Saturday, February 21, 2009

Unconventional Thoughts About Exercise

I was debating with myself about what to talk about next. Television was an obvious topic, the others are not as obvious. Now conventional wisdom about exercise seems to be:
  1. It's good for you.
  2. It helps balance out other bad behaviors.
  3. It is work and only health nuts actually enjoy it.
My take on exercise is slightly different:
  1. It's good for you if done in moderation.
  2. It does not balance out other bad behaviors (those bad behaviors need to be dealt with in their own context).
  3. It is only work and unpleasant if you are choosing your exercise poorly or overdoing it.
So starting with that ground work. Let me share some of my thoughts on exercise. When I was a kid, I played outside a lot. But, by the time I was about junior high age, I spent most of my time indoors. I watched a lot of TV and I was a bit of a book worm. My family would go camping and hiking a good bit as I was growing up. We also had a garden. We would go on neighborhood bike rides (which I hated with a passion). Also on my own I learned to ride a unicycle. I was also in Track and Field both in Jr. High and briefly in High School. With these types of activities, I discovered that I was actually a relatively active person despite my indoor tendencies.

In college, I had to still take some P.E. classes so I chose a par course fitness/jogging class, an archery class, a hiking class, and a wellness class where you chose your exercise and had to keep a log about how much you did. To one degree or other I enjoyed these classes. But, in college your time is valuable and I resented the time taken away from the other things I wanted to do. When you have a test to study for or a paper due in the morning, an extra hour out of your day can be burdensome. As soon as I completed my P.E. requirements, I turned my back on routine exercise with pleasure.

However, I have a few eccentricities that helped me stay in shape. I hate elevators. I am highly susceptible to motion sickness and elevators make me feel queasy. So, as long as I wasn't over-rushed for time, I would take the stairs instead. I also think it is pointless to drive circles in a parking lot looking for a close parking space. It reminds me of a vulture looking for road kill. I would rather find any parking place and spend that time walking to the place I need to be. I also happened to choose a college to go to that had an exercise program built in to attending there. Pepperdine University's Malibu campus is built on some coastal mountains overlooking the ocean. It is a great view. But it is on numerous hillsides. You literally can go up an down several hills in the course of a day on campus and there are stairs everywhere you go. It is possible but not easy to get around if you have a wheelchair (It takes a bit of planning). When I was a student at San Jose State, my library science classes were on the sixth floor of Walquist Library. I took the stairs most of the time unless I was late for class. Since having kids, however, I have had to resign myself to elevators. strollers don't work well on stairs or escalators.

But, Other than choosing to walk or take stairs instead of finding a method taking less effort, I didn't do much exercise. I was a college student. Then I was in the work world. That takes up most of the day and then meals and sleep account for most of the rest of the day. The few hours left to use as I chose, became time for TV, movies, reading, or sewing. All of which are rather sedentary.

It wasn't until I married that I started to do much exercise. Tim and I would occasionally take walks in our neighborhood on the weekends or on summer evenings when the sun was up late. After I wasn't working and became pregnant, my doctor emphasized to me the importance of exercise while I was pregnant. So I started to take walks on my own in the morning and walks with my husband on weekends and summer evenings. I discovered that I enjoyed this exercise for it's own sake. I liked looking at the houses and trees and seeing things at walking speed rather than driving speed. Then after the Pillowfight Fairy was born, I would take her out with me on walks first in a front carrier, then in a stroller when she was old enough to sit up. At this point, I realized that I relied on these walks for sanity. It got me out of our tiny apartment to breathe the fresh air and experience the seasons. It gave her some interesting things to see everyday. We both tended to be cranky if we didn't get our daily outing. I have kept up this routine ever since. Whenever schedule and weather allows, we get out and have a walk. Some of my neighbors have commented on how we look like a parade at times. Oh yes... neighbors... we actually get to know some of our neighbors from these walks.

The kids don't always appreciate the walks (especially the Pillowfight Fairy who isn't allowed to ride in a stroller), but they actually have fun playing along the way once we are outside. The two oldest are old enough to walk the route without rest stops now. The Happy Boy is confined to the double stroller for the duration (mainly because he's two and obeys like a typical two year old, plus he runs faster than I do now). I use the double stroller just in case the Adrenaline Junkie gets tired or hurt along the way, so I don't have to try to carry her as well as pushing a stroller. I have decided not to give the kids a choice in this matter. The walks are good for their mother's morale and the exercise is good for them. That should be reason enough.

In the process of this lifestyle of the last eight years, I have come to some ideas about exercise that are different from where I started.
  1. Our modern American lifestyle is work intensive and recreation intensive, but unless your work or recreation has much activity in it, you don't have time for exercise. To exercise, people have to give up something else like sleep, time with family, favorite pastimes, etc. In a situation like this, it is unlikely that people will even want to make time for exercise on a regular basis because it is taking the place of something they would rather be doing.
  2. Working out at a gym has it's benefits (you don't have to own and store the equipment at home for instance), but it is not as nice as taking a walk in the woods. To make exercise convenient to us, we tend to put it inside buildings and keep it fairly structured. That does not allow us time to relax our minds and feel the enjoyment of a natural environment. Even my walk in the neighborhood is walking among man-made things, but at least we can watch the plants grow, feel the breeze, and enjoy the change of seasons.
  3. Most people who start to "exercise" for their health, start too big. I think the reasoning is that if I do more it will result in a change of habit. The problem is that starting big, wears you out too much and results in bad experiences. The more bad experiences you have the less likely you will stay at it until it becomes a habit. Start with a small change in habit. Something easy. After that much is a habit, you can increase it in some way to make it more challenging. Before long you not only are participating in some decent, challenging exercise, you have developed a habit, and still enjoy it.
  4. Too many people choose a type of exercise because it is the trendy thing to do. If you are a particularly social person who needs to do your exercise in a group environment, by all means pick a popular pastime so you can do it with friends. Otherwise, choose something that suits you. I can't stand team sports, personally, so I'm not going to join a softball league. I'm a bit of an individualist, walking is just right for me (I just have a built in entourage).
  5. People need to think a little more creatively about exercise. Walking when something is close, instead of driving gives exercise and saves gas. Don't prize the close parking places, let yourself walk. Take stairs instead of the elevator. Do your own yard work instead of hiring it out. Do your own housework instead of hiring it out. Do some aspects of your job involve bending or lifting, consider it calisthenics and weight lifting (just be sure to use good posture). You can actually purchase pedometers that you can wear during the day to measure how much you walk during the day. My parents got some through their HMO through a program that was trying to promote exercise. The idea was to try to work up to 10,000 steps a day as a routine level of activity. Think about your activity levels and embrace the activity rather than avoiding it.
Well, I'm having trouble thinking of more to say, so I must be done with this topic. I would like to hear other people's ideas about novel ways to include exercise into a busy schedule. What works for you? Our society is much more atuned to self-indulgence than self-discipline. How do you find ways to be active in your routine?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unconventional TV thoughts

My husband challenged me recently to go ahead and share my unconventional thoughts on various topics. I readily acknowledge that I think differently than the majority of the population on these issues. However, instead of just writing me off as an oddball extremist, I hope instead that you will reserve judgment until you have considered my reasons for thinking the way I do.

I thought that I would start with my unconventional thoughts about television.

I was a kid in the 1970s. There wasn't a lot of concern back then about what kids watched on TV. It was pretty much assumed that if it was OK for the parent, it was OK for the kids. Parents would limit TV programs more on the basis of what made them uncomfortable, rather than what they considered bad for their kids. Besides, there was still some censorship and widespread public ideas of propriety. However, those things were starting to slide downward quickly. By the end of the 70s, many households had cable TV with all sorts of Adult-only viewing available to their kids. We never had cable TV at my house, but my friends did. My parents still don't have cable TV. We were late adopters of video recorders, also. But we did watch TV. My Dad was and still is a bit of a news junkie. He likes to either watch the TV news or listen to the radio news pretty much all day long, or at least several times a day. My Mom is more of a TV/video watcher when it comes to good stories (Movies, Mysteries, Dramas, Comedy, etc.) My brothers had their favorites and introduced me to Science Fiction. I grew up watching lots of TV. When I got home from school, I wanted to watch afternoon cartoons, then eventually I started liking the shows that ran in syndication after the cartoons. Then of course the sitcoms that came on after that. There was the evening news that my Dad watched when he got home from work. Then the prime-time shows after dinner. Before you knew it I was begging to watch the shows that were coming on as I was going to bed.

My life wasn't completely filled with TV at first. I still had to do my homework. But, I had to do it while someone else was watching TV in the next room, tempting me to lose focus. I still went to play outside and play with friends. But, the older I got, the more interesting more of these shows became. Eventually, I became what I consider to be addicted to television. I am not using the term "addicted" lightly. I think that I showed what are clinically defined symptoms of addiction. Here is a list I found for alcoholism and drug use, into which I have inserted "TV" to to show what I mean:
  • use of drugs or alcohol (or TV) as a way to forget problems or to relax
  • withdrawal or keeping secrets from family and friends (watching TV secretively)
  • loss of interest in activities that used to be important
  • problems with schoolwork, such as slipping grades or absences
  • changes in friendships, such as hanging out only with friends who use drugs (or TV)
  • spending a lot of time figuring out how to get drugs (or how to watch what you want)
  • stealing or selling belongings to be able to afford drugs (lying to watch TV)
  • failed attempts to stop taking drugs or drinking (inability to control TV viewing when it's available)
  • anxiety, anger, or depression
  • mood swings
I was addicted to TV. Thankfully I woke up to the fact that I was not becoming the person I wanted to be. I suspect it was while I was at college and didn't have a TV available to me that I started to realize how much it had taken over my life. But, every time I was back in a TV environment I was sucked back into my bad TV viewing behaviors. I even branched out a little when we got a video player. Now I could watch one program and record another to watch later. But I started realizing that I was having trouble finding time to watch everything I wanted to watch. There weren't enough hours in the day. I also found I had a weakness for video watching. But getting videos from the video store was expensive to do all the time, so I started checking out videos at the library for free. Yeah I was finding ways to further the habit when I could.

When I had time without a TV for prolonged periods, I discovered that I actually could live without it. I started to realize that I was spending too much time with friends just watching movies instead of catching up on our lives. I was becoming disgusted at the worse and worse quality of what I was seeing on TV and in movies. I finally decided to give up my own TV in my room at home. That helped a little, but there was still the family TV. I started to consciously avoid the living room when the TV was on, and started doing other useful things in my room instead. I started reading all the books I had which hadn't been read yet (I had always meant to get to them eventually). I started reading some of the great works of literature that I had always heard about but never actually read before. I started doing hobbies like quilting. I found that the more I did this, the less of a lure the TV had for me. When I finally married, I found myself marrying a man who had lived without a TV for a few years and who had discovered the freedom of not having a TV. We consciously made the decision to do without a TV in our household. We do allow ourselves the luxury of the occasional DVD played on our computer. But even there, we have become quite picky about what we will keep in our video collection. And currently at least half of our videos are kids' videos, for which we consider there to be some redeeming qualities. I also limit how much video time the kids get. No watching videos all day unless sickness is rampant in the household!

After having made this journey from TV addiction to non-TV household, I have developed some very unconventional ideas about TV. I hope you will be patient with me as I share them with you.

  1. While not everybody who watches TV is tempted to addiction, I am guessing from my own observation that the majority of Americans have some level of TV addiction. This idea is reinforced in my mind by the number of news stories I have read over the last few months showing concern that not everyone will be prepared for the switchover to digital signal broadcast only.
  2. It is assumed in our society that everyone has a TV. It is considered a necessity. Even many people in extreme poverty have TVs. We are constantly getting calls to try to switch us from either satellite TV or Cable TV to the other. The caller never asks "do you have a TV?", they ask if we have satellite or cable. They don't know what to say when I inform them that we don't have a TV. I have lived without a TV for 8 years now. It is not a necessity.
  3. Even wary consumers are being brain-washed by their TVs. Some people are more resistant than others, but eventually the incessant, yet entertaining commercials have their effect. They actually start believing the lies they are being fed about products. And I think that the vendors know this, because it drives our TV programming.
  4. I don't know if our social moral standards have declined because TV standards have slipped or vice versa, but they have definitely gone that direction together. I do know that I have had to build up my own standards from their previous low in my absence from TV. Now when I happen to see TV elsewhere I am appalled at what is considered normal.
  5. The TV news is atrocious. I remember thinking back in the eighties that it was turning into a banal repetitive waste of time. I remember noticing that they would start the newscast by giving a summary of the night's stories, then they would slowly air short snippets of stories while giving teasers for the stories to come. However, they were spending so much time repeating what they were going to tell you, that the actual news stories were not much more than the teaser they already gave. Then they would finish out the newscast with a review of the night's stories. Back then, I noticed that I could find out more about what was happening in the world by reading my local newspaper. Later I decided even that was similarly biased. I found non-American news magazines refreshing. Although they had their own biases, they were different ones and I actually heard a few things you didn't get in the American news media. Now I am much happier with news on the Internet. If I want to know more about something, It's easier to find more about it from a variety of viewpoints.
  6. I think the TV news media thinks it has the power to shape public opinion. To some extent, I think they are right. For all those people who watch the news (over and over again), they eventually think that the news as presented is the real story. Fewer and fewer people are able to tell the difference between a well documented story and an opinion piece. Fewer and fewer people are able to tell that they are not being given the complete story. It is brain-washing again. If you tell people something long enough they begin to believe you. If you convince enough people, you can change their behaviors and sometimes turn a lie into the truth. The end of the Vietnam War is a classic example of this in my mind. Militarily the war was being waged successfully, but the American news media turned the tide of American popular thought, which put political pressure on our country's leaders. They in turn finally pulled out of Vietnam in defeat, when militarily we did not need to leave in defeat. I completely believe that the news media's coverage of the Iraqi war was an attempt to re-enact this senario.
Whether or not you can agree to these points, I hope you can at least mull them over a while to see if you can see any truth to them. I notice every now and then that our pediatric clinic encourages families to turn off the TV for a week every year in an effort to improve children's health. I would encourage everyone who uses TV in their life to have a regular "TV is off" time. If it is widely acknowledged to be good for our kids, it is probably good for the rest of us, too. It also allows those who are too enmeshed in it, to start to make a needed break from it. Try it. Once a week, once a month, certainly more than once a year... take a break from it. Find out what else you like to do with your life.

I, personally, would like to see a measurable percentage of the population to begin to live without TV again. That itself could be transformative for our society.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Garden roulette

Every spring the same question comes to mind. When exactly do I plant my spring garden? You see, I haven't lived in this area all that long... just five years. I'm still learning when spring hits. Last year I thought I got a nice early start by planting on the first of March. But, most of our cool weather plants couldn't take the warm weather even that early. So this year I thought that I would try to get an earlier start. But how much earlier? We had a ridiculously mild January with many days getting up to 80 degrees by lunch time. But our nights were fairly cold. Then just when I thought it might stay mild, the frost came back.

I remember from my childhood in the Bay Area, that we would usually get some spring-like weather that caused everybody to plant their spring gardens. Then the frost would come back and kill everything off. Then people either would replant or give up. So, I'm trying to figure out if the same thing happens in this area. Did we get an early false spring this year? I've decided to take advantage of the prolonged rain forecast for the next week. I planted most of my spring garden today (in the middle of February) before the rain started up again. So we will see if I guessed right this year. In the meantime, we shouldn't have to worry about watering our garden for a week or two.

I hope I guessed right. If I'm right, we will start getting our spring veggies ripe in March and April this year. That is just about right for this year since our baby is due in May. I'm thinking that I'll be taking a bit of a break from gardening during the summer. If I plant anything for summer it'll be something that doesn't take a lot of constant care. I suspect that our family, friends and neighbors will be getting more of our fruit produce this year, too. Somehow I can't picture myself doing much fruit preserving while recovering from childbirth.

Maybe I'll skip summer gardening and do a fall garden instead. Then I'll have to guess how early it needs to be planted so that we get a harvest before the cold weather hits. If we stay in this area a long time, like we hope, I might get good at predicting the seasonal changes.