This is the long-overdue post about the groundbreaking chat I had with my doctor about a month ago.
I went through a rather rough patch in November/December. Those months are usually tough for me, but this year was particularly stressful and tiring. Of course, there were objective reasons for that: I started working for myself in the summer, burnt the candle from both ends during my first months of school-less freedom (yay! I can go to bed at 4am and not feel guilty about it!) and generally had a hard time saying no to clients’ requests even if it meant a packed agenda, because, hey, it was stuff I was excited to do and it was paying the bills. So yeah, I had every reason to be feeling tired. However, I was a bit concerned about the fact that I didn’t feel less tired even if I got more than enough sleep, and I decided to go to the doctor for a check-up, just in case I was “missing something” by putting the blame on my lifestyle as a freelance consultant.
After taking a blood test (I will now remember to systematically present the person holding the needle with my right arm, as the left one has non-cooperative vein) I sat at my doctor’s desk for a little chat. He asked me what was bringing me there, and I told him the story. He asked me how I was sleeping — not quite enough, but reasonably regular hours and overall good quality. He asked me how I was doing in the food department — and that’s where it suddenly got very interesting.
I’ve known for years that my eating habits are disastrous. Diet based on pizza, bread, and cheese. Skipping meals. Not enough fruit or veggies. I used to joke about it and say my main source of vegetables was pizza. I’d evaluate my meat intake as roughly ok, but not enough fish — everybody knows you never eat enough fish, and I hardly ate any. The only thing I knew I was doing right was the fluids part: I drink a lot, and most of it (if not all) is tap water (healthier than bottled water around here). I hardly drink any alcohol at all and I don’t smoke.
I told my doctor I’d been gaining weight (it’s not so much the weight itself that bothers me than the fact I feel too tight in some of the clothes I love to wear them anymore), and that during the summer I had tried to eat more veggies, but my effort had collapsed after a few weeks when my life became too busy.
This is where my doctor earns extra bonus points and good karma. Without making me feel more guilty than I was about my unhealthy diet, he managed to encourage me to try and improve things in small steps by explaining to me in what way one’s diet influences general health and well-being, and walking me through a few simple, concrete things I could easily do to eat better.
A balanced diet is the starting point for all the rest. When your diet is unbalanced, before getting into the really nasty stuff that shows up in blood tests, you are going to suffer minor hormonal imbalance, for example. This can make you a little more tired, fall ill a little more easily, and introduce subtle imbalance in your neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters? Whee. I had never given thought to the impact food I ate could have on the chemical balance of stuff in my brain, and therefore my mood and general psychological health.
So that would seem to say: “a healthy diet might help me be less tired and in better psychological health” — did I get that right, doc? Now that’s encouraging.
Then he pulled out a food pyramid from a recent presentation he had just given a bunch of professional dancers on nutrition. I’ve found quite a bunch of those pyramids online, but they all seem to be different (here the closest match I found, so I’ll just tell you what I remember of the one he showed me and our discussion.
The bottom of the pyramid is fluids (non-alcoholic). I’m good with that one. The second floor, however, is veggies and fruit (five portions a day). Then cereals, pasta, bread… three portions. Meat/fish/eggs are on the fourth floor (once a day, fish three times a week), sitting next to dairy products (here’s the catch… I can’t remember if it was once or three times a day for those… I suspect once).
Three solid meals a day and two snacks is the way to go. Oh my god, how on earth do I squeeze five veggie/fruit portions in there (two of them raw)? It’s not that hard, actually:
- orange juice at breakfast = 1 portion
- those little Andros fruit mushes you can buy at Migros = 1 portion
- a fruit for snack = 1 portion (or 2, if I do two snacks)
- stick pizza in oven, grab a fruit or two, peel, chop up and stick in a bowl for dessert = 1 potion (leaving them in the fruit basket doesn’t work, I won’t eat them)
- stick pizza in oven, grab a handful of pre-packaged fresh salad (Migros, Coop), add sliced tomato, sprinkle with a mix of pumpkin/sunflower/flax/sesame seeds (Migros), a little oil and vinegar = 1 portion with added Omega-3 bonus
- aubergine or other veggie sliced and steamed, add salt/lemon/whatever to taste = 1 portion (my best acquisition over the last year was my Tefal Steam Cuisine– easy to use, great for fish, little washing-up after).
The trick is to think about eating as organised around the veggies. Before, I tended to have mono-meals: either a piece of meat, or some pasta, or a huge salad, or a pizza. Now, any of these things would at least be accompanied with a salad or fruit.
One trick I’ve discovered for salads is to not prepare them in a salad bowl. It sounds silly, but one of the biggest hassles with food for me is the washing up. I have a bottle of balsamic vinegar which is made to be sprayed on things, so I just put the green things on a plate, spray them with balsamic vinegar and add a little oil. One possible result of this effortless process can be seen here in the photo.
Another trick (for fruit, particularly) is not to buy packages with 10 kiwis or 6 apples. If I buy two apples and put them in my fruit bowl, I’ll eat them. If I have 6 of them, that’s too much — and I won’t. I also noticed that so-called organic fruit, or simply fruit that you by individually, is more tasty.
Fish three times a week isn’t too difficult to achieve using the steamer (stick fish in steamer, cook five/eight minutes, yum!) — concentrate on the Omega-3 rich ones like tuna/salmon/sardines. Fresh raw tuna is delicious too, but don’t overestimate how much you can eat.
One month later, I’m still happy with the improvements I’ve made to my diet. I have to say that the simple fact I “have this food thing under control” has taken away a lot of guilt and stress, and is in itself making me feel much, much better. Of course, it’s not perfect — but my experience with life tells me that striving for perfection is the best way to Not Get Things Done ™. I suspect I don’t usually get my three meals and two snacks each day. When I eat out, things go to the dogs (though I do now always order a salad with my pizza). I don’t think I get my five portions of veggie/fruit, it’s probably more around four. Well, you get the idea — but I’m headed in the right direction.
One thing I plan to do is to conjure up some kind of monitoring sheet where I can cross out my veggie portions, meat/fish consumption, meals etc. I tend to have very little awareness of what I’m doing/not doing — for example, I was totally incapable of answering many of my doctor’s questions on what I was/wasn’t eating. So writing it down would allow me to be aware of how regularly I skip meals, for example, or to notice if my fish consumption goes down to once a week or less. I’ll blog the document if I get around to doing it.
Another painful chapter was opened when my doctor asked “so, what about physical exercise?”
What? But, don’t I, like, do a helluvalot of judo? What do I have to worry about exercise? Well, the “helluvalot” part might have been true ten years ago, when I was training 4-5 times a week, but for the last years, between things like injuries, too much work, and car accidents, it’s more around once a week on average over the year. And, let’s face it, with thirteen years of judo underneath my black belt, I can also go to training and not tire myself out if I’m feeling lazy or out of shape.
So, I need another source of exercise. Leading a geeky lifestyle is all very well, but even without being addicted to the internet (it might just be technological overload), one has to agree that sitting in front of a computer all day, many days a week, is not exactly physical exercise, and probably not what the human body was designed for. Specially when you’re working from home and you live alone — trips to the kitchen and the bathroom don’t really add up to very much.
First, as with food, motivation and encouragement: something like cutting the risk of developing breast, stomach or colon cancer by 50%, just by doing 30 minutes of exercise per day. Wow. There are a whole lot of other benefits on your health, of course, but this is the one that struck me. So, 30 minutes a day? Damn, that would mean I have to take “time off” to exercise.
In summer, I go rollerblading by the lake. It’s nice, it’s good exercise (an hour or so from university to Ouchy and back), but it’s not so great when it rains. I need something I can do whatever the weather, says my doctor. Hmmm. I don’t like swimming. Dancing counts, he tells me — I don’t really like dancing either. Walking is ok, if it’s a brisk walk and not a gentle stroll in Ouchy on a Sunday afternoon. Cycling is ideal, he adds, specially on an indoor bike. Well, I have a bit of a space problem — but as he says, it’s all a matter of me deciding how important it is. You can buy a kind of tripod that you can stick a real outdoor bike on to turn it into an indoor bike, so it’s not that expensive (150CHF). Unfortunately, I don’t already own a bicycle.
So I decided to give walking a try. All the walking I did in San Francisco certainly helped me take the plunge. Minimal duration for the walk to be worth anything is 10 minutes (so 3×10 minutes = 30 minutes, good!) Café-Café rehearsals, my brother’s place, shopping, post office — all those are 10-15 minutes away. No more taking the car to go there. I tried walking down to town, without taking the bus. Gosh, Place Chauderon is only 20 minutes away! Café de l’Evêché, 30 minutes! That’s about as central as it gets. No more taking the car to go into town either. There’s a bus-stop a minute away from where I live if I’ve done enough walking for the day and don’t want to walk home. And overall, the Lausanne bus system is pretty good and can take you more or less anywhere in the city.
One added advantage of walking places is that it means longer commutes (OMG! who would want that!) and allows me to listen to podcasts on the way. I miss the singing-at-the-top-of-my-lungs sessions in the car somewhat, though. Longer commutes are also good because they force me to reduce the pace of my sometimes mad days — I can’t pack meetings or activities wall-to-wall in three different places in and around Lausanne because I think “it’ll just take me five minutes to get there”. I get breathing space, and I get alone-time (time spent on the computer blogging, IMing, Skypeing and IRCing does not count as alone-time).
I was telling a friend all this during LIFT’07, and the fact that my as my car was now spending many a day sitting on my parking space I was certainly not going to get a bigger one, when he flat-out suggested that I sell my car. Yeah, but… I need it to go to my sister’s, to my dad’s, etc. “Rent a car when you need it.” Hmmm, why not, but rental agencies are at the station, which is quite far off… Anyway, I dismissed the idea and enjoyed the rest of the conference.
A few days later, the background process had worked its magic, and I ended up spending a fair amount of time on the Mobility website, looking up prices and figuring out how it worked. Basically, it’s a web-based car rental service which allows you to book your car, open it with your magnetic card, use it and bring it back — without having to involve another human being. You can also rent cars from AVIS and Hertz through them at a reduced rate. And more importantly, they have cars everywhere. At the Migros where I usually do my shopping. At the Coop in Prilly. Down the road. Up the road. All within walking distance.
It made sense to have a car when I had to drive daily to Saint-Prex or Bussigny, which is not a practical journey by public transport from my place. But now that I’m not commuting regularly anymore… The amount of money I pour into the car sitting in that parking space could just as well be spent on taxis and rental cars and leave me with extra aeroplane budget.
Bottom line? I’ve taken a four-month Mobility trial subscription, and I’m selling my car for March 9th. I’m losing my license for a month on that date because of my car accident this summer — so it’s a good time.
Thanks for the nudge, Stowe!
I don’t know how many people will have the courage to read through this horribly long post, so here’s a quick wrap-up of what I’ve effortlessly changed about a month ago, and kept up with. All because the importance of a reasonably balanced diet and regular exercise for my (mental and physical) health really sunk in.
- 3 meals a day, plus two snacks (I’m still working on turning my breakfast into a “meal”)
- 5 veggie/fruit portions a day — build the rest of the food around those
- fish 3 times a week if you manage, meat/fish/eggs once a day
- eating frozen or ready-made stuff isn’t disastrous, just add salad/fruit
- commute on foot — many distances aren’t that huge if you take the trouble to try
- if you don’t use your car regularly, it might be more economical to go cab/rental.
More important than the specifics, what’s to note here is a change of attitude. Details are important, of course, as they are often what’s needed to make an intention into Things That Happen (check out GTD again). But alone, they are not sufficient. In my case, it took a few months of feeling rather unwell, and the fact that my doctor took the trouble to talk to me about these issues, for me to realise (a) they were important (b) they were probably having an impact on my life right now and (c) I wanted to do something about them.
Today, instead of thinking “what do I feel like eating” or “do I want to go rollerblading/walking”, I think “where am I with my quota of veggies/exercise, and what do I need to eat/do to reach it”. I don’t do it in an obsessive way, mind you. It’s just that food and exercise have become goal-driven, and there are rather effortless things I can do to move towards a goal I find worthwhile — so I do them.
On the road to being healthier geeks!