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End of summer and early autumn sometimes trigger regrets for the things we didn’t accomplish over the summer. The very end of the year also has this effect and sometimes leads people into a funk or depression. So, it was with some hesitation that I read an article about “warning signs” that your personal growth has stopped. As the plants and trees and insects and animals die off or go into some hibernation, I think it makes something similar click in our brains too.

The article gives five warning signs:

  1. Feeling stuck in life and as though you are struggling to get the results you want or that you have lost control.
  2. Avoiding responsibilities because solutions can be more difficult than the situation itself.
  3. Feeling confused and not knowing what you are confused about.
  4. Making unstable emotional responses because you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Feeling like you don’t know yourself.

That last one is huge. The article does offer some advice to fix things, but it is pretty much common sense. Plus, solutions are often quite difficult. For example, for #5 “Get to know yourself the way you would another person.”

Hopefully you, dear reader, doesn’t have any of these warning signs, but I suspect all of us have at least one. It’s part of being a human in 2017.

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Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”

The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.

Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study  that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.

But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?

I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV.  I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.

The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.

Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to  steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.

The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.

10, 000 steps still has multiple health benefits, especially if you make the 10K at a fast pace. You need to determine the number that’s right for you.

 

The nature of Americans sounds like a title that might these days refer to how we are changing as a people. But in this case, it is more literal – about our relationship with the outdoors.

Studies have shown that although the majority of Americans say that nature is one of their most enjoyable interests, they don’t spend much time outdoors. Why is there this gap?

A new study, “The Nature of Americans,” surveyed nearly 12,000 adults and children to try to determine why there is that gap. Are there barriers that keep people from going outside?

We know that even certain smells and sounds of nature can trigger happy memories. Being in nature brings people a sense of peace. This is true for children and adults.

Youngsters in the age 8-12 range said contact with nature “made them happier and healthier.” Their parents and researchers agree. Exposure to nature promoted their physical, psychological, and social well-being.

So then why do the majority of adults spend only five or less hours a week outside? Kids ages 8-12 are only a bit better averaging 6.5 hours a week outdoors. Add to that other studies that show those kids spend more than double that amount of time indoors on computers, televisions and electronic devices.

I feel like this has been “news” for about 50 years. We know it’s good for us but we don’t act upon that knowledge.

The study found a number of barriers. Some of this is pretty obvious. Where we live, work, and go to school can make it difficult for many people to have contact with the natural world. Not many Americans depend on the natural world for their livelihoods these day either. We don’t farm or work outside. We work in buildings.

In prioritizing our lives, nature has fallen down the list. Technologies and electronic media have moved up and they keep us indoors.

People who grow up without much contact with nature tend to be adults who are uncomfortable being outdoors alone. They probably don’t have many friends who want to accompany or encourage excursions into the natural world.

Children are kept indoors by a lack of available adult supervision. KIds, including my own, are rarely allowed to wander alone outdoors in a park or woods or even in their own neighborhood.

One thing the study found is that we need to change perceptions about nature. Too many adults perceive nature as something remote and inaccessible. Getting “out into nature” means a national park or wilderness – places that are often far from home. But neighborhood parks and small wooded areas and trails are also important. And making nature experiences social by doing things like group hikes connects us to nature and people.

Some of this nature wisdom is also a natural knowledge. The study shows that children perceive nearly every outdoor place as being part of nature, but that concept fades as they grow up. Watching ants climb over the ground, fishing at a park pond, climbing a jungle gym or a tree, watching chipmunks run in and out of their stone wall home or wading in a creek and rearranging the flow by moving rocks and making boats from leaves and sticks are all great ways of being in nature.

In the book Blue Mind, the author considers in a very long subtitle “The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.” Most of us are drawn to water. Even when it’s not summer, I feel the pull of the ocean. This connection to water is also in our nature.

I read Last Child in the Woods  years ago when my sons were children and I wanted to make nature part of their childhood. Along with other books by Richard Louv, such as Vitamin N and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, they can introduce you to the New Nature Movement that looks to the restorative powers of the natural world. It promises much: boosting mental acuity and creativity, health and wellness and even smarter and more sustainable businesses. It is an optimistic vision in an increasingly pessimistic world.

 

                   

Fasting is an ancient practice. It has religious roots. In more modern times it was practiced as a weight loss method (not an effective or healthy one) and as a way to “detox” the body.

A lot of the most recent studies have shown that it does seem to have a role in cellular responses and protection.

It is always a leap to go from research on rodents to humans, but that research has found some evidence that periodic fasting may protect against diseases.  In an article about intermittent fasting, it lists as possible benefits protection against: diabetes, cancers, heart disease neurodegeneration, obesity, hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

I tried fasting twice in my life. The first I did it without much knowledge of how to do it and it was more harmful than beneficial. The second time I followed instructions from a book and found some short-lived benefits.

Lately, I have read more about intermittent fasting. This can be the practice of a weekly 36-hour fast.

The detoxification of your body through fasting seems to be more myth than fact. If you are relatively healthy, your digestive system, liver, and kidneys already do that for you and don’t require additional supplements or fasting. Drinking more water and avoiding smoking, alcohol and junk food certainly will help your health.

Fasting will eventually cause some weight loss, mostly water weight, but it will take a few days. Our body’s first response to a fast is to conserve calories to survive, so a 24-48 hour fast probably will have no effect on weight long term. Your body burns up its glucose stores and then glycogen bound with water molecules, gets processed and both get flushed out of your system.

Fasting makes you more aware of true hunger. That is not the hunger that comes because the clock says “it is time to eat” or because we always snack while watching TV or a movie.

Most people report an increase in energy even though you would assume your energy level would go in the opposite direction.

Since this is not a health blog and I have no medical expertise, I would caution anyone to do your own research before trying any fasting. People who are underweight or have any known ailments might make things worse with a fast. There certainly is no shortage of books about fasting.

The possible benefits are tempting. I watched a TED talk about boosting the growth of new brain cells by fasting. I picked up a book, The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting, and once I get past some other medical issues, I plan to give intermittent fasting a try.

Maybe it is because I taught in a public school for many years, but I still find myself feeling really tired and ready for a nap around 3 pm. What is going on with my body clock?

Sleepiness generally hits all of us 7-9 hours after we wake up from a night’s sleep. That’s not very convenient for anyone who works a normal day. If you wake up at 7 am, it will hit you somewhere from 2-4 pm.

Generally, we fight off the urge to sleep, but our alertness drops. Now that i am in unretired mode, I don’t fight off the feeling much. I take a nap, but for most of you that is not an option.

The fatigue can also be attributed to adenosine, a chemical that accumulates during the day and causes sleepiness. But don’t go out trying to find some adenosine to help you sleep at night. It is used for treating certain types of irregular heartbeat and during a stress test of the heart.

When this sleepiness hits, your internal body temperature also drops starts dipping, I do like a blanket for nap time and a drop in body temperature signals your brain to conserve energy and prepare for sleep.

So what can you do when a nap is not an option? Many people chug down some caffeine or crave a sugary snack. These are not very healthy relief. I love my morning coffee kick, but I can’t do caffeine in the afternoon without wrecking my sleep that night. My wife can have a strong cup of caffeine before she goes to sleep.

What are alternatives?

Dehydration can cause sleepiness, so a glass or two of water can also help. I try to log 64 ounces every day on my Fitbit app.

Get outside and get some sunlight. Twenty minutes of sunlight (through clouds counts too) sends a signal to that brain clock to turn on some energy to wake up and be more alert.

I love to walk and there is evidence that even a 10-minute walk that is brisk can energize you again. You can do it inside, but a walk outdoors adds that sunlight boost.

Want to add more to that walk? Make it social. Some research shows that talking with someone and social interaction can help give your mind a break and gets you to focus outside yourself. Get a walk buddy. Have a walking meeting. Even a phone call (not a text!) might help.

Lots of websites, like the Fitbit blog, will tell you that nap time isn’t just for pre-schoolers. Tell your boss that data shows that a brief, 20-minute nap can be enough to boost mental and physical performance.

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