For today’s Tuesday post, I revisited and completely reworked an old health post about pain. Amazing how much rambling and slightly-off-topic writing I did on this blog back in the day! LOL
I’ve written a lot about the various episodes of pain I’ve suffered (chronicling my daily pain, for example, and how it’s affected my personality over time). A large part of that pain has come in the various forms of headaches, which I’ve suffered throughout my life. My teen years were dominated by eye-piercing migraines that literally had me screaming in the middle of the night, and my early to mid-twenties were tormented with stress-related blood pressure and tension headaches (and, as I discovered in 2011, pain relating to severely infected wisdom teeth as well).
However, over the last couple of years, a new type of headache had arisen to claim the crown which migraines and blood pressure seemed to have relinquished at last…and this one seemed the most resistant to treatment of them all. Well, at least until the chiropractor got to it. 😀
Symptoms: Dull Ice-Pick Through the Temple, and Exhaustion
I thought I had seen the last of my headache problems when I had my wisdom teeth out in November 2011. But the pain only gave me a brief few months’ respite, and then returned.
This pain, however, was a little different from the burning-nerve headaches I’d had with my wisdom teeth. I wasn’t exactly lying in bed clutching my head and crying, but it was still head pain, and it exhausted me. It seemed I just couldn’t get enough sleep, and as soon as I woke up, my head began to scream at me again. But I was also wakeful during nights because I dreaded laying my head to the pillow–it seemed that was when my headaches would begin, dulled only by falling asleep. It was a strange paradox.
It became slowly worse, as 2012 ended and 2013 began; I found myself slipping back into the routine of “doing only what I needed to do” because trying to do any more left me unspeakably tired. And eventually, the headache, which resembled a dull ice pick being slowly tapped into my skull by my own pulse, dominated every day and every night. It was a never-ending pain–it was not “the worst headache I’d ever had,” but it just DIDN’T STOP.
No medicine would touch this pain, either; it laughed off Tylenol, shrugged off Aleve, and bowed only momentarily to Advil and Advil Migraine before flaring right back up again. Even my prescribed muscle relaxer, Flexeril, could only tame it for a few hours before it was back bad as ever. The headache might switch sides of my head 4 or 5 times a day, but it was CONSTANT; it was a siege, a siege I was rapidly losing.
By the end of July 2013, I had had ENOUGH. I felt as if my life were being controlled by the headache; my daily and weekly plans revolved around “whether my head hurt or not.” And I was NOT going to live my life like this yet again, not after what I went through in 2011 with my teeth. I didn’t know what to do, other than to start seeing specialists, since my primary care doctor was just as stumped by these headaches as I was.
The Chiropractor Visit: One More Step before the Neurologist
On the encouragement and recommendations of a couple of friends, I finally made an appointment to see a local chiropractor on the last Friday in July. (That morning, I woke up with yet another headache tapping away at my temple, and I was glad–I wanted the chiropractor to see the headache in action, so they could more accurately see what was happening.)
Once I got to the appointment and was taken back into the office, I described the headache pain in as full detail as I could; the chiropractor listened and nodded, seeming to understand all the little pieces of information I was offering. As I paused, enduring yet another surge of pain, she asked, “Your headache is on the left side of your head, isn’t it?”
I was taken aback by this; I had not told her which side of my head the pain was on, only that I was experiencing a headache at the moment. I hadn’t even made a motion toward my head at all. But she was right–it was currently tap-tap-tapping away at my left temple. “Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “But how did you know?”
“Your left trapezius muscle is visibly swollen–that usually means the muscle is in spasm,” she replied, and she showed me exactly where it was; it was the muscle joining my neck and shoulder, which was not only tender to touch, but was hotter than the surrounding skin. “I’m not 100% sure that this is the sole cause of your headache,” she said as she examined the trapezius muscle, “but this is certainly part of it. After the X-ray, we’ll know more. In the meantime, let’s get you on the muscle stimulator and try to relieve this muscle spasm.”
The attendants then put me on this mythical-seeming “muscle stimulator,” a simple-looking device with two little paddles which were laid on either side of my neck where it joined my shoulders. Within only 8 minutes, this treatment had my left shoulder feeling almost completely loose and free, and the headache was GONE. (The sensation of the muscle spasm breaking apart felt like peeling apart stuck-together vinyl; the very small electric current running through the muscle fibers felt like thousands of tiny fingers massaging under my skin.) Then they took an X-ray, and I was finished with my new-patient appointment, already feeling much relieved.
The Result: The “Headache” Wasn’t a Headache at All!
Once the results of my X-ray came back, the last of the mystery was resolved. My neck vertebrae, as seen in the X-ray, were clearly curving forward over my chest rather than being settled more atop my shoulders (this was likely from years of hunching over the computer keyboard). Over time, my trapezius muscles, which connected my overextended neck to my shoulders, began to spasm from being stretched into an unnatural position.
The spasms became gradually worse and worse, until the inflamed muscles began to choke the nerve endings leading up my neck and ending in my temples. Presto–a “headache” that had nothing to do with my head at all! And this was more than a simple “tension” headache, too; this was the result of severe muscle spasms that simply could not be alleviated without treatment (I should know, I tried).
Where I Stand Now
Armed with this information, I began an aggressive 3-times-a-week course of treatment in early August, consisting of time on the muscle stimulator and spinal adjustments, all to help pull the neck, shoulders, and upper spine back into happy alignment. This, plus some assigned chiropractic stretches to be done twice daily, and some home care advice regarding treatment of inflamed muscles, has been my treatment plan.
But I am glad to report that after several weeks, I am no longer suffering quite so many of those exhausting headaches. (There have been a couple of bad ones, but now they pop up every couple of weeks or so, rather than multiple times a day!) The chiropractors are hopeful that in time, I can come in whenever I need to rather than having to come in 2 or 3 times a week (I’m currently down to 2 treatments per week and doing fairly well).
This has taken a lot of work and a lot of rethinking on how I lead my life (no more extended writing/coding sessions while sitting hunched over the keyboard, for instance). I have to be a lot more careful with my neck and shoulders to prevent them going into spasm; for instance, I’ve had to toss aside one of the two pillows I used to sleep on, realizing that sleeping on two stacked pillows was angling my neck at such a strange angle that the muscles went into spasm almost automatically. (No wonder I couldn’t sleep!!)
Going forward, I will likely have to continue doing the stretches for years to prevent future headaches. But hey, if a 10-minute series of stretches twice a day keeps me from suffering for days at a time, I’ll do it! 😀
Confused by the title of this article? I was just as confused when I first began to realize I suffered silent migraines. I didn’t even know quite what they were until I began doing some migraine research on my own, and discovered this strange sub-type of migraine headaches, which has only recently been researched.
How Regular Migraines and “Silent” Migraines Compare
Migraines vary a lot from person to person, and each migraine sufferer can even experience various types of migraines. Most migraines follow a basic pattern like the following:
- Prodrome phase, or the “Watch out, a migraine is coming!” phase. During prodrome, you can become more irritable, confused, or experience weird physical symptoms of sickness out of nowhere. 1 out of 4 people with migraines have this, sometimes even a full day before the migraine officially hits.
- Aura phase, characterized by just plain weirdness going on in your senses. You may see flashes of color or lightning-bolt patterns zigzagging across your vision; you might hear random high pitches or strange noises that aren’t in the actual environment. You might even have some problems with speaking or writing, though not as pronounced as stroke victims. 1 in 5 people with migraines have this, and it usually lasts about an hour.
- Pain phase, also known as the “please kill me now” phase. Throbbing pain, usually on one side of your head, sometimes death-gripping a vein in your forehead and sometimes stabbing into your eye, is common. Plus, the intense head pain can trigger your stomach into nausea, and everything in your environment is either BRIGHT, LOUD, or both at once. Basically, it sidelines you from your life for however long it decides to last. (Oh, and if you didn’t take medicine during the Prodrome or Aura phase, you have to ride the Pain phase out on your own–any medicine just flat won’t work once the pain is in full swing. This is what a lot of non-migraine sufferers just don’t get. X_x)
- Resolution phase, or “thank God it’s over.” After an event like this, you’ll be very tired and cranky for a good while, sometimes even a full day after the migraine finally decides to vacate the premises of your head.
But silent migraines are a strange sub-breed–strange in that the sufferer can experience prodrome, aura, and resolution, but never experiences pain.
Symptoms of a Silent Migraine
At first, I was overjoyed to learn that some of my migraines could in fact be silent. “You mean I can have a normal life occasionally?!” I thought. “Heck, if I didn’t have to go through all that pain, I’d be happy to live with a ‘silent migraine!'”
Well, I thought that at least until I started looking at the symptom list:
wavy or jagged lines, dots, or spots in your vision
When I read this list, I was shocked: so many of the conditions I have had to become accustomed to experiencing, either with head pain or without, are all over this list. The most random food cravings or complete loss of appetite, with no stomach disturbance apparent; difficulty remembering words, so rampant that I thought something was wrong with me mentally; pins-and-needles feelings all over my body, for no reason. Most if not all of these symptoms precede my head pain, but even when they don’t, I end up absolutely exhausted afterwards, just like I’ve had a migraine.
It’s almost easier to have the head pain than not have it, in some ways, because these symptoms by themselves don’t make much sense. Saying “I have a migraine” is at least understandable to most folks, even if they have the blissful ignorance of never experiencing migraines for themselves. But saying “Hey, I have a migraine–well, sorta, kinda–well, actually, I’m not having a headache per se, but I have all the other symptoms…yeah…?” Not only is it a headache to try to explain, but it sounds suspiciously like a cop-out excuse. Let me assure you, it is NOT.
Why Are Silent Migraines “Silent?”
People have thought for years that migraines were just the result of blood flow being squeezed off to one part of the brain–that the sudden contraction of a vein, followed by the normal amount of blood trying to stuff itself through the resulting bottleneck, creates the pain. Blood gridlock, in other words.
However, now some new research involving fMRI (functional MRI) machines has uncovered a neurological component to migraines. Basically, the nerve cells in various bits of the brain get WAY overstimulated right before a migraine event, and then sink WAY down in activity. The neighboring blood vessels swell up, or dilate, to deliver more blood to the overstimulated nerve cells–and a migraine is born.
This heightened nerve activity is what causes all the weird visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations present in a classic migraine’s Aura phase. But sometimes, apparently, the heightened nerve activity happens, but doesn’t trigger the blood vessels to dilate…which results in a silent migraine. The brain is still just as bothered and irritable as it would be during a regular migraine, but there’s no physical blood-vessel pain to go with it.
A Silent Migraine By Any Other Name is Just as Weird
Silent migraines can pop up in anyone’s brain, no matter if you’ve had regular painful migraines or not. Silent migraines are also called:
- Acephalgic migraine
- Isolated visual migraine
- Amigranous migraine
- Late-onset migraine accompaniment (for people over 40 who suddenly get their first migraine aura symptoms)
- Migraine dissocie (French for a “migraine disassociated” from pain)
- Migraine equivalent/migraine variant
- Typical aura without headache
(Note: Ocular migraine is often a painless migraine with weird visual symptoms, but nothing auditory or sensory. Silent migraines run the gamut of physical symptoms of migraine, just without the pain.)
Whatever you want to call it. it’s just plain weird. And it could be occurring in your own head a lot more often than you realize, especially if any or all of those symptoms in the above list seem familiar.
How to Treat a Silent Migraine
As I did research for this very article, I began to wonder if I wasn’t walking around with a constant silent migraine, which occasionally morphed into its bigger badder sibling when I wasn’t looking. I had about grown used to walking around feeling like gum scraped off somebody’s shoe–but what if there was a way to stop it?
First of all, I suggest that if you’re experiencing anything like these symptoms, with head pain or without, you need to get checked out by a doctor. Occasionally, these symptoms can warn of more serious things like trans-ischemic attacks (aka “mini-strokes”) or epileptic seizures.
However, if you’ve gotten checked and the doctor tells you it’s migraines, silent or otherwise, then here are some of the best treatments:
- Take your prescribed medication as quick as you can. Remember what I said about medicine not working if you take it too late in the Pain phase? Yeah.
- Be careful what medication you take. My migraines are made worse by caffeine, for instance, so I have to avoid medicine that includes caffeine in its pill, like Excedrin Migraine or Bayer Migraine. Finding a med that works for your personal migraines is about 50/50 trial/error and luck.
- Get to a quiet, restful place with dim or no lighting, and lie down if possible.
- If you can stand the noise and light, turn on some light entertainment to take your mind off the pain. Most people suggest absolutely dark and silent rooms, but I find that I go absolutely bonkers with boredom, lying there with only my pain to focus on till either the medication works or I drift off to fitful sleep. Thus, I usually choose a favorite comedy DVD, turn the volume a little lower than normal, and shut my eyes to listen to it. The laughter helps, as long as you don’t laugh so hard that you make your head hurt worse!
- Most people say their migraines are helped by sleep; if you feel like you could drift right off, go ahead. Just make sure that your neck is not in a weird position, otherwise, you could end up with a nasty tension headache moving in where your migraine left off. (Speaking from experience here…ugh.)
- When your migraine is over, do your best to get some good rest, eat well (especially if nausea left you without an appetite before), and de-stress. Lack of sleep and food plus excess stress pretty much equals a migraine. This can be very difficult to achieve in this day and time, but if you don’t want to be sidelined for days with a migraine, it might be worth it to try these tips.
I find, generally, that my silent migraine symptoms are a little less in intensity than my painful migraine symptoms. Nevertheless, these symptoms are nothing to play around with. If you can get those little nerve cells to quit misbehaving a little sooner, you’ll feel much better; the above treatments, which are usually for “classic” migraines, actually do work for silent ones too!
For Further Information
Today, I’ll be doing just a short post to make a point: sleeping is a LOT more important than most of us think. As I have found out from the following personal experience, it’s far more important to daily function…and you’d be surprised how changed you are by just a lack of good rest!
I Slept, but I Did Not Rest
For months, now, I’ve been having a problem sleeping; though my body was absolutely exhausted, my brain never seemed to shut up. I would be uselessly awake until 4 or 5 in the morning, fighting to sleep yet never quite falling under, and then finally would fall asleep just as the sun was beginning to rise, awakening later in the morning (or sometimes in the afternoon).
But even though it seemed like I was sleeping enough hours, I never felt like I’d had enough sleep. My brain whirred even as I slept, producing strange dreams and waking me up every hour or so until it was time to get up again. I shut my eyes and was kind of unconscious for a while, but it was an uneasy, dozing sort of sleep, not restful at all.
Weird Body/Mind Symptoms
During this time, in which this behavior became slowly “the norm” for me, I noticed I had less and less ability to concentrate, was far more irritable than normal, and had absolutely no interest in doing anything I used to love doing. Whatever I happened to be doing at any given time, my brain wanted to be doing something “different,” something more “interesting.” But nothing I tried seemed to quite fit the bill. It almost felt like an oncoming lapse of depression.
Getting my weekly work of blog posts, Sunday school lessons, and housework completed felt nigh on to impossible with this kind of foggy, hateful brain; I was constantly restless and frustrated, and worries about all the things I hadn’t gotten done, which only added to the inability to go to sleep when night came. I didn’t want to start taking sleeping pills for fear I’d get too dependent on them and lose the ability to go to sleep naturally. (I’ve got two pharmacists for parents; I know what such drugs can do!)
The ultimate fail here? I didn’t connect my lack of sleep to my slowly worsening everyday function. I thought, as mentioned before, that I was lapsing back into depression–that’s exactly what it felt like. Plus, one of the symptoms of my depression, historically speaking, has been insomnia…it created a weird loop of logic that I was frankly too tired to explore too far.
The Random Restful Night of Sleep
And then, a few days ago, the storm of unrestful sleep broke, suddenly. I found myself sleepy around 9:00 PM that evening (a true rarity!), and experimentally, I set aside my glasses on the nightstand and turned over onto my side.
Imagine my surprise when I woke up almost 8 hours later, thinking I had only been asleep about 20 minutes or so! It seemed that against all odds, I had finally gotten a full night of sleep which didn’t feel like I was lying there waiting for the alarm to ring. I had fallen into absolute, blissful unconsciousness, without the aid of a single pill.
And the strangest thing?
I had ENERGY. I had FOCUS. I got stuff DONE. And all this before 10:00 AM?! I was shocked. For the last four months, I had been literally unable to peel myself from the bed before 11:00 AM, and that was “early.” I would try to get up and would fall back asleep in the middle of sitting up, in the middle of dressing, etc. But after this random night of inexplicable, restful sleep, it seemed I could actually get up like a normal person.
Not only did I get up, I stayed awake the whole day, and felt much more functional and much more “at myself.” I didn’t lose concentration all the time, I didn’t have to have 3 bazillion tasks going to keep my brain from being painfully bored, and I wasn’t sitting around feeling jittery and frustrated. It was as if someone had pressed “Restart” on my brain.
What Produced This Anomalous Night of Sleep?
Thinking back on it, I did a few things very differently on that fateful evening:
- I had to charge my smartphone, and the outlet is far away from my bed, so I couldn’t use the phone while in bed
- I wasn’t using my computer because I (surprise) had finished all my computer tasks for the day
- Nothing interesting was on TV, so I didn’t have it on
- I had no food or drinks left in my bedroom
- I hadn’t drunk anything in about an hour or two, so I wasn’t having to get up to go to the bathroom
- My bed was actually made up properly (for once, LOL)
In short, I removed all of the normal distractions (food, Internet, TV, bathroom breaks, etc.) and had made the bed as comfortable as possible. Then, I just allowed myself to shut my eyes without worrying that I was going to go crazy with boredom. (Couple that with the fact that I was REALLY exhausted already, and it’s no wonder I fell asleep and stayed asleep!)
Moral of the Story: Remove All Distractions, Get Comfy, and Let Sleep Happen
I’m serious–it really helps. Those are the only factors of my situation I changed, and I got the best sleep I’d had in months. If you’re having any of the distressing symptoms I was having, try doing anything you can to get decent sleep–you might just wake up healed!
Even in my earliest memories about food, I can remember the terrible consequences that would follow when I ate any meal which combined tomatoes and citrus together. Most often it happened if I drank orange juice and ate something with ketchup on it–within minutes, my tongue felt as if it had raised, painful ridges on it, red ridges which itched and burned like crazy and would not be soothed with drinking anything. Ice relief lasted only as long as the ice lasted in my mouth, and then the aggravating itch and burn would be back. Sometimes I resorted to scraping my tongue with my teeth or fingernails, which didn’t really help but made me feel a little less powerless against this until it finally went away (it usually took about an hour).
My mother always called this condition “geographic tongue,” and I learned that members of both sides of my family had experienced this reaction to certain foods or combinations of foods. For my immediate family, we quickly learned to avoid the tomato/citrus combination for my sake, and I became more aware of what I was about to eat. But sometimes it snuck up on me, or I forgot about it until it was too late–like the time I ate a slice of cheese pizza slathered in tomato sauce along with a citrusy drink for school lunch. (Let’s just say getting through third block was VERY interesting…)
However, while doing a bit of casual Googling and Wikipedia-ing about this topic, I noticed that there is more to “geographic tongue” than a simple, silly-sounding temporary food reaction. In fact, this is a medical condition, one that explains far more about my own gustatory habits.
What Exactly IS Geographic Tongue? (Warning, Picture Ahead)
Geographic tongue, aka “benign migratory glossitis” or “erythema migrans,” is a harmless mouth condition that affects about 3 percent of adults around the world. (Yay, I feel special now, LOL.) It seems to be more common in middle-aged and older adults than children, and more common in women than men. Upon eating foods with high acid content or strong flavors (it varies among sufferers), the tongue burns, stings, and/or itches. And, if you look at a geographic tongue, you’ll see patches of red and white all over it in map-like formations which give the condition its name.
As an example: my own tongue.
As you can see, my tongue looks pretty strange–it has always looked patchy like this, even in my childhood. (Bonus: not only do I have strange patterns all over it, but I also have deep fissures in my tongue, which often appear in people with geographic tongue–you can see a big one running right down the center of my tongue in this pic, and there are other smaller ones as well. These fissures tend to exacerbate geographic tongue, producing swelling when already irritating foods get down into the fissures.)
The reason all these weird patches show up is because my tongue is missing papillae (the things that contain taste buds) on the redder parts of my tongue, while the lighter parts have papillae in abundance. The areas of darker and lighter red can change places at random, so you can never tell exactly what my tongue is going to look like (LOL). This “missing papillae” phenomenon doesn’t sound like much, but apparently it’s really important when it comes to processing strong flavors or acidic foods. People still don’t really know why it happens.
Is It Contagious/Dangerous?
If you’re one of the 3% of human beings who has this, do not fret: this is NOT a precancerous/cancerous condition, but rather a “minor annoyance” condition, at least as doctors classify it. (Ha, it doesn’t FEEL minor when it’s happening and you can’t do squat about it!) Also, it seems to have nothing to do with oral hygiene, though a lack of said hygiene can make geographic tongue worse in some cases. If you develop very painful sores or swelling on your tongue that keeps you from breathing correctly, however, get to a doctor ASAP.
Geographic tongue is not contagious; it appears to be purely hereditary, and the same people who have geographic tongue often have allergies, asthma, eczema, and/or are more susceptible to hay fever. There are also suspected links to anemia and psoriasis as well. (Yep, all this is in my family, too. [sarcasm] YAY. [/sarcasm]) Lastly, there may be a connection between geographic tongue and celiac disease, though more research needs to be done.
What Can Cause Geographic Tongue to Flare Up?
What Can Help Soothe/Keep Down Geographic Tongue?
- Vitamin B supplements
- Zinc supplements
- Toothpaste for sensitive teeth with no additives
- Ice (temporarily)
- Anesthetic mouth rinses
- Mint gum/lozenges (supposedly)
(If constantly painful, a doctor can treat geographic tongue with certain topical ointments, antifungal products, or even corticosteroid treatments.)
Living With Geographic Tongue
For me, the list of “trigger foods” surprises me; most if not all of those are on my “do-not-eat” list. I never have been able to enjoy cinnamon-flavored gum or candy, for instance, and I’ve always been very particular about the kind of orange juice I get–it’s got to be “Low Acid.” And though I love sweets, too much chocolate with nothing to drink with it leaves me with a burning, “coated”-feeling tongue and throat.
In light of this condition, my picky eating makes a little more sense, since I’ve been avoiding many foods possibly based on how they make my mouth feel rather than the taste. And it also sheds light on why my tongue often feels so irritated after I brush my teeth, too, since I use a lot of whitening agents and special mouth rinses.
I don’t know whether adding Vitamin B or zinc would help me, nor am I sure if my geographic tongue might be connected to stress, allergies, psoriasis, etc. But these sure help give clues as to what I can try!
For Further Reading/Reference
NIH.gov Article on Geographic Tongue
Foods that Cause Geographic Tongue
WebMD.com’s Guide to Geographic Tongue
Geographic Tongue: Top 10 Causes and Cures
Geographic Tongue: Wikipedia Article
Fissured Tongue: Wikipedia Article
When we finally do make the resolution to get fit, we usually want to see results quickly. “I’m putting in all this hard work at the gym–why aren’t my pant sizes going down every week?” “I haven’t eaten anything but ‘healthy food’ for two weeks; when am I going to see the pounds going away?”
Unfortunately, our bodies do not change as fast as infomercials would have us believe. And actually, if you push your body to lose too much weight too fast, you may only end up wrecking your muscles and packing on more fat when you’re done with your “fitness plan.” (How do I know? It happened to my mother in the sixties, when the “yo-yo” fad diet was all the rage, even with some doctors; she suffered long-term negative effects from the prescribed “starve yourself and then go back to eating regular food” diet.)
Fitness is Not a Certain Weight/Muscle Mass
Fitness is not about being skinny and fitting into itty-bitty clothing sizes. Nor is it about being able to lift tons of weight and having huge, rippling muscles. Fitness is about having a body that works efficiently, repairs itself swiftly, and can do everything you need it to do. Ideally, every food we eat and every activity we do should support our bodies’ health so that we stay fit.
But realistically, almost nobody lives this way. When it comes to food, most of us either make unhealthy food choices (guilty as charged), or we have gastronomic illnesses that keep us from eating properly. And in terms of physical activity, we either choose not to be as active as we should, or we have injuries or disabilities that prevent us from doing much.
Thus, we start “getting out of shape;” our bodies slowly lose the ability to do the things we’d like to be able to do, or eat the foods we’d like to be able to eat, even once in a while. For instance, my dad’s Type II diabetes keeps him from the vanilla milkshakes he so loves, while my bad ankles and knees keep me from playing basketball like I used to do.
Getting Fit = Slow and Methodical
Lack of fitness is not just a weight or body shape issue–it’s a quality of life issue. But getting fit again is not a short-term process. After all, we didn’t get out of shape in only a few months, so what makes us think we can get back in shape in a few months?
If you’re serious about getting back into a healthy physical state (which is what fitness is), then you must not punish your body by overdoing exercise or going on crazy fad diets. That’s a quick way to make yourself sick or injured. Instead, you must take it one tiny but firm step forward at a time.
What do I mean by “tiny but firm” steps? Make small changes one at a time, changes you can gradually adapt into your lifestyle so that they become routine; then, once one change has been adapted, move on to the next change.
Here’s an example–my own fitness journey thus far:
- Began drinking mostly flavored water (2006)
- Took out about half the volume of sweet and salty snack foods (2007)
- Began cooking/eating more meals at home (2007)
- Shrunk my portion size by a little at each meal (2008)
- Began taking anti-inflammatory medication to help reduce joint swelling (2009)
- Began doing ankle-strengthening exercises at home (2009)
- Changed out my potato chips for whole-wheat crackers, and my candy for peanut butter (2010)
- Began walking more–parking further away from buildings’ entrances, for instance (2010)
- Started Zumba classes (2011)
- Began to eat more “healthy” foods–more salads, etc. (2011)
- Added AquaZumba classes during the summer months (2012)
From this calendar, you can see that my own fitness journey has stretched across six years so far. Each change I made was a small one, not particularly spectacular, but it was a stepping-stone toward the next. I had to get my joint inflammation down before I could even think of taking Zumba classes; I had to take out many of the snack foods I was eating before I could replace them with healthier options.
The important takeaway here: each time I made a change, I made sure it had become natural and routine before I demanded another change from myself. If you force too many changes on yourself in too short a time, you’ll never stick to any of them. Trust me on this–I’m quite experienced at quitting diets and exercise plans because of this very reason.
Most Important: Don’t Be Angry at Your Body, or Yourself
As you begin your own fitness journey, you will most likely feel terribly exhausted after your first workout (or two), or you might feel a little deprived after your first “healthier” meal. Do not be angry with yourself or your body because of these feelings. You’re not “weak” or “stupid” for needing to take it slow. Every person’s fitness plan will be different, just as every child in school learns at a different pace.
I’m making this serious warning about anger because anger can push you to do more than you’re physically capable of, or to try risky or dangerous tactics to get results. For instance:
- I got so mad at my stomach rolls back in 2005 that I starved myself to try to get rid of them, and I ended up passing out in the shower at home.
- I got mad during one of my first Zumba classes because I couldn’t do every move the instructor did, and I ended up hurting my ankle because I stomped down too hard with my foot.
Anger has been responsible for these and many more fitness setbacks in my life; don’t let it sabotage you.
Don’t compare yourself to other people, or compare yourself to your younger self, even. What matters right now is making changes that you can stick to, one at a time. Who cares how fast someone else is completing their fitness journey? You’re not in competition with them, or anyone. You’re trying to get back to a body that can do all you need it to do, no more and no less.
Next Week: Have a “Fitness Buddy” (or 3)!
Finally starting on your own fitness quest is great–but trying to do it all by yourself is NOT great. Every story’s hero needs friends to adventure with, and as the hero of your fitness journey, you’ll also need friends to keep you in line and keep you motivated. Learn more about that, in next week’s episode of “Getting Fit the RIGHT Way!”
Most of us who play games on our computers don’t think twice about doing it. In fact, it’s fairly accepted these days to spend much of your leisure time playing a game while sitting at your computer, whether you’re playing Farmville on a laptop or playing World of Warcraft on your gaming rig.
But all this sitting still hunched over a keyboard could actually be doing you more harm in the long run, not in terms of hours lost in gaming, but in years lost from your life, and in hours of future pain.
Think I’m joking, or exaggerating? Sadly, I’m not. And this can affect not only marathon gamers, but marathon computer users in general.
Sitting Still: A Risk Factor for Several Modern-Day Health Plagues
A study has shown that sitting too long can increase risk of cancer, especially colon and breast cancer. Other studies have shown an increased risk for type II diabetes and slowed metabolism in people who either choose to be seated more often, or have to be seated for their jobs.
None of these health conditions are anything we’d wish upon ourselves intentionally. Yet many of us, especially people who are glued to our machines, like I am, may run into these very health problems if we’re not careful.
I’m not saying that we have to all drop our monthly gaming subscription for a gym membership, but we need to be more aware of how much time we spend sitting. The number of hours may surprise you, if you were to note just how many hours per day you spend sitting in front of the computer. Computer gamers are especially at risk, I believe, because games can become addictive very easily and quickly; we can become absorbed in what’s going on and forget about our physical bodies entirely.
Other Health Risks Posed by Long-Term Gaming/Computer Use
But sitting still is not the only thing we need to be worried about, as computer users and gamers. Other, more “minor” conditions like bad posture, eye strain, and poor circulation can haunt us as well. Also, those who type a lot or who work intricately with the keyboard and mouse may suffer neck and shoulder pain, swelling and twitching in the fingers, even arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. (I’ve often wondered if some of my recent headaches can’t be traced back to bad posture at the keyboard.)
Computer users, including gamers, strain their backs, eyes, and wrists more often than anything. And, if not treated, all these conditions could put us out of commission in ways we don’t even think about. For instance, I never used to think anything about sitting at my computer and typing/surfing the Internet for ages. Now, though, I find my wrists becoming sore after a while, and I’ve even had shooting pains run through my wrists into the base of my palms (one of the first heralds of carpal tunnel syndrome). Not only does that threaten my continued computer use, but it threatens my budding writing career as well as my piano skills.
Another thing we don’t think about much is our eating habits while we’re gaming or otherwise using the computer. Sometimes we skip mealtimes because we’re zoned into our technology; sometimes we eat mindlessly in front of the screen like it’s a TV. Neither of these eating strategies are healthy–the former leaves us hungry, out of sorts, and low on blood sugar, while the other can sabotage any efforts we’re trying to make to stay healthy (as well as any efforts at keeping the keyboard clean!).
As gamers and as computer-literate people, we need to be just as literate about our bodies and how much stress we put them through. It may not feel like we’re doing all that bad by our health, but as evidenced by the pains in my wrists and hands, I am living proof that our health situations can change without much warning.
Solutions to “Sitting and Gaming” Health Problems
- After 20 minutes of sitting in front of the computer, get up and walk for 2 minutes. This keeps blood circulating effectively, especially in your lower body.
- Make sure you’re not slumping in front of the computer screen. This is very difficult when using laptops, but really work at sitting up straighter. I’ve noticed that working to hold myself upright helps me breathe better, and weirdly seems to reduce my wrist pain, too. (Plus, I type a little faster. Strange, but true!)
- Look away from the computer screen every so often (every 10 or 20 minutes at least), and focus your eyes on something as far away as possible instead of on something close by. This will help your eyes exercise a little so they don’t get strained so fast.
- Every half-hour, flex your hands and wrists as much as you can, rotating your hand around, clenching and releasing your fists, etc. This is especially important if you’re doing a lot of typing or mouse work–believe me!
- Trade some of your “sitting and gaming” time for more active gaming time–playing games on a Wii or Kinect system, in which you use your body as part of the controller, can help with circulation and cardiovascular health.
- If you absolutely have to be at a desk, think about buying or building a treadmill desk–it’s like a standing desk, except that there’s a treadmill surface under your feet, and you have to walk constantly forward to stay at your desk. (This would be great for those times where you’re idly Facebooking and the like.)
- Keep a small dish of healthier snacks nearby your computer, so that when you do get hungry or do want to munch on something idly, you’re reaching for something at least partially good for you. I like the classic combo of peanut butter on crackers, or whole-wheat crackers and skim-milk string cheese. Others like a selection of chopped-up veggies with a little dip, or even a smoothie or protein shake. Whatever you choose, something with a good amount of protein and fiber will keep the “hungries” away.
Resources to Learn More
Sitting Still: Health Risks
5 Reasons Why Sitting at the Computer Can Be a Health Risk
Sitting Too Much May Double Your Risk of Dying, Study Shows
Get Up! Sitting Less Can Add Years to Your Life
Laptops and Their Impact on Your Health
Risks Associated with Computer Keyboard Use
Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Since I’ve been doing regular Zumba and holding up pretty well for a little over a year now, I’ve been wondering if my body could handle doing two exercise classes a week instead of just one. I wasn’t sure what other type of exercise I could add, however.
As it happened, my regular Zumba instructor mentioned about a month back that she was going to teach a water form of Zumba called AquaZumba, and she wanted to know what interest there would be in such a class. I raised my hand; about six years ago, my doctor suggested water aerobics to me as a way of building back strength in my damaged joints, but I hadn’t followed up on it. So, remembering my doctor’s old advice, I decided I would give it a shot. The happy result is the subject of today’s blog post.
I showed up for class last Monday afternoon, in the outdoor pool area at my local YMCA (also where I take regular Zumba on Thursday nights). There ended up being about 20 people there for the class, and our instructor advised us to make sure we were standing in water at least chest-high so that we could get good resistance on our arms as well as the rest of us. The middle section of the pool, where the depth slowly increases, was accordingly filled out with class members arranged by height.
Our instructor demonstrated the various moves outside the water, so we could all see and know what to do. At first, I didn’t think it would be nearly as challenging as regular Zumba, but within the first couple of songs, I realized that the water resistance was certainly not negligible. Not that the resistance was hard to work through–it was just more resistance to movement than I expected. You don’t realize how much water will hold you still or keep you back from moving, but it will!
As we worked through each song, I realized that because of the water resistance, AquaZumba is necessarily a slower-tempo workout. You’re not doing as much high-intensity cardio (though you do get an elevated heart rate); instead, you’re doing more muscle toning. I could feel, as we did each set of the slower but more graceful moves through the water, that my arms and legs were getting a good workout, as well as my core muscles (which I didn’t expect at all). It wasn’t arduous, though–the water made the movements more fun since I wasn’t having to focus so hard on not falling over (LOL).
For a solid hour, the water seemed to boil with our movements as the 20 of us moved like a party of synchronized swimmers (except without the spangly costumes). (I don’t see how the instructor stood it, doing her moves on land (and in full sun) as she did!) I noticed that pretty much the whole class kept up with the exercises well, and by the end of the workout, we all seemed pleasantly tired, not flat-out exhausted.
I left feeling good about the whole experience. The instructor was encouraging and compassionate as always, and the class members were forgiving of each other as well as of themselves. Not to mention that the heaviness in my limbs was a sign that I’d had a much stronger workout (and yet a less joint-stressing workout) than I expected.
I was less sore and exhausted after AquaZumba than I usually am after regular Zumba, but I was still feeling the workout–at about midnight, I realized I’d worked my arms WAY more than I realized. Still, I wasn’t overtired, and felt energetic enough through the week to meet my regular Zumba class and my other obligations as well. I also noticed that my ankles and knees felt more supported during the workout, which meant lots less pain during and after the workout. I was worried that my completely flat feet on a slanted pool floor might cause me a mischief, but that didn’t seem to come into play at all.
Time will tell, however if my core muscles were as engaged as they felt during the workout, but I literally felt “smaller” around the middle when I left the pool that evening. Those slow twists and turns do more for the obliques and abs than I thought!
Wondering if You Should Try It?
In my opinion, if you enjoy swimming or enjoy just being in the water, AquaZumba could very well be a good fit for your exercise program. And, if you can do regular Zumba, you can definitely do AquaZumba. However, if you’ve never tried regular Zumba because you think it would be too fast or difficult, this might be more your speed.
Check online or around your local gyms (or even local parks) to see whether a class may be offered in your area. Who knows, you might find yourself becoming an AquaZumba swan by the end of the summer!
Many people will disagree with the title of this post. In fact, there are several knowledgeable sources which say that healthy food isn’t more expensive than unhealthy food at all (see articles from LATimes, HuffingtonPost, and MSNBC).
But, for every article that asserts that eating healthy is a cheaper or equal-cost alternative to unhealthy food, it seems there is an article that asserts exactly the opposite (see articles from StraightHealth and MedicineNet). It seems that no one can really agree on this issue, not even the experts–which makes for a tough decision for those of us who aren’t health gurus, but don’t like the idea of being 800 pounds due to fast-food living.
So, while trying to find out, once and for all, if going completely healthy is even worth it for me, I came to a disappointing conclusion: there is no straight answer from official sources. There is, however, my own personal experience, which is in itself possibly a clearer answer to the problem. I find that healthy food IS expensive when considered against unhealthy food, unfortunately, and in ways that are likely not accounted for by many of the recent studies done on this topic.
Healthy Food: More Expensive in Many Ways
When I say “healthy food is expensive”, I’m not just talking about what it costs at the grocery store. It’s also more expensive in terms of gas, prep time, and convenience. Let me give you a few examples:
Healthy Food Goes Bad Faster = More Money Spent Every Time You Shop
Healthy food, in general, goes bad faster than unhealthy food. Example: fresh veggies, which you apparently have to eat within 2 days of buying or you have moldy veggies. Even the frozen kind seem to go bad faster, or get freezer-burned way too easily. When I tried to go healthy in 2007, I quickly found that I was throwing out more “healthy” food than I was eating–for instance, the carrots in water that I bought on Tuesday morning were expired by Friday, and I hadn’t even opened them yet. It was frustrating!
In this way, healthier food is quite unlike the preservative-laden boxed meals and food packets. Those things seem to last forever, and are often cheaper because they don’t have the “organic” or “natural” food label, which always seems to add about 2 bucks to the purchase price of most fresh food. When it comes to the likelihood of wasting food, it’s no wonder some people choose to load their bodies with preservatives rather than buy “fresh” food that ends up not being eaten at all.
Healthy Food Doesn’t Keep You Full = More Trips to the Store Per Week
As stated, to keep the “freshest” and “best” healthy food on hand, you have to drive to the grocery store several times a week because everything goes bad faster. But you’re also going to use up what you buy much faster because healthy foods, especially fruits and veggies, do not keep you full very long. (Sure, fiber keeps you full, but when it tastes like you’re eating a wad of Silly String, it’s not that appetizing to eat platefuls of it.) I’ve noticed that when trying to eat low-calorie options, I always end up hungry an hour after eating, even if I try to include protein and fiber, and I invariably snack on junk food to cover the difference.
What this means for the average eater: you use more gas and more money to fix more food that doesn’t feed you for very long. Not exactly cost-efficient in this economy, is it?
Healthy Food Needs More Prep Time = More Inconvenient
Usually, healthy food takes longer to cook (like green beans that take 20 minutes simmering on the stove just to be edible). Frozen healthy food must be thawed, which also takes more time than unhealthy food. By contrast, in 20 minutes, I could have a pizza delivered and be eating it already. Which am I logically going to choose, from a convenience and time standpoint?
I admit, we as a society are so conditioned to being able to walk into the kitchen and immediately eat whatever is easiest to fix, and unfortunately for us, the foods that are easiest to fix are the unhealthiest for us. But while some of this is a personal choice not to spend time preparing food, some of us simply do not have the time or the culinary skill necessary to fix more than microwave meals. I’d rather not set the kitchen on fire trying to cook “healthy,” you know?
Healthy Food Has Weaker Flavors = More Unhealthy Flavoring Agents Used
To make healthy food taste good to modern desensitized palates like mine, you have to have more ingredients on hand, such as spices, oils, other food items, etc., than you generally do for unhealthy food. I personally find that fruits and vegetables just do not have the strong sweet or salty flavors that I like, or they have unwanted bitter/grassy flavors, so I end up loading them up with unhealthy additives (ranch dressing, table sugar, and the like) and canceling out their health benefits.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to drown their salads and vegetables in flavoring agents, and it makes the whole exercise of “eating healthy” feel futile. Why bother trying (and failing) to eat a plate of grass (pardon me, salad) with ranch dressing on it, when I could have chosen something that tasted good on its own, even if it was less healthy? In the end, you spend money on “healthy” food and don’t even eat half of it, only to experience an unhealthy food craving later. And, inevitably, you lapse right back into old ways, spending even more money to get the food you REALLY wanted in the first place.
My Conclusion: It IS Expensive
In terms of time spent cooking, convenience/availability, gas for shopping trips, sheer tastiness, and buying “organic/natural” foods, healthier food is much more expensive than unhealthy food. It seems not to fit our modern lifestyles, and in this age of fitting two lifetimes’ worth of activity into half a lifetime, we are more likely to skimp on food to stretch a dollar or two, or save a few minutes. Plus, as many health experts say, we as a culture are now addicted to those strong food flavors that come from processed foods, and we are also addicted to how quickly those very tasty foods can be fixed.
And yet, to hear the same health experts talk, we should all be eating as if we are rich enough to afford the pricier healthy food, as well as having leisure time enough to prepare it (and taste buds that apparently can’t taste anything bitter). Meanwhile, all the food that is cheap, easy to fix, and a delight to the tongue wreaks havoc on all of us that simply can’t afford to eat any other way.
Footnote: How This Food Problem Might Be Sabotaging Health
While the total blame for the “obesity epidemic” has usually been laid across the shoulders of every individual who is obese, I believe some of the blame lies in our culture and the commercialization of food products, especially healthy food products. Being obese is no longer just about individuals making “unhealthy food choices,” not when the “healthy” foods are time-sucking, gas-wasting, tasteless options. Who wants to eat ONE bowl of grassy-tasting greens that cost 12 bucks and is already starting to go brown, when for that same 12 bucks you could feed a family of 4 at McDonalds?
I’m personally obese myself, and have been since I was 11 years old. I would love to change that, but from a diet standpoint, many issues stand in the way of that: I hate the way most healthy food tastes, I hate its impact on my purse and gas tank, and I hate that it takes 2 or 3 times longer to prepare it. Why in the WORLD would I inflict such suffering and privation on myself, when better-tasting, cheaper, and quicker options exist? This is likely the same battle, the same thought process, that goes through the minds of many people today, and it has a definite impact on diet.
Now, when healthy food tastes as good as the unhealthy stuff, is cheaper than unhealthy food, and is quicker to fix…THEN we might see the “obesity epidemic” start to go away. Until then, most of us who are big or who are addicted to unhealthy foods are going to struggle with their diets just as I have, with half the battle decided before food even hits their plates.
After nearly 10 months of doing Zumba classes, I have noticed a definite body change for the better. ^o^
I can FEEL the difference in my body, even though the mean ole scale tells me that I’ve only lost 7 pounds (currently weighing in around 290 pounds instead of 297-298). Despite being faced with a number I still don’t like–a number I’ve been socially PROGRAMMED not to like–I am happy with the results of my exercise routine thus far.
How Much Better AM I Doing?
- I can walk up a set of stairs in several seconds, bouncing from foot to foot easily instead of clomping up one painful step at a time
- There are two or three INCHES of room in the waistbands of most of my lower-body clothing (pants, shorts, skirts, and even underwear)
- I don’t get quite as winded and wheezy when I move around
- I can come down a set of stairs without having to cling desperately to the railing for balance
- My left ankle doesn’t seem to turn over as easily, leading to less accidental twists
- My waist is much more defined than it used to be
- When I exercise, my heart gets into an “elevated but not overworked” pace, instead of going straight from “resting” heart rate to “OMG I’M BUSTING OUT OF YOUR CHEST LOL”
Not only are people noticing a difference in my looks, but I’m noticing a difference in the way my body functions and feels. I don’t feel quite as heavy and tired as I used to, even though I still look like an uncoordinated duck during most of the Zumba exercises. And even though I still wheeze a little during much of the class, I find that some of the moves that were impossible for me in June 2011 are now attainable and even fun.
Actually Seeing the Inches Lost, in Clothes
The clothing difference has been the most astonishing, for me. I’ve been used to squeezing my body into clothes, dancing and shaking myself into pants rather than just slipping them on (you know the “pants dance,” don’t lie :P). I’ve also been used to the unique pain and suffering brought on by a belly constrained too much by an unforgiving button and zipper.
Imagine, then, what I felt this past Christmas, when I easily put on a dress that had been too small in 2010. Where before the zipper would not even go up my back all the way, now the dress hung off me in becoming folds of fabric, especially around the waist. That was a measurable success–I remember crying in 2010 when I had brought out the dress to wear, only to find that I couldn’t even zip it up all the way. This Christmas, I wore it with pride.
I also have been getting back into other clothes, clothes I haven’t worn since late high school/early college (~2003/2004). I had retired a pair of jeans for being simply too small right after I went to college–the “freshman 15” was more like the “freshman 45” in my case–and in shame, I had packed them away in the laundry room. Upon discovering them in the laundry room about a month ago, I tried them on, more as a private joke to myself than anything. And they FIT. It wasn’t an “almost-kinda-sorta” squeeze-fit, either–they buttoned and zipped comfortably. :O What happened? Zumba happened. Moreover, a lifestyle change happened.
Why the Number of Pounds Does Not Matter
I purposely did not look at a scale for the first seven months I did Zumba, because I didn’t want to be disheartened. I, like most of the women in my extended family, have a very hard time losing pounds, and I refused to be a slave of the scale number. Instead, I focused on inches lost (currently, I have lost HALF A FOOT around my waist alone!), as well as body feeling. Only when I went to the doctor in early January and had to be weighed did I look at the scale.
I have to admit, I was disappointed at the small number of pounds lost. I’d never make it on “The Biggest Loser”, I know that. But my doctor was impressed with my heart rate; knowing the family history of heart attacks, he was worried that my fast and light pulse signaled problems down the road for me. Now, my heart beats slower but stronger–a healthier heart rate. He could also tell a difference in the way I was walking (not so gingerly and carefully anymore), because my left ankle is getting stronger. I count those two improvements as much more important than subtracting 10 from my scale number.
As much as I’ve worked to even get to 290 pounds, this number is not going to torment me. I know the difference in my body, and I know I’m doing better physically than I was before. I’m toning up, I’m losing inches, and I’m feeling better than I have in years, probably since before I became a “fat girl” in 1996.
So I’m not going to worry that my weight doesn’t match some magical number according to my age, height, socioeconomic status, etc. As long as I continue to feel and function better in my everyday life, I know that it’s a positive lifestyle change. Maybe if all us girls started focusing on how our bodies feel rather than how they look, we might just forget all this super-skinny-fashion mess…well, a girl can dream, can’t she?