In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Your Brain on Exercise

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave raised the issue of cognitive function, and his comment inspired me to write a post on the tactics I have tried to keep my brain working at peak performance.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to say on the subject. As a result, I will write a series of posts. (Because I hate blog posts that drag on and on and on…)

First up: exercise.

Researchers are still exploring the exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves the brain’s health, along with questions like what kind, frequency and duration of exercise are most effective. A quick internet search will turn up a slew of hits, and many books (for example Dave Asprey’s Head Strong) also cover the topic. According to studies, physical activity boosts cognition, mood and even memory.¬†These benefits could be from improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain; increased neurogenesis; enhanced mitochondrial function; more or different neurotransmitters to connect the neurons; other things we haven’t discovered yet (or I haven’t read about yet, which is more likely); or some combination of the above.

I am discussing exercise first because it has so many benefits beyond just mental capacity, such as increased stamina and heart health, the self-confidence boost that comes with sticking to a workout routine, and fitting into your favorite jeans you haven’t been able to wear in over a year. (Yes, really!) Plus, exercise can be cheap or even free. A brisk walk outdoors is free. (By the same token, exercise has the potential to suck up every spare dollar to have, so your mileage may vary! Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy a gently used elliptical machine?)

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified fitness professional (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once), and the workout routine described in this post is what works for ME. Please consult a medical professional before engaging in any new exercise, and consider speaking with a personal trainer for advice on the proper execution of these or any other exercises. No, YouTube videos do not count – which is why I have not included links below.

I first described my workout back in May, so miracle of miracles, I have stuck with it for over 6 months now! (I guess that is long enough to make it a habit.) I have tweaked my original routine slightly to ramp up the intensity without having to buy a heavier kettlebell (see previous note about how exercising can¬†be expensive but doesn’t have to be!). My current kettlebell weighs in at 35 lbs, up from the 15 where I started way back when.

My workout, three days a week:

Hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per hip
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (this is anywhere from 15 to 17 jumps for me, depending on my energy level)
Donkey kicks – 20 reps per leg
Planks – high plank, side planks, and reverse plank, each for 45 seconds
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (by now I am panting)
Exercise Ball Bridge – 20 reps
Cat vomit – 10 reps of 20 seconds each, with a 10 second rest in between (I often do “Cat-Cow” stretches during the rest period)
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps (at this point my form gets sloppy so I really concentrate on proper technique)
Jump squats – 30 seconds (then I collapse)
Myotatic crunch (on my exercise ball) – 10 reps, with a four-count hold at the top of the crunch

Yes, this workout still kicks my abs. (Haha.)

Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete. So even at my busiest, I have no excuse to skip it.

Now for the real question: does it improve my brain function?

And the truth is, I have no clue. I don’t know how to self-administer tests for mental sharpness, and even if I did, I have no “before” metrics for comparison. Maybe I need more cardio to really see the difference, or maybe I should exercise longer for a noticeable improvement. (Or less often but with greater intensity, according to Mr. Asprey’s book.)

However, I do know that I love the dopamine hit from setting and meeting my fitness goals three days a week … and from being able to wear those jeans again!


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And Now for Something Completely Different

This is not a foraging blog.

Yes, I have recently written many foraging posts. In fact, mostly foraging posts. I discovered that committing to a “weekly series” helps motivate me to post more regularly. And there are always new developments in the realm of wild edibles, particularly this time of year.

But foraging is just one element of what the Lean Six Life means to me. I am seeking ways to reduce waste and clutter in my life, and to reduce variation by bringing my life closer into alignment with my values. (I know, I know, I really need to update my About page.)

Health is also important to me, but historically I have neglected the “fitness” aspect of my well-being. Focusing on food is so much… well, tastier. To address this, recently I started a new workout routine loosely based on / inspired by some exercises and concepts from The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. (From my local library. I have a moratorium on book purchases until I declutter my current collection … see previous description of my Lean Six Life.) Here’s what I am doing, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays before work:

hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per leg (p. 179)
kettlebell swings (although I hinge instead of squatting, based on independent research, aka lots of YouTube videos) – 25 reps (p. 165 & 166)
jump squats – 30 seconds (not in the book – I added this for additional toning)
flying dog – 15 per side (p. 164 & 167)
cat vomit (hey, blame Tim for the names, not me!) – 10 reps for 12 seconds each, with a 10 second rest between reps (p. 177 – 178)
kettlebell swings – 25 reps
jump squats – 30 seconds
bridge – 20 reps (p. 164 & 167)
planks – 30 seconds front and each side (p. 179)
kettlebell swings – 25 reps
jump squats – 30 seconds
myotatic crunch (or as I prefer to call it, the myotatic couch … since I don’t have a proper exercise ball) – 10 reps with a 4 second-hold at the top of the movement (p. 175 – 177)
collapse in a quivering pile

This whole routing takes less than 25 minutes, so less than 1.5 hours per week. It’s short enough that my usual cop out (“But I don’t have time!”) holds little weight. (Haha, get it?)

However, I have veered from the book’s guidance in one major way. I have NO before photos, measurements, weight, body fat measurement – no metrics at all by which I can assess my progress towards being more “fit” or “toned.” Yes, Tim emphasized repeatedly the importance of having starting measurements. I’m sorry, Tim. I didn’t listen.

See, over a year ago, I stopped tracking. Yes, really. Yes, everything. I ditched the FitBit activity tracker and the scale, and even abandoned food logging in LoseIt. After reading Yoga of Eating by Charles Eisenstein, I decided to listen to my body and be more in tune with its messages rather than blindly tracking metrics hoping that some perfect combination of macronutrients and calories would lead to some kind of physical perfection. And I don’t (often) regret it. The human body is more than the sum of its measurements, after all.

So I define “success” for this workout by my experience. How easily does it integrate into my daily routine? Can I do it at home with simple equipment? Does it wipe me out by the end of the workout, i.e., continues to challenge me physically – and when it no longer does, how easily can I increase the intensity again? Do I dread exercising or look forward to it (at least enough to haul myself out of bed)? Do I feel changes in my muscles, like a tighter core that helps support my posture?

No, it’s not scientific… but by focusing on my experience, I’m hoping establish an exercise system rather than achieve a specific goal.