Vive La Différence!

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As I reported last week, having resumed the option to drink wine at dinner has decreased the likelihood that I have time or motivation to exercise in the evening.  Since one of my key goals this year is to maintain my weight loss, this presents a real challenge that I’m committed to solving. Recall that not drinking was the main contributor to my losing over 20 pounds last year, as detailed in this post from last April.

For me, not drinking resulted in three positive weight-loss benefits: (1) It directly eliminated a few hundred empty calories each day from my diet, (2) It kept me more focused on what and how much I was eating, and (3) It freed up my evenings, making it very easy to exercise at night.

These past several weeks I’ve been tinkering with my routine, trying to find a formula that allows me to enjoy food and wine with my husband, further my marathon training, and maintain my weight. My concerns that adding alcohol back into the mix could reverse the positive results I achieved last year are well-founded. I’ve noticed more than once that just a few days of complacency result in some extra pounds.

Initially, I drank wine most evenings at dinner and changed my weekday routine by getting up early in the morning to run. I really thought this was going to be the right solution for me. After all, in the old days, they used to say that morning was the best time for a workout, because it let you get it out of the way quickly and set you up for a better, more energized rest of the day. This is still recommended by a lot of fitness bloggers and medical experts, including in this article and this one . I’ve been pretty good at following through with this routine change, happily getting up between 5 o’clock and 5:30 to hit the treadmill before work.

Although a strong 5-mile morning workout puts me in a great mood, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to help me shed those pesky two pounds. Further routine tinkering has revealed that the evening workouts are much more effective for me.

And, it’s not just about whether I have wine at dinner. In fact, my results appear almost equally as good whether I make time to exercise before dinner (even with wine) or whether I skip wine at dinner and exercise later in the evening. It turns out that my routine and results testing confirm a new “discovery” in the exercise and weight loss industry: everyone is different and you have to figure out what’s best for you. Some great articles about this trend include this one on WebMD and this one from the American Heart Association.

What does this all mean for me? As I begin to step up my marathon training for the season, I’m planning to skip wine most Mondays through Thursdays, so that I can bank an extra hour of sleep in the morning and increase the likelihood that I’ll workout in the evening. On the weekends, I’m going to push out my workouts to the afternoon, closer to the time when I’ll be enjoying all of that great food and wine.

What’s It Like?

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Now that a full month has passed, it’s time to give some thought to the question people are asking me over and over again: What’s it like to drink again after a year without alcohol?

Once I got over being proud of myself for making it through my dry year, I was petrified. This was particularly true the first week, when I worried about the potential side effects of resuming drinking following a relatively long period of abstinence. I also feared that I’d fall right back into the old patterns that had led me to embark on my resolution to begin with. Not knowing what to expect, I initially made a conscious attempt to be very moderate in my consumption.

Alcohol Tolerance

Believe it or not, I detected no difference in the actual effect of alcohol on me while I was drinking it. I hadn’t become the “lightweight” that many of my friends and family thought I’d become. Perhaps because I took it easy the first week or so, I haven’t detected a difference in my general tolerance for alcohol.

That’s not to say that I didn’t experience adverse physical symptoms. In fact, I did, especially in the first two weeks. On more than one occasion, I felt sick from dehydration the day after having a few glasses of wine the previous night. Once I even thought I was coming down with the flu, until I figured it out the true cause. Physically, however, the most disappointing side effect of drinking again is the diminished quality of sleep.

How I Feel

In many ways, I feel the same as before my dry year. When I get home from work, I enjoy having a glass of wine. Even more, I like joining friends and family for a drink or two at dinner parties.

It’s also true that absence has made my heart grow fonder. I catch myself savoring the feeling when wine or champagne starts to take effect, the way the warmth of the buzz follows the liquid through my system and spreads throughout my body. This feeling is really the whole point of drinking to begin with, isn’t it? It’s like gaining temporary happiness from a bottle.

This heightened awareness of alcohol is the main difference in how I feel. I’m simply more aware of alcohol and how it impacts not only me, but also other people. As we all know, these impacts are both positive and negative.

Diet & Exercise

My chronicling of the diet and exercise accomplishments I attained in my dry year has inspired many women I know to give up alcohol for one month or more. Top of mind for these followers is how I am faring now that I’ve added alcohol back into the mix.

I’m happy to report that I’ve maintained my weight loss. I weigh exactly the same today as I weighed on January 1. And, this is the same weight that I achieved in late May last year. I have successfully lost 30 pounds and kept it off!  The winning formula to weight maintenance is exactly the same as it was to lose the weight: Weigh yourself often, keep track of everything you consume using MyFitnessPal, and add exercise to the mix as needed to reach (or stay at) your goal weight.

It became clear in the first two weeks that I needed to make two significant adjustments to maintain my weight: one to my diet and one to my exercise planning. In order to accommodate the calories from alcohol, I started by foregoing “real” lunches and opting instead for protein bars and diet bars. The second change was much more difficult. I needed to rearrange my workout schedule, since it became very hard to continue working out at night. During the workweek, I now get up earlier and workout in my home gym before going to work. I’m trying to make this a regular work day habit.

Other Impacts

My drinking habits may be forever changed by my heightened awareness of the expense of alcohol. I’m surprised that I’m not going out for drinks and dinner as much as I did before. And, whether at home or out, I’m making it count. Having a drink has to be enjoyable and of good quality. If I taste something and I don’t like it, I just dump it out and try something different, or just switch to a glass of water. In the past, I would have suffered through it and changed to something else after finishing it.

Although I’ll be reporting on it less frequently, I promise to keep you informed from time to time as I move beyond my dry year.

RESOLUTION, RENEWAL & CHANGE

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I did it! I faithfully kept my 2014 New Year’s resolution to abstain from alcohol for the entire year. To be honest, it surprised me that I stuck with it, especially considering the major lifestyle changes it required and the fact that I had failed at much simpler resolutions in years past. As you might have guessed, I won’t dwell on those failures here. Rather, this post is about the role resolutions have played in motivating me to succeed, by enabling a much-needed renewal of some aspects of my life, including personal development and enrichment.

SCF last drink (cropped)  SCF 2015 NYE

Above: Me last New Year’s Eve (left) and this year (right). I hope that my 2014 resolution to drink no alcohol will lead to a lifetime of moderation and better health and fitness.

As I revealed a year ago when I launched this blog, I’ve had a lifelong habit of carefully considering (and then announcing) my annual resolutions, and had mixed success in keeping them. The way I see it, the end of one year and the start of another presents a great opportunity to take stock of everything, from relationships, to health and happiness, and to the state of personal finances.

Considering the stats on resolutions and that only 8% of resolution makers are successful in keeping them, my track record, frankly, is pretty darn good. In two recent years, for example, I was able to use this annual exercise to focus on different challenges and interests that contributed to lasting change—change  that has greatly enhanced my overall happiness and sense of well-being.

In 2009, I resolved to get a diary and to write “every single day.” This was important to me, because I had been an avid journal keeper in the past and wanted to get back in the habit. Although it proved impossible for me to actually write on the day itself every single day for that entire year, I did conscientiously write and fill every page in that diary. I just started my new one for 2015…

Journals (landscape)

Above: My 2009 New Year’s resolution has led to a lasting habit of maintaining a diary.

The following year (2010), I resolved to “read more” and got that vow off on the right foot by joining not one, but two different book clubs. One of those clubs turned out to be very serious about the actual reading and discussion of books and this has helped me tremendously. My husband and I joined this club together and we both greatly look forward to each session. It’s always a wonderful gathering of great friends and reading and discussion, not to mention the excellent food and wine.

After the discussion section concludes, before we head in for lunch or dinner, the same question is answered by each member in turn: “What are you reading now?” It’s brilliant, because that compels many of us to keep reading other books, above and beyond the actual assignments.

Books

Above: My 2010 New Year’s resolution helped me to rekindle my life-long love of reading.

This has been, perhaps, a round-a-bout way of getting to what I’ve been thinking about this past week. Rather than rehash my already well-documented learnings from and achievements of my dry year (if you missed them or want a refresher, please read this post or this one), I’ve been considering what the lasting impact might be of my 2014 New Year’s resolution to abstain from drinking.

First and foremost, I hope that I will be a life-long moderate drinker. I want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine or some bubbly without fear that I’ll over-indulge. Along similar lines, I hope that I will be able to maintain my weight loss for many years to come. Getting back to this weight feels great and I don’t want to go back. I’d even like to further improve my fitness level by adding more diverse workouts to my routine, and cut more time off my marathon PR (personal record). And I hope that I will remain committed to this blog and keep on writing in it regularly.

For those of you who tuned in thinking that I would reveal my resolutions for 2015, I apologize. Of course, I have more than a few resolutions up my sleeve that are already in full-swing. Please tune in next time to read about some of them. And, please leave a comment on this post with your resolutions big and small for 2015.

Take It or Leave It

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Now that I’m within striking distance of the end of my self-imposed year-long ban on drinking alcohol, I want to share my new appreciation for the surprisingly bifurcated nature of alcohol. A few weeks ago, I had quoted that 30% of American adults do not drink at all and another 30% drink less than one alcoholic beverage a week. Given how much time, energy, money, and everything else that the other 40% spend on alcohol (not to mention the negative consequences that result from drinking too much of it), am I the only one who is surprised to learn that for 60% of adult Americans alcohol is essentially a non-factor?

The info-graphic below does an amazing job of presenting the data on weekly alcohol consumption by breaking it into deciles or 10 equal sized groups of survey participants:

Drinking Info-graphic

This is how you read the graph: each group represents 10% of survey respondents, and, by extrapolation, 10% of all adult Americans. Starting on the left side, you have the folks who don’t drink at all – so you see “0 drinks,” meaning that these 10% chunks of Americans have no drinks in a typical week.  As you move to the right of the graph, you see the results for the next 10% of adult Americans, and so on, and so on. Since the first three deciles each report 0 drinks, this means that it is estimated by this survey that a full 30% of adult Americans do not drink at all.

The survey, just like all of the other stats I’ve seen about alcohol, refers to “drinks” according to the suggested serving size or the “standard drink.” That’s 12 ounces of regular beer (usually about 5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (typically about 12% alcohol), and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40% alcohol).

With that in mind, continue moving to the right of the graph to see the results for Americans who drink, starting with those who drink the least. This reveals that another 30% drink less than one drink per week — 0.02 drinks per week on average, 0.14 drinks per week, and 0.63 drinks. Keep moving right on the graph to discover that people in the 7th decile report drinking only 2 drinks per week and those in the 8th decile a little less than one drink per day.

Now we’ve reached the part where the graph gets very, very interesting. The 9th decile reports drinking slightly more than 15 drinks per week on average. As I reported in January, before my New Year’s resolution, I typically drank two glasses of wine a night with dinner. This means that I certainly fell in the 9th decile of respondents to this survey. To put that another way, 90% of the American adult population drinks less than I used to!

Now look at the results for the last decile on the graph. On average, this group reports drinking 73.85 drinks per week or more than 10 standard drinks per day. That’s more than the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine a day. And, if you do the math, the people in this top decile consume much more than half of all alcohol consumed by everyone. Although that’s extremely scary, I don’t doubt the veracity of the data.  Do you?

If this interests you, take a look at the post from the Washington Post Wonkblog where I found the information, the official results from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study from which the data originates, the Amazon page for “Paying the Tab,” the 2007 book that shed light on the study, and a review of that book in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And, for the 40% of Americans who have a few drinks (or more) per week and may, like me, have concerns about how that can lead to weight gain, the WP Wokblog also put together this helpful “Guide to Efficient Drinking” that ranks various alcoholic drinks by calories per ounce and calories per serving.

A Year’s A Long Time

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I’ve learned a lot these past 10 months as I embraced, resisted, and—all the while—kept my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol for one year. If I learned only one thing it’s that a year can seem like a very long time. Sure, it’s 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, and 31,536,000 seconds. More than that, though, it offers a heck of a lot of time in which to change one’s mind. It’s no wonder that, according to one survey, only 8% of people succeed in keeping their resolutions.

No, I’m not thinking of stopping now! I know that, with two months still to go, it might seem a bit premature to have this conversation. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how long a year is and I decided it would be a good blog topic. Besides, (knock on wood) there’s zero chance that I’m going to take a sip of alcohol between now and midnight on New Year’s Eve. So I might as well write about it, while my thoughts are fresh.

The best part about a year being such a long time is that it gives plenty of time to make great personal progress, which in my case included losing 23 pounds and cutting 23 minutes off of my fastest marathon time. It’s also more than long enough to change not only your habits, but also to evolve your personal thinking and perceptions. Even though I have decided that I will drink alcohol again, I’ll never think about it the same way again. Before my dry year, I never fully appreciated how pervasive alcohol is in our society or how damaging it can be. Many of our conventions revolve around alcohol, despite 30% of American adults not drinking at all and another 30% only drinking one alcoholic beverage a week.

Now that I proved I could do it, reached my goal weight, stepped up my running game, and developed this new appreciation for life, I’m basically ready for the year to be over. That’s one of the reasons why I started to think that a year is a long time. The other is that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to whether or not I will commit to another difficult and/or life-changing resolution for next year.

The one I’ve been tossing around all year has been a resolution not to purchase any material objects. With all the time I’ve spent thinking about it and floating it by other people, today was the first time that I Googled it to see if someone else has done it. Of course someone has.  I found this guy, who had a life-altering experience not buying any consumer durables or clothes for several months and made it about six months, before he broke down and bought a new computer (after spilling coffee all over his old one). I also found this family with two young children that stuck to their resolution not to buy anything new for a whole year (they allowed themselves to buy used clothes and other items). There’s even a Wiki article on “How to buy nothing.”

I have two more months to mull it over. I’m just not sure I have it in me to go from one extreme resolution right into another. Maybe 2015 will be a year of just savoring what I achieved in 2014 and enjoying the wonderful life that I have. Or maybe it will be the year that I qualify for the Boston marathon, publish a memoir, and reconnect with a dozen old friends from college. I’m interested to know your thoughts as we approach 2015.

My Dry Year: Third Quarter Report

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Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through my New Year’s resolution to not drink alcohol in 2014, it’s time for a quick update to the “Dry Year” thread of this blog.

SCF last drink

First of all, I’m very proud to report that I am still dry and I don’t miss drinking.  It’s true that I missed it early on, had mild withdrawal symptoms the first few weeks, and even had a nightmare in which I broke my resolution by inadvertently drinking a glass of wine. It also took longer than I had expected to develop the new habit of not drinking.

By the end of May, I had already achieved my goal weight and lost a total of 30 pounds (when you include the 7 pounds I lost last year). I explained exactly how I did it in this blog post.Although I had a few challenges along the way, I’m pleased to report that four months later, I am holding steady at 135 pounds, which is a few pounds below the goal weight I had set for myself.

June 2014 (after) CROPPED

In the first half of the year, I had also already achieved my personal record (or “PR”) marathon time. How I did that is explained here. It should be no surprise that, just as I had predicted early on, losing so much weight was the biggest contributor.

SCF with pace group

After achieving these two main goals so early in the year, I wrestled with the question of whether or not I want to start drinking again when 2015 rolls around. In the end, I decided that I want to have a glass of very nice champagne at midnight this coming New Year’s Eve and then play it by ear after that.

I also decided to add a stretch goal into the mix for the second half of 2014: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  My first “BQ” attempt — as qualifying for the Boston Marathon is known to avid runners — on my 46th birthday in July was a real disaster. Despite that, it was an unforgettable experience to cross the finish line with a very close friend, no matter how long it took us.

This brings us to today.  This morning, I completed my last race of the season by trying one more time to BQ. I was very happy with my training plan, picked a course that had a nice sloping downhill, went to the race properly hydrated and fueled, and even wore a temporary tattoo with my mile-by-mile race plan on my forearm. All signs pointed to a great day on the course.

What was the result? I really killed the first half of the race, achieving a PR half-marathon time of 01:51:55 and stayed on my planned pace through 20 miles. Then, it got very hot and I started to slow and I worried that I might over-heat. Although I didn’t qualify for Boston, I am extremely proud of myself for pushing through the last several miles to the finish line and cutting another 19 minutes off my best marathon time.

887_Marathon_283 (Clarence Demar - Keene - 09-28-14)

As far as qualifying for Boston is concerned, that’s a goal I will happily carry with me into 2015. If you have any other ideas for New Year’s resolutions for 2015 for me, please leave those as comments to today’s blog post.

Alcohol is Big Business

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Alcohol is big business in the United States, and I used to be a part of it to the tune of more than $4,000 per year. Exactly how big an industry is it? According to a new report by Ken Research, the U.S. market for alcohol will grow to $252.5 billion in 2017. If this report is accurate, the alcohol market in the U.S. this year will be $218 billion. This is significantly larger than what was estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2012, $170.5 billion. 

My apologies to those of you whose eyes are already starting to glaze over. As my husband said when he edited this post: “Statistics. Damn statistics!”  I, for one, find this very interesting. One reason is that I’m a closet data geek with a Master’s degree in Applied Economics. Another is that I was curious whether my estimate for the cost of my own annual wine consumption ($4,440) is a reasonable estimate. Hopefully, there are others out there who are also interested to see the numbers.

To evaluate whether I’m in the ballpark, I was going to start by comparing my estimate to the best available figure for the average American’s spending on alcohol. I was thinking something as simple as dividing the total spending in the industry in one year by the number of Americans who drink. For every dozen people that drink PBR or do shots of Jäger, there must be at least a few people who like classier wine than I can afford, or who regularly sip Cosmos in Greenwich Village.  I know I’m in between these two types of drinkers, but where, exactly? I’ll start by comparing myself to the average and go from there.

I’ve decided to use the lower U.S.D.A number, because it’s based on the “total value of all food expenditures by final purchasers.” Perhaps the other report includes wholesale purchases, marketing spending, and other stuff. That U.S.D.A. number was $170.5 billion in 2012. The Census data I found is also for 2012, so that works perfectly. The Census says the total U.S. population then was 312 million, with about 242 million of these people being adults. A recent Gallup Survey estimates that two-thirds of American adults drink alcohol. This is consistent with the estimate I found when researching a previous article. 

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What does all of this mean? It means that the average drinking American spent about $1,068 a year on alcohol in 2012. My estimated spend is four times that figure. Holy crap! Is that possible? An answer to that must be embedded in the Gallup data.

Indeed, the Gallup Survey says that only 44% of Americans “appear to be regular drinkers, consuming at least one alcoholic beverage in a week.” If I divide all spending on alcohol by just those people, the average goes up to $1,602 per person. Further, after playing with the data, I figured out that the average weekly consumption for the folks who drink is 6.4 drinks per person. My weekly consumption used to be at least 14 glasses of wine (2 per day), or 2.2 times more than the average for drinkers in the survey. Since $1,602 multiplied by 2.2 equals $3,504, we’re getting much closer to my estimate.

The survey also reveals that men by far prefer beer to wine and also that men report drinking much more than women did. Since wine is more expensive than beer — this price list shows a 24-pack of PBR is about the cost of a mid-priced bottle of wine, my number is looking pretty darn accurate.

Although it’s nice to know that I still have mad applied economics skills, it’s embarrassing to discover that I was spending this much more than the average American on alcohol. I’m so glad I’m not doing that this year. To those readers who stayed with me to the very end of this piece, I thank you very much!