Tag Archives: fitness

Kicking the Can: How I Broke My Addiction to Diet Coke

For about a full decade of my life, I was a full fledged Diet Coke addict.

It was a part of who I was — I cracked open a can first thing in the morning, friends sent me Buzzfeed articles about things only Diet Coke addicts could understand, I had a little Diet Coke keychain and a Diet Coke mousepad, and my family I would send each other level red, full blown SOS texts when the fridge was running low. I was drinking 2-3 cans a day, plus fountain (my preferred delivery of choice) whenever I could get my hands on it, and I really had no true interest in stopping.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

And then, suddenly, I did.

On March 1st of 2016 I started a one month Diet Coke free month while in Thailand, and on April 1st I decided what the heck — I extended another two weeks until I flew through the USA. After six weeks, the spell was broken, and I no longer feel powerless over the pull of the silver can.

So why cut the cord? I admit, of the many reasons people kick Diet Coke habits, I did so for pretty superficial reasons. I was trying desperately to lose ten pounds that had creeped on slowly, and I’d been reading a lot about the connection between diet sodas and weight gain and was curious to see if I’d magically become a size zero again. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.) But the connection between diet sodas and out-of-whack metabolisms and insulin production were hard to ignore, and the more I learned the more convinced I became that a trial period without it was something I needed to try.

But also, it was at times a very inconvenient addiction and I hated feeling so beholden to a particular can of fizz. When I woke up in the morning, it was the first thing I drank, and I was cranky and irritable when I couldn’t source it — which was fairly often, considering I often travel to remote areas, and Diet Coke is still rare in many corners of the world.

At the time, I searched pretty desperately for first-hand accounts those who were also trying to kick a soda habit, and came up surprisingly empty. So, my fizzy drink loving friends, here is mine.

Breaking a Diet Coke AddictionMy uncle — who once ran a Coca Cola museum! It runs in the fam!

How I Did It

I never intended to cut Diet Coke out of my life entirely. Drinking Diet Coke was so much a part of both my daily routine and my identity I don’t think I ever could have started had that been my intention. Yet after years of trying to casually “cut back,” I knew I had to do something drastic if I ever wanted to make it a reality.

Today, I am no longer addicted to Diet Coke and that is all thanks to an initial six week cleanse that I did in which I did not consume a single sip (more about my current consumption later.) In fact, it started as just a month long challenge which I extended for two weeks based on how good I felt! That cleanse was completely necessary to sever my dependence to the stuff and allow me to start living with a normal, non-crazy person’s relationship with soda after it ended. I should probably note that Diet Coke was the only soda I ever really drank — I think Coca Cola tastes repulsive and outside of the rare diet root beer or craft soda on some sort of special occasion (hello, artisanal sodas at a county fair!), so Diet Coke and I had a pretty monogamous relationship.

Everyone warned me about the withdrawal symptoms I’d have. Aside from a few terrible headaches the first few days, I actually didn’t find the physical side-effects to be too dramatic. I attribute the ease with which this cleanse went to my research ahead of time, the replacements I used, and where I did it.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

I did a ton of research

Once I decided to do the cleanse, it was actually pretty easy in practice. And that decision was inspired by research I did as part of my DIY Health Retreat.

Watching documentaries like Fed Up and reading books like What Are You Hungry For? made the transition really easy. I was also recommended the documentary Sweet Misery, which I plan to watch on the plane back to the US to strengthen my resolve for another addiction-free summer. Also, I’m not going to lie, I read several interviews with skinny people — LOL — who said that they never drink diet sodas, and message board accounts from those who dropped pounds doing so. In the spirit of full disclosure I also read a ton of comments and message board posts from those who quit and never lost a pound, but everyone who did so seemed to feel it had a positive impact on their life.

Those books and movies really spoke to the specific reasons I was personally looking to cut back — vanity, duh. They dove into how aspartame disrupts the body’s metabolism and craving systems and lead to unintentional weight gain, despite being zero calories.

Now look, it’s not like until last year I was walking around thinking Diet Coke was this super healthy product that I was treating my body like a temple by consuming. Not in the slightest — I knew Diet Coke was bad for me and I literally did not care, at least not enough to make me change. Thankfully, in this case, my desperation to lose a few pounds led me down an unlikely path that has had a holistic and positive effect on my life.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

I told my friends

So strong was my resolve that the only serious cravings I had in those first six weeks were the two times I was tragically hungover. And because I had already told my friends what I was doing and they knew how important it was to me, they stopped me from giving in, reminding me how proud I’d feel when I hit the four — and then six — week mark.

I replaced it with something else

One of my primary concerns going into this cleanse was that Diet Coke made up the vast majority of my beverage consumption. Like literally, what the heck was I going to drink? Well, I now drink tea like it’s going out of style, as well as one or two carbonated waters per day and a TON more straight up tap water than I’ve ever drank in my life. Let’s get into each of those:

Tea

I have never been a tea drinker and so I did a bunch of research to find out which teas had caffeine — which I wanted — and which I would actually like. I absolutely loathe black tea (sorry, Brits) but found green tea sort of tolerable, so I started out my putting one green tea bag into a mug with another herbal flavor that I enjoyed more, like lemongrass. For the first week or two of my cleanse, I sweetened my tea with local honey, though I quickly phased that out and I now drink my tea straight up, no sweetener.

A year later, I am a complete and total tea fiend and start every day with a mug of green tea rather than a Diet Coke, and usually go for an herbal tea over ice in the afternoon. I love trying new flavors — this brand from Hawaii is a recent obsession. Still no black tea though — which yes, makes trips to the UK a challenge.

Water

I have struggled my entire life to drink water. My cleanse kick started a new habit in which I drink more than ever. I generally try to drink a full 17 oz. bottle between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner, and whenever I work out. Combined with my carbonated water at meals and my morning and afternoon tea, I now easily exceed the recommended 64 oz. per day without too much trouble.

My recommendation? Get a fun, easy-to-drink stainless steel bottle that you love and will want to take everywhere, and have a jug or filter in your fridge so you have easy access to cold, ready-to-go tap water anytime. If you live somewhere with great water you can literally just use a nice pitcher, if you live somewhere where drinking tap water isn’t advisable — like I do — I highly recommend this Clearly Filtered Pitcher.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Carbonated Water

Or seltzer, or if you’re here in Thailand, soda water. To this day I can’t stand to drink straight up tap water with meals, it just doesn’t feel right. Seltzer is literally just regular water infused with air, and is just as safe and hydrating to drink as regular water (though studies do show it can be slightly more filling, and does have some extremely mild effect on dental health.)

So I now have unflavored seltzer with pretty much every single lunch and dinner. When I’m in the US, I sometimes I have fun with the naturally flavored ones. I drink so much of the stuff I’m thinking of getting a seltzer machine like my mom has at home, and bringing it with me back to Thailand.

I did it somewhere away from the USA

I know this probably isn’t exactly replicable for most people, but it was a huge factor towards my success. Doing the Diet Coke cleanse in Thailand, where I’m not a fan of the local formula, made it so much easier than had I tried it stateside. If you can find some way — any way! — to shake up your routine, I think that will make all the difference in helping you to snap out of deeply ingrained habits.

While you may not want to mar a trip or vacation with withdrawal symptoms, starting a few days before you leave and your enthusiasm is still strong might be the perfect way to distract yourself just as your willpower might be wearing off. (And ya know, now that I added this, it’s totally relevant fodder for a travel blog! Nailed it!)

Make a calendar

I actually didn’t do this, but if I started to struggle or stumble I would have bought or printed out a calendar, and marked off each day I made it without Diet Coke. I always find tracking and visual aids to be incredibly effective in helping me meet goals and stay strong through a challenge.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

What I Learned

I have always considered myself to have an insane sweet tooth and ravenously consumed candy, desserts and all kinds of sugary goodness on a near-daily bases. Very quickly after giving up Diet Coke, those cravings have all but disappeared. I still loved my sweet treats but I noticed that I didn’t HAVE to have them, and so throughout the course of my cleanse they were more of an actual occasional treat instead of a daily obsession. I even noticed my cravings for/consumption of things like bread and pasta subsided.

I was somewhat disorienting to realize that this thing I thought was just a core part of who I was was actually induced by a chemical I’ve been consuming daily for the last decade and a half. Some researchers believe artificial sweeteners like the aspartame in Diet Coke actually fuel the brain’s desire for the real thing, and after six weeks, I agreed with them.

Today, recognizing that my cravings are at least partially a result of choices I’ve made has actually been incredibly empowering. When I’m perusing 711 for snacks before a late night work session, I can no longer grab a bag of M&M’s with the excuse that, “Well I’m just a sweet-tooth having, sugar-loving fiend and there’s nothing I can do to change it!” Instead I think, “Well, I’m craving candy right now because I made the choice to have Diet Coke with my lunch. I can choose to go for it, or I can choose to have a banana instead.” It actually feels really good.

No, I didn’t drop a dress size. But I did find a new awareness of what was fueling my cravings. And as someone who considers herself to have like, zero willpower, it was kind of cool to set such a lofty goal and not just meet but exceed it.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

One Year Later

Like I said earlier, I never intended to give up Diet Coke entirely — and I didn’t. Some warned that after six weeks I wouldn’t be able to stand a sip of the stuff, and I can assure you that did not happen. But I do feel like I have a normal, non-psycho person’s relationship with Diet Coke now, and that is a beautiful thing.

For the most part, I probably average about a can a week. When I’m extremely stressed and sleep deprived, I definitely fall back into a can a day. But that has only happened a couple times and within a few days I actually now see it as a big red flag I’m waving at myself — whoa girl, pull in the reigns on your life. Something isn’t right.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

I split my year between Thailand and the US, and I admit that it’s much easier to go without here in Thailand, where I never even really liked the local formula but drank it out of pure dependence. In the US, I still love the taste of the stuff, especially the fountain version, and so it is much harder to avoid — especially because when I’m stateside I bounce between staying with various family members who are all still hardcore hooked. What I tried experimenting with last summer was not allowing myself cans at home, and instead only treating myself to fountain Diet Cokes when I was out and about running errands. Therefore it felt more like a special treat that I savored every second of, and less like something I was mindlessly downing out of habit. If I’m staying in a house where I have any input over what’s in the fridge, I keep it Diet Coke-free to avoid the temptation.

While there are definitely certain locations that tempt me to spiral out of control again (hello, my mom and dad’s houses!), overall I feel incredibly free from my old aluminum shackles. It kind of grosses me out now to think that in the past I would drink Diet Coke out of a bottle, or even, heaven forbid, the occasional fountain Diet Pepsi at a restaurant — thing I literally don’t even like — just because I felt like I was powerless not to.

Breaking a Diet Coke Addiction

It feel so good to go to a four day festival where there’s no Diet version of Coke and not loose my shit. It feels so nice to stay at a resort that stocks Pepsi (gross) and not freak the flip out. It feels very freeing to no longer wake up in the morning, bug out that the fridge is empty, and disrupt my day by sprinting to the closest minimart to stock up before my dang day can start.

While breaking my Diet Coke addiction didn’t make me the size zero supermodel I had hoped — just kidding, there are no catwalks in the future of this 5’2″-er — it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It made me feel empowered, it removed a frequent hassle from my life, and it was a major game-changer in the healthier lifestyle I am always trying to cultivate.

Are you a current or reformed diet soda addict? Tell all in the comments!

3-devide-lines

Please note I know there are a lot of different opinions out there about food and addiction and if you happen to disagree with what I write here, please know it isn’t meant to offend you — I’m just sharing my own personal experiences and thoughts, and I respect that other people’s will be different! Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.

Want to learn more about the science behind Diet Coke addiction? This article is a good place to start. 

Stay Young with HIIT Workouts

Let’s face it, aging isn’t always glamorous. As we get older, our metabolism begins to slow, our muscles weaken and we’re not as fast or agile as we used to be. Thankfully, research shows that exercise, especially high intensity interval training, or HIIT, can help prevent weight gain, improve muscle strength and reverse the signs of aging.

A new Mayo Clinic study indicates that high-intensity aerobic exercise can reverse some aspects of aging at the cellular level. In this study, researchers compared high-intensity interval training, resistance-only training, and combined exercise training in seventy-two healthy, but sedentary individuals for a twelve-week period. While all training types improved lean body mass and insulin sensitivity, only high-intensity interval training and combined training improved aerobic capacity and mitochondrial function.

In addition, high-intensity training caused muscle enlargement, especially in older adults. This is significant because as we age the mitochondria in our muscle cells function less efficiently; improving their function boosts metabolism and slows signs of aging.

While most health professionals encourage everyone to exercise on a regular basis, it seems that high-intensity training is best for aging adults. Since this type of exercise can contribute to more injuries, especially in the older athlete, it’s best to start out with a supervised plan and go slow.

If you’re new to HIIT training, try incorporating faster, shorter distances of your favorite exercise. For example, if you usually jog two miles, try jogging at a faster speed for 30 seconds, then walking for a few minutes to recover and repeat.

Rest assured that you don’t have to switch all your workouts to a high-intensity level, even one HIIT workout a week can provide metabolic benefits. Whatever your age, you’ll improve energy and feel younger.

 

Alex Caspero MA, RD, RYT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Yoga Teacher. She is the founder of Delish Knowledge (delishknowledge.com), a resource for healthy, whole-food vegetarian recipes. In her private coaching practice, she helps individuals find their “Happy Weight.” 

Creating a DIY Health Retreat in Thailand

Raise your virtual hand if one of your New Year’s resolutions for like, every single year of your life thus far has been to live a healthier lifestyle in some way, shape, or form. Me too!

About a year and a half ago, I found my self-esteem hitting an all-time low as my weight hit an all-time high. My first instinct? To sign up for a health retreat, one that would hit the reset button on my body, mind, and soul. My current destination of Thailand is a popular destination for spiritual-style fat camps, and it’s easy to see why – I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting for kick-starting a healthy lifestyle.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

But that particular slice of paradise comes at quite a price. A popular health retreat in Chiang Mai, including food, accommodation, massages, and group training will set you back 218,000 baht for a month – that’s a cool $6,000USD! A similar retreat in Phuket goes for 125,000 baht, or $3,500USD.

While I’m sure those are fabulous programs that provide fantastic results for their customers, that just wasn’t a splurge I was willing nor able to make at that moment. In the same boat? Don’t let it stop you. I figured if I couldn’t afford an official health bootcamp on my travels, I could find a destination where I could self-style my own.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

And so I decided to create my own, on the little Thai island I call home: Koh Tao. This post is a compilation of notes, journals, and experiences from over a year of experimenting here in Thailand.

Now, I just want to throw in a reminder here that despite my loyal viewership of Grey’s Anatomy, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a fitness expert. I’m just a girl hungry for a healthier lifestyle. And these are just my stories of trying to find it on Koh Tao, and some ideas for how you could build your own DIY health retreat at home or anywhere else you choose to travel to.

Trapeze Koh Tao

My Goals

In late October of 2015, I kick-started a new workout plan after a period of falling off the fitness wagon. I work best with specific monthly and/or weekly goals. Here’s a sample of a list of monthly goals, or a general roadmap to my DIY health retreat!

Keep a food log every single day to stay accountable to myself

Get my sweat on 25+ times, ideally including 12 gym sessions, 8 yoga sessions, and 4-6 other activities

Drink 2.5L of water per day (three full bottles full)

Get two massages per week

Use only positive self talk

Continue to educate myself on living a healthy lifestyle

You’ll notice that generally none of my goals involved cutting something out of my life, rather on trying to positively add to it. That said, in the past I wasn’t a proponent of axing specific foods or food groups, but ever since completing an incredibly rewarding Diet Coke Cleanse that finally broke my addiction to the most beautiful beverage ever invented (perhaps a topic for a full other post!) I do occasionally experiment with cutting out anything that I’m obsessing over, like candies and desserts, to remind myself that I can live without it.

Hiking on Koh Tao

I also try to avoid making specific goals for numbers I’d like to see on the scale. While I admit that there is a certain number that I seem ever-obsessed with, I’m trying to focus more on the long road it takes to feel fit, confident and strong than setting an arbitrary weight at which I’ll feel I’ve achieved it.

Tracking

For me, tracking is an essential part of meeting my goals. For years I’ve tracked my spending daily in order to meet my financial goals, and in the last eighteen months, I’ve begun tracking my health, too.

I have a cute calendar expressly for tracking my eating and exercising and I try to fill it in religiously every night. In the monthly view section, I fill in my workouts and notate the days I meet my water goals (so important for this former serial dehydrator). In the weekly section, I write down every single thing I eat and drink. Each week I reflect on how the week went, and tweak my goals slightly (swap ciders for vodka sodas, focus on not over-ordering when eating out, etc.)

I Love Salad Koh Tao

This is all about being accountable to myself. No longer can I snarf up three servings of Goldfish and conveniently forget that little snack when I order up a sugary shake an hour later. It also allows me to catch myself before I fall into bad patterns — like realizing I didn’t get any veggies all day, or realizing I’ve been struggling to meet my water goals all week — and course correct for the next day or week.

And for my workout tracking – it’s fun! I created little symbols for my different workouts just for laughs and I love seeing how little white space I can leave at the end of the month by filling the whole page with sweat sessions.

Ideally I would love to be taking more progress photos and recording my measurements as well, but I seem to avoid those tasks pretty successfully on a regular basis. My true test of progress? A favorite pair of shorts that haven’t fit in a long time. When those slip on again, I’ll be ready to celebrate.

Cost: $15 for a calendar

Eating

Having healthy, nutritious and restricted meals provided for you is probably the number one benefit to an actual health retreat. Admittedly, I’m eating a little less strictly in my self-styled version than I would in a “real” one – but I’m okay with that. It’s helping me find healthier ways to live that can be applied to real life, and not just live within the confines of a health resort.

The past year has opened my eyes in many ways. Overall, I’ve become a drastically less picky eater over the years. But now I’m also experimenting with a more plant-based diet than I’ve ever eaten before, I’m ordering more carefully when I eat out (which is often) and I’m even discovering new foods – I ordered tofu for the first time in my life, and actually enjoyed it it.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Again, I haven’t really cut anything out, though I have focused on eating a protein, vegetable and fruit heavy diet with less reliance on carbs. For example, I eat Thai stir fries and curries often but I no longer order white rice. That said, I have noticed that my afternoon and evening workouts are much easier when I have a lunch that includes a whole wheat wrap or a bit of black rice, so I’m certainly not banning the bottom of the food pyramid.

Heading to Koh Tao for a DIY health retreat of your own? Head to these three locations, the source of the vast majority of my meals:

• Living Juices: Koh Tao’s original green juicer. While I’ve yet to advance to drinking kale, I do go for an occasional ginger carrot juice when my immune system needs a boost and often use one of their a chia seed, oats and banana packed smoothies, the Good Morning Koh Tao, as a filling breakfast. Another fabulous option are the Living Bowls, smoothie bowls made from all-natural goodness. Delish!

For lunch, I often grab a Superfood Salad (all kinds of amazing greens and veggies topped with coconut oil, hummus and/or quinoa chia seed bread, yum!) or if I’m looking for a snack, the Sticks and Dip (sliced and diced veggies with homemade hummus).

Living Juices Koh Tao

Living Juices Koh Tao

• Fitness Café: A health-centric eatery attached to Koh Tao Gym & Fitness. I’m a regular here for the Frozen Berry Nut Crunch (fresh Greek yogurt with berries and almonds) or the Superfood Porridge (with milk, banana, apple, goji, flax, chia seeds and honey) for breakfast, or the chicken quinoa feta salad or chicken avocado on tomato garlic wrap for lunch. Grab a 10% off loyalty card.

• Vegetabowl: A vegetarian lunch and dinner spot building beautiful salad bowls with different themes. My favorite is the Mexican Bowl, which featured black beans that fill me up with protein, but have recently branched out to ordering their tofu-packed versions as well, like the Japanese Bowl – also including edamame, bean spouts, and mango.

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Here’s an example of one of the days from my daily food diary, and the cost:

Breakfast: Frozen berry crunch from Fitness Café (110B)
Jasmine Green Tea

Lunch: Morning Glory & Chicken Stir Fry from Thai restaurant (120B)
Carrot Orange Ginger Juice from Living Juices (150B)

Snack: Banana (5B)
Ginger tea (Free with massage)

Dinner: Mexican Bowl from Vegetabowl (240B)
Soda water (12B)

Water: 2.5L Water (Free!)

This glorious day of food and drink cost 637 baht (actually cheaper since I have discount cards and local prices at many of these places, but that would be the walk in cost). That comes to about $18USD.

This was an expensive day, and often I have cheaper ones by swapping a meal for an apple and peanut butter or organic, GMO-free rice thins (a great find on the island imported from Australia) spread with peanut butter and mango. In general though, eating a healthy and plant-heavy diet in Thailand will cost a lot more than grabbing a Pad Thai on the street.

Cost: $500 per month for healthy nutritious meals.

Exercise

There’s nothing I love more than getting my sweat on! Here’s a few workouts I’ve experimented with here on Koh Tao:

• Yoga: Yoga has changed my life! Sadly I practice a lot less of it now that Grounded, my local studio on Sairee Beach, has closed their location that was literally next door to my apartment, and Ocean Sound has taken a hiatus from offering workshops. That said, I make it to Ocean Sound classes once or twice a week, and I occasionally practice at home using the Yoga with Adrienne YouTube channel, a great option for those who don’t have a studio nearby or are on limited budgets.

Ocean Sound Yoga Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

• Gym: Last year I finally tried the insta-famous 12 week BBG Program, a PDF or app-based workout you can do anywhere. Its founder Kayla Itsines is a social media celebrity, and the before-and-afters from real users posted to instagram are what inspired me to start. While I do these workouts at the gym, they are light on equipment and could be modified to do just about anywhere with body weight. The program calls for three gym sessions a week, each focusing on legs, arms and abs, or abs and cardio.

Recently I’ve been hitting the gym again and haven’t been feeling motivated to start a new round of BBG, so I just search Pinterest for the body area I want to exercise and the amount of time I have (ie. twenty minute arm workout) and pin a workout from there! On Koh Tao, I purchase twelve-pack gym sessions from Koh Tao Gym and Fitness.

• Other: In the past year I’ve logged sessions of trapeze, paddleboarding, muay thai, hiking, scuba diving, and crossfit. Anything that gets my heart rate up – and bonus points if it involves exploring this beautiful island!

Trapeze Koh Tao

Koh Tao Trapeze

Trapeze Koh Tao

By purchasing class packs for yoga and the gym, I’m able to make them very affordable. Hiking and practicing yoga at home are also free! See more pricing information and Koh Tao workout inspiration in this post.

Cost: $150 per month for exercise. 

Positive Thoughts

Last year, at an intensive vinyasa workshop, our instructor was discussing the yamas of yoga, and piqued my interest when she brought up animas, or non-violence. We discussed that animas can be interpreted more broadly than just “don’t hit people.” It also means to practice non-violence towards yourself – to use positive language when you talk about your body, and to treat yourself the way you’d treat your closest friends.

Koh Tao Paddleboarding

This hit home because it’s something I’ve been musing a lot on lately. I’ve been struggling greatly with feeling comfortable in my skin, and when I go to the gym and look in the mirror and start to feel negative thoughts creeping out, I remind myself to work out not because I hate my body and wish I had someone else’s instead, because I love my body and I’m grateful for all the adventures it takes me on — and I want to treat it with respect in return.

Cost: Free!

Water

After a life of dehydration, in the past year I finally feel like I know what being properly watered feels like. And dang, is it gorgeous! I make the ambitious goal of chugging three bottles full per day, which amounts to 2.5L or 10 cups (so a bit above the standard recommended 8).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Wondering how I can drink water out of the tap in Thailand? Read this post on personal filtration devices — I also recently invested in this filtered water pitcher for my house. It’s amazing what a difference this makes in my day! Drinking water has never been easier and I feel more full, have more energy and get less headaches.

Cost: Thanks to the products mentioned above, I budget $0 per month for water.

Massage

I’ve always felt strongly that massage was a critically important part of health, and finally TIME.com went and provided me with the perfect pull quote to prove it:

The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.

Here in Koh Tao, twice weekly massages are a luxury I can easily afford. Typically I go for one full hour Thai or oil massage (300-400 baht or $9-12 USD) and one half-hour reflexology session (200-250 baht or $6-7 USD).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I realize that isn’t possible in most parts of the world. When I’m in the US and my body is aching for a treatment, I scour Groupon for deals or trade with friends – in the past, I took a one-day massage course in Chiang Mai and I still like to bust out those moves.

Cost: I budget $80 per month for massages.

Education

Being in Koh Tao, I don’t have access to any formal education opportunities as far as nutrition and wellness. But I knew this would be an important part of my progress, so I crowdsourced books and documentaries on the subjects with a Facebook post asking friends for their recommendation. Here’s what I’ve downloaded as a result.

Watching

• Fed Up: Absolutely eye-opening — you won’t go food shopping the same way ever again!

• Food Inc.: The classic film on food in America.

• Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Emotional and moving account of one man’s struggle to change school lunch programs.

• Food Matters / Hungry for Change / The Sugar Film: Still need to watch!

Reading

• What Are You Hungry For?: The Chopra Solution to Permanent Weight Loss, Well-Being, and Lightness of Soul: This has been my favorite health-related read ever. It’s all about refocusing your perspective so that you crave the things that are good for you, instead of fetishizing those that are bad.

• In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: So excited to dig into this infamous book on our culture’s complicated relationship with food.

• Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us: My little sister loved this — I’m almost afraid to read it (I love salt, sugar, and fat!). But I do love being angry at major corporations, so there’s that!

• Eat. Nourish. Glow.: A recent recommendation I’m looking forward to digging into.

• Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life: My older sister recommended this as a way to help incorporate more plant-based nutrients into my diet, which I’m interested in for ethical and environmental reasons (though I don’t plan to give up meat entirely.)

Also

Attending yoga workshops, watching free TED talks on fitness and nutrition, and talking to friends and family about their experiences with health and nutrition.

The beauty of the fact that so many travelers have a laptop or iPad or a Kindle or even a smartphone means you can educate yourself anywhere you decide to do a DIY health retreat. Some documentaries are free or available on Netflix, but if not cost about $5 to rent. Books were generally around $10 on Kindle.

Cost: I budgeted $50 for books and movies. 

. . . . . . .

Trapeze Koh Tao

Now, there’s one element here that simply can’t be ignored: dealing with distractions! If I was sequestered away at an all-inclusive health spa, I certainly wouldn’t have the temptation to drink with my friends or order a pizza from my favorite italian restaurant… both of which I do here on Koh Tao, since I’ve been living here on and off for years. Ideally, I’d love to try creating a DIY health retreat in a destination where I’d have a few less diversions.

In total, here’s what you could spend for a month long self-styled health retreat. To make the comparison fair, I’ve also included a sample monthly rent on a past, fairly luxurious apartment of mine that included all my bills and weekly cleaning.

Rent: $420

Tracking: $15

Food: $500

Exercise: $150

Massages: $80

Education: $50 

Total: $1,215

As you can see, that’s quite a significant savings over the $3,500 Phuket version of the $6,000 retreat in Chiang Mai. Would I still love to hit one of those up someday and see what kind of physical transformation they might bring? Hell yes. But for now, I’m working with what time and funds I’ve got.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out — far from it! But I am trying to constantly guide myself towards a slightly healthier lifestyle, wherever in the world I may be. I have to admit, I’m currently in a bit of a slump where I’m feeling frustrated with my progress and I hope that publishing this, and starting a conversation with you all in the comments, will motivate me out of my funk. So let’s chat health and fitness!

What steps would you take for a DIY health retreat?

5 Apps That Will Help You Master Meditation

Even though it’s been around for thousands of years, meditation seems to be especially trendy these days. It’s part of the mindfulness movement that’s been gaining traction in the health and wellness world. And it makes sense that more and more people are actively seeking ways to manage their stress: A 2015 survey from the American Psychological Association found that overall stress levels have increased in Americans in recent years. These higher stress levels can affect mental and physical health in numerous ways: 39 percent of those surveyed reporting overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the last month due to stress, and 46 percent reported losing sleep over it.

Given what a profound affect stress can have on wellbeing, it’s no wonder that people are looking for innovative ways to get that moment of zen. Meditation studios have recently popped up in some of the country’s big cities (there’s Unplug Meditation in Los Angeles, MNDFL in New York City). But there’s also a variety of helpful meditation smartphone apps on the market. You may already know about Headspace, which is one of the most-downloaded mindfulness apps. But here are five new or under-the-radar meditation apps worth a try. Because, in addition to relieving stress, meditating can also improve concentration and benefits digestion as well as cardiovascular and immune health.

 

Sway 
Cost: $2.99
While most apps in this space feature guided meditations, this brand new option—it launched in late March—focuses on your movement as way to help you achieve mindfulness. The app uses your phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer to measure your moves. In order for the app to work, you need to be moving in a slow, consistent motion (think swaying back and forth or walking slowly). Once you at you’re at the proper pace, the app will soundtrack your moves with soothing music. If you get distracted or your movements are interrupted, the app interprets that as a lack of mindfulness and reminds you to refocus. According to the makers of this app, this interactive meditation is one of the newest ways to approach the practice.

 

Muse
Cost: Free
Another app that offers interactive feedback is Muse. And while the app is free, it does require you to use Muse: The Brain Sensing Headband ($249) in conjunction with the program. The sensor-equipped headband monitors your brain activity while you mediate with a soothing soundscape (such as a rainforest or beach sounds) playing in the app. If you’re zoning out to beach sounds, for instance, the ocean waves get louder when you get distracted, and lower when you’re back in a calm zone. The app tracks your sessions so you can see your improvements and set weekly goals in your practice.

 

Sattva
Cost: Free (with in-app purchases)
This app has been around for a couple of years, but its recent updates have given Sattva an improved experience. For Apple iPhone users, the app now works seamlessly with the Health app, using info on your heart rate and blood pressure (tracking these stats before and after each session). If you’re obsessed with numbers and data, this is the mediation app for you. It features a timer to help you time and track your sessions, and stats like your longest session and longest streak are also stored in the program. And if you’re the competitive type, you can compare your stats to your friends who also use Sattva.

 

Pause
Cost: $1.99
Inspired by the principles of Tai Chi, the makers of this app help you achieve calmness by incorporating touch as well as sound. You move your fingertip along a small, colorful blob around the screen while soothing sounds flood your headphones. The act triggers the body’s rest and digest response, which helps you regain focus and release stress in a calm manner. If you’re not a fan of guided meditations, this is a way to relax without the pressure of a voice leading (and possibly disrupting) you every step of the way.

 

Meditation Music
Cost: Free
If you’re an experienced meditator, you might not need any gimmicks to help you stay mindful through your practice. Enter this Android app, which strictly provides music as the soundtrack to your session. The app features a variety of ambient sounds (from a soft piano playing to mystic temple music) that promise to help you relax. Simply choose your preferred music, set the in-app timer and just say “ohm.” A gong sound will gently ring to let you know your session is about to end. And if you consider cooking a meditative process, use this app as your kitchen timer and the background music as you make dinner.

Active Voice: Too Little Exercise, Too Much Sitting and Expanding Waistlines!

By Ai Shibata, Ph.D., Neville Owen, Ph.D. 

Ai Shibata, Ph.D.Neville Owen, Ph.D.

Sedentary behaviors, put simply, mean too much sitting, as distinct from too little exercise. We now understand such behavior to constitute a risk to health, beyond that attributable to lack of physical activity. While research on sedentary behavior puts a novel slant on ways to think about physical inactivity, it should not be taken to negate or downplay the importance of public health and clinical recommendations on improving health outcomes through regular exercising and taking every opportunity to include bouts of moderate-vigorous activity in your daily life. 

Rather, this new focus helps to expand our perspective, providing further ways to think about the determinants of poor health within the overall texture of people’s everyday lives. A great many of us are deskbound in the workplace, through time spent sitting in cars and spending long periods of time in front of computer screens at the office and TV screens in the domestic environment. 

Against this background, we set out to examine – concurrently – the roles of moderate-vigorous physical activity and TV viewing time in determining the extent of increases in adults’ waist circumference. The national AusDiab study provided us with a unique opportunity to do so, using unique prospective epidemiological data. 

AusDiab originally examined more than 11,000 adults in 1999-2000 and, subsequently, conducted five-year and 12-year follow-ups. This landmark Australian study conducted a comprehensive assessment of risk factors for obesity and diabetes, with clinical assessments that included directly-measured waist circumference. We were fortunate, also, to be able to include from the very start of AusDiab not only the standard Active Australia questionnaire for characterizing moderate-vigorous physical activity, but also a simple self-report measure of daily TV viewing time. 

In our study, as reported in the April 2016 issue of MSSE, we use data from the three observation points of the AusDiab prospective cohort to identify the extent of 12-year changes in waist circumference. We examined those changes in relation to the changes in moderate-vigorous physical activity and TV viewing time that took place over the five years between the first and second AusDiab observations. With the multiple clinical and behavioral measures that were available, we were able to control for several potential confounding factors (including total energy and alcohol intakes) in our analyses. 

The logic of the comparisons described above gave our study some strong, but also challenging, scientific traction. Most previous studies on this topic have identified cross-sectional associations, or have used exposure measures taken at only one preceding time point. Our approach in our Australia-Japan collaboration resulted in us being able to identify stronger relationships of waist circumference change with the moderate-vigorous activity changes – and then to examine how these compared to what we saw for changes in TV viewing time. Of some interest in the context of the “either-or” debates that have emerged about physical activity and sedentary behavior, there were compelling (and as we see things, expected) combined effects – that is, we observed a 6.7 cm average increase in waist circumference for those who reduced their moderate-vigorous activity and increased their TV time. 

These findings add support to the case for addressing the two interrelated problems of too little exercise and too much sitting. Several countries – including Australia – have already adopted (or are considering) new sedentary behavior elements to be integrated into their physical activity guidelines. In practice, this can provide a commonsense and straightforward basis for advising patients and the public – we need to be emphasizing the importance of being physically active each day and, at the same time, taking every opportunity to reduce and break up sitting time. 

Too little exercise and too much sitting characterize the daily lives of far too many adults in developed countries. This pattern also is now highly prevalent in the rapidly-urbanizing populations of low- and middle-income countries. Both elements of the activity equation – moving more and sitting less – are keys that can contribute to a healthier population. Together with those two behavior changes is the need for a healthy, less energy-dense and energy-replete diet. With these changes, we can more effectively address the “epidemic” of obesity, as well as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious adverse metabolic health outcomes. 

The simple bottom line is: Sit Less, Move More and More Often!

Viewpoints presented on the ACSM blog reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM. 

Ai Shibata, Ph.D., is an exercise and behavioral scientist at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Japan. Her research addresses how best to increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior in clinical groups, the general population and among older adults through observational and intervention studies that employ objective measurement tools, such as accelerometers. 

Neville Owen, Ph.D., is head of the behavioral epidemiology laboratory at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. His current research is focused on understanding and influencing sedentary behaviors. His research spans experimental studies in the laboratory, observational epidemiological studies, real-world intervention trials and large-scale international work to identify the environmental determinants of physical activity and sedentary behavior. 

This commentary presents the authors’ views on the topic related to a research article which they and their colleagues from Australia and Japan have authored. Their research article appears in the April 2016 issue ofMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE).