Should We Really Be Slowing Down?

One of the most popular wellness tips these days is to slow down. Stop the frantic running around, work fewer hours, and be present. Those are certainly all good things. It’s good to simplify life and focus on the things that matter.

I lead a pretty busy life. People often ask me, “how do you do it all?” Then I think about slowing down. Maybe asking for a shorter work week and spending more time relaxing.

The thing is, I already get a fair amount of downtime. I have time to read in bed most evenings, and I often fall asleep before 10 p.m. My weekends are free, and I try to stick to my digital sabbath most Sundays.

I Can’t Slow Down

In fact, I don’t think I can slow down, because there are simply too many changes needed in this country and in the world. Too much to do.

Take a look at the following facts:

And this list doesn’t even include counterproductive farm subsidies, one in eight humans starving, unnecessary wars, domestic violence, massive greenhouse gas emissions, thousands of species going extinct each year, frac sand mining, Islamophobia, discrimination, or the crippling consumer debt (overall credit card debt is $854.2 billion). There is so much to do!

We Need to Speed Up

In 2012, the average American spent 2.8 hours watching TV each day. (Some sources report even higher numbers.) Talk about slowing down! Our conformist education system coupled with massive amounts of media consumption and psychotropic over-medication has made many of us passive citizens incapable of mustering up the anger or courage or energy to stand up against social injustice and systemic inefficiencies. It’s easier to watch TV and go on a cruise and escape reality. And that’s how the leaders of Corporate America like it.

A genuinely democratic society needs people who are connected to one another, who respect and have confidence in themselves and others, who know themselves, who actively experience life and gain wisdom from it, who can think critically, and who can reject exploitative manipulations. Television watching creates pretty much the opposite kind of people from those who can make genuine democracy work. ~Bruce E. Levine

Guys, I don’t think we can slow down. Well actually, I think we can slow down in certain areas. We can stop over-scheduling our lives with meaningless or non-essential activities. We can stop shopping for fun. We can slow our minds down to participate in life. But we cannot slow down when it comes to fighting for change. We need to speed up. Time is of the essence. Pick your favorite area and go for it. Perhaps its progressive education. Or sustainability. Maybe you want to fight for a livable wage. Whatever it is, speed up. Because there’s a lot to do, and we’re not getting any younger.

P.S. This post was inspired by Get Up, Stand Up by Bruce E. Levine and a long-term research study I heard of a couple of years ago that indicated that people who work hard and are passionate about what they do live the longest, happiest lives.

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What Does It Mean to Eat Healthy?

By now, we all know that we should eat healthy to improve our chances of living long and healthy lives. But what does it mean to “eat healthy?” Well, it depends on who you ask…

I have read a lot of books about nutrition—all with different takes on what it means to eat healthy. I even spent a year becoming a certified health coach, studying dozens of dietary theories from Atkins to macrobiotics to veganism and learning the pros and cons of each. Beyond reading, I’ve watched food/diet documentaries such as Forks over Knives, Food Inc, and Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead.

It’s Complicated

All these different theories and approaches can make your head spin! There are literally thousands of books about diet and nutrition (an Amazon search for “diet” yields 93,210 results). Jon Kabat-Zinn explains this food stress well in the book Full Catastrophe Living:

Our relationship to food has changed so much in the past few generations that the exercise of a new form of intelligence, still developing, may be necessary to sort out what is of value and nourishing from the incredible choices that are presented to us.

Our $61 billion diet and weight loss industry illuminates this confusion. We hire dietitians and health coaches to help us with this most basic human activity—eating. Many food companies contribute to the problem by enticing us with cheap, convenient, tasty food—at every turn. Food is everywhere, and most of it isn’t “healthy.”

But I’d like to argue that it doesn’t have to be complicated. We can throw away all the diet books and just focus on what they have in common (and listen to our bodies).

Michael Pollan Is Right

Based on all the research I’ve done on healthy eating, I have come to the realization that Michael Pollan’s famous saying is the best starting point:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Out of context, this statement is a bit vague, so let me break it down for you.

Eat Food

The natural way to eat is to eat real food. This means food that is as close to its original form as possible. Raw or gently cooked vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, fish, meat.

Let’s start with the most uncontroversial food group: vegetables. I have not come across a mainstream diet that rejects vegetables. Of course, not all vegetables are created equal. Green leafy vegetables are awesome as are all of the vegetables that grow above ground. People who need to control insulin spikes should stay away from potatoes (including sweet potatoes).

Most diets also approve of fruits, except for low-carb diets who reject very sweet fruits such as bananas, grapes, and dried fruit. I try to stick with fruits that are available locally, because that seems most natural. However, I do enjoy oranges during winter. And I just bought my first container of berries for the year—came all the way from California. (I just couldn’t wait!)

Grains are obviously not a popular food group in the low-carb diet world. Certainly, processed grains (e.g. pasta) have high glycemic load, so that would be one reason to stay away from them. David Perlmutter, the author of Grain Brain provides plenty of evidence that eating grains (especially gluten grains) can have damaging effects on the brain. It sounds like it’s best to stay away from wheat and gluten grains and enjoy other grains such as wild rice and quinoa at most a few times a week.

Beans and legumes are an important part of Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid. He recommends 1-2 servings per day. However, the Paleo diet rejects legumes for a variety of reasons (learn more). Beans and legumes are important for vegetarians, but may not be as important for omnivores. What about soy? This excellent article indicates that it’s fine to eat whole, real soy, but that we should stay away from processed soy products. (Sound familiar?)

I eat at least one handful of nuts and seeds every day. Nuts are great for a quick snack and can help curb your appetite if you eat them 30-60 minutes before your meal. Some nuts have been elevated above others from a health perspective such as walnuts and almonds. However, as long as you don’t eat more than a handful at a time, all nuts are really fine. (Remember that the natural way to eat a nut is to crack it first, which takes time, so historically, we wouldn’t have been able to eat loads of nuts.)

Most mornings, I boil or fry an egg to get some additional protein. I never bought in to the “eggs are dangerous” campaign. (Probably because I like eggs too much!) Eggs are a super food and there is good evidence that dietary cholesterol has minimal effect on blood cholesterol.

The jury is still out on dairy. The China Study authors link the milk protein casein to chronic disease and a number of people are sensitive to casein. Others are lactose intolerant. If you want to drink milk, I would suggest looking into real milk (aka raw milk). Goat milk might be another good alternative. I like to enjoy full-fat plain yoghurt and cheese on occasion.

Fish is also generally raised up as a healthy food. It is a good source of Omega-3s and so tasty! However, for two reasons, we need to be careful about how much and which type of fish to consume. Some fish (especially those at the top of the food chain) contain high levels of mercury. Also, some fish are so popular that they have been overfished, causing concern about their survival. I have a great app from Seafood Watch that lets me know what’s safe and what’s not (both from a toxin and environmental standpoint).

We’ll conclude this section with the most controversial food of all: meat. Here I include poultry as well. According to the proponents of the Paleo diet, we should eat lots of meat, since this is what our ancestors did. However, there are some fundamental problems with this. Eating so much meat is expensive and not sustainable. Raising animals for food takes a much larger toll on the earth than growing plants for human consumption. Also, when you look at the cultures where people live the longest (aka Blue Zones), none of them have meat as a staple. At most, they might eat meat once a week—and the Seventh Day Adventists typically don’t eat meat at all. Enjoy meat a couple of times a week or not at all. You’ll be fine either way.

But what about sweets? Sugar is sugar—i.e. it should be eaten only as a special treat, but from a whole foods standpoint, it’s better to choose honey & maple syrup over processed cane sugar & high fructose corn syrup. Most diets approve of dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) and 1-2 glasses of red wine.

Not Too Much

There is solid evidence that people who restrict their calories live longer. This phenomenon was first discovered in rats in the 1930s. And it is evident when you again look at the Blue Zones, especially the Okinawans who have a saying “hara hatchi bu” to remind themselves to eat until they are 80% full. The USDA’s data indicates that between 1970 and 2000, the “average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories” in the U.S. So the point isn’t that we should restrict calories to a starvation level, but simply eat at the recommended level for our age, gender, metabolism, and activity level (yeah, have fun figuring that out).

The absolute best way to figure out the right amount of food to eat is to listen to your body. If you practice mindful eating (being present with your body when you eat), you can learn to recognize the body’s hunger and satiety cues. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t eat until your stomach was grumbling and you would stop eating when it stopped grumbling. Of course, this is a challenge in our very time-focused culture where lunch is at noon and dinner is at 6 p.m. It requires flexibility and an acceptance of bio individuality.

Mostly Plants

The last point in Pollan’s simple guidelines to eating says “mostly plants.” We kind of covered that in the meat section above, but I want to reiterate that most of the lifestyle diets that have proven long-term results reduce the intake of meat, especially processed, high-fat meats.

And regardless of your ethical view of killing animals for food, one thing is for sure, our planet cannot handle our current rate of animal consumption. Eating is more than just what we put in our bodies. It is also where the food came from and the natural resources used to produce the food. By limiting our consumption of meat, we vote for a sustainable future.

Some Final Healthy Eating Notes

While we can glean most of what we need about eating healthy from the above, there are a few other components to consider (some which I have already hinted at).

Mindful Eating

If we are to enjoy our food and eat the right amount, we must be mindful when we eat. This means not eating in front of the TV, snacking at our desks, and scarfing down food in our car.

Rather, set the table, light some candles, and eat on real plates with real silverware. Carve out time for eating. It’s the most important thing (along with sleeping and exercising) that you do every day.

Local Eating

It’s all the rage these days to eat local. That’s because it makes sense. It helps us determine the types of food that are appropriate to eat in a given season (e.g. asparagus in the spring and root vegetables in the winter). Also, eating local stimulates the local economy, reduces emissions caused by transportation, and provides fresher food.

Get inspired by reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Food Preparation

Eating real food takes some planning. You’ll need to go to the grocery store more frequently than once a week and set aside time for food preparation. A few things that I find helpful to speed up the process:

  • Keep a running grocery list so that it is ready when you leave for the store.
  • Plan weekday dinners ahead of time.
  • Sign up for a CSA (they often come with recipe suggestions).
  • Cut up your produce when you get home so it’s ready to go (e.g. carrots, sweet peppers, etc).
  • Cook more during the weekend and eat leftovers.
  • Make twice what you need and freeze for later.
  • Cook simple dishes (my current favorite is sautéing cut-up vegetables/mushrooms and adding chunks of smoked salmon, avocado, and seeds). Check out Stonesoup for ideas.
  • Get really good at a dozen recipes that you can cook without stress.

Embrace the fact that most cultures spend way more time gathering and preparing their food, and that we should probably do the same. But also realize that you may not need a full-blown dinner ever night (or any night). Could you simply cut up some veggies, put out hummus and guacamole and go to town? Perhaps end with fruit and plain yoghurt. (I’ve had plenty of those dinners.)

To Recap

Eat real food. Avoid processed junk. Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re satisfied. Eat a variety of food from all food groups. Mostly plants. Enjoy dark chocolate and red wine (if you want). Focus on eating when you eat. Taste the food. Buy local. Embrace food preparation, but keep it simple.

See, not that complicated. :)

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The Possibility of Unplugging

On Wednesday, I fly to Sweden for a 10-day vacation. I’m going to attend my baby sister’s wedding (where did the time go?) and to see my (almost) 17-year-old daughter, who is an exchange student in the Stockhom area. But I’ll also have time for a quick trip to the island of Gotland to see my brother and his family, an overnight visit to my mom’s place, and a couple of other family gatherings.

(I’m so excited!)

As I thought about this trip, an idea started forming in my head. What if I could unplug completely for 10 days? Would it be possible? No email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn. No blogging or working on my book. No weekly letter…

The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. So I decided to make it a reality. Of course, it will require some prep:

  • Turning on out-of-office notifications both at work and on my personal email account.
  • Getting somebody else to monitor our web request queue at work.
  • Letting our accountant know to call my husband with tax preparation questions.
  • Informing the communications committee at church (I am the webmaster).
  • Printing out maps and other information that I need during my travels.
  • Writing this blog post so that you’ll know not to expect anything from me until April.

And most importantly: leaving my laptop behind when I take off on Wednesday.

Whenever I unplug for even just a day, I feel more alive and connected to the world around me. I don’t know why—I just do. I’m excited to see what 10 days of being unplugged will do for my overall wellness. (It’s possible that I haven’t been unplugged for this long since we got our first computer in 1995!)

What’s Next?

I’m very excited to be planning an (hopefully) epic post about what it means to “eat healthy” based on years of study of nutritional theories and mindful eating. It will be coming out sometime in early April. Maybe I’ll even draft it on paper while I’m on vacation—the old-fashioned way.

I’m curious to know what you think is most confusing about food/eating in the modern age. Let me know in the comments below or shoot me an email (ideally before Wednesday!).

Enjoy the rest of March, and I’ll see you on the other side (spring!).

P.S. My husband and dog are staying at home, so don’t be trying to break in to our house. :)
P.P.S. I didn’t send a weekly letter this week because I have a corneal ulcer and it hurt to keep my eye open (especially looking at screens) most of the weekend.

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For the Love of Yoga

Molly LesmeisterI am so lucky to work for an organization that provides yoga sessions twice a week. Since last fall, I’ve been practicing the Iyengar method of yoga under the guidance of Molly Lesmeister, owner of The Yoga Room here in Decorah, Iowa.

At first I wasn’t so sure about this style of yoga. There was no soothing music, no flowing poses, and we used curious props such as blankets, straps, wooden blocks, and big, purple bolsters. However, I quickly came to appreciate the silence and Molly’s sweet voice as she demonstrated the poses and walked around, helping us with proper alignment. Eventually, I also realized the benefits of holding the poses longer and really connecting with my body.

Yoga has encouraged me pay attention to my posture and pull my shoulders back—rather than hunch over—in daily activities. But I’m not very good at practicing the poses between classes. So I was really excited to find out that Molly and my friend Carolyn Corbin are creating 3-minute videos that can be used anywhere: at work, at home, or even at the park (hello smartphone!). So excited, in fact, that I decided to interview Molly and write this post to try to garner additional support their important work.

Falling in Love with Yoga

When we sit down in the big brown leather chairs in my living room (yes, she came to me, that’s how nice she is), I ask Molly how she got started with yoga (looking at her, you’d think she’s been doing it her whole life). She explains that she signed up for a class shortly after she turned 30 (about five years ago):

I had been running, and I just remember walking down the stairs and my joints hurt. I felt like I was old even though I was young. I also had kids, and I heard of a class that had free childcare, and I thought, ‘I want to do this thing that everybody loves.’ So I tried it, and I was in love.

Initially, Molly experienced benefits at a muscular level (“I never knew I had these muscles…”) and loved the dynamic stretching (it reminded her of being a runner and a dancer). And not surprisingly, she became more flexible (she says she couldn’t touch her toes when she started!).

Healing with Yoga

After a year or so, Molly started getting deeper into the practice. Having an underactive thyroid, she was always very tired after yoga class—to the point of having to rest for the remainder of the day. However, by working with her teacher to listen to her body and make yoga work for her by doing more restorative poses, she experienced slow and steady healing at a metabolic and cellular level.

Molly also talks about yoga providing spiritual experiences and allowing her to slow down and be more mindfully present (something she’s still working on!). “It’s just … this kind of holistic practice in my life, you know,” she summarizes.

Iyengar Yoga Is Truthful

I ask Molly what is special about Iyengar yoga. She replies:

To me, Iyengar yoga is truthful, and it’s honest. And it deals a lot with alignment. It uses props to help you with alignment. Mr. Iyengar thinks that poses—the asanas—are what’s going to create a body that can be healthy and vital and live well—and spiritually. … He breaks down—in detail—what everything is supposed to do (what the foot is supposed to do, what your leg, and so on).

When I ask her to explain what she means when she says that Iyengar yoga is truthful, she continues:

Well, one of the things that [Mr. Iyengar] asks teachers to do is to practice daily and work with a teacher who is higher up in the ranks than you regularly. (That’s ideally once a week.) And I find that this is actually what keeps me truthful, and if I’ve gone a while without practicing, I feel like ‘how can I teach anything?’. … It’s a life-long training, and that’s what I love about it. … And it makes you honest with yourself. If I can’t straighten my arm when my arms are overhead, you know, I shouldn’t be doing full arm balance. And you will not be able to do that until you can learn—honestly—’what’s going on with my shoulder?’

Sharing Her Love of Yoga

Molly never imagined that she would be a yoga teacher. As a child she was painfully shy, and she is still very quiet outside of the studio. But her desire to share her love of yoga won out:

I love yoga. It has changed my life. I want to share this with everybody.

Now Molly wants to share the benefits of yoga beyond her studio by creating short videos that anybody can use. She is especially targeting people who might be too busy to make it to a 90-minute class or have financial constraints. The videos can also complement work done in the studio. For example, you could use the videos to do yoga at home or at the office on the days when you’re not able to attend a class.

Support the “3 Minute Yoga” Project

If you are interested in getting involved with—and supporting—this project, I invite you to take a look at Molly and Carolyn’s Indiegogo campaign. (Indiegogo is a crowdfunding platform that matches funders with cool projects.) They’ve got some nice perks at levels as low as a $25 contribution. You’ll love it!

Photo Credit: Sarah Lesmeister

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Music and Mindfulness in March

When I write down the short list of things that are most important in my life, making music and being mindful always make the cut (along with spending time with family, reading (learning), writing (inspiring), and practicing self-care). Yet, I currently don’t have a regular practice for either of these activities. (Weird!)

Music in March

I sang a bunch during the holiday season—both with an amazing community choir of friends who come together to sing an eclectic mix of music and with my daughter and her friends at a couple of different church services. Since then, I’ve barely touched the piano or sung a note (except for hymns during church and chapel and sometimes in the car).

I’m not sure what happened, but somehow, I haven’t made time for music. Maybe I was mourning the passing of Christmas. Or perhaps it was because I no longer belonged to any organized singing group. And I was sick for a while (singing with a stuffy head and nose is not my idea of fun…).

Regardless, this needs to change. It’s time to make music again—to sing alone and with others. I’m getting a great start on this by visiting a dear friend who was part of a women’s ensemble that I led over a decade ago. We’re music friends. This weekend, we’ll sing together and reminisce about those years when we sang our hearts out with Common Souls.

When I get back home, I’ll make time to sit down and sing at the piano. It will be good. Maybe I’ll even start singing in a choir again (or maybe I’ll wait until I finish my book). I was reminded this week that singing in a group is good for your health in a number of ways, including decreasing stress and reducing symptoms of depression. So singing can even be considered self-care!

Mindfulness in March

This week, I’ve been working on a chapter in my book, called “Calming the Mind and Being Part of Something Bigger,” that describes psychosocial ways to combat mental distress in children and teens. The first section discusses the benefits of mindfulness practices such as meditating on the breath, mindful yoga, walking meditation, and the body scan. Observing your thoughts without judgement and being fully present improves mood, emotional self-regulation, and ability to focus (among other things).

Even though I have a few regular breath and mindfulness practices, e.g. yoga, everyday mindfulness, and daily 4-7-8 breathing, I would like to go deeper into mindfulness practice during the month of March using Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as detailed in Full Catastrophe Living. I’ve downloaded the first set of practices from iTunes, and I’m ready to go!

(I guess I’ll know if it’s working next time I go for acupuncture—last time, my tongue had evidence of stress.)

Music can really be a form of mindfulness practice. In fact, when I play piano and sing, my mind is less likely to wander than when I read or even write. You can also develop a mindfulness practice when you listen to music and are fully present with the music.

Do you have a regular mindfulness practice? I’d love it if you’d share in the comments.

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