Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Improving Happiness

(You'll never need to watch the news again. This story has it covered.)

Three weeks into my Spending Diet, I've spent $98.73 less this month so far than I did last year at this time. That makes me happy!

Here are some other changes I've incorporated in recent times that have improved my overall happiness:
  • The past stays there. I don't dwell on reliving things that have already happened and I cannot change. That includes old relationships, personal losses, odd hair colors, questionable spending choices... and yes, even the Packers/Seahawks Monday Night Football game.  I've learned from past experiences, and I acknowledge them, but I don't dwell on them. My great grandmother used to say, "Don't hold anything you can't hold in your hands." (This rule also applies to bodily functions, I suppose, but I rather like the notion that life is better when you let go and move on.) I'm more excited about the present, what is happening now... and looking forward to what the future brings. Always.
  • I filter my news. Watching television news is so ridiculously misdirected and sensationalized these days, that I feel it is one step away from just making shit up. And newspaper companies can actually endorse certain political candidates now? No thanks, I can't trust that information because it may be biased. I try to get my information from the most objective sources possible. I find BBC News and NPR to be better options than much of what is out there. I don't wish to read about every shooting death ever in the nation, the latest celebrity gossip, viral video, or exclusively U.S. news. There's a whole world out there with stuff happening, and it affects all of us.
  • I read. I work in a media field. I make videos and watch many movies. I sit at a computer most of the day. It's nice to see those stories unfold with their beautiful HD imagery, but I really like to exercise my imagination and build that imagery myself once in a while. Reading helps me reconnect with that creative flow. It helps bring stillness and quietude, because reading can take place anywhere. Reading doesn't require electricity (if you're still reading those things called "books" in this age of tablets and e-readers). It can be done outside, or on the go, or at work, or in a waiting room, or in a coffee shop, or in a foreign country, or in a bathtub. Reading can be done without disrupting those around you. Reading can also be free, if you have access to a public library. The ability to read is definitely a crucial skill, It's important to keep that muscle working regularly, lest your brain degenerate into only comprehending YouTube videos of animals in outfits. Okay, I agree... those are awesome. But so is reading!
  • Slow is the way to go. In the past year, my temper has deflated tremendously. I find getting up a few minutes earlier means I'm not rushing to get out the door on time. It means I'm less likely to forget anything in my frantic rush. It means I don't have to speed and get mad at red lights or other drivers (as often). All of these are beneficial to reducing stress. I've learned to say no to accepting invitations and obligations when my plate is already full. I've learned to cook my own meals, mostly from scratch, and enjoy the added health benefits and satiation that I didn't get from fast food or instant meals. In a culture that constantly seeks instant gratification, it can be difficult to slow down while the rest of the nation speeds by, going "That web site needs to load NOW! This line needs to get shorter NOW! I need that project done NOW! I need to meet my weight loss goal NOW! I need this movie to get to the point NOW! I need to buy that dress NOW!" And they'll try to pull you back in. Once you've experienced a less harried pace, you won't ever go back.
  • My priorities are in check. Being rich is not a priority, but having enough finances to cover the lost of living is. Having a supermodel's figure is not a priority, but being healthy is. Owning the latest tech device is not a priority, but quality communication with my loved ones is. Pursuing my passion is a priority, while making my job my life is not. Collecting and possessing things I value is more important than having lots of stuff, new stuff, the trendiest stuff, or the most expensive stuff.
  • I accept responsibility. I don't need to prove anything to anyone by what I own, what I do, or how I look. At the end of the day, I'm responsible for my body and what I put into it. I'm responsible for my finances and how I use them. I'm responsible for cleaning, fixing, and storing my stuff, as well as how much stuff I choose to accumulate. I don't go out drinking if I don't want to consume empty calories, pay $10 for cocktails, and feel sluggish in the morning. I don't buy chai lattes at the coffee shop twice a week if I want to save that annual $400+ towards retirement or a vacation or a new furnace. I don't sulk around and blame the job market, the government, the fast food chains, or the cost of inflation. Finger pointing only makes people bitter, it makes them think they don't have responsibility over their own actions, and it isn't productive. Despite setbacks in the economy and in national priorities, I still have the ability to make my own choices in most matters. I do, and I'm happier for that because I can give myself the credit when I see results.
  • I treat myself. When I have a night off, I like to take a bubble bath, make single-serve chocolate cake in a mug, give myself a pedicure, listen to records, watch four episodes of "The X-Files" in a row, call up a friend, drink hot cocoa, take a book to the lakefront, visit the cheap seats cinema, or go for a leisurely walk. These are all treats I can give myself that don't cost much. I give myself permission to enjoy a reward because it breaks up the monotony of fulfilling obligations that come with being a fiscally and emotionally responsible adult. It can renew my determination and motivation, and hit that internal reset button.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What My Blood Lab Results Told Me

I went to my primary care physician last week and said, "I'd like to have my levels tested."

"For what?" She asked.


I realized that, just weeks away from my 28th birthday, that I had no idea what my cholesterol levels were, if I had normal blood sugar, if my kidneys and thyroid were functioning normally, or if I was getting enough vitamin D (most people--- unless they live near the equator--- have a vitamin D deficiency, regardless of how much time they spend in the sun. Did you know that?).

Nothing felt or seemed particularly wrong, but I figured if I was on a quest to really be healthy (and not just skinny or buff or whatever), I should know if there's anything going on in my body that I can't see. I made a lab appointment a few days later, was called back to have my blood drawn, and I was out the door in sixty seconds flat. That's all the time it took, so there really is no excuse for me waiting this long.

I knew this much going in: based on my height, weight, and measurements, I had a BMI of 28.0 (above the normal range of 18.5-24.9) and a body fat percentage of 36.61% (above the normal range of 21-33%). These put me in an overweight" and "at risk" category. Those I knew needed to change.

Since taking my initial measurements one week ago, I have lost two pounds, one inch off my waistline, and I've gone down to a BMI of 27.88 and a body fat percentage of 34.86%. It's only been a week, but I'm on my way! (For the record, one month ago my BMI was 28.7 and my body fat percentage was 36.32%.)

(Here are links to an online Body Mass Index Calculator and a Body Fat Percentage Calculator.)

Today, I received the results from my blood lab in the mail. Quite frankly, I was very surprised:

Blood Pressure
Healthy Range: 100-130 Systolic/65-85 Diastolic
My Level: 124 Systolic/64 Diastolic 

Total Cholesterol
Healthy Range: < 200
My Level: 158 

HDL (Good) Cholesterol
Healthy Range: 40-60 mg/dL
My Level: 42 

LDL (Bad) Cholesterol
Healthy Range: < 100
My Level: 95 

Blood Glucose
Healthy Range: 65-99 mg/dL
My Level: 77 

Healthy Range: 8.6-10.2 mg/dL
My Level: 9.6 

Vitamin D
Healthy Range: 32-100 ng/mL
My Level: 45.6 

Healthy Range: 136-145 mmol/L
My Level: 139 

Healthy Range: 0.50-1.10 mg/dL
My Level: 0.89

Healthy Range: 3.4-5.1 mmol/L
My Level: 4.8 

Healthy Range: 98-107 mmol/L
My Level: 104 

Healthy Range: 22-32 mmol/L
My Level: 23 

Anion Gap
Healthy Range: 7-14My Level: 12 

Blood Urea Nitrogen 
Healthy Range: 6-23 mg/dL 
My Level: 12 

TSH Reflex 
Healthy Range: 0.450-4.500 ulU/mL  
My Level: 1.010 

Electrolytes/Kidney Function: Normal
Hemoglobin/White Blood Cell Count/Platelet Count: Normal
Thyroid Function: Normal
Diabetic Testing: Normal

Wow. I am completely normal. I am within the healthy range in every single area I was tested. That is a wonderful feeling!

I didn't even know what most of these levels represented, so I looked them up. For example, the "anion gap" is a way to measure kidney function, to see if the kidneys are removing enough acid from the body. Many of these other tests (bicarbonate, potassium, sodium, creatinine, chloride) measure various electrolyte levels in the blood, which are a measure of organ function and healthy blood flow.

IMPORTANT: Having been privy to the mass deficiency of vitamin D in the United States (especially in the region where I live), I had been taking vitamin D supplements for about two months prior to this test. I was taking 6000 IU--- six times the daily requirement--- because I knew if I was low I would need to overcompensate until I reached a healthy range. Now I take 2000 IU each day, and while my vitamin D levels were considered normal, they are still on the low end. If you've never had your vitamin D tested, it is vital that you look into it soon. Too little of it can impact so many areas of your health.

My cholesterol levels could also be more balanced, but I know a big part of that is in losing excess weight and being more active, along with eating healthy fats like fish, olive oil, and nuts (and not processed foodstuffs).

It has taken me several years to reach the point where I don't eat fast food, instant meals, heavily processed products, deep-fried foods (most of the time), meat-centric meals, soda, or additives like high fructose corn syrup and aspartame. I had to learn how to look for what was the healthiest option for me, and it took one baby step at a time, starting in 2007 with I began giving up foods containing aspartame.

Now I eat fresh, organic, mostly locally-grown produce with meat as a smaller portion, more of a side dish. I drink water, tea, milk (almond milk, mostly), lemonade, and the occasional glass of wine. I don't keep snacks or treats in the house. I don't think doughnuts sound appealing, so I don't rush to grab one in the office break room on someone's birthday. I think soda tastes too sweet and gross, whereas this time last year I could knock back several cans in a day without thinking. My biggest weakness--- peanut butter cups--- still tempt me, but I can no longer eat a whole bag. Not even close. Four or five mini cups are all I can handle before my tummy objects.

Point being, over several years I have actually changed my body's opinion of what tastes good, of what I crave to eat. Since I'm not feeding it a bunch of fake, processed, fried, modified, unhealthy foods, I can actually feel and understand the signs it gives me. I can only imagine what my blood lab results would have looked like before I started this journey five years ago... what it may have looked like just one year ago.  All I know is that the path I have taken has led me to a very healthy place. The results speak for themselves.

Still to come: how to read "signs" that your body is healthy and happy or angry and lacking. It is possible to be overweight and underfed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

This Week's Spending

My spending this past week has been as follows:
  • I paid a medical bill that was due.
  • I pre-ordered a DVD of the latest project by my favorite independent filmmaker. Pre-ordering did provide a discount, though the purchase itself wasn't ultimately necessary. Oops...
  • I paid off my credit card bill.
  • I bought blank DVDs and cases for a freelance project, and was reimbursed.
  • I bought almond milk for my breakfast shakes, Greek yogurt, and fresh mozzarella cheese.
  • I bought a dress using a $25 gift card plus the extra 15% off. Despite the deal, it was still an unnecessary purchase.  *wince* I need to knuckle down!
Also, I was in my cousin's wedding this weekend, and paid for:
  • a fruit plate for the bridal party to share the morning before the weddin
  • having my hair don
  • my share of the limo bus
  • a monetary gift for the wedding couple
Being in someone's wedding is certainly an investment, but I wanted to support my cousin (especially because I was asked to step in for someone who abruptly left the bridal party one month before the big day).

I also made an appointment to take my cat Loki to the vet tomorrow, and there will likely be expenditures related to that. As you may recall, Loki got sick during my spending fast last spring and had to be rushed to the vet. Lately she's been pulling out her fur and I fear she is having an allergic or anxious reaction to something, so I'm taking her in to be tested. I want her to be healthy and happy!

I know in this first week I've spent more than I needed to, but I know that being conscious of my spending has hindered impulse purchases of more clothing and various to-go beverages.

Besides this, I find myself increasingly aware that I am already surrounded by stuff I don't need. Even now, at my work desk, I feel tempted to just swipe my arm across the surface and knock everything away. Being surrounded by too many things creates an unrest in me, and I seek peace by continually poring over everything and thinning it out. This process is undoing years (decades) of habits embedded in my psyche, where spending money and acquiring things is considered a very normal part of life. It felt natural to me once; now it feels inhibiting and binding.  Still, the desire to buy will surface from time to time, and I have to summon my willpower to go against the grain.

Finding value in people and experiences instead of money and things is my ultimate goal here. I want to live well, be well, and treat my world well. The only tough part is unlearning what I know about being a consumer. Making a conscious decision to change is the hardest step.  Having more money for retirement/investments/travel/housing because I don't spend in excess, having better health because I don't buy fast food/junk food/processed food, and spending less time cleaning/fixing/sorting/storing/selling things that I didn't acquire in the first place... these are all very easy. More on this in a later post. For now, I challenge you to become more mindful and aware of what you spend money on, why you value it enough to hand over your wages for it, and if there is a better, healthier, or even greener alternative.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Day 2: Crash

What does sugar withdrawal feel like? It feels like a giant pile of suck.

Every time I've modified my eating habits in the past to reduce my intake of refined sugar (found in cookies, candy, processed foods, etc.)  Day Two has offered a very yucky outcome. Just like alcohol withdrawal after a night of too much drinking, the body feels hungover. Around lunch time today, my neck began to stiffen and a headache crept up over the top of my skull. Before I knew it, I was lying down on my bed, my scalp tender to the touch and my stomach fraut with nausea. Within twenty minutes it was all over, but despite my snacking on carrots and hummus and grapes I feel rather sluggish even this afternoon.

The good news is that I know Day Three always feels amazing. What follows the "sugar hangover" is a clarity of the body and mind, and a renewed level of energy that makes the yucky part of Day Two worth enduring.

It also puts a spotlight on just how much our bodies adapt to large quantities of sugar. I literally feel sick because I have stopped ingesting something that is bad for me. You know how drug addicts get the shakes and their symptoms of withdrawal are so terrible that they keep using? Something very similar happens when you deprive your body of sugar.  If a food naturally contains sugar (like many types of produce), the amount is low and very difficult to consume in unsafe amounts. That's not the type of sugar I'm referring to. I'm talking the white granular stuff that comes in little cubes and big bags and in liquid form in soda and energy drinks and juice (yes, most juice is full of added sugar... unless you squeeze it yourself). And those "diet" drinks, "healthy fit" yogurt products, "skim" milk, and "low calorie" snack packs? Those are worse!  Those contain synthetic (read: fake and not grown in the natural world) sweeteners that are multiple times sweeter than actual sugar, making your dependency on them even stronger.

I gave up soda on June 4th and don't miss it one bit. I occasionally drink lemonade or freshly squeezed juice. Other than that, it's tea and water for me. Sometimes I make my own chai lattes with unsweetened almond milk (it's only 30-40 calories per serving and doesn't have the hormones and antibiotic residues found in fat free milk). But I stay away from energy drinks and electrolyte drinks and juice products. Just because a brand claims to have something nutritionally beneficial ("some" real juice, added vitamins or minerals, "natural" ingredients) does NOT mean it is good for you. It means they are trying to sell you a product made from ingredients that started out as a whole food and were transformed beyond recognition (or sometimes pronunciation) and then injected with a little of vitamin whatever.

My best advice would be this, if you are looking to improve your dietary lifestyle: if a food item is good for you, then it doesn't need to be advertised as such. You occasionally see a promo for eggs or oranges or potatoes, but not really. You see ads for things that have been created in labs or modified in some way... and not for the better. They have to advertise to make you want it. A good rule of thumb is to try to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store when shopping, as many of the processed foods are found in the middle aisles. That's also where much of the added sugar hangs out. That's a great place to start when healthy eating transformations seem overwhelming.

If you're ever endured a hangover, then you can survive a sugar withdrawal. Think of it as your body cleansing itself of a poison. You've likely heard of drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning (and what is alcohol anyway, but a bunch of sugar?); too much sugar is also toxic to your body and causes a number of health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

You may be wondering: if sugar is so rotten for you, then why is it legally allowed to be added to so much food? Another good rule of thumb: don't assume the FDA is looking out for your best interest. Their primary goal is to make money. So are the food companies who make these addictive products. So are the pharmaceutical companies who make a fortune off of your illness due to your poor diet. It is much more profitable to so many corporations if you are sick and unhealthy and addicted to sugar than it is to have a population eating whole foods and not depending on medications. It sounds like a gross conspiracy... maybe too radical, you think? Don't take my word for it! I encourage you to do some research.

And lastly, be sure to start somewhere. Have a Day One so you can suffer through Day Two and enjoy the benefits of Day Three and beyond.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Spending Diet, Day 1: Talks Of Retirement

Wait, wasn't this Spending Diet supposed to begin on September 1st? Yes, yes it was. Then I remembered I was having my garage roof re-shingled so I had to pay for that, along with food and beverages for the workers (my wonderful relatives will always do labor if rewarded with a sandwich and a beer). Then the beau and I went to breakfast the next day--- where we split the tab--- followed by the Renaissance Faire--- where he paid for most things but I bought an iced chai latte for $4.00.  Obviously, my Spending Diet was not off to a good start. Today, September 4th, is the new start date. Clean slate!

I decided to embark on this journey again because the results of my Spending Fast were so good. I saved over $900 in just once month by spending money on only what was completely necessary. The experience was pretty extreme, but so were the results.  I'm not going to be as strict this time around, but try to maintain it over a longer period of time. If I can hang on until the end of the year, I should see some pretty impressive changes.

This, of course, was not the only factor in my decision to try a Spending Diet.  My health was an obvious concern (and now the medical bills are tapering off with physical therapy ending next month). However, the notion that most affected me was one that many people my age aren't really thinking about right now: retirement.

Based on my income, inflation costs, interest, and the nest-egg I have already started, I would have to set aside about $200 per month (every month) for the next 37 years if I want to retire by age 65. If I wait one year to start saving, that amount increases to $260 per month. This number quickly increases to an unreasonable rate in a very short amount of time. This isn't about saving up for a relaxing trip to Santorini in my golden years; this is money that I will actually have to live off of when I am retired.

(Side note: I don't think 65 is a scary old age where people stop functioning. In fact, I will likely want to keep active and working beyond that age. It is a good benchmark to use for goal setting, however.)

My parents offered me some very good advice when I was younger: work hard when you are young and able, and then save your money... so when you are older and can't work, you won't need to. (Click here to read an article about the worst retirement investing mistake.)

I really don't think enough people my age consider this. Climbing out of the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck while hacking away at student loans and other debts is daunting enough. Thinking that far into the future is overwhelming! While I am privileged to say that I do not have debt other than my mortgage, I know that is not the case for most. What are the chances any of us have to retire at a decent age?

Right now I set aside an amount of my salary to savings every month. It's only about 10% of my income, and that savings is partitioned into different categories: house fund, travel fund, long-term fund.  The house fund is for repairs, renovations, and unexpected events (like the water heater leaking or tree roots overtaking the drainage pipe). The travel fund rewards me once a year with a trip to somewhere, though I often pull from this fund to pay for other things that are more pertinent. Not nearly enough goes into that long-term fund to meet the rate of saving I should be seeking.

The obvious course of action would be to get a second job. So far I've tried part-time employment and freelance to supplement my income. The latter has been more successful and less-time consuming. The even more obvious action is to spend less with what I already have:
  • I don't need to buy those chai lattes (even though they taste good and sometimes I could use the caffeine).
  • I don't need to buy that dress (even if it's cute/on sale/the last one).
  • I don't need to go out to eat at restaurants (even though I can be exhausted and not feel like cooking, or I'm really in the mood for that amazing lasagna down the street).
  • I don't need to have a cocktail (even if it is a nice way to unwind from the week and catch up with friends).
  • I don't need to go to the movies (even if everyone is talking about it... because it will eventually be on Netflix and I can wait).
These little amounts add up: $3 here, $10 there, $50 for that dress (but it's just so CUTE! Okay, okay... I'll put it back). And all of that can go into savings... or even better, a Roth IRA (which I plan to open very soon).

Retirement is a huge subject--- especially during this election season--- and I will definitely be returning to it more throughout this journey. But for now, just get those wheels in your head turning about saving not just to get out of debt, not just to have things you want... but to live on when you can't work anymore.