Archive for the ‘Maintain your health’ Category

Pemigewasset’s Free Health Spa

January 28, 2016

Sunday’s bright sun invited me up Mt. Pemigewasset in Franconia Notch for the thrill of One Winter Day at a Free Mountain Health Spa (FMHS.) I grabbed my microspikes and poles, packed my first aid kit, bivy sack, ginger tea and snacks, and headed north for the 1.7 mile hike up the mountain.

Thanks to earlier rain and high temperatures, there is a sneaky layer of ice under what few inches of snow we have, so it is best to keep that in mind with every step you take just about anywhere, but particularly over the variety of rocks and logs, puddles and streams that need to be negotiated on a hike.

An FMHS hike is different than other winter hikes because the object is to pump up a good sweat. On other winter hikes, we must layer our clothes judiciously to avoid any heavy sweating and potential chills. The last thing any winter hiker wants is a mishap needing a wait for help in wet clothes, or even a de-energizing slow cold walk out.

An FMHS hike is all about breathing. On the uphill, I usually pace myself using 2:1 breathing. My exhalations have to be twice as long as my inhalations. For example: exhale for 6 paces, inhale 3 paces and shift gears as necessary. When it becomes difficult for me to exhale for 2 paces and inhale for 1, it’s time to stop and rest a bit. The advantage to this breath is that it keeps me hiking in a relaxed state, yet gives my muscles a good stretch and squeeze. Hiking in tune with your own body is crucial. First, it guarantees that you will work up a good sweat. Think of it as the final spin on a complete wash. You still need the rinse cycle, but that comes later. Especially on the uphill, it is important to maintain a good sweat, not a roast, just a sweat. You may need to pocket your hat and open your jacket a bit.

Sweating clears the toxins and debris from our systems. An FMHS hike necessarily needs a brisk walk up a small, well- traveled mountain, one you have climbed before and know it is reasonable for you to complete the round trip and head home immediately after. Pack an extra layer to stay warm on the hike out. These recommendations are for an intentional FMHS hike only.

Using poles helps to distribute the weight so that our legs AND our arms are pumping us up the mountain without straining our knees. The Pemi trail winds its way around swells and streams, through hardwood forest gradually joined by evergreens that take over the nearer you come to the summit. The Pemi summit is a huge field of granite that wraps around evergreens to the east, looks south through the notch and west to Mt. Mooselauke.

At hike’s end, head right on home, treat yourself to a hot as you can stand mineral or solar salt bath, enjoy a warm meal, a good night’s sleep, and a fresh start on the rest of your life!


The Challenge of Being Mortal

January 14, 2016

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande is a book about how people might live successfully all the way to their very end. Gawande is a practicing surgeon with a gift for putting medical challenges into language that the general public can easily understand. My response to the book’s goal was, “Oh my! Yes! Tell me more!” And he did. He gives us a little US history to put things in perspective.

Stage 1- The country was in extreme poverty, deaths occurred in the home because people did not have access to professional diagnosis and treatment.
Stage 2- US income levels increased. With greater resources for medical care, people turned to health care systems when ill, often died in the hospital instead of at home.
Stage 3- US income climbs to highest levels, people have the means to become concerned about quality of life, even in sickness, and deaths at home rise again.

Gawande takes us through a variety of existing assisted living situations with private living spaces that boast live plants, gardens, animals, birds, visiting children, and a variety of classes and activities. They are more like homes than the double occupancy nursing homes we know. Some have pod arrangements with private rooms for residents surrounding common kitchen and living areas. One includes an auditorium where concerts and lectures draw in the surrounding community as well as residents.

As more assistance is needed, Gawande takes us through several actual scenarios that underscore the need to clearly spell out what is important to us. Gawande leads us gently through palliative care conversations that make satisfying decisions about surgery and other treatment possible, what level of being alive is tolerable, what is most important. One person might be willing to go through a lot of pain to be able to eat all the chocolate ice cream he wants and to watch unlimited football on TV as long as possible. Another may not choose to prolong life if she can no longer be an active participant with others.

Gawande takes us through the way to have palliative care conversations that make dying a successful experience. We meet Hospice, the service that aims to make each day the best possible by managing pain and other symptoms and providing assistance as needed for a manageable steady state.

What could be a morbid book instead opens up the strength of persistence in managing our exit. We are still smoothing out the tangles of US history’s Stage 3. For their own families, even doctors must deal with the same hurdles in our medical/cultural system. Gawande has certainly cleared the road less taken for us.

Being Mortal is available in local libraries and through Inter Library Loan.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

December 16, 2015

This week, many people focused on the art of being happy and its effect on our health. At church, the whole service was on the importance of laughter, whatever the internal or external circumstances. Hymns continued the theme. We sang all four verses of, “If you’re happy and you know it,” and, “We Gather Together.” Thanksgiving is another important ingredient.

We had a “Laughing Meditation,” and the sermon drew on Norman Cousins’ 1974 recovery from a normally incurable illness by watching hilarious movies and literally laughing himself well. He spent the rest of his life writing books, including, Anatomy of an Illness, and lecturing at Medical Schools on the benefits of laughter to healing.

When the pianist played as a postlude, Mozart’s “Alleluia,” her fingers danced over the keys in a bright staccato variation that I am sure Mozart himself would have cheered and laughed right along with all of us.

Later in the day, PBS interviewed our Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy and asked him what advice he would give us to be healthy. His spontaneous reply was, “Be happy, Eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and Exercise” – in that order!

In Yoga, one of the breathing practices is the Laughing Breath. It is probably one of the most robust of practices and has the effect of relaxing the whole body so that we can move into more demanding postures. In yoga, we emphasize lengthening exhalations. The laughing breath is one people usually can extend for a long time. By emptying the lungs fully, we make room for a big inhalation of oxygenated air that fully charges and relaxes our body.

I scanned through the research literature on the effects of laughter on health. It does matter whether we do it solo or with other people. Even laughing with one other person promotes relationship well being, a sense of belonging that promotes longer, healthier lives. Studies have been done that show group laughter triggers the release of endorphins (pain killers), improves sleep, enhances memory and creativity, improves cardiac health, lowers blood pressure, improves digestion, and more….

Caution: avoid unhealthy laughter that enhances self or group at the expense of others. Despite the tenuous world situation in this century of escalating greed and refusal to address climate change, perhaps the best thing we can do is continue to look for the bright angle of each moment, alert to ferret out the humor and joy that helps us to bond with and encourage each other. What innovative solutions might we then enact that enable people of the world and all life forms to share the joy of living?

Gratitudes Deliver Happiness

February 13, 2015

Every night before she goes to sleep, poet Carrie Newcomer says out loud three things she is grateful for; “all the insignificant, extraordinary, ordinary stuff” of her life. She finds that she sleeps better “holding what lightens and softens my life ever so briefly at the end of the day”.

Newcomer put her thoughts into a poem, “Three Gratitudes” (available on line). She encourages us to make our own lists for each day.

I looked up research on how the habit of offering up gratitudes can affect our health. It turns out that the more appreciative we are at the end of each day, the better we sleep and begin to show gratitude toward others throughout every day. The idea is that our gratitude itself becomes the measure through which we raise our happiness index.

Here is one of my day’s end lists. Like any habit I enjoy, this one feels so good that I keep adding more feel good thoughts to my list:

I’m thankful for:
A gentle snowfall,
My vest that keeps out all drafts,
Mack’s purr,
Seeing a friend at the grocery store,
A perfectly ripe pineapple,
The memory of Grandpa shucking oysters for me on the back stoop,
My green jacket that keeps me warm even at 7 degrees and wind,
My family’s exuberance skiing,
Perfect skiing conditions,
Leftover lentil soup in the refrigerator,
Plymouth’s new solar electric array,
A fresh column,
The hill through the woods,
The school bus driver’s wave,
…and off to sleep I go.

Whew! Never mind counting sheep! While expressing Three Gratitudes can be depended on to send us off for restful sleep, this habit primes us to express our thanks openly during each day as events occur. Thank you for reading my blog and for your comments.

Keep Everything Moveable Moving!

November 14, 2014

Winter is a time when we huddle more and move less in our attempts to stay warm. Ironically, it is when we keep moving, shovel snow, ski or enjoy some snow sport that we generate the body heat that keeps us warm.

A 96 year old woman told me that she attributes her remarkable good health and flexibility to the fact that she does 200 bicycles in bed each morning before getting up. I told this story to a friend who was having ankle surgery that would keep her off her feet for two months. She immediately latched on to the practice and attributes her smooth post surgery recovery to the fact that she did indeed keep everything moving and healing by doing bicycles each morning in bed.

Returning veterans and people who have lost limbs or become paraplegic often become role models as they build their upper body strength and use it to take themselves wherever they need to go, be it driving a car, skiing, or working in their field of interest. Those with artificial limbs enter marathons, paint, teach, farm, and more according to their interests. They know that keeping everything moveable moving generates robust health for body and mind.

A woman visiting the Flume Gorge lamented having left her cane at home and asked at the desk if there was a cane she could use, since she was recovering from knee surgery. She just wanted to be able to take the short walk up through the Flume Gorge but thought the two-mile loop was probably too much for her to walk. Someone loaned her a set of poles. When she came back, she exclaimed, “I can walk with these! I just did the whole two miles! Where can I buy some poles? I’m not going to hobble with a cane anymore!”

Hikers know the value of using poles on strenuous or long hikes. Poles enable hikers to use their arms and legs to carry them up the hills and to use shoulders and arms to relieve knee stress coming downhill. Since hands don’t pool when they are holding poles, fingers remain flexible to work with equipment because circulation continues to move through them.

An easy way to keep everything moving is to choose a pleasurable activity that becomes part of your daily routine. You may practice yoga, tai chi, walking, weight lifting, skiing, intentional house cleaning, reclining bicycles, play a musical instrument, sing, dance or whatever you dream up that keeps your circulation pumping through your whole body rhythmically.

Underlying all movement is the breath. By making our exhalations long and strong, we open up more space for fuller inhalations, which then keep our circulation moving throughout our bodies, keeping us flexible, accessing energy, and feeling fully alive!

Franconia Ridge’s Free Health Spa

September 12, 2014

New Hampshire’s mountains offer continual free health spas on a daily basis. Depending on the day, you may get the full physical treatment with lots of sun and sweat to lubricate all your joints and wring out your organs so every system gets a fresh start. You may get to stand under waterfalls or be pummeled in cascades and relax into a nap in the sun.

Other days provide a different sort of health spa experience. If it’s your day off, you’ve just heard the latest world news and just need to be in a spot where the inhabitants all get along for a change, even if the mountains are socked in with a firm “cloudy” forecast, grab your pack and head up.

Health spas, the paid ones, usually include massage, saunas, hot tubs, swimming, and some sort of calming practice like meditation or yoga. The main goal is to cleanse and relax the body from the inside out as well as from the outside in. That means keeping hydrated with plenty of water.

The walk itself can be a meditation, even if there’s some chatting going on. Conversation tends to be a sorting out, rethinking, brain cleanse, with the last leg of the hike to the top often being in silence to better access fresh air.

Hiking poles make the hike kinder to your knees and hips by spreading the weight-bearing load to include the shoulders and arms as well, while still allowing you to build up a good sweat. They also encourage a good upper body workout.

The Franconia Ridge Loop, most favorite hike in the White Mountains, is a mid-week wonder, even when the wind is socking in the ridge with a steady parade of clouds. Such were the conditions when I started up the Falling Waters Trail this cool, early September morning. Having rained heavily the night before, the rocks were all wet, which meant I had to pay attention, no mind wandering; just watch the rocks and forget about solving any kind of problems, world or otherwise. Then the trail upped the ante with stream crossings at every waterfall, calling for yogic balancing on rocks.

If you want to hike in a truly relaxed state, breathing 2:1 is the way to go. Just make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. The easiest way to practice this breath is to count your paces. You may start out breathing 6:3, then shift gears to 4:2 and 2:1 as you gain elevation. If you cannot exhale for 2 paces to every 1 inhalation pace, it’s time to stop and rest. This practice develops the habit of deeper breathing regularly.

The morning was cool, and while I paused to inhale the essence of Stairs, Swiftwater, and Cloudland Falls, my body was in the ‘keep moving’ mode to maintain body heat. I noticed the great diversity of trees; all seemed to be comfortable with each other, made space as needed. Lush stands of young spruce and fir presented themselves. Occasional mountain ash appeared with their berries beginning to turn.

As the trail continued, smaller rocks graduated to rock slabs and much reaching and stretching to get up and over them. Arms and legs got a full workout. Suddenly, I was out of the trees and into the west wind blowing over the ridge. I headed over to the east side of Haystack Mt. for a mid-morning sustenance break. The sun seemed to be trying to break through the clouds without success. I was glad I’d packed a hat and wind/rain shell.

Just as suddenly, out of the ether appeared a young man running the ridge. He’d started at Mt. Liberty and was “only running over to Mt. Lafayette.” All workout routines welcome up here.

I continued hiking over the ridge, which is an alpine garden walk with huge spreads of Diapensia that lays a white carpet in June along the ridge. Rhodora’s buds were all set for spring and sprigs of Mountain Sandwort were still blooming. I also saw bright red Bunchberries and tiny Alpine Goldenrod in brilliant bloom enhanced by the fog. A steady carpet of alpine garden beds greeted me all the way over Lincoln to Lafayette with a big dose of Vitamin W (for wildflowers).

At one point on the ridge, I followed the trail over a boulder and found that it continued down a steep section covered with wet lichen, like greased lightening, definitely something to avoid if possible. I squatted down, planning my route when I heard, “Hey there! Need a hand?”

A trail angel! Another young man was out hiking the ridge on his day off. He went around the boulder, reached up and gave me a hand down! Why do serendipitous events like that happen on a cold day when the mountain is socked in? Are we more connected than we realize? Is part of a full health spa treatment recognizing how interdependent we are?

Two more sustenance stops, one on Mt. Lafayette in the shelter of the old hostel foundation, and another at the hut before the final trek down the Bridle Path. Included were several encounters with hikers heading up and over the ridge as we compared tales, and encouraged each other.

Depending on the day, you may need an extra layer of fleece as you hike out, then go home and take a salt bath or hot shower to complete your free spa treatment.

PS: I also carry at least 2 liters of water, a wind/rain shell, light fleece, hat, first aid sack, high protein sandwich, nuts, and an orange to assure the full treatment!

Flora, Fauna, and Flossing

July 17, 2014

While the challenge to see that the food we eat is free of mercury, pesticides, hormones, and whatever else threatens rather than supports robust health, we sometimes need reminders to be sure that we toss our food into a clean mouth bowl after going to all that trouble to check the food out.

It may help to visualize how perfectly arranged the mouth bowl is to house a variety of bacteria, not all of them friendly. Bacteria love dark, moist places and a steady diet of sugar. Any pockets in the gums surrounding our teeth are a housing bonanza for bacteria, depending on how welcome we make them. Unchecked, bacteria create gum disease, get into the blood stream, and create plaques in our arteries that lead to heart disease.

While we deplore the amount of sugar degenerating our diet, this is not really a new phenomenon. I was raised in the penny candy days and there was a regular stash at the corner store in my neighborhood. There was a sugar bowl on every kitchen table and plenty of home baked cookies and bars. Cakes had an inch of frosting on them and fruit pies were common desserts. However, carbonated drinks were only had on special occasions. They took up a minor section of an aisle in the grocery store, not the whole aisle. Orange juice was only had by squeezing oranges so it was consumed in small glasses.

The problem with today’s soda is that it is sipped throughout the day, along with snacks providing bacteria with a steady diet of sugar and setting off just as steady a stream of bacterial plaque and tooth decay. Hygienists patiently demonstrate flossing technique and the necessity of routing out the bacteria before they form plaques and start eroding the enamel on our teeth. It is not enough to slide the floss up and down between each tooth. We need to wrap it around the base of every side of every tooth to rout out any bacteria in residence. If you then rinse your mouth with about a tablespoon of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide– brace yourself– you will immediately see the spots you missed.

Food is meant to be digested standing up. Anyone who regularly takes a nap directly after a meal is in for a foul awakening as remnants of the meal shift into reverse, travel back up the esophagus, and start over again in the mouth, definitely not as tasty the second time around.

Step one is to remain in an upright position for 3-4 hours after eating to give the meal a fair chance to enter the relay race through the digestive tract, at least to make it beyond the second gate, the pyloric valve, at the entrance to the small intestine. Water we swish and swallow between meals also keeps nutrients moving easily in the right direction.

So, on any visit to a dental hygienist for a cleaning, listen up for a longer, healthier life.

PS: The most effective toothpaste I know is a tsp. of baking soda with a squirt of lemon juice. Watch it foam and load up your brush!

Snow, COPD, and the Benefits of Exercise

April 5, 2014

I was surprised to hear a college student say, “I don’t mind the cold but I don’t like snow!” Having been born in a giant snowstorm that tied up Boston for several days, snow has the opposite effect on me. Snow makes me feel safe and protected, gives me a sense of wonder. As kids, we spent every daylight hour we weren’t in school outside building forts, igloos, sledding, or just eating the snow and checking our mittens for unusual formations of snowflakes.

Snow continues to be an important part of winter for me. Having joined the ranks of those with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease), getting out in the snow and pumping up my lungs as much as possible tops the list of healthy exercises. The only difference now is that I have to be sure I intentionally exhale fully. If I make my exhalation twice as long as my inhalation, I squeeze my lungs out like a sponge ready to take in a big new breath. With COPD, when people continually take short breaths, their lungs get more sluggish than ever and the last thing we want is rigid, stuck, air bags.

So here’s food for thought if you or a friend are dealing with COPD. The 2:1 breath can be practiced whether sitting in a chair, walking up stairs, running, hiking or just about any activity. You can simply count the time it takes to fully exhale and then inhale to half that amount of time or you can count your paces.

Here in New Hampshire, we have a beautiful natural environment with a variety of free, built in attributes for exercise. Most of us live on or next to some sort of hill. Since we’ve been inundated with snow this year, woods trails have all been smoothed out with 2-3 feet or more of snow. With microspikes, most popular trails and roadways, especially when icy, are safely doable.

It can be a scarey shock to find that when hiking with a group, all of a sudden, you’re winded when you talk while hiking uphill, or when you can’t keep up with the group. As Sam Levenson would say, “So don’t talk on the uphill.” You’re probably not the only one gasping for breath. If necessary, find a group that hikes at a more comfortable pace but keep on hiking! Use ‘em or lose ‘em applies to lungs as well as to muscles.

It helps to find a friend or friends to exercise with both for incentive and companionship. One of the ways we can keep each other well is to get out and enjoy this snow while it lasts. This week, the group I hiked with did the Sugarloafs off the Zealand road. It was a bit steep going up but we had exhilarating luge runs coming down. All that’s needed is a big black trash bag wrapped around your tush and a great hooting “Whoo!” Ah, snow.

Winter Confidence with Microspikes

March 11, 2014

What an awesome winter we are having! New Hampshire winters inspire snow bunnies to head south and arctic hares to stay north and enjoy the full bloom of the season. We comment on all the variations of snow from light fluffy stuff to the wet snow that remains draped on evergreens in soft ermine stoles. To enjoy the snow and get around safely, a pair of Microspikes, hardened stainless steel spikes on an elastomer harness that stretches over shoes or boots, is indispensable.

Like it or not, winter in NH also includes dealing with ice on both ends of the spectrum.We find surprise patches of ice wherever water runs or rain collects or frost heaves. On weekends, cars fill every trailhead parking lot that is plowed out. Magnificent frozen waterfalls reflect their mineral colors like crystal palaces in the sun. Word quickly passes for the best time to see them. Places like Smart’s Brook, the Flume, Bridal Veil Falls, and Mt. Pemigewasset can all be accessed with relatively short hikes, but foot gear that stands up to the inevitable ice spots is essential.

Snow shoers make the first trails after significant storms. Trails soon become well packed throughout the White Mountains by inspired New Hampshirites as well as visitors. Except for new snow, microspikes mean the difference between slip-sliding our way along a trail or walking with confidence whether on level or graded paths. The spikes come in several different sizes to fit over different size shoes or boots. Now is a good time to check out which sporting goods stores near you carry the spikes, what size you need, and when seasonal reduced sales begin.

Winter hiking usually takes less effort as we encounter frozen stream crossings and enjoy better traction going uphill or downhill with the spikes. With snow cover there are fewer obstacles to negotiate. You can just plant your foot where you want to go. A recent hike over Welch-Dickey was a cake walk. 2-3 feet of snow unscrambled most of the usual scrambles, and microspikes made the hike actually less strenuous than in summer.

In winter, giant granite slabs leading up to summits are turned into snow fields calling for sunglasses; spruce/fir forests become magical adventures that must have also inspired children’s book illustrators and cinematographers. Cairns that mark the trail in open areas may be buried except for a few layers of top stones; Jack Pines are turning gold and spring is definitely in the air.

One of the added benefits of regular exercise that heats up your core temperature when walking uphill, brisk walking, peddling a bike, climbing stairs, or lifting weights means there is less need to turn up the thermostat at home. We are saving on the heating bill while keeping our circulation doing what it is meant to do best. Exercise gets heart rate up, improves color and breathing.

One of the ways to improve lung capacity is to practice 2 to 1 breathing. Let your breath be your speedometer. Make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations and shift gears whenever needed to be able to keep the ratio 2:1 with your mouth closed. Example: 6 paces/counts out, 3 paces/counts in. Shift down (4:2, 2:1) whenever you have to open your mouth to breathe. Stop for a rest when needed. Watch what happens when your body naturally begins to take deeper breaths in sync with regular exercise.

Cooked Food: Our Ancestor’s Legacy of Transformation

June 7, 2013

Michael Pollan obviously had fun writing his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan takes us through his hilarious travels to discover the essence of how the use of fire, water, air and the earth rendered humans a dominant species. He’s concerned about our growing distance from direct, physical engagement in transforming raw stuff into cooked food and the nourishment such food provides as opposed to opening a package that has been processed elsewhere.

Discovery of fire and an inadvertently cooked carcass drew early humans in with its pleasant aroma and eventual preferred taste and started this whole business of cooked food. Most animals and birds spend their entire day chewing in order to survive. But, cooked food is more tender and easily digested, so it cuts down chewing time and frees humans to dream up other things to do with their time. Squirrels have to bury their nuts and wait to season them and make them digestible. Bunches of tree seedlings we find in the spring attest to a forgotten stash. Fermentation is practiced by many species, including food that sits in the craw of birds, readying it for digestion.

Pollan goes to North Carolina to learn the fine art of pig roasting by apprenticing himself to the experts. Whether you ever decide to roast a pig yourself, you’ll learn a lot about the value of different wood, and the transformative power of carefully controlled fire in the smoke of “ritual sacrifice that shadow us, however faintly, whenever we cook a piece of meat over a fire.”

Next, he hired a gourmet cook to teach him how to make pot dishes as he walks us through the water element via French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Greek and more variations, adding vegetables, seaweeds, mushrooms, spices, and sauces. Guaranteed, you’ll want to try some new variations yourself.

He did the same with bread making (air element), apprenticed himself to fine bakers and takes us through the art of making starter, a sponge, and all the shenanigans in between. When we bake with whole grains, we reduce the risk of chronic diseases, weigh less, and live longer than those who don’t.

Finally, Pollan takes us through the earth element, the microbes that render food more digestible, and release valuable nutrients, vitamins, minerals. He has a whole saga for making sauerkraut and other fermented foods, including beer.

As we move into summer, we have the opportunity to celebrate with outdoor picnics, favorite dishes, and ritual gatherings, mindful of  how we honor and use the elements of fire, water, air and earth in the foods we prepare to share with others. Farmer’s Markets and  roadside produce stands provide us with new and familiar choices to continue our exciting, and often hilarious, human evolution. Here’s to celebrating our evolving art!