Fitness-Walking Study

One of the things I really enjoy about working at a university is feeling like I’m connected in some way, and often supporting, education and research through my work in IT. Sometimes, however, I get the chance to actually actively participate in education by taking a class or, as is the case right now, in research by volunteering to be part of a research study.

Several weeks ago I volunteered to take part in a research study with the goal of determining the impacts on weight and health of regular short walks during the work day. I met the initial age and activity requirements, and went through an initial screening to make sure I didn’t have any health problems that would make participating in the study dangerous for me. I was weighed and measured, including having my body fat measured in a claustrophobia-inducing device called a Bod Pod. After that, the folks in the Kinesiology department had me walk on a treadmill for a heart-rate / fitness test. I also had some blood work done at a local lab company. All of this was to establish a baseline set of data for me.

After going through all that, I was randomly selected to be in the group of participants who would wait an extra 8 weeks before beginning the active portion of the study. Since the other folks began taking extra short walks immediately, I guess that makes me part of the control group.

But today I completed my second fitness test and received my equipment for participating in the study. The equipment includes a Fitbit Zip to measure my steps, which is kinda funny because I already wear a Fitbit One of my own. I also have to keep a log of the time I arrive at work, the time I leave work, and the times I remove the Fitbit.

Log & Fitbit

I have also been provided with a watch that is configured to remind me with an alarm once every hour between the hours of 8:30 AM and 5:30 PM to get up and take a walk. I’m not planning on wearing the watch, since I haven’t worn a watch for over 20 years – I’ll just keep it next to my monitors on my desk at the office.

Log & Fitbit

Since the focus of this study is to determine the positive health benefits, if any, of taking regular short walks during the work day, I’ve been encouraged to walk for 5 minutes per hour, but no longer. The researcher I’ve been working with said they have plenty of data on the benefits of walking for 10 minutes or longer, but they’re trying to see if frequent short walks people could incorporate into tiny breaks can be helpful too.

I’m really looking forward to being part of this study, and also to using it to kickstart my own focus on fitness and being healthier. Given how often I eat out each week, working in more frequent exercise is a good idea.

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Cider Roundup I

I like hard cider. I like it a lot, and I try every new brand and variant I comes across, always hoping to find one that’s better than my favorites. This is a roundup of my favorite ciders.

First, though, I figured I’d address a question I get sometimes – why cider and not beer, or do I also like beer? No, I really don’t like beer, and it isn’t because I haven’t tried the beer you like, I promise. When I was stationed at DLI in Monterey, California, I had numerous fellow soldiers make it their mission to introduce me to the beer they just new I’d like. Of all the various American and especially international beers they made me try, I only ever found one I could tolerate, and only just – Guinness, and really only with pizza. I just never acquired a taste for beer, whereas I liked hard cider from the start. I also like whiskey, particularly Irish Whiskey, so there’s that.

When I think of my favorite ciders, I have to qualify them as favorite from a tap or favorite from a bottle. I’ve never tried to look into the science side of why cider from a tap tastes different from the same cider from a bottle, but I can tell you it does. I don’t mind Woodchuck Amber on draft, but I don’t care for it from a bottle.

Favorite Draft Cider

My favorite cider from a tap is Magners, an Irish cider, although it’s sold as Bulmers in Ireland.

Magners Logo

I’m not a cider, beer, or wine critic, so I don’t know all the specialized vocabulary one would use to describe Magners. I know I like it. I would say it is semi-sweet but not cloyingly sweet. It’s not high gravity, being listed at only 4.5% ABV on RateBeer. I’m not sure I’d like it paired with every food I like to eat, but since I can only find it locally at Irish restaurants, I like it just fine with bangers and mash. I do pick it up in bottles from time to time in Nashville, but while I like it in bottles, I like it much more on draft.

Favorite Bottled Cider

My favorite cider from a bottle right now is Angry Orchard Iceman.

Iceman Logo

Angry Orchard is, at least among my friends, the cider we love to make fun of. It crashed into the grocery stores and local pubs and restaurants a year or so ago and in many places became the only cider offered. Angry Orchard has a few different flavors sold in six or twelve packs of 12 oz bottles. Iceman is different – it’s part of their Cider House collection and it, along with two other variants called Strawman (terrible) and Muse (quite good) are sold in 750ml bottles. They’re also high gravity, with Iceman measuring 10% ABV.

I like Iceman a lot. In fact, if it weren’t so relatively expensive and unwieldy in its huge bottle, I’d probably buy it as my staple and sample new labels as I found them. For all I know Tennessee’s backwards alcohol laws prohibit the sale of something that strong in six or twelve packs. Iceman is sweeter than Magners but not too sweet. It is also very crisp and just smells good, slightly of honey maybe.

One final note on cider. I’d always heard that the Irish drink Bulmers over ice and thought that sounded so strange. Recently I tried Magners over ice and was quite pleased with the results. Again, no idea if there’s any science-based explnation for it, but I prefer all my cider over ice now, and the next time I order Magners at an Irish pub or restaurant, I’m going to request a glass of ice on the side.

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Quick Review: Steak n Shake

It’s funny what becoming a parent has done to our eating out habits. My wife and I have always eaten out, probably too much by the standards of many. That changed drastically right after our son was born, mainly because we were too tired to try to go out to eat and it was easier to just bring something home or fix something quick at home. But once our son was a few months old and had proven himself to be a mostly happy little boy, we settled back into our habit of eating out more often than not. Just not at all of the same places, as for quite a while we were pretty self-conscious about the rare but inevitable crying. Having been the couple without kids for so long who looked askance at whining children in a restaurant and wished they were elsewhere, I especially did not want to receive those looks. As the veteran parent of a toddler now, I mostly don’t care about those looks.

Our eating out habits have changed, though, and I find that we eat at many places I would have ignored years ago, for reasons I wouldn’t have understood or cared about then. We like places where kids eat free or at a reduced price, and especially places with kids menus that include foods we know for sure our son will eat.

One such place is Steak ’n Shake. We normally eat there on Sundays after church because kids eat free on Sundays (more about that later) and because it is somewhat on the way home from church. Steak n Shake presents itself as a 50’s style diner and its main dish is the “steak burger” with extremely thin crispy french fries. They also serve a large variety of milkshakes. While they aren’t my favorite milkshakes, their peanut butter banana milkshake is pretty good.

The steakburger patties are fairly small, so instead of the original double, I usually go for the triple with pepper jack cheese. Is it the best hamburger in town? No way. But it’s isn’t bad, and it’s cheap and typically served with a smile. My son usually gets a hot dog (no bun) and a side of mac & cheese. They used to have a side of mandarin oranges and he loved them, but they stopped carrying them.

The service at Steak n Shake is pretty good. Some of the servers are better than others, but none are what I’d call bad. In fact, the only thing I could say I’m dissatisfied with at Steak n Shake is the fact that, even though they promote Sunday as a day kids eat free, for the last year, every time we get our check, there’s a charge for my son’s meal. When I take it to the register to pay, I point it out and they take it off, citing a possible computer glitch. I make sure we get the deal, but I can’t help but wonder how many people don’t check their receipts.

Steak n Shake is a fairly regular stop for us and as will be for at least as long as our son can eat there for free, and probably after.

Steak 'n Shake on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House

Barbeque.

That’s not a typo or mistake. I typed “barbeque” up there and left it on a line all by itself because it’s that important, that special to me.

Barbeque. At its most basic level, it’s about eating slow-cooked and smoked meat. No other food makes me feel more alive, more hungry, then more sated, and along the way more primitive, than barbeque. If I ever lost my mind and decided to move back to the surface of the Sun that is Texas, it would be for want of the barbeque I enjoyed while I was stationed there.

Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House is where I go for good barbeque in Knoxville. There are other places to get barbeque, and they’re all moderately tolerable, but compared to Sweet P’s, well… that’s why we drive out of our way to eat there. Sweet P’s is crazy popular, and if you’re going on the weekend, it’s best to plan on being there no later than 5PM unless you just enjoy standing in line and eating at the picnic tables outside. I hate lines and prefer air conditioning, so we arrive early.

Tonight we finally figured out the perfect combination of food to order for the three of us – my wife, our son, and myself. We ordered a pound of brisket, a pint of mac & cheese, and individual sides of cole slaw and potato salad. Rather than the random collections of this or that we normally order (with me always ordering brisket), my wife and son finally realized that simple brisket is the best of all of the good meats available at Sweet P’s.

Here’s a picture of a pound of Sweet P’s brisket.

Sweet P's Briskey

And here’s a picture of the meal I put together tonight. Brisket, mac & cheese, slaw. The only thing that could have made this meal better was some Magners on draft over ice.

Sweet P's Briskey

Aside from the amazing barbeque, Sweet P’s is a pretty basic place. The service at Sweet P’s is simple and friendly. You order your food cafeteria style, pay, get your own drinks, then sit down and eat. Sweet P’s name contains “and Soul House” but we never managed to catch the live music before our son was born and likely will not get the chance until he is a bit older. I heard a buddy of mine from Nashville came up this way not too long ago, possibly to play, so I hope we can find a way to catch the show there sooner rather than later.

I can’t recommend Sweet P’s highly enough. If you live in East Tennessee or are even just passing through, and you like good barbeque, pay them a visit.

Barbeque.

Sweet P's Barbeque and Soul House on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Blackhorse Pub & Brewery

Thursday is $5 Cheeseburger Special day at Blackhorse, so my coworker and I had lunch there today. Friday is Bacon Cheeseburger Soup day, so my family will be having dinner there yet again. I’m a creature of habits and patterns.

Blackhorse is one of my new favorite restaurants. I like it for lunch, I like it for dinner, and until just last week, I loved it for its high gravity hard cider (10.5%) even though, due to Tennessee’s insane liquor laws, Blackhorse could not sell to me in a growler to take home and enjoy. Unfortunately, last week they ran out of the cider and aren’t I don’t know when or if it’s coming back. Until then, I’ll have to be content with the food.

So what’s good at Blackhorse? Plenty. It’s burgers are great, although at $9–10 each, a tad pricey, which is why I prefer to grab one on Thursday for lunch. The Diablo is my favorite, because both the jalapeno and red onion relish and the peppercorn bacon pack a serious kick. The Cletus is great as well, with the combination of fried green tomatos and pimento cheese being quite tasty.

The Bacon Cheeseburger soup is amazing, and sometimes I just order a bowl of it with a side of mac & cheese (also great) or onion rings (great). Their pizzas are very good, especially the Heart Attack. They do a lunch special on either Tuesday or Wednesday with a personal sized pizza and salad for $8. On the appetizer front, the Beer Cheese Dip is very good, as are the Soft Pretzels.

Is there anything at Blackhorse I don’t like? Yes. The Chicken Nachos are terrible – we ordered them once and I’d say they had about 1/3 the amount of cheese they needed for the number of chips, and were otherwise boring. I ordered the Cajun Pasta and it was bland. Bland Cajun food is like unsweet tea – what’s the point?

One more thing I don’t like at Blackhorse – not getting a female server. The female servers, every single one that we’ve had, for lunch or dinner, has been great. And it isn’t just because I bring my adorable 2 year-old with me for dinner – they’re awesome at lunch as well. The male servers aren’t bad per se, they’re just nowhere near as good as the ladies – not even close. No offense, dudes, but simple things like keeping my drink refilled and remembering we asked for an extra spoon for the cute kid sitting next to my wife – those things matter, and they affect your tip.

But I can deal with a few of the dishes not being to my liking. And I’m not shy about asking to be seated in a section handled by one of the female servers. Other than that, I love Blackhorse Pub & Brewery,

One other purely personal note about Blackhorse. We’re a geek family, and one of the things we do on the weekend is dress in matching or complimentary superhero t-shirts. One Saturday after an afternoon at the Zoo, we walked into Blackhorse as the Green Lantern family. The hostess took one look at us and said, “You guys are the most awesome family I’ve ever seen.” Just another reason I keep going back.

Update 8/22/14 5:08PM EST: I like Blackhorse so much that when a buddy offered to take me to lunch today, I suggested we eat there. And since it’s Friday, my wife, son, and I are meeting there for dinner tonight. So that’s 3 meals at Blackhorse in 2 days. And no, I don’t get tired of it. I once ate the same meal for lunch and dinner for 18 months straight when I was stationed at DLI in Monterey, CA.

Blackhorse Lanterns

Blackhorse Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: El Mezcal Mexican Restaurant

I like Mexican food. I like it so much, I’m willing to settle for the mediocre Mexican food I can find in Knoxville. That’s what I did tonight – settle. Although I was also mildly surprised by a random special item on a whiteboard menu at El Mezcal Mexican Restaurant.

When I say the food at El Mezcal is mediocre, I don’t mean it’s bad, because it isn’t. The food at Taco Bell is bad. The food at Shoney’s is bad. The food at El Mezcal isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible and it’s reasonably inexpensive. We eat there when we have a hankering for Mexican food and don’t feel like dealing with the crowd and noise at Chuy’s (where the food is only slightly less mediocre, and more expensive). We decided to eat there tonight mainly because our regular Wednesday spot, a delightful taco shop named Oscar’s, wasn’t an option due to heavy traffic on the Strip and a lack of parking.

El Mezcal is like every other $10 or less per plate Mexican restaurant you may have tried. Chips and salsa, bean dip, fajitas with overdone tomatoes, oversize margaritas for the college kids, and thankfully, friendly staff. They’re especially friendly to us – a benefit of having a cute toddler at the table.

Tonight my wife ordered her usual – chicken fajitas to split with The Boy. I noticed the special of the day was Nachos Supremos, so I figured why not try something other than my usual – chicken chimichanga. I wish I hadn’t, as the nachos were a scattered mess of ground beef, which El Mezcal does not do well, shredded chicken, and a half pound of shredded lettuce over some chips, beans, cheese, and sour cream. I picked at my dish and left most of it uneaten, but I didn’t go hungry as my wife shared some of her fajitas with me.

I also ordered an unsual item I’d seen listed on the specials whiteboard – taco calimari. To be honest, I didn’t expect to get the best calimari in the world at a cheap Mexican restaurant in a land-locked state, but ordering it was worth it just to hear the “eww” from my wife. She and I have a 20 year old running joke about calimari, so I figured what the Hell. To my surprise, the calamari taco was pretty OK. Not great, but better than mediocre. It was fried, of course, and covered in enough pico de gallo to render the taste mostly moot, but the texture wasn’t super rubbery like most bad calamari. So I’d consider the meal a draw for me, and maybe more than that because our server was very attentive and kept new glasses of Diet Coke appearing whenever I came close to finishing mine.

I can’t give El Mezcal a strong endorsement, but you can do a lot worse for inexpensive Mexican in Knoxville.

Taco Calimari

El Mezcal on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Long’s Drug Store

One of my favorite lunch spots in Knoxville is Long’s Drug Store in Bearden. It’s close enough to campus for a quick lunch, and inexpensive enough that I don’t feel bad about ditching whatever I may have brought to the office that day when I get a hankering for a burger and tater tots.

Long’s has been around for quite a while, having opened in 1956. It’s a combination pharmacy, convenience store, and lunch counter. Long’s reminds me of a drug store I used to visit after school when I was in the seventh grade, and if it had a comic book rack, the similarity would be perfect. It’s extremely popular, so whether I’m eating there with my wife or a coworker, to avoid the rush and an inevitable wait, I shoot for an early lunch – arriving no later than 11:30.

While I typically order a bacon double cheeseburger, Long’s also makes a mean bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on toast. Either go well with tater tots. I believe they serve onion rings and maybe fries as well, but I don’t know why I would order either with expertly done tater tots available. If flavored sodas are your thing, you can get a fresh-made cherry Coke as well. Service is friendly if a bit slow at times, especially once the lunch crowd arrives in full.

The real star of the show at Long’s, however, and the reason we sometimes stop by after dinner at night, are the hand-dipped milkshakes. I’m sure they serve several flavors, but we always order the chocolate peanut butter. These are hands down the best milkshakes in Knoxville and some of the best I’ve ever had. Milk, chocholate ice cream, and peanut butter, mixed to a thick, creamy perfection. You know it’s a good milkshake when you can drink it through a straw, but only with a decent bit of work, or eat it with a spoon.

longs-shake

longs-boy

Give Long’s a shot for the decent cheeseburgers and tots, and come back for the milkshakes.

Long's Drug Store on Urbanspoon

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