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Blog: On Health. On Writing. On Life. On Everything.

Minimal Exercise Program

December 5, 2011

Tags: movement, anti-aging, arm exercise, back exercise, balance, ball – weighted, barefoot walking, bedridden, Black Beach, body pampering, bone mass, boredom, Boston, bowels - massaging, brushing teeth, cello, California, Chinese, constipation, daily exercise program, death, double chin, elderly, exercise program, exercises en-passant, falls in the elderly, family, fire, Five Tibetans, friends, garden, gentle exercise, German, gluten intolerance, gym machine, hip fracture, hypothermia, imbalance, immune-stimulating, immune system, injury, jogging, Kegel exercises, knee bends, leg strengthening, lower back pain, marathon, marriage, mindfulness, mindless exercise, minimal, Minimal Exercise Program, muscles, neck strengthening, osteopenia, osteoporosis, overexertion, painting, pelvic muscles, pinyin, pneumonia, pool, posture, reading, ruptured muscles, San Diego, sex, shadow boxing, soul pampering, spine, sports medicine, squeezing of shoulder blades, standing on one leg, swimming on dry, tai chi, tai ji, talking, tongue exercise, toning, traveling, triathlon, TV, upper back muscles, walking, warmth, writing, yoga

Reasons why I keep my exercise program as minimal as possible:

1. Exercise is boring.
2. Too much exercise may easily lead to injuries: We now have a medical specialty called “sports medicine”. If we didn’t overdo exercises, we would not need sports medicine. Using those modern gym machines while watching TV is a mindless enterprise. And as things go around, they come around – you could end up hurting yourself.
3. Definitely, there are more interesting things to do – playing cello, writing a book, reading tons of books, dabble with colors and brushes, being with family and friends, learning Chinese – to name a few.

On the other hand, I do have bad posture – inborn (many years of unrecognized gluten intolerance that weakened my muscles), and from years of being bedridden as a young person. Movement creates fire and warmth inside, without which we would not be alive. We need to move yes, but nowhere is it written that we need to jog or overexert ourselves in bad ways.

My exercise program changes all the time – I am always on the lookout for something faster and better. You might remember how much I liked the Five Tibetans – until I developed lower back pain. Recently I had to abandon my laps in the unheated Californian pool; the temperature got too low. I still jump in from time to time, just to get the immune-stimulating jolt of the cold water. But I can’t get my exercise that way anymore - danger of hypothermia and ruptured muscles.

Of course, back in Boston, I work in the garden and go to yoga classes, and have a house to tend to. Here, in this tiny apartment, I had nothing comparable – so far. Until last week , when I joined tai chi classes – or as it is called in proper pinyin Chinese: tai ji. In German, tai chi is called “shadow boxing” – and that describes well those flowing, artful movements I now try to learn. Emphasis on “try”: This is not my first time; in the past, I always had trouble remembering the sequence of movements. This time around, I will not even try to learn the sequence; I will just mimic my teacher and lose myself in the flow of gestures. Because, in the two more months we will stay in San Diego, how much can I really learn? Not much.

But in the first lesson, I already learned an important movement, which I now practice every time I pass by a mirror and notice how bent I have gotten up from my studies. Which makes two little exercises which I do in en-passant, not putting in extra time:

1. This squeezing of my shoulder blades that immediately makes me more upright. Firstly, it is a simple reminder; secondly, the squeezing loosens the muscles of the upper back and prevents that my head slowly vanishes between my shoulders like the head of a turtle in its shell.
2. Standing on one leg – especially while brushing my teeth, or waiting and whiling time away. This is good for balance, and for strengthening leg and pelvic muscles. Imbalance is what kills the elderly: Imbalance – fall – hip fracture – pneumonia – death; we physicians see it all the time. This exercise also increases bone mass in legs and spine, thus counteracting osteopenia and osteoporosis, thus preventing those nasty hip fractures. Standing on one leg is far more interesting and effective than Kegel exercises! Keeps your sex alive!

Not everything can be done on the go. So, I have this daily program – and don’t hold your breath! - each of these exercises takes less than a minute, and presently, I am doing six of them, each of them repeated 21 times. Twenty-one: That is the number of repetitions I have kept from the Five Tibetans. You can’t overdo much in twenty-one times, and twenty-one brings me just to the border of utter boredom.

1. Knee bends: Done wrongly, knee bends can hurt your knees. Therefore make sure that you are doing them right: Keep feet and knees together, keep knee caps over your toes, and don’t go deeper than you can easily do, but challenge yourself to go deeper with time. 21 times. Or, in the beginning, you might want to do this by holding on to something stable.
2. Arm exercise: Done with a small heavy ball. I have one of those weighted exercise balls – six pounds. When traveling, I am using my whale of a laptop – has nearly six pounds, too. Fill a plastic bottle with water (this is lighter), or find a heavy book. Slowly lift the ball (or whatever) with both hands and arms out-stretched, and bring it up above your head. Then bend your arms backward and down. Bring up your arms again, over your head and then down in front. Repeat this 21 times. It is good against arm flab, and strengthens the muscles of your upper back.
3. Back exercise: Stand tall. Take the ball in both hands behind you back and lift it upward 21 times. That will squeeze your shoulder blades and improves posture.
4. Swimming on dry: I started this after I had to leave the pool, because I missed the exercise that built up my upper back muscles. Come down on the floor on your belly, lift arms and legs slightly from the ground, and make swimming movements 21 times. A boon is that you are massaging your bowels in this position, which is good against constipation. Getting down on the floor daily acts also anti-aging.
5. Neck strengthening: This I do mornings and evenings in bed: Dig your heels and the lower part of your back head into the mattress. It feels like you arch your back in this position. Breathe in and out. It strengthens all back muscles, especially the upper back. It also works like a charm against a double chin.
6. Tongue exercise: This also helps to eliminate a double chin. Stretch out your tongue, 21 times.

One would think that a program this trifling would do nothing for the health of your body. On the contrary – I was never as toned and nimble as I am now, on this program. If however you are already doing triathlons or marathons: Stick with it, don’t listen to me … at least not until you come home injured. Then turn to my gentler method.

A big part of why this works is the mindfulness you practice all day: You stand on one leg while waiting for the bus. You get up from the computer and squeeze your shoulder blades. You are in the bathroom and stick out your tongue a few extra times. This program keeps you aware that you have a body, and your body needs attention and pampering, too. Moving your body gently pampers it. Lying down and doing nothing pampers your soul. There needs to be a balance between the two!

The other activity we do as often as we can, is walking. Here in San Diego, we have the beautiful Black Beach. If one removes shoes and socks and walks at the water line, in and out of the waves, it is great fun, and another great provocation to the immune system! And by walking and talking we keep our marriage afresh and alive.

Summer Reading 2011

August 26, 2011

Tags: order, A Sentimental Education, art, Austria, Balzac - Honoré de (1799-1850), books, Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette, Dickens - Charles (1821-1870), education, Flaubert - Gustave (1821-1880), gardening, Hard Times, idealsism, Indian Summer, Madame Bovary, Maine, minerals, music, Nachsommer, Nietzsche - Friedrich (1844-1900), nineteenth century, painting, realism, rocks, sculpture, Stifter - Adalbert (1805-1868), Summer Reading 2011, The Maine Woods, Thoreau - Henry David (1817-1862)

You are asking what I am reading this year in Maine.

As we are staying here much shorter than usual, I did not bring too many books. I wanted to read some French classics which mostly eluded me so far: Balzac and Flaubert.

But I had been "working" a German novel on and off for a year, in turn fascinated and repelled at the same time, and had difficulties making up my mind what to think about it. The novel wasn't translated into English until recently. Its English title is "Indian Summer", which is not totally getting the meaning of the German "Nachsommer", which means a summer after the summer. It was first published in 1857.

The author Adalbert Stifter hardly recommends himself - he slit his throat later, and seemed to have been a petty Austrian school superintendent, exactly the kind of guy young people would abhor, who thought that everything old is better than everything new, and that young people should learn from the older generation, without asking and without arguing - not exactly my ideal of education.

But then again, so much could be said for the fields he educates his young hero Heinrich in: gardening, rocks and minerals, art, music, sculpture and painting, and so on.

This is heavy fare, but worthwhile if you have time and want to think deeply about what matters. Friedrich Nietzsche counted it among the only four books he let stand of the nineteenth century.

I began reading "Cousin Bette" by Honoré de Balzac. For two nights it gave me nightmares - so I avoid now reading it at night. The people are so incredibly mean to each other! I haven't finished, and this is only a tiny puzzle piece of Balzac's huge oeuvre "Comédie Humaine" - I should defer judgement. But I was close to throwing it away. I expect books to show me the good in people, and like to think that the good will prevail in life - as idealistic that is. - Balzac and Flaubert are not called "realists" for no reason.

From that summer I was reading all Dickens, I still have left over "Hard Times". Not sure if I will not elope with Dickens soon ...

The two books by Gustave Flaubert I brought with me are "Madame Bovary" and "A Sentimental Education". - You will hear about them from me - probably later in the fall because there is no way that I finish reading them here.

And, I forgot: In the bathroom we always have lying open Henry David Thoreau's "The Maine Woods".

Tell me what you are reading!

Bringing Home The Truth?

May 14, 2011

Tags: order, food, movement, water, advertisement, antibiotics, automobile, Bringing Home The Truth?, canned food, coffins, cold shower, cooking, education, environmental clean-up, Five Tibetans, gardening, governmental responsibility, HFCS, health improvements of the twentieth century, homeopathy, housewives, hygiene, junk food, justice, kitchen, lilac, love - making, microwaves, music - making, Nature, painting, poverty, ready-made dinners, repairing a bike, scientific research, sewage, societal forces, stinging nettle, supplements, take-out food, truth, TV, vaccinations, water preservation, water supply, walking

You who have followed this blog notice that I do change my mind. For instance, I was a great supporter of the Five Tibetans – and to a degree, I still am. But then my lower back spoke up against the practice, and now I do modified exercises. I let you know.

Was my first opinion untrue? Not really. Different people have different needs, and plenty of people come back to me and tell me that I once recommended the Five Tibetans to them – and they are still doing them daily, and happily.

Spending time on the Internet and blogging about health sometimes feels to me as if I hit a wall: We health nuts are discussing minor improvements in our diets, when the majority of people are eating junk food, don’t know how to even cook rice (forget BROWN rice!), and spending every free minute in front of TV that carries them into fake worlds while stealing innumerable hours of their lives and their powers away.

That might apply to my blogs, too: Somebody reading this, is not walking right now, not playing an instrument, not gardening, not repairing a bike, not cooking stinging nettle greens, not making love, not painting the lilac in bloom now, not taking a cold shower.

And my blog (or all the other health blogs) doesn’t reach that majority. I have started worrying about this.

The other worry is that we bloggers seem to disperse truths – but we don’t seem to change minds. Or do we? I have been in too many online discussion where opinions about, say, homeopathy, clash, and the divides are never bridged.

We can say that most health improvements came at the beginning of the twentieth century with advancement of hygiene (better water supply, better sewage systems). Much less with antibiotics and vaccinations - as much as doctors want to exploit those tales. Then came our downfall in the fifties - the widespread automobile use let people walk less. And also in the fifties, housewives succumbed to advertisement that "helped" them spend less time in the kitchen: canned food, microwaves, ready-made dinners, take-out food, supplements, and what not. And in the seventies, HFCS, sealing our fates (or coffins).

So, this is my question of today? How do we make up our minds about what is healthy? Do we believe every published research study - some good, some shotty - or the myriad of business interests that pipe up on all occasions?

For me, after all the years of studying, health has become simple: Follow what Nature intended, and you will be all right. For all the little details: Hard to get at the truth. Besides, the truth might be manifold.

And, as before, health changes on a grander scale might come from societal forces rather than from our little opinions here: From environmental clean-up, water preservation, governmental responsibility, better education, greater justice, less poverty.

The Soft Martial Art

January 11, 2011

Tags: order, movement, water, herbs, anti-aging, art, bamboo, brush painting, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese brush painting, Chinese orchid, chrysanthemum, concentration, Four Gentlemen, Four Treasures, ink stone, longevity, martial art – soft, multi-tasking, mum, muscle aches, networking - social, painting, plum blossom, social networking, The Soft Martial Art

Because of the Chinese novel I am writing, I am learning Chinese - for two years already. This winter I also enrolled in a class for Chinese brush painting.

Not so much for the painting - I have only a little talent there. But for learning more about the cultural background of calligraphy (writing of Chinese characters) and brush painting in general.

Already the first session made me happy because it fed me so many little tidbits: The whole calligraphy thing is not so much about putting scribbles on paper – no it is about breathing, sitting straight, holding the brush just right, and to concentrate. Calligraphy is also called the “soft martial art” – who would have known?? Chinese people think that calligraphy promotes longevity.

In brush painting, one needs the Four Treasures: brush, paper, ink stick and ink stone. The ink stick is ground on the ink stone with water to produce the ink. Nowadays, one can buy ready-made ink in a bottle, which I use in class. At home, I prefer grinding my ink stick all the while already thinking about what I want to paint. I like the transformation of water into a writing liquid – the archaic process that happens here and now.

Chinese art is very different from Western art. Whereas we emphasize individual freedom, Chinese brush painting teaches traditional forms. You learn the basics before you start experimenting. There is one kind of stroke for the bamboo leaf, one kind of stroke for the bamboo stem, one kind of stroke for the bamboo node. I will learn strokes for plums blossoms, orchid grass, chrysanthemum flowers, and later strokes for pines, rocks, clouds and water. And you use a different brush for each of these strokes.

Bamboo, plum blossom, Chinese orchid and chrysanthemum – they are also called The Four Gentlemen. Because those four plants stand for character traits the Chinese have held in high esteem since olden times: Bamboo leaves are green in the winter. Bamboo bends in the wind but barely breaks, and if it breaks, it sprouts new leaves from the breaking point. So, bamboo stands for adhering to principles; also for flexibility and resourcefulness. Plum blossoms flower in mid-winter – right around now they will start – and represent cheerful survival. Chinese orchids are much less showy than our usual flower shop specimen, they are prized for they modesty, for their working without anybody noticing – yet doing a marvelous job. Chrysanthemums (“mums”) bloom in the fall when not much else does, thus calling to mind a proud, tough gentleman. – A white chrysanthemum is also used as an herb in Chinese medicine.

Perhaps you scoff at the idea that brush painting is a martial art. But let me tell you that I had muscle aches in my right arm after my first two-and-a-half-hours session: You do use your muscles.

And in these times of social networking and multi-tasking, I cherish anything that brings back the rapidly dwindling art of concentration.

January is Novel-Writing Month!

January 1, 2011

Tags: order, adventure story, children’s book, cookbook, family history, legacy, life story, film script, health book, holidays, January is Novel-Writing Month!, journal, learning a musical instrument, medical novel, memories, mystery, novel, painting, publishing, purpose, satisfaction, theater play, thriller, travel report, wonder, writing

No clue who invented it – but January is novel-writing month.

Don’t feel restricted to a novel. You can write a thriller, a mystery, a children’s book, an adventure story, a film script or a theater play, a book about health or letting kites fly, about travels and favorite dishes – there is no limit.

The easiest is starting by writing down your own story. If you write it in the first person, it will become part of the family story. If you the find it turning out embarrassing – change it to the third person, and make it a novel.

This January just write a first draft. The first month of the year is usually a quiet month. The evenings are long and dark. Holidays and vacations are over. This is the time to write something down that you always wanted to write – instead of sitting in front of TV or computer, passively, turn on the “active” mode and write! At the very minimum, start writing a journal. Jot down your thoughts, observations, feelings. Show how YOU see the world.

You think you can’t do it? At one point, I had no desire to ever write – it just wasn’t on my agenda. I was a happy doctor and terribly busy to juggle medicine and family. One day I got an idea for a health book and started writing. I published two non-fiction books. Even before I published those, the idea for a medical novel came to me – I will never forget the date because it was two days before Christmas - December 22nd, 1999. The holiday pressure was just at its meanest when the idea struck. And what did I do? Wait prudently until the holidays were over? No! Of course, I had never heard that January is novel-writing month, and the urge to write down my ideas was too great – I sat down then and there at the computer, and began writing the novel. That first day, amidst pressing holiday needs, I wrote nearly three hours.

Little did I know that it would take me eleven years and 82 versions before I had brought it into publishable form.

You don’t have to aspire to publishing. But if you do, be aware that it never will be done with a single draft that – miraculously! – a publisher will want to buy and which then will make you millions of dollars. It will be many, man, many revisions before you will be there. And truth is: There’s no money in writing, in all likelihood. But there is satisfaction, wonder and purpose in writing.

If you don’t aspire to publishing, you still should write down your story. A friend of ours did it. He had been a career army man and a (responsible!!) father at sixteen, and he told his fascinating life story, interspersed with newspaper clips from the times – a wonderful legacy he one day will leave to his children and children’s children.

The only thing you have to do is: begin. January is the right (write!) month to begin.

Okay, okay, I hear you – you can’t write, you don’t want to write, und you will never learn to write. Suggestion: Paint a picture! Or learn to play an instrument!

Puttering Around The House

November 22, 2010

Tags: movement, anemones, asters, balance, carpentry, daylilies, declutter, exercise, fall, gardening, gym, iris, leaves, oak, painting, peonies, phlox, puttering, Puttering Around The House, quadriplegia, raking leaves, roses, safety on ladders, sanding, scraping, spackling, spring bulbs, tannin, wallpapering

Last week, I painted the kitchen ceiling. That gives me bragging rights – but that is not why I want to talk about it.

Probably because gyms bore me to tears – I have never entered one except in hotels where there’s nothing else to do – I try to incorporate my daily exercise by puttering around the house.

The last leaf has come down in the yard and I neatly piled it on the beds. I am for recycling, even in the garden, and would never dream of having the precious gold hauled away. Next spring it will feed my flowers and bushes (mostly; oak leaves, with their high tannin contents, need about two seasons to decompose). This method asks for sturdy plants – they need to be able to pierce through the piled leaves in the spring. So, you won’t find dainty little things in my garden. Roses, peonies, iris, daylilies, phlox, garden asters, anemones, spring bulbs – and many more – find their way up to the sunlight. And of course, my garden never looks as tidy as that of the neighbors.

But I didn’t want to talk about gardening – although gardening is one of the things that keep me in form. The focus is on turning inward now, appropriate for the dark season, and aiming at the cluttered corners of our place. One by one I am tackling them. In my youth, when I had no money, I learned to paint and wallpaper and lay down carpets. I even built a closet. Now I return to my old skills because I crave the exercise. All we who spend the day at the computer, need that exercise.

So, it was the kitchen ceiling last week. Scraping off the flaky paint, spackling (“spackle” – a totally new word for me; in the hardware store, I had asked for “putty” – wrong word for what I needed!), sanding, painting. And all that work done on a ladder with arms above the head. I alternated arms because I want to grow an even body. Still, it was hard work. Also dangerous. My dear friend Jackie, years ago, fell off a stool hanging curtains, resulting in quadriplegia. So I was mindful all the time to not lose my balance. Hers is another story – but with alternative therapies (acupuncture, massage, etc) – Jackie regained the use of her arms, and even some of her legs. We will spend Thanksgiving with her and her family – a wonderful tradition for many years.

Too many stories interfering! Two points I want to make: Find chores in house, garden, attic, basement to do that keep you moving. And try to use also your non-dominant hand. That challenges your brain, makes you more nimble, and balances your body.

Before You Die

June 19, 2010

Tags: water, movement, food, herbs, order, Before You Die, biking, bungee jumping, cello, cleaning out the attic, cold shower, Dickens - Charles, fasting, forgiving, Great Wall, growing vegetables and herbs, Hugo - Victor, learning a new language, mountain climbing, musical instrument, painting, parachute jumping, Paris, pottery, publishing a book, reading, shower - cold, skydiving, soulmate, tai chi, Tolstoy - Leo, touch an iceberg, weaving, wood working, writing

If you find no new block entry here – does it mean your blogger is sitting idly around at the beach?

No. She is immersed in the novel she tries to finish before she dies. What is it you must finish before you die? Remember Miss Rumphius? Her grandfather had told her the three things one has to accomplish in life: To travel foreign lands; to live at the ocean (You might remember that “Miss Rumphius” is a Maine story); to leave the world a more beautiful place.

Husbands always feel one should clean out the attic before I die, or such – but we, who should do it, lack enthusiasm for the attic. Given one wouldn’t want to leave the mess to one’s children to sort out – but then again, who is going to die die THAT SOON??

There are tons of bucket lists on the Internet what to do before we die. Here is mine:

1. Finish your novel.

What are other people aspiring to do before they die? Skydiving, bungee jumping, parachute jumping. Too much jumping, it seems. Too short-lived and not along my alley. How about these:

2. Learn a musical instrument (or painting or wood working or weaving or pottery).
3. Grow your own vegetables and herbs. And perhaps blueberries.
4. Forgive that incredible jerk/bitch (we all have one in our lives).
5. Climb a mountain. Doesn’t need to be Mount Everest – but should be bigger than the Blue Mountains near Boston. Take part in a long bike ride. Or learn tai chi – anything that gets you moving out of your comfort zone.
6. Do a vegetable broth fast for a whole day. Once a week – until you have your ideal weight; then go to once a month.
7. Learn a new language.
8. Take a cold shower. Every day.
9. Read Les Misérables (or War and Peace, or Our Mutual Friend – or the other thousand-pages-plus tome you always wanted to read).
10. Sleep under the stars and watch a sunrise.

Others I liked: Walk the Great Wall of China, Visit Paris, Publish a book, Touch an Iceberg. Many of those traveling goals sound like fun – but they expand your carbon footprint enormously. Visiting Paris or leaning to play the cello? I have done both; nothing against Paris, but the instrument beats the town by miles.

Find Your Soul Mate would be a worthy goal, wouldn’t it be? But that is not in your hands. Strive for something attainable - you don’t want to build your life on Grace or Fate or Incredible Luck.
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

Tags - see also the non-captalized entries below!