A Year of Perfect Health

Seeking balance in an increasingly imbalanced life

A Year of Perfect Health
Young Kwak
Spokane Yoga Shala owners Shelley Alkier (front) and Katie Gehn. Their student Luke Baumgarten (back) struggles into a rudimentary Ashtanga pose. [Young Kwak photo]

It’s 10:50 on the first morning of my year of perfect health and my lungs are burning. I can feel the first pump of sweat forcing its way out of the pores at the edge of my scalp and underneath my arms. I’m running, and my legs feel weak. They aren’t Jello-y exactly, but they definitely don’t have the power I’d like them to have. I come to the base of the Lincoln Street hill and slow to a walk, breathing hard.

The traffic signal at Fourth and Lincoln is ridiculously long and, half a block earlier, when the “Don’t Walk” sign began to blink, I had broken out into a jog to make the light. And now here I am, on the far end of the crosswalk, panting. In 10 minutes, I’m supposed to hop on a treadmill and run flat-out until I collapse, while wearing a claustrophobic, airway-restricting Hannibal Lechter mask, and I just got winded crossing the street.

It’s 11 am on Day One. This isn’t looking good.

I’m not fat. Let’s get that out of the way. There are veins of suet — layers of unfortunate paunch — around the torso of my slender frame that I’d kill to get rid of, sure, but I’m not fat. I have love handles and these gross, annoying, fatty nipple deposits that drive me crazy, but seriously: not fat.

I’m not crippled by injury or anything like that either. I have some back pain, occasionally. I have asthma, but it’s manageable: I never use a rescue inhaler. I have all my limbs. I’m 6-foot-3, 184 pounds, 14.3 percent body fat. Normal blood pressure. Good cholesterol. By most any health benchmark, I’m a perfectly normal 28-year-old American male.

That’s the problem.

Day to day, I don’t feel well. I feel sluggish or stressed or needlessly tired. I get snippy with people for no reason. I’m out with friends and I start yawning. I fall asleep watching Jeopardy (airtime: 6:30 pm) for God’s sake. And then, here’s the kicker: I try to go to bed, but I’m still so keyed up from a day of nonstop motion that it takes me hours to fall asleep.

In college I was famous for being laid back. Now I feel like I’m borderline high-strung. It’s ridiculous.

I work an average of 50 hours a week and I probably don’t sleep enough, but I shouldn’t feel this run-down and certainly not so run-ragged. I’m young.

Let’s make this clear too: Despite these things, I am very happy. I have a great, fulfilling job doing the only occupation-type thing that has ever brought me any sense of fulfillment. I have an incredibly supportive family. I have friends I love, my health, all that.

I really love the life I’ve built for myself. I wish I enjoyed more of it.

And yes, OK: In certain pants, I get a bit of a muffin top. I want to eradicate that. Completely. Forever.

“We’re going to make you a good little butter burner!” Debbie Judd assures me in a giddy, motherly voice that has traces of the Midwest. I’m partially bent over at the waist, gasping for breath again. Judd, a registered nurse and co-owner of the Metabolic Institute, is showing me a graph of how much fat I burn at various heart rates. I’m trying to pretend my eyes can focus.

I’ve just gotten off the treadmill, which began flat and at a brisk jog, then gained in speed and incline until it felt like I was sprinting straight up the Monroe Street hill. Several times she said, in a very encouraging tone, “Come on Luke! You can do it,” like there was an end, and like that end was near.

It wasn’t.

The incline just kept going up and up. Around 20 minutes in, a minute after I realized I could never gulp enough air to make up for the energy I was expending, I jumped to the sides of the treadmill, totally exhausted.

Printout of that performance in hand, Judd now explains how fat burning correlates to heart rate. When you’re working out at a light to medium intensity, the percentage of fat you burn is very high compared with the percentage of carbohydrates you burn.

My maximum heart rate is 201 beats per minute, she says, and until I hit 175, I’m burning almost 100 percent fat. But there are ways to train the body to work aerobically at higher heart rates, which keeps you feeling less fatigued and also burns more fat. Bonus.

She says my heart rate is broken up into five zones, with 175 beats per minute being the upper end of the second zone. Once I get into the higher three, the percentage of fat I burn will start dropping precipitously. I’ll begin burning mostly carbohydrates.

I’ll want to train in those upper heart-rate zones a few times a week, she says, so that my body will gradually begin burning more and more fat at higher and higher heart rates. Elite athletes train in this way, week after week, until basically everything they do — a lazy morning jog, a game of pick-up basketball, 45 minutes of hill repeats running flat out — becomes a fat-burning exercise.

At a later visit, Judd tests my resting metabolic rate — basically the same test but with me completely still. I’m much better at the sitting still test.

We talk about nutrition, what to put in my body to ensure it’s getting the right kinds of energy to sustain my energy while also chiseling, incrementally, away at that subcutaneous fat.

Five meals a day. Roughly 2,500 calories total. Protein: 35 grams at three meals, 15 at the other two. Carbohydrates — non-starchy vegetables, fruits, grains; lay off the starchy carbs like cereals, breads and potatoes — 50 grams at three meals, 25 at the other two.

Fat — that’s where the conversation gets interesting. She doesn’t even bother to tell me how many grams I should be ingesting a day: “You’ll never be able to eat that much fat.” She says not to worry about how much fat, just what kinds. Fats from processed foods are bad. Natural oils are good. Omega-3s are good. Nut butters (which makes me laugh in a juvenile way that I’m shocked by). Avocados. White meats. Certain lean cuts of red.

Sausage is bad.

“Jack-in-the-Box?” I ask, my heart already knowing the answer.

“Yeah,” she says, scrunching her nose and shaking her head a little, “we don’t want to eat too much of that.”

The Year of Perfect Health, as I envision it, isn’t about exercise or nutrition. It’s about balance. These things I’ve noted above — the stress, the fatigue, the overwork, the lack of sleep, the eating poorly, the inadequate conditioning — aren’t isolated issues, each with an individual solution. They’re an interrelated web.

In the past, I’ve tried to just sleep more. It led to more time awake in bed, worried about things. I’ve tried to just eat better, but it’s not as fulfilling as also seeing my body change through workouts, so it’s easy to slide out of habit.

And so when I came up with the idea for this story, the intent was primarily to find time for everything meaningful in my life. It just happens that when things get hectic, fitness and Luke-time are the first things to get cut out of the routine.

Which actually — and always, absolutely always — has the opposite effect intended. Cutting out exercise reduces endorphins, which actually work to lower stress. That’s science, and I’m a walking case study. But it gets worse: A few days go by with no workouts, and I start feeling like a bad person. We’re a nation that turns fitness into an issue of morality, and I’m no different.

Enough time goes by, and I start feeling less fit, which makes me feel a whole different kind of depressed. I don’t work well when I’m depressed, and I don’t connect well with people when I’m depressed. It’s cyclical.

Exercise, nutrition and mindful existence are the antidote. I’ve known this for a long time. It’s incredible, though, when my mind is in the dull panic of serious stress, how the reason-ruled part of my brain is always vetoed by the emotional part. This year is an attempt to rid myself of that dull panic, so reason and emotion never come into conflict.

Let’s do bullet-points:

Why this is necessary

  • I feel ruled by stress.

  • I eat poorly — not compulsively, but because I don’t feel like I have the time it takes to be mindful about food.

  • OK, sometimes I eat compulsively.

  • I eat too much saturated fat. I’m kind of a slut for Jack in the Box.

  • Vanity. When I look good, I feel good. The first step is acceptance.

  • Everything I do feels like a reaction to something else. I drink coffee because I’m tired. I’m stressed, so I go work out — or, more often, I don’t work out, because my stress convinces me I don’t have the time.

  • I’m tired of living reactively.

What you should know about me: I don’t think I’m in danger of over-doing this. I’m not going to freak out, become a gym rat, take to tanning and wearing a Speedo (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m somewhat compulsive, but usually in a hedonistic way (see bullet point No. 4, above).

This isn’t primarily about weight loss — but even if it were, I love food too much to starve myself.

I’m very goal-oriented, as I’ve said, which is why I’m setting modest ones — I want moderation built into the game plan (see below).

Quantifiable, Near-term Goals

  • Easily touch my toes with legs straight

  • Bench-press 200 pounds

  • Complete 15 pull-ups in one sitting

  • Run a marathon

  • Reach 10 percent body fat

Those last four might seem somewhat arbitrary, but these are benchmarks I’ve always wanted to attain. I’ve gotten close to some in the past — I’ve benched 190, done 10 pull-ups, run a half-marathon (in training). Once, after months of diligent stretching, I almost grazed my toe with my left hand. It’s absurd how tight my hamstrings are. My toes will probably be the toughest goal to reach.

My other goals are impossible to quantify, though I suspect you’ll be able to see evidence of them in the way I carry myself and in the way I interact with everyone. I’ll be a lot less neurotic and irritable. Hopefully.

Esoteric, Rest-of-Life Goals

  • Eat better

  • Sleep better

  • Feel better

  • Make more time for everyone I care about

  • Seek moderation

  • Find contentment

To achieve these 11 goals will take a pretty big life change, not just in the ways I use my body, but in the way I use my time. I’ll need to drop roughly 10 pounds of fat, and I’ll need to force myself to bed earlier. I’ll need to stretch rigorously and often and be drastically more mindful of the food I put in my body. I’ll need to add 20 pounds to my current bench press (10 pounds over my personal best) and be better about keeping up with my friends and my family.

I’ll need to get better about saying no to things — to live more simply. I’ll need to be able to run 26.2 miles, roughly 13 more miles than I’ve ever run in a single session before and 26.1 miles more than I ran, wheezing, to cross Fourth Avenue before the light changed.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be pretty.

Lastly, I’ll need to do all of this without letting my career slip in any way because, as much as I think fitness and sleep and nutrition and balance will add to my happiness, I know that my well-being is absolutely dependent on the creative outlet I get from my job. When I’m unhappy with the stories I’m telling, I’m unhappy with everything else.

So, no journeys to the mountain. No locusts. No ascetic hermitage. I’m keeping my lifestyle, just making it less breakneck.

I’m starting with what I know, then I’ll slowly add new things.

That means starting with running. I’ve trained for Bloomsday the last four years. I began but didn’t finish — life, again — training for a half marathon last year. I know the basic elements of what builds speed and endurance, and I know what builds cardiovascular health. Long runs, interval training, recovery runs, all that.

With interval training, you start with a pace you can maintain easily, then speed up to 80 percent or more of your top speed, then you slow down again, repeating until time runs out or you puke or you have to go to work. Basically what Debbie Judd told me to do.

My first week is mixing interval runs on the treadmills at the YMCA. I’m kind of a numbers guy. I like precision, knowing exactly how fast I’m going, which is why I run intervals on treadmills. I control the speed. There’s a clock running. I can keep track of my heart rate like Debbie Judd wants.

It’s also why I got the metabolic testing. If I’m able to quantify progress, I’ll be more motivated to work my ass off.

I do two slow runs and three interval sessions for 30 minutes each the first week. My intervals are seven minutes at a sustainable pace, three minutes fast, repeat. I find myself needing to slow down the fast intervals as the workout wears on, but I watch my heart rate carefully and keep it in the zone Judd wants.

The nutrition guide I’ve been given by the Metabolic Institute is also pretty awesome. Rather than telling you exactly what to eat — providing recipes or some kind of point system — it just offers nutritional information and some thoughts on food combinations. At the grocery store later, I have one of those teach-a-man-to-fish moments. I love it.

I fill non-interval days with slow runs and weights with my friend Zach. The buddy system is good; I highly recommend it. We alternate chest and triceps with back and biceps. We keep up on each other’s lives.

And now for something completely different. All that talk about precision and metrics? That was me playing to my natural inclinations.

Yoga? That’s running the hell away from them. I’m not flexible — we established this earlier. I have a low tolerance for looking like an ass, which is something I’m just going to have to get over, because tonight, running through the sun salutations at Spokane Yoga Shala’s Yoga 101 class, I felt like a stiff, lanky, top-heavy laughing stock — sweating madly, despite the deliberate motions and careful breathing.

I also noticed, in the midst of a forward fold, that I need to trim my toenails if I’m going to be walking around barefoot in front of people.

It was a good night, though, once I got over the self-consciousness of being the tallest person in the room, having poor form and thus sticking out like a sore thumb. Shelley Alkier, a co-owner and tonight’s instructor, said something that instantly endeared her to me, something that suggested, without outwardly saying it, that yoga should be a guilt-free endeavor.

“Life happens,” she said, pausing in her thoughtful, reassuring way, “and that’s OK.”

The best part of my night was walking the mile from Yoga Shala to my home, down Manito Boulevard’s broad, tree-bisected parkway. It was black, save for the dim glow of living room lamps and sconce lights seen through translucent window dressings, and totally still. I felt something of the peace that I’ve been looking for.

Scratch that. The best part of the first night of yoga came the next morning. I could barely walk I was so sore. Sore in areas I didn’t realize had muscle. Sore like I haven’t been in years. Perfect.

That remains the story through two weeks: sore all over, all the time.

Plus! I’ve started to get my wind back. I can run flat out for five to six minutes. It’s incredible how quickly a body can recover. You fall out of shape fast, but if you put your head down, you can get back into it fast as well.

After the first week I upped my interval workouts to 40 minutes, and at the end of the first week I was pushing through all four sets without having to slow down on the latter ones. I’m going to speed up a little bit, slowly, and see how my body reacts.

I’m also going to try to add more weights.

The situation two weeks after that is the opposite. The simple explanation, to borrow from Alkier: Life happened. I’ve kept up with the yoga, twice a week — I think because it was the only regimented thing in my schedule. Everything else was pretty loose. Noontime jog here, a workout scheduled with Zach via text message there.

It’s the loose things that are the first to get cut. I know that. I’m mad at myself.

We’ve been moving — packing, painting, shopping, unpacking. My girlfriend Ginger and I just bought a house, and then we stupidly offered to host Thanksgiving. That was my idea, actually; I’ll cop to that. I thought it’d be nice to have a goal to strive for, rather than wending the move-in process all through the winter.

It ended up being more work than either of us wanted (I’m confident she’ll forgive me), though it felt good to have the immediate families all under one roof — our roof. Elsewhere, we’re helping plan one benefit party, and considering offering ourselves up to help create another.

I went to Portland to report a story for a paper there. Ate my way through the town. Didn’t work out once, unless you count walking from a hipster coffee roaster to a southern breakfast joint where I had sausage corndogs and praline bacon. Back home, I can barely find time to cook meals, let alone work out.

What do they call that? Backsliding.

No matter how hard you plan, if you don’t simplify your life and create achievable goals, there’ll either be outright failure or an eventual overload leading to partial failure. I know this. Why is it so hard to live by it? Still don’t know. I’m too stubborn a person to ever land in the first category, but partial failure is becoming the story of my life.

In December 2008, in the midst of a similar frenzy, Ginger and I promised each other we’d stop saying yes to so many things. Sitting across from each other on the couch the other night, we reasserted that pledge.

The end to the things we’ve already signed up for is still only a dot on the horizon, though. Ginger walks around the house in the mornings saying, “Something has got to give,” and I know she’s completely right. For me, the last two weeks, it was keeping fit and eating well.

Katie Gehn pads to the front of the room and sits down. She wants to have a talk with us, but she’s unsure how to begin. She’s a co-owner at Yoga Shala and has been practicing for over a decade. Before that, she was a national-caliber rower. I can see the tension of these two mindsets knitting a little war on her brow.

The yoga practitioner in her believes that there’s never only one way to practice. There are as many ways as people who practice. It’s all about the individual path toward “the all” (I’m not sure what that means yet — they’re keeping the spirituality to a minimum in Yoga 101 — but I like the way it sounds).

I think the hard-nosed, up-and-on-the-lake-before-dawn crew mentality still in her wants to smack us around a little.

She’s gentle about it.

“When you decide to do your practice or not — to come to class or not,” Gehn begins, “that’s a serious choice you’re making.” I think I see where she’s going. For many of the people in the class — myself included, probably — this has been a lark, a right-minded inquiry into something foreign and challenging and fun. For Gehn and Alkier, clearly, it’s life.

“People use this word,” Gehn continues. She says they think the word is oppressive and authoritarian and stifling. “They think it’s this evil word, ‘Discipline.’” She pauses, the way Alkier did. These two women are effective.

“But discipline is freedom.”

I’m sure I looked like just as big an ass that day as all the others, but I didn’t feel it. I felt like I was where I needed to be. When I said I wanted to achieve balance, I meant I wanted to create self-discipline. And then maintain it.

Gehn’s talk is similar to Alkier’s, with a small addition, and it affects me in a profound way. Life happens. But you are in control of it.

Discipline is the thing. I’m in love with these people.

I won’t pretend I had an immediate come-to-Jesus moment in the Yoga Shala. This isn’t a movie. There was no montage of calisthenics and weights and speed bag that culminated in me running the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The change wasn’t immediate.

I kept the words in the back of my mind, though, as I spent a few days getting my life back on track, thinking about how to better regiment my time and slowly working exercise back into my regime as I moved forward.

My plan originally was steady and laid back, but that isn’t working. “Steady” and “laid back” don’t actually play well together. Waiting on a text message to drag your ass to the gym? That’s just stupid.

Discipline, in the paraphrased words of Katie Gehn, is a solitary path, and it’s hard, but the path leads to freedom.

I’ve experienced the solitude and the difficulty, but I’m taking her word on that last part. I can’t see over that particular horizon. She found words for what I’ve been craving, though, and there’s no greater power to a writer than finding words for things that elude you. It’s the first step to understanding them.

So, I’ve created a workout calendar (which syncs very nicely with my other calendars — I use four now, to keep track of my life), which you can see at www.inhealthnw.com if you want.

I’ve also developed a little mantra to steel my resolve. My mantra is this: Yesterday was fine. Today will be better. I think I’m going to try actually saying that when I wake up. This kind of overt self-actualization isn’t in my nature.

Yesterday was good. Today will be better. I’m going to say it, then make some egg whites or a protein shake or whatever. And then I’ll go run. And then I’ll walk to work. And then I’ll go to yoga. And the next day, I’ll run as fast as I can for as long as I can. And do abs.

And so on. All the while, I’ll make better choices about food and sleep and the ways I spend my time. I’m going to track these things and hold myself accountable.

And if I don’t, well, you all are going to know about it.

Where To Get Metabolic Testing

Deaconess Health & Education Building
910 W. Fifth Ave., Suite 660
(509) 747-7066

730 N. Hamilton St.
(509) 487-4467

Where To Take Beginner Yoga

Yoga 101 | Ashtanga | Four weeks, twice a week
505 E. 24th Ave., Spokane

Intro to Yoga | Four weeks, once a week
9017 E. Euclid Ave., Millwood

Hatha Basics | Hatha | Weekly, six-week sessions
406 S. Coeur d’Alene St. #T, Spokane

Level 1 Yoga | Hatha | Six-week session
1717 W. Sixth Ave., Spokane

Fundamentals | Various disciplines
20 W. Main Ave., Spokane

Ashtanga Level 1 | Ashtanga | Four-week course
12505 E. Sprague, Spokane Valley

Yoga Basics | Seven to eight weeks
1006 S. Perry St., Spokane

Gentle/Basic | Vinyasa Flow | Wednesdays
602 W. Garland Ave, Spokane

What's Next

This is a yearlong project, and I’ll be writing a column in each issue of InHealthNW in 2010. It will continue to be about finding balance (and now discipline) and whatever other personal-betterment nouns enter my vocabulary. But we’ll also be throwing in guides and reviews of fads/equipment/techniques to keep it interesting.

Evaluating Gym Fads — Kettle Bells, Zumba, TRX

Rating Home Workout Systems — Perfect Fitness to P90X to maybe the ThighMaster, who knows

Vetting Yoga Schools — Separating the Hatha from the Bikram from the Ashtanga

Race Training — We have a number of world-class running programs in the area; I’ll get somebody to teach me how to run correctly.

Lila Shaw Girvin: Gift of a Moment @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through March 12
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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.