6 Easy Things You Can Do Today to Live a Longer, Happier Life

Laughing with me by Ucumari

Making a point of smiling more may extend the number of years you have to do it.

Just about everyone wants to live a long, happy life (if you don’t, it may be time to sit down with someone and talk about that).

Thankfully, on the side of things we can control, there are a lot of small, easy changes we can make immediately that will have a huge effect on not only improving our lives in the present, but also ensuring that we have lots of fulfilled years ahead of us. Whether you’re 7 years old or 70 here are six things that you can start doing today that will have a lasting effect on your life.

1. Eat Less Junk

The average diet in the U.S. is atrocious – so statistically speaking yours probably is too. It’s not your fault. Between the oftentimes conflicting, poorly researched and questionably funded dietary recommendations put out by the USDA and media and the aggressive marketing of products as ‘healthy’ it can be difficult to sort out the good from the bad. That’s unfortunate, because choosing the proper diet is probably the most substantial thing you can do to improve your health.

The easiest way to start is by ditching all the processed foods you normally eat. A good general rule is if it comes in a box or with a label, you probably shouldn’t eat it. There are exceptions of course, but food that’s really good for you almost never needs to come with nutritional info – think unprocessed meats, fresh veggies and fruit. For extra credit you can ditch the grains and eat a little more like humans used to.

2. Move More

Stillness is death.

Even beyond the philosophical justification that movement is one of the few unifying properties all life shares – everything that’s alive moves – a sedentary lifestyle really does correlate to higher mortality rates. The top severe medical conditions in the U.S., heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, are all substantially reduced in people who are more active. In simpler terms, if you spend most of your life on a couch or in an office chair it’s probably not going to be a very long one.

So what can you do to fix it? Move around more! A leisurely 30 minute walk everyday isn’t going to give you a six pack and make you an athlete, but it is enough to lower your blood pressure and extend your life. It’s even a good way to relive stress which will go a long way in and of itself to make your time here longer and happier. If 30 minutes a day is too much time to invest, try 8 minutes a week of high intensity interval training instead.

3. Sit Less

This ties in with moving more. Most people nowadays spend the majority of their time sitting. We spend at the first 18 years of our life sitting at school desk for 8 to 10 hours a day, then graduate to an office desk. After spending all day at work planted at a desk, we sit in the car for an hour on the commute home, walk in the front door and plop down at the couch, computer or dinner table. It’s a lot of sitting.

That might not sound so bad at first, but the fact is sitting down so much is killing you.

If you can, put together a standing desk. Even if it’s just a pile of books you prop your monitor on, getting yourself up out of that chair can be huge. If you’re concerned about getting weird looks, set a timer on your phone or watch to go off every 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes standing up and walking around when it does. Even this little bit can make a big difference – so long as you don’t spend that 5 minutes walking to the break room for a doughnut.

4. Smile More

Being unhappy can have a profound effect on your overall health, not just from a psychological standpoint but from the physical and chemical changes caused in your brain by negative emotions. Stress, depression and unhappiness can genuinely damage your brain.

Now before you get all stressed out or depressed about that, there is something you can do to help. Smile!

It turns out even if you don’t actually have anything to smile about, there’s a feedback loop between the muscles responsible for forming a smile and the release of positive chemicals like serotonin that make you feel happy. When you force yourself to smile your brain releases the hormones that cheer you up, giving you something to genuinely smile about. Doing this even makes other people smile back, which gives you one more reason to be happy.

5. Relax

Of all the things that can really destroy us internally, cortisol is a big one. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s vital for us to function properly, it wakes us up in the morning and it’s a key player in the fight or flight response, the problem is the more stressed we are the more cortisol gets produced. Given that modern life is excessively stressful most people wind up with severely elevated cortisol levels all the time.

This causes a whole host of problems. The two most common are trouble sleeping and excessive weight gain specifically around the belly and midsection. Sound familiar? Cortisol also directly contributes to the aging process. A quick look at any photographs of past U.S. presidents is a good visual example – in four years they tend to pack in 10 to 15 years of aging.

What’s the best way to fight it? Fixing your diet helps, as does getting the exercise we talked about. Another good option is to start meditating. Even five minutes a day devoted to meditation can begin to cause positive chemical changes in your brain to relieve some stress and improve your focus.

6. Go Play

I firmly support the maxim that we don’t stop playing when we get old, we get old when we stop playing.

Devoting time to play is something everyone of every age should be doing. I’m not talking three hours in front of the XBox or Wii either, I mean getting up and going out to play. Play a sport, play tag, do parkour, race someone, whatever. When we get up and play it hits almost all of the areas we talked about simultaneously. Playing relieves stress, makes you smile, it’s fun and social, it gets you up out of your chair and moving around and it relieves stress. Throw a healthy snack in there and you’ve got the whole package.

These are just a handful of things you can easily do today that’ll have a lasting effect on the length and quality of your life. There are tons more, but the important thing to remember is that every single choice you make in some way or another effects the rest of your life – are you making the choices that are going to improve it or destroy it?

What do you think about these changes? Can you think of any other easy things people can do right now to start living longer, happier and healthier lives? Share them! The more the better.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

Thanksgiving Day Dietary Damage Control

Maple Bourbon Pumpkin Pie by Djwtwo

This doesn’t have to fill you with dread this Thanksgiving.

With Thanksgiving day right around the corner a lot of people’s thoughts are inevitably turning to food, feasting and fat. Whether you’ve been struggling with weight loss for a while or are already fit and dreading the extra fat you expect to be saddled with, Thanksgiving Day generally marks the start of a holiday season characterized by complete dietary hedonism followed by shame fueled resolution making on January 1st.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are some things you can do before, on and after Thanksgiving day to mitigate the damage.

Before Thanksgiving Day

The first thing to understand before T-Day gets here is that you need to keep your expectations realistic. These tactics aren’t designed to allow you to feast without putting on a single pound – that’s just not going to happen. If you’re determined to not put on any weight this Thanksgiving it might be easier just to not celebrate it.

Instead, all of these tactics are designed to offer some damage control. Following these guidelines it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get through Thanksgiving without a single pound added, but it’ll be minimal and won’t stick around very long.

  • Have a Good Foundation – While you should be eating cleanly all the time, it’s especially important to eat right in the immediate week preceding your giant Thanksgiving Day feast. It’s equally important to be sticking to your fitness plan through that week. If you’re already coming into Thanksgiving with a net surplus in calories for the week then anything you do on that day is going to be too little, too late.

  • Plan Your Calories in Advance – Weight loss and gain isn’t quite as simple as calories in / calories out, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re expecting to eat a ton, then dial back your caloric budget on the preceding days to make up for it. If you expect to eat 10,000 Calories on T-day (around 30 pieces of pumpkin pie or so) than plan accordingly. You should already know about what your maintenance calories are and from there it’s just a bit of division.

  • Alternate Your Macro-nutrients – While protein should always make up the most substantial part of your caloric budget, if you’re not already you should alternate for a few days between higher intake of carbohydrates and higher intake of fats prior to the big feast. It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid carbs or fat in a standard Thanksgiving meal, and if you’ve been avoiding carbs or fat for a while (particularly carbs) and suddenly binge on them you’re probably going to be a bloated, groggy mess for a day or two afterward. By cycling between days of higher carb and fat intake before the big meal you get your system used to it.

On Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day our tactics fall into one of two categories, mental and physical. The mental side is all about avoiding as much of the worst foods as you can and the physical is all about prepping your body so you’re in the best possible state to handle the feast.

  • Deplete Your Glycogen Stores – In general terms when glycogen stores are full (probably most of the time if you work a desk job) then carbohydrates will tend to be stored by the body as fat. When glycogen stores are low then instead of storing them as fat your body will tend to prefer refilling your glycogen stores with those carbs. This is one of the reasons we recommend getting the majority of your daily calories immediately post workout and why carb heavy meals only come after lifting.

    Since carbohydrates are almost more of a Thanksgiving staple than turkey, it’s a good idea to go into that meal with your glycogen stores depleted as well so that as much of that meal goes to your muscles as possible instead of to your waistline. The easiest way to do this is to hit the gym for a heavy lifting session right before you head off to your Thanksgiving dinner. If you’re strapped for time, do a few rounds of HIIT sprints, get a quick shower and go eat.

  • Eat Right on Thanksgiving Morning – Now a lot of people advise not to go into your Thanksgiving Day feast in a fasted state since you’re going to be too starving to exercise any self-control. While I somewhat agree with this, I also think it’s crazy to waste calories and refill your glycogen stores right before tackling ten pounds of pie.

    A good compromise is to do a mild protein sparing fast. Have a little bit of food that morning but keep it under 500 Calories or so and keep it as heavily weighted toward protein as possible. If you can a couple protein shakes is a good way to go. This sets your body up to be in an ideal condition to pig out while minimizing the damage.

  • Drink a Lot of Water – Chances are your massive binge is going to result in you holding onto a lot of water. This is the biggest factor in bringing on that nasty bloated feeling post-meal (and sometimes for several days after) that makes you feel like your stomach is about to explode. The best way to reduce effects of the water retention is to prime yourself the morning before you dig in. You should be drinking enough water anyway, but particularly on Thanksgiving morning shoot for downing a full gallon of water (not all at once though, please). That’s around 3.78 liters or about 7.5 water bottles. Sure you may have to run to the bathroom a few times, but it’ll be worth it to avoid feeling like a balloon.

  • Pick High Value Foods – Don’t fill up your plate with stuff you can have all year long. Thanksgiving is a one day a year feast and you should treat it like one. It’s a waste to spend all those calories on stuff you can have whenever so don’t do it. Instead focus on the things that you don’t normally get to eat.

    Also keep in mind the general guidelines you eat by during the rest of the year. Don’t feel guilty if you want to dig into the pie, that’s a rare treat, but you might as well avoid the rolls. For your staples stick to your meats and vegetables so you can have more of the treats that you only get on that day.

  • Don’t Drink All Your Calories – Be mindful of the fact that if you eat your weight in dessert and then drown yourself in liquid bread – I mean, beer – you can easily hit that 10,000 Calorie mark we talked about earlier. I’m not saying you should swear off all the alcohol this Thanksgiving, but be aware of the fact that those drinks add up. If you’re trying to keep things a little lighter, stick to higher value drinks or focus on the clear stuff.

After Thanksgiving Day

After Thanksgiving Day your strategy turns to fixing what damage was done and making sure that it doesn’t bleed over and continue to destroy your diet until January.

  • Keep Thanksgiving to One Day – Thanksgiving Day is only one day. That’s it. This year it falls on Thursday the 22nd and that is where it ends. Do not fall into the trap of eating Thanksgiving Day leftovers almost all the way until Christmas and destroying your diet completely. Give those leftovers to family and friends who need them or who just don’t care as much as you about being fit. It’s much, much better to gorge yourself on Thanksgiving Day and finish everything than it is to restrain yourself and eat pie for half of December.

  • Eat at a Solid Deficit for a Few Days – For a few days after the feast you should eat at a solid caloric deficit for a few days to help shed the few pounds you’ve inevitably put on. By solid I’m suggesting something around the neighborhood of 1,000 – 1,500 Calories below maintenance per day. Make protein comprise the majority of your calories, keep drinking as much water as possible and keep taking your fish oil (about 5g per day). If you stick to this for two to three days, maybe until Monday at most, you can remove most of the fat you put on at Thanksgiving.

  • Don’t Work Out Too Hard – This sounds counter-intuitive, but after that big of a carb heavy binge you’re going to bloated, may be dealing with some inflammation or dehydration depending on your alcohol consumption and your immune system may well be shot since you probably won’t have slept much on account of the Black Friday madness and you may also be stressed out of your mind from travel or family. Top all of this with the caloric deficit you should be hitting for a few days and you’re really in no state to be doing heavy lifting.

    Instead, do some light bodyweight exercises, take some long walks and relax a little. Take this time to do light activities, get plenty of sleep and recover. Once you’re feeling back to 100% you can hit the barbells and the hill sprints again.

These are just a handful of tips to help mitigate some of the damage most people dread from their giant Thanksgiving feasts. The most important thing is to not stress out so much over gaining a few pounds that you miss out on the chance to enjoy quality time with loved ones and to reflect on all the things you have in life to be thankful for.

Do you have any tips you like to use to keep the weight off during Thanksgiving or any other holidays? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: DJWTwo

What You’re Probably Doing Right Now That’s Killing You

Two New Bottles by Brother O' Mara

Not all things that kill you are so clearly labeled.

There’s something you’re doing that’s making your life shorter. This is something that most of our U.S. readers do on average for at least 11 hours each day. It’s even something that I would bet you’re probably doing right now as you read this. Ready for the big revelation? Are you sitting down? Well then stand back up because that’s what’s killing you – sitting.

Yes, you heard me right. The more you sit in a day the sooner you are likely to die.

The Slow Seated Death

So what’s the big deal? Can sitting really be killing me?

As it turns out, yes, it can. More and more studies are being done and they all confirm that, even after correcting for other lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity and whether or not participants smoked, people who sat 11 hours or more per day were 40% more likely to die within the next three years than those who sat less than 4 hours per day.

Another study showed that those who sat for greater than 6 hours but still exercise were 37% more likely to die than those who spent less than 3 hours seated and exercised. When you compare the groups that exercise with sample groups who didn’t, you find the people who sat for 6 hours and didn’t exercise were 94% more likely to die and those who sat for 3 hours were 48% more likely to die than the group that sat the least and exercised.

For the statistically inclined the studies in question came up with P-values of <0.00001. For the non-statistically inclined this means that the correlation between sitting and increased mortality would not occur simply at random 99.999% of the time. In other words, the studies here are statistically significant. They also showed a strong dose-response association which means that the bigger the dose (the longer you sit) the bigger the response (the more likely you are to die).

Even more concerning is the fact that these studies indicate that the effect of exercise done around the long blocks of sitting don’t cause a very large statistical difference in the mortality rates for those who sit a lot. That means that while it’s still important to be exercising you can’t fully out-exercise the negative results of spending all day planted in a chair, at a desk or on the couch.

While it may not sound like a big deal compared to the increased chance of death, sitting all day also drastically stretches and extends your glutes (your butt muscles) and shortens and tightens your hip flexors (the muscles that you use to take a step forward).

When you place a muscle in its weakened, stretched position and leave it there for long periods of time the muscle itself becomes weaker and inactivated. That means it can’t produce as much force. Conversely, when you hold a muscle in a shortened position it becomes tight and overactive.

This imbalance in the force-couple relationship between your glutes and hip flexors causes a whole host of problems ranging from severely limiting your range of motion on exercises like the squat to causing the knee to bend medially to causing lower back pain and predisposing you to ACL tears. All of these are very bad.

Fixing The Problem

The first step in making this right is to recognize just how much you sit in a day. If you’re like the average office worker or student it’s probably a lot – particularly if you get home and chase it with couch time. The first step is going to be taking active measures to reduce the total time on your tush.

One of the ways to do that is to work at a standing desk. Now it should be noted that other studies have shown spending an excessive amount of time standing in one spot without moving around can be fairly detrimental to your health as well, so a standing desk is no panacea. As long as you recognize that you need to take occasional breaks to move around, stretch, walk some laps or do a little mobility work the standing desk will make a huge difference. Some people have even go so far as to create treadmill desks so they can walk slowly while they work.

If you’re not ready for that kind of change or don’t want to be the only person in your office with a weird desk, find some way to set a reminder to get up for at least 5 minutes every half hour. Set an alarm on your computer or watch or buy a $2 egg timer if you have to, but obey what it tells you and get up for 5 minutes twice every hour.

You don’t have to go sprint or anything, just getting up and walking around to break up the long blocks of sitting has been shown to have a real positive effect on people’s health.

Lastly, if you’re ready to start restoring power to your inactive glutes and stretching out those tight hip flexors start spending a few minutes each day in a proper squat stretch or indigenous squat and in the couch stretch. These two alone don’t take very long and when done for a few minutes daily will go a long way to correcting the mobility issues created by years of sitting. Doing some foam rolling on your glutes, TFL and adductors wouldn’t hurt either.

In our office we have a standing desk set up with three positions so that we can work standing, work while in a full squat or work sitting on the floor in full lotus or seiza. All these options, coupled with the fact that I’ve made hourly breaks an unbreakable habit, mean I’m never stuck in one position for too long and can still get all my work done.

All these are just some of the options for correcting the issues, the important thing is to be aware how profound of a negative effect being stuck in a chair all day can have and begin taking steps to fixing the problem. Have any other suggestions or a unique way you keep out of chairs all day? Share it with us in the comments, we’d love to hear it.

I’d also like to leave you with this infographic from Medical Billing and Coding because I think it sums everything up in a well-presented way.

How Sitting is Killing You

Photo Credit: Brother O’ Mara

How to Build Batman-Like Discipline and Willpower

Roar by Gideon Tsang

Donning a costume and yelling may also increase your willpower.

Batman’s life sucks.

It does. He has nearly unlimited wealth and freedom as Bruce Wayne and he can never enjoy it. It’s nearly impossible for him to form meaningful relationships without the fear or pain of having that person murdered as a result of their involvement with him. His days are filled with rigorous training and his nights with battles that often come very close to being fatal. He’s eternally haunted by the memory of his parents and I don’t know when he gets any sleep.

So how does he put himself through all that hell? He has serious willpower.

Think how easy it would be for him to say, “You know what? Screw this Batman thing tonight. I’m just going to sit around the mansion, watch TV and eat ice cream in my fabulously expensive pajamas.” He doesn’t though. Even when he gets sick and any normal person would take a day off of a job that doesn’t involve getting shot at he still goes out there to do what has to be done.

Beyond the bottomless pool of money that is Wayne Enterprises it’s that discipline that has enabled Bruce Wayne to become Batman.

So how do we develop discipline like that?

Defining Discipline and Willpower

Though you could probably tease out some minor differences, for now I’m going to use the terms discipline and willpower interchangeably. Boiled down to its essence willpower is the capacity to do something you don’t want to do because you know that it’s the thing that needs to be done. In most cases this involves delaying gratification and suppressing or ignoring our instinctual desires.

When you walk by the big box of donuts at the office and don’t take one even though you want to, that’s willpower. When you really want to go watch TV or play video games but force yourself to sit down and get your work done first, that’s willpower. When the alarm goes off and you would murder someone in order to sleep five more minutes but you get up and go work out, that’s willpower.

This kind of discipline is what keeps us from doing the things that we get the instant gratification from in the understanding that we will get a much bigger benefit by avoiding those behaviors. It’s what keeps Bruce Wayne in cape and cowl instead of parked in front of his Xbox.

Willpower Is a Muscle

Whenever you hear people talk about willpower or discipline you often hear people describe it like it were another invisible muscle somewhere in your body. It’s a really good way to conceptualize it – willpower really does work a lot like a muscle.

Everyone has a different strength of willpower, some are more disciplined than others naturally, practice exercises your willpower and helps you build more of it and, like your physical muscles, your willpower can only exert so much force before it’s fatigued and gives up. In fact, like all your other muscles the strength of your willpower is even affected by your health and the foods you eat.

This may sound like bad news but actually it’s really great. Understanding how our own discipline works means we can work within that system to improve it.

How to Strengthen Your Willpower

When it comes to developing a stronger sense of discipline it all revolves around that concept of treating it like a muscle. We need to remember not only to work it out, but also to make sure we don’t wear it into the ground by expecting too much from it.

  • Know Your Limits – Like all your muscles your willpower has a limited amount of energy. Once that energy is tapped your willpower isn’t going to be able to do anything until it’s had some time to rest and recover.

    Since you know this is the case, don’t set yourself up for failure. If you knew you had to move a piano on Monday night would you go do heavy deadlifts and squats Monday morning? No, you’d be spent by the time you got to the piano and you’d be useless. So don’t do the same thing with your willpower.

    If you know you have particularly weak willpower, or are going to be put in a situation where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested, don’t burn it out on little things throughout the day. If you know you’re going to have to turn down dessert later don’t spend all day walking past cookies and donuts. Eliminate the things you can that sap away little bits of discipline so that your reserves are filled for the real tests you know are coming.

  • Do Your Exercises – Studies have shown that purposefully exercising your willpower actually makes it stronger. Just like with your muscles the key is to know how to exercise it properly and to develop a plan to do so. So what are some ways you can do that?

    The easiest way is to set up controlled situations where you know you’ll be tempted by something and then exercising your discipline to avoid it. Start slow here, particularly if you know you don’t have much discipline to begin with. Pick a task you should do but never want to, like meditation, and make yourself do it for a very short time each day – maybe 5 minutes. After a while, build that up until you have the discipline to meditate for 30 minutes each day.

    Another extremely easy way is to consciously force yourself to do some little thing you’re not used to doing. For example make a commitment to not use contractions in your speech, to brush your teeth with your opposite hand or sit up more straight. It may not seem like much, but every time you make the conscious decision to do it your work out your willpower just a little and it adds up.

    Be careful though – just like with your physical muscles overtraining can lead to problems. I also wouldn’t recommend training to failure. Don’t put out a giant plate of cookies to resist all day only to push yourself too far, give up and gorge on them. Always be mindful of your limits and keep at it and you’ll see improvements.

  • Stay Fed – Your muscles need energy to function and so does your willpower. Researchers found that study participants who were put through tests exercising their willpower showed decreased blood sugar and glycogen levels as a result of the exercise. As you burn up energy flexing your discipline muscles it makes it harder and harder to keep up.

    As it turns out replenishing blood sugar and glycogen stores, with sugar water or orange juice in most of the studies, helped mitigate those effects and allowed participants to do better on subsequent tests of willpower.

    That means a couple things. The first is that if you find your willpower waning you might be able to give it a small boost by snacking on something sugary. Now if you’re trying to stick to a strict diet be careful here, that’s not an excuse to go crazy on 10 pounds of candy bars, but a little snack can help.

    Second, it means that things that tend to wear out your glycogen stores – stress, lack of sleep, illness etc. – directly deplete your ability to exercise your willpower. Use this to your advantage by going into situations where you know you’re going to have your willpower tested well-fed and rested.

    Batman of course may be the exception to this – like I said I have no idea how he finds time to get enough sleep. Once you reach equivalent levels of discipline you can skip meals and never sleep while maintaining an iron will too, until then though you should get your eight hours and take care of yourself.

  • Stay Happy – I know it’s easier said then done, but your mood also directly affects the strength of your discipline. When you’re in a good, upbeat mood your willpower is stronger and when you’re feeling depressed, upset or angry it’s a lot harder to resist doing things you shouldn’t or force yourself to do things you should.

    Thankfully, you probably don’t have to worry about maintaining a second identity or avoiding death on a nightly basis. Even so it can be a bit tough to maintain a positive attitude.

    We’ve talked about ways to stay happier in the past. A few easy ways are to consciously make yourself smile more, to learn to follow your dreams, or to give meditation a try.

    Just like with lifting, music can also give you that extra mental motivation to do what needs to be done. If you’re finding you lack the motivation to sit down and get your work done instead of wasting time on Facebook, put on some of your favorite music and rock out or dance around or whatever you need to do to get pumped. Then sit back down and get stuff done.

  • Don’t Think About Elephants – Bruce Wayne is definitely haunted by the memory of his parents. It’s part of what defines him. Instead of running from that fact and trying to suppress his anger he accepts it and redirects it into a positive thing as Batman. If he tried to deny all that hate and bottle it up it would eventually consume him.

    The same thing happens to us when we try to avoid focusing on something unpleasant – or anything really. It’s like when someone tells you, “Whatever you do, don’t think about [blank].”

    You can’t help but think about it. The harder you try to not think about it the harder it is to actually not think about it. Researchers have been doing studies on this effect for a long time and in every case the more we focus on avoiding something, the more difficult it is not to dwell on it.

    How does this tie in to willpower?

    Discipline, like we said, is the ability to either stop yourself from doing something you want to do, or making yourself do something you don’t want to do. Either way it has to do with overriding your desires. A lot of people think the best way to do that is to try to ignore them. They feel their extreme craving for a pint of ice cream and they jam their metaphorical fingers in their ears and start yelling, “I can’t hear you!”

    This doesn’t work though, for the reason we just discussed. The more you try to deny or ignore your craving for bad food or your desire to go watch TV instead of getting your work done the more irresistible it becomes.

    Instead of denying it the best course of action is to acknowledge it, decide what to do about it and move on. When you do that those desires lose their bite. Rather than ignoring your craving say, “Hmm, I really want some ice cream. I shouldn’t though, so I’ll go chop up an apple and sprinkle just a little brown sugar on it. That’ll be a lot better in the long run.”

    Think of it as Batman style mental jujutsu. By redirecting your desire to play video games and avoid work into a desire to roll up your sleeves and dominate that work so you can go play video games guilt free you take that negative emotion’s power away and make it something positive.

Being Your Own Batman

Will these techniques give you the strength of will to live like Bruce Wayne? Probably not to be honest, but I’m not certain any human could. What these techniques will do is help you build up your discipline until you can become your own personal Batman.

Being your own Batman means having the fortitude to get the things you need to get done done. It means having the willpower to stop doing all the things you need to stop and to do all the things you need to do. It means becoming strong enough to make your own life and the lives of those around you as best as you possibly can.

Have you used any of these techniques to improve your own discipline? Do you have any other techniques you’d like to add that have worked well for you? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Gideon Tsang

Don’t Bench Press ’til You French Press – A Guide to Caffeine for Performance Enhancement

Black, White, Coffee by Bitzcelt

The drug of choice for millions can give you better workouts.

Caffeine is the number one most consumed drug in the world. It’s in soda, chocolate, coffee, tea, energy drinks and even a lot of herbal supplements. Most people are extremely familiar with – if not dependent on – the energy boost it provides. I know I tend to be somewhat less than peppy if I miss my morning coffee. What most people don’t know is that caffeine is an extremely effective performance enhancer for training.

If you know how and when to supplement with caffeine you can not only improve your endurance, but improve your strength output and prime your body to burn more fat during exercise than it normally would. That means you get more out of every workout for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds good to me.

The Benefits of Caffeine

Researchers and exercise physiologists have been studying the effects of caffeine as a performance enhancer since at least 1978 and study after study has confirmed the same conclusion – it works. In fact, with all the solid data on the clear benefits of caffeine supplementation it’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned in more sports. Here are just some of the benefits caffeine offers.

Improved Endurance

The most obvious benefit to caffeine supplementation is it’s ability to improve muscular endurance. That means that you can go harder for longer without having to take a rest. Formerly it was thought this was a result of caffeine’s ability to release fat stores into the bloodstream to be used as fuel saving your muscle’s glycogen stores and allowing them to last longer. Now though research has shown caffeine also stimulates the release of calcium stored in muscle – the release of this calcium increases both endurance and overall power output.

On top of all of that, caffeine has the neurological effect of distorting your perception of exhaustion, meaning that even when your energy stores are used up your brain thinks it can keep going allowing you to push past your normal point of failure.

Regardless of how it works, researchers agree that caffeine supplementation can improve an athlete’s endurance from 5% all the way up to 25% depending on the person. A five percent increase may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to push yourself to run just a little bit farther it can make all the difference.

Increased Strength Output

When it comes to maximal strength training the best way to get stronger is to move heavy weights. The heavier weights you can move the stronger you can become and the more muscle you can build. Caffeine can help you do that more quickly by increasing the total amount you can lift.

This effect may be due to the release of fat stores and calcium that we mentioned or it may be an effect of the widening of blood vessels and increased blood oxygenation that caffeine produces – either way the result ranges from a 3% increase in strength output all the way up to an 18% increase in some studies.

To put that in perspective, for someone with a non-caffeinated 1RM bench of 200 pounds that could mean an increase of 36 pounds. That’s an impressive return for doing something as easy as downing a cup of Starbucks.

Better Fat Metabolism

More concerned about losing weight than about running farther or getting stronger? No problem, caffeine still has you covered. Caffeine stimulates the release of stored fat into the bloodstream for energy and causes the body to place a preference on using fat as energy over carbohydrates.

Best of all, this effect lasts for at least a few hours on average. That means that the increase in free flowing fatty acids is there both during your workout to fuel your efforts, and after your workout to help replace muscle glycogen stores. This means caffeine before your workout makes you burn more fat during and after that workout and may also aid in recovery.

If you’re trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds caffeine supplementation can be the thing that finally gets you past the plateau.

Beyond all of these benefits there are tons of tertiary benefits to regular caffeine consumption including lowered risk of cardiac disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s – so even if you’re not using it directly as a performance enhancer it helps keep you healthy.

A Few Precautions

Caffeine is a drug.

That means that like with any other drug there are potential side effects and dosage control is very important. Thankfully, the list of potential detriments from caffeine is relatively minor and, unless you’re pouring an entire bottle of caffeine pills down your throat, it is relatively difficult to overdose.

Blood Pressure, Increased Heart Rate & Dehydration

The first potential problem we’ll address right away is dehydration. The diuretic effects of caffeine are way, way overblown. In people who are completely unconditioned to caffeine there’s a slight diuretic effect but even this is weak enough to be insignificant in terms of increasing risk for dehydration. Be intelligent – you know when you need fluids so get them.

When it comes to increasing blood pressure and heart rate caffeine does have a slightly stronger effect but only in people who have not had caffeine for 4 to 5 days. If you have a cup of coffee everyday anyway, and have been for more than a few days, than caffeine doesn’t have any effect on your blood pressure or heart rate and won’t unless you go cold turkey for a while then reintroduce it.

If you have heart problems and hypertension and have never had a coffee or a soda in a month or two than you should be a little careful, everyone else is fine.

The best part about this conditioning is studies have shown that while the detrimental effects follow a curve of diminishing returns the benefits do not. That means if you consume some caffeine everyday you still get the full performance enhancing benefit with none of the detrimental side effects.

How to Use Caffeine to Improve Performance

Ok, so you’re convinced now right? You know you should be supplementing with caffeine to improve your workouts and you want to know how.

The first step is choosing the right source for your caffeine. Caffeine is in a lot of things nowadays and you have a lot of options. Since we’re ingesting this caffeine with the goal of using it to improve exercise performance – and therefore I assume health is important to you – we can eliminate all sugary drinks first offhand. That means no sodas, energy drinks or chocolate.

So what’re we left with? Tea, coffee and caffeine pills are the main contenders remaining. Tea has a lot of general health benefits, but it has relatively low caffeine content so I would exclude it as well. That leaves coffee and caffeine pills.

The final decision between the two comes down a lot to personal preference. Some studies have shown a statistically stronger benefit to ingesting the pure caffeine pills over the coffee, and it is much easier to control the dosage. That being said, coffee is really good – so it’s your choice.

As far as the dosages go, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 mg per kg of bodyweight. Several studies have shown benefit from dosages as low as 1 mg per kg of bodyweight though, so you may need to do a little personal experimentation and see what works best for you. The best time to ingest the caffeine is between and hour and 30 minutes prior to exercise.

An average 20 oz cup of coffee (a Venti for you Starbucks patrons) has 400 mg of caffeine, which would be more than enough for most people. A standard caffeine pill is 200 mg, meaning it also would be more than enough for anyone weighing less than 200 kg (about 440 lbs.) – so you’re covered whichever way you go.

If you’re feeling non-scientific about it 12 to 16 oz of coffee should be enough. Getting more than you need doesn’t diminish the effects, so if you like coffee you might as well go for the large or have them drop a shot of espresso in there.

You can overdose on caffeine, but that usually requires between 150 to 200 mg per kg of bodyweight in humans which translates to 80 to 100 cups of coffee for most people. It’s a little easier with caffeine pills, and some people have had problems with as little as 2 grams so don’t go crazy. Normal usage won’t have any detriments though.

So there you have it – improved endurance, strength, fat loss and tons of other benefits and all you need is a single pill or a medium cup of coffee. With all the benefits, the ease of use and the almost complete lack of negative side effects why would you not want to boost your workouts with caffeine supplementation?

Do you use caffeine regularly for the performance enhancement effects and if not do you think you’ll give it a try? Have you noticed a direct effect from it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bitzcelt

Special thanks to my father-in-law Bill for the title.

The One Reason Every Traditional Language Class Fails

Classroom Chairs by James Sarmiento

This is really not the best place to be learning a second language.

If you’ve gone through the school system or have attended a university in the U.S., chances are you’ve spent some time in a foreign language class. What’s more, unless you majored in that specific language, you probably don’t speak it all that well for having spent so much time in class. In fact most people, when asked, could barely function in the language they studied.

I was no different. At UC I took almost four years of Japanese classes. At the end of those four years I could maybe carry on a two-minute conversation in Japanese. Maybe. There would probably be a lot of ‘What does ________ mean?’s involved and the other person would have to speak slowly. Turn on a Japanese TV show or movie and I could have picked out a word or two, maybe a sentence here or there, but I was still chained to subtitles. I wasn’t alone in that. I was one of the better students in the class – no one was anywhere near fluent.

The teachers weren’t to blame either. They were fantastic. Were it not for the unconventional methods of our teachers we wouldn’t have even made it as far as we did. Not to mention none of the classes with any of the teachers hit what I would consider fluency. That suggests it wasn’t their fault.

So if all the students with all the teachers get equally poor results all the way across the board what does that mean?

It means there’s something wrong with the system.

Thankfully the thing that’s wrong is easy to figure out, primarily because it’s a standard part of all traditional language classes. Most of the class is spent in your native language.

Think about it. If you’ve ever taken language classes (and I assume if you’re in the U.S. most of you have) how much time was spent explaining new grammar points in English, going over new vocab in English and talking about homework, grades, schedules and all the other minutia of class in English? When you compare that to the minuscule amount of time you actually spend conversing in the target language in these classes it’s apparent why they never really work that well.

The same goes for the homework in most of these classes. Written homework is the most common, because it’s easiest logistically. Second comes listening practice, usually off of CDs or maybe online materials depending on the class. Last comes speaking homework, usually done in the form of preparing for presentations you have to give in class. Have you ever had a language teacher tell you to go out and chat with a native speaker for 30 minutes for homework?

So how do you mitigate the effects of this system and get the most out of your language instruction?

Make a point of speaking your target language whenever you can.

Get over any stage fright or shyness you might have about talking in front of people. It’ll only hold you back. Whenever the teacher asks something offer to answer. Even if you don’t know it, offer to answer and get corrected. Even try to answer questions they ask in English in your target language. The worst case scenario is you get it wrong, get corrected and learn something. Sure you might feel embarrassed for a minute, but at the end of the semester when you speak better than all your classmates it will have been worth it.

The next thing to do is to hunt down native speakers and practice with them whenever you can. You can use services like iTalki.com or even CouchSurfing.org to find people online or in your area to chat with. The point is to put the time in to find someone because practicing one on one with a real live native speaker will be the best thing you do to advance your ability in your target language.

Lastly, get the most out of your teacher. I don’t mean be obnoxious, but if you have questions ask. Request clarification or extra explanations about grammar. Ask if there would be better ways to say certain things. They are there to help you, so let them help you.

If you’re taking a traditional language class keep these things in mind if you really want to get the most out of it and get on your way to fluency.

Have any other tips you would add? Any other reasons you think traditional classes are effective or ineffective? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: James Sarmiento

How to Get Fat

Full-Figured Man by Tobyotter

If you aspire to look like this, read on.

When it comes to health related things here we tend to focus on the best ways to get leaner, faster, stronger and more fit. What if you want the opposite though? What if instead of being strong and healthy you want to be massive and riddled with health problems?

If you’re the kind of person who dreams of one day having to buy two tickets every time you fly on an airplane, than you’re in luck – I’ve put together a basic guide on how to get fat.

1. Stop Moving

The first thing you need to do if you want to get fat is stop moving so much. Obviously you should avoid exercise at all costs but that’s not always enough. You may need to go even further than that and look for as many ways as possible to move as little as possible throughout your day.

If you have a desk job then you’ve already got a good bit of your work cut out for you. Stay at your desk all day and only get up when you absolutely have to. If you must get up, try to replace the calories you’re going to burn by swinging by the break room and grabbing a doughnut or a candy bar. It’s important to take in more energy than you expend.

Once you get home, immediately plop down in front of the TV or in front of a computer and settle in. The goal here should be to only be standing for maybe ten to fifteen minutes total each day. If you think you’re standing too much keep a journal on hand and log all the time you spend standing to see if it needs to be reduced.

Remember video games, TV and the Internet all your friends here. They all let you sit and vegetate without having that nagging urge to get up and do something take over. If you don’t have access to one of those make sure to have a smartphone with you at all times so you can use it to poke around online, stare at Facebook or play a game.

2. Snack Constantly

The claim that eating multiple small meals a day will boost your metabolism has a long history within the Broscience community – thankfully there’s absolutely no truth to it. In fact, eating constantly throughout the day is an excellent tactic for the aspiring obese.

The key here is to always have something nearby that you can grab and eat mindlessly. Any time that you aren’t cramming something into your mouth is wasted time. Even if you’ve already got the sedentary thing down and are moving an absolute minimum you still need to ingest enough calories to pack on some blubber.

By making a point of always having something nearby to snack on you ensure that you have a steady surplus of calories coming in and you never have to worry about being in a deficit and losing precious pounds of pudge.

3. Choose Good Bad Foods

You can’t just snack on and eat anything you want though. Our goal is to put on weight, so you need calories, calories and more calories. That means you should avoid certain foods at all costs.

First up are vegetables. These things are nutrient dense and extremely low calorie, which means you can eat a ton of them and still not get enough calories to get fat. If you can help it, never eat vegetables. Why waste your time getting full on something when it isn’t even going to give you enough calories to get fat? It’s a waste.

Meat is a slightly better choice, but still not perfect. Sure most meats have a lot of fat in them which, at 9 calories per gram, is the highest calorie macronutrient – but it’s also full of protein which means you feel fuller and more satisfied more quickly. Again, we’re looking for something that we can get the most out of so if it makes you feel fuller sooner than it’s not a great choice.

Instead you should turn to the macronutrient specifically geared toward getting you fat – carbohydrates.

Now I’m not saying that carbs alone will make you fat, but they have some important properties that make them ideal for putting on some pounds. First of all, they tend to taste great. If it’s sweet it’s because of carbs. Secondly large doses of carbohydrates cause spikes in Insulin. Insulin then goes on to put that energy into your muscles or, if your muscles are full (perhaps from spending all day sitting in a chair), into storage as fat.

Even with Insulin doing its thing you do need to take in more calories than you burn to actually gain that fat. If you really want to maximize how much fat you’re gaining combine the Insulin generating effects of carbs with the high calorie content of fat to make sure you not only flood your system with Insulin but that at the same time you’ve got a few thousand extra calories in you.

4. Up the Portion Sizes

Getting fat requires a lot of work. Ok, not physical work, but appetite work. You need to learn that four cheeseburgers is an appetizer. Tiny portions are useless. You need to be putting away mountains of food at each meal.

A good general rule to follow is if you’re not eating double the portion that everyone else at the table is eating than your meal isn’t big enough. Don’t be afraid to go back for seconds, thirds or fourths. Even if you’ve gotten to the point where you absolutely, positively cannot eat another bite remember that there are lots of drinks that are packed with calories. If you can’t eat more, order the biggest sugariest soft drink you can find and get to work.

If you want to be fat, more is always better.

Hopefully these tips can help you if it’s your goal to get as fat as possible. If all else fails you can always find a fat mentor and ask them what they do to maintain their girth.

Have any tips on other ways to get fat quickly? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: We Love Cosa Rica & Tobyotter

How We Define Fluency

Dictionaries in Class by Ijiwaru Jimbo

Everyone talks about fluency. They say this method is guaranteed to make you fluent. This course will make you fluent. This computer program is the key to fluency. Become fluent in 10 easy steps. Or maybe they’re one of the people who claim only children can reach ‘true’ fluency in a language. The thing is, no one actually takes the time to explain what fluency means!

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because in my experience ‘fluency’ is one of those words where if you ask three people on the street what it means you’ll get five different answers. To clear up any potential confusion when we talk about fluency here, I’ve decided to explain what we mean when we say ‘fluent’.

The Flow

When you break it down, the word ‘fluent’ essentially means flowing like a liquid. It means behaving like a fluid. It means having a certain flow. This forms the primary criteria for what we consider fluency – namely, the ability to carry on a conversation in a fluid, flowing way.

What’s that mean?

It means neither you, nor anyone involved in the conversation, is seriously inconvenienced by your speaking or comprehension level. A fluent person doesn’t have to constantly be asking what words mean, or ask people to repeat themselves. They also don’t have to sit there for several minutes conjuring up the one word they need.

There are a few things to note here. The first is that fluency in no way requires literacy. In most languages literacy will develop a little along with fluency, but in some (notably Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and languages with similar writing systems) it’s possible to be highly fluent but completely illiterate. The second thing to notice is fluent doesn’t mean perfect.

Reject Perfectionism

There seems to be a widespread idea that you’re not fluent, or at least not really fluent unless you speak your target language perfectly. This is completely and totally untrue. People don’t even speak their native languages ‘perfectly’. For example, I’ll assume since you’re reading this your native language is English. Do you know which of these two sentences is the ‘perfect’ English sentence?

1. I wish I was able to speak another language.

2. I wish I were able to speak another language.

Native speakers will use both of these all the time. One of them, however, is technically incorrect grammatically. I say technically only because I’m a descriptive linguist and think grammar should reflect usage not dictate it, but I digress. Clearly, if native speakers can’t even be relied upon to speak perfectly how can anyone else?

Add into that all the ‘um’s and verbal space fillers, all the times people say one thing but mean something else and all the nonsensical words that are slowly absorbing into common usage like ‘irregardless’ and you come to understand that native English speakers often speak pretty poor English.

Instead of worrying about speaking perfectly, worry about speaking as much like a native as possible. You can have relatively terrible grammar, but still count as fluent in my book if you can have conversations on everyday topics with a variety of people without any significant difficulty.

Fifty Shades of Fluent

Ok, popular as they are, I feel a little cheap for having referenced those awful books. Regardless, fluency isn’t a finish line – it’s a sliding scale. A gradient. You can have two people with very different speaking levels but have both of them be considered fluent in my book.

In fact, if you look at the Common European Framework you can see that by my definition everything from a B2 up is fluent. In fact, there are probably some people in-between B1 and B2 I’d even consider fluent. The point is that a lot of levels can fit in there. You can have what I would consider basic fluency at around B1, and what I would call maybe native fluency at C2.

So if ‘fluent’ is something that applies to such a wide range of levels, and you don’t have to be perfect to be considered fluent, why should I even care about it?

Conversation Is King

The sole purpose of language is to communicate ideas, feelings and information with one another.

That’s it.

Your particular goal may vary, but for most people when you boil it down they want to learn a new language so they can talk to new people. If your goal is to talk to people, then fluency is really the only goal. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be able to get your ideas across and understand theirs without dragging the whole process to a halt.

Whether you’re B1 or C2, if you’re fluent you can have spontaneous conversations and if you can do that then mission accomplished.

How to Get There

There are lots of ways to get to fluency, the trick is to start today and don’t stop. You can try one of these three language learning methods, you can find some native listening material to practice with, try out some of these free online language learning resources or start out from the very beginning.

The point is to find something you like, start it and don’t stop until you get there!

Have anything you’d like to add? Is your definition of fluency different, or do you agree with ours? Let us know in the comments!

P.S. If you were wondering, sentence number 2 is technically grammatically correct.

Photo Credit: Ijiwaru Jimbo

I’m Fine, Thanks – A Short but Meaningful Look at Complacency

I’m Fine, Thanks trailer.

“I have a good life. I have a beautiful wife and two healthy, mischievous boys. We have a nice house in the suburbs and good friends in the local community and we’ve done the things that we’re expected to do and we have the things we’re expected to have. But somethings missing. I feel guilty even admitting that. But I feel trapped.” – Grant Peelle.

It’s taken me a while to write this review. Even though I first saw it when it was just released to donors, the message and meaning of the documentary have been floating around in my mind for the past two weeks and it’s been a bit of a challenge for me to sort out my resulting thoughts.

The premise of the documentary is that there is this ‘life script’ in which we’re told by society that we have to go to college and get a degree, get a secure job, get married to the best looking person we can get to agree, buy a big house, buy two cars, have 2.5 children and then work until you’re 65 when you can retire and finally do what you want. Millions of people follow this path each year and while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, it is a convenient template that few take the time to question. Instead they follow the path of least resistance. After all, we’re told that these things are guaranteed to lead you to happiness.

But does this script lead to happiness?

People get caught up in a desire for success and tend to acquire things as markers or visual representations of achievements. It’s something that even Adam and I began to follow despite knowing before we started that it wasn’t what we wanted. I can’t even tell you why – I have no idea what was going on in my head at the time.

I’m Fine, Thanks, directed by Grant Peelle and produced by Adam Baker, discusses this life template and the complacency many have in following it. I’ve often heard in reference to the template that “this is just life, suck it up and accept it.” I and others have accepted jobs that didn’t make us feel fulfilled, because that’s just what you do. And, to be unhappy was like saying you were ungrateful for the job, money and life you have.

The documentary opens with Grant recounting his own feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness, and guilt that he even had these feelings in the first place. Then he realized the only way to be happy and to show his sons about following their dreams was to follow his own. He then sets off with his rag-tag group to find and share the stories of others who have also had this realization, and how it’s changed their lives. They had just a couple of months, absolutely no experience, but were overflowing with passion.

We were so inspired by the sensational trailer for the documentary we chipped in on the Kickstarter campaign to help ensure it got completed and because it would give us early access to the film. While the cinematography and sound were wonderful, I will admit I was a bit disappointed in the brevity of the movie. It’s only 68 minutes and because of the timing doesn’t go quite as in-depth on the interviews. Nonetheless, the message of the movie is still prominent, important and told very well. For their first time making a movie, Grant and Adam did a fantastic job. As one person says in the preview: “Sometimes you just need life to shake you and say ‘WAKE THE F**K UP!’” For many this movie is the wake-up call.

Complacency and Fulfillment

“You’re climbing the ladder and you get to the top and you realize you have it leaned up against the wrong wall… And, I didn’t even know what the right wall was.” – Vanda in I’m Fine, Thanks

The interviews center around people who’ve realized they were unhappy with the status-quo, and how that effected the choices they made after the realization. As Grant conducted these interviews he relates throughout the film how he began to realize how complacent he had been in his choices and priorities and his growing determination to follow the career path he had always wished for. For many of the interviewees once it was clear that what they were doing was wrong for them often feelings of desperation or sadness began to creep in. Some knew what they wanted to do, some didn’t have any idea. Even if they knew what they wanted, could they follow it? How?

Matt and Betsy’s story particularly resonated with us – nearly everything they said had me and Adam looking at each other yelling, “that’s us!” From not questioning what we were doing, to getting jobs we thought we’d enjoy but turned out not being what we thought they’d be, hating the alarm every morning, that sinking feeling in your stomach on the way to work and then coming home admitting “I can’t do this anymore” every single day.

The Road to Happiness

Is what you’re doing making you happy? What legacy do you want to leave for your kids and society?

The most important message of I’m Fine, Thanks is to seek happiness over checking the boxes off of some socially-approved list. Don’t get a job because you felt pressured or because it was easy – find a way to do what you love. It may not be easy but you’ll actually be fulfilled. If you don’t enjoy law, don’t be a lawyer. Sure they make a ton of money but isn’t there more to life than what amount of money you have?

I believe that it is by pursuing what we love that we can also make our greatest contributions to society. I’m not content with just humming along through life. I want to have fun, have adventures, but most importantly I want to have an impact – however small or big it may be – and to make the world a better place. I can’t accomplish any of these by having a convenient job doing something I hate.

In addition to this theme of happiness there is the theme of not seeking this happiness through stuff. In the documentary many people told of how they felt trapped by their possessions. They had to keep the job that made them miserable because they needed the income from it to support their things – house, car and so on.

Possessions aren’t the problem. Jobs aren’t the problem. It is living someone else’s dream that’s the problem. It’s letting society handle the tough decisions for you. What this leads to next, is all up to you.

You’re Not Alone

We’ve already realized what was going on and have been actively working trying to change our lifestyle to be more in accordance to what we want. The biggest value I found in I’m Fine, Thanks was reassurance. Reassurance in that we weren’t crazy and that we aren’t alone. It doesn’t matter what other people think of what I’m doing – it’s my life, not theirs. The choices are mine to make and I’ve got to do what makes me happy, not what makes them happy.

It’s good to know we’re not alone in following our own path. The roads may be different, but we are united in our following the way that’s best for us instead of taking the easy route that so many feel pressured in to. The ‘American Dream’ is someone else’s dream – live your own dream. Do epic things. Don’t be okay, don’t be fine. Be freakin’ great.

Weaving Zen: A Life Lesson Learned from Knitting

Knitting Together by Kalexanderson

I too only knit in full Stormtrooper armor.

Have you ever been so frustrated, so infuriated, by a task that seems to be absolutely impossible that you want to hurl something heavy through the nearest window and put your fist through the wall?

That was me the first time I tried knitting.

Every loop, every stitch, I fought for tooth and nail. I’d struggle and push and work the needle in just to have it poke through the center of the yarn. No matter what I did I couldn’t get the needle through the right loop. When I finally did, the whole thing was too tight for me to pull the yarn through to make the stitch.

After probably close to an hour of fighting with those cursed needles all I had to show for my struggles were a few inches of hideously woven yarn and sufficient amounts of rage to boil water on my forehead.

I was beginning to think I was just not cut out for knitting.

That’s when I made the best decision I possibly could. I gave up.

Learning to Relax

Not gave up like quit, but gave up like quit caring. I remembered what I’d learned a decade ago playing Mario Kart. I relaxed.

It made an incredible difference. After unraveling the unholy abomination I’d previously crafted I started over, this time not caring so much that I did everything so perfectly.

Chaining on was a piece of cake. Actually knitting and purling was even easier. Within ten minutes I had a square of woven yarn twice the size of my previous creation and it actually looked nice.

Relaxing made all the difference in the world.

It made me realize that our moods and attitudes have a profound effect on our performance of day to day activities, even things that we wouldn’t expect. I was so frustrated and uptight about my difficulties knitting that I was making every stitch super tight – which just made everything exponentially more difficult for me. When I loosened up, so did my knitting.

I’ve heard other people describe similar situations with other skills. For example, while I’m not a shooter I’ve heard plenty people tell me that the biggest mistake most people make when they’re learning to shoot is being way too tense. They don’t start improving and doing well until they learn to relax.

This principle applies to the rest of our lives too. If you’re too uptight and stressed all the time you make everything you do exponentially more difficult. Conversely, everything you do will come a little bit easier if you learn to do it with a relaxed, mindful attitude.

Practicing Mindful Relaxation

The first step in applying this principle to the rest of your life is to learn how to be relaxed and mindful in the first place.

The easiest place to begin is by finding something that you can focus on in a simple, calm and mindful way. As it turns out, knitting works very well. There is a basic zen aspect to knitting in its repetitiveness, and if your mind starts to wander or you begin to become to frustrated it will quickly be reflected in your work.

Knitting well demands you be attentive but relaxed, mindful of what you’re doing but not rigid. It’s essentially like doing kata in a martial art, practicing yoga or lifting weights.

Incidentally, those are two other very good options for things you can practice to help learn the skill of mindful relaxation. Anything that you can do that requires your full, alert and relaxed attention is a good choice.

Once you’ve chosen your activity, you need to start practicing it!

Not just mindlessly though. The goal here is to strengthen your ability to be calm, relaxed and present. How do you do that?

To start with, you need to be happy. At least a little. If you’re finding that hard, force yourself to smile a little bit. Even if it’s a fake one, it can help cheer you up a bit.

Second, you need to be focused. Don’t let your mind wander. Don’t think about what you have to do later. Don’t worry about all the bills. You are doing one thing right now and nothing else. All of your focus is on that thing, nothing in the world exists but that thing.

Be careful, because some people tend to get a little tense when they focus that hard. Don’t think of it like concentrating, this isn’t like cramming last minute for a test the next day. You just want to let all the distractions and worries fade away until all that’s left is what you’re doing right now. Practicing a little meditation may help.

Get comfortable in that mindset and let it stay as long as you can. As distractions or other thoughts come up, brush them away again. Maybe smile a little more. At this point you should be feeling not so much a sense of fun, but a sense of peace.

Hold onto that feeling. That’s what you want to cultivate.

When you’re finished with your activity, wrap up comfortably and go about your day, but remember that feeling.

All throughout the rest of your day try to call that feeling back up. When you’re at work, or doing the dishes, call that feeling back up. Smile a little, and let yourself be relaxed and peaceful and in the moment.

Pretty soon, you’ll find that you can call that feeling up at will. Once you can do that, learn to bring it up as an automatic response anytime you feel yourself getting frustrated or angry.

Once you can do that, you’ll find day to day tasks getting easier, life won’t feel quite so stressful anymore, and you’ll likely see a gigantic boost in productivity.

All of that, just from knitting.

Have you tried any of these mindfulness techniques in the past? What did you think? Do you agree that things come easier when you’re relaxed, or do you succeed more when fueled by stress? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson

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