My Dry August

I decided to give up alcohol for the month of August. I’m not a heavy drinker, but I do find that unhealthy habits tend to creep in when I don’t make rules for myself. Mostly I just wanted to see what it was like. I wanted to see what I would do in the instances when I would normally have a drink, like on a Friday evening when work’s done for the week, or at the end of a particularly crap day, or in a social situation where everyone else was drinking.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink during the last five or so days of July, so (technically) I’ve already done a month. But I won’t break my alcohol fast until the first of September, which happens to be a Sunday, and the first day of spring – I’ll drink to that! So how’s it been going for a month without alcohol? Surprisingly easy actually. I did choose the month of August for a reason though: it’s the last month of winter here in New Zealand, so there’s not a hell of a lot going on. I’m also finishing up at a job I’ve been doing over winter, and preparing to focus my energy on being an awesome personal trainer. So I wanted to have a clear mind and a healthy body so that I could get stuff done. Coincidentally, I also started this blog.

Usually, for me, when I make a decision that involves a lifestyle change, I will have mulled it over in my mind for quite a while first. When I start acting on the decision, my resolve is already set and I’ll unwaveringly stick with it. Making the decision in the first place can be the hardest part; once the decision’s been made then there’s no turning back.

So let’s talk a little bit about the way that I drink. I don’t drink beer or wine; the one exception to this is Stone’s green ginger wine, which I love (but have watered down with ice and lemon juice). Other than that, I usually reach for the top shelf: gin and tonic in summer (Bombay Sapphire all the way), whisky and dry in winter (Jameson’s or Canadian Club).

In case you’re wondering, I made this drink for photographic purposes and refrained from adding any gin.

Now, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite because I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t eat sugar, so let’s break this down. There’s no sugar in the gin or the whisky – the sugar has become alcohol. There is some sugar in the mixer though. The tonic that I use (Schweppes – not diet) is 8.9 % sugar, and the dry ginger ale is 9.8 % sugar. As a comparison, milk is 4.7 % sugar – that’s from the naturally occurring lactose in it. As another comparison, coke and apple juice are 10.6 and 10.2 %, respectively. So I make myself a gin and tonic: I start with lots of ice, I then add the alcohol, then the juice of a lemon or a lime, a sprig of mint, then the tonic. By the time the tonic goes in the glass is already half full, so, 8.9 % of half a glass = not much really. The alcohol is doing as much harm as the sugar is, in this instance.

What kind of harm? Well, interestingly, the body metabolises alcohol in almost the same way as it metabolises sugar (the fructose part anyway, which is one of the monosaccharides that forms sucrose (table sugar); glucose is the other). The liver is responsible for breaking down both the alcohol and the fructose, and they both produce the same by-product: fat. Also, because alcohol is a toxin, the body has to prioritise the metabolism of it over and above many of its numerous other important jobs, which all have to sit on the back burner until the alcohol’s been dealt with.

So, have I felt any benefits from not drinking for a month? Yes I have. My digestive system feels clean and clear and healthy. Anyone who’s had a big night on the booze will know how corrosive and inflammatory and acidifying alcohol can be. Plus I haven’t had to deal with anything remotely resembling a hangover. Am I looking forward to having a drink tomorrow? Yes I am. I think my beloved is looking forward to it almost more than I am though. I promised I wouldn’t be boring, going sober for a month, but maybe I have been a little dull compared to my intoxicated alter ego.

I intend to make amends for that tomorrow.

How I Exercise

To be honest, I’ve been doing bugger all exercise over winter (although my version of bugger all might be a bit different from yours). I’ve had a job that’s been physical enough that it’s left me with very little time or energy or inclination to exercise just for the sake of exercising, which, by the way, I love to do. However, I’ve managed to keep my body well within the parameters of what’s acceptable to me, mainly through the way I eat, which is cleaner now than ever before, and through short bursts of specific exercises.

I’m a fan of the minimum effective dose, which Tim Ferriss talks about in his book The 4-Hour Body. I’m not into thrashing myself or slogging it out for hours on end at the gym, not anymore anyway, and besides, I don’t think it’s necessary. If I can get the results I want through short workouts, and still have all the energy I need to make it through the day, well, it’s a no-brainer really.

Probably the most important piece of exercise equipment I have is my interval timer. I usually do 45 second rounds with a 15 second rest in between. I’ll write down a list of exercises or just make it up as I go along. I do a lot of bodyweight resistance exercises, but I also own three kettle bells, some light dumb bells, an aerobic step, a skipping rope, a rebounder (mini trampoline), and a Swiss ball.

If I can’t be bothered thinking up something to do I’ll do one of Mike Chang’s Insane Home Fat Loss workouts. I like them because they’re all bodyweight exercises (the only prop you might need is a small towel), they’re high intensity, short duration (20 minutes), and work to a 30/15 second work to rest ratio.

I’m also experimenting with Carb Back-Loading, a protocol developed by physicist John Kiefer. The basic principle is that you do your exercise without any glucose in your system, so that your body has no choice but to use fat as its energy source. You then eat simple carbohydrate foods after exercising, which causes insulin to be released, which in turn causes the glucose to be shunted preferentially into your muscle cells via the glucose transporters which have come to the surface of the muscle cells as a result of doing resistance training. Essentially it means you can get your muscle cells to fill with glucose (ready for the next workout) without your fat cells doing the same. Sounds pretty good, right?

I’ve also been practicing Muay Thai on and off for almost 10 years. If you want to truly get fit, this is what I’d recommend over and above anything else (if you just want to get in shape I’d recommend kettle bell swings and squats). Muay Thai is awesome. ‘Muay’ means ‘the way’ in Thai; so Muay Thai is ‘the Thai way’. It’s their national sport and a big part of the culture of Thailand. You may have heard of the ‘eight limbs’ of Muay Thai: two fists, two elbows, two knees, and two shins/feet. Kick boxing is the Western version of this. I love it because it’s cardio and resistance combined, it’s high intensity, it requires balance, coordination and flexibility, and you’re learning a useful skill as well. Despite it being a fairly brutal sport, the culture in Muay Thai gyms is often surprisingly welcoming and supportive.

So I do interval training, I use weights, I do Muay Thai, I’ve mentioned that I like to run. The other way that I look after my body is by stretching. A lot. My Mum took up yoga when she was pregnant with me, and I used to practise with her when I was a little kid. I haven’t done it my whole life but I have practised regularly over the last 15 years or so. Some people are naturally flexible; I’m not one of those people. I have to work at it, but the results are well worth the effort. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your muscles supple, and to have a good range of movement around your joints, especially if you exercise a lot. Stretching is the best injury prevention I know of.

Oh and I’m currently learning the aerial silk; maybe I do a bit more exercise than I give myself credit for. The silk is comprised of two ends of fabric that hang from a high ceiling, and the object is to climb the silk and perform acrobatic tricks by winding it around yourself. After my first class, every single muscle in my arms, shoulders, and back was sore – it was awesome! I’m getting stronger already, and starting to learn some cool tricks.

I think it’s important to give your body a wide variety of exercises to do, otherwise it becomes complacent. Take running as an example: if that’s the only form of exercise you do, your body will become more and more used to it and the benefits will start to diminish because you’re not challenging your body with new and different movements. Plus it gets a bit boring doing the same thing over and over again, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-running, I’m just pro-variety.

How could anyone not want to exercise when you’ve got all these cool toys to play with?

How I Eat

I don’t eat wheat or sugar. Just pause for a moment and think about all the things this cuts out. No bread, no pasta, no cakes, biscuits, crackers, baked goods, sweet treats and other processed, refined crap. I’m not one of those people who replaces what they can’t have with a far inferior substitute, like a vegetarian who can’t eat a sausage made of meat so they eat one made of soy. If you don’t want to eat meat, why would you eat something that looks like meat but isn’t? Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

So I don’t eat gluten free bread, or pasta, or anything else. It’s partly because I want what I eat to be as nutritionally dense as possible (wheat doesn’t make the cut in my opinion) and partly because I have an intolerance to it. I don’t mean the kind of intolerance where I thought it sounded kinda trendy so I decided to have one, I mean the kind of intolerance where it feels like there’s a lump of toxic cement stuck in my guts that’s painful enough to make my knees wobble and my mouth fill with saliva like I’m about to spew. So I really am better off without it, and have been for about 15 years. I also think it’s part of the reason why I’ve never been overweight – grains are fed to animals to fatten them up, why would it be any different with people?

Cutting sugar out of my diet has happened more recently. I’m talking about added sugar here; I do eat fruit, which contains fructose, and I drink milk, which contains lactose, and I eat foods that contain carbohydrates (which essentially are long chains of sugar molecules). Over the last year I’ve made a huge transition from ‘I’m not even really sure why sugar’s bad for me anyway’ to ‘now that I know what sugar does, I don’t want to go anywhere near it’. If you’re interested in giving up sugar, or just want to learn more it, check out Sarah Wilson – she’s awesome. Also check out this video from Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, to learn how the body deals with sugar, and how a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie.

So, no wheat and no sugar. What do I eat then? I eat fruit, though not too much, as our bodies can only handle the amount of fructose that’s contained in about two serves of fruit each day. I eat vegetables. A lot of them: fresh, seasonal, raw and cooked. I eat meat. I’m very lucky in that I have access to organic farm-raised beef and lamb. I love fatty meat; lamb and duck would be my all-time favourites. I eat fish – sometimes freshly caught, sometimes from the supermarket. I eat eggs – free range only. I was vegetarian for about four years during my late teens and early twenties, but forced myself to start eating meat again when I discovered that I was almost anaemic. I would never go back to being vegetarian and I wouldn’t advise anyone to go there, especially if you’re female. When I was vegetarian I ate a lot of sugar. Now, I only crave sugar if I’ve gone for too long without eating red meat, once I eat some meat the craving disappears.

I eat dairy in all shapes and sizes: milk, cheese, butter, cream, cottage cheese, yoghurt… I actually buy cream by the litre now, I don’t bother buying milk anymore. Did I mention I’m not fat? I weighed myself this morning and I was about 56 kilograms. My weight fluctuates by a few kilos either side but that’s it. Sometimes I go to the fridge and cut slivers of butter off the block and eat them – on their own. My scales tell me that I’m about 10 % fat. If you’re not familiar with body fat percentages, 10 % is pretty low, especially for a woman. I’m trying to make a point here: eating fat doesn’t make you fat. I’ll write more about this later.

I also eat nuts and seeds every day. Some of my favourites are almonds, macadamias, brazils, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and linseed. More fat. I love it! Anything from a coconut is right up my alley too: coconut water, coconut cream, coconut oil, the flesh, fresh or dried, it’s so good. I eat very few grains. Occasionally I’ll have some rice (black or brown over white) or quinoa, but it’s the exception rather than the norm.

I prepare all my own meals from scratch. I prefer it that way as it means I know exactly what’s in my food and what isn’t. I enjoy eating out occasionally, but, to be honest, the quality of what I prepare myself is better than any restaurant I know of. I love strong flavours and spices. After my first trip to Thailand at the tender age of 18 all food tasted dull and boring if it wasn’t at least a little bit spicy. I can out-spice most people I know and I grow my own chillies in order to have a ready supply. I sprinkle cayenne pepper on my fruit and nuts and yoghurt at breakfast; I know of only one other person who does this, he’s a chili fiend just like me. I use fresh ginger root in everything, yes even breakfast.

I reckon the more time and energy one puts into preparing food, the more satisfying and satiating it is. The preparation is an important part of the whole eating experience. Taking the time to savour the food is also important as it takes a while for the stomach to tell the brain that it’s full – by the time that the message has got through you may well have overeaten.

If you’re trying to lose weight, changing the way you eat is a far more powerful tool than just adding exercise. Get the eating and the exercise working well together and you’ll be on fire.

my running shoes

I’ve had these running shoes for four and a half years and counting. Who knows how many kilometres I’ve run in these puppies. They’re on their second set of laces, they’re a bit worn in places, but they’re still going strong.

About a year ago I contemplated buying a new pair of running shoes, but when I asked myself why, I couldn’t come up with a decent answer. I love how comfortable my shoes are – it’s like they were made for my feet and my feet only. Why change a recipe that works? I could go out and buy a brand spanking new pair of high tech running shoes but I’d probably hate them, and I doubt that they’d enable me to run faster or farther or for longer.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that you don’t need lots of fancy and expensive gear to be able to exercise. The shoes are nothing without the wearer. The shoes don’t run. It’s the person who runs, with or without shoes.

Don’t be a victim

Mum first talked to me about this during my first year at university in Dunedin. I was living on a student allowance of $220 a week. I flatted with four other students in a run-down villa opposite the house from the movie Scarfies and paid $50 a week for my room. I paid another $30 a week for food and bills, which left me with $140 a week for everything else. I had a crapped out van but I chose to walk most of the time, and I wasn’t much of a drinker, but sometimes there’d be a very lean few days before pay day, and sometimes things felt pretty grim.

Anyone who’s experienced a Dunedin winter will know that they’re pretty trying, and the standard of housing is also quite poor. Double glazing and central heating don’t really exist – if they do, they’re the exception rather than the norm and won’t be found in any student flat that I know of. It’s not uncommon to see doors and windows left open on the coldest of days, as it’s colder inside these dwellings than it is outside, and that’s saying something. I remember one day when the low was -3 °C, and the high was 3 °C. That’s fine if you live in a warm comfortable house, but when you live in a draughty old place with little or no insulation where the curtains move in the breeze even when the windows are closed, well that’s a bit rough don’t you think?

So I was talking to my Mum about how hard done by I was feeling. I’d just walked home from uni on a particularly cold evening and couldn’t help but look around at all the other people with their nice warm clothes, and their nice fancy cars, and imagining them going home to their nice warm houses and their delicious dinners. The staple in our flat was ‘shit on rice’ which consisted of rice (obviously), some vegetables, and maybe some meat if we were lucky – not bad really considering we had a weekly food budget of $80.

So here’s where Mum told me that I needed to turn my thought process around and stop allowing myself to feel victimised.

Feeling like a victim is a state of mind. No one can make you feel like a victim without your permission; it’s your choice. Just like no one can give you happiness, nor can they take it away from you. True happiness comes from within.

So if I was to turn this around and try to put a positive spin on my situation, it would go something like this: I’m incredibly fortunate to even have the opportunity to attend a university. There are a lot of people out there who haven’t had the chance at a primary or secondary education, let alone a tertiary one. The student allowance I was receiving was covering all of my basic expenses and was a government grant that I didn’t have to pay back. Plus I’d paid my fees that year with money my Grandma had given me. And as far as all those other people go, well I have no way of knowing how hard they’ve had to work in order to get to where they are now. I have no idea about what kind of sacrifices they’ve had to make. I really have no right to stand here and say ‘poor me, why haven’t I got what they’ve got’.

Lately, I’ve allowed myself to feel like a victim again. Fast forward my life 10 years and I’ve studied my brains out, travelled a bit, had my epiphany, studied some more, moved house about 10 billion times and come back to the neck of the woods that I grew up in.

It’s finding fulfilling work that’s been a challenge for me lately. I have so many skills, and loads of qualifications, why doesn’t the perfect job come and present itself to me on a silver platter? And therein lies the flaw in my logic. First of all I need to be really clear about what it is I actually want. What is my idea of fulfilling work? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does it make me feel? How does it make others feel? What’s my motivation to do it? Once I can answer all these questions then the path to getting me there will become clearer and clearer.

Again, instead of focusing on all the negatives – why is it so hard for me, why don’t I have what the next person has… I need to concentrate on what I do have: my brain, my body, my health, my education, all of my life experiences, supportive friends and family, a beautiful place to live… I have a lot. If it was just about money I could’ve moved to a city and gotten a job using my university degrees. But I don’t want to live in a city, and having a lot of money isn’t really that high on my list of priorities.

I can generate an income in a small town doing something that I love. It may not be easy, but the success will be that much sweeter knowing that I’ve done it all off my own back. I can and I will, just you watch me!

It’s the little things

I live in a valley that runs in an east-west direction. The house I live in is on the southern slope of the valley, so it faces north and gets plenty of sun, even in winter. However, because the arc that the sun traces across the sky is so much lower in winter, the sun gets trapped behind the northern slope of the valley for what seems like an eternity on those cold frosty mornings. In the depths of winter the sun finally peeked out from behind the hill at around 9:10 AM, which, cruelly, is about 15 minutes before I leave for work.

I’ve been watching with avid interest and childlike fascination as the sun becomes less coy and breaches the hill a minute or so earlier each and every day. Today, it came up around 8:30 AM, so I’ve already gained 40 minutes of glorious sunshine in the morning alone. It’s the little things.

Not only is the sun coming up earlier each day, but its arc is getting higher, so the point where it breaches the hill is constantly moving eastwards. The sun is on the move and I’m very happy about it! It won’t be long now until it rises completely clear of the hill.

Why I Run

I don’t run to build muscle or burn fat. I know enough about exercise to know that running doesn’t really achieve either of these two things. I don’t run to compensate for my poor food choices of the day before, although I have done this in the past. I run because it makes me feel alive. To me, running feels like the most natural, primal movement the body can make. And bodies are designed to move, not to sit at a desk looking at a computer screen.

I don’t meditate, but running is as close as I get to a meditative state. All I need to worry about is breathing and placing one foot in front of the other on the track in front of me. Sometimes, if I have the energy, I’ll open up into a full sprint when I’m nearly at the end of my run. I’m going so fast my feet feel like they’re barely touching the ground; I may as well be flying! This makes me feel invincible.

I always run alone. This is my opportunity to get away from everyone and everything. This is when all my best thoughts come to me. Or sometimes there aren’t any thoughts at all. Sometimes I have conversations in my head, conversations that will one day be had with the person they’re intended for. They’re draft conversations. Sometimes I get so animated that I catch myself gesticulating with my hands while my lips are moving as if in speech. I must look rather odd.

When I run I strike with the ball of my foot first, not my heel. I learnt this from reading the book ‘Born To Run’ by Christopher McDougall. It’s an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in running. Before this book taught me how to run properly I used to strike with my heel first, and it made my hamstrings tight and my joints sore. If I revert back to my old style of running, just to remind myself of how poor my form used to be, it feels heavy and jarring and cumbersome – no wonder it made my body hurt.

I like to run in nature, not on a treadmill. The last time I ran on a treadmill was at a gym in Auckland, about a year ago. I was struck by the realisation that I was running forwards, looking at a brick wall in front of me, but going nowhere. Plus I’d paid $25 to do it – is that crazy or what? When I’m living in Marahau, as I currently am, I run in the Abel Tasman National Park. My standard 5 km run takes me to Tinline, around a loop track, and back out again. I’ve done this run so many times I could probably do it with my eyes closed.

While I was living in Brightwater earlier this year I started experimenting with some longer runs; around 12 km, and was pleasantly surprised by how do-able they were. Over summer I’m planning to do some longer runs in the Park. I’ll decide how many kilometres I want to run, catch a ride into the Park with a water taxi, then it’ll be up to my trusty legs to get me back out again. I can’t wait!

This is the track I run on when I’m in Marahau

And this is the view! Better than a brick wall, right?