Hitting the reset button

Those of you who know me are familiar with the level of discipline I typically exhibit when it comes to taking care of myself. Healthy living was important to me even before I became a health coach. My lifelong passion for health and wellness grew out of my personal struggle with weight as an adolescent. So, I take pride in the fact that I work hard on a daily basis to eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep and meditate.

Every now and then, something happens to throw my healthy habits off kilter. When that happens, I usually feel the not-so-pleasant side effects quite quickly and that is enough to get me back on track. I call it “hitting the reset button.” Even the true die hards need a break from the disciplined life now and then, but the key is to return to those healthy habits as soon as possible.

The thing that threw me off track recently was my annual girls’ weekend in Washington, DC with two of my best friends. As much as I love spending quality time with these two lovely ladies (shout out to Tracy and Eva!), I know that it means staying up late to talk about work, family, faith, politics, and whatever current events are making the headlines. Late nights translate into sleeping in, which leads to a shift in my normal eating schedule – not to mention the highly anticipated indulgence in the finest foods and adult beverages DC can offer (the latter being a rare splurge for me). The blistery wind and cold temperatures also curtailed my desire to join Eva and her canine companion, Bingo, on their morning walks; hence, my main activity consisted of sitting on the couch in my jammies.

To my credit, I did stay true to my morning meditation routine (a non-negotiable for me), but that wasn’t really enough to counteract the other excesses while I was away. I didn’t regret any of it as I had a blast as I always do. However, I knew when I got back home that there were three things I needed to make a priority to help return to baseline:

Sleep: First and foremost, I needed to get back into my normal sleep pattern. I knew that adequate sleep would be critical to resuming my other healthy habits, particularly exercise, as I work out early in the morning. This meant going to bed a little earlier than usual the night I returned home, so I could wake up at my normal time the next day. It wasn’t really hard to do as I was exhausted. I slept well that night and my morning coffee helped me make it through the following day. I then went to bed normal time that night and was back on my usual schedule within a day or two.

Water: I am not sure why I did not drink more water while I was gone as it was readily available, both at Eva’s home as well as the places we visited when we were brave enough to venture out into the cold. I knew I was somewhat dehydrated as my skin became dry and I started to get a headache, which is common for me when I don’t drink enough water. I started to rehydrate on our drive home to North Carolina and chose to drink only water for the next 24 hours (except for my one cup of morning coffee). I was back to my usual water intake within a day or two and felt well-hydrated again.

Exercise: Since I still don’t really love to exercise, part of me was relishing the down time while I was away. However, I also know that my body needs to move in order for things to stay – ahem –  regular. Thus, four days off was plenty and I needed to get back on the horse. Fortunately, my new treadmill was scheduled for delivery the day after I returned (my 14-year-old treadmill had recently called it quits, thus also contributing to my decreased activity). I have to admit that I was actually excited to get back into my morning walk routine. I didn’t realize how much I missed it and I forgot how good it feels to start my day off with a little bit of gentle movement. I also taught my regular Nia class mid-week and it felt awesome to dance again.

I am happy to say that I am already feeling back to normal in less than a week’s time. I credit my speedy “recovery” to my solid health habits. In the past, it would normally take longer to get back in the groove, especially when it came to exercise. Taking a few days off would often turn into a much longer hiatus. Fortunately, I have learned from past experience that I feel better when I choose to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not easy being so disciplined all the time, but these occasional blips – when I stray from the path and have to get back on course – remind me that it is worth it.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

For most of my adult life, walking has been my “go to” exercise – whether it be walking with family and friends outside or taking advantage of my treadmill and/or various walk at home DVDs when the weather isn’t conducive to exercising outdoors. Like many walking enthusiasts, I jumped on the pedometer bandwagon in the early 2000s. After all, I needed to know if I was achieving the recommended 10,000 steps a day to help maintain good health. As an added incentive, the company I worked for offered a walking challenge as part of the employee wellness program and I could earn prizes based on my steps.

I recall becoming frustrated with the pedometer over time. I had the simple kind that just hooked on to your pants, but this posed a problem if I wore a dress or some other outfit without a place to attach the pedometer. Even if I wore pants, the pedometer often slipped off. And there was always the question of what to do with it when needing to use the rest room so as not to lose said pedometer down the toilet. Eventually, I gave up and stopped wearing one altogether.

Wearable fitness trackers: friend or foe?

Fast forward about a decade to the introduction of wearable fitness trackers. I recall a friend owning one of the earliest products, which was technically still a clip-on device, but it did more than just measure steps. These new products could also track and monitor calories burned, sleep activity, and floors climbed. I’ve never really been an early adopter when it comes to technology, so I took a wait and see approach. As the technology and design improved, I finally jumped in a few years ago and purchased one of the more popular band-style fitness trackers. (Note: I am not going to name which brand I use as I am not endorsing or criticizing any particular device or company.)

At first, I was enamored by the wealth of data this device could supply. The accompanying app was user-friendly and the dashboard was customizable, so I could set it up to include as much or as little information as I wanted. My primary interest was in steps taken, minutes of exercise, calories burned and sleep. I have to admit it was fun at first, monitoring my progress and hoping to see green icons at the end of the day, meaning I had met my goals. I invited friends to participate in step challenges, so that we could hold each other accountable with a little friendly competition.

Wearing the device has definitely made me more aware of my level of activity and it has helped me achieve some health goals. But recently, I have started to question whether the fitness tracker is as beneficial as I first believed it to be. For example, I aim to get 10,000 steps per day. On average, my normal daily activity typically adds up to about 5,000 steps and then with at least 30 minutes of exercise, I can usually make it to my goal. However, I sometimes find myself “gaming the system,” if you will. I use the feature that reminds me to get up and move each hour if I have been inactive…except more and more lately, I find myself ignoring the notification and staying put in my seat. Then, later in the day when I realize I am behind on steps, I may find myself pacing the halls to get to 10,000 steps before bed. This is not helping me sit less during the day, and it often drives my husband crazy when I pace the bedroom trying to get in those last 500 steps or so.

The other feature that I have started to second guess is the sleep tracker. At first, I was excited to have this information at hand to get a better sense of the quality and quantity of my sleep. I typically aim to get about seven and a half hours of sleep per night during the week and maybe a little more on weekends. I have never really had a problem with sleep. I usually fall asleep quickly and often wake up before my alarm even goes off. I am an early riser as I meditate and exercise in the morning before going to work. Because of my schedule, it’s important for me to get to bed at a decent hour. So, I aim to have lights out no later than 10pm and wake up around 5:15am, giving me between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep.

When I started looking at the sleep data, I was surprised to find that I was often getting less than that according to the tracker. Most days I was lucky to be getting six to six and half hours per night, and sometimes it was even less. In looking at the breakdown of sleep stages, it indicated that I was often awake for an hour or more overnight. I realized over time that seeing these numbers was actually stressing me out about not getting enough sleep…when in reality, nothing had changed about my sleep patterns. For the most part, I was not waking up for significant amounts of time during the night and I usually felt refreshed and alert when I woke up. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that having this sleep data was doing more harm than good, so I recently made the decision to stop wearing the device at night (it was never really comfortable to me anyway) and I removed the sleep data from my dashboard. It is the best decision I have made in a while.

A ha moment

I have been having mixed feelings about my fitness tracker for some time now, but the “a ha” moment happened last weekend when I was in the middle of Nia class. I glanced at the tracker to see how many steps I had and found myself disappointed that it was less than I expected. Then it hit me – I had totally lost sight of my true goal. The bottom line is I exercise to maintain good health so I can enjoy life. The most important thing is that I am active and that I enjoy the activities I engage in. Whether or not I get 10,000 steps a day is really irrelevant. I had taken my eyes off the prize: being active because it feels good and is good for me.

So, does this mean I am tossing out my fitness tracker? No, at least not yet. I do believe there are benefits to wearing it and monitoring the data, but I won’t allow the data to stress me out or dictate how I spend my time. I am also going to take breaks from it now and then so I don’t feel so tethered to this little device on my wrist. Unfortunately, it seems that fitness trackers have become one more piece of technology that we can become addicted to, so it’s good to unplug from them every now and then. Take it off, then go walk, run, swim or play…just for the fun of it.

Does DNA = destiny?

Just before the holidays, I received an email from my insurance company promoting discounts on various wellness products. One in particular caught my eye – genetic composition testing designed to “optimize your daily nutrition and exercise routine to help meet your fitness and health goals.” I had heard about this type of genetic testing and was interested in learning more. The timing was perfect as I had been wanting to shake up my exercise regimen, having fallen into a comfortable rut over the last year or so. I decided to take the plunge not only to learn more about my own disposition, but to be able to share my experience here in case any of you have been thinking about exploring this type of genetic testing.

I want to preface this all with a note about genetic testing – I know there is still quite a bit of controversy about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Many people have concerns about privacy and what these companies do with the data they compile. I’m not here to debate the ethics of genetic testing, but I do recommend that anyone thinking about getting tested do their due diligence and read through the privacy information provided by the vendor. Call me naïve, but I choose to trust that my data won’t be misused by the vendor that I selected. I may be wrong, but I will cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

That being said, I ordered the test kit online and received it in the mail within a week or so. The test consisted of a few simple swabs of my cheeks. The company provided a pre-paid envelope to return the swabs. I sent them off and eagerly awaited the results. Within two weeks I received an email with a link to access the report online in a downloadable PDF format. About two weeks later, I received the printed report via snail mail, which is really nice as I did not want to print out the 40-page document myself (it is nicely done with full color graphics, but they would totally suck up my printer ink).

The letter in the front of the report reminded me that several factors impact health and fitness, including genes, environmental influences and lifestyle choices. Most studies have shown that genetics contribute between 30-40% to the body’s response to food and exercise. There was also a pretty standard disclaimer that the information in the report should not be used as a diagnostic tool and should not replace proper medical care from your healthcare provider. Instead, the vendor recommended using the report as a “guide to identify and implement actions to assist in taking control of my health and fitness.” And honestly, that is what I plan to do. I have taken some time to digest the information and I am working on a plan to determine how to use this information to inform my eating and exercise habits. I thought I would share some of what I learned and how I intend to incorporate the information into my wellness plan.

I have to admit that I was impressed with the amount of information included in the report and I thought it was presented in a simple, easy to read format. There is a Summary of Results page in the front followed by more detailed sections for each category tested. There are color charts, tables and graphics for those who are more visual learners. The nutrition information was presented first, followed by the exercise recommendations. For each category, the report includes information about what genes were tested and how they impact your body. Below are some highlights from my report and my thoughts on how I’ll use the information:

Body Weight and Weight Regain

Two of the most interesting pieces of information for me were related to body weight and weight regain and unfortunately for me, the news was not so good. I am apparently at high risk for both obesity and regaining weight after dieting. This news was not a total surprise as I have struggled since adolescence to maintain a healthy weight. I have definitely experienced the common yo-yo dieting phenomenon, going through phases of losing and regaining weight since high school. I definitely feel like my predisposition is to be on the heavier side. When I look at family photos, there are several obese relatives throughout the generations (think stereotypical fat, Italian grandmothers).

Satiety and Impulsive Eating

I also learned that I am predisposed to impaired satiety, meaning I tend to overeat because I may not sense fullness until I have already eaten more than enough. Again, not surprising to me as I have always been a fast eater. My dad is a very fast eater whereas my mom could compete for slowest eater on earth. I’m guessing I got my dad’s genes here. The good news is I am less likely to eat impulsively as I do not have lower dopamine sensitivity, i.e., I receive enough “reward” from eating tasty foods that I don’t have to overindulge to be satisfied.

The above results pertaining to obesity, weight regain and impaired satiety could cause some people to throw up their hands and give up trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. For me, it just heightens my awareness that I may have to work a little harder than others to do so. I learned a long time ago that I was never going to look like a super model – and I’m cool with that. I also abandoned traditional dieting several years ago, after realizing that it was not a sustainable approach to weight management. These days, I am much more focused on a mindful eating approach and listening to my body when it comes to food and eating habits. I believe this will help tremendously with the impaired satiety issue – I have learned that I need to slow down when I eat, so that I can tune into the signals from my body as I begin to feel full. For years, the speed at which I ate led to a consistent pattern of overeating and feeling uncomfortably full after most meals. I have been working on that for the past few years and these test results have increased my resolve to continue doing so.

Inflammation

The news was also not great when it comes to my body’s inflammatory response. I am apparently at high risk for chronic inflammation, which has been linked to several preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It indicated that I was also more prone to the inflammatory effects of a diet high in sugar, refined carbs and vegetable oils. As someone who grew up on pasta and has battled a major sweet tooth her whole life, I can see some validity in this result. The good news is that there are foods I can eat that have an anti-inflammatory effect, as I discussed in a previous blog post about an anti-inflammatory diet. My family and I had already started making some changes to our diet after I attended that seminar, but I know that there is more work to be done – and I am willing to do it.

Exercise and Fitness

As I mentioned earlier, I was more interested in the results related to exercise and fitness and what I learned was pretty fascinating. Apparently, I have the capability to excel in both power and endurance activities, i.e., a mix of sprinting and distance events. My whole life I have always struggled with activities requiring short bursts of energy. For example, I have always disliked sports like tennis and basketball because I was too lazy to run back and forth. I also tried sprinting when I was on the track team in high school but fared much better as a middle-distance runner. I just thought I didn’t have it in me, but I am rethinking that mindset with this new knowledge. Perhaps I just never had the proper training to build up the capacity for power activities. I may give it a try and still find out that I don’t like those activities, but at least I won’t count myself out without first giving them a chance.

Two other results that kind of go hand in hand relate to the best type of exercise for fat loss and the tendency for muscle soreness. Not too surprisingly, the results indicated that I need a combination of strength/resistance and cardio exercise for the most effective fat loss. Many fitness experts promote this combined approach for anyone looking to lose weight and/or improve their fitness level. However, I apparently have the tendency to deposit fat under the skin rather than in the muscle and to lose weight, I would benefit from an approach such as high intensity interval training (HIIT). Interval training generally consists of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high-intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period. The recommendations in my report advised against training only on pure cardio or endurance activities only…which is something I admit I’ve been doing for the last few years. Oops. Guess it is time to mix things up a bit.

Perhaps the reason I tend to avoid strength training or resistance activities (such as lifting weights, doing push-ups, etc.) is the association with DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. You know – that achy feeling you get a day or two after engaging in muscle-building activities. My genes leave me more likely to experience this soreness according to my report. I’ll admit I have kind of a love-hate relationship with muscle soreness. On one hand, it usually makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something in my workout, but it can make me wimp out and not want to continue training. The good news is there are several strategies to help minimize the soreness, including rest days, stretching, and the occasional over the counter pain relievers if needed. Being aware that I may experience muscle soreness more than the average person will help me prepare for it and adopt ways to minimize the aches.

So what’s the verdict?

Bottom line, I am glad that I did the test. I think the information is one tool of many that can help inform my approach to health and fitness. I know that it is not the end all, be all and I don’t believe that my DNA is my destiny. But in my case, I learned some things that are making me rethink some preconceived notions I have had, especially about my physical abilities. I realize that I may give another go at tennis and still not like it or be good at it, but at least I am willing to try.

Note: I purposely am not sharing the name of the vendor I used for the genetic testing as I don’t want it to be seen as an endorsement of one company over another (especially since I only tried one vendor). If you would like this information, you can email me at Janice@everbetterihc.com and I will gladly share the information offline.