230 reps

The other evening I was browsing the internet when I happened across a YouTube video of Mike Chang doing one of his workouts. I don’t really get off on guys with no armpit hair doing lots of pull-ups but there were several things that appealed to me about what he was doing. Firstly, he’d chosen several different exercises to do, and the number of repetitions he wanted to do of each exercise without really knowing how it would pan out. Secondly, he didn’t know beforehand how long it was going to take or how many reps of each exercise he’d do each time.

I like this because it introduces an element of unpredictability to a workout. Usually, when I do interval training I’ll set my timer for my work time and rest time, and stop working when the timer tells me to. I like the idea of going until my body tells me to stop, rather than relying on an external influence telling me what to do.

So I thought I’d give it a crack. I chose four exercises: kettle bell swings, kettle bell clean and presses, dumb-bell press-ups, and Swiss ball crunches. Here’s a video I made demonstrating exactly what I was doing.

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I’ve gone through this workout a couple of times now, and the breakdown of reps has been pretty similar each time. Both times, the exercise I’ve found the hardest is the dumb-bell press-up, which is not what I expected. Turns out I can swing a kettle bell until the cows come home, but a modified press up is a real challenge. I guess that’s because the kettle bell swing is all about glutes and quads which are big strong muscle groups, whereas the press-up uses smaller upper body muscles – the pecs, triceps, and front shoulder. Being of the fairer sex, these muscles don’t get strong unless you put in a lot of work.

The first time round I wasn’t really concerned about my time, I was focusing more on good technique. Plus I had no time to try and beat. The second time round I was hoping to do it quicker but I was also trying to compare how I felt exercising in the morning before eating with exercising in the afternoon after a good lunch.

There’s so much scope to play around with this style of workout, the options are pretty much endless!

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Why do the goalposts keep moving?

When I was a kid I always wanted to be an architect. Well, once I realised that being a princess wasn’t an actual job anyway. I used to make Lego houses with flip-top roofs which revealed the layout of the rooms beneath. I took technical drawing as one of my optional classes at high school; I loved the precision of straight lines and perfect curves, of drawing in isometric view with vanishing points, perspective and foreshortening. Somewhere along the way technical drawing morphed into graphic design which I liked less – too much focus on the evolution of a design concept and not enough straight lines. Not clinical enough for me.

I talked to a family friend who’s an architect about what I needed to study to go down this career path. She informed me that maths and physics were integral components of architecture. But I wasn’t interested in maths or physics by then. In my last year at high school I studied English, P.E., graphics, painting, and photography – no maths or science to be seen. I had no intention of going to university after high school, I’d already been at school for 12 years and I wanted a break. When I was awarded runner-up to dux at the prize giving ceremony that I almost didn’t bother attending they announced I was taking a year off before I continued my studies. I never said that! I probably said that I couldn’t wait to be free from the institution of school and all I planned on doing was riding my bike and going to the beach, but that wouldn’t have sounded very good would it?

That’s pretty much what I did though. I relished my freedom and made the most of it. I was still living at home so I had pretty much no expenses, only my car (I learned to drive when I was 15, and have owned a vehicle ever since). In the year after I finished high school I completed a herbalism course, I did shows on the local community radio station, Fresh FM, I worked for my dad and saved enough money to go on a two month holiday to Thailand with a friend, and I attended an outdoor course at Whenua Iti – the local outdoor pursuits centre.

The next year I went to Australia with three friends and we worked and travelled our way around the eastern half of the country, it was great! Then I went back to Whenua Iti and completed a year-long outdoor course where we did almost every outdoor pursuit you could think of – sea kayaking, river kayaking, canoeing, rafting, rock climbing, caving, mountain biking, tramping… I came away from the course knowing that I wanted to work in the outdoors but not in tourism, so working for the Department of Conservation (DoC) seemed like a good avenue to go down. I started by volunteering with DoC to get some experience and to let them know I was keen. The voluntary work took me to some pretty cool places – helicopter rides to the tops of mountains to survey for threatened plant species, or into the remote wilderness of Fiordland to survey for the Fiordland crested penguin.

Eventually the volunteering paid off and I got some paid work, but it was a contract which eventually came to an end. It was around this time that it started to dawn on me that if I wanted to get anywhere in life I may need to get a better education. The people I was working with all had at least one degree, and I kept getting asked if I had one.

Within a few weeks of starting to look into it I was enrolled to study for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Otago in Dunedin. I’d been to Dunedin once before but I essentially knew no one. I chose Otago for its favourable reputation, especially in the sciences, and because I wanted to live in a university town rather than a town that also happened to have a university. I was 23 when I started uni and I’d been out of high school for five years, whereas most of my fellow first-years were fresh out of high school. I felt particularly old and out of place, but I was there to study and I was serious about it. Making friends wasn’t a priority, although I did make some really good friends, and also got my first boyfriend.

I completed my BSc in three years, took a year off, then came back for a Postgraduate Diploma in Science, took a couple of years off, then came back to write a thesis (on the topic of air pollution and climatology), and now have a Master of Science degree. During my studies I wrote two articles that have been published in academic journals, and I managed to make it all the way through university without getting a single C; As and Bs only. I should be more proud of this than I am. I’m almost embarrassed to write about it and I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel that I’ve used these qualifications to their full potential. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a 9-5 job with a salary. Maybe it’s because after five years of tertiary study where I worked bloody hard I did an about turn and decided I didn’t want to be chained to a desk for 40 hours a week and that I wanted to be a personal trainer instead.

I’m smart enough that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to, but I’ve never committed to anything for long enough to really bring it into fruition. I can be so sure about something that I’m willing to devote all my time and energy to pursuing it, then when it’s just within my grasp I lose interest. Why am I like this? Why can’t I just choose one thing and stick with it? Is this the human condition or is it just me? Maybe it’s because I’m Pisces – a fish in water flitting from one interest to another without ever settling on anything. Maybe I’m just good at making excuses.

I’m at a stage in my life now where I’m really starting to wonder what my purpose is. I know it’s not to procreate. All I really want is just to be me. If there was a job titled ‘Being Amber’ I could do that better than anyone, but who would pay me? It’s a bit of a dilemma really; I’m not willing to do a job that’s not fulfilling just so I can have money in the bank. I do want to work, but only if I feel I’m contributing something of value and am able to really help people. Most of the time I just want to be a kept woman, a home maker. I love the idea of staying home most of the time, growing a garden, preparing delicious meals for the people I care about. But I know it won’t be enough on its own, I’ve got a brain that needs to be stimulated, I’ll be doing myself a disservice not to honour that.

Life after a boozy weekend

As you know, I easily made it through the month of August without touching a drop of alcohol. However, since breaking my alcohol fast I’ve had a couple of boozy weekends, the last of which has wreaked havoc on my delicate constitution. I may as well have drunk petrol, that’s how raw my insides feel. Starting the week on the back foot reminds me of too many weekends spent drinking away my 20s; I’m 33 now – far too old for this shit!

It got me thinking though, about what’s actually happening in my body. What are the mechanisms behind these shit feelings? Firstly, alcohol is acidifying, and us humans like to be slightly alkaline. Secondly, alcohol is corrosive on the digestive system, I can definitely verify that, and it’s probably what caused the pain. If you’re trying to hold on to your good gut bacteria, as I am, alcohol is not your friend. But it’s not just your gut flora at stake here; did you know that 95 % of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood) resides in your gut? So, if your gut is acidic and being corroded by alcohol, is that likely to affect your mood as well? I think so. Sarah Wilson wrote a great article about it here.

Alcohol is also pretty high in calories – seven per gram, but has very little nutritional value. As a comparison, carbohydrates and protein both contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine. As alcohol is usually additional to the food we eat, these calories provide an excess to what we need, which gets stored as fat which or may not be used later. I know I’ve stored some over the last couple of weeks, but it won’t be sticking around for long.

I’ve also noticed that my hand has gotten sore again. I sprained it months ago attempting to arm wrestle someone who has 20 kg more muscle than me. I didn’t win. I can’t think of anything physical I’ve done that would aggravate it. Could I be producing more or eliminating less uric acid as a result of drinking alcohol? Probably. Could the uric acid be flaring up an old injury? Maybe.

So what am I doing about it? I managed to get out for a run today which improved my mood exponentially. Often, the times I feel like exercising the least are the times I need it the most. I had no energy or inclination for running, but I knew I’d feel better if I could pull it off, and I did (pull it off and feel better).

I’m also on a mission to eat as many probiotic foods as possible. Jason Shon Bennett talks about eating raw, soaked, sprouted, and fermented foods every day. I’ve got some sprouts soaking on the windowsill, sauerkraut in the fridge, I eat yoghurt and raw greens every day… I’m also drinking slippery elm – it soothes my inflamed innards like nothing else.

Grow your internal garden

This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.

It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.

Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.

Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.

So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do –  ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?

Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.

It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.

If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.

The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.

Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?

So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.

Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.

For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.