How to Age

Emily Oster’s findings in the fitness essay I included in the previous post rest on the following premise—people exercise to lengthen their lives. I run, swim, and cycle quite a bit further and faster than the research says I should because I enjoy pushing myself. And as far as I know the research doesn’t answer this question: Are the costs of more extreme fitness habits lessened when one increases the volume and intensity of their activities over many years? My gut tells me yes. My gut also tells me cross training lessens the costs.

But I’m okay being wrong because I don’t care if I live to 100. The more familiar I get with the 80’s and 90’s, the more inclined I am to trade quality of life for quantity. Which leads to how to age.

There are two approaches, but I don’t know which is better. The first is to remind oneself on a daily basis that you’ll never be younger than you are at this very instance. Meaning carpe diem. Live with urgency. Do the iron-distance triathlon now because it’s going to be even harder in a few years. Travel the world now because it’s going to be harder in a few years. Hike the Wonderland Trail or the Camino de Santiago before hiking to the mailbox is all you can manage.

The alternative is to accept the inevitability of physical decline and embrace life’s limits. Reject “Bucket List” mania. Live more simply. Slow down, travel less, invest more in friendships. Find joy in daily routines. Watch nature. Enjoy coffee, food, and drink. Go gently into the future.

Two paths in the woods diverge. Which to take?

Weekend Reading

1. Given Kathryn Schulz’s prodigious talent, the New Yorker’s future is bright. As frightening and superbly written as anything I’ve read in a long time. The Really Big One. Subtitle—An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. Made me want to buy in Bend, Oregon.

2. By Emily Oster, What’s the Optimal Speed for Exercise? Last pgraph:

“If we take this research at face value, we learn a few things. First, some exercise reduces your risk of death. Second, the optimal walking/jogging exercise is light to moderate jogging. The optimal speed is between 5 and 7 mph, and if you do 25 minutes about three times a week, you’re all set. Nothing in the data suggests that running more — farther, or faster — will do more to lower your risk of death.”

3. From the Wall Street Journal, The Sane Way to Cycle Competitively.

4. Pathetic to the point of sad. From LetsRun.com, Lehigh Valley Got it Wrong: The Evidence is Conclusive: Mike Rossi—The Viral Boston Marathon Dad—Is A Marathon Cheat And Should Never Have Been On The Starting Line in Boston.

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

A Panacea for Improved Health

I have a neighbor who makes money off of his car. He carefully shops for an underpriced used one, then takes immaculate care of it, and then gets reimbursed by his employer at 50+ cents per mile.

I admire his fiscal discipline, but who wants to spend their weekend washing their car the way he does? One time he yelled at another neighbor who was washing the bottom 90% of her van. “You gotta start with the roof and work down!” Best comeback ever, “No one’s gonna see the top!” Blood pressure spike. And he routinely rips me for using the last bit of dirty water in the bucket to wash my wheels, but I tell him my goal is for my car to be 90% as clean as his in 10% of the time. And normally it is.

We’re all obsessive about something. One could argue I substitute exercise for car washing. Last week was pretty typical for April. Four runs for 28.7 total miles. Two swims for 6,000 meters and two bike rides for 90 miles. And an hour lifting weights. Total time, 11-12 hours. People like me tend to have a lot of fitness activity-based friendships and we often find the swimming, cycling, and running enjoyable in and of itself. We’d still go out and run, swim, and cycle even if there weren’t empirical health benefits tied to those activities. We’re lucky that our hobbies come with health benefits.

Some people no doubt think about my commitment to fitness the same way I think about people who obsess about the stock market’s every move and spend their days thinking, talking, and writing about money. There’s an opportunity cost to finance tunnel vision. Life passes by. Investing wisely is a means towards other more meaningful ends—like learning about other people’s interests and engaging with them.

Like extreme car washing, there’s a tipping point where a person’s fitness routine can detract from their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. That’s where “Doc Mike Evans” comes in. He asks a great question near the end of this high-speed informative whiteboard lecture—Can you limit your sleeping and sitting to just 23.5 hours a day? 

Like my quicker, more casual approach to car washing, Doc Evans explains how you can achieve most of my health benefits in much less time. Walk 20-30 minutes a day. Even better if you integrate walking as a means of transportation by living within a mile of your work, a grocery store, and other stores. And of course driving less is good for your pocketbook and the environment too.

Forget my approach of driving to the pool and overdoing it in the form of occasional marathons and triathlons*. Instead, as Doc Evans advises, walk 20-30 minutes a day and enjoy markedly improved mental and physical health.

Maybe you’re already a walker, but wish there were even more tangible health benefits. Evans explains how you can reap additional benefits by extending the time and distance of your daily walks. But since time is most people’s greatest obstacle, I suggest picking up the intensity by choosing more hilly routes. My running teammates probably get tired of me saying, “The hills are our friends.” When I don’t feel like exerting myself much, which is a lot of the time, I sometimes commit to a hilly route because hills force me to increase the intensity. As an added benefit, when I’m running up hill, my conservative Republican Nutter friends don’t have enough oxygen to complain about the current political scene. If you’re a Florida or Texas flatlander, move.

We expect complexity today, but this isn’t. If you want to enjoy an improved quality (and quantity) of life, take a ten minute walk sometime today. And then repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Extend it to twenty minutes next week. And repeat. Every day.

* This summer I’m going to be more family focused than last year. We’re looking forward to a fair number of visitors from afar, and at the end of the summer, launching Seventeen at a still-to-be-decided college. I’m #34 on the RAMROD waitlist which means I’ll definitely get in and Danny and I plan on running the Wonderland Trail in mid-August. I may throw in a few short/medium distance triathlons on unscheduled weekends. Or maybe I’ll just take a walk.

Betrothed and I walking

Amazing she’ll still hold hands with me after all these years

Exercise and Cancer

More reminders. Life is fragile. A three year old child at our church has a brain tumor. Same with the English Teacher/coach at our local high school.  Same with Iram Leon.

Unless you’re already perfectly appreciative of your health, see a picture of Iram and read his entire story here.

Short version. Iram is 32. Kiana, his daughter, is 6. Iram Leon has an untreatable and inoperable cancerous tumor lodged in his brain. Statistics suggest the tumor will kill him before he is 40. He recently lost his job as a juvenile probation officer because his thinking is clouded and he says, “I was making too many mistakes on the stand.”

Instead of retreating into sedentary hopelessness, he runs. To the surprise of the medical community, a few weeks ago he ran a 3:07:35 marathon. While pushing Kiana in a baby jogger. “She had a blast,” Leon said, “listening to Disney songs and getting food from volunteers.”

From the story. “Recent research clearly shows that exercise improves outcomes for cancer patients.” And “Few other leads have shown as much promise as physical activity in extending the lives of cancer survivors, ” said an editorial last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The problem is oncologists often urge their patients to take it easy. But the American Cancer Society and other medical groups now encourage exercise among cancer survivors including encouraging breast cancer survivors to lift weights.

A doctor in the story says, “Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to when a person fighting cancer says, “I can’t do it.”

I say Mr. Leon gives us someone to point to whenever anyone is trying to be a good father and human being. He’s only racing in events that will allow him to bring along Kiana. “I want her to have as many memories of me as possible,” he says. “I want her to remember us having fun together, not me being sick.”

Thanks Iram for the inspiration.

Self Sabotage

It’s 9:30a.m. Here are some of the decisions I’ve made today, January 2, 2013:

  • I decided to wake up at 5:22 a.m.
  • I decided to put on running pants and two thin, long-sleeve running shirts since Weatherbug was reporting -1 degrees C at the nearby elementary school (0 C and higher=shorts). Plus medium gloves, hat, reflective vest, headlamp.
  • At 5:44 a.m. I decided to walk outside into the pitch black fog.
  • At 5:45 a.m. I decided to run 6+ miles with the Right Wing Nutter and Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man (inexplicably, the PrinciPAL is still in Hawaii). I decided to take the posse around Safeway via North and Eskridge.
  • After some curbside chitchat, at 6:42 a.m., I decided to remove my sweaty running clothes and walked almost naked (still had my socks on) the length of the house to my bedroom where I put on dry running shorts and a dry t-shirt.
  • Upon returning to the kitchen, I decided to eat a banana with peanut butter after which I filled up a water bottle—half orange juice, half water.
  • At 6:58 a.m. I decided to spin 26k (213 watts, 1:01:25) while watching a combination of the Dan Patrick Show, CNN, MSNBC, and ESPN.
  • At 8:05 a.m. I decided to do 60 push ups broken up with some foam roller goodness, planking, and stretching.
  • At 8:30 a.m. I decided to have a large bowl of oatmeal with raisons, brown sugar, butter, and molasses.
  • I decided to skim the Wall Street Journal while eating.
  • For desert, I decided to have one of those new-fangled smallish oranges that darn near unpeel themselves.
  • Shortly before 9 a.m., I decided to shower.
  • Shortly after 9 a.m., I decided to put on long underwear, thus outsmarting Old Man Winter; plus wool socks (important to do that before the long underwear), pants; a t-shirt; and my ace, moth eaten, expedition weight thermal top.
  • Around 9:10 a.m., I decided to go upstairs to my desk where I checked on the stock market rally and chuckled at the Lakers’ boxscore.
  • After aimlessly surfing the internet for fifteen minutes, I decided to reply to a few emails and start Thursday’s blog post, tentatively titled “Self Sabotage”.

A friend of mine has high blood pressure, but that doesn’t stop him from obsessing about things over which he has very little control. A conservative Republican who is sympathetic to the Tea Party, he went darn near silent after the election, depressed by what he sees as a “serious loss of freedom”.

Determining the most appropriate size of the government is an important and legitimate debate, and I understand that 48% or so of U.S. citizens wants to reduce it, but my friend, who has no international frame of reference, lets things like Obamacare, gun control proposals, Bloomberg’s proposed soda regulation, helmet laws, and the unemployment benefits extension get him seriously down. Oddly, he takes each of those proposals and policies personally.

As a result, he completely slights the freedom he does have to make hundreds of decisions every day—ones that directly influence his health and well being—like how much sleep to get, when and how to exercise, and what to eat and drink. That all important trifecta—sleep, exercise, and diet—probably account for at least half of a person’s health and happiness.

But I’m losing the argument. He seems determined to let distant politicians get him down. Ironically, in losing, I’m illustrating another daily freedom he routinely overlooks—the freedom to tune others out.

Happy “Half Century” Birthday to Me

By the time you read this, it will be too late to get me something for my 50th birthday. That’s okay though because I’m in permanent “declutter, give away things” mode. It’s never too late to drop by, wish me a happy b-day, and take something.

Recently Olympia’s semi-permanent winter blanket of low lying gray clouds parted so I headed out for a sun run with Regina Spektor pulsing through the iPod. Her “On the Radio” lyrics couldn’t have been more timely.

This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

I’ve always thought of myself as young. Younger than my sibs; younger than my betrothed; younger than Madonna; the 20-something high school teacher; the 30-something college professor. Like wooden barrels bobbing atop Niagara Falls, I’ve watched most of my friends disappear over the 50-year old ledge already. Now though older peeps aren’t enough to counterbalance Spektor’s undeniable truth—You’re young until you’re not.

As an aspiring Stoic, I should embrace the new “old” reality, but that’s easier written than done. If I live as long as Steve Jobs, I have six years left; my dad, 19; Joe Paterno, 35; Jack LaLane, 46. The average of those four is 26.5. That’s kinda scary given how fast the last 50 have gone. Seems like just yesterday I was the most dapper dude in the first grade at Zachary Taylor elementary school in Louisville, KY. A dodgeball/kickball legend in my own mind. And yes, fortunately the rest of my gourd eventually caught up to my ears.

The key of course is making the most of however much time is left by listening a little more intently, by being a bit more observant, by putting my family’s needs before my own, by finding humor in things, by writing, by prioritizing friendship, by embracing nature.

At the risk of getting too sentimental, let me close by coming clean on that fact that I didn’t know how to spell “Niagra” Falls until using my dictionary app which offered up “Viagra” in it’s place. A few days ago at 49, funny, today at Fiddy, not so much.

Postscript—The Girls Club pooled their resources and got me the perfect gift.

Since I'm past the midpoint, it' can't be a mid-life crisis can it?