The Details: Exercise

I’ve always been an active person; what that term “active” means is simply that I move everyday.  My exercise regimen has been up and down over the years.  There was a time, back in 2001, that I swore I could ride the Tour de France.  I was a cycling beast!  I could be Lance Armstrong (without the drugs, but still)!  Of course, I could never ride the Tour and was so far from competing that it was (and still is) laughable.

Since the stent was put into place in November 2017, I have increased my workouts and am up to a solid 5 days per week of intense, good feeling exercise.  Today, for example, I rode about 20 miles on a beautiful day in Albuquerque.  Woot!

The data, presented here, comes from the Polar Flow app.  I have always used Polar products to keep track of my heart rate and manage the information of my workouts.  Right now, I’m using the Polar V800 and a chest strap to monitor my heart rate.  Below is the March 2018 workout chart…as you can see nothing too crazy here.

March Data 2018

The various activities I’ve done, including spinning, treadmills, bikes, and walks, are all within what I would consider an easy exercise plan.  These activities, combined with my plant-based eating plan, resulted in weight loss of 7.7 pounds since March 1st.  I generally count on about 1 lbs per week weight loss.  I hit plateaus along the way; for example, just before March 1st I gained 2 pounds and then lost it the following week.  If you really pay attention, you can feel the changes…for me, that means wearing clothes I haven’t worn in a couple of years, or noticing that my balance is better and that I can walk up and down stairs with much less struggle.

The biggest changes have been, by far, mental.  I feel better about myself and my body in ways that I haven’t felt in years.  In fact, I’d have to go back to 2002 and training  for the Santa Fe Century to remember such a change….even THEN I did not have the same feeling I have today.  I guess that’s the big payoff, really.  That feeling of both accomplishment and the continued desire to improve my physical self.  Since I’m receiving positive feedback in the form of weight loss, I’ve continued to workout in a way that moves that process along.

Finally, I’ve read recently about Kevin Smith, the director and actor, who suffered a heart attack recently.  He jumped on the potato diet planning to lose 50 pounds in a very short time.  The diet apparently works and is praised by a number of celebrities in helping them lose massive amount of fat.  While those kinds of diets do work, I wonder what the difference is between eating the way I’m eating and the way Kevin Smith is eating.  We faced very similar circumstances and I chose a path quite different from his; really trying to remake my body and mind as a means of overcoming the CVD that rages through my body.  Hopefully, my choice is a good one….I guess time will tell me exactly what’s up, right?

More Data, More Facts

I’ve become a data fiend.  I read all kinds of information about diet and the role diet plays in health.  I find any essay, article or scientific report that addresses these questions. As I have mentioned before, the data tends toward the very basic facts of eating: whole grains, veggies, and fruit can make a difference in one’s overall health.

This blog, a mishmash of thoughts on Buddhism, meditation, diet, exercise, and the occasional philosophical perspective, is a report of my journey, plain and simple.  As I have made changes to my physical self, I’m reporting the outcomes and the progress.

Photo on 3-13-18 at 2.44 PM
Daring to Test Where Few Have Gone Before

So, as I have researched, read, and otherwise wondered about my particular diet plan, I am constantly checking what’s out there, the information available, and doing my own investigations on what types of foods I should eat.  My primary care physician, a man who looks at my overall health and wellbeing, promoted the Whole30 diet over the plant-based diet I am on.  He warned me about increasing insulin and glucose levels in my blood work as representative problems in my approach.

This idea, that whole grains in particular can result in insulin spikes and overall a concern about the glucose levels in my body led me to research this particular topic.  Simply put, is there specific, established evidence that whole grains cause insulin spikes and an increase in insulin being produced by my pancreas?

Reading information in the popular press, one can find a huge number of books and articles like Big Fat Surprise, or The Case Against Sugar.  Similarly blogs with reports of the danger of eating “carbs” abound from Sustainable Dish to Good Fats Blog.  In one case in particular, an author promoted coconut oil as a “healthy” food warning that the American Heart Association’s diet recommendations “might kill you.”

This one phrase struck me, “Why Coconut Won’t Kill You, But Listening to the American Heart Association Might!”  An author claiming that a national organization, that bases it’s reputation on extensive scientific research, is going to kill you is provocative.  The author cites a blog and an organization founded by author Nina Teicholz for her primary  source material.

Nina Teicholz, the author of Big Fat Surprise, suggests that eating high fat foods rich in saturated fats do not contribute to heart disease (a generalization of her work).  As I researched the work of this author, I found this review.  The chapter by chapter review reveals that Ms. Teicholz relied extensively on works by Gary Taubes.  Taubes similarly promotes the “bad carb” idea of eating in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories.  The thesis in these books, that eating certain animal proteins and saturated fats are necessary and good for one’s body, is challenged by many, if not most, studies on diet and disease.

The spread of the mantra against eating carbs or that eating fats are a “healthy choice” in a diet is widespread. In my particular case, I followed much of this prescription for years.  Low carb, high-ish protein.  More specifically, I have eaten, in the past, a high protein diet as a means of losing weight.  It worked.  I lost weight. I went into ketosis or I ate a specific set of vegetables and meat that met guidelines of low carb, high fat or protein.  I ate this diet for years.  I exercised.  I rode in 100 mile bike races, backpacked across the Rockies, worked out at gyms, walked almost every night.  I developed cardiovascular disease.  A very real fact.

Was my disease something that developed as a result of animal protein and fats?  I don’t know.  Chemically my blood work was always good…low cholesterol numbers, slightly elevated glucose, not one doctor recommended anything other than losing the few pounds I carried.

In the six months since my MI, my switch to a plant-based diet resulted in improvement in all of my blood markers.  I am testing my blood chemistry about every three months.  The first test, in November, revealed Cholesterol 154, LDL 90, HDL 46, Glucose 130.  In January, Cholesterol 98, LDL 40, HDL 43, Glucose 100.  March 8th, Cholesterol 89, LDL 38, HDL 43, Glucose 60.  The changes, as you can see from this brief sample, are significant and sustained.

The data indicate that something important is happening in my blood chemistry.  What are the factors that might be affecting these changes?  First, diet.  I eat plants, whole grains, no oil, meat, or dairy.  Completely plant-based.  Second, exercise.  While I exercised before the MI, I am more consistent with exercise.  I added back into my exercise interval training two days a week.  I spin, use a treadmill, ride my road bike, and walk each night.  I have collected all exercise on a Polar V800 watch and track everything I do, day in and day out.  I will upload my exercise plan in my next post.  Similarly, I’ve tracked my diet and keep a tally of what I have eaten.  I’ll post the spreadsheet of that as well.

Overall, it is my thesis that a low carb, high protein diet including saturated fat got me to this place.  Getting me out of the trap, I switched to a plant-based diet with the hypothesis that such a diet will transform my blood chemistry and, possibly, reverse my heart disease.  So far, the data indicate, but do not prove, that a plant-based diet can help transform blood chemistry.  My next post will provide the details.

The Shocking Truth of a Plant-Based Diet

I waited for about 30 minutes for my cardiologist to arrive.  Poked and prodded by a nurse prior to his visit, I sat through a litany of questions about my health, diet, exercise, and general well being.  Sitting behind a desk and furiously typing into a computer, Denise asked again, “wait, you are not eating any meat?” Yes, I responded.  “And no dairy?” Right.  She typed more information into the system.  “Your scores are above the number that is the highest score…something must be wrong.”  We went through the questions on diet again.  She entered the information.  Silence.  “Huh,” she said, “I’ve never really seen anything like this.”

After testing my blood pressure, weight, and height, she entered more data into the system and instructed me to “wait for the doctor.”  New blood work had arrived and the numbers showed more improvement and revealed what folks could see, the transformation of my body.  I had a load of questions for my interventionist cardiologist. Honestly I did not expect to get much traction with these questions; I was pretty sure what was going to happen…the 5 minute consultation.  That’s what WOULD have happened had I not been prepared to stop the doctor in his very brief analysis of my progress.

Sometimes, being prepared before you enter the doctor’s office is the most important step in taking control of your health.  What I’ve found is that doctors, nurses, and most other health care professionals care about fixing you and then moving on to the next topic.  Once you are in maintenance mode, taking care of yourself, they are much less interested in your health.  So, when you have an appointment, do all of the research you can and ask as many questions as you can reasonably fit into the visit.

So, when the doctor walked in, with an assistant who took notes the entire time, it was meant to be very brief.  How are you?  Any symptoms? Want to get a stress test?  If not then see you in 6 months…..that’s when I said, “I have a few questions.”  Once I started my litany of interrogative statements, the doctor was dismissive. “You are on a vegan diet? Doesn’t matter.”  “Okay, Dr. X, but my blood work? Can you explain the differences simply based on the drug therapy?”  “Doesn’t matter.  Just keep losing weight.”  “Okay, what about the threat of Lipoprotein A?  I’m testing for that in a month?”  “Why?  It doesn’t matter.”  “Okay, but what about Niacin as a means of controlling the spread of Lipo(A) if the numbers are elevated?” “Just stay on a statin.  That takes care of everything.” “But, Dr. X, the data shows…..” “Not important.  Now, let’s listen to your heart.”

This brief summary of back and forth is the gist of what happened.  Don’t get me wrong, he is a good interventionist doctor and fixed a serious problem I experienced.  And, he was not interested, at all, in what I’m doing.  Now, the money question, “Drs. Esselstyn and Ornish have shown in their studies that heart disease reversal is possible with this diet.  What are your thoughts?”  I got him.  That question slowed him down a step.  “Yes, there is some data supporting that idea, but the mechanism for plaque buildup is already in place in you and changing that would require changing your blood chemistry.  Not likely in your case.  You have a particular set of genetics that is working against you.  If you have symptoms, give me a call.  See you in six months.”

Did you read that?  Changing my blood chemistry is exactly what this diet does.  Altering the very structure of how my body develops plaque and reversing the process is why I began this journey in the first place.  My doctor was not interested, at all, in what is changing in my body.  If he was, he would see the dramatic changes happening internally.  The most recent one?  The drop in glucose and insulin levels.  All on a plant-based diet.  All including whole grain carbs.  Not one ounce of meat, dairy, or fat that doesn’t come from plants.  No olive oil.  No oils at all.

Lentils, romaine, home-made hummus, and, of course, Sririacha!

Here’s the shocking truth; if you follow, strictly, a plant-based diet, it is possible you can see similar results.  I’m my own test case.  I am a study of one.  My diet may not extend to the vast majority of humanity.  Truth is, all I hear is how “radical” my diet is.  At work, at school, at home, every single place I go, everything I read says what I am doing is virtually impossible.  In my search for a clinical cardiologist, of the three I have talked to, they all said to me, “you are in the top 1% of patients” or “wow, that’s remarkable you have been able to keep that up” in addressing my heart disease.  What?  How can I be in the 1% of anything?  Is that really true?

That’s the story for today.  I still face many hurdles in my health.  I still have to lose weight, still have to exercise, still have to stay focused and involved in my health.  As for the folks who say it’s impossible, I’m saying: watch me.

The Space Between Us

Imagine for a moment all of the space, air, light around us.  You are walking down a street, sitting in the building you work in, or watching TV in a room.  Around you is what you perceive as space.  In your mind, you understand the space to be outside of you.  As if all of the openness in the world exists in some kind of open pasture or meadow, or in some great expanse stretching out in front of you for miles and miles.  When I was 19, I distinctly remember driving down a highway in western Nebraska near Scottsbluff, the sky filled with a bright blue sky and dotted with clouds.  The road appeared miles in front of me as if I could actually see the horizon.  Complete spaciousness.  I remember stopping the car on the side of the road and just being in that spaciousness….wishing I was the spaciousness I perceived.

Kurjey Lhakhang near Jakar, Bhutan

In the Uttaratantra Shastra, I read a passage that brought to mind the whole idea of spaciousness.  Simply put, we perceive spaciousness outside of ourselves, when, in fact, the spaciousness is a part of us entirely.  In our dualistic minds, we imagine that to be spacious we have to be in that meadow or field or witnessing that open sky before us.  In fact, we are as spacious as that sky above us.

I raise this idea in the context of my busy, deluded mind, trying to make sense of the world around me.  Nothing seems to make any sense.  Donald Trump is president, assault weapons are not banned worldwide, I suffered through a traumatic event, a friend died from a disease he did not know he had, and on and on.  My guess is that you could add to the list.  A list that might reach forever pretty quickly.

And yet, spaciousness. That we are, in fact, one with all things.  That there is no distance between who we are and who we are sitting next to…AND that there is no space between us, at all while at the same time existing in this space and time.

Do those two ideas work together?  No space between us and spaciousness?  For those who have been lucky enough to achieve a state of being, the mind opens to the spaciousness I’m talking about; that the spaciousness is within us as well as outside of us…or, rather, it is all one.  Using that idea, that we are one with spaciousness, then we are also one with each other….a kind of interconnected, unified spaciousness that we all exist in.  It’s remarkable.

When trying to overcome my fear and self-loathing, I sit with that fundamental idea: that I am spacious, that my mind is open and expansive.  There is no separate me or separation between in here (mind) and out there.  Similarly, there is no difference between my suffering, pain, anguish, happiness, love and anyone else’s.  My suffering and their suffering is the same in the sense that it’s all suffering.  I reach out, in my mind, to those people who are struggling and offer to take on that suffering in the hope that they can find happiness.  In that moment, there is no space between us.  We are not separated by space or time; we are there, together.  We are all together…laughing, hurting, feeling, and wondering when it will all end.  What we have between us is the shared experience the wonder of the moment and the chance to help heal our wounds.

That, to me, is what being spacious means.