Fixing sleep

A week back we posted a test on The Quad’s Facebook page that urged folks to to calculate their health score. The test was pretty simple. Health being a result of more than just dieting or exercising, the following equation was taken into consideration.

Health = Activity + Nutrition + Sleep + Stress 

Folks were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on each aspect of health. 5 stood for awesome and 1 stood for awful. Here is the original post.

A bunch of folks took the test and the results were revealing, to put it mildly. It was obvious that folks who focus on nutrition and training suffer from sleep issues. For some of us it is the lack of sufficient sleep while for some others it is disturbed sleep or feeling fatigued even after a supposedly good night’s sleep. What you need to realize is that sleep is a big big part of health and fat loss. To put it simply, if you’re sleep deprived you can be sure that your fat loss efforts won’t go too far and your health isn’t going to get any better, irrespective of how well you eat or how much you exercise.

To elaborate, during all our waking hours we place our bodies under stress (work, traffic, shallow breathing, deadlines, domestic quarrels etc) or we give it work (digestion, blood pressure variability control, excessive mental stimulus etc). It is when we sleep that all repair and replenishment occur in the body. It is the time for recovery. It is the time when all our efforts towards health come together. Click here for an amazing pictorial representation of why sleep is incredibly important to health and the effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep being such a critical part of health, shouldn’t fixing sleep issues be a priority? Here are 5 incredibly simple ways to do exactly that.

Cal sleeping

Calvin doing what he does best

Dark is awesome

Turn off all lights (including night lamps), cover the LED display from your AC or alarm clock and use blackout curtains to block all night. The “glow” from electronics is the issue here. The small amounts of light from these devices pass through the retina into a part of the hypothalamus and delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. This is by far your best bet when it comes to sleep quality. The fix is simple – keep your electronics our of the bedroom. Yes, we know about your phone being your alarm. BS. Get a simple alarm clock.

Less is more

Sleep less but plan on it. Like in most things, sleep quality is much more important than sleep quantity. Look into your day and carve out the perfect time to sleep based on your lifestyle. For some, early to bed and early to rise works wonders as that is their undisturbed time while for some others, sleeping late and waking up late works better. When sleep deprivation is an issue, one is not better than the other. Find what works for you and work towards hitting the bed during that golden window.

Stay clam

Stress is directly related to sleep issues and vice versa. Sleep deprivation causes stress which piles up with other work and domestic stressors to result in more disturbed sleep and hence sleep deprivation. If you find yourself stressed out at various points of the day (angry, emotional, irritated, hungry, jealous), then it’s fair to assume that your sleep issues are a result of stress. Stay calm and sleep more.

Move

Let’s face it. Some of us don’t do shit all day long. Even though we are mentally exhausted, physically we don’t do anything that deserves high quality rest. Your body needs to work as much as it needs to rest. So do the needful – exercise regularly and stay active everyday by doing more activities of daily life. No. Lounging, sitting at a desk, driving or going for a short work don’t count. You need to breathe hard, sweat and tire yourself out optimally.

Supplement

Once you have tried all the above ideas and if none of them fix your issues completely, supplementation is an option. Magnesium is a wonder supplement that almost all of us lack in your diets today and is something that calms you down and regulates sleep quality. Look for magnesium oxide or citrate or any other ‘ide’ or ‘ate’ and supplement per RDA. For those who train hard, ZMA (Zinc and Magnesium) is a good option, as it helps with recovery too. Stay away from melatonin and other sleep inducing hormones ‘cos, well, they’re hormones and like all other supplemental hormones, will cause major issues in the long run.

Trust me. Put work away and hit that snooze button. The world will still be crazy and messed up when you wake up.

Beyond miles, minutes and medals

On Sunday, 1st December 2013, more than 7,500 folks gathered to run what was possibly Chennai’s largest fitness event – The Wipro Chennai Marathon. Firstly, kudos to the organizers for such a wonderful event. I didn’t get to run this one, but the word on the street is that the run was beautifully planned and executed. Secondly, congrats to everyone who participated in the event.

So how did you do? Awesome or awful? Did you blast through it or did you suffer your way to the finish? Did you make yourself proud or did you walk out feeling defeated?

If it’s the former, I’m here to offer you a different perspective on running. If it’s the latter, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. Because the joy of running is beyond what miles, minutes and medals can capture.

TWCM3a

Photo credit: Weekend Studios, The Wipro Chennai Marathon 2013

Most of you who have followed me know that I started my journey towards health and fitness with running. I was a running junkie and enjoyed every second of being one. For the runners who don’t know me, I’m the guy who writes about smart training and how to not be a dumb runner- something running junkies are never fond of. More on the subject here, here and here.

Thanks to a lifetime of sedentarism and asthma, my entry into running was dominated by suffering. My first run lasted an amazing 100m at the end of which I found myself sitting on the pavement panicking and hurriedly taking puffs from my inhaler. A month of relentless consistent running and I broke the 1 mile barrier in (a painful) 23 minutes. It took me 6 months of hidden-running (on the side-roads post 10pm) before I could muster the courage to sign up for an official run and boy do I remember that one vividly.

It was the Skyline Ridge 14 km Trail Run which took place in Palo Alto, California. I had set myself a goal of 85 minutes.

I land up at the start all excited and I see a total of just about 150 people. Most of these folks were in pretty good shape, had hydration packs, compression shorts, dry-fit tees, funky shoes, crazy watches and no ear phones. And there I was wearing tracks I’d bought the previous week, a zipped hoodie that I wore to work, an old heavy pair of Reebok sneakers, a regular water bottle with water and a heavy-ass 1st generation iPod in my pocket that threatened to pull my pants down anytime. Excellent. I’d brought a knife bunch of old rusty crap to a gun fight.

Nevertheless, I present myself at the start line and listen to the organizer explain the running route as he points up to a, ummmm, moutain! No maps. No directions. Just a couple of colored ribbons tied to branches which are meant to keep you on track. In other words, if you’re left behind, you could be lost.

The whistle blows. I turn on the first song on my playlist and start running. With sub-zero temperatures and altitude, I instantly find myself struggling to run and in about 15 minutes a feeling of over-expanded lungs forces me to stop and use my inhaler. I see people of various ages and sizes zip past me and I can’t help but feel small. So I decide to pick up my feet.

I turn up the volume, focus harder and accelerate. I overtake a good number of folks. I feel alright. I’m at mile # 2 and I keep this going for another 2 miles. At mile 5, an unexpected hill presents itself and I’m hit. And this time I’m down and the inhaler doesn’t seem to help either. I realize I don’t have it in me to get back up.

I start to really panic. How am I going to finish within 85 minutes? What if I’m among the last few? What if I finish so late there is no one to cheer at the finish line? What if they publish the results? What if I get lost? What if this asthma episode is real bad? Do I have to call for help?

I decide to calm down and breathe. Almost completely broken, for the very first time in the last 50 minutes of turmoil, I look around me and I was breathless. But this time, in a whole other way.

skylinefinal2

Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

Everything that is right about the world was right in front of my eyes but I refused to open my eyes. Silence in all it’s glory encapsulated me but I rebelled with music. Water in it’s purest form hydrated me but I said no thanks to the mist and wiped myself dry.

What am I doing here? What am I trying to prove here? Who am I trying to prove it to? Who am I racing against? Is it the 70 year old man running ahead of me? The ultramarathoners who ran their way from home to the start line? The world that talks but doesn’t care?

I said, fuck it. I’m going to live this run. I’m not going remember my first run as the one that made me feel miserable. I’m going to love every remaining second of this trail. It doesn’t matter if I have to walk it or even if I have to call for help, but I was going to savour every remaining moment.

skylinefinal1

Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

And so I did.  I finished the run in about an hour and 40 minutes. Not the first. Not the last. I placed 41 among 71. But that didn’t matter anymore. It was not about ranking and timing anymore but about collecting memories. And from then on, for me, running was about the experience.

You see, running is a sport. How fast your run your 10k means something. Running your first half marathon or full marathon is definitely something you should train meticulously for. But before all that, running is a passion driven activity and it is important that you enjoy it for the right reasons.

So for a minute, forget how well or badly you did. Forget your timing. Forget how far you ran. Forget the difference between you and the overweight unfit runners who huffed and puffed their way to the finish. Forget the many miles between you and the faster runners who you barely caught sight of.

Take a moment to look beyond numbers. Remember the weather, the rain, the darkness, the sound of your heart pounding, the bounce from each step, the wind, the views, the excitement, the motivation, the smiles, the sweat, the grit and, finally, that feeling of liberation.

Take a moment to relive the experience ‘cos at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

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It’s a marathon, not a sprint

It’s all so fast paced today. It’s common to expect overnight turnaround on everything. Our microwaves heat up food within seconds. Our washing machines wash and dry within minutes. Our smart phones give us access to messages in milliseconds. And Facebook provides us information about everything about everyone we don’t really care about every second of every minute of everyday.

So it’s natural for us to expect things to be done quickly and this is absolutely fine. That’s what technology is meant to do – make life convenient, efficient, better, easier and, most importantly, faster.

But when we expect physiology to match technology, we have a problem. 

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Photo Credit: LindaSC via Flickr

You see, today, everyone wants to go to bed drowsy from a dozen donuts but wake up with washboard abs. And this in all probability includes you at some level. Quick results are what you’re after. You don’t care for patience anymore. You’re all about the results.

You don’t have the patience to focus on the process anymore. It’s all about what the process results in. You don’t really about the journey anymore. You’re too busy obsessing about results, you don’t take the time to enjoy the journey.

But let me know ask you this – What’s the hurry? What are you rushing towards? Why this insatiable desire to lose as much weight in as little time as possible?

It is this desperation that makes you vulnerable – vulnerable to food manufacturers who scam you into believing their food will let you have the cake and eat it too, vulnerable to pseudo-fitness gurus and gyms/fitness centers who promise you results that are too good to be true and vulnerable to a side of yourself that is always tempting you with shortcuts.

So what’s the deal then? Focus on slow gradual results over a period of time? Absolutely! And here’s why.

Firstly, any and all of your efforts towards fat loss and health are meant to be done for a long time. 3 months? No. 6? No. It’s more like for the rest of your life. In other words, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to lose those kilos that you so desperately want to lose because if you don’t keep those kilos off you’re back to square one!

One way or the other you are going to have to keep doing what you did to get there, for the rest of your life. Let’s say you ate well and exercised consistently and lost a significant amount of weight and are now at a place where you are happy with yourself. If you choose to stop and go back to living like you did earlier, you will end up going to looking and feeling like you did earlier. No doubt about that.

The only way to consistently and sustainably stay in shape and/or in good health is to make long lasting sustainable changes to your habits – physical, nutritional, physiological and social.

With that being the case, let me ask you again, what’s the hurry? What are you rushing towards?

Realize, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon and a hard one at that. The better you pace yourself, the more you learn about yourself, the better you plan your life, the more sustainable your results will be.

It’s about skills

I think I was 7 when I first tried riding a real bicycle – you know, the one without the balancing wheels and baguette basket. I spent most of my childhood being a short kid and then I grew up to become a short adult. So I clearly remember a friend helping me climb on the machine before I pushed the pedal, experienced a magical moment of lightness and then fell face down. Little did I know that the face plant was the start of a journey. An incredible journey that will have challenged my idea of movement, distances and independence.

The process of learning this simple act of moving through three dimensional space by merely pressing on a pedal was the foundation of so many things. It taught me balance, pace and focus. I experienced for the first time that amazing feeling of speed. It made distances seem plausible. It made transport more time efficient. It ended my limited world view of just a few meters and made me look further. It made me independent. It opened up a whole new world.

That’s the beauty of learning skills. Every time you learn a skill you add another tool to your toolbox and a new perspective towards life is created. You are now capable of more. Impossible tasks now seem possible. More of the world applies to you and new interests and opportunities present themselves.

Bodily movements work the same way. Every movement is a skill and needs to be treated as a skill. You need to learn the skill before you start using the skill to help you in life. The squat, which is the most fundamental movement there is, is the most basic and important skill you can learn. Once you have mastered this skill, you can move on to bigger and better things. But first, you need to master the squat. The hinge isn’t any different. You need to learn to hinge properly, and by that I mean activating the appropriate muscle groups, tempo, breathing, stability etc., before you start using the hinge in movements like the kettlebell swing, barbell deadlift, broad jump, barbell clean and snatch.

Adarsh and Chezhiyan can squat and hinge a truck but they took their time to learn the basics.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case with any movement in any activity whatsoever. Be it the pushup or the cover drive or the forehand volley or even, running. It is absolutely critical to learn to do the movement well first before you start using the movement in life – to help you lose fat or get stronger or strike the ball faster or whatever it is that you’re looking for.

But here’s the deal – failures and mistakes are a part of learning.

You will  inevitably fail in almost each progressive step and that’s OK! The failures are what makes the process educational. If you remember, learning to ride a bicycle wasn’t easy or eventless. Countless falls triggering false alarms, innumerable bruises calling for Dettol and Soframycin and scars that serve as battle wounds till today were a part of the process. But then, a priceless skill was learnt.

Raj handstand

The handstand is a skill the demands practice, patience and common sense

This holds true for movements too. The first few weeks when you learn a new movement chances are high that you do the movement wrong. You will probably feel the wrong muscles. You may feel excessively sore. You may even strain a muscle or two. But that’s OK! You are learning a skill and you are allowed to fall and, more importantly, learn from it. It is this process of learning from your mistakes that help you move towards mastery. So don’t shy away from it. Don’t lose heart. Don’t freak out. And don’t run around screaming bloody murder. It’s OK. You fell. You will get back up. You may fall again and that’s OK too. It’s only matters that you learn from your mistakes.

At the end of the day, it’s about skills. The more time you invest in learning skills, the more dedicated you are to betterment, the more tools you will possess and the more you can do in life.

Why even eat that broccoli?!

A couple of days back I was eating broccoli poriyal for lunch and thought to myself ‘Damn! This tastes pretty bad!’. My cook is pretty good at what she does (if given sufficient time and the right ingredients, of course) and generally cooks delicious food. But when it comes to unfamiliar vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, avocado etc, she’s not quite the MasterChef.

So I’m thinking ‘Why is this broccoli dish so average?’ and I come up with –

  • The quality of the broccoli is pretty bad
  • Her way of cooking broccoli, doesn’t quite gel well with how I’m used to eating broccoli.
  • The broccoli stands out as a tongue-sore in an otherwise Indian meal.

So why even eat broccoli? Why even buy broccoli in spite of it being not great in quality, hard to source, expensive and tough to pair with a typical meal? Because we are told it’s healthy healthful.

broccoli

(Image credit: http://www.info.novu.com)

I’m going to go out on a limb and bust a little bubble here for you. Nutritious food is not what the Americans eat. Or what the Japanese munch on. Or what the Kitavans lived off of. Or what cavemen gobbled up. Nutritious food is food that is high in nutrition, period. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. But Since most of the nutrition related information and data we are exposed to are from the US or Europe, we tend to believe that a nutritious diet is one dominated by salads and broccoli and quinoa and salmon and avocados and kale and berries and other ingredients we Indians had no idea about even just a couple of decade ago. Obviously that makes no sense considering how our ancestors thrived merely and purely on foods that were easily and locally available.

The fact is that in order for you to thrive you need to feed your body the required micro and macro nutrients namely protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. Where these nutrients come from can vary greatly based on geographic location, availability and cooking methods but what matters it that you nourish your body with these nutrients. Where you get these nutrients from matter less.

Let’s break this down a little bit. Why is broccoli such an ambassador of health? Because it  is low in calories and high in a few vitamins (C & K) and is rich in fiber. See WHFood image below.

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Sure, this is an impressive spread for a vegetable but this really isn’t something we can’t get from foods that are more local, easy to source, less expensive, better in quality and lend themselves to traditional cooking. In the region where I currently live in (Chennai, India), there are quite a few alternatives. Let me name a few.

Okra, the vegetable that we’re told improves ‘brain power’, has a long list of health benefits and wonderful spread of nutrients for almost negligible amount of calories. Read more.

Bitter gourd, the weirdly textured, bitter and hated vegetable, is excellent for gastrointestinal issues, ulcers, intestinal worms, kidney stones and is protection against diabetes. 

The banana flower and stem from the banana tree are so nutritious I won’t be doing justice writing just a couple of lines about them. Read more.

Add to that the various different types of spinach and the humble and simple fruits like the many types of bananas, guavas and oranges and we have pretty much every nutrient any green leafy vegetable or berry can provide you with.  And why do I not have a fancy chart like I did for broccoli? Because these foods are specific to a part of the world that isn’t the US or Europe and, since it isn’t global enough, no one cared to showcase their awesomeness in a legitimate fashion. Not yet.

So is the case with other celebrated foods like quinoa, berries, kale, olive oil etc. They are truly rich in nutrients and have the potential to make you ‘healthier’ but they are not a need or a necessity. Trying to make these foods a regular in your diet makes it unsustainable and hence useless at some point of time.

So what is the take away here?

  • Understand what healthful eating means and do that based on where and how you live. There is no one blanket recommendation for health. Not everyone needs to eat broccoli or drink kefir or cook in ghee. Form your pantry with ingredients that you like, are readily available and sustainable.
  • Identify local and seasonal foods that are healthful. Eating local produce that is in season reduces the need for pesticides, doesn’t depend on being preserved during transport, is less expensive, is more sustainable, easier on the environment and will nourish you with the nutrients you need for that particular time of the year.
  • Keep your food life simple with a few celebrated meals. For some of us in India carrot, beans, tomatoes, tubers, gourds and spinach are on our plates year around with a few special appearances every now and then. For some of us in western countries broccoli, kale, asparagus, brussel sprouts and berries may be regulars with banana stem, bitter gourd etc being specials. It doesn’t matter. It only matters that you eat foods that promote health and stay away from foods that don’t.
  • You can’t and shouldn’t try to eat everything that is healthful but you can and should work on reducing consumption of foods that are detrimental to health.

 

At the end of the day, health is a concept and the only way to make it a part of your life is to understand it. Following plans and going out of your way to source exotic vegetables won’t work for too long. Live off what your part of the earth gives you. Don’t obsess. Don’t overthink. Don’t mess with it.

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