October 2, 2016

Health : Struggles

I've accumulated a bunch of thoughts and happenings lately, that all seem to have to do with difficulties. Posting tomorrow about getting lost when traveling, Wednesday about lack of safety in our patients' communities, and Friday about a man's memoir about his own unsafe upbringing--so a general sense of confusion, lack of direction, and wondering.

In terms of my health and fitness, I've felt a little floundering. After the marathon, I kept myself distracted with the 21 Day Fix Challenge--three weeks of daily workouts and a simple nutrition plan focused on fewer carbs, more proteins, and healthy portions.  Throughout this, I felt fluctuations of either gradual progress or steady maintenance, both of which suited my general fitness goals right now.  

But lately, now with less structure, I'm struggling to maintain healthy habits and general fitness. I still try to do a 21 Day workout most days, and I climb and yoga each at least once a week.  But I'm feeling more tired and less motivated.  I'm going through the motions and feel like I'm losing ground. My back has also started to hurt, which hasn't happened to me before, and makes me think that my fatigue is making me lose form in working out and causing minor sustained strain to my joints.

Interestingly, I'm reading a book called Cure: A Journey of the Science of Body Over Mind by Jo Marchant and just finished a chapter on how our brain signals for us to stop exertion long before our muscles and organs need to stop.  It's the same idea as conditioning.  The author shares data about how when athletes start having difficulty breathing in high altitude, the oxygen levels in their blood haven't actually changed.  But the anticipation of not having oxygen makes our bodies prepare for it, and changes our breathing.  It's in the mind in that the brain controls these mechanisms, but it's also beyond the mind, because it does actually start to affect what our bodies do physically.  It's not a new idea--that so much of physical activity is mental.  But it's interesting to really consider that the real, physical fatigue we feel in our bodies is something that our brains, not our muscles, initiate.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Kaiser Half-Marathon, February 2016

So it makes sense that during a period where my mind is less focused and present, that I'm starting to feel tired more easily.  I'm less able to push through physical activity, and enjoying it less as a result.

I'm also eating a lot more bad food.  I didn't expect to maintain the 21 Day nutrition completely, but I thought I could stave off my sweet tooth a little more.  At home by myself I'm pretty good at eating well.  But I'm surrounded by temptations and with this mental fatigue I've mentioned, I have much less willpower to resist.  At a recent work party, I ate three slices of cake (one chocolate and two coffee with crumble topping, if anyone is curious), and later that day I had half a bag of yogurt almonds as dinner.  Visiting my parents this weekend, I had a huge bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch immediately after a filling dinner, and primed for sugar, topped it off with a frosted cereal bar.  Later I had a midnight snack of cinnamon brown sugar biscuits, and all the sugar made me thirsty, so I drank a soda, something I do about once a year and something that I commonly scold my co-workers for doing because it's one of the few things I think is so bad for you that it's worth speaking up.

Anyone who sees me eating these things tells me that I can afford it, that I should be grateful for my metabolism, and so on. I know this is all well-intentioned but I've grown to dislike the easy joking comments, because I don't think eating habits should be synonymous with weight monitoring.  Eating is about physical and mental health, which is entirely more broad and important than weight.  I've learned over the years that what I eat really has immediate effects on how I feel.  I love sugar so much, but when I eat this much of it, my body is uncomfortable and I'm more moody.

All in all, I'm facing the chicken and the egg cycle that my patients share with me all the time: feeling down makes you less able to do the things that would bring you up, like exercising and eating well, and not doing these things bring you down more. 

So I'm going to try to do what I advise my patients: choose one thing and re-set.  Just do one thing drastically different.  If you always eat a donut, decide not to eat that donut today (as all my co-workers know, I can eat a dozen donuts a day if given the chance). Take up a new hobby, without any parameters other than to try it.  And let yourself be okay with having to re-set over and over, because we inevitably relapse.  The discipline will come later, but the initial re-set is really important in changing what your mind tells your body is possible.  Like Jo Marchant says in her book, one reason running high-intensity sprints works is because running really hard forces you to reach a point your brain wouldn't otherwise let you reach--and then you know you can get there.  And that mindset diffuses into the rest of what you do.  You don't have to run that hard and fast every time, but now you've re-set and the directions for your trajectory widen.

On that note--for my one drastic change, I've decided to go back to running. I've been on exactly two short runs since I did the marathon two months ago.  I think a return to that movement will help re-set and re-train my mind, then my body, then my mind.


  1. guess we know where you got that sweet tooth from :-)

    1. Haha at least I left that last ice cream for Dad!


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