Archives for August 2008

Want to Lose Weight? Play Video Games

I know it sounds counter intuitive, but it’s a piece of advice I gleaned from reading the You! books by Drs. Oz and Roizen. Basically, they argue that by playing video games, people will keep their hands busy and eat less. I actually like this piece of advice and have been following it for several months, long before I even read their recommendation. However, I feel the need to qualify my praise for video games.

I am an active person. I do cardio five days a week for around an hour each time. I also lift weights for over an hour, 3 days a week. Thus, when I play video games, it is a part of a very active lifestyle. Essentially, video games are occasionally part of my evening or weekend downtime. In fact, downtime is very rare with family and work obligations. So, in practice I play video games on average of about 2 hours a week. And, it does help keep me from snacking. Thus, moderation is the key.

However, clearly video games are a problem if they take the place of activity and are a part of a sedentary lifestyle. I’d guess that the vast, vast majority of video game users fall into this category. In fact, one of the reasons that I became a chubby pre-teen was because a childhood lifestyle of kickball gave way to playing the Nintendo. Yes, my weight gain actually corresponded with the marketing of the original Nintendo system!

So, I can see a place for video games in keeping people busy, but only in moderation and for people who live an active lifestyle and for whom playing will not be a replacement for this lifestyle. For children, I think it’s important that video games be kept to a minimum.

Does a Healthy Lifestyle Improve Genetics?

I ran across a very interesting study. It involved a group of men with early prostate cancer who, instead of opting for surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, made lifestyle changes. The men ate a diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and soy products. They also exercised for 30 minutes a day. As the study advanced, most lost weight, lowered their blood pressure, and saw an improvement in their health.

However here is what is exciting (from the article at Natural News):

Biopsies taken at the beginning and end of the study demonstrated some more significant changes. About 500 genes evidenced changes in activity at the end of the study. 48 disease preventing genes were turned on. 453 genes which promote disease, like breast and prostate cancers, were turned off.

Dr. Ornish expressed excitement over the results in a Reuters interview. The implications of this study go beyond men and prostate cancer. People are not doomed by their genetics. They can make positive changes fairly quickly. In three months, genetic changes can be made through the choices we make in food, exercise, and the way we handle stress.

This study seems to suggest that we are not necessarily doomed by our genes, but that (at least in some cases), how we live our lives can positively influence our future health at the genetic level. This is truly exciting!

Shower on Someone Else’s Dime (with Free Shampoo)

Water was included in the rent at my old apartment, which meant I didn’t really give much concern to my water usage. Now that we have a house, I am more aware of our water use, and how much it costs. We got our first bill today, and the price wasn’t too bad. Just recently, to save money (and wear and tear on our bathroom), Jennifer and I decided that we would try to shower on someone else’s dime whenever possible.

No, I am not referring to sneaking into the neighbors’ houses. I certainly don’t mean taking a bath in the rain barrel. And I am definitely not referring to avoiding showering all together.

What I am referring to is showering at the gym or at work. Jennifer and I go to the YMCA about 4 times per week, and we both need showers after we are finished. Considering that the average shower uses about 20 gallons of water, this means that showering at the YMCA we are saving 640 gallons of water a month.  This would typically be a second shower for me, since I shower at home before work. However, on days when I am off work, I typically wait until after finishing the YMCA to shower for the first time, which means that for most of the summer, and on weekends, I am not showering at all at home. Also, most schools have gyms, and locker rooms. I am sure, if you were really cheap (and the school understanding), you could use their showers in the morning before work, when nobody is around. I haven’t done it, except to use the shower in the coach’s office after playing basketball, but I know a teacher who did it every morning to save himself money.

You may be saying, “come on David, you pay for the Y! It isn’t free!” Yes I do pay. However, I pay my regular fee regardless of whether I use their water or not. I can either pay my YMCA fee, and pay for 640 gallons of extra water a month at home, or I can pay my YMCA fee, and let the Y absorb the cost of 640 gallons of water. You may also say, “but if everybody does this, then the Y will just raise prices, smart guy.” This is true, if a lot of people used it, and from my experience, they don’t. I have never observed anybody using the showers while I am showering. Never, except when my buddy would work out with me occasionally. Most people still prefer their own showers to saving the money. So the point of this paragraph: don’t join a gym just for the showers, but if you already pay the fee, take advantage of the showers.

Finally, I mentioned free shampoo. When I travel, I always take all the shampoo from the hotel room before I leave. We have quite a collection of tiny shampoo bottles now. What a better way to have free shampoo and body wash to keep in the gym bag to go with the “free water?” Oh, and I am aware that this shampoo often comes with a 100 dollar room, but like above, you are going to pay the 100 dollars anyway…so go ahead and take the shampoo (but leave the towels, that is stealing!).

Yes I am cheap, and with this suggestion, probably need cheapscates anonymous, but I do have extra money to show for it.

How to Lose Weight: #14 Get a Pedometer

At work, new students always ask me, “what is that black box on your belt?” Then I get a chance to explain to them what a pedometer is. They usually ask “why do you have one?” I usually tell them it is because I like to be active and get a lot of exercise, and it helps me do this. Once they are familiar with it, the kids usually ask me how many steps I’ve gotten that day.

For those of you who might not know what it is, a pedometer measures the number of steps a person takes in a day. Most nicer ones also calculate mileage and calories burned, based on how you program it. Pedometers are a nice way to keep track of your daily activity level. I think every dieter should get one, at the least to accurately know how many – or how few – steps you are getting in a day.

Experts recommend getting 10,000 steps a day for weight loss and weight maintenance. Based on my stride, that’s about 4.5 miles a day. Personally, I try to get at least 10,000 steps a day every day, not including intense aerobic exercise. The reason I don’t count my aerobic exercise is that I want to be active enough independent of that to keep the weight off.

The most steps I ever got was around 22,000-24,000, when I visited Washington D.C. with students, and at the National Catholic Youth Conference last year. That amounted to about 10 miles if I recall correctly. I was on the move constantly at those events. The most steps I tended to get regularly were the 12,000-14,000 steps I got on days that I subbed in kindergarten classes. You sure have to move a lot to keep up with the young kids!

My Second How to Lose Weight Tip: Move Every Chance You Get, is related to this post. In that post, I suggested that one key to losing weight is being active constantly. Below are some of the tips I listed in that post. Wearing a pedometer gives you pretty precise control over your activity level, and allows you to gauge whether or not you need to be a little more active for the day or not:

– Take the stairs instead of the elevator

– Instead of circling around looking for a parking spot, park out and walk

– When you go shopping, keep moving, and move quickly

– Walk to stores, places, etc, that are within walking distance, instead of driving

– Get out and do activities with family and friends; do something that requires activity (for example, going to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins, as seen in the above photo).

– Stand and move at work (you may have to get creative, depending on your line of work). As a teacher, I try to move a lot when I teach; it keeps the kids interested and allows me to burn more calories

– When waiting for someone or something, don’t sit; get out and walk

The image is of my pedometer, before the evening walk, which means I hadn’t quite attained 10,000 steps

How to Lose Weight: #13 Rest Up!

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of the night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright…
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Indian Serenade)

Romantic Poet Shelley was speaking of sleep in the context of love, but his words about the “first sweet sleep of the night” almost make me want to fall asleep right now.

Studies show that getting a good night’s sleep not only alleviates early morning crankiness, but helps us lose weight. The bad news is that Americans are pretty much sleep deprived, perhaps using as their anthem “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All” by the Fifth Dimension. In the 1900, Americans slept an average of 9 hours a night, in 1970, 7 hours, and today it is believed to be about 6.1 hours. Why are we sleeping less? Part of it could be that we are busy most of the time, and sleep takes a back seat to work, kids’ practices, meetings, TV and Internet time, etc. Despite the words of certain braggarts you may remember from college (“I just don’t need sleep!”), getting a good night’s sleep is important to maintaining a healthy life, and a healthy weight.

Let’s look at the weight loss consequences of sleep deprivation (not even considering the other problems associated with it). According to Flip the Switch by Dr. Robert Cooper:

– When scientists tracked 500 adults over 13 years, those who gained the most fat had lost the most sleep

– A study from Columbia University found that the rate of obesity is 23% higher among those who get 6 hours of sleep compared with those who average 7 to 8 hours a night

– Sleep deprived people  tend to increase their calorie consumption by 10 to 15 percent per day, compared to the normal-rested

The same holds true for obese children. According to Super-Sized Kids:

– One study found that children of all ages, on average, are getting 2 hours less sleep per night than they are supposed to, which is 9 hours per night

– A large Japanese study of 6 and 7 year olds found a “significant connection” between late bedtime or short sleeping time and childhood obesity

– A large German study of 5 and 6 year olds found the same connection: less sleep=heavier kids

So how do we get sleep? Dr. Cooper recommends reducing stress, choosing a comfortable bed, getting up at the same time every morning, among other ideas. Caffeine remains in the body for quite awhile, so avoiding caffeine after 3:00 PM is probably a good idea. I have found the supplement melatonin to be helpful. Melatonin is the hormone the body makes when it is dark, so if you don’t want to pop a pill, get one of those sleep mask things (or else make your bedroom completely dark). Melatonin has reduced the time it takes me to get to sleep significantly. However, I only take a half tablet on nights when I know I need it, because the long term safety of any amount of melatonin is unknown. Cherries are said to be very rich in melatonin.

How to Lose Weight: #12 Cut the Cable

I am sure this is probably the most controversial, and for some, the most extreme, suggestion yet, but here goes (bearing in mind that obesity has extreme control over many people, so maybe extreme action is sometimes needed).

I probably should have called this “Don’t Watch Much TV,” but “Don’t Get Cable” is more of an attention-getter. Besides, one way to not watch a lot of TV is to not get very many channels. I haven’t had cable for years, which has saved me around $2000. However, two things happened the other day that reminded me why the lack of cable provides not just a financial benefit, but a health benefit too. A few days ago in class, students were sharing their favorite television shows. One girl said, “my mom won’t let us get cable; she says it will make our family fat.” Her mother is probably right on. I also happened to be reading Super-Sized Kids that night as well, which hammers home the same point.

Watching a lot of TV is one good way to get fat. Men watch 4:35 hours of TV a day, women, 5:14, teens, 3:21, and children 3:25. When you add this to a 9 hour work day, this means that men are either working or watching TV 13:35 hours a day, on average. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for physical activity, planning and cooking healthy meals, or getting a decent night’s sleep (which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight). Plus, it seems like once you plop down in front of the TV, it is very hard to get up. I know obese individuals who literally work all day, get home, and sit in front of the TV. Then they go to bed (sometimes also in front of a TV). Everyday this routine gets easier and easier, because they keep gaining weight, which makes getting active that much more difficult. Some of these folks used to live very active lives, playing a lot of sports and participating in other activities, but sadly, not so anymore. Hey, I know that sometimes work wears you out, but the fastest way to get even more worn out is to sit in front of a TV all night.

The negative impact of watching too much TV is even greater on children. According to Super-Sized Kids, one study found that pre-school children who watched the most TV had the greatest increases in body fat. Another study found that the amount of television a child watches corresponds directly to the risk of developing serious health problems as an adult. For children of normal weight, watching TV triggers a 12% drop in metabolism, whereas obese children see a 16% drop. I have a feeling much of this translates to adults who watch too much TV. Additionally, many of us do not want our kids growing up overweight, and studies show that if we want kids to develop healthy habits, we have to model them. We just can’t tell our kids too much TV is bad, we have to show them by our actions.

I am not against TV, and watch it pretty often. I prefer just buying DVDs of shows I like rather than paying for cable (since when I visit my parents and watch their cable usually, despite 150 channels, there is still nothing good on TV). However, without cable at home, I am less likely to sit in front of the TV for too long, because there often isn’t much on. Just last night, I was “bored” and since there was nothing on the 5 channels I can get, we took a refreshing walk. Had there been something interesting on TV, it is likely I wouldn’t have left the house.

I also think that watching too much TV causes a person to miss out on a lot of what is good about life. I am only speaking for myself of course, but unless I am watching a really good TV program, I probably couldn’t tell you much about it a week later. However, when I am active, running, hiking, walking with my wife, going to pick-your-own farms, attending festivals, visiting friends and family, sitting in the sun-room eating breakfast, going to a restaurant with family, taking tours of local attractions, and so forth, I remember these well, and can’t wait until they happen again. I feel like I accomplished something meaningful after doing these things. I don’t usually get that feeling after watching TV (although watching the few shows I really like do sometimes give me that feeling). Even though most kids would probably tell you how much they love TV, and that giving up cable would be tantamount to giving up oxygen, they would probably deep-down prefer to be out doing meaningful stuff with their families. I guess my point is that we would all probably be much healthier – and much happier and fulfilled – if we replaced some of the hours of mindless TV time with some engaging, calorie-burning activities.

Image taken by me, of Mama’s Family. Before work, I would often watch a little bit of it while I was getting ready.

How to Lose Weight: #11 Make Health a Habit

I have already addressed the need to be excited about weight loss, but now I am going to spend a lengthy post of what is probably more important: being into health for the long haul.

Ask yourself this question. When you “slip” into a habit or way of doing things related to your health, what do you slip into? A healthy lifestyle or unhealthy lifestyle? Or something perhaps in between? I think for most Americans, being unhealthy is certainly the default position, while being healthy is the anomaly. Wouldn’t it be great if our habit, our “default setting” was healthy. Imagine the reduction in health care costs and the increase in grandparents living long enough to see their grandchildren! I would think that making health a habit is ultimately the goal of any long-term health program.

Most of us are good at temporary adjustments. We can stick to eating whole grains for a month, but will we stick to them after losing some weight (and, without making it a habit, probably gaining the weight back). So how can we make temporary good health adjustments into long-term habits? Let me tell you from experience, it isn’t easy. I have been “into” health since 1993, read many books, visited thousands of websites, exercised many many hours, tested countless healthy recipes, and so forth, and while many healthy habits come much easier now than in 1993, it is still not easy to “default” to healthy.

However, I have to say that a lot of temporary health improvements have become habits for me, so it is possible. Very few people, myself included, are probably going to develop completely healthy habits, but I think you put yourself at a big advantage when you develop at least some. You will find that not only do you stay thinner longer, but when you do gain weight, you do so more slowly. Let me share some of my habits that I developed (and one I just can’t quite get!).

When I started drinking sugar free drinks in 1998, it was tough. Prior to this, I assumed that sugar-free drinks weren’t manly, so I drank full-calorie ones a lot. A friend of mine got into sugar-free drinks, and he would usually buy me what he bought, so I came to like them. I probably haven’t touched a sugared drink since 2001, at least not more than one every 6 months. That became a habit.

I also try to avoid snack foods, like potato chips, Doritos, and tortilla chips in the house. I have kind of made this a habit. I haven’t had potato chips in the house for years, nor Doritos. Regular tortilla chips are a weakness, and I had them in the house regularly this past winter, and I paid for it too. I ate too many of them. But nonetheless, I tend to keep these out of the house, and this has become a habit, the default, even if I do go through some extended periods when I have them in the house.

Another example is eating (non-fried) fish. In 2004 I read that DHA, a lipid in many fish, helps brain power. I was studying for the GRE at that time, and decided to eat a lot of white tuna and salmon, rich in DHA. This is a habit I have kept up. I have white tuna and grilled salmon regularly, supplying probably 3 times the fish oil I got in the years previous. I am not sure if I am smarter, but the taste is great.

I have been a little weaker on exercise, but over the last 15 years since I got into health, I have regularly exercised more often than not, but there were certainly embarrassing periods of inactivity sandwiched in there. Thus, I can say exercise is a habit, the default, even if barely. I think this becomes more of a habit as I get older, primarily because I like the way regular exercise makes me feel, which is good. My senior year in college I was so out-of-shape I got out of breath climbing one floor of dorm stairs. That made my body (and ego) feel pretty bad, and I don’t feel like getting that out-of-shape again.

One thing I haven’t been too good at is restricting calories. I would love to make it a habit to regularly consume fewer calories than I burn, until I get to my ideal weight, then I could break even, give or take a few hundred calories. I definitely tend toward overeating, and I have a good appetite, which is why I need Fitday. I also have to choose foods that are filling and not calorie dense, so I get the feeling like I am eating quite a bit, without the calories. Eating generally healthy foods is a habit for me, but eating less of all foods is still a struggle.

How did these become habits?

First, I have to care. If I didn’t care enough to get a little excited at first about health, I never could have even begun to start being healthy in a habitual way.

Second, I continually have to educate myself about what is healthy. If I wasn’t concerned about the effects of sugar, I never would have even considered lowering my intake of refined sugars. Education is extremely important, because approaching being healthy from every possible angle makes it much easier, and allows you to avoid stuff that might actually make you less healthy. If you think that “eating healthily” means rice cakes and water, I can tell you that you won’t (and shouldn’t) develop that as a habit.

Third, I have to branch out, be creative, and try new things. How could I develop a habit of liking low-sugar foods if I wasn’t even willing to try them? Convincing yourself you hate broccoli because you hated it when you were three is not a very good way of thinking, because preferences, and taste buds, change. If you want to make eating more vegetables a habit, you should try every vegetable possible, find them fresh, and find tasty and healthy ways to prepare them. Don’t boil some broccoli, declare it awful, and give up on vegetables.

Fourth, sometimes I just have to do what is right, because it is right. As an example, there are some days I go to church because I know I should. I would rather sleep in, or do something else, but I go to church out of habit, out of conviction. Some people criticize this, saying I should only go to church if I am excited about it, but are they seriously saying people should only do what is right when they happen to be excited about it?? Some days we are just going to have to do the right thing because we know we should, and this includes being healthy. Some days you may hate the thought of going to the gym, but you know you should, and you do. You feel better afterward, but that isn’t the point: you did it because it is right, even though it is tough. When you start acting on this fourth point is when you are starting to develop a healthy behavior as a habit, because you are training yourself to do the healthy thing by default.

Finally, I just have to keep trying. My weight has fluctuated too much over the years, but the funny thing is that I can really see a pattern of fighting weight, and it is getting much easier. In high school, my weight usually fluctuated by 20 pounds in the course of a year, every year. When I lost weight in college, I remained thin for a year, then fell off, then repeated that same pattern. My senior year (in 2000) I was 40 pounds overweight, but I lost it all by January of 2001. I kept it off until 2005, then I started gaining 30 pounds again slowly. I lost it by my wedding in September of 2007, and am going strong. My point? I am keeping the weight off longer and gaining it more slowly as time goes by. Each time I slip up, I eventually get back on track, and with each new attempt to get healthy, I am further training myself, further developing my short-term healthy actions into long(er) term habits.

Some Friendly Advice: Buy Gas Now

Oil and Gasoline futures shot up big time today (the dollar weakened and speculators jumped back in the market). I have a feeling the local stations will bump up their prices soon, probably tomorrow or possibly not until Monday. I bought gas for 3.43/gallon today for this reason.

I could be wrong, but usually this is a big predictor that a jump is coming.

UPDATE: As of today 8-22-2008, oil has fallen the largest amount for one day since 1991. Wow is the oil market ever volatile. However, oil rose by about the same amount yesterday, when I gave the above advice, so you can understand my warning. For those who are getting $3.43/gallon, I still suggest taking it!

Save Money, Go Open Source

When I bought a computer in 2004, I didn’t know much about open source software, and so when I ordered my computer I bought quite a few products I knew I needed, including Microsoft Office and Paint Shop Pro. I since have discovered “open source” software, that is, free software in which the programming code is made available so that individuals can collaborate on the effort. The result is often quality software that is completely free. Currently, there is a lot of open source software of a mixed quality. Some is good, some is difficult to use, but that is true of paid software too I guess. Below are some open source software programs that I use regularly. I tell you what paid product they replace, as well as strengths and weaknesses of each product.

OpenOffice.Org – This is the office suite that is similar to Microsoft Office, that is backed by the Sun Corporation. The programs I use the most are Writer (like Word), and Present (like PowerPoint). If you can use MS Office, you can figure out OpenOffice.Org. I use it at work and at home. One nice feature (among many) is that Open Office exports to .pdf files with the click of a button, which is good for creating e-books and other projects.

When I buy a new computer, I won’t be buying MS Office, saving hundreds of dollars. The only weakness of Open Office that I encounter is that sometimes when it saves as a .doc file, or other Microsoft file, it doesn’t always look perfect when you open it in a Microsoft Office application, which could be a problem if you are creating a file for someone else’s consumption (but there is always the .pdf option). There is a version of Open Office marketed to professionals called OxygenOffice, which is basically Open Office with a bunch of extra fonts, templates, and things not included in the regular Open Office. It too is free.

GIMP – This is a graphics editor similar to Photoshop. It is rather powerful, and once you get past its slightly confusing interface, you will see how powerful it is. Photoshop is still more powerful, but for what I need, GIMP is fine, and saves me the hundreds of dollars that Photoshop costs.

Scribus – Scribus is a publisher, similar (but not nearly as easy to use) to MS Publisher. I find using Open Office Writer much easier to use than Scribus, although the former is not technically as powerful a publishing software as Scribus, but it is much easier to use. I will probably use Scribus more in the future.

Firefox – Quicker and more innovative than Internet Explorer, I browse with it 95% of the time, except when a website requires IE.

WordPress – There are a lot of free blogging sites out there, but WordPress is an open source software that you can either host on your own website (like we do), or else you can blog with it with someone else hosting it (like at WordPress.Com). It is free regardless, and extremely powerful. I prefer it to other platforms.

Filezilla – For those who run a website, this is a nice open source FTP client (sending files from your computer to your web host).

Audacity – Last, but definitely not least, is Audacity, which is an open-source audio file creation and editing software. I have heard a lot of praise for it from people who should know, and I have produced a few podcasts and songs using it.

To go “open source,” you may have to give up some familiarity with current software, and perhaps relinquish some power, but in general, making the switch to these open source software programs will save you quite a bit of money, with few hassles. Some people make the leap to full open source and ditch Windows…I am not there yet! Also, if you run a business, you may want to seriously explore using open source software. Our school uses almost all open source stuff, and saves a LOT of money in licensing fees.

My Employer Gets Serious About Wellness

I recently received a wellness newsletter in my email at work and talked to the lady who wrote it. She informed me that my employer (I’m a teacher) was focusing on wellness. I figured that it would be the standard effort like newsletters, emails, a few talks, etc. Boy was I wrong! I went to the cafeteria today and every food at the main lunch line now had the nutrition information listed, including the prepared salads! Also, I saw one of the lunch staff unloading organic lettuce for the salad bar. I wonder what else is going on “under the radar.” Granted, my school has incredible food and food service, but this just blew me away. Not only did I avoid most of the hot food due to high calorie content, but so did several other teachers. In other words, information is power and nutrition knowledge did make a difference and that was just among those people I happened to run into. I can’t wait to see what else this wellness drive has to offer. So far, I’m very impressed.