Pet health: don’t take it for granted

Our first dog as a couple, and my first dog ever, was a Belgian Tervuren named Charlotte.  She came to live with us when she was 11 and we had four wonderful years together before she passed away.  We had a lot of great times, but we also struggled with many health problems over the years: a torn ligament in one leg, digestive issues, incontinence, and finally a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease with its accompanying symptoms of hair loss, skin problems, excessive water consumption and urination, UTIs, and loss of muscle tone.  That took its own slew of diagnostic tests to nail down, but it was worth it because the medication made a huge difference in her quality of life and ours too.  We we regulars at the vet’s office for those years.  It was hard to deal with emotionally as well as practically.  I hated knowing my girl was uncomfortable and spent a lot of time worrying and thinking about how to make things better for her.

Fast forward to today: Max and Sonny just had their annual checkup and vaccines.  They are very healthy, and I don’t take that for granted.  Even simple things like having a good appetite.  There was a time years ago when Matt and I had a conversation just about every day that went something like: “How was her poop today?”  ”Pretty good.”  ”Awesome.”  Now we only mention poop if it’s out of the ordinary, or to comment on how nice it is that Sonny uses the edges of the yard while Max goes right in the middle of the yard if the mood strikes.

I hope they stay healthy for many years to come, and we will do our best to make that happen.  We’ve been on the other side and know how hard it is.

To healthy pets!


Tags: dogs health Kelly

Is low-VOC paint safe for children?

According to a study by researchers from Harvard University and Sweden’s Kalstad University and published in Environmental Health News, the solvents used in many water-based paints linger in homes and are linked to asthma and allergies in children.  The scary part is that low concentrations of these PGE fumes can have an affect, and even low-VOC or no-VOC paints may contain these harmful solvents.  

I am doubly interested in this issue because 1) we are planning on painting our house in the not too distant future and probably have kids at some point in the also not too distant future; and 2) I have a background in environmental health with a focus in exposure to environmental contaminants.

This is one of those times that I am glad we procrastinated waited to do some house projects.  We haven’t painted anything yet because we have bigger fish to fry (project wise) and various holes in the walls that still need to be patched.  We don’t have kids yet, but given that these PGE fumes can stick around, we might as well not introduce them into the house.  Mother Earth News and Utne Reader both list some brands of paint that are PGE-free.  I will definitely be looking into this issue and doing some research on which paint would be safest for any little ones that might come along in the future.  And the collection of free paints we acquired from freecycle and friends will probably just have to mosey on its way to someone else (without little kids) or get thrown away. 

Don’t freak out if you have young children and recently painted.  The study found that risks were correlated with exposure levels, so if you used low- or no-VOC paints, you are much better off than if you used the regular stuff.  Also keep in mind that this is only one of countless known and unknown environmental insults we are all subjected to daily and throughout our lives (this is meant to be somewhat reassuring - hmm).  We can do our best to reduce these exposures, but we’ll never escape them completely.  Infants and young children are at the highest risk because their bodies and brains are rapidly developing, so it is best to minimize their exposure when possible, but there’s only so much you can do.  If you are really concerned about a baby’s room that was recently painted, something that might help is repainting with one of the safer paints (like Safecoat) to seal in the other paint.  Make sure you’re not adding VOC-laden pigments to VOC-free base paint.  Then air out the house - hey it is spring!


photo from Wikimedia Commons

Fitness multitasking (or, how to secretly ice your shins at work)

I don’t believe in mental multitasking.  There’s a growing body of evidence showing that the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, and when people think they’re doing two activities at once, they’re really just quickly switching back and forth between those activities, losing efficiency in the process.  At work, I try to focus on one thing at a time and not get distracted by checking my email in the middle of a meeting, which is easier said than done!  Office culture doesn’t support it.

That said, I don’t apply the same philosophy to workouts.  When you’ve done an activity hundreds or even thousands of times, muscle memory develops.  So I figure my body knows how to run with good form (even easier on an elliptical runner at the gym) while my mind focuses on something else.  Whether it’s socializing with friends, exercising the dogs, listening to podcasts, reading, or catching up on bad TV, I like the feeling that I’m accomplishing two things at once.  Not to mention how adding a reward to the equation takes advantage of the principles of operant conditioning to increase the likelihood that I’ll exercise again soon, which I successfully used to train myself out of my decade-long aversion to running and drop a few pounds that had somehow attached themselves to my thighs.

I also like to squeeze in some little things at work, such as mini stretching breaks or taking the stairs.  While most people in the building seem to take the elevator even when they’re only going from one floor to the next, I try to take the stairs whenever reasonable.  That’s a pretty normal thing to do.  I don’t restrict myself to doing what is normal.  Especially when my weirder behavior is easily concealable.

For instance, sometimes I covertly ice my shins using my handy blue gel ice packs.  Secure them with a couple of cut-up retired socks, cover with pant legs, and no one is the wiser. 

It might not look like it, but trust me, the pant legs do conceal this mess quite well.  [Note: this would obviously not work with skinny jeans.  One of many reasons I refuse to participate in that trend.]  Gotta fend of shin splints before it (they?) sidelines me!  The dogs and their boundless energy have me getting out for runs more often, and I want to keep it up for them and for me.  The best time to ice is right after running, but a couple of other icings throughout the day helps too.


My plan to train myself to run again… and enjoy it

When I was in high school, I was a distance runner.  I ran 6 days/week, 48 weeks/year, x4 years.  I could run pretty fast for a long time.  Then I got burned out.  I had been planning to run in college, but by that summer I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.  In the 12 years since (whoa, am I really that old!?), I have only run the occasional mile or two here and there.  Throughout that time, I’ve always worked out at the gym at least a couple times a week and I’ve maintained a decent level of fitness.  From time to time, I’ve thought about starting to run again, but whenever I make an attempt I feel slow and out of shape.  This is in sharp contrast to my fond memories of running fast, endorphins flowing, surrounded by fantastic coaches and teammates/friends constantly providing encouragement and motivation.  Going it alone is tough.

Three weeks ago I decided to step on the scale at the gym, as I’d noticed that lately some of my favorite and best fitting pants were no long fitting quite so well.  Even so, I was shocked when the needle landed a good 5 lbs higher than the number I’ve been used to seeing for the past few years, which in turn is 5 more than what I’d consider ideal for me.  So I ramped up the intensity of my gym workouts and set a goal of 4 days/week.  Last week I ducked into the locker room in the building where I work to see if there was a scale (I don’t have one at home) to check my progress.  No scale, but I did find a stack of back issues of Runner’s World left by one of my coworkers.  I started reading, got inspired, and decided that running should be part of my plan.  But how to overcome that blah feeling and keep going until I get in good enough shape that it’s actually fun again?

My answer: operant conditioning with a focus on positive reinforcement.  I’ve been learning about it for the last couple years because I’m fascinated by dog behavior and training.  I plan to use clicker training with any dog we get in the future.  You can use the same principles to train any animal, person, or even yourself!  The basic idea behind positive reinforcement is that by rewarding a behavior, preferably while the subject is doing the behavior or immediately afterward, the frequency of the behavior will be increased.  An added benefit is that the subject will often enjoy doing the behavior more, too.  Being healthier, losing weight, etc. are not good rewards because they can’t be delivered on time.  I decided that listening to my favorite podcasts - This American Life and Radio Lab - while I run (and not at any other time) would be a good reinforcer for me.  I also thought it would be helpful to eliminate any inadvertent positive punishment (discomfort, iPod falling out of my waist band) so I got myself a shiny new pair of Asics and a sporty pouch for carrying small items.  I also dug out my digital watch and improvised a sport band for it out of a nylon bracelet and a piece of a sock (because the nylon edges are scratchy).  It looks super classy.  Maybe someone will get me a velcro watch band (this one please - in wave blue) for my upcoming birthday.  Asking for a present via blog entry, that is classy too.

Yesterday, I warmed up and then ran for 30 minutes with a few bursts of speed mixed in, while listening to TAL #406.  It felt good.  I’m on my way!