Friday, August 29, 2014

The Taxman Cometh: How We Pay For What We Watch

The six-year-old Darling Son comes up to me yesterday and says, "Mommy. We have to talk."


"Yes. We have to talk. About the Mommy Tax."

Oh. Ok. I know what's coming. He feels it's unfair of me to levy what I call the 'Mommy Tax' on his food. I've been known to snatch a bite of something yummy he's eating. I figure I gave him life. I cook and/or procure the vast majority of his treats, so I feel quite entitled to tax him for it. (I also take a Wife Tax. I feel justified in that, too. The Darling Husband doesn't seem quite so aggrieved.)

But the Darling Son is an American, and we don't like taxes. The American Revolution was really all about taxation. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, etc.

A Tax on TV?!
When I moved to Scotland many years ago, I was surprised to learn that the British pay a TV tax.
Read more about the TV tax here
Yup, you have to pay an annual tax to own a television, and let me tell you, the TV taxman is quite zealous about taking his bite. Even though I did not own a television, I regularly received threatening letters and phone calls to pay my tax, which they call a 'licence.' I finally became quite exasperated and slightly yelled at the nasty person on the phone, telling her with my very hard American r's that I was a foreign graduate student and for the umpteenth time, did not own a TV. That seemed to do the trick. (By the way, the French pay a TV tax, too, but it's much lower and they don't harass you to get it. Their TV isn't as good, though.)

I did still manage to watch some delicious British TV over at friends' places. One of my faves was a home decorating show. I can't remember what it was called, but the premise was a designer and carpenter would come to your home and make over a room or two using only scrap stuff you had on hand--bits of lumber, old fabric, paint pots, etc. It really appealed my thrifty-don't-waste-anything-if-you-didn't-know-better-you'd-swear-I'd-lived-through-the-depression mentality.

Recently I was telling someone about this little gem of a show, and I realized it would never fly here in the Land of the Free TV. We don't pay anything for it, so it's paid for by advertisers. Home Depot, Shewin-Williams paint and Target aren't going to advertise for a show that is telling you NOT to buy things; one that's encouraging you to use up your basement bits and satisfy yourself with what you have. No, they want you buying new lumber, paint and furniture.

It made me realize that we really do pay for our TV. We pay in dissatisfaction, discontentment and affluenza--the disease of always wanting more, better and new. Blogger Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a fabulous post about loving her kitchen, which you can read here. It pretty much says it all.

But dissatisfaction does not stop at the threshold of our homes. Many of us carry it around with us wherever we go. Numerous studies have linked television viewing (both the shows themselves and the advertisements sprinkled throughout) with body dissatisfaction, especially in adolescent girls. But I'd suggest that adults aren't immune. What we consume affects us.

When I returned to America after five years of living in Europe, teeth whitening had become all the rage. I was surprised by how critical I became of my teeth. My perfectly fine, orthodontistly-straightened, lovely, functional American teeth all of a sudden seemed not-so-lovely. It didn't take me too long to snap out of it and recognize the fact that my teeth's state of whiteness had never bothered me before, so why now? But I saw how vulnerable I was marketing.

I don't mean for this to spark a debate about taxation or politics. That's not what this is about. I only suggest that we need to self-regulate, consider what we view and how it affects us.

One way or another, we pay.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What drives your Loop? How to Establish Healthy Habits, Part Deux

A few months ago, we potty trained Darling Son #2. We gathered together all the necessary equipment--potty, Thomas the Tank Engine underwear, sticker chart and required stickers (microphone, sunglasses, etc.) And we girded ourselves for the task at hand.

Potty Training: It's risky business

Initially, it didn't go very well. In fact, it went quite badly. He just wasn't getting it.

I realized the problem was the stickers. He gets stickers every time we go to Trader Joe's. Stickers just don't light him up enough, so it was time to bring out the big guns:

 Chocolate chips.
This is how he feels about chocolate chips.
Yup, as soon as we dangled the sugar in front of him, the potty became his new best friend. There is indeed a time for everything under heaven, and potty training is the time for chocolate chips. We'd clap, cheer and give him one after he'd performed--just one. After a while, it was no longer necessary. The habit was set and the chocolate chips resumed their rightful place in the basement.

But of course, the process was somewhat painful, as learning new habits can often be. You can make it a little easier on yourself by learning how habits work. It seems simple... you just do something over and over, and it becomes a habit, right?

Well, yes, but it turns out there are certain triggers that fire certain behaviors. Learning how to tap into what researchers call 'the habit loop' can make learning good habits easier... and replacing bad habits easier, too.

The Loop
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began studying habits in the 1990's. They found habits had a distinct pattern: a cue, a routine and a reward.

Let's use exercise as an example, since I think we've talked enough about the potty. When people talk about exercise, it almost always centers around the routine--what workout will get you the 'best results,' however those might be defined. And that's fine. There are certainly many ways to move the bod and it's a worthwhile discussion.

But the cue and reward components of the loop are far more important from a habit-building perspective.

The Cue, a.k.a, The Hurdle
Let's say you've decided to do an exercise video everyday when you get home from work. That's your cue. Time to get moving! The problem, however, is the cue often comes with hurdles--you're tired when you get home, you're hungry, there's a pile of mail you look through, you need to get your clothes on. What are you going to wear? Uh-oh, cute workout clothes are in the wash. And then what video should you do? I have quite a collection so I could spend days on that, alone.

And by now it's so late and you're so hungry, you just end up noshing in front of the TV. (I'm not saying I've ever done that.)

This is why you need a reward. This pattern--cue, routine, reward--turns into a cycle. The researchers found study participants began associating the cue with the reward. The more they practiced the cycle, the stronger the craving for the reward.

In short, the craving drove the loop. This explains why DS #2 wasn't quite clicking with the potty at first. Stickers, schmickers. Hand over the chocolate, Mommy, or there will be pee on the floor.

Deciding on your Reward
Depending on your personality and circumstances, I'm inclined to discourage chocolate chips, or any other food reward. I mean, they worked for the potty, but they might not support your goals. I suppose in the above scenario, you could just make your healthy dinner the 'reward,' but then you might set up a pattern of I exercise/I eat. That may not be helpful if you switch your workout time down the road, but that's up to you.

Years ago, I set up different rewards for myself, without even knowing about this marvelous 'loop.' I made charts, kept a journal, followed workout rotation calendars, that sort of thing. At one point, I made the delightful post-workout shower my reward. I focused on how blissful it would be to feel warm water on my fatigued badass self, how nice it would be to feel all clean and fluffy...

Now, I focus on the lalas--that lovely endorphin rush I get from a good workout. In fact, I once schooled a roommate to remind me 'just think how good you're going to feel when your done.' The lalas can be a very potent reward. I'm at the point where I don't need an external reward. The exercise habit is pretty much burned in brain by this point. It's a good place to be.

But when you're just getting going, pick an external reward. Screen time? Phone a friend? A nice, hot, soapy shower? Sticker chart? It needs to be something good. Remember: the craving drives the loop.

I learned about this in the book The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Highly recommend. Next time we'll talk about obstacles in the loop. I'm off to the coffee pot. It was my reward for finishing this post.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Establishing Healthy Habits, Part 1

A few months ago, I heard from a reader who was struggling with motivation. It seems he had gotten into some bad habits... eating junk food, sitting too much, not getting enough sleep, chain drinking coffee and Diet Coke, etc. He was tired and lethargic all the time. He didn't like feeling this way, yet he said he 'lacked willpower' to really do much about it. Did I have any ideas where he could start?

I suggested he make small changes, tackle one thing at a time, then move on to the next. I'm a big fan of small changes, not so much of the total-life-overhaul approach. Personally, I find that sort of thing too overwhelming, and ultimately not sustainable. And you know I'm all about sustainability. I like to think of myself as the bamboo flooring of health and fitness bloggers.

I never heard back from him so I don't know if it was helpful, but his email got me thinking...

How can we bring about lasting, positive change in our lives?
This man's query reminded me of a book I read maybe six years ago, Never Say Diet. I was perusing the library shelves and wow, what a good title! Way to name your book after a James Bond film! Totally eye-catching.

The author is a woman called Chantel Hobbs, and she has a compelling personal story--so much so that I remember it after all these years.

Let her have cake!
Chantel struggled with overeating since she was a child. She tried different diets, eventually finding her way to one national weight-loss chain (I can't remember which one) and lost quite a bit of weight using their method. Her 16th birthday was approaching, and she asked her weight-loss coach if she could deviate from the (rigid, unsustainable) plan and have a piece of cake at her party.

The coach responded with some degree of horror. "Why would you want to have cake?! You've worked so hard! Of course you can't have cake!" the coach replied... or something to that effect.

Obviously, this was not the bamboo flooring of weight-loss coaches. I'm a big fan of cake. A sustainable way of eating needs to factor in treats in some capacity. Really? No cake for the rest of my life? Nevah?! Unwilling to live the Posh Spice way of life, Chantel left, feeling defeated. She ended up gaining the weight back... and more.

She continued to struggle, anesthetizing her pain with food. She married, had some kids and eventually hit rock bottom. She weighed herself one morning and found her scale couldn't even account for her weight--it's limit was 350lbs, and she had exceeded that.

So she made a plan, and as it turns out, it was a very sensible one.

She resolved that she would start with exercise. Every day, she would exercise. That's it. She didn't even address the food issue... yet.

Now, some might argue this part of the plan is controversial. I ranted a while ago about exercise and how it's been grossly oversold as a means of weight loss, and I stand by my rant. There are myriad reasons why exercise can be ineffective for weight loss, and can even sabotage weight-loss goals. At some point, you have to deal with your relationship with food. The maxim 'you can't out-train a bad diet' is absolutely true.

But exercise can be a very effective 'keystone habit.'

A keystone habit is one behavior that sets off a chain of other behaviors. Implementing a positive keystone habit, like exercise, can lead to other good habits. In the beginning, it doesn't even matter what or how much exercise you do, it's just about cultivating the habit.

Chantel found a local gym that provided childcare, and she resolved to ride a recumbent bike everyday for thirty days. Without fail, she got on that bike every day. Sometimes she couldn't motivate herself to do it until 10pm, but she did it. Just that one thing.

She details the other things she did in her book, which of course, involved dealing with her food. I don't remember all her other strategies, but the exercise was key. By starting with a plan of regular exercise, she eventually overhauled her health and her life. She has maintained this way of life through all kinds of ups and downs. You can check out Chantel's website here.

Of course, a keystone habit can be something other than exercise. For me, making my bed has a similar domino-effect. Once I've made the bed, other tidiness seems to click into place. On days that I exercise, I'm more likely to make wise food choices. It's odd, but true. It's one of the reasons I don't like to take total rest days. I do a little bit of exercise everyday. It isn't always super intense... sometimes it's just a short walk and a stretch, but even a little bit of purposeful movement keeps me on track.

I've been reading a lot about habits lately, and it's fascinating stuff. Next time we'll talk about exactly how habits are formed, how to establish the good and break the bad.

But now it's... ummm... 4pm. I'm going to make my bed.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

My Latest Fitness Challenge: The Pure Barre Plank-off!

About a month ago, my local Pure Barre studios announced a plank-off. Whoever could hold a forearm plank the longest would win a month of unlimited classes.

Well, we all know how much I love free barre classes, so I was in! I started training right away.

I've never been particularly good at planking, especially since I had the small people. (I vowed I wasn't going to use my sacrificial mother angle in this post... but I can't seem to help myself. I'll try to keep a lid on it.)

Happily for my poor, beleaguered mother abs (oops! there I go again!), barre people love the plank, and for good reason. We tend to think of plank as an abdominal exercise, but as you see in the image below:

A forearm plank also works your shoulders, chest, thighs and even your shins! And if you plank for long enough, you'll get kinda sweaty. (At least, I do.)

At Pure Barre, they have you plank every class for 90 seconds, so I knew I could handle that, but what was my outer limit?

Day 1
I held plank for barely three minutes. Not bad for a start, but with all the badasses at my local Pure Barre, I knew it wouldn't be enough. I started planking almost every day.

The thing about planking is that it's so. frickin'. boring. It's really hard to make planking fun. I tried listening to music, podcasts, Foyle's War in the background... still boring. I tried to read, but the book was too close. I finally settled on perusing a chocolate cookbook. At least I could look at the pictures.

Then I started developing some aches and pains... I don't know why, probably from schlepping those kids around all these years... anyway, I had to take things down a notch. Eventually I got up to my personal best of 5 minutes, 15 seconds. Well, that would have to do.

Game Day
I made my way over to Pure Barre and felt strangely tired. This must be what Olympic athletes feel like before their big races! Yes. That's it. Remember Apolo Ohno?
Image: Huffington Post

That was totally what I was like today. Minus the helmet. And chin hair.

I and my fellow competitors gathered in the lobby, all very chummy and friendly, but no one would own her best time. The instructor mentioned another student, who was unable to attend, claimed she could hold plank for 30 minutes.

We all stood there, mouths agape. Thirty minutes?! Are you kidding me?? One my my fellow competitors said, 'how old is she?!' Of course, I'm thinking, 'how many babies has she birthed? And how many c-sections?! That's what I want to know.'

But I didn't ask. If there is one thing I learned from all my plank training, it's discipline, self-mastery, etc.

So we got started and... I didn't do too badly. I got to 5 minutes and my back starting hurting. I looked around the room and there were still three badasses planking away. One of them was cool as a cucumber. I figured I had no chance of winning once I looked at her, so at 5 minutes, 30 seconds, I dropped out. No sense in risking a back injury. Lord knows my poor back has been through enough after those pregnancies... good grief, and the breastfeeding. Have you tried that standing up? Let me tell you, it's rough.

Anyway, the badasses just kept planking away... finally it was down to two. The runner-up (who had just taken class prior to the plank-off) dropped at 9 minutes and change, and Miss Cucumber decided to continue to an even 10 minutes. God bless her. Really, she looked like she could have gone for a very. long. time.

We all clapped and cheered. Honestly, I was kind of in awe. I would love to know how long Miss Cucumber could really hang in plank. I guess we'll never know... unless Miss 30 Minutes shows up next year.

So yay for the plank-off! I got home and realized a 5 min. 30 second plank doesn't really count as a complete workout, so I said to Darling Son #1, what should I do for exercise today? He says, "how about a plank?!"

Ummm, no. But thanks all the same.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Scam that is Gatorade and Other Facts about Electrolytes

Recently, a bottle of this vile liquid appeared in my too-small refrigerator:

I won't say who put it there, but let's just say his name rhymes with 'Rarling Rusband.'

Seriously, though, I don't like to pick on the Darling Husband, because he is really quite a wonderful husband. He doesn't even mind that I periodically blog about another man.

My bitterness towards the Gatorade in the fridge is not simply that refrigerator real estate is precious, more that the contents of Gatorade are beyond lamentable. However, the DH anticipated heavy sweating during an outdoor work event, and so purchased the vile liquid. And so, we had a civil yet spirited debate about electrolyte replacement which resulted in DH requesting some of my world-famous exhaustive internet researchtm on the subject, to which I happily consented. Here is what I learned:

What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals in your bodily fluids--blood, urine, etc. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chlorine, phosphate and magnesium are all minerals that contain an electric charge. Zing! How exciting! You need electrolytes to maintain your body's natural processes. These minerals are part of the transfer mechanism of fluids, nutrients and waste. They're essential to the nervous system and muscle function. We typically get an appropriate balance from our food, and usually it isn't something we need to think about much.

How are electrolytes depleted?
Electrolytes typically become imbalanced from sweating. When we sweat, we lose water and primarily sodium. That's why sweat tastes salty.

What happens (and how do you know) if your electrolyte levels are imbalanced?
Thirst! It's the first sign most people experience that indicates a need to restore balance to your system. I found quite a list here on the various types of electrolyte imbalances. These can be very severe situations, but most people notice thirst, dry mouth, and abdominal cramping when things start getting serious.

Who is at risk for electrolyte imbalance? 
Chances are, not you. Seriously. Unless you are an endurance athlete exerting yourself for several hours on a hot summer day, you probably don't need to implement a specific protocol for electrolyte replacement. Just drink some water and eat something whole and real. And the same applies to your children.

I say this as a heavy sweat-er. I've told you before how prone I am to sweating. Other people will be fresh as a daisy and I'll be drenched. But the duration of my workouts is typically about an hour. Simply drinking water and eating a healthy balance of real, whole food is perfectly sufficient for me and most exercisers. I've never been into sports drinks, mainly because I don't like to drink my calories. And sports drinks (even the best ones) contain sugar--the point being to get everything into your bloodstream quickly. But for most people in most situations, drinking sugar is a particularly bad idea. Sugar was designed to come in fibrous fruity packaging, which slows absorption. So no matter how sweaty I've gotten, I've just drunk water, and here I am! All these years, alive and well.

Gatorade and similar sports drinks make me crazy. Why? Because they are FULL OF CRAP. Look at the ingredients list on the bottle of one variety:

CRAP. High-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, 14 grams of sugars in only 8oz. Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade used to contain brominated vegetable oil, which is linked to all kinds of serious health problems, but manufacturers have very recently bowed to public pressure and removed that nasty stuff from their formulations. Still, these drinks are nasty. The only good thing they do for you is replenish electrolytes and there are better ways to do that if you need it.

Apart from being vile, these drinks really push one of my buttons, and that is... wait for it...

Crap masquerading as health food
Gatorade was created back in 1965 at the University of Florida to replenish electrolytes in it's athletes. Given that Florida in summer might as well be one of Dante's circles of hell, athletes training in Florida would certainly require an electrolyte replacement strategy. But Gatorade has since morphed into it's current vile form and it is being marketed to children, many of whom spend their days sitting in front of an X-box or at most, exercising to a Wii in an air-conditioned home.

I'm not throwing stones here because my children are currently watching Veggie Tales while I rant on my blog, but at least they're not drinking Gatorade.

In 1985, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute was founded and wow, what a great marketing ploy that was! They might do some decent things there... I don't know... but they also spew lots of crap. Like insinuating the body's own thirst mechanism is insufficient. One of the reasons sports drinks sell is that people are told their bodies' own ability to sense thirst is unreliable, so chug some Gatorade! From what I've read, most people can just drink to thirst. If you're concerned, drink a little more.... more water, that is.

They've also tried to convince us that real, whole food is somehow insufficient to nourish us, and that is CRAP. Can I say crap any more often in this post? I don't think so. Hopefully I'm being clear. A friend of ours used to work in marketing for Gatorade. He told me he always suspected 80% of the people who bought it didn't even need it.

Now please remember, I'm just the barre mom. I like to read about health topics and I share what I learn with you, along with my colorful commentary and spicy rants. You may indeed need an electrolyte replacement strategy.

If sports drinks are vile, how can people balance electrolytes without all the crap?

Here is a great set of recipes I found from the Food Babe:
Image credit:
I did a cursory search of 'electrolyte replacement drink recipes' and found quite a few others. I've never made any myself, because as I've mentioned, I don't think I need them, but maybe I'll make one for the DH the next time he feels so inclined. Honestly, the purchase and consumption of Gatorade is pretty much the only thing DH has given me to complain about. Though he might rue the day he said, 'hey dear, maybe you should start blogging!'

And so, thus endeth the Gatorade rant. Amen.