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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Learning New Behaviors

I have a problem.

Well, I have many problems. But most of all, I recently realized I am afflicted by a compulsive need to buy stuff. And buying stuff, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily “bad.” It comes down to what you are purchasing, and why. Every single tool and all the supplies and a bunch of books for a brand new hobby I became infatuated with? Yeah, that’s been the story of my life. Luckily at my age there aren’t many “new” hobbies left for me to repeat that mistake.

No, my real challenge (or “opportunity” if you prefer to think positive) is buying solutions for every little difficulty I encounter.  Maybe you can relate. I have a long history of doodads and gadgets and whatnots for every little hiccup I might encounter. The majority of them promised to make cooking easier and faster. Cooking and I enjoy a love-hate relationship, so anything that helps make mealtime less of a chore was a worthy investment in my book. Similarly for health. (The easy spending part, not the love-hate part!) Exercise equipment, videos, yoga props, more videos, nutritional supplements – you name it.

If I could buy my way out of a problem, why shouldn’t I?

Ummmm, because all these “solutions” clutter my home and very few ever made good on their promises of improving my life.

Because however cheap they may be, these consumer goods still cost money that might be better used elsewhere. And as they accumulate, you suddenly need more storage, more room, a bigger house, a store room, a new organization system, and maybe even a whole kitchen remodel. Just to accommodate all this great stuff … that … stops … being … so … great … when I can no longer find it because its buried under even more stuff.

(I won’t even go into how manufacturing and global shipping of cheap consumer goods impacts developing economies, the environment, and the rapid depletion of our planet’s natural resources. That’s already been covered quite thoroughly in other print and online sources!)

Basically, what it all boils down to, is that most of these purchases have actually been waste in terms of my life. Waste of money, waste of time, waste of the planet’s resources. In other words, this kind of spending is not in line with my values, and needs to stop.

But I’ve built this habit up over a lifetime, and modern society makes it so very easy to just keep spending.

…which means I have plenty of opportunities to practice new behaviors!

For example: I need a spiky massage ball.

I mean, REALLY need one.

See, everyone has some part of their body where they carry tension when they are stressed, often in the lower back, shoulders, neck, etc. Well in my case, I apparently clench my legs. Don’t laugh, this is a real thing! It may be related to the “flight or fight” syndrome. My leg muscles – particularly my hamstrings – tighten as they prepare for my mad dash away from danger. You know, lions, tigers and bears, or more often, bad traffic, poor customer service and telemarketers that call during dinner. True life and death stuff, there. But my lizard brain doesn’t know the difference, and lately my hamstrings have been seizing up to the point of cramping.

A spiky massage ball would solve my problem. I could sit on the floor with it under my thigh, and allow gravity and the weight of my leg to apply pressure to ease my cramped muscles.

You know what happens next, right? A quick internet search reveals that Amazon.com sells them for a great price for TWO of them, complete with Prime shipping. They would get here literally in less time than it would take to drive to every possible local store to see if they had the spiky massage balls I so desperately need. (No, calling the stores to ask a real live human being is not a viable option in my life… maybe if I could buy a product that lets me text the store…) All these thoughts skitter through my mind in a flash, and my finger reaches for the bright yellow “buy it now” option on my phone screen.

And because this is the exact habit I aim to break, my finger drifts past “buy it now” and taps “add to cart” instead.

Adding the item to my cart creates space between my compulsion to accumulate and the actual act of purchasing yet another product.

Instead of buying the spiky massage balls, I am buying time.

I put down my phone, and go back to my day, confident I can complete my transaction at some future point if needed.

Luckily, later that day, a solution presented itself.

I had recently found a(nother) golf ball while doing yardwork. While it is smaller than the massage balls, and missing those tantalizing spikes, it turns out to do the job just fine. After a few tries I found the perfect pressure point on the back of my leg for the deepest impact, and then I held the yoga head-to-knee pose (janusirsasana) for five minutes per leg.

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

And it worked. And it was free. And it was immediate, since I already had the golf ball and didn’t have to wait for even Amazon Prime shipping. It even fits easily in my purse, so I can take it on the road if needed. (And I have, in fact.)

Best of all, I had the proud feeling that comes from knowing I solved a problem on my own, rather than turning to the marketplace to solve it for me.


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Ode to Self-Help Books

You may be wondering why my blog posts consist of a random mix of self-help / self-improvement / lifehacks and gardening / foraging. No, it’s not a symptom of multiple personality disorder, I promise! (Or is it?)

I am struggling to find (make) time to write. My weekly foraging series (while mostly unread) has created a firm commitment that I will post something, however short, at least once a week. But I have so much more to share.

I keep thinking… just one more technique from one more self-help book, and I will at last discover the ultimate trick to unlock my true gifts and unleash my creativity on the world. I will finally overcome (or embrace) the resistance, and be able to write.

Just as soon as I am done getting things done, papers filed, inbox to zero, boxes checked – then I will finally be have all the time I need to write.

Maybe I can change my life by tidying up, which will help me cultivate an uncluttered mind, and then I will finally be able to write.

You know, I need to manage my budget better, and when I am less concerned about finances, then I will have the spare brain cells to be able to write.

I must exercise, and eat healthy (including cooking meals from scratch), and take all the nutritional supplements because when I am at my peak, physically speaking, my mind will be as well and then I will be able to write.

If I could just lifehack a little more free time into my day, then, well … you know.

If I could only perfect my sleep so I could survive on less thanks to the amazing quality of the sleep I did get, then … sigh.

…are we noticing a theme here?

“Is there any chance that the healing you seek is just another form of resistance?”

–Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

My friend Kristen at The Sojourning Spinner recently suggest that for at least a month I try – get this – rather than spending time on lifehacks to free up time to write, I just (gasp!) write.

It’s a great idea. And I’m going to give it a serious try. But first, I need to find my “Flow Pattern” on the Flow Genome Project so I know I can really maximize those precious few moments to write.

…. oh wait. Oops.


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Foraged Forays, Week Ending 07/01/2018

I’ve thought long and hard about how to articulate why I enjoy foraging, and why I think it’s important to share information about foraging with folks who stumble across my blog. I couldn’t think of just one singular reason! For this week’s foraging series post, here are the reasons why I forage. They fall under four main categories: financial, environmental, physical and mental.

Financial

  • It’s free. Given the economic instability of our era, knowing where to find and how to use free food is a valuable skill that should be developed before one’s sustenance depends on it.
  • No gardening expenses. Homegrown food can cost as much or more than store bought (although it’s still totally worth it), due to fertilizer, compost, soil amendments, seeds, or starter plants, mulch, pots, wood for raised beds, irrigation hoses, gardening tools, etc, etc. Wild plants don’t need all that extra fuss. (Although they might not mind a nice organic fertilizer occasionally.)
  • No weeding expenses. Instead of paying for costly lawn treatments,
  • Extra income. Some foragers actually earn money selling their finds to local restaurants or at farmers markets – ramps, morels, and stinging nettles come to mind. No, I haven’t reached that stage in my foraging career. Yet!

Environmental

  • Zero food miles – no fossil fuels burned to ship the food cross country and keep it chilled in the grocery store. (OK, obviously if you drive to where you forage, there are some food miles and fossil fuels consumed, but not on the scale of industrial food production. Read Omnivore’s Dilemma sometime – it is a real eye-opener.)
  • No added chemical fertilizers or pesticides. I say “added” because almost everything is contaminated by industrial agricultural production somehow.
  • Understanding the local ecosystem. Including (and maybe most importantly) where humans fit.
  • Sensitivity to the seasons. This includes spotting clues for garden timing, for example when wild greens, lettuce, and carrots (aka Queen Anne’s lace) have similar growing conditions and timing as their cultivated counterparts.

Physical

  • Food gathered at peak of ripeness and nutritional value (and flavor). Grocery store food – even farmer’s market food – has to be picked ahead of time to bring to market. The ripest produce would spoil too quickly. Foraged food can be picked the day you plan to eat it. (Although if you wait even a day too long, it may be gone!)
  • Diversity of plant matter consumed. The majority of Americans today have a staggeringly simplistic diet with a correspondingly narrow range of nutrients.
  • Exercise. Walking and hiking and digging for wild food is excellent free physical activity, and a great way to enjoy a natural setting in lieu of artificial lights, climate control and constantly glowing blue screens.
  • I also believe – though I cannot yet prove – that human nutritional needs are adapted to the cycle of available plant food. Sugars from fruits in the summer; more sugary fruits, fatty nuts and starchy tubers in the fall; more tubers and preserved nuts and fruits through the winter; and nutrient-dense greens in the spring to recover from the sparser diet available during the winter.

Mental

  • Humility in the face of nature’s bounty. It blows my mind how much food is all around us, but no one ever taught us to see it. For generations we grew up believing food came from these hyper-air conditioned, fluorescent-lighted caverns with aisles of boxes and cans and bags, with one token section for fresh fruits and vegetables. In recent years, farmers markets and co-ops have improved this situation, but we still largely depend on other people, on “experts” to feed ourselves and our families.
  • Brain calisthenics. I am constantly learning to new identify local species, and learning more about botany as a whole.
  • The thrill of the hunt. Granted, what I discover is almost never what I am looking for, but it’s thrilling none the less.
  • Constantly new experiences. Both in the wild and at the dinner table. Foraging is always an adventure! Especially when, as mentioned above, what I find isn’t what I set out to locate, and suddenly dinner plans radically change.
  • Adaptability. Like when dinner plans radically change.
  • Great conversation topic at cocktail parties & and a surefire way to embarrass my kids. Guaranteed. Especially in public. It’s awesome.


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Seven Day What?

You guys, writing is hard. I don’t know if you’ve tried writing, or worse yet – writing regularly. Especially writing regularly in front of other people. *shudder*

Also, if you happen to read a book (or several) claiming you can easily earn passive income by publishing an ebook, think twice before committing to that. Especially if the book claims to teach you the secrets for a “Seven Day Ebook”. ESPECIALLY IF YOU WANT TO WRITE A COOKBOOK. Maybe you can write a book in seven days, but you cannot curate recipes, try them out, document nutritional info, and stunningly photograph the results in that amount of time. And if you are trying to write a cookbook without all those things, then shame on you. Go back to watching Food Network.

It gets even more, um, interesting if you are writing a foraging cookbook, and partway through recipe trials your main ingredient is no longer in season. (At this point,  visualize me banging my head on the kitchen counter.)

So that ebook I alluded to back in March? Yeah, that’s gonna be a while. In the meantime, here is the recipe for the smoothie I posted a photo of that day.

Lion’s Tooth Smoothie

This refreshing smoothie is paleo- and vegan-friendly. The fat in the cashews can help your body better absorb the nutrients in the dandelion greens. They also contribute a creamy texture.
1 cup packed tender young dandelion leaves
1 banana, frozen
1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked in water for 4 hours (or more – I let them soak overnight)  and drained
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp honey, or to taste
1/2 – 3/4 cup milk or milk substitute
Place ingredients in high powered blender, and blend until smooth. Add additional milk/milk substitute to adjust thickness. Check sweetness and add more honey if desired.

(The ebook will have nutritional info as well, promise!)


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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.


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Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Yes, I’m eating dairy again. No, the world didn’t end. It’s just once more congested. Of course correlation does not prove causation… But I’m still cutting back on dairy even if I’m not removing it all together.

Future post to follow on diet choices and sustainability, i.e., when drinking milk makes more sense than the alternatives, sinus congestion be damned.

In other news, I think I’m going to open a restaurant, called Free. With a purely allergen free menu.  We will serve, water, air, and lettuce.

Last but definitely not least, I made a thing! Tentatively calling it “Chili Pie with Corn Free Corn Bread.” My first experiment using plantains as a corn / cornmeal substitute.

Chili Pie with Corn-Free Bread

Chili Pie with Corn-Free Bread

I haven’t found the perfect recipe to use as a starting point for a plantain “Corn Free Corn Bread” so I’m just making this up… probably needs a few more revisions before sharing the results. Which is to say, I enjoyed it but the less adventurous folks in my house did not think it a viable substitute for Jiffy Mix.