Category Archives: health benefits of exercise

Caffeine

I’m addicted.

I admit it.  I’m addicted to caffeine.

I find that I increasingly need caffeine.  It’s become an absolute necessity.  I drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee from about 8 a.m. till about 4 or 5 p.m. Why?  Because I like it.  And because it helps me stay awake when I need to be.

First, a little bit about my relationship to caffeine. 

I remember how my mother drank coffee all day long.  Once I asked her if I could taste it.  I figured that it had to be delicious or she wouldn’t drink so much of it.  So when she said I could taste it, I took a sip.  Yuck!  It tasted terrible.

I didn’t try coffee again until my first year of college, when I discovered that it was drinkable if I put enough milk and sugar in it.  I decided to try it when late-night studying began to take its toll.  I found I’d doze off in class the minute the professor turned off the lights and showed slides on a screen at the front of the classroom.  But I discovered that if I had some caffeine in my breakfast coffee, I could stay awake.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that consuming caffeine is a necessity.  Especially before sitting in a theater, when (as in college classrooms) the lights are dimmed and I need to stay conscious to enjoy a film, a play, a concert, a ballet performance, or an opera.  Although the pandemic has cramped my style, suspending my theater-going, for example, I’ve continued to rely on caffeine while I read or watch TV at home.

Now let’s look at some of the science behind caffeine.  I won’t bore you with the wonkiest stuff, but you probably want to know something about it.

I found this info in the March 2021 issue of Nutrition Action, a monthly newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), my go-to source for honest reporting on healthy food choices and the like.  Here’s a summary of the most useful info:

How does caffeine work?  It blocks adenosine receptors in the brain.  Huh?  What’s adenosine?

Adenosine is a natural sedative.  When it builds up, you feel drowsy.  But when caffeine blocks it, you don’t.

But watch out:  You can build up a tolerance to caffeine.  What happens is this:  The more caffeine you consume, the more adenosine receptors your brain makes.  So you need even more caffeine to block those extra receptors and keep you alert.

But how much is too much?  The FDA says that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams a day.  This is roughly the amount in two large cups of coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  But the amount of caffeine in your home-brewed coffee can vary.  And caffeine’s impact on people varies.

So you need to judge the impact it has on you.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, or too much coffee makes you feel jittery, you probably need to cut back on how much you imbibe, and pay attention to when you’re imbibing.

You can try to break up with coffee, as famed author Michael Pollan has.  He reports “sleeping like a teenager” and waking “feeling actually refreshed.”  But that experience may not work for everyone.

One study asked 66 young caffeine users–who were having trouble sleeping–to go “cold turkey.”  But during the a week with no caffeine, they spent no more time asleep and took no less time to fall asleep than before. 

Still, it’s probably wise to avoid caffeine right before bed.  Studies show that people generally take longer to fall asleep and get less deep sleep when they have caffeine right before bedtime.

Coffee consumption has shown some real benefits.  A lower risk of type 2 diabetes, for one thing.  Better exercise-performance for another.  (Although few studies have looked at the exercise-boosting effect in older adults, one study of 19 Brits aged 61 to 79 showed that they performed better in a battery of physical tests after they consumed caffeine.)  Finally, studies have shown that people who consume more caffeine have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

I get my caffeine in a variety of sources, including coffee, tea, and cola drinks. I also happily consume coffee candy (my favorite is Caffe Rio, available at Trader Joe’s) and coffee ice cream.  I also heartily recommend the cappuccino gelato at my local gelato shop.  But let’s face it:  a cup of coffee packs the most punch.

The recent advent of cold brew coffee allows coffee-drinkers to get their caffeine in a less acidic form.  According to one source, cold brew is over 67 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee because the coffee grounds aren’t exposed to high temperatures.  Result:  cold brew appeals to some of us because it’s sweeter, smoother, and less bitter. (But don’t confuse it with iced coffee, which has the same acidity as regular hot coffee.  The ice can dilute it, however.)  I’ve tried cold brew and like it.  I keep a bottle of it in my fridge and frequently drink some.  But it’s much pricier than my home brew, at least for now.

New sources have popped up.  One may be bottled water.  In the bargain bin at a local supermarket, I once came across a bottle of Sparking Avitae, whose label states that it’s caffeine plus water and natural fruit flavors.  It claims to have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” thereby giving you “instant go with added fizz.” According to the manufacturer, it includes “natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans.”  I’m not sure this product is still available.  Possibly something like it is.  My original purchase is stashed in my fridge, but I’ve never tried it.

Even newer:  I recently spied an ad for a cosmetic product called “Eyes Open Caffeine and Peptide Eye Cream.”   Yes, eye cream.  This one claims to be “supercharged with caffeine,” adding that it can “reduce the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.”  Does it work?  Who knows?  I’d guess that it probably works just about as well as any other eye cream.  Dermatologists generally tell their patients not to expect very much from any of them, no matter their price or their claims. 

To sum up, I confess that I ally with Abbie Hoffman, the “Chicago 7” trial defendant.  When the prosecutor asked him whether he was addicted to any drug, Abbie said “Yes.”  Which one?  “Caffeine.”   [Please see Post #9 in my blog series, “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” published on 4/20/21, where I noted this amusing bit of testimony.]

My favorite coffee mug says it all:  Its vintage photo features a stylish woman in glamorous riding gear, holding the reins of her horse, saying “You can lead a horse to water…but I could use a triple expresso.”

And let’s not forget my sticky-note pad featuring a stylishly-coiffed woman, circa 1928, drinking what’s clearly a cup of coffee.  She boldly announces:  “Given enough coffee, I could rule the world.”  

Well, maybe coffee-drinkers like me should actually try to rule the world.  We might do a better job than most of those who’ve been in charge.

Okay.  I’m addicted.  And my path ahead is clear. 

I’ll continue to reap the benefits of caffeine while at the same time I steer away from any potentially harmful impact.

Maybe you’d like to join me on this path?

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Maybe your father used some phrases you’ve caught yourself saying.  Because my father died when I was 12, I can’t recall any pet phrases he used, so I have none to repeat.

But my mother, who died when I was decades older–that’s a different story.

At the outset, you should know that Mom was very smart.  She yearned to go to college and become a teacher, but after her father died, her family didn’t have enough money to send her and both of her brothers to college. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

Mom had many pet phrases.  More and more, I hear myself repeating them.  But not all of them.

Here are some of Mom’s best, along with the context that surrounds them:

 

One of Mom’s favorites was “Before you know it.”  She usually said it when we’d talk about something we expected to happen in the future.  For example, when we talked about a young child going off to college someday, she’d frequently say, ”Before you know it….”  Or when, in the dead of winter, we talked about how far away summer seemed, she’d say, “Before you know it…”  Her instincts about how rapidly the future would arrive were usually right.  Now I often repeat that phrase myself.

When Mom conceded that something wasn’t just right, she’d often add, “Still and all.”  I can hear her saying it over and over again.  The dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “nevertheless” or “even so.”  Although you don’t hear many people use it, still and all it’s a great phrase.  Maybe more of us could use it.

When Mom liked to be very sure of something, she’d tell me that she wanted to “make doubly sure.”  I love that phrase and really must remember to use it whenever it fits.

 

Mom had definite views about gender and gender roles. They were typical of her era, so I give her a pass on some of them. But not all. These phrases frequently annoyed me, especially as I grew older and much more wary of gender stereotypes.

For example, I’ve written previously about how she admonished my sister and me to act “lady-like.”  I’m sure she thought that was the appropriate behavior for girl children.  But although the phrase didn’t bother me when I was younger, it later began to irritate me, especially when I had two daughters of my own, and the term “lady” assumed connotations I disagreed with.  But I don’t think Mom ever changed her thinking on that.

Her views on boys were distinctly different and bordered on stereotypical.

When a little kid acted up in her presence (and it was generally a boy), she’d refer to him as a “holy terror.”  She rarely referred to rambunctious girls that way.  But she might have.  (The prime example: My older sister, who later in life self-diagnosed as being a hyperactive child.  I know her behavior often created problems for my parents.)

Mom would frequently describe little boys she encountered as “all boy.”  I’m not really sure what she meant.  And as the mother of two daughters (as she was), her choice of words always struck me as rather strange.  Were girls ever “all girl?”  When?  Why?  And what made boys “all boy” to begin with?  I never challenged her on her use of this term and would just let it go.  But it still makes me wonder how she came up with it.

 

Let’s leave the gender issue for now and move on to the weather.

Living in Chicago, where we constantly faced extremes of heat and cold, most of us welcomed a warmer day that came along in late winter.  But Mom would often say, “It’s almost too warm.”  I guess she found the occasional warm day somewhat jarring in the middle of a cold spell.  But I was always delighted by that sort of change in the weather, and that phrase often made me laugh.

 

Now, on to the subject of time.

When we traveled, especially when we were driving somewhere in a car, Mom always relished “making good time.”  She meant that we were getting to our destination efficiently!  An admirable phrase, no?

But on other occasions she’d say, “Slow down.  We’ve got nothing but time.”  I generally disagreed with this point of view.  Always pursuing one goal or another, I’ve never felt I had “nothing but time.”  Quite the opposite.  And I’m afraid I still have the same outlook today.  But…maybe Mom was right, and I should slow down!

Slowing down might keep me from meeting some of my goals, but it would probably benefit my health.  I should keep in mind that one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs begins this way:  “Slow down, you move too fast.  You got to make the morning last.”  Thanks, Paul Simon.  Mom definitely agreed with your thinking.

Speaking of “time,” Mom also liked to say that someone who wasn’t moving fast enough was “taking her sweet time.”  An example would be an employee in a retail store who helped customers in a poky fashion.  I sometimes think of that phrase when I see a pedestrian sauntering slowly across a busy intersection–sometimes looking at a cell phone instead of the traffic.  I’m often a pedestrian myself, and I resent careless drivers who barely let me cross an intersection safely before they make their turns.  (And I move fast.)  But when I’m driving, I find “saunterers” annoying.  They’re taking their sweet time!

I don’t think I ever encountered the “sweet time” phrase anywhere else…until I recently came across it in a short story, “Something to Remember Me By,” written by Nobel-prize-winning author Saul Bellow.  The narrator describes a character he’s watching this way:  “she simply took her sweet time about everything….”

That Mom and Saul Bellow used the same phrase doesn’t strike me as bizarre (as it might strike you) because the two of them were close in age, grew up in the same neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (Humboldt Park, to be precise), and attended the same public high school.  Mom sometimes told me that she knew the Bellow family.  So when Bellow published Humboldt’s Gift (which I confess I’ve never read), I figured he chose the name Humboldt because of his origins in that neighborhood.  Maybe everyone who grew up there during that era also used the “sweet time” phrase.

 

Mom found certain things disturbing.  She and my father always followed politics, perhaps inspiring my lifelong interest in the political scene.  But Mom could get “all worked up” when things didn’t strike her the right way.  A devotee of daily newspapers and local TV news, she continued to follow politics into her 90s.  But she increasing got “all worked up” when she listened to officeholders orating on TV, stating policies she disagreed with.

Although I never used this phrase in the past, it resonates with me more and more. If I don’t hit the mute button fast enough and inadvertently hear the current occupant of the White House or his cohorts speaking on TV, I can easily get all worked up.

 

Other things that disturbed Mom made her feel “sick at heart.”  I haven’t used that phrase, but maybe I should.  It reflects the reality that disturbing events can make us feel deeply troubled, even affecting our physical well-being.

 

Switching topics:  When I would go shopping with Mom, usually on State Street in downtown Chicago (she always called that part of town “the Loop”), Mom’s admonitions came fast and furious.  A favorite was “Watch your purse!”  So from the time I was old enough to carry my own handbag, I would clutch it close to me.  The irony is that I never was a victim, but one day a thief opened Mom’s handbag on a CTA bus, and her wallet disappeared.  I remember collecting the wallet for Mom at the Woolworth’s store on State Street when it somehow turned up, money extracted.

In a way, this outcome wasn’t terribly surprising.  Despite her fear of thievery, Mom would carry the kind of handbag that could easily be opened.  Held over her arm the way the Queen of England invariably holds hers, it had the kind of clasp that could be flipped open in a millisecond.  I’ve always preferred shoulder bags with zipper closures that I can hold next to my body, making them difficult to pilfer.  Now I frequently wear crossbody bags that discourage thievery even more.

Another downtown phrase:  In the enormous women’s restroom on the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) of Marshall Field’s vast State Street Store, Mom would always say “Flush with your foot!”  I guess the toilets were the kind that featured a flushing mechanism one could operate that way.  Mom’s concern with bacteria was always front and center.

 

This concern related to household matters:  When I was older and my family and I had our own home, Mom would frequently visit us there.  She almost always made clear that she disapproved of my housekeeping (which admittedly has–throughout my lifetime–been abysmal).  Mom would offer to help, but as she got older, I wouldn’t let her do anything.  Accustomed to doing her own household chores with tremendous zeal, she would throw up her hands (figuratively), and after a while she’d tell me that she was “tired from sitting.”

Mom may have been onto something.  Research has shown that simply sitting is in fact unhealthy.  Mom’s instincts were right.

Mom also insisted that my daughters help me with household chores.  She would often tell them, “You can’t be lazy.”  This phrase relates to another literary reference:  In a story written by Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (published in a collection of stories titled The Power of Light), Singer sets the scene in an old-world home. He quotes an elder who explains his view of miracles:  “The truth is that miracles were rare in all times.  If too many miracles occurred, people would rely on them too much.  Free choice would cease.  The Powers on High want [people] to do things, make an effort, not to be lazy.”

So it seems that Mom was borrowing the wisdom of the elders when she told us not to be lazy.

Today, my older daughter and I repeat Mom’s phrase to her two daughters, my delightful granddaughters.  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, they would prefer to lie abed and have someone else do things like laundry and straightening up.  Let’s face it, I’m very much of the same mind.  I do as little as possible to make my home neat and tidy.

But Mom’s phrase often comes back to haunt me, and I remind myself, as well as my granddaughters, that you can’t be lazy!

 

So…when you find yourself repeating phrases your parents liked to use, remember that a great many of them have stood the test of time and can be repeated today, as well as in their day, with the same positive effect.

Don’t be reluctant to use those phrases in your own conversation.  They may sometimes seem old-fashioned, no longer worth repeating because they’re out of date.

Still and all…they may say exactly what you want to say.

And before you know it, our kids will be doing the very same thing.

 

 

A new book you may want to know about

There’s one thing we can all agree on:  Trying to stay healthy.

That’s why you may want to know about a new book, Killer diseases, modern-day epidemics:  Keys to stopping heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity in their tracks, by Swarna Moldanado, PhD, MPH, and Alex Moldanado, MD.

In this extraordinary book, the authors have pulled together an invaluable compendium of both evidence and advice on how to stop the “killer diseases” they call “modern-day epidemics.”

First, using their accumulated wisdom and experience in public health, nursing science, and family medical practice, Swarna and Alex Moldanado offer the reader a wide array of scientific evidence.  Next, they present their well-thought-out conclusions on how this evidence supports their theories of how to combat the killer diseases that plague us today.

Their most compelling conclusion:  Lifestyle choices have an overwhelming impact on our health.  So although some individuals may suffer from diseases that are unavoidable, evidence points to the tremendous importance of lifestyle choices.

Specifically, the authors note that evidence “points to the fact that some of the most lethal cancers are attributable to lifestyle choices.”  Choosing to smoke tobacco or consume alcohol in excess are examples of the sort of risky lifestyle choices that can lead to this killer disease.

Similarly, cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the heart and blood vessels–share many common risk factors.  Clear evidence demonstrates that eating an unhealthy diet, a diet that includes too many saturated fats—fatty meats, baked goods, and certain dairy products—is a critical factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. The increasing size of food portions in our diet is another risk factor many people may not be aware of.

On the other hand, most of us are aware of the dangers of physical inactivity.  But knowledge of these dangers is not enough.  Many of us must change our lifestyle choices.  Those of us in sedentary careers, for example, must become much more physically active than our lifestyles lend themselves to.

Yes, the basics of this information appear frequently in the media.  But the Moldanados reveal a great deal of scientific evidence you might not know about.

Even more importantly, in Chapter 8, “Making and Keeping the Right Lifestyle Choices,” the authors step up to the plate in a big way.  Here they clearly and forcefully state their specific recommendations for succeeding in the fight against killer diseases.

Following these recommendations could lead all of us to a healthier and brighter outcome.

Kudos to the authors for collecting an enormous volume of evidence, clearly presenting it to us, and concluding with their invaluable recommendations.

No more excuses!  Let’s resolve to follow their advice and move in the right direction to help ensure our good health.

 

 

 

 

Feeling Lazy? Blame Evolution

I’m kind of lazy.  I admit it. I like to walk, ride a bike, and splash around in a pool, but I don’t indulge in a lot of exercise beyond that.

Now a Harvard professor named Daniel Lieberman says I can blame human evolution.  In a recent paper, “Is Exercise Really Medicine? An Evolutionary Perspective,” he explains his ideas.

First, he says (and this is the sentence I really like), “It is natural and normal to be physically lazy.”  Why?  Because human evolution has led us to exercise only as much as we must to survive.

We all know that our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers and that food was often scarce.  Lieberman adds this idea:  Resting was key to conserving energy for survival and reproduction.  “In other words, humans were born to run—but as little as possible.”

As he points out, “No hunter-gatherer goes out for a jog, just for the sake of it….”  Thus, we evolved “to require stimuli from physical activity.”  For example, muscles become bigger and more powerful with use, and they atrophy when they’re not used.  In the human circulatory system, “vigorous activity stimulates expansion of …circulation,” improves the heart’s ability to pump blood, and increases the elasticity of arteries.  But with less exercise, arteries stiffen, the heart pumps less blood, and metabolism slows.

Lieberman emphasizes that this entire process evolved to conserve energy whenever possible.  Muscles use a lot of calories, making them costly to maintain.  Muscle wasting thus evolved as a way to lower energy consumption when physical activity wasn’t required.

What about now?  Until recently, it was never possible in human history to lead an existence devoid of activity.  The result:  According to Lieberman, the mechanisms humans have always used to reduce energy expenditures in the absence of physical activity now manifest as diseases.

So maladies like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis are now the consequences of adaptations that evolved to trim energy demand, and modern medicine is now stuck with treating the symptoms.

In the past, hunter-gatherers had to exercise because if they didn’t, they had nothing to eat.  Securing food was an enormous incentive.  But today, for most humans there are very few incentives to exercise.

How do we change that?  Although there’s “no silver bullet,” Lieberman thinks we can try to make activity “more fun for more people.”  Maybe making exercise more “social” would help.  Community sports like soccer teams and fun-runs might encourage more people to get active.

Lieberman has another suggestion.  At his own university, students are no longer required to take physical education as part of the curriculum.  Harvard voted its physical-education requirement out of existence in the 1970s, and he thinks it’s time to reinstate it.  He notes surveys that show that very few students who are not athletes on a team get sufficient exercise.  A quarter of Harvard undergraduates have reported being sedentary.

Because “study after study shows that…people who get more physical activity have better concentration, their memories are better, they focus better,” Lieberman argues that the time spent exercising is “returned in spades…not only in the short term, but also in the long term.  Shouldn’t we care about the long-term mental and physical health of our students?”

Lieberman makes a powerful argument for reinstating phys-ed in those colleges and universities that have dropped it.  His argument also makes sense for those of us no longer in school.

Let’s foil what the millennia of evolution have done to our bodies and boost our own level of exercise as much as we can.

Tennis, anyone?

 

[Daniel Lieberman’s paper was the focus of an article in the September-October 2016 issue of Harvard Magazine.  He’s the Lerner professor of biological sciences at Harvard.]

 

Take a hike

The lure of “the gym” has always escaped me. I’ve joined a few fitness centers in my day, but I consistently end up abandoning the gym and resorting to my preferred route to fitness: walking. Whenever possible, I walk and hike in the great outdoors.

A host of recent studies has validated my faith in the benefits of walking. And some of these benefits may surprise you.

First, being active is better for your health. Duh. We’ve all suspected that for a long time. But here’s a new finding: sitting may be the real problem. Studies show that the more you sit, the greater your risk for health problems. In a study of more than two thousand adults ages 60 and older, every additional hour a day spent sitting was linked to a 50 percent greater risk of disability. Even those who got some exercise but were sitting too much were more likely to get dumped in the pool of disabled people.

Dorothy Dunlop and her colleagues at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science concluded that sitting seems to be a separate risk factor. Getting enough exercise is important, but it’s equally important not to be a couch potato the rest of the time. Their study appeared in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health in 2014.

Another study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, noted something else about prolonged sitting: taking “short walking breaks” at least once an hour may lessen or even prevent some of the adverse effects, especially on the cardiovascular system. When healthy young men sat for 3 hours without moving their legs, endothelial function—the ability of blood vessels to expand and contract—dropped significantly from the very beginning. But when they broke up their sitting time with slow 5-minute walks every 30 or 60 minutes, endothelial function did not decline.

Here’s another benefit: Exercise, including walking, can keep you from feeling depressed. A British study, reported in JAMA Psychiatry, followed over 11,000 people (initially in their early 20s) for more than 25 years. It found that the more physically active they were, the less likely they were to have symptoms of depression. For example, sedentary people who started exercising 3 times a week reduced their risk of depression 5 years later by almost 20 percent. The researchers concluded that being active “can prevent and alleviate depressive symptoms in adulthood.”

Ready for one more reason to walk? A study described in The Wall Street Journal in 2014 found that walking can significantly increase creativity. This is a brand new finding. In the past, studies have shown that after exercise, people usually perform better on tests of memory and the ability to make decisions and organize thoughts. Exercise has also been linked anecdotally to creativity: writers and artists have said for centuries that their best ideas have come during a walk. But now science supports that link.

Researchers at Stanford University, led by Dr. Marily Oppezzo, decided to test the notion that walking can inspire creativity. They gathered a group of students in a deliberately unadorned room equipped with nothing more than a desk and a treadmill. The students were asked to sit and complete “tests of creativity,” like quickly coming up with alternative uses for common objects, e.g., a button. Facing a blank wall, the students then walked on the treadmill at an easy pace, repeating the creativity tests as they walked. Result: creativity increased when the students walked. Most came up with about 60 percent more “novel and appropriate” uses for the objects.

Dr. Oppezzo then tested whether these effects lingered. The students repeated the test when they sat down after their walk on the treadmill. Again, walking markedly improved their ability to generate creative ideas, even when they had stopped walking. They continued to produce more and better ideas than they had before their walk.

When Dr. Oppezzo moved the experiment outdoors, the findings surprised her. The students who walked outside did come up with more creative ideas than when they sat, either inside or outside, but walking outside did not lead to more creativity than walking inside on the treadmill. She concluded that “it’s the walking that matters.”

So a brief stroll apparently leads to greater creativity. But the reasons for it are unclear. According to Dr. Oppezzo, “It may be that walking improves mood,” and creativity blooms more easily when one is happier. The study appeared in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition in 2014.

In truth, I don’t need these studies to convince me to keep walking. It helps that I live in San Francisco, where the climate allows me to walk outside almost every day. Walking is much more challenging when you confront the snow and ice that used to accompany my walks in and around Chicago. So I’m not surprised that walkers in colder climes often resort to exercising indoors.

It also helps that San Francisco has recently been voted the second most walkable city in America. According to Walk Score, an organization that ranks the “walkability” of 2,500 cities in the U.S., SF placed just behind New York City as the most walkable major American city.

SF’s high score is especially impressive in light of the city’s hills. Although I avoid the steepest routes, I actually welcome a slight incline because it adds to my aerobic workout. Why use a Stairmaster in a gloomy gym when I can climb uphill enveloped in sunshine and cool ocean breezes?

But whether you walk indoors or out, do remember to walk! You’ll assuredly benefit health-wise. And you just may enhance your creativity quotient. Someday you may even find yourself writing a blog like this one.