Stop Yelling at the Fruit!

“Enough with the fruit already!” That’s what my friend Peter yelled at me while we were golfing last week. I had just bitten into my 2nd apple of the round as I was walking down the 12th hole fairway at the beautiful Soule Park Golf Course. I looked at him with his Diet Coke in hand, and I knew he was kidding. But maybe not? He did sound really angry at that apple! But I also realized that I’m a bit of a weirdo for eating fruit as my golf snack. I’m pretty new to the fruit-eating world, and I hope it remains a key part of my nutritional life from this point forward. This week’s post, part five of five on the Blue Zones research on living longer, is all about food. The three nutritional Blue Zones lessons are Plant Slant, Hara Hachi Bu (The 80% Full Rule), and Drink Red Wine in Moderation.

I wrote earlier about my appreciation for the Noom diet. It’s not for everybody, but it helped me so much with the first two Blue Zones rules. Noom pushes fresh fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are nothing but good for us. Fruit packs a few more calories, but it’s super healthy and nothing but good. Noom calls these “green foods,” and urges users to make green foods the centerpiece of their meals and snacks. Noom also steers us away from more dense food, as well as those that are processed. That’s why I started eating apples, grapes, strawberries, and bananas every day. The Blue Zones societies in Costa Rica, Sardinia, and Okinawa have very little access to processed foods or meats. The Adventists eat no meat at all. Over the past year, I’d say that Jill and I have eaten vegetarian meals about half of the time. We eat seafood a couple nights during the week, and I’ll eat chicken or beef once a week. It’s so different from how I grew up. When I told my friend Ben about the awesome Lentil Loaf with onion gravy I had made, he asked me to surrender my Arkansas Native card. Nope. I want to keep that card and have a plant slant. After all, I do still think fried okra still counts as a green food. Quite certain in fact.

The other aspect of Noom that I appreciate is the calorie counting side. Like Weight Watchers, Noom wants you to record everything you eat on the app. Here’s what I learned. To put it scientifically, I used to eat a crap-ton of food. I would say I was choking down 2800 to 3200 calories a day, and wondering why I was exercising so much but still not losing weight. I love food – healthy food, junk food, comfort food, and desserts. I was technically overweight (205-210 on my 6’2” frame), but my height helped hide it. Then my knee doctor said, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt if you lost 15-20 pounds.” Ouch. She called me fat. The Okinawans have their Hara Hachi Bu, which translates to, eat until you are 80% full. My rule had been, eat until you are 105% full and a little uncomfortable, then add a helping of something and/or dessert to complete the meal.

Turns out that’s NOT good for you. Weird right? There are all kinds of tricks to help avoid this – use smaller plates, drink water before and during your meal, make vegetables cover the majority of the plate – but for me most of all, it’s not going back for seconds. So now, I’m consuming 2200 calories a day on average, I’ve gone down a size in my pants and shirts, and I’m fluctuating between 185 and 190. It feels good. And for the first time in decades, my New Years’ resolution was to maintain my weight, not to lose it.

The final Blue Zones rule is to drink red wine in moderation. They cite research on lower rates of heart disease, and cite several Blue Zones societies that do this. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy red wine. I am in pursuit of $15 bottles that are nice to drink with dinner. I belong to two wine clubs and it’s nice to occasionally open a special bottle to celebrate something or someone. The key to understanding this rule is that (1) it’s all about moderation, as Blue Zones does advise that going beyond moderation will be dangerous to your health, and (2) it’s optional. Of the nine rules I’ve reviewed, this is the one I’m not pushing hard at all. I know many people whose personal beliefs steer them away from alcohol, and I know too many people who have had their lives almost destroyed by drinking. Not to mention, it’s a lot of dense and sugary calories. A few people very close to me have recently committed to not drinking. I have loved watching them turn their lives around, look and feel healthier, and develop a new appreciation for all that this world has to offer. To go back to the last post, they belong to their AA group and it provides incredible support. So I am not pushing this recommendation, and if you are questioning whether your use of alcohol is hurting your life, listen very carefully to your inner compass.

So that’s it. The end of a five-part series. I’m not sure where I’m headed next, but I’m ready to continue this journey. I’ve enjoyed the process and I appreciate all of your feedback along the way.

Final tip: Chilled Envy Apples – they are the best. I think I’ll bite into one right now. Take that, Peter!

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.

My new thinner self with my super-fit friend Brooks after doing pretty darn well in a cornhole tournament

Post #1: Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Blue Zones Rule: Move Naturally Throughout the Day)

Post #2: Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2) (Blue Zones Rule: Know Your Sense of Purpose)

Post #3: In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs (Blue Zones Rule: Downshift)

Post #4: Family, Friends, and Community (Blue Zones Rules: Loved Ones First, Right Tribe, and Belong)

Post #5: Stop Yelling at the Fruit! (Blue Zones Rules Plant Slant, Hara Hachi Bu (The 80% Full Rule), and Drink Red Wine in Moderation)

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Family, Friends, Community

Thanks to all of you who read my last post on my son Sean. I keep track of how many people open each of my weekly posts, and the readership about Sean crushed everything else I’ve ever written. Your comments and emails were powerful and comforting. As good as it felt to write about it, it was also exhausting. I still feel like I’m in a bit of a vulnerability hangover, but I have no regrets. I’m honored it meant something to so many of you. And, please, you never have to ask if you can share any of my posts. It’s not a diary. IT’S A BLOG! It’s meant to be out there for anyone to read. I would write these posts even if they had a readership of ten. But it’s even better when my efforts matter to others. Please share away.

So once again, thank you!

It’s interesting. If you look at the comments on Facebook and on the blog site, we are developing a bit of a community here. A growing number of you are commenting on my thoughts, and on each other’s too. I love it. And, with a few exceptions, this is a kind group.

So let’s use that segue to get back to my series of posts on living longer – and the next three Blue Zones traits that I want to review are “Loved Ones First,” “Right Tribe,” and “Belong.” All of these are about the people we surround ourselves with, our families, and our communities. I’m grouping them together, mostly because I think if I stretched out this theme too much longer, people might start sticking needles in their eyes. (I have one more next week – on what we should eat and drink to live longer, then I’m done!) But they’re also harmonious because they relate to our social lives, and that has a direct correlation to how well and long we will live.

Loved ones first. It’s about prioritizing family, whatever that means to you.

  • Buettner looks at Okinawans, who exemplify multi-generational families being together regularly. We now have a tradition where Jill’s parents come over on Monday night for games and dinner, and stay over until Tuesday morning. Even though they, in my awesome mother-in-law’s words, “put the fun in dysfunctional,” they just add to our craziness, and it’s wonderful.
  • For me, it’s about eating dinner together as often as possible. I am a pain in the you-know-what on that one. Let’s sit down and eat together. Bring your friends if you want, but WE ARE GOING TO EAT TOGETHER AND WE’RE GOING TO LIKE IT! (I feel like I yelled that. Sorry.) I did not have to yell about it last night, when I had both of my sons home for dinner for the first time since Thanksgiving. We sat at the table for two hours and it was heaven. Pictures next week.
  • I love Buettner’s push to live in a small house. We raised our family in a 1,580 square foot house, not small, but certainly not as big as many, where we NEVER GET AWAY FROM EACH OTHER! (Did I yell that too?).  And looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
  • Most of my immediate family lives too far away, but we talk often. It’s not perfect, but we are close, and we make the most of it.

Right Tribe. This is not just about having a tribe, but about having a tribe that supports us in healthy living. Buettner cites Moais (small groups of 5-8 people) that Okinawans create for themselves, and how they exercise, socialize, and support each other regularly. I am member of many groups that matter to me. I have my crazy golfing buddies in Ojai (speaking of dysfunctional!), my early morning swim friends, and the incredible couples and families that live in our little neighborhood. I have my high school friends with whom I’m still close. I have my friendships that I have maintained from all the places that I’ve worked. I feel very fortunate to be a member, maybe not a valued member, but still a member of all of these tribes. Maybe I should be nervous that they let me in. Groucho Marx quipped that he would not want to be, “part of any club that would accept me as one of its members.” But I’m going to ignore that, because I appreciate all of these tribes that I’m in. They make my life better, and I hope to live longer as a result.

Belong.  Buettner finds that those who belong to organizations like churches and temples and community groups tend to live longer for a variety of reasons. Why you may ask?  Because there’s the social aspect of it, and the positive expectations/codes of behavior that develop among members of groups like these. There’s also the built-in safety net where members care for each other, both every day and in times of need. And of course there are regular gatherings that get us out of whatever we are doing so we can slow down and focus on this group that we belong to. I have been a member of a variety of churches from several different faiths, and of a variety of informal and formal community organizations. Sometimes I felt all that Buettner describes, and sometimes I did not. I’m a free agent at this time, and I’m OK with that. We will see what the future brings.

The bottom line is that the research shows that the world’s longest living societies are populated by people who are connected with others who love and care for them, and that we do better when we are not islands unto ourselves. Every student from my high school tribe remembers that line, as we all had to memorize John Donne’s poetic meditation:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

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Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay

In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs

My first two posts in this series on living a long and healthy life focused on moving naturally throughout the day and holding a strong sense of purpose. This week and for Part 3 of this series, I am focusing on downshifting. The Blue Zones research suggests that people in the longest living societies find serenity on a daily basis. The Nicoyans of Costa Rica, like people in many societies where the weather is extremely hot, rest each afternoon. The Seventh Day Adventists in Southern California’s Inland Empire create a “sanctuary in time,” halting activities from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The lesson is that this downshifting, resting, and stepping back from the craziness of life helps us to live longer and better.

There’s more and more science about the restorative and regenerative powers of sleep and rest. Most of the world’s best athletes are outstanding downshifters, making extraordinary time for recovery, especially when they need to be at their best. Researchers say that rest tamps down inflammation that impact all of us, and getting enough of it promotes the health and longevity of our muscles, joints, and even our brains.

My dogs are amazing downshifters. I mean, they spend 80% to 98% of their day in a fully downshifted mode. We adopted our two Scottish Terriers (Duffy and Maggie Mae) almost two years ago (raise your hand if you too have a COVID dog/cat/something), and they have been a great presence in our life. They look like toppled over Monopoly dog pieces when they are downshifting, which I still find hilarious. And they need that energy to gobble up their food faster than contestants at a hot dog eating contest, so they can lose their minds with a barking bonanza whenever the mail carrier or Amazon person approaches our door, or to give futile chase to the squirrel that torments them daily in the backyard. If downshifting is the key to a longer life, they are going to live to be 30,000 years old.

I’m not even close to being as good as my dogs at this downshifting stuff. My idea of a fun vacation is to wake up early, do tons of new and exciting things, wear myself out, and do it all again the very next day. The only reason I’m not a total zero is because I love a 20-minute nap. If I can sneak in a short power nap, I am way better in the afternoon, and I might even stay awake past 9:00 at night. Crazy! But 24 hours of downtime? Sleeping more than six hours? Meditating or just being?  While I’m not giving up, it has not happened for me yet.

My job as a teacher, principal, and superintendent took as many hours as I would give it. Ask any teacher or administrator – no matter how many hours you work in a week, it’s not enough to do everything that needs to be done. To stay somewhat healthy, you have to make a conscious decision to stop working at some point and pivot to the equally important job of taking care of you.

But downshifting is critical. Most of the time, my version of downshifting was just not doing work. When I came home at night – it might be 6:00, 7:00 or 10:00, I tried to be off email for the rest of the evening. There were emergency exceptions, but I worked to be present at home and not to have my head back at work for those few hours, or minutes, before going to bed. And on the weekends, I always tried to make Saturday a non-working day. By Sunday afternoon, I had to get ready for the week, but my goal was to enjoy a good 24-36 hours without working.

But, I wonder if I was actually downshifting in that time. Unlike my dogs, I spend most of my non-working time being active – cooking, golfing, doing something with the family, cleaning or organizing the house, exercising, and maybe watching a movie or sports event on TV. Do those count as downshifting? Are those activities fighting inflammation and making me healthier?  

Robbie Shell from the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that hit home when he said, “One of the major joys of retirement has been the luxury of spending more time on those things I look forward to doing, with no deadlines to rein me in, no obligations that require me to make those hard choices about how to spend each day.” I’m not sure if this counts as downshifting, but it is an improvement.

One area where I may have made a little progress is my purposeful effort not to rush from one activity to the next. Athletes sit on the bench between quarters. My dogs sleep for about four hours between their activities. Over the last few months, I have learned to take a moment, relax, and actually get ready for whatever is next. I wish I would have done that more at work. Too often, I went from meeting to meeting to meeting, never pausing to think about next steps, to recover from a challenging conversation, or to just step away from the mania. I thought I could do all of that when the day was over. But now, I am allowing myself more transition time instead of rushing like a transitioning triathlete between the swimming and biking segments.  And I can honestly say it definitely makes life a lot more sane.

I’m also working to follow Shell’s advice and give myself permission to take more time while I’m engaged in what I will call a downshifting activity. Again, I’m not sure if this meets the Blue Zones definition of downshifting, but would be progress for me. My friend Karen made a spectacular dinner for us a few weeks ago, and told us she had spent the entire day cooking and she had loved every minute of it! That has to count as downshifting, right? If I have the time, I want to give myself the luxury of not rushing to cook dinner. After a wonderful night at a restaurant with friends recently, my friend Kevin lamented that he wished we would have ordered dessert and coffee. He didn’t really want dessert (I always want dessert), but he enjoyed the conversation so much that he wished he had used that excuse to prolong and luxuriate in the experience. That has to be a downshifting mentality too. Right? For now, I am declaring it to be so.  

Ultimately, I seek to be more like Duffy and Maggie Mae in my mastery of downshifting, but I have a long way to go. Wish me luck.

Mike

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!

We adopted Duffy and Maggie Mae on Mother’s Day in 2020.

Sources:

Fast Company: Why Pro Athletes Sleep 12 Hours a Day

Shell, Robbie. “Taking My Time is One of the Pleasures of Retirement.” Wall Street Journal. April 17, 2022.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC. (2008).

Other Notes: Sections I Cut Out to make this post just a little too long instead of way too long.

Is Retirement the Life for Me? (Part 2)

First of all, thank to all of you who read and commented on my last post via Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog Site. I love the conversation and I appreciate the wisdom even more. This is Post #2 of Evaluating my Quasi-Retired Life using Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones research. As a reminder, the nine Blue Zones recommendations for a longer, healthier, and happier life are:

  1. Move naturally throughout the day
  2. Know your sense of purpose
  3. Downshift every day to relieve stress
  4. 80% Rule: stop eating when you are 80% full
  5. Plant Slant: Make beans, whole grains, veggies, and fruit the center of your diet
  6. Red Wine in Moderation: Enjoy wine and alcohol moderately with friends and/or food
  7. Belong: Be part of a faith-based community or organization
  8. Loved Ones First: Have close friends and strong family connections
  9. Right Tribe: Cultivate close friends and strong social networks

Just a little recap on #1 – Move Naturally, which I addressed in my last post. My friend Ben reminded me that part of moving can be pushing yourself to extremes. Ben retired the same time I did, and has just put out a new podcast series called Fear of Retirement.  In the second episode, Ben goes into his version of movement, which is super intense and maybe not for everyone. He reminds me that it’s always good to have BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). I agree with this – so, while I’m getting more steps in by walking and golfing, I’m also working on some BHAGs. For me, one of them is swimming in my sixties as fast as I swam in high school – or maybe just fast enough to beat a former student who is challenging me to a 50-yard sprint. (Whenever you’re ready, Brad.) For Ben, it was benching over 300 pounds (mission accomplished). It’s a great listen, and I bring it up just because there are so many ways to move, and we can all find our way to meet this goal. And not to brag about being semi-famous, but Ben gave me a shoutout in the 2nd episode. While not mentioning my name, he referred to me as a “psycho.” Thanks, Ben. I love you too.

Let’s move on to Blue Zone recommendation #2 – Know Your Sense of Purpose. After identifying the six longest living societies in the world and describing how they live their lives, Buettner writes that two of these societies, Okinawans and Costa Rica’s Nicoyans, have cultures in which individuals know “why I wake up in the morning” (Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans refer to their plan de vida.) Let’s face it, we need to have some sense of purpose that we look forward to when we start each day. I love that, because one of my many annoying habits over the course of my life is that on top of being a poor sleeper (side note, this has not gotten better since leaving work), when I wake up in the morning, I am AWAKE and I am ready to go. There is no grogginess, and I am ready to carpe that diem.

As I think back, purpose was easy to come by in my life before this retirement phase. I was fortunate during my 30 years of raising children in our home and my 38-year career in education to have a life that was filled with a massive sense of purpose. Between all that it involved in parenting beginning in 1990, and providing our youth with a high-quality education starting back in 1984, I jumped out of bed every morning knowing that I was making a difference. Yes, every day held its challenges and triumphs, interspersed with many great moments, but I always knew that what I was doing was important, and potentially life-changing.

But, there is a danger in that too. I have watched people retire and come back looking ten years younger and smiling bigger than ever. They have cultivated more reasons for getting out of bed than just work. They have hobbies, passions, friendships, and many other reasons to look forward to each day. On the other hand, I have seen people whose whole sense of purpose was linked to their job. They might have been outstanding at work, but they did not fare well in retirement. So my strong advice is to find a sense of purpose outside of your professional world.

Dan Buettner writes that purpose can come when you can find flow on most days of your life. I love the research on flow. I wrote about it in a post back in April of 2020. If you have moments throughout your day where you experience flow, when you are so immersed in whatever you are doing that time ceases to have meaning, that alone is worth waking up for. Some of my best flow-producing activities are problem-solving, teaching, swimming, golf, playing music, and yes, even my morning ritual of making the kitchen look perfect for the day. It’s amazing how many times this concept keeps popping up into my life. Flow does make life worth living, and according to the research, it gives us improved odds for living longer and better.

And before I go any further, this is not a “check all of the boxes” list. That’s crazy and unrealistic. This is a “there are so many different reasons people have for waking up with purpose, what’s yours?” list.

Other reasons for waking up each day include knowing that you are making a difference. My friend and blogger mentor Chris Erskine is finding purpose being a grandfather. Learning something new provides outstanding, interesting, and brain-building motivation for life. And as my friend Pam wrote in the comments of my last blog post, it’s never too late to learn how to live better. Engaging in new and complex activities requires immersion and can also lead to flow. Even gratitude for what you have provides more purpose than any of us actually realize. (Note – this paragraph could have been dramatically expanded, but most of my blogs are too long already, so just know there’s a lot that could be delved into for each the bolded topics.)

As my friend Dawnalyn pointed out after reading my last blog, a lot of this comes back to Stillman’s research on how to survive…. or even thrive during the quarantine phase of the pandemic.

This is a good time for me to ponder this critical question of having a strong sense of purpose in retirement, as I am taking a pause from all of this retirement bliss and working for two months helping out a local school district. More on that in a future post, but for now, I am asking myself whether immersing in more flow-inducing activities and the increased opportunities for thinking, writing, and learning are sufficient to replace the overwhelming sense of purpose I had while working in public education. So far, the answer is strongly affirmative, but there are many ballots still to count, and I’m not making any projections yet.

My next blog post will be on flow’s less purposeful yet equally important counterpart – downshifting.

Thanks for reading!

Mike

Note: The picture at the top of the post is of the mighty Kings River in Central California at sunrise. Between getting up early and loving to cook, one of my jobs at a four-day river floating/camping/game-playing trip that we took every year with 100 of our closest friends was to wake up each morning to cook breakfast for everybody. I always took a pause at the river before I headed up to the outdoor kitchen to make the coffee and start working through frying 40 pounds of bacon. As I said, waking up has always been easy for me, and witnessing beauty like this makes it even better.

To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here!