Friday, August 26, 2011

Diet Change: The Beginnings

So how did I get from eating a bunch of processed fast foods to the considerably-more-healthy-but-still-lots-of-room-for-improvement diet I have now? The short answer: I worked at it. It didn’t happen overnight. Or over a year. Or over two years. I’m 33 years old. This started when I was…well, I guess it could be traced back to my early 20s, or maybe even my late teens, and the initial progress was so slow.

“Your late teens?” you may ask. “You said you didn’t really start trying to change your diet until after the colitis thing, and that happened when you were 21.” Very true. It’s not a contradiction, in my mind. I now realize I honestly started making my way toward a healthier diet before I’d had that first bout with colitis, although I didn’t realize I was setting things in motion; it was nothing conscious, and it didn’t add a lot of great nutrition to my life—I just realized I kinda enjoy cooking.

I’m picky about what I eat. That much I’ve surely made obvious. The great thing I realized about cooking is I can make the food I eat exactly what I want it to be, which at that time meant excluding every ingredient I never really wanted to eat. You could guess I wasn’t cooking a great variety of meals, but I was cooking.

I like steak. I don’t think I mentioned that. I hate fatty steak. I like the lean stuff—screw marbling, I want my steaks as red and lean as they can be, and I have no problem cutting off and wasting chunks of fat. Ew. Some people love to chew it; it makes me want to vomit.

I also mentioned I liked spaghetti, but only one certain canned sauce.

Spaghetti sauce and steaks, this is what I started cooking.

Steaks are easy, of course: a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, grill. I still prefer ‘em on the grill, and I cook them more than any steak-lover would ever say you should. (I’ve tried to tone that back a bit as I’ve gotten older, but I still err on the side of more-well-done than not—I don’t mind pink, but I don’t want blood on my ‘taters, either.) I’d usually toss a potato wrapped in foil on the grill with it, and the vegetable was invariably corn or green beans. Nothing difficult, but better than Wendy’s. And it wasn’t super often I did this, but I’d probably make myself a steak once per week. I can’t really remember. I wasn’t just cooking for myself, but that’s irrelevant.

I’d cook the spaghetti sauce sometimes, and again, it was a rather simple version. I wasn’t all that into produce. I didn’t like onions. I’d brown up some hamburger, toss it in some canned tomato sauce, add a bit of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and I think that was probably about it. I’d toss that over some plain ol’ spaghetti and cover it all with parmesan cheese. (Some things still haven’t changed much.)

I essentially carried on that like for a few years, but slowly started to try cooking other things, like maybe making my own pizzas (and the sauce), making my own burgers at home (still on white-bread buns) with frozen fries from a bag, stuff like that. I’d cook an occasional chicken breast: boneless and skinless. I would never claim these thing were the pinnacle of nutritive goodness, but they were improvements over what my body had known—baby steps.

I was no gourmet, nor am I now. I still ate mostly crap, lots of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Long John Silver’s. American cheese slices on grilled white bread. Probably margarine, although I forget. I surely wasn’t conscious of hydrogenated oils, but who was in those days?

I graduated college. I moved to Huntington Beach. A long relationship came to an end—which tore me up—and I moved back to Indiana. I lived in the house I grew up in since no one else was living there. I had good old friends around. I was pretty depressed. I went to the doctor. I was back with my old family doctor who’d been my doctor since birth and knew me and my family well and I was really pretty down and out and I trusted him greatly. I still do. I went and saw him about my depression and was hoping he’d give me some Xanax; just something to mellow me out a bit and help me sleep. (I still wasn’t a sleeper, even when depressed.)

Instead, he prescribed me Zoloft, which I guess may have a bit more of an antianxiety edge than, say, Prosac, or at least that’s what he’d told me. Oy. I’m not a fan of antidepressants. I won’t go into it now, but I’m not a fan. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now, although I know they seem to do a lot of people a lot of good. I almost threw the prescription away. I sat on it for a while (not literally).

I’d started reading Men’s Health in those days: cover-to-cover. I’d been running quite a bit. I’ve always loved biking, and at the time had only my trusty mountain bike, and I was riding it. My dog, Nosta, was only a pup in those days—about 2 years old—and she was the best running partner: fast and enduring. (Oh how I miss running with her). I started lifting weights at the gym. I started learning about nutrition, thanks to Men’s Health, but I didn’t apply much of the knowledge. I started drinking protein powder mixed with water (no milk), and I’d add some L-glutamine to aid recovery. I was in good shape, but my eating habits were still essentially the same. The colitis was in the back of my mind. I was thinking of improvement. I knew I needed to make improvements. And I’d made some, but I was a long way off from what I really needed to accomplish.

My moods didn’t improve much. I was down. Okay, fine: I got the prescription filled. I started taking the pills. I wasn’t expecting what happened, but here’s the quick summation: I got obsessive. I’m not super sure of my narrative order or time durations here, but all of the things I’m getting into did happen. They just may have happened in a slightly different order, or taken a bit more time, or…well, I was only in Indiana a little over a year, so I guess it all happened pretty quickly.

I started running more; further; faster. I biked more. I bulked up the muscle more than I ever had, which isn’t to say I was huge, but I got definition. I kept a friggin’ spreadsheet, for crying out loud. My weight-lifting regimen in that time surprises me to this day. I really obsessed.

I decided I was going to do a triathlon that was only about 2 months away, and I wasn’t a swimmer. I mean, I wouldn’t drown, but I didn’t have goggles and I’d never swam laps for exercise or anything. I started swimming laps. I focused. And as I really kept pushing the limits of my body, something I’ve done many times before and since but at that point was doing to some extent I’d never before reached, I started to realize something: I didn’t quite have enough energy.

I looked at my life—at myself—and how I’d changed, and I stopped taking the Zoloft. I think I’d taken it for about 2 or 3 months. That wasn’t me. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like my obsessions. Maybe I can’t blame it all on a pill. There was a lot going on in my head. I don’t know why I was affected the way I was. Regardless, I no longer took the pills.

I did, however, want to do that triathlon, and being a triathlete was going to take some dietary change: I needed to eat more nutritive, energizing foods. It was then, when I first really started to think of myself as an endurance athlete, that I really started forcing the dietary changes on myself. I was 25 years old. (And it may be weird that I’d never considered myself an endurance athlete before that—I’d run and bike quite a bit. But for some reason, it can take a long time to start to see oneself in a new light, and “athlete” had such strong connotations to me: I won’t explain now, and it doesn’t really make sense anyway.)

Given my diet to that point, there was plenty of room for improvement, and I was still pretty sure I didn’t like any of the foods I’d spent my life avoiding, so I started making some really small changes, adding things into what I had already been cooking and eating, but adding it in ways I couldn’t really tell I’d added it, which essentially meant cutting things up really small—mincing.

I’d mince onion and add it to my spaghetti sauce. Garlic. I ate more chicken. I know this is nothing monumental, but it was when I’d been avoiding onion my entire life to the best of my abilities. I never ate a lot of chicken. I said it has been a slow change. I emphasize slow change. I promote it.

Broccoli: this one always makes me chuckle, and it’s really the best example of how slowly and methodically I made myself eat differently. I hated broccoli, but it’s so darn good for you—Men’s Health told me I needed to eat it. So I’d buy broccoli, and I’d just chop the very tips of the florets into my salads (that otherwise remained the same: lettuce, cheese, and lots of Catalina dressing), I’d throw the rest of it away, and I started getting a tiny bit of broccoli into my system. I couldn’t really taste it, so I didn’t mind it, and I started cutting the broccoli bigger. I started to feel it in my mouth, and taste it a bit. (Texture with food has always been a big problem for me, which is one reason I avoided so many things: chunks weirded me out. As did [does] seeing things in my food when I didn’t quite know what they were and was pretty sure, given my limited palate, I didn’t like them.) I started getting some bits of the stalks in my salads. After a month or so, I could eat raw broccoli. I won’t claim it’s my favorite thing, even to this day, but I was eating it. I started steaming it. I liked it better steamed, and lo and behold: I had a new vegetable in my dinner rotation! It probably took me 2 or 3 months to go from not eating any broccoli to starting to force it into myself more regularly. I still don’t LOVE it, but I like it…enough to eat it.

I also started making myself fresh fruit smoothies, mostly because Men’s Health told me to. This was a big one for me, because I NEVER ate fruit: it’s the texture thing. One day I forced myself to make a smoothie, though. I mean, I liked some fruit-flavored things…errrr…more accurately, I liked some fruit-flavored candies. So I tried to make it taste like some kind of candy, mostly strawberry, although I couldn’t stand the texture of strawberries. Horrible, maybe, but it’s true.

~~Okay, here’s a sad truth. I ASSUMED I couldn’t stand the texture of strawberries. I assumed a lot of things about foods I didn’t eat, and I didn’t even try a lot of those things because of these assumptions. I’m not sure I’d ever just eaten a strawberry before. That said, I still have a hard time just eating a strawberry: it’s the texture thing. Flavor=good. Texture=bad.~~

I used apple juice as a base, I added a banana and a bunch of frozen strawberries and I think that was about it. I blended it up until it was virtually free of texture. It was a frozen puree of mostly strawberries. I slurped it through a straw, straight to the back of my mouth and down my throat as fast as I possibly could so I’d feel no texture and taste as little as possible although I was still grossed out to find I could still feel chunks of things, mostly strawberries. I was so proud: I’d eaten not just one fruit, but two! (And apple juice.) I started experimenting more. I’d add blueberries. I’d add a dollop of yogurt. (I still hate yogurt, but I can eat it on those terms [or as a frozen, over-sugared delight].) I’d allow myself to taste the smoothie more. I found them acceptable. I also found they really helped my energy level. AND they were getting me fiber, something my body really, really needed. 

I was making changes. They were subtle. They were, on some level, nearly insignificant. But they WEREN’T insignificant. They were building blocks.

I have more to write on this, but again: I’m getting wordy. The basics are here. This is, once again, not exactly where I intended this entry to go. I won’t even claim I’m happy with it. I’m not sure I wrote it well. I’m not sure I got my point across. I’m pretty sure it isn’t entertaining. I started it weeks ago and now it’s today and part of me wants to start over, but the majority of me knows I don’t really have the time and I hope this is enough to get things moving. To move toward the present, and how I continue to struggle with and improve my diet.

Things are better these days. I eat MUCH more healthily. It hasn’t been easy, if you couldn’t tell from above. I’m not one to embrace that which is unfamiliar to me instantly, even if it IS familiar to everyone else. That’s just not me. So when I get around to it, I’ll share my ongoing efforts…and the first time I actually peeled and ate a banana (which I have a digital photo of, if that tells you anything). I just realized I can eat nectarines—not just any nectarine, and I won’t do it all the time, but I can eat some. This is my life. I’m not a foodie. I’m not the guy to sit down and eat what’s put before me—I’m the guy that fears that. I’m the guy that usually orders a burger when I got out to eat, and if I don’t I tend to order something I’ve had before and know I like because I fear otherwise I’ll waste my money and go home hungry. That’s me: I love eating, but I don’t like food. Or I haven’t tended to. I’m learning to. It takes time. Baby steps.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Wisdom of Coupland

I've been reaching out to some people for input and submissions to include on my "Everyday Healthy Folks" tab--the one where I want to have people other than me tell about their outlooks on health, the challenges they face, and how they overcome them to stay happy with themselves and their health. And I keep thinking of this passage from Generation X by Douglas Coupland (a favorite author of mine) that I read long ago and has stuck with me...since high school, if that gives a sense of the impression it made. I'm 33. It's the last couple of paragraphs that have really stuck, but the beginning gives it context. None of this is mine--it's Douglas Coupland. The point, however, is likely to be clear, especially in the context of what I'm trying to do with this blog. So consider this me reaching out to you, whoever you may be reading this, for your input. You don't have to know me. I don't have to know you. We may know each other. It doesn't matter.

I guess it may be depressing, on some level, to think we're not all that unique. Let's face it, though: in many ways, we aren't. That lack of uniqueness, though--that similarity--is what I want to tap into with this blog. (I hate typing in the blogger because it doesn't know the Word shortcut for an em-dash.) I want people to realize they may be able to help others and not even know it. So having said all that, I give you a favorite excerpt from Generation X, by Mr. Coupland.
At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, fellow drinksters will get angry with you if you won’t puke for the audience. By that, I mean spill your guts—really dredge up those rotted baskets of fermented kittens and murder implements that lie at the bottoms of all of our personal lakes. AA members want to hear the horror stories of how far you’ve sunk in life, and no low is low enough. Tales of spouse abuse, embezzlement, and public incontinence are both appreciated and expected. I know this as a fact because I’ve been to these meetings (lurid details of my own life will follow at a later date), and I’ve seen the process of onedownmanship in action—and been angry at not having sordid enough tales of debauchery of my own to share.
 “Never be afraid to cough up a bit of diseased lung for the spectators,” said a man who sat next to me at a meeting once, a man with skin like a half-cooked pie crust and who had five brown children who would no longer return his phone calls: “How are people ever going to help themselves if they can’t grab onto a fragment of your own horror? People want that little fragment. They need it. That little piece of lung makes their own fragments less scary.” I’m still looking for a description of storytelling as vital as this.
 Thus inspired by my meetings of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, I instigated a policy of storytelling in my own life, a policy of “bedtime stories,” which Dag, Claire, and I share among ourselves. It’s simple: we come up with stories and we tell them to each other. The only rule is that we’re not allowed to interrupt, just like in AA, and at the end we’re not allowed to criticize. This noncritical atmosphere works for us because the three of us are so tight assed about revealing our emotions. A clause like this was the only way we could feel secure with each other.
 Claire and Dag took to the game like ducklings to a stream.
 “I firmly believe,” Dag once said at the beginning, months ago, “that everybody on earth has a deep, dark secret that they’ll never tell another soul as long as they live. Their wife, their husband, their lover, or their priest. Never.
 “I have my secret. You have yours. Yes, you do—I can see you smiling. You’re thinking about your secret right now. Come on: spill it out. What is it? Diddle your sister? Circle jerk? Eat your poo to check the taste? Go with a stranger and you’d go with more? Betray a friend? Just tell me. You may be able to help me and not even know it.”
So if you wanna give it a shot, hit me with a message. I'm just looking for at least one photo of you and a write-up about what "healthy" means to you and how you achieve that. "Healthy" can mean a lot of different things to different people, and can be achieved in a lot of different ways. Have questions about submitting? Just ask. We'll work it out. I'd just love to get the input.

And no, of course I don't make any money for this. I'm not super sure why I'm doing it, other than people are reading it, and it has been interesting to see what people share and the encouragement I've received. It's that last line: "You may be able to help me and not even know it." As it turns out, it's true. And sometimes people will even let you know. That's pretty badass.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Day I Ran Out of Excuses

It was an afternoon, I don’t remember when—maybe 2 years ago—and I was at the gym. I was at the pool. I was in the hot tub, pre-pool. I wasn’t excited. I may have mentioned swimming isn’t my strong suit, but I try to make it happen. At the time I was always trying to force myself into 40 laps—just a bit over a ½-mile, but enough of a bit to make sure it’s a solid ½-mile.

I was sitting there soaking and trying to think of reasons not to swim, as I’m wont to do, and I noticed a wheelchair poolside—there was no one in it. There was some piece of cloth signifying a triathlon attached to it. There were other indications of athletic triumph attached to it.  

I don’t remember the details so much, honestly, but I remember this guy. He was swimming laps. He was a better swimmer than me. He was faster. He was the only person in the pool. He was the only other person in the swim area. He was, from what I could surmise, paraplegic—at a minimum, he had, at that time, no apparent use of his legs. I couldn’t tell by his swimming, although I noted after a while he wasn’t kicking. It was confirmed when he got out of the pool. This was the day I ran out of excuses.

There’s not really much more to say about it than that, but of course I’ll ramble on. It’s not like I stared. And I didn’t dream it, either. Although I’ve only seen him there that one time, others at the gym have acknowledged his existence. And I acknowledge the fact that I’m making a lot of (or at least some) presuppositions. I won’t spell them out, because for the most part, they’re probably obvious. They’re irrelevant. Whether these presuppositions are true or not, this man is an inspiration for me to this day. I don’t know who he is.

I don’t know how long he swam, but I know it was at least 10 minutes, because that’s how long I’d sat in the hot tub marveling over how well this guy swam and figuring out that wheelchair was his, and I’d bet it was a good while longer than that. I just watched. Should I feel bad for that? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t think he’s say “yes.” This guy, he wasn’t using a pull buoy as I am now with my one hurt knee. He was just swimming, and there are others that swim with no kick and I’m aware of that, but man, this guy was moving. Moving way better than me through the water, even to this day. And the part that got me, the moment all my excuses to skip exercise melted away, was when he finished his workout.

I feel like the reason for the inspiration is obvious, and I also feel like maybe it’s something I shouldn’t type about…like maybe it’s taboo or insensitive. But it’s not meant to be like that and honestly, I just can’t help it.

He’d been doing all this swimming, and then he was done. He rested at the side of the pool for just a moment. He put his hands on the edge of the pool, just as I would, and hoisted his self out, as I’ve done lately with my hurt knee: lift then twist to sit on the edge. But then he didn’t move his legs and he put his hands on his wheelchair, and he hoisted himself into that. His legs weren’t moving—it didn’t seem they would. And without looking around or at me or any other consideration what-so-ever, he wheeled himself back into the gym. That’s all I know of that guy. I’ve made some assumptions. Irrelevant.

I got out of the hot tub and swam my 40 laps. I’ve swam at least 40 laps once per week every week since that day (with rare I’m-on-a-2-or-3-week-vacation-to-South-or-Central-America exceptions). My swimming has gotten better. I suspect he’d still beat my ass in competition.

I’ve come up with plenty of excuses to not exercise in my day—I’m just tired; I don’t feel like it; my stomach is too full; my stomach is too empty; I’m probably undernourished; I didn’t sleep well last night; I worked out hard yesterday—and some of these can be valid, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to listen to one’s body and know how far one can push oneself. I’ve pushed myself too far plenty of times and learned some important lessons on physical limitations—again, another blog entry altogether. But now, any time I think of one of these excuses not to exercise or any number of others, I always think of that guy hoisting his self out of the pool and into his wheelchair, then wheeling away. And more often than not, I drop my excuse and exercise.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Diet Change: My Disgusting Trigger

This gets a bit ugly at a point. Some of it’s hard for me to write, and it may be uncomfortable to read, but I’m writing it. Don’t read it if you don’t want to. Overall, it’s very positive; it leads to good things: it triggered a transformation in  me. But you’ve been warned.

Eating well is an ongoing struggle for me. I grew up on fast food, specifically cheeseburgers, French fries, tacos, and pizza. In fairness, I think my parents’ generation—the baby boomers—were thrust into a great nutritional disadvantage that has only recently been realized. I look at my grandparents’ generation and I compare that to my parents’ generation, my own generation, and those up-and-comers younger than me. There’s a point where, dietarily-speaking, we got off-course, and it has and continues to affect each generation differently. I think the prospects are improving. But I do feel like my parents’ generation, in particular, was handicapped a bit in the diet department.

Why do I think my parents were at a disadvantage? As I often do, I’ll oversimplify, but I think there was a combination of reasons. For one thing, women were starting to enter the workforce at a much higher rate. For those with families, time became more limited. At the same time, while dealing with this decrease in available time and likely increase in general fatigue (who likes to do anything after a long day’s work, really?), there was an increase in ready-made or quickly- and easily-prepared processed foods. Supermarkets thrived (and of course they still do). Fast-food restaurants started popping up on every corner. Convenience stores. The options seemed endless, and just so darn easy. And there wasn’t a lot of information on all these new foods or the ingredients contained therein—how good or bad they are for a person. No one even really knew there was a difference between, say, a hamburger they pressed out and fried at home or one they bought at Wendy’s. These processed foods were there, they were easy, they filled Caloric needs, and so many of them taste damn good. I could go on about this, and maybe someday I will, but suffice it to say I think I started out with a dietary disadvantage, too. And I don’t blame my parents for this; it’s just the way it went. I was raised on processed foods.

Our household was a busy one. I have an older sister—older by about three-and-a-half years. Both of my parents worked—my dad in a factory, often pulling the night shift (which would allow him a bit more time with his kids, even if he was sleep-deprived [which I would never have caught onto]), and my mom as a nurse, managing her schedule so she was always available for us. And my parents were great about encouraging us in performance and activities. We excelled in school, we played sports year-round, and we managed to steal any bit of free time my parents may have dreamt of conjuring up. My parents never missed a single sporting event we participated in. If we both had an event at the same time, my mom would go to one and my dad to the other. They were the best, most supportive parents a kid could hope for growing up. They never complained or even showed visible dissatisfaction at the schedules they were forced to maintain. I could never express how deeply grateful I am for the upbringing I was given. I love my parents so dearly.

Back on topic, though, I think a lot of that busy-ness (not business [HA!]), combined with the aforementioned easy foods and my unwillingness to eat the unknown (I can be quite stubborn), helped start my diet down a…less-than-ideal path. I loathed wheat bread, but would eat the white stuff. I loved sugar, which is only natural, although the sugars were highly refined. (I’d empty packets into my mouth.) I ate processed meats on my sandwiches or peanut butter loaded with hydrogenated oils (which no one cared about at the time—everything was [and much still is] filled with hydrogenated oil of some sort), but I never ate jelly. I ate potato chips, corn chips, and pretzels. I ate cinnamon toast slathered in margarine and covered with white sugar. I'd eat spaghetti, but only with a particular canned (and completely lumpless) sauce. I loved Wendy’s. I loved Taco Bell. I loved Long John Silver’s. I’d get the same thing each time I went to any one of those establishments. Wendy’s: double cheeseburger, ketchup and mustard only, large fries, large soda. Taco Bell: four hard tacos; or five; sometimes six. Long John Silver’s: chicken, fries, and an extra order of crumbs. Always the large soda. Yes, and I ate that fast food several times per week.

~~I should maybe note I’m mostly remembering my high school days and beyond here, blending in to college, and much of that time I was able to drive myself around, and these were the “restaurants” where I chose to eat—they weren’t forced on me.~~

I loved soda. I would drink several cans or bottles per day. Several. Four. Five. Six. More? Probably.

I stocked enough Totino’s pepperoni “Party Pizzas” in my freezer to last through an apocalypse, and if I was home and didn’t want to leave, a burnt-to-a-crisp frozen pizza was my meal of choice. That, and a soda or two.

If I HAD to eat a vegetable, it was corn or green beans. I counted French fries as a vegetable.

What wouldn’t I eat? Pretty much anything I didn’t specifically note above. Seriously. I didn’t eat broccoli or carrots or salads or squash. (Okay, I'd maybe eat a "salad," but it consisted only of lettuce, cheese, and I'd drench it in Catalina dressing so I didn't taste anything else. Oh, and artificial bacon bits.) I didn’t eat apples, bananas, peaches, or any fruit what-so-ever. None. I wouldn’t drink orange juice, or any other juice. I wouldn’t (and still don’t) drink milk. Rarely a nut other than a peanut.  

I was young and highly active, though, so most of the probable effects of that diet were squelched by all that activity. I stayed thin, at least. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the visible effects were squelched. I looked healthy.

When I was 20 years old, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. He’d put off a trip to the doctor way too long, and it was only about a year after that diagnosis that my dad died. He was 50 years old. I won’t claim that made me give any thought to my diet, but the stress and emotion of it all pushed my body in a direction that ultimately forced me to give it thought. I started having some stomach problems. I pretty much ignored them.

It wasn’t a year—or much more than a year—after my dad’s death that I was leaving a shopping mall with my grandma and my sister, we had just eaten at Applebee’s (burger and fries for me, with a soda), and I wasn’t feeling quite right. This may get a bit gruesome and others may be embarrassed to talk or write about it, and maybe it’s hard to read, but it started a transformation, and that’s the point of this.

I really had to poop. It was diarrhea, I knew that, but I also hate using public restrooms, so I was planning to hold it until we got back to my grandparents’ house, which was maybe 15 or 20 minutes away. As we were walking out the mall doors, I noticed and commented that my palms were starting to itch. That was weird.

We got in the car, and my urge to use the restroom was increasing, but more disturbingly, the itching sensation was spreading. Up my arms. Down my legs. My head really started itching. I kept saying I wasn’t feeling right. I was rocking and swaying, clenching my sphincter and scratching my head; my arms; my palms; my legs. My sister was in the front seat laughing at me, and I know she hates that and regrets that given all that came after, but she had no way of knowing what was going on, and it’s pretty funny to see someone so distraught over needing to poop. I get that. I probably would have been laughing, too, if it weren’t me experiencing the oddness. I harbor no ill feelings about it.

When we got to my grandparents’ house, that’s when it all went really bad. I felt crazy. My body felt like it never had, but all I wanted to do was get to the bathroom, so I opened the car door and started to run toward the front door. I passed out before I got there, crashing hard on the cement walkway. I immediately came to, got up, and passed out again. Again I crashed onto the concrete. I was singularly focused. I made it in the house and passed out again, this time my chin hitting on a hard, lightly carpeted step. I’d banged my chin up pretty bad. I was probably otherwise scratched and banged from the three successive losses of consciousness, but I remember the chin. My grandma made me crawl to the bathroom, which was smart, and any humor in the situation had definitely gone.

Details of this are fuzzy for me. This honestly isn’t real easy for me to write about. I haven’t even thought about it in this much detail for so very long. I got into the restroom. I sat on the toilet. And I shit blood. LOTS and LOTS of blood. It looked like it was only blood, but I know it wasn’t. I think 9-1-1 had been called when I first started passing out, and I’m glad for that. I couldn’t get off the toilet. I couldn’t stop shitting blood. I think I was passing out. My body was going, and it wasn’t going anywhere good. An ambulance showed up. They loaded me on a stretcher and got me to the ambulance, wheeling me out on what were once pure white sheets, naked, 21-years-old, covered in my own feces and lots of blood. I’d lost so much blood they couldn’t get a blood pressure reading on me. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to death, and I’m not sure how close I actually came, but not having a readable blood pressure: that’s not a good thing. I could have died. I would have died if the ambulance hadn’t shown up. I’m sure of that.

My mom was in the emergency room as soon as she could get there, and I’d guess that was much sooner than anyone else could ever have made the trip. She would not be denied access to me, and given her profession, the staff didn’t resist much. I had stabilized a bit, but the diarrhea was endless, and the blood kept coming. I really can’t recall a lot of details. Bits and pieces. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, as I remember it. I spent a vast majority of that time on the toilet and the rest of it in bed. My ass was raw and sore from constant defecation and cleaning. I had to get my first colonoscopy.

A colonoscopy isn’t so pleasant, in theory—you get a camera shoved up your ass. And you have to have a thoroughly clean digestive tract, so you have to slug down this nasty solution to make you pass absolutely everything in your bowels, which seemed especially cruel and unnecessary since I’d been pooping every 15 minutes for the past 5 or 6 days anyway while eating essentially nothing, but they made me drink that stuff, and then I spent an hour on the toilet pooping and puking at the same time, pretty much constantly from both ends, and my vomit was the color of the Predator’s blood. I remember that: it glowed green.

The colonoscopy itself, in practice, is not such a bad thing. In fact, it was quite enjoyable. They put me under what they called “conscious sedation,” which is essentially injecting you with so much of a narcotic, in this case Demerol, that you’re completely knocked out, but not so knocked out that if they do something really wrong, or that REALLY hurts, you won’t wake up. I remember waking up at one point due to a sharp pain (they’d taken a tissue sample or removed a polyp) and seeing my insides on a little TV in front of me. That was nutty. I remember that being one of the best drug-induced feelings I’ve ever had in my life: that conscious sedation. I remember being in the recovery room, my family around me and my grandma in my immediately line of sight and saying “Give me more of this shit.” (I surely made everyone proud.)

So that was pretty much it. They removed a few polyps during the procedure, which turned out to be non-cancerous, which was obviously good. I was in the hospital for another week or so, getting intravenous fluid, being monitored, and recovering. I was diagnosed with a non-specific colitis. “It may recur, it may not, but a better diet would be beneficial. Lots of fiber may help.” I put that in quotes, but I don’t remember a specific quote. That was the general message, though. And I’d have to get a colonoscopy every 5 years for the rest of my life, especially given my father’s untimely death. I realized I needed to make changes in my diet.

The thing was: I didn’t know how. I didn’t really want to. I didn’t like any of the foods I had always avoided eating. Or at least I figured I wouldn’t like them because, well, there was some reason I hadn’t been eating them, right? (No.) I was starting to feel better. But I also continued having some bits of stomach problems. I still do to this day, and I’ve had one major recurrence similar to the one I described above that landed me in the emergency room again a few years back, though it wasn’t nearly as bad (no loss-of-consciousness, no lengthy hospital stay). Obviously I’m still alive. The logical assumption, even if it weren’t the clearly stated point of this entry, is I did make changes to my diet. It was a long, slow process. It’s on-going.  

This isn’t the path I’d planned this blog entry to take. I’m sorry. Given the length already, I think I’ll stop at that and get to the HOW of my changes in a separate entry. Man, that wasn’t very uplifting.        

Friday, August 12, 2011


This is just something of an aside and it’s going to be a bit more in depth, although also overly simplistic, I know. I think the basic point is important, though, although I feel I may fail to get it across like I want to. It gets so clear in my mind at times, but then I go to write it and all clarity seems to leave. Here I go.

I may keep saying it, but we’re all different: genes, environments, time, responsibilities, desires…yet a lot of time we’re all measuring ourselves against the same basic ideal, at least as far as fitness goes. Allow me to be arrogant enough to quote myself from an earlier post.
It's that mental picture we all have of the truly fit person, I think, that can keep people on the couch instead of even standing there at the gate, let alone pushing through the start. Fitness isn't necessarily how much muscle or fat you have on your body, it's an all-around measure of your health, both physical and mental. No one started out tremendously fit. We all started off as little babies, squishy and barely moving, spending most of our time sleeping, and slowly working to build the muscles to lift our heads, sit up, stand up, and walk. There's always a starting point; a baseline. Sure, you're not a baby anymore. But maybe you're sitting there at your new baseline--you're new starting point--and you're ready to get going.
The baseline: that’s what I want to type about.

The basics of fitness (e.g., cardiovascular improvement, fat-loss, mass-building…), they’re not a secret. They’re simple science, for the most part. Sure, there are outliers: certain medications, rare disorders, those types of things can throw a wrench into the standard theory. But for the vast majority of us, it’s a pretty straight-forward path to improving our fitness. But, given our vast differences, we all have different fitness baselines. I’d like to demonstrate with a couple of relative extremes. For the first I’ll focus on fat-loss (not weight-loss, ‘cause that can be different), mostly because that’s what so many people focus on.

Maybe you’re overweight. Or obese. You sit on the couch all day. You eat and eat. You don’t care what you eat. Maybe you’re plateaued at a certain weight, or maybe you continue to gain. I don’t know. Immobility: maybe that’s your physical baseline.

~~Okay, perhaps a digression(?)…progression(?)…teleportation(?) into a bit of science is in order. And I’m not sitting here researching as I type, but I can probably lay this out reasonably accurately. Our bodies are energy-burning machines. They burn Calories. Even if you do nothing all day but lay in bed, you’re burning Calories. That’s why, obviously, you can do absolutely nothing and still starve to death: you’re burning Calories while doing absolutely nothing, because your body is always doing something. That’s known as your base metabolic rate—it’s pretty much the number of Calories your body is going to burn in a given day just to stay alive (e.g., breathing, pumping blood, blinking…the very basics). There is a certain number of Calories you must take in each day to maintain that baseline: you know, staying alive. (Insert disco joke here.)

Okay, here, I’ll even Google it for you, because I bet there’s a website that will calculate it for you. It’s not difficult. <Pause> And done:    You can visit that site and get an estimate of your base metabolic rate, customized just for you. If, for example, you’re a 5-foot 10-inch tall, 35-year-old man weighing in at 280 pounds, your base metabolic rate is around 2,400 Calories per day. So if you do ABSOLUTELY nothing all day, not even getting out of bed, you’d need to consume about 2,400 Calories each day to maintain your 280-pound self. (Good for you if you caught that little contradiction: eating is doing something. But c’mon, I’m oversimplifying to make the point.) If you consume only 2,000 Calories each day while doing ABSOLUTELY nothing, believe it or not, in simple theory, you’ll lose about 1 pound of fat every 9 days. On the other side of that, if you maintain that lethargy and eat 2,800 Calories per day, you’ll GAIN about 1 pound of fat every 9 days. Neat, right? And straightforward: the general consensus is that 3,500 Calories, either in surplus or deficit, equals 1 pound of fat. You wanna lose a pound of fat? Burn 3,500 more Calories than you consume. You wanna gain a pound of fat? Eat 3,500 more Calories than you burn. The duration over which the deficit or surplus occurs doesn’t matter so much; it’s a net-sum calculation. If you obtain that deficit over 1 week, you’ll lose a pound of fat that week. Reach that deficit in a month, you’ll lose a pound of fat in a month. And vice versa.

The reality, of course, is you do get out of bed. You walk to the restroom, shower, brush your teeth…walk to your car, into your job, or around your house…eat…defecate…talk and laugh. You sit, stand, and lie down. You read this blog. All of these things burn varying amounts of Calories.~~

So hopping back out of that science and back into the initial example, you’re an overweight, inactive person. (Maybe YOU aren’t, but the example “you” is.) You do the minimal amount of activity you can get by with in a day: you take the elevator instead of the stairs, you drive ¼-mile to the market instead of walking, you leave the trash on the ground instead of bending over to pick it up (in your house or on the sidewalk), you sit in your car, stalking those leaving the store, and wait for the closest parking spot to open. And for example’s sake, let’s assume you balance that minimal Calorie burn perfectly with your Caloric consumption. You aren’t gaining or losing fat. You’re in perfect equilibrium. You’ve weighed 280 pounds for 3 years now, and you’ve decided you want to lose some fat. This is where I think it can get difficult for you.

It’s a daunting task. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine how daunting it would be to want to lose, say, 100 pounds. But I’ll get to using myself as an example later. I’m sure there is no shortage of “fit” folks willing to offer advice (ahem, here I am, feeling a bit like an asshole), and you can pick up the magazines and read the information on the internet and blah blah blah. You set your sights on that cover-model body. You want to lose 100 pounds. You look at what you want to be and what you are. You look at the 100s of recommended workout regimes, the multitude of conflicting diet plans, the restrictions and additions and innumerable challenges and changes you’ll have to make in your life to reach that point…and you sit back and say, “Screw it.” At that point, I probably would, too. I’m being honest.

<I pour a glass of wine.>

What I’d propose, though, and this is definitely no new idea—I’m not that original or smart—is you forget that 100 pound weight-loss goal. Forget the regimented diets laid out in the books (e.g., cut your carbs, eat only bacon and eggs, never have dessert, do or don’t allow yourself a cheat day, jump into eating foods you don’t like such as eggplant and avocados and lots and lots of broccoli) and prescribed activities (e.g., get 30 minutes of “moderate” activity per day, or jog 3 miles every other day, or ride your bike 40 minutes every day, and make sure you throw in a bit of weight-lifting at the gym). Forget it. That’s not where you are.

Consider your baseline. You aren’t doing much of anything, physically, and you’re in fat/Calorie equilibrium. Given this (perhaps unlikely) scenario of equilibrium, you’re in a very good position to make a difference for yourself, but you have to be patient, and you’re going to have to be patient regardless, so why not go easy on yourself and make it an effort you can bare? Make one small change. Or if you’re up for it, make two or three.

If, for example, in your standard state of equilibrium, you eat whatever else and 3 glazed Dunkin’ donuts every day, cut back to only 2 donuts. Still hungry? Fill the space with a bit of water. A donut-sized amount of water isn’t a whole lot of water. Or try black coffee, even—no cream, no sugar (no Calories). You just cut 180 Calories (according to Dunkin’ Donuts’ website). Is it a lot? Maybe not, but you’re moving in the right direction. You want to speed things up a bit? Skip the elevator and take the stairs. You don’t have to take them fast. You can stop and pause a full minute on each step if you need. You’ve still burnt more Calories than you did taking the elevator. Sure, these are small adjustments. Minute steps. That’s my point: these things are relatively easily accomplished, and they’re moving you toward the change you want. Maybe cutting that one donut and climbing/descending one floor of stairs will result in a Calorie deficit after 1 day of 300 Calories compared to your baseline (I have no idea; it’d depend on your weight and other variables). Okay, it’s not a lot. But in about 12 days, you’ll lose a pound of fat. (In simple theory. There IS the complication of muscle mass gain, but as I keep writing, I’m going for simplicity here.) “Only 1 pound in 12 days!” you may exclaim. “What’s the point? I’d need to lose 50 to even see a real difference!” I understand.

Okay, so sit back down. Hop on the elevator. Eat that third donut. Stay in equilibrium, and if you can maintain that equilibrium, you’ll stay 100 pounds heavier than you want to be for perpetuity if, I guess, you’re lucky. But if you cut that donut and climb/descend those stairs and maintain that 300-Calorie-per-day deficit, in a little over 3 years you’ll be down about 100 pounds.

Admittedly, as pounds are shed additional changes will be needed—you’ll be lighter, you won’t burn as many Calories climbing/descending the stairs. Simply eating one less donut each day and taking the stairs won’t get you where you want to be in and of itself. But you’ll have a bit of momentum (and maybe even a little bump in confidence and self-esteem), you’ll have made a couple of small adjustments you’ve found you can easily maintain, and you’ll be able to search out a couple more. You’ll WANT to search out more of those little changes, because you’ll see what they can do for you. Maybe you’ll start parking a bit further away at work every day, forcing yourself to walk 100 feet further than you otherwise would. Maybe you’ll switch out one can of soda for a glass of water each day.

Surely you’re getting my point by now: your goal should not be to make massive changes and drop 100 pounds of fat. Your goal should be to make minute changes and lose 1 pound of fat. After a long series of minute, manageable changes you’re willfully making and adapting to over whatever amount of time it takes you to adapt to them, you’ll have lost 100 pounds of fat and, compared to that old baseline, you’ll have made massive changes in your diet and activity levels. Remember the movie What About Bob? Baby steps. Just not “Baby steps get on the elevator.” Try “baby steps walk up the stairs.”

“Easy for you to say, Stan. You’re already in shape. You’re fit. You run multiple times per week. You bike. You swim. You eat well.” First of all, eating well has been a long, slow struggle for me I’ll blog about some other time. (You have no idea.) Second, I’m just at a different baseline. This is where I get into the example of myself, and I know myself well.

Yes, I’m in good shape. My resting heart rate is typically in the low 50s, sometimes I work it down into the 40s. I’m slender. I have toned muscles. I’ve run a marathon, biked a century, done the tri: I’ve said it all before, and it’s not meant as bragging. Honestly. But let me take the running as an example: I have run a marathon. Great. Good for me. (No, I don’t have a 26.2 sticker on my car. My accomplishments are for me, really, although I know this blog may seem to counter that. I’ll never claim I don’t contradict myself.) I still run regularly, as you’re surely aware by now.

Can I run a marathon tomorrow? HELL NO. Can I run one next week? HELL NO. Right now, my running baseline is about 3.5 to 4 miles, 3 times per week. That’s a far cry from 26.2 miles in less than 4 hours.

If someone asked me how long I trained for my marathon, without much thought I’d spout out “16 weeks.” When I really focused in and got regimented on the training (yes, I CAN be regimented, annoyingly so, even, but I could even qualify that with further blabber), I had a 16-week training program. (And I’ve shared it with many. It wasn’t my creation.) So could I run a marathon in 16 weeks if I started that same training plan tomorrow? HELL NO. And that may seem a bit counterintuitive at first, until you realize that training plan assumes you can complete a 9-mile run before you even start the training plan. So my off-the-cuff answer of “I trained 16 weeks for my marathon” is fallacious.

About 4 years ago, I was running essentially like I am now, mostly 3–4 miles. I did some 5-kilometer runs. I started getting faster and found that encouraging and always felt like I was…a bit of a weenie compared to those doing 10Ks (5Ks and 10Ks are often run on the same day, so I’d be preparing to run my 5K and seeing these others preparing for their 10Ks, and I’ll say it: I’m competitive, but not overly so[?], so I wanted to be one of those running the longer distance). So I started increasing my distances a bit and over time I was able to run 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). It didn’t happen overnight. It took me a few months. And then I started running some 10K races, and I kept improving in time, and I thought Hey, I could probably do a half marathon. So I started running a bit further. Training…blah…obvious trend here. Ultimately, I completed a half marathon, and I turned out a respectable time. Then I backed off a bit. My distances slacked. I got bored. I focused on other things.

Then one day I got bored again, so I started increasing my running distances a bit. My long runs got back up to 7 miles…8 miles…9 miles…and I thought about another half marathon. But due to a combination of variables in my life, I decided that was my opportunity to work toward completing a marathon. So I kept running, plateauing in distance a bit, while researching marathon training programs. I found one I liked: only running 3 times per week, cross-training 3 other days per week, and taking one day off. (I typically do 6 days on/one day off of exercise anyway, although that doesn’t always hold true.) When I finally settled on that plan, customized it for myself, and then got started, I still had 16 weeks of training in front of me. So the more thought out answer to “How long did you train for your marathon,” which I’ve honestly never given this much thought before, would more accurately be about…oh, 4 years.

Changes in fitness don’t happen overnight. They take time, and often a lot of it. They take some dedication and motivation. Sure, it doesn’t have to take 4 years to train for a marathon. I’d never assert that. But ultimately, all things considered, given my 4-year-ago baseline, my desires, environment, and time, it took me about 4 years. Baselines vary from person to person, and with each person, they fluctuate.

So what’s your baseline right now? Maybe it’s complete inactivity and extremely poor eating. Maybe you just completed an Iron Man and you’ve never been in better shape in your life. Maybe you want to change, and maybe you don’t. Right now, I’m pretty happy hovering at a baseline I’d argue I’ve been orbiting since my son was born. I had a priority shift. I don’t want to spend 3 hours running or 4 hours biking in one day at this point in my life. I’m happy with my physical activity. As far as my diet is concerned, I can always make improvements. And I DO try to progress in that department. I try to eat better. Again, it’s a struggle for me. But I know my baseline, I know my goals, and I don’t set them too far out ahead. I make them manageable; attainable. And then I attain those minute goals, and I feel good about myself. It beats the hell out of shooting for the moon, only hitting the top of the trees, and settling back into the same old shit.

Figure out your baseline, and if you want to move beyond it, do it. It’s really not that hard: “Baby steps get on the bus.”

Physical Misperceptions

I've learned a lot my last 10 years or so of participating in various athletic events, but one lesson of great importance came during the one triathlon I've done. Don't stop reading at the mention of a triathlon, because that's not the point. The point is what I learned about my perception of others' physical fitness.

I was 25 and in pretty great shape. I was real into lifting weights at the time and had bulked up to a point I've never again attained, or really plan to. And that's not to say I was a big guy, just that it was the first time I really developed muscle definition: I had a V to my torso, you couldn't see my ribs through my pecs, and my shoulders and arms were defined. I was bulkier than I am now, muscle-wise. I was well-conditioned, and although I decided to attempt this tri a bit too late to allow myself truly adequate training (especially the swimming, because I wasn't a swimmer), I was pretty confident going in--not confident that I'd win, but confident I'd finish, and that SURELY I'd be beating a lot of the people around me.

Of course, there were those we typically think of as super-fit: the magazine cover models with 6% body fat and muscle striations you could count from 20 feet away; abs you could wash your clothes on. Those people I was in awe of. Now THAT's fit, I thought to myself. And I looked around at some of the others surrounding me before the start of the race and, in my head, would scoff. That guy doesn't look like he has stood up from the couch in a month. Hey lady, how was that double cheeseburger you ate for breakfast? How on Earth could these squishy people ever think they're going to do this? 

It was an off-road triathlon: a 0.6-mile lake swim, 19-mile trail ride, and 5-mile trail run. I did complete it, it took me 3 hours and 12 minutes, and it kicked my ass. But what surprised me: so did a lot of those "unfit, squishy" people I'd been scoffing at before the race. If you had lined us all up side-by-side and been tasked to rank our fitness based on appearance alone, I may have ranked in the top 15. The reality, though, is that I finished down around the 50s overall, out of about 80 people that actually finished the race, those people ranging in age from 13 to 55 years old. (I've been looking at a website that shows the results; my memory isn't that great.) The average time of those that finished, including both men and women, was about 2 hours and 52 minutes. That's right: I was below average. Notably below average.

But I didn't even have to wait to see the numbers to have a major epiphany: you can't judge how fit someone is by how they look. There I was, this very fit looking young man, bent over, feeling completely depleted and, except for surprisingly subtle adrenaline and endorphin boost from having finished, nearly dead. Sure, everyone was beat. It's no easy feat, and everyone pushes themselves as much as they can in an event like that. But I was looking around at all these other people as I was trying to regain some sort of composure, and so many were way better off than me. Many of those squishy folks had finished before me, or very close to me. They were smiling and laughing, jumping around a bit, enjoying the post-race rush. They looked good; happy. They didn't look like I felt: mostly dead.

I hung around for the awards ceremony, mostly because I couldn't really get myself to walk to my truck, load up my bike, and drive home. (And I did end up randomly winning a pair of athletic shoe inserts, which changed my running life.) When I finally got around to loading up and trying to head home, I couldn't get in my truck: my right hamstring was cramping worse than any cramp I'd ever experienced to that point. It was cramped with my leg straight, and it was worse with my leg bent. At one point, audibly crying out in pain, I feared I might not even be able to straighten my leg out again (silly, I know). The pain was intense. I sat and drank water. I drank sports drinks. I snacked. I'd been doing so since the race was over, but obviously my body still hadn't gotten all it needed. It was intense. I was one of the last people to leave the parking lot, and I still hurt the entire 1.5-hour drive home. There are some cramps I'll simply never forget, and that was the first one of that nature.

I re-read that and realize it may sound like I didn't enjoy the experience overall. I did. It was great. While sitting there, recovering, trying to get past the pain, I was also basking in the glory of the accomplishment. I'm incredibly proud of myself for having achieved that goal and having pushed through so much pain and, during the race itself, self-doubt. But my memories of those harsh judgments on others' physical appearance: those stick with me to this day.

And still, I'm fully guilty of judging people's fitness on appearance. I'd argue it's impossible not to. At the same time, every time I make one of those snap judgments, I'm quick to remind myself that my perception of that person may be totally wrong. Sure, maybe they're not going to be on the cover of Men's Health, or Muscle Magazine, or Women's Health (and neither will I), but they may also have a resting heart rate of 45 beats per minute and be able to swim circles around me, or shift a gear on their bike and leave me behind like I just hit a wall. They may be just as healthy as me or even more-so, they just don't fit that mold we've all come to think of as "fit."

It's that mental picture we all have of the truly fit person, I think, that can keep people on the couch instead of even standing there at the gate, let alone pushing through the start. Fitness isn't necessarily how much muscle or fat you have on your body, it's an all-around measure of your health, both physical and mental. No one started out tremendously fit. We all started off as little babies, squishy and barely moving, spending most of our time sleeping, and slowly working to build the muscles to lift our heads, sit up, stand up, and walk. There's always a starting point; a baseline. Sure, you're not a baby anymore. But maybe you're sitting there at your new baseline--you're new starting point--and you're ready to get going. So get going. Take a step forward and move on from that baseline. The progress doesn't have to be fast. In fact, we all know the truth: it won't be. There will, however, BE progress when you start to make that effort. That's something you can rest assured of.