Friday, January 23, 2015


It's been said so often that it's become a truism: diet and exercise. The real trick is in actually sticking with the program. When I started my weight loss journey, I took the route of vegetables and salads to replace my rice and other carbohydrates. But I knew I needed to couple it with a physical regimen.

The thing, though, was that I was suffering from cervical spondylosis. A disk between the bones of my neck had worn down or collapsed, an unfortunate effect of age. The disk impinged on the nerves, causing all sorts of pain and other strange sensations down the length of my arm (I've written about this in the past.) Physical therapy managed to mitigate its effects, but I have to be careful with strenuous activity.

I consulted my orthopedist to ask what I could do. As I expected, exercises which involved any form of physical shock were out of the question. That included aerobics, jogging, running, boxing, jumping, etc. So what options were available to me? As it turned out, my condition turned out to be a blessing in disguise, otherwise I might not have learned what I did.

"There are two kinds of exercise," the doctor said. "Cardio and resistance. With cardio, you're only burning the calories while you're exercising. With resistance, you continue to burn the calories hours after you finish."

Resistance, or strength training, usually meant weights. With the condition my neck was in, though, lifting heavy objects was also discouraged. What were my alternatives?

"Even a thirty minute walk helps," the doctor said.

I thought of the small swimming pool in the clubhouse of our subdivision. We had been living in our new place for a year and I had largely ignored that feature. "How about swimming?" I asked.

"Yes, swimming does the trick. The water reduces the impact to your neck. Or even just walking around in the pool. That also provides a lot of resistance."

That was a good thing. I didn't know how to swim.

The following week, I brought out my trunks and headed for the pool. I recalled my old swimming lessons and splashed around embarrassingly in the water. Fortunately, no one was looking. I couldn't even go the length of the pool without losing breath. Nevertheless, I persisted, even if it meant pausing in the middle. I would do three "laps" and when I couldn't even swim anymore, I walked around the perimeter of the pool. It all started in late January last year.

Here's the thing, though. I kept at it every day. The three "laps" became five. Not long after, I found I could traverse the length of the pool and then halfway back. Then I'd do ten rounds of walking in the water before going back to swimming. Sometime in April, my wife noticed that my shoulders had taken a different shape.

I still wasn't doing the proper laps, though, and I knew the problem was with my breathing technique. Like any other digital native, I went right to the source: YouTube. I looked up swimming videos and found what I ought to have been doing. I should have been expelling air while I was in the water; then when my mouth is above the water, the impulse to inhale will come naturally. I foundered the first few times, but then soon I got the hang of it. I was finally swimming right!

At the moment, my regular circuit is twenty laps. I've given up walking around the pool because swimming is just so much better. Granted, it's a small pool, just ten meters in length, but the twenty laps still translates to 400 meters. That's four laps on an Olympic-sized pool, without stopping. I like to think that I keep it at the twenty laps because I keep my exercise sessions to a little less than thirty minutes. One of these days, I'm going to try for just a bit more.

So really, this has become more than about weight loss for me. When I was younger, my classmates would make fun of me because I couldn't swim. Now, more than thirty years on, I've crossed that milestone in my life.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Almost, Pope Francis

The closest that I ever got to Pope Francis was in the Vatican itself in May of last year. It was the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. You could say it was a pretty historic moment. We started out from the hotel at four in the morning, but by the time we got to St. Peter's Square it was already packed with devotees. Some had been camping there since the day before. I was told that pilgrims from John Paul II's native Poland had actually walked for two weeks so they could be there.

Our group had decided to try to inch our way forward from the street where we had entered. No dice. We were jammed tight shoulder to shoulder with everybody else. A lady from Malta almost fainted. Fisticuffs almost broke out between one of our friends and a rude Italian (and I have since learned, Italians are in general rude and nasty.) In the end, we stayed where we were. St. Peter's Square, the main altar, and Pope Francis -- they were just around the bend, probably twenty paces forward, a corner turn, and then probably four blocks straight on. Between us: about a million people, or so it seemed. So close yet so far.

In time the canonization rites finished. The crowds began to disperse and there was breathing room again. Part of our group wanted to go back to the hotel -- we were tired and irritable. We took it to a vote. We had come all that long way and we might never find ourselves back there again, so why not head on to the main square. And so we did. We trudged on, brushing past the million people heading the opposite direction or across, over litter scattered everywhere. Miserable, miserable.

And then...we reached a certain vantage point where I could see the main plaza of the square, the obelisk straight ahead, and to the left and to the right the columns and on them the statues of the apostles and the saints. It finally hit me. I was in St. Peter's Square. My head was awhirl.

On the jumbotron I could see Pope Francis greeting the dignitaries. They came in a line. All around us were still the million people. It all seemed so unreal, like in a dream. And yet...reality was also calling.

"I found a bathroom!" one of our companions yelled. "It's over in the souvenir shop."

So yes, we hurried over. We fell in line, shuffling forward, crossing our legs and fidgeting. Do you know that feeling when you finally get your turn and you can let it all go? I swear I heard the angels sing their hallelujahs.

We got out, finally, back to the mob.

"Pope Francis! Pope Francis!" I heard another fellow pilgrim shout.

"Where?" I said.

"We saw him as he passed by in his Popemobile. We got a picture!"


"Oh, he's gone now."


So was born the joke between my wife and myself. If we should ever meet Pope Francis again, we would tell him: "We were there at the canonization. We waved at you." Pause. "You didn't wave back."

And now Pope Francis is in Manila and I'm in Davao. When we first heard about the apostolic visit, we harbored the secret hope that he would pay Mindanao a visit. No dice. The joke would have to wait another day.

After all the hijinks we've been through in Italy, I thought I'd find this whole visit to be so blah. After all, I had been that much closer to Pope Francis many months ago (and I missed him because I was in the bathroom), what's so special about seeing him on TV? And yet...and yet...last Thursday, when I entered the office, the TV was on and my colleagues gathered around it. The plane had landed, and they were opening the door. Each time Pope Francis made as if to stand, I cheered. I don't know why.

Then the airplane door finally opened, and the two dignitaries went in, and a few moments later Pope Francis stepped out, a gust of wind blowing away his zucchetto.... Well.

Welcome to the Philippines, Pope Francis. Thank you for the visit.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

How I lost 40 pounds over the course of a year

I started 2014 tipping the scales at almost 200 lbs. That was the result of too many croissants and three-in-one coffees over the many months of the previous year, compounded by the many feasts of Christmas towards its end. I was on maintenance medicine for hypertension and any little physical exertion would send me wheezing for breath. On top of that, I was getting sick every month with cough and colds.

I'm starting 2015 at 160 lbs., give or take a pound. If there was ever a New Year's resolution that I am proud to have kept, it would be this one. Over the course of several months last year, I shed almost 40 lbs. and I've managed to keep it off. Sometime in the middle of the year, the doctor took me off my maintenance medication because my blood pressure had gotten too low. While I'm not Olympic quality, I can now do ten to fifteen laps in our community swimming pool without pausing. I feel great!

I wish I could say there was a magic pill that I took to trim down to where I am now. I'm sure that would be worth a lot of money. But really, there isn't. At the end of the day, it came down to diet and exercise and what was essentially a lifestyle change.

A visit to a dietitian in January last year kicked off my quest. The doctor took me through all the food combinations -- what to eat, what to avoid -- and as usual it was getting all complicated and daunting. But at the end, she summed it up to a neat guideline. "Take your usual 9-inch dinner plate," she said. "Half of that should be vegetables, one fourth meat, and one fourth carbs." Okay, that seemed easy to theory. In practice? I didn't like vegetables very much.

A few days later I was invited to dinner at Vikings, the massive eat-all-you-can buffet franchise. That would have scuttled the project before it could even begin but I managed to turn that almost-disaster to an advantage. "The food is paid for, whether I eat a lot or eat a little," I reasoned, "so it doesn't matter what I get." That night I turned away from the roast beef, Peking duck, chicken cordon bleu, bulgogi, pizza, and other gastronomical temptations and ate only...salad.

It seems stupid to pay P1,200 for a buffet meal and eat nothing but lettuce and tomatoes with a side of cheese and crackers, but as I said, the dinner wasn't coming out of my pocket. Somehow that sacrifice turned out to be a transformational moment. Salad, I realized, wasn't so bad. In fact, with the right dressing, it could be delicious!

And really, that was the whole beginning. The next visit to the grocery, I went, for the first time in my life, to the produce section and picked out lettuce leaves for myself. I also got tomatoes and cucumber and experimented with a couple of types of dressing. The following day, I started preparing my own salad.

Along the way, I discovered a really surprising thing about vegetables in my diet: I was getting hungry less. It's very strange, counterintuitive even, but I found out that if I ate only rice with my meal, I would get hungry again after an hour. If I ate my meal with salad, I could go on for two to three hours before I felt hungry again.

Eventually, it came to a point where I could go without rice at all, only fresh vegetables for my meals! That's the way I am now. On the rare occasions that I do take rice, I go for at most half a cup only. This, I think, accounts for the biggest factor in my weight loss.

Next: Exercise