Monday, November 29, 2010

We're All Individuals!

Happy Holidays!

The end of 2010 is nigh, and this year to commemorate 10 years of harboring questions in my Rolfing practice, I've put together a list of some of the common questions regarding the most burning topics of our lives:  exercise, diet, positive thinking, and relationships.

Questions like "What should I eat?", "What's the best form of exercise?", "How much alcohol should I drink?", and "Should I leave my husband?" all have a common, three-word answer from me:  I don't know.  But to elaborate on this disappointingly short reply, the following information will specify what I really mean:  we're all individuals, genetically, culturally, and physiologically.  Thus, for each person, there is a different right answer.  To give you an idea of how complicated your life is, some factors to take into consideration are summarized below.

A Tarahumara runner from Mexico's Copper Canyon. 

"What's the best form of exercise?"  Not to be snarky, but the best form of exercise is the one you do.  I wouldn't recommend swimming or yoga if you hate water and are allergic to meditation.  Anything from rock-climbing to parking farther from work to adopting a dog may be the right thing for you.
Also, I find that many people need to shift their perception of exercise.  Keep in mind that in the areas with the longest human life spans (Okinawa, Sardinia, and other so-called "blue zones" of longevity), people are naturally active, with movement integrated into their lives through gardening, walking, preparing food, carrying water, or chopping wood.  The world's centenarians don't go to gyms.  Dan Buettner, author of the The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, happens to hold three world-records for distance bicycling, but down-graded his own exercise program to low-impact exercise after researching the longest-lived people in the world.  
"How much should I exercise?"  The general answer tends to be good news for most people:  take it easy.  But first, the sad news.  Glamorizing the concept of the "weekend warrior", a stationary office worker who attempts to regain health by over-exercising on Saturday and Sunday, is simply erroneous.  A two-day cardio binge is no match for fives days of office sloth.  Sitting is the worst thing you can do for yourself.  In addition, studies find a discrepancy in men's and women's responses to high-intensity sports, namely that women tend to simply get more hungry, while men's bodies were triggered into a natural hunger suppression by the same exercise program.  And further data coming from Finland points to the fact that individual responses to exercise varies drastically: some people reap quick benefits from sports, others do not, and a small percentage end up worse off, as measured by peak oxygen uptake.  That is not to say that vigorous exercise doesn't have its benefits, as was widely reported from this 2008 study on running and aging.  Also, certain populations belong to a group of "ultrarunners," like Native Americans and the Mexican Tarahumara tribe, now well-known for their 40-mile marathons in harsh terrains.  Naturally, generations of running long distances for transportation and hunting has an effect on a population's metabolism and blood sugar, making them especially maladapted to sedentary modern lifestyles.  Anyone with these and similar ultra-runner ancestries would be well-advised to keep moving. 
The good news is that for most people, it is again non-strenuous activity that offers the most benefit.  Think of it as an equivalent to a brisk walk.  About one hour a day, at best as a life-long habit, according to a Harvard study of 34,000 participants over thirteen years.  This resembles a car-free existence, walking every day to work or school.  Incidentally, tennis wunderkind Monica Seles wrote about her experience overcoming her eating disorder by stopping her daily five-hour workout.  She fired her trainers, began living in moderation and started walking 45 minutes a day, losing 37 pounds as a result. 
Cave painting of a dear hunt.

"Should I eat meat?"  That's only one of the slew of questions I've heard over the years, along with "Is raw better?", "Should I avoid wheat and dairy?", "How much alcohol should I drink?", and "Should I take vitamins?" just to name a very few.  And here more than ever, we're all different. 
To scratch the surface of the complexities of individual nutrition, it is important to understand that populations do adapt their digestive systems and metabolism to their long-term nutrition.  For example, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood (the mutation of lactase persistence, although we're more familiar with its inverted condition, lactose intolerance) developed in areas with pastoral traditions, in other words, landscapes with cows.  In northern Europe, this digestive adaptation took an estimated 7,000 years.  But in all, about 75% of the world's population is actually lactose intolerant to some degree.  Also, populations whose nutrition historically consist of animal products (inland Australian aborigines, Mongolians, and northern native Americans) have diets that are rich in nutrients from organ meats, raw milk, and raw meat.  These populations consistently show a drastic increase in degenerative diseases associated with aging and obesity once they integrate into Western cultures, with the introduction of sugars, non-animal fats, and low nutritive content.  On a similar note, people from coastal populations which have subsisted for generations on a seafood often require a vitamin D supplement upon relocating to the inland, as their bodies have adapted to traditionally ingesting large amounts of vitamin D in fish, thus losing the ability to produce it from sun exposure and inland diet alone. 
A study of 14 native tribes by Dr. Winston A. Price, DDS, describes the vast variety of original diets and the effects on the tribal populations' health based on the prevalence of dental diseases and bone formation. 
"How much alcohol should I drink?"  The copious news about red wine's blessings would have you think that we should all be toasting to our health every day with a glass.  Indeed, not only red wine but a host of other alcohols apparently confer health benefits at one or two drinks a day.  That is, unless your ancestry lays somewhere along the Silk Road.  In what researchers call the "Asian esophageal cancer belt," corresponding to the famous trading road east of the Caucasus mountains to far east Asia, a genetic mutation of the aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) gene is found in roughly half the population.  This gene prevents the body from metabolizing alcohol completely, thus leaving the metabolites in toxic form in the body, leading to increased rates of esophageal cancer.  A person with this gene who drinks two beers a day is 6 to 10 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer.  Even social drinkers with this gene are in danger.  How do you know if you have it?  The lay diagnosis is easy:  if your face flushes when you drink, then you have it.  For this reason, ALDH 2 is also called the "Asian flush gene." 
Based on our genetics, we are programmed to react differently to foods and food groups.  So, when you're deciding what to eat, pay attention to how your body reacts.  You can consult an acupuncturist or a nutritionist, you can be tested for intolerance to wheat, dairy, corn, soy, or eggs.  And, of course, ask your family about what your grandparents ate. 
"Always look on the bright side of life."  Unless it annoys you...

Positive Thinking 
"Does positive thinking work?"  No, it doesn't.  Next question, please.
A 2009 study confirmed what many of the chronically grumpy have always known:  positive affirmations like "I am lovable" make a grumpy person feel worse.  For what it's worth, the test subjects in this experiment who already had high self-esteem did show an elevated mood, but those who were in most need of cheering failed to respond.
In addition, there are is a colorful assortment of benefits for being depressed.  Another study from Australia found that people in a negative mood pay more attention to detail, are better judges of characters, and make more well-thought out decisions.  They have sharper memories and are superior at communicating their arguments.  A lengthy article from The New York Times, titled "Depression's Upside" discusses the virtues of being down, including the observation that history's great thinkers have tended to be of a melancholy sort.  So embrace that rainy day with gusto.

"Should I be monogamous?"  Now, I'll spare you the details about the things people ask me where I've thought to myself, how in the world should I know?  However, I'm honored that people trust me enough to bring up essential questions regarding relationship and sexuality, because the truth is, besides work and health, relationship is one of the major sources of stress in life.
And once again, we're all different.  For example, the question of whether one should be monogamous or not is surprisingly as much genetic as it is socio-cultural.  Because guess what?  That's right: there's a commitment-phobia gene.  Results of a study from the esteemed Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that the presence of Allele 334 corresponded with lower ability to form lasting bonds.  Horrors, does that mean that you have to bring a DNA test to your first date to avoid wasting your time?  Since this behavior is genetic, a few questions about your date's family history can give you clues.  As to whether you yourself possess Allele 334 or not, especially in this city, resources abound for you to discover where you sit on the spectrum.  Along the way, you are sure to find birds of a feather flocking together.
This is my long way of saying "I don't know" concerning a handful of subjects, and to give you an introduction to all the ways you are unique.  We're all different.  Generalizing is a useful way to see the world, but when it comes to your own individuality, the only way to know is to strike out and see for yourself what feels right.
If you're at a loss of how to do that, take a tip from the ants.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Politics of the Wire Donkey

There’s a word in German that I love which doesn’t translate gracefully into English:  Drahtesel.  Literally, it means “wire donkey.”  Figuratively it refers to our beloved invention: the bicycle.  I find the word affectionate, since with its advent, the bicycle in effect replaced the cuddly horse as a convenient form of transportation.  But unlike a horse, a bicycle doesn’t need to be fed, washed, and cleaned up after.  It doesn’t stink, it takes up less space to park, it never gives birth, and with good maintenance, a quality two-wheeler can be passed down for generations.  In addition, as we all know, a bicycle after production leaves essentially no carbon footprint (not even passing gas in a barn) and is one way for us humans to stay in shape. 

Yet for the docile and faithful road companion that bicycles are, I’ve observed an implicit political statement that is made by these elegant creatures of metal and rubber.  One evening in San Francisco, when I was mingling at a German Stammtisch (a regular gathering in the Teutonic tradition of raising the beer glass and socializing with glee), an engineer from Frankfurt reflected to me, “In Europe, bicycles are a normal form of transportation.  But in America, they are toys for the children, or sporting equipment for adults, like a canoe, that you use on special occasions.” 

His words set off a chain reaction of thoughts in my head, and a certain a-ha realization about my impression that there was a lurking hostility on American streets between four- and two-wheelers.  Indeed, in Germany as in many European countries, the self-evidence of the bicycle is made obvious by the bike lanes that the government has laid throughout the cities.  Even in Berlin, with one of the largest urban surface areas in Europe, I remember commuting forty-five minutes from Neuk├Âlln to the suburb of Karlshorst on my bicycle, and every meter of my way was a bike lane, even in the most desolate, Kafka-esque, Eastern German neighborhoods where no one wanted to live.  Not only was there a bike lane, but it was a paved segment of the sidewalk in that characteristic red brick that pedestrians all know as being a danger zone of bikers ruthlessly whizzing by.  On the other hand, in the US, the most we could hope for would be a white line painted on the ground, sometimes leading the biker into oblivion, if not into a gutter or across an exit ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike.    
Why is this so?  Why is America so bicycle ignorant?  Back in my high-school days in Texas, where there are no bike lanes but so much space, my bike rides to school would be interrupted by well-meaning SUV drivers who would pull over and ask if I “needed a ride.”  And even in liberal, anti-petroleum San Francisco, I frequently get congratulatory remarks from non-bikers, which I find baffling given the flocks of two-wheelers in this city. 

But we know why America is anti-bicycle, it hardly requires further explanation.  There are industries (auto and petroleum) that perniciously seep into our culture, encouraging us to believe that the only fathomable form of transportation is a car.  That's the truth, and if you don't know it, accept it now.  Which brings me back to the lurking hostility that I feel on American streets, particularly in San Francisco.

One thing I do adore about San Francisco is its incredible bike-ability, despite its world-famous hills.  Like water in a pebbly creek, the city’s powerful biker’s coalition has plotted out the city’s lowlands, claiming miles of bike lanes with suggested pointers that guide a biker from downtown to Golden Gate Park without having to climb a single hill.  But among the throngs of velo-commuters that flow like a river down Market at rush hour every morning, I always get a sense of, dare I say, snobbiness, that makes me wonder if I and my 17-year-old Cannondale fit in to this scene.  My feelings are embodied in the following:  Critical Mass.  
The event that calls itself Critical Mass scares me a little, to be honest.  As many hours as I have spent pedaling around this planet, and as much as I respect this movement, the group which is known as an “ideal, not an organization” frightens me.  There is nothing wrong with Critical Mass.  According to their mission statement, it is “a monthly bicycle ride to celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists' right to the road.”  It also acknowledges that Critical Mass rides are different in every city.  But if you ask me, there is plenty of innuendo (not least CM’s volunteer webmaster Michael Bluejay’s sad reason for ending his ten-year service) that Critical Mass members are growing a reputation for being combative and confrontational.  One unfortunate event was caught on video, partially shown above, where a 72-year-old motorist was caught in the middle of a CM ride, his minivan being engulfed by bikers on all sides in an apparent act of Critical Mass phagocytosis.  The video clip clearly has a pro-bike lean, and while I agree that the man should not have stepped on the gas pedal when he did, the video has tactfully omitted later footage where bikers have opened one of his doors and begun verbally assaulting him, visibly allowing tensions to escalate.

Would something like this have ever transpired in Berlin or Amsterdam?  I can’t imagine it.  Because everyone rides bikes out there, even the drivers.  And because the citizens don’t feel they have to make a political statement against the invisible hands of industries that brainwash our fellow country-people into believing that life equals car.  Thus in America, movements like Critical Mass end up attracting individuals who are fighters and activists, who hang “No Blood For Oil” plates on their bike frames, and who embrace the soapbox, for better or for worse.

Back in Germany, on a Sunday when I’m sitting in the garden of the in-laws, my 60-year-old mother-in-law returns from a bike ride through the forest, dressed perfectly as always in cotton khakis and a floral top.  Later, I mention that there is  a monthly ride back in San Francisco called Critical Mass.  She answers, “What do you need that for?  We’ve been riding these things since after the war.  We had no other way of getting around.”

But in America, a bicycle is a toy and a piece of sporting equipment.   
It is also a battle cry.