Heading to Japan, 2017 edition

You know, it’s never too early to plan our annual trip to Japan. At least that’s what we were saying when we started looking for flights to Tokyo on this cold and wet January Sunday morning.

After last year’s amazing trip, it was pretty much inevitable that we’d have to come back. So we searched for flights around the same time of year and, with @FrankDJS‘s usual skill and a gazillion BA frequent flyer miles, we have a two-week trip to Japan all booked. Well, the flights, at least.

Well, the flights, at least. At, due to some diligent and focused collecting of BA miles via every route known (and unknown) to humanity, we’ll be going and returning First Class. A guaranteed excellent start and end to the holiday – based on previous experience, at least.

While it’s not until September, that won’t stop me making lots of plans for where to visit. We fly in and out of Tokyo – literally my favourite place on earth – which gives us amazing opportunities to plan day-trips out of the city on the most fantastic form of public transport in the world: the Shinkansen bullet train.

Right now, I’d love to spend a couple of days back in Kyoto, but also visit Kanazawa. We dropped it from last year’s itinerary, as it was turning into a bit of a mission. Less holiday, more gruelling tour. So maybe we’ll get over there this time round.

The other key activities will obviously include:

  • Geeking out: on Shinkansen trains and Akihabara in Tokyo
  • Chilling out: in various onsen hot springs
  • Filling out: by eating far too much, but enjoying every mouthful

I’m determined to make 2017 another epic year of travel. So far, we have two trips to Spain booked (April and June), which will include Barcelona, Sitges, Mallorca and Alicante and now Japan in September.

That leaves plenty of space across the summer for some time in the sun. And plenty of time to pull together an exciting itinerary for Japan.

An accountability update

Since I so publically committed to shedding some of my inappropriately acquired flab, I thought it would be useful to provide a bit of an update. Accountability and all that…

Things I’m happy with

I’m less fat! In terms of shedding weight, I’ve gone from 68.8 to 66.6 kilos since I started the year. Not bad, seeing as we’re only two weeks in and I’m now back in the swing of business – and business travel. Which always makes eating well more of a challenge.

I’ve managed to keep up a vaguely healthy eating habit. (But…see below). More to the point, I’ve been happy with my willpower in turning down opportunities to gorge on cake, fries, beer etc.

I’ve not touched any booze, which is great on a number of levels, but also probably due to the fact that people don’t tend to party as much in the first two weeks of January! I’m going to keep it firmly in the ‘special occasions’ bucket. December really was the outlier when it comes to the last few years. Cocktails when on holidays, bubbles for birthdays. Tonic water at all other times.

For example, last night, I had an hour to kill in an airport lounge in Dublin. There was temptation all around me, but I stuck to a single Diet Coke and avoided the mountains of Tayto crisps. Actually, I’m extremely proud of this, as I usually can’t stop at a single pack and tend to eat three or four in one sitting.

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I also managed to avoid the delicious cakes on offer at the workshop I was facilitating in Dublin. I stuck to soup and had some coffee. And I did not go hungry. I just had to keep the cakes out of my direct line of sight!

And last time we went to Wagamama, I opted for the very delicious chicken chili ramen and avoided the Chicken Katsu curry which has about three times the calories.

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Again, I did not go hungry and really enjoyed every mouthful. It’s really about making good choices from what’s available, not necessarily depriving yourself.

I’ve maintained a healthy activity habit, combining runs with trips to our gym, where I watch ‘The Crown’ while on the cross-trainer. This allows me to watch something entertaining (I know I’m late to the party) while burning about 600 calories per visit. Fun and fit!

Things I’m less happy with

Well, since the last update with my neurologist, I’ve had to up my meds. In practice, this means taking anti-seizure medication every night and then a further, smaller dose first thing in the morning. I won’t go into all the side-effects, but it leaves me so very tired. And a bit dazed. So I’m not really a morning person anymore.

Not that I ever was.

This makes it harder than ever to sneak in a bit of exercise in the morning. Almost impossible. I just need to work around it.

This afternoon, after a nice long walk around the Isle of Dogs, we went to Shake Shack for lunch. It’s just opened here in Canary Wharf, so I was keen to try it out. This was a mixed experience, as I went for a double cheeseburger (boo!) but stopped myself ordering the usual fries (yay!) and had a diet coke instead.

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I’m glad I had the experience, but also a bit disappointed at the temporary failure in my willpower. I’m not saying I was dragged into the Shake Shack and had the burger forced into me and I’m not saying I walked in mindlessly and ‘accidentally’ ate 740 calories of oh-so-delicious cheeseburger.

I did it of my own volition, but now I have some regrets. It’s good to own this, to remember this and to use the memory next time I’m tempted to eat like this on a day I’m not going to the gym.

All in all?

All in all, I’m pleased. It hasn’t been too much of a chore and I haven’t ‘suffered’. Not a jot. It’s been a pleasure seeing the weighing scales give me good news for a while, but also enjoying exercise in the gym again.

I don’t want to do extremes. I want to do everything in moderation: exercise, eating, thinking about eating…

So what’s been a help?

The things that have helped me so far are:

  1. Having a gym in my apartment building, where I can go to exercise in relative privacy. I can go there any evening and even during the day if I’m working from home. It takes me no time at all and I have everything I need. No barrier to exercise!
  2. I’m using My Fitness Pal to track what I’m eating and drinking. I’m not obsessing over calories – really, I’m not! – but I find that the act of writing in what I eat makes me both more mindful of what I’m consuming, but also more aware of how it makes me feel when I eat at different times of the day.
  3. Huel has also been a life-saver in terms of making quick meal replacement shakes easy and tasty. I don’t suffer from spikes in blood sugar or sudden urges to snack anymore. And the Huel bars really are brilliant for taking in your bag when out and about.
  4. My Apple Watch and the Apple Fitness and Health Apps keep me up to date on weight, exercise and general movement. I have exercise goals to meet every single day and the watch keeps me on track. Without that, I’d be using my memory and that’s about as reliable as a chocolate teapot these days.
  5. Doing all of this with @FrankDJS has been fantastic. We don’t have any ‘tempting treats’ in the apartment, having donated a ton of post-Christmas chocolate and other stuff to the concierge team in our apartment building. If it’s not here, it can’t be eaten.

What’s next?

More of the same, with a goal of getting my weight down to something a lot more reasonable before we go to Spain in April (no way of hiding love handles on the beach!) while also increasing my regular exercise. Hopefully, this will include some longer runs, once I get my shoulder sorted out.

I’m also going to build in a cheat day each week, where I’ll allow myself to have a meal that wold normally be verboten.

I won’t obsess, I’ll just enjoy every mouthful.

I’m good at that.

 

 

Alexa? Welcome home.

I bought an Amazon Echo Dot last weekend, with the various Amazon vouchers I got from my family for Christmas. I’d been thinking about getting the ‘full’ Echo model – you know, the one that looks like the monolith from 2001?

I opted for the Dot after some intensive online research (a good 15 minutes of flicking between the usual websites) illustrated that the only difference between them is the speaker. I figured that I could plug the dot into one of the bluetooth speakers we have at home and it would effectively do the same thing.

Except for £49, rather than £149!

And it’s about a fifth of the size of the Amazon Echo and much less obtrusive in the home. I don’t really want the apartment looking like I’m completely obsessed with gadgets. Even if I am…

It arrived on Sunday and I set it up in a flurry of geeky excitement only matched by the time I got my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. The excitement of trying something very, very new. To me, at least. Using verbal commands with a system built for just that.

I’ve previously found Siri to be unreliable and far less competent and consistently accurate than Google assistant. But the online demos I’ve watched illustrated what the Echo – with its built-in ‘Alexa’ assistant – can do were inspiring.

Set-up took less than 10 minutes. I spent more time in fact organising cables behind my bedside table. As that’s where the echo is now located, plugged in to the Beats Pill bluetooth speaker.

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Yeah, yeah…but is it any good?

Yes. Yes, it is. It responds to common-sense commands when you want to listen to music (via Spotify!), when you want to set an alarm, set a sleep timer, listen to the radio… all as you would expect.

“Alexa…play Radio 4”. Boom! Radio 4 comes out perfectly of the Beats Pill speaker sitting next to the Echo.

“Alexa…play my dinner jazz playlist on Spotify”

“Alexa…wake me up at 6am tomorrow morning”

“Alexa…go to sleep in 30 minutes”

Well, you get the picture. It’s extremely intuitive and I haven’t really encountered any situations where it’s not obvious how to ask Alexa to do stuff. And Alexa confirms in a very easy to understand and natural-sounding voice. Soothing, even.

But wait, there’s more!

Quite literally, in fact. I so fell in love with Alexa, I ordered another Echo dot for my study. The external speakers attached to my iMac died a couple of weeks ago. I can’t complain – they were SO old. When I started to think about buying new ones, I realised I could get speakers to connect to another Echo (Alexa’s sister, if you like) who could help me out when I’m at work.

So far (and I’ve not had a lot of time to experiment this week), I’ve connected it to Spotify, my Google Calendar and ToDoist. All of which work very, very well. I’m sure there’s a ton more I can do with it all, but that’s for this weekend. Right now, I’m just happy that Alexa has lived up to my expectations.

I just wish more things (and people) responded so helpfully when I ask them… And I’m very excited to see where Amazon take this platform. Especially as they’re licensing the technology out vendors making everything from fridges to cars.

Huel breakfast on the go

Keeping a Huel bar close at hand saves me from a calorific airline breakfast. Three cheers for Huel!

I’m writing this in Dublin, where I’m working for the day. It’s a typical in-and-out workday, with an early flight in and a late flight back to London this evening.

I used precious time in bed to wake up gradually this morning – the alarm went off at 04:45! – rather than make some breakfast. I did, however, grab a Huel bar from the kitchen on my way out the door to London City Airport.

And boy was I glad I did. I’ve managed to lose over 2kg since the start of the New Year’s better eating habits and I didn’t want to undermine it by eating lousy food at the airport or (sorry, British Airways!) on the plane.

The breakfast offered was a ham and cheese stuffed croissant. Basically, half my daily calorie allowance packed in the form of butter and fat. So I politely declined and had a coffee and a Huel bar. It was tasty and filling and I kept to my plan.

Yay me.

It’s 11:45am and I still couldn’t eat a thing. Huel is incredibly filling. Lunch, however, is going to be a nightmare, as I’m with clients and won’t have much of a choice. But I’ll get back in the saddle for dinner and make sure I don’t over-indulge in the airport lounge.

I’m so pleased I can have something like Huel on the go – especially when airport security rules mean it’s impossible to bring a liquid with me. So I’ll be ordering some more Huel bars when I get home and they’ll become a fixture of my backpack when I’m traveling.

Remembering our last trip to Tokyo this morning…

…such great memories of a fun week in our favourite city. This was located just down the street from our hotel in Shinjuku and we walked past it at least twice a day on our way to and from Shinjuku station.

It’s time to plan a return visit, I think! Something amazing to look forward to towards the end of the year. Tokyo will definitely be on the list, but I’d love to go back to Kyoto this year – it’s always a nice contrast to Tokyo’s madness.

Detox bollocks

It’s the time of year when all the newspapers are advising their readers to engage in one form of detox or another. They spend all of November advising us which fattening food to eat to have the ‘perfect Christmas’ and then point out we’re fat and out of shape and ‘need’ to go on a ‘Detox’.

Here’s the thing: they don’t work. Your kidneys and your liver detox your body. That’s what they’re there for. That’s why you get so ill when either of them malfunction.

Magic salts or fruit cleanses don’t detoxify you. On the other hand, it’s also probably a good idea to give your body a break from the onslaught of 24/7 goose fat and mince pies! Hence the natural tendency for people to change their eating habits come the new year.

But the claims made by the papers and newly-published health books are ludicrous and normally evidence-free. Often fronted by a celebrity with zero medical or health training, they make huge promises and deliver nothing in return except a sense of disappointment when it doesn’t work for you.

I was thinking about detox methods in the sauna last night. “Hypocrite!”, I hear you cry. Hold on – put down your pitchforks. I wasn’t in the sauna to detox, inspired by a D-list celebrity’s book that came free with a tabloid newspaper. I don’t sit in the heat imagining that the copious sweat traveling down by face and dripping onto the floor is actually full of dangerous ‘toxins’ or the remnants of mince pies and Christmas pudding.

(Although a two-decade scientific study in Finland did indicate that regular sauna use is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease – bonus!)

No. I take a sauna because I enjoy it. The detox I was thinking of was absence of electronics and noise. I was completely alone in there and it was silent, aside from the clicking and sighing of the sauna heater.

I was also gadget-free. The sauna is far too hot to wear my Apple Watch, even if it’s waterproof. I think it would either melt and/or burn my wrist. The iPhone was safely in my bag in the changing room next door for exactly the same reasons. All I had to hand was a copy of The New European and my thoughts.

And it was a very welcome break.

It was then that I realised why I enjoy the sauna so much. Aside from the physical pleasure of getting slowly cooked and then jumping into a freezing cold shower, I enjoy the absence of other people getting in touch with me and the lack of any gadgets to steal my attention. It’s a pleasant change to be alone with my thoughts and to focus completely on one story in the newspaper.

It’s the only reason I subscribe to a physical news paper at all. It’s published weekly and gives me just enough content to read while sitting back in the sauna. As it’s essentially disposable, I don’t worry about it getting wet or damaged by the heat.

When I’m not reading – and sometimes, the heat makes it difficult to concentrate or, frankly, the sweat in my eyes makes it impossible! – I just sit back and think, or if I’m feeling a bit stressed or tense, I practice mindfulness.

No religious connotations, just mindful focus on my breathing and my posture. Just a few minutes a day is really helpful to me and while I usually use Headspace as a guided meditation tool, that’s impossible in the sauna as it’s an app on my iPhone. So it’s been a great experience in practicing mindfulness meditation without external stimuli or guidance.

So, I actually have my own little detox cough bollocks cough from the world at large every time I step in there. Actually, I’m going to stop using the word ‘detox’ as it’s so meaningless and potentially harmful.

The sauna is what it is: taking a break from the world outside and having a good old think. Something that can be tough for many of us these days. And given my epilepsy is exacerbate by stress and sleep disturbance, the sauna is an ideal way to knock both of these on the head – especially if I meditate while I’m in there.

It’s a habit I’ll definitely continue in to 2017.

A Huel upgrade

Now that I’m back into a semblance of healthy eating (healthy for me, that is – I’m no saint, nor am I a puritan!) and eating drinking consuming Huel regularly, I decided to expand my Huel repertoire and try new combinations.

I’ve already identified a couple of combinations that I really like:

One mixing Huel with espresso and some almond milk, for a morning wake-me-up and caffeine-boost, which is also nice and filling. In warmer weather, I throw in some ice-cubes too.

It helps me avoid skipping breakfast, which is probably one of my unhealthiest habits.  I only seem to be able to eat breakfast when I’m on holidays and it’s in the form of an unlimited buffet. Hmm…

More recently, I’ve been adding matcha green tea to the mix, sometimes adding in a banana for a bit more substance. This is really tasty, but not sweet. I don’t really want to start the day with a milkshake!

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Earlier this week, I ordered a couple of new(ish) Huel products: the Huel flavour system and the Huel bars.

I got the former to add a bit of variety to the Huel combinations and the latter as an on-the-go meal replacement for when I’m traveling for business and want to avoid greasy (but delicious) bacon rolls and croissants.

The Huel flavour pack

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I opted for the chocolate version and it’s worked out very well. I’m actually sipping a Huel smoothie made with it right now. It takes very, very little of the mix to dd a lot of flavour to the drink. I made my first one with a full teaspoon of chocolate flavour to a 500ml drink and it was a bit over-powering.

Since then, I’ve added half a teaspoon and it’s a lot more manageable. I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth – I’m more a fan of the savoury, as food-related entries on this blog might indicate! – so if you do like your sweets, you may need to experiment to find the right mix.

I’ve actually found it to be more like a mocha flavour. It’s not a sweet, sweet chocolate, more like cocoa (non-sweetened), which suits my preferences perfectly. I can see this becoming a breakfast staple when I’m at home. Good job, Huel!

The Huel Bars

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The bars arrived at the same time as the flavour pack, but I didn’t have any reason to eat one as I’ve been based at home all week. So yesterday afternoon, following a very early lunch, I decided to have one with a cup of coffee.

Each of the bars is 250 calories, so I don’t think they’re intended as regular snacks! The bars are also chocolate-flavoured, but as with the flavour packs, not overwhelmingly sweet. They are very, very dense. But in a good way. A small bite will take you a little while to chew and to swallow.

I was glad I had the coffee with me! It definitely helped. It took me about 30 minutes to finish the bar (while working at my desk and sipping coffee), which surprised me to be frank. I assumed I’d have to pace myself and avoid scoffing it down in seconds.

Maybe I’m making it sound more negative than it actually was. Asa meal replacement/addition, it does the job. It’s a very healthy option, it’s easy to transport and keep fresh and it’s incredibly filling. Surprisingly filling, in fact. Which is really why I got it in the first place.

Final verdict?

I’m really pleased with both purchases and will be buying more of the bars for sure. I think the flavour pack is going to last me some time, based on usage to date! Both mean I’m more likely to avoid snacking on something unhealthy and both contribute to keeping me pleasantly full.

Not the Christmas I-can’t-believe-I-ate-the-whole-thing full, but satisfied and no long hungry. Yet still able to stand up and move about. You know, like a healthy adult should.

And you know the benefit of eating something so simple for meals? When you sit down to a dinner made with fresh ingredients, every mouthful seems so much more delicious! And I eat less, as I’ve eaten appropriately throughout the day. Huel for the win!

 

A lunchtime dash

Being my own boss and working from home regularly means I can ‘step out’ of work when it suits me. And today at lunchtime, it definitely suited me.

Although really cold, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. I’d spent the morning huddled over my keyboard, furiously re-writing a new workshop, so I needed some exercise.

Shoulder-pain aside, I was up for a run, so I grabbed my gear and headed out into the sunshine and the riverside. I love running by the Thames as there’s such a sense of space and there’s always something interesting to look at.

Even if it’s the hordes of other runners who take a lunchtime dash around the docklands. I’d forgotten about them!

I got as far as Tower Bridge and headed back through St. Katherine Docks and around Shadwell Basin, which despite its name, looked glorious in the sunshine… plenty of wildlife floating on its eerily-still surface, while the Canary Wharf skyscrapers were almost perfectly reflected in the water.

I’m still using Apple Fitness on my Apple Watch, rather than Nike+, to track my running. It seems accurate enough and I just want to maintain a log so I can see performance improvements. I’ve no triathlons in the calendar this year!

9km in 50mins isn’t my fastest ever run – not by a long shot – but I was trying to avoid aggravating my shoulder any more than necessary and was also plagued by some unhelpful cramp in my calf muscles. Humph.

All the same, it was really enjoyable and something I really should do more of seeing as a) my boss is such a supportive (and good looking) chap and b) I live so close to the river.

Three cheers for the NHS

I’ve written before about how amazing I think the NHS is. Think about it – a free-to-all health service. What an amazing concept. 

Unfortunately, it’s seen better days and is sorely lacking in investment. Jeremy Hunt seems to be doing his best to alienate every clinician in the country. But it’s still fantastic and I for one never want to see it go. 

A quick story, from my own experience. And it’s not an Epilepsy story, you’ll be glad to hear!

I damaged my shoulder running the Royal Parks Half-marathon back in early October. Like an over-competitive idiot, I decided to sprint the final 500m, and as I crossed the line, I felt a mixture of joy (that I’d beaten my previous time) and dread (that my left shoulder was making a strange grating noise and was suddenly very, very painful). 

Within thirty minutes, I basically couldn’t move my left arm. I couldn’t put my hoodie on, I couldn’t lift the arm to take a drink from a bottle of water and even walking (limping, if I’m honest – I’d just run a half-marathon) began to make it hurt. 

A few days later, the pain had all but disappeared. But after a few weeks of no running, my first post-race run was marked my breath-taking pain in my left shoulder. Not as bad as immediately after the race, but enough to slow me down. A lot. 

Rinse and repeat through November and the boredom of the pain was getting me down. And it was getting worse. Even walking briskly resulted in pain. A pain that came and went like a ninja. Appearing without warning as I’d put on a shirt or roll over in bed. So I eventually arrived at the adult decision to consult a professional. 

Thanks to our NHS, I was able to:

  • Book an appointment with a local GP, at a time of my choosing, using an app on my iPhone. 
  • See that GP within 48 hours and get a sympathetic hearing and some practical next steps.
  • Receive a referral for an MRI.

This was on the 23rd of December, just as the UK was descending into the madness of Christmas. 

I received a text message on December 28th, inviting me to choose an MRI appointment. I called them back on the 29th and was able to pick an appointment for January 3rd. Tuesday morning, I got the train up to North London and was in and out of the clinic in 30 minutes. Everyone I came into contact with was friendly and helpful. 

Long story short, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. And I know this experience isn’t shared by everyone who comes into contact with the NHS. It can be slow, it can be bureaucratic. I’ve been there. But it can also be amazing. And we should remember that. Especially now, as it’s under more of a threat than ever before. 

Epilepsy-related postscript…

I thought about leaving this out, but couldn’t! I received a call from my neurologist this afternoon. He was responding to an email I’d sent just before Christmas, to discuss some test results and changes to my meds. I got thirty very helpful and friendly minutes of his time and a referral to another specialist.

This was all on the NHS. Free at point of delivery. And really, really helpful. Yes, I know my taxes are paying for this. And I pay them with pleasure. And I’d be happy to pay more for a ring-fenced save-the-NHS fund. If any politicians had the balls to bring it forward…