Thursday, April 5, 2012

Broke & Healthy - Tips for Better Living on the Cheap

Springtime is associated with renewal, both outdoors in the garden (the flowering bulbs are up, the sun is warming the soil, the cherry trees are in bloom - festival is on today!) as well as in your home (spring cleaning!).

Muscari (grape hyacinth) and mint sprigs

And while I did feel the urge to purge my sleeping area from dust (you wouldn't believe the dust bunnies!), I've also started to wonder what little things I could do, for free or practically-free, to better my own lot . . . apart from getting rid of all that horrid dust under the bed!

Living a healthy lifestyle is actually quite easy in Canada, even on the cheap. Despite the evil marketing practices, you don't need to be rich to buy 'health' (though if the government brings in 2-tier, private healthcare, we might!).

Trendy vitamin pills*, exercise equipment, infused-fortified-instilled-with-antioxidants face creams . . . skip 'em!
(*although don't skip it if you're suffering from scurvy or your doc told you not to!).

The fact is that without spending much money at ALL, you really can take fantastic care of your body.

Here's a few ways to spruce your physical form up this spring, all on the cheap!

1. Floss your teeth. It's good for your teeth as well as your heart.

I used to hate flossing. In fact, it was something I, until recently, stringently avoided. I have tightly-spaced teeth, and by the time I yanked that floss past the tight bits, I would always cut viciously into my tender (inflamed!) gums. I dislike the taste of blood.

I avoided the necessity of daily flossing for some time with my Dad's favourite trick to ward off scolding by the dental hygienist. The irony of this one is inherent in the very description: drink a can of Coke right before the dentist's office. I've done it a few times now, and I always get the "What clean teeth you have!" compliment. Soft drinks, like colas, are very, very acidic (you may recall from elementary school that you can leave a dull penny sitting in Pepsi and the next day it'll be shiny and new!). All that phosphoric acid eats away at your tartar and teeth, so that with a quick swill or two, your mouth is shiny and new again. Unfortunately, this really isn't good for your teeth or your metabolism, and the ridiculous quantities of sugar in pop, added to offset the sour taste of the phosphoric acid, will quickly promote bacterial growth (i.e. plaque, tartar) and your teeth will be once again full of nasties in no time. And they'll probably be slightly thinner, too, as you likely wore away some enamel with that drink!

So I don't recommend the Coke trick, though it is a handy thing to know if you have a mid-afternoon dental appointment, and you want to clean your mouth out quick without the luxury of toothpaste or floss. (I haven't done the Coke trick lately, and at my last visit my teeth were marvelled at for being "amazingly clean". What toothpaste do I use? (They even asked me!). Easy! Whatever is the cheapest, and preferably the paste-kind, not the gel, by personal preference. But seriously - don't buy the "total care" or "pro-health" stuff. It's a complete waste of money!  Choose a toothpaste with some sodium fluoride, that's about it! Anything else is just to scare you into spending unnecessary money!)

Now that I'm older and wiser, and because of my education and an in-depth discussion with my hygienist about periodontal disease (eeew), I suddenly found myself very, very motivated to not get those 'pits' where your teeth have eroded past the gum line and where food and bacteria get stuck, beyond the reach of floss, oozing pus and odour and causing irreversible decay. That's just . . . nauseating. I don't want that in my mouth!

I can certainly handle the inconvenience and the (now minor and occasional) bleeding with the consequences of neglect now vivid in my mind! Oh yuck!

But there's more! Not only will flossing quite honestly save your teeth from rotting out from the bottom and falling out, there's also some evidence to suggest that regular flossing may correlate to healthier arteries! Here's an article on this. Now while it's not a direct connection between causation of a heart attack and having bleeding gums, gingivitis and a large bacterial load in your mouth does mean more inflammation and nasty little bacteria (which both get into your bloodstream), which very likely adversely affects atherosclerotic lesions or "plaques" in your vasculature.

So floss your teeth! If you want extra motivation, splurge on some of those little gold stars you used to get in grade school! I'm pretty sure Avalon Stationery on 4th Avenue sells them - stick them proudly on your Hope In Shadows calendar each day (or twice each day, like my hygienist recommend I do until there's no bleeding at all!).

2. Lentils!

Split peas, legumes, lentils and pulses

Well there's an unexciting header! But wait - hear me out! Lentils are cheap. Lentils are also extraordinarily good for you. And if you've never liked lentils (I hear you), it's time to try out a few recipes that will likely change your mind!

A previous post I did on lentils (if you love Indian or Pakistani food, you need to have lentils in your pantry!) mentions a few perks of these super-foods. There are absolutely delicious lentil-shepherd's-pie recipes in existence, too! Moosewood and Canadian Living have some fantastic ones. Everybody Loves Veggies at City Square Mall is a great place to try lentils if you're not convinced enough to try cooking them yourself!

These recipes from sound like a brilliant place to begin - note that lentils aren't limited to vegetarian options only!
The 990-reviewed, 4.5 star rated "Lentil Soup" recipe 
Red Lentil Curry
The "I'd never tried lentils before and loved this" Chicken and Lentil recipe 
Mediterranean Lentil Salad
Family-approved Lentil Taco recipe (499 reviews, over 10,000 saves!)

Still skeptical? Check out for a surprisingly pretty and professional website. (No really - just click! Surprising, isn't it?!). Nutritional information is here (highlights include high protein content, low glycemic index, high in fibre, high in iron, folate and potassium....!).

DID YOU KNOW - Canada is the #1 exporter of lentils worldwide?! Check out the Wikipedia chart - we're ahead by miles over India and Turkey! Nicely done, Saskatchewan! Canadian-grown lentils are typically the red or green variety (I know a great recipe for Greek Red Lentil soup with lemon, rosemary and feta cheese in the ReBar cookbook!). Weird - someone's cooking their way through the ReBar cookbook - link here to see that blog. Good advertising!

Be patriotic, be frugal, be very, very healthy - eat lentils!

3. Walk.

Any comfortable walking shoes will do!

No, you don't need Sketcher's shape-ups. And no, you don't need to buy a iPod. You don't need much of anything to walk, to be perfectly frank - shoes help, and sometimes a raincoat comes in handy.

Walking is so underrated in exercise-culture today. And it's something that so many of us take completely for granted. I spoke with an old lady at the bus stop the other day, who passed up a ride on the B-Line for the slower #9 trolley because it brought her one block closer. "Before, I would happily walk that block," she said (she was such a well-dressed, elegant older lady!), "but now it causes me such pain, I can't do it. I have osteoarthritis, and it limits how far I can walk."

I have a wheelchair-bound neighbour. He can't motor around all day - he needs to keep track of the battery charge and plan his trips carefully. You wouldn't want to run out of juice blocks from your home in the rain, would you? What would he do - hopefully he can operate a cell phone to call for assistance, but either way you can see that all of his trips would have to be carefully considered. Not much freedom there.

But your legs and feet - if they are in good working order, you can walk almost without limit!

One of these lovely spring days, just start walking home from work. Or start walking towards downtown on a weekend. You can always flag down a cab or jump on a bus partway, but start walking and see how you do. You see so much more when you're walking. You can shop and browse very easily - take 5 to check out that new store, or to grab a take-out menu. If you need to refuel, there's always plenty of places to buy a quick snack, drink or meal. And I can guarantee you you'll feel so accomplished when you get home. It counts as daily exercise, too! So why not try commuting a little differently next week - walk to the SkyTrain instead of catching a connecting bus. Or walk to the store for groceries or dinner once you get home.

Walking is also FREE. It's a good way to clear your mind and to take in the sights and sounds of the city around you.

If you're not confident, stick to main streets (4th avenue, Broadway, Burrard, etc.). If you are, head off the beaten track. And if you're quite comfortable, try the back alleys! It's illuminating to see what's in the backyards of your neighbouring buildings!

This long weekend is supposed to have very pleasant weather. I recommend walking the seawall. Stanley Park is a fantastic place to stroll, but so is the False Creek and Kits/Fairview side. Why not start from Granville Island (have brunch?), and walk round to English Bay for a beer, then turn around and head back? You'll have earned the empty alcohol calories with the walk, and you can't feel too badly about Hollandaise sauce if you walked for a couple of hours that day!

So go on - find comfortable shoes and put one foot in front of the other. You'll be amazed what you'll stumble across in our beautiful city!

4. Punch something (not someone!) for fitness and for all-important stress-relief

A punching bag  is preferable, but pillows work in a pinch

Boxing is a really terrific way to get fit - I can't think of a better way to work your arms and core! I personally prefer to attend kickboxing classes, but there's no reason you can't get the same benefit at home with a punching bag (if you have one) or even a mattress! If you're going to be hitting something like a mattress, prop it up so that it's at least at your chest height so you can pivot your way into the punch (that's where the ab magic happens!). Rolled up winter-weight duvets and sleeping bags work wonderfully, too!

This is a fantastic stress-relief, too. I know I can get a huge amount of grad-school-induced-rage out with a dozen or so satisfying blows.

Stress really can kill you, typically not the in the dramatic anger-induced-coronary, but more often slowly and imperceptibly in stress-exacerbated illnesses (and that's pretty much ANY disease state you can dream up - cancers, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, immune impairment, brain function, mental and emotional health, you name it!).

And I don't know about you, but when I go to the gym and start on the jab-cross-hook combos, there's a shocking amount of anger just waiting to be let out! I don't think I would have recognized it at all, were it not for the opportunity to use it to help propel me into a devastating right-hook! Maybe you don't even think you're stressed - it may be that you won't notice it until you give it the chance to get out! Kicking is great stress-relief too, but because of the inherent vulnerability of the knees, I'd leave kicks to proper instruction. (Always remember - your knee is a hinge, like on a door. It moves back and forth along a single plane. If you twist it to a side and try to bend it, horrible things will happen! Do not put torque on your knees! Rotate your leg from your ball-and-socket hip joint. Your knee can only safely move in a straight line! Remember this and keep your knees safe and happy!).

Fitness-wise, an hour or so that includes warm-up, punching, and cool-down has left my obliques and abdominals more worked and sore than any other exercise (including "Ab Ripper X", which is a great download; non-boxing and only requires a mat). My deltoids and triceps are still sore from class earlier this week - I feel fantastic, and a heck of a lot less stressed!

Never punched anything in your life? Here's how to throw good punches (free instruction!):

Just find something that can take your blows, and remember - it's going to leave you very sweaty and breathless, very quickly! It's a wonderful free and easy workout that does good in terms of cardio, muscle and stress!

5. Cut back the caffeine

You may not think you have a 'caffeine addiction' because you're not that 140lb guy that shows up at the start of each shift with a triple-shot Americano from Starbucks, only to be followed by another an hour later and a Red Bull at lunch. (I know this guy....! And he's a doctor, though obviously not a cardiologist!).

But if you stop drinking caffeine at all next week, or even just substitute your usual coffee for tea (probably a wiser approach - you might avoid withdrawal headaches this way), you will very likely notice a difference. I sure did, and I probably only drink coffee 4 times a week in the morning!

Caffeine, in my opinion, is going to end up on our collective "no-no" list in the very near future. It's too bad, 'cause this little drug is such a great and accessible stimulant! But it is abused.

I have a heart arrhythmia, and so I can really feel the effects of caffeine-overload. (It's actually possible to get caffeine poisoning - if you don't believe me, ask an emergency room physician or read up on it here. It's not good, and can even be fatal!).

Starbucks and Blenz, according to anecdotal and casual research conducted by myself and a couple of other students, are the WORST for caffeine-overload. Having either of these two company's drip coffees (not espresso-based drinks - more research required there!) leaves us jittery, shaky and gets two of our hearts out of synch!

(I tried to look up the actual caffeine content on Starbucks' website, and it crashed, twice. Here's the link that's suppose to work from the parent page that does work but tells us nothing. Conspiracy?).

Remember that making coffee at home reduces waste, is more cost-effective, and as far as we can tell, it tastes better and leaves us less jittery. I'm suspicious that Starbucks adds caffeine to the coffee in order to give the public that 'jolt' they're all craving. It's like refining a drug for more potency, just like the heroin dealers do - addictions are easier to foment when the drug hits you hard and fast!

That's it for today! If you floss tonight before you go to bed, then again in the morning when you skip the cup of joe before heading out for a leisurely, long Good Friday stroll in your neighbourhood, have a little free 'boxing lesson' online in the evening while you cook up some dhal or stew or make a lentil salad or burrito for dinner, you'll have spent virtually no money at all and your body will be all the better for it!

I hope you feel inspired and encouraged to make-over your routines, for free (or practically free). You have my permission to ignore all the marketing to the contrary!

Oh yeah - Central Gourmet (Cypress and 1st) has delicious bagged navel oranges in right now (the bluebird-labelled ones). Haven't checked New Apple market, but they may as well. Really tasty, and a great snack for after a long walk or a good bout with the pillow!

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