels. I backed over to the side so that others could pass, and ended up with my back wheel in the ditch.

At this point, one of my brothers came by in his pickup truck. "Leave the van and we'll get it out later," he said. "Jump in with us." And so we did. After all, there was some great powder waiting for us on the hill!

This still isn't the end of the story.

Last run of the day, and by late afternoon, it had warmed up and the foot of fresh powder was now heavy, wet, and chopped up. I was on a black diamond run, near the bottom, and for some reason I was skiing by myself. As I cranked a turn with my ancient heavy old Dynastar straight-cut racing skis, I felt my left knee tear. I knew I had seriously injured my knee. So, I sat down in the snow and waited for the safety patrol to come.

I ended up being taken down the ski hill in the ski corporation van to the hospital emergency room. I had torn my medial meniscus cartilage in my left knee, and spent the rest of the Christmas holidays and half of January at work on crutches, and then used a cane for a long time.

My brothers dug out the van, and brought my children down from the ski hill that day. One of my brothers drove my van full of paintings to the other town and hung the exhibition for me.

It took a long time to rehabilitate my knee. Not only did I miss the ski season, but it took until September before my ability to walk was fully recovered.

I could have been angry, resentful, or anxious about whether my knee would ever fully recover (the sports physio said I might need surgery, and might not be able to ski again). In previous years, I would have responded with those emotions. But this time I did not. I was at peace. I just kept thinking how fortunate we all were to be alive, and how close we had come to all being killed by colliding with the moose. My knee injury seemed completely trivial in comparison.

So, back to retirement planning. Am I saying don't plan? Or that we are subject to fate, so there is no point in worrying about things?

Not at all. What I took away from this experience is that it is important to plan, and to put forward your very best effort in the moment (e.g., my driving maneuver when about to hit the moose), but at the same time I recognize that I do not have full control over what happens in life. I have to be ready to accept and adjust when experiences and events do not match my plan.