Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Years ago I had a manager who took me under his wing and helped my do some serious growing, both as an engineer and as a project manager. Funny how some little things stick in ones head, as the years go by - the thing I remember about Ken was a time that he needed me to get something done for him quickly. As in as-soon-as-I-could. Like NOW!

He gave me a bit of a pep-talk to get me started - helping me understand how one should treat a project that one’s boss wants done NOW.

He talked about how easy it is to put things off, to let other things, like answering e-mails, or even answering the phone, get in the way. His point was that when ones boss needs something, and lets you know he needs it, well, nothing less than moving heaven and earth is in fact expected.

I was thinking about priorities today - partially because of a friend who is in fairly bad shape - significant bone loss due to osteoporosis, and some joint challenges due to a recent accident. His doctor made it pretty clear how important it is for him to make exercise and stretching a priority in his life.

And, hey, for the first couple of weeks he was very regular at the gym. But, time has gone by, and, even though I started doing a stretch session each day so that he has the opportunity to join a group and make the stretching more fun, well he is down to one or two days a week.

At this point in his life exercise and stretching likely will make the difference in being able to walk and run and, well, live his life.

So, a quiz for you: What is the most important thing in your day? What will reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer - heck, likely even things like Shingles? Just think, if there was a pill you could take to achieve all of those health benefits - why, we would all be taking it.

Oh - there is something that will do all of this. Just it’s not a pill - and it takes somethign very precious - your time - to achieve. Yup, exercise will do all of this. And, if you treat it like the life-saving miracle that it is, and if you get in as much as you can, hey, people will start thinking you are 10, 15 or perhaps 20 years younger than you are.

Because your body will in fact be 10, 15, or 20 younger than it might otherwise be.

I have learned, over the years, that there are two things that get me to the gym (besides seeing how fit my body is every morning while I get dressed): Routine - Every weekday, come 1:30 pm, I am heading out the door. And, the second thing? The every weekday part - people know I am going to be at the gym in the afternoon. If they forget - well, they don’t find me at home.

This is the thing that I do for myself every weekday - the thing no one is going to take away from me.

Yes, I take off the weekends. At this point my workouts are averaging 3 hours per day. My body, just like the bodies of the 20 year olds that I work out with, needs a chance to recover. And, by Monday I am ready to hit it again, full bore - leading around my pack of 20-something’s at the gym. Brings to mind a recent balance session - there were 5 of us, all standing on one leg on BOSU balls, all doing curls with a dumbbell in one hand. Someone dubbed it the “Dumbbell Chorus Line”.

Somehow I suspect you would have to be there to appreciate how funny that was.

Priority - well, I guess you could say my priority is to be fit enough to do whatever I want to do. A lot of people tell me that is their priority. It’s just that they really don’t know how to achieve such a goal - they don’t understand that being fit demands their doing everything they can, every day, getting to the gym, pushing themselves, finding work-out buddies that want to work out, not talk. They really don't get it - they likely will have to do without some of the things that might otherwise fill their time.

So, in your life, what has a higher priority than life and death? Watching TV? Eating? Playing computer games? How about finding a new reality - with a focus on working out!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sustainable Rewards

Cookies! OK, let’s look beyond short term rewards for finishing a specific task: As I think about the evolution of my view of what is important I realize that I focused more and more on time being the most important thing in my life. I wrote about entitlements in an earlier post – when I retired my day job as an engineer I decided there were certain things I was going to give myself. Things that I was “entitled” to in recognition of my retiring. These “things” all involved the allocation of my time – for practicing the hammered dulcimer an hour each morning, for working out three or more hours each weekday, for making bread. And, as when I was in college, I have to manage my time to get all the important things done so I can in fact enjoy my entitlements. My rewards.

One of my recurring themes in this blog is the concept of doing things that generate satisfaction, and ultimately happiness. I am coming to realize now how this concept – doing things - could be an important part of something that is even more important – managing our weight. By shifting my value system – or perhaps I should say my reward system – away from using food as my reward I have helped to improve my diet and made it easier to keep weight off.

As for food – it is probably all too trite to suggest that when a child is misbehaving we should give the little bugger a carrot to get them to settle down. Even I know that is not going to fly. In truth, bribing a child to be good is not a sustainable answer – and bribing with sweets is not only not sustainable, but leads to a life-long reliance on food as a reward. And to diabetes and heart disease.

So, let’s talk about rewards and children. My wife just read what I am writing and pointed out that I don’t in fact have any children so perhaps am not actually qualified to write on children. She has a point. Yet, even still, I have been around a few rug rats, and have even had some success at improving one little tykes diet.

At one time I was dating a lady with a lovely little daughter who would only eat Spaghetti-O’s. Her mom was a very busy lady, and heck, there are worse things than a child who would only eat Spaghetti-O’s. Lots worse things. Still, by persistently praising her when she ate something healthy, and by giving her extra attention when eating, with a focus on little things like using a fork instead of her fingers, and chewing with her mouth closed – I was honestly amazed at how quickly she was eating and enjoying thing she had previously refused.

And not giving me a view of what she was chewing!

Children crave positive reinforcement and attention. If they don’t get it, they will do their best to get attention, even if it is not positive.

Is it always possible to change behavior with just positive reinforcement – with extra attention? I don’t know. I do know I have had a couple of successes like the one above when dealing with children and adults who were acting like children. As for adolescents – my impression is they can be a serious problem if they have gotten into their teens with bad attitudes and habits. Perhaps someone else can offer a solution.

My evolution from viewing food as a reward to where I am now – viewing meals as a time to gain nourishment and share time with my lady and, on occasion friends, is still a work in progress. It is amazing to me how much of our lives are tied up in eating. And looking forward to eating, and finding people who want to go eat with us.

I often think back to a comment in the book “Younger Next Year”: “Let’s go down to the gym and lift heavy weights until we can’t lift anymore?” This is pretty much what I look forward to each time I work out with Mark and the 20-something young men and women who join me in my core and balance workouts. Working out until I cannot do anymore – resting, and hitting it again. This is a reward in my life. So are meals – just not like they used to be.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rewards - Cookies!!!

Kelly has been making cookies for me for many years. Over the years we have slowly become more health conscious – so my cookies have evolved: Oil, butter and lard have been replaced with applesauce, the amount of white sugar has been reduced, and ultimately replaced with brown sugar or honey. Whole wheat and soy flour have replaced white flour. And, lately, she is adding whole grains, as in grains of wheat - otherwise known as wheat berries. Are the cookies as tasty as they were perhaps 10 years ago - well, not as sweet anyway... OK, not as to-die-for as they were. Yet she has continued to make cookies that I can use to reward myself when I do things around the house. And I love them.

I make sure that I only have a few cookies a day – otherwise I would likely have to work out even more than I do now.

A healthy reward – perhaps one of my least healthy rewards. But I manage it. And, they make me feel special. That is what rewards are meant to do.

When I look around me, especially on this trip (in an airplane returning from Dallas from a wonderful weekend of dulcimers) I see the impact of diet on those around us. Recently I read that the CDC (Center for Disease Control here in the US) forecasts that a third of all of the people born in the year 2000 and later will develop diabetes. This will bankrupt America’s medical system.

From a young age we are taught that food is a reward – all too often - sweet food. Great dinners, long lunches, brunches, big breakfasts, candy, donuts and pastries – all are rewards. In fact, as I slowly became more and more aware of the implications of meat in our diet I also came to realize that many meals are judged by how much meat they include. At least in my childhood, the things that were always rationed were the meat and desert. Can’t say I remember my mom saying I could only have so many Brussels sprouts – or beans, or carrots, or apples.

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who had just gotten back from an Alaskan cruise – she was not very happy with the amount of meat served with each meal – only 8 ounces!

Funny, in my mind, meat equals increased cancer risk. Meat is no longer a reward – a fact that is sometimes in conflict with my love of barbequed pork ribs dripping in caramelized BBQ sauce. But, getting that large portion of steak – no longer a goal. Or a reward. And, well, it has been years since I have had pork ribs dripping in caramelized BBQ sauce.

So, if deserts, large portions of meat, high-calorie meals – is these are no longer rewards, how do I reward myself for doing the things that need done in my world?

We’ll discuss this in my next post.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Rewards - Learning from my cats

If I have not previously mentioned in one of my postings, Kelly and I have cats. Three fur balls.

[caption id="attachment_564" align="alignnone" width="584" caption="Monty, Max and Muggles"][/caption]

Much is written about how one does not own a cat, about how they in fact own us. Cats are aloof, proud, mysterious, and good at letting you know when they are not happy. Our cats, on the other hand, love attention. They will follow us around trying to get our attention, or at least get into something they can play with.

Early on we worked with our cats a lot, held them, helped them understand that being held was a good thing, a reward. Kitty treats helped in this training. OK – I have not eaten any of the kitty treats, but somehow our cats will do things for them that food in their food bowl does not match. For a while I was buying a different kind of cat food and pretending it was kitty treats. Hmmm, actually, it worked just fine. But, Kelly, being a soft-hearted lass, thought this was unfair, so we are back to using kitty treats to reward and train our cats.

So. Why am I writing about our kitties? Because, like our kitties, we are all pretty much trainable. In an early post I talked about my method of making myself look forward to taking a test. It involved not having to do any homework on the evening after I had taken a test. To make this reward work I had to plan ahead, get homework done ahead of time, but, it was worth it. And I came to enjoy taking tests. Which meant I was also able to do well on my tests – believe me, you will do better on a test is you are not nervous about it.

My reward – an evening to do what I wanted. As long as I planned before hand how I would get homework done early, hey - it was not a bad reward. A positive reward - sort of like with our cats – turns out the kitty treats that we buy are extra crunchy, which helps to keep our cats teeth clean. Which is a very good thing – ever try to clean a cats teeth? I tried a few times – they make these neat little pieces of cloth with toothpaste type stuff on them. Easy – just pop open your loving cats mouth and rub these pieces of cloth on their teeth with your finger.

Turns out that toothpaste on the cloth also makes a good disinfectant when the loving little kitty sinks his or her loving little teeth into your finger. If bleeding badly enough, you can also use the little piece of cloth as a miniature tourniquet.

Where was I? Oh yes, rewards. Positive rewards. Perhaps lying to oneself. And behavior modification - so that we do more healthy things.

My next post will talk a bit more about cookies - the Stephen equivalent of kitty treats!

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I began this series of posts over a year ago because I wanted to share my approach to getting old, and to talk about some of the things that make me happy - some of the ways I have found happiness. Then I got distracted with a rather extensive remodel - and with working out, and fixing clocks, and keeping up the yard, and holding contractors’ feet to the fire in an effort to get quality work done.

Good news is that I have been finding a lot of subjects to write about, and it is about time I got started again. Other good news is that I can usually fix the problems that contractors create - but that takes time.

So, back to happiness. If you are over 40, think about how you would feel if you just finished a 3 hour plus workout with 3 guys in their 20's, and left them bushed. Fatigued. Moving slowly. Wiped. One of these guys worked out with me on Tuesday, on the gymnasts rings, and told me on Wednesday that everything from his chest up hurt, including his arms.

Think about it. And, then think about the fact that you did more reps of pretty much every exercise, and had the chance to coach 3 very fit young men. And are not sore from the work outs.

Perhaps I am making too much out of this - how good it feels to be the older guy who sets the pace. Or perhaps it just really means something to this old guy when he hears one of the regulars in the group commenting to a new guy - “He’s just so darned strong”. That particular time I turned around to see who they were talking about. There was no one behind me. Huh.

A bit ago one of the folk who read this blog commented “Nice to see a blog that encourages a fit lifestyle into the retirement years”. Thank you Whit. So, what is it worth to be able to work out with 20 year olds? To look not just good, but to look ripped in a T-shirt?

Speaking of T-shirts - saw one the other day that got my attention: “I’m not fat - I’m American”. And, unfortunately, given that two out of every three of the good folk in the US are overweight - well, the T-shirt is, in one way, telling it like it is. The shirt could have also said “I’m Diabetes waiting to happen”, or perhaps “One step from a stroke”, or, well you get my point (hopefully). Especially when one realizes that heart disease and diabetes are the two biggest killers in the US, besides being more common in the US than in the rest of the world.

Made me wonder - if an “American” is, statistically speaking, an overweight diabetic with heart disease - what does that make me?

For a while I entertained the idea of teaching a work-out class at the gym - focused on core and balance work for people over 50. The last 6 months has pretty much convinced me that this is not such a great idea. Problem is that I really, really like working out with people who are really, really fit. And, given the things I want to do outside of the gym, I really don’t have time to teach a class that is not focused on a pretty serious workout. But, I have started holding a 20 to 30 minute stretching session each day - and am seeing several of the older folk (at 58, this means people over 65) who really appreciate what I am doing. And, hey, I need to stretch at least once each day. Perhaps I need to approach the gym manager and see if I can interest them in such a class - more formalized - to give me a chance to help the older folk make some progress. In truth, I do want to do what I can to help people age gracefully - and, hmmm, when I am 80, perhaps I will then want to teach a balance and core class for 50 and older folk. But right now I am having way too much fun getting more fit and “younger” each year.

Another change in my “group” at the gym is the addition of a mid-30 gent who is extremely fit, and developing his fascination with gymnastic moves. So, in addition to the balance and core work, we are now adding in more challenging things, handstands and the like.

Then there is Mark - 54 - he has been working out with me for a while now. He is getting stronger - stronger than me in some areas, and definitely stronger than many of the young guys. AND HE IS LOVING IT!

Ageing gracefully. Having fun. 3 hour workouts. Is it for everyone - my answer is a simple “YES” writ large. Another rule I recently came up with: “If you watch tv for more hours each week than you work out - you have your priorities wrong.” I suppose I could add “Dead wrong”, but perhaps that would be a bit overly dramatic. Or, perhaps not.