Knee Pain Boogeyman

For the last year I've dealt with some anterior knee pain around the front of my knee caps (also known as jumpers knee), and occasional, acute pain in my medial right knee. It didn't seem to have a direct cause, but the usual prescription of rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) didn't do the trick. If I rested for a few days my knees wouldn't hurt so bad, but after any amount of increased activity the pain would return. It made it hard to climb stairs, and even sitting still my knees would just ache.

I saw a physical therapist, and read all kinds of things online. I tried intense MobilityWOD mobilizations and joint distractions, and sometimes even felt worse afterwards. The pain didn't seem to make sense. I kept thinking ,"I have strong enough leg muscles to squat my bodyweight with a barbell, so why should bodyweight PT strengthening exercises help?" and "I have good range of motion in my knee joints and no matter what stretches I do it doesn't seem to do anything, so that's not it." Something was clearly off.

However, I didn't realize until much later that what was off was my mindset. I was continually searching for something that would "make my knees feel better," and was constantly trying to think my way through the problem. I started to find myself avoiding physical activity, being very cautious when I did do something physical, and mentally preparing myself to feel pain after I finished a workout or a long hike. I was in a defensive, reactive posture when it came to my knees, and I really felt hopeless and desperate at times. The pain wasn't so bad that I couldn't go about my day, but it was bad enough that it was constantly on my mind. 

The next phase of the story is a little more cheerful. After months of haphazardly trying one thing, and then another, I started to realize the flaw in all of my efforts was my lack of consistency. At one point I thought back to the month in the summer last year where I went walking almost every day, with my knees hardly hurting. I realized that it was likely that I was vastly overcomplicating the problem and ruining any chance of making real progress by changing tactics too frequently. A very important part of this process was a conversation I had one day with a PT at the clinic I work at. I told him, "My knees had been feeling ok, so I did a workout with squats. My knees felt fine during the workout but afterwards really hurt. What could possibly cause that?" The answer he gave me, I now realize, was staring me in the face. I had gone too hard during the workout and caused some minor trauma in my knees. The trauma wasn't noticeable at the time, but caused local swelling in the area which put pressure on the nerves and caused pain after the fact. He then gave me a new model for determining whether a pain is acceptable or not. It's like this:
  • If it hurts, stop.
  • If it hurts a little bit while you were doing it, but doesn't hurt afterwards, you're OK.
  • If it doesn't hurt while you're doing it, but hurts afterwards, you did too much and need ease up on either the load or the intensity next time.
  • If it doesn't ever hurt, great!
This model of recognizing my pain and being able to categorize it put all the possible solutions I had already been given into a new light. The important thing to recognize here was that I was being given solutions, but I wasn't making proper use of them, until I learned to consistently apply those solutions along with properly recognizing the nature of the pain I was feeling. 

After that conversation I started doing my PT exercises much more consistently and with a new outlook. I also started walking more frequently, stretching, and slowly progressing in load and intensity with all three elements. After literally only a few weeks I've noticed serious change. One thing to note is that I was wrong about already being strong and mobile enough. While some of my major muscle groups are strong (quads, hamstrings, calves) they aren't strong enough to support the loads I was putting them under without causing extra stress on my knee joints. In addition, my glutes, adductors, and other small supporting muscles of my knees are very weak. These are all areas that I've been tackling through targeted strengthening exercises, and with consistency and understanding, I've been making good progress. 

Here's an example of the exercises I've been focusing on:

For this one you want to start very close to the ground on something like a phone book or a single barbell plate. You start off balancing with one foot on and the other foot off. You keep the off leg straight and bend at the other knee until you touch the ground with the off leg. They key here is to focus on keeping your entire body aligned up and down and to not let your knee drift inwards. To do this, focus on keeping your working knee outwards for the entire duration of the movement. One you just barely touch the ground extend your working knee and stand back up. Over time you can increase the height of the object until you're doing a full ass to grass pistol squat!

3 sets of 10-12 reps

It helps if you have access to a bosu ball which I happen to have both at my local gym and at work. Essentially, this is similar to the above exercise except you just stand on the ball and balance for 1-5 minutes and try to increase your time. I usually go until it really starts to burn in my ankle and calf. You can also do this at home on a pillow, a mostly deflated kickball or just on the hard floor. The point is to practice balance and build up the capacity of your stabilizing muscles. You can also add an element to this by rotating your off leg out the side while keeping your working leg in good alignment. It's a big challenge.

5 minutes each leg or slightly past muscle burn
This one is just a simple leg raise, but with the foot rotated out to bias the vastus medalis muscle on the inner part of the knee. Keep your leg stiff and engaged through the whole movement and move up and down at a slow pace. Sometimes I'll do hold for 5-10 seconds at different points in the movement. This one is great if your knee pain is great enough that you can't do either of the other exercises without producing pain. This is an unloaded movement and so it won't put stress on your knee, but it will get you stronger. Eventually you can progress to the other exercises. I've kept doing it because it's damn hard and I can get more volume in along with the other exercises without continuing to load the joint. For a tough test of your abilities with this try writing the alphabet in the air (while keeping your leg stiff) twice through without stopping. It took me weeks to get there, but consistent effort pays off.

3 sets of 5-10 reps + 2 times through of the alphabet.

Finally, I want to note that with doing these exercises it's been important to give myself the proper recovery time. I started out wanting to do them every day, but found that my knees hurt more and more, so I cut it down to every other day and that gave me enough recovery time to start really seeing results. If you're having a similar experience to mine I recommend that you experiment to find what works for you, consistently put in work. and break the mental mold/victim mindset you've been stuck in. Good luck!


Real food/Paleo fan TV recommendation: Meat Eater

Since I began learning about the benefits of grassfed versus conventional meats, I've started to understand how the best meat sources could be even more than "grassfed"--wild. Products from grassfed or pastured animals are without a doubt higher quality than food from commercial animal feeding operation "conventional" sources, providing more Omega-3 fatty acids, more vitamins, and other benefits (see a few sources here, here, and here). But even responsibly raised animals like cows, hogs, and chicken are probably not the same quality as the animals our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate (if we're taking "Paleo" somewhat literally). I would love to eat mostly wild meats, freshly caught after they've been walking around in their natural habitat eating the diets meant for them. They say it's impossible to eat the actual diet of wild foods that humans in the Paleolithic era did, so isn't the most "Paleo" thing we can do to eat wild game and local produce?

One of the big mysteries in our culture is the perfect falseness of the American supermarket. Rows of bland uniform eggs, identical chicken legs, packaged, dyed bologna, pre-cooked vegetables... this monotony and easy access make us so disconnected from the sometimes painful, visceral, process than had to occur for us to find those prepackaged slices on the shelf. How disrespectful to this animal, to never recognize where it came from and the sacrifice it made to be my nutrition.

If part of why we've decided a Paleo diet is good is to be connected with our food and understand and respect it (that is, the quality, type, and quantity), having an intimate connection to the foods we might have eaten many years ago is the ultimate goal.

One step toward this connection to my food was visiting the herd at Kookoolan Farms where we have purchased beef and hog shares. We didn't get to see the specific cow we purchased, and didn't watch the killing or butchering process, but it was a good first step. However, these steps are nothing compared to what people have been doing forever, which is hunting and processing their own food.

The idea of hunting was totally foreign to me. I grew up never knowing any hunters and knowing nothing about hunting. I never realized how hunters might be living the close connection to their food sources that I would end up holding in such high regard. So much of the focus in popular hunting culture (magazines, TV shows, advertisements) is on getting the biggest buck with the biggest antlers to put on your wall as a trophy. This, by itself, has next to no appeal to me, and it never did, which is why I mostly wrote off hunting as a beneficial activity.

But then I found the show Meat Eater, a reality show on the Sportsman Channel that follows writer and host Steven Rinella. I was introduced to Steve's knowledge and methods, including fair chase hunting, eating every animal you kill, and not shying away from cuts and dishes that we don't often see in the typical American restaurant.

Steven Rinella is an avid outdoorsman, writer, and television host. He is the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute CuisineAmerican Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, and ... Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. Rinella's writing has also appeared in many publications, including Outside, Field and Stream, the New Yorker, Glamour, the New York Times, Men's Journal, Salon.com, O the Oprah Magazine, Bowhunter, and the annual anthologies Best American Travel Writing and Best Food Writing. In 2010, Rinella hosted The Wild Within on Travel Channel. Currently, he is the host of MeatEater, on Sportsman Channel. He was born in Twin Lake, Michigan.

I was blown away. Every episode I watched, I learned countless new things about being and eating in the wild. I admired the respect and understanding Steve had about the dozens of animals he hunts--and I was always impressed by his  cooking skills both over the fire and back at home. 

I loved seeing Steve take some first-time hunters (and some of my favorite podcasters) out on a hunt (they've since been out a few times). He's been hunting his whole life so his perspective is very different than mine, and it's cool to see other beginners out there. It made me start to feel like hunting might be something I could actually do.

I also introduced my wife to the show. She was vegan and vegetarian for 13 years before starting to eat Paleo about two years ago, so she had even more discomfort with the concept of hunting for many years. Yet she loves the show now as much as I do. Steve is respectful, knowledgeable, and smart about how he hunts and leads by example, and I think his message rings loud and clear. He shows that hunting is primarily about the experience of being in the wild, looking at and appreciating wildlife, and bringing home food to feed your family. It's a huge adventure, and a huge unknown, every time you step out.

So while I've come to think that hunting might be the ultimate way to be in touch with my food, be respectful to the animals I eat, and to achieve my personal best as a human, I'm still not sure how I'll find an opportunity to hunt. Now my wife is interested, too, but we still don't know many hunters. We're hoping to take the steps to learn about the tools and knowledge we'll need.

Bottom line: I highly recommend the show! Meat Eater, check it out.

You can also check out Steve's book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter and this cool post about it.


Holiday 2014 Gift Guide - for the mobility & fitness fan

A gift guide for and from those of us who are interested or learning about fitness, training, mobility, and movement--regardless of skill level or athleticism.

I spend a lot of time thinking about strength and have been making big gains in my performance in the weight room, but mobility is equally, if not more, important. My dad and I often compare notes about our latest mobility exercises and tools, and my wife gets as excited as I do when we figure out a new technique or get new at-home equipment.

Last year at Christmas, my dad gave everyone lacrosse balls for rolling and smashing on muscle tissue and some bands for active stretching. We use them all the time. This got me thinking, there are some great gift ideas you could give friends and family to get them started with mobility work that feels good and helps training or everyday performance.

  1. Resistance bands for assisted pull-ups and banded distraction. This set of 4 or this set of 2 would be a great gift. I use them for banded distraction for my hips as well as higher rep  sets or working strictly on form in the pull-up.
  2. A high density foam roller is a great tool for working out tissue and a fun way for someone to start doing rolling work before and after workouts. (Or while watching TV!) We have the longest one (36") and use it all the time.
  3. I've worn Chuck Taylor Converse for years, but now when learning about weight training and natural movement patterns, I understand the importance of zero-drop shoes--especially for weight training. A squat or deadlift in positive heeled shoes feels so strange now. My Converse get worn out before I replace them, so I think these are a great gift for anyone like me or someone who's used to working out in Nikes but wants to start wearing flat shoes.
  4. Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starrett really is the "Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance." It's thick and comprehensive like a textbook, but easy to read and goes over so many of our questions about movement and strength and conditioning. I bought a copy and showed my dad, then he had to buy a copy.
  5. We use basic lacrosse balls for rolling out tight tissue. One or two of these would be a great stocking stuffer. Or get a few and tape two together to create a roller for the neck and down the thoracic spine.
  6. Kettlebells!!! The ultimate portable, versatile fitness tool. (You can read about our experience kettlebell training here.) Even if you only have ONE, you can get a good workout with swings (single- or both arm), goblet squats, and more. I think the 35 pound one would be a good one to start with, but a cheaper option that would be good for a beginner (or intermediate trainer doing Turkish get-ups) is the 15 or 20 pound one. I add these in to an otherwise mobility focused guide because working with kettle bells in proper form will really show you all of your weak spots. Whether it's tight hamstrings, shoulders, poor posture, short pecs. etc. Kettlebell training will help you improve your total body awareness and point you to spots you need to roll out with a roller or lacrosse ball, in addition to getting you stronger!
Hope you enjoy these gift ideas for family and friends!


Kettlebell workout lessons from The Warrior Room

My wife and I recently got a chance to spend 3 months taking classes The Warrior Room kettlebell gym in Milkwaukie, Oregon. I'm excited to tell you about our training experience at this fantastic facility. In short, it has a great atmosphere, has amazing coaching, and really kicks your ass.

Kettlebells? Functional movement?

An entire gym completely dedicated to that most simple, and yet dynamic, of weight training equipment: the kettlebell. That's what The Warrior Room offers. You've heard me talk at length about functional movement and strength, real world applications of the exercises we do, and hence why free weights are better than machines and chronic cardio, but kettlebells take that principle to the next level. In fact, the first part of this great source-heavy site about kettlebell training defines functional movement. As opposed to isolating an individual muscle in an uncommon or unnatural way, functional movement training promotes intramuscular coordination of muscle fibers and muscle groups, strengthening reflexive pathways and training the body to move in a functional position without constant thought.

Kettlebells can be traced back to ancient Greece, although came into wider use in Russia in the 1700's and 1800's (super interesting piece with documentation about the history of kettlebells here.) Originally pyramid-shaped weights used on scales to measure crops, over time the tool changed in shape and size, and began to be manufactured for strength training by the Russian strongmen. The kettlebell is a unique weight lifting tool because its center of mass extends beyond the lifter's hand, allowing for smooth ballistic and swinging movements.

However, it's only since 2001 that kettlebell training has become more widely known in the U.S., after the first instructor certification program was developed here (the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge)).

Why kettlebells rock

As The Warrior Room says, Kettlebells are "a devastatingly effective piece of work out equipment that’s been proven by The American Council on Exercise to “boost strength and cardiovascular fitness, while also increasing balance and flexibility.” Kettlebell exercises are great for building strength, especially targeting the lower back, legs, glutes, and shoulders (i.e. the posterior chain), and can also increase grip strength and endurance. (Source)

The basic kettlebell exercises activate muscles throughout the entire body at once in a way that mimics functional movements we perform in real-life situations. Every kettlebell exercise involves the spinal and core muscles. Kettlebells are often used by physical therapists for rehabilitation for patients with hip, knee, and back pain. (Source/direct sources: Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21997449,
Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing exercise. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22207261, Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22580981.) Lots more info and sources at KettlebellScience.com, too.

The Warrior Room kettlebell gym

Classes, structure, and coaching style

The gym has a bunch of different classes to choose from, including Kettlebell Conditioning, Endurance,  ½ Isolation + ½ Tabata, and Boot Camp. We mainly attended Kettlebell Conditioning as it fit our schedules best, was highly focused on skill-building, and was still a brutal, awesome workout! We also tried several of the other classes so we would know what the gym had to offer.

Going in on our first day was a new experience because, at that point, we'd been doing CrossFit on and off for 8 months and this was a big change of direction from that. Even though a CrossFit gym doesn't have big machines everywhere, they still have weights, tons of racks and pull-up bars, and a wide variety of different equipment.

The Warrior Room has a completely different feel from most of the CrossFit gyms we visited, both in equipment and in attitude. The single line of painted kettlebells along the front wall, the floor covered in mats, and a couple of tires and boxes in the back seemed a little bare at first. It was also new to us that we removed shoes and socks in the Kettlebell Conditioning basics class, and felt the ground under our feet as we used the bells. It all seemed so simple! Instead, I found out very quickly why exactly you can have an entire gym dedicated to this one implement. The kettlebell is basically a cannonball with a handle attached, but this simplicity and balance allows it to be one of the most dynamic strength training tools known to man with a diversity of techniques that is not present in any other tool.

A typical Kettlebell Conditioning class goes like this:
  • Quick warm-up
  • Initial technical instruction (ex: the swing)
  • Timed workout #1 (6-10 minutes 2-3 movements including the previously trained skill)
  • Partner coaching
  • Timed Workout #2 (same deal, different movements, adjusting to different weights if needed)
  • Partner coaching 
  • Additional technical instruction (something more complex ex: snatch)
  • Timed Workout #3
  • Partner coaching 
  • Guided practice through Turkish Get-Ups with very low weight for beginners. 
  • Cool-down/mobility work (foam rolling, etc.)

As you can see, it's jam-packed. All throughout the hour-long class, the coaches (we took classes from Ashley and Alexis) are spending time with individual students, and making technical corrections to our movements. The timed workouts are extremely challenging, and then you typically get a break to partner with someone else in the class and take a break while you trade coaching each other, but it's also incredibly valuable to pay attention to what the movements look like on another person and how your movements look to him or her. It helps to have someone looking at your form, but also gives you direct experience in how to assess the finer points of the complex movements.

For example, the Kettlebell Swing, even as a relatively basic technique, has many technical details that can be challenges for some people, and many of us need that individual assessment and repeated help. This was something I felt The Warrior Room excelled at by having a formula that allowed everyone to actually get the one-on-one time that they needed, while still having a larger enough class size that the prices are extremely reasonable compared to branded workouts or one-on-one coaching.

Here I am getting coached after our first class.

Benefits for different skill levels

My wife, who was at the time less experienced with weight training and less comfortable with heavy weight while maintaining proper form (her words, not mine!), also had a good experience with the classes and group and individual coaching.

She observed that while kettlebell training is often included in weight training routines you can do on your own, and there are some great videos and articles about doing the movements properly, there was a serious learning curve for her on even basic movements like the Swing. She could tell she wasn't doing it quite right when she started to feel strain in her low back, and it took several classes of practicing and getting coaching from Ashley on what she needed to focus on before she felt comfortable.

The Warrior Room also first introduced my wife to the PVC pipe trick for proper squat form (great for other movements with glute strength and hip hinge) and we practiced with a broom at home to keep our heads, upper backs, and tailbones aligned. It really is a matter of retraining the body to do those movements in proper alignment, and we both improved so much since training with the pros at The Warrior Room!

How to get the most out of your kettlebell workout

The classes are a full hour, and are definitely difficult for students of many skill levels (there was a wide range in the classes we took). We were very tired after our first few classes, not used to doing more cardio-intensive movements for longer periods of time, so I definitely recommend going when you are feeling and fueling your best.

Since there's so much to do during the class hour, the warm-up and cool-down parts are very short, so I definitely recommend coming several minutes early to do some mobility work on the sidelines, and plan to use the foam rollers afterward in the classroom or at home.

Check it out!

As you can tell, we had a great experience kettlebell training at The Warrior Room and recommend it for anyone looking for a fast-pasted, challenging strength training and high intensity workout. Or for someone looking to perfect kettlebell and other functional movements in your own workouts. Supplementing with some Warrior Room classes would be a great idea to stay on track with your form and progress.

Check out The Warrior Room online and on Facebook, or drop by at 1928 SE Washington St in Milwaukie!

Now that I've got that most important message out there I need to add a disclaimer. I was given, in exchange for writing this post, a 3 month trial membership at the gym. My wife and I both went to several different class types during that time and really got to know the range of classes they offer.  I was never told what specifically to write about, how much to say, anything to avoid saying, or any other instruction about how to cover my experience there. I was under no obligation to even write this post if I didn't feel like it, and was never told to not post if I had negative comments. That, my friends, is how a business does marketing with integrity. Now, lucky for me, and for them, that integrity showed throughout my experience there, and I really don't have much of anything but positive comments to make. Thanks so much to The Warrior Room!


Mindful Eating Challenge complete! Next steps...

We've completed our 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge!

You can check out the details on the Mindful Eating Challenge here to learn why we did this and what it means. Read the update halfway through here.

For the past two weeks, my wife and I have paid attention to where, when, and how we eat our food. No standing at the kitchen counter eating a snack, no hurrying through a meal while watching videos on the computer, and no eating breakfast in the car on the way to work. We'd gotten into a busy routine where finding time and a peaceful place to eat was hard, so we needed this reset to get out of bad habits and focus on our food!

The challenge was based on the premise that when we take the time to rest, sit still, and savor our food, not only do we enjoy it more and likely eat the right amount for our hunger signals, we also digest it better and may absorb more nutrients and receive more benefit.

A little nervous system background

Our digestive organs and processes are regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which functions involuntarily and reflexively. The autonomic nervous system also controls other peripheral nervous system functions like heart rate and blood pressure. While these processes happen automatically, we can affect things like heart rate by consciously breathing and resting; we can affect hormone regulation by how we eat, sleep, move, and supplement; and we can affect our digestive health by intentional physical and mental changes as well.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into three parts: the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the enteric nervous system. Digestion is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system--when our bodies are in a parasympathetic state. (Read more about this nervous system and how we can choose to eat in that state in the original Mindful Eating Challenge post here.)

Eating mindfully, always, is the goal

While the two-week challenge was a helpful tool for us, we hope to continue being mindful of our food whenever possible. So many benefits - improved digestion, decreasing stress in general, listening to hunger signals/regulating food intake, practicing gratitude for our food and whoever cooked it... great practice in general.

Dinner I made once during our Mindful Eating Challenge - eaten before heading out to a social event, but felt good to sit and eat together at the table (Source: My IG)

If you want to try eating more mindfully at home, try these four beginning steps:
  1. Prepare food ahead of time. We like to cook several things on Sunday evenings so we have some leftovers started for the week's lunches. Using the slow cooker during the week is also a great way to ensure you'll have food ready when you need it.
  2. Set some strict rules for where and when you eat. You can't always force yourself into a parasympathetic state consciously, but you can decide not to eat standing up or while multi-tasking for the next two weeks. After trying it for a few days, it won't feel forced anymore. This simple change of not eating while standing in the kitchen, writing emails, scrolling through Twitter on the phone, or driving to work will make a huge difference.
  3. Take a deep breath before each meal. This can be a shortened version of the Raisin Meditation; a prayer to yourself, your food, your cook, or a higher power; or a yogic breathing exercise--whatever works for you.
  4. Try a Raisin Meditation to practice new sensory experiences and become more comfortable with these elements of eating.
These tips were important for helping us feel comfortable focusing on our food during the challenge, and will continue to be helpful as we (hopefully) continue eating more mindfully. There's no reason we can't take a deep breath together before we eat dinner in the evening, or refuse to eat breakfast in the car as a general practice.

Wishing you the best in mindful eating and health!

You can check out the details on the Mindful Eating Challenge here to learn why we did this and what it means.  Read the update halfway through here.


Mindful Eating Challenge Progress and Update

One week into the 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge, and I have some reflections on the experience thus far!

You can check out the details on the Mindful Eating Challenge here to learn why we're doing this and what it means. Read the summary of the completed challenge here.

The official 14-day challenge was in large part my wife's idea, and I've been learning while doing. Some benefits I've experienced:

I've noticed that taking the time to sit and think about my food and the experience of eating it has really brought a level of relaxation to my whole day that I haven't had in quite a while. When I get stressed and busy it's easy to fall into patterns of eating on the go or losing sleep, but those types of responses to stress just perpetuate the stressful environment. It's becoming clear to me that "mindless" eating has a similar effect on my overall stress level to missing sleep or cramming for a test. I just don't feel as good, the food doesn't taste as good, and the natural cycle of my day gets thrown off. Forcing myself to sit down and stop whatever else I'm doing to eat a meal has been a big challenge, even though it sounds simple. However, after just a week of being mindful and attentive I can see the practical benefits of making the time I eat be a relaxing break from anything else that's going on. I've actually found that I look forward to eating more because I know that I'm going to take that time for myself.

Right BEFORE we ate breakfast on Sunday. We put away the laptop before eating, I swear.

Also, the food tastes better. It's immediately clear the first time I tried consciously eating mindfully, and it's lasted through the week. If I put a bite in your mouth and tune everything else out, even closing my eyes, the experience becomes so much more vibrant. We all know that when you focus on something the sense of it is heightened, and that our brains have the ability to tune out extraneous sensory information. Think about how your sense of touch feels the air, clothing, chairs, floor all the time. If we couldn't tune out that stuff we'd never get anything done. The same is true for food. When you watch TV, browse the internet, work, or even talk while eating you tune out a large portion of one of the most enjoyable human experiences: that of nourishing you body. Rather than tuning out of my primary goal of eating my meal in favor of multi-tasking, I'm really focusing on the food and appreciating the eating/digesting process.

We have struggled with a few things, too. As we expected when we started, breakfast is hard. Unless we have some left overs or prepare something special, it's hard to eat a real meal before leaving for the day. Also a challenge: getting enough food when we're very hungry after a hard workout, since grabbing a handful of nuts while walking around the house is not a mindful option. Again, we've just got to prepare enough food ahead of time or eat a bigger lunch that will hold us till dinner is ready. Hoping to keep improving these skills as we continue our challenge.

What benefits do you notice from taking the time to focus on your food? What tips and tools make it easier to eat in a rested, seated, calm state?

You can check out the details on the Mindful Eating Challenge here to learn why we're doing this and why it's important. Read the summary of the completed challenge here.


Mindful Eating Challenge - improving where, when, and how we eat

Update: You can read the halfway through update on our Mindful Eating Challenge here and the summary of the completed challenge here.

My wife and I thinking a lot about mindful eating. I imagine "mindful eating" can mean a lot of things (being connected to and respectful of the animals that we eat, for example--something we also do, but for us right now the concept means taking the time to pay attention to and appreciate our food while we eat, rather than putting nutrition in our mouths while distracted or doing something else. It can be so easy to bring a small breakfast in the car on the go, get home from being out hungry and look for snacks before/while cooking a real meal, or emphasize nutrition above enjoyment of food (we have been doing a lot more weight lifting the past few weeks, and when you lift heavy every other day your appetite dramatically increases and we want to eat enough food to fuel our bodies and build muscle--so protein shakes and post-workout bananas in a hurry have looked a lot more appealing recently).

And all of those ways of eating have their place, and certainly getting the high quality, real food micro- and macro nutrients that we need is very important. But if we have the choice and time to focus on eating the best food and the best way possible, we can maximize the nutrition that we are consuming, remove stress, and improve our health in other ways.

Like many things in our modern world, we've gotten away from a restful, biologically appropriate way of eating in favor of convenient, efficient, cheap, or hyper-palatable food.

Eating while working/rest & digest

It makes sense intuitively that eating while relaxed would result in better digestion and nutrient absorption than eating while running, working, being yelled at, or other stressful activity. But it's easy to understand the science behind it as well. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for "rest and digest" or "eat and breed" activities - eating, salivating, arousal, digestion, etc. We are in a "rest and digest" parasympathetic state when we are calm and rested, and when adrenaline and cortisol are lowered. Digestion is improved in a parasympathetic state due to the secretion of gastric juice and increase in motility of the gut. No surprise, this is the best time to eat!

Another element of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, or the "fight or flight" processes. It governs the body in a stress state, and improves our functions for action/performance such as pupil dilation, heart rate increase, more efficient conversion of glycogen to glucose for muscle function, adrenaline release (secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine), and decreased peristalsis and kidney/bladder function/release. These are the functions needed when we are under stress, running from a predator, working hard on a math problem, running errands in a hurry, etc. If we eat food in this state, our bodies will not be prepared to digest it properly. It's incredible that our responses are measurable by chemical/neurotransmitter release and physical changes, identifiable by body part (love the Autonomic Nervous System table in this post on Neuroscience for Kids!).

And yet, so often in our lives in the developed world in 2014, we don't take time to sit down, breathe, relax, and eat. Even on a Paleo diet, we're often eating high quality food but may end up having to quickly get it in our mouths in the car or standing up while cooking or packing lunches (breakfast, eaten at the time of day when cortisol is supposed to be highest anyway, is particularly hard for many people). Also tough is dinner; after you come home from a day of thinking or working hard at work, if the first thing you do is unload your bags and start cooking the next meal but are hungry from not enough satiety from lunch (not enough fat or protein, anyone?) it's easy to snack on whatever you can find in the fridge while cooking dinner. (In this case, not only is the food you're grabbing probably not as nutrient-dense as a meal (e.g. almonds vs. meat/veggies), your body is probably not in an optimal state to digest it. This can lead to digestive problems as well as weight gain.) So, it's important to think about WHEN, WHERE, and HOW we eat, as well as WHAT we eat.

(This makes sense based on commonsense and anecdotal evidence I’ve heard. We know that thinking about food is first step in digestion--we often become more aware of the saliva in our mouths, and prime our digestive system to produce the enzymes we need to process the food we’re anticipating. Also, we’ve found that often we don't feel like eating immediately after working out (i.e. body in sympathetic nervous system dominance), so we often wait half an hour or so or (at least until we get home) before fueling post-workout with some healthy carbs and quality protein.)

(Great article about the rest and digest vs. fight or flight, plus how to get into a parasympathetic state, here.)

Eating mediation

The Raisin Meditation (info here/here/here/here) is a mindfulness-based stress reduction technique that is a specific meditation, like any guided meditation practice, but is particularly relevant to our mindful eating goals because it is practiced with food (raisin or other food you have around). The Raisin Meditation (while it was created not only to practice mindful eating, but as a stress-reduction technique) allows us to focus on real qualities of the food while readying the mind to eat and focus only on eating.

Doing a similar eating meditation practice before every meal probably isn't practical for most people, though. But during this mindful eating challenge we're finding other ways to focus on food before/while eating.

This concept is not new. The prayer before a meal is a great way to rest and focus on food and company. You don't have to pray to any power other than yourself and whoever prepared the food, but we've found it is valuable to take a moment, close our eyes, take a breath, and express gratitude to each other for the food we're about to eat.

The Mindful Eating Challenge

It's tough, but the next step for us was a 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge. We've done 21 Day Sugar Detoxes before, which were very similar to a Whole30 program for us because we did the dairy-free level... and while these resets can be helpful for to get out of a bad pattern, they are primarily about the content and quality of diet. So, why not challenge ourselves to reset HOW we eat? We've gotten into patterns of rushing and often eating food not because we want to taste the specific flavors and savor it, but because we're very hungry after a tough workout or we know we'll be away from the house and need quality food before we go.

Over the next two weeks, we're reconsidering the way we eat in order to set healthful habits for the future. Here are a few ways to get started.

  1. Prepare food ahead of time. We like to cook several things on Sunday evenings so we have some leftovers started for the week's lunches. Using the slow cooker during the week is also a great way to ensure you'll have food ready when you need it.
  2. Set some strict rules for where and when you eat. You can't always force yourself into a parasympathetic state consciously, but you can decide not to eat standing up or while multi-tasking for the next two weeks. After trying it for a few days, it won't feel forced anymore. This simple change of not eating while standing in the kitchen, writing emails, scrolling through Twitter on the phone, or driving to work will make a huge difference.
  3. Take a deep breath before each meal. This can be a shortened version of the Raisin Meditation; a prayer to yourself, your food, your cook, or a higher power; or a yogic breathing exercise--whatever works for you.
  4. Try a Raisin Meditation to practice new sensory experiences and become more comfortable with these elements of eating.

Four steps, four simple things to try during a 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge. They don't sound that hard, do they? (Imagine if we showed this list to our grandparents when they were young, or people
hundreds of years ago. They'd probably look at us like we were crazy. "Of course I prepare my food. Duh. Of course I don't eat standing up. I sit at the table with nice utensils and cloth napkins. What's your problem?"

So let's try to rewind a little and practice simple changes for mindful eating, improved digestion and absorption of nutrients, and health.

Most challenge programs focus on eliminating problem foods and improving diet/food quality. Those changes are essential for many people, but for those of us who have already found a diet that works well for us, we can improve our habits and lifestyle, and experience health changes, through other factors about the way we eat:

Want to join us? Here are some FAQs for our 14-day Mindful Eating Challenge!
  • You can eat at a restaurant/out or at home, as long as you’re in a relaxed state and location (WHERE)
  • You can eat whatever number of meals per day works for you, and at any time of day; just not while driving, working, or doing other sympathetic nervous system-dominant activities (WHEN)
  • You can eat whatever you want--You don’t have to eat "Paleo" or entirely homemade foods (although as noted above, if you do the first steps of the challenge, it is likely that you’ll be eating higher quality food than a quick snack grabbed from a box or jar, or fast food window). So don’t worry about the content (the WHAT) during this 14-day period, and don’t worry about perfection – improvements just from changing the WHERE/WHEN/HOW of eating 

Try it yourself!

If you think you could use a little more mindfulness in your relationship with food, join us! Hashtag #mindfuleatingchallenge on Twitter and Instagram - we look forward to seeing where, when, and how you eat more mindfully!

Update: You can read the halfway through update on our Mindful Eating Challenge here and the summary of the completed challenge here.
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