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

Keep you Purpose in mind, question the Purposes of Others

Purpose, Exercise, Diet, Advice, Health, Fitness

Purpose is what keeps us all moving (each in our chosen direction).

It all boils down to Purpose. Everything.

There, I’ve said it.

Everything you do, everything you read, everything you come across on a daily basis. They all stem from one thing: Purpose.

Some of it is your Purpose. A lot of it, especially what you encounter around you, is the Purposes of Others. But it is all Purpose. To truly make sense of the world, you need to remember this.

If you want to keep on target, to keep moving regularly and eating well, you have to keep your Purpose firmly in mind.

If you want to avoid being taken for a ride (i.e. being taken advantage of, or negatively affected by what’s going on around you), you need to remember the Purposes of Others.

(If you need to remember what Purpose means, you can go back to some of my previous posts. But the common meaning of word purpose is also a good proxy, so feel free to just read on.)

Perhaps it is not always clear what those Purposes might be. Or perhaps you are starting to think I’m a conspiracy theorist of some sort. Quite the contrary, I assure you.

As a matter of fact, thinking about what you read, see, experience on a daily basis in terms of the Purposes of Others goes a long way in explaining things without resorting to some kind of conspiracy theory. It’s simply no longer necessary.

How so? Funny you should ask. (You did ask, didn’t you?) Because I’m going to devote this post to providing a few examples.

The Purposes of Others

The sections that follow are generalizations. Not absolutes, but generalized tendencies as observed by me (and doubtless others). They might upset some people, which is not my goal. I simply want to draw attention to some very real possibilities. Keeping these possibilities in mind could help you make sense of things…

Corporations

What is the Purpose of a corporation that makes sporting goods, apparel, nutritional supplements, etc.?

This one is terribly easy: to make money. No, they are definitely not there to help you perform at your best. They are not there to prevent you from getting hurt.

They have one driving obsession: to sell more products. In general, and against their competitors. After all, the “supply” of money from would-be buyers is not infinite. So they have to present what they offer as being better; better than what they sold last year, and better than anyone in the category is selling today. And they have studies to prove it. Everybody pretty much does.

Which means you should not trust those studies, right? It is not quite that clear-cut. But in case of doubt, we all had better take what we read from corporations with a grain of salt. (Keep the salt-shaker handy, because we’ll need it again.)

Magazines

A magazine’s Purpose is to make money. How do they achieve that? By selling as many copies as possible, month after month. How do they achieve that? Sometimes by exaggerating, but, mainly, simply by always having “new” things to publish.

But you can’t have new things to publish every month for years, at least not at a general public level in a field like fitness. So the same stories come back repeatedly. Like how to choose a pair of shoes this year. And other stories are simply variants on the same theme, like advice from multiple sources over time.

Diet, Advice, Exercise

Have some salt. Just not too much in your diet…

Which is why the advice can appear contradictory over time. My favorite example is the back and forth over how to do long runs (if you are a runner or a triathlete); one time you read that you must do it slow and steady, and then a few months later you read how you must spice it up with some speed. And then back again a few months later.

Because when you train, you are interested in having the most effective training program, you are bound to want to read what appears to be the latest best advice. Which is what they are counting on to sell their next issue of the magazine…

Diet Pushers

The Purpose of someone who comes out with advice on how to lose weight is probably to sell you his or her own newfangled way of doing that. That’s just simple fact.

It may be disguised at scientific truth, accompanied by a plethora (that’s an abundance, just to be clear) of scientific papers, but you can be pretty sure that it is there to convince you to buy something. Otherwise, that advice would be free for all to obtain, and it would be widely supported by others (as opposed to being published in a book, because “nobody else has that truth”).

You guessed it, there is a money-making Purpose in there. So beware.

Journalists

Without denying that many are genuinely interested in making a difference in the world by reporting on important matters, journalists need first and foremost to make a living as journalists. In essence, they need to sell pieces to newspapers or magazines; if they are staff, they need to make sure they are read regularly. They need to ensure their articles, columns, opinion or editorials are read and talked about. The more buzz, the better.

In order to achieve that, they resort to tried and true methods like talking about controversial topics, reporting sensational information. The vast majority verify their facts before publishing, but as we’ve seen examples of recently (the Rolling Stone magazine fiasco), they don’t always.

Sometimes, in an effort to appear “balanced” in their coverage, they frequently will present opposing points of view, even if it is completely unreasonable to do so. Sometimes, they will simply ignore the Purposes of Others in order to generate a lot of buzz, and play into the hands of diet peddlers and corporations. Whatever works at the time.

So it is no surprise that you often encounter what seems to be ground-breaking new facts about fitness, completely different from the ones you read just last week. And it is no wonder that headlines about such “new” facts are frequently deformed well beyond what the scientists said in the first place.

Advice, Fitness, Health, Exercise

Have some more.

The facts are often far less controversial or ground-breaking than they might appear in newspapers and magazines. But lack of sensational words don’t make people want to read the article. (Which in turn don’t help sell the magazine or newspaper…)

Fitness/Health Bloggers

This is a more difficult one to generalize. There are so many bloggers, and so many different reasons why people take up blogging on this topic. (Including mine, of course.)

For the most part, people want to share their own experience. Let’s face it, it both validates said experience, and could prove useful to someone else. If someone has come a long way from being sedentary, perhaps even of poor general health (or feeling that way), that life lesson and the efforts put into improving could prove extremely beneficial to others. But they may not apply generally. A success story may not turn out to be the best advice for your specific situation.

At that end of the spectrum of bloggers, I’m afraid, are many who are trying to turn what has become their new way of life, not to call it an obsession, into a money-earning activity. Those think they are applying the “turning one’s passion into a livelihood” approach, and to some extent, that is fair. But one’s personal experience may not be applicable to others. Be careful of any such person selling their services based on their own personal success at getting fit, healthy, or slim (or any combination of these very different things).

Others still are doing it to promote themselves and the services and/or products they sell. The are at the other end of the spectrum; they typically start blogging with the clear Purpose of, once again, making money. (Bring out that salt shaker again.)

Don’t get me wrong: Not everyone that sells something is necessarily bad. Many believe they are genuinely providing something that will help others. (That’s definitely where I’m located.) Yet you should be very careful when following the advice of anyone who sells something. Especially if they claim you cannot possibly get the full effect of what they promote without buying some sort of product or supplement.

Advice, Health, Fitness, Diet, Exercise

Keep the salt shaker nearby at all times.

Coaches

The Purpose of a coach is to help you achieve your own goals as an athlete. Even as an everyday athlete. Unless the coach is a crappy coach, in which case the Purpose of the coach might be to increase his or her reputation. Or perhaps simply to make money off of people who want to perform in a sport. Such coaches leave behind them a trail of broken, injured, and sometimes abused athletes.

How do you go about recognizing the Purpose of a coach?

First, ask about the coaching philosophy and the approach to training. Question also how much time a coach can really devote to each athlete he or she coaches. Be very weary of “secret sauces” and “special techniques” that no one else knows about; don’t assume that because the coach was a great athlete he or she knows what will work for you. And run away as fast as you can (there’s a good training session for you!) if the coach wants to sell you supplements or special equipments…

There would be more to say, but I’ve already gone on too long. And it sounds like I have a chip (or a bag of chips, salty ones at that) on my shoulder. I confess: I’m often frustrated by what I see. Too many earnest folks being taken advantage of, too much pixie dust being thrown into the eyes of unsuspecting (or willfully suspending critical judgment) people who want to pursue their own Purpose.

It is not that complicated, as I’ve tried repeatedly to explain on this blog. And it should not cost you a fortune to pursue your Purpose.

As long as you keep in mind that we all have a Purpose…

Image credits: Post picture by Sophie Tremblay-Paquet, at the Shipyard Maine Coast Half Marathon in 2015. Other 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

Don’t let “the future” turn into “too late”

Exercise, Brain, Daily, Purpose, Future You

The forward march of evolution? Perhaps we missed a fork in the road…

Yes, we’ve come a long way. And despite the difficulty to perceive it, we are still evolving as a species. Though perhaps not as fast as our capabilities to harvest (exploit) the natural world around us. Or the structure of our society.

But it is not all bad, because our brains are also quite capable of adapting when our bodies have not yet done so. It is not all gloom and doom. Really.

Which is not to say our brains don’t need all the help they can get. Signposts, so to speak, on the evolutionary road.

A short while ago, I talked about how a big part of what’s holding a lot of us back from exercising regularly is that, despite all the evidence we have, we tend to discount the future too much for our own good.

In that post, I ended up suggesting a strategy for reducing the strength of that effect, to help our brains deal with it: Having frequent good looks at ourselves. Not in a mirror, because it is not about how we look today; instead, we need to look at what some refer to as the “Future Self,” the person you want to be when you get old(er).

Even that, however, does not always suffice. Because there are strong forces aligned against our regular exercising.

No, there is no great conspiracy or big money interests in fattening us up. Just plain human nature: Mainly, a tendency to want to make money (a proxy for controlling reproductive resources), which drives most business activities, including the food industry; also, a propensity to not understand just how optimistic we tend to be about the future.

It is this latter part that I want to talk about today.

The Lure of the Future

Perhaps you’ve had a chance to watch the talk I mentioned in that previous post. If so, then what I’m about to say will already be familiar. If not, I still urge you to watch it, even though I’m about to give you another big chunk of knowledge I gleaned from it.

At the same time as we discount the future benefits of being active and healthy, we tend to overestimate how much more willing to exercise we will be tomorrow. Like last time, I have a few pictures, also shamelessly lifted from the excellent talk by Dr. Whatshername, to bring the point home…

Exercise, Daily, Everyday

The present eventually turns into the future. But is it the future we had anticipated?

In a nutshell, today you might say “I’m tired, and I have a lot to do, so I’ll rest today and exercise tomorrow.” (Note: This can be quite alright, given that it is the exception, and that you do, in fact, regularly exercise. Rest is often a good idea, and listening to your body when it asks for it is always in good order.)

But what happens the next day? And the day after that? Without a strong commitment device (a Purpose, ideally, or perhaps some other mechanisms to help us in the short term), many of us simply overestimate how willing they will be to exercise in the future, and mainly fail to do it in the present.

It is called the “Present Bias,” but it could also be called “Procrastination.” I like to think of it as boundless optimism about the future, because what it comes down to is precisely that: An optimism about how much more willing and capable to exercise we will be tomorrow.

Admit it, you’ve felt that way. I sure have, all too often.

What’s wrong with that?

Exercise, Fitness, Health, Everyday

Today is the day. Everyday.

Well, when tomorrow comes, it is no longer “tomorrow,” but again “today.” And guess what? “Today” we feel just like we did on the “today” which was “yesterday.”

Confused yet?

Don’t think about it too much. Just keep this in mind: Today is the only time you have to make the right choices.

And there is a strategy to help your brain with that as well.

No-brainer Decisions

Yup, you guessed it (probably): The trick is to not think about making that decision, and just do what you know you need to do.

Don’t consider what you feel like doing tomorrow. Consider that exercising is the right thing to do today.

That’s a big part of the reason why I chose “No-brainer Fitness” as the name for this blog. I recognized a long time ago that many of the decisions we agonize over should not be agonized over. They need to become automatic. No-brainers. Because that is a good way to follow one’s Purpose on a daily basis.

By the way, the same applies to food as well. In everything I wrote about exercise, in this post and the previous one, you can substitute “eating right” and get the same result:

Diet, Exercise, Daily, Everyday, Health, Fitness

Exercise and diet, diet and exercise; two parts of the same future discounting and present bias.

It all comes down to the choices we make on a daily basis.

Those choices are the signposts of your own personal evolution towards fitness and a long, active life.

Being able to imagine the future, thinking about Future You, is a powerful tool. But too much optimism about the future, only just a day away, is also a dangerous procrastination device. It is not called a “double-edged” sword for nothing.

Hence my recommendation: Keep Future You in mind as you go through each day, and don’t consider what you might do tomorrow. Decide, each day, to work towards that Future You.

Perhaps more importantly, don’t even make the decision. Just exercise. It’s a no-brainer! Or it has to become one…

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Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I have spoken in a previous post.

The secret to a bright and yummy morning

Food, Eating, Health, NOT FOOD

Look at those colours!

Wanna know the secret?

Here it is: There is no secret.

Just like for healthy eating, the kind of eating that allows your body to optimally do what it evolved to do. There is no secret that will make you healthy.

There are just a bunch of things we tend to forget in the hectic pace of our modern lives.

So this morning, as I was reminding myself of some of them, I thought I might as well write them down.

No, there won’t be a recipe. See below to figure-out why.

The things we forget about eating in a way that allows our bodies to be healthy

Don’t worry, it’s actually a short list. And it should look familiar.

  1. Cook food at home. Meals you actually prepare, not eat at a restaurant or order in, or take out of a box to pop in the microwave oven. (Nothing wrong with the microwave oven, by the way.) And while you are at it, make some extra to take to work as your lunch the next day, instead of hitting the food court. (That’s where the microwave oven comes in.)
  2. Start from real, whole ingredients, that have not been processed into some barely recognizable version of something that grows or moves of its own volition. Mix and match as you feel, letting the natural flavours do the job.
  3. It is not the specific ingredients that matter. For instance, good stuff like what I had for breakfast this morning (eggs, kale, onions, garlic, turmeric, red peppers, coconut oil) are just that: good stuff. No magic involved, no super food.
  4. Take the time to sit down and eat. It is when we rush that we make the most eating mistakes. Lack of time means bad decisions like food that has been processed, but as well an added stress to our entire bodies, making it harder to process the food properly.
  5. Minimize the NOT FOOD part of your daily intake. That’s just common sense, but the problem is that we often mindlessly put stuff (and by “stuff” I really meaning things that just take space without providing nutritional value) into our mouths.

That’s it. If you keep this in mind, you’ll let your body do its job with minimal impediment.

And you’ll be having a lot of bright and yummy mornings as well. Especially if you exercise regularly, either before or after breakfast. Enjoy!

IMG_1065P.S.: In case you were wondering, there is no recipe in this post. This is not a blog about food.

Photos by me. This morning.