Sun and Speed: Why Sunshine And Movement Are Essential To Your Health

fall landscape

No, I am not talking about doing drugs outdoors, but I’m referring to what ancient man (and woman) often experienced. They got a lot of sun, and they probably moved a lot, and it is safe to say that this is what we are probably the life we are meant to experience. While most of us may enjoy sitting down in a temperature-controlled room, we really aren’t physiologically wired to have this sort of experience every day of the year.

Think about it. When, in the history of humankind, until very recently, did people stay inside so much, and do such little activity?  The upper classes, few in number, perhaps had such an experience, but most did not. In fact, most people throughout human history have spent long hours outside and have been, whether as wandering nomads, hunter-gatherers, or simply working the fields, on the move.

You can’t take a human body, designed to be outside, and on the move, and stick it at an desk inside for 10 hours a day, and/or on a couch for 5 hours a day inside, and expect health and happiness. And this could be why many Americans are unhealthy and feel so darn unhappy.

There are many good reasons to actually be out in the sun, and one is Vitamin D production.  Studies show that many diseases are tied to low Vitamin D levels, including autism, cancer, depression, and multiple sclerosis, diseases becoming more common as Americans spend less-and-less time in the sun. While it is true too much sun exposure can increase the risk of easily treatable forms of skin cancer, and increase the rate that your skin will look “ridden hard and put away wet,” as local good-ol boys describe it, sun exposure likely helps prevent difficult-to-treat cancers like breast and colon cancer.

Ok, we need some sun, but do we need speed? Likely. One example is a study that shows that runners live significantly longer than non-runners, in part because running encourages new nerve growth.  And combining the two for some sun and speed, has some benefits as well.  For example, one study found that while exercising indoors reduced depression by 45% , exercising outdoors decreased depression by 71%, almost double the indoor rate. So basically, moving outside is much more effective at treating depression than exercising indoors. This could explain that while exercising at the Y can sometimes be a chore, I rarely have to be prodded to run outside, over the hills outside my old high school.

I often ponder these things while I am running outside, for example, yesterday in the blistering heat, which limited my time outside. One thing I thought of is that in the last 20+ years, we have been taught to value being inside, and honestly, to fear the outside. It seems as if parents are so worried about what may possibly happen to a child, that a lot of the stuff I did growing up outside (that kids had done for years earlier) is now off-limits. So, since a child can’t go outside and play at noon (the sun is too hot and a weird looking redneck just walked by), he sits inside glued to the computer, not that he would even want to go outside anyway, because he can just “go outside” on his video game.  Then when he does go outside for real, the sun has a kind of “it burns, it burns” feel, and being weighed down by too  many bags of snack-size Cheetos, he runs (not literally, of course) for cover for the nearest air-conditioned building. I am basically describing myself as a middle-schooler, except that my mom was never hysterical, and did encourage us to play outside, although since the Nintendo was inside, I often stayed there.

Basically, the point is my post is that a lot of our modern problems, including depression and chronic diseases (like cancer) could be related to the fact that our modern way of living is just contrary to our wiring. Instead of immediately reaching for expensive drugs, long courses of therapy, or self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or partying, we may just need a little more sun and a little more speed*. Of course, I say this while I type inside with the AC turned up…

* – Obviously depression is a real condition, and it is important to seek a doctor’s advice before going on or off depression medication, or before beginning an exercise program.

A New Personal Best

I reached a personal milestone yesterday, running for nine miles on the local bike path. I’m not sure the longest distance I’ve run in the past, but I think it was around 7 miles. I did the run with my brother and fellow contributor to this blog, David. And, I was only moderately sore the next day. Here’s how I was able to do it:

Teamwork– Being able to do it with someone else and to receive his encouragement and conversation was crucial.

Training– I had run similar distances before and have made a serious effort to build up my leg muscles through lifting

Environment– The beautiful scenery was so interesting that I felt invigorated

Hydration– I drank before and during the run

Supplements– Before the run, I took phosphatidylserine (PS) for mental alertness and drank coffee for another boost. During and after the run I took bromelain, Vitamin C, and aspirin to reduce inflammation.

Some Thoughts On Exercise and Mood

track

Exercise is thought to enhance mood, and studies confirm this. According to research presented in Dr. Bob Arnot’s  The Biology of Success, for moderate anxiety and depression, exercise is just as beneficial as counseling therapy, and results in brain chemistry change similar to what is experienced through pharmaceuticals. Exercise has been shown to raise serotonin levels. In fact, long term exercise, done regularly for years, actually changes personality traits. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I think a lot of the anxiety and depression in the U.S.A. is the result of altered brain chemistry resulting from living in ways contrary to our wiring, i.e. we are inactive, spend most of our time inside, live in big cities, etc, when our brains are wired for constant activity, being outside, living in the country, etc. Exercise may be one way to reconnect to our natural wiring.

However, not every exercise in every situations enhances moods. According to Arnot, “the harder, the better.” He believes we have been sold a bill of goods about “over-exercise.” He says that only about .01% of Americans are in danger of over-exercise, and these are well-trained athletes, while most of us are in danger of under-exercise. To see an enhancement in mood, we have to work a little lot.

Also, where we exercise has an impact on mood. Exercising outside seems to provide the most mood enhancement, as is confirmed by research mentioned in my article Sun and Speed, and by a 1995 study by Harte and Eifert, which I came across in The Biology of Success. The research by Harte and Eifert showed that those who exercised outside had greater mood enhancement than those exercising indoors. However, if those exercising indoors had plenty of stimuli around, i.e. watching people, looking out windows, listening to music, etc, they experienced  mood enhancement. When the researchers placed participants on a treadmill in front of a blank wall, participants actually reported a worse mood following exercise. So, this research suggests that if you are using exercise to enhance your mood, you should make sure you are exercising vigorously (within your physical limits, of course, so consult your doctor before beginning any exercise routine), and preferably exercising outside, or at the least, inside with plenty of stimuli around.

Recently, I have been feeling really craving aerobic exercise. I have been pushing up to about 7 miles of running, and I think this could be part of it, since I am perhaps hitting the point of a “runner’s high.” Or it could be that I have been taking phosphatidylserine prior to running, and it happens to kick in near the middle of the run.

Image taken by me, while running (enhanced with Qtpfsgui and Gimp)

Your Hotel Room Can Be A Gym

I know it’s not as common anymore for many of us because of the economy. I’m speaking of traveling, of course! But, for those of us who do travel and stay in hotels, CNN has posted some advice for how to turn your hotel room into a gym. You can view it here. These are generally good ideas, especially for people short on time, but…also quite boring! I’ve brainstormed a few ideas about how to get a good workout and actually leave your room too.

-Visit the workout room or the pool- Still kind of boring, but better. And, your hotel has to have one.
– Use an “away” membership for your gym- a lot of gyms that have locations in multiple areas will often give you access to all of them. The YMCA often does this. There may be limitations in terms of times you can use it, but some have no restriction. It’s always kind of cool to see how different gyms operate.
-Get outdoors- Find a bike path or area popular with runners or walkers. You also will get to see new scenery and maybe even meet new people. Of course, be careful and make sure the area is actually safe.

Workout Tip #1: Do What Works

I used to think that running, especially over long distances, was the measure of a person’s athletic and fitness abilities. I’m not sure why exactly, perhaps because it seemed that good runners looked athletic. So, I would force myself to run and get bored out of my mind. Then, I’d quit running. And since running was exercise, I also quit exercise.

From a logical perspective this is called “fallacious” thinking, specifically a “straw man” argument. I setup running in my mind as the only proper exercise and when I couldn’t run, I thus, couldn’t exercise. It was silly thinking, but it truly hindered my exercise. I had to create a “clean slate” with exercise and working out and you may have to as well.

First, exercise is simply burning calories. Granted, it can be intense, moderate, or weak, but burning calories is burning calories. So, while you may burn more calories playing an intense game of squash than walking for thirty minutes, if you hate squash and don’t play it, the 100 calories you burn from walking is better than the 0 calories you burn from not playing squash (even if those who do play squash would burn 400 calories in the same amount of time).

Second, remember your age. Just because you were a basketball stud in high school doesn’t mean you need to run out and join the nearest pickup game at age 48. While that may be an excellent way to get in shape, it may also be an excellent way to get so sore the next day that you give up exercising for another 30 years. Basically, you may need to reinvent what exercise means for you. I say “may” because perhaps you can exercise the way you used to. Most of us probably can’t; if anything we don’t have time for 3 hour practices 5 days a week with games on the off days.

Finally, and related to one and two, keep an open mind. Trying new exercises will keep your routines more interesting and you’ll stop your muscles from getting used to the same old stuff (this is a good thing, btw). Plus, you may find something you actually love to do. For example, I never knew how relaxing and and exhilarating cross country skiing could be until I tried it.

Today, I actually enjoy running, at least outdoors (treadmills still bore me to tears). I admire those hardcore runners, but realize that I don’t need to be one myself.

Channeling Excess Energy

Before I say this, I am not referring to some sort of new age aura or anything like that, but rather using our nervous and pent-up energy for good things, instead of just being nervous or aimless, etc.

I have been reading some books on public speaking recently (maybe more on this later), and they give some tips on how to take excess energy (much of which could be nervous or undirected) and focus the energy to something positive, namely the current intellectual, spiritual, or athletic performance. One idea some authors recommend is to focus on something positive, e.g. a happy moment or person. This is based on research that people are literally physically stronger when they think of something positive than when they think of something negative. I tend to think of two things to channel my energy to increase my performance: the photo of my niece grace smiling and running outside on a hot summer day. Today, while I was running (inside), I noticed that not only did I feel a burst of energy when thinking of niece, but I always smiled at the thought of her smiling in that photo. Another technique I have read about is to make yourself taller, which means standing proud to exude confidence. I tried this today, and I did it by pretending that my head and shoulders were attached to a string hanging from something very high in the air…it was actually quite easy to do when I was imagining that. Again, I felt an improvement in my energy levels. I am experimenting with ways of my own, and will let you know about these in the future.

Getting Inspired

road view

Yesterday, as I returned home from a meeting of the National Speakers Association, Ohio Chapter (a great meeting and great organization by the way), I was thinking of times when I get particularly inspired to come up with good ideas. Generally, the two major times when ideas come to me are:

1. During Catholic Mass

2. While running (particularly outside)

Let me explain a little bit about each. When I first thought about having great ideas during Mass, I thought “I hope this doesn’t mean my mind is wandering too much during worship.” I then realized that my mind doesn’t really wander too much. In fact, the ideas usually come during the times in the Mass reserved for quiet reflection. I am guessing this shows that I really am paying attention (sometimes I admit my mind can wander…I am human after all).

Typically my best ideas come when running, mostly when running outside. I think my running ritual creates a great opportunity for thinking. First, running relaxes me and loosens me up, physically and mentally. Second, I love being outdoors, so when I run outside, I am immediately in a good mood, and receiving the mental benefits of sunshine and fresh air. Third, since I usually run close to 4-6 miles at a time, I am sure I am getting some sort of “runner’s high” by the middle of my run. Fourth, I typically take some Acetyl L-Carnitine or DMAE before running, which enhances my mental clarity. Finally, I often run alone; this gives me that rare time to just gather my thoughts. All of these factors make running both physically and mentally enjoyable.

Now, let me explain what doesn’t usually inspire me. I am not usually inspired by quotes or gimmicks. You know, the type of stuff that gets you excited and makes you go “ah ha” on Monday, but doesn’t really impact you anymore by Friday. I know that many public speakers and inspirational speakers thrive on this sort of thing, as does the average American. A lot of people have quote-a-day calendars that they glance at every day. I have tried that and usually by February my calendar is still on January 10th. I do like inspirational quotes, but they don’t have much lasting power in my life. I tend to be inspired by content, rather than inspired by inspiration. Friends and life, just as they are, tend to inspire me as well. Also, a very good movie or song can inspire me in lasting ways, especially if the story reminds me of my own story. Well, that’s just me! I am sure that most of you are different, and that is cool too.

Still Alive

I have been very, very busy lately, and haven’t had time to blog. However, I thought I would offer a few random thoughts today:

1. The economy is scary right now, and I am very thankful for my job. I also notice that frugality is now “in.” People no longer look at me like I am crazy when I say I don’t have cable.

2. Related to number 1, since the switch to digital, we can now only get one channel. We are a decent distance out from the stations we could get with analog, and now we can’t get most of the channels. We may have to just get a roof antenna or something, because the rabbit ears aren’t working. Even then, I am not sure how well that would work.

3. Related to numbers 1 and 2, we bought the first five seasons of “King of the Hill” and added two more seasons to our “Everybody Loves Raymond” collection. Amazon had them for $13.00 each, and I got some using some credit card points I had saved up. We don’t own a lot of TV show DVDs, but we do have all 8 seasons of “The Andy Griffith Show,” 4 seasons of “I Love Lucy” and every episode of the British version of “The Office.” Who needs new TV??

4. I finished my taxes, filed them, and then noticed I made a mistake…so I have to file an amended return.

5. I am happy because even though I ate horribly (at least it seemed so) last week, I had a great weigh-in yesterday at the Y. One night, I even ate 4000+ calories at the Golden Corral! Nonetheless, when I weighed yesterday, I didn’t even gain a pound. I certainly have gained some muscle during the week, so I probably even lost a little fat.

6. Even though we are in the middle of a brief cold snap, March is coming very soon, and better weather is on its way!

7. Fr. Wagner and I (and a few others) are looking for a 10k to run this summer! Running…Summer…sounds great!

Run for Your Life!

above track

For real. A 20-year study concludes that running can extend your life, so much that those in the study running cut the risk of premature death by half (see #2)! Running also boosts levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor), which is key to keeping nerve cells alive, and stimulating the growth of new nerve growth.  So when you run, you are truly running for your life, i.e. running on your life’s behalf ;).

I got out and ran for an hour the other day. We had an unseasonably warm day (around 65 F) so Jonathan and I ran at the local state park. I am already starting to get sick of being on the eliptical machine, and am yearning to run outdoors. I go through this every winter, so it is nothing new. The more I exercise outside, the less I like exercising indoors. However, I still will exercise indoors, because I know I need to do it, but once I get a warm day…watch out.

Image from a summer running day at the local school track

How I Got Rid of My Knee Pain

The title of this post may sound like an advertisement for a joint supplement, but it isn’t. I thought I would share how I dramatically improved my knee pain over the last few months. I am not saying what I did will work for you, but it seems to have worked well for me. I like to run, and I play basketball with the high school basketball team twice a week, so I need healthy knees. One thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to go to the doctor unless I absolutely had to. I had no desire to be prescribed expensive, possibly toxic, drugs that burdened our already expensive health care system.

Basically, I took two major steps that likely had the biggest effect on healing my knee pain:

1. I lost weight – I was only 10 pounds heavier than I am now, but that 10 pounds made a big difference on my knee. This is not surprising, given that every pound lost results in a fourfold reduction in load. So basically, I took 40 pounds of load off my knee. No wonder 10 pounds made such a difference! I also started running when I was about 30 pounds overweight, so I am sure this put even more strain on my knee, that eventually led to pain.

2. I strengthened my leg muscles – I read some articles online (and took the advice of a friend of mine who is a runner) that suggested that a lot of knee pain originates in the quadriceps muscle. I thought, “I have strong quads because I run almost every day, so it can’t be that.” Wrong. As my friend told me, running doesn’t really build the quads that well, but it can hurt  the knee. I found out very clearly how weak my quadriceps muscles were when I added leg press and leg curl to my regular lifting workout. Despite running regularly for over a year, my initial weight lifted was very low. In fact over two months, I have increased my leg curl load by 450%. That shows that my quads were just crying out for serious development! Initially, the quad exercises hurt my knees, but it ceased gradually. Some more good news is that developing large leg muscles (like the quads) may help the body build muscle elsewhere, because of changes it causes in the entire body.

I also made a few minor changes that may or may not have had an effect:

1. I began taking MSM – MSM has been shown in some studies to help with knee pain. It is debatable whether it helps, but since it is pretty much harmless, I decided to give it a try (as a side benefit, some people think it may help prevent wrinkles!). I have taken Glucosamine Sulfate as a preventative measure since about 2001, and I am not sure how well it has worked. I still developed knee pain while taking it, but it is possible it prevented more serious pain and damage.

2. I increased my enzyme supplements – Protein digesting enzymes, like Bromelain and Papain, when taken on an empty stomach, have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Some studies show a positive benefit for joint pain. I started taking them much more regularly in the last few months. They are best take preventatively, before exercise. One drawback is that you need a lot of them to have an effect.

What I didn’t do:

1. Use Salicylic Acid based creams – I read somewhere (I can’t find it now) that using even a little of this sort of sport cream is liking taking multiple aspirin tablets a day. I didn’t want to merely cover up the problem at a risk of toxicity from too much aspirin and aspirin-like compounds.

2. Use knee braces – Studies show commercial ones (that you can buy at stores) don’t really work that well. I found that my knees hurt worse after using a brace I bought at Wal-Mart a few years ago.

Knee pain stinks, and I am not saying what I did will work for you, but I hope it helps you find your way to healthier knees!

Image of me running (in the upper right…yes, it’s blurry)