6 Key Ingredients in My Healthiest Year+ Ever

There are so many wonderful ways we can take care of ourselves. What a gift that we can continue to learn new techniques and practices throughout our lifetimes!

I gave a presentation a couple days ago on self-care for academic advisors at the University where I work. I addressed inherent job risks for advisors and the importance of setting boundaries in our lives (not just important for advisors!). I also shared some of my favorite self-care practices, including some that I have discussed in previous blog posts, like square breathing, 3 Good Things, quotes, mantras exercise and meditation. It was fun for me to reflect on many of the things that have been most helpful in elevating the quality of my life.

I am grateful to enjoy excellent health, in general. I attribute this to many things, including rich blessings, which I believe obligate me to make a positive difference in the world in proportion to the gifts I have been given. In addition, I believe that I have a responsibility to take excellent care of the strong, healthy body I have been given.

For over a year now, I have been particularly fortunate to have very little trouble with colds or any other ailments. More than ever—and I really do mean ever—I have stayed exceptionally healthy.

In this post, I want to share with you six key ingredients I have used to create my recipe for my healthiest year plus.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are certainly other important things that I do to stay healthy and feel well.

This is also not medical advice. I am not a health care professional, and you should consult yours for medical advice specific to your situation.

I am a certified health and life coach, and I am a human with half a century (egad!!!!) of caring about and being interested in contributing to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world—starting with how I treat, and what I do with, my own body. Through trial and error and lived experience, I have found certain things that I have incorporated into my life on a permanent basis because they made a noticeable difference in my health and well-being. I thought about listing the six I am featuring in this post alphabetically, because there is not necessarily a hierarchy of contribution to my wellness. I do think they have been additive over time, though, so I decided to list them chronologically, in order of when they became part of my regular practice. Each “ingredient” I list here has added to the previous ones to create a recipe for health that really serves me. They have made such a difference that I decided to share and explain.

1982/2008: Whole-Food, Plant-Based Nourishment

A pot of lentil and vegetable stew
Lentil Veggie Stew

This one has evolved over time. My journey to plant-based eating started in 1982, when I was 12. I became vegetarian (I didn’t even know vegans existed back then.) because I had never liked the idea of eating animals. From the time I was very young, it made me sad. Finally, after several upsetting experiences, including having the butchered flesh of a cow named Blackie, whom I had met, come into our home, I took the announced that I was never eating meat again. It was a lonely world for an adolescent vegetarian back then. I was the only vegetarian in my family or my group of friends (although my friend Quynh’s mother was vegetarian, but there was a language barrier between us). There was no internet. I had to go to an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore or library to get any information. And there wasn’t much in those days. Still, I knew I was on the right path for me.

I cut meat from my diet for ethical reasons, but I was pleasantly surprised to notice an increase in stamina between my seventh-grade basketball season and my eighth-grade basketball season. I first noticed it when running laps for basketball. This is anecdotal, of course. There was no scientific study isolating vegetarianism from other possible contributing variables, but I wasn’t consciously looking for a difference, and I found one. I was maturing, too, but I decided that my vegetarian diet was the main factor in my improved stamina. I still believe that.

So, the internet and better information came along, but, honestly, I wanted to believe for many years that I was living my values by being vegetarian. Even once the tools were there for finding out the whole truth about the egg and dairy industries, I avoided researching—until my conscience would no longer let me. In early 2008 I decided that, since one of my core values was integrity, I needed to find out if I was really living in integrity. I researched the egg and dairy industries and found out that some of the most horrific animal living conditions and some of the worst cruelty exists in the production of eggs and dairy products. Learning the truth was painful, and it was not convenient. A fair amount of guilt ensued for not trying to learn this sooner, but it became clear that, in order to live according to my professed values (Compassion is #1!), I needed to become vegan.

So, I did.

It has become easier and easier to be a plant-based eater. The internet is not only a source of information, but a source of community. Books abound these days! You can have them delivered to your electronic device instantly, 24 hours a day. Such a different world. Being vegan is not lonely. It is joyful. I have wonderful, caring vegan friends.

In addition to improved mental health, due to living in alignment with my values, my physical health improved. My skin became clearer. My colds became milder. I stopped having bladder infections, after having spent a couple rounds of two years each on prophylactic Macrodantin (until I developed resistance). True story. These things really got better, and my vegan diet was the difference.

I eat a mostly whole-food, completely plant-based diet. This is one of the most significant factors in maintaining my excellent health. It is easier than ever. If you would like my help transitioning, email me at sheri@justwindcoach.com. Or, get 28 of my favorite recipes when you join my email list here.

1992: Consistent, Intentional Exercise

Two people on road bikes
BAK 2017 with Logan

I was reasonably active as a child and teenager. I played basketball from 4th through 9th grades (proudly helping my Sacred Heart 5th– and 8th-grade teams win Oklahoma Catholic Grade School Athletic Association state championships! 😊). I played my freshman year at Mount Saint Mary High School, but we played public schools, and I found out I was not anywhere near as good a player as I had thought I was. After a season mostly on the bench, my basketball career reverted to driveway pick-up games with neighborhood boys (while my brother was planting the seeds for his future career as a technology genius by working inside on his Commodore VIC-20 and 64). I did sporadic exercise in fits and starts from then until 1992, when I was working on my undergraduate degree at Wichita State University. I worked full time and went to school at night. I finally started going to the Heskett Center (the building where I now work full time) to exercise between work and my 7:05 p.m. classes. I also did step workouts at home. I cringe at flashback to the then-fashionable tights and leotards I wore in public in the Heskett Center. I can only hope that there were never any pictures taken that might turn up in building archives.

Eventually, I started running, and in 1996 I committed to run the New York City Marathon as part of the Leukemia Society Team in Training. My life changed when I crossed the finish line in that first marathon and started thinking of myself as an athlete.

Ever since, endurance sports have been a major part of my life. Cycling came into it when I met my husband and trained for Biking Across Kansas in 1999. I got hooked and now serve on the BAK Board of Directors and love that week in June more than any other each year. (Registration for BAK 2020 opens this Friday. Register on 11/29 for a free jersey.)

I know that consistent, daily exercise is a major factor in my mental and physical health. In addition to cycling, I incorporate yoga, weight training, walking and other forms of exercise. I do something virtually every day.

I have a Master of Education degree in Exercise Science and held a personal training certification for 10 years, until I had to let that go in 2011, when a personal tragedy prevented me from recertifying. I am considering adding certain future certifications in physical activity. In the meantime, intentional movement is an integral part of who I am and why I am healthy.

2012: Echinacea

A picture of a tea cup and a box of tea bags.
Traditional Medicinals Echinacea Plus Tea

Specifically, Traditional Medicinals Echinacea Plus Tea. I am a believer in this stuff!

2011 was a difficult year for me. It ended in a very painful way that shook my world. I decided that 2012 was dedicated to recovery. This took a variety of forms in my life, but one thing I did was research what could enhance my immune system because I was getting sick more frequently than I wanted. Some of my research led me to echinacea. Admittedly, scientific research has shown mixed results, but I decided to give it a try. I think I first tried it when I felt myself coming down with a cold, and I just didn’t want to be sick. I was pleasantly amazed at how mild my symptoms quickly became and how soon I was well. It could have been coincidental, but I was convinced. I adopted this tea into my daily routine. I drink a cup every, single morning. When I am on Biking Across Kansas, where it may not always be easy to make tea, I cut open a tea bag and include it in the magic mix of nutrients I put into my preworkout energizer. If I feel like I am getting sick, I will drink extra cups—up to five a day. It almost always stops or dramatically lessens my symptoms and shortens the duration (based on my history with colds) of my illness.

I have recommended this tea to many people over the years. My skeptical husband even became a believer after he tried it.

Whether or not the science backs up the efficacy of echinacea for immune health, my anecdotal experience has been unequivocal. It made, and continues (over years) to make, a noticeable difference.

2014: Algae

Bags of spirulina and chlorella
ENERGYbits & RECOVERYbits

I honestly can’t remember how I first learned about ENERGYbits. It might have been through Brendan Brazier’s work on plant-based eating for athletic performance, but I am not sure. Anyway, at some point, I was looking for a way to enhance my energy level on the bike, and I found ENERGYbits, which is the name of both a company and a specific product made by the company. Initially, I only used ENERGYbits, which is 100% spirulina algae. I would swallow the spirulina, conveniently compressed into easy-to-swallow tablets. It’s food, not pills, but I do prefer to swallow, because it sticks to my teeth if I chew it. There is controversy around spirulina because it can be contaminated, if it is not organically grown in controlled conditions. ENERGYbits prioritizes the safety of its algae, so I feel great about using their products. Company founder Catharine Arnston learned about the benefits of algae when she was researching ways to help her younger sister heal from breast cancer. She concluded that a plant-based diet, heavy on greens, was a powerful healing strategy, and she learned that algae contains the highest concentration of alkaline-promoting chlorophyll of any food. Using algae as part of her plant-based diet, her sister healed and has remained free from cancer for 10 years.

For several years now, I have used ENERGYbits before my bike rides and RECOVERYbits afterward, often blended into my recovery smoothie. They truly make a difference in my energy level and endurance on the bike, and they help me recovery quickly and fully after tough rides. I sometimes give them to Logan before and after his training runs and races. He has noticed a benefit on his long runs.

ENERGYbits products aren’t just for athletic performance, though. They can be incorporated into a healthful, plant-based diet daily to energize, clear toxins and enhance overall nutrition. For an answer to the ever-popular question all vegans get asked, “Where do you get your protein?” take a look at this information comparing usable protein per acre of various animal and plant protein sources. Algae is also an outstanding source of B12. In addition to ENERGYbits and RECOVERYbits, there are also BEAUTYbits and VITALITYbits, although I have not used those products personally. If you want to make this a part of your nutritional plan, you can get 20% off when you use my discount code JustWind. Type it in the discount code box at checkout. (Full disclosure, I receive a free bag for every 10 bags bought using my discount code. Although I have been an affiliate for years, I have never promoted it, so I have bought all the bags under my code, up to this point. 😊)

2018: Meditation

My New Meditation Cushion

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I thought for years that I couldn’t meditate. When I was in my health and life coaching certification trainings, my constant, nagging concern, when I traded coaching sessions with my training partner, was stress and what it did to me and how I couldn’t get it under control.

Finally, in early 2018, I decided to give meditation a real try. I called it “mindfulness” for quite a while because “meditation” didn’t feel quite right. Until it did one day. After a short time of consistent, daily practice, I noticed how much calmer and more peaceful I felt. I was managing stress so much more productively. To my surprise, I started to look forward to my daily meditation in the same way that I do my bike rides.

What I noticed most is that my health took a dramatic turn for the positive. I went over a year without a single cold, even when students, coworkers and family members around me were sick. As I said above, I think all these “ingredients” have been additive, but this one has been huge. Since I have practiced meditation daily, I have only had one real cold and no laryngitis, which used to plague me on a regular basis. Even the cold I did get was quite mild, and most people didn’t even know that I had one.

I attribute meditation to taking my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health to the next level. As I taught in my presentation to fellow advisors this week, there is no one right way to do it. This was a limiting belief I had to overcome in order to allow meditation into my life. My practice incorporates breathing exercises, mindfulness, visualizations, affirmations and Kundalini yoga, depending what feels right on a given day. Now, I would not skip a single day. I meditate anywhere from about 10 minutes to around 30 minutes, depending on the time I have. I do it first thing in the morning or immediately after my morning workout. It is a game-changer.

2018: Mindset

A person posing for the camera

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This is probably the most difficult to explain concisely. Maybe that is why I am writing a whole book that addresses the topic. The picture is of a content me. Life is not perfect, but I have made a choice to live consciously and to choose my perspectives carefully. I still experience stress, but I have learned how to think of it differently and to choose an empowering approach to it. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It was life changing. I’ve written about it previously because it had such an impact on the way I view stress and how I allow it to affect me. It took a while for me to fully internalize her message, but it started percolating right away. The biggest takeaway from McGonigal’s book for me was the idea that a meaningful life is a stressful life. The same things that bring us the most stress—family, work, school—are the same things that bring us the most meaning. Recognizing that can change everything.

I don’t live in constant bliss, but I am healthier and happier, and part of that is my mindset. Meditation supports my chosen mindset, and so do several other practices, but consciously and actively choosing the mindset I want to hold is the first step. It is a big step that has made a rewarding difference.

So, these are some of the most important things that have contributed to my healthiest year plus ever. My guess is that any one of them added to your life could make a positive difference in your physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual health. Adding them together has compounded their benefits in my life.

I know I am not invincible. I could drop dead or be stricken down with some horrific illness (or a cold) tomorrow. I am committed to doing my part to take care of the gifts I have been given, though. These are some of the ways I do that.

I can be reached at sheri@justwindcoach.com or through a comment on this blog post or social media. I’d love to hear your experience with any of these or other practices that have made a healthy difference for you.

How a Nightly Journaling Practice Can Help You Increase Happiness and Achieve Goals

I have journaled for many years. For a long time, I did it frequently, but without any real structure or schedule. That changed in 2011, when I was looking for strategies to help me feel more positive about life, during a particularly painful time. I learned about Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” practice. I have written about this practice previously because it has been (and continues to be) so meaningful to me.

The simple “Three Good Things” practice became the foundation for the journaling that I faithfully began doing each night. Every single night—even when I am Biking Across Kansas—I write in my journal about three things that went well during the day. Sometimes they are big things. Often, they are small things. The point of the practice is to stop and notice that good things happen, even on the most mundane day. Sometimes it is more difficult than others to come up with my three things. On a particularly difficult day, it might be something as basic as, “My warm shower felt good.” This helps me recognize gifts and blessing in the midst of challenges and disappointments. In addition to naming my three things, I follow each with the question, “Why?” and then write about why this was a good thing. This reflection is brief, but it is key to noticing why I feel good about something. In a 2005 study by Seligman, et al., participants who used the Three Good Things” practice for a week experienced improved mood for six months. I recognized the benefits so quickly after starting it that I made it a permanent practice.

This practice is so helpful that I have added check-ins throughout the day, when I am feeling stressed or tired or anxious. Mentally, I will take a moment to name three good things that have happened up to that point in the day. A variant that helps me get out of bed in the morning is to identify three things to which I am looking forward in the coming day.

Over time, I have added other questions that have benefitted me. Currently, in addition to my Three Good Things practice. Here are the others I use:

  • What do I want for and from myself tomorrow? This helps me to begin to set an intention for the next day. When I think about how I want the day to look, I can approach it consciously, making decisions that support my intention.
  • Do I have any regrets about my choices today? As I wrote in this post, my theme for 2019 is “No Regrets.” By checking in with myself each night, I take an honest look at the choices I made during the day and assess whether they were aligned with my values, goals and priorities. This idea of living to avoid regrets has become so compelling that I have recently refocused my coaching practice to help people who have become aware of how quickly time passes develop the energy, mindset and well-being to accomplish what they want to accomplish and live with no regrets. I strive to do this in my daily life, as well.
  • How will I live with no regrets tomorrow? This is when I decide if and how I need to adjust my choices the next day. It is also when I consider my responsibilities for the day and plan proactively to remain in alignment with values, goals and priorities.

Within the last couple months, I have added to my nightly journaling practice with the “Three Question Journal,” developed by Angeles Arrien. This practice has been used with medical students to help them recognize meaning in their work. I find that it can help me identify and acknowledge meaning in my life, too. Rather than overlooking or taking for granted events that have taken place during the day, I acknowledge the meaning they help create in my life. Here are the three questions:

  1. What surprised me today?
  2. What touched my heart today?
  3. What inspired me today?

The key with these questions is to write the first thing that comes to mind and to briefly reflect on it. One of the profound insights that I obtained in reading Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, is her assertion that “A meaningful life is a stressful life.” I realized, upon reading this, that the mundane things that are part of my daily life, like work and family, while being significant contributors to stress in my life, are also significant contributors to meaning in my life. Recognizing this was truly life changing for me. This three-question practice reinforces this recognition.

My nightly journaling does not take all that long, but it is time well spent. It enables me to finish the day feeling centered, having integrated my daily activities and my thoughts and feelings about them. I finish by reading until I am ready to go to sleep and then choosing a quote from my collection for reflection, as I go to sleep.

My nightly journaling practice is one component of my non-negotiable self-care practices. Other things, like my morning mindfulness practice, exercise, plant-based nourishment and my various check-ins throughout the day round out my practice. Any of these is important alone, but together they support each other and add a greater sense of meaning and contentment to my life.

I encourage you to begin a nightly journaling practice, if you don’t already have one. You may want to use some or all of the questions I include. While there are times that I simply free-write in my journal, these questions are always part of my nightly practice. If you are starting with just one part of what I do, I recommend starting with “Three Good Things,” since this has been shown scientifically to enhance happiness in people who did it. Anecdotally, I can attest to its effectiveness. Once you have that practice in place, trust your instincts to add others—either from the ones that are meaningful to me or some that you adapt.

I have tried and abandoned some strategies because they didn’t serve me as well as these do. Several months ago, I subbed, “Was I better today than yesterday?” for “What do I want for and from myself tomorrow?” I missed the latter question, so I added it back and included my “no regrets” questions. This feels like a better fit.

I find that the structure of the questions and the soothing ritual they provide increase the centeredness I feel from the journaling. The practice helps put everything in its place for the day.  I hope you will give structured nightly journaling a try and let me know how it affects your life.

February Funk

I promised myself to publish at least two blog posts per month in 2018. It is late February, and I am just writing my first for the month. It is not the post I planned to write. Hopefully, I’ll still get that done in the last few days of the month.

For now, I just need to acknowledge that February has been an “off” month and move forward.

There is no major reason for my February Funk. Through introspection, I have come to recognize some contributing factors.

One of my problems has been vertigo attacks and the residual symptoms. All in all, I am very grateful for my great health, but I have dealt with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo occasionally, since January 2017. I wrote about my first attack here. After months of feeling fine, I had a severe attack, with extreme nausea, on December 10, 2017. That one really knocked me down. My most recent attack was January 23, 2018. It came on after a prolonged period lying flat at a periodontist appointment. I treated it with the Epley Maneuver, which a vestibular therapist taught me to perform on myself, so that I don’t have to see a doctor every time I have an attack. I am grateful for that, but I have not felt “normal” since my last two attacks in January. I feel a sense of disequilibrium in variety of positions, and, frustratingly, I have felt a bit limited. I am very grateful that, unless I am in an active attack, my cycling is largely unaffected. I have had to modify resistance training, yoga and other exercise, though, and I don’t like that. I am afraid to sleep in any position, except on my back, propped up on two thick pillows. The sensation that it would not take much to send me into another attack has left me feeling vulnerable in a way that is uncomfortable.

Combined with the vertigo, winter weather has added to my funk. I am a summer girl, so Kansas winters are always tough on me. Winter driving is a particular fear of mine. While I know that this winter could have been (and still may be) much worse than it has been, but I have had a few very stressful driving experiences this season. The worst one occurred unexpectedly earlier this month, when I was driving back from Manhattan, Kansas, after a Biking Across Kansas volunteer staff meeting. While I knew northern Kansas had a winter weather advisory starting at 6 p.m., south central Kansas was not under any kind of advisory. I left Manhattan by 5 p.m. and drove south. The first half of my drive was fine, but I suddenly realized, while driving 75 mph on the interstate, that freezing precipitation had started. My heart started was pounding. I reduced my speed and took deep breaths to calm myself. My biggest problem was that my defroster was not keeping up with the precipitation in the subzero wind chill. No matter what I tried, the portion of the windshield through which I could see grew narrower and narrower. My anxiety became overwhelming on the dark, icy interstate. I desperately needed to exit, but could barely see to do it. I turned on my emergency flashers and slowed even more, barely able to see at all. Finally, I made it to an exit with a truck stop. Shaking because of my greatly reduced vision, I managed to make my way onto the street and then make a left turn into the truck stop. I could not really see where I was going and ended up among the diesel pumps and semi-trailers. Somehow, I weaved my way to an access road and then into a McDonald’s parking lot. I got out, scraped my windows and sat for several minutes, with the defroster on full blast and the windshield wipers running. Eventually, I found the courage to head the remaining 22 miles home on county roads. I was grateful to make it home safely, but the experience was terrifying and left me feeling completely spent, even the next day.

I fully realize that these are small problems, in the big scheme of all that people face in this world. Still the disequilibrium of my lingering vertigo symptoms, my fear of setting off another attack of vertigo and the adrenaline crash after my frightening drive have left me feeling drained and off and ineffective this month. I have felt an unsettling lack of clarity around goals for my coaching practice and other areas of life, and I have felt a heavy inertia settle in and weigh me down.

In my coaching practice, I work with people who choose to live and age with power and purpose regardless of life’s challenges, so I must make the conscious decision to get back on track and do the same. The JustWind philosophy teaches that we can face the Kansas-strength winds of life and still look around and appreciate what we have and choose to keep taking brave steps forward. I talk to my coaching clients about viewing their mistakes, shortfalls and steps backward with curiosity, not judgment. I have to remind myself to do the same. I realize that sometimes we need to take a step back to look around and make sure we are headed the right way. Maybe that is part of what is happening for me.

I just can’t stay here. I need to keep moving forward and making progress and evolving and growing. As part of that process, I am in day three of a reset cleanse. This is not a fast. That works for some people, but it is not for me. I don’t function well at all without food. I am just taking extra care for the next two weeks to emphasize whole foods even more diligently than I usually do. During this period of feeling off, my chocolate cravings have returned. This reset cleanse will help me eliminate those. It will also allow me to lose the sense of heaviness that I have been feeling. Some sunshine (which we have for the first time in a week!) and warm weather would certainly help that, but those things are out of my control, so I will control what I can and eat very cleanly, while incorporating empowered movement and engaged mindfulness.

I will treat myself with compassion, acknowledge the impact of the vertigo and the terrifying drive, and view my feelings of the last several weeks with curiosity and openness, learning from them and carrying those lessons forward, as I resume my journey.

Messages From a Spinning World

I went to bed on Wednesday, January 4 feeling perfectly fine and normal. On Thursday, January 5, my alarm went off at 5 a.m., as usual. I got out of bed just as I typically would. Then, I promptly found myself on the floor with the world spinning wildly and nauseatingly.

I sat there, stunned, wondering what had just happened and suddenly feeling really sick.

I tried to get up, but went back down, the world still turning and flashing in a highly disorienting way.

After several minutes, I was able to get up, but things were definitely not right. The violent motions made me nauseous, and I wondered if I had a virus. Although I vomited, the most prominent symptom was the dizziness.

I had my husband take me to the doctor and learned that my right ear was bulging badly with fluid, and there was also fluid on my left ear. The nurse practitioner surmised that the fluid build-up was causing my dizziness, but also told me that there might be calcium crystals (called otoconia) in my inner ear, behind the fluid in my middle ear. She offered several possible treatments, and I chose nasal spray over oral Prednisone. I also tried the home Epley Maneuver, but felt terrible after doing it, so I have not yet tried it again.

Eleven days after its sudden onset, my vertigo is much better, but, disappointingly, not gone. I am planning to schedule an appointment with an otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose, Throat—ENT) doctor to check on the status of my ears and to find out if there is anything I can or should be doing to expedite my full recovery.

Here is my theory about what happened.

I had an ear infection in my right ear in November that arose immediately after an extremely stressful event at work, during which I literally felt my body being attacked on the inside. It sounds crazy, but it is true, and I developed the ear infection, a terrible canker sore in my throat and a stress rash that flares up with stressful events, because of the onslaught of stress hormones. I was treated with Augmentin for the ear infection, and it healed. The NP who saw me for the vertigo believes that the fluid was residual from the infection, although there is no current infection. I think there probably are some otoconia involved, although I don’t know that for sure.

On the evening of January 4, I attended my first session at Orange Theory Fitness. I was interested in adding OTF as a supplement to my off-season training. While I still exercise every day during the winter, and I ride when I can, I miss my bike, and I wanted something to spice things up. So, although, exercise wasn’t unusual, the motions in OTF—a combination of rapid rowing on a rowing machine; fast-paced weight training, in a wide range of positions; and power walking at steep inclines on the treadmill—were different than what I have been doing. My off-season training generally includes cycling on days off work, when weather permits; the indoor spinning bike; circuit training, but with fewer dramatic changes of position; Foundation Training; yoga and walking. I believe that I had an underlying problem, residual from the ear infection, and the many quick and dramatic position changes probably caused the pressure from the fluid to move otoconia into undesirable locations in my inner ear, and I awoke the next morning, after the crystals settled while I was lying down, with vertigo.

I don’t know that any of this is true, but this is my theory.

I do want to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Orange Theory Fitness. It is a sound and effective way to exercise. I was greeted when I walked in the door, with, “Hey, you’re my advisor!” by the coach for my class, who is one of our Exercise Science students. The owner has been super nice and very understanding of my need to cancel my plans to join as a seasonal member. (I can’t even think about the movement of a rowing machine or lying down on a weight bench right now.) There is no reason that most healthy people should not be able to work out at OTF safely and uneventfully. I think I just happened to have an unknown underlying situation that was waiting to be stirred up by certain movements that I had not been doing in my daily life.

Anyway, hopefully, I will learn more and be able to rid myself of this strange, uncomfortable and annoying problem when I see the ENT.

In the meantime, I have been able to draw some interesting analogies to life because I like to try to learn from every situation.

A signature of this vertigo is that certain positions create problems, while I can feel reasonably “normal” when I avoid them. Once I got past the acute onset and figured out where I had to be careful, I recognized that lying down or moving my head to one side or the other while lying down creates the most trouble. Sitting up from lying down or rolling to one side can also create fairly dramatic vertigo. Bending down, moving my head forward, looking up to a high shelf, tilting my head to the left or right or looking down while moving can also cause problems. So, I have learned to be deliberate in my movements.

I can liken this sense of being off balance physically and the unsettling sensations that result to being out of balance in my life, emotional vertigo. If I notice what activities cause me to feel bad, and which ones feel right, I can make conscious decisions about how I spend my time and energy. I can take notice and regularly assess what causes problems and decide to make adjustments to bring my daily activities into better alignment with my strengths, talents, passions and values. Like this physical vertigo, emotional vertigo may not have a quick fix, and it may take trying a variety of remedies. It may require consulting professionals and doing research on my own. I was already in the process of examining my life and looking at what feels right and what does not and setting into motion some changes to bring my life into better, healthier alignment. They won’t happen quickly, but, just as the vertigo has forced me to pay close attention to how I move my body in space, I choose to recognize the signs—some manifesting physically—of a life out of balance and out of alignment with what matters to me. Once I identify the problems, I can make deliberate, conscious movements toward the solutions.

Success, Redefined

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

I have decided that constancy to purpose is also the secret to happiness and inner peace. After my wake-up call from stress-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy, I realized that I needed to focus on the things that really matter to me and let go of other expectations whenever possible. There are so many obligations, options, opportunities, causes, people and ideas competing for our time and attention. Trying to keep up with all of them and stay healthy is just not feasible.

We each have to find our own best way to make a difference—to make the contributions we want to make to the world, while remaining as healthy and centered as possible. This requires focusing on our unique opportunities to be a positive force in the universe and spending our time and energy doing those activities that feel most right. These are some touchstones that I find helpful in striving for this focus:

Clear values. Compassion. Excellence. Integrity. Fitness. These are the ethical aims that drive me and the most basic characteristics for which I want to be known. When I am clear about what ideals are most important to me, they guide my decisions in the directions that reinforce and enhance those principles in my life.

A philosophy for living. It is my responsibility to use my strengths and maximize my gifts to ensure that my net contribution to the world is positive. I express my gratitude for the strengths and gifts I have been given by putting them to effective, positive use.

Awareness of my strengths.  Honesty. Love of Learning. Perseverance. Gratitude. Judgment. According to the VIA Survey, these are my top five strengths. I frequently check in with myself to determine how well I am utilizing these strengths. Focusing my energy, whenever possible, on activities that allow me to employ these strengths optimizes both my effectiveness and my ability to find personal fulfillment in what I do.

Acknowledgement of my gifts. This list could go on and on. I am aware that I have been given so many resources and gifts, ranging from a loving upbringing to robust health to a quality education to a love of cycling and a drive to be fit. As an undergraduate student doing both paid and volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, I felt guilty for having been given so much, when I regularly witnessed so much suffering around me. In the years since, I have transformed the guilt into a healthier ownership of responsibility. I strive to maximize, not squander, my gifts. To provide just one example, I celebrate and express gratitude for my good health by nurturing it through cycling; eating a whole-food, plant-based diet; parking at the far reaches of parking lots; taking the stairs—even to the tenth floor when visiting people in the hospital—and making responsible decisions to take care of myself. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be to scoff at the universe that has given me so many wonderful resources and to neglect my responsibility to give back.

A mission. To contribute to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion. Compassion is my cornerstone value. I strive to live a life of compassion and to structure my decisions and actions around this value.  I can’t magically change the world into the one I wish it were, but I can keep pushing the needle in the direction of compassion. I am encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” By living and modeling compassion, I hope that I am planting seeds that will grow and flourish in this and future generations, gradually improving the conditions of both humans and nonhumans.

Recognition of the intersection of my passions, my strengths and the needs in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation,” and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I picture these ideas together as a Venn diagram that guides me to my own best way to make a difference in the world. (I created a cool Venn diagram in a Word document, but I absolutely cannot get it to paste here, so I am presenting it as an equation below.)

Passions/Gladness+Talents/Strengths/Gifts+Need=Vocation


And that leads me to where it all comes together . . .

A motto. Fitness is advocacy. This is where all of the above ideas come together in a concise, encapsulated statement that directs my actions and focuses my efforts. There are so many needs in the world, and there are so many ways to address them. We each have to find our own best ways to serve the needs that speak to us most urgently. Represented in the above Venn diagram/equation and summed up in the motto, “Fitness is advocacy,” my unique way of adding compassion to the world becomes clear. When I am fit and healthy and ride hard, while fueling my body with plants, I demonstrate that no one has to suffer or die for us to be well nourished. Being a vegan cyclist has allowed me to educate people in small towns across Kansas about eating well on plants, and it has allowed me to inspire others to try plant-based eating. I give my mind, body and spirit the freedom and movement of the open road while advocating in an upbeat, positive way for compassionate living. There are many other important ways to make a difference. I sometimes participate in other strategies, but I have become clearer and clearer that my signature style of advocacy is through the example I set in my own life. In this way, I feel balanced and at peace.

I started this post with a quote about success, and I will finish it with one of my favorite definitions of success. Mike Ditka said, “Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.” I have come to a point where I really believe that. I am successful when I adhere to the habits, routines and strategies—the disciplines—that help me to remain consistently focused on my purpose. Deviating from that self-discipline for very long throws me off balance and disturbs my inner peace. When I keep my purpose in focus, I feel peaceful. That is my bottom-line determinant of success: Does this (way of life, relationship, job, commitment, activity, food, etc.) bring me more stress or more peace? Choosing the direction that is consistent with my purpose and nurtures inner peace is success.

 

Reflections on BAK 2016

Two weeks have already passed since Biking Across Kansas (BAK) 2016 concluded at the Missouri border, in Elwood, Kansas. I have learned so much on and through this annual ride. My experiences with BAK epitomize my major goal for this blog: celebrating my passion for cycling and the lessons and insight I glean through it. No doubt, more formidable crucibles exist, but I have found BAK to be a reliable forge for my evolving self. From my first BAK in 1999, when I was a runner-turned-novice-cyclist, accompanying my then-boyfriend (now husband), to my 18th BAK, as a seasoned veteran and BAK Board Member, I have moved through many phases of life; gained and lost animal and human companions, jobs and life directions; encountered physical and environmental challenges and felt my way through parenthood. Every BAK is different and special in its own way. These are my reflections on BAK 2016.

  • We are almost always tougher than we think—if we give ourselves the chance to find out. I think my first real inkling of this occurred when I trained for, and completed, my first marathon, the 1996 New York City Marathon. After my introductory BAK three years later, my mom asked, “How did you know you could do it?” I realized that my experience in the NYC Marathon, as well as the encouragement and example that my husband and his friends provided, allowed me to have the sense of self-efficacy necessary to attempt to ride across the state. This year, I was privileged to help my son Logan discover that he, too, is tougher than he realized. Logan has grown up around cycling and has participated in BAK every year since I hauled him into the wind and up the Blue Hills in my belly. He has accumulated some road miles for each of the last four years, but this year, on a new road bike, he smashed his previous record and greatly surpassed his goals. At one point, while he and I were riding late in the week after leaving a SAG (support stop) where he had been complimented, I said, “People are really impressed with you, and they are amazed by how well you are riding.” He giggled and said, “Yeah, me too.” The 309 miles he rode boosted his confidence and helped him to realize that he is capable of taking on challenges that some may find unreasonable or impossible. I hope that this awareness carries over into other arenas in his life as he prepares to enter middle school this fall and beyond. The confidence that I have built by accomplishing challenging cycling goals continues to be invaluable for me.
  • I felt stronger than ever. Last year, my as-yet-undiagnosed B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy were at their peak on BAK. While I enjoyed the ride, I knew something was not right, and I had thermoregulation issues that caused me a lot of discomfort and concern. I did not really tell anyone how much I was suffering at times. Once I was diagnosed and eliminated the supplements that led to the B6 toxicity, I began in earnest to make a conscious effort to minimize the negative stress in my life, manage unavoidable stress more effectively and optimize my nutrition. I was delighted to find this year that I felt strong and healthy on BAK. At one SAG in Highland, KS, a man told me, “It is just fun to watch you go up the hills. It is like your legs are just carrying you up like a little water bug.” While I appreciated the compliment, he might have retracted it if he had seen me in the hot, hilly headwind stretch that followed that SAG. However, I truly did feel strong and in control over the course of the week, perhaps stronger than on any previous BAK. It was a nice testament to the efficacy of the changes I have made in my life.
  • The wind is just wind, and the hills are just hills. As I mentioned in my introductory post about my blog’s namesake quote, there was a time when I allowed myself to become stressed and frazzled by wind. There was also a time when seeing upcoming hills could psych me out. Since my son rode with me for 309 miles on a very hilly route, I had a lot of opportunity to observe his reactions to hills and wind. When we had a cornering tailwind, he enjoyed the hills and did not worry over them. Later in the week, though, when we faced some challenging hills in strong headwind, his enthusiasm for the hills waned. I tried to share my hard-earned wisdom with him. I have learned that I will get up the hill, albeit a slow, effortful slog at times. I will also reach my destination in the headwind. That, too, can be slow and painful, but I have learned to stay calm in both those conditions, as well as to remain unruffled in crosswind. Those can be unnerving, especially in hills, because the wind currents can become unpredictable and scary. I have learned how to talk to myself to stay calm and collected and peaceful. I tried to help Logan do this, too. I think my words helped occasionally, but I realized that experience is often the most convincing coach. He will probably have to learn these lessons on his own, in order to truly internalize them. Watching him allowed me to reflect on my gratitude for these cycling lessons and to recognize how much I have used them over the past year, as I have worked to manage my stress in healthier ways and to be happier in my daily life.
  • Life is more fun if I am flexible and adaptable. There will be wind, and there will be hills, and I just need to flow with them. Biking Across Kansas provides abundant surprises and unpredictability. Will showers be warm, ice cold, a weak trickle or a needle-like spray? Where will we sleep tonight? What vegan dinner options will be available? On BAK and, I have found, in life, approaching the unknown with a sense of adventure, rather than dread, makes the ride and life much more enjoyable. If I remember the underlying truth—that there is nowhere I would rather be than BAK—I can weather minor inconveniences and irritations without allowing them to spoil the fun. The same is true when navigating the mundane realities of life.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have been called “rigid” more than once. I prefer the terms “disciplined” and “driven.” I do acknowledge that I can sometimes benefit from relaxing. My nutritional plan on BAK is a perfect example. I never waver in my veganism, but it is not always easy or even possible to meet every one of my daily nutritional objectives while cycling through rural Kansas. This year, I did not always get as many servings of beans or greens as I would have preferred. It is tough to eat exclusively whole-grain pasta or bread, like I do at home. I promised myself this year that I would relax, do the best I could and not allow myself to become stressed if my nutrition was not perfect. I controlled what I could and let go of the rest, and I was very happy and got plenty to eat.
  • Friendships formed and strengthened amidst shared challenge are unique and special. BAK provides an extraordinary medium for growing friendships. Longtime BAKers have shared memories of battling the elements together for many miles over many years. I enjoyed riding quite a few miles this year with my friend David, whose long-ago, matter-of-fact statement about the wind inspired the name of my blog. We share a special bond because of the road battles we have fought together and because of our common love of cycling. We have suffered and survived an 80-mile day with cold, torrential rain, small hail and 45-mph wind. He has stuck by me (twice) when I was slower than slow because of terrible heat cramps. He has worked on my bike roadside when I had mechanical problems. A few years ago, my friend Denise and I rode for a day with two young cross-country runners from Wamego, teaching them how to draft. Even my marriage is a result of cycling. My husband was literally on his bike when we met, and almost all of our dating and early-marriage entertainment was cycling. There is just something special about persevering together when it would be easier to quit.
  • Sometimes easier is better. Before Kenny and I got together, he was a confirmed tenter on BAK. There was no sleeping inside the schools for him. I love sleeping in a tent, so I joined him in his conviction that the tent was the place to be. Once Logan came along, managing the tent and getting on the road in the mornings became more complicated. Over the past few years, and especially now that Logan is riding, rather than sleeping in, we have both realized that sometimes it is just easier and more fun to have one less thing to handle in the mornings (or even in the evenings). There used to be a sort of pride around sleeping in the tent, no matter what. Not anymore. This matches the question that I try to use to make decisions in the rest of life these days: “Will it bring more stress or more peace to my life?” Sometimes easier is better. Kenny and I both owned that truth more fully this year than in the past. We slept inside six of the eight nights. It was easier, and that allowed us both to enjoy BAK more.

A concentrated week spent focused on the bike really illuminates the lessons I learn from cycling. I made a conscious effort this year to enjoy every moment and to avoid dreading my return to real life. Although I would head back out to the Colorado border right now to ride BAK again, I have been fairly successful at cherishing the experiences I had on BAK 2016 and allowing them to enrich my daily life, rather than to look back only with sad nostalgia, wishing my real life were different, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

My goal now is to carry what I have learned from BAK 2016 with me on my training rides at home and in my daily activities as a mom, a wife, an academic advisor, a vegan advocate, a blogger and my assorted other roles. Doing so is evidence that I have truly internalized and incorporated into my being the gifts of the ride.

LoganFirstFullDayBAK2016

A Bigger Yes

Lately, one of my favorite Stephen Covey quotes has been on my mind. In his terrific book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

The concept of a bigger yes translates for me to freedom earned through introspection to discover what really matters, awareness to recognize when something may jeopardize our priorities, focus to keep our yes in the front of our minds and self-discipline to say “no” to things that threaten what matters most.

I am at my most empowered when I honor my bigger yes.

Recently, the arena where a bigger yes has been most prominent is nutrition. For most of my life, I have lived a bigger yes when it comes to food. Because of my desire to live compassionately and my commitment to justice for all living beings, I have been vegetarian since 1982 and vegan since 2008. This was easy for me. The bigger yes was compassion. Ceasing my consumption of meat as a 12 year old required some creative maneuvering within my family, but it did not require willpower or sacrifice. I was clear that I cared more for animals than I did for eating their flesh.

For so many years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough to satisfy my ethics. I allowed myself to linger in blissful ignorance for too long after better information was readily available. It was easier not to know. Until it wasn’t. For a long time, I had told myself that chickens didn’t suffer for us to eat eggs and that milking relieved the cows of their burdens. Deep down, I feared that I was lying to myself in my ignorance. Finally, compassion and commitment to my ethics became a bigger yes than convenience. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. Sure, it requires asking more questions and being a bit more resourceful, but the inner peace of prioritizing my bigger yes makes any inconvenience well worth it.

More recently, the nutritional bigger yes (coupled with my commitment to my ethics) is my long-term health. Toward that end, I have incorporated Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen app (See this post.) into my everyday life. That part was easy. It just meant some small modifications to my daily habits—adding beans to my morning smoothie to get a head start on my three servings; ensuring that I eat at least two servings of greens, plus a serving of cruciferous vegetables and including an eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric into my smoothies. These changes just meant eating even more of nature’s goodness. They weren’t difficult.

More challenging was recognizing that I needed to give up some of my (healthful!) extras in order truly to optimize my health and fitness and avoid gaining weight. After reading How Not to Die, by Dr. Greger, I became serious about making my long-term health and well-being my bigger yes, even more clearly and more boldly than it previously had been.

I have recognized in the past that I have had an addiction of sorts to dark chocolate and energy bars. During times of stress and anxiety, I have used these and other foods for comfort or security. Reading and internalizing Dr. Greger’s evidence-based, whole-food message, I recognized that my relationship to my comfort foods didn’t fit all that well with my nutritional objectives because of the added sugar and the processed nature of those products. Although the energy bars I ate were vegan and relatively healthful, my bigger yes is to maximize whole foods in my diet. So, I stopped a nearly daily habit of both the bars and the chocolate on January 1, when I started using the Daily Dozen app. (The date was coincidental—the day I learned about it—not by design.) In addition to added oil, which I had already largely eliminated, I also decided to avoid added sugar, even agave nectar and maple syrup, and to pay closer attention to the amount of sodium I consumed. Then, I increased my intake of some of the most healthful foods on the planet—dark, leafy greens; flax; beans and whole grains—but I kept a lot of my other little comforts.

They were nutritious additions—bonus foods—to the Daily Dozen. My son had broken our scale, so I focused on how great I felt and enjoyed the knowledge that I was putting good food into by body, without worrying about my weight. Several weeks into this cycle, I went to the doctor for an annual check-up. Stepping on the scale, I realized that even this good stuff was causing me to gain weight that would not maximize my cycling performance or optimize my long-term health.

Once again, it was time to acknowledge and honor a bigger yes. I decided to treat the Daily Dozen goals not as minimums, but as loose limits. By and large, I am consuming only the Daily Dozen now. This is not restrictive! There are so many wonderful, nourishing whole-food options. I am not automatically putting cacao nibs in with my nuts, eating nuts or nut butter several times a day or mixing vegan yogurt into my berries every single day. I still eat these things—nuts are part of the Daily Dozen—but I am eating just enough servings to meet the Daily Dozen goals, and cacao and vegan yogurt (one of the only processed foods in which I sometimes indulge) are truly occasional now. This allows me to honor my bigger yes.

I don’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I feel satisfied and peaceful because I am clear about what my priorities are, and I am living them. These are my comforts now.

Cycling is a bigger yes for me, too. It would be so easy to sleep in on a summer Saturday morning, but if I did, I might not get my long ride. The ride is a bigger yes than the leisurely start to the day. I know that I will feel better and happier with myself if I get up early to ride than if I don’t. Last Friday, I got up at 3 a.m. to take my mom for a medical procedure. Happily, it went well, and I was able to get her home by 1 p.m., avoiding the overnight hospital stay we had expected. When I got her settled at home, she suggested that I take a nap and then go for a bike ride (beautiful day in February!) before my son got out of school. I said, “I am going to go for a bike ride and then maybe take a nap because cycling is a higher priority.” It is not that sleep is not important; it just means that I had to make a choice, and that choice was to honor my bigger yes.

The bottom line is that there is only so much that fits into any one life. We have to make choices. When we say “yes” to one choice, it means that we are saying “no” to another. Conversely, saying “no” makes room for a “yes.” The key is being devoted to a bigger yes, so that the noisy distractions can’t overshadow it. I view this as freedom.

My biggest tormentors are my own feelings—anxiety, stress, disappointment, shame, disgust and guilt. I have found that one way of reducing the power these tormentors have over me is to honor my bigger yes in every situation. When I do that, I am free from disappointment in myself, as well as its previously mentioned conspirators. The key is to be self-aware enough to recognize the bigger yes. These questions may help us discover and honor our priorities:

  • What matters most to me in life?
  • What are my core, defining values for which I want to be known?
  • What do I most want in this situation?
  • What actions will help me to achieve my most important goals?
  • Which choice will bring me the most peace?
  • Where do I need to say “no” in order to make room for my bigger yes?

Reflection and journaling can assist in clarifying the answers to these questions. Then we must commit to the bigger yes. We must decide that we are worth the courage, effort, sacrifice or social backlash that may come with the actions necessary to honor our bigger yes.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” The bigger yes helps us hold on to what is most important and to resist the pull of distractions. I have often said that discipline is the reward for making a tougher choice, one that honors a bigger yes. With discipline comes freedom, which brings us closer to inner peace. The more I nurture my bigger yes, the freer and more peaceful I feel inside. That freedom is worth more to me than any taste, convenience, nap or social approval ever could be. The bigger yes often requires making the unconventional choice. That is okay. I choose integrity over convention any day. People don’t always understand or appreciate the choices we make to honor our bigger yes, but I have to live with myself one hundred percent of the time, so I choose to direct my behavior internally. As Covey said, it takes courage to do that, but the rewards are great.