One of my favorite resources for research news is Psyblog, by Jeremy Dean in the UK. Here’s his latest post on a topic we should all be aware of. His post doesn’t give details like sample size (between 3,000 and 5,000 people), so here’s a link to the study report in case you want to see the original work.
According to a recent Harvard Medical School bulletin:
If you’re trying to lose weight by cutting calories, you’re likely losing muscle, too. But strength training can counteract this effect. According to a research review in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, on average, 27% of the weight lost by dieting is muscle. Those who combined dieting with cardio exercise cut muscle loss in half. But when participants combined dieting and resistance training (strength training), all of the pounds lost were fat. What’s more, the more muscle you have and the stronger your muscles are—the more benefits you’ll get beyond weight loss. You’ll develop a slimmer, firmer figure and have the energy to be more active. And, you’ll get more from cardio workouts because you’ll be able to go faster and last longer.
This quote is from an email about the Harvard Medical School’s publication, Strength and Power Training for All Ages.
I’m really not a gym rat. I like being outside; I love being present in nature, up close and personal. I feel relaxed and nourished by the fresh air, in touch with the seasons, and just plain grateful to be able to listen to birds as I walk at my own pace, while my mind wanders.
I’m really not a gym rat, although as the resident of a rainy state, I also appreciate knowing that when it gets too much (winter!), I can go inside and get most of the benefits that in better weather, I’d prefer to get outside.
The thing is, since I don’t love the gym, I need these reminders that strength training matters, so I’ll make an effort to get the strength training I need to stay strong. I’ll remind myself to keep up the daily plank pose. And 20 minutes or so, one or two days a week, at the gym for a few more weight exercises is well worth it–after all, we’re in this for the long haul, right?
I start a new series of hypnosis workshops in October, and it’s been fun to prepare the new classes and get ready for the ones I’ve been doing for years. In fact, I’ve been working with people who struggle with weight issues for 10 years now, and I have learned so much from the people who have chosen to share their process with me. It’s a complex issue—so personal, and yet affected by so many family, or social, or cultural, or economic influences. I have so much gratitude for the years of learning from this work, and so much respect for the people involved.
Because it is such a complex issue, many people find themselves hopeless or overwhelmed, even though they would like to be able to do something to help themselves. And it’s hard to pick out the 1 thing that could help everyone who wants to do something about the problem. Everyone is different, and my personal magic wand might be just an ugly old twig to the next person.
But I do have a few magic wands to recommend, nonetheless. There’s a selection process, of course, since we are each unique, and when it comes to magic, it’s not one size fits all. It’s more like this: which one makes us feel strong, and helps us accept ourselves, just as we are—because that’s what it takes to fight the forces (personal, family, social, etc.) that contribute to feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.
It’s a tall order, but fortunately we don’t have to make the choice blindly. A little bit of self-reflection can point us in the right direction. When we know what truly matters to us—our values—it’s easier to make the right choice. Besides, these are simple things; if you can’t decide, you could try them all and see what feels good.
Here are the magic wands I recommend—and by magic wand, I mean one thing—one small thing—that just about anyone can do just about any time, to start making progress on the path to a more healthy way of spending our days. The 3 magic wands below are listed in an order that matters to me, but the first one would not necessarily be the right first one for you.
Magic wand 1: Moving more.
Maybe that’s a goal of walking 10 minutes a day to start. (Or depending where you’re starting from, walking 20 minutes each day or more.) Maybe it’s dancing at the sink while you’re doing dishes. Maybe it’s stretching every time you get out of a chair. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class, or doing chair tai chi at the library. You get the drift: whatever you can reliably do and feel good doing.
Magic wand 2: Practicing gratitude.
This is about looking for something to be grateful for, maybe just one thing every day. Maybe you keep a journal or maybe you just stop and think about it at least once a day. Maybe you get more creative and decide it has to be something new and different every day, or set timers during the day.
Magic wand 3: Meditation.
Maybe you start with a 10-minute guided meditation from the internet, or maybe take a class or join a group, working up to your own daily practice. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, but there are lots of options out there.
Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with doing all three, or more. In fact, for some folks, at certain times, diving into a completely new lifestyle can be exhilarating and ultimately the right first step. (Perhaps this approach should be magic wand number 4.)
These sound like small things (except #4). And they are small, and they are simple, but they are also powerful. Somehow—and this is why I call them magic, because I don’t know how it works—these small things can each lead us to recognize that we do have the power to affect how we live our lives, and that is the true beginning of making change.
Right now I’m grateful that I get to do this work, and looking forward to new classes, and people on the path to change.
In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.
Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation: what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.
The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.
However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn.
The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.
Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”
But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle. (Of course, the first step should include talking to your doctor about this information and how it may affect you.)
We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:
- Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if your doctor agrees it’s a good fit for you. It could protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one over-the-counter anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
- Stretch—this doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair during the day?
- Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
- Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
- Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.
What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health. And it’s motivation to keep on that path.
If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day. Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?
Shawn Anchor is a positive psychology expert who focuses primarily on how to use the insights from positive psychology to transform corporate culture, with the goal of helping people be happier, but also more creative, more socially engaged, and more successful.
HIs first book was The Happiness Advantage, and, as you might expect, it focused on finding happiness in work, and the resulting benefits in terms of energy, creativity, and success. (Also an easy and fun read.)
The current book, Before Happiness, is about making that happiness shift possible even when it looks and feels impossible. The book provides practical help for creating the mindset that allows our sense of what’s possible to expand beyond our perceived boundaries.
Although his focus is on the corporate world (he has a long list of big-name corporate clients), the practical stuff applies to any of us who want to make that shift into a more positive, creative, engaged way of living.
Does this sound familiar? I’m excited about his book partly because it validates a lot of what I’ve learned from working with individuals who want to change longterm habits, but even more because I can draw on his work to help clients redraw their own map of reality so it includes positive growth and change.
However, his frame of reference is grounded in business, as I mentioned. I found myself wondering if one of his statements about work-world challenges really applies in the personal realm I’m interested in—people who are changing habits or whose goal is maintaining healthy habits. He was talking about competition, and the research he quoted was a study of test takers. It seems the test takers in smaller groups of people did better than those who were part of a larger group, because the people in the small groups felt they had less competition, therefore more possibility of success.
I think of habit change and weight loss goals as personal things that we choose to do not to compete for a higher score or some other prize, but because we’ve decided that we matter enough to be as healthy in body/mind/spirit as we can be at the moment (internal motivation).
But that’s not always true, is it? Lots of times we have goals that revolve around comparing ourselves to others, like family reunions or weddings. And that’s not always a bad thing, especially in the short term. Perhaps what we need is to figure out how to make that sense of competition work for us, or maybe it’s to counter its effects in some other way. I’ll give it some thought, and if you have any comments, I’d be glad to hear them.
In the mean time, if you’re interested in the book, it’s available at the Bellingham Library as well as from Village Books (Fairhaven and Lynden) and Amazon, of course.
When I first began to get a handle on my own issues with weight, one of the great tools I found was Jan Chozen Bays’ book Mindful Eating. I’ve used it ever since in my classes and with individuals—if you haven’t looked at it, do. (It’s available at the Bellingham Public Library, in case you’re in my area.) That led me to my own meditation practice, and to discovering other writers in the field, like Tara Brach, a meditation teacher and writer I admire, and Rick Hansen, a research psychologist and also a meditator and writer.
(At this point I doubt I’ll ever be a good meditator, but I am a meditator, and I think for me perhaps the whole point is being a bad meditator. Paradoxically, it means I’m doing something right, when I’m aware of my thoughts and feelings straying from whatever I’m focusing on.)
Rick Hansen wrote Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, both worth reading. But it’s Hardwiring Happiness, with its focus on our ability to develop or strengthen positivity as a personality trait that led me to a powerful insight that’s helped me with lots of other issues or situations.
I think we all have a resistance to feeling difficult emotions—it seems natural to me that we don’t want to feel fear or grief or rejection, among others. But the cost of being unwilling to face and feel those emotions can be pretty high in terms of our own growth and wellbeing. Think of the lost opportunities when we make a decision or act from our desire to avoid being uncomfortable, for example. Some of life’s most powerful moments can arise from difficult situations, after all.
In Hardwiring Happiness, Hansen offers techniques for facing those difficult emotions; one of the techniques he suggests is practicing strengthening our connection with the most positive emotions we’ve experienced, and then, when we’re ready to, allowing ourselves to feel both a positive and a difficult emotion at the same time. (It makes sense, doesn’t it, that we can and do feel more than one thing at a time?) The positive sensations become a kind of buffer against the negative impact of the difficult ones.
I’ve used the technique this way: dwelling on the sensations associated with feeling loved and supported when I am also feeling stress and fear over an upcoming event. When I do this, I am able to bring the stress reaction under control, in a sense, as I remind myself that I am as prepared as I need to be for whatever’s coming. It allows me to see the stress reaction as a natural and possibly (on my good days!) even a beneficial force in a new situation.
Which reminds me—I’ll be doing two new workshops this coming fall at Whatcom Community College: one for dealing with chronic pain, and the other for transforming our experience with stress—and yes, we’ll be talking more about mindfulness (as well as self-hypnosis) in those contexts. I’ll post details as they become available.
A few years ago, if we’d looked at a graph comparing the rise of both diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease, we’d have been looking at the same curve. In fact, a theory began to emerge that Alzheimer’s was another form, or stage, of diabetes.
Here’s a page from a 2007 brochure about Alzheimer’s Disease:
Doctors don’t know yet what causes Alzheimer’s disease or exactly how Alzheimer’s and diabetes are connected. But they do know that high blood sugar or insulin can harm the brain in several ways:
- Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, which hurt the heart and blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels in the brain may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
- The brain depends on many different chemicals, which may be unbalanced by too much insulin. Some of these changes may help trigger Alzheimer’s Disease.
- High blood sugar causes inflammation. This may damage brain cells and help Alzheimer’s to develop.
So, ten years later, the picture has changed, in that dementia rates in the US are decreasing, and the age of onset is later—good news. From a NY Times article: “The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years . . . . In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.4.”
But although the data is pretty convincing, no one yet knows what caused the changes. One theory is that the difference may be due to better management of diabetes. A brand new study has found a possible link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s: glucose in the blood binds to and inhibits an enzyme called macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), which is part of a normal immune response to a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain.
In other words, sugar in the blood inhibits a normal immune system response to abnormal proteins that could be involved with developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Although I have strong opinions about the importance of eating real food and avoiding processed food, I also recognize that many people lead healthy and happy lives without being anywhere near so strict about what they eat, or perhaps more to the point, what foods they avoid. But to me this development reaffirms the need to be careful about sugar.
The way I understand the phenomenon of cravings is like this: there’s a trigger, probably established through behavior that’s learned through diligent though not necessarily fully conscious behavior. In other words, over time, we create a habit of using something—a cigarette, a sweet, alcohol, etc.—to change our experience.
And after a while, when the part of us that’s learned this lesson decides that we need a distraction from some source of anxiety or other emotional challenge, it creates a craving to send us off in search of a reward. It doesn’t really care about the reward, it just wants us to feel energized and focused instead of whatever else we were feeling. It doesn’t care if the carrot it’s dangling is something we really do or don’t want; it just knows from experience that the shift in focus to whatever the false promise is—a piece of cake, ice cream, a glass of wine—is enough to temporarily take our minds off whatever we are feeling.
I’ve noticed both through my own experience and from talking to hundreds of people about their cravings that if we can consistently ignore them, they really do weaken over time. We may find that they come back intermittently when we are vulnerable, but the more we can “just say no,” the more power they lose.
A useful suggestion for dealing with cravings for foods that we don’t really want—that phenomenon of being driven to a behavior that we already know won’t make us feel good—is to distract ourselves, since a craving, though intense, is brief in duration.
A recent study used people’s real-world experience of fighting cravings by playing Tetris versus just waiting out the cravings. All the study participants reported their cravings, rating each one’s strength, vividness and intrusiveness. Then they either played Tetris or waited until the craving passed, and then they reported on how much the cravings had been affected. When the cravings began, both groups rated their cravings similarly, but after, the participants who had played Tetris had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery—24% less, in fact—than the ones who had just waited.
The authors of the study suggest that one of the factors that makes this kind of distraction work so well is that playing Tetris engages what’s called the visuospatial working memory. “Working memory” refers to the function of memory when performing tasks, and in this case, the task also includes processing visual and spatial cues. In other words, they are suggesting that the task that draws on these two factors interrupts a craving, perhaps by diverting the brainpower that enables those cravings in the first place.
I’ve never played Tetris, but what I take away from this study’s finding is that we can further weaken cravings by making sure that our plan for distracting ourselves during cravings includes those elements of working memory and visual-spatial processing.
Lots of video games would include that, I think, although I’m not sure that would be a good recommendation for some folks—we wouldn’t want to replace one unhealthy behavior with another equally bad, or worse. So what else would work? Doing a few minutes on a jigsaw? Drawing something from memory? Knitting? Playing music? What about just watching a sunset? Any other suggestions?
Last night, just after I’d written these paragraphs, I experienced a real live craving as I was getting dinner ready before I had to rush off to an evening appointment. I thought about the options I’d just listed and realized that none of them would be helpful in my situation. But as I was making a salad, giving it my undivided attention—slicing red pepper, green onions, cucumber, a Bosc pear, some tomato—I unexpectedly found the activity very calming. It turns out that simply giving my undivided, mindful attention to the task at hand was enough to lessen the craving.
Maybe it’s really the mindful attention that sets up the processing and interrupts the cravings.
Here in Bellingham, it feels as if we are newly released from a snowy dream of real winter, back into our normal February transition from the cold and wet winter mode to the slightly less cold but even wetter spring mode. Some years it’s hard to notice the transition unless we make a point of getting outside everyday—but this year Winter has been unmistakable.
It’s been interesting, this past week—with kids out of school and the usual (for here) snow-related halt to normal activity. No class, for example, for the newest group doing the Weight Control with Hypnosis class this last Wednesday at Whatcom Community College, and I confess I missed it. I really like getting to know the people who’ve chosen to try something new in the interests of their own health and wellbeing, and I love being part of the process as we all get to know, understand, and help each other with our separate and shared concerns.
These classes ask people to try new things—new ways of thinking and acting—and it’s not always comfortable or easy. Lately I’ve come to think of it as a learning process, more than anything else. We’re using our good minds, and hearts, our powers of attention and creativity, and all the other tools we’ve developed over the years, to study and learn how we can get from where we are now, to where we want to be, to where we belong, as healthy as it’s possible for us to be.
It can take a lot of energy and time and thought, this project—this process—of identifying what we need to change to bring ourselves back into a healthy relationship with food and activity. The process is full of surprises, and fortunately it has enormous rewards. Some of those rewards comes from being able to share the process with each other, to support each other, and it may also be the most powerful thing we do, not just for each other, but for ourselves. The compassion we give each other—and ourselves—counteracts so many of the negative effects of our stressful lives and gives us energy we need to stay positive and focused on our goals.
Last night was our monthly drop-in-for-a-refresher meeting, open to anyone who’s taken the hypnosis for weight control classes that I lead at Whatcom Community College. Some of the regulars have their own names for it. I’ve heard “brainwashing,” and “tune up,” for example.
It’s always fun for me to see who comes—it could be someone who took the classes years ago and wants a refresher before an event like a holiday or a trip. Or it could be a few of the regulars, and that’s always cozy. Every once in a while it’s a bigger group, and it gets a little cramped, and that’s fine too. I look forward to this every month.
We talk about how things are going—it’s usually a mixed bag, of course, just like everything else in life. And then I lead a hypnosis session focused on whatever concerns are highlighted.
Last night was nice—just two good friends sharing updates and challenges. The highlight for me, though, came after, as we were all walking to the door. One friend said, “I have a goal.” Her goal is an adventure, not a set of numbers. It’s a fun adventure, to be shared at a date in the future, as a celebration. (I’d give the details, but it’s not my story to share, and if I’d thought of this last night, I would have asked her permission to give those details, but since I didn’t, I won’t.)
But I loved it! So many of us focus on the numbers, and that can be a real source of stress, especially when it’s a set of numbers that’s tormented us in the past. How much better to focus on something that has its own meaning. Meaning that is much more personal—an activity that’s been out of reach in the past, that can be shared with the people we love, who love us. It’s exciting to think about this kind of goal—it’s really about growing into the person we have the potential to be—and bringing our friends and family along for the ride.