If you’re wearing a Fitbit to bed, like a patient I saw last week, you might be seeing pretty colored charts that confirm just exactly how poorly you slept last night. And if you’re like her, it may only be increasing your stress about what you already know: You’re tired! You’d like to sleep through the night!
Yes, as you’re likely tired of hearing, it’s hormones. Estrogen and progesterone are in decline, and the mix of hormones (add cortisol, the “stress hormone” to the cocktail, too) may be less friendly to sleep than it once was. Hot flashes, which can happen day or night, come with a surge of adrenaline, from which you need to recover before you can settle back to sleep.
A few of the people I’ve talked to for The Fullness of Midlife, our podcast, have had some light to shed on our sleeplessness. Joan Vernikos, a retired NASA health science researcher, says sleep is “like a cleaning service in an office. ...The cleaning service starts out by emptying the garbage cans, by tidying up, picking up—and that’s what happens with the brain during sleep in the various cycles. If you wake up and you don’t sleep well, not only are you going to make mistakes the next day, but you’re not going to detox your brain.”
Menopause can sometimes bring its own befuddlement, right? Memory lapses. Foggy thinking. Well, add in some sleep deprivation and a brain in desperate need of a “detox,” and you can imagine a day that you’d rather forget.
Another podcast guest, Dr. Pamela Peeke, gave us a pep talk about making “sleep hygiene” a priority. She points out the relationship between sleep and diet: We’re much better able to be in control of our appetite—not because we lack self-discipline but because of busy hormones at work in our bodies—when we’re well-rested.
Make “sleep hygiene” a priority? Well, it sounds good. And there’s plenty of reason to do it, from easier healthy eating to clear-headed days. Here’s what it takes:
A perhaps unexpected side effect? Since stress and fatigue are two of the three most common obstacles to sex (the third is lack of privacy), you just might find yourself with a little more romance in your life.
Makes “sleep hygiene” sound a little sexy.
In the last post, we examined where we are right now in life in order to identify where we might want to be in the future: the health of our bodies, our spirits, and our relationships as well as the dreams or passions we have not yet pursued (or maybe even identified).
With this in hand, let’s move on:
Step #2. Same drill. Quiet place; journal in hand. Read through your initial entry. Anything to add or edit? Does it still feel honest?
What leaps out at you from your work? Do you notice any patterns—boredom and overeating; stress and impatience; lack of self-assertion and a feeling of victimhood?
Did you identify something you always wanted to pursue or to learn? Are there disappointments you uncovered? Are some elements of your life story simply incomprehensible to you—how did you end up here, you ask?
Sit with these for a minute. What tugs at your heart? What calls to you? What sounds absolutely awful or completely thrilling? What needs a closer look?
Also read over your assessment of your primary relationships. Any action plan needed here? Fences that need mending or habits that need adjusting?
You aren’t writing anything, necessarily. You’re just noticing habits, patterns, ways of thinking, and how yesterday’s work makes you feel today.
Now. Begin creating your reinvention plan. This is the eulogy moment. What do you want people to say about you after you die? How do you want to feel about your one and only life? Begin to articulate the big, sine qua non items. The ones you cannot die without having accomplished. Make a list of them. Not an overwhelming list—the top three or four. The big ones.
Choose one. This is your project for this year. And maybe for next year. If it’s that important, you may work on it for the rest of your life. Break this goal down into manageable steps that you can start doing tomorrow. What’s the first step, then the second? Travel to Africa? You’ll start by researching your options with the goal of having a plan in place this year. Lose 35 pounds permanently? Research your options with a goal of having identified a realistic, lifelong approach this week that you can begin practicing next week. Learn how to play the flute? You’ll need to find an instrument and a teacher…
Next, review those primary relationships—kids, extended family, spouse. Have you identified tendencies to work on? Habits to develop or break? Relationships that need attention? Relationships that need special nourishment or a new approach?
Don’t overlook the one relationship that is most critical to your longevity and quality of life. “If you’re in a happy marriage, you will tend to live longer. That’s perhaps as important as not smoking, which is to say: huge,” says Lyle Ungar, one of the researchers of that data-driven longevity calculator I mentioned in the first post. Knowing that someone in the world knows you intimately, loves you, and has your back adds measurably to quality of life. It makes sense, then, to focus especially on this relationship in your life review—to test its soundness and ponder how it might be strengthened.
List one or two specific steps you can take immediately that will make any of these relationships stronger. Also write down one or two habits or personality traits that impede them—that you should work to change.
With a path identified (for the year, at least) and the initial steps delineated, you’re ready to begin. Let me just add the wisdom of a few professionals and life-reinventers who have walked this path before.
Practice gratitude. Every day. “…allow yourself to be grateful for the things you…have. Anger is never inspirational but gratitude is,” writes the best-selling albeit hyperactive author, James Altucher.
Goals, such as those you just articulated are important because “if you don't have long-term goals, you run the risk of doing lots of little things every day—cleaning the house, sending emails, catching up on TV—without ever making a contribution to your future,” says Art Markman, psychology professor and author in this article.
Stay flexible. Change is never static. Reinvention is an ongoing process. You’ll have to rinse and repeat again next year (or next month) to make sure the goals you set today are still relevant and important and that your progress is unfolding according to plan. “Too often, we give up just when we need to push harder, and persist when we actually should quit,” writes one author.
Change is never easy. Expect setbacks; anticipate resistance. Anything really challenging and worthwhile will take time to accomplish, so if it’s really important, don’t shortchange yourself. Persevere through the tough spots. “The most successful self-reinventors are those who understand that they have time and are willing to use it to invest in their own skills and education,” writes this author.
Declutter. Yes, you read that right. Downsizing, clearing out, cleaning up can feel both psychologically freeing and is also metaphorically linked to ridding your life of things that hold you back—mental clutter, too many commitments and obligations, relationships that are buzz-kills or worse, according to Margaret Manning, blogger and creator of sixtyandme.
There. You did it. I hope you feel empowered or at least optimistic. You should now have a roadmap for the months ahead. I’d love to hear how the project is working for you and if you have suggestions to refine it.
Need inspiration? Some of our “The Fullness of Midlife” podcasts are on topic: Lesley Jane Seymour on reinvention, Kate Convissor on overcoming fears, Deborah Robinson on appreciating our own bodies and treating them wellI, Joan Vernikos on how movement keeps us capable.
I had a shock the other day.
In an unguarded moment, I ran across one of those life expectancy calculators. You know, the kind that will tell you how many years you have left on earth after 10 minutes of softball questions.
Basically, I believe that predicting how long you’ll live is a fool’s errand—any of us could get hit by alien laser rays or a schoolbus tomorrow. But my data-driven heart was sucked in by this calculator, which was developed by professors at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and based on 400,000 data samples collected by the National Institutes of Health and the AARP.
Now, I know that I fall in a healthy category for weight, activity level, and absence of chronic disease. But, still, the results shocked me.
Ninety-six. My estimated life expectancy is 96.
This is enough time to live a second adult life. This is enough time to start another career or follow a dream or pursue a passion. This is not enough time to waste.
So, that’s the challenge I put before you (and myself) this January: the macro view; the life-reinvention perspective. Because no matter how much time we have (or think we have), why squander it in self-defeating, fearful ways? Or simply by drifting through a handful of years without direction?
Reinvention isn’t a quick-fix project; it isn’t a lose-five-pounds resolution. It’s a project we could (and should) work on for the rest of our lives, periodically reviewing and adjusting our goals to see if they still fit.
Now—today—is a good time to start. So I put before you the proprietary MiddlesexMD Reinvention Project. Ready?
Step #1. Take stock. No shortcuts here. Sit yourself down somewhere quiet. Open to the first page of the Reinvention journal that you bought for this occasion. (You did get one, didn’t you?) Today’s task is to examine the important aspects of your life. As realistically and objectively as possible. You can’t envision a new you without a solid understanding of who you are now, right?
How’s your health? (Obviously my first question.) Are you content with how you feel? How do you feel about your eating/exercising habits? Your weight? Your overall mobility? Your blood pressure and cholesterol levels? Your mental acuity? Do not indulge in guilt or leap to quick, feel-good resolutions, just assess your physical self realistically.
How’s your spirit? Do you feel lonely? Optimistic? Afraid? Content? Discontent? Restless? Do a full-spirit wellness scan. Are the physical and spiritual linked in some way—being overweight and depressed, for example? Are you handicapped by free-floating fears or anxieties? Does stress nibble at the corners of your life—or maybe devour the whole enchilada? Do you feel unsettled and discontent or grateful and happy?
What is the source of your greatest joy or satisfaction? What are you good at? What are you happiest doing? Where does your passion—or your pleasure or your interest—lie? What have you always wanted to attempt? Do you have dreams that you decided had passed you by or that you are too afraid to try? Is there anything you would regret not having done before you die?
Examine the health of your most important relationships. Our closest relationships are the sources of our greatest joy and satisfaction as well as our greatest heartbreak and frustration. We expend a lot of energy repressing, denying, or making excuses for broken relationships, whether with family, lovers, or friends. Does this sound true for you?
Are you keeping up with friends and loved ones, or have you let important relationship wither on the vine? We also sometimes endure relationships that kill our spirits, that are toxic to our psyche and sometimes our bodies. Resolve now to examine them with a clear eye. You don’t have to do anything today except be honest with yourself.
Write it all down in the journal. This is the first day of your new you.
Okay. Take a deep breath. You’re done for today.
Humankind has been trying to cover up its natural odor ever since we crawled out of the cave. Maybe this made sense when bathing was considered dangerous and soap was made from animal fat and wood ash. But in our obsessively hygienic and more enlightened time, why all the fuss about odor, specifically that of our nether regions? And why all the products meant to make our bottoms smell like a spring breeze, whatever that means? (Watch this Saturday Night Live clip for a hilarious take on the topic.)
As far as I can tell, these products follow a long, inglorious line of more or less successfully convincing women that they stink. In a 1930s ad, the “Love Quiz” asks why her man is avoiding his lovely wife’s embrace. The answer is that he’s no longer happy in the marriage because she’s neglected “proper feminine hygiene.”
The solution? “Every wife can hold her lovable charm simply by using ‘Lysol’ disinfectant as an effective douche.” Yeah, that Lysol.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Eighty-odd years later, have we really come such a long way? We may not be squirting floor cleaner up our yoni, but there are no lack of products on the market to camouflage our natural odor. Now, just as back in the day, the intent is to make us feel self-conscious and embarrassed about ourselves. To shame us into buying products we don’t need and that sometimes aren’t good for us.
Our vaginas don’t smell like a spring breeze, nor should they. Our vaginal smell comes from a delicate balance of certain bacteria called lactobacill—the same bacteria found in yogurt. When you think about it, a natural vaginal odor has that same slight pungency. In the vagina, lactobacilli produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, to give us a slightly acidic garden that works with our bodily ecosystem to keep out bad bacteria and the fungi (yeast) that produce the really smelly stuff, sometimes accompanied by a ferocious, burning itch.
While our vaginas are quite resilient, if enough lactobacilli are killed off by medication, those nice-smelling douches, excessive sugar in our diet (encouraging sugar-loving yeast), trapped moisture in our crotch, or even blood or semen, which are fairly alkaline, the resulting bacterial mash-up can cause both odor (fishy or foul) and itch.
In that case, your doctor may advise treating the bacterial or fungal infection or using an over-the-counter product, like Balance Moisturizing Personal Wash, to restore the natural pH balance in your vagina.
Vaginal smell can also be affected by:
Left to its own devices, our vaginas are hardy and self-sufficient. They wash away dead cells and grow new ones. They don’t require special hygienic measures—just the normal shower wash of the external parts with warm water and a gentle soap. Just make sure the soap is fragrance-free and not antibacterial.
I’m betting that by now most of us have grown comfortable enough in our own skins and with our own natural smells not to be overly influenced by commercial messaging. Not that it is any less relentless, nor is there any lack of products and procedures to alter our appearance. By and large, we’ve just become wiser and less susceptible to the barrage. So maybe pass along the message to our younger sisters that they are beautiful and smell fine just the way they are.
In previous posts, we discussed why menopausal weight gain is such a game-changer, and we explored how to limit the damage through dietary changes. Now, we’ll talk about the second critical key for maintaining—or regaining—a healthy weight after menopause.
You know what I’m gonna say.
Exercise. Not only does a regular exercise regimen help you burn more calories, which is what weight loss is all about, but it can also give you a higher quality of life and actually stave off illness.
Longitudinal studies have found that people who are more fit at midlife have lower levels of chronic illnesses, such as heart failure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, colon and lung cancers, as they age. Although other factors, such as heredity, play a role, in general, higher fitness levels were strongly linked with lower rates of major chronic illnesses. “Compression of morbidity” is when debilitating illness doesn’t happen until close to the end of life—and people with healthy, active lifestyles tend to have compression of morbidity.
How’s that for paybacks?
I can tell you from personal experience that a regular, moderately challenging exercise regimen relieves stress, helps you sleep better, reduces the “aches and pains” associated with aging, and helps you to keep up with normal activities of daily life. It regulates your bowels and your moods. And simply feeling stronger and more capable physically helps you to feel more capable and in control of your life generally.
However, I will also say that maintaining a serious (and by serious, I mean regular and moderately challenging) exercise regimen is not easy. It takes time and self-discipline. It makes you sweat. It makes you breathless and it might make you sore.
Not only that, you have to approach exercise differently in your golden years than you did before. You won’t be able to just take off running without a serious warm up; you’ll have to watch your form more carefully; you’ll want to opt for low-impact exercise. Your postmenopausal exercise regimen should contain four elements:
Lately, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is recommended to increase the effectiveness of an aerobic workout. In this regimen you alternate bursts of higher activity, such as jogging, with a less active period, such as walking. This gives you an “afterburner” effect in which your muscles continue to burn oxygen after the period of high activity. This AARP article has a good explanation of the benefits of HIIT.
Arguably, the hardest part about exercise is getting started. If you have any health conditions that might limit your activity, such as high blood pressure or arthritis, you need to talk with your doctor about what exercises you should and shouldn’t do.
Ideally, you should find a gym with classes or a trainer to get you started—to make sure you’re using correct form, and to show you how to use the machines. Yoga or Tai chi classes with experienced teachers are fantastic and motivational for establishing an exercise regimen.
If this isn’t practical or possible for you, you might turn to the internet for videos and programs. You want substance, knowledgeable leaders, and safety, not razzle-dazzle. Try Fitness Blender (free workout videos and programs for all levels of fitness), Daily Burn, ($15/month; variety of workouts, including yoga, tailored to age and fitness level) or Yoga Today ($15/month with a discount for yearly membership; many workouts tailored to fitness level).
The next hardest part of an exercise regimen is continuing. You will miss days; you will have days in which you don’t work as hard as you should. After a few missed sessions, starting again is hard. That’s just how it goes. You start over; you don’t quit.
Part of the battle is finding a program that works for you—one that is varied, challenging (you are progressively lifting heavier, going longer and faster), but that isn’t killing you. Soreness is good; pain is bad. Move carefully without overextending or snapping joints. Always warm up and cool down.
This is your new normal: a clean diet, a daily exercise regimen that alternates weight training and aerobic exercise and incorporates stretching and balance segments.
I promise you that every ounce of effort invested in a healthy diet and regular exercise will return to you many-fold in a much higher quality of life now and in lower risk of chronic illness down the road. Let me know how it goes and send me any questions you may have. This stuff is too important to overlook.
What is it about that first, unblemished day of a new year? The first white page of a journal? The hush that follows merrymaking; the pause before the quotidian rushes in again?
I’ve always loved that moment of held breath after one year ends and before the next begins. For me, it’s a day (or, more realistically, an hour) of reflection when I remember, take stock and my own measure, of what the year has brought, and how I’ve responded to it.
Resolutions, however? Not so good.
Turns out, there’s a bit of art and science to resolution-making—a few principles that increase our odds of success. In the spirit of helping us all out to a solid start, let’s explore ways to make our resolutions stick. (Success is always affirming.)
And secondly, instead of resolutions focused on self-improvement, let’s explore resolutions that focus on relationship-improvement.
Far be it from me to diminish the value of losing weight (#1 on the list of New Year’s resolutions for 2015) or of “staying fit and healthy” (#5), but I would suggest that, in addition to these worthy goals, you get a lot of bang for the buck when you work on your sex life. According to relationship consultant Dr. Sheryl Kingsberg, a good sexual relationship adds significant value to a relationship (15-20 percent), whereas a poor one actually drains a relationship significantly and negatively (50-70 percent).
Since only 8 percent of the people who make resolutions actually achieve them, let’s look at ways to beat those dismal odds.
Even with something that’s supposed to be light-hearted, like improving your sex life, you should realistically assess what is likely to work for both you and your partner. Maybe planning a romantic evening at home would work better than a night out. If your partner isn’t entirely on board, maybe you’ll work on your own sexual health and subtly introduce changes
Don’t give in. Get up and start again. That’s the very essence of discipline—keeping on.
Next January 1, when you reflect on the year just passed, I hope you can derive some quiet pleasure in having moved the intimacy needle a bit and generally banked some points in your sexual wellbeing account.
Continuing with our series of tips for holiday sanity, and even enjoyment, this is the most fun suggestion of all: Schedule a quick, romantic getaway for after the holidays to re-connect with your honey and get some downtime in a sweetly unfamiliar place.
You want to keep the emphasis on the fun and not get carried away with anything elaborate and expensive. A weekend away with minimal planning increases the chance that you’ll actually do it—no good excuses, and it’s easy to find someone to check in on the cat.
A quickie in midwinter can be especially economical and especially delightful. You’ll encounter a laid-back and welcoming atmosphere that’s lacking in the midst of summer tourist season. You’ll also encounter off-season rates.
I fondly recall a midwinter weekend in a tourist town near my West Michigan home. Yes, some places were closed for the season, but the rest of the town was just as scenic and beautiful in winter. We eavesdropped on local chatter in the diner and neighborhood pub that had been crawling with tourists just a few months before.
So, here’s my down-and-dirty guide to a relaxed, relationship-rejuvenating weekend in the middle of the long winter night.
You are now approaching the crescendo of holiday preparation. Give yourself a treat to look forward to. A weekend getaway won’t break the bank but will ease both of you out of the post-holiday, wintertime blues. And maybe just knowing you have this special weekend on the calendar will remind you to be more gentle with each other during the holiday frenzy.
Yeah, I know. The last thing you need right now is another list of ways to avoid stress during the holidays. The mere thought of another list is stressful all by itself.
I don’t cotton to holiday de-stress lists, either. That’s why I combed through dozens of tips from experts and ordinary folks to winnow out what I think are the best, most truly helpful holiday reminders. I’m betting that something on this list will truly make your life easier and your spirit more joyous. Most of the suggestions even have some science behind them, which always makes me happy.
Holidays are a booby trap for intimacy. So much to do; so little time: cards, cooking, cleaning, decorating, gifting, partying, shopping, visiting. Makes me exhausted just to think about it! Little wonder, then, that the first casualty of holiday celebrating is usually our closest relationship. It’s just too easy, either to vent our stress on our significant other or to ignore the daily interactions and kindnesses that lubricate the wheels of intimacy.
So, to help keep those wheels humming despite the holiday frenzy, let’s explore a few creative ways to share the love with your honey. Actually, when you think about it, Christmas is delightfully sprinkled with sexy innuendo. So let’s think about it.
I hope this list gives you some ideas to work from. If nothing else, I hope you resolve to navigate this special season with an eye to preserving your own peace of mind and nurturing your relationship.
Many of us are very goal-oriented. We like to make lists and to tick items off those lists. We like order; we don’t like chaos.
Unfortunately, life is messy and sometimes chaotic.
At no time is this truer than during the holidays. All the demands of the holidays—the shopping, cooking, partying and gathering—will simply be heaped on top of our already overflowing schedule. We know that the price we pay will inevitably be snappishness, exhaustion, maybe the scratching of old scabs and regurgitation of old hurt.
In the interest of helping all of us not only to survive, but maybe even to enjoy the holidays, I offer you a mini-tutorial on a practice that has been known to help everyone from cancer patients to Fortune 500 executives. It’s even known to improve our sex lives, which is why we highly recommend the practice of mindfulness on our website.
Mindfulness is a straightforward concept. It’s developing the ability to pay attention to the moment—not to zone out, but to develop a facility of focused attention, without judgment or emotion, on the present. Mindfulness was a Buddhist concept, but in 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, adapted and developed it into a formal eight-week program for patients “who weren’t being helped” by traditional medicine. His program incorporates meditation, mindfulness exercises, and yoga.
The results were impressive. Patients experienced less pain, and they healed faster. The practice relieved stress and improved the immune response. The concept of mindfulness meditation quickly seeped into the broader zeitgeist.
Now, I know that it’s one thing to read about a spiritual practice, helpful as it may be, and entirely another to actually incorporate it into daily life, especially in the midst of holiday frenzy. The essence of mindfulness, however, is simple and almost intuitive. Best of all, it takes almost no time. You can practice mindfulness while you’re rolling out pie crust or brushing your teeth. It quiets our “monkey mind” and brings us back to the moment, which, after all, is the only moment we really have.
“Life is available in the here and now, and it is our true home,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and globally famous spokesperson for mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t take effort, and it doesn’t take time. It just requires a focusing of thought and awareness. The basic meditation is to focus on your breath: Just paying attention to breathing in and breathing out. Your breath doesn’t have to be long or short. You just have to follow your in-breath and your out-breath.
You can think, Breathing in, I’m aware of my body; breathing out, I release tension in my body. You mentally pay attention to any parts of your body that are tensed—your lips, your neck, your back—and consciously relax that part. When you wait in line or stop for a light, you have a bit of time to practice this focus and release. And then smile, says Thich Nhat Hanh.
This principle can be applied to whatever you’re doing: cooking, cleaning, taking a shower, taking a walk. You bring your attention lightly but completely to the activity you’re engaged in. You don’t think about the next thing you have to do or the fight you had with your spouse this morning. Those thoughts are like the clouds crossing a bright, blue sky. You observe them without emotion or judgment and let them go, returning to your focus on your breath or your walk or the pie crust.
As you practice mindfulness, you may become conscious of the moment before you react to something. When you are aware of that moment, the moment before you react, then you have a choice about how you will react, whether in anger or kindness, fear or trust, passion or forbearance. If you’re aware, then you have a choice.
"Between stimulus and response there's a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom," writes Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
I’m thinking that if ever there was a good tool for avoiding those uncomfortable confrontations during the holidays, this might be it. If you’re aware of the moment of stimulus, when your brother makes a snarky remark about your son’s tattoos, for example, then you are given a moment of choice about how you’ll respond. And a moment to breathe in, breathe out without tension or judgment.
Even though it’s effortless, developing this practice isn’t easy. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice.” I do know that improvement, however incremental, helps me to live with gratitude and gracefulness.
And during the holidays, I simply can’t get enough of either.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The real miracle is not to fly or walk on fire. The real miracle is to walk on the Earth, and you can perform that miracle at any time. Just bring your mind home to your body, become alive, and perform the miracle of walking on Earth.”
Amen to that!