Sunday, March 5, 2023

Physical Fitness Program 2023-03

It's been nearly 2 year since my last physical fitness update.

We made a big change this past year: after 31 years in Massachusetts, my wife and I moved to Maine. That meant packing up and selling our a house of 18 years.

That turned out to be a huge job! We had accumulated a lot of stuff to sort through with 5 people in the house over time. We started in late March, and it took until November, the week before my 62nd birthday.

I realized after the first couple months that I was going to need to dedicate more time to the task, so I stopped my morning workouts to spend the time on moving.

That meant a good 6 months without exercise. In October, that resulted in a problem in my left knee; it was loose and sore. By the time we completed the move in November, my knee had gotten so loose that I was afraid I was going to suffer a fall or serious injury. I was extra cautious while carrying moving boxes around.

First thing while we were getting settled in the new location, I joined the Boothbay Region YMCA, just 5 minutes away. The new house is actually 150 years old, with no space for a home gym, so I had given away a lot of my exercise equipment.

The Y is an outstanding facility that has just completed a major renovation. It has a 6-lane swimming pool, rows of ellipticals, treadmills, two rowing machines, a spinning room, aerobics and yoga rooms, a basketball gym, two raquetball courts, indoor track and tennis courts, and weight rooms with free weights, circuit machines, and combo machines.

It's also a fantastic community resource with a great after-school program and STEM focus. I've started teaching an after-school introduction to engineering class there using Arduino for embedded systems development.

It has this very interesting TRUE Stretch cage. Looking like a cross between a shark cage and a medieval torture device, it's an amazingly effective static stretching frame.

Going through all the stretches pictured on the instruction panel is the closest you can get to a deep tissue massage without actually getting a massage. That takes about 20 minutes.

This is my current weekly physical fitness program, following my Physical Fitness Principles:
  • Monday: Swimming for endurance.
  • Tuesday: Circuit weight machines for strength.
  • Wednesday: Rowing for endurance and yoga for flexibility.
  • Thursday: Repeat Monday workout for endurance.
  • Friday: Repeat Tuesday workout for strength.
In addition to switching from a home-based gym to a public facility, I've made a few tweaks from the previous version 2021-05:
  • I swapped the strength and endurance days because I've always enjoyed swimming as a primary whole-body exercise, and I wanted to include the rowing endurance in the middle of the week.
  • I added the rowing machine because I wanted to learn to row. I've bought a used Alden Martin rowing shell and want to be able to take it across the street to the Damariscotta River public boat ramp.
  • I kept the strength sets at 2, but reduced the weight to carefully restrengthen my joints.
  • I replaced the stretching routines from Bob Anderson's Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition with the TRUE Stretch cage.
This worked well to recover from my 6 months without exercise. By keeping the endurance work at relaxed pace with moderate intensity, and the strength work at light physical therapy rehabilitation weight, my knee was fully recovered in 2 weeks.

I'm very slowly increasing the intensity and weight, paying careful attention to my joints. In addition to my left knee, my left shoulder rotator cuff and right elbow are the most sensitive and prone to soreness. Those are the joints to manage.

I continue to focus on eating healthfully with a mostly-plant-based diet augmented by small amounts of animal-based foods in accordance with the Blue Zone recommendations (as opposed to the typical Western diet that is the opposite).

I also continue to use deep breathing meditation for general stress management and as a sleep aid when I wake up in the middle of the night, based on Dr. Herbert Benson's 1975 book The Relaxation Response.

As before, I generally don't work out on weekends, and I try to make sure to have time available for each full daily workout. If I'm short of time, I can cut the number of reps or sets down, cut the time down, cut the rest periods by 15-30 seconds, or skip some yoga poses.

Monday: Swimming For Endurance

Stretching: 20 minutes on TRUE Stretch cage.

Endurance: 10 x 100 yards (1000 yards, 40 laps total). I split that up into two 5 x 100's, doing a 100 kickboard on each third one. I rest 30-60 seconds between 100's. I use my first and last 100's as warmup and cooldown.

Tuesday: Cybex Circuit Weight Machines For Strength

Warm-up: 5 minutes on rowing machine.

Stretching: 20 minutes on TRUE Stretch cage.

Strength: 25-30 minutes of weight machines following Strength Training Past 50 by Wayne Westcott and Thomas Baechle. 2 sets of 12 reps for each of 12 separate machines at slow, controlled pace, with 15-60 seconds rest after each set. I make sure the amount of weight I use doesn't cause any joint pain during or after completing all the sets. On some machines I keep it down to the first 2 or 3 plates to protect my joints. On others I can go with a heavier level, about half the weight stack or so.

The exercises and weights (pounds):
  • Leg press, 130
  • Leg extension, 70
  • Leg curl, 70
  • Hip adduction/abduction, 50
  • Lat push-down, 50
  • Bicep curl, 50
  • Lat pull-down, 70
  • Shoulder adduction/abduction, 50
  • Shoulder press, 50
  • Chest press, 70
  • Abdominal flex, 110
  • Back extension, 110
Weight machines generally isolate the targeted muscles and joints well, so all the effort is directed to them. While that's good for building just those areas, it also means higher force on them and higher risk of injury. I pay close attention to make sure I'm not overdoing it.

Cool-down: 5 minutes on rowing machine.

Wednesday: Concept2 Rowing Machine For Endurance And Yoga For Balance And Flexibility

The yoga workout is very portable after memorizing the sequence of moves, good for traveling.

No matter what else I do during the week, if something disrupts my routine and I have to skip one or more workouts, I make sure to do this yoga session, because of its general therapeutic and stress-reducing effects.

Endurance: 30 minutes on rowing machine: 5 minutes of warmup at 25 strokes per minute, 20 minutes of 1:1 minute intervals at 35:30 strokes, and 5 minutes of cooldown at 25. I set the air damper in the middle at 5. I learned how to use the machine primarily from these YouTube videos by RVA Performance Training and this New York Times article by Dana G. Smith.  

Balance and flexibility: 25 minutes of asanas (postures) based on Power Yoga - Flexibility and Power Yoga Collection: 3 Full-Length Programs by Rodney Yee, and Yoga With Adriene.

I'm not nearly as flexible as either of them, so I limit postures to only the degree I can do comfortably.

The asanas that I choose from based on how I feel (most of the names from the book 50 Best Yoga Positions):
  • Tadasana, mountain pose
  • Adho mukha svanasana, downward-facing dog
  • sun salutation (this is actually a sequence moving through several poses, including mountain pose, lunge, plank, pushup, cobra, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog, standing forward bend)
  • Biralasana, cat pose
  • Virabhadrasana I, warrior I
  • Virabhadrasana II, warrior II
  • Virabhadrasana III, warrior III
  • Trikonasana, triangle pose
  • Uttanasana, intense forward stretch/standing forward bend
  • Dandasana, staff pose
  • Navasana, boat pose
  • Balasana, child pose
  • Single-leg forward bend
  • Paschimottasana, double-leg forward bend
  • Upavista konasana, seated wide-angle forward pose sequence
  • Baddha konasana, cobbler's pose
  • Jathara parivartanasana, revolved abdomen pose
  • Marichyasana III, sage twist III
  • Garudasana, eagle twist
  • Kapotasana, pigeon pose
  • Anjaneyasana, crescent moon pose
  • Dhanaurasana, bow pose
  • Setu bandhasana, bridge pose
  • Purvottanasana, upward-facing plank
  • Urdhva dhanurasana, upward-facing bow pose
  • Virasana, hero pose
  • Utkatasana, chair pose/power pose
  • Prasarita padottanasana, wide leg stretch/wide leg forward bend
  • Savasana, corpse pose/relaxation pose

Thursday: Swimming For Endurance

This is an exact repeat of Monday's workout.

Friday: Cybex Circuit Weight Machines For Strength

This is an exact repeat of Tuesday's workout.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Recipe: Breakfast Greek Frittata

This makes a flavorful meal full of superfoods, providing a mix of protein and complex carbohydrates. It's an ovo-lacto-vegetarian recipe.

This can be eaten fresh, or stored and re-heated.

  • 4-8 eggs
  • 1/2-1 tomato, or handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2-1 whole onion
  • 1/2-1 medium whole potato
  • 1/2-1 C fresh spinach
  • 1/2-1 C mushrooms
  • 1-2 oz feta cheese
  • 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
  • Italian seasoning
  • Salt
  • Ground black pepper
  1. Beat eggs in a mixing bowl.
  2. Chop tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach coarsely. Fold into eggs.
  3. Cube cheese. Fold into eggs.
  4. Fold in salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Chop onion coarsely.
  6. Grate potato.
  7. Heat oil in a pan large enough to hold the entire frittata.
  8. Saute onion in oil until clear. Add Italian seasoning to taste.
  9. Add potato and saute until golden. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  10. Spread potato and onions across bottom of pan as a crust.
  11. Pour in egg mix and spread evenly across crust.
  12. Cover with a lid and continue heating until egg is firm, 5-10 minutes. The crust will caramelize on the bottom. The olive oil will bubble and release the crust from the pan, so the frittata slides out easily onto a serving plate.
Slice into 8 wedges. Serve with a sugar-free salsa; my favorite brand is Pace.

WW points: 3 points per ounce of cheese, 4 points per Tbsp of olive oil; 1-2 points per wedge.

Recipe: Super Green Fruit Smoothie

This is my NEW! IMPROVED! nearly-everyday breakfast, thanks to Joris Wils, one of my former coworkers. He had suggested adding greens to my Recipe: Breakfast Super Fruit Bowl. I tried it and really liked it.

The greens have very little effect on the flavor, but they kick up the nutrition, consistent with the books I've been using for reference. Dark, leafy greens are always at the top of "superfood" lists. For Losing Weight With WW Purple (now WW Personal Points), each cup of greens adds a daily point that you can spend on other foods.

The recipe is simple: Start with Recipe: Breakfast Super Fruit Bowl. Add:

  • 1/2-1 C baby kale
  • 1/2-1 C baby spinach
  • 1-2 C water (or almond milk)
  1. Blend thoroughly
WW points: 2, plus adds a free point for each cup of greens.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Two Useful EAP Wellness Webinars

I tend to be an eternal optimist. But I'm also a worrier. Lately, I've begun to feel the need for the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) wellness webinars offered at work. I'm a software engineer at iRobot, which uses KGA as their EAP provider.

Partly this is the pandemic finally getting to me, two years of being cooped up indoors nearly 100% of the time. That aggravated what was already a turbulent time in our country. All grist for the worrier's mill.

What do I have to complain about? Really, I have a great life, and I don't have nearly the things that are real tribulations for others. So this is definitely a case of first-world problems.


  • We have an endless supply of bad news.
  • There's always something at work not going as desired, something I'm not getting done or banging my head against the wall over.
  • There's always something at home needing service or repair, the car, the furnace.
  • There's always fretting over personal finances, costs going up, the arrival of tax season, bills to pay, retirement to save for (like that will ever happen!).
  • There's always that endless thought loop of worry. What if, what if???

What finally pushed me over the edge was getting sick a few weeks ago. We had our first real snowstorm of the season here in the Boston area. Not really significant, but enough to go out and clear the driveway. I spent an hour or so working on it.

The next day, Saturday, I woke up with a sore throat. My first concern was Covid, so I found a local facility offering rapid testing and went and got a test as I tried to think through where I might have gotten exposed while grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant (you know, the worrying part). I didn't have any fever, but my throat got worse over the next couple days. I ended up taking a couple of sick days off from work.

Fortunately, the test came back negative, and by Wednesday I felt well enough to work, but was still tired the rest of the week.

So an hour of time outside during some winter weather took me out for 4 days, and kept me mostly down for a week. That was pretty sad.

I realized I wasn't getting the outdoor time that I normally did pre-pandemic. All my exercise is indoors. All my life is indoors. So I resolved to take the dog out for at least 15 minutes a few times a week. Get some air, get some sun, get exposed to the elements.

I also realized the negative mental effects were starting to accumulate. I was just feeling bad, for no real reason. I was just down. This is like the "drift to low performance" system trap that Donella Meadows talked about in her fantastic book Thinking in Systems: A Primer.

Time to do something about it. Of the things in life we can control, this is one.

Serendipitously, the company had an upcoming EAP wellness webinar. So I resolved to participate in all the wellness webinars the company offers. I appreciate the commitment and effort they've made to support their employees as people. Time to put that to use.

First Webinar

The first webinar was "Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results." It was excellent. I realized I had completely misinterpreted the title of James Clear's book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. I had thought it was about large, monumental, difficult, powerful, explosive changes. But it was the opposite metaphor: tiny, achievable atom-sized changes that add up.

So I ordered the book. I also requested a copy of BJ Fogg's book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything through KGA's bookshelf benefit.

I'm applying the advice from the webinar and Clear's book, primarily habit stacking and the 4 laws. This is definitely worth following.

Second Webinar

Yesterday was the second webinar, "Cultivating Wellbeing Through the Science of Thanks." This was also excellent. While this kind of thing can sound eye-roll-worthy, it's a very practical attitude adjustment.

Rather than focusing on all the negative things, actively focus on the good things. Those are the things to be thankful for.

It doesn't make the negatives go away, or affect them in any way. But it does affect the way your mind deals with them. It reminds you that in the midst of all those negatives crowding out everything else, there are good things in your life. Maybe very small, but there nonetheless.

There's a whole Positive Psychology study and practice. One of the items is three good things: write down at least 3 good things that you noted for the day. The presenter was very adamant that you have to write them down, not just think about them. That act of writing plants them more firmly in your brain.

At first this seemed like so much fluff to me. But then I started to think about 3 good things for the day. And it actually felt pretty good! So, OK, I resolved to do that.

I have a stack of traveler's pocket journal notebooks that I got for recording random mind maps. I took one of those to use for a daily 3 Good Things.

My guidelines for this are simple:

  • Think about whatever good things were in the day.
  • Find at least 3. More is fine.
  • "Good things" can be anything from stupid little things that spark joy or trigger a dopamine spike, up to major accomplishments. Something that feels good, big or little.
  • It can be something observed, something done, something experienced, or something thought.
  • Write down a brief line about it, enough to spark the memory.
  • Don't worry about keeping them in chronological order.
  • Add more things later if they happen or come to mind. Those "Oh yeah, that was good, add that one!" moments are part of the mindfulness.
Some advice for this says to go into great detail, but I want to keep it as simple and easy to maintain as possible so that I maintain the benefit it provides. That's applying Clear's 3rd Law for habits.

For yesterday, I wrote down 12 things:

  • Good yoga workout.
  • Helped a new college grad with resume review and job-hunting/interviewing advice.
  • Good avocado lunch salad.
  • Read a few pages of Atomic Habits over lunch.
  • Updated my interview question Confluence page (questions we use for interviewing candidates).
  • Good EAP webinar.
  • 3 Good Things is a great idea!
  • Good sunny walk with the dog: bright clear blue sky, green pine trees, white snow on the ground, crisp air, smiling happy dog.
  • Ducks on the pond: the emerald flash of the mallard's head turning in the sunlight.
  • Did 2 easy leetcode questions (taking my own advice to the college grad about practicing coding).
  • Instant Pot collard greens came out well.
  • Started 3 Good Things habit.
Nothing big. Mostly just trivia. But this is for rebuilding. Baby steps. Small successes become big successes. Small positives become big positives.

Were there bad things or frustrations during the day? Yes. But that's not the point here. The good things are.

Just reading back through them makes the dopamine sparkle. That's the real benefit, like Dr. Herbert Benson's relaxation response, the brain chemistry changes to face the world, good and bad.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Using Speed Reading Skimming

One of the techniques I've been using since I've been learning about speed reading is skimming. This is surprisingly effective.

There are several variations of it. The specific method I've been using is to skim a book's table of contents, then skim its actual contents:

  • For the table of contents, I read the chapter and top-level section headings.
  • For the actual contents, I read each heading and the first clause, line, or sentence of each paragraph.
The content skim depends a bit on the writing style and layout. Some paragraphs might be very short, or might be only a single long sentence consisting of multiple clauses. Others might be very long, just a couple per page.

In general, I'm trying to read roughly one out of every 5 lines, or 3-5 sentences per page.

That allows me to cover 100-300 pages per hour. Make no mistake, this is not a deep dive on information; it's a sampling method. I use the pomodoro technique with it, in 25 minute/5 minute cycles.

What's so surprising about this is that despite actually reading only 10-20% of the material, I'm able to pull a good amount of information out of it. That allows me to digest a complete book in an hour or three.

This takes advantage of the fact that paragraph structure is typically a topic sentence followed by supporting sentences. The high level information is there at the beginning. That's not uniformly the case, but it's consistent enough that the overall gist of the material can be extracted this way.

While I may not comprehend 100% of the book (since I didn't actually read it), before I skimmed it I comprehended zero percent of it. So it's definitely useful progress.

Skimming works equally well with short-form content such as articles or online posts, taking just a few minutes, and with medium-form content such as entire newspapers, magazines, and journals, taking 10 minutes to an hour.

Skimming has a number of benefits:

  • It acts as a first pass to prepare my mind for a more in-depth read, preloading a summary of the information.
  • It provides a gestalt and context to help grok the overall material.
  • It helps me quickly assess the quality of the material, for instance for a review.
  • It helps me prioritize the things I want to cover more deeply in a second pass, skipping the ones I don't need.
  • It allows me to quickly refresh, review, reassess, and reintegrate material I've read before.
  • If I'm going through multiple books and resources, I can do a first-pass digest of all of them, then a second pass on each one subject to what I got from the others.
The ability to take repeated passes through material is very helpful for increasing comprehension and retention, making use of the brain's reticular activating system (RAS). This is something Jim Kwik talks about in Limitless (see Review: Limitless, by Jim Kwik). Spaced repetition helps overcome the "forgetting curve."

The pomodoro technique takes advantage of the primacy and recency effects of memory by splitting the activity into multiple sessions with breaks that allow the brain to consolidate information: primacy means we remember what we learned at the beginning of a session, and recency means we remember what we learned most recently at the end of a session. It's the stuff in the middle that doesn't do well, which is part of why cramming for hours without breaks is not effective.

I don't use this for everything. It's not suitable as the first pass for all material. When I'm reading a novel for pleasure, I want to savor every detail (and not get hopelessly confused in the plot and character interactions).

But when I want to acquire information quickly, it really does work. It also works well for incremental, additive understanding and reinforcement, lighting up the memory. That even works for later passes over material that I read normally the first time.

Here are two videos on reading a book a day that talk about skimming, with some slight variations and applications of the method. The first is a great short overview of the speed reading techniques I'm practicing, including skimming. The second talks about using skimming to filter the material down to the really interesting parts worth focusing on.

I cannot overstate how mind-bogglingly effective this is. I wish I'd learned it 50 years ago! Now I'll use it for the next 50.

Using The Pomodoro Technique

Over the past couple of years, I've been using the Pomodoro Technique more and more, for a variety of things. This is a very effective time management method.

The idea is that you set a timer for a specific amount of time to spend on something, and during that time you focus exclusively on that task. You can add additional work periods, or alternate with rest periods.

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and the technique is named for kitchen timers that are shaped like tomatoes. Each work period of 10-60 minutes is called a pomodoro.

I like to use my cellphone timer, the Brain Focus app, or a timer similar to this one. There are a number of phone apps similar to Brain Focus; I picked it pretty much at random from the choices that showed up.

What's nice about the app is that it sets up an alternating cycle of work periods and rest periods. I use it for studying and reading, to make sure I take regular breaks. The default setting is 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest, with a longer 20-minute rest every 4 cycles.

As I mentioned in Review: Limitless, by Jim Kwik, the rest periods are to allow my brain to consolidate information. If I'm doing some kind of physical activity, the rest periods allow me to recover physically and avoid overdoing it. Both cases allow me to put in a sustained effort that can add up to several hours.

I spend the rest period in a variety of ways, depending on the main activity and how I'm feeling:

  • Doing a deep-breathing meditation, which I also covered in the Kwik review. Another common pattern I use is to count breaths to 10 (5 breaths alternating inhale and exhale, then start over; start over if I lose count or my mind wanders).
  • Standing up and doing stretches to work out the kinks.
  • Doing "chair yoga," simplified yoga poses that use the furniture as props.
  • Doing simple calisthenics like situps, pushups, or deep knee-bends. Where the other rest activities are relaxing, this is stimulating.
  • Going for a short walk.
  • Getting coffee or water. It's important to stay hydrated during any mental or physical effort.
  • Going to the bathroom.
There are a variety of benefits. In addition to pacing out and breaking up work and making sure I get brief rests, it enforces both minimum and maximum times.

This ensure that I at least put in some minimum amount of time for something I don't like doing, such as housework; and that I don't let time get away from me when I'm doing something I like, such as reading.

It also makes sure I address and balance the various demands on my time. That prevents exhausting all my energy on one thing while overlooking other things. Just about anything can be done in small segments, mixed in with segments of other things.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Recipe: Lunch Super Salad

Like my Recipe: Breakfast Super Fruit Bowl, this is my nearly-everyday salad, combining a number of the superfoods I listed in Losing Weight With WW Purple.

As with that one, it's not a precise recipe. I've listed general ranges for amounts, loosely packed, and the specific items vary by what I have on hand.

Lunch Super Salad

  • 1/2-1 C Red leaf lettuce
  • 1/2-1 C Napa cabbage
  • 1/2-1 C Baby spinach
  • 1/2-1 C Baby kale
  • 1/2-1 C Baby arugula
  • 1/4-1/2 C English cucumber
  • 1/4-1/2 C Sweet red/orange/yellow pepper
  • 1-3 Mushrooms
  • 1/4-1/2 C Tomato
  • 1 slice Spanish onion
  • 1 scallion
  • 1/4-1/2 C Kimchi
  • 1/2-1 slice sourdough bread (1-2 WW points)
  • 1/4-1/2 Avocado (3-5 WW points)
  • 2 Tbsp hummus (2 WW points)
  • 1/2 Tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/4 Tsp ground black pepper (to activate the curcumin in the turmeric)
  • 1/4 Tsp cayenne pepper powder (for the capsaicin)
  • 2 Tbsp Bolthouse Farms Chunky blue cheese yogurt dressing (1 WW point)
  1. Slice and chop all items into bitesize pieces.
7-10 WW Purple points.