Welcome to fifty: My first health scare as a middle-aged man

Three weeks ago today, I had a major health scare.

Because it was Monday, I was at the family box factory. I had just finished running payroll and had taken paychecks out to the shop. I exited the building and *bam* my chest just sort of seized up.

“Ouch,” I thought. But, being a Roth, my thought process didn’t go much farther than that. (We Roths don’t like doctors and we tend to deal with injuries for weeks or months or years before having them looked at.)

On the way back to the office, I stopped to talk to my cousin Duane. He was digging in the dirt, prepping a spot for his summer garden. We chatted about blueberries, tomatoes, and greenhouses. We admired the warm spring day. After a few minutes, I realized that my chest still hurt.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” I said, “but I’m having chest pains. It’s probably nothing. But just in case it is something, I thought you should know.”

I walked back to the office and sat down at my computer. Instead of going back to work, however, I googled heart attacks. I read the list of symptoms. I wasn’t experiencing anything except chest pain but still…Every site said the same thing: Don’t mess around. If you’re having chest pain, have somebody drive you to a doctor.

Duane came in. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked.

“I’m still having chest pains,” I said.

“Do you want me to drive you to the doctor?” he asked.

I debated things in my mind. “It’s probably nothing,” I thought. “Or maybe it’s a panic attack like twenty years ago.” In 1998, I experienced two similar episodes that turned out to be panic attacks. I was under a lot of stress then. I’m not under a lot of stress now.

“Plus, if I go to the doctor, it could end up costing a fortune. My health insurance sucks,” I thought. “But if it is a heart attack and I don’t go in, I could end up dead.”

“Well?” Duane said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I know I’m not supposed to but I’m going to drive myself to urgent care. If you don’t hear from me in fifteen minutes, come find me.” (There’s only one logical route from the box factory to the nearest clinic.)

I gathered my stuff, hopped in my pickup, and drove slowly to the clinic. Continue reading

The big fat truth: J.D. Roth interviews JD Roth

I’m not the only semi-celebrity J.D. Roth. For more than fifteen years, I’ve been receiving email and tweets and Facebook messages intended for the other JD Roth, the former executive producer of The Biggest Loser — and tons of other television shows.

Apparently the other JD Roth has a lot of fans. Actually, I’m one of them. I’ve been watching his shows since 2009, when season seven of The Biggest Loser inspired me to start my own weight-loss journey. When he published his book The Big Fat Truth in the spring of 2016, I read it the day it was released. I thought it was great, and wished that I could interview the author, but Kim and I were in the middle of our 15-month RV trip across the U.S. and I couldn’t make the logistics work.

In 2017, when I learned that Roth had created a TV version of The Big Fat Truth, I knew the time had come at last: J.D. Roth was going to interview JD Roth. Last August, we made it happen.

Note: It can be tough to tell the two of us apart. We’re both 5’8″. We both have the same facial hair. We both have beautiful wives/girlfriends. And we both share similar underlying philosophies regarding success and personal development.

That said, there are some subtle differences between the two of us.

  • I spell my name J.D. Roth; he spells his name JD Roth.
  • I live in Oregon; he lives in California.
  • I have one producer credit on IMDB; he has 51 producer credits.
  • I have 22,030 followers on Twitter; he has 848 followers. (You should follow both of us, by the way!)
  • When I was younger, I looked so much like Star Trek‘s Commander Riker that some of my friends actually called me Riker! The other JD Roth was actually one of the final candidates for the role of Wesley Crusher.

For the purposes of this article, here’s how to tell us apart: When I write about myself, I won’t do it in the third person. I’ll say “I” and “me”. When I write about the fitness JD Roth, I’ll use proper journalistic form and refer to him by his last name.

The Big Fat Truth

“I’ve been watching your new show [The Big Fat Truth], and I really like it,” I told JD Roth at the start of our phone conversation. “I like that it’s less of a game show and more about helping participants address not only their health, but the other things they’re struggling with in their lives.”

“Yeah, it’s all interconnected.”

“Plus, The Big Fat Truth feels less produced than The Biggest Loser. There aren’t any weekly weigh-ins and there’s not dramatic music. It’s you sitting down and helping real people living their real lives facing real challenges — but still achieving real results.”

“Thank you.”

“In one episode, for instance, you have a couple analyze how they allow words to hurt them — how they use what others say as an excuse to make bad food choices. Or there’s the mom episode where you go over to Nancy’s house and it’s a mess. Her basement is a disaster, so you ask her to clean it up. I think you say something like, ‘Fix your mind and the body will follow.’ I love that.”

All of these things in your life — your basement, your bank account, your belly — are a microcosm of what’s going on in your mind. Being ready to assess your inner life is probably the hardest part of losing weight. But it’s also the most important.”

“Here’s an exercise I’ve used in the past,” Roth said. “I tell participants to go home and clean out their bedrooms. If you want to lose weight, empty out your bedroom. Let yourself wake up to peace, organization, and calm. Give yourself this one oasis to escape from the chaos of life. This small step is a great place to start.”

From Desire to Transformation

“How do you help people move from desire to transformation?” I asked. “Many people want to lose weight, just like many people want to get out of debt. How do you move them from wanting to doing?” Before Roth could answer, I explained my own approach. Continue reading

In Search of Sleep

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the house in a couple of hours, so I don’t want to disturb her sleep.

J.D. in his C-PAP machinePoor sleep is nothing new for me. In 2005, when I was fifty pounds overweight, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. For the next several years, I strapped on a C-PAP machine every night. I was amazed at how better breathing led to better sleep.

When I lost weight and ditched the C-PAP machine, my sleep improved. It helped too that I learned my body’s natural rhythm. Most of the time, I sleep in ninety-minute cycles. A perfect night’s sleep is 7-1/2 hours, but six hours will do. (Tonight I only managed 4-1/2 hours.) Building my bedtime around my sleep cycle is key.

It’s also been key to realize that there’s a difference between getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some things, such as alcohol, might help me get to sleep. But these same things actually disrupt the quality of my rest. The trick is to find foods and develop habits that aid with both quality and quantity of sleep.

As bad as I have it, Kim has it worse. She’s had trouble sleeping since she was a teenager. In fact, it used to be a real burden. Much of her life was miserable because she was never well-rested. In time she too has developed tricks to improve the odds that she’ll sleep well. She is what her father calls a “cave sleeper”. That is, she needs complete darkness and no noise distractions in order to sleep well. Although she’s in the other room right now, I worry that the dim light from this laptop may wake her or that she’ll be able to hear the clickety-clickety of the keyboard above the white noise of the fan we run in the bedroom every night.

Oops! When I got up a moment ago to grab a glass of water, I saw that she’d closed the bedroom door. I’m a bad boyfriend.

Kim has sought solace through medication. When we started dating, she was taking Ambien, which was effective but made her moody. For the past couple of years, she’s been taking trazadone, which seems more effective and has fewer side effects. (Over the past year, she’s been working to reduce the dosage she takes every night. She now takes half of what she was originally prescribed and it seems to work.)

Although my doctor has given me some trazadone to tackle my own sleep problems, I almost never use it. (Just as I rarely use the Vyvanse to medicate my ADHD.) Instead, I take diphenhydramine (Benadryl) every night. Well, most nights anyhow.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to get good sleep. I’ve been increasing my intake of melatonin, for example. And just this week, I’ve begun trying 5-HTP to both address my winter blues and improve my sleep. At the same time, I’ve stopped taking Benadryl.

The results? Well, they’re mixed. I’m falling asleep easily and having very vivid dreams, which is cool. (I feel like vivid dreams are an indicator of deep sleep, at least for me.) But I can’t seem to stay asleep. Two nights ago, I woke at midnight and couldn’t fall back asleep until two. Even then my rest was fitful (maybe because I’d moved to the couch). And tonight, of course, I woke at three with my mind in full gear.

Facebook post about lack of sleep
Apparently Kathleen is struggling too tonight.

To me, the worst part about poor sleep is how I feel the next day. I feel ragged, like I have some sort of brain cloud. I’m half the man I usually am.

I’m scheduled to interview Leo from Zen Habits in a few hours. After that, Joe will interview me. At noon, I’m supposed to lift heavy weights with Cody. Later tonight, Kim and I will meet Brent and Kathleen for a comedy show. But right now I don’t want to do any of this. All I really want is to get some sleep.

Another thing I don’t like? On days like today when I have to get stuff done after a sleepless night, I take my ADHD meds. But not so that I can concentrate. I take them because I know they’re a stimulant and will help me stay awake. Now that is a bad cycle to fall into.

I guess maybe I should stick with the Benadryl. It’s not perfect — I still have insomnia once or twice a month when I use it — but it’s better than the alternatives.

What Alcohol Does to My Body

During the month of January, Kim and I are conducting two simultaneous experiments. First, we’re not eating carbohydrates. Second, we’re not drinking alcohol.

The “no alcohol” experiment is for me. Last January, at the request of my therapist, I went dry. I also cut out caffeine and any drinks that contained calories. Basically, the only thing I allowed myself to drink was water. At the end of the month, I felt — and looked — great. Slowly, however, I reintroduced caffeine and alcohol (and milk and juice) into my diet. By the end of 2013, I felt like I was drinking too much again, so I decided to do another dry month. Kim agreed to join me so that there’d be less temptation.

Meanwhile, Kim’s naturopath has been begging her to cut carbohydrates from her diet. She’s found that tough to do because I eat a lot of carbs.

Note: Although I tend toward a high-protein “paleo” diet, I find the modern trend toward demonization of carbohydrates, well, silly. I can understand how simple sugar might be bad (especially processed stuff, such as HFCS), but you’ll never convince me that it’s better for me to eat a steak than it is to eat a banana. Likewise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a piece of whole-grain bread or eating a potato for dinner.

Because Kim agreed to do no alcohol with me, I agreed to do no carbs with her, but with a caveat: My current fitness program calls for three “super shakes” a day, and those include fruit. I haven’t given those up.

For nearly three weeks, we held strong with no alcohol. We’ve done fairly well with the no carbs thing too. On occasion, one of us will have a piece of whole-grain toast with almond butter, but the only major deviation came last Saturday, when I ate a cookie with my lunch. (One interesting and unsurprising finding: On the days I have my super shakes, I don’t crave carbs. On the days I don’t have them, I do. And if I go two days without a super shake? I crave carbs intensely.)

Note: In retrospect, it was dumb to give up both alcohol and carbs in the same month. We should have spent a month without one, and then spent the next month without the other. Lesson learned.

Well, yesterday we biked into Portland to visit the science museum. After we finished, we stopped to have a late lunch at Olympic Provisions. By mutual agreement, we ordered mimosas to go with our meal. Later, at home, Kim opened a bottle of red wine to use in a beef stew. Because we’d already had mimosas (slippery slope!), we decided to drink the rest of the wine.

Obviously, we didn’t drink a lot of alcohol yesterday. We had three drinks each over a period of several hours. We went to bed at 9:30 so that Kim could get up for work at five in the morning.

Here’s where things get interesting.

  • Though we fell asleep quickly, neither one of us slept well. This is par for the course with alcohol. As a depressant, it does make sleep easier to come by. However, the quality of that sleep tends to be poor.
  • Both of us slept hot. I tend to sleep hot by nature, and that can be a challenge. We recently had to return a new mattress because I felt like I was burning up every night. Our new mattress has been fine. I can tell my body’s putting off heat, but the bed pulls it away from me. Well, last night I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I was definitely warm. I actually thought we’d left the thermostat set too high, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, as often happens, my body was trying to burn off the “poison” of the alcohol as I slept.
  • My mind is slow this morning. I’m not dumb, but I’m sluggish. It’s hard for me to concentrate, even after taking my ADHD meds.
  • At my morning weigh-in, I was a pound heavier than I ought to have been, and my gut was about a centimeter wider than expected. Plus, my face looked puffy. (This is another common side effect when I drink.)

After nineteen days of not drinking, three glasses of wine were enough to create noticeable after-effects the morning after.

Kim and I didn’t have time to talk much before she left for work, but I suspect I know what we’re going to decide. We both like wine (and I like whisky), so there’s little chance that we’ll ever give up alcohol entirely. But I can see both of us drastically cutting back our consumption. We might, for instance, drink only on Fridays and Saturdays or when we’re on vacation.

For me, there are two larger issues at stake.

First, and most importantly, I want to live a long and healthy life. Despite the occasional research that shows modest benefits to drinking a small amount of red wine every day, alcohol consumption in general has a strong negative correlation with longevity and quality of life. On a personal level, I’ve experienced three great weeks of physical fitness. My body feels and looks great, and I think a lot of that is because I haven’t been drinking.

Second, I know that my work suffers when I drink. I’m slow to get going in the morning, my mind works more slowly, and I have trouble focusing. This is true even if I’ve only had a couple of glasses of wine the night before, but it’s especially true if I’ve been hanging out with friends, and not monitoring my alcohol consumption.

This blog post isn’t meant to convince you to give up beer or wine or cocktails. Far from it. My goal is to put down in print the effects I’ve noticed in myself so that I can refer back to them in the future. I want this to be a motivational tool. I want to be the best person I can be — mentally and physically — and apparently reducing my alcohol intake is a great way to do that.

Scrawny to Brawny: Eating a Big-Ass Breakfast

In early November, I joined an online fitness forum. Scrawny to Brawny is a year-long program designed to provide structure, feedback, and support while helping participants build lean muscle mass and strength. To start, though, we simply “bulk up”.

Every two weeks, those of us doing Scrawny to Brawny (S2B) are assigned a new “habit”. We do this habit every day for fourteen days. The S2B website asks us to report on our compliance (as well as compliance with workouts and other assignments). After two weeks, we’re expected to continue with each new habit, although we no longer report on it. Instead, focus shifts to a new habit.

Our first habit was to drink three “super shakes” per day. (Each super shake is composed of a bit of milk, a bit of ice, a bit of fruit, a bit of vegetable, and a scoop of protein powder.) Our second habit was to practice good posture and to perform a series of daily stretches. Our third habit — the one we’re practicing right now — is to eat a “muscle breakfast”. While the first two habits were tough, I eventually made them part of my daily routine (and continue to practice them, which is the point). This third habit, though, is killing me.

You see, I’m not a big breakfast guy. I like traditional breakfast foods, such as pancakes and bacon, but on a typical day I don’t eat breakfast until three or four hours after I get out of bed. Even then, it’s usually just a piece of toast (with almond butter) or something similarly simple. When I started the super shake habit, that became my breakfast. I especially dislike eating before my daily workout.

Now, however, the muscle breakfast has reared its ugly head. Every day, we’re supposed to eat:

  • 4 whole eggs
  • about 200 grams of lean meat (ground beef, sliced ham or turkey etc.)
  • ½ cup of oats (dry measure)
  • 2 tablespoons of nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, pecan etc.)
  • 2 servings of fresh veggies
  • 1 medium piece of fruit, or 1 cup berries
  • 2 tablespoons of a “topper” (sundried tomatoes, pesto, hummus, tomato sauce, spice & herbs, etc.)
  • 1 glass of 

Ho. Ly. Cats.

This habit is hard for me. That’s a huge amount of food, especially for breakfast. It’s tough to wolf it down when I have no appetite. Some days, I have to set aside half of my meal to eat the next day. (Plus, don’t forget, I’m also drinking about 1000 calories worth of super shakes each day, plus eating lunch and dinner!)

At this very moment, I’m staring at a plate filled with 3-1/2 eggs and one chicken sausage. I’ve eaten the other stuff on the list (except the fruit), but there’s no way I’m going to get the rest of this plate down anytime soon. I get nauseated just thinking about taking another bite.

So why keep at it?

This whole Scrawny to Brawny thing is a fun experiment for me. My body is built for long, slow distances. It likes to run and to bike. Its ideal form of exercise is hiking. I can go for hours on end while trekking at high altitude with a pack on my back. I’ve seen other, fitter fellows knocked on their butts by that kind of activity, but my body likes it. It’s what evolution (or god, if you prefer) has designed me to do.

My body is less good at lifting heavy weights. Yet I enjoy this sort of training too. I thought it would be fun to spend a year building muscle in order to see what I’m capable of achieving. Plus, this has provided motivation to get back in shape. (I’d begun the slide into flabbiness.)

As part of the S2B program, we’re required to take monthly photographs of our progress. After only a few weeks, there’s not a lot of visual difference between now and the time I started — except for my back. Most of my exercise the past month has been focused on building back and core strength so that I can move on to more common lifts with good form. I was skeptical that anything had actually changed until I saw this:

Untitled   IMG_0970
The photo on the left is from 11 November 2014. The one on the right is from 14 December.

That’s not a huge change, obviously, but it’s enough. I can see the difference, and I can feel it. So can Kim. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working.

Last weekend, I talked with Cody, my Crossfit trainer (and friend). I told him how tough this was for me mentally. He knows. Most of my life, I’ve been fat. I have a huge mental barrier to being fat again. To willingly pack on the pounds by stuffing my face every day goes against every fiber of my being.

“Trust the process,” Cody told me. “You’re going to gain weight, and some of it’s going to go to your belly. You’ll shed those excess pounds later. You’re bulking now, and you’ll shred in the summer.”

And so, I’m going to trust the process. But it’s not easy!

Scrawny to Brawny: Hydrostatic Testing

At the start of 2013, I vowed to re-dedicate myself to a focus on fitness. After two-and-a-half years of exercising and eating well, I’d let my attention to health and well-being slide a little, and I didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I said fitness was a priority but my actions showed otherwise. I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted and I rarely went for runs. After a one-month detox at the start of the year — no caffeine, no alcohol, low sugar, and so on — my diet became mediocre. It was never bad, really, meaning I didn’t fall into eating junk food on a regular basis, but it was never great either.

I’m not willing to keep coasting along, so I recently signed up for the one-year Scrawny to Brawny program. Though its name is funny, my research indicates that this coaching program (which is based on a book by the same name) is based on common sense and sound methodology. Because I do well with structure and feedback, this seems like a good choice for me. I’m going to give it a shot. My new fitness regimen starts today.

As part of that, I need to have accurate measurements of my body composition.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a scale with a body-composition monitor. This device, which provides accurate and consistent weight measurements (always a good thing in a scale!), uses electrical impedance to estimate body fat.

At the moment, I’m forty-four years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall (173 centimeters). When I started using the scale in April 2010, my weight was 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms) and my body fat was 35.0%. My body-mass index (BMI) was 32.3. At my leanest in June 2012, my weight was 163 pounds (73.9 kilograms) and my body fat was 17.5%. My BMI was 24.7.

According to my scale, I lost fifty pounds and half my body fat in just over two years.

Today I weigh 176 pounds (79.8 kilograms) and my fancy scale says I’m 23.3% body fat. My BMI is 26.7. Over the past year, I’ve softened. I’ve exercised less and discovered a love for beer. This isn’t a great combination for a fitness-minded fellow!

For a while, I’ve understood that the body composition numbers from my scale probably aren’t accurate. Electrical impedance isn’t the most accurate method of measurement for this sort of thing. I’m okay with that, though, since the scale is cheap (as in, I already own it) and if I use sound methodology, I can at least get a good idea of how my body composition changes over time. That is, if I measure myself under the same conditions and at the same time every day, the variation in results will give me a good idea of what’s happening to my body.

Still, I’ve always wanted to get an accurate test from a trained professional. When I heard that Portland’s Adventist Medical Center offers body-composition testing, including the very accurate hydrostatic method, I scheduled an appointment.

I dropped by at noon last Friday to be tested. It was quick and easy.

First, the nurse measured my body composition using calipers. She pinched my skin and measured the thickness of the folds at seven different locations, including chest, belly, thigh, and so on. Next, she had me fully immerse myself in a tank of water four times. I brought a camera to film the process:

Sorry about the funky audio…

While I changed back into my street clothes, the nurse punched numbers into a computer. The results startled me. Kim teases me that I have some sort of body dysmorphia (and Kris would be inclined to agree with her, I’m sure), but I’ve always just laughed it off. Maybe she’s right. I feel f-a-t right now. I don’t like the way I look. And if anything, I believed my scale’s 23.3% body fat numbers were low. Well…

“Your results are remarkably consistent,” the nurse told me when she sat down to review the results with me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually there’s a large variance between the results of these tests. Three to five percent is normal. Your results only vary by one-and-a-half percent. And if we leave out the least accurate method, there’s no statistical difference between the other two.”

Based on her measurements, here’s my current body composition:

  • I’m 5′ 8″ and weigh 176 pounds (which is what my home scale says).
  • Using the three-point skinfold method (which is a subset of the seven-fold method), I have 17.0% body fat. This method isn’t as accurate as its big brother, though.
  • Using the seven-point skinfold method, I have 18.5% body fat.
  • Using the hydrostatic method, which is most accurate, I have 18.3% body fat.

The nurse and I chatted about the results.

“Your results are fine,” she told me. “You’re within the healthy range. You have some extra fat in your belly, but I’d guess that’s because you drink too much.” I laughed because she’s right. “If you cut back on your drinking, that should go away.”

She asked why I wanted to get my body composition measured, and I told her that I was starting the Scrawny to Brawny program. She nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea,” she said. “But be careful. Most of my clients are athletes, and I see all kinds. Some use steroids; some don’t. When you go to the gym, give up the idea of ever looking like the guys with lots of muscles. For one thing, that’s not how you are built. For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.”

All of this is fascinating. I have no desire whatsoever to use steroids, so that’s not a concern. But I think the nurse sensed some of my body dysmorphia and was trying to set me up to have reasonable expectations. That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, my goal is to be happy and healthy. That means eating right and exercising regularly. I’ve seen that I’m good at this when I make it a priority and it becomes a habit. I’ve just let that lapse. Starting today, however, it’s back to the gym!

Some Quick Links About Health and Fitness

Lately, I’ve been collecting links faster than I can share them. This is a quick post about some of the fitness stuff I’ve found.

The Seven-Minute Workout

For instance, at the New York Times wellness blog, Gretchen Reynolds shared what she calls “the scientific seven-minute workout“. This series of twelve body-weight exercises — taken from a scientific article — can be done almost anywhere (all you need are a wall and a chair). Here’s the graphic from the NYT article:

Exercises for seven-minute workout

The key is to do these at high intensity (an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10) and to not rest between exercise. In other words, it should be seven minutes of suffering.

In essence, that’s the same philosophy behind Crossfit. You do a bunch of work, and you do it fast. This set of exercises is nice, though, because it covers a wide range of muscle groups without any special equipment.

One web developer created a web-based seven-minute workout timer that tells you which exercise you’re on, counts down the time, and then gives you ten seconds to move to the next one. Pretty slick.

Scrawny to Brawny

Elsewhere, Tim Ferriss shared a story about how to lose 20-30 pounds in five days — and then gain it back. It’s not really useful to anyone outside competitive fighters, I think, but it’s still interesting.

I can’t believe I’m going to admit this publicly, but the Tim Ferriss article led me to a blog called Scrawny to Brawny, which is about building muscle. I subscribed. You know what? It’s actually a damn fine blog filled with practical advice on more than just weightlifting.

For instance, I love this piece on becoming the most interesting man in the world. The author writes that interesting men (and by extension, interesting women) become interesting by doing lots of stuff. And that alters how they talk about life.

The author illustrates his argument with this clip from the film Good Will Hunting:

His point? To become interesting, you need to stop talking and start doing. He writes: “Things like love, fear, sadness, joy, struggle, triumph and loss all have to be tasted and fully experienced to be understood.” By doing more, you’ll shift your frame of reference and expand your vocabulary.

Human experience exists on a continuum. The degree to which you’ve experienced something will determine your frame of reference when you’re using that word.

The Tragedy of the Healthy Eater

Finally, Kris pointed me to a blog post about the tragedy of the healthy eater. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it makes a great point.

Healthy eating used to be simple. Now, though, everyone has an opinion about what is and is not healthy. There internet allows fad diets to spread like wildfire. Last week, dairy was evil! This week everyone is gluten intolerant! Next week, vegetables will be the cause of all evil!

I’m exaggerating, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there. When it comes to health, people are after magic bullets — just as with money. But there aren’t any magic bullets. Except for those rare few who truly have a problem with gluten, I’ve never seen anyone markedly improve their health by removing whole grains from their diet. And paleo? Don’t get me started. There are stacks of scientific studies that demonstrate a plant-based diet is correlated with health and long life; the paleo stuff is mostly fabricated out of fantasy.

My own solution is to pay attention to the research, and to know my own body. Yes, I mostly eat paleo (despite the fact I think the arguments for it are silly), but I’m very aware that if I ate more fruits and veggies, I’d be doing myself a favor.

The Blue Zones: How to Live a Long and Healthy Life

The Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerI’ve always been fascinated by the idea of extending human life. As a boy, my favorite characters in the Bible were those like Methuselah who lived for hundreds of years. (Noah, of ark fame, was reportedly 600 when he built his boat, and he lived for another 350 years after the flood!)

I’m also drawn to science-fiction novels that feature longevity as a subplot. For instance, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which I mentioned a few days ago in another context), medical advances allow people to live for more than two hundred years. (For a decade, I’ve had an idea for a short story called “Herb Nelson’s Long Life”, which would be about a man who has been alive for centuries.)

Naturally, I’m not just interested in fictional accounts of longevity. I’m interested in the science behind it too. Recently, I found time to read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, a book that examines the lifestyles of five of the longest-lived populations on the planet. What attributes do these folks have in common?

The Blue Zones

I first read Buettner’s work in the pages of National Geographic. In November 2005, the magazine printed his article, “The Secrets to a Long Life“, which offers a taste of what’s contained in The Blue Zones. In the article, Buettner profiles populations in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California. These are communities where people live long and stay happy.

Expanding his work to book length, he added two additional locations: the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Greek island of Ikaria.

In each of these five locations, people have long and healthy lives. They reach the age of 100 at rates significantly higher than average.

In The Blue Zones, Buettner shares stories from each of these locations, sharing how specific people have lived and thrived for ten decades. As he interviews people in each location, he tries to find common threads. What is that makes the people in Sardinia live so long? In Ikaria? Then, at the end of the book, Buettner draws from these five populations as a whole. What attributes do they share?

Blue Zones commonalities

Long and Healthy Lives

After looking at these groups individually, Buettner makes nine broad generalizations about factors that seem to be related to longevity and well-being. Note, though, that correlations does not imply causality. These qualities are present in the communities he’s studied, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually the secrets to long life. (Though, of course, I’d like to think they are.)

Here are the recommendations from The Blue Zones:

  • Be active. Those who live a long time are generally active people. They walk. They raise gardens. They have fun. If you struggle with this, Buettner suggests finding ways to force yourself to be active. He also recommends doing yoga twice a week.
  • Cut calories. Many Eastern cultures have a practice in which they eat until they’re “80% full”. Buettner recommends cutting portion sizes through common tricks like using smaller serving dishes, making snacks a hassle, preparing smaller portions, eating more slowly, and eating early.
  • Eat a plant-based diet. Eat two servings of vegetables with every meal. Limit meat intake. Avoid processed foods. Make fruits and vegetables the highlight of your diet. Stock up on nuts, and eat them every day.
  • Drink red wine — in moderation. Sip it with your dinner, or institute a daily “happy hour” where you socialize with friends.
  • Have a purpose. Take time to see the Big Picture. Craft a mission statement, and then find a partner to hold you accountable to it. Learn something new. Buettner points out that learning a musical instrument or studying a new language are two great ways to keep your brain sharp.
  • Downshift. Reduce the stress in your life. Cut out the electronic noise. Arrive early to appointments. Meditate.
  • Participate in a spiritual community. Buettner stresses the importance of spiritual communities, and encourages readers to open their minds, discard prejudices, and just go to a church service.
  • Make family a priority. Live closer to your family. Own a smaller home, where people are forced to interact more. Establish rituals. Create a family shrine.
  • Find the right tribe. Be likeable. Surround yourself with people who share your values. Identify your inner circle, the people you trust and support. Try to spend 30 minutes each day with these folks.

Here’s a Venn diagram (from Wikipedia) that summarizes Buettner’s findings from the three original Blue Zones. (I’d love to see a similar diagram that takes into account all five regions.)

Blue Zones commonalities
Common attributes among Blue Zones

More than anything, Buettner writes, “Purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity.”


There’s no way a simple blog post can do justice to Buettner’s book. The Blue Zones is fascinating, at least for those of us interested in longevity. If you want more info, buy the book (or borrow it from the library, like I did). You can also visit the Blue Zones website, where you’ll find:

I’ll close this summary with a key piece of advice from The Blue Zones. “This information will do you no good,” Buettner writes, “unless you put it into practice.”

ADHD and Me

I have a good life, but in some ways the past couple of years have been a struggle. I’ve gone from being very productive almost every day to being hardly ever productive on any day. I can’t focus. I start one project but quickly lose interest and am distracted by something else that needs to be done. As a result, nothing ever gets finished. I’ve been mired in creative quicksand.

A Problem

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed some other disturbing character quirks. I’ve always had some memory issues. Kris used to call me Mr. Short-Term Memory (after this Saturday Night Live skit with Tom Hanks) because I’d often forget things she had told me. (To my credit, I often remembered things she didn’t.) In the year that we’ve been dating, Kim too has expressed frustration with my memory. Even when I intentionally focus on what she’s telling me, I’ll sometimes forget what she says.

And over the past year, I’ve developed a strange habit: I leave doors and drawers open. This first became apparent when I began spending time at Kim’s house. “Why did you leave the microwave open?” she’d ask. Or, “Did you mean to leave your toothbrush out?” I was mortified when these things happened because I was trying to make a good impression. Then the same thing began to happen at home, in my apartment. I’d come into the kitchen and two cabinet doors would be open. Since I was the only one in the house, I was obviously the one who’d forgotten to close them, and it baffled me.

Plus, of course, there are the constant messes. I’ve always been messy, but the piles seem to have grown out of control over the past couple of years. My desk is constantly cluttered. Right now, I have an entire room in my condo devoted to crap that I need to sort.

Oh, and did I mention I procrastinate constantly? I do.

Lately, things have come to a head. I’m working on some big project, projects in which I’m part of a team. I have a long list of things that need to get done, both for these projects and for my own work. I have a tough time prioritizing. I’m overwhelmed by it all. I pick things from my to-do list at random and get them done, but often the things I choose are chores like “Buy bird feeder” instead of “Reply to WDS speakers”. As a result, the people I’m working with have been very frustrated, and I don’t blame them.

Note: One of my greatest frustrations over the past few years is the fact that I can no longer read. I used to love to sit down with a good book and lose myself in its pages. But for maybe five years now, I haven’t been able to do that. I don’t have the attention span. I try to read, but after a few pages, my mind has wandered, and I’m thinking of something else to do. I miss reading for pleasure, and I miss reading for work.

An Answer

In November, I started seeing a therapist. After only three sessions, she suggested that perhaps I have a mild case of ADHD. A month later, she suggested that I talk to my doctor about ADHD/ADD meds. And three months after that, she changed that from a suggestion to a command.

She spent an entire session giving me tips on how to cope with ADHD, how to be less messy, how to prioritize tasks, how to pay attention. She also told me to go see my primary care physician and request one of three drugs.

I met with my doctor on Tuesday, and he listened to me talk about my therapy sessions. I showed him the notes I’ve taken. (If I didn’t take notes, I’d forget what we talked about…because I’m ADHD.) He listened to me carefully, and then agreed to prescribe a low dose of Vyvanse. “But I don’t like doing this,” he said. “This stuff can be addictive. It’s not as bad as Adderall, but it can still cause problems. There are a lot of side effects. For instance, you’re not going to want to eat. Also, you may not sleep well. Try it as your therapist recommends, but I want you to come see me in a month so we can talk about how it’s affecting you.”

ADHD Tips and Tricks

I filled the prescription, but then had second thoughts. I did some research on the internet about how to cope with ADHD without using drugs. The Vyvanse website itself has a list of 10 tips for adults with ADHD. I also liked this list of tips for managing symptoms and getting focused and, especially, this list of 50 tips on the management of adult attention deficit disorder.

Reading through these articles, I found a number of gems, such as:

  • Organize at home with a “launch pad” where I can collect keys, glasses, wallets, etc. This is something I’ve had to teach myself to do. When I don’t put my stuff in the “launch pad”, they’re as good as lost.
  • Practice the 10-minute pickup. Every evening, spend ten minutes quickly tidying the house. I don’t do this, but I should. I want to make it a routine before bed.
  • Kill clutter. Clutter is the enemy of the ADHD mind. When my desk is cluttered, I feel overwhelmed. Each piece of paper represents an incomplete action, something that I need to get done. If I can keep the clutter and disorganization to a minimum (by using a physical inbox, for instance), I can feel less overwhelmed and stay on task better.
  • Exercise, eat right, and get plenty of sleep. When I posted about my ADHD on Facebook, I received 41 response from folks sharing their tips for dealing with ADHD. The top recommendation was to adhere to smart physical fitness. For the most part, I do this already, but I could be better.
  • Impose external structure on my life. One of the best ways for ADHD people to get control of their lives is to create some sort of formal structure. Make schedules. Make lists. Develop rituals. Keep file folders. Etcetera.
  • Carry a notebook. People with ADHD have too many things in their head, so they’re not able to focus on one thing at a time. They get distracted by new thoughts and ideas. By carrying a notebook at all times, I have the chance to do a braindump whenever something new occurs to me. This is a habit I’ve had intermittently for many years, but I need to make it something I do always.
  • Make lists. In the past, I’ve noticed that I’m much more productive when I have a to-do list. Again, I’ve made these lists intermittently in the past, but I need to make them a part of my regular routine.
  • Meditate. So many people, from my therapist to my girlfriend to my blog readers, have recommended that I learn to meditate. I’ve tried in the past, but only half-heartedly. I don’t have the patience because — surprise! — meditation is tough for the ADHD mind. Still, it’s an important skill, and I want to learn to do it.
  • Listen actively and patiently. Repeat information. Perhaps the part of ADHD I hate most is the memory problem. I feel terrible when I forget things Kim tells me. (I used to feel bad when I forgot things Kris told me too.) I want to be a good partner for her, and when she has to repeat requests or retell stories, I feel like a fool. Being a better listener should help with this. (Though, as I’ve said, I already try hard to listen well.)
  • Create reward systems. This sounds so juvenile, but the experts seem certain that one great way to stay on task is to set up a system of rewards for getting work done. So, for example, I might allow myself to watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory whenever I finish a writing assignment. Or I can give myself permission to walk to lunch at Jade Teahouse if I finish a big project.
  • Own your behavior. One final important tip: Don’t use ADHD as an excuse for being a flake. When you forget something, own it. When you don’t get work finished, admit it, and do better next time. Don’t use the ADHD as a cop-out. Acknowledge that it’s there, but also realize you’ve got to be a productive member of society and a good partner.

I liked these tips (and more besides), but after reading them, I was still feeling overwhelmed. There’s so much I need to do in order to start being productive again. Where do I begin?

I emailed my therapist. Meanwhile, both Kim and another friend cautioned me against overthinking things. (Another symptom of ADHD!) Miguel and Kim were right: I was overthinking things, as I often do. So, when my therapist told me to take start taking the meds, I complied.

Wow. I’m glad I did.

A Future

I was worried that the Vyvanse would make me edgey and irritable, that I’d feel anxious and nervous. When I take pseudophedrine for allergies, I often…well, I often freak out. It’s like having way too much caffeine, and I feel overwhelmed. Since Vyvanse (and other ADHD meds) are similar, I was afraid I’d suffer from the side effects.

I didn’t.

Instead, I gradually felt calmer. I felt more confident in myself and more in control of my surroundings.

For instance, I took my Vyvanse this morning at 7am and then climbed into the bathtub to read this month’s book group book (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). At first, I was distracted. I couldn’t focus on the page in front of me. I kept reaching for my iPhone to look at email and Facebook. I picked up an issue of Men’s Health. But after about half an hour, my mind had settled. I felt calm, both physically and mentally.

I didn’t want to read, so I got out of the bathtub, shaved, dressed, and got to work. I pulled out a dry erase board and created an “ADHD Command Central” on which I listed all of the things I need to do, broken into three categories based on priority level. Top on the list? “Write for More Than Money”!

Perhaps more to the point, I then sat down and wrote this post from start to finish without a break. I didn’t once flit away to check Facebook or email. I didn’t get up to pour another cup of coffee. I didn’t suddenly remember that I needed to do laundry. I didn’t get distracted by the stack of stuff in my physical inbox. I just wrote. And here I am, more than two thousand words later, almost finished with this article. And it only took me an hour to write.

This is the old J.D. This is the productive J.D. This is the J.D. who gets shit done. I like it.

I’m not excited about the idea of remaining medicated long term, but after a day and a half of using Vyvanse, I’m willing to stick with it for at least a little while. If it helps me be productive, then I’m all for it. And if it helps with my personal relationships, that’s even better.

Ask the Readers: Finding Personal Health Insurance?

Today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’m going to use this blog as a means to do research for a forthcoming article for Entrepreneur magazine.

Your Money

I’ve been writing the monthly “Your Money” column for Entrepreneur for 2-1/2 years now, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a chance for me to hone in subjects with laser-like focus. If you’ve read my stuff at Get Rich Slowly, some of the articles might be familiar. But I also get to cover new topics (like building a team of financial advisors).

The column is also fun because it’s a vastly different process than the one I’m used to. With blogging, there’s almost instant gratification. For instance, I’m writing this piece at 8:12 on a Thursday morning. It’ll be finished and online in about ten minutes. Nobody else will review it; I’ll just post it and let readers respond. Which you will. I’ll have feedback in half an hour.

With the magazine, however, there’s a long turnaround. My current article, for instance, is on peer-to-peer lending. I started doing research for that piece in early October, at the end of my trip to Turkey. I submitted the piece in early November. My editor polished the piece, it went to print, and it finally found its way online at the end of February. There’s one comment on the article. This article about that article may get dozens of comments.

So, as I say, it’s a different beast.

Anyhow, this is all a tangent. The real reason I’m writing today is to recruit your help for the article that will appear in the June issue of the magazine. I’m writing about how to find health insurance when you’re on your own.

Personal Health Insurance

There are a lot of perks to being an entrepreneur. When you work for yourself, you control your destiny: you pursue a project of passion while setting your own hours and working without a boss. But there are drawbacks too. Sure, you set your own hours, but you’re often working far more than you ever imagined. Many entrepreneurs are lonely, too, spending most of their days in isolation. And let’s not forget medical insurance!

In fact, I’d argue that medical insurance is currently one of the biggest barriers to entry for would-be entrepreneurs. I have several friends who are ready to leave their jobs to start their own businesses, but they can’t. They can’t afford the more than $1000 per month in medical insurance for their families.

Here’s a direct quote I jotted down from one friend last week:

If it weren’t for health insurance, people would be free to do so many things. My husband is tied to his job because we can’t afford to be without coverage. Even with health insurance, we pay a shitload of money for medical costs.

For many families, health insurance costs as much as housing.

In my own case, I’ve had to make some tough choices. When I was married, I was covered under Kris’s health insurance. I took it for granted. Now that I’m on my own, I carry an individual policy with a high deductible. That protects me from catastrophic crises (like a car crash), but I pay out of pocket for routine care. And I’m discovering that even routine care can cost a fortune.

Last week, for instance, I visited my allergist to discuss my rampant hay fever. The half-hour office visit cost me $250.50. The two-minute “surgery” to send a fiber-optic cable through my sinus passages cost $530. And the nasal spray the doctor prescribed to fight my symptoms cost $138.32 for fifteen doses. All told, I spent nearly $1000 to get temporary relief from my tree allergy. Next time, I’ll probably choose to suffer.

Or maybe it’s time to change my policy. I pay $144 a month, but I receive almost nothing in return. Maybe I need to bite the bullet, to pay $300 a month (or more) but have comfort in the knowledge that it won’t cost me $1000 every time I need to get allergy relief.

Share Your Story

So, here’s how you can help me. Do you pay for your own health insurance? Have you in the past? What sorts of advice can you offer other folks who need to do the same thing? If you’re willing to share your story (or to help others find affordable options), leave a comment on this article. And if you’re willing to let me chat with you for my article, be sure you use your real email address when commenting so that I can contact you.

I think there are a lot of folks out there who struggle with affordable health insurance, and this is a chance for us to help them. Let’s do it!

Note: Past GRS articles on this subject include Hunting for Health Insurance (which chronicles my search for health insurance last spring) and Health Insurance Options for the Self-Employed.