Living full time in an RV and traveling the country seeing the great outdoors has taught me just a bit more about my own state of health and led to at least one interesting personal revelation. While I’ve learned some new things, it is also part of a longer ongoing story about my own health and fitness.
Generally speaking, I’m a healthy person, in so much as I don’t suffer from many ailments or afflictions. My family tree seems to have gifted me with a pretty good set of genes. Most of my problems are entirely of my own creation stemming from two things I like that are bad for me: sweet foods and limited exercise. The result’s that have plagued me to some degree are back problems and metabolic issues.
My folks tended to be healthy eaters for the most part. While our home was not without its treats and such, by and large, they ate healthy meals and tended to nutritious food. When I forged out on my own, a combination of sweet tooth and very limited food budget meant I ate a lot of pure sugar and starch, both of which were cheap and satisfied my cravings. A box of supermarket doughnuts is a dynamite calorie to dollar ratio but came with a hidden cost.
From my freshman to Sr year in college, I gained as much as 100lb. Mind you, it was not all fat, I also bulked up muscle wise, but there was plenty of flab to go along with it. More importantly by my Jr Year, I started to get a lot of strange health problems. I had persistent mucus in my lungs making me cough a good deal and I was constantly breaking out in hive like rashes on my arms and chest. Pretty severe acne also came and went.
A nutritionist and allergy specialist I rented a room from in college suggested I was allergic to milk. I drank perhaps 3 gallons a week, sometimes more. I cut back and sure enough, it got rid of the persistent chest congestion and also cleared out the bags under my eyes. The rashes however persisted. A few years later I met Trail and shortly after getting married we decided to loose some weight. I chose to try the Atkins diet and it was something of a revelation. Nearly every health problem that plagued me vanished, and I also lost a good bit of weight, around 50lb in the course of a year.
I came to realize that all the carbs I’d been consuming, which was a monstrous amount, had been really overloading my bodies ability to cope with them. So much so I was pretty sure I’d done some permanent damage even though the low-carb diet cleared up all the really alarming issues. I also just felt darned good on the diet. Of course, it’s a hard diet to keep and after some 16 months or so we simply stopped doing it. For years after I’d toy with the diet again when feeling poorly, and it almost always felt great, but made social eating difficult and before long I’d be off it again. None the less, I’d never gone back to my days of regular carb binging.
Flash forward to the present as we travel the country in our Airstream. I’d imagined that our life of exploring national parks and other places would be a significant boost in my exercise, and our limited food budget would keep me from eating lavish meals out and about. Thus, I imagined overall health benefits. The reality has been a little different than my imagination. It’s true I get more actual exercise. We go on hikes very often, some rather strenuous and most 1-4 miles. We spend about 4-5 days of each week out exploring and most involve at least a short hike. On the other hand, when I am at home in the RV, I’m hardly moving a muscle. There just isn’t much space or much need to walk around. In our old house, I’d be going up and down the stairs quite often and walking around to do chores and such. Nothing in an RV is more than 10 steps away so you move much less.
As to diet, it’s a mixed bag as well. While we don’t go out and eat lavish meals, we do tend to buy food that is quick and easy to prepare, and that tends to mean more carbs for both snacks and meals. We also tend to shop cheap and cheap tends to steer you to processed foods, again, rich in carbs. I’m not binging on sugar, but we have a lot of trail mix, rice, sandwiches, cereal, dried fruit and the like.
Here is where the revelation comes in. Because I am getting out and exercising much more often, I am much more aware of when I have a good level of energy and when I don’t. Over the months, my cardio health has improved noticeably. When we started a trip up the stars could leave me a little winded, now I can hike for 4 miles up 500′ switchbacks and not be out of breath. My muscles are also getting in better shape. Despite all this, I sometimes am just plain exhausted in the morning and hiking is a real struggle. On such days, when we get back I can barely muster the energy to write or do anything useful. Trail get’s both annoyed at me and worried for me.
In an attempt to justify that I’m not just being lazy I tried to come up with a definitive answer as to what was wrong. I assumed low blood sugar. Trail presumed it may be blood pressure, cholesterol, or just in my head. We set about experimenting by measuring both on days I was feeling generally pooped. Trail has tools for measuring all these things, partly because she worries about such, partly because she has had problems with each from time to time. After experimenting, the only good suspect was the blood sugar, but instead of low, it was high. Hitting the internet on high blood sugar the symptoms matched up exactly, not only those I had now but also minor issues ever since college. Coincidentally a TV program called “Trust me I’m a Doctor” covered high blood sugar and offered the most succinct explanation of how it works I’d yet encountered.
The upshot is that if you are a sedentary sort, you have trouble getting the blood sugar (glucose) out of your bloodstream when it builds up after a carb-rich meal. What I’d not understood before is that Glucose, in high doses, is a toxin. It wreaks havoc with proteins and can damage nearly every part of your body. There is also the problem that if you are not absorbing it, you are not getting all the energy from the food you eat. Unlike a diabetic, I don’t suffer the symptoms all the time, instead, it is intermittent, most likely when I’ve simply overloaded on the carbs. This is probably why I’ve never had a doctor comment on it, my blood sugar was fine on the occasions I had blood work check ups. It seems that in my college years I likely broke my bodies ability to handle high blood sugar levels, though not so much it couldn’t handle modest ones.
It also explains why the Atkins diet tended to work well for me. It’s a low carb diet and puts you into a state of Ketosis where you switch from primarily using carbs for food to processing fats. It was developed originally for diabetics. For me, it essentially ensured I wouldn’t have enough glucose beyond my bodies ability to process it.
So, now that I have a much better understanding of what is happening, and also a better understanding of how dangerous letting my glucose get out of control is, I am faced with having to find a solution to the problem. Short of going on insulin there are three main ways to regulate blood sugar levels: exercise, eat fewer carbs, and drink lots of water. Thus, I need a strategy for each of these.
Getting more exercise is something I already do as we travel around. Going for hikes is a big part of it. Another nice benefit is that many RV parks have pools and I do like swimming so whenever I have the opportunity I should take advantage. Also, when pools are not available and hiking is not on the agenda, I need to at least get out of the trailer and walk around at least once every day, possibly work up to jogging about some.
Eating fewer carbs mostly takes discipline and a bit more work cooking. I’ve done hard-core Atkins before, and I think it’s impractical for the RV lifestyle, but I can come pretty close. I feel I really just need to minimize carbs rather than try to cut them near completely. The good news is I actually really enjoy low carb, and the biggest barrier is not an issue. Generally, what I hated most is it was very hard to eat with friends, so much food is carb loaded, both at home and when eating out. I love eating with friends. Traveling in the RV, it just doesn’t happen often enough to matter. The bad news is low carb is pretty expensive. Meat is expensive, and so are many of the vegetables that are low in carbs, especially compared to grains and bread. None the less I think I can make it work.
Finally, there is drinking water. Strangely this is the one I have the most challenge with. When I wake up in the morning I genuinely hate water. The thought of it seems unpleasant and gulping it down feels uncomfortable and somehow wrong. As the day wares on this dissipates and I drink as much as anyone likely does. None the less it’s not something I give much thought to and at times I forget to drink as much as I should. Low carb diets exacerbate this issue. In ketosis, it’s very easy to become dehydrated because the fat burning metabolic process requires more water than the carb based chemistry. My first time on Atkins my blood practically turned to syrup, preventing blood draw when I visited the doctor. I didn’t suffer real harm from it at the time but it’s none the less bad for you. The solution here is to get Trail to be on my case about it, she’s good at that, lucky for me.
When I set out on our trip I was hoping it would lead to some self-discovery and enlightenment and this is one more case in which it has. Getting out and exploring the landscape brought to much greater focus my energy levels day to day in a way my old life just couldn’t. As a result, it forced me to a much better understanding of an important part of my own health and strung together bits and pieces of what I already discovered into a cohesive picture of cause, consequence, and remedy. I think the moral of the story is: the more you introduce change in your life, the more you will learn and grow.