Will I Drink Again? (cont.)

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My blog post last week generated a lot of comments both in the blogosphere and in real life. It seems my friends are as split as my own mind is on the subject of whether I should drink again when my New Year’s resolution is over.

It seems like those who think I should not drink again are the most adamant. Folks on this side of the ledger point to how much I’ve accomplished in six short months and ask why I would even consider drinking again. A few of these people pointed to the dramatic difference in my physical appearance from the weight loss and another pointed me to my own words in last week’s blog, the part about liking who I am now.

When I was explaining to one of my mother’s good friends how it would be nice to have the option of celebrating special occasions with alcohol, she responded, “Why would you do that? Once you do it for one special occasion, you’ll find a way to make every occasion special.”

A family member even went so far as to imply that it would be a major mistake to go back to drinking alcohol. His words really stuck with me and also got me to thinking that I have really opened a can of worms by asking for feedback on the matter.

Luckily, there are at least an equal number of people lined up on the other side. Another family member suggests that setting boundaries for executing a plan at moderate alcohol consumption would be a great New Year’s resolution for me in 2015. And, certainly my husband and many of my close friends look forward to a day when I will be re-joining them for wine-paired dinners and the like.

It occurs to me now that, whatever I decide, I am certain to disappoint some faction of my followers, many of whom are friends and family. My plan for handling that is to distract them with an even more challenging, more interesting, and more polarizing New Year’s resolution in 2015.

To amuse myself in the interim, I searched for articles by other people who had resolutions similar to mine. I found a former self-described “party girl” who made it through her year and decided not to drink again. Read about her here. Then, there’s this British woman who took her alcohol detox too far and became a recluse and lost most of her friends. She started drinking again. Read an article about her here. And, there’s a sporty guy who quit alcohol for a year to lose weight. He drank after the year was up and then quit again. You can read about him here.

Ultimately, whether or not to drink again is a decision I will make on my own. That said, I love pondering the diverse opinions generated along the way. Please continue to post your views and comments.

Will I Drink Again?

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By far, the question I get most often these days is: “Do you think you will drink again?” This is an interesting progression in people’s reaction to my resolution not to drink alcohol this year. In the beginning, it was: “Do you miss it?” (I answered that question in an early blog post which you can read here.)

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(Above: Me having my last drink, a nice glass of champagne last New Year’s Eve. Was this my last alcoholic beverage, ever?)

Initially, I assumed that I would start drinking again when New Year’s rolled around again. In my mind, I was very clear that I was giving up drinking for one full year and I would start again on January 1, 2015. In fact, I even considered contacting a few different champagne companies to see if any of them would consider sponsoring my New Year’s Eve party.

Now that I have already achieved both my weight loss goal and my marathon PR in just short five months, the question of “will I drink again?” is one that I have started to give a lot more thought. Nearly halfway through my “dry year,” I’m honestly still not sure. There are some pretty good reasons on both sides of the ledger.

3 Reasons to Drink Again:

1. I’ve earned it. I’ve lost more than 30 pounds from my highest point and now weigh my ideal weight for my body frame. Read about how I gained and lost 30 pounds here. Not drinking enabled my weight loss and my weight loss helped my marathon training and propelled me to my fastest marathon time. After all this hard work, haven’t I earned the right to drink wine again (in moderation, at least)?

2. I miss it. Like when I wrote about it earlier this year, there are still times when I miss drinking alcohol. I miss it the most when my husband, Bruce, and I got out for a nice dinner. Great food gets enhanced when it’s accompanied by a great glass of wine. One of the lowest points in this process thus far was when Bruce went to a wine and food-paired dinner without me. I also really crave a beer after a long run or road race. Simply put, there are times when an NA just doesn’t cut it.

3. I’m not an alcoholic. There were times in the past when I was disappointed in myself for drinking too much. And a few occasions when I crossed a line in my consumption. Having alcoholism in my family has always made me hypersensitive to how much I was drinking, and also caused me to worry that I might become an alcoholic. Back in January, I did some research and now feel confident that I am not an alcoholic, nor was I an alcohol abuser. (That post is here.)  

3 Reasons Not to Drink Again:

1. Why go back? This is probably the strongest argument not to drink again, and is one that was raised by my friend, Rose, in response to a very early blog post. A teetotaler herself, Rose asked: “Are you thinking of quitting for good? I mean, after you succeed in losing the weight, and you will, and running so hard that you get your PR, why go back to it?” Considering what not drinking has already enabled me to achieve, why would I go back?

2. I like who I am now. This is really just a continuation of the first reason above. In addition to achieving the goals I set for myself, not drinking has also enabled me to sleep better, given me clearer thinking, and made me a happier person. I just gave up one thing, it was relatively easy to do, and I have gained so much in the bargain. It was a fair trade, wasn’t it?  

3. Moderation is not my strong suit. I seem to have only two speeds: 100 miles per hour and full stop. Luckily, it’s also true that that when I commit to something, I go all in and don’t mess around. (This doesn’t mean that I am always successful.) Suffice it to say that moderation isn’t easy for me. This was why I gave up drinking in the first place, because just cutting back had seemed impossible.

All of the above said, although I am still mulling it over, I’m leaning toward giving moderation a try in 2015.  I think it would be really nice to celebrate all of my 2014 achievements with a glass of kick-ass champagne on New Year’s Eve. And, there’s still plenty of time for me to look for sponsors. Of course, there’s also more than six months for my thinking to evolve even further.

What are your thoughts and predictions about whether or not I should or will drink again when 2015 rolls around?

I Am Sisyphus (Again)

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Last week, I reported the good news that I had already lost 20 pounds and returned to my goal weight of 138 pounds.  Sadly, I can already tell that weight maintenance is going to be a battle. And, unfortunately, it looks like one that may last the rest of my life. That 20th and final pound has been lost, gained, and re-claimed four times and it’s only been a few weeks. Huffington Post says I need to get used to this, because “weight maintenance is actually the state of gaining and losing small amounts of weight over and over again.”

This reminds me of the Myth of Sisyphus, about which I wrote this poem in 1997:

And I was Sisyphus again today,
Elated at the top,
Only to fall down under the rock’s
Crushing weight.
Yet I know I will be happy again tomorrow,
Only to slip back down again,
Still happy afterward, as I approach the crest.
Mankind and I, we are so simple in
Both our pleasures and our defeats.

To be successful, the Mayo Clinic suggests that “weight maintenance requires daily exercise, a healthy menu, a long-term commitment, and constant vigilance.” Wait a minute. This sounds suspiciously like dieting. They also say not to worry, because it will get easier after two to 5 years of keeping the weight off. When they said “a long-term commitment,” they weren’t kidding. It’s clear that I’m going to need as many strategies to maintain my weight as I did to lose it the first place.

My first strategy is to continue using the MyFitnessPal app every day. As I have explained in the past, this is my version of keeping a food and exercise journal. According to WebMB, I should be able to maintain my weight while consuming 2,000 calories a day.  This is significantly more than the 1,200 calorie diet I’ve been on. I just can’t bring myself to program this into my settings, so I’m starting with 1,500 and will adjust later, as needed.

My second strategy is to remain committed to exercise. This should be the easy part for me, since I am still training for marathons and have always been active. This article in Women’s Health Magazine suggests that exercise is the single most important factor in keeping weight off. The stat came from The National Weight Control Registry which tracks people who successfully maintained weight loss of 30 pounds or more. It turns out that 90% of these people exercise an average of one hour per day.

This study using data from the Registry confirms that my first two strategies are important to maintaining my weight and also suggests two others. These are monitoring my weight regularly and having a low-fat diet. We have a digital scale in our master bathroom and I use it almost every day, making the weight monitoring no problem. Focusing on lowering fat is another matter. I lost the weight by counting calories and exercising. The only significant diet change I made was cutting out alcohol. Generally speaking, I ate essentially whatever I wanted in lower quantities or I exercised more to burn it off. I’m going to mull over the low-fat focus a bit more…

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(Above: My brother helped pace my half marathon run in Middlebury, VT on May 4, enabling me to finish well under a 9 minute-per-mile pace.) 

What is going to be critical to maintaining my weight is to be vigilant on race weekends. Take this past weekend for example:  I ran a half marathon faster than my goal, in 1 hour and 56 minutes. My average pace of 8:51 per mile is under my marathon pace needed to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I even ranked in the upper 20% of all female runners in their 40s, my “group.” That’s the great news. The bad news is that it’s two days after the race and I’ve gained three pounds. 

Evidently this is common, especially for women, when training for marathons.  A few of the many online articles about this can be found here, here, and here. The main causes of the weight gain include overestimating energy needs, feeling you deserve to eat what you want, and not being active enough outside of the actual training. Originally, I was thinking of not using my app during race weekends as a reward. I’m scratching that idea to make sure I keep the 20 pounds off. If I’m destined to be Sisyphus, I should at least make rolling that stone up the hill easier on myself.

How I Lost 20 Pounds

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Month four of my resolution not to drink alcohol has come to an end.  I’m both surprised and proud to report that I have lost 20 pounds and have returned to what I consider to be my “ideal weight.”

Image (My weight loss is most obvious in my face. Above, at 155 pounds. Below, at 138 pounds.)

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More often than not over the past 12 years, my New Year’s resolution was to lose 20 pounds. In all those times, I didn’t even come close, not even during the years when I tried really, really hard. As I mentioned in my blog last week, we all know that trying is not enough on its own. In this blog post, I try my best to answer the inevitable question of “How did I Do It?”

I attribute my successful weight loss this year to these four things:

  1. Quitting drinking
  2. Telling the world about it
  3. Approaching it like a marathon
  4. Using an app to track everything

Quitting Drinking

Not drinking is the single-most important factor in my weight loss.  As I’ve said before, the first 8 pounds I lost was solely due to not drinking. Everyone knows that alcohol has calories. When I was drinking two glasses of wine a night, I was adding approximately 350 calories to my daily calorie intake. This online article has a wealth of information about wine and calories.  It’s hard to stick to a diet of 1,200 calories-a-day if you consume 29% in the form of a liquid with no nutritional value. Studies have also shown that you eat 20% more when you are drinking while you are eating. This recent article talks about that and many more negative effectives of alcohol on weight. In addition to these reasons above, I am now also able to exercise at night, something I never could have done after drinking wine at dinner.

Telling the World

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post in late December, I improved my chances of sticking to my resolution because I told other people about it and wrote it down. That’s the point of this blog – I’ve made myself accountable not only to my close friends and family, but also to anyone who stumbles across this blog. As of this writing, I have 132 followers and that number increases every week. I don’t think I would have been able to stick to my resolution to quit drinking without the blog. Also, having the blog forces me to think through many issues and ideas associated with drinking, dieting, and exercising. All of this keeps me trying harder and staying more focused. After all, I have to report something interesting back to the blogosphere.

Marathon Approach

I’m aware that it’s a cliché to say that something “is a marathon and not a sprint.” However, since I actually run marathons, I think it’s okay for me to use this phrase.  Also, it’s true. I am approaching my weight loss and fitness goals like I approach a marathon, both literally and figuratively. Literally, I am actually training for a marathon, and that means I exercise six days every single week, culminating in both a strenuous race pace run every Saturday and a long run every Sunday. Figuratively, I have chunked out my goals into smaller goals and am taking a long view.  I am not following a fad diet or eating different things than I normally would in order to lose weight quickly. With the one exception of cutting out alcohol, I am eating pretty much as I did before. However, when I realize I need to change my diet in order to be more successful at losing weight, I change one thing at a time, so that the change is gradual.

To me, a marathon approach also means that it’s okay to screw up. During a marathon, you’re going to have slow miles and fast miles. The slow miles are not bits of failure, they are just a part of the process. The goal for the marathon runner is the average pace run over the full distance. There can be many points of exhaustion along the way, so even walking is okay. A successful diet is much the same.

Using A Fitness App

Once the easy weight from quitting drinking was gone, it was all about my commitment to use the app. I have a daily goal of 1,200 calories that I track using a free fitness Web application called MyFitnessPal. I lost between 1-1.5 pounds per week without fail by inputting everything I ate into the app. When I exercised, I also input that into that app and earned more calories for that day. If I ate too much, I exercised more.  It was that simple; but it was not magic.  It takes focus and commitment to leverage this tool in order to lose weight.

The thread that pulls through all of these contributors to my success in losing 20 pounds — quitting drinking, telling the world, having a marathon approach, and using a fitness app – is commitment. In the end, that’s the most important thing.

Where Are You Going?

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Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey.  I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.

About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China.  Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here.  It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.

In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:Image

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I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled  “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau.  However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing. 

Beijing.  Beijing.  What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country?  You’re no longer protected from the peasants.  Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you.  You have it all, don’t you?  All but clean air.  I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new.  The results of ‘development’.  You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok.  You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two.  You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon.  Or had you bothered to consider this?

And, look at your populace.  Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters.  They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation.  And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers.  They’ll be real businessmen someday.  But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you?  Your perms are a little too dry, yet.  And your shoes a little too dirty.  But you’re almost there.

You will arrive soon.  But where is it that you think you’re going?  You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination.  But what are your goals?  What is your raison d’être?  Your 9th five-year plan.  What does that say?  What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future?  I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit.  I’m just an observer here.  But I am thinking deeply as I observe.  I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers.  And I sympathize with their confusion.

They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised.  You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something.  You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell.  What kind of ownership is that anyway?  You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays.  And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike.  You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”.  Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.”  You fear another Tiananmen.  Or at least you want your children to fear that.  It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it?  That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself.  So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all.  But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians.  They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it.  Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman.  “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man.  The icon of Mao.  The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia.  “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.”  Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth.  Mao, you will fade, though.  You will not live in human memory 10,000 years.  You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?

So, Beijing, where did you say you were going?  Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you?  We are all interested.  And we’re almost as confused as you are.

Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years. 

Pushing Past the Plateau

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The connections between drinking or not drinking alcohol and gaining or losing weight are obvious and well-documented.  As I previously stated, one of my motivations in pledging to not drink for a solid year was to drop a few stubborn pounds.  Thus far, not drinking has helped me to lose eight pounds with relative ease. Yet, for the past month, I’ve been going up and down in a range of two-three pounds, at the same “weight plateau” that has irked me since before my 40th birthday.  Having given up so much this time, I am determined to break through and, once and for all, return to my goal weight. This raises two questions with me: Why am I at a plateau? And how do I push past it?

The Mayo Clinic does a great job of describing this plateau. It happens when your metabolism slows as your body gets used to the new level of reduced calorie intake, something they refer to as a “new equilibrium.”  Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to push past it, according to the Mayo folks: “To lose more weight, you need to increase activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss.” Translation: losing 12 more pounds is going to be hard work. 

Luckily, there is by far more helpful advice on this topic than for any other I have researched for this blog. Let’s check in with Jillian Michaels, weight loss and fitness guru, and the star of the “Biggest Loser.” She thinks the plateau is a myth, so I need to honestly ask myself a few questions. First, am I keeping track of my daily calories? Yes. I’ve been using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as all of my exercise. Secondly, am I trying to lose vanity pounds? To answer this question, I need to understand how much of my body is actually fat.

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Previously, I calculated my Body Mass Index (BMI). For my height of five feet, seven inches, a “healthy” BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Checking my current BMI at my weight plateau of 150 pounds, I see I’m in that range, with a BMI of 23.5. However, after reading more about BMI, including this NPR article with 10 reasons why BMI is bogus, I understand that BMI was developed over 100 years ago and is a straight formula based only on height and weight.  It doesn’t really take into account anything important – such as gender, age, or musculature.

Sadly, this means I had to take out my tape measure so that I could estimate my actual body fat. I used this calculator from the U.S. Navy. I took three measurements: my waist at the narrowest point (29 inches), my hips at the widest point (39 inches), and my neck at the narrowest point (13 inches).  This estimates my body fat at 27%. I know that is too high. According to this chart, it’s in the middle of the “average” category for women. I don’t want to be average. I want to break into the top end of the “fitness” category, which is between 21% and 24%. Some of you will, no doubt, debate this. However, my answer to Jillian’s second question is, no, I am not trying to lose vanity pounds.

Given that, I need some solid strategies to lose 12 more pounds to get to my goal weight of 138. Among several other suggestions out there, WebMD has 10 tips for moving beyond the plateau, as do About.com and ActiveBeat.com. I don’t know about you, but 10 things seems like a lot to keep track of. The solution to this, as with all things, is to create a spreadsheet. I tracked the tips from these three sources and found they contained a total of 22 different tips. I was able to scratch off a bunch of these, because I am already doing nine of these things, and, frankly, another five of them just seemed lame.

My analysis left me with eight things to focus on, five of which are diet-related and three about exercise. On the food side, I need to beware of calorie creep, celebratory calories, and restaurant overeating, and try to manage my hunger with low-fat protein and by eating more fruits & veggies. This seems like solid dieting advice. At the same time, I need to add in more exercise, particularly by trying to be more active during the day and by adding strength training.

Like I said, this is going to be hard work. Wish me luck!

I’m Saving Big Bucks!

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Saving money was not a deciding factor in choosing not to drink alcohol for my 2014 New Year’s resolution. In fact, the list I jotted down in my journal puts it at number nine in a list of nine. (I couldn’t come up with a 10th reason). Despite this, I amused myself the other night by doing a quick estimate of how much money I expect to save this year by not drinking. Of course, I immediately followed my note-taking by creating an Excel spreadsheet.

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Let me walk you through the table. I mentioned in a previous post that I used to drink at least two glasses of wine every night. So, my estimate assumes that, had I not made this New Year’s resolution, I would drink two glasses of wine every night in 2014. It also assumes that I would eat at home 5 nights a week, eat out twice per week, and that once per month, my husband and I would “splurge” on something that would result in spending more on alcohol. These are the three “line items” represented in the rows in the table.

In the columns, I show a conservative estimate of how much money I would have spent per time on each of these drinking occasions, how many time per month I would have engaged in each, and then I annualize the cost by multiplying the results by 12. Finally, I add up the dollar amounts in the last column to get the total expected annualized cost savings.

For the wine at home, I used a cost of $15 per bottle, and assumed that my husband and I would share it and finish a bottle each night. So, we would have spent $7.50 (or half the cost) per night on me. Sure, we all know that there are times when I would have been drinking a $12 bottle of Pinot Grigio. And also times when we would be sharing a $30 bottle of reserve Pinot Noir. This is an estimate, and I am sure that it is conservative. In fact, Bruce opened a bottle of Bridlewood Reserve Pinot earlier this week. It had cost $30, and it took him three days to finish it. If I had been helping him with it, it would have been a dead soldier in one night – guaranteed.

To estimate the cost of drinking wine out, I simply figured two glasses of wine all in at $10 each, or $20 for each outing. Bruce and I love(d) to go to wine tastings and wine dinners, we like(d) to share a special bottle of wine on special occasions, and we also greatly enjoy going out to listen to local music. I account for this additional spending in the “Splurge” line item. Here, I assumed that it was only once per month, and that the additional spending just for me, above and beyond the typical cost, was $20.

$4,440 is a lot of money! To be honest, this is more than I had guessed. And, let’s face it, this is probably an under-estimate of how much I will save this year by not drinking alcohol. Why wasn’t cost savings higher on my list? In my next post, I’ll reveal what I’m going to do with all that cash…