Wag More, Bark Less

by Russ Roberts on November 9, 2011

in Health

This post is an update on my fitness and diet regime. Earlier report is here. And way below the fold, I will add some thoughts on Jewish philosophy and diet and health. If either of those themes is your cup of tea, read on.

Nine weeks ago I began going to the gym six times a week. On three days, I ride a stationary bike for 35-40 minutes. Every five minutes of that routine I raise the difficulty level and pedal like crazy for one minute. During the regular pedaling, my heart rate is about 115. During the one minute more intense pedaling, it’s around 130. Occasionally, I substitute a class for the bike. The classes are hard. Riding a bike might be good for your heart but I’m not in shape.

The other three days, I lift weights. On the machines, I do leg extension, leg curl, leg press, chest press, and cable rows. Then with free weights I do a barbell press, lat raises and curls. I finish with ab crunches on a mat. For the weights, I typically do 15 reps at a lowish weight I can do comfortably, 8 reps with a heavier weight, then end with 4 reps at an even heavier weight. (Suggested by Art DeVany in his book.) I’m not strong. But in ten weeks I’ve seen steady improvement.

On the diet side, I’ve cut almost all sugar and almost all carbs. Not completely but very little of both. No junk food at all. Almost no potatoes, rice and pasta. If it’s served. I have a taste. But no fries. They are a great weakness. I eat lots of protein, fruit and green vegetables.

I’ve now lost 21 lbs.

It’s mind-boggling that I can lose 21 lbs without really dieting. My portion size is down a little but what has really changed, because of the elimination of carbs and sugar, is the urgency of my appetite. The other night my wife and I went to a play, coming  home around 10:30. We usually make omelettes and a salad for a late dinner like that. My wife mentioned how tired she was. I said, Let’s just skip dinner.

Those four words have never come out of my mouth. I would have been happy to eat. But I was happy not to eat. It is that change, along with a higher energy level that has been the biggest effect of my new diet and fitness regime.

When I came out of the gym this morning I was in an exuberant mood, looking forward to the day. On the car next to mine was a bumper sticker I love–Wag More, Bark Less. Meaning–be content and don’t complain. It’s a philosophy I try to hold to but it doesn’t always work. I have much to be grateful for, but being human, I get angry at times, annoyed, frustrated. I bark and forget how much there is to wag about.

But when I saw that sticker I realized that over the last nine weeks I’ve wagged a little bit more and barked a little bit less. Some of that is the pleasure you get from any kind of progress, especially when it can be quantified. Stepping on the scale makes me happy. Working with heavier weights makes me happy. Exercise produces chemicals that make you feel good. But there’s something else going on because of the change in diet.

In the old days I’d come home from work starving. I’d look for something to munch on before dinner. The longer I was home, the hungrier I felt. Sometimes I’d be so hungry, so eager to eat that I’d be short with my kids or my wife. Inside me was a voice saying come on come on come on come on let’s eat.  And I’d bark at a kid about something. I’m ashamed of that behavior but it used to happen. Not all the time. But too often. I’d tell myself, that’s not me. That’s my hunger talking. What a weird and pitiful excuse. I’m in a bad mood because I’m hungry? What kind of a justification is that for being easily annoyed or frustrated? But I felt it inside and tried to control it with mixed results.

That anxiousness I once felt before a meal began hasn’t happened in the last nine weeks. Food satisfies me in a way that it never did before. I don’t eat the foods that make me unsatisfied. My wife makes delicious home-made pizza. But I’d want at least three pieces and I’d be happy to have a fourth. No portion really satisfied me. Now I don’t eat any pizza. Big improvement. I still like to eat but I never find myself gorging or grazing, two habits that used to cause me to eat without really paying attention.

A common piece of diet advice is to eat slowly and savor your food. But when I eat carbs, I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Now that I don’t eat carbs, I can do it. and it works. I’m thinner and I bark less.

Now for the Jewish part. If there were another fold I’d put this below it, so if you’re not interested in religion or spirituality, thanks for reading this far.

Chassidic philosophy encourages us to live joyously. Leading a religious life, which has unique challenges, is not supposed to be a burden. You’re supposed to fulfill the commandments with joy. Wag more, bark less. Another aspect of Chassidic philosophy is that we have a physical side and spiritual side. Judaism sees our physicality as an opportunity and not a curse or a burden. We are supposed to use our spiritual side to elevate the physical side and make it holy. Judaism is not ascetic. Jews are supposed to enjoy the pleasures of this world but in a holy way. This is one of the great challenges of a serious Jewish life. Nachmanides says you can be a glutton with the permission of the Torah, meaning you can keep all the commandments but still not be very holy in the way you eat or approach other aspects of physical existence. In particular, you can keep kosher but gorge yourself, pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.

What strikes me about the change in my diet and exercise is that it has helped me restrain the physicality of hunger in a way that has made me a more pleasant person to be around at dinner time. I know it’s only chemical but I think that’s exactly the point. The change in my diet has made it easier for me to keep my physicality in perspective.

Are those changes real? Are they universal? I assume we all have different metabolisms especially in how we react to sugar and carbs. Does everyone who changes their diet the way I have feel the reduced anxiousness of hunger? I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments if you’ve made these changes yourself.

And maybe it won’t last. Maybe I’ll backslide on the diet or get tired of going to the gym six times a week, especially when I hit a plateau. I’m writing this post partly to help encourage me to stick with it. Here’s to wagging more and barking less.




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