Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan


We Did Some River Tracing!

Early Saturday morning Fiona, my brother and I got the MRT subway from Beitou all the way to the end of the line out in Xindian. From there we met a group of Fiona’s colleague’s friends and we all bundled onto a public bus, and off we set on a very uncomfortable, twisty ride up, into the mountains.

We arrived at an activity centre in the middle of the forested mountains on a swollen river bank, a typhoon having just passed days before.  Annexing the activity centre was a giant garage full of wetsuits, canoes, and helmets all dangling from the rafters. Continue reading


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Circadian Rhythms and How to Sleep Better

At university I studied neuroscience for 4 years and in my honours year did several courses pertaining to the science of sleep in a module called mammalian chronobiology.  I am also very interested in sleep science and trying out things to help improve sleep quality.

This article shall try to give an introduction to the science of chronobiolgy, some common forms of sleep disturbance, and possible remedies and tips to hopefully give you a better nights sleep.

To view my essay on “The Health Consequences of Shift-Work, click here.    Continue reading

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Barefoot and Bloodied Feet

Woke dehydrated and groggy.  Stumbled to toilet to release a derisory amount of Fanta coloured urine. Down a pint of water. Change into exercise clothes and walk to gym.  Arrive to find shutters down and doors locked.  Angry.

Decided to not waste trip and entered  running track.  Wearing only flip-flops, and having read about the benefits of barefoot running, I began running on the terracotta AstroTurf.  After two laps I realised that this was not the pleasurable experience I was hoping for.

I could feel bits of grass sticking to the soles of my feet and a burning sensation, probably due to the 10am sun-heated track.  After 2.5 laps I was beginning to hobble slightly and looked down at my feet.

It wasnt bits of grass that had been stuck to my feet, nor the hot track that was causing the burning.  It was small flaps of shredded foot skin hanging from each toe, exposing a layer of puss and blood that made me cringe.  Now that my brain realised that it wasn’t harmless grass, it decided to tell me that this really stung, and I hobbled to the exit.

Wearing flip-flops was too painful so I limped barefoot all the way home like an injured football player.  I do not advise barefoot running.

This picture doesn’t really do it justice as the skin flaps have covered up the exposed flesh.  It’s been a good exfoliation though.  Hopefully they won’t be so painful tonight so I can continue my tri-weekly runs.

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Regarding the weather and my body


The weather has been perpetually grey and windy here for longer than I can remember.  The memory of Kaohsiung during Chinese new year was one of clear blue skies, hot weather, and even one day of sunburn.  Being ever so slightly north makes this archipelago much less like the Dordogne and more like Hastings on a cold March day.

When the sun does poke its head out, it gets warm extremely quickly, and you can go from riding on a scooter wrapped in a puffer-jacket and scarf, to driving along in just a t-shirt.  Then there are the strange humidity days after a night of rain followed by a warm overcast day.  Arriving at the school, we are met with puddles of water in the stairwell, and damp-feeling paper in the office.  A lack of a dehumidifier or Air-con means we have no way of reducing the moisture levels, and our lovingly made displays start to peel and bubble up.  When the sun does eventually hit, and stays about, i’m sure i’ll be wishing for colder climes, but currently it’s not particularly nice.  The city doesn’t look charming in the rain unlike say, Edinburgh, and has none of the nice pubs or coffee houses that you could snuggle up in and take shelter when it does rain.

GYM: 健身房

We’ve now being going to our spit and sawdust gym for a week, working out 4 out of 7 days.  Each day is a different body part, which means that the following day leaves us stiff and sore from the DOMS.  Classes at TalkEasy finish at 9pm, so we mostly go then, although it’s better to go at 3pm so we can go to a canteen type eatery and have the perfect muscle building food for about £1.20. Despite the human body not achieving hypertrophy (muscle growth) for at least 4 weeks of training, I feel more toned (body dysmorphia). My strength is slowly returning, and I’m hoping my weight will slowly increase.  Being the slightly OCD person that I am, I kept a track of my weight for about 2 years while at university.  I had reached an all time low weight a few weeks back, just prior to finding a gym, and am going to chart my progress back up to my goal weight of 80kg by July.  I’m currently at 73kg, so have a lot of weight to add, but i’m looking forward to fitting my trousers once again.   Today we took delivery of boxing pads, so between sets we’ll box for a minute to increase our cardiovascular fitness, and reduce our cholesterol that has probably built up from eating too much egg fried rice and McDonald’s.


The Truth About Exercise-Horizon

Two nights ago I watched Horizon on iPlayer, which talked about new scientific research into health and exercise, and was presented by the affable Dr.Michael Mosley.  Having just started on a new health regimen, it was interesting to see what this programme had to say about exercise.  I have summarised the main points from the programme below but I urge you to watch it first rather than read this summary.  “Spoilers ahead” as they say.

First, he went to a cafe in Glasgow to have a Scottish breakfast (something I miss dearly) and ate the equivalent of a normal persons daily fat intake in one sitting. He then headed to the lab to have a sample of his blood centrifuged 4 hours later to separate out the blood. You could quite clearly see that a thick layer of fat had aggregated at the top of the sample, some three times more than prior to the meal.  The fat present in the blood stream would have a much greater chance of interacting with vessel walls, creating blockages, and increasing the risk of stoke etc.  He was then advised to go on a brisk walk that evening and the next day repeat the experiment.  What they found was that despite eating the same meal, because of the light exercise he has done the night before, the circulating fat was much lower post-breakfast due to an increased production of lipoprotein lipase brought about by the exercise.  This acted to break down the excess fat, and send it to the muscles where is could be burnt off rather than going around the digestive system and blood stream to cause athesclerotic plaques.

Next he headed to Nottingham to find out about H.I.I.T, high intensity interval training.  I’ve known about this for a while, but not quite as extreme as what they were suggesting.  Rather than go for an 1 hour jog, 3 times a week, like the government guidelines, you can receive many of the same health benefits from just 1 minute of maximum effort training 3 times a week. They got him on an exercise bike and asked him to do 20 seconds of all-out sprinting, followed by a rest, and then repeated 2 more times.  He was to do this for 4 weeks to see what would happen.

They also showed research about new gene tests available which could point out if people were “exercise super responders” or unresponsive. Apparently, a few genes handed down by your parents determine if you’re likely to be responsive to aerobic training.  Apparently 22% of the population are non-responders that see no aerobic fitness increase from an exercise program, while 15% of people, (who might not even know it) can improve their fitness quite markedly.  They were measuring two aspects of Michael’s fitness.  His insulin sensitivity, and VO2 max.  The first determines how rapidly his body can process a sugary drink and produce enough insulin to reduce the levels back to a basal level.  If this does not happen effectively, you are classified insulin resistant.  Insulin Resistance in fat cells results in higher levels of circulating lipids which are free to float around the blood steam rather than being mobilised as energy by muscle cells.  This leads to Type II diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.  VO2 max determines your aerobic fitness.

The results were impressive for the insulin test. After a total of 12 minutes exercise in a month, his ability to reduce the amount of glucose in his blood improved greatly, and reduced his already high risk of developing type II diabetes. On the other hand, his VO2 Max hardly changed at all despite finding it easier to ride for longer.  They then showed the results from his gene test which confirmed that he was indeed in the bottom percentile of the aerobic non-responders, although it is known for aerobic fitness to improve at a much slower rate.  My mum has just emailed me to say she’s going to try the 12 minute HIT program but expects that she too is in the non responsive group.  Fiona kept pointing out that the people talking about HIT were fat, but I made the point that not all Michelin stared chefs cook themselves haute cuisine when they get home.

Finally, we learnt about NEAT which is essentially exercise without breaking a sweat.  A very eccentric professor who had the amazing ability to guess someones walking speed told us about the principles of NEAT.  Basically, it’s all about moving around as much as possible.  “The chair is a killer’ and we spend as much as 12 hours a day in one, not moving.  He pointed out that just by walking a bit faster, or texting while walking, we could up our metabolic rate and increase the amount of calories burned over the course of a day.  Michael was asked to wear a pair of “fidget pants” to measure his activity levels before and after trying out NEAT. It turns out he has a very sedentary lifestyle which involves many periods of inactivity.  After being shocked by this, he made an effort to fidget more.  Getting out of his chair, walking around while on the phone, not taking the elevator, cycling to work, standing on the train, etc.  It tuned out he burned an extra 500 calories a day without doing any planned exercise.  Pretty impressive.  I knew waggling my leg was a good thing.

I’ve just ordered some boxing pads so that my brother and I can “spar” in the gym between workouts.  Boxing is the ultimate HIIT activity because it involves high intensity followed by rest.  I’m also going to dust off my skipping rope/jump rope.


Finding a Gym: The Return of Captain America

About one month ago I had to make a new hole in my belt because my waistline had shrunk. I don’t know how this had happened because I don’t watch what I eat particularly, and eat more McDonalds than I would care to mention. My descent from hulking Adonis to frail wimp has been a slow and gradual one, rather like watching Captain America on slow-rewind. Having a multimillion pound gym so close to us in Edinburgh was something I had grown accustomed to, and something I definitely took for granted. When I came to Penghu there were only 3 possible gyms. The first is owned by the windsurfing club and only opens up to new members once a year. The second was a guys private gym which would mean paying him to personally train me each time. The final one was found just before coming back for Christmas, located at the University, but for some ridiculous reason, only opens between 7-9pm each night!

I reached the point two days ago where I had to put a second hole into my belt. My current jeans are already slightly too big, and so I now constantly have to pull them up else I end up walking like a youth out of the Wire. All of this is about to change because two day ago whilst FIona was talking to one of her fellow teachers, found out that there was indeed a gym that I could use, and almost no one knows about it. Even the lady palying ping pong in the gym complex didn’t know of its existence. The best part. It’s free!

It is very basic and looks like a prison gym. One medium/large room with some rusting benches, squat racks, dumbbells, weight plates, and an expensive looking Precor multi-gym thing in the centre which has a bench station/leg press station/and lat pull down machine as well as some other cables. In short, it’s got everything you would need to become the next Arnnie. I have lost all of my strength after almost a year of sloth and am In a lot of pain after only one workout. I’m convinced that I’ll regain this strength pretty quickly because of the muscle memory that I spent years building, (increasing the number of neural connections to each muscle fibre), and am looking forward to a 12 week transformation with my brother. I’ll soon be the hulking Adonis that I once was. I have also downloaded a nifty little app to record each and every aspect of my progress, (JeFit)


T’ai chi ch’uan 太極拳

In recent weeks we have taken up Tai Chi as a way to get closer to the culture, chill out, and try something new and different.  It literally translates as “supreme ultimate fist” and seems to all be about harnessing your qì/chi (life force), which seems to be located in your groin, just above the pubic bone.

We were first encouraged to go by our local policeman friend, Morgan, who mentioned that a new weekend course was beginning in October through December.  Our first session was a baptism of fire.  We were already 10 mins late waiting for Morgan, and when we got to the university courtyard, there were around 70 uni students waiting to go on a school trip. Thrust into the centre of the class, we quickly had to pick up the moves, whilst the uni students took pictures and mimicked us.  Not a pleasant experience. Being a southpaw, I found it particularly difficult to coordinate which hand was doing what, because my natural tendency is to do the opposite of what the rest of the class do.

3 weekends on and I feel a lot cooler doing tai chi, especially now we have special black kung-fu pants which instantly makes me feel like Bruce Lee. Having taken a short recording on my iPhone of the first few steps and slowing it down to half speed, I have mastered them, although I struggle to remember to keep my knees bent, and on which foot my weight should be.  A central concept of tai chi is the constant shifting of your qì/chi from side to side and then letting your arms follow in a natural smooth motion. This is particularly difficult.

Although it is primarily a soft and slow martial art, being categorised under the Wudang grouping, compared to the hard, external, Shoalin martial arts,  it  has a strong grounding in using it as a defensive technique by displacing your opponents weight and using their power again them, similar to jiu jitsu.  Many of the moves our shīfu (master) does look relatively harmless, but then he demonstrates some of them on members of the class, and takes them down in seconds, without using any energy.  It’s pretty cool.

The next two sessions are on Sat and Sun morning at 8am-930 which is an effort to get up for, but is a good way to start the day, feeling relaxed and more flexible by the end of the session.  There is splinter cell of students that practice on weekday evenings, and it seems the leader of this is slightly more militant, teaching the defensive, powerful aspect a bit more. I’ve yet to go to one of these, although Laurie is still in pain from his practice on Thursday night.