Never mind resolutions; for 2016, strengthen your resolve instead

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Resolutions are a tradition, and traditions can be a good thing. They form habits, of sort, and not all habits are bad.

But breaking our resolutions seems to be as much part of that tradition as making the resolutions.

You see, the problem is that a list of resolutions is just a wish list.

Without a formal plan of realistic actions, without concrete steps towards the goals, and with a list of dreams (“if only I could do this, I would be wonderful…”) that is often so long that it is daunting just figuring where to start, resolutions are actually a recipe for failure.

Make that a prediction of failure.

Take my list of resolutions for last year (2015), for instance. (It wasn’t very long, but it was still too long.)

On that list, there was an item that read “learn to juggle three balls.” Not four, not five; just three. Seemed reasonable enough.

So I started following the method to learn. Way back in January.

Then life took over (and all the other things on the list of objectives for the year, including major moves, trying to stay in shape, writing this blog mostly regularly, etc.). And now, in January 2016, I’m nowhere near being able to juggle.

No big deal, really, because I’m already juggling a lot of other things in my life. But it illustrates the point (and it is not the only objective on the list that did not get done, of course).

So what I am saying we should do about it?

Don’t wish, just do

Don’t make wish lists. Don’t indulge in wishful thinking. Don’t just dream what you would like to improve this year.

Get moving.

Strengthen your body.

Through better physical fitness you’ll be better equipped to cope with what life throws at you. And you’ll feel better. (Heck, you might even get to look better, though that should not be your first goal.)

Don’t just put “joining a zumba class” item on your list. Don’t write the vague (and tired) “exercise more” wishful thinking slogan.

Move. Every. Single. Day.

Just put the one item you need, the one that will take on many shapes and (better) forms over the year: Move today. (Or “Move today!” if you prefer; sometimes the exclamation mark helps.)

And repeat.

As opposed to resolutions, that you write down once and generally never read again for 12 months, a resolve is something you have on a daily basis.

So strengthen your resolve today. And tomorrow. And the day after that…

That one item is enough. You’ll find that, once you have been “moving today” for a while, you’ll have the energy to do more, and you’ll even find you have time to do more.

Your resolve to do more will be strengthened, and more things that you would normally have put on your list of resolutions will be within reach.

I’ve given you plenty of ideas already, and I’ll continue to do so this year (albeit at a resolutely slower pace). So no excuses. Start moving more today.

And a Happy New Orbit to you!

Pictures from Pixabay

10 Things to stop believing RIGHT NOW about fitness and health

 In no particular order, here are a few things I feel strongly about. It is not about being right or wrong; my purpose here is to bring to your attention the fact that holding erroneous beliefs can, and does, influence our daily actions.

If given half a chance to think, most of us would say they don’t hold most of the erroneous beliefs on this list. But our actions reveal that, somehow, a lot of those ideas still have a hold on us. Otherwise, both our bodies and our planet would be in much better shape.

1) Exercise is something only athletes do; the rest of us should just watch sports on TV.

Our bodies are supposed to move in order to function optimally. That’s just the way biological entities such as ourselves work. Not like mechanical devices that get damaged and used up the more you use them. Within reason, we must submit our bodies to physical stressors (i.e. exercise) for all systems to do what they are supposed to do. So move. And move some more.

2) Humans are something different from other animals; outside of, or “beyond” nature.

We are animals. We have a lot in common with other animals. We live, we exist, on the only planet we know of that is capable of harboring life. What sustains life is the intricate inter-connection of all living things, the web of relationships that constitute all the ecosystems and, at the largest scale we know of, the biosphere of planet Earth. What we do has an effect on everything else alive on this planet. While there are variations in the details, all life on this planet functions essentially the same way. I could go on about the implications, but at least you should keep this in mind: We cannot exist without nature, or outside of it, and we often delude ourselves into thinking that we understand everything there is to understand about our bodies and its interactions with the environment. We don’t.

3) Information about health and fitness found on the Internet can be trusted.

This blog being one of the notable exceptions, keep in mind that just because it is on the Web, it does not mean it comes from someone that should be trusted. There have been plenty of fads and outright frauds over the last few years, so be careful. Always ask yourself: Is someone profiting from this “advice” I’m reading? (In the case of this blog, by way, the answer is “no.” Just thought it was worth repeating.)

4) Everything we see offered on grocery shelves and in restaurants is food.

NOT! Definitely NOT! As a matter of fact, a lot of it is NOT FOOD, and should be treated accordingly. We all need to make better choices on a daily basis, while not going overboard about it… So, think twice before putting some things in your mouth. (Need to be reminded of what NOT FOOD is? You can find quite a bit on this blog about it.)

5) Food, real food that is, will cure any disease we suffer from.

Nope. Sorry. Good nutrition, by which I mean eating real food, not too much, and mostly from plants, will set the stage for your body to function well. And that helps prevent some diseases. But if you are very sick from something, even if the initial damage was done by eating very badly, chances are the damage is already done, and can’t easily be reversed. If that is your situation, seek real medical attention! Refer back to items 3 and 4 above if still necessary. 

6) Nevertheless, there are so-called “superfoods” that will cure any disease we suffer from.

Look, we all want to believe in silver bullets, miracle cures, and the Easter Bunny (among other things). That doesn’t make them real. Real food is good for you. It is part of ensuring your body has a fair chance of remaining healthy. But no single food will reverse years of neglect, abuse, or injury. Eating well, like being physically fit, requires some effort. There are no free lunches in this world, so to speak.

7) Running is bad for you and/or will cause you problems with your knees.

Done correctly, in moderation (and moderation still allows for a lot of running!), regular exercise like running actually makes our bodies (muscles, joints, internal organs) get stronger and function better. It is true that some people get injured, and that some people have gotten into trouble with their knees, but be careful of jumping to conclusions. Seek advice about technique, don’t try to do too much too soon, and you’ll find that running is probably the best, cheapest, and most easily accessible form or exercise around. See the next point for a kind of continuation of this.

8) In order to get fitter, we need to follow the latest training regimen, or buy the latest toy.

Definitely not. Exercise, and training if you go at it a bit more seriously, is not complicated. And it does not require much in terms of equipment. Those exercise crazes and newfangled regimens you read or hear about are no better than what simple advice a real coach can give you. They typically only serve the purpose of getting participants all hyped up and motivated for a short while. And make lots of money for their promoters. Remember the bit about questionning who profits? It applies here.

9) Devices like escalators and door openers help us conserve our energy and should be used by everyone.

Just because a device exists and is readily available, doesn’t mean we should all use it. I’m always amazed (to put it politely) to watch perfectly capable people press the door opener button at the entrance of a building, or take the escalator (or elevator) to go up one floor (or two or three, for that matter). There are people with limited mobility for whom those devices were installed, and that is great. But the rest of us can, and should do more with our own bodies! Similarly with some power tools and gardening implements, by the way.

10) The water coming out of the tap is not good.

Please, please, please, stop drinking bottled water. The plastic is choking our oceans and wrecking the food chain. Ok, this is a pet peeve of mine, but we mindlessly adhere to the notion that our water supply is not good and we must drink bottled water. This is pure propaganda, er, I mean, marketing. Guess what? Except in some very specific situations, our tap water is by and large excellent. Heck, some bottled water companies fill their bottles from tap water. So drink water. Just plain water, by the way; that’s what you need. Use a re-fillable bottle. Drink out of a glass. Anything but buying (buying! something that’s free already in all of our homes!). By the way, please also try to use fewer plastic straws. But that’s another battle…

11) There are only 10 Things that people erroneously believe about fitness and health.

This one is a bonus, and speaks for itself. But I think I’ve listed the biggest elephants in the room. Let me know what you think.

Photo credits: Sophie Tremblay-Paquet

5 Things to Do while Traveling (to stay in, or get back into, shape)

 One finds inspiration where one can.

Take this post, for instance:

My wife and I are currently in Florida for a conference. Well, it is more accurate to say that my wife is here for a conference; I’m just tagging along to keep her company and to carry the luggage. (Isn’t that convenient?)

This short trip is bringing back to mind a whole slew of tips and advice about traveling and keeping in shape. Or getting back in shape. So allow me to use the opportunity to pass on a small part of my vast amount of knowledge. (Not to put too humble a point on it.)

And since we all know that posts with a number between two and ten are far more likely to be read, I’ve distilled the fount into five key ideas.

1) If you travel by plane, wear comfortable clothing and running shoes, and walk as much as you can.

At the airport, don’t just go straight to the boarding area once you have (finally) gone through the mandatory security checkpoint: go for a walk, do some sightseeing, and use the time to visit the airport and check out the various planes. Finding yourself between two flights and with some time on your hands? Walk to your next gate instead of using the various escalators, moving sidewalks, and inter-terminal trains that are so prevalent in airports. Seize every opportunity to move on your own power…

2) If you travel by car for a long time, stop frequently to do body weight exercices, or just to walk a little.

It will help you remain in top shape for driving, and make the road trip more enjoyable. Better yet: Plan your itinerary so as to have some running or hiking stops along the way. The drive should also be part of the trip, not just something to get over with as quickly (and stressfully) as possible, so why not make the most of it? Your entire trip will be fare more relaxing that way!

3) Get outside, but in particular, get out of your comfort zone, by trying new activities or sports.

You happen to be in a place where nobody knows you? Use the opportunity to try something you might not be very good at, so you won’t have to worry about being embarrassed (taking pictures and posting to Facebook is entirely up to you)! Never used snowshoes? Try some on and go for a wintery hike! Never played tennis? Grab a racket and hit a few balls, or take a private class to learn how to play! Haven’t been on a bicycle since you were a wee lad? Rent a bike and knock yourself out (not literally, please)! Never participated in a spinning class because, like me, you consider it to not be real bike training? Broaden your mind a little, like I did yesterday, and try it!

4) If you are heading to the sun and warmth in response to winter’s onslaught, please, please (please!) don’t just lie on the beach sipping alcoholic beverages and eating food (or worse, NOT FOOD).

First of all, moving will help you relax a lot more than just doing nothing. Or stuffing your face. The heat may seem oppressive at first, but while crisping yourself in the sun will help your vitamin D levels, it does not melt fat. Moreover, it puts you at risk for skin cancer. So enjoy the warmth and use the time to move. Also, should you be enjoying an “all included” hotel in a sunny setting, don’t forget that alcohol is high in calories, and that drinking a lot just because it is included in the deal is a sure way to send the signal to your body that your brain is not really in charge. Be reasonable. Water is better for you. Incidentally, a beach also has a lot of water; you can do more than just cool yourself off in it: You can swim in it, too!

5) Don’t just take a break from your daily grind: Use the opportunity to start a new routine.

Vacation time, or even just short business (or otherwise) trips, have the great advantage that they break the monotony of the daily grind. It is a break that does not need to be just temporary. You can use the opportunity of a trip of any length to put aside old habits, and put in place new, and better, ones. For instance, adding a walking routine to your day, removing some food (or NOT FOOD) items from your diet, setting a few minutes aside each evening for a meditative look-back on the day, reducing the amount of TV you watch, etc. Changing habits is easier when there is a clean break; do you know anything that is a cleaner break than a trip? Moreover, after you return, you can use the newly formed habit as an enjoyable reminder, almost as an extension, of the vacation time…

So there you have it! Use the opportunity to move more, whether you go far or not so far, and improve your fitness. I have to stop now, because it is time to go for a run, barefooted, on the beach…

Photo credits: Sacha Veillette

Same old, same old… if you want to get old in good shape

Exercise, Everyday, Health, Fitness, Training

Go ahead, make a move! Make it over and over again…

I know, I said I would write about physiology next. But that will have to wait just a little longer.

Today’s post will sound like I’m repeating myself, and of course it is a little the case.

In my defense, it is a well-known fact of communication that in order for your message to get through, and for it to be believed, it must be repeated many times. (Preferably by more than one independent “sources,” though that never stopped anyone. Just think of the persuasion success the American leadership had a few years ago about weapons of mass destruction…)

So while I continue learning about physiology (I’m taking an online course, among other things) and clarifying my thinking about how to get that message across effectively, today I’m inviting you to review some recent news items about the importance of fitness for long-term health.

(Added note: I know most bloggers would have split this up in 2 or 3 topics. I’m not most bloggers because I prefer to see things as they fit together, not apart. And I think most people are capable of taking a bit of extra time to read a slightly longer post, instead of three short ones. Like my coaching, my blogging is about quality, not quantity…)

In the News

There has not been anything ground-breaking in the news lately; the artificial conflict between maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight through diet alone versus exercising more (while being careful what we eat) has been raging. Because most folks on the “food only” side are clearly peddling books and special diets, I’m not even going to talk about what ridiculous stuff has been said on that side of the “debate.”

Instead, you should keep in mind that the best way to increase the odds of being healthy for a long time is through exercising a lot, and being careful about the food (not too much, mostly from plants) we ingest. That’s the “same old, same old” part of my message.

In support of that, you should read an interesting article about how many of the health problems of aging are due to inactivity, not “just” getting old. This is exactly what I mean when writing about muscles being extremely important, not just for metabolic reasons, but to keep bones and brains healthy.

Basically, to be healthy and active well into old age, you need to use your muscles more. The thing is, as one of my favorite authors on the subject has recently added, you don’t even need to do a whole lot in order to reap the benefits. That’s a key point about the approach I embrace and promote: balance is more healthy than excess.

Exercise, Health, Fitness, Training, Marathon

Running the New York Marathon in 2013.

For instance, while I say that we should all move a lot more than we currently do, there are some who say that we should all be training like professional triathletes, 25 or more hours per week. And others say we should not move at all, and instead restrict what we eat in a radical way.

I’m clearly not on the side of diet restrictions without any exercise, and I’ve run ultra-marathons and I do an ironman distance triathlon each year “just to stay in shape,” but even I would not pretend that such a level of training is sustainable for everyone. Although not sustainable, it may be something to shoot for, or, at least, going well beyond the “standard” recommendations of some 150 minutes per week of exercise, remains a very good idea.

Which brings me (finally) to a third tidbit of news about those who have been clamoring that doing marathons and intense training for more than 150 minutes per week were actually causing damage instead of doing good for their health. In light of new research, it seems they are admitting that our bodies can really benefit from a lot more exercise than they previously allowed for.

Moving More, Up to A Point

But keep in mind that, based on the research, there is a diminishing return to be had from increasing the activity level. And at some point, while it may not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer (which is what the study was concerned with), you up the risk of injury, which is not really taken into consideration from what I’ve read so far.

As reported in Runner’s World:

When mortality rates were adjusted for exercise levels, the researchers found the lowest rate among those who exercised about three to five times the amount recommended by federal guidelines (i.e., 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running). However, the increased benefit of working out three to five times more than the guidelines was modest, the researchers wrote.

More importantly to serious runners, there was no evidence of harm at ten or more times the recommended minimum.

At three to five times the federal guidelines, you are in marathon and short-distance triathlon training territory. Maybe up to a decent half-ironman. Nothing crazy. And sustainable, if part of a lifestyle choice that features living a long and healthy life as its Purpose.

And you can go well beyond that, if you are careful.

Same Old Advice (Summary)

In summary, allow me to repeat what little wisdom I can impart, based on what I’ve learned and what more knowledgeable people have said before me:

  1. Move, a lot, because our bodies are at their best when they do.
  2. Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.
  3. Obtain, and follow, the advice of a coach (especially if you are going to train seriously for something like a marathon or triathlon (or any endurance- or speed- or strength-focused sport).
  4. Steer clear of excess and obsession; strive for balance in all things.

Oh, and I should probably have added “stay tuned.”

Because I’m bound to come back to this subject, and provide more specific advice over time.

After all, much like with training, repetition is what eventually gets the message through… and turns it into a no-brainer.

Running, Marathon, Fitness, Health, Training, Exercise

A bunch of superheroes with their capes, or tired marathon runners done running?

Photos by the author at various events.

Of mice and men (and petri dishes)

Science, Exercise, Physiology, Research

It takes eggs to make an omelet; it often takes lots of mice to do science. (And like the eggs, they don’t survive the process.)

How much do you understand about science?

In particular, when it comes to science in the news, how much of it do you really understand?

And when it comes to research about the effect of nutrition and exercise on health, can you really tell what is good science and what is not?

A recent piece of news about fake research, which you might have read about, should cause you to consider carefully your answer. (You can read a shorter perspective here.) Anti-science folks will take heart, no doubt, to once again see that it appears possible to make science say whatever we want it to. But that is not the point. (And it is not actually true, at least not of well-done science.)

Let’s face it, we can’t all be research scientists, or experts at evaluating which study is well designed and performed, and which is flawed. That’s why we rely on experts.

To be clear: I love science. Science is a wonderful thing. It is our best bet for making sense of the universe. It has been wildly successful at bringing about our technological world. Which is precisely why anyone who is trying to sell you something uses what appears to be science, but often is shaky, or not at all, in order to convince you to buy.

Therefore, there are peculiarities of scientific research about physiology, health, and biology in general, that we should all keep in mind when reading or hearing about new results. And that’s what I’d like to offer in this post.

Who am I to say those things?

For full disclosure, you need to know that I am “only” a physicist.

So, while I know a lot about particles and galaxies, I’m more fuzzy about things of sizes in between (like the human body). However, because I have training in science, I understand the general process of research, and the inherent limitations of the methodologies employed. And I tend to be very critical of what I read.

My purpose is therefore not to impart absolute truths (we don’t have such things in science, by the way, only very reliable understandings about how things work).

If the only thing you remember from this post is that you should be very doubtful of what journalists write, I’ll claim a big victory. So let’s get going.

Petri dishes

The most basic way of doing research in biology is to study cells and tiny living organisms in a special environment in which they normally should thrive. That’s what petri dishes are.

It used to be, and in many cases it still is the case, that in order to identify what ails someone, you would take a swab, and smear it onto various petri dishes. Depending on the characteristics of the medium in each dish, and where the bacteria would actually thrive, you could tell what bacteria were actually causing the infection. (That explains in part why it took so long to get the results.)

We’ve gone a little away from that nowadays, but what is still often being done is still using petri dishes.

For instance: Take cells of a certain type, like cancer cells, and cultivate them in a medium that is nourishing to them (i.e. a petri dish with the right medium for cancer cells to grow). Then you add some substance and see if the cells still thrive, or stagnate, or even die.

Research, Science, Physiology

A scientist “doing” the (petri) dishes…

If you find something that can kill cancer cells (or bacteria, or some fungus), you may have a candidate for a drug or medication.

That is how a lot of research on anti-oxidants is being done, for instance. Anti-oxidants of all sorts are found to be bad for cancer because in petri dishes they clearly impede the growth of the cells.

But there is a big, really big, problem with that approach. In fact, there are two huge problems:

  1. Petri dishes are not like a living organism. So what takes place there might not be the same as what will take place in the body, especially for cancer cells, because they interact with the entire organism.
  2. It is easy to deliver a specific molecule or drug to a cell (or bacteria or fungus) in a petri dish, but delivering it in a living organism is not the same. Our bodies have natural mechanisms for treating what comes into them; through eating, there’s digestion, through the blood, there is filtering by the liver and kidneys, our natural detoxifiers. So just because in works in a petri dish, it does not mean it will get to the right target in the right kind of shape in a real body.

This explains in large part why you should probably not give too much credence to anything about anti-oxidants and food supplements in general. They have been shown to not have much of an effect, if any, in humans in part because our bodies handle them in such a way that they are not the same once they reach cells. Moreover, once they reach cells living in real, complex organisms, often the interactions are not the same as those taking place in petri dishes.

Mouse model

A lot of research on the effect of drugs and nutrition regimen is done on what is called the “mouse model”. Basically, mice are being used, and researchers perform studies while maintaining a keen awareness that mice are an approximation, a stand-in, thus a “model,” for the human body.

That keen awareness is not always communicated by reporters of the results.

The good side to doing this is that mice are short-lived, compared to a human being, and scientists have developed breeds of mice that have very well known characteristics over the years. We even have mice that are bred to have cancer with a very high probability. Furthermore, we can manipulate mice genomes to the point of being able to induce certain conditions that can then be “cured” by drugs or specific food or exercise patterns.

Hence it is possible to do a lot of research in a fairly short amount of time. Generations of mice stand in for generations of human beings, but the research takes months instead of decades.

The downside, and you must keep this in mind, is that mice are not men. Especially mice that are bred for some very specific traits or diseases. Therefore, what takes place in mice is only a hint of what might be taking place in the human body.

I recently heard a top cancer scientist talking about how, according to her, we need to move away from the mouse model in medication research. Her argument was that many drugs that were found promising in specially bred mice were later on found to be totally ineffectual in humans. That’s a big downside, and a lot of research money wasted.

Despite opinions to the contrary by conspiracy theorists, scientists don’t like to waste money, and time, on fruitless research. Especially cancer researchers, who are human as well, and have loved ones who are affected by those diseases.

The bottom line is that just because some research says an effect was found in mice, it does not hold that the same is true for humans.

Science, Research, Physiology, Biology

From petri dish to humans, there is a really big step.

Cohort (and longitudinal) studies

Perhaps the least understood of the research methodologies is that of the cohort study. Sure, you probably think, one should be careful of petri dish and mouse model research, but when it comes to health and fitness being studied in real human beings, that’s another matter entirely.

Is it?

The advantages of petri dish and mouse model research come from the ability to observe in details what is taking place. The mechanisms might be observable through microscopes, and mice can be (and often are) dissected to verify what is going on.

Humans are not, as a general rule, dissected, as part of physiology research. At best, some biopsies are taken, but even that is limited. (This is a bit of humour. The part about dissection. Not the part about biopsies. That hurts for real.)

What researchers rely on instead is recruiting willing subjects (i.e. a cohort), asking them to follow a specific regimen (which could consist of a special diet, or exercise, or both), and then following-up on their progress through surveys over a period of time (long ones are called “longitudinal” for that reason).

Yup, basically, they are asking participants to fill a questionnaire about what they did, what they ate, how much of it, etc.

In the best designed research, there is close follow-through of the program by researchers. They might even sequester the subjects for the duration of the study, but that is very, very rare. In many cases, the questionnaires are asking about stuff that happened days, and even weeks, earlier, and there is no direct verification.

How well do you remember what you did, and how much you ate, on Wednesday of last week?

Therefore, often the researchers only ask about general habits and levels of activity, or take a sampling that they hope is representative by asking about the most recent day.

I think you understand where that is going: What you do on any given day may, or may not, be representative of your general diet and exercise habits…

Where does that leave us?

Again, I’m all for science. The more, the better. As a scientist, I am keenly aware that, at the very least, science is self-correcting; by which I mean that if somebody gets the answer wrong, for whatever reason, someone else will eventually point it out, and overall we’ll get it right.

But it might take a while. Because it is difficult to do science well when the subject is the human body and its complex, diverse, interactions with the environment.

There are things about physiology that we understand very well by now; I’ll get back to that topic next time. But keep in mind that biology, in comparison to physical sciences, is bloody complicated. Climate science, in comparison, as complex as it gets, is a breeze.

There is a lot of research that is well designed that can help us make sense of how our bodies work. The accumulation of individual pieces of evidence eventually lead to a more accurate bigger picture. That’s the process, and it works.

Just be careful of individual pieces of research being reported as having widespread, and very radical, implications for your health. The more fantastic the implications, the more cautious you should be.

Especially if somebody is using the findings to sell you something.

Images from Pixabay

The Trouble with Superheroes

Exercise, Training, Consistency, Everyday, Movement

Who wants to be “super”? Who doesn’t?

Full disclosure time: I read comic books. I watch TV shows and movies about superheroes. I enjoy that tremendously. I also read “real” books, some that aren’t science-fiction or fantasy, or even about fitness and health. I also watch other types of movies (but watch very little TV in general).

This topic is coming about through serendipity: On the one hand, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since visiting the JFK Museum a year ago, where I was struck by the Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy initiative for health and fitness back in the 1960s. On the other hand, I’m currently enrolled in a course on edX called The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.

Yes, I also take courses from time to time. Also, the latest Avengers movie recently came out. And they were my favorite superheroes when I was a kid. That’s quite enough disclosure for now.

It’s a simple, fairly well known observation that comic books and stories about superheroes are a great form of escapism. Not just for kids. They are fun distractions from the daily grind. They manage to make us dream a little. We sure need that once in a while.

In some cases, they inspire us to accomplish much. Many have pursued dreams of becoming athletes, scientists, journalists, doctors, soldiers, and other occupations (though probably never lawyers and politicians) based on the stories they read in comic books as children.

And that’s great.

Or is it?

Yes, actually, it is. Being inspired like that is a good thing. That’s one of the prime benefits of fiction. But not everyone reacts the same way, both consciously and sub-consciously, to fiction. Especially to fiction about, or featuring, superheroes.

Allow me to explain.

Becoming a Superhero

Here’s where I think there is a problem with superheroes in particular, and the stories, be they in comic books, on the television, or on the big screen, that feature them: There’s always a secret sauce, a previously unknown causation device (known as a “ghost in the machine” in the jargon) that comes from outside the characters and without which there is simply no story.

In the case of superheroes, the main such plot device is about how they became “super.” It is a pernicious plot device because, no matter how much one tries, no matter how much effort one puts into preparing, the outcome is, ultimately, up to chance alone. But how often do normal folks acquire special abilities as a result of an accident? (Answer: Never. On the contrary. And too many have tried, so don’t.)

Stories, Training, Exercise

Inspiration, but also sub-conscious lessons.

I dare you to find a single superhero character that did not become “super” by some freak accident (of birth, of being bitten by something, of having something radioactive spilled on him or her, etc.) or that does not benefit from being extremely rich (typically by birthright) or extremely intelligent (innate trait). Or a combination thereof.

Basically, I dare you to find a (major) superhero that became that way through long years of training, without any money, just barely making do with minimal support and resources.

No, Batman does not count: Yes, he trained hard and for many years, or so the story goes, but he’s super-rich, and can afford lots of cool gadgets which he did not have to invent. Similarly for Green Arrow. Ironman is a combination of super-smart and super-rich, without any effort. Etc. You get the gist.

And those who were born on Krypton or elsewhere, or were given powers by mysterious extra-terrestrial entities, etc., simply abound in the same direction.

Let’s face it, the message superheroes propagate is that one does not train to become super; it is simply something that happens to you. Or that you are born into.

Which begs the question:

If I’m not super (or fit, or an athlete, or really really smart already), why should I bother work at it? Why should I train my body or my mind to become better? Might as well just drink beer and watch football on TV… – Anonymous

Superpowers, not Supertraining

In fact, I think I noticed a troubling trend that amplifies what I’m talking about.

Even when the story talks about training, it if often after one becomes a superhero. As maintenance. And when the story relates the training that took place before becoming a superhero, it used to be (in comic books) that it took a really long time (e.g. Batman again); but now, in TV and films, it seems mere months, when not just weeks, of training will turn someone of no skill (and precious little fitness) into a tough crime-fighting vigilante (e.g. TV series The Arrow).

Take another example of the same thing, but from another realm of fiction, and quite similar: In the Star Wars series, we are made to think it takes training from childhood to become a Jedi as an adult. Yet Luke Skywalker is able to achieve it with a few months of discovering his powers (the Force, in this case) and at most a few days of training with Yoda.

No wonder consistency, long practice, and the respectful following of a coach’s instructions is so under-valued nowadays.

C’mon, I want to be a sub-10 hours Ironman triathlete, and I want it now. Gimme a training program that will take me there in 6 weeks, and, by the way, I’m going to listen to every other bit of advice I can find out there, and try lots of different things at the same time… – also Anonymous, but a different one

As a coach, it makes you want to dunk the athlete in radioactive, mutagenic goo. Whatever that is. With an extra-dose of magically enhanced plant enzymes for good measure. Whatever that does.

I Need a (Super)Hero

Seriously again. When it comes to fitness and health, the subconscious message we get from these superhero stories is two-pronged:

  1. Most of what you are, what you are capable of, is innate. Or the result of freak accidents. That’s just the way the world works.
  2. If you train, you should expect results to be both very quick, and very dramatic. No need for long years of honing skills and becoming fit. Fitness, more often than not approximated by weight loss, should be almost instantaneous. Or take no longer than the duration of a TV show’s season.

It makes us look for quick fixes. At the very least, it makes us believe those who tell us their 90 days program, their 60 days program, their 4 weeks program, etc., will get us looking and feeling fantastic. (Like one of the Fantastic 4: stretchy and nimble, or hot like fire, or bulky-muscular like The Thing.)

In the end, we are looking for a silver bullet, for a hero, to save us from poor health. Just because it seems to work that way. We are thus constantly looking for that super solution; the next one must be the right one. We enter a vicious cycle; a kind of prison of the expectations. A prison of our own making.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

What is the truth that shall set you free? It is this: It takes time, and effort.

Just how much time, and how much effort, depends on each person’s genetic make-up, as well as on whether the person gets helped by a coach or not.

So, in a sense, some of it is innate. It does come easier for some. We each have some predisposition for some types of activities. I’ve touched upon that before.

But all of us can become much better everyday athletes, to the point of being true heroes of our own health, families, and society around us, by exercising regularly, consistently.

So move, train, and exercise more. That’s the ticket. After all, the extra weight and the shortness of breath when trying to run for a minute did not come all of a sudden; they happened gradually over many years of too little activity.

And when you need to rest, because training requires proper recovery, I know just what you can do to spend a bit of quiet time: Pick up a comic book, and let your mind dream a little. It won’t hurt, as long as you remember that it is pure fantasy.

Training, Exercise, Regularly, Everyday

You want a piece of me? You’d better train hard. And eat a lot of… gamma radiation.

Images from Pixabay.

P.S.: Regarding the dare, a couple of superheroes come to mind, but I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of the argument’s flow. Besides, they are fairly minor, and don’t have “super” powers: Black Widow and Hawkeye, two so-called “master assassins.” I wish we had more stories about how they trained, and how long it took, for them to become what they are in the Avengers’ world. But keep in mind that they also use super gadgets, which they must have had someone finance for them… Just sayin’…

How do you measure success?

Exercise, Success, Everyday, Psychology, Training

Winning. Is it everything? Is it even all it is cooked up to be?

I’ve written about this before. Or perhaps I just talk about it so much that I think I’ve written about it before. But seeing as the Boston marathon was just a few weeks ago, that quite a few people I know ran it, and that with summer around the corner, there’s lots of talk of running and races, why the heck should I not repeat myself?

Especially on such an important topic.

The Tired Old Way

How do you measure success in endeavors such as running, cycling, cross-country skiing, swimming, or, of course, triathlon (to name just a few of those highly competitive “timed” sports)? Your answer is likely to be along the lines of “very simply: by whether one wins the race or not, duh!”

Indeed, if ever there was an area where measuring success, or performance, seems very straightforward, it is in events that are objectively measured by duration. (This post is therefore not about any of those “sports” where style, form, technique, and other subjective aspects are being scored. They might be very difficult to master, highly demanding, and quite enjoyable things to watch, but I’m not going to talk about them.)

If you’ve ever participated in a race of some sort, I bet you’ve been asked by at least one person (who was not joking about it) whether you won or not. It seems a natural thing to ask about in our society that celebrates victory and watching winners take all. But is that really the only way of evaluating the success of people taking part in such physical activities?

Allow me to have strong doubts about it, and a few minutes to try to convince you. Because, as much as it is commendable to strive hard and win races, being obsessed with winning is not healthy. You only have to observe the number of times people have cheated in order to qualify for Boston, even cheated to win it (or other races), to see that the winning obsession brings out the worst in us. (It is to the point where, either from misplaced pride or jealousy, fellow performance runners become very skeptical of anyone who claims to qualify for Boston. For instance, this recent article from the Runner’s World blog. But that is both very interesting in its own right, and a topic for another post.)

Valid Alternatives

So what else might there be? Here are a few possible answers:

Why not “going past our own limits”? To train hard, sacrifice much time and money to get into better shape, and finally be able to go farther, last longer, and feel better than we did. Surely that is a form of success worth celebrating. That we must celebrate, in fact.

How about being able to cover a certain distance in less time than previously possible? Measuring, in pure objectivity, an improvement in performance, even if said performance is not of a winning races type, that is surely a form of success for an athlete. And if one starts slowly enough, and improves slowly as well, it becomes possible to have success repeatedly over a long period of time…

For amateur athletes in sports like running, there appear to be many yardsticks, entirely arbitrary, that offer good alternatives: A half marathon in under two hours, a marathon in less than 4, etc. They are pretty good objectives to have, precisely because they are entirely… objective. It can provide a better frame for friendly competition, instead of the binary “winning or losing.” As long as one remains reasonable about said objectives, keeping in mind that we are all physiologically a little different.

Especially for marathon runners, to continue in that rich vein, there is of course the long shadow of the Boston Qualifier (BQ). It is like a badge of honor for runners, and as a personal objective it can be highly motivating. But since it is not necessarily a reasonable objective for everyone, it can indeed become a dark and cold place. Many start down that road with good intentions, and reasonable personal goals like those mentioned earlier, but then, at a bad turn, find themselves in the ditch of performance stress. However, if managed carefully, and as long as the goal is not to do better than others, it can be a very good measure of success.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter; to what I think is really the best measure of success of an athlete: Becoming a better human being.

The Best, So to Speak

Consider, for instance, an acquaintance of mine who just recently completed her second Boston Marathon. She trained hard, and long, to get there the first time. She suffered a great deal to reach that goal (and probably caused a bit of suffering to her husband in the process). But as a person, running has brought her tremendous benefits. She has grown, as much in personal health as in her capacity to do good around her.

Moreover, for years now she has used that energy to good ends; by being a mentor and a coach to folks who participate in the Team in Training fundraising program of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Thus, she is also serving a much greater cause, which is to fight against blood cancers (and cancers in general).

When she qualified for Boston the first time, she did not win the marathon she had entered. I know; I was there: I was her personal pace bunny. But that performance required her to go well beyond what she was previously capable of doing, running-wise.

And in doing Boston, she also did not win. But the more she runs, the more she grows, and the more she gives around her.

Success should be measured by being the best. The best human being you can be, that is.

So forget about being fast, about winning at all cost, about “qualifying” as the only worthwhile goal. Let those who seek only those things, and generally think only about their own persons, wallow in their narrow-minded attitudes. (If they have not yet driven you away because of their frustration at not quite having BQed at their latest races.)

The only yardstick that should matter is simple: Does it make you a better person?

Triathlon, Exercise, Everyday

Heck, at times, just “adding to my race bling collection” would appear a good objective. If it keeps you moving…

So move, everyday, by any means you enjoy, and pursue your own objectives. As long as it makes you better, and helps others around you more than it annoys them…

Image credits: Pixabay