The New Health Plan: 3-Month Progress

March 12, 2018 was the lowest health point of my life thus far. I weighed in at 215 pounds and my blood pressure was through the roof. Medication would be necessary but hopefully not permanent. My life began anew that very day. Physical training became a daily requirement. My diet underwent a dramatic change as well.

Weekdays now begin at 4 AM. I splash water on my face, brush my teeth, and lace up my workout shoes. My wife purchased a Beachbody On Demand (BBOD) subscription and that became the daily regimen.

In March, I trained with Chris Downing. His program was Shift Shop. Think of a football training camp and adapt it to daily 40-minute sessions. By the end of the month, it was clear that a change was happening. My stamina was better despite the lack of visual changes.

I reacquainted myself with an old workout friend in April. His name, Shaun T. His program, Insanity Max 30. This is the shorter version of Shaun T’s well-known Insanity, which I completed 5 years prior. Like the original, it uses only your body for resistance exercises in a non-stop cardio workout.

There was a visual change happening by May when I switched to Tony Horton’s P90 (not P90X). P90 is slightly lighter work than the “X” version. Had I started with this program back in March, it would have been a nice way to ease into the new daily grind but at this point in the process, it was too slow-paced.

June marked three months since my new life began and it was the month of my doctor’s follow-up. The month’s exercise program was Core de Force: an intense program derived from boxing and MMA training. Combined with my weekly visit to a boxing gym, it quickly became my favorite workout of the BBOD assortment.

I adapted relatively easily to the exercise part of the health plan but the diet has been a bit tougher to follow. The weekdays are easy enough: yogurt for breakfast, salad for lunch, and a low-carb, high-veggie homemade dinner. The weekends tend to include more takeout and meals on the run but we as a family try to choose healthier options, or at least higher-quality food than the average fast-food fare.

The morning of my doctor’s appointment finally arrived and I could not help but feel nervous. I sat in the waiting room breathing calmly to stay in control until my name was called. Thankfully, the results were in line with the sacrifices of the previous three months. My blood pressure was down to 130/79; much closer to the 120/80 doctors want to see. As for weight, I came in 20 pounds lighter than when it all began in March.

The health program is now in its second three-month period. Weight loss is now visible and I’m beginning to notice muscle definition. More important than the visual results is a normalization of blood pressure. The goal is to begin to wean off hypertension medication by the end of this period. My determination will certainly be tested by the blistering Los Angeles summer.

Thank You, Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

“I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost.

“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” —Anthony Bourdain

Friday, June 8: the final morning of my latest business trip. I opened my eyes to a shrieking alarm in a Las Vegas hotel room. I reached for the phone, last night still weighing my body down, and placed my thumb over the virtual snooze button.

A few minutes passed and just before dozing off, the sound of a text message kept me conscious. I could have ignored it and waited for the alarm to start again but something told me it deserved a look. It was my wife.

“Babe, Bourdain killed himself,” the text read.

In an instant, the drinks from the night before were erased. My mind cleared, my heart sank, and my soul ached. This, over a man whose hand I never shook.

I met my wife in late 1997 at the job I took as a freshman to pay for college. Like me, she had immigrated to the United States as a child with her parents, leaving behind the civil war that tore El Salvador apart. Both of us only knew El Salvador through the stories our parents told. Our personalities shaped by the city of Los Angeles and our Salvadoran roots. We grew close quickly and married about a year after we began dating. Three years later, we had our first child.

Of course, being a young couple, reality was far from a paradise. We had no money, worked long hours, and had this beautiful girl to somehow nurture and protect. Our only respite from the daily grind was television.

We came across No Reservations one night in 2005. We both enjoyed the show but to me, it was like a drug. I couldn’t get enough of it. We’d spend hours watching television into the night but I clamored for the times at which the Travel Channel presented Anthony Bourdain’s gastronomical adventures on No Reservations and later on The Layover. Here was this chef who was foul-mouthed, loved to drink, of course worshipped food, and narrated his various life experiences in a beautifully poetic, yet honestly raw manner.

Anthony Bourdain was authentic. There were many television hosts that traveled and tasted food but none like Tony. Having earned his way up through the kitchens of the Jersey Shore in his teens starting out as a dishwasher, he was always seemingly on the same level as his viewers. It didn’t matter, to him or us, that he was a distinguished chef who had seen the world and had opportunities we never did.

Never hiding behind a Travel Channel persona, Bourdain was an open book. He shared various escapades of his life, some hilariously embarrassing, others just regrettable. He was sincere about his battles with heroin and cocaine addiction. I tuned in to watch a flawed individual with a passion for food and a gift for storytelling. Through each episode he provided a seductive account of a chapter of his life and made me feel like I was there alongside him.

Bourdain enjoyed fine dining as most chefs do but he had a special bond for street food, hole-in-the-wall dives, and local working-class spots. He had respect for the people—often immigrants—behind these establishments and he never made himself superior to any of them.

The ultimate realization of No Reservations, its predecessor A Cook’s Tour, and the final incarnation, CNN‘s Parts Unknown, was that these shows were not about food but about cultural enlightenment and acceptance. Bourdain’s shows were about the people that toiled over their food and were equally happy to share the fruits of their labor with those who respected their work and their passion. In each episode, he introduced us to a people’s plight, their struggles, their fears, their insecurities, and their love, through their food. At the same time, we learned these same qualities about him.

The news of Tony’s passing shook me as if I had lost a dear friend. And in a way, I did. Through his words, I got to know him, I got to know others, and I even learned a little about myself. I thank him for helping me get over the fear of growing older. Now, as my 40’s loom just over the horizon, I don’t envision an old man preparing for the latter, less interesting part of his life. Instead, I face these new years with optimism and confidence. I know the scars of the past 38 years have prepared me for the years ahead. I know if I enjoy life and seek out new adventures, I will never be old. I know that old is a state of mind and that I am never too old for a new piercing, a new tattoo, a new wound, or a new story to tell.

Thank you, Tony, for helping me see the world and for showing me it is possible to find happiness in being yourself while learning from those around you.

The New Health Plan

In the previous post, I shared the outcome of my recent doctor’s visit: I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and weighed in at my heaviest ever. That evening, my wife and I discussed both the results of the visit and what would be necessary to get healthy again.

Prior to my own visit to the doctor, my wife had already spent weeks researching alternative diets and exercise programs. The research began as a personal project to improve our family’s eating habits but it expanded into much more. She now sees health and nutrition as an upcoming career shift.

My health condition and her newfound passion interlocked like matching puzzle pieces and my only concern was if we were planning these changes in time. While she started to write a new family grocery list and outline the types of meals I should embrace and those I should avoid, I focused on devising an exercise regimen to pair with her diet plan.

The Workout Plan

Last year, I began attending a boxing gym once a week to take a one-hour group session. This weekly visit alone would not be enough to reach my new lofty goals but it should make it easy to move to a daily regimen without feeling like I am starting from scratch.

The traditional gym membership has never worked for me as a daily solution. Having to bear L.A. traffic daily to reach a gym and fight for machines always killed the drive to exercise. If daily exercise was needed, working out at home would be the only logical solution.

I enjoyed a high level of success using the original P90X DVD program back in 2009. P90X was put together by Beach Body trainer Tony Horton and consisted of alternating weight training and cardio workouts six days a week for 90 days.

A few years later, in my early 30’s, I successfully completed Beach Body’s Insanity. Developed by renowned trainer Shaun T, Insanity featured intense 60-minute cardio workouts combined with resistance training using the weight of your own body.

Having enjoyed Beach Body workouts twice before, it made sense to start there now that exercise would again become a vital part of my daily routine. The goal was to work out seven days a week whether I was at home or on the road. The new Beach Body On Demand option allows streaming on a television, laptop, or phone. If necessary, I could even download videos prior to any international trips and work out without an Internet connection.

One problem with DVD programs has always been repetition; having access to only one program at a time became boring and the drive to exercise eventually banished. Beach Body On Demand should eliminate this problem as one can access a new video or program at any time. You are even free to construct a custom plan pulling from various workout programs in their library. Exercise monotony can no longer be used as an excuse.

Having chosen the “what” and “where,” the next step was to figure out the “when.” This would prove to be the toughest part of the equation. My typical workday drags me out of the house at 6 AM each morning and I return home close to 7 PM. My wife works evenings so I’m in charge of serving dinner for a teenager, a toddler, and myself. Working out in the evening on a full stomach would be both exhausting and uncomfortable. The only choice remaining was to extend the day, waking up at 4 AM to get a workout in prior to the morning routine.

Now it was time to prepare the actual exercise regimen. I chose to begin with trainer Chris Downing’s Shift Shop: a 3-week, rapid-results regimen designed to reduce fat and build muscle using weight lifting and cardio workouts that feel like high-school football practices. With three weeks remaining in March, Shift Shop was the ideal starting point.

The workout plan was finally set. Mondays would be an intense start to the week as they would include evening in the boxing gym in addition to the morning workout. For a mid-week break from the intensity, Wednesdays would replace Shift Shop with a 30-minute yoga session to help the body and mind heal. At the end of each month, a new morning program would be selected. But while waking up at 4 would certainly be a test of will, it was the diet plan that would be the true personal challenge and test of character.

The Diet Plan

Working out may be tough and painful but I genuinely enjoy the process. Eating has always been about the experience: the thrill of a new restaurant, the sensation of new flavors, and the possibility of learning about a new culture through the food they enjoy. The thought of completely abandoning this experience was disheartening.

We were in line at Market 365 when I realized the degree of change. Our shopping cart was as full as it typically was; we are a family of four after all. The difference that day was in the contents of the cart: oranges, apples, mangoes, a variety of berries, avocados, mixed greens, kale, cucumbers, radishes, lentils, onions, cabbage, spinach, bananas, cilantro, potatoes, colorful peppers, carrots, and broccoli. In the back corner of the cart was a package of chicken breasts, salmon filets, eggs, and milk.

Like the workout plan, the new diet would begin on Monday—the first and most dreaded day of the workweek. My typical morning until that day consisted of black coffee for the drive to work and a cup of yogurt & fruit once at the office.

Lunch was usually a turkey sandwich but on days I was too lazy to get one ready, a fast food lunch was option B. If I needed a snack, it was usually a run to the vending machine.

Certain days included special treats brought in by employees to share with everyone. Not only did I partake, I usually overindulged.

After work, I would stop at a coffee shop to write before driving home. This of course meant another cup of coffee.

The new routine would prove a dramatic change from the one just described. The new drink of choice would be green tea. I would eliminate coffee from my daily intake as studies show it tends to elevate blood pressure. The fruit and yogurt breakfast could stay, thankfully. The amount of vitamin B found in yogurt helps reduce the risk of heart disease.

Lunch would go from a turkey sandwich to greens. This would prove the biggest shift in taste and enjoyment, as I gain no satisfaction from biting into multiple leafy greens during lunch. It’s a necessary sacrifice of joy for the possibility of a longer life.

Sugary snacks would be replaced with unsalted mixed nuts and green smoothies. Finally, the afternoon coffee shop run would also be replaced with tea.

Dinner would be a welcome change with minimal attack on the pleasures of eating. Red meat would be almost completely eliminated. Protein would come from chicken, turkey, or fish and only at dinner.

The nightly serving portions would consist of 3/4 of a plate or bowl of mixed greens or other type of salad with only a 1/4 of the plate appropriated for the choice of meat. Some nights would include vegetarian dishes made up of multiple colors and tastes that my wife carefully prepared. This a much better option than leaving a vegetarian dinner up to me.

Sunday, March 11, my wife prepared dinner options for the week and washed and chopped the fruits and vegetables to make everything more accessible. She then portioned and bagged the ingredients for green smoothies we would be drinking daily. Each smoothie would contain banana, apple, carrot, avocado, spinach or kale, chia seeds, and a vegan protein powder.

Before going to bed, I prepared my lunch bag for the following day. I filled a rectangular dish with mixed greens and added chopped bell peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and cherry tomatoes; this would be my lunch. I blended the smoothie ingredients and poured the concoction into a reusable water bottle. I filled a small cup with yogurt, mango slices, and granola on the surface. This would become the new normal.

Everything was ready for the next morning. I took the dog for a short walk, brushed my teeth, and set the alarm for 4 AM. That obnoxious blaring sound would mark the beginning of a new challenge.


Live First, Write Second

NotebooksThese days, everyone with a computer and an Internet signal writes about the food they eat, clothes they buy, places they visit, places they dream of visiting, and people they wish to meet. Some do it for fun but others may believe this to be a stepping-stone to a writing career.

We all know there are writing jobs in Los Angeles. We hear of people who write screenplays, television shows, magazine articles, books, and much more. But realistically, this is a small percentage of the city’s population. And if you ever want to be part of that subset, you are battling existing writers protecting their own careers along with aspiring writers like yourself. This is why having a “day job” in the city is so important.

When I graduated high school in ’97, I began looking for retail work that would allow me to go to college. I had been working part-time but wanted a few more hours now that I had some freedom with scheduling individual classes.

While in college, life began to happen, as it so often does. I fell in love with a girl, got married, and had a child a few years later. As time passed, work started to become a higher priority than school until it eliminated school altogether.

After a few years away, I did eventually go back to school. In 2008, I graduated from Cal State University of Dominguez Hills. About a month after graduation, I took a sales & marketing position with a family-owned manufacturer of musical instrument accessories. I attribute the quick find to being a recent graduate with real work experience.

Over the last ten years, I’ve modified myself within the company to do the things I enjoy doing. I get to travel, visit trade shows to experience products before they are available, and help develop our own new products. But the key activity that I get to complete at work is to write. I write almost everything the company requires before it gets edited with the entire creative team.

It’s this job that has enabled me to write without guilt. Our bills are paid each month and my family has food, shelter, and a few extras. I’m afforded the necessary freedom to write independently. Without this job, I don’t believe writing would currently play such a major role in my life. Providing for my family will always have a higher priority than putting words on a page unless those words are a source of income.

I’m sure the preceding words may seem like heresy to aspiring writers who may be reading this. If that’s you, I first thank you for taking the time to read this far. Second, allow me to explain why the act of writing should not be the top priority in a writer’s life.

I believe a writer must carry out three activities often. The first is simple: read. Reading will improve grammar and help young writers understand the balance of art and skill that is writing. Turn off the television and read; read often, read about different topics, and read works of multiple authors.

The second activity is writing. If you think that writing is something you want to explore, start writing. Do not think about writing jobs or your future as a best-selling novelist. Simply grab a pen or start your computer, and write. Use whatever spare time you have to write. Even if time is limited, you should want to write every day. If you love it, you will gradually spend more time writing until it becomes a daily escape, therapy, or even a drug. It should never feel like a chore. If it does, congratulations, you just realized writing is not the career for you and are one step closer to finding the one that is.

The final activity essential for every writer is the most important and the one most often forgotten: living. Regardless of your writing topics, every writer must be able to express thoughts and feelings through words. It’s imperative you experience joy, sorrow, envy, lust, and all other pleasures and pains of life. Ignoring life around you as it occurs will lead to dry, empty writing. It’s the many twists and turns of life that mold the writer and provide the courage and skill necessary to put your soul on a page.

So get out and let life happen. Go ahead and fall in love, go to school, get jobs, lose jobs, travel, have kids, meet people, fight, protest—live. Let life give you a reason to write rather than pausing life to make time to write. Pursue writing with an equal passion for life and you may become one of the lucky few who make a living writing in Los Angeles.